Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sound of Wood... and Metal, and Plastic, and Fiberglass.

Every year at this time, it gets a little quieter in 99% of America. 

There's a bit less noise polluting the atmosphere over the vast majority of the landscape for about four days during the middle of January. No; it's nothing to do with bus drivers going on strike or it being too cold for construction crews to work. It's because this is the time during which an astounding number of musicians with advanced technical facility all descend at once on Anaheim, California for the annual NAMM Convention. The purpose of NAMM is to assemble all the companies who manufacture and sell instruments, amplifiers, accessories, and any other music-related product, so they can unveil their new releases to everyone else in the industry.

NAMM is a good thing, because it stimulates the economy of the music business in one of the only sectors left that still actually MAKES money; the instruments and gear sector. As all the intangible aspects of the field have their value slowly decimated (recorded music, live performance, education, etc), this area has been keeping pace with modern technology and thriving. After all, most of the things sold in this sphere are… THINGS; tangible, physical objects -- and we as a society still perceive those as having value. 

The joke is on us; you can't put a price on real musical knowledge and ability, and we're so ignorant of that, and yet it costs almost nothing to make most of the cheap assembly-line instruments and the metal and plastic boxes with circuit boards we gladly pay hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for.

The musician's "urge to have STUFF" is even more pervasive because of the internet. Now when people buy stuff, they can post pictures of it on forums and brag… about how they now OWN STUFF. This tends to incite envy in others of a similar temperament, who promptly seek out more gear themselves. Bass players in particular seem to love this to the point of neurosis, and it is maddening, because so few people who fit the gear-hoarding personality type can actually PLAY worth a damn. 

(all pics from actual forums - I have no idea if the respective owners are capable players; I only know that this sort of thing encourages others to do the same, which leads to widespread cases of bass owners who can't play)

I am not making this up; I have traveled around the world, speaking and performing at events centered around the selling of music products, and everywhere I have gone, I've met so many people who spend so much money on accumulating basses, amplifiers, processors, pedals, and gear….  and any of them would set themselves on fire before they would ever pay for a single lesson to learn how to actually make any of it *sound good*.

Here's the thing: changing the SOUND you play with does not change your inherent understanding of music. Stepping on an envelope filter pedal may suddenly give you the attack you're looking for to make the syncopated line you're playing really sit where you want it to in a mix…  but buying that pedal will not teach you to syncopate. There are legions of bitter would-be-funkateers who thought that dropping a few hundred bucks on a slew of stomp boxes would turn them into Bootsy Collins… but whose eyes gloss over at the idea of being asked to COUNT in time with a song. 

This is a tough situation for everyone, because most of the people I'm describing are aware of, and on some level are embarrassed about, their disproportionate gear-to-ability ratio. Embarrassing them publicly isn't the answer; it only makes them defensive and more stand-offish about taking steps towards learning.

So think about it, gear-hounds: make 2014 the year you DON'T spend hundreds of dollars on a new instrument for your temperature-and-humidity-controlled collection room. Consider spending that money instead on some personal music instruction. With services like Lessons via Skype (through YOURS TRULY, among others), you never have to leave your house, and nobody needs to know you're taking lessons. Justify owning all that stuff by backing it up with some real ability. You'll feel amazing when you create quality music, and you'll appreciate your gear more when you know you can use it as it was intended.

Food for thought. :]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Seth's Top Picks of 2013

Happy New Year!

Although I started this blog as an outlet for my observations on music education, it has become the primary outlet for my opinions, so I figured I'd post my annual Top Picks list here. 

The annual disclaimer: I am passionate about music, and I respond to music that sounds passionate. That excludes a lot of the over compressed mainstream crap from the modern radio airwaves. If thats what you enjoy, you may not recognize much here.... but you will probably like something listed here much more than the crap on said airwaves. 

It's really getting bad, radio is.  Unless you live in a market with one or more large university radio stations, it's very difficult to hear anything modern of quality. In most cases, you can hear the "hits of the 80's, 90's, and today", or you can hear the mainstream pop crap, the mainstream rock crap, or the mainstream country crap. Maybe some NPR if you're lucky. It is a ROUGH time for modern music, and the Grammy awards, after showing such promise last year, have really gone to the dark side with their most recent nominations. Word of mouth is what will keep good music growing, so I propose we all make a resolution to start talking about it when we hear it at every opportunity.

I am sure some of my annual readers will find some surprises here, and that's a good thing. Contrary to what many must think by now, I really do listen to more than folk, pop, and rock… and the current state of folk, pop, and rock is such that I found myself seeking asylum in other provinces with increasing frequency. 

So here's to listening outside our comfort zones, and to shunning most corporate radio!

(Oh, and to listen to a release, click on the picture or the title, and it'll take you to either iTunes or Bandcamp.)

1. Foy Vance - Joy Of Nothing         

It's a songwriter's burden to write something that captures the listener, and there are a few ways to do that. One way is to "turn a phrase", but in a world inhabited by more and more cliches as time goes on, that becomes harder and harder to do - to say something in a way that few, if any, have said it before. Another way is to simply let whatever sentiment that is fueling the lyric bleed through and drench every word, to the point where people who have no experience whatsoever with the meaning of the song are living vicariously through the singer, hanging on every syllable; rapt. The Greatest of The Great are those who have been able to do both of these things at the same time. Count Foy Vance among the Greatest of The Great.

It's also not enough to deliver a meaningful lyric; a songwriter also needs to do something that is increasingly glossed over these days: they must compose gripping MUSIC to accompany their words. All too often, otherwise powerful lyricists are just awful at this, and all too often, musicians capable enough to construct moving chord progressions are not the most eloquent with language. It's rare to find someone who understands both ends of the craft who can also actually HANDLE them. Again, Foy Vance is the goods.

I found out about Foy back in 2006. My friend Kent Miura (who had a hand in recording some songs on the "Happenstance" EP) had made me a mix CD of music he'd discovered. There was a song on that disc called "Indiscriminate Act of Kindness" that stunned me and brought me to my knees every time I listened to it… and still does to this day, actually. It was by this obscure artist from Northern Ireland with a voice that, when calm, was fragile and angelic like the best Irish tenors you've ever heard, but when he opened up and let it roar, was dramatically brassy and gritty… like equal parts young Van Morrison and young Mick Jagger …and Donny Hathaway.  This guy could make that voice go from one extreme to the other so suddenly that it would literally command your emotions. It's a voice like few others I've ever heard.

As fate would have it, not even a few weeks after discovering Vance's music, I was slated to play in Glasgow, Scotland, the same day he was playing at a pub down the street from my hotel. It was one of the most amazing and electrifying performances I have ever witnessed, and I spent a small fortune in roaming charges so that I could call Kent and hold the phone up for a couple tunes (this was before every phone on Earth took video).  Afterwards I feebly approached Mr. Vance, muttered some shell-shocked, incoherent attempt at a compliment, and bought a few copies of each of his EPs. I was actually fawning; a complete fanboy, but he was soft-spoken and gracious, and said he was hoping to come to the States some day soon.

In all that time, "Joy Of Nothing" is only the second full-length album Vance has released, though there have been a number of independent EPs and singles along the way. No matter - I'd wait as long as it took if every record sounded as fantastic as this one. It is a powerful experience; the diary of a broken man mending. 

The opening punch of "Closed Hand, Full Of Friends" is a heart-pounding vow to perservere in the face of adversity; it's followed by the title track, a gorgeous exploration of melancholy, and then by "At Least My Heart Was Open", the confessional in which Vance tells the story of his trouble. Once you're in this far, it's nearly impossible to stop listening. Song after song, the record reveals moment after golden moment. "It Was Good" contains a chorus that, every time I hear it, I get that feeling as though I'm at a crowded venue full of talking people, when suddenly, a voice silences everyone instantly. The deeper I get into the song, it keeps happening; first because of the melody he sings, then because of how he sings it in that vulnerable part of his voice that is so fragile, and then, because of what it means. By the chorus of "Regarding Your Lover", I am slack-jawed. It is humbling to hear a humble man come to terms with being done wrong this way. The album closes with "Guiding Light", a song equal parts anthem and hymn, bittersweet and hopeful, balanced and classic, and featuring young Ed Sheeran on guest vocals. In an album of beautiful moments, it's an exceptional closing moment. 

Foy embodies the passion of music making - like he's a bomb filled with the secrets of the universe, and whether he's only leaking his contents slowly, hinting at what he's capable of, or whether he's alight and seconds from exploding, the reaction is the same; you are frozen, gaping, awestruck and just letting it wash over you. 

2. Dawes - Stories Don't End         

I wrote this in my journal awhile back… I think I was sitting in a corporate coffeehouse, or someplace where I had been inundated with a mix of artists who all sounded exactly the same:

When people reference "The Laurel Canyon Sound", they usually intend it to be a compliment. At one time it probably meant "sounding lush and well-recorded, with respect for the power of the lead vocal and each instrument's range and place in the sonic spectrum".  What it has come to mean today, very unfortunately, is "aspiring to sound like a Jackson Browne record, only with an absence of any relevant lyrical content and performed at too slow a tempo to be engaging, with a heavy reliance on the four chord and the overuse of delay."

…so there you go; full disclosure: I generally haven't been a big fan of recent records with this kind of production. So what would it take to make a band that has embraced it land this high on my list?  I mean, I didn't lose a bet or anything. I dig this album intensely. It's excellent.

For starters, it would take their album sounding "Laurel Canyon-ish" according to the first definition from my journal entry, and "Stories…" absolutely does. While I get the sense that this is the sound of four guys playing together in a room, it sounds lush, vast; it breathes, and yet kicks you in the chest when it's supposed to. I suspect that this is courtesy of mega-producer Jacquire King, and if that's the case, he should have every California band lining up for him to work with from now on. When I complain (as I frequently do) about how so many records sound "over-compressed", I suppose I should counter my complaint with an ideal solution. This album sounds beautiful.

There is also plenty of tempo variation (even a healthy variety of grooves to enjoy), harmonic variation (clever and captivating songwriting, even), and as far as lyrical content goes… Wow. Taylor Goldsmith is the young writer to watch. The album title references stories, and they are here in abundance, perfectly written, and telling the tale of a bittersweet period of his life. Goldsmith may not even be pushing thirty yet, but he comes across as timeless. From the jaded deadpan delivery of "Just My Luck" to the resigned poetry of the title track, it's been awhile since I've heard anyone 'new' with writing chops this good.

He spends a fair amount of his time in the lower part of his range, an everyman sort of "I should really stop smoking"-tenor-on-its-way-to-baritone. He reminds me a bit of Aimee Mann with his phrasing and sense of melody (and that is wonderful to hear in a male singer). But this all belies the power he's capable of when he belts it out; you just have to wait for it. This is a record full of stories, and it's front-loaded with songs that benefit from this kind of delivery… but by the time we get to the middle, during an unguarded, soaring anthem called "Bear Witness", Goldsmith finally lets go, and it's majestic.

The band is serious; the sound is of players who've leveled up to the point where their throwaway jams sound better than the effort-laden opuses of those with lesser powers. Bands playing Americana-styled songwriter-rock do NOT have to sound loose, generic, uninspired, and boring-as-shit. This is proven here by the wickedly up-tempo "From A Window Seat", the playful quasi-country antics of "Someone Will", and the fantastic loping groove of "Most People". Equally captivating is the way they respect the space of mid-tempo songs and ballads like "Just My Luck" and "Something In Common" while still maintaining a groove. It's a large part of what sets Dawes apart from so many also-rans. 

This is the sort of album -- the quality of writing, production, and delivery -- that I miss and still want from an Elvis Costello, a Paul Simon, or a Paul McCartney. This is how a classic approach is supposed to come across in a modern context. Highly recommended.

So many groups that go "on hiatus" and reform years later sound too far removed from the sound that once defined them… too far to be embraced again by old fans, anyway. I'm torn when this happens - shouldn't great artists be allowed to grow when we're not looking?

…and yet, we've earned our disillusionment. So many acts seem to re-unite simply to cash in, and the material sounds trite, forced, like a half-ass collection of dusty B-sides from bygone days. It's got to be a tough task to make your mark as a band, split up, grow as individuals, and then come back together with any sort of commercial aim without feeling like you're faking it. 

And Toad really does sound genuine here, which I respect the hell out of. In their early 90's heyday, this band pulled the unprecedented for me -- they released not ONE "desert island" worthy album, but two in a row. They were so influential for so many musicians, with such a mature sound for that era, and not many people realized how young they were; when "Dulcinea" was ruling my universe at age 20, I had no idea that Glen Phillips was only 23. Thinking about that now is intimidating as hell. Had I known, I might have hung it up.

So it's nearly TWENTY YEARS later. How can these guys win in this situation? How can they satisfy their nostalgia-yearning fanbase if they don't rehash their history, and how can they satisfy themselves if they do? Phillips has released a few strong solo albums in the interim (2005's "Winter Pays For Summer" is beyond excellent); but he is NOT the same writer he was two decades ago. His music commands a different kind of attention now. So will playing with his old band make him suddenly "sound more familiar"?

No, because Todd, Randy, and Dean have all grown and become more sophisticated as well.  Everyone's style is still there in essence, but the only element on "New Constellation" that truly smacks of "Old Toad"…

…is the actual smacking of drums provided by Randy Guss. So many drummers would overplay these songs, but that was never his hallmark; the thing that strikes me about him is that he always seems to play as if he's actually listening to the words. That may seem like a stupidly obvious thing to say, but anyone who's ever played in a band will understand how rare it is for a drummer. He has continually amazed me since the beginning with his restraint and taste, and it's beautiful to hear him again on these recordings. Todd Nichols is a hundred times the guitarist he once was, playing with a palette of tones and textures he never touched in the 90's, and his voice has a strength now that was missing in his younger days (his lead vocal on "Life Is Beautiful" is excellent). Dean Dinning's bass fills up an entirely different part of the spectrum in these new mixes, and while he's still stamping each song with his penchant for clever voice-leading, he's developed a healthy respect for laying it down more solidly than before. The band as a whole is as epic as ever, but the sound is thicker; Toad 2.0 has more "oomph". Phillips on his own leans a bit towards melancholy twang, and Toad is like a dopamine injection to counteract that.  

There are a few songs that give me the feeling that they're intended to be plastic-sounding "LA" glossy schlock rock, but these guys can't ever seem to commit to anything that milquetoast. Good for them. Besides, there's more than enough honesty in the collection as a whole to compensate for any small bit of smarm. Their vocal harmonies - whether in soaring call-and-response as on "I'll Bet On You" or in dramatic, dense stacks as on "The Moment" and "Is There Anyone Out There" - are reminders that as much as it was tried; as easy as it seemed to duplicate… NOBODY ELSE EVER SOUNDED LIKE THIS. Everyone who tried either sounded too country, too folky, or too praise-and-worship-y. It's just not doable except with this weird combination of fortunate dudes.

Toad's strategy was always that Glen tricked you into listening to heart-stopping stories while the band drove up the intensity until you cried. I won't give away where it happens, but with this they got me at least half a dozen times. Twenty years later, this band is every bit as poignant. Damn. No easy feat at all.

As much as I favor the "heavy listen" when judging a record, there is absolute merit in creating something great that isn't an emotionally draining experience. The idea that I'd want to listen to a record again as soon as it's over is a wondrous and rare thing, and it's right here.

Trapper seems like one of those Elton John-style pop geniuses who comes up with a hook every morning at breakfast; he makes it sound so effortless. His ability to connect familiar bits of classic pop in new ways is beyond refreshing. It's really wonderful to hear someone who loves this music actually exploring the form, doing it well, and not coming off as overly indulgent. There is only one song on the entire 17-track album that's longer than four minutes, and in most cases, this helps achieve the eternal goal of making you want to listen again. 

Trapper has a deceptively great voice. He has a rich baritone, and his hallmark is his conversational delivery, and that's the trick: his melodies hit you with no pretense, nearly hiding just how much skill he has as a singer until he ramps it up and fires the big guns. The record's numerous anthems ("Northwest Sun", "All Of This And Everything", "Top Of The Sky")  find him at his peak, soaring, riffing, and harmonizing like a madman.

"Werewolf In Times Square" and "For The Wondering" are Trapper at his utmost, epitomizing the syncopated, witty and wry jangly-folk-pop-with-a-funky-backbeat that Trapper has made his calling card for well over a decade, and I can't figure out why he buried these gems towards the end of such a lengthy album; their placement far exceeds the attention span of at least half the listening public, and though they immediately come to my mind when I think of this record, I doubt they even appear on the radar of most casual listeners.

Trapper also includes a few songs that take their cue from the pop music of close to a century ago… though each is stamped with a modern context leaving no room for doubt as to who, or what era they belong to. The album's title track is an easy-going homage to classic hawaiian slack-key guitar, while the banjo and pedal steel-driven "Bye Bye Beautiful" is a perfectly understated piece of tongue-in-cheek snark.

As mentioned previously, the collection contains 17 tracks, and short though the songs may be, that's… well, it's a bit long. I sort of understand why Trapper did this. CDs are rapidly approaching extinction; there's no telling what the landscape will be like by the time he has another batch of songs ready to release…. so why not just pack the thing full, "in case this is it", right? It doesn't impact the price of the album, but for what it's worth, I find myself skipping over "West Side", "Sober For A Living", "Waving As I Go", and "From The Ashes" on my many, many listens, which leaves me with a 13-track pop gem worthy of anyone's Top Five.

Thirty-somethings are constantly releasing music that deals with their mid-life crises, and most of them are very concerned with presenting the impression that despite the constant feeling of loss and impending mortality… they GOT this. With a wink and a nudge, they tell us, "this would bother a less clever person than me".  That will never work again, now that David Peters has pulled back the curtain on what that period really feels like, pulling no punches, waxing only slightly poetic; instead opting to bluntly spell out what's up: he's getting older; he's reminiscing about the youth that only recently seemed like it was still happening; he's wondering if he'll be alone for long; he's missing people in his life who already seemed to have moved on; he's wondering what happens now that everything he predicted has turned out differently…

…and in my life, I've never met anyone who, speaking honestly, doesn't identify with ALL of this.

The soundscapes are as majestic as anything Peters has ever offered (and for those who don't know, that is *quite* majestic) -- lush strings, brass choirs, bells, and organs complement Peters' layers of smooth, breathy vocals, underpinned by rattling snare ostinatos and his ever-present, hypnotic, glassy acoustic guitar strumming. It's a sound one can lose oneself in without trying.

"The Brightest Parade On Earth" is my Song of the Year. It deserves its own slot on this list, and the fact that it is couched in an album filled with similarly strong material makes it a must for your listening consideration. It's the best song ever written about Los Angeles… but it's more than that. Peters has found a way to encapsulate what it feels like to live there and PUT it into this song. I remember the year of my life I spent absorbing LA in a wild fast-forward montage every time this song's four minutes-and-ten-seconds wash over me. I'm not the only one this happens to. It's official - Peters has tapped into something universal here.

I've said many times that certain albums would have been better if they were shorter; that the artist should have had the vision to unclutter their offering, and in doing so, make that offering stronger. This is an example of why that works. "The Drug Of Dreams", while clocking in at just over a half-hour, consists of only seven songs; seven perfectly framed sonic paintings entirely worthy of your time and attention.

Do not adjust your screen. I am indeed Seth Horan, and I am indeed endorsing an album of heavy progressive music as one of the best of the year. This is not a prank; not a hoax; not an experiment of any kind. I just think this album is fantastic.  For those squinting and/or scratching their heads, I submit the following:

-Most modern progressive/heavy acts are big on the math of musicianship without paying attention to the emotional element. By that I mean that most sound like they take far more pride in being perfectly in time with a metronome rather than producing a sound that would make a listener FEEL anything. Even the bands trying to be "angry" screw this up. TesseracT's album stunned me from the first note, and held me through my entire first listen. Sure; by their very nature, a progressive rock band is going to play in some uncommon time signatures, but as proven here, that does not have to be jittery and annoying as hell. It can be captivating and relevant to the feeling being conveyed by the piece. Furthermore, drummer Jay Postones is great about providing a recognizable pulse no matter what meter he's pulverizing, which is often an adrenalin-charging, mind-melting experience.

-Many modern progressive/heavy acts feel the need to "be metal" …ALL the TIME. Snore. Dynamics are an essential part of a musical experience, and only doing one thing over and over again sucks just as much if you're Katy Perry as it does if you play rock with distorted guitars. Instead of making me feel like I'm being shelled by a thousand cannons for fifty minutes, TesseracT actually build tension throughout their songs… sometimes the drums wait a few MINUTES before they come in. The guitars aren't always ripping my face off - quite often they're swathed in layers of ethereal effects and synths.  It's wonderful and yes, occasionally weird and brutal. But it's a journey; NOT a volley of artillery.

-Most modern progressive/heavy acts have severe shortcomings in the vocal department. Not a lot of promising vocalists gravitate towards the genre because historically, there have not been many great songs to sing here.  The best vocalists offered to date are mostly metal-warrior-holdovers or nasally, auto-tune-dependant whiners... or screamers. Ack.  But Ashe O'Hara (this band's recently acquired singer) is so refreshing…  he's one of the most gifted vocalists I've ever heard gracing the microphone of a band this potentially aggressive. At times it's like hearing a gifted, silky R&B tenor cascading down a waterfall of evil riffing.  And it never sounds contrived or inappropriate. The guy is ridiculous - his resolutely "un"-metal timbre is the best thing to happen to metal in forever. By track six, "Eclipse", when he finally lets go with wailing high notes, it's the most pleasant kind of shock.

-They used a SAXOPHONE. Saxophone on a progressive metal album. Boom. You don't know until you've heard it.

Some may find it odd, but on more than one occasion I am reminded of Seal's first two albums, occasionally I hear King's X, occasionally I hear Porcupine Tree, occasionally I hear Imogen Heap, occasionally I hear Tool, occasionally I hear that album Buckethead did with Bootsy, occasionally I hear old-school Genesis, occasionally I hear stuff that sounds like it's from the Blue Man Group or Cirque du Soleil. Occasionally, I hear Enya.  Yes. Enya.  And then there's that saxophone I mentioned. Yes; it's metal, and yes; it's great music. The two were mutually exclusive for awhile… but no longer. Your curiosity is eating you alive, I can tell. Go ahead; iTunes sells the whole album for six bucks. Check this out. 

Moho is an instrumental trio, but the size of the sonic pie these three bake together seems much larger than the sum of the parts they're playing, which is a sure sign of an excellent ensemble. In general, a lot of vocal-less compositions miss the mark when it comes to balancing "engaging" and "palatable"; most either register as "too weird" or "background music"… but somehow Moho has struck a nerve with a large number of 'normal people', and are bringing a dynamic, rhythmic, ethnically flavored succotash of sounds to a wider audience. It's far more challenging than your average two-chord jam-fodder, yet never wanders off the reservation far enough to be labeled "jazz", and the group's enthusiasm for the music of other hemispheres constantly keeps things fresh.

I started hearing about MoHo almost immediately after relocating to Upstate NY back in 2011. They currently reign supreme on the jam band circuit here, and that's saying something; it's a strong circuit. Their self-titled 2011 release got to my ears in late December of that year; had I heard it sooner, it absolutely would've been on that year's list. I got to open for them last year in their home town of Rochester, and it was one of my favorite shows in recent memory; not just for me, but because I got to experience them live -- an experience that is, for lack of a better word, rad. 

Fair warning: "Annica" is a grower, not a show-er; this is music best assimilated during an active listening session, like an hour-long drive when you're alone in the car. Music made with vocals tends to eschew finesse of performance for the sake of supporting the lyrics… but when there are no lyrics, there's a whole world of nuances that all the instruments can explore. There's not a lot of instrumental, non-jazz music out there that I label as "excellent". If you're looking for more "instrumental excellent" in your life, Moho Collective is the place to start.

8. John Mayer - Paradise Valley          

Was anyone else as surprised by this album? After last year's "Born And Raised" was awkwardly/politely ignored, and after Mayer had to cancel that album's tour to finally heal his vocal chords, the last thing I expected was another record the very next year…

…which begs the question: is "Paradise Valley" a souped-up collection of leftovers, slapped together in the rush of career recovery?

Well… No.  Like I said: Surprising.

It's the mellowest thing Mayer has ever released, and coming on the heels of B&R, that's saying something. His last outing featured a heavy country influence, but this album features actual country SONGS… not country like you'd recognize from today's airwaves, though (I mean, listening to these songs won't make you feel stupid, which seems to be the defining feature of the genre nowadays). Some of these arrangements could have been at home backing up Hank Williams or George Jones in their prime, and in fact "Call Me The Breeze" is an old JJ Cale tune, and that definitely counts as 'quasi-country'. "You're No One Till Someone Lets You Down", "Give Me My Badge And Go", and "On The Way Home" are as authentic-country as it gets, with only Mayer's obvious yankee inflections to keep them on the pop side of the line. 

"Paper Doll" and "Who You Love" are really the only purely pop offerings here, and from what I can tell, these are the two songs that have been promoted. While these tunes are as good as anything else on the record, I sort of wish they'd acknowledge just how far outside "pop rock" Mayer is exploring. I really like this country-style on Mayer; it brings out honesty in his writing, and it brings his excellent guitar playing to the fore. He's always been an ace player, but kept most of it in check on his early releases to serve the songs. In this setting, the song is almost done a disservice if there's no guitar lead, so he can stretch out, and does so consistently and with grace and taste. Here's to two in a row from this guy, and to him keeping his voice this time.

9. The Winery Dogs               

WHOOO-HOOOOOOOO…..   super-rock supergroup alert. Billy Sheehan, Ritchie Kotzen, and Mike Portnoy all rocking at the same time. ROCK!  Rock rock rock. Dang.

Okay. So I gave up on "rock" awhile back, because "rock" music carries a stigma. When "rock" is a verb, I'm still very much a fan of it, but as a noun, it has come to mean "music which embraces bombast and cliche with no sense of irony" - and that goes for both the instrumental and lyrical components. A sub-genre of rock did develop that claims to address these issues for listeners like me. It's called "progressive", or "prog rock", and while prog does indeed embrace a wider dynamic range and tends more towards the esoteric than the common, it has its own problems -- it tends to become a vehicle for self-indulgence and virtuosity, and also tends to totally bypass anything that most people would enjoy actually LISTENING TO. When musicians who claim to "rock" start getting self-indulgent with the virtuosity, that is very often when I reach for the "off" button or head for the door, and when three of the most virtuosic musicians in the world get together to rock, there is potential for disaster.

That said: Somehow, these guys nailed it. No matter how you like your rock, there's something for you here. This is what a power-rock trio should sound like. As the opening track to this record first blasted out of my speakers, these were my thoughts as my mind was quickly mushified by the adrenaline and testosterone rushes that followed...

- That's Mike Portnoy on drums?  Holy crap - that does NOT sound like a carefully processed, over-compressed piece of plastic. And there is so much SPACE! He's actually playing parts that support other instruments, as opposed to it sounding like the band is there to accentuate his non-stop drum fills. I'm not used to Portnoy making great judgement calls like this.

- That's Ritchie Kotzen singing??  Holy crap - His upper register is like Chris Cornell's voice from twenty years ago... which is cool, because as I mentioned last year, Chris doesn't even have that anymore.  Did not see that coming.  Definitely intriguing enough to listen further.

- That is, of course, Billy Sheehan on bass; no question. Billy is unmistakable on pretty much every record he's ever played on, and his blues-rock-on-steroids writing style is instantly recognizable (he and Ty Tabor [of King's X fame] were the first dudes to let me know that minor 7 chords could be awesome outside of funk and jazz). Oh, and he's one of the first and biggest musical inspirations of my life.  So there's that.

Between the stupidly pedantic and overwrought cliches of most riff-rock and the shred-wank-arbitrary-time-signature-nightmare of so much soulless prog, there is actually a ton of unexplored territory, and I can only hope that a new generation of aspiring rock musicians gets a taste of what bands like this can do before they subscribe to the awful belief that there's a limit to how far one can take a song and still call it "blues-influenced", or that there's some kind of note-quota that needs to be fulfilled before one can think of a piece of music as "progressive". This, simply put, is how to rock.

10. Blue October - Sway              

Imagine a voice that embodies all the guttural beauty of Peter Gabriel and Bob Mould. Now imagine that voice on a guy at least twenty years younger; a bit more in touch with his sensitive side. Now put that guy in front of The Cure as they were in the early 90's, and imagine that they somehow got to listen to a bunch of Elbow records. Here's the important part: hire this group to provide the soundtrack to a bunch of 80's movies. You've got Blue October; the new generation's melancholy rock anthem saviors.

Justin Furstenfeld is most of the reason I dig this band. His voice is a constant point of angst-ridden tension. He's an amazing vocalist, and he just INHABITS these songs… which while formulaic, somehow capture me.  He's beyond melodramatic, but he gets away with it because he channels so much honesty. His range is fantastic, and when he pours it on, his impeccably voiced harmonies recall Guy Garvey. Then he layers his vocals in octaves and sounds like a chorus of Ozzy Osbournes....   and then he suddenly whispers to deliver a line... and you hear his voice; his raspy, wounded, normal voice. For all the power he can deliver, he can pull it all back and be totally vulnerable. 

These choruses are undeniable, these hooks are so solid, that I can easily forget that I'm listening to an over-compressed corporate modern-rock record. You've heard sentiments like those found in these songs before; they are definitely not without cliche, but when JF sings lines like, "Can you feel my heart beating underneath these stars? You're the angel that came and took these clouds away"… I believe him without question. No, seriously. I buy it; every word. Not many people can pull that off. He is a case study in how important the honesty of a singer's delivery is to a song. He could sing random definitions out of the dictionary and you'd be convinced his life was on the line -- that there wasn't a moment to spare, and that your attention was NEEDED. He's riveting, and he's got one of the most remarkable voices in modern pop music.

He's not the group's only asset, though. Matt Noveskey's bass playing on this collection is wicked. On every track, it's just perfect pop pocket. Ryan Delahoussaye's violin arrangements are also a key element of these huge, ethereal soundscapes that you can so easily fall into.  I'm pretty sure the drums are sequenced, but I'm not going to get uppity about it. This is great pop music.


Surprised by... 

Daft Punk - The most overhyped and overrated album in recent memory. On the one hand, a whole new generation will now have an appreciation for the iconic and superlatively funky guitar playing of Nile Rogers, who is without question the absolute superstar of this record.  On the other hand, everyone else may as well not have shown up…  including the guys in Daft Punk.

FEMALES  - As you may have noticed, there are no albums by women here this year. That's absurd. I am a through and through music lover, but I'm an idealist and an elitist, and I won't include a female artist here "just to keep things balanced". Every year I always latch on to at least a couple amazing collections by amazing women - an Ani, a Fiona, a Kimbra, a P!nk, a Butterfly… so what gives? I mean, from KT Tunstall to Paramore to Sara Bareilles to Janelle Monae to a dozen more… these albums were anticipated, absorbed, and appreciated… I just wasn't that moved. Come on, ladies - give me a reason to put ten female artists on this list a year from now.

Looking Forward To...

I heard that 2014 will see the release of a piano concerto by Ben Folds. Holy crap. Now THAT... that is exciting. :)