Autobiographical Order No. 236: Cal Tjader – Soul Burst

Getting into jazz can be a tricky thing for a lot of people, especially when you don’t have much exposure to it outside of your own personal investigation. You can download all the top-rated jazz albums from AllMusic or whatever, but if all you’ve ever listened to was pop, then it might be hard to get into. This, I’ve learned, was the case with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was heavily influenced by jazz records; if you’re not a jazz person, then a lot of it isn’t going to make sense. I was lucky enough to be exposed to jazz early on because my dad was always a big fan. Once I remember buying him a Cal Tjader compilation for Christmas on his request (at least I think that’s what happened), even though I knew next to nothing about the guy. He put it on almost immediately after opening it, and when I heard it, something clicked immediately. Maybe it’s because it’s not particularly abstract or avant garde; Tjader was a vibraphonist that mostly played Latin jazz standards, and for the most part they were all pretty accessible, even catchy. And in his most atmospheric and arty moments, his music could be downright gorgeous.

Soul Burst ended up being one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, along with Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um (and I think I also bought a Will Haven CD on the same trip, and this was before I had Napster so I was just going for it, as you can tell). I was stunned, particularly by the final track, “Curacao,” which was loungey but haunting, and not at all dated sounding in spite of the somewhat hokey sound of some exotica records of the ’60s and ’50s. By the standards of the jazz canon, this is a minor release, but it’s pretty damn great, all things considered. And like all mid-’60s Verve releases, the cover art is awesome.

I ended up picking up a copy used about 15 years later at M Theory, a pressing from the ’60s no less. It’s not a perfect one; there’s a fair amount of surface noise at the beginning of each side, and like all vintage records it had some dust in the grooves. But it’s a lived-in, loved record, and I’m happy to be able to give it a home, dropping it on the turntable anytime my wife and I have a “Latin brunch,” or just when I need a reminder of one of those records that got me here way back when.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Good (Mostly decent sounding, with some surface noise in parts)

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Autobiographical Order No. 235: The Smiths – The Smiths

I’ve always been a little fascinated and frustrated by the fact that albums can have entirely different tracklists in different markets. American issues of UK albums, for instance, often feature non-album singles as bonus tracks. See: Just about every Elvis Costello album. And then there’s the issue of how The Beatles’ catalog was nearly doubled because their American label could sell more records to people. It doesn’t really work that way anymore, but times were different then.

The Smiths have been one of my favorite bands for as long as I can remember being actually conscious about the music I was hearing. Their songs ended up on mixtapes my brothers made me, and an early CD purchase for me was their Best Of Vol. 1 compilation. (Side note: They released four studio albums and had two best ofs, then several other compilations thereafter, such as Singles…what a racket). And while I don’t necessarily think it’s their best album, the self-titled album has always been a personal favorite because of its jangly post-punk sound.

When Rhino reissued the band’s albums on vinyl, however, they did so with the UK tracklists. Which means: No “This Charming Man.” Gah! One of their best songs, and first single, and a highlight of the U.S. issue of the self-titled album. Which isn’t to say the rest isn’t great, but it’s not here. However “Still Ill” is, and “What Difference Does It Make?” is, and “Hand In Glove” is—songs I still somehow know all the words to after all this time.

I still haven’t bothered to pick up “This Charming Man” in any vinyl format, be it seven-inch, compilation or otherwise, partially because it’s just one song and partially because Morrissey doesn’t need any more money. And he’s kind of a dipshit—if loving The Smiths doesn’t mean being conflicted about how much of a dipshit Morrissey is for you, then you’re doing it wrong. But I digress. I love this album, and I’m comfortable with my complicated feelings about who made it (Johnny Marr’s a real one though, that guy kind of made me want to play guitar).

One more thing this album taught me: Don’t leave your records out when you have a cat with a tendency to chew on stuff. Little jerk.

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Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 231: Real Estate – Days

There are certain records that just sound good any time you play them. They’re maybe not the albums you put on when you need a jolt of something intense or passionate, and they’re not necessarily the albums that change your life (though those are pretty rare anyway). But they’re albums you enjoy, you listen to somewhat regularly, and you always feel good hearing them.

Real Estate’s Days is one of those albums. It’s a very good album. It’s maybe even a great album. But it’s not the first thing I think of when I need an album that’s jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring…any of those hyperbolic, hyphenated statements. It’s pretty, it’s pleasant, it’s even hypnotic in a way. It’s not an exciting album, but not everything has to be.

I bought this the same day as Dum Dum Girls’ Too True, and it’s arguably the less dramatic, less flashy of the two. But it’s an album I’ve liked for a long time, and every time I hear it, it’s like having a gin and tonic or something. It’s refreshing, it’s satisfying, it’s exactly what you want it to be.

Now, that being said, it does have some spectacular songs. “It’s Real” is a jangly gem that felt like it could have been a hit were it released at the right time. “Easy” is an outstanding opening track, and “Green Aisles” is hazy and beautiful. Because of its breezy, feelgood (though slightly melancholy) nature, it seems like a perfect summer album. But that melancholy also makes it a perfect fall album. It could go either way (and works just fine in winter and spring, for that matter).

It’s not an album that made me listen to music differently, but not all of them can be. Days is just what it needs to be, and while I hesitate to tell any band to stay in their lane, knowing your strengths is something more valuable than anyone likely realizes.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 140: Women – Public Strain

Women were a very good band that didn’t last very long. The Calgary indie rock outfit only released two very weird, very good albums before breaking up. If they even really broke up. Brothers and bandmates Patrick and Matthew Flegel began fighting with each other, leading to an onstage flameout and eventual hiatus, during which guitarist Chris Reimer died. It’s sort of a sad and unfortunate story, really, though Matthew Flegel started Viet Cong a couple years later and they’ve gotten considerably more attention than Women ever did.

When I found this album, though, it was a breath of fresh air. It was more than that really; 2010 in hindsight seems like a fairly underwhelming year, despite being the one that gave us My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It also gave us a bunch of shitty chillwave and witch house records that I’d like to wipe from my memory. Women, whose even weirder debut album I already liked quite a bit, were cut from a different cloth. They were inspired by weird post-punk bands like This Heat and noisy krautrock stuff. And it came out twisted and beautiful, as on standout closing track “Eyesore.”

I acquired the album during a vinyl dig in Portland, while my wife was investigating graduate school programs, and I’d end up seeing them live just weeks later in San Diego at The Casbah. It was a rainy weekday night, which is always murder for getting people to leave their houses in this part of the country (there’s WATER… falling from the SKY!). And I was halfway tempted to stay home and watch Travel Channel Halloween programming with my wife on the couch. She opted not to go, but I really wanted to see this band that pulled me out of the 2010 indie drudgery. And they were great, of course, though the room was half-empty (or more) and I got rained on. That’s how it goes sometimes, but I’m glad I went. I didn’t anticipate it’d be my last chance to see the band, but it’s a good reminder that sometimes blowing off a show can make you regret it later on.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Good/Great

The 20 Best Shows I Saw in 2015

Photo by Candice Eley, via Treble

Just like last year, I’ve assembled a top 20 list of my favorite live performances of the year. I saw more bands this year than last, so it was trickier to pick my favorites, but I’m aiming for an even higher number in 2016. Anyway, here are my favorites.

20. Sure Fire Soul Ensemble (Seven Grand, San Diego)

Seven Grand isn’t really hosting shows anymore, but the last one I saw there was extra super funky. The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble sure can cook.

19. Torche (Casbah, San Diego)

I saw Torche in 2008 and they were good, but they were awesome this time around, basically like a sludge metal version of the Ramones, cranking out an endless stream of rockers with little to no breaks in between. Punk rock.

18. Eyehategod (Observatory, Santa Ana)

Eyehategod are metal legends, and I was even more stoked on seeing them this year ahead of a planned trip to New Orleans (which was also super fun). They rocked hard, had some great stage banter. Good times all around.

17. True Widow (Constellation Room, Santa Ana)

True Widow stuck with me for several reasons, one being that they’re just an excellent band, but also because they were the sparsest band at a festival of mostly metal bands. They also helped me think more about doing a lot with a little, which is important since I started a band this year (there’s just two of us…)

16. Restorations (The Hideout, San Diego)

One of these days, I hope Restorations is huge. They’ve certainly earned it, and their mix of Fugazi-style punk and Springsteen-ian rock ‘n’ roll killed live.

15. Belle and Sebastian (Observatory, San Diego)

Despite a reputation for being twee superstars, Belle and Sebastian put on one hell of a live show, complete with string section! Too bad about the annoying girl taking selfies onstage, but whatever. Show was still great.

14. Pallbearer (Observatory, Santa Ana)

I saw Pallbearer twice this year, and both times were awesome. But I give the edge to their show at Psycho California. They kicked ass on a big stage. You wouldn’t think a slow, proggy doom metal band would do that well in a big venue. You’d be wrong.

13. Spoon (Observatory, San Diego)

I’ve seen Spoon play great shows and boring shows, but this was easily the best they’ve ever been.

12. Monochromacy (St. Francis Chapel, Balboa Park, San Diego)

Maybe the closest I’ll get to hearing Sunn O))) play in a cathedral, but Esteban Flores’ drone ambient sound was a breathtaking experience inside an actual place of worship.

11. Courtney Barnett (Casbah, San Diego)

Courtney Barnett’s new album was in my personal top five of the year, so there was no way I was missing this show. And it was about as fun as can be expected, complete with a cover of The Breeders’ “Cannonball.”

10. Run the Jewels (FYF Fest, Los Angeles)

Kind of kicking myself for missing Run the Jewels at Porter’s Pub (RIP) last year, but it’s cool, since El-P and Killer Mike absolutely destroyed at FYF Fest, including guest appearances from Zach de la Rocha and Gangsta Boo.

9. Neutral Milk Hotel (Observatory, San Diego)

During “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 3,” the drummer kind of lost tempo with the band, but that small hiccup aside, this was a show that gave me feels. I never thought I’d see them live, and when I did, it affected me more than I thought. Awesome.

8. Swans (Constellation Room, Santa Ana)

My wife went to Chicago in April on a business trip, thus missing out on the chance to go with me to see Swans, which I’m sure she didn’t mind a bit (she’s not really a fan of the band in their current state). That said, I was blown away. More like a two-hour spiritual experience than a concert. Long open-ended performances mixed with intense jams.

7. Savages (St. Vitus Bar, Brooklyn, NY)

This was one of the first shows I saw this year and it kind of set a pretty high bar for everyone else to follow. Savages previewed some new material at a series of shows in New York, for which I just happened to get tickets on a brief trip there. They killed, natch.

6. D’Angelo (FYF Fest, Los Angeles)

I missed a little bit of this set to see Morrissey (kind of regret that considering all of his buzzkill meat-shaming) but D’Angelo is to date the closest I’ve come to seeing Prince. The dude can put on a SHOW. Let me tell you. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that D comes back to Southern California before too long so I can watch an even longer set.

5. Drive Like Jehu (Casbah, San Diego)

Under different circumstances, this would have topped this year’s list. I mean, one of my favorite bands in the universe played almost all their songs. And it ruled. And I saw them twice. However, they’ll never top the reunion show at Balboa Park last summer. That was a bucket-list, best-of-lifetime show. This, however, still was nothing less than amazing.

4. Kamasi Washington (Soda Bar, San Diego)

A lot of my favorite sets from this year were in shows that comprised longer pieces or songs than a long string of hits (though there were those too). Jazz in particular tends to go that way, so seeing Kamasi Washington play about eight compositions in two hours made sense. But not a single second of it was anything less than pure, spiritual, soulful joy. Few shows have made me leave feeling that good.

3. Deafheaven (Casbah, San Diego)

Deafheaven’s new album New Bermuda was my Album of the Year, so naturally this was going to be up there. But I think they’ve grown even stronger as a live act. They sounded impeccable, had a lot of material (by their standards) and showcased some new dance moves from George Clarke. I’ll see this band every chance I get.

2. Sleater-Kinney (Palladium, Hollywood)

I’m not the type to be cynical about reunions, but most of the time my response is more “that’s cool” than “OMG I have to be there right now!” But Sleater-Kinney was definitely the latter. I’ve seen them a few times before, way back in my early 20s, and they were good then. But 10 years after the ol’ indefinite hiatus, somehow they became something much bigger and better. This would have easily been my show of the year, if not for…

1. Savages (FYF Fest, Los Angeles)

I don’t think there’s a better live band out there right now than Savages. They’re just on a totally different level. Their Brooklyn show from January was incredible, but this was something of an entirely different nature. Now, I tend to be skeptical about festivals, but their FYF Fest show changed my mind. The band was tight, dynamic and intense, and singer Jehnny Beth was an animated and seemingly magical figure. She literally walked on the crowd. At one point, she was singing while being held up by members of the audience, then spun on to her back without missing a beat. It’s hard to put into words how jaw-dropping this set was, but there’s no question about it, show of the year.

***

Here’s the complete (more or less, probably forgetting stuff) list of bands I watched this year. Not counting my own band or DJ sets or whatever:

1 Cumbia Machin (Soda Bar, Jan. 8)
2 La Diabla (Soda Bar, Jan. 8)
3 California X (The Hideout, Jan. 12)
4 Happy Diving (The Hideout, Jan. 12)
5 Causers (The Hideout, Jan. 12)
6 Wild Wild Wets (Casbah, Jan. 16)
7 Kim and the Created (Casbah, Jan. 16)
8 Max Pain and the Groovies (Casbah, Jan. 16)
9 Savages (Saint Vitus, Jan. 24)
10 Mac Sabbath (The Hideout, Feb. 21)
11 Black Fag (The Hideout, Feb. 21)
12 Jim Adkins (Bar Pink, Feb. 22)
13 Reubens Accomplice (Bar Pink, Feb. 22)
14 Swervedriver (Casbah, March 4)
15 Restorations (The Hideout, March 7)
16 Chris Farren (The Hideout, March 7)
17 Viet Cong (Soda Bar, March 7)
18 Jenny Owen Youngs (Casbah, March 20)
19 Tim Barry (Casbah, March 20)
20 Ditches (Balboa, March 27)
21 Cardielles (Balboa, March 27)
22 Pile (Soda Bar, March 30)
23 Yazan (Soda Bar, March 30)
24 Sure Fire Soul Ensemble (Seven Grand, April 4)
25 Drive Like Jehu (Casbah, April 7)
26 Ghetto Blaster (Casbah, April 7)
27 Drive Like Jehu (Casbah, April 14)
28 Octagrape (Casbah, April 14)
29 Swans (Constellation Room, April 16)
30 Angel Olsen (Constellation Room, April 16)
31 Belle and Sebastian (Observatory SD, April 17)
32 Perfume Genius (Observatory SD, April 17)
33 Waxahatchee (Casbah, April 26)
34 Girlpool (Casbah, April 26)
35 Inter Arma (Soda Bar, April 30)
36 Yautja (Soda Bar, April 30)
37 Sleater-Kinney (Hollywood Palladium, May 1)
38 THEESatisfaction (Hollywood Palladium, May 1)
39 Ian Rubbish (aka Fred Armisen) (Hollywood Palladium, May 1)
40 Author & Punisher (Observatory OC, May 16)
41 Cough (Observatory OC, May 16)
42 Old Man Gloom (Observatory OC, May 16)
43 Sinister Haze (Constellation Room, May 17)
44 Dead Meadow (Observatory OC, May 17)
45 Earth (Observatory OC, May 17)
46 True Widow (Constellation Room, May 17)
47 SubRosa (Constellation Room, May 17)
48 Pallbearer (Observatory OC, May 17)
49 Old Man Gloom (Observatory OC, May 17)
50 Alex G (Soda Bar, May 19)
51 Speedy Ortiz (Soda Bar, May 19)
52 Rolling Stones (sort of – overheard from Fairweather next to Petco Park, May 24)
53 The Minders (Observatory SD, May 28)
54 Neutral Milk Hotel (Observatory SD, May 28)
55 Spoon (Observatory SD, June 1)
56 Chastity Belt (Casbah, June 2)
57 Courtney Barnett (Casbah, June 2)
58 Ditches (Whistle Stop, June 12)
59 Geyser House (Whistle Stop, June 12)
60 Cardielles (Whistle Stop, June 12)
61 Riververb (The Hideout, June 20)
62 Barrows (The Hideout, June 20)
63 Monochromacy (Saint Francis Chapel in Balboa Park, June 21)
64 Genders (Belly Up, July 17)
65 Built to Spill (Belly Up, July 17)
66 Mike Guerrero – the Shredding Ninja (Whistle Stop, July 18)
67 Death Eyes (Casbah, July 29)
68 Torche (Casbah, July 29)
69 Lucifer (Casbah, July 30)
70 Pallbearer (Casbah, July 30)
71 Le Chateau (Casbah, Aug. 8)
72 Soft Lions (Casbah, Aug. 8)
73 Ilya (Casbah, Aug. 8)
74 Cold Cave (The Hideout, Aug. 14)
75 The Victoriana (The Hideout, Aug. 14)
76 Joyce Manor (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
77 Metz (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
78 Melody’s Echo Chamber (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
79 Run the Jewels (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
80 Savages (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
81 The Jesus and Mary Chain (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
82 Kanye West (FYF Fest, Aug. 22)
83 Andrew Jackson Jihad (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
84 Spiritualized (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
85 HEALTH (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
86 Death Grips (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
87 D’Angelo (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
88 Morrissey (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
89 FKA Twigs (FYF Fest, Aug. 23)
90 Gilbert Castellanos (Westgate, Aug. 27)
91 Dam Funk (Casbah, Sept. 4)
92 Destruction Unit (The Hideout, Sept. 12)
93 Die Mißbildungen Des Menschen‬ (The Hideout, Sept. 12)
94 Kamasi Washington (Soda Bar, Sept. 13)
95 Garrett Jamison (Soda Bar, Sept. 20)
96 KEN Mode (Soda Bar, Sept. 20)
97 Dan Deacon (Observatory SD, Sept. 23)
98 Future Islands (Observatory SD, Sept. 23)
99 Panda Bear (CRSSD Fest, Oct. 11)
100 Todd Terje (CRSSD Fest, Oct. 11)
101 AlunaGeorge (CRSSD Fest, Oct. 11)
102 Tribulation (Casbah, Oct. 15)
103 Deafheaven (Casbah, Oct. 15)
104 Pixies cover band (Hideout, Oct. 31)
105 Cock Sparrer cover band (Hideout, Oct. 31)
106 Nirvana cover band (Hideout, Oct. 31)
107 Pictureplane (Mohawk, Nov. 13)
108 HEALTH (Mohawk, Nov. 13)
109 Vattnet Viskar (Til-Two Club, Nov. 27)

Autobiographical Order No. 138: Glasser – Ring

So, I suppose we’ve been sucked into an early ’10s indie hole. There are worse places to be, but it does serve as a reminder of my priorities five years ago versus where they are now. I buy a lot more records now than I did then, which makes it seem all the weirder that the ones I often spent my paycheck on were fairly low-key indie rock records.

Glasser’s Ring is one of them, and it’s actually a pretty strong record. A Los Angeles singer and producer, Glasser makes electronic pop that nods to Kate Bush and Bjork, and if that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then I’m not sure I can help you.

I’m not saying she’s as good as Bjork or Kate Bush, but she’s definitely part of that lineage of iconic art-pop artists who kind of defy genre or expectations. That being said, Glasser only has two albums and neither one is on the level of Post or Hounds of Love. But Ring is good—it has its share of stunning songs, like “Home” and “Mirrorage,” and it’s the kind of record you could play anytime—in the morning, late at night, during lunch—and it’ll sound great.

Pretty sure I picked this up at Amoeba in Hollywood on one of the various trips that my wife and I have taken up to Los Angeles over the years. We keep telling ourselves that we don’t want to do it anymore, because the drive is abysmal and L.A. is a super frustrating city to be in. And yet, we’ve been there a couple times this year. L.A., you bastard.

Rating: 8.9

Sound Quality: Good/Great

Autobiographical Order No. 137: The National – Alligator

Two National posts in two weeks? Ack! Yeah, but this isn’t Most Interesting and Diverse Order, it’s Autobiographical Order. And as it turned out, I bought Alligator on vinyl shortly after I got High Violet. I suppose I was in a very National place, and while I won’t say I go back to that place regularly, it’s familiar and comforting in a melancholy liberal-arts major kind of way.

So, Alligator is by far the band’s best album. I’ll hear nothing to the contrary. The other ones are good, but this one is better. Mostly because it rocks a lot harder. Now, it’s unlikely that anyone chooses to listen to The National because they need something that rocks, but every now and then, they actually do. Alligator is where they do it most, on songs such as “Secret Meeting,” “Lit Up,” “Abel” and especially “Mr. November,” which is an all-time favorite song of mine. Something about the chorus of “I won’t fuck us over!” seems so desperate and intense, and what can I say, I’m drawn to music that sounds like it’s on the precipice of disaster.

Alligator has plenty of pretty moments, too, however. And those are all pretty spectacular. But what sets a lot of these songs apart is how much they really liven up a live set. I’ve seen The National three times, once at The Casbah, once at the House of Blues, and once at Spreckels. The first and third were the best ones, for entirely separate reasons. The Spreckels show was a big theater performance, with the band nattily dressed and giving a surprisingly dynamic performance. In fact, in that setting, the quieter songs worked better, partially because of acoustics and partially because of the vibe of the place, which is classy to say the least. I went to that show around the time High Violet came out, and it happened to be the night of the Lost finale. I never got the hype of that show anyhow, so it seemed like a better decision to me.

The Casbah show was great, however, because it was still early-ish in the band’s career, and I got to see them in a small, intimate venue. Suffice it to say they rocked a little harder—you kind of have to in that environment—but still sounded awesome. However, there were these two dudebros that kept on annoying this guy in front of them with their high fives and banter and whatnot. Eventually he turned around and poured his beer on one of their heads. Dudebro never saw it coming.

Rating: 9.6

Sound Quality: Great