Posts Tagged ‘Yo La Tengo’

Here it is! Best of 2006

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

This best of 2006 list was extremely challenging to come up with, if only because I’ve begun listening to new music at an even greater rate, and I just had a lot more to choose from this time around. The list below is one that, perhaps more than any other best-of-year list I’ve done, I feel could be significantly different a year, a month, or even a week from now. That said, I am definitely glad I waited a year to do this one, as I hadn’t even heard 40% of these albums by the end of 2006.

Before we get started, if you’re curious, my best-of lists for 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 are also available on this blog. Now for the main attraction:

  1. Newsom, Joanna - Ys
    Head and shoulders above the rest, Ys could be my favorite album of the decade, not just the year. Newsom’s voice, lyrics, compositions and harp playing are bewitching, and I’ve been listening to Ys regularly for the past year and never get tired of it. I expect this to be a long-lasting classic, and unlike many critics, I don’t use that word lightly.
  2. Tanakh - Ardent Fevers
    I’ve become fairly indifferent to most new indie-rock out there, but this group plays an endlessly interesting meshing of styles that transcends genres. There’s post-rock and ambient music influences as well as straight-ahead melodic songwriting, and there are some wicked scorched-earth guitar solos to boot. Music that’s difficult to describe and pigeonhole is often very appealing to me, and Ardent Fevers is a perfect example.
  3. Zs - Buck
    Perhaps the most interesting avant-rock band operating today, this live album shows the power that a telepathically tight ensemble playing formally composed, wickedly difficult music can have. A must for anyone interested in dissonant, rhythmically complex modern music.
  4. Decapitated - Organic Hallucinosis
    Speaking of rhythmically difficult, this band’s nerdy death metal is occasionally jaw-dropping in its technicality, which makes the recent death of their drummer in a car crash all the more tragic. I was all stoked to see these guys live, but the death of their drummer and hospitalization of their guitarist was too much for the band to handle and they promptly disbanded. One of the saddest stories in music all year (2007, to be clear). RIP Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka.
  5. NeBeLNeST - ZePTO
    I guess I do still like prog. ZePTO is the only original prog album on this top 10 list, though admittedly it’s no namby-pamby symphonic fairy tale. This album sees the French quartet dip into avant-garde waters; their music has always been dark, dissonant and amorphous, but never quite to this extent.
  6. Univers Zero - Live
    Notable for many reasons, not least that it’s the first official live release for this 30-year-old band, but also because the performances are simply top-notch. “Xenantaya” especially absolutely comes alive compared to the studio version, and the inclusion of older pieces like the classic “Toujours Plus à l’Est” is a wonderful surprise.
  7. Om - Conference of the Birds
    There’s only one transcendent song on this album, but then there are only two songs total. The 16-minute “At Giza” is an absolute triumph of repetitive, trancey, spiritual metal, still the best thing this band has ever done. In concert, three separate people exclaimed after this song that it was a “religious experience.” They may be overstating the case, but not by too much.
  8. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
    Everyone’s favorite noisy indie-rock band gets back to the noise! The opening and closing epics on this album are the classic feedback-drenched workouts that, as much as their poppy vocal numbers, helped give this band their reputation. The best thing they’ve recorded since the glory days in the mid-90s.
  9. Espers - II
    I was a latecomer to this acid-folk group, and this was my introduction to their music. Greg Weeks, formerly of New Sonic Architecture fame, and Meg Baird combine to make some of the most evocatively edgy folk music I’ve heard. Mellow Candle comes to mind; these guys possess an equally formidable melodic sense (and their vocal duets are equally as wonderful), but their vision is way darker.
  10. Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura - In Krakow In November
    I love Fujii’s quartet albums and like her orchestra works, but it’s in a solo and duo setting that, in my opinion, she really shines. Her melodic sensibility is simply beautiful, and that really comes through in this recording with trumpeter/husband Tamura. “Morning Mist” is pure distilled beauty, but the whole record is a delight.

I seem to say this every year, but 2006 was a pretty damn good year. I suspect this will be true for every year as long as I continue keeping up with a wide depth and breadth of new music. Certainly 2007 — in which I bought more albums released this year than ever before — is shaping up to be fantastic. It’s certainly a good time to be a fan of underground, experimental music.

Just to prove the point — and this is probably a bit excessive — here are a bunch of other albums from 2006 that I really liked. Four or five of these could easily have been in the top 10 if I’d been in a slightly different mood.

  • AghoraFormless
  • Christina AguileraBack to Basics
  • Amon AmarthWith Oden On Our Side
  • AtomicHappy New Ears!
  • Michaël AttiasCredo
  • Tim BerneLivein Cognito
  • Iva BittováSuperchameleon (DVD)
  • BorisPink
  • Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas & Michael WertmüllerFull Blast
  • BurialBurial
  • Nels ClineNew Monastery
  • The CoreBlue Sky
  • The CoupPick a Bigger Weapon
  • DamselDistressed
  • The DecemberistsThe Crane Wife
  • EnslavedRuun
  • From a Second Story WindowDelenda
  • Nelly FurtadoLoose
  • Genghis TronDead Mountain Mouth
  • IsisIn the Absence of Truth
  • IsisClearing the Eye (DVD)
  • Isis & AereogrammeIn the Fishtank 14
  • Glenn KotcheMobile
  • MagmaEpok II (DVD)
  • Loreena McKennittAn Ancient Muse
  • MogwaiMr. Beast
  • Simon Nabotov & Tom RaineySteady Now
  • NightwishEnd of an Era (DVD)
  • NIMBYSongs For Adults
  • One ShotEwaz Vader
  • Peeping TomPeeping Tom
  • Radio Massacre InternationalSeptentrional
  • Sunn O))) & BorisAltar
  • Justin TimberlakeFutureSex/LoveSounds
  • UnexpectIn a Flesh Aquarium
  • UzvaUoma
  • The Vandermark 5A Discontinuous Line
  • YakuzaSamsara
  • Dhafer YoussefDivine Shadows
  • ZaarZaar

There you have it. I’m planning a couple other posts, coming towards the end of the month, recapping my 2007 without actually doing a top 10 albums list, since, of course, that’ll be coming in a year. But I do want to talk about my favorite concerts of the year, as well as discuss the continuing evolution of my music tastes (in this case, this year saw me listening to more extreme metal and free improv than ever).

The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

Got a little lull in concertgoing (there are a couple shows of interest at An Die Musik this weekend, but I’m going to take a break), so it’s time to catch up a bit on the backlog. Last week, Yo La Tengo played at the Birchmere, kind of a weird venue for an indie-rock trio known for making a shitload of delicious guitar feedback noise on top of a steady, almost Krautish pulse. The reason they were playing at this venue — an intimate dinner club whose more usual fare are singer-songwriters, country musicians and aging rockers — was the nature of this tour, dubbed “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo.” The concept was basically that they would play “semi-acoustically,” kicking off with a couple songs and then opening up the rest of the concert to questions and requests.

There aren’t too many bands out there that can pull this off. Ideally, it requires a large and diverse repertoire of songs, the ability to play them acoustically, the ability to play any one of them on cue, a devoted and knowledgeable fan base, and the charisma to be able to sit on stage and answer questions without boring your audience stiff. I’m having a hard time thinking of any other bands that could actually do this, but Yo La Tengo managed to do it and be entertaining throughout. It helps that they’re one of the most endearing bands around, consisting of a married couple (he on guitars, she on drums) and a third-wheel bassist, all of whom have been playing music together for multiple decades (okay, the bassist is the relative “new guy,” having only been in the band for 15 years or so). The vibe these guys give off is one of relaxed confidence, like they’ve been together for so long they can handle pretty much anything the audience throws at them. In particular, guitarist Ira Kaplan was comfortably engaging and funny onstage, appropriate as it’s his guitar pyrotechnics that — for this listener at least — really propel the band to their most exhilirating musical heights.

I waited too long to pen this writeup, as I no longer remember much about the questions that were asked, but the band encouraged people to ask about anything, not just music. Nevertheless, for the most part the questions (mercifully in my opinion) stuck to Yo La Tengo’s music; the most off-topic it got was, “what’s your favorite Simpsons episode and why?” — and even that one became YLT-related since the answer was “well, the one that we did the music for, obviously.”

Musically, Yo La Tengo has a long and impressively diverse discography. I had expected them to stick mostly to the quieter stuff, or at least the poppier stuff. For the first half of the show or so, this was the case; they played a lot of their contemplative, slow-paced material, of which I generally find about half to be beautiful and half forgettable. But they did end up playing some louder stuff. It turned out that by “semi-acoustic,” what they really meant was “electric, but without distortion.” To my surprise and delight, they even played “The Story of Yo La Tango,” which is a 12-minute epic of guitar feedback and distortion over an insistent motorik beat. Kaplan did crank up a tiny bit of distortion on this one, but far less than usual, and the effect was fascinating, more spacious if not quite as compelling as the original.

For the first bit of the show I was kind of wishing the band would stop talking so much and just play more music. But it didn’t take long for me to warm up to them, and it ended up being a really neat experience punctuated by some great music. They didn’t blow my mind like they did last year (when Kaplan beat up on his guitar the way Cecil Taylor beats the shit out of pianos), but it was a pleasant evening and a rare look into the workings of one of the most long-lived bands in the turbulent world of indie-rock.

Favorite shows of 2006

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Well, there’s one last end-of-year list that I want to do: best shows I saw this year. I made a sort of new year’s resolution at the beginning of the year to see more live music — in the past I have generally been pretty lazy and not bothered leaving the house to make it out to shows other than obvious must-sees (like Los Jaivas, or Present, etc). This year, I made a conscious effort to overcome my inertia and make the effort to get out and see/hear more. I was moderately successful; I think I saw 25 shows over the course of the year, although I might be forgetting one or two. In any case, here are some highlights, in chronological order.

  • The Vandermark 5 at Iota, February 3 (blog entry) — I never got to see this band with Jeb Bishop, which I regret, but Fred Lonberg-Holm was a revelation, a total wildcard. Super high-energy, awesomely tight, these guys played a wide-ranging set that was the first great show I saw this year.
  • The Claudia Quintet at Twins Jazz, March 14 (blog entry) — I’m not a huge fan of their studio albums, but live, they were a joy to watch; John Hollenbeck’s busy drumming style was a treat and Matt Moran on vibes was a whirling dervish. But the star of the show for me was Chris Speed, who blew up with one absolutely thrilling tenor sax solo and a lot of other highlights.
  • Stórsveit Nix Noltes at The Black Cat, March 21 (blog entry) — This one was a total surprise; I went to this show for the headliners, Animal Collective, but these guys stole the show. A nine-piece band from Iceland playing rocked-up Eastern European folk music? Sounds right up my alley, and it was. High energy and big fun.
  • Isis, Dälek & Zombi at The Black Cat, April 30 (blog entry) — The rare bill where I know and like all three of the bands, and none of them disappointed. I was too tired and it was too loud for me to enjoy this show to its fullest, but all three of the bands put on a great show. It may have been Dälek who left the biggest impression on me, with his militant stage presence and aggressive wall-of-sound production.
  • Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura at George Washington University, May 23 (blog entry) — Transparent Productions brought these Japanese avant-jazz masters to DC to play in front of an audience of maybe 15, and they did not disappoint. Probably my favorite show all year. Very challenging; the two of them played for an hour straight with no breaks, and it was hard to tell what was improvised and what was composed. As much classical influence as jazz, and Fujii had a way of keeping me mesmerized that I won’t soon forget.
  • Berne/Carroll/Formanek/Rainey at An Die Musik Live, July 29 — For some reason I never wrote about this show, which is weird because Berne is probably my #1 favorite current jazz artist, and Rainey just might be my alltime favorite drummer. For the first of the two sets I was seated front row right in front of Rainey, and I barely noticed anything but his playing, he was so good. He used a very basic drum kit but eked a huge variety of sounds from it, using all kinds of techniques. The second set I actually enjoyed even more; they played more stuff I recognized, like a couple tunes from Feign, and seemed a little tighter. Great stuff, hope I get to see Berne again sometime in 2007.
  • Nels Cline/Glenn Kotche at The Black Cat, September 20 (blog entry) — Another nice surprise; I came for Cline but I might have actually liked Kotche more. Cline was in full-bore noise mode, wringing loud squalls of feedback from his effects-laden guitar; he was fun to watch but a little hard to listen to. Kotche was equally inventive but more accessible; the idea of a solo percussion set had me a little apprehensive, but his stuff was melodic and fun. The two of them played together to close out their set, and that was my favorite part of the show. A memorable performance from two great improvisors.
  • Yo La Tengo at the 9:30 Club, September 26 (blog entry) — Man, another pleasant surprise. I guess I kind of knew what to expect here, but I didn’t think they were going to completely blow my head off. Ira Kaplan’s guitar freakouts were delicious, noisy and cacophonous but somehow still melodious, if barely. I’m indifferent towards a lot of this band’s poppier moments (though a lot of them are still very good), but when they “shut up and play their guitars” it’s a wondrous experience.
  • Massive Attack at the 9:30 Club, September 28 (blog entry) — Completely different from any other show I saw this year, these guys brought their full complement of guest vocalists and instrumentalists. I lost count of how many sharply-dressed British folks (pretty much equal proportion of males and females) were sauntering about on stage, backed by the most involved lightshow I’ve ever seen at the 9:30 Club. Their trademark trippy beats and sultry vocals made for quite a sensual concert experience, but that didn’t stop them from also rocking out when they wanted to.
  • Wilco at the 9:30 Club, October 19 (blog entry) — This couldn’t possibly live up to the amazing show I saw them put on last year at the same place, but taken on its own, it was still damn good. Some of the new pieces were a nice surprise; hearing Cline and Tweedy do a melodic classic-rock dual-guitar jam was a surreal highlight. Last year’s show was for the ages; this one was merely great.
  • Maja Ratkje & POING at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, December 17 (blog entry) — Like the Fujii/Tamura show, this one was demanding, required all my attention, and left me tired at the end. It was also a fabulous performance. I saw some pretty out-there avant shows this year (a noisy improv set from Denman Maroney, Jack Wright and Reuben Radding tops the list), but this one was easily the best of them. There was a real method to this madness, and I found it quite compelling. A great way to end the year.

On the opposite end of things, probably the most disappointing show I saw this year was in late January, when Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores were supposed to play at the Warehouse Nextdoor, but never showed up. I contented myself with Make a Rising, a Philly band who had gotten good reviews on the avant-progressive list and elsewhere, but they just seemed like a really, really amateurish chamber-rock band to me. Oh well.

The show I am most bummed I missed? By a long shot, Joanna Newsom, who played at the Black Cat in November. I had fallen in love with her new album Ys, but did not think the show would sell out. I mean, she has an immediately hatable voice and she’s pretty obscure. I didn’t expect her to blow up in popularity with Ys (the damn thing is five epic-length songs fergodsakes), but she did. She sold out pretty much all her shows, including the one in DC. Dammit.

Here’s hoping 2007 is as good a year as 2006 was for live music in DC. As Steve Feigenbaum said over at ProgressiveEars, I am endlessly thankful that I live in a place that offers so much great music. Now if only some of those damned New York avant-jazz musicians would journey down here every once in a while…

Three fantastic 9:30 Club shows

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

Thanks to the thoughtfulness of a friend (many thanks, Chris), I was, in the end, able to go to Wilco last Thursday despite striking out resoundingly in my earlier efforts to secure a ticket. The show sold out in minutes, so naturally the house was packed with plenty of enthusiastic and apparently experienced fans. Chris and I caught a decent chunk of Melomane, the opening band, whose set ranged from ordinary to awful. Their last song in particular sported some of the worst, most heavy-handed “political” lyrics ever penned — “you’re a pacifist/but sometimes you get pissed,” and something about assassinating the president and killing the people on the Hill. Right.

All was forgiven once Nels Cline and company, I mean Jeff Tweedy and company, took the stage. They chose a peculiar song to open with, “Radio Cure,” but overall played a great set with a good amount of energy. They didn’t come close to matching the show of theirs I saw last year, but that was also a show on a long tour and the second of two nights they played in DC. Then, they played for two and a half hour with a ton of interaction between Tweedy and the crowd; this time around, Tweedy was relatively quiet and the band played for a still-considerable two hours. Also, then was the first time I ever heard Cline with the band, and I was just blown away by his stuff; this time around I knew what to expect.

Oddly enough, the highlight of the show for me was a new song (probably called “Impossible Germany”) about which Chris said, “sounds like The Allman Brothers” with a somewhat incredulous look on his face. This song featured a three-guitar jam that was just beautiful, and was so unexpected that I was grinning through the whole thing. It was also at this point that I really realized, as if I hadn’t known before, that I am a total Nels Cline fanboy. He played beautifully on this song and pretty much every other one as well, for the most part adopting a smooth, high tone over which he had complete control. Of course, he was also quite adept at making a shitload of noise, but that should be no surprise to anyone.

Good show then, although I just ran across this great live review at PopMatters that makes this one pale in comparison.

Also, I failed to report on the two shows I saw a few weeks ago at the same place (the 9:30 Club, which has most remarkably clean and clear sound quality of any dingy club I’ve ever been to): Yo La Tengo and Massive Attack. They were both excellent, and the former was close to transcendent. Ira Kaplan has to be one of the absolute best in the business at making, as Robert Fripp would say, “a lot of noise with one guitar,” sounding like he’s always almost about to completely lose control, but always bringing it back down to earth and making his noise sound melodic and beautiful (I’ll stop short of “accessible,” but it’s close). His guitar work really made the Yo La Tengo show a visceral experience — their rhythm section is rather staid and static, but that’s always been their style.

Massive Attack was a completely different experience, a sensual concert with an elaborate light show that at times made me feel like I was at a dance club rather than a rock club. The band had their full complement of guest vocalists on tour with them, which was awesome, and their slow beats, gradual buildups, repetitive themes, and oppressive sexual tension translated really well into the live environment. It didn’t hurt that the inevitable rock-outs at strategic points in each song were invariably headbang-worthy. In particular, they really make “Safe From Harm” — my favorite Massive Attack song already — into a tour de force, stretching it out into the ten-minute territory with a long, loud, cleansing jam.

What’s spinning, individual songs edition

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

I’ve recently been listening to some albums with clear standout tracks and as a result have been trying to compile a kind of greatest-hits CD with the music that’s been spinning in my room for the past month or two. There’s a mix of new and not particularly new, and it’s a generally genre-less affair. The songs I have chosen so far (in no particular order):

  • Yo La Tengo - “The Story of Yo La Tango” (I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass): Classic epic noisy stuff from these guys that I’m going to see live tonight. Great way to end a pretty great new album.
  • Mastodon - “Sleeping Giant” (Blood Mountain): The obvious highlight on this album that I’m otherwise still a bit lukewarm about. Some unforgettably majestic guitar melodies here.
  • Christina Aguilera - “Still Dirrty” (Back to Basics): Dumb lyrics (actually not the norm on this album, at least on the first disc — but let’s not talk about the atrocious second disc) mitigated by a seriously bumpin’ production job.
  • Espers - “Moon Occults the Sun” (II): Melancholy, dignified indie-folk that should appeal to a lot of prog fans with their adventurous arrangements and crystal-clear, seductive vocals (both male and female). Another great album closer of a song.
  • Final Fantasy - “This Lamb Sells Condos” (He Poos Clouds): The album title is awful and some of the songs are, too. This is a hugely (over-)hyped album, but on this song at least they get it right.
  • Amon Tobin - “Sordid” (Permutation): Not new at all, but a barn-burner of a breakbeat song thrown into Tobin’s otherwise pretty jazzy sophomore album. Funny, I first got into Tobin through, of all things, a Coke TV ad (that used “Deo” from the next album).
  • Black Bonzo - “Brave Young Soldier” (Lady of the Light): This stuff isn’t generally my thing — this album was a perfect eMusic download rather than CD purchase for me — but there’s some cool stuff going on in this song.
  • Ephel Duath - “The Unpoetic Circle” (The Painter’s Palette): Any band that reminds me by turns of Cynic, Opeth and Pan-Thy-Monium can’t be anything but stone-cold awesome. This is one of the more accessible tracks from what is IMHO their best album.
  • The Coup - “My Favorite Mutiny” (Pick a Bigger Weapon): Disappointing album overall; I think Boots Riley and co. are really losing it. But this would have been a great song even on their old classic records.
  • Tim Berne’s Hard Cell - “BG uh-oh” (Feign): One of the more hyper-kinetic tracks on this album, and one that I was lucky enough to see live (performed by a slightly different ensemble). Berne is still one of my absolute favorite currently active “jazz” artists.
  • Boris - “Pink” (Pink): The title track from this album is one of the more aggressive tracks on a very aggressive record. Sludgy metal at its finest, with a touch of Japanese noise-rock zaniness.

Amazon Prime: uh oh

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Today I got in a small order from amazon.com. They have offered me a free three-month Amazon Prime trial, under which anything I buy gets shipped to me by two-day UPS for free. This is normally a $79/year service. I never understood why someone would pay that much, but now that I have it, it makes a lot of sense and is really a prety brilliant marketing move. Now that I don’t have shipping charges to worry about, I can order from Amazon almost at will, even if it’s just one puny CD, and it shows up at my door two days (sometimes only one day) later. The only problem is that I feel slightly dirty for doing so knowing that this is exactly the kind of thing that could put the final nail in the coffin of independent and brick-and-mortar music and bookstores.

Anyway, today I got the new CDs by The Mars Volta, Mastodon and Yo La Tengo. First impressions of each: The Mars Volta’s Amputechture sounds, well, whiny. Nothing particularly stuck in my head, but then again I’m listening at work and not really focusing on the music. Too early to tell even whether I’ll like this or hate it. Mastodon’s new one sounds way more straightforward, especially in the vocal department, than their previous stuff. At some points I was shocked to find myself drawing comparisons to Dream Theater (though, thankfully, not James LaBrie). Uh oh! Last, Yo La Tengo’s new one is, first of all, the best-titled new release in years: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. This would be an awful name if it were an album by a punk or a metal band. But a Yo La Tengo album? Hilarious. And it’s good, too, reminding me more of the heyday of, say, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One instead of the super-slow droney pop of their more recent work. The first and last tracks especially are classic feedback-drenched epics.