December 31, 2012

Fuel/Friends favorites of 2012

Another year of music has come and gone, dense with wonder and goodness. I can’t possibly articulate the qualitatively-best albums of the year, but I can mentally categorize into my favorites (something that has been a hot discussion topic this week with my musical friends). These are my favorite albums that were released in 2012 — tallied in a scientific manner of how long it took me to take the record off repeat. When I love something, I tend to love music furiously and unrelentingly, listening to it on repeat for weeks and months until I get sick of it. I’m not sick of any of these wonderful records yet, and in fact they keep getting better the more I listen.

Here are my favorite ten albums of 2012, in alphabetical order by artist. Take a listen: there are some wonderful things here you might have missed.


Like a fire that consumes all before it…
Adam Arcuragi (Thirty Tigers)

Ohhhh, this record. This is a strong, rootsy, growly record that is also stunningly beautiful. Philadelphia “death gospel” musician Adam Arcuragi sings from the very base of his guts, with his head back and his heart forward. Singing along with him and his Lupine Chorale Society (from lupo, the latin word for wolf) during their chapel session, with my head back and heart forward as well, was a highlight of the year for me in terms of the soul elevation, something that this music has in loads. This was definitely one for much-needed replenishment this year.

Oh, I See – Adam Arcuragi

Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird (Mom+Pop Records)

Andrew Bird has made a spry, elegant record, full of darting violin, freewheeling gypsy stomping, lugubrious plucking, and his famous whistling in true virtuoso style. It is also a complicated record: best listened to as a whole, complete with the interspersed short musical interlude songs that pepper through the larger orchestral numbers. It feels like a journey. Songs like “Lazy Projector” soundtracked long hot summer nights for me, and into the winter this record has continued to be one I reach for often.

Lusitania (feat. St Vincent) – Andrew Bird

Bahamas (Brushfire Records)

Afie Jurvanen cut his musical touring teeth with Feist and the Broken Social Scene kids, and is now on his second record of his own songs. This record is brimming with charm and a sort of playfulness that draws on old Sun-Studios session sounds, lots of golden space and reverb in the room, and so hard not to move your hips back and forth. Afie’s voice is so warm and honeyed (he’s on the super-shortlist for Chapel Sessions in 2013) that this record is completely irresistible.

Lost In The Light – Bahamas

I Predict A Graceful Expulsion
Cold Specks (Arts & Crafts)

This feels like a hard-fought record, wrought by a voice who deserves to be around for a very long time. Al Spx’s voice is transfixing, and resonates with this timeless gospel weight that seems to know more than her 24 years should allow. Her video for “Holland” is one of the most perfect things to happen in a long time, visually weaving together the decay and the growth, the chaos and the intention. There is immense power in this record. When she sings: “I am, I am / I am, I am a goddamned believer,” it’s as if she is trying to convince herself, maybe. Sometimes it is hard to be a believer, goddamit. She gets it.

Blank Maps – Cold Specks

Damien Jurado (Secretly Canadian)

There is a ghostly swing to this record, the twelfth (depending on how you count) from the insanely talented and insanely prolific Seattle songwriter Damien Jurado. It’s haunting and flawless all at once, with the echo of rain on the roof and children singing in chorus – it is as unsettling and it is perfectly incisive. Another Jurado collaboration with Richard Swift, this record is so full of goodness (“I want you and the skyline / these are my demands.” ??? COME ON) that it is almost too powerful some days.

Museum of Flight – Damien Jurado

Field Report
Field Report (Partisan Records)

One summer night at 3am, I found myself sitting up with Field Report around my kitchen table, talking about songwriting and art and intentionality (and reading this Annie Dillard essay aloud – thanks, Jonathan). The more I heard Chris Porterfield talk about his songs, giving even small insights into them, the more I decided that this record resonates with the way my brain sees stories unfold in the world. It’s breathtaking. This album feels, to me, like an insistent wrestling with fever dreams, the small failings that slice at us, and the things we wanted and meant to do, but somehow got lost along the way. The words unravel for me like rich poems, to roll over and over in my head, hearing new things each time. Field Report is an anagram of Chris Porterfield, a Wisconsin musician who was once in the band DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and the Megafaun guys, and he has now crafted a record of his own. These songs took him years to wrestle out, and I am so glad he kept fighting.

(Watch for the chapel session in a week or so!)

Fergus Falls – Field Report

The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple (Clean Slate / Epic)

Man, this record. The piece of writing I worked out about it earlier this month says exactly what I want to say:

What I hear when I listen to this record is a ragged bravery, a loose-knuckled grip on any sort of stability, and a gorgeous musical honesty. It’s a complicated, outstanding record. Fiona wheels and rages and turns her scalpel alternately fiercely in on herself and outward on a lover (who she calls out by name, more than once). It feels much more raw and bloody than previous records, as she continues to push forward with letting classical prettiness go. I think that notion alone deserves a slow clap, in a society that tends to prefer our ladyfolk a bit more decorous and docile.

Werewolf – Fiona Apple

Isaac Pierce EP
Isaac Pierce / Ten Speed Music (self-released)

This humble, perfect record landed softly on my ears on Easter morning, as the world was waking up. Isaac Pierce crafts songs out of Seattle that meander and drift, thoughtfully probing before landing perfectly where they need to be. He is a songwriter who taps into the exact same navigation my brain steers by, and this EP is deeply satisfying. “We get to be alive / sleep on your porch tonight / with certain distant songs playing, remind me to thank you for bringing us out here just in time…” All bruises heal.

Isaac is playing a house show for me THIS Wednesday, on January 2, with The Changing Colors (chapel session alums from early on) and Mike Clark (whose “Smooth Sailin’” track started and titled my Summer 2012 mix). You really, really should come.

Warm Bruise – Isaac Pierce

Lonesome Dreams
Lord Huron (IAMSOUND)

This is a slowly-building, warmly calescent record that totally took me by surprise by how much and how quickly I adored it. I think this record is what a roadtrip might sound like across the West Texas desert if I brought Fleet Foxes along in the bed of my pickup truck, and added some warm Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms.

Time To Run – Lord Huron

Sharon Van Etten (Jagjaguwar)

This is an album of heft and grief, but also of a hovering loveliness. You don’t often get those two together because the one usually crushes the other. Sharon balances both. This record strips and excoriates me, which sounds terrible but is the exact opposite: the type of brave catharsis that is so exquisitely and purely crafted that it makes all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Her songs wrestle with the desire to love as new as she can, despite her scars, and often start quiet and thoughtfully but crescendo into a hurricane. This is a tremendous, tremendous album.

All I Can – Sharon Van Etten


Most Important Song of 2012:
“Same Love,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Because of this:

New Artist I Am Most Excited About in 2013: Night Beds

Because of a voice like this:

In the old tunnels off Gold Camp Road in Western Colorado Springs, Winston Yellen of Night Beds (debut record out February 5 on Dead Oceans) covered 1950s chanteuse Jo Stafford last night, illuminated by the car headlights.

The first Fuel/Friends Tunnel Session, and a pretty damn good way to end 2012.

July 21, 2008

Mile High Music Festival – Saturday

The inaugural Mile High Music Festival brought massive-scale concert enjoyment to Colorado this weekend. An estimated 80,000 festival attendees from all over the nation and beyond (Canada?) descended on the endlessly stretching, sun-baked green of the fields at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on the eastern outskirts of Denver.

My hundred-degree Saturday started a bit belatedly (pitchers of cider called to me on a shady patio and I missed a few early day bands) with my favorite performance. The astoundingly rich Josh Ritter exploded through the more “rocking” of his folk songs (this meant no Thin Blue Flame, no Temptation of Adam sadly) and wowed the crowd with his incisive lyricism and ebullient joy in performance.

Oh, I heart you Josh Ritter.

Andrew Bird was next up, with his elegant orchestral pop songs that swirl around the otherworldly sound of his trademark whistling. My friend perceptively noted that this “instrument” of Bird’s whistle actually sounds a lot like a theremin, something I’d not previously realized but is absolutely true. Under the shade of the Bison Tent stage, Bird kicked off his blue shoes and strutted his tiny wiry frame around in multicolored striped socks. The silver double-head phonograph spun, dizzily. The crowd shouted their approval.

Spoon sounded excellent to these ears, making all the kids dance with the fantastic funk falsetto of “I Turn My Camera On” and the Paul Simon cover of “Peace Like A River,” a real treat.

Spoon photo by the awesome Julio

Lupe Fiasco knows what’s up.

And finally Tom Petty swooped in with his embroidered jacket and dozens of songs you forgot you knew every word to by heart. He finished off night one in grand style.

Festivalgoers shuffled exhausted out to our cars to get ready for day two . . .

[All my pics can be seen here for Day 1]

February 22, 2008

I’m comin’ home, via Chicago: Wilco’s 5 Night Stand

Wilco just might be the most vibrant live band playing right now. Earlier this week they completed a five-show residency at hometown Chicago’s Riviera Theater during which they played every song in their released catalog. My friend cwb sent me this review of the night he attended, and it encapsulated their aesthetic so perfectly that I have to reprint it here:

[Tweedy] was warm and pithy, sincere and ironic, all at the same time, charming and engaging throughout. I’ve never heard better vocals from him, and he just seemed in a great place the whole night. His own twinkling and shimmering pop universe of sound, with the more than occasional crashing waves of drums and power chords, or troubling lyric, reminding us we weren’t just innocent kids good vibe-ing in Brian Wilson’s sandbox, beautiful and stoned.

. . . Tweedy’s lyrics and vocals generally strike me as that little voice in my own head, or the invisible tweedy on my shoulder, whispering the secrets, mysteries, doubts, questions, and truths of the universe and local wal-mart.

That’s about the best I can say it.”

Yes. Exactly.

featuring Andrew Bird on violin
February 20, 2008 — Night 5
[check the great concert photography here]

Sunken Treasure
One By One
Shouldn’t Be Ashamed
You Are My Face
Side With The Seeds
Pot Kettle Black
War On War
Pieholden Suite (w/ Andrew Bird & horns)
Muzzle of Bees (w/ Andrew Bird)
It’s Just That Simple
Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway (Again)
I Thought I Held You
What Light (w/ horns)
When You Wake Up Feeling Old
Jesus, Etc. (w/ Andrew Bird)
Walken (w/ horns)

Via Chicago
Blood Of The Lamb (w/ Andrew Bird & horns)
Can’t Stand It (w/ Andrew Bird & horns)
Boxful of Letters
Heavy Metal Drummer
Hate It Here (w/ Andrew Bird & horns)
The Thanks I Get (w/ Andrew Bird & horns)
Just A Kid
Red Eyed & Blue (w/ Andrew Bird)
I Got You (w/ Andrew Bird)
Casino Queen
I’m A Wheel
Less Than You Think (w/ Andrew Bird)

I’m The Man Who Loves You (w/ horns)
Dreamer in my Dreams


[top photo credit Chris Sweda/Sun-Times]

April 26, 2007

Andrew Bird & Apostle of Hustle in Boulder

Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam, as the song goes, and Colorado don’t want me for a juror. After lots of waiting and secretive shuffling to various rooms within the judicial complex yesterday, I was told that they wouldn’t be needing me. The hardest thing I had to accomplish all day was filling out my juror questionnaire: #8 – “What kind of music do you like to listen to on the radio?” followed by a line about this long __________. Don’t they realize that I would need more space than that? I think they wanted a one-word answer. I had to think long and hard on how to answer that one without letting anyone on my iPod down.

Also, I thought the juror video they made us all watch at the beginning of the day was humorously paternal: “Please do not be embarrassed or otherwise upset if you are dismissed from juror selection. This case may not be right for you, but perhaps in the future there will be a jury that is perfectly suited for you.” Thanks for not hurting my feelings, jury people! I was about to cry, but now can I just have a lollipop?

Six of us packed in last night for the drive to and from Boulder to see Andrew Bird and Apostle of Hustle (I truly think the road gets longer every time, especially the dark trip home) with a tin of cookies I made during our recent snowstorm. When we arrived in Boulder, we hit up Illegal Pete’s, which by itself is practically reason enough to make the drive. Mmmmmm. Then onto the sold-out show at the Fox.

Apostle of Hustle was fantastic — really impressive, alternating parts Cuban/flamenco, Cake, and Notwist. I’d heard their name bantied about in association with Feist (contributing one of the remixes on her Open Season album) and Stars (loosely related vibe, they’ve also done some remixes of Stars’ work) but to my distinct loss I had not previously listened to any of their own stuff. Apostle of Hustle is from Canada (frontman Andrew Whiteman, also of Broken Social Scene, was telling a story about Stephen Harper and whispered an aside to all of us in a deliberate sotto voce, as if letting us all in on a secret, “He’s our prime minister…”) and they’re also on Arts & Crafts, which has a stellar track record of bringing me artists I like.

Their music fascinated me – rich melody and chimy harmonics, layers of creative sounds piled one atop the other, imaginative lyrics and arrangements. Their sound has been described as cinematic, Latin-tinged and “smoldering gypsy folk,” but it transcended all of that into something truly original & fresh. I liked that they had two guys holding down the rhythm section – Dean Stone on traditional 4-piece drumkit and Daniel Patanemo working everything from the shakers to the congas to the cymbals and cardboard boxes. Double the rhythm, double my fun.

Lead singer/guitarist Whiteman physically evoked every note he played with a variety of squints, one-legged jumpkicks, and primal writhes, as if someone was invoking The Great Music Voodoo on him and each note brought an invisible pinprick. Visceral to watch, and highly recommended for fans of Stars (like me).

I regret that I wasn’t taping the first few songs because they were heavy on the thumping beats, and I loved that, but these videos will also give you some sense of their fine abilities.
Apostle of Hustle: A Rent Boy Goes Down

Other videos I took last night:
Apostle of Hustle – Haul Away
Apostle of Hustle – Folkloric Feel

Catch Apostle of Hustle on tour if you can (lots of dates and in-stores coming up) and be converted.

National Anthem of Nowhere – Apostle of Hustle
(from the 2007 album of the same title)

Watching Andrew Bird perform, I finally understood the title of his song A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left, as he does that a lot. He is disarming. Diminutive, stick legs, a scarf around his neck, a swath of disheveled hair. In physical appearance I find him reminiscent of the folk-poet fragility of Bob Dylan, with a voice that flat out eerily echoes Jeff Buckley. I had not realized that before in listening to his recorded work, but the way that instrument in his throat soars during concerts, it gave me goosebumps.

Discussion on the way home centered around how his music is so rich & dramatic, and quite esoteric, that one really needs to be focused to fully “get” it. It’s not light pop nor hook-filled, but rather soaring and often-dissonant arias, with screaming violins competing with each other on looped audio while drums crash like waves during a storm.

Truthfully I can appreciate this astounding performance more this morning, with a few hours of sleep under my belt:
Andrew Bird, “Armchairs
And it took about seven false starts to get the loops to Skin Is, My up to Andrew’s exacting specifications (and this video cuts off abruptly after I was chastised by a Fox employee for filming). Pretty phenomenal, with that double-necked phonograph that would set off spinning to loan the stage an Alice-In-Wonderland feel:
A very talented man, for sure, with music that challenges in a good way. My brain felt full by the end.

Skin Is, My (live at Schuba’s) – Andrew Bird

(song from 2005′s The Mysterious Production of Eggs; the new Armchair Apocrypha is also out now)

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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