My Top 5 Albums of 2008

While I downloaded or purchased physical copies of over 50 albums in 2008, only about 20% of them were actually released in 2008. So I really ought to be doing a list of the albums I listened to most during the year, but who am I to buck the conventions of rock criticism? (Except, you know, by being lazier and only choosing 5 albums.)
5. The Whigs, “Mission Control” – Drum-pounding, melodic, no-frills rock and roll, with just enough indie swagger to keep it interesting. I like the Hold Steady, but in a battle of the bar bands I think the Whigs would eat Neil Finn and company’s lunch.

4. Okkervil River, “The Stand Ins” – On paper, Okkervil River sounds like a cynical combination of some of the darlings of college radio’s last few years: the desperation-filled but enthusiastic crooning of Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, the relatively complex orch-pop arrangements of the Decemberists and Beirut, the dark humor and Americana-roots of Wilco. But somehow, this Austin band manages to make it all sound fresh and new.

3. Frightened Rabbit, “The Midnight Organ Fight” – With their frantic sound and plaintive vocals about heartbreak, these Glaswegians would probably be considered emo if they took themselves seriously — which, thankfully, they do not. Plus, they put on an amazing live show.

2. Murry Hammond, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m on My Way” – As the bass player in the Old 97s, the laid-back Hammond contributes a few (usually excellent) songs to each of that band’s albums, but has often been outshined by charismatic lead singer Rhett Miller. On this solo disc, however, Murry really shines as an interpreter of gospel and old train songs. Many of these songs, especially the ones featuring just his lonesome voice and the drone of a harmonium, are just breath-takingly beautiful.

1. The Old 97’s, “Blame It On Gravity” – Hammond, Miller, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peebles make a return to form after 2004’s muddily produced “Drag It Up.” In the accompanying DVD (which also features a driving tour with Miller of the band’s early days) producer Salim Nourallah says that his goal was to be able to capture the energy of the band’s live shows. He succeeded admirably, producing the band’s best album since 1997’s “Too Far to Care.”

Concert Review: The Decemberists


No band I’ve ever seen has more fun on stage than the Decemberists. I’ve seen them four or five times over the last couple of years, and it’s always obvious that they are having an absolute ball. I had the chance to see them twice over this weekend, at Wheaton College on Halloween and then the next night at University of Chicago.

The Halloween show was a classic. It opened with a reenactment of “The Shining,” with singer Colin Meloy pedaling a Big Wheel onto the stage to be met by the creepy twins of drummer John Moen and bassist Nate Query (whom Meloy noted were likely the first two cross-dressers ever to appear on stage at famously conservative Wheaton College’s Edman Memorial Chapel).


With a setlist tailored to the evening, the highlight of the night was a version of “Shankill Butchers” featuring Jenny Conlee playing the chapel’s massive pipe organ. If you listen to the recording, you’ll hear the band launch next into “Culling of the Fold,” but I wasn’t able to record the whole thing, since during his frenzied stalking of the stage, Meloy reached out and grabbed my iPhone as I was trying to take a picture of him (my wife made me promise I’ll never wash it again).


The following night’s show was a bit less inspired — maybe it was the crowd of “Where Fun Comes to Die” students, or maybe it was just that we had to sit for part of the show instead of being right up at the front of the stage — but it was still great. The highlight of the U of C show was when Meloy grabbed a fan’s video camera and created an on-the-fly Public Service Announcement (the PSA starts about 5 minutes in). And they finished with a rousing — and inspiring — version of “Sons and Daughters” that had everyone in the crowd singing along.

Esta un Perdedor: Beck at the Aragon (10/2)

(Last Friday I published a review of the 10/2 Beck show on the Lost Cartographers’ blog — figured I’d cross-post it here.)

For your average rock show, last night’s sold-out Beck show at the Aragon Ballroom was pretty damn good. There was an energetic crowd, a mix of old hits and new material, and very loud guitars. The thing is, Beck is not your average rock star. As one of the most consistently innovative artists of the last 15 years (Jesus, I feel old writing that), when you go to see Beck, you expect the unexpected: maybe some puppets, or entire songs played on dinnerware, or at least a little break-dancing. But aside from a three-song acoustic break and a slightly embarrassing borderline minstrel-show hip-hop bit in which all five band members grabbed head sets and drum machines and did everything but tell the lily-white crowd to throw their guns in the air and wave ’em like they just don’t care, last night’s show was essentially a straight-ahead stadium rock extravaganza. The only accoutrements in evidence were a giant projection screen in the background (featuring what appeared to be someone’s senior thesis in abstract expressionist film) and some nifty lights not unlike those Tom Petty brought to the United Center a couple months ago. Hell, Beck is even starting to look a little like Tom Petty. Don’t get me wrong: I love Tom Petty, and it was fun hearing rocked-out versions of old favorites like “Loser” and “Where It’s At,” but I expected more interesting stage antics — or at least a little amusing banter — from someone I’m not embarassed to refer to as a visionary. Of course, this hard-rock minimalism may just be the latest in Beck’s endless stream of transformations — but it’s certainly the least interesting one yet.

Come Find The Lost Cartographers At The Empty Bottle

The Lost Cartographers have hit the (kinda, sorta, in our minds at least) big-time. We’ll be playing Chicago’s legendary Empty Bottle on May 4 — our biggest show yet, taking place on the same stage where famous acts like the Flaming Lips once played. As part of the Bottle’s new “$3 Sunday” series, we’ll be joined by old-school country troubadors the Long Gone Lonesome Boys and singer-songwriter Heather Perry (whose drummer happens to be an old bandmate of mine from my freshman year at Oberlin). The show starts at 9pm and the cover is, unsurprisingly, $3 (you can buy tickets in advance).

Amitabh 2008: Yes, he can.

He’s back.

Amitabh (he needs two names about as much as Jesus does) has had many jobs over the years: Angry Young Man, (disgraced–er, retired) Member of Parliament, original host of the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?“, Bollywood’s Elder Statesman-cum-Answer to Chuck Norris… and now, future Prime Minister of the United States. You might remember the abortive 2004 campaign by the guys over at Badmash to get him elected president (I still regret not buying an “Amitabh for America” t-shirt), but they’re apparently changing tactics this time around by making him run for a different office entirely. When Gabbar Singh calls at 3am, isn’t this the man you want answering the phone? He makes McCain look like Ralph Wiggum.

Of course, to me, Amitabh will always be Anthony Gonzalves, erstwhile drunk and Christian hero of possibly the greatest movie ever made. In honor of the upcoming Easter holiday, please see this clip as proof that while Barack Obama may sound like Lincoln, only Amitabh can pull off the stovepipe hat.

(Want to hear my remix of this song? Check out my music page or my GarageBand page.)

Lost & Lonesome

Last Saturday, fellow Lost Cartographer Gabrielle Schafer and I played a short three-song acoustic set at the Charleston as the guests of the Long Gone Lonesome Boys. Aside from being incredibly nice guys, the Boys put on an amazing show, and the LGLBs’ John Milne was kind enough to give me a copy of their second cd, “Lonesome Time.” While the disc doesn’t quite capture the fun and energy of their live set, you should check it out if you enjoy 50s and 60s country along the lines of the Louvin Brothers or anything from Sun Records. Like fellow Chicagoan Robbie Fulks, the LGLBs provide this classic material with wicked wit and a decidedly 21st-century twist (e.g. one of their songs is called “www.lonesome.com,” and features the line “tired of Googling porn/and playing with my flugelhorn”). If you can catch them live, by all means do so — but if you can’t, you should pick up this record.

My Top Five Albums of 2007

Ok, it’s about a month too late for “best of ” lists, and the idea of “best albums” seems so 20th-century in this Age of Shuffle. But I still wanted to note some of my favorites from this year.

Surprisingly, some of my favorite bands’ eagerly anticipated new albums didn’t make the cut (Arcade Fire, the Shins, Wilco). Instead, my list is headed by two bands I found out about just this year: