My friend Jette started this … "initiative" in 2000 to write everyday in the month of December as a holiday gift to her readers. She got a few people to do the same, and now seven years later, Holidailies attracts hundreds of participants. It’s not the phenomenon of, say, NaNoWriMo, but both ideas pretty much came together at the same time.
I’ve participated in Holidailies before but not with this site. I could probably stretch out the backlog of reviews for an entire month, but that kind of commitment can really interfere when other things are happening. I still have a bunch of Eponymous 4 stuff I’m trying to get done, and these days, the studio trumps the web sites every time.
So instead, I’ll resort to the dreaded capsule reviews, that nether world between a one-sentence impression and a full-blown entry. Here’s what I might have written about had I participated in Holidailies this year.
Béla Bartók, Complete String Quartets, Vermeer Quartet
Last year, I explored all 15 string quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich, and I wanted to hear more works of the same ilk. For some reason, I thought Ludwig Van Beethoven’s late quartets would be a good follow-up, but it really wasn’t what I was looking for. The Bartók quartets are what I should have listened to. These wildly-chromatic, rhythmically-dense works really makes harsh demands on the players. Experts aren’t exaggerating when they call the Bartók quartets defining works of the 20th Century. It’s the first time I’ve ever listened to these quartets — well, Kronos did record the third on White Man Sleeps — but they left me stunned anyway.
Nothing sounds more wrong on paper than mixing indie rock guitars with dance club beats, but ex-Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould and DJ Richard Morel somehow manage to strike a fine balance between the two. If gay bars played more of this kind of music, I’d probably hang out there more. The combo does seem to favor the guitars more than the beats, so the music may not make for a great DJ set. But I hang out at rock clubs more than gay bars anyway, so I wouldn’t mind.
Bruce Brubaker, Hope Street Tunnel Blues
There are only two pieces by Alvin Curran on this latest recital disc by pianist Bruce Brubaker, but they’re the most memorable pieces on the album. Hope Street Tunnel Blues focuses on works by Philip Glass and Curran, and the Glass pieces are … well, Glass pieces. I still remember Alex Ross’ remark about Glass launching Microsoft Arpeggio and having lunch with Richard Gere.
Café Tacvba, Sino
Cuatros Caminos was an incredibly forceful album. It was hard not to like it, given how strongly the band played and how the songwriting was spot-on. There’s a lot more ambition on Sino, but that fire from four years ago seems to have dulled a bit. Sino is actually reminiscent of Re in the way it jumps from style to style, all the while filtered through Mexican rhythms and harmonies. But like Re, the breadth of the material can feel somewhat scattered.
Camper Van Beethoven, Telephone Free Landslide Victory
My first Camper Van Beethoven album was Key Lime Pie, and it’s the album that seems to get shat upon by critics the most. I like it, if only because I didn’t have much of a reference point for the band’s other works. Even after listening to Telephone Free Landslide Victory, I still like Key Lime Pie, probably better than Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, but I understand why some folks wouldn’t like it. Telephone Free Landslide Victory is packed with tracks, but the songs are quick and to-the-point. The band hadn’t quite yet integrated the Middle Eastern influences into their whimsical writing, but the seeds of such a gestation were already apparent.
Hem, Home Again, Home Again
Hem’s last album, Funnel Cloud, attempted to expand the band’s sound while still maintaining the lush arrangements of their first two albums. A lot of filler and odd track sequencing deflated the album. Home Again, Home Again achieves the same goals with less material and stronger songwriting. In fact, I much prefer Home Again, Home Again over Funnel Cloud. If Hem were to record an album entirely of faster tracks, I would be very much gratified. The genteel sound is great, but they’re not shabby when they pick the pace up.
Hey Willpower, Dance EP
Ha! Were that more indie rockers would find value in radio pop compressed and Autotuned to death (to use the phrase Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste used to describe pop chanteuse Jojo.) Imperial Teen’s Will Schwartz is absolutely sincere about his love for radio pop, and it makes Dance EP wonderfully fun. Myself I’d probably listen to more Nick Lachey and Mary J. Blige if it didn’t feel like the aural equivalent of drinking too much Pepsi.
In Tua Nua, When Night Came Down on Sunset
In Tua Nua recorded When Night Came Down on Sunset in 1989, a year before the band broke up. Something about the production of the album just screams 1989. Is it the Charmaine Burch/Tessa Niles-styled background vocals? Is it the dated synthesizers heard on so many post-punk albums of the time? When Night Came Down on Sunset sounds like it was geared for a big commercial push, because the production dulls the hard rock edge of the band’s first two albums.
Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters, Borders of Disorderly Time
Trumpets seem to be on the mind of Jayne Cortez. Her first new album since 1996’s Taking the Blues Back Home finds her in familiar company: son Denardo Coleman behind the helm and the drum kit, and her Firespitters providing a harmolodic backdrop. Borders of Disorderly Time pretty much sticks with American music, eschewing the African touches of 1994’s Cheerful & Optimistic. Cortez’s poetry is much more surreal this time out, the socially-minded themes not so overt.
Judy Dunaway, Mother of Balloon Music
I worked with Judy Dunaway from 1992-1993 at CRI, a few years before she started exploring the musical potential of balloons. I can’t say I really channeled the album she recorded for CRI, titled Balloon Music. By themselves, the balloons pretty much make a rhythmic racket that could be construed as musical if you really, really pay attention. It’s when the balloons are pitted against traditional instruments — as they are on Mother of Balloon Music — when that musical potential gets realized. Yes, that’s a very pre-Cageian perception to which I adhere, but put a string quartet and balloons through some distortion, and the results don’t sound so unfathomable.
NAHT, In the beta city
It’s been six years since NAHT last released an album, and I honestly don’t remember what the band sounded like back then. Toy’s Factory has pretty much erased any evidence the band was ever part of its roster. In the beta city is quite timely in the Franz Ferdinand/VOLA & THE ORIENTAL MACHINE vein. ’80s rhythms and guitar-playing abound on the album, and NAHT doesn’t sound so out of sorts aping that style. If they get anything right, it’s the ability not to sound too much like what came before.
Nina Hynes & the Husbands, Really, Really Do
Nina Hynes has pretty much scaled back the wild electronics so present in her early recordings. Thing is, that was Hynes’ edge over a myriad of women musicians bringing on the quirk. She probably couldn’t out-weird Björk, but she could sure make brilliantly-sculpted music. Really, Really Do is more of a band effort, and the production is more conventional. Hynes sounds out of her element in this environment.
OCEANLANE, Castle in the Air
I let this play a few times, and it’s not bad for what it is — J-emo.
Shiratori Maika, Hikousen
It’s been a number of years since Shiratori Maika’s previous album, Gemini. She went for a harder sound on that album, and it really worked. Hikousen finds the singer-songwriter on a new (and bigger) label, and she’s scaled back to the more familiar terrain of her first two albums. In fact, she re-records "Usuaka no Hana" from her debut Hanazono. It’s not enough of a departure from her other albums to stand out, but fans of her music should find it satisfying enough.
The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane
I remember the music press back in the late ’80s gushing over this album, so when I saw it on eMusic, I figured I’d give it a shot. If I bought it back when I was a teenager, I’d probably have very fond memories of it. But hearing it for the first time in my mid-30s, it’s amazing how many bands of the period tended to sound like the Smiths’ Johnny Marr and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. 16 Lovers Lane features some consistently strong songwriting, and the burnished voices of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster keeps the music nicely unpolished.
The Waitresses, Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?
It’s easy to dismiss the Waitresses as a novelty, given the humorous content of the band’s songs. But there’s a musical sophistication to the Waitresses that belies all the pranks — microtonal backing vocals, primitive electronic sounds, well-timed rhythmic hiccups. Chris Butler’s latter day writing has gotten even more whimsical and avant-garde, but even in these early days, the Waitresses could navigate easily between the so-called low and high minds. And no, this album isn’t available on CD — I had to digitize it from a vinyl copy.