cool hand bak

Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Best Albums Of 2005

2005 didn't return us to the dizzying heights of 2001-2003, but it also wasn't as disappointing as last year. Franz Ferdinand and Maria McKee were the only real artists who handed me shit when I asked for gold. Other artists did me dirty, but it was mostly people I never expected to treat me right in the first place. All of the big names (in my world, anyway) stepped up and delivered what were probably the best albums they had in them, and several exceeded expectations grandly. Just like last year, rookies accounted for more than their fair share of highlights. But enough of the chit-chat, here are my choices for best albums of 2005:

25. Castanets - First Light's Freeze

Castanets - First Light's Freeze

24. M.I.A. - Arular

23. Sigur Rós - Takk...

22. The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema

21. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - Naturally

20. Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers

19. Beck - Guero

18. Shannon McNally - Geronimo

17. The Go-Betweens - Oceans Apart

16. Sons And Daughters - The Repulsion Box

15. The Nein - Wrath Of Circuits

14. Bunky - Born To Be A Motorcycle

13. M. Ward - Transistor Radio

12. Spoon - Gimme Fiction

11. Des Ark - Loose Lips Sink Ships

10. Stephen Malkmus - Face The Truth

9. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

8. Laura Cantrell - Humming By The Flowered Vine

7. Martha Wainwright - Martha Wainwright

6. Archer Prewitt - Wilderness

5. Dr. Dog - Easy Beat

4. Antony & The Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now

3. The Decemberists - Picaresque

2. Sleater-Kinney - The Woods

1. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy & Matt Sweeney - Superwolf

This list is subject to change. I mean, it's not like I heard everything that was released. I never made it to acclaimed albums by Bruce Springsteen, Bloc Party, Super Furry Animals, Broken Social Scene or Young Jeezy, but, between you and me, I don't think any of those albums have much of a shot at this list. Questions and comments are welcomed, especially if you're trying to hip me to something you think I might've missed.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Ciao 2006

Home sweet home. After a week or so of travelling (with the flu no less), the bakster returns to kiss 2005 goodbye and welcome its successor.

2006 seems set to hit the ground running. Hopefully the new Strokes album (released today) will be as good as their last two, which were both outstanding. January 24th looks ready to vie for the title of All-Time Greatest Release Date with new albums expected from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (with Tortoise), Cat Power, The Gossip, Jenny Lewis and Ester Drang, as well as a Tarkio anthology from Kill Rock Stars and the stateside release of Saint Etienne's latest. That ought to devastate a few wallets. Later in the year there are scheduled new albums from Neko Case, The Concretes, Roxy Music, Simon Joyner, Grandaddy, Anna Oxygen, Ghostface, Quasi, Murs, Two Gallants, Nellie McKay, TV On The Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nas, The Flaming Lips and The Shins, as well as a live album from Elvis Costello and a Tom Waits rarities box set. And, if we all behave ourselves, maybe even a new Radiohead opus. Did I mention those rumors of Bob Dylan putting in some studio time recently? This all sounds like an embarrassment of riches in the making.

I'm putting the finishing touches on my Best Albums and Songs of 2005 lists, so look for those later in the week if you're into that sort of thing.

Once again I'd like to thank those of you who take the time to comment. Feedback and dialogue are two of the main reasons I do this, so I'd love to see even more of that in the new year. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Baby, Don't You Like What You See?

If you've been following cool hand bak for any significant amount of time, you've probably noticed that I like to create little traditions here and there as a way of presenting everything I hear. cool hand bak, you see, is a creature of habit, as all beings are. Except maybe even more so. Attention to detail (read: obsessive compulsiveness) is my middle name. If you could see my record shelves, you'd understand. With friends I joke about it, but the truth is it's a quirk I'm proud of, a quality borne out of the extremely high value I place on consistency. For this blog, consistency of structure, theme and content is important, especially in light of the severe lack of consistent posting.

Which is why, for my last post of 2005, I'm doing the same thing I did for my last post of 2004 and the same thing I'll most likely do for my last post of 2006. That's right, today I'm posting my most listened to song of the year. The catch is it isn't a song from this year, since I'll post that later as the best song of 2005. All clear? Well then, here you go:

Heather Waters - "Turn"

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what country music should sound like five years into the 21st century. Heather Waters' voice, on this song, delivers one of the most essential country vocal performances since George Jones picked up a microphone. If you could bottle that voice, you'd have 150 proof liquid heartbreak. Put simply, as Taj Mahal is said to have commented, "that’s some fucking great singing."

"Turn" might begin as your standard relationship-on-the-rocks country song, but that's where its typicality ends. As the vivid loneliness and confusion of the verses (supplied by great use of the titular word) gives way to the resigned accusations of the chorus, emotions reel from excited heartache to calm despair. Redemption comes when Heather reaches into a higher register for the third chorus, arriving at another melody unbelievably even more gut-wrenching than the original. And this time, there is nothing even remotely resembling resignation or calm in her voice; whoever was responsible for her mistreatment (perfectly described in country-eloquence) now comes face to face with her anguish and, as the saying goes, hell hath no fury like a woman burned. All of this occurs over a country hot-bed provided by the likes of Eric Heywood, Don Heffington, Tony Gilkyson and Rami Jaffee, and elsewhere David Rawlings and Gillian Welch chip in too. Somehow, Heather's voice remains untouchably the highlight throughout.

With this one song, Heather Waters throws her hat into the ring with a flourish that's impossible to deny. The rest of the album, her 2004 full-length debut Shadow Of You, may not have a snowball's chance in hell of bettering "Turn", but it's all damn good in its own right, with many other standout moments. The only thing keeping her from seriously challenging the likes of Tift Merritt, Neko Case and Laura Cantrell, at this point, is her relative lack of output; musically and, especially, vocally, she's ready to rival the best of what's going on in country music today. Hopefully, we'll have a follow-up to Shadow Of You before too long, and I won't be surprised if said follow-up warrants Heather a spot on the modern-day country-songbird Mt. Rushmore.

Shadow Of You was independently released on Heather's own Redd Fogg records. Visit her website to for more information and to purchase the album directly. I'm going leave you with these words from Ms. Waters herself: "Townes van Zandt has been credited with saying, 'There are two kinds of songs: blues and zippity do dah.' I definitely don't do zippity do dah."

See you next year folks.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

One Down, 32 To Go

This has been, without question, the fastest year of my life. No contest. I've been told that the older one gets, the less memorable the years become, coalescing instead into such vaguely defined phases as "my late 30s" or "the years after Meg left me". A part of me didn't believe it: every one of my teenage years still stands out as its own separate entity, why won't years 27, 31 or 52 stand-out just the same? What is this nonsense about everything becoming one long blur?

If this fast year has been the beginning of the end, then maybe I'm starting to understand. Either way, this here blog o' mine has a part to play. On one hand, it's partly responsible for how quickly the year has come and gone. Whiling away the hours at my computer, painstakingly composing each entry, quite a bit of time felt like it was going right out the window. But, on the other hand, I actually have something to show for all that time. I can remember what album or song was driving me into hysterics when, whose show I caught and what I thought and all of the other major happenings in my musical world. It turns out keeping a blog was time well spent.

As always, though, it's not about me, but about the music, and as far as the music is concerned, it's onward and ever onward. There's always something new to hear: classic albums, new releases, internet-only songs and, of course, live shows. cool hand bak's sophomore year will surely bring more surprises; I never know what my next musical obsession will be or where it'll come from. Discovering new music is a lot like getting mugged: the unheard becomes the heard like a sudden blow, and when you come to you probably have a lot less money. Far from the jaded routine that keeps many a music writer clocking in, I still listen with the unfailing enthusiasm and awe of a 13 year old poring over their parents' records for the first time. I confess, I got a little sidetracked near the end of the year, but I'm rededicating myself to my original vision: cool hand bak should document what I'm listening to when I'm listening to it, with all of the impressions (first or otherwise) and heart-reactions that come with it.

Now, seeing as I've made it through a whole year (major achievement, I know) I think it's only right that I celebrate myself and my taste, at least a little. To that end, here are a handful of songs from cool hand bak's first year, presented in the order they were posted, that I'd like to re-draw your attention to. Who knows, maybe you missed them the first time around. Why these five songs, you ask. These babies happen to be freely available on the internet, donated for your listening pleasure by the artists and labels that created them. Enjoy.

The Transmissionary Six - "Happy Landings"

Antony & The Johnsons - "Fistful Of Love"

Viva Voce - "Alive With Pleasure"

Amy Miles - "Kill To Know"

Chuck Prophet - "Pin A Rose On Me"

Saturday, October 15, 2005

To Prove That I Can

Once upon a time not too long ago, a blogger like myself caught a local show...

I'm always telling people that they should go to at least one or two house shows at some point in their life and, of course, I follow my own advice. Sure, you'll probably have to wade through a mass of scenesters just to get into the house, but if the bands are good (and you wouldn't be there if they weren't, right?) then it's worth it. In fact, it's part of the experience, like mass before communion or something. It's as close as you're likely to ever get to the true spirit of making music, besides making music yourself. With that in mind, last night I caught a show at the "legendary" Phoenix House. Though I'd be willing to bet that it's only truly legendary to Olympians, bands like Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and The Gossip played the Phoenix House in their time.

Kicking off the festivities last night was the lovely and very talented Robin Cutler. Sitting behind a kick-drum, surrounded by amps, guitars and her viola, Robin delivered a dozen or so gentle, well-written folk-rock songs. With songs for everyone from her little sister to the boy next door, Robin's music was heartfelt and genuine, devoid of the need to be clever that plagues so many young songwriters. On the drive home, a friend commented that it was too much like reading someone's diary, but that's never bothered me. I left a convert.

The following two songs are from her self-titled debut, which I believe is from 2004.

Robin Cutler - "Shadow Song"

Robin Cutler - "3-2-1 'Til Contact"

Visit Robin's website for more information.

Following Robin was a band I've written about before in these hallowed halls: Palisades. Despite the fact that it was another band's record release show, Palisades get the dubious honor of being the reason I hauled myself out of the house on a rainy night. That's because their self-titled debut EP from earlier this year has thoroughly won me over, and because they're one of those bands that I want to be able to say I saw them when...

I would say I prefer them on record, but that's pretty much true of everyone. Suffice it to say, they played a charming and charmingly shambolic set, which is exactly what I expected. By this time, the Phoenix House floor was sufficiently crowded, but Palisades had no trouble getting folks to dance all the same. Judging by the comments after they finished, I'm not the only one looking forward to their next show, not to mention their next record.

These two songs are both from the aforementioned Palisades EP.

Palisades - "Consuming Fire"

Palisades - "I Can't Remember"

Stop by Masa Records for more information about Palisades.

Kickball took hold of the communal instruments next, unleashing one hell of a groove-a-thon. I felt like I was at a dance-'til-you-drop contest or something. It was obvious that many of the kids around me were die-hard fans, which was nice because I feel like such an ass when I'm up-front (right next to Adam's keyboard!) for a band I don't know all that well. Luckily, the word-mouthers and song-shouter-outers had my back, allowing me to kick back and just enjoy the show.

The energy Kickball put into their set was admirable, and went a long way towards distinguishing them from your average indie-poppers. Drummer Lisa was on fire, in a young Janet Weiss kind of way, and lead-singer Jacob had a charismatic, almost sexual way of delivering his vocals. All of which is a roundabout way of saying they were good enough to make me want to hear their records, which I scooped up two of that night.

Their grooves are a lot less pronounced on record; they're quieter, more tame, but they've still got a handful of remarkable songs. Witness:

Kickball - "Stop ∞"

Kickball - "Opposite"

Kickball - "Bird"

Kickball - "Tides Or Swells"

These four songs are all from Kickball's 2003 release, Huckleberryeater. I'm only posting so many because three of them are available online and the other one ("Stop ∞") is my favorite Kickball song. Well, that and because they're so good.

Kickball - "Party"

Kickball - "Little Thing"

These two songs are from the album whose release party this post documents, namely ABCDEFGHIJKickball.

Six songs! C'mon, there's gotta be at least one you love. Which means you should buy an album, online at Houseopolis Records.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Children Already Belong To Us

A friend of mine alerted me to the fact that Propagandhi have a new album coming out this October. It's titled Potemkin City Limits and the cover-art is by Eric Drooker. Their label, G7 Welcoming Committee, has already kindly made one song available for download:

Propagandhi - "Die Jugend Marschiert"

My first thought is that it's not as immediate or aggressive as the majority of their back catalog, but that's just a trite summary of my initial reaction. Besides, what it lacks in impact it more than makes up for in ambition. Their humor is certainly undiminished. Listen closely, the lyrics are actually (I'm guessing) a fictitious speech made by one Colonel Casey Wardynski, who has some fucked-up ideas about America. For starters, as director of U.S. Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analyses, he personally oversaw the creation of "America's Army", the official video game of the U.S. Army. Homeboy came up with this shit to lure teenage boys into the army. You see, while your favorite band is sitting around writing ditties about their sack-of-shit lives and inability to get laid, Propagandhi are writing to expose pricks like Wardynski. I agree, it takes all kinds, but songs like this certainly put things into perspective. More power to them!

It'll be interesting to see what the rest of Potemkin City Limits is like, especially whether or not it maintains this trend of longer songs with more ambitious arrangements. It's all the more difficult to know what to expect considering that Propagandhi haven't released an album since 2000's Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes. Granted, Propagandhi usually have a longer than average gestation period, but with all that's happened in the last four years I'm sure the wait has felt longer than ever for fans. Makes me wonder what they've been sitting on.

Here are two of their older songs, for comparison's sake:

Propagandhi - "True (Concrete Blonde)"

Propagandhi - "Back To The Motor League"

The first song is from 1998's Where Quantity Is Job #1 and the second is from the aforementioned Today's Empires. See what I mean with my less immediate, less aggressive comment? Propagandhi have always been informed, but the new song sounds so measured compared with these two.

Visit Propagandhi's website for more information, or visit their G7 page for upcoming West Coast tour dates.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Happy Birthday, Mr. Cohen

Every year on his birthday I listen exclusively to Leonard Cohen. Inevitably something else sneaks in from somewhere, but it's still one hell of an immersion experience. Since this is the first year I've had a blog on Leonard's birthday, it seems only right to celebrate by sharing what might be my favorite song of his. I say might be because, of course, the competition is pretty stiff.

Leonard Cohen - "Famous Blue Raincoat"

Basically, no one else can write like this. This is one of Leonard's greatest compositions, a story song (a veritable short-story, actually) in the form of a letter that sacrifices nothing. Not poetics or imagery, not melody, nothing. I especially love the way he reveals the details of the story so carefully, accomplishing as much with what's hinted at as with what's shown. Case in point: the third verse, where he begrudgingly admits "I'm glad you stood in my way". In my mind, it's crystal clear what his brother stood in the way of, but part of the beauty of this story is that each listener gets to fill in the details themselves.

And don't ever let anyone tell you Leonard Cohen doesn't have a beautiful voice. I realize this is coming from the distinct perspective of someone who considers Bob Dylan and Corin Tucker to be two of the greatest singers ever, but just listen to the way Leonard sings this. This vocal, in itself, is poetry.

This stunning, dare I say haunting song comes from Leonard's third album, 1971's Songs Of Love And Hate. There's no excuse for not at least giving this masterpiece a try.

Happy birthday, Mr. Cohen. Thank you.

Leonard Cohen's Website

Click Here