Wednesday, December 27, 2006

My Top Ten CDs of 2006

This year the constant stream of promo CDs was interrupted, so I had to rely on what I could afford to buy to some extent. And since, like most of us, I tend to buy new releases of artists I like, my list is probably weighted accordingly.

1. Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground
This CD doesn’t quite communicate the revolutionary string band music this band is creating—you’ll have to see them live for a full blast of that—but this band is as exciting and genre-busting as the original David Grisman Quintet or JD Crowe’s New South (with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas). I’m loathe to compare them to the original Blue Grass Boys, Charlie Parker with Dizzy Gillespie, or Hendrix at Monterey Pop, since to do so would throw this paragraph into the hyperbole bin, but the thought has occurred to me. I think you can still almost call this bluegrass, but the interlocking parts are so complex and played with such power and precision, that it’s like no bluegrass you’ve heard before. See this band live and then go home and listen to the CD--closely. What you hear will blow your mind. If it doesn’t, you’re not listening hard enough.

2. Chris Potter, Underground
Chris Potter is probably my favorite instrumentalist at the moment. His apparently inexhaustible store of ideas and flamboyant drive are exhilarating. If I could play a 1/100th of what he’s doing I would be ecstatic. This is a particularly funky example, with an extraordinary band.

3. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
Folk-art-rock as it should be, with just the right mix of hooks and pretension, and references to trad folksong amid the surrealism.

4. Bill Frisell, Further East/ Further West
A download-only expansion on Frisell’s amazing East/West, which was released in 2005. Frisell is simply the best guitarist in the world. Give him a melody and he’ll think of at least a few hundred ways to play it.

5. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
I do miss the pop combo aesthetic of Lewis’s band Rilo Kiley, but with this CD Lewis became one of my favorite pop singer-songwriters, with equal weight given to both of those talents.

6. Andrew Hill, Time Lines
Hill’s quintet makes music like the best (unfortunately, rare) conversation, no canned thoughts, everyone listening and contributing—commenting, interrupting, enlarging, digressing. Modern jazz that is truly free.

7. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Daybreak
I can’t prounounce her name either, but ever since she appeared on Danu’s “The Road Less Traveled” she’s been one of my favorite singers, with a rich, lively, expressive voice and wide-ranging, spot-on choice of material. Unlike a number of traditional Irish singers, when she ventures out of trad waters, she picks great songs, like the Richard Thompson/Tim Finn gem “Persuasion” recorded here.

8. Ralph Towner, Time Line
There is no better solo guitarist on the planet. Towner’s compositions are harmonically rich and melodically surprising, and the fact that he improvises on them in a thematic way is nothing short of astonishing. The continuity and thematic coherence of his music can make it sound a bit new-agey to those who aren’t really paying attention, but as with Thile’s record, close listening will yield rich rewards.

9. Richard Thompson, RT
Just when I thought maybe I had enough Richard Thompson in my collection (ridiculous idea, I know), along comes this box set with 85 amazing tracks I was clearly in need of.

10. The Mammals, Departures
On the band’s third album, old-time and pop influences are perfectly blended to frame Michael Merenda’s political/personal songs.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Best Band in the World Live

Check out these clips of Chris Thile's How to Grow a Band, soon to be called the Tensions Mountain Boys, I think, live in the studio. Go to "Live Performances" and click on Chris Thile. The most inspiring music I've heard lately.

The '80s Once Seemed So Promising

Here's a great Kirsty MacColl song from 1979, evidence of what could have been.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Biking Buddy

Yes, at the age of 12, Josef can drop me on any climb (though I'm getting to be an adequate power climber, it's the longer ones that kill me.) Sixth at Road Nationals in the Time Trial last summer (and Seventh in the road race), he says he's going to get serious about training this year. And that training will start as soon as the rain eases up a bit. Stay tuned.
(photo by Anne Hamersky, as if there's any doubt)

A New Tune

OK, yeah, it's a stupid title, but that usually comes later, right? I wrote this last week in NYC after a night of listening to various amazing fiddle players (Darol Anger, Brittany Haas, Bruce Molsky, Jeremy Kittel, Angella Ahn, Rushad Eggleston, Lauren Rioux) play the weirdest tunes they knew--or at least that seemed to be the theme. They may have just been trying to piss off the guitar player.

NY Times Ten Best Books 2006

The New York Times recently published its ten best books of 2006, a list that I probably take a little too much interest in. I’ve read three of the 2005 Top Ten and four of the 2004 list. (Sometimes I read them before the list comes out, sometimes they’re already on my “books to read” list.) So something tells me that the collective taste in fiction at the NY Times Book Review is not too different from mine, for better or worse.
At any rate, this year, not a single book in my own Top Ten is on the NYT list (and there’s only one book on my “to read” list: Marissa Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” Richard Ford might have been, but I’ve never developed a taste for his brand of suburban macho depression. Of course my list is a little different, since I have fewer titles to consider, as I only read 11 entire books. So I’ll simply rank the 11 books I read in their entirety this year. (I did start two books that I don’t intend to finish and I’m currently in the middle of a couple of others--possible candidates for next year’s list.) You’ll also notice that many of them were not published this year.

1. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk
I added this and The Windup Bird Chronicle to my “Best Books of All Time” list this year. The Black Book was published in paperback for the first time this year, and it is stunning, though not for everyone. Chapters alternate between the plot and newspaper columns written by one of the other main characters, who has disappeared, along with the main character’s wife. The book is often best digested a chapter at a time. But Pamuk’s descriptions of Istanbul and his interwoven threads, including references to Sufism and its adherents are magical and profound.

2. The Windup Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
I’ve recently discovered the wondrous Murakami (what took me so long), and I’m still not sure what’s going on in his world, but I wouldn’t mind living there for awhile to find out.

3. On Beauty, Zadie Smith
Smith is indisputably the best of the young crop of post-modern writers along with David Foster Wallace, who doesn’t really qualify as young anymore, and this is her best yet (third time’s the charm).

4. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
5. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Two classics I had never read. Austen and Capote write English sentences better than just about anyone, and their plots never flag. Is there really any higher praise?
Sometimes one of the best things about movie adaptations of great books is that they inspire you to read or reread the books they are based on. “Capote” and the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice were both excellent, enjoyable movies, but I’m most thankful that they got me to read these two amazing books.

6. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

7.The Plot Against America, Phillip Roth
8. Terrorist, John Updike
Two books by “The Great Whites” inspired by current events. I admit I haven’t read much by Roth or Updike, and although these are probably not their best, as most people know, they both can write masterfully, devise intriguing plots that sometimes strain credulity, and entertain.

9. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris
Yes, I’d read many of these stories before (or heard them on his delightful live CD), but one can never have too much Sedaris.

10. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
Along with her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, Krauss is one of the most inventive young PoMos, and a joy to read. I’m hoping she has a “great book” in her, but this is not it.

11. Brookland, Emily Barton
An interesting disappointment. A brilliant idea—a young woman in post-Revolutionary War Brooklyn devises a plan to build a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. But Barton drowns her book in detail and anachronistic feminism, and her sympathetic well-drawn characters never quite recover.

First Post

Welcome to my blog.
I have finally joined the blog world, inspired by the opportunity to communicate more than just words about my favorite things. So you can expect music, interviews, photos (and not just snapshots but the amazing work--if I do say so myself--of my favorite photographer, Anne Hamersky), and anything else I dream up. Topics will probably revolve around music, literature, photography, cycling, and politics (although I tend to be in the "don't get me started" school of political ranting).
OK, this welcome note is starting to feel stupid, but I thought I should post something like this. Now on to more substantive stuff.