Rune Grammofon 50th ReleaseEvery year, in the back of my head, in a place that really doesn’t matter to anyone other than myself and possibly a couple of my more seriously hardcore music friends, I pick out my favorite record labels each year. I comprise this list in a rather rough way, based on how many releases I enjoy by that label out of their total slate for the year, the packaging on those releases, and if the label has been putting out interesting stuff on a consistent basis (this last qualifier makes it hard for a new label to shoot to the top of said list during their first or even second year).

Having said all of the above, I’m going to have to pick out Rune Grammofon as my favorite label of 2006. While none of their releases knocked me for a loop as much as some of their past efforts, I enjoyed every single thing that they put out this year (okay, maybe not so much the Moha!), and most of their releases were simply outstanding. Supersilent’s 7 is worth watching at least once simply to see the mindblowing senergy of great live, improvisational musicians, the re-issue of the self-titled album from Phonophani is killer, Come Up For Air by The White Birch will be among my favorites for the year, and both Humcrush (Hornswoggle) and Susanna and The Magic Orchestra (Melody Mountain) put out excellent second albums. Throw in continued great packaging design from Kim Hiorthoy and the result is an adventurous label putting out some of the more exciting music being released over the course of the past couple years (Deathprod still has sections of just about every single gloomy day all carved out to himself).

In a close second place this year is long-time favorite Kranky Records, who not only largely moved to a different packaging look, but had one of their strongest batch of releases in several years. The latest Charalambides (A Vintage Burden) is a stunner, the debut from Benoit Pioulard (Precis) is outstanding, and Keith Fullerton Whitman released some of his best work (in my opinion) on the Lisbon EP. Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, the label continued their track record of mind-melting ambient releases with great stuff from Chihei Hatakeyama (Minima Moralia) and Tim Hecker (Harmony In Ultraviolet). Hopefully they’ll just keep on kicking my butt in 2007…

Lastly, I figure I should mention Type Records. They’re still kinda the new kids on the block, but they’ve been coming on strong the past two years with some excellent releases and a constant great look with their packaging (and their website). As a smaller label, it seems like they’re doing just about everything right and have some nice little branches that extend out from their regular release schedule (from the excellent downloadable podcasts to the limited 7″ releases). They’re definitely someone to keep an eye on.

And They All Sang by Studs Terkel When I heard that Studs Terkel had a new(er) book out that was comprised entirely of interviews with musicians, singers, and composers, I did my best to track it down right away and move it to the top of my must-read pile. If you’ve been looking at this site at all in the past year, you know that Terkel is one of my favorite compilers of the human condition with his writing. He consistently manages to conjure up some of the most meaningful statements I’ve ever read, and the words usually come from “ordinary” people.

And They All Sang differs from his other books in part because all the people he interviews within are rather well known (at least within their particular field). Even though I follow music in general rather closely, I have to admit ignorance in terms of many of the people in the book (mainly opera singers and conductors).

While the above fact didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, I feel like it did hold back what I got out of it. The first one-third to one-half of the book focuses in on these singers and their craft before moving on to different sections that focus on composers (including Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland) that I really enjoyed a lot. From there, he’s onto jazz (including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Keith Jarrett), blues/folk/rock (including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Janis Joplin), and even includes an interview with Alan Lomax.

Out of all the interviews, the ones with Seeger and Lomax were by far my favorite. The Dylan interview was interesting, but like many done at the peak of his early mysterious phase, it seems much more leading and even slightly more fawning than Terkel usually gets. Seeger flat out had an interesting life and is an amazing storyteller, while as expected Lomax has some great tales to tell as well. His recollections of carrying around the amazingly heavy early “portable” recording equipment are practically worth the price of the book alone.

As a whole, And They All Sang had some great moments, but didn’t engage me quite as much as the usual work from Terkel. If I had a larger appreciation for opera, I probably would have enjoyed the book all the way through, and while there were definitely still interesting things to glean from their interviews, I wished I could relate more.

At approximately 7:20 a.m. this morning, I turned 32 years old. I was still sleeping at that juncture, and would continue to sleep for approximately 1 hours and 20 minutes past that time, which was only one nice part of a very good day. After waking up, I did a bit of internet reading, then opened some presents from TG (books! books! books!) then played with the dogs in the backyard before TG and I met up with some friends at a local Indian restaurant for an all you can eat buffet. It’s one of my favorite meals in town.

After lunch, we went to an opening at the textile gallery that TG helped curate, then came home and went for a walk with the dogs, as the sun was already starting to retreat at 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon. We both got some writing done, then had some dinner and a bit of carrot cake (also one of my favorites). To close it all out, we watched a couple Kids In The Hall episodes (including the infamous “Sausages!” skit) and again did some writing. All in all, a great day. I look completely goofy in the accompanying photo, but I guess that’s part of having a birthday too.

32nd birthday cake

After 2000 and 2004, I made a conscious effort this year to try and not get excited about any sorts of possibilities for Democratic gains in mid-term elections. I’d been burnt too many times, and while there were candidates that I was really excited about, I did my best to contain any real excitement that they in fact could possibly win, while talking to everyone who would listen about how great they were.

Now, election day has come and gone and the Dems have managed to gain control in both the Senate and the House. They picked up 6 seats in the former and what is currently a minimum of 29 in the latter (with several still being contested). They picked up several governor spots and didn’t lose an incumbent seat in either the Senate or the House. All in all, it was a rather amazing night of events.

A couple local candidates (Scott Kleeb and Jim Esch) that I was really impressed with didn’t win their races, but they’re both young and I have a feeling that each one of them will be back again in the near future. In addition, a crazy proposed amendment that I think really would have hurt our state (especially our educational institutions) went down in flames and our very own Ben Nelson (who’s not my favorite Senator, but anyway…) wiped the floor with a wingnutter opponent. I guess there were a few bright spots in the state.

On a national level, the Dems have now been put into an interesting spot. They’ve been given a majority, which I hope that they actually use to get some important issues tackled. The vultures will be waiting with knives drawn for any mis-steps, and I’m hoping for the good of the country that some party differences can be swallowed for the greater good at some point. Given the political climate of the past couple years, that’s a hell of an order, but for now my glass is half full (after seeming near empty for so, so long).

I mentioned it awhile back in my music review section (mainly because that’s where the lions share of traffic goes on my site), but roughly two weeks ago I passed two million page views for the year. That’s not hits, nor individual users (which most people probably gauge their worth on), but nonetheless it was a minor milestone for my little domain, which has grown in traffic a little bit each year since launching it.

With the music reviews being the largest part of the growth, I’ve actually had several times in the past couple years where I’ve considered putting ads into the section. I’ve been approached by several different labels asking about rates for placing ads, yet I’ve never even seriously considered it. With creating podcasts and trying to listen to everything, I’m spending more time per week than ever actually thinking and putting work into the section, yet for some reason I still feel weird about trying to take the next step and putting ads up. For some reason it feels like it would be impartial, even though the spots would obviously be paid for. It’s something that may happen in the future at some point, yet I can say it probably won’t be any time soon.

All of the above said, I’ve seen the stats for this blog and there are a lot more readers here than I thought there would be. Who’s sleuthing me?

Paul Wellstone 1944-2002We lost a great one four years ago today.

At the time it happened, I didn’t know a whole lot about Paul Wellstone, as I had just gone through a re-awakening on more of a national and local level just before the turn of the century.

After his death, I read a lot more about his work, including his speeches and his ideas and policies and came to the conclusion that our country would certainly be a much better place if there were a lot more people like Paul Wellstone working in politics.

Aaron (formerly one-fifth of Marianas, a great designer, and a weekly tennis chap of mine) is now officially the first member of our group to actually put some music out into a public forum in a new band. Humland made their live debut the other evening with a soaring batch of songs (the tracks on their aforementioned myspace page don’t really do them service) that work the intricate post rock tip nicely. They even played a cover/reworking of the Marianas track “Good God Damn” (off our Summering EP) that was quite surreal to hear as a non-participating audience member.

And speaking of A.M. (after Marianas) projects, Ryan and I are indeed still working on our little project. It is coming along slowly but surely, with several evenings per month looking like this in my living room…

Ryan recording...

I took a photo of the back of our house about two months ago and it’s been sitting on the desktop of my computer since then. My original thought when taking the photo was to show off the huge grapevines growing on our pergola or how big the tomato plants were just outside the back door of our house. TG had just found a great old metal lawn chair at a garage sale for five dollars and we managed to get some good use out of it sitting in the later summer sun.

After several hard frosts in our area, though, just about everything that was flourishing in the photo is now dying. The tomato plants are completely decimated, nothing more than floppy, wet strands bent over the metal cages that used to barely hold them up, while the leaves on the grapevines have all turned brown and are starting to fall into the grass (which has also lost a lot of its color).

Instead of the fresh smell of basil greeting you when walking out the back door, it’s now the slightly pungent aroma of vegetables starting to rot. We need to take the time to cut everything back and put all our vegetable cages into the shed for the winter, but we either haven’t had the heart yet, or the time. We’re getting close to finally using up the last of the peppers that we picked, and while we did manage to save a few tomatoes and sack them up in a paper bag for continued ripening, it’s just not quite the same as picking them fresh.

There’s a possibility of snow in the forecast for tomorrow, so I decided to finally post the picture of the green backyard for reference over the course of the next couple desolate months.
backyard and house

Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly I’m not a huge fan of “talk like a pirate day,” nor have I seen either of the Pirates of the Carribean movies, but I have to admit at least a partial fascination with pirates. I mean, who doesn’t have one? I suppose it goes back to my days of youth (where forest forts became a perfect place for swashbuckling daydreams) a little more than recent times, but continuing my non-fiction kick for the year, I decided to tackle Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly.

The book was recommended quite some time back by friend and former band-mate Tom (hi, Tom!), and TG bought the book and sped through about 75 pages only to deposit it on the lower level of our nightstand and leave it for dead. Not quite ready to tackle a book on World War II right on the heels of one on World War I, I thought some lighter fare on pirates might be good.

As it turns out, Cordingly’s book is very well researched and is an interesting look at both the facts and fictions behind how pirates have been portrayed over the ages. It was interesting to see a lot of the romantic misconceptions get blown out of the water (pun sort of intended), as well as some of the more brutal elements brought into focus. Yes, there was a lot of drinking and galavanting on the high seas, but in most cases this sort of a lifestyle meant for a very short lifespan and if death didn’t come by disease or battle wounds, it came by hanging (after which the corpse was usually coated in tar and placed in a large metal cage at port entries as a warning to others) after pirate activity was cracked down more severly by the British government.

At roughly 250 pages, the book was also a speedy read, with some interesting drawings, maps, and illustrations to boot. If you think that the pirates life was all Errol Flynn style swashbuckling and loveable rogues like a drunken Johnny Depp, this might be a good book to check out.

Steve Reich - Phases (A Retrospective)Many, many years ago, I found a CD in a markdown bin at a music store in the town that I was going to college in. It was a CD by the Orb and it became one of my real jumping off points to electronic music and one of my favorite CDs of that time. On this CD, the group sampled a bit of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” (in “Little Fluffy Clouds”), although I wouldn’t know that for some time afterwards.

Several years later, after I was out of college, I was told about a piece of music called “Different Trains,” which was a collaboration between Kronos Quartet (who I really liked at the time, and were the foundation for said conversation) and Steve Reich. I purchased this CD and it blew my mind. It was really unlike anything I had heard at the time (even from Kronos Quartet, whose “Howl U.S.A.” has similar musical touchpoints, yet I hadn’t heard at that point in time), and it subsequently moved me enough to seek out more work by Steve Reich.

The first purchase that I made was Music For 18 Musicians and it quickly became one of my favorite pieces of music in my entire collection (and still is). It’s one of those amazing, timeless pieces of music that seems to encompass everything I love about music. If you listen to it in certain situations, it can sound driving and almost relentless, yet put into another listening context can sound weightless and ethereal. It’s truly one of those rare pieces of music that I can listen to at any point during any given day, whether I’m happy or sad and know that I’ll enjoy it.

Over the years, I’ve picked up several more CDs by Steve Reich and enjoyed almost everything that I’ve heard by him. In sort of a roundabout way, I learned that he was having his 70th birthday this month (it was on October 3rd), and in doing so it re-ignited my fascination with his music. Even though I already had a good portion of the music contained on it, I went ahead and purchased the recently-released 5CD Phases: A Retrospective compilation on Nonesuch Records. Not only is the set a better introduction to his music, but it’s also much cheaper than his super expensive 10CD set on the same label. After listening to the set again straight through several times, I can honestly say that I feel it’s essential. It not only includes the aforementioned “Music For 18 Musicians,” but also his stunning “Drumming” (the shorter version), “Different Trains,” his earliest tape loop piece (“Come Out”), his newest composition (“You Are (Variations”) and even “Electric Counterpoint,” which was the song I mentioned waaaay back at the beginning, which was sampled by The Orb. There’s also a ton of other music, and each disc runs well over seventy minutes, making for a huge batch of listening.

But anyway, enough shilling. In honor of his birthday, NPR re-ran an interview that Reich did with Terry Gross a couple years back, and while it’s several years old, it’s still worth listening to. The interview was done in 1999 when Reich was 63, but it’s still amazing to hear how vibrant and excited about creating art he still is at his age. If you’re someone who likes to listen to someone who is well-spoken talk about their art and the thought processes that go into it, I highly recommend the interview. It’s worth noting that listening to said interview, I learned that his last name is actually pronounced “Reish.” I’d been pronouncing it incorrectly for years and years.

I can honestly say that Steve Reich is one of those composers/musicians who have changed my life for the better, even if it’s just a little bit. For that, I want to wish him a happy birthday and many more productive years doing what he loves.

Oh, and I’m also sorry about the name. I promise to pronounce it correctly from now on.

« Previous PageNext Page »