Friday started out strong. I headed over to yet another Brooklyn Vegan day show, glad for the chance to see BOBBY for a second time. (Too bad time only permitted them to perform three songs.) I stuck around Swan Dive/Barbarella the BV-claimed sites of the week for another few acts – Paleo and Holy Sons – before wandering into Side Bar where I saw The Bird and the Batteries.
the crowd at the French Legation Museum (photo Jon Bernhardt)*
I continued on my way, out to the French Legation Museum for the third day in a row. There, I saw an impressive line-up: Lower Dens, Grass Widow, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Cults, Sam Amidon, and tUnE-yArDs. (I decided against running back up the hill to attempt to see James Blake through the thick crowd. Prior to his Friday show, Blake headlined both an NPR showcase and the Pitchfork showcase.
Technical problems with Cults aside, I was fairly delighted with what I saw. Their music is upbeat and catchy. Any small flaws in their performance just made me like them more.
Cults RIYL Eternal Summers, No Joy (photo Bryan Bruchman)
With three familiar acts and 3 never-before-seen it was a nice mix: familiar but also fresh. tUnE-yArDs put on an especially powerful show, successfully baiting the lingering James Blake crowd over to check her out after he had finished his set on the opposing stage.
the fierce Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs (photo Jon Bernhardt)*
One of the biggest surprises of the day came as I was coming back from the French Legation Museum. As I passed an auto repair shop, I heard Grimes introduce herself and begin to play. For a minute, I watched from the fence but soon decided to go in. Grimes is the solo project of Montreal-based artist Claire Boucher. She mixes together samples and loops together her voice and keyboard riffs to create danceable music – kind of like a female Baths, minus most of the awkwardness.
Grimes RIYL Baths (photo David J. Romero)
Next up, I saw a series of new acts: aptly named folk/rock outfit The Head and the Heart, cute husband/wife duo Reading Rainbow, and looping expert Yellow Ostrich at Antone’s, before heading out to the Ghost Room to see Social Studies and Agent Ribbons.
Reading Rainbow RIYL La Sera (photo Charlotte Zoller)
Reading Rainbow clip:
Though The Head and the Heart was the best attended set of the group, I think my favorite acts were Reading Rainbow and Yellow Ostrich. The Head and the Heart seem like an earnest, enthusiastic bunch, but other than a song or two, their songs don’t really strike me. They seemed well-suited for the Austin setting though.
The final few shows turned out to be a wash. I should have known when I got in the horrendous line outside the Pure Volume venue that it was a bad idea. I should have known to turn back when I heard the guy in front of me admit he was only waiting in line for the free booze and didn’t know who was playing.
But like a fool, I stuck it out. Baths would be a good way to conclude the evening, I thought. A burst of energy to help inspire/liven up the bicycle ride home. Except they were running some 45 minutes behind schedule, and after witnessing the horrors of the videographers and the dancing drunks, I decided to head out after seeing just Clock Opera and Jonquil. I regretted not taking Sam Amidon’s advice and seeing David Thomas Broughton.
Lesson learned. Free booze is nice, but not when it means large, obnoxious, and largely indifferent crowds. Just can’t handle it.
band count of the day: 19
*For more great SXSW pictures, be sure to check out Jon Bernhardt’s Flickr page.
Doveman and friends – Le Poisson Rouge – January 14th
When I first witnessed the bill for Friday night’s show, I admit my stomach got away from me for a second. Sure, Doveman and Sam Amidon often play together… but Glen Hansard? Special guests? I was hooked.
Doveman in concert in January of 2010 (photo Katerina Plevkova)
“Thank you so much for coming,” Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) began. “This is the first of these concerts that I’ll be doing, and I thought it would be nice to start with just me and Sam because me and Sam have been playing music together since we were five.”
The two kicked off the show with a simple, lovely, and faintly religious little song, “All is Well.” Ringing out with repeatedly, the titular refrain seemed like a perfect starting point for the evening.
After getting temporary sidetracked, trying to remember the date, Amidon quickly interjected, “So we’ll have some songs about Jesus,” not so much as an apology but as a simple disclosure/admittance. With his voice full of yearning and his wildly candid stage presence, Amidon easily assumed the position of a well-intentioned but slightly off-kilter preacher. During one of the more religious songs of the evening, he raised his hands up in slow spirit finger fashion, as if overcome by a subdued religious fervor.
Sam Amidon's spirit fingers at a show last January (Photo Katarina Pievkova)
Like his childhood friend, Bartlett also had a kind of awkward intensity to his performance. Bartlet’s stylized method of pian playing was captivating. Even on the quieter songs, he’d hunch down far over the keys and suddenly lurch back with one hand in the air. For him, playing the piano was a form of cardio.
Amidon’s songs were ripe with tales of wayward sons and evocative language. (In Sam’s world, cheeks are red and rosy and the grass is always green, green.) After a few songs, Bartlet (aka Doveman) and Amidon were joined by a small group of musicians.
Sam Amidon, Doveman, and friends perform “Prodigal Son:”
With the likes of Doveman, Sam Amidon, Glen Hansard, and Beth Orton all announced on LPR’s site, it was hard to imagine who the ‘special’ guests might be, but I was glad to see that the adjective was not taken lightly. After Sam had played through a few of his songs, he casually announced, “We’re in a gospel mood,” which was apparently Annie Clark’s (St. Vincent) cue to make her way to the stage to fulfill her role as a “great gospel guitarist.” Crouching down on stage in the shadow, Clark joined Amidon for one more song before the spotlight officially shifted to her. As she stood up, the stage lights shone through her messy main of curly hair, creating a halo that complimented her Amidon-annointed title.
Annie Clark performing in Seattle, 2008 (photo Shawn McClung)
Annie Clark and friends perform “Some of Them Are Old” (a Brian Eno cover):
The evening proceded with a potpouri of performances. Hardly a song or two would pass before the configuration on stage would change. Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, and Dawn Landes would each have their turn. “One thing I realized is that I hate talking on stage so much that things are really going to need an emcee,” Bartlett joked.
Beth Orton, Doveman, Sam Amidon perform the beautiful “Castles:”
The evening felt special – not just because of the talented and humble group of musicians on stage, but because sitting in the audience, I almost got the feeling that we had a behind-the-scenes look at their musical process. More times than not, the featured musician had to quickly teach the chords of the song to everyone else on stage. It felt raw and intimate. In a funnier moment, Hansard turned to Bartlett at one point, saying, “none of your jazzy shit, alright?” which elicited a quick chain of laughter throughout the room.
Many of the musicians played songs that are either too new to be officially recorded or so old they were all but forgotten. During Hansard’s performance, he actually performed a song he had apparently written a few hours prior in the dressing room.
Glen’s new song (a thinly veiled ballad about his former lover, Markéta Irglová):
Glen Hansard performing in 2008 (photo Jeff Meade)
Throughout the evening, the interplay and on-stage banter among the artists were quite charming, especially between Amidon and Bartlett. Apparently, these evenings are going to be part of a series.”This whole evening was modeled on salons,” Bartlett eventually admitted. “I was really not enjoying playing shows for a little while and I realized that this was a really fun way to do it. If I just bring my friends along than I have a fun time, too.” Nice strategy.
Here’s one with Doveman and the whole gang:
Coming up at the next Burgundy Stain session: singer-songwriter and performance artist Justin Bond.
Oy vey! This should not have taken so long to put together.I apologize for the tardiness of this list. The truth is I really struggled to put it together. 2010 was consumed by rampant concert-going and reviewing to such an extent that I didn’t have much time for experiencing music in its more packaged and produced form: the album. Thus, every time I started working on compiling this list, I found myself thinking of more albums I hadn’t ever gotten around to. As a result, much of the past month was spent playing catch-up. Without further ado, here are the results.
1. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)
The Age of Adz opens with the deceptively calming and methodical “Futile Devices” – almost as if nothing had changed since the gentle days of Greetings from Michigan. Of course, it isn’t long before things start to get a little… strange. In an interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer back in the fall of 2009, Sufjan talked about his new project, saying, “Well I’m not interested really in a collection of songs in an album, but what if the song itself is the album.” The Age of Adz is a fascinating, experimental adventure – far more experimental than much of the music that typically falls under that tired tag. Yes, it is bombastic and wildly ambitious. Yes, it was met by much flak when it was suddenly released – especially on the heals of the mild and beautiful EP All Delighted People. But sometimes, it’s the art that takes the most risks and is the most divisive that is most worth a look. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it. Gather ’round. This is the age of Adz. Let the flutes flutter, the guitar sound out triumphantly, and the back-up singers belt it out and dance with glee.
Sufjan Stevens, “Age of Adz” clip:
As you will no doubt notice, observant reader, there is a significant gap in my list here. What happened to albums 2-3? You may be thinking to yourself. Well for me, the year’s number one album was obvious… so obvious that the next few had me stumped. Nothing seemed to make enough of an impression to warrant a position so close to The Age of Adz, simple as that. Please don’t interpret the gap as a cop-out. Instead, it is a powerful statement about my feelings of the year in music and my love of my top album. It’s true, I didn’t think it was the most impressive year as far as the album goes, but in this gap, it’s important to note that there is also hope. Every year, I struggle with my limitations. I’m simply not able to hear and synthesize enough albums. In 2010, some of my favorite albums of the year (DM Stith’s Heavy Ghost, Silje Nes’ Ames Room, and Holy Sons’ Decline of the West) are from previous years. I like to think that perhaps I just haven’t yet discovered my other favorites of the year.
4. Go – Jónsi (XL)
Thanks to my early love for Sigur Rós, I have long been captivated by Jón Þór Birgisson’s heavenly voice. But with many of his band members taking a musical hiatus to have kids, Birgisson had a little extra time on his hands and Jónsi was born. From the moment I saw the strange but gorgeous video for “Go Do,” I eagerly awaited more. Go is positively radiant – a celestial kaleidoscope of sound. One of my biggest regrets of the year was missing him in concert. Apparently, it was a sight to behold. (Luckily, you can at least listen to his show at the 9:30 Club, thanks to the folks at NPR Music.)
Jónsi, “Go Do” clip:
5. Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter (4AD)
I was tempted to throw Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databank on the list, but though the impromptu collection contains an intimate collection of hushed and deeply confessional lo-fi songs, Halcyon Digest is clearly the more cohesive and consistent release. Bradford Cox’s songs may often be grim, but somehow, Halcyon Digest seems – dare I say it? – upbeat… even when the lyrics cover things like perpetual darkness and abandonment. Halycon, indeed.
Deerhunter, “Don’t Cry” clip:
6. High Violet – The National (4AD)
Yes, sometimes Matt Berninger whines on this album. Yes, it may have taken me longer than it should have to get into it. But despite these caveats, High Violet remains one of the most impressive outputs of the year. The instrumentation is full-bodied and complex and the lyrics are brimming with highly evocative one-liners. (I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.) Absent of any obvious stand-out tracks, High Violet is also truly an album to be digested in its entirety.
The National, “Anyone’s Ghost” clip:
7. Cloak and Cipher – Land of Talk (Saddle Creek)
At casual listen, Lizzie Powell has the kind of smooth, innocuous vocals characteristic of an artist found on the adult easy-listening channel, but don’t let that fool you. From seeing Land of Talk perform twice this past year, I know the woman to be a powerful force, and her lyrics are some of the most powerful I’ve heard all year.
Land of Talk, “Color Me Badd” clip:
8. I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling (Astralwerks)
Interestingly, this album was not initially on my list. Besides “Hope in the Air,” there just weren’t any tracks as good as “Ghosts,” “My Manic and I,” or “Crawled Out of the Sea.” But then I got to thinking… Alas I Cannot Swim is perhaps one of my favorite albums in the last five years. So what if I Speak Because I Can didn’t top it. The truth of the matter is that any Laura Marling album is going to be better than average. Everything from the title of this album to the tone reveals a more confident and mature Marling. Maybe there aren’t (m)any tracks I would listen to on repeat as I did with her previous material, but it remains a solid album. I eagerly await what comes next.
Laura Marling, “Hope in the Air” clip:
9. All Alone In An Empty House – Lost in the Trees (Anti)
When I first saw Lost in the Trees open for Efterklang in the spring of 2008, my friend and I were so impressed and moved by the haunting melodies that we each bought an album – a rarity for us spoiled college radio kids. For front man Ari Picker, making and playing music is a deeply moving and cathartic experience. At a recent show at the Mercury Lounge, he said, “I started listening to classical music in 2005. It was an interesting experience. I started getting a feeling like I was in church or something. It was a mind-opening experience.” Like the band’s older catalog, All Alone in an Empty House is delightfully gothic and brimming with intensity.
Lost in the Trees, “All Alone in an Empty” clip:
10. Love Remains – How To Dress Well (Lefse)
Reminiscent a bit of Bon Iver, How To Dress Well is a hazy, melodic collection of songs that seem to be made for the cold, dark days of winter. Love Remains is a complex and intriguing synthesis of bedroom music, 90s R & B, and fuzzed out, heavily distorted electronica – all accompanied by Tom Krell’s piercing falsetto. The songs flow from one to the next with ease and create a haunting and hazy tableau of sound.
How To Dress Well, “Can’t See My Own Face” clip:
11. Made in the Harbor – Mountain Man (Partisan)
For the first few times I saw the name Mountain Man floating around, I was quick to dismiss the band. Haven’t I heard this before? I thought to myself. But this isn’t Man Man, Young Man, Black Mountain, or the Pink Mountaintops. There isn’t even a man on the album. Instead, three lovely ladies team up to create Appalachian folk-inspired ditties, full of three-part harmonies, sparse instrumentation, and a lot of heart, and the result is captivating.
Mountain Man, “Animal Tracks” clip:
12. The Calcination of Scout Niblett – Scout Niblett (Drag City)
Simultaneously abrasive and demure – Scout Niblett is an enigmatic figure and a compelling songwriter. Her music is marked by furious highs and delicate lows, and she navigates between the two like a restless, overenthusiastic child choosing between new toys on Christmas. Fitting for its heavy sound, The Calcination of Scout Niblett dropped back in January, and as the colder days set in once again, I find myself listening to it with increased frequency and fervor.
Scout Niblett, “The Calcination of Scout Niblett” clip:
13. Magic Central – Breathe Owl Breathe (Hometapes)
I had this album for a couple of months before I finally got around to listening to it. Big mistake. I adored the group’s earlier material for its warmth and down-to-earth simplicity like a little kid loves his blanket. Now, with Magic Central, the sound is more expansive, but the content remains charming familiar. In his characteristic rich and relaxed tenor, front man Micah Middaugh sings of everything from the benign, everyday (an errant mustache) to bigger, heavier topics (like how to forget a former love). As the story goes, the Michigan-based group retreated to a cabin in the woods cabin to soak up the sun and play some music. The formula may be a bit hackneyed now, but the end result is no lessworthy.
Breathe Owl Breathe, “Dragon” clip:
14. Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian (Matador)
After some five years of waiting, I anxiously awaited the release of Write About Love. I spent a lot of time with Belle & Sebastian over the years. A lot. After such a long hiatus, would they be able to retain the glow of previous releases like The Boy with the Arab Strap, If You’re Feeling Sinister, or Fold Your Hands, Child You Walk Like a Peasant? Sure, Write About Love may not glisten, but it certainly still has its moments.
Belle & Sebastian, “Come On Sister” clip:
15. I See the Sign – Sam Amidon (Bedroom Community)
Sam Amidon may seem like something of an odd choice for the list. After all, the man doesn’t even write his own songs… well not exactly. Instead, he adopts and adapts old folk and gospel songs (and even the occasional cover) and makes them his own. Amidon’s fast finger-plucking skills and rich, well-weathered voice combine delightfully in I See the Sign. Though the lyrics may not be his own, each song readily evokes a story. Everything from stubborn damsels to matricide, and a wayward son populate the album.
Sam Amidon, “You Better Mind” clip:
Honorable Mentions go to:
Allo Darlin’ – s/t (Fortuna POP) The sunny, upbeat stylings of this Australian pop group are likely to get stuck in your head for hours on end.
Allo Darlin’, “Dreaming” clip:
Broken Bells – s/t (Columbia) ‘Super’ precedes ‘group’ for a reason. Take exhibit A, Broken Bells – the work of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse).
Broken Bells, “Vaporize” clip:
Efterklang – Magic Chairs (4 AD) Efterklang is a great live act, and I like the first few songs of Magic Chairs, but for whatever reason, I never seem to get beyond the first 3 or 4 tracks before giving up.
Efterklang, “Alike” clip:
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (Barsuk) Mesmerizing and quixotic songs couple well with Sarah Barthel’s equally intoxicating vocals.
Phantogram, “When I’m Small” clip:
Perfume Genius – Learning (Matador) In all honesty, I have yet to obtain Learning in its entirety, but I’m digging what I have heard of Mike Hadreas’ docile, heartfelt songs.
Perfume Genius, “Learning” clip:
Glaringly and intentionally absent:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge) When Funeral came out in 2004, I remember thinking that it was a big moment in indie music history, but for whatever reason, I have still never been able to get into this band. I’m sorry.
Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop) I loved Devotion as much as the next guy, but despite my fierce desire to get behind this album, I simply can’t handle how raspy Victoria Legrand’s voice has become.
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (Glass Note) In my book, Fanfarlo, Noah and the Whale, and Laura Marling all deserve more praise than their British folk contemporaries, Mumford & Sons. For what it is, the presentation is just too gruff for me, and the intensity seems artificially heightened.
I’m starting with this list because it is perhaps the easiest to compile. More to come.
There are 19 here. Deal with it. They’re also in descending order, for dramatic effect.
(The asterisks link to the appropriate show review.)
19. Warpaint – Music Hall of Williamsburg, December 2nd*
This was another surprise. Though I had heard the name Warpaint thrown around for a few months, I knew little about them going into the show, but they had me bewitched with their alternating vocals and mesmerizing minimalism.
18. Seabear – Mercury Lounge, March 25th*
I really can’t get enough of these quaint Icelandic bands, homespun sweaters and all. The harmonies and the impressive range of instruments in this large band leave me with an extra spring in my step. I want to get inducted into their family. You don’t think they’d notice if I joined in, do you? Maybe I could play the tambourine… or just pretend to sing.
Seabear (Photo Thomas Helbig)
17. Land of Talk – Bowery Ballroom, November 6th * I really loved this album – the lyrics especially, so seeing Land of Talk this past November was a real treat.
16. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang, The Babblers – Town Hall, December 8th*
Surprisingly, this was my first time seeing B’P'B. It was a long time coming. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, however, was The Babblers – yet another of Will Oldham’s special projects, featuring the irresistible Angel Olsen on vox.
15. tUnE-yArDs – The Bell House, February 5th * With her wild gaze and tribal-influenced songs, Merril Garbus is a force to behold. From what I heard, she stole the show from the Dirty Projectors when she opened for them. Somehow, that doesn’t at all surprise me.
tUnE-yArDs (Photo Jessica Amaya)
14. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Mercury Lounge, October 14th* (an interview with Owen)
I’ve seen Owen more times than nearly everyone else (3 or 4 times this year alone), and every time is a treat. This show was an extra treat because it was one of his last performances as CFTPA… ever! (I also attended his last NY show the next night, but the Brooklyn Masonic Temple was not the right environment, and too many people were there to see the other bands on the bill – ahem, Dan Deacon and Lightning Bolt). What a sweet man. I look forward to hearing his next musical project.
13. Scout Niblett and Holy Sons – The Mercury Lounge, October 6th*
After the disastrous Cat Power-esque performance in 2007, I’m certainly glad I gave you another chance, Scout (aka Emma). I love how raw her voice is and how she effortlessly shifts in tone from the sweet, innocent girl to the big bad wolf. Though I had never heard of them prior to the show, Holy Sons wowed me so much that I left with two albums.
Scout Niblett (Ian Crowther)
12. Lost in the Trees – The Mercury Lounge, August 23rd *
These guys from North Carolina are every bit as mesmerizing now as when I first saw them in 2008. Their moody orchestral arrangements and haunting lyrics make me shiver every time.
11. The Blow – Glasslands Gallery, May 13th*
Oh, Khaela. Your banter about the lost album with the unnamed starlet (Lindsey Lohan) may not be true, but it makes for quite an entertaining schtick. I love her beautiful, awkward stage presence and the candidness of her songs.
The Blow (Photo Devyn Manibo)
10. Beirut – Music Hall of Williamsburg, July 5th*
The man has French horn tattoos. Enough said.
9. Belle & Sebastian – The Williamsburg Waterfront, September 20th*
This was perhaps my most anticipated show of the year. I’ve spent countless hours listening to Belle & Sebastian. They were just one of those formative bands for me. Too bad it took me like 6 years to actually see them. The show was good, and the band was charming. Sadly, it just never could have lived up to my expectations.
Belle & Sebastian (Photo Amanda Hatfield)
8. CocoRosie – Music Hall of Williamsburg, September 15th*
This was kind of the wild card of the year. I wasn’t sure if I’d want to storm out of the room or take the sisters home with me. The latter was more accurate. I was pretty much speechless by the end of the night.
7. Andrew Bird – The Guggenheim, August 5th*
Andrew Bird… at the Guggenheim. The set-up alone is drool-worthy. Then there was the ‘forest floor of horns’ and the multi-level rotunda, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Andrew Bird (Photo Macey Foronda)
6. The National – Radio City Music Hall – June 16th*
I’d say I preferred their show at the Bell House or BAM earlier in the year (whoa, I saw them 4 times)… except for the fact that this was the show when Matt Berninger left the stage, climbed over the seats in my aisle, and landed in mine. The feeling of his hand on my shoulder as he steadied himself and the knowledge that I could have easily reached across the three-inch divide and caressed his cheek, are almost too much to handle.
5. DM Stith + Silje Nes + Inlets – Littlefield, June 13th*
Again, a fantastic line-up and a small, intimate show (with seats!). This was my first encounter with the Norwegian beauty Silje Nes, and I hope to see her many more times. And David Michael, might we go on a picnic sometime?
4. Laura Marling – Le Poisson Rouge, February 12th*
I love this girl… even if her songs strongly suggest that she doesn’t believe in the emotion. She is miles in front of her British contemporaries (Noah and the Whale, Fanfarlo, Mumford and Sons). Laura, I foolishly invite you to ditch Marcus and trample on my heart instead.
Laura Marling (Photo kDamo)
3. Efterklang + Sam Amidon + Daniel Bjarnason – Le Poisson Rouge, March 3rd*
I loved each of these acts individually. Together, they made for one of the most memorable shows of the year. What a talented array of musicians. Even though shows at LPR can be a bummer due to the pesky 2-item minimum at tables, I’d gladly hulk in the corner for you any day, Sam.
2. Atlas Sound – The Bell House, February 3rd*
Remember when the Bell House consistently hosted great musicians? I really hope these winter shows become an annual tradition as Bradford hinted a couple of weeks ago. I love Deerhunter, but I feel like Bradford would be dead without Atlas Sound to channel his surfeit of creative energy. Wonderful, heartfelt show – a nice contrast to the cold, dark February night.
1. Sufjan Stevens + DM Stith – Beacon Theatre, November 14th *
How could this not be the best show of the year? One minute I was dancing and laughing with glee and a few songs later, I was silently sobbing. Simply amazing.
"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."
- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being