Thursday, December 18, 2008

A year to remember: my top albums of 2008

Sigur Rós “Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust” (XL Recordings) – Roughly translated as “With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly,” Iceland-based Sigur Rós’ fifth full-length album continues to showcase a troupe eager to explore the vast reaches of its own sonic universe. This is music that is simultaneously otherworldly, beautiful and joyous. Recommended tracks: “Gobbledigook,” “Vid spilum endalaust.”

Coldplay “Viva La Vida” (Capitol) – Commercial success should not necessarily be equated with lackluster artistry. Case in point, the latest full-length gem from Coldplay. Recommended tracks: “Life In Technicolor,” “Viva La Vida.”

Al Green “Lay It Down” (Blue Note Records) – When I reviewed the Reverend Al Green a few years ago, I thought my ears were playing a trick on me because the sixtysomething performer sounded so flawless and inspired. His most recent album, the wonderful “Lay It Down,” reinforces my belief that my hearing was just fine that night. Recommended tracks: “Just For Me,” “No One Like You.”

Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson “Rattlin’ Bones” (Sugarhill) – A wonderful and heartfelt collection between Australian songstress Kasey Chambers and her husband Shane Nicholson, this 14-song alternative country-minded effort is magical from start to finish. Recommended tracks: “Rattlin’ Bones,” “Monkey on a Wire.”

R.E.M. “Accelerate” (Warner Bros.) – “Accelerate” is the first album by R.E.M. since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry a decade ago that works from start to finish and captures the magic of the Athen, Georgia-spawned outfit’s early work. Recommended tracks: “Supernatural Superserious,” “Until the Day is Done.”

Snow Patrol “A Hundred Million Suns” (Geffen Records) – Singer-guitarist Gary Lightbody continues to craft songs that offer something for both casual and discerning listeners, but with the depth of the material on “A Hundred Million Suns,” this is clearly the troupe’s best effort since 2003’s “Final Straw.” Recommended tracks: “Take Back the City,” “Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands.”

Aimee Mann “@#%&! Smilers” (Superego) – There have been few singer-songwriters who have delivered the kind of lyrically introspective and melodically pleasing songcraft on such a consistent basis over the past decade as Aimee Mann. Recommended tracks: “Freeway,” “Thirty One Today.”

Sonny Landreth “From the Reach” (Landfall) – Although Louisiana-based singer-songwriter and slide guitar master Sonny Landreth is joined by luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson and Mark Knopfler on his latest disc, it is his own unique blend of talents that shines so brightly on this remarkable collection. Recommended tracks: “Blue Tarp Blues,” “The Milky Way Home.”

Jack’s Mannequin “The Glass Passenger” (Sire / Wea) – Confessional and honest, singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon delivers another winning round of Brian Wilson-tinged pop and piano-anchored modern rock on his group’s sophomore release. Whether it was his successful battle to overcome leukemia in the wake of Jack’s Mannequin’s debut “Everything in Transit” or the full spectrum of life itself, the songs on his 2008 release explore love, loss and the world around him with an ever-growing depth. Recommended tracks: “Annie Use Your Telescope,” “Swim.”

She & Him “Volume One” (Merge Records) – The full-length debut from M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel drips with the retro sound and style of a range of ‘60s and ‘70s icons such as the Zombies, Linda Ronstadt and Dusty Springfield. But there is an intoxicating innocence about Deschanel’s vocals and Ward’s tasteful arrangements that adds up to something special. Recommended tracks: “Sweet Darlin’,” “Sentimental Heart,” “This is Not a Test.”

HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical order):
Asia “Phoenix”
(EMI America Records) – Call it a guilty pleasure, call it a nod to virtuoso musicianship; call it what you will, but Asia’s first new studio album in more than 25 years boasting the super group’s original lineup is solid musically and boasts heartfelt lyrics from singer-songwriter-bassist John Wetton focusing on his near-death related to open heart surgery. Recommended tracks: “Heroine,” “An Extraordinary Life.”

Glen Campbell "Meet Glen Campbell" (CAPITOL) – One of the more unusual surprises of 2008, "Meet Glen Campbell" may feature covers of other artists, but Campbell brings unexpected depth to selections such as Travis' "Sing" and Tom Petty's "Walls." Recommended tracks: "Sing," "Walls," "Times Like These."

Parkaimoon "The Sum of Our Experience" (Platonic Music) – Thankfully, there remains modern music that can't easily be categorized, defying well-established labels. The modern rock of Parkaimoon combines the vast soundscapes of U2 and Pink Floyd, but also boasts the modern rock of Garbage and Evanescence. Recommended tracks: "Bury Me Deep," "Tunnel Vision."

Matthew Sweet "Sunshine Lies" (Shout! Factory) - Matthew Sweet returned in 2008 with a wonderful and infectious collection of songs courtesy of "Sunshine Lies." Recommended tracks: "Time Machine," "Byrdgirl."

Michael Ubaldini "Street Singin' Troubadour" (Blackwater Records) – Not a year seemingly goes by without Fountain Valley-based Michael Ubaldini issuing another solid collection. His latest, "Street Singin' Troubadour," is a 13-song collection that examines a wide range of subjects in a thoughtful and artful approach. Recommended tracks: "Sound of the Age," "Sad Empty Streets of Sunday."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mike Ness, Big Sandy impress at Coach House show

For any longtime Social Distortion fans, the experience of seeing that band’s singer-songwriter-guitarist Mike Ness as a solo artist is no longer a radical departure. Performing at the Coach House on Tuesday night, Dec. 9, 2008 — his second of six shows this month at the San Juan Capistrano venue — with a strong backing band featuring most of Social D, Ness delivered an 80-minute set once again weighted heavily on material from his two 1999 solo releases, "Cheating at Solitaire" and "Under the Influences."

Yet, despite covering songs by Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (a sing-along for “Ring of Fire” kicked off the encore), Ness played his Gibson Les Paul with almost as much ferocity as he does at a summertime Hootenanny fest fronting his other band. The intimacy of the Coach House, and the rare sight of a large crowd sitting (as opposed to standing or slamming in a mosh pit), gave the show a surreal feel. He also exchanged small talk with the audience providing additional magic to the night.

Throughout the performance, Ness’ own tunes stood up as well as his remakes, whether it was the Smithereens-style riff-rock attack of “Misery Loves Company” or a soaring “Reach for the Sky” or a honky-tonk version of “Ball and Chain.”

Long-running Anaheim act Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys kicked off the evening with a 45-minute set of authentic, infectious American roots music. Focusing on the band’s latest album, "Turntable Matinee," the quartet blazed through a mix of tunes anchored in rockabilly, Western swing and traditional country. The spirit of Buddy Holly lives in the beautiful tenor of Robert Williams (whose stage moniker is Big Sandy) and songs such as “The Great State of Misery” and the uptempo “Love That Man.”

Mike Ness' main set: Company C / All I Can Do Is Cry / Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing / Ballad of a Lonely Man/ Cheating at Solitaire / Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright / The Devil in Miss Jones / Rest of Our Lives / You Win Again / Dope Fiend Blues / Misery Loves Company / Crime Don’t Pay / Ball and Chain
Encore: Ring of Fire/ Reach for the Sky / I Think I’ll Stay / I Fought the Law

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mike Ness goes solo for Coach House December dates

Photo credit: Walter Urie

Mike Ness is headlining at the Coach House six times this month.

Although Mike Ness is best-known as the frontman of Social Distortion, the seminal and groundbreaking punk band that emerged out of Orange County’s music scene in 1979, his solo work explores a different side of the singer-songwriter’s multifaceted musical personality.

Both released in 1999, Ness’ rockabilly-styled “Cheating at Solitaire” and subsequent Americana-flavored “Under the Influences” fuse a vast array of roots styles together, with the ghosts of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and real-life talents of Bruce Springsteen and Stray Cats singer-guitarist Brian Setzer among the notables bringing this alternative sonic universe to life in the recording studio.
In fact on “Under the Influences,” Ness’ life-long affection for legends such as Hank Williams, Marty Robbins and aforementioned Carl Perkins are cemented with rousing covers of classics by those artists on the aptly-titled album.

Almost 10 years after the release of those now-classic recordings, Ness is performing a string of six highly-anticipated shows at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
Whether performing a honky tonk version of his own “Ball and Chain” or raucous cover of “I Fought the Law,” Ness can fuse punk rock, alt-country and rockabilly together effortlessly.

“I have a great affection for roots music; old blues, country, folk, rockabilly and primitive rock and roll in general. Without these roots, I wouldn’t have perspective,” Ness says in a recent bio.
“I love the music and feel it is as relevant as 70’s glitter and early punk. As a solo artist, I am able to cross the boundaries and integrate it all. I tried to bring these influences together and keep it honest.”

Ness headlines at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, at 8 p.m. on Dec. 6, 9, 10, 14, 19 and 20. Although the majority of the shows were reportedly sold out as of this posting, some tickets do remain for the Sunday night, Dec. 14 date.
For more details, including what kinds of seats are available at specific dates, call the Coach House at 949-496-8930.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

2008 Holiday Music a gift in tune with the season

Sixpence None the Richer, featuring guitarist/songwriter Matt Slocum (left) and vocalist Leigh Nash.

It’s not surprising that an ever-growing number of artists release Christmas-minded collections around the holidays. The good news for fans of such recordings is that the past few years have yielded an especially-strong number of albums in tune with the season.
So while 2007 revealed the memorable “Christmas Songs” from Jars of Clay and rollicking “Christmas with the Smithereens,” an equally sharp field of 2008-issued discs seems positioned to blast over the speakers at Santa’s toy factory this year.

“The Dawn of Grace” (Nettwerk Music) features the recently-reunited Sixpence None the Richer-led Leigh Nash revisiting eight traditional Christmas songs, including a stirring rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High” and tender “Silent Night,” the latter showcasing the artful guest vocals of Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine. Two original tracks, “The Last Christmas” and “Christmas for Two,” highlight the pleasing folk-rock approach of the Grammy-nominated group.

Although not as well known as the aforementioned Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer that she is touring with as part of the Love Came Down: A Christmas Pageant throughout December 2008, Sara Groves’ “O Holy Night” (Integrity Media) is a strong 12-song collection sure to win the one-time Rosemont, Minnesota high school teacher more followers.
Because Groves’ voice works best when singing emotive material in hushed arrangements (think Shawn Colvin), standards such as “O Holy Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” are reworked to focus on the lyrics and melodies with refreshing insight.

The fourth full-length album from Texas-based Los Lonely Boys is “Christmas Spirit” (Sony Records) a 10-song collection that features outstanding takes at “Run Run Rudolph” and “Away in a Manger,” as well as a flamenco-flavored instrumental take on “Cancion de las Campanas (Carol of the Bells).”

Rosie Thomas’ “A Very Rosie Christmas” (Sing-a-long Records) will please fans of the Seattle-based indie singer-songwriter, as well as lovers of traditional Christmas albums. Her voice draws comparisons with Joni Mitchell, so it’s no surprise a version of that singer’s “River” works so well here. She brings a nice dose of melancholy to reworked selections of “Christmastime Is Here” and “Silent Night,” making the songs her own.
Thomas is currently planning her first-ever Christmas tour, which includes a stop at Hotel Café in Hollywood on Dec. 9.

Of all the season’s new holiday-minded entries, few are as adventuresome as “Jingle All the Way” (Rounder Records) the latest album from Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. While the track list includes plenty of well-known standards (“O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”), the delivery is all about style and innovation.
Highlights abound, including impressive renditions of the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts gems “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here.”

The Boxmasters bridge the gap between traditional classics and rockabilly on the trio’s latest, “Christmas Cheer” (Vanguard Records). If you haven’t heard of the Boxmasters, you’ve surely heard of at least one member of the group; actor Billy Bob Thornton handles lead vocals and drumming duties in the band. He is joined by bassist-guitarist J.D. Andrew and lap steel-lead guitarist Mike Butler on versions of “Silver Bells,” “Blue Christmas” and John Lennon’s “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over),” as well as several Thornton-penned originals.

One of the original heroes of the rockabilly revival movement of the 1980s has become a champion of holiday-themed releases in the ‘00s.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra has released the 2-disc “Ultimate Christmas Collection” on Surfdog Records, a best of set that also includes a new recording of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The release also features a full-length concert on DVD that was filmed at Universal Amphitheatre in December 2004.

If it’s Christmas, chances are Mannheim Steamroller is issuing another holiday offering. The group’s 2008 collection, “Christmasville” (American Gramaphone), includes a number of songs from the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” animated classic (including “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas”). This release also marks the first Mannheim Steamroller album with vocals on every track.

Although Enya released the 4-song “Christmas Secrets” in 2006, the Irish singer has issued a full-length album of new material in 2008. “And Winter Came…” features a range of holiday material boasting her distinctive vocals and Celtic-tinged new age style.

Christian rockers Third Day released the excellent “Christmas Offerings” in 2006, and completed a full-length Christmastime tour in 2007. One of those full-length shows was videotaped and has just been released on the similarly-titled “Third Day: Christmas Offerings” (Sony Music Videos) a DVD that finds the Georgia outfit performing gems such as “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” as well as their own “God Of Wonders” as part of the 13-song set.

Although Johnny Cash died in 2003, his enormous and wide-ranging body of work continues to be reissued. Several recent releases have special significance this season, with Shout! Factory having issued a 4-DVD box set that includes his annual Christmas specials shown on CBS television between 1976 and 1979. The holiday specials are also available individually.
There are highlights on all four programs, but the 1977 special includes an all-star tribute to Elvis Presley that features Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison playing together.
BilesOnDVD has released “Johnny Cash: Chapter & Verse,” a DVD-CD set featuring Cash’s 19-hour narration of the New King James Version New Testament on DVD with an accompanying CD featuring 14 of Cash’s gospel hits.

With the upcoming arrival of Hanukkah on Dec. 21, Shout! Factory is issuing the perfectly-timed “The Heart and Humor of a People,” a collection of classic Jewish songs newly-recorded for the 13-song disc. An especially eclectic mix of musicians and actors have recorded tracks, including Neil Sadaka, Herb Albert, Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band), Dave Koz, Barbara Streisand, Jason Alexander and Adam Sandler.

There are a number of other noteworthy holiday-related collections that have been issued in recent weeks, including Yo-Yo Ma’s “Songs of Joy & Peace,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas,” Tony Bennett’s “A Swingin’ Christmas,” Melissa Etheridge’s “A New Thought for Christmas,” Sarah Brightman’s “A Winter Symphony,” Harry Connick Jr.’s “What a Night! A Christmas Album” and Mindy Smith’s “My Holiday.”

Parkaimoon defies conventions on new album

PARKAIMOON features, from left, drummer Dave Goode, bassist Damon Tucker, singer Kari Melissa, guitarist Tony Howell and guitarist-pianist Kenny Hale.
Photo credit: MIKE PRADO
There remains modern music that can't easily be categorized, defying well-established labels such as adult album alternative, hardcore, power-pop, funk or folk-rock.

So when getting an earful of the stunning new release from Parkaimoon, "The Sum of Our Experience," discerning listeners might want to throw away labels and note that it's simply a great modern rock album.
Released on Parkaimoon's own Platonic Music label on Nov. 11, 2008, "The Sum of Our Experience" is a wonderful 11-track disc that boasts artful and intelligent song craft enhanced by the troupe's strong musical instincts and dazzling performances.
The Orange County quintet spent about 18 months recording the finished tracks with engineer Jerry Adamowicz at Adamos Recording in Westminster. The album was produced by Kenny Hale, who plays guitar and piano in Parkaimoon.

"We wanted to do a big production record with multiple layers and orchestration," explained guitarist Tony Howell, noting Parkaimoon set out to get the big sound captured by some of their favorite acts, notably Pink Floyd and U2.
Added bassist Damon Tucker: ""Kenny, Tony and I sat down and watched the DVDs about the 'Making of the Joshua Tree' and the 'The Dark Side of the Moon.' If you are going to emulate someone else, you want it to stand the test of time. We rerecorded four songs from our last album ('Empty Vessel,' 'Disappearing Act,' 'Tunnel Vision,' 'Bury Me Deep') and did better versions of those."

Indeed, "The Sum of Our Experience" captures the grandeur of the band's heroes, while singer Kari Melissa, drummer Dave Goode and aforementioned Howell, Tucker and Hale bring their own distinctive talents to the mix to create something positioned between the far-flung sounds of Paramore, U2, Garbage and Evanescence.

"I can listen to it and enjoy it. I used to not be able to listen to my own stuff. I'm happy it (the new album) has the same sound quality as the other bands I like," Tucker said.
In addition to the band's album of all-original material, fans can download a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" or hear the reworked classic on Parkaimoon's MySpace page.

"We do a lot of cover gigs and we wanted to do a remake while in the studio," Tucker said. "I figured; why not throw some fresh bait out there? A lot of bands I came to like were based on covers they did, like Primus with Pink Floyd's 'Have a Cigar' and the Chili Peppers with Stevie Wonder's 'Higher Ground.'"
Most of the lyrics featured on "The Sum of Our Experience" were penned by Tucker, although Howell and Stefani Roscoe wrote those on "Bury Me Deep."
"We have influences, but they may or may not come out on our records," Howell said.
Tucker had a slightly different take on the group's influences: ""We listen to current stuff and listen to old stuff. We don't sound like anything else out there."

Many of the newer songs on "The Sum of Our Experience" reflect Tucker's more recent experiences and view of life, notably the album's uplifting title track.
"That song says life's short, appreciate every moment you have."

Parkaimoon will perform at King Neptune's, 17115 Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach, 9:30 p.m.-1 a.m. on Dec. 5.
Parkaimoon will perform at Mahe South, 24961 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point, at 8 p.m. Dec. 13, and at Mahe, 1400 Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18. The band will also perform at the Marine Room, 214 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, at 9 p.m. on Dec. 19 and 20.
Information: or