Saturday, September 19, 2009

Too Much Love to Hide

One thing I’ve been meaning to do here is write a post solely devoted to a single artist. That time has come. This Monday, I saw Crosby, Stills and Nash play at the Puyallup Fair for a solid two and a half hours. That was all I needed to decide to write this.

My relationship with this band is based on deep, unwavering love. Their debut was the first album I bought by a band other than the Beatles if you can believe that. Yes back in 2002, before Zeppelin, before Floyd and even before Bob Dylan, there was Crosby, Stills and Nash, staring at me on that faded pink couch. This planted the seed that has produced one of the most fruitful trees in my collection. After this album, I made the logical progression to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the sophomore album, Déjà vu, which is equally, if not more, incredible. And now, I have solo albums by each of the band’s members, albums by The Byrds, The Hollies, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby and Nash, and Manassas. As each of these groups have a C, S, N or Y in them that makes nearly twenty-five albums with some connection to the “holy trinity” as my friend Mark so heretically referred to them.

Okay. Enough. I like this group. And why this obsession, you may ask? First off, the vocal harmonies. If you know anything about CSN, you know that their harmonies give them their identity. The blend is impeccable, the precision unbeatable. These guys flat out sing better together than nearly anyone else has in rock and roll history.

But while the harmonies are the first thing that impresses about this band, the three unique songwriting styles in this group is the factor that keeps me coming back again and again. Much like Paul, John and George, Graham, Steven and David have three different skill sets for songwriting. Mr. Crosby is ever the dreamer, but always equips his songs with a bite. His songs are smooth but complex and drenched with passion. A perfect example of this is the song “Déjà vu” with its surging intro followed by the jazzy, slowed down second section. Not to mention, he probably has the best solo voice in the group.

And then there’s Graham Nash, the ever-charming Brit. He and David Crosby have collaborated for the majority of their lives despite being polar opposites as songwriters. While Crosby’s songs are dense, weaving pieces, Nash writes simple, charming songs like “Our House” and “Teach Your Children”. Of course, Graham shares Crosby’s left political leanings and has written songs that have nothing to do with romantic love though even these have an overarching message of positvity. Nothing like the dark opacity present in Crosby’s songs. Like for example, the Crosby and Nash song, “Page 43”. Ha! Now you know!

Lastly, I must discuss Stephen Stills. He may be an arrogant prick, he may have very little left of his voice and he may have taken a few too many drugs, but he is one of the finest songwriters of his generation. Not only that, he played just about all the instruments on the trio’s eponymous debut! That’s some serious talent. Honestly, his bass playing is more interesting than any of the session pros the hired on later albums, who were certainly more than adequate. That’s just how all-around gifted Stills is. As for songwriting, the guy wrote “Carry On”, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Rock & Roll Woman”, three of the best songs ever. Enough said.

Though I love Neil Young very very much, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about him. He just isn’t a pivotal part of the group, though when he was sporadically there, it was awesome.

Sadly, Crosby, Stills and Nash saw more than their fair share of problems with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and were never able to consistently churn out albums. Nonetheless, their momentary bursts of unified energy have been unforgettable. Seeing them live, I came to realize just how many fantastic songs these guys made despite only having a handful of true albums. Their first two records are like the Ruth and Gehrig of rock music. This is the stuff that legends are made of. Unbeatable.

*If you hadn’t read enough praise of this group, here’s a recent review,

*Last week’s subheading was “There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)” by Radiohead, correctly guessed by Sean Leonard.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Top 10 of the 2000s Complete!

Finally, I’m done. Here are my top ten albums of the decade. Before you skip to the actual list, let me explain a few quick things. First of all, the albums are not ranked in any intentional way. These ten have all reached the top tier of records in my collection and comparing them to one another is very difficult. The rankings could easily be different in a week, but I can almost guarantee these would still be the best of the best. Each and every album is more than enjoyable; they are all sublimely meaningful and original. They all make me stop what I’m doing and listen. That being said, I don’t recommend these as background music, though if you must, it’s better than Kenny G! As always, I’d love to hear what y’all think. Tell me what I’m missing and why!

Satanic Panic In The Attic (2004)

of Montreal

Every once in a while, I find an album I love on first listen that ends up only getting better and better. Satanic Panic in the Attic is one of those albums. The energetic hooks of this modern psychedelic pop record instantly grab you and don’t let you go until the satisfying gong finale of “Vegan In Furs”. of Montreal, a.k.a. Kevin Barnes’ masterpiece, one can honestly say that this album doesn’t have a dull moment. And of course, the cover and album art add to the delightfully colorful ambience of these fourteen bursts of well-crafted sonic excitement.

In Rainbows (2007)


Based on my Beatle worshipping tendencies, a band called “The Beatles of our generation” would seemingly elicit an avalanche of defensive anger from me. Well, in the case of this British beacon of perfection, the statement rings true. Listening to In Rainbows in my college dorm room upon the album’s release in October 2007 is probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the mind-boggling revolution created by albums like Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. Like the aforementioned albums, this one takes the listener to a utopia of sorts where flaws just don’t happen. Sounding completely new yet taking a cue from the group’s past work, In Rainbows is all I can ask for in an album.

Fleet Foxes (2008)

Fleet Foxes

This band is almost too good to be true. Unabashedly influenced by Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes have a uniquely Americana sound that has reminded us all of why the world just can’t have enough vocal harmony. Robin Pecknold’s eleven songs are like one huge breath of fresh air. From the delightfully ragged “Sun It Rises” to the swan song “Oliver James”, the record paints pictures of the natural beauty of our country better than anything this side of Aaron Copland.

The Long March (2005)

Blue Scholars

Yes, this is an EP. Yes, I may be biased because I met the two members of the Blue Scholars. Yes, much of this is inspired by the Chinese communism of Mao Zedong. Nonetheless, I hardly had to think twice about including this incredible record on this list. Each song is an eye-opening anthem for the struggling middle class. Each song makes you want to get up and do something about the problems of the world. Each song keeps you listening to every passionate word from the mouth of MC Geologic and grooving to every beat courtesy DJ Sabzi. “I heard a few heads say that hip hop is dead. No it’s not. It’s just malnourished and underfed.”

Parachutes (2000)


Don’t blame Coldplay. It’s not their fault they got so popular. It’s hard to believe that it was nine years ago that this London quartet recorded their debut album. Back around the turn of the century, Martin, Buckland, Champion and Berryman and were “yapping at the heels of Radiohead” as frontman Martin so aptly said himself. But with Parachutes, Coldplay captured something very fresh; something they would never quite reach again. A song like “We Never Change” sounds so startlingly honest, the confession of a young dreaming Brit, unashamed of his naiveté, unaware of his paparazzi filled future. This record is a winner and no indie cynicism can change that.

The Crane Wife (2006)

The Decemberists

The Decemberists have five albums this decade and each one has glorious moments. But this album stands alone as the band’s greatest achievement thus far. With songs ranging from 3:48 to 12:26, The Crane Wife is a brilliant balance of ambitious rock and simple shimmering pop craft. There’s no clear thematic thread to the work (that would come later, on The Hazards of Love), but it somehow feels like the songs relate to each other, unlike the charming pastiche of tunes on the previous albums. The final song here is called “After the Bombs” which is ironic for there isn’t a single bomb of a song present. Nonetheless, The Crane Wife is an explosive record and I’ll never tire of lighting the fuse.

Hail to the Thief (2003)


Oh yeah. That other Radiohead album. The one with all the words on the cover. That’s what this album was to me for so long. What the hell was wrong with me? Hail to the Thief is one of those albums that takes awhile but gets better and better with every listen. Finally, I have learned the truth: that this is one of Radiohead’s finest moments. “There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)” is about as good as music gets and the same can be said for songs like “Go To Sleep (Little Man Being Erased)” or “I Will (No Man’s Land)”. This record is just another reason why we can all thank our lucky stars this band didn’t break up after OK Computer.

Figure 8 (2000)

Elliott Smith

Every bit of praise I can heap on Mr. Smith I do without hesitation. The guy can do no wrong in my book. Figure 8 is his first album with hi-fi production and he handles the change with elegance. It’s a daunting task to record sixteen songs with no filler but Elliott succeeded here beyond belief. Each track is drenched with that mysterious X-factor of Elliott Smith. They’re all so beautiful, emotional and painful all at once. I can hardly listen to them without melting. It just isn’t fair that he had to die, for I don’t know if anyone recording in the 2000s was blessed with quite the gifts that he had.

A Piece of Strange (2005)


Don’t judge a book by its cover. And for that matter, don’t judge an album by its cover. And for the matter, don’t judge an artist by its name. Lo and behold, a Christian themed hip-hop album by a group with a blatant sexual innuendo as a moniker finds a place on this list. A Piece of Strange is the story of a man, just out of jail, trying to get back on his feet. He finds himself tempted (see apple on cover) by women, crime and drugs and ends up sucked in to this world of sin and finds himself in Hell, only to eventually see The Light. The story is powerful but what really sets this record apart are the beats. This is just about the most musical hip-hop I’ve ever heard.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot


It’s hard to believe that the stars aligned for this one. The band was in turmoil, the record label situation was sketchy, the official release was delayed forever. But somehow, we have Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with all its echoing pianos, strange industrial noises and poignant lyrics. On this release, Jeff Tweedy proves himself as one of the finest living songsmiths with tracks like “Jesus Etc.”, “Radio Cure”, and “Ashes of American Flags”. It’s lines like “Distance has no way of making love understandable” that resonate for so long after hearing them delivered by Tweedy’s husky baritone voice. With two towers on the cover and an intended release date of 9/11/01, this album is a frighteningly prophetic work of art.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


My composition project for the summer has been to write my fifth instrumental piece and as of this week, I have recorded this work and the first of three movements is now available on myspace. I played two movements of the piece at Bethany Lutheran Church on Bainbridge Island on August 23rd and now you can listen online as well.

Since I probably won’t perform this any time soon, I figured here would be a good place for the "program notes" or whatever I should call them. The composition is for trumpet and organ and is titled “Ruba’iyat”. It is based on three rubai (four line poems) by the 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, with each movement is based on a different rubai. Since there are 235 of them in the collection I have, I decided on the chosen three thanks to a random number generator on my handy TI-83 calculator. It came up with 22, 211 and 5 so those are the rubai I used for inspiration. Miraculously, the three worked together very well in a logical progression.

Overall, the work is fairly minimalist. I felt that style suited the words best, not to mention, I wanted the performance to be accurate and doable. Hopefully after reading the words these three movements are based on, you’ll be able to enjoy the music more. I tried to think of the trumpet as the narrator and the organ as his/her environment. The piece runs about ten minutes total. Special thanks to Ryan Hume for helping with the recording.

Here are the rubai by Khayyam, translated into English of course.

Rubai 22:
If only there were occasion for repose
If only this long road had an end
And in the track of a hundred thousand years, out of the heart of the dust
Hope sprang again like greenness

Rubai 211:
It is we who are the source of our own happiness, the mine of our sorrow
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid’s all-seeing cup

Rubai 5:
If the heart could grasp the meaning of life,
In death, it would know the mystery of God;
Today when you are in possession of yourself, you know nothing
Tomorrow, when you leave yourself behind, what will you know?

*Jamshid was a Persian mythological figure who could look forward in time using a magical cup.

If you really want to listen to the rest, just send me an email. I’m not completely satisfied with the way they turned out, but if you solemnly swear not to judge my trumpet playing ability, you can take a listen to the work in its entirety.

*Last week’s subheading was from the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man”.