I’ve had some serious ear ringing lately and there’s been nothing for it — until now. When I listen to “By the Throat” by Ben Frost my head-scrambling tinnitus disappears inside the album’s ominous, ambient drone. It has been described as “dread-inducing music”, but for me it’s the sound of peace. Sweet relief.
Just saw the film Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, an aging, hard-living country singer/songwriter struggling to still make something of a career, and life, he mostly drank away. Jeff Bridges, looking like a broken-down, washed-up Kris Kristofferson, gives one hell of a performance as a faded country star whose songs come, as he says, from “life, unfortunately.” But as great as the performance is, this is a movie that wouldn’t work without the songs to back up this claim, and the songs in this movie, produced by T Bone Burnett and largely co-written by Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, are note perfect. Title song “The Weary Kind (Theme from ‘Crazy Heart’)” carries the subtle redemption at the emotional core of the story and was written by Ryan Bingham, with Burnett listed as a co-writer. It’s sure to bring some class and quality to the “Best Original Song” Oscar category this year. Check it out…
Bingham, sounding world-weary, honest, and true, sings the version that plays over the credits, but the version in the film itself is sung by Bridges in an appropriately whiskey-soaked and nicotine-stained rasp, as are all of Bad Blake’s country nuggets…
I spent much of 2009 compulsively cataloging new bands to listen to in a notebook, in countless emails to myself, and on random scraps of paper. I miss working at a record store where I was constantly being turned on to music I’d never heard, old and new, by my coworkers, and where I always had the opportunity to crack open a cd and check it out, but the digital age has helped me to compensate. Some sites I check out regularly are Other Music’s website and their weekly updates (every week there’s a write-up of at least one thing, usually more, I might otherwise never have discovered); Aquarius Record’s website (drone music or doom metal anyone?); the Dusted Magazine website (thoughtful reviews with mp3’s); the Aquarium Drunkard website (conversations about music and mp3’s); and Pitchfork (I still check it out daily, despite being increasingly annoyed by the writing).
Consulting my emails and scraps of paper tells me that it has been a great year for music. I’ve discovered far more than I’ve been able to purchase, and in paring down my list I immediately knocked out of contention any album that I didn’t actually add to my collection. I judged the remaining contenders based on the number of repeat listens they inspired, narrowing my list to a Spinal Tappin’ 11. Though this list is one louder than 10, it’s still hopelessly incomplete. In terms of reissues alone, it leaves out crates of new discoveries (39 Clocks, Circuit Rider, Scott Seskind) and old favorites (Big Star box set, long-awaited Neil Young Archives Vol. 1, an official release of Nirvana’s Live at Reading). There’s also plenty of great new music I’ve yet to buy (Califone, Real Estate, Baroness). Finally, because my tastes often lean toward the somber, this list could probably use a pick me up from some good old-fashioned rock and roll, of which there was no shortage this year (Reigning Sound, Spider Bags, the Strange Boys). Anyway, here’s some stuff I liked…
11. Bill Fox – Shelter From the Smoke
An awesome reissue I was turned on to by the folks at Other Music (via their weekly update). It’s full of great folk/pop songs that instantly hooked me. Check out the Other Music review to learn more about this little known gem that deserves to be heard, and that new listeners are sure to love.
It gets called his “Tonight’s the Night” and certainly the cover is inspired by that album, but though it’s a reflective album with a country-tinged vibe, it’s not so dark as that comparison might lead one to believe.
Like Woods, Kurt Vile is another leader of 2009’s lo-fi pack. He had a string of releases this year, but this is the one I ran out and bought. Owing as much to classic rock as to psych influences, it’s a bit like Tom Petty covering Skip Spence.
This album lives up to its name by employing a number of (in)famously broken, restless, and generally badass musicians to save your soul. The cast includes Bonnie Prince Billy, Gibby Haynes, and Jason Pierce, among others, but it is through the voice of primary collaborator Mark Lanegan that this album achieves its dark majesty.
I saw Vic Chesnutt perform in a church in downtown Austin on the last night of the tour for this album — his final public performance, as far as I know. When the band hit their stride the music was sublime and moving, but it was when the rest of the band stepped off stage, leaving Vic to his own devices for a couple of songs, that I was completely lost in a moment that transcended the experience by pulling me wholly into the song itself. A truly great song can do that, and Vic Chesnutt was a truly great songwriter. In the wake of his passing much will be written about the song “Flirted With You All My Life”, a love/hate letter to death, and its undeniable emotional power, but that night at the church in downtown Austin it was “Granny” that moved me to tears. Rest in Peace, Vic.