Monday, December 11, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 7 - La Santa Cecilia's Amar Y Vivir

amar y vivir

When I was a kid, my dad would play his records on Sundays. Among them were a lot of Mexican artists. For some reason, Cubans, or at least my family, have a strong connection to Mexican music, probably because Beny Moré and others went there to record back in the early 50s. It's also likely because of the movies featuring Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solis and others that were hugely popular in Cuba (if you haven't seen Coco, this is my excuse to bring it up and it's actually relevant for several reasons). In later years, when there was a big party, member of my extended family would sometimes hire a local, all female Mariachi band to come. I liked this all fine at the time, but I mostly just internalized it. The boleros I came back around to in my teens. But in the past 10 or so years, I've grown to really appreciate the traditional Mexican styles like ranchera as well as some more modern re-interpretations from bands like La Santa Cecilia. Their album, Amar Y Vivir (En Vivo Desde La Ciudad De Mexico, 2017) captures everything I love about Latin American music, Mexican in particular.

This album was recorded in various famous locations in Mexico City, mostly on the streets. At various points throughout the documentary on the making of the album, the band talks about how they grew up learning from street musicians and eventually doing it themselves. It's also an album about reconnecting with the roots of Latin American music. The songs range from old boleros like "Odiame" and "El Ultimo Trago" to a reinterpreted cover of Cafe Tacuba's "Ingrata" as well as La Santa Cecilia's own compositions. There are featured guests throughout, lending this an air of casual musical conversation that reminds me very much of my visit to Cuba at 5 years old. So, basically, it's nearly impossible for me not to love this album.


There isn't a bad song on here, but my favorite is "Como Dios Manda," an original song from 2014's Someday New. The song was already written in a traditional style, but here it gets a full mariachi treatment that truly makes it timeless. At the beginning of this year, I had the chance to see them live and this song remains the most amazing concert experience I've ever had. Every time I hear the song now, it affects me deeply. This version amps that up and while it's much more elaborate than the simple way it was played at the concert I attended, the emotion is just as palpable. Which is true of just about every note Marisol Hernandez sings. She says she hopes the Mariachis continue playing this song and that one day it becomes one of those songs people just request of them along with all the other traditional songs. I know this song already has that status for me.

In a year that started off with the election of a "person" who made a point of insulting and targeting immigrants, Latin Americans and Mexicans in particular, it's great that this band has found a way to protest with love and art. During the concert in January, they commented on this and while it was still too early to determine how the year would play out and what the reactions would be from our communities, they already had a road map in place to simply do what they had already been doing, maybe with a little more focus and passion. They comment on this again in the album video and it's inspiring to see and hear. Sometimes indirect protest is the most lasting.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 8 - Crystal Fairy

This was the first album that got my attention this year and it's held my attention the whole year. A super-group made up of drummer Dale Crover and guitarist Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta on bass, and vocalist Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes, Crystal Fairy has a sound that encompasses all it's parts and multiplies the experience into something else entirely. Their self titled debut album is hopefully not their last, as these musicians are among the most prolific with tons of different, vital bands between them. The experience they bring and the history they have together in other projects, makes this particular combination sound much more self-assured and cohesive than most super-groups. Each member brings a plethora of talent to the equation, but the dramatic, theatrical and psychedelic metal of this album is unlike any of their other projects.

teri gender bender

The album kicks off hard with the aptly titled "Chiseler," which quickly chips away at any expectations you may have had. Throttling beats and riffs knock you out as Teri wails "In denial there is no end/Every monkey must transcend" and you're off. The album barely lets up, though the mood drops to more psychedelic and creepy at times. Everything comes together to build a sweaty, acid trip in a horror movie vibe with every track. The music, as is described in the song "Posesion," sucks you in with an allure of the forbidden: "Magic spell, messages from hell/All these things and more/Playing on my possessed stereo." And then the final track, "Vampire X-Mass" goes full tilt with images right out of a cult Italian horror masterpiece.

There really isn't much I can say about this album without dispelling the it's mysterious atmosphere, so I won't. Bonus points for giving us what I like to call a triple selfie in the song "Crystal Fairy" by Crystal Fairy on their album, Crystal Fairy.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 9 - Bully's Losing

If we're to have any semblance of sanity, we should frame 2017 as the year of the great catharsis and hope it leads to real change in every aspect of society. As the year comes to a close, with the probes into Russian collusion and the deluge of sexual misconduct accusations of various degrees finally being exposed and taken seriously as we rally to take down toxic masculinity in all it's forms, there is some evidence that this may be true. There are probably more literal and overtly political soundtracks for this year, but spiritually, I think Bully's Losing, featuring Alicia Bognanno's raspy, empowering wail of exasperation/defiance/relief captures the moment in a more timeless way.

losing

The power of this album's lyrics is in how personal they are. These songs are all very specific and yet the first person lyrics that are usually directed at an individual offer the opportunity to rob them of elaborate context. And that's ok, because they're ultimately about the way Bognanno feels in these situations that we don't have all the facts for. They are very simple and literal descriptions of things that resonate with emotional poetic truth, particularly because of the music and the way they are delivered. For me, the album's closer, "Hate and Control" with lyrics like "What is it about me/That makes you so uncomfortable?/Can we just exist without your hate and control?" frames the whole thing as being about this young woman screaming at those who would hold her down, either emotionally or physically.

While the whole band sounds great, what mostly stands out to me here, aside from Alicia's Scream (possible cover band name) is the rhythm section. As I've written before about the band, Bully takes the sound of the 90s and runs with it. They call to mind everyone from The Pixies and The Breeders to Weezer and Nirvana. And because they understand what made those bands special, their songs always have a good groove under them, no matter how noisy the guitars might get. Bassist Reece Lazarus and drummer Steward Copeland sound fantastic on this album. When playing the loud quiet loud dynamic as this band does, it's important to let the bottom end pop. Alicia Bognanno's production is right on, with an atmosphere that lets the music breathe and gives a great sense of space. When I listen to some of the best albums of the 90s, particularly those recorded by Steve Albini, who Bognanno interned with, it's the drums and bass that most stand out. This album fits in with that tradition.

Overall, Losing is full of catchy songs that will help you through your shitty day. You don't need to feel exactly what she's singing about to appreciate the emotion behind her wail. You'll recognize that you too feel like screaming at someone like that sometimes. But it's screaming and exposing pain, not to wallow in it, but to alleviate it as a form of empowerment and healing.  Just as I wrap this up, Time's Person of The Year 2017 was announced and it's fitting. Because, really, silence gets you nowhere. Fuck silence.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 10 - A Giant Dog with A Sweet Spirit

My number 10 favorite album(s) of 2017 is a tie because I feel like they are two sides of the same artistic expression and fit well together. I recently saw Sweet Spirit open for The Afghan Whigs and Har Mar Superstar and was blown away by their music, energy and range. To then find out that Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen, who front the band, also have another band, A Giant Dog, and that both released albums this years, drew me in even more. Once I listened to both albums, I was hooked on both bands. If there's one word I would use to describe their approach, it would have to be unbridled. Ellis and Cashen have an undeniable hunger that propels their work, with a passion and a sense of melody that stands out. Both of these albums are flat out contagious and had me pumped all the way through.

Toy

A Giant Dog is the older band, with more of a 70s glam punk flavor and their latest album, Toy is as raw as it is melodic. Lyrics are fun and off-kilter without being unintentionally cheesy which is not easy to do. "Photograph," is a little bit funny, a little bit shocking and kind of beautiful with lyrics like "You're naked and the house is cold/The mirror says you're getting old/I wanna see you with your sagging tits/I wanna see you with your jeans all split/I wanna kiss you when your teeth all rot/And all your memories are things we thought." I didn't really get into HBO's Vinyl, but there's a scene in the first episode where the main character wonders into a New York Dolls show in a building that is slowly crumbling. He finds himself in sweaty ecstasy as the music drives him and the rest of the crowd into a sort of throttling trance at this music that is empty of pretension grabbing them by the soul and shaking them out of the numbness of everyday life. That's kind of how this album feels and it's so fucking perfect for forgetting about how fucked up the world is for a few minutes.

St. Mojo

Meanwhile, Sweet Spirit's St. Mojo dives into pop, country and disco, sometimes simultaneously. It's experimental, but like Toy, it's empty of pretension. That is the real accomplishment of both these bands, and it comes through even more so in Sweet Spirit. The earnest sense of fun here is pretty close to what their live show was like. Anything can happen and as songs go from power pop to country, funk and really, whatever else they feel like playing, it feels like everything does happen. This is overall a high energy, fun album, for sure, including a tongue in cheek ode to Pamela Anderson in "Pamela." But then there's also a couple of more poignant moments like "The Mighty" about remaining strong in the face of adversity, particularly when the more powerful forces that hold us down "have further to fall." Truly a message for 2017.

The pairing of these two albums works almost like a double album. You don't have to listen to them back to back, but I find it hard not to at this point and it really doesn't matter which goes first. I'm looking forward to hearing more from them.