Listed: Ken Stringfellow + Bill Wells
Bellingham, Washington native Ken Stringfellow has had a hand in some of the most critically acclaimed pop project of the past fifteen years. He first made his name as co-founder of the Posies. While their crisp power pop tunes were beloved by critics, their label let them go after two records. Stringfellow continued to release records under the name Saltine, and eventually under his own name, including 2001's Touched (Manifesto). He filled Chris Bell's considerably large shoes as Alex Chilton's partner in various revisions of Big Star, a band that was clearly influential in much of Stringfellow's songwriting. Stringfellow has also toured as a member of REM (appearing on their most recent record), and has worked as a member of Scott McCaughy's Minus Five. Stringfellow's latest album, Soft Commands (Yep Roc), is a surprisingly mellow, Bacharach-esque lounge-pop songs.
1. Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter - Until lately, I had been a Seattle resident for some 18 years, and somehow, I had managed to miss seeing Jesse perform with her band. And we were all in the same ‘hood -- the very Not -Depressed Ballard. They passed thru my newly adopted home of Paris, in fact in my newly adopted ‘hood, Bastille (the metro line I live on does terminate in ‘Balard’, tho’) and played, to a packed house, some of the most intense, quiet, and beautiful songs I had heard in some time. I usually get squirmy seeing bands when I don’t know the repertoire, or even bands I do love when they play their ‘we just wrote this’ bits (when they aren’t good). But I was able to stand/sit in amongst the other rapt attendees for the 2+ hour show without a trace of discontent. The instrumentation and interplay -- acoustic guitar, single-note electric guitar, electrified viola, upright bass and drums is expertly delivered. And Jesse has a marvelous voice—rough enough to keep things from getting precious, but never salty or anything other than gentle and…here’s a word that must come up in her clippings -- aching.
Recommended listening: Oh, My Girl (Fargo Rec., France)
2. The Residents - They have written songs about innumerable subjects, from the Bible’s weirdest tales to a parable likening Dick Clark to Hitler. They have reinvented themselves innumerable times, but always within the same orb-capped guises, and with results so cryptic (in their own word) that you can never really be sure what it is they are trying to communicate. Sure, it’s based on song-stories of the Eskimos. Or an urgent need to be in Byzantine Istanbul. They tell you everything, but can you decipher it? If the best art is ambiguous, then the Residents preside over all covers.
Recommended listening: Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses (Rykodisc)
3. Gary Jules - I have a record that I finished earlier this year, coming out in July. And now I hear this record, and I wish that I had made his instead. Thanks, guy.
Recommended listening: Trading Snake Oil for Wolf Tickets (Universal)
4. Snowglobe - Memphis’ best young band? They have two great songwriters, cool instrumentation, and they have the perfect amount of hopeful melancholy, such as that which inhabits most of the music I love. Built to Spill with Calexico’s horns? Sort of, but it’s much better than that.
Recommended listening: Snowglobe (Bardot Records)
5. John Frusciante - When I was in high school in Bellingham WA, the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed at the local university (the opening act was none other than the amazing Snakefinger, who not only performed on many of the Residents’ recordings, but had had a band in the UK called Chili Willi and the Red Hot Peppers!). It was the perfect show for a 16 or 17 year old -- punk and what was then called rap mixed with testosterone and rampant silliness. Then Hilel Slovak died, Nirvana happened, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are now more like the .38 Special of our day -- AOR stalwarts who grow the right mustache but are more polished than a Marine’s dress shoes. Somehow, after blowing Warner’s coffers on two unlistenable solo efforts, this guy goes off and makes a basic, solid, enjoyable pop-rock record. It’s not supposed to work like that!
Recommended listening: Shadows Collide With People (Warner Bros.)
6. Little Milton - Little Milton is my hero. He’s still going strong, playing wicked guitar thru a monstrous amp, and singing at an almost operatic level. I find him related in delivery and style to B.B. King, but much more real, not showbiz. But let it not be said that Milton can’t put on a show -- he’s had over 40 years of experience testifying the blues in public.
Recommended listening: Guitar Man (Malaco Rec.)
7. The Replacements - Remember when this was the ultimate band? And they could deliver 8 songs in 15 minutes, and they were all great?
Recommended listening: Stink (Restless/Twin Tone)
8. Paris - In Paris, DJ nights are a dime a dozen and indie bands charge 25 bucks at the door! It’s crazy!
9. The Soft Pink Truth - This is one of those records I bought for the weird cover, at the FNAC in Paris. And it turned out to be, weirdly enough, weird. I love that.
Recommended listening: Do You Party? (Soundslike Rec.)
10. Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis - You want to hear something really weird? A meticulously made early 1950s recording of a man playing furious ragtime-y tack piano -- and amazingly, it was a hit, resuscitating a career that had fizzled 20 years previously and allowing him to tour steadily until his death. Mr. Lewis was rediscovered when a famed jazz record producer found him working at a car wash in Chicago. I love happy endings! And this is my little happy ending -- abientot.
Recommended listening: Tidal Boogie (Tradition Rec.)
Scottish jazz musician Bill Wells is the go-to man in the Glasgow scene for superior arrangements, having worked with Belle & Sebastian, The Pastels, Arab Strap, Future Pilot AKA, Telstar Ponies, and many others. He is also one of very few who can claim formal connection to Ennio Morricone and Sun Ra. His Bill Wells Octet has been operational for fifteen years, mixing the cadences of floral soundtracks and epic rock within a loose jazz context. Entirely self-taught, the Falkirk-based musician has released a number of albums as Bill Wells Trio and Bill Wells Octet, and currently works with Isobel Campbell (formerly of Belle & Sebastian). His new album, Pick Up Sticks (Leaf) is a collaboration between Wells, famed trombonist Annie Whitehead and To Rococo Rot’s Stefan Schneider, with contributions from Berlin-based singer-songwriter Barbara Morgenstern. Building on the reputation of his last Bill Wells Trio release, Also In White (Geographic), Pick Up Sticks sees Wells moving away from his piano-based work with the emphasis shifting to a warm, engaging group sound, coloured with the tonality of Whitehead’s trombone and Schneider’s distinctive electronic vocabulary.
1. Van Dyke Parks - Wall Street - Van Dyke Parks does the seemingly impossible by taking as his the subject of the events of 9/11 and crafting them into a song which is at once witty and clever but also deeply moving. It's hard to think of anyone else on the planet that could actually achieve this and it's gratifying to think that he still seems willfully out of step with any of the current trends in music. At the moment it's only available (free!) as an mp3 download from www.songcycler.de/music/wallstreet.html. Actually his name alone (for me at any rate) has such positive connotations about it that it almost seems to light up anytime I even see it written anywhere.
2. Syreeta Wright - Syreeta and Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta - These records are really Stevie Wonder records in disguise; he produces/plays/writes/co-writes and even sings a bit. They were recorded at a time when he was on such a roll ('72 and '74) that he could seemingly do no wrong. The first one seems only slightly less well realized with a couple of non-originals, although one of the covers on it is possibly the most interesting track; they take the Beatles 'She's leaving Home,' transforming a very English pop song; all straight eighths, strings and harp into typical Wonder of that period, complete with syncopated synth bass line and processed backing vocals (both these albums also feature the additional production talents of Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil). It sounds an extremely unlikely idea for a cover but it totally works and highlights the role of the production alone in all the S. W. records of that time. On the second one Wonder either writes or co-writes everything so there's not a weak track on it - the second side especially (all segued) comes over like a twenty minute train of melodic thought from a key musician at the height of his powers, for me it's some of the best (and least well known) pop music ever.
3. The Brotherhood of Breath - Live at Willisau - I often go to jazz gigs where the best bit of the night is the band tuning up. One of the things that immediately impressed me about this lot (apart from the name) was that when I did see them live it was hard to know when they'd finished tuning up and when they had actually started playing. The line-up of this band reads like a who's who of great British free jazz musicians - Evan Parker,Lol Coxhill,Mike Osborne etc. etc., although it was led by a South African (Chris McGregor) and featured at its core his band the Blue Notes, including such amazing players as Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza. Forget the recent 'Total Guitar' poll, the first track 'Do It' contains the single greatest riff of all time.
4. Bruford - Feels Good To Me - A good jazz-rock record as unlikely as that may sound. I thought I'd better have a listen to it again just to see if it still stands up and although some of the brass type synth sounds haven't worn too well and there's some annoyingly clever clever stuff there's still a lot to recommend it; the writing of the leader for a start. There are some really memorable melodies in among the bars of 11/8 or whatever; real characters in the line-up such as Dave Stewart (the talented one) and Allan Holdsworth, one of the most unique voices on guitar ever. But it's the guest players -- Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn and Annette Peacock, a singer whose very presence on a recording (for me at least) -- makes it worth owning that actually elevate it into some kind of emotional experience (not exactly something you readily associate with most of that genre).
5. Richard Rodgers - virtually everything. - If he had only been responsible for the songs with either Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein 2nd then his place in 20th century popular music as one of the major figures would have been assured, but to actually have been responsible for them both almost defies belief. Great long sweeping statements of melody too,not just variations on a phrase (although he could do that as well when he wanted). The greatest and most prolific melodist ever, bar none.
6. Gary McFarland - America the Beautiful - A jazz arranger who actually appreciated the simplicity of pop music. Much of his output, especially the cover versions, sounds superficially close to easy listening/muzak but there's always something there that has his signature; his use of solo cello for instance along with his distinctly non-virtuosic vibes playing.His definitive recording is probably 'America the Beautiful' although it's a bit of a flawed masterpiece where some of the solos don't quite live up to the arrangements but it's essential listening nevertheless.
7. Jimi Hendrix - Red House - This cd was only available with a book of transcriptions of Hendrix solos and the entire record is made up of different versions of the song "Red Housem" as such it's a fascinating insight into the sheer variety of moods and ideas within Hendrix's blues playing. I've always thought of him as a jazz guitarist but more in a line from Coltrane or Ayler than from the likes of actual jazz guitarists such as (e.g.) Joe Pass or Barney Kessel.
8. The Nolans - Chemistry - I suppose for most people, if they even know the group, it would be a more likely contender for their bottom 10 than their top and for those that don't. The Nolans were a sort of Irish, girl version of the Osmonds except there was 4 of them and they were less talented. The main reason I chose this is that there's a single really lovely chord change in it (the first one in the chorus where the bass goes to the flat fifth - yes, shame on me for writing that but I don't mind knowing these things) which for me makes the whole thing worthwhile. Actually,although it doesn't fit the argument so well, I do think the whole song is pretty good, however it's a bit too difficult for them to sing; there's a particularly gruesome held note right in the middle section, anyway the main point I'm tying to make is that I at least, don't have to like all or even most of something to find it appealing enough to want to listen to, and indeed to even own.
9. Beethoven - 2nd movement of Symphony No. 7 - I do tend to like tunes that are literally monotonous. I can think of a good few of Lennon's that fit into that category; the beginning of "Help," say, or "Lucy in the Sky,'"also some of Jobim's music such as "How Insensitive" or "One Note Samba" where the emphasis is much more on the harmony. It does tend to happen more in songs of course where there is the added distraction of the words, but the above piece is a great example of how effective that type of idea can be.
10. Gil Evans - There Comes a Time - In the latter part of his career most Gil Evans albums were recorded live and could be accordingly patchy. This however, a studio recording from the mid seventies is one of his absolute best ever combining electronic and big band sounds within both short arrangements of conventionally structured pieces such as Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" and long sprawling riff-based workouts such as the Tony Williams penned title track. Completely underrated and way ahead of it's time.
By Dusted Magazine