Best Albums of 2019 (First Half)

It’s been six months and 10 days since I posted my “Best Albums of 2018” report, so per my slightly forward-skewed rubric, that means it’s now time to see how the first half of 2019 is shaking out for new music. There have been lots of new (to me) artists thus far, along with some welcome returns to form by old favorites, so I’ve appreciated having a nice blend of high-quality tunes spinning from a variety of genres through the winter and (apparently never-ending) spring. I don’t bother with long form reviews at this point in the year, and the albums cited are just presented alphabetically by artist with no qualitative hierarchies, since I know this list will evolve significantly before I do the full 2019 year in review, and I will lock them all in then. That said, if you’re looking for good new music, and you know and trust my judgment (or don’t, I guess), then I highly recommend you explore any of this baker’s dozen of very good discs via the embedded links, as some of these are already knocking around in my head as potential “Album of the Year” honorees come November/December, and they’re well worth enjoying now. Happy listening, as always!

Clinic, Wheeltappers and Shunters

F-DORM, COMMUNE

Focus, Focus 11

Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs

Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken

Mekons, Deserted

Alice Merton, Mint

Piroshka, Brickbat

Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun

The Specials, Encore

Tronos, Celestial Mechanics

White Denim, Side Effects

Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit

One of a few serious early contenders for “Album of the Year 2019.”

“Gastwerk Saboteurs” by Imperial Wax

It’s been 16 months since legendary Mancunian musical genius and cancer victim Mark E. Smith stubbed out his last cigarette and shuffled off this mortal coil, at the sadly premature age of 61. Seven months before he flew away, he released New Facts Emerge, the final album by The Fall, the group which he had fronted through four decades of brilliant studio releases, storming live concerts, and a series of ongoing lineup changes that had long become a music critic cliche by the time he last took a stage before an audience.

That final studio document of his life’s work found Smith supported by his longest-lasting and most stalwart musical crew, guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling. The instrumental trio had worked together with Smith for eleven continuous years by the time of The Fall’s final bow, most of that time spent with Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou on keyboards and backing vocals, though she was absent for the muscular all-lads New Facts Emerge, having re-emigrated to Germany, where she is now recording excellent droney noise with NOHE NOSHE.

Greenway, Spurr and Melling were left in England to handle the obligatory interviews, and my admiration for them (already high based on their no-nonsense musical chops) increased several orders of magnitude as they gracefully, graciously handled the press in ways that honored and humanized the easily-caricatured Smith, without clutching the spotlight closely in any self-aggrandizing or self-promotional ways. They made it crystal clear that The Fall had died with Mark E. Smith, while also resolutely and accurately noting that they’d become a formidable group over a decade together, and that they had more to say in their own rights. Other key tenets of the last years’ worth of interviews with the trio tended to focus on four key themes: (1) Mark E. Smith was their friend, (2) He was funny, and they had fun with him, (3) He instilled a tough work ethic in them, and (4) They had a process for making music, and it worked with and for Smith, and they believed it could work for them without him.

Based on the audio and video evidence of their new debut album, Gastwerk Saboteurs, Imperial Wax (as the group are now known, invoking the 2008 Fall album, Imperial Wax Solvent, where they first worked together) still hew to that tough work ethic, with a proven process for producing noisy, clattering rock and roll built on titanic riffs with abrasive, creative soundscaping, and they’re having fun still, both as old friends, and with a new colleague, singer-guitarist Sam Curran of post-punk garage rockers Black Pudding. You can certainly hear the sonic connections to the punchy, muscular and weird New Facts Emerge (most clearly in Greenway’s amped up psycho spaghetti western guitar stylings and the Motörhead crunch of the Melling-Spurr rhythm section), but Curran’s strong voice and the heft of the twin-guitar attack clearly mark Imperial Wax as a different sort of beast than its forebears, to everyone’s benefit.

Album opener “The Art of Projection” (which has a dugga dugga dugga Wire vibe about it) and lead single “No Man’s Land” have been floating around online for awhile before the rest of the album’s release, and they provide a fine introduction to the new group’s charms, as evidenced by their entertaining videos, linked herein. Imperial Wax would have been ill-served in recruiting a Mark E. Smith mimic (if one could be found) to handle microphone duties, and Curran shines as a front man, not only just as a different type of singer, but also as a strong and confident vocalist in his own right, with a fresh approach and a range that allows him to deliver shouts and croons as and where needed, with aplomb. He’s got a different lyrical style, too, and Gastwerk Saboteurs is a word-rich album as a result, engaging and direct in the spaces where Smith was often verbally obtuse and elliptical, (wherein lied many of his own unique and irreplaceable charms, of course).

Gastwerk Saboteurs features another ten songs beyond those two teaser tracks, with a pair of short jammy instrumentals (“Wax On” and “Wax Off”) serving as previews of an unexpected album closer, the wordless nine-minute epic “Night of the Meek,” which builds and stomps with the sorts of mecanik precision and power in which Fall-inspirations CAN once specialized. Another long highlight is “Rammy Taxi Illuminati,” a wonderfully weird two-parter that opens with a storming, shouting roots rock rave, then pivots into a lugubrious, syrupy, effects-drenched groove that would have done Hairway to Steven-era Butthole Surfers proud. (Interestingly, Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus forged the link that got Imperial Wax signed to the Texas-based Saustex Records label; they’ve been doing a great job with early marketing of the disc, so it seems a sound connection).

“Turncoat” and “More Fool Me” turn the tempos down a bit, but not the grooves, and they both merge memorable rock riffing with unusual and unexpected production approaches that pop sonic surprises into unexpected crevices. “Plant the Seed” is a classic chugger, and “Barely Getting By” is an inverted blues lamentation anchored in a timely and recognizable sociopolitical setting, rife with dismay and disappointment, delivered with demon intensity. Group backing vocals and processed guitars and keyboards (?) are prevalent throughout, adding density and variety to the record’s sound, which is spacious and warm and invites, nay, demands loud plays on the family hifi, on repeat.

All in all, a wonderful and exciting debut record from a new band forged in the crucible of an old one. It’s not The Fall, not at all, and much credit to its creators for recognizing that the best way to honor their fallen Chief is by forging forward, with the new album, if not the next album after that, standing as the one that excites them most. Bless them for sharing that excitement with us, and kudos for a job well done, under circumstances where most others would have faltered and failed.

Listen/Purchase Here: Gastwerk Saboteurs by Imperial Wax

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Into The Woods (Again and Again)

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the May 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

When I was a kid, the woods were my second home. My friends and I would come home from school every day, get handed a snack, and then get thrown out of the house until dinner time, expected to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t bother any grownups. Most days, we’d trot down the well-worn trails into the woods behind our neighborhood, where we’d climb trees, build forts, splash about in creeks, investigate the detritus dumped in the woods, and otherwise have unstructured fun beneath the untended wild canopy that’s fairly typical of most suburban communities.

Years later, when I lived near Albany, New York, I kept on exploring my local woods, eventually creating a photo essay series called “Hidden in Suburbia.” The premise behind this project was that I did regular deep dives into the woods around my community, never going more than five miles from my home, essentially recreating those childhood days of walking into the woods and being receptive to whatever I found there. Given the deep history of that part of Upstate New York, there were truly some amazing, forgotten finds back in those woods, which I was always happy to share.

Fast forward to 2019: I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple of months ago. My daughter (mostly raised in New York) and her boyfriend (a Des Moines native) live here, so it’s been wonderful to be close to them again. Last week, on one of the rare nice days we’ve had here this spring, my daughter’s boyfriend and I decided to go on a trek through the woods where he spent his own time as a kid. We had a great day, slogging across creeks, pushing through brambles, scaling post-industrial escarpments created by generations of landfill dumping, investigating all sorts of illicit detritus left in the woods, trekking across a meadow that generations have used for dirt bike riding, quietly tiptoeing away from a homeless camp we found, and just generally enjoying being in the moment, there in the woods. It was a full, rich day.

But you know what we didn’t see while we loped about in the woods? Young people, nor even any signs that they’d been there. We saw no tree forts, no stones placed to facilitate creek crossings, no cairns, nor any other evidence that these woods were routinely accessed by the kids who live around them. That seems sad to me, on some plane. Yes, I know that today’s children have opportunities for all sorts of global engagement via their televisions and phones and tablets, but still, I can’t help but think that climbing trees and damming creeks and building forts gave me more meaningful, resonant life skills than anything I’ve ever accessed on a computer, and what a loss it is if kids don’t get to have such experiences anymore.

Do you have a young person in your life? If so, here’s hoping you have some woods near your home, and that you can take them out for an unstructured adventure therein. I guarantee they will love it, and 50 years hence, they may be writing about it as I am today!

As a kid finding this in the woods, I’d have immediately been trying to figure out how to get that engine block out, and what I could build with it . . .

Space Madness

Marcia had a work conference last week, and I had work in Charlotte Monday and Tuesday this week, so I decided to head down to Florida for a few days of warmth with her before returning to the dreary Midwestern weather last night. Rather than staying at her conference hotel when her meetings were done, we decided to head over for a couple of nights in Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic Coast. For folks our age, if we know anything about that seaside community, it’s likely the fact that it was the fictional home of Major Anthony Nelson (an astronaut) and Jeannie, from the deliciously cheesy television program, I Dream of Jeannie.

As we were headed up to our room on Friday night, we noticed a schedule of events in the elevator, and there was a paper sticker on the very date of our arrival showing a cartoon rocket. I pulled out my phone and, hurrah, was pleased to discover that SpaceX was, in fact, launching a mission that very night, at 245am. When we arrived in our room on the seventh floor, I happily noted that our private balcony was aligned in such a way that we had almost a straight-shot view of the pad where the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station would be launching. Double hurrah!

We set alarms and went out on the balcony at the appointed hour, and like clockwork, got to watch (and hear) my first orbital launch ever:

If you know me well, you know I’m a hardcore space nerd, so this was a real treat, and a great appetizer to our already planned Saturday adventure to visit Kennedy Space Center, where I got to snap a selfie at the business end of the mighty Saturn V Rocket.

Marcia also snapped me with my second favorite of all possible rockets, the Titan-Gemini stack.

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Back-tracking a bit, Marcia had work meetings during the days in Orlando while I was there, and I also had a night alone there as she flew out on Sunday, and I didn’t head to Charlotte until Monday morning. So I spent the time making friends, as one does:

I also got to embrace my inner redneck with a visit to my favorite greasy spoon destination in the world, for some delicious carbs and fats.

The business part of my trip to Charlotte was great, too. A board meeting and a research workshop at the Bartlett Research Labs, a glorious location near the area where my Dad was born and raised. We had wonderful fellowship and got a ton of work done with good people in an amazing setting. Win, win, win, win and win, with thanks to Bartlett for hosting us.

In closing, if you don’t know the source of the title of this post, you need to watch the following video, perhaps the finest fifteen minutes of animation ever created for television. It was life-altering the first time I saw it, early one Sunday morning sitting in a hotel room with an infant Katelin, trying to find something amusing to do while Marcia was trying to sleep in. I do not think all of my tearful laughter helped the situation on that front, but Katelin and I did have a new favorite cartoon series for many years afterward, so a reasonable trade-off, I think.