February music review: No time for tea or lemonade.

I am seemingly incapable of writing this post (having tried twice already, and given up) — but tonight I’m just gonna pour the tea and power through. Laziness and distraction are my two best friends right now, right after pots & pans and vegetables sautéing under warm kitchen lights. Garlic butter mushrooms, lentil & tomato curry, linguine with almond-tomato pesto, sour cream pancakes, ginger-carrot dressing on avocado salad. We don’t always choose what fixates us.

(1) Agnes Obel -Philharmonics (5/5)

This quiet Dane’s album was a late entry into my oddball February selection. One of her songs (“Riverside”) was tucked into a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and literally six seconds in, I knew I had to find it and collect it and listen to it about a million times. She uses her piano that effectively.

Surprisingly (or maybe not?), the song isn’t a fluke; about half of the songs on the album are exceptionally pretty. The others are just pretty. Not surprisingly, another Scandinavian has worked her way into my monthly selection. (Denmark is new territory, though!) I’m not sure exactly what makes the northern blondes so musically adept. Civilized society? Snow keeps them inside eight months of the year? Dark forests and northern lights keep the soul fed?

Whatever it is, I hope it doesn’t change. Several of these songs could work their way into the movie I am constantly directing in my head about my post-apocalyptic journey across America. (I guess it’s sort of a knock-off of The Road, now that I think about it, but a little less bleak and with more characters.) And that’s a big honor. Only the really soulful songs get to be included in my montages.

Highlights: The first five songs.

(2) Justin Bieber – My World 2.0 (2/5)

Some things I feel compelled to experience due solely to their cultural significance (read: popularity). This is the sort of whimsy that caused me to read all 498 pages of Twilight over Christmas (my thoughts would have turned into a review, if The Oatmeal hadn’t pretty much covered it). And frankly, by page 300 or so of Twilight, after getting used to its hilariously earnest awfulness, I had the same reaction I’ve had to this Justin Bieber album: it all started in a state of curious fun, sure, but now that we’re involved and I’m sort of immersed somewhere in the middle, it’s getting real dull.

There are a few irritating things about JB. One is that, as a self-respecting 23-year-old, I can’t help but feel a twinge creeped-out by listening to a boy that sounds pre-pubescent singing love songs. For their part, the love songs are mind-numbingly mundane and have all the uniqueness of a trashy reality show or a greasy Chinese buffet. Not that they’re trashy or greasy; nope, they’re plasticky.

A bit disturbingly, I feel something like a older-sisterly approach to the album. I can’t hate it outright or judge it fairly, because I am just so not its intended audience. When I was ten, I had strong opinions on the obviously high-quality lyrics of N’Sync (“It’s tearin’ up my heart when I’m with you/And when we are apart I feel it too”) — and now that I’m grown up, and so is Justin Timberlake, we see that he’s evolved impressively, shaken off his plastic shackles, seems to now have a say in his musical presentation, and can even act. Hopefully Bieber will follow suit. Hopefully “And I’m like, baby, baby, baby! Noo!” won’t be the most meaningful thing he’ll ever end up singing.

Highlights: N/A

(3) Blue Roses – Blue Roses (3/5)

Whew! Already on the third album! Halfway through my tea and this isn’t so bad; hopefully I’ll get to bed before 1am. Or at least 2am? My OCD commitment to alphabetical order means we’re really jumping around here.

Blue Roses is the moniker of English folkie Laura Groves. I fell for “I Am Leaving” six months or so back, and then again when I really was leaving, back in December. The song feels emotionally drained, and so did I at the time. This bit charms me: “When I decided to live the rest of my life from a list of town and cities and populations/My home was silent, my town was hidden somewhere in the dark/And a spark ignited my imagination.”

Blue Roses doesn’t quite capture the catchiness and prettiness that makes Obel’s music glow, but it does stand nicely on its own, guitars and piano and violin entering and leaving, meandering through the album with ease.

Add “I Am Leaving” to your mellow playlist; play the rest of the album one day while you’re half-listening for a little background folk. I could see this as painting music. And maybe it’s raining outside. And you’re wearing something warm that just came out of the dryer.

Highlights: “I Am Leaving”

(4) Black Prairie – Feast of the Hunters’ Moon (4/5)

Hoo boy. The first song on this album — “Across the Black Prairie” — takes almost 30 seconds to really kick in, but when it does, it evokes such Michigan-oriented, bluegrassy images that I almost shiver. I’m talking late October, gently rolling hills with only the slightest grade, graveyards surrounded by corn fields, creepy nineteenth-century churches at night, swimming in rivers and drying off in front of campfires, the crisp, chilly smell of impending winter (because in Michigan, unlike Chicago, you can really smell the seasons).

I realize you weren’t in my past (except you, Gina! Hi!) but I’m just saying, these musicians know their way around the bluegrass sound. It might be the dobro that really kills me. Bluegrass is just such a deeply Midwestern style, and was ever-present enough in Michigan, that I can’t help but feel it on a semi-gut level. And according to Wikipedia (I really do my research, I know), Black Prairie incorporates bits of jazz, klezmer, tango, and Romanian music. And includes THREE Decemberists! (But not Colin Meloy.)

This is not country, but rural music. In some ways, I think, what radio country tried to build its largely soulless empire on. So I would recommend giving Black Prairie a listen if you’ve never been into a small Midwestern town and you’re wondering what’s to this country concept other than pick-up trucks.

Highlights: “Across the Black Prairie,” “Red Rocking Chair,” ”

(5) Bonobo – Black Sands (4/5)

This album cover reminds me of LOST. Which is both a pro because I loved LOST, and also a con, because, UGH, LOST, your ending and entire last season was such a cop-out and you had so much potential and Damon and Carlton should not be allowed to walk the streets free men after taking those hours out of my LIFE.

Moving on. Bonobo is the kind of music that goes with coming home after an hour-long commute to a house in Suburbia and realizing you’re tired and you could make some blah pasta with blah sauce from a glass jar and then watch three hours of television and grind your teeth during commercials and then go to bed feeling like you’ve done nothing and now you have to get up early again with nothing in the day to really call your own.

But instead of doing that you put on Bonobo and get out and dice and sauté a few onions and carrots and pulse some tomatoes and then throw in some lentils and veggie broth and curry powder and while it cooks, you wash some dishes and you don’t really feel tired and put-out anymore because you’re producing something instead of consuming something and Bonobo is filling your ears with pretty string arrangements on soft but complex electricky, warmly jungly rhythms. And cooking feels authentic and soul-satisfying and a little adventurous, too.

Highlights: The “Prelude”/”Kiara”/”Kong” trio, and “Black Sands”

(6) Emeralds – Does it Look Like I’m Here? (2/5)

Finally, a transition that makes sense.

I picked the Emeralds up from a Pitchfork list (Top 100 Albums of 2010), and after listening to one of their songs — not from that album — on a whim (“Passing Away”). While that song was drone-y in a way I quite liked, rather on the periphery of Music I Like, it did not really resemble those on Does It Look Like I’m Here? “Passing Away” features what sounds like a massive swarm of harmoniously buzzing bees indicating the end of the world (actually, this would also make a great addition to my post-apocalyptic movie, like right when the people who have survived come out of their shelter and realize that there has been so much meaningless destruction), but the songs on this album sound like a computer trying to poke me to death with their techy beeps. It is not a sound I enjoy.

I’m not sure how far this statement will take me, but I could see liking this album if I was the sort of person that liked this kind of music. I suppose the computer-generated poking could be taken for a kind of brain-massage; it isn’t harsh, and has a Philip Glassish circa-Koyaanisqatsi flavor. If that’s your thing, dive in. For my part, I prefer PG on the piano, and I prefer Emeralds’ droning, post-apocalyptic contributions to my fake movies far more.

Actually, I think this would be a great listen if you were high.

Highlights: Not a lot of variation, here.

(7) Taylor Swift – Speak Now (3/5)

Alright, so I know I just heaped scorn on mainstream country music. But I like Taylor Swift. And I don’t just mean I like her music — I have a well-spring of affection for the girl herself. I attribute this to a few things: she writes her own music and plays her own instruments, meaning that even though she’s youngish and relentlessly popular, she maintains some artistic merit, and from the interviews I’ve seen, she’s so darn sweet. Sweetness — an earnest approach to life, experiences, other people — goes a long way with me. Few people are simultaneously insightful and sincere.

Most country music makes me visibly grimace. So it’s been interesting to me that TS’s stuff is not only benign to me but also sometimes appealing. I just attempted to listen to an Allen Jackson song for comparison, and while I found the mandolin instrumental opening pretty, I was immediately put off by his twangy-twang accent vocals. So is it just the accent that completely destroys it for me? Swift has no accent; she’s from Pennsylvania. I have absolutely no idea.

Some of TS’s songs — notably the hits — I have enjoyed as a sort of dumb guilty pleasure (i.e. no one gets to catch me listening; either no one’s around or I’ve got headphones on). I think it’s because she does a fabulous job of wrapping up this teenage-y, sorta innocent, definitely naive, lovesick feelings. It all feels very unique and pure when you’re sixteen. While things feel more measured in your twenties, the feeling is still easy to remember.

Though I have liked her hits, I didn’t have much use for her other songs. This reminds me of this Adorno essay I read for a class my first year of college, about how, to most people (your average peasant, that is), “liking” a song is the same thing as recognizing it. Really interesting, really smart, extremely pretentious essay. I don’t know if that applies here. Even so, I give in.

Highlights: “Mine,” “Back to December,” “Mean”

(8) The Wilderness of Manitoba – When You Left the Fire (5/5)

This is almost too easy; there was no way I couldn’t like this album. It has everything that I am powerless to resist: folksy, catchy, pretty, varied instrumentation; liberal use of reverb; boy-girl harmonies; the words “flowing rivers,” “the shore,” “breezy nights,” “gentle winds,” “dried-out earth,” “auburn streets of leaves,” “desert sun,” “sweet fire,” “burning land” … (hint: I like descriptive nature references); very light drumming.

I have a deep and abiding love for “Orono Park” which has stood the test of time (read: serious overplaying over a five-month period). Listening to “November” through my headphones while walking outside at night is an almost indescribably peaceful experience.

The Wilderness of Manitoba is for people who love the Fleet Foxes — music that is lyrically timeless and sometimes almost medieval Europe-reminiscent, that makes you remember solstices and feel almost compelled to build bonfires, that always lets you know but never insists.

It is a thing that I find near-impossible not to embrace, due to some romantic tic that makes me strongly identify with my Germanic pagan roots and worshiping trees. If you, too, can identify with tree-worship, this might be for you.

1:17am. Happy nearly-spring, and tree-worshipin’ time, y’all.

Highlights: “Orono Park,” “November,” “Evening”

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