It’s Time to Play B-Sides Top 10 Albums of 2011

Here we are in the final month of 2011 and it is time for the Top lists. I started this last year for the first time, and I think it was a pretty good exercise. 2011 for me personally was a time of change– I was laid off from a job I had for over 13 years and spent most of 2011 unemployed. As I write this, I’m happily employed, though I’m having to deal with the fallout of being unemployed for so long.

If it wasn’t for the friends and contacts I made through this blog, the time I spent unemployed would have been unbearable. As people found out about my family’s situation, they reached out with concern, help and well-wishes. Frankly, writing for this blog and the other places I sometimes contribute gave me a much-needed distraction as I experienced first-hand the employment conditions and lack of hiring in the U.S. It seems like things are turning around, but we are far from recovery, I’m afraid.

So, I look at this list of albums as being kind of a soundtrack for my unemployment– sometimes expressing hope, sometimes expressing despair, but 2011 was a good year for music. As 2012 brings new hope and opportunity for me, I look forward to bringing my music blog into its sixth year.

While there were a lot of notable releases in 2011, these are the ones that spent the most time in rotation for me– had more staying power.

1. Hiss Golden Messenger – Poor Moon – M.C. Taylor’s post Court & Spark band makes my list for the second year running– Poor Moon is a full-band companion-piece to last year’s Bad Debt in that they share a few songs. You can read my summary and review here. Mike’s in the running for 2012, too, as he has started work on his next album already!

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver – Like last year’s The Suburbs from Arcade Fire, this is an album that will make a lot of 2011 “Top” lists. Already the album has been nominated for a few Grammys. I was not a fan of the first album from Justin Vernon, but this album quickly has found a seat in my regular rotation and gets played often at my house. The fact that it shares common DNA with the brilliant album from Eau Claire-Minneapolis supergroup GAYNGS helps, too.

3. Pieta Brown – Mercury – With a boost of moral support from her new label home Red House Records and continued support from her musical family and friends, Pieta Brown has created what is her best recorded statement to date. I wrote a review of Mercury for Little Village here.

4. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire – In some regards this album can be heralded as the triumphant return for Ryan Adams whose last new studio effort was 2008’s swansong for Lost Highway as a label and The Cardinals as a band, Cardinology. Life has changed pretty dramatically for Ryan who seems to have embraced his life and career with new perspective. Ashes & Fire is a return to the simpler sound of Easy Tiger— arguably a sound he has refined and polished. For a guy whose love of metal and punk are public record, he has the ability to make some of the most beautiful folk-rock-country songs this side of Neil Young. He is on a sold-out solo acoustic tour at the moment as he re-familiarizes himself with his legacy and live performing in general. I hope he gets the itch to bring a band on the road with him in the near future.

5. Dawes – Nothing Is WrongDawes is back and their sophomore release is even more confident than their first album, Taylor Goldsmith is embracing his role as lead guitarist and this album features some very polished guitarwork. In 2011 we saw more of the indie space contributing videos to VH1’s Top 20 and Dawes spent a week or two with “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” I think that the almost-universal embrace of Dawes’ own spin on 70’s singer-songwriter classic rock is showing that people are looking for strong melodies and honesty in the face of mostly manufactured pop music. The songs for Nothing Is Wrong got a lot of mileage on the road, many songs were familiar to dedicated fans like me, it will be interesting to see what the next songs will be like. I don’t expect any dramatic change in the band, but I would like to see some envelope pushing– maybe a change in production.

6. Kelly Pardekooper – YonderKelly cut his songwriting teeth here in Eastern Iowa writing and recording his first five albums while he lived here. A brief jump to Wisconsin and a permanent displacement to the yonder of L.A. seemed to silence the songwriter, but after some recognition by the new tastemakers that assemble soundtracks for TV shows he was kickstarted to record his most Iowa-sounding release to date with Bo Ramsey and a band of Backslider regulars. Relased in the fourth quarter of 2011, I’m hoping the album gets some legs in 2012 before returning to the lockers.

7. Canasta – The Fakeout The Tease and the Breather – Technically this release from Chicago band Canasta came out late in 2010, but I heard it in February when they made a stop in Iowa City.  This quote from my article for Little Village says it all, “There nestled in the extensive list of influences is what appears to be the nearly 30 years of my record collection. While this list seems impossibly diverse on paper, the thing that unifies all of these artists is a strong knack for melody and composition that Canasta brings in spades.” Watch their great video for “Mexico City” here.

8. Chicago Odense Ensemble – self-titled – This album– a meeting of members of Tortoise and Isotope 217 and Causa Sui– had been announced for months before it was eventually released this year by French label AdLuna. A sliced and diced approach to assembling a record from hours of improvisational recording by the group a la In A Silent Way resulted in a beautiful record with gorgeous packaging to match. You can read my article about the release here.

9. Kerosene Circuit – self titled EP – This was an EP that really reached out of the stereo and shook me. Rockin’, diesel-powered bar chords. You can read my review for Little Village here.

10. The 4onthefloor – 4×4 – Minneapolis stompin’ bar-blues band The 4onthefloor may seem on paper to be tied to a schtick with each member of the band playing a kickdrum on stage, but the formula of 4/4 time heavy blues is one that works. Lead singer Gabe Douglas transforms to the on-stage personae of the possessed while riding the chugging rhythm provided by the rest of the band. The album captures a lot of this live energy, but catch them live if you can.

(Review) Chicago Odense Ensemble

Chicago Odense Ensemble Vinyl Jacket and Sleeves
In the last year or so it seems that a few groups that I follow have chosen as a template for their recent albums the genre-defining and game-changing 1969 Miles Davis album In A Silent Way. In the Davis oeuvre, In A Silent Way represents his first full-step into electric fusion jazz and the precursor to Bitches Brew. The album itself is two compositions– on the LP, one per side– which are made up of edits of a much longer recording session by legendary recording engineer Teo Macero.

In 2008  musicians gathered in Chicago to collaborate on a new work. The group consisted of Rob Mazurek of Isotope 217 and Chicago Underground, Jeff Parker of Tortoise and Isotope 217, Dan Bitney of Tortoise and Isotope 217, Matt Lux of Isotope 217, Brian Keigher, Jonas Munk of Causa Sui and Manual and Jakob Skott of Causa Sui. A joining of bands from Chicago and Odense, Denmark named Chicago Odense Ensemble.

In Spring of 2010, I started hearing about this album from the folks at the boutique French record label AdLuna. AdLuna makes very-small-run releases with gorgeous packaging– all labors of love. The label had releases by Thrill Jockey alumni, including Rob Mazurek’s solo work Abstractions on Robert d’Abrissel, and Jeff Parker (on Doug Scharin’s Activities of Dust project) and now Chicago Odense Ensemble. The ambitions of the label for the release matched the promise of the recording. This album was going to represent AdLuna’s first venture into vinyl– a media befitting the importance of the album, and would give them the ability to stretch their packaging chops with the larger canvas.

Chicago Odense Ensemble on the Turntable

An undertaking of a project this size was going to be a stress on the small label, so they reached out to the fans with a pre-order campaign in June. By November, the packaging and other details of the release were ready and they were only going to press 250 180g LPs and 500 CD’s making this a very limited release and very desirable for collectors. Today, out-of-print Thrill Jockey titles can fetch around $40, and those are usually limited to 1000 LPs per pressing. I can only imagine the future value of this release!

In April 2011, the album was finally completed and ready to ship the pre-orders. The folks at AdLuna felt especially generous and decided to give away six sets of the test pressings to some lucky fans who pre-ordered the release. These six sets required some special packaging and shipping materials, so the winners had their releases shipped a bit later. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky six! The package included the LPs as expected and also included the test pressings which were wrapped in very special paper and were personalized with a letter of ownership as well as each of the records having the owner’s name written on them. As I write this, I’m still astonished by the effort and personal touch put forth for this!

Chicago Odense Ensemble Test Pressing Wrapped

The test-pressings were wrapped in a special Himalayan paper called lokta paper made from the bark of the lokta bush or Daphne bush. The included letter says this:

The lokta paper has been made in the Himalayan region for over 1200 years. Handcrafted, the paper is made from the inner bark of the bush which grows at a high altitude of 6500 to 9500 feet. It is very strong and is an incredible eco-friendly choice. The Nepalese claim that the lokta paper lasts for 1,000 years if protected from sunlight.

 

Chicago Odense Ensemble Test Pressing Unwrapped

The Chicago Odense Ensemble album is the result of a coming-together of two camps of musicians from seemingly different genres. The album is more about the exploration of groove and improvisation than it is about strict composition. In fact, this album is partially inspired by the aforementioned work done by Miles Davis, if not the resulting proto jazz fusion that followed. In a similar way to the Davis albums Chicago Odense Ensemble was created by marathon recording sessions followed by Monk taking the recordings back to his studio and editing and massaging the recordings into the resulting tracks.

Taken in whole, Chicago Odense Ensemble is an impressively cohesive work, no doubt supported by the very fruitful original sessions recorded in 2008. Considering the improvisational nature of the original tracks, the editing brings these tracks into individual compositions with unique moods and movement.

Here are my listening notes for each of the songs:

1. Parallel Motions (9:50) – dual improv of cornet and guitar  over repeating and building bass, guitar and percussion.

2. Emanuelle (9:23) – almost a dub track with the rolling echo. In the last two minutes of the song it switches to a more organized finish with brushes on the eights and chiming clean guitar chords underneath a trumpet melody.

3. Spirals (1:36) – Melancholy little interlude. Arpeggio clean guitar and coronet with a bell mute.

4. Glide Path (4:30) Bongos and atmospheric guitars. Lots of Isotope 217 and Tortoise influence on this track. Pretty, if a bit incidental

5. Soup (6:19) First song previewed from album. Starts with a marching snare and circular guitars builds in a circular fashion adding in frenetic cornet runs and guitar to the end.

6. Spine Dots (3:20)  Ominous and unstructured, atmospheric and swelling fragments of instruments a lead-in to “Delivery.”

7. Delivery (11:59)  African rhythms – shakers and guitar and bass playing same notes. halfway though the rhythm becomes more loose/more jammy. Becomes more frenzied in last two minutes and cacophonous

8. Pretty Nice (6:35) Appropriately described by the song title which is in-turn inspired by the studio chatter included at the end. Nice bright track. mellow percussion. nice way to wrap up the album.

At the time of this writing there are less than 100 of the LPs remaining. Visit the Chicago Odense Ensemble website for ordering information. You can order the CD here as well. For any order, they have immediate digital download, too.

 

Chicago Odense Ensemble “Soup” by Adluna Records

10 Releases I’m Looking Forward to in 2011

Since I just finished my Top 20 of 2010, it has me looking towards 2011 and the releases that are rumored, speculated or actually announced. Here are some releases I’m looking forward to (in no particular order).

The Second Dawes Album (May 2011) – I wrote an article about this release and speculation about what tracks are going to be on it. The first Dawes album- North Hills was released in 2009 and has had pretty strong legs as far as carrying the band to national recognition. The songs that Dawes is playing on the road are as good as the ones on their debut, in my opinion. The album is already recorded and ready for release, but won’t see release until May of 2011, as it is waiting on…

The Middle Brother Album (3/1/2011) I wrote about this “supergroup” made up of members of Deer Tick, Delta Spirit and Dawes here. For Christmas, the band made the track “Me Me Me” available as a free download if you signed up for their mailing list. Middle Brother are planning a tour with all three bands in the spring which should be one of the big indie tours of the year. I have already pre-ordered the vinyl, which will come with a bonus 10″ record with four songs from the sessions that didn’t make the final LP.

Chicago Odense Ensemble – (Spring 2011)Chicago Odense Ensemble is another “supergroup” with members of Tortoise, Chicago Underground Collective and Causa Sui. The basis of this record was recorded when the members of Causa Sui were in Chicago in 2008.  The sessions, which were largely improvisational in nature, were recorded and brought back to Odense by Causa Sui member Jonas Munk and edited into the resulting tracks on the album. I’ve had a chance to listen to a pre-release of this, and agree with the early reviews and press about the album in the references to late-60’s Miles Davis In A Silent Way era work.

Arbouretum – The Gathering – (2/15/2011)Arbouretum is one of the many projects that David Heumann performs and records under. I’ve mentioned the Thrill Jockey 15th Anniversary Shows from 2007 where I was first exposed to Arbouretum and made me an instant fan. The Gathering is the fifth studio release for Arbouretum (which includes a split LP with labelmates Pontiak). The first track from the album available as free download is “Destroying to Save” which showcases the signature sea of fuzzy distortion that Arbouretum is known for with Heumann’s epic poetry.

Eleventh Dream Day – Riot Now – (3/15/2011) – When Doug McCombs played The Blue Moose in March of 2010 with David Daniell, I got a chance to talk to Doug about what was coming up for him. At that time he mentioned that Eleventh Dream Day was going to do a residency at the Hideout in May where the band was going to work out new songs for an upcoming release. Well, they did the residency, and their first new album since 2006 titled Riot Now is coming out on 3/15!

Kelly Pardekooper – untitled as yet – Former Iowan, currently Californian, Kelly has announced that he is going to start working with Bo Ramsey on his next album, which would be his first since 2007’s Brand New Bag, which is still one of my all-time favorite Iowa-related releases.

Ryan Adams – Blackhole – Another album in the extensive archives for Ryan Adams. Blackhole was started before he left Lost Highway (over Christmas 2005) and except for “Tomorrowland” and “Disco Queen” which came out as the third release of his aborted Digital Singles series in 2009, these are all songs that have not been leaked elsewhere. Based on posts on Facebook, Blackhole is actually completed–  he did some recording with Jamie Candiloro earlier this year, and if we are to believe a picture he posted of him holding a record, also mastered for vinyl. Those posts were done before the May release of his metal album Orion. December brought another vault release Cardinals III/IV, which was distributed by Orchard/TVT which gave the release much more widespread availability than his own PaxAm website would. He posted to Facebook that Blackhole is “basically Love is Hell Part 3” with “lots of shimmery guitar love.” Certainly the two tracks already available sound a lot like his Smiths-leanings than his Grateful Dead-leanings and I welcome more rock from Ryan. Posts from this week on the archive have people freaking out that PaxAm’s online store is down and there was a now-deleted comment on Facebook that he was sick of dealing with customer service issues with the online store. I’d say there is a very good chance that we see Blackhole released this year since it seems to be mastered already, and it will probably get the same distribution as III/IV.

DJ Shadow – untitled as yet (Spring 2011?) The long-awaited follow up to DJ Shadow’s 2006 Hyphy-influenced release The Outsider is likely to be completed before Shadow ventures out for another tour in May, per comments made on a video about the “Live from the Shadowsphere” tour. Based on the live performances of “I Gotta Rock” and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it vinyl single release of “Def Surrounds Us” and “I’ve Been Trying” we see a sort of return to form for Shadow. He stated in an interview that this release would not be as focused on collaborations as The Outsider was.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way – (5/23/2011) – I make it no secret that I’m a fan of Gaga, The Fame and The Fame Monster were both really strong releases. I’m not going to debate that it wasn’t territory that had been covered before in pop music. The leadoff single of “Born This Way” will be released on 2/13. Based on what I’ve seen so far of new songs on her current tour, we’re seeing some of her rock leaning material. The song “You and I” is constantly compared to Elton John and it is clear he is an influence. Notably, the new tour will have The Scissor Sisters as supporting act– they worked with John on a track on their last album.

Bermuda Report – untitled as yet (date TBA)Bermuda Report is a new band from Abbie Sawyer formerly of The Diplomats of Solid Sound. She and her band jreleased a freely-downloadable EP of songs worth checking out in December– jazzy and bluesy. You can read my review with The Little Village. Abbie says that they will be heading back into the studio soon for a full album release this year.

Members of Tortoise, Isotope 217 & Causa Sui to Release Chicago Odense Ensemble

AdLuna Records is a label I’ve been following for a little while due to their ties with Thrill Jockey artists. AdLuna is a boutique-ish label out of France which has a penchant for free jazz and funk (well, and one folk release). They released their first three releases in 2008. Due to the low volume of releases from the label, they are able to focus on the packaging of the releases. All three CD releases are in a unique 5.5″ x 7.75″ book style cover– printed on high-quality card stock with a matte finish. In the case of Rob Mazurek’s Abstractions on Robert D’Arbrissel (AR001CD) release, there was a 10-page full-color booklet included in the cover. In the case of Doug Scharin’s project Activities of Dust, whose sidemen included Jeff Parker (Tortoise), Bill Laswell and Bernie Worrell, in addition to the CD of their release A New Mind (AR003CDDVD), a DVD titled “Return to the Original Matrix” which was produced by Doug Scharin.

Last week AdLuna announced that their next release would be an album from Chicago Odense Ensemble. Chicago Odense Ensemble is a group made up of Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground, Isotope 217, Exploding Star Orchestra), Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Isotope 217, Exploding Star Orchestra), Dan Bitney (Tortoise, Isotope 217), Matt Lux (Isotope 217, Exploding Star Orchestra), Brian Keigher (aka DJ Warp), Jonas Munk (Causa Sui, Manual) and Jakob Skott (Causa Sui). Evidently derives its name from the fact that Mazurek, Parker, Bitney, Lux and Keigher all call Chicago home and Causa Sui members Skott and Munk are from Odense, Denmark.

I was not aware of Causa Sui until I heard about this release so I checked them out. They are spacy-stoner rockish instrumental group. Kind of Doors-meets-Hawkwind, I suppose. I’ve been listening to it quite a bit in the last week, and the influence of Causa Sui should make for a really great release! From the press release is a quote from Jonas Munk, “The closest reference for this kind of music is probably early-1970’s proto-fusion jazz that strived for a similar synthesis of jazz improvisation, psychedelic rock, Eastern and African sounds and the use of the studio as a musical tool instead of merely a recording facility.”

The release, which doesn’t have a date yet, will come out in CD and 2 180g LP versions as well as digital download. AdLuna sent me some pictures of the proposed packaging which they are still formalizing. I also included the pretty cool teaser trailer for the release.

Stay tuned for more details as they come.

Click Here for AdLuna Records which will release Chicago Odense Ensemble this year.

Click Here for Chicago Odense Ensemble’s MySpace Page.

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