Wednesday, August 31, 2011

#50: Cake - Fashion Nugget

So, I decided I'm going to totally rip off what Tyson is doing, and make a list of my 50 favorite albums.  His list got me thinking about what I would put in my top 50, so I went ahead and compiled a list.  And it was tough... I had to eliminate at least 25 outstanding albums that I really, really like.  But the 50 I chose are all albums I would rate five stars.

So, here's the first one:

 Release Year: 1996
First heard it in: 1997?

If you haven't at least heard the hits from Fashion Nugget ("I Will Survive" and "Going The Distance"), you probably weren't alive in 1996.  "I Will Survive" is one of the best covers of an R&B songs ever made.  "Going The Distance" was a staple at the time, and a song that is hard not to like.

Despite its excellent singles, I never bought this album until last year.  I had heard it as a teenager, and I actually enjoyed it... But for some reason, I never bought it.  I think what sold me on it the second time around is the wide array of influences contained herein (that sort of thing just would not have appealed to me as much 15 years ago).  You have a Willie Nelson cover, a folksy toe-tapper in "Stickshifts and Safetybelts", the completely off-kilter and discordant "Open Book", and clever lyrics and horns strewn all about.

I don't like Cake's subsequent albums as much, but they hit it out of the ballpark on this one.

Standout tracks:
  • The Distance
  • I Will Survive
  • Stickshifts and Safetybelts
  • Italian Leather Sofa 

497: Public Enemy - Yo! Bum Rush The Show

Release Date: January 26, 1987
Label: Def Jam/Columbia

Well, I got bored tonight, and decided to listen to the next album on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (if you're keeping track, this is the fourth one I've listened to since starting this monumental task).  That would be Public Enemy's debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show.

I'm not the biggest hip hop fan in the world, but I can appreciate a good rap now and then.  I'm a big Beasties fan, I've listened to Straight Outta Compton a handful of times, and I've even heard Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet and It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.  When I listen to rap, I typically like it to be clever, not about sex and drugs, and socially conscious.  That rules out almost all rap you hear on the radio.

I especially appreciate 80s rap.  In the 80s, rap was all about rhymes and samples, and rappers were just average kids from a rough neighborhood freestyling about the system holding them down.  And it worked, because they weren't multimillionaires rolling around in nice cars and big mansions.  They really did live in a society where the black kids lived in a dangerous Brooklyn ghetto, and the white people all worked in offices in the Financial District.  This is 1980s New York, and, having lived in black neighborhoods in The Bronx, I find rap about race issues in 1980s New York to be culturally interesting.  Just watch Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing."  It even prominently features Public Enemy's own "Fight The Power."

Now back to Yo! Bum Rush.  This is very 1980s.  The lyrics actually rhyme, and the rhythms are very straightforward.  And of course, they're all about fighting the power:
And those who lack, the odds are stacked
The one who makes the money is white, not black
You might not believe it, but it's like that
Group leader Chuck D has one of the best voices in rap, and he is an expert at vocal inflection and tone.  Check out the track "Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)."  It's Chuck D at his finest, and an example that every boring, monotone modern rapper should perhaps take a look at.

Don't worry, it's not all serious.  They can boast with the best of them:
Oh yes, I presume it's the tunes - that make us groom
To make all the ladies swoon
But it's also the words from our direction - a goldboy session
Kickin' like Bruce Lee's chinese connection
 This is definitely not for everybody.  If you don't like the socially conscious lyrics, you might get bored of this quickly.  If you hate rap, you'll probably want to shut this off before the first song is over.  But if you have any appreciation for hip-hop whatsoever, or just find black culture in any way fascinating, this is definitely one you should at least listen to once.  It's been called one of the most influential hip hop albums of all time.  I'd say if you liked "Do The Right Thing," you'd like this.  It is, after all, the soundtrack to the slice of society that the movie depicts.

Standout tracks: Sophisticated Bitch, Rightstarter, Yo! Bum Rush The Show


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge

Release Date: January 11, 2011
Label: New Rounder

Earlier this year (or maybe late last year), Abigail Washburn was announced as part of the lineup of the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  I hadn't heard of her, so this didn't really mean much to me.  Later, Hoodlums announced she would be doing an in-store performance in March (which I was unable to attend), so I figured I'd further investigate this Abigail Washburn situation.  Over the course of my research, I found that (a) she is married to banjo master Béla Fleck, and (b) she released a new album in January called City of Refuge.

I decided to give this a listen.  My first impression was that it was that it was a nice, textured, well-written, and well-sung album, but not one that I could listen to often.  I found it slightly boring, but, nevertheless, said if I ever saw a copy of it on vinyl, I'd pick it up.

At the TBF merch tent, I saw a copy of City of Refuge on vinyl, and I'm a man of my word.

Abigail Washburn
It turns out I saw, in addition to her riveting main stage performance on Sunday, her sit-ins in Fleck's Saturday Elks Park performance, and I became a fan of hers that weekend.  Not only is she excellent on the clawhammer banjo, but she has the warmest voice in all of female vocaldom, and no matter how many people are in attendance, all of her performances feel like they're taking place around the fire place in your living room.

Needless to say, I've listened to City of Refuge several more times since June, and this is now my favorite album of the year, almost eight months in.

What I like about this album (much of which is co-written with Kai Welch) are Abigail's warm voice, the brilliantly textured music, and the catchy melodies.  From the soaring chorus in "City of Refuge," to the backing chorale in "Burn Thru," and especially the gospel-influenced "Divine Bell," once some of these songs get stuck in your head, the only way you can get it out is to listen to a different song on this album.

Musically, it is hard to categorize this.  It has elements of bluegrass and folk.  It can probably be fairly safely categorized as traditional, but unlike most bluegrass and folk, she strays from the typical American traditions which those genres typically carry on.  Her view is more global; she learned Mandarin while living in China in 1996, and at times this record sounds almost like world music.

Where some songs are soaring, others are slow and soothing ("Bring Me My Queen," "Corner Girl," "Dreams Of Nectar," etc.).  The instruments are sometimes sparse, and sometimes unite to form an auric river of music.  Sometimes banjo pulls all the weight, as is the case with the delicate reverse arpeggios in "Corner Girl;" and sometimes it sits on the sidelines and lets the other instruments do the work.  Whichever is the case, the atmosphere is always rich.  Aside from the texture, the pacing of this record is excellent, with an excellent and well-timed mix of slow, atmospheric tunes, and the more upbeat toe-tappers.

This record is not for everybody, but if you like to mellow out every now and then, I'd highly recommend it.

2City of Refuge3:42
3Bring Me My Queen4:14
5Ballad of Treason3:07
6Last Train3:55
7Burn Thru4:26
8Corner Girl3:24
9Dreams of Nectar5:51
10Divine Bell2:38
11Bright Morning Stars4:40