It Still Moves by Amanda Petrusich

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Published by Faber & Faber in 2008, It Still Moves is one part road trip dairy, one part cultural study, and one part musicological thesis.  The author Amanda Petrusich a contributing writer for Pitchfork.com and tons of other music publications.  She has also written one other book:  Pink Moon (about the classic Nick Drake album of the same name) as a part of the 33 1/3 series by Continuum Books.  I found her writing to be well thought out, organized, and meticulously researched.  She uses a well planned road trip to a string of important musical destinations as a vehicle to parcel the more historical/factual info in as a story.   The travel portion of the book does come off as a little forced at times, as she very obviously tried to make the best of a few of the less than inspirational experiences at a few of the featured locations.  Overall the book does a wonderful job at delivering a full/wide view of American Music, hitting all the cornerstones of what “Americana” is thought of, including The Blues, Country, Folk, and the more recent interpretations and combinations of the those styles.

The book is composed of 17 parts including an introduction and epilogue.

Here is a rough guide to what they cover:

  • Intro – Just that, acts to identify what the book is going to try to accomplish which is mainly to discover just what “Americana” is.
  • Chapter 1 – Examination of the American Highway, and how that relates to American music.
  • Chapter 2 – Focuses on the history of the Blues kicked off with a visit to Beale Street in Memphis Tennessee.
  • Chapter 3 – Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the birth of Rock N Roll also in Memphis.
  • Chapter 4 – Elvis Presley and his impact on popular music with a visit to Graceland.
  • Chapter 5 – Further examination of the Blues through travels to Clarksdale Mississippi.
  • Chapter 6 – Country music by way of Nashville Tennessee.
  • Chapter 7 – Alternative Country
  • Chapter 8 – Continued travels through Virginia and Kentucky.
  • Chapter 9 – Minstrel shows and early radio.
  • Chapter 10 – Appalachian folk music, The Carter Family, and early Country music.
  • Chapter 11 – Americana by way of Cracker Barrel.
  • Chapter 12 – John Lomax, Leadbelly, Moses Asch, and Folkways Records.
  • Chapter 13 – Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Smithsonian Folkways.
  • Chapter 14 – Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and the Folk revival of the 1960s.
  • Chapter 15 – Independent Folk.
  • Epilogue – Continued ruminations on the definition of Americana.

The driving question here is “What is Americana?”, which I think is an important one to ask.   Although I’m not sure the book fully answers it, then again I’m not sure any book can or should try.  Americana, at least when it relates to music, is just one of those terms that is too complicated to define.  Whenever you are trying to precisely define a label that is used as a shortcut to describe an art form you inevitably will get your self into trouble.  It is a journal full of pitfalls, contradictions,  and personal opinion.  Although I personally often fall back on the genre/sub-genre/style labels in my writing, I try not to be restrictive with my labels when setting something in stone.  Take Neil Young for instance, can you really say he is strictly a “country-rock” artist?  If you do, you are completely omitting all of his work that does not exactly fit into that label.  I prefer to keep it simple and classify things in general terms like Pop/Rock.

Just for fun here is a link to the Webster Dictionary definition of Americana.

I would also like to offer a playlist of music that is directly mentioned in the book or inspired by the books subject.

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Top 20 Albums of 2011

# Artist Album Label
1. Wooden Birds Two Matchsticks Barsuk |Listen|Buy|
2. Fruit Bats Tripper  Sub Pop |Listen|Buy|
3. Joy Formidable The Big Roar Atlantic |Listen|Buy|
4. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks Mirror Traffic Matador |Listen|Buy|
5. Decemberists The King Is Dead Capitol |Listen|Buy|
6. Gillian Welch The Harrow & The Harvest Acony |Listen|Buy|
7. Dodos No Color Frenchkiss |Listen|Buy|
8. Richard Buckner Our Blood Merge |Listen|Buy|
9. Mates Of State Mountaintops Barsuk |Listen|Buy|
10. Gruff Rhys Hotel Shampoo Wichita |Listen|Buy|
11. Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues Sub Pop |Listen|Buy|
12. Beastie Boys Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 Capitol |Listen|Buy|
13. Cults Cults Columbia |Listen|Buy|
14. Sloan The Double Cross Yep Roc |Listen|Buy|
15. Lykke Li Wounded Rhymes Atlantic |Listen|Buy|
16. Iron & Wine Kiss Each Other Clean Warner Bros. |Listen|Buy|
17. Vaccines What Did You Expect From The Vaccines Columbia |Listen|Buy|
18. Gang Of Four Content Yep Roc |Listen|Buy|
19. Feist Metals Interscope |Listen|Buy|
20. Lonely Island Turtleneck & Chain Republic |Listen|Buy|

Honorable Mention:

 Peter Bjorn & John – Gimme Some (Almost Gold)
 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Vagrant)
 Yuck – S/T (Fat Possum)
 Phantogram – Nightlife EP (Barsuk)
 Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)
 Head & The Heart – S/T (Sub Pop)
 Thao & Mirah – S/T (Kill Rock Stars)
 Sondre Lerche – Sondre Lerche (Redeye)
 Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)
 Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong (Slumberland)
 Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations – S/T (Bedroom Classics)
 Rubblebucket – Omega La La (Megaforce)
 Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)

Please see also: my “selections from” playlists for the top 20 list and the honorable mentions. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

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Playlist: Selections from my Top 20 Albums of 2011

Considering the faltering legal status of my usual go to music playlist site Grooveshark.com, I am including a link to the playlist through Spotify.

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Playlist: Selections from my Top Albums of 2011 – Honorable Mention

Considering the faltering legal status of my usual go to music playlist site Grooveshark.com, I am also including a link to the playlist through Spotify.

Selections from Top Albums of 2011 – Honorable Mention

Until its future demise I will continue embedding playlists from Grooveshark.

If you do not see the embedded playlist below please follow this link or check it on Spotify through the link above.

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Chronicles – Volume One by Bob Dylan

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My opinions of Bob Dylan have always been conflicted… I have always enjoyed his early recordings but have been mystified by his post-1970 output.  As I have aged, I have come to understand the extremely important role he holds in popular music and American culture.  This realization has brought me to put more effort into understanding his music and the easiest way for me to interface better with an artist’s output is with hearing the story behind it. After researching the myriad of book options available on the life of Bob Dylan, I’ve decided to start with the one written by the man himself.

Dylan’s writing is powerful, yet still conversational.  Throughout the book I felt as if I was chatting with him over dinner.  His tone is of someone who is reluctantly, sometimes self-possessedly, getting things off his chest.  The book was not as structured as I had expected… but having known something of his past, as everyone does, I should have expected the books structure would be a bit abstract.  My main surprise was that he jumps around his life, each chapter a different time period which is not clearly defined.  I, like many fans, were hoping for Volume One to chronicle his life before fame and his early career much like Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home.

The book is broken up into 5 parts.  Here is a guide to give you an idea of exactly what periods he covers.

1.  Making up the Score (takes place in 1961 soon after signing on with John Hammond)

2.  The Lost Land (continues the narrative from the previous chapter with more scenes from 1961 and flashes of his upbringing)

3.  New Morning (focuses on the recording of the album of same name – recorded 1970)

4.  Oh Mercy (focuses on the writing and recording of the album of the same name – 1987-89)

5.  River of Ice (takes place in 1962 right after making his first Demos with Lou Levy of Leeds Music with more flashbacks)

It seems like years pass while Dylan is telling his story, and in some ways, they do as he gets sidetracked and gives little glimpses of his upbringing or his pre-NY life.  The highlights there are info on his upbringing in Hibbing MN, his brief stop-off in Minneapolis/ Dinky Town before he took the train to New York City.  He also touches upon his experiences in early Rock N’ Roll bands which give you a little more insight into his musical influences.  Those portions were of most interest to me as I have first-hand knowledge of that geography, being from Minnesota myself.  Mainly though, he is engaged in telling the story of when he first arrived in New York or, in the case of chapters 2 & 3, what happened during the recording of two of his post-1960’s.  Dylan gives little info on his family members, probably out of respect for his and their privacy.  He doesn’t really talk much about his parents and only mentions his wife in passing.  Only 4-5 years of his life are covered in the book (plus bits and pieces of his pre-NY life.)  Some of my favorite parts of the book are when Dylan makes references to things or events that are more recent.  For example he, at one point, references the classic Dylan book Invisible Republic by music writer Greil Marcus… Or when he tells the story of his failed attempt to retrieve Woody Guthrie’s unused song lyrics and he goes on to (almost bitterly) report that those lyrics were used 37 years later by Billy Bragg & Wilco for Mermaid Avenue Volumes 1 & 2.

What is left is a tremendous amount of ground for him to cover and, considering this is supposed to be a 3 part series.  As a reader, I worry that he won’t finish it or at least get to the most interesting bits.

It’s obvious that Dylan is a great artist, on par with the great painters or classical composers.  In fact he seems at times to be the complete embodiment of the archetype.  He is a man that is extremely creative, self-absorbed to a fault, 100% left brain.  I found myself wondering if he had been born in a different time if he would have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, considering his behavior at times.  He even seems to portray himself as quite the narcissist, but then again what artist or musician isn’t at least a bit of one?  One of the things that struck me about Dylan was the shear amount of powerful cultural figures he crossed paths with, so much so he almost seems like a magnet for brilliant people.

In the end I was left a little disappointed.   Although the book is enjoyable it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Dylan has to offer. If you have a curiosity for this fellow I would suggest reading a biography (not an auto-)… although I do not have a specific one to suggest.  Beyond that is the wonderful documentary I mentioned before, directed by Martin Scorsese.  In the end though, even that cuts off a little abruptly and doesn’t cover him past his late 60’s material.

A wonderful audio accompaniment to this book (for at least the NYC chapters) is The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (buy it /listen to it) that Columbia Records released last year.  Consuming them together is an ideal way to do it but alone it sheds a lot of light on the kind of material he built his style on… mainly a lot of old folk and blues songs.

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Top 20 Albums of 2010

# Artist Album Label
1. Beach House Teen Dream
Sub Pop |Listen|Buy|
2. Manic Steet Preachers Postcards From A Younger Man
Columbia |Listen|Buy|
3. Band Of Horses Infinite Arms
Fat Possum |Listen|Buy|
4. National High Violet
4AD |Listen|Buy|
5. Jenny & Johnny I’m Having Fun Now
Warner Bros. |Listen|Buy|
6. Laura Veirs July Flame
Raven Marching Band |Listen|Buy|
7. New Pornographers Together Matador |Listen|Buy|
8. Frightened Rabbit Winter Of Mixed Drinks
Fat Cat |Listen|Buy|
9. Broken Social Scene Forgiveness Rock Record Arts & Craft |Listen|Buy|
10. Best Coast Crazy For You Mexican Summer |Listen|Buy|
11. Vampire Weekend Contra XL |Listen|Buy|
12. Arcade Fire The Suburbs Merge |Listen|Buy|
13. Twin Shadow Forget Terrible |Listen|Buy|
14. Black Keys Brothers Nonesuch |Listen|Buy|
15. Les Savy Fav Root For Ruin Frenchkiss |Listen|Buy|
16. Yeasayer Odd Blood Secretly Canadian |Listen|Buy|
17. Dum Dum Girls I Will Be Sub Pop |Listen|Buy|
18. Broken Bells Broken Bells Columbia |Listen|Buy|
19. Four Tet There Is Love In You Domino |Listen|Buy|
20. Stars The Five Ghosts Vagrant |Listen|Buy|

Honorable Mention:

Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises – Caldo Verde
Avi Buffalo – Avi Buffalo – Sub Pop
Posies – Blood/Candy – Rykodisc
Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer – Ashmont
Nada Surf – If I Had A Hi-Fi – Mardev
Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern – Kill Rock Stars
Sarah Harmer – Oh Little Fire – Zoe
Bettie Serveert – Pharmacy Of Love – Second Motions
Freedy Johnston – Rain On The City – S/R
Teenage Fanclub – Shadows – Merge
Matt Pond PA – The Dark Leaves – Megaforce
Neil Young – Le Noise – Reprise
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor – Frenchkiss
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Playlist: Best Songs of 2010

Below is a playlist featuring some of the best tracks off the albums listed on my Top 20 list of 2010.  If you do not see the embedded playlist below please follow this link.

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Elvis Costello’s Albums 2000 – 2009

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During this period Elvis continued to play around and collaborate with more of his favorites, tried his hand at an even wider range of material, courted a new fan base through college radio, and married Canadian Jazz Pianist Diana Krall.  Another noteworthy item is the Sundance Channel series Spectacle: Elvis Costello with… which lasted two seasons.  Check them out on DVD.  Additionally check out Costello’s new album National Ransom out on November 2nd.

I have outlined the releases from this era below.  Please note what I deem to be the ESSENTIAL releases.

VonOtter_Costello-150x150 2001 – Anne Sofie Von Otter/Elvis Costello – For The Stars:  Costello’s collaboration with the famed mezzo-soprano opera singer.  Kinda of a snooty mash up between the rock and opera worlds.
Elvis_Costello_When_I_Was_Cruel-150x150 2002 – Elvis Costello – When I Was Cruel: A much more visceral beat driven experience, surprisingly influenced by the production Elvis was hearing in R&B and Hip Hop record from that time. For the first time Elvis employed the use of digital sampling, beat boxes, and more cutting edge tech. The album is one of my favorites and its success on college radio opened him up to a whole new legion of fans.  ESSENTIAL
Elvis_Costello_North-150x150 2003 – Elvis Costello – North: A bare stripped down record of ballads and melancholic jazz pop. Elvis’s most straight forwardly honest album lyrically. Half deals with his breakup with Cait and the other half with his budding romance with new flame Diana Krall.
Costello_Il_Signo-150x150 2004 – Elvis Costello – Il Signo: During his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet and his involvement with Classical Music through the 1990s Costello taught himself how to read a write music.  This release is the fruits of his labor and his first orchestral composition played by the London Symphony Orchestra.   
Elvis_Costello_Delivery_Man-150x150 2004 – Elvis Costello & The Imposters – The Delivery Man: Debut of the Imposters, which is basically the Attractions with a different Bassist instead of Bruce Thomas. A fairly straight forward bluesy rock record recorded in Mississippi.  Features guest vocals from Emmy Lou Harris and Lucinda Williams.  ESSENTIAL
Elvis_Costello_Allen_Toussaint_River_in_reverse 2006 – Elvis Costello & Allen Touissant – The River in Reverse: Elvis renews his interest in the music of New Orleans with the help of local Allen Touissant for a full album collaboration. This is Elvis at his funkiest. Touissant acts as the perfect counterpoint to Costello’s stuffy British-ness.  You can also catch both artists in their multi-episode cameos in the recent HBO series Treme.  ESSENTIAL
Elvis_Costello_Momofuku-150x150 2008 – Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Momofuku: Named after the man who created instant noodles? Which is supposed to signify the albums nature of being written, recorded, and released very quickly. Features backing vocals from Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis… for which Elvis traded an appearance on her second solo record Acid TongueESSENTIAL
Elvis_Costello_Secret_Profane_Sugarcane-150x150 2009 – Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane: Another team up with producer T-Bone Burnett, this time a foray into Bluegrass,  which allowed him to play with some of Bluegrass Music’s best, like Jerry Douglas, Dennis Crouch, Jim Lauderdale and Stuart Duncan.  Unfortunately very weak.

Here is a playlist I have put together featuring my favorites from this era.  If you can not see the playlist below, please follow this link.

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Elvis Costello’s Albums 1986 – 1999

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A period of serious rebirth and artistic experimentation.  Along with the wider range of material Elvis released during this stretch you get a wider range of hit and miss as well.  There are heavier moments here, especially on Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth but for the most part you get a lot of mellow Elvis.  On top of all the music that he released during this period, Costello also curated Southbank Centre’s prestigious Meltdown festival in London in 1995.

I have outlined the releases from this era below.  Please note what I deem to be the ESSENTIAL releases.

Elvis_Costello_King_Of_America 1986 – The Costello Show King of America: This album is a rebirth in many ways.  Among those rebirths is his new love, Cait O’roirdon of the Pogues and the move away from using The Attractions as his sole musical accompaniment.  Instead he was able to hand pick musicians that fit his renewed vision.  This time that vision was guided by new friend and producer T-Bone Burnett.  This album signaled lots of changes, including a new bearded and publicly charming Elvis. Overall the Album has a great unadorned feel, but is also a bit over-indulgent.  His first album for Columbia records.
Elvis_Costello_Blood_Chocolate-150x150 1986 – Elvis Costello & The Attractions Blood & Chocolate: Back with Nick Lowe and The Attractions for another shift in focus to a more direct rock record from the loose subtle feeling of King Of America.  The recording for this album was purposefully stressful as Costello was trying to bring a little tension into the music, which added to the bands already mounting discontent.  At first glance it seems just another Costello/Attractions album, but listening to it now you will be suprised it was recorded in 1986 as it seems a bit ahead of its time.  ESSENTIAL
Elvis_costello_Spike-150x150 1989 – Elvis Costello – Spike: A great solo album in the tradition of King of America and Imperial Bedroom.  Would be the album that includes the lion share of the material he worked up with Paul McCartney.  Elvis’s most instrumentally ornate album to date.  Featured more cherry picking of musicians.  ESSENTIAL
Elvis_Costello_Mighty_Like_A_Rose-150x150 1991 – Elvis Costello Mighty Like a Rose: Elvis seemed to have forgotten what he learned from T-Bone Burnett on this record as he just wouldn’t leave the material alone.  Elvis was getting heavily into classical music and experimenting with computers so the album has a very busy, over-tinkered feel.
Elvis_costello_Brodsky_Quartet_Juliet_letters-150x150 1993 – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet – The Juliet Letters: Elvis’s full on classical album with the very accomplished Brodsky Quartet.  A true collaboration between the two entities.   The album was based on a discarded project from a Italian professor in which he would respond to the thousands of letters that are written to fictional character Juliet Capulet.  An absolutely brilliant collaboration in which the Brodsky Quartet classes up Costello and Costello lends traditional pop song structures.  ESSENTIAL
Costello_Harvey_GBH-150x150 1994 Elvis Costello/Richard Harvey GBH: The original score for the British television show which stands for Grievous Bodily Harm.  Pretty much what you’d expect – instrumental music.
Elvis_Costello_Brutal_Youth 1994 – Elvis Costello Brutal Youth: Switching gears again, Elvis set out to do a raw rock record.  Originally just going to be just Elvis and Attractions Drummer Pete Thomas, but turned into an accidental Attractions reunion.  They pull it off again, releasing another solid record far past their prime.  ESSENTIAL
Elvis_Costello_Kojak_Variety-150x150 1995 – Elvis Costello Kojak Variety: Costello’s second album of covers, this time featuring a wider range of material.  Actually recorded in 1990, but not released until 1995. A pretty underwhelming release all around.
Elvis_Costello_All_This_Useless_Beauty-150x150 1996 – Elvis Costello & The Attractions All This Useless Beauty: Basically a pastiche of material that Elvis had written for other artists but wanted to reclaim as his own.  Most of the material is pretty weak and the production was purposefully wimpy.  This would be the last time Elvis works with Attractions Bassist Bruce Thomas and his last full record for Warner Bros.
Elvis_Costello_Bacharach_painted_from_memory 1998 – Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach Painted from Memory: Full fledged collaboration with the pop standard legend.  They end up balancing each other out quite well even if you are biased towards Costello’s style. Bacharach was able to rain in Elvis lyrically and vocally while Elvis was able to add a little grit to Bacharach’s very glossy instrumentation and production. Released on Mercury Records.

Here is a playlist I have put together featuring my favorites from this era.  If you can not see the playlist below, please follow this link.

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