Saturday, December 31, 2011

Downtown Music of the Year - Vocal Edition, part Deux

Without further ado, I count down the 5 best vocal albums of the year starting with...

5. Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge

The title track on Abigail Washburn's "City of Refuge" begins quite humbly. It's just an Appalachian Old-Time clawhammer banjo tune, dry and unadorned. The lyrics begin simply enough too. "I got a mother, I got a father," Washburn intones in her clear, cracker-barrel voice, seeming as an extension of the banjo sound itself. As the song continues, more sounds are added little by little. A droning accordion, crescendo, a second voice, fiddle, and before you know it, the world of Appalachian Old-Time music has been transformed. It has the sense of U2's castles-in-the-air aesthetic, but more tied to the land, organic.

The rest of the album explores this concept further, marrying American folk traditions with the grand gestures of arena rock, the quirky orchestrations of indie, and even some flavors from the Far East (Washburn has spent quite a bit of time in China. Ask her about the time she got thrown out of cab in Bejing for not doing a traditional Chinese song right). The fact that all these disparate sounds are wholly integrated is a result of healthy collaboration. Washburn's main songwriting partner Kai Welch brings along his piano and guitar chops and his rock-hewn instincts. The band is then filled out with great hired guns like Chris Funk of the Decemberists and guitarist Bill Frisell. And it's all guided by the steady hand of crack producer Tucker Martine.

The production values are a throwback just like the music itself - to a time when big studios were playgrounds for experimentation in addition to hit factories. With the marriage of tradition and experimentation, Washburn and co. have created an album with strong roots that allow it to grow into a lush, flowering tree. It's not a "something for everyone" kind of album, but a singular work that anyone can embrace.

4. Hazmat Modine - Cicada

Back in the days before amps and microphones, the way to get a roomful of people moving was to have a big band of loud instruments - trumpets, trombones, tuba, and plenty of drums - and set 'em loose. Singer/harmonicat Wade Schuman's Hazmat Modine (a hazardous central heater - they do blow some dangerously hot air) certainly harkens back to those days, but with an ear for diverse world styles that can only be of the moment.

The tunes on "Cicada" are an encyclopedic collection of old-school brass-band styles, from down-home blues and New Orleans second-line to calypso, ska, and even a bit of tango. The band of New York studio and theater virtuosos swings through each style with equal aplomb, creating arrangements with tight unison figures and unfettered, improvisatory joy. The seemingly-lost Stax records hit "I've Been Lonely For So Long" is positively booty shaking, especially on that killer outro (let go longer please!).

But the real stunner on this album is Schuman's voice. It's infinitely versatile, with a bluesman's gravel, a falsetto in the stratosphere, and anything in between. You spend the album's full runtime in slack-jawed amazement, good feeling piled upon good feeling. If we do actually suffer an apocalypse in 2012, thank goodness there will still be good music to make us happy that doesn't need to be plugged in.

3. The Roots - undun

People like to talk about the many different sides of The Roots. There's the greatest band in late nite side with Jimmy Fallon. There's the funky jam band side when they perform live. There's the crack studio band that backs up the likes of John Legend. And then there's the group that has made worldly, thoughtful hip-hop albums of their own for 20 years. Well I'd like to argue that there's only one side to The Roots. Or better yet, they make the case themselves on their terribly ambitious Hip-Hop concept album (or maybe an opera, or a film), "undun."

"undun" tells the story of one Redford Stephens in reverse, starting with his death and recounting the choices and events that brought him there. The album is both political and philosophical, dealing with issues of fate and free will, especially how these concepts relate to issues of urban poverty. A rotating cast of singers and rappers (Bilal, Big K.R.I.T, Phonte, and more) alongside Roots MC Black Thought illuminate the many different sides of Stephens' mind in a highly personal way. Stephens is everyman and no man, not a fully-drawn character, but a loose archetype brought to life by the personal experience of each vocalist.

The music that backs up these dark and potent ruminations shows just how much music is inside the head of de facto music director/drummer ?uestlove. The album runs the gauntlet of music styles from lush neo-soul to evocative film score to free-jazz freakout. Questo leads the band through all these varied styles with aplomb, breathing life into quantized grooves and synthesized soundscapes. In fact, the album's musical seed is the short piano prelude "Redford" from inscrutable indie darling Sufjan Stevens' "Michigan" album. Just the variety of music explored and appropriated on "undun" shows that The Roots don't see any walls between their personalities, it's all part of their huge and playful aesthetic.

"undun" is as much a true Hip-Hop album as "Sergeant Peppers'" was a true rock album. By embracing such disparate styles and even abstraction, these two albums push their respective genres into art music territory. It's clear that both are transcendent classics of their time and place. But as the last plaintive string chords ring out at the end of "undun," the question remains: what's next?

2. Donnacha Dennehy/Crash Ensemble - Grá Agus Bás

When I loaded this album onto my computer, for some reason iTunes decided to import the second half first, a setting of W.B. Yeats poems for the soprano Dawn Upshaw, called "That The Night Come." So when I pushed play after it finished, this was the first piece I heard.

And I got one of those ohmygod-massive-chills-I-don't-know-what-to-do moments.

I'm someone who believes that if you come up with a heavenly sound, there's no reason to move away from that. In that first part of the song cycle - "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead" - Dennehy magically concocts one of those heavenly soundworlds and sits there blissfully for four minutes (that I wish would go on for just a bit more!). The combination of string harmonics, high piano notes, electric guitar, bowed vibraphone, and smatterings of woodwinds congeals into one perfectly homogenous but ever-shifting mass. You feel as if you're suspended in a light-blue crystal, with little flashes of northern lights skipping across your gaze. This accompaniment doesn't feel like fancy dressing for the vocal line, but instead reverses the relationship. Upshaw must navigate her way through the texture carefully, not to disturb the delicate crystalline arrangement. She passes this treacherous test with flying colors, her warm voice becoming a true part within the gorgeous texture.

Dennehy is a true master of texture and orchestration and throughout this album, he creates many fascinating soundworlds to accompany the diverse moods of the text and diverse styles of singing. In contrast to Upshaw's clear operatic soprano on "That The Night Come," Iarla Ó Lionáird shows off his laser-beam, Sean-nos style voice on the album's title piece. To bring the music closer to its traditional origins, Dennehy experiments with more natural "just intonation" rather than the 12-note equal tempered tuning we're accustomed to. The piece is a 25-minute journey to the past and back, a luminous vision of a world we know only from memory.

1. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

So far on this list we've seen styles from around the world, unheard-of voices, kicking it old-school, embracing technology, party music, ponder music. They're all special, satisfying listening experiences, but there's a reason why they occupy spots 2 to 10.

Because tUnE-yArDs has it all. Merrill Garbus' sophomore album delivers on all the promise of her lo-lo-fi debut and then some. Her voice, from vulnerable whisper to terrifying scream, seems to come from some West African country who's name you forget, or may not actually exist. Armed with an array of loop pedals, she multiplies this powerful, acidic voice into a choir, or really a sonic army. Then there are the gut-busting drum beats, the enveloping bass lines of partner-in-jazz-crimes Nate Brenner, and some meaty dual-sax hooks that stir this mystic brew to a fever pitch. It's got the energy and let's-play-together vibe of a drum circle, but without the haphazard sonic construction. "w h o k i l l" is a party, whether it comes blasting out of a DJ sound system or your earbuds.

Garbus certainly has her way with words as well. The opening "My Country" is the official anthem of a partly-cloudy patriot, while "Gangsta" takes on the issues of cultural-musical appropriation present in Garbus' music itself. The infectious hooks and near-manic energy of all these songs make you want to listen again right after they've finished, and they reward you for it. Each time, you'll hear the composite riffs and beats a bit differently, realizing their gloriously human imperfections. It isn't music that's trying to be simply likable. It's so very human and puts itself out there without apology. And when music is this real and natural, you have to love it.

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