Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 in Music

IT'S always a bit daunting to have to sum up an entire year's musical output -- even the best of it -- so I'm not gonna try to do that. But I'd like to mention a few unexpected highlights.

First, I'm a surprised as anybody that Chapel Hill's '90s heroes, Archer of Loaf, reunited and managed to fill the Troubadour for not one but two nights. Those guys have not lost a bit of energy from the days of Icky Mettle (which has been reissued.) I'm still not sure how Eric Bachmann bulked up like that.

A record that's crept up on me over the years if Eleanor Friedberger's Last Summer. I don't love everything on it -- and I find myself alternately loving and hating its baroque production -- but it's beguiling at the very least. It'd also, despite EF's Brooklyn origins, an LA record -- "Inn at the Seventh Ray" namechecks not only the famed hippie cafe, but several of my favorite Highland Park hangouts. (I spotted her at my coffee shop there one day.) She also helped Wild Flag with "Beast of Burden" for its Troubadour encore.

The Troubadour show by Sleater-Kinney sequel Wild Flag kicked about as much ass as I expected. But my favorite "new" band -- at least to me -- is Veronica Falls, a British combo that combines noise with melody in a way that reminds me of shoegaze crossed with '60s girl groups.

The first song that grabbed me on their self-titled LP, on Slumberland, is Bad Feeling, but the whole thing is strong and tuneful. If you like the strain that runs from Jesus and Mary Chain through Ride and onward, you'll like these guys.

I saw a lot of good shows this year -- old favorites like Stephen Malkmus at the Music Box and Grant Lee Phillips at Largo, new favorites like LA indie band Army Navy at the Satellite -- but the show that startled and engaged me the most was the reunion of the Jayhawks. This was a show I was told by a music-journalist friend who'd seen them play before that this show would be a snooze.

The Minnesota alt-country gods had spent the last decade or so effectively broken up, so seeing Gary Louris and Mark Olson on the same stage was a thrill from the beginning. But I'm not so die-hard a fan that that was enough, and the new album, Mockingbird Time, had not yet kicked in for me. The show's mix of warmly acoustic instruments, vocal harmonies and electric guitar was absolutely devastating, though, and new songs like "Hide Your Colors" sounded of a piece with '90s Jayhawks classics like "Two Angels" and "Miss Williams' Guitar." Wow. That new record now sounds to me pretty close to Hollywood Town Hall and my favorite of theirs, Tomorrow the Green Grass.

The record that's called to me the most this year has probably been the new Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings LP, The Harrow and the Harvest. (I spent a couple hours with the two this summer -- here is the ensuing story. The duo are also on the cover of the new issue of Acoustic Guitar.)

Quiet, downbeat, delicate and introspective, the record grabbed me first with the songs "Dark Turn of Mind" and "The Way the Story Ends" and didn't let go. (I'm now playing "Down Along the Dixie Line" every morning on guitar.) The album, and the triumphant show at the Music Box, reinforced not only how wonderful their songwriting is, but how intricate and original Rawlings guitar playing is. My only criticism is I want more from these guys. But as the eight-year wait since Soul Journey showed,  you can't rush this stuff.

Our biggest lost opportunity, here on the West Coast, was the chance to see The Feelies, one of my all-time favorite bands, which reconvened this year and played a number of East Coast dates. But they didn't make it out here. That new record, Here Before, may be there best since The Good Earth, the warm, Peter Buck-produced record that dominated my last two high school years. In any case, I keep my fingers crossed for this wonderful band to come to California.

And the musical development I'm most looking forward to is the return of Spain, the classic indie-meets-country-folk band led by Josh Haden that should have a new LP, and more shows, in 2012.

And a happy holiday to all the music fans out there, in Los Angeles and beyond.

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