Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1.Wednesday’s album is #909:
Nina Nastasia – The Blackened Air
This album was recorded before 9/11, but released shortly thereafter, it made a potent soundtrack for a city, and an era, reeling from the impact and braced for the worst. Conventional wisdom is that Nastasia’s classic album is her 2000 debut, Dogs, and while its songs are wrenchingly vivid, this one’s the counterintuitive choice. Nastasia’s lyrics on Dogs were like a Weegee lens, sardonic portraits of dissolution, disillusion and sometimes despair, perfectly suited to her matter-of-factly plaintive, sometimes biting vocals. Here they tend to observe from a few hundred feet, often achieving a towering angst equal to Pink Floyd or the other great art-rockers. Backed by a brilliant band including Bowie collaborator Gerry Leonard on guitar, Dylan Willemsa on viola, Stephen Day on cello, Joshua Carlebach on accordion and Jay Bellerose on drums, Nastasia alternates between starkly bucolic minimalism, eerie miniatures and hypnotic pitchblende atmospherics. She’s never made a bad record: her other albums Run to Ruin and You Follow Me (a 2007 collaboration with Jim White of the Dirty Three) are closer to the vibe of Dogs and very much worth getting to know – ideally with the lights out.
By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.
“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.
Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.
The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.
Every day, we count down the best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #910:
Jenifer Jackson – The Outskirts of a Giant Town
Quietly and methodically, Austin songwriter Jenifer Jackson has built an eclectic and pantheonic catalog of songs. She started out as a teenager in Boston playing loud guitar rock, moved to New York and released the classic 1999 album Slowly Bright, a masterpiece of bossa nova tinged, Beatlesque psychedelia. Birds, in 2001 followed, stark and Americana-inflected, followed by a prized limited edition album of Brazilian and latin covers, the psychedelic pop of 2004’s So High and then her greatest one so far, The Outskirts of a Giant Town (reviewed here in 2007). Jackson’s gentle yet worldly, wounded voice, her gemlike lyrics and an even broader mix of styles take centerstage here: the wrenching Beatlesque ballad Saturday, the jaunty tropicalia of Suddenly Unexpectedly, the Philly-style soul of I Want to Start Something, the bitter noir Americana of Dreamland and the shapeshifting garage rock of For You. And from the look of the material she’s been working up live over the past year, the follow-up to this one promises to be every bit as diverse and enchanting.
Here’s this week’s version of what Billboard should be paying attention to: we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone, sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. If you don’t like one of these, you can always go on to the next one. Every link here will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.
1. The Larch – Strawberry Coast
Brooklyn new wave revival – but smart new wave revival. This has Squeeze overtones – and big brother watching on the spycam. From the band’s best album, the brand-new Larix Americana.
2. The Notekillers – Papers
This was avant composer David First’s instrumental noise/surf/punk band, a proto Sonic Youth circa 1981. This is a twisted surf tune; the band is back together and reputedly as energized as ever.
3. Dark Dark Dark – Wild Go
Tersely haunting and Radiohead-esque, live on Minneapolis TV. Thanks to Jamie of the Brooklyn What for the link!
4. Tris McCall – Sugar Nobody Wants
Expert tunesmithing and wordsmithing – this one’s a tribute to trespassing, which is always fun especially if you live somewhere that’s really boring.
5. Wintersleep – Black Camera
The Auteurs as done by Sloan in 7/8 time.
6. Ocote Soul Sounds – Tu Fin, Mi Comienzo
Dub cumbia! Yum! Like Chicha Libre but trippier.
7. Not Waving But Drowning – The Drowned Man’s Ball
Menacing, dramatic noir cabaret, like the Dresden Dolls but better.
8. These New Puritans – ???
Scroll down to the “live on the BBC” clip – trancey percussion driven chamber rock with a woodwind section!
9. The Giving Tree Band – Early to Bed
Bluegrass/Americana with a message: night owls unite! Free download.
10. Low Society – Girls Puke For Free
German hardcore band singing what could be an anthem for the entire Lower East Side now that the tourists have taken over.