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.



FUEL/FRIENDS TOP TEN FAVORITES OF 2012

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



Barchords
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



Maraqopa
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.
[more]

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



Tramp
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



TWO OTHER THINGS:

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.

May 18, 2012

tell me not to trip or to lose sight

I first fell in love with Sharon Van Etten for her talent in phrasing lyrics in a perfectly excoriating way, and then stayed for the powerfully gorgeous music. The opening stanza of the first song of hers I heard, “A Crime,” has a simple line directed at someone that she is still in love with “after all this time,” and she delivers it perfectly scaldingly:

…I’d rather let you touch my arm until you die
seduce me with your charms until I’m drunk on them
go home and drink in bed and never let myself be loved like that again



Vibrating with a tight string of elegant sadness woven through, Sharon’s latest album Tramp is punched through by her understated insight. She articulates those quiet, insistent anxieties that I also feel, with a very sharp edge of intelligence.

The album feels to me like Jacob wrestling the angel, but all painted up in summer-hot orange reds like Gauguin’s version of the telling. The perspective is off-center and powerful in that obliqueness; the foist and the shove, the arching of the back to shrug off the weight is camouflaged in clear strong artistic lines, and the quiet grace of the ladies in profile in the foreground.

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.

“We Are Fine” is one of my favorites on the record; it’s co-written with Aaron Dessner from The National, and features the swoopy-fantastic vibrato voice of Beirut’s Zach Condon. Win-win-win.

We Are Fine – Sharon Van Etten



I have been listening to this loping album over and over since January, and it is so laden with terrific songs. “All I Can” is usually almost too potently eviscerating to play (yet, I do, and again). The song traces the taut sutures that bind together our (beautiful) wounds and our hopes for regeneration. We all make mistakes. Sharon says it like this, perfectly: “Wanting to love as new as I can / wanting to show I want my scars to help and heal.” The ethereal, silvery-black “Joke or a Lie” feels like an answer to any song on The National’s Boxer, like the female part of the conversation. “Kevin’s” is drowsily exquisite. This whole album is.

Tramp is also probably one of my favorite records of 2012, and it’s only May. Sharon alone is more than enough, but the record is also bursting almost unfairly with contributions from members of The National, Beirut, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, and Doveman.

Sharon is on tour now, coming through Colorado on my birthday. I’ll take it. Cross your fingers for a Chapel Session with her; she’d be one of my all-time most-desired in that cathedral space.

March 26, 2012

the shiny wonders of SXSW 2012


The first band I saw this year, marching along at 6th and San Jacinto at midnight

SXSW is the world’s best music festival if only for the sheer volume of superb choice. On any given day/night/early morning, I was staring at a ridiculously, totally stupidly embarrassing list of terrific musical choices. I was very cognizant that this spring break for grownups is one of the richest weeks of the year for me. I survived this, my “senior” (fourth) year, and came back bone-crushingly exhausted but smiling widely (and bruised without remembering precisely how I obtained my battle scars).

My stated primary objective for SXSW this year was to kick ass as a panelist, speaking during the Interactive segment on “Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery” on Tuesday morning. There was a write-up of the morning here from the Austin Statesman (the two pull quotes they used from me are hilarious and kind of sum up all of Fuel/Friends). It was a fascinating discussion that I strongly enjoyed taking part in, because ruminating on larger musical questions is one of my favorite pastimes, at any time of day (generally better with whiskey but I will take what I am offered, even if it is green room coffee).

The panel was pitched intentionally as a somewhat false dichotomy, since we all know that both the human recommendation and the technological algorithm can lead to a rad discovery — I suggested we just cage-match fight but no other panelists took me up on that at 8:45 in the morning.

My points eventually crystallized around the fact that I believe the nature of music discovery has changed: where you used to need a friend in the know to play you that punk 7″ they got in London in 1976 because humans helped to counteract musical scarcity, nowadays you need humans for almost the opposite reason – to place songs into some sort of a meaningful context, and to genuinely curate good music in a neverending flood of songs. An audience member asked the question of what the role of context is when it comes to music, and it was so useful for me to articulate this mission of what I do that I’ve added it over there on my sidebar: that I’ve been “Giving context to the torrent since 2005.” I think is a solid summation of what this site tries to be about, and why it is so fun for me, still. I want the context, the color, the personal framework around my music. Even if I then go ahead and create my own around that song as I weave it into my own musical life, I never forget the context in which it first came to me.

Panel completed and supernap under my belt, I moved on to the MUSIC. You can read in scintillating detail about my Austin adventures below, but everyone always asks when I come back which bands blew me away this year. I’ll tell ya without skipping a beat: Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. Those two bands are going to take all good music lovers by hurricane-level-5-storm this year.

Alabama Shakes @ Hype Hotel

Alabama Shakes @ KCRW Showcase

Alabama Shakes were absolutely, completely incendiary when I saw them early in the week at the KCRW daytime showcase. At 4pm. In the CONVENTION CENTER. Even at that hour in that business-like of a setting, I was wordlessly riveted to the spectacle before me, with shivers all over and some sort of weird lump forming in my throat through my smile.

It’s rare for me to see a band with a female frontwoman who I 100% want to be when I grow up. Brittney Howard is magnificent: ravagingly fearless in her command of the stage and her malleable play of the audience. She can shred on her red guitar and makes all of the hairs on every part of you stand on end, and she yowls out lyrics like, “I wanna take you out, I wanna meet your kid / I wanna take you home, baby tell me where you live.” Man, I love those lines, and I love even more that they are sung by a woman. I mean come ON. Even though in real life she couldn’t be sweeter, their music feels like she could rip you apart with her teeth and she is not ashamed. And that rocks. By day two of the music festival, everyone was talking about them on every street corner, and for good reason. Ho-ly hell.



Of Monsters And Men @ FILTER’s Showdown at Cedar Street

Secondly, seeing Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men at the FILTER party left me beaming. Best I can describe, this band has the loping dream-like qualities of Sigur Ros, the expansive exploding joy of Typhoon, and brightly compelling vocals from one of the singers that reminds me of Bjork. How’s that for a combo? Listen to their full debut album here.


This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore…

They had a shimmering assortment of instruments, a drummer who controlled every songs with his primal percussion, and songs that just soared off that patio. It totally and completely works for this band. GO SEE THEM if you can, they are on a sizeable US tour right now. I was exhilarated by them. Also, one of the singers is kinda a girl who looks like Skrillex.



Frank Turner @ Latitude 30

Frank Turner live at Latitude 30 was so combustible that I had to go back twice in two days to hear the crowd yell along to his anthems of belief and burning. I was converted, and not just by the tattoo on his right bicep that says, “I STILL BELIEVE.” He even sang his song about Prufrock, upon my sheepishly instantaneous request when he asked what he was playing next. That man has an astounding power in what he does (even after not having slept for 36 hours), as well as an electric way of engaging his fans.



Delta Spirit was so good to see after a few years away, tightly weaving the songs from their upcoming self-titled album when I stumbled upon them at the Hype Hotel very late one night. Maybe it’s just because that party was curated by my best blogger friends (who we all know are wonderful), or because there were free drinks AND free Taco Bell (sorry, body), but I spent many hours at that Hype Hotel and saw several of my favorite shows in that warehouse.



Michael Kiwanuka @ KCRW Showcase

At the KCRW showcase on Wednesday afternoon, British singer Michael Kiwanuka radiated this warm, lapping voice that I just wanted to curl up inside of. His album seems like one I would love to put on my turntable and let play, on repeat, in its entirety on a springtime Saturday afternoon.



Sharon Van Etten @ Stubbs


Listen to it here.

Man, oh man – Sharon Van Etten‘s new album Tramp is definitely one of my favorites of this year already, all excoriating elegance and lush melodies. Her performance at Stubb’s on Wednesday night was delicate and strong, fearless and smart all at once — just like the record.



Nick Waterhouse @ Hype Hotel (it’s morning but you wouldn’t know it)

The Allah-Las at Valhalla

The retro cool of Nick Waterhouse and The Allah-Las were both SO. MUCH. FUN. Musical comrades, these two were some of the most invigorating shows I saw during the week, with their squalling, dirty jams equally influenced by surf-rock and a sharper underlying punk current.



Nada Surf acoustic at the Red Eyed Fly

Thursday night’s last-minute decision to cross the street after the Allah-Las at Valhalla to see an acoustic set from Nada Surf at the Red Eyed Fly was a superb one. It was a set-up strongly reminiscent of that gorgeous show I saw a few years back in the jewelbox of SF’s Swedish American Hall, a night I was happy to revisit. On Thursday night in Austin, this Bruce fella was playing across town at the ACL Theatre, doing things like bringing Arcade Fire and Tom Morello onstage, so I was getting text after text of those happy pictures after my badge was not selected to attend that show, but hearing the golden dulcet tones of Nada Surf was a deeply wonderful salve.

I told Matthew Caws afterwards that I hope he never stops doing what he does — their music is still as sharply incisive and lyrically poetic as ever, plus they seem to be having fun still. They played several songs from this year’s superb The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, as well as a few older ones:



Seun Kuti on fire @ the African showcase

I ended Thursday night with a tasty steak street taco that I thankfully ingested for sustenance before heading into Copa to see Seun Kuti, Fela’s son, from Nigeria. With absolutely no sense of urgency (and a band of about a dozen folks and singers to soundcheck), they ended up starting their set an hour late, around 1:30am, on languid equatorial time. They blew up that place.



Pickwick at the SXSeattle party

On Friday morning I limped across town (cowboy boots, day four yo) for an explosive set from Pickwick at the SXSeattle party. Pickwick came all the way to Austin to play just a few sets in one single day, but they used it to showcase not only the formidable pipes of frontman Galen Disston, but also to show off a substantial amount of their new material. It is intricate, and darker, and not as easy to classify in a specific soul genre, which I think is a right move.



After an amazing meal at La Condesa that I can’t stop talking about (they have FLIGHTS of GUACAMOLE, people), I headed to Auditorium Shores to give an attempt at a Counting Crows show which unfortunately suffered from the stretching grass fields full of loudly-talking aged frat boys, ditching after a handful of songs for the Magnetic Fields. Stephin Merrit and Co were heartbreaking, every weird and resonant song, beautifully constructed. I felt like I shattered and spidered apart, unexpectedly, when he did a humble performance of “The Book Of Love.” It was very much like this:


I love it when you sing to me / and you can sing me anything.



Spank Rock @ that 1100 Warehouse place

Warehouse crowd-surfing

Next, a life lesson: when a friend asks if you want to go see a hip hop show in a warehouse under the highway, the correct answer is always yes. I packed myself up front (with room for some questionable dancing on my part) for the Spank Rock and Hollywood Holt show, and it was a tremendous amount of fun, and a good palette cleanser from all the mopey shit which, left to my own devices, I will drown myself in.

I then paid a random couple stopped at a light with their window down $20 to drive me to Antone’s for the Cold Specks show. I hope my mother is not reading this fine example of what makes SXSW so awesome. Cold Specks was one of my most anticipated sets of the week and she did not disappoint. Her music from her debut album gorgeous gospel – slow-burning and evocative, yet vulnerable within the lyrical excavations. I definitely think Al Spx, the frontwoman, is one to continue watch in 2012 as she tours in support of her treasure of an album.

Cold Specks @ Antone’s



Saturday I decided to focus on the food one more time, and walked clear + gone to the far side of town for an inspiring culinary adventure at Hillside Farmacy, before catching my final show of SXSW: You Won’t on an outdoor stage with crawfish tails and parts littering the dirt around me. Creepy little fuckers (the crawfish, not the band).

You Won’t @ Banger’s (yes huh)

You Won’t was this young, fun band who scowled in the same timbre as Deer Tick’s John McCauley and played the drums sometimes with kitchen utensils. Their songs were classically-constructed pop perfection, singable and not at all overly sweet. As I walked out past the stage, the singer saluted me with “have a good flight!” (we’d talked before the set). Yep, they were that kind of endearing, perfect band to end my festival.

I hopped exhaustedly on my $1 Airport Flyer (BEST KEPT SECRET IN AUSTIN) and as my bus lumbered towards the airport, I sat back and smiled. I find SXSW exceedingly capable of sating me. In retrospect, to sum it all up tidily: last week I got to shake the hands of legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen, NPR’s Bob Boilen, and the singer from Seven Mary Three. I mean, that pretty much hits me on most of my important levels. I’d say all my cylinders were well-fired.

Well done, again, SXSW.



[more pictures are over at Fuel/Friends' Facebook]

March 11, 2012

my SXSW shortlist & top picks

In addition to apparently torrential rain at SXSW Interactive this week (which my hair is SUPER EXCITED ABOUT), the torrent of people are already flooding into the city in preparation for our annual music sleep-away camp.

The music portion starts on Wednesday, and I’ll be heading down tomorrow for my panel on Tuesday morning at 9:30m (Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery).

I always try to brace myself with a shortlist of bands that I’d like to try to see in all the wonderful madness; here are my personal picks for SXSW 2012, if you are culling through the listings too.



WATERS
The new band from Port O’Brien‘s Van Pierszalowski, whose last name I almost just spelled right without googling. This band is freshly melodic but also with enough grit and winsomely awkward rock to make me feel like I am back in high school, in the best possible way. Pretty sure Van also loves Pavement and Violent Femmes like I do.



Imagine Dragons
Because: stomp/clap.



You Won’t
I am overdue a full post about these guys, because I’m gaga over their debut album. Some days lately I just stream it on repeat, in anticipation of springtime exploding for real. Reminds me of Deer Tick sitting in front a dusty piano, in sunny Sunday morning church, in 1960.



Cold Specks
I wrote about this Canadian artist (on Arts & Crafts/Mute) in December and was thrilled over the sounds of the few clips I could find. I just listened to her full debut album last week and HO-LY CRAP; it was everything I’d hoped for. A formidable new talent, raw and perfect.



Frank Turner
One of my favorite albums of last year, I yelped in delight when I found out last week that England’s Frank Turner is going to be in Austin, and make me sweat and yell along and all will be right in Austin for an hour.



Sharon Van Etten
Her new album Tramp is devastating and smart, wry and rich, and almost too potent to listen to. All the best things.



Pickwick
My friends from Seattle should take over the world with their sweet soul music, even just based on the merits of Galen’s voice — before you even add in how fantastic the rest of the band is.



The Allah-Las
Produced by the dynamic Nick Waterhouse (and having a downright fantastic band name), these dudes make old-school, straight up surf music that should be exceedingly fun live.



Alabama Shakes
Because:



Of Monsters & Men
When I first wrote about this Icelandic band, I said “Imagine if Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire made babies, and sent them to live in that big house in Portland with Typhoon.” How could anyone NOT want to see that live?



Bahamas
Afie Jurvanen’s new record is this radiant, warmly glowing gem, and he’s playing at midnight in a church. Sold.



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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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