The iPod is back. After going missing for several weeks, the mini-monolith of music turned up tucked away in a drawer that no one uses, hidden among Christmas VHS tapes. Strange. Under the philosophy that all’s well that ends well, we have dropped the investigation and will chalk it up as a prank gone horribly awry.

It’s good to have the device back because suddenly I have a plethora of new tunes, thanks to a combination of libraries and holidays. Most mornings when I head out onto the pavement I try to listen to an entire new album. Once I feel I’ve absorbed them sufficiently I’ll leave everything in the shuffle. It’s always refreshing to have new music in the mix.

Map of the Floating CityToday—a brilliant and crisp morning with the sun cutting into my eyes like a knife—I listened to Thomas Dolby’s Map of the Floating City. I have written about Dolby earlier so all I will say about this 2011 effort is that it lives up to his usual high standards. Despite his reputation as a goofball (thanks to “She Blinded Me with Science” and other similar songs) Dolby has a streak of melancholy that runs through his work. That’s well represented on City. One of my favorite songs is “17 Hills,” about a convict gazing out from his cell on Alcatraz and thinking about when things all went wrong. It reaches a level of near-transcendence when Mark Knopfler’s guitar kicks in. “The Toad Lickers” is on the other end of the spectrum, a goofy line-dancing stomp with great fiddle by Natalie Master. Highly recommended.

The video for Toadlickers is pretty damned odd, too:

head and the heartThe library loaned me what is rapidly becoming my favorite CD of 2012. It’s The Head and the Heart by the band of the same name. I had heard their songs a lot on the radio, especially on WNRN, a station I first heard one December night when I was driving home from Virginia. (The song I discovered that night was “A Heavy Abacus” by the Joy Formidable.) I started streaming the station at work and often heard songs by the band but nothing that really stuck in my head until one day they played “Lost in my Mind” and I just sat up and took notice. It’s a great, passionate song. A quick search of the local library’s catalog showed me they had the CD and I soon checked it out. The whole album is a delight—folksy, tuneful, emotional, great harmonies, no frills. I love it and have been playing it a lot.

Here’s the video to “Lost in My Mind”:

Some NightsSome Nights by fun is another album I got from the library. I had heard “We Are Young” plenty of times on the radio without getting particularly excited but I really enjoyed the band’s performance on a recent Saturday Night Live. Some Nights is a decent album—starting strongly with “Some Nights (Intro),” a quasi-cabaret song that makes me think the band has listened to a lot of Queen in its time. Someplace Freddy Mercury is smiling. The album continues strongly with “Some Nights,” “We Are Young” and “Carry On,” all excellent, inspiring songs. The rest of the album is not quite as good and overall it depends way too much on the Vocoder, the curse of modern music. In a fair and just world Cher would be exiled to an island someplace for the crime of “Believe,” the song that made the world go Vocoder mad. She can share her exile with Jamie Foxx, doing life without parole for “Blame in on the Alcohol,” a song as enjoyable as the sensation of having white-hot nails driven through my ears. And I heard it a lot back in the days before my kids received their driver’s licenses and I no longer had to cart them around and listen to their radio stations as I did so. Other than that, I like Some Nights.

Here’s the “Carry On” video (Warning: Suspenders):

kisses on the bottomThere is no Vocoder on Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom, Mr. Thumbs Aloft’s cheeky new dip into the Great American songbook and another contribution from my library. (Thanks, Cumberland County Library System!) Normally I shun the attempts of pop artists to go all Sinatra on us. I mean, I was once unfortunate enough to wander into range of a radio that was playing Cyndi Lauper’s attempt to mine that vein and I thought I was listening to a SNL parody. But, no. She was serious as a heart attack and about as much fun. Rod Stewart has also recreated himself as a Sinatra-esque crooner and has inflicted a never-ending series of Great American Songbook CDs on an unsuspecting world. I heard one of his songs on the radio, too, and felt nothing but despair. Why do people buy that stuff when they can get the real thing? As H.L. Mencken once said, you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. If I were king of the world Cyndi Lauper and Rod Stewart would be on that island with Cher and Jamie.

Yet, I was willing to give Macca a chance. For one thing, he enlisted Diana Krall and her band for his album, which struck me as a good choice. And it’s not bad. It’s also not something the world actually needed, but pleasurable enough.

I received another embarrassment of riches when I received an email from Amazon that I had $3.00 in MP3 credits that I had to use. I download three songs—“Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men—and a couple of Hoodoo Gurus songs I had once purchased from iTunes before they mysteriously vanished from my computer. (Perhaps I’ll find a pile of zeroes and ones hidden away in a drawer someplace.) While I was on Amazon I learned I could also download MP3s of any CDs I had purchased from them—even CDs we had bought to give away as presents. So I got Willie Nelson’s Milk Cow Blues, Rosanne Cash’s The List, and John Fogerty’s The Blue Ridge Rangers Ride Again. Not bad.

sunken condosBut wait, there’s more! My in-laws gave me a Visa gift card for Christmas, so that meant I could add even more tunes to my stash. One CD I had been really jonesing for was Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos. I didn’t even know it was in the works until I heard WXPN play “I’m Not the Same Without You.” I’m a life-long Steely Dan fan and I have enjoyed Fagen’s solo work. Sunken Condos doesn’t bring any surprises to the party but it’s one of his better works—I’d say his best since The Nightfly. In general the songs are a little tighter than those on Kamakiriad and Morph the Cat. Life all his stuff, Condos is an impeccably crafted platter of jazz pop, with some excellent solos. Standout songs are “Weather in My Head” and “Out of the Ghetto.” The latter is an Isaac Hayes song and Fagen and a tight band give it their best white-folk funk finish. It’s also raises some interesting questions about racial politics. What does it mean when a white guy sings, “I took you out of the ghetto/But I could not get that ghetto out of you”? Frankly, I don’t know. But the song is excellent and it’s good to hear Fagen’s world-weary vocals on some new material.

Here’s a video someone’s posted for “Out of the Ghetto”:

Ftokyo bluesrom the pop jazz of Fagen I went to the real jazz of Horace Silver with The Tokyo Blues. Silver actually has a Steely Dan connection of sorts, for the “boooom BOOM BOOM, boooom BOOM BOOM” bass line of “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” seems to owe an awful lot to Silver’s “Song for My Father.” I wanted to get The Tokyo Blues ever since I heard “Sayonara Blues” on the radio one day when I was driving home from New York City. It’s a long song—over 12 minutes—and I was beginning to reach the limits of the signal and was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t find out what the song was. But my daughter has some music identification app on her phone and was able to i.d. the song that way. Ah, technology! It’s not all evil stuff like Vocoders and auto-tune.

lonesome dreamsOne day while I sat half-slumbering in my easy chair with XPN streaming over my computer I heard a song that slowly dragged me up from the depths to full consciousness. It was “Time to Run” by a band called Lord Huron (make sure to pronounce that “H” or people might think you’re saying Lord Urine. Come to think of it, isn’t a bad name for a band). I immediately liked the song and got the CD Lonesome Dreams with my gift card. It’s a strong album, with songs that sound like the aural equivalent of a sepia-toned photograph. As the CD title indicates, they sound like songs that would emerge from a dream, so my first introduction to the band was kind of perfect.

My final CD was a blast from the past—Falling off the Sky by the dBs. When I first heard “The Falling off the SkyWonder of Love” on the radio I nearly fell off my chair. It was like the song had been beamed into my ears from the 1980s, when the band recorded one of my favorite albums from that decade, Like This. The new album is indeed a great return to form from this reformed band. It’s been almost 30 years since Like This came out and the dBs realize that, as you can tell from song titles like “That Time is Gone” and “Far Away and Long Ago.” But they remain tuneful and catchy and, to quote the Great American Songbook, that’s alright with me.

Love This GiantP.S. Jeez! How could I forget Love This Giant, the collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent!? I got that one, too. Lots of brass. Everything Byrne does is worth a listen and this one is worth even more than that, even if he does take on some familiar obsessions of his (being naked, being like an ape, watching TV).  I especially love “The One Who Broke Your Heart.” If it doesn’t make you feel good then you’re too far gone. Here’s a video of a live performance. I have something of a personal connection with the venue–it’s the Strathmore Arts Center outside Washington, which was where I had my wedding reception, way back in . . . well, before the concert hall there even existed. (Warning: More suspenders.)

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