Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Music of 2015

I post at least one list of favorite songs and/or albums about this time each year, and this year is no exception. However, I must admit I have been a bit underwhelmed by the year in music. Maybe it's because my listening habits have changed - I don't seem to be listening to as much new music these days, but most of what I've heard just hasn't bowled me over. That said, there are still some worthwhile albums to list in a top 10 for the year:

1. Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color: Brittany Howard is a force of nature - what a voice! Their sophomore album is just as impressive as their debut, with several great bluesy, soulful songs like  the title track, "Don't Wanna Fight", and "Gimme All Your Love".

2. Kurt Vile - b'lieve i'm goin' down: A favorite native son (Philly) and former War on Drugs member is carving an impressive solo career, and this year's album has a lot of catchy, quirky pop-rock, especially the propulsive "Pretty Pimpin'", quite possibly the best song of the year.

3. Richard Thompson - Still: He's become the elder statesman of British folk-rock, and still writes some of the best, albeit dark, lyrics in music. He also can still play a mean guitar. You can always rely on a quality release from Mr. Thompson, and this is no exception. Highlights: "Beatnik Walk", "All Buttoned Up", and "Guitar Heroes" (in which he imitated the styles of several of his guitar influences). (Get the deluxe edition with an extra CD of five songs.)

4. Los Lobos  - Gates of Gold: It was great to see this venerable East LA roots-rock band nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. They didn't get in, but they can still grind out some dynamite rock and are not afraid to take chances creatively,.while remaining true to their roots. Highlight: "Made to Break Your Heart"

5. Adele - 25: I listen to precious little mainstream pop, but this Brit impresses me every time. This album is a bit more mellow and darker than her previous smash, 21, but there's a maturity in her voice and writing that really pulls you in. "Hello" is shaping up to be the Song of the Year.

6. Decemberists - What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World - Another dependable band whose new work I always eagerly await. Colin Meloy's bookish lyrics are intriguing and the music is impressive, as usual, and even if this may not rank among their very best albums, it still has some satisfying tunes, like "Make You Better" and "The Wrong Year". Also, look for their EP from this year, Florasongs.

7. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race for Space: The first of two rather unique albums on my list - this UK electro-rock band has taken recorded material from the US/USSR space race from the 1950's and 1960's and created a captivating soundtrack around it. It's a brilliant concept with striking results. from the peppy "Go!" to the haunting "Fire in the Cockpit" (about the tragic fire in Apollo 1).

8. Africa Express - Terry Riley in C Mali: In C was the seminal work of American minimalist music, and here it gets a unique treatment, featuring Brian Eno and others with a troupe of African musicians. The piece, written 50 years ago, was always a rhythmic masterpiece, but with new instrumental and vocal interpretations, it's practically re-invented. The best world music I've heard this year.

9. Viet Cong - Viet Cong: Dark, menacing hard rock doesn't usually appeal to me, but this Canadian band does it brilliantly.  The murky sonics enhance the effect of pulling you down and in. Ironically, I don't find this album depressing at all, but exhiliarting.

10. Wilco - Star Wars: Count on Wilco to produce an entertaining and challenging collection of songs, and this one was even offered as a free MP3 album earlier in the year. Some favorites: "Random Name Generator", "You Satellite".

Honorable Mentions:
The Arcs - Yours, Dreamily
Gary Clark Jr. - The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
Tame Impala - Currents
James Taylor - Before This World
Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell
Bjork - Vulnicura
Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - It's a Holiday Soul Party
Bob Dylan - The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12
Drive-by Truckers - It's Great to Be Alive!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Stee-phen! Stee-phen! Stee-phen!

Three months is too long even for an occasional blog.  I've been in a major creative drought for months now, but I still have some poetry news to report:
1. My new chapbook, Hits and Sacrifices, will have a full first printing.  Thanks to everyone who supported me by buying a preorder copy (or two or more!). The publisher's timeline is behind, and I haven't got the galleys yet, so the original publication date of January 8 looks increasingly unlikely.  I hope to see the first copies go out sometimes by late January or early February - at least that's my guess.
2. I mentioned in my prior blog post that I was entering a contest sponsored by the Hickory (NC) Museum of Art, inviting poets to write poetry inspired by any of the works in their museum. I wrote three short poems about three photographs by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry from his temporary exhibit there, and the curators picked all three to be featured in their upcoming quarterly Art of Poetry presentation, which is a walking tour of the museum and reading of the poems. They will also be posted next to the photos. I won't be able to attend the reading (which is actually today, Dec. 12) but I'm very honored. If the poems are posted on their website I'll share them.

I just got back from a great mini-vacation in New York, where we visited our two sons who live there, as well as doing a little Christmas shopping and decoration-gazing. We admired the Rockefeller Center tree and the gorgeous baroque-angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took in views of the city from the Empire State Building and our nice timeshare unit on the 25th floor of a midtown resort hotel.  But the highlight of this trip was getting to be an audience member on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
I was lucky enough to snag two tickets online about a week or so before we went, but that was no guarantee of admission because they always overbook to make sure all the seats are filled. So we had to get in line early to be sure to get in. We arrived a little after noon and ended up ninth and tenth in line. At two o'clock a production assistant came out to check our tickets and ID, then gave us numbers, stamped our hands, and told us to come back around 3:45 to get back in line to go into the theater. Our numbers got us front-row center seats.

There was a warmup comedian, Paul Mercurio, who was very funny, pulling folks out of the audience and asking them questions, and pumping up the audience to get them to cheer and laugh as loudly as possible once Stephen arrived. (The Ed Sullivan Theater actually seats less than 300 people, so I guess they want us to sound like a crowd twice as big.) Stephen himself came on shortly before taping for a brief Q&A session with the audience - he seems like a pretty nice guy. Then the house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, started to crank it up. Oh man, can they cook!  They just might be the best house band on the planet. (Sorry, Roots.) They really got the audience psyched up with their exuberant New Orleans-style jazz - you only get to see a small portion of their performances on TV.  Then Stephen came on, and of course the crowd went wild.

The show, taped and broadcast on Tuesday, December 8, featured French actress Marion Cotillard, author George Saunders, and singer-songwriter-harpist Joanna Newsom.  Stephen also did a funny bit involving defending a Turkish doctor who was arrested for physically comparing his president on social media to Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Stephen (who is a huge Tolkeinophile) presented his defense of the doctor in the guise of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Later, he went on a rant about the misshapen Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Christmas Trees, but then shifted gears and complained about a single light bulb that burned out on his marquee outside, so he feigned going outside to change it. (That bit was cut from the Tuesday show and shown on Wednesday instead.)

We slightly regretted that we didn't try to get tickets instead for the Wednesday show, which featured cast members from Downton Abbey (we are both big fans), but the guests for Tuesday were good. Marion Cotillard looked a bit uncomfortable and hemmed and hawed during the early part of the interview (part of which was edited out), but she warmed up to Stephen by the end, and they did a cute bit about how even the most mundane things in English sound so romantic in French.  George Saunders (with whose work I wasn't familiar) was very engaging, talking about the writing process and singing an amusing song he wrote, accompanying himself on guitar. (He had one of the funniest lines of the night, saying that playing his guitar in front of Stephen's band was "like having sex in front of porn stars".) Joanna Newsom was interesting - she is a good harpist and songwriter, and she had a good band, but I have a hard time with her quirky, affected voice. And at the end, George Saunders, who recently released a children's book,  read a bedtime story to Stephen, who was all tucked into bed with a nightcap (the hat, that is) and a teddy bear.  

The taping was efficient and well-rehearsed, and took only about an hour and a half for the one-hour show.  (Most of the few short delays were for costume changes, waiting for the guests, and conferences with the production staff.) I noticed, watching the broadcast later, that there is some minor editing of the interviews and other show banter, but the only major edit was the bit I mentioned before that they saved for the following night. They did censor a conversation between Marion and Stephen about why the French say  "merde" ("shit") for good luck before a theater performance - they not only deleted the word in both languages but also whited out their mouths.  In any event, it was a great way to spend an evening and part of our vacation.

Poem: How about a silly verse about a recent seasonal "controversy"?

Seeing Red

Red cup, red cup, what have you wrought?
You're a scandal each time Starbucks coffee is bought!
Some say you're proof holiday spirit is listless,
just another example of the "War on Christmas".
No snowflakes or snowmen or reindeer so nimble,
in fact not one single darned holiday symbol!
There's talk of a boycott by no less than Trump,
that billionaire candidate and Grinchy-faced grump.
You've divided our nation with this heathen display
that houses the tall chestnut praline latte!
A Starbucks green logo with plain red field behind -
wait, green on red? Good enough - never mind....