(Still) The Only Survey That Matters ...
Paul Westerberg, Prince & Minnesota Twins
for the frigid winters, humid summers and wall-to-wall mosquitoes,
Minnesota is an ideal place to live. And without the fire and
brimstone, hell is a day at the beach.
Born in the '50s: Paul Westerberg and Prince have been heavy
hitters more than half their lives. ["Minnesota Twins,"
But facts are facts, and we Northwest transplants
tend to enjoy the Land of 10,000 Lakes from afar.
That was particularly true last spring, when a pair
of born-in-the-'50s Minnesotans, Paul Westerberg and Prince, rolled
into sleepy little Portland.
In April, Westerberg
stumbled through a disastrous record-shop show, then redeemed
himself by dropping off Stereo Mono, a homemade double
disc finally, something for Replacements lovers to behold.
A week later, five incomparable hours with Prince
kept us out past three on a Wednesday morning.
Those two main events clearly topped a music-filled
2002 for tripewriter, a year where great songs seemed to outnumber
worthy albums by 20 or 30 to one.
If that ratio seems a little worse than usual, it's
no longer a problem in this golden age of download. Just dump
what you don't like and move on no $17.99 per overpriced
dud. In fact, while it's easy to name a hundred songs or more
with some degree of greatness from 2002, there seemed to be no
truly great albums.
But there were some very good ones.
Favorite albums, 2002
1) Stacey Kent / In Love Again In
a year without true greatness, Stacey Kent's In
Love Again tops this list. Kent, from the school of less-is-more,
takes understated singing, the Richard Rogers songbook and a small
jazz combo and combines it with ample space for nuance
standards as they were meant to be, a formula for the ages. But
only true talent can pull it off because, fast or slow, there's
nowhere to hide and everything must be near to perfect. "Shall
We Dance," "Bali Ha'i" and the breathy sax intro
to "It Never Entered My Mind" are among an album full
2) Paul Westerberg / Stereo Mono Seeming
the ever-on-the-edge and reluctant superstar, Paul Westerberg
tightropes all the talent with a fraction of the typical dementia.
Here he doubles our pleasure with a pair of discs sure to satisfy
all but the crankiest of Replacements fans. It'd also be sure
to win some new notice if only the radio would play along: the
rock songs rock; the ballads, witty and wise, rip out your heart.
The singing is expressive and the playing (including a few special
guests, but mostly just Paul at play in his South Minneapolis
basement) is perfect in that boozy, sloppy way by which legend
is rarely achieved.
3) 1 Giant Leap / 1 Giant Leap For
an album to rank among the favorites, a main criterion is: Will
I still be playing the thing in a year or two? Most often, the
answer is a clear and simple no. But 1
Giant Leap, the byproduct of deft mixmasters (Jamie Catto
and Duncan Bridgeman), well-placed singers (Michael Franti, Michael
Stipe, Grant Lee Phillips, Neneh Cherry, Baaba Maal, Eddi Reader)
and a musical trip around the globe (literally and figuratively
Catto and Bridgeman traveled far and wide to gather intercontinental
rhythm tracks), stands a fine chance of passing the year-or-two-from-now
test. In video, too.
4) Spoon / Kill The Moonlight Rollicking
and snappy, Spoon's latest flurry is typified by piano-based song
structures and quirky, hard-driving rhythms. But this outfit out
of Austin, Tex., doesn't forget the guitars, dance beats, tambourines
and cool singing, either. Kill the Moonlight, a refreshingly
upbeat tangent to most anyone's norm, also contains a handful
of great songs: "All the Pretty Girls Go to the City,"
"Stay Don't Go," "That's the Way We Get By"
and "Back to the Life" alone are worth the while. Still,
and although there's not a bad track throughout, a handful does
not a great album make.
5) (tie) Clinic / Walking With Thee and
Interpol / Turn on the Bright Lights Fans of the dark
and the moody shouldn't miss these two hypnotic, addictive discs.
The droning vocals, the modish instrumentation, the tension-laden
arrangements, the pulsating bass it all adds up to, well,
something we've all heard before. But I've never been one to get
hung up on the ridiculous "derivative" versus "innovative"
debate. At this late date it's pretty much all derivative,
friends. I say it either moves me, or it doesn't. That's a far
more valid acid test, and you can read all those "sounds
like so-and-so" comparisons elsewhere. Interpol is a New
York band that may never approach these same heights again, but
they've reinvented the wheel for 2002. And Clinic, a Liverpool
brood, has made an expansive disc that is sometimes thrilling.
Sure, neither album is perfect, both ultimately suffer from a
certain self-contained sameness and they're probably not for everyone.
Which album is?
Favorite songs, 2002
1) "Strike Me Down," The Reindeer Section
Who can explain why a song catches the ear and won't let go? These
things aren't meant to be explained, and "Strike Me Down,"
a lilting tune from a Scottish virtual supergroup, found my ear
last summer and lives there still. The downtrodden, melancholy
lyric set against a perfect mid-tempo melody is bliss, as is the
voice of electronica singer Jenny Reeve. Son of Evil Reindeer
is the second disc in two years from the Reindeer Section, an
ambitious offshoot project of Gary Lightbody. Both are worth a
serious listen, but on this one the song is the thing.
2) "Down and Dirty," Shannon McNally
Here's another case of great song on a good album. It's sad enough
that Shannon McNally's pleasingly quirky debut, Jukebox Sparrows,
got lost in the 2002 lady-singer shuffle. But the fact that "Down
and Dirty" went largely unheard is almost a musical tragedy.
McNally wraps her husky voice around a self-penned song that deals
with an unappreciative lover in frank and gritty fashion. Prediction:
album and song will both be revived after this promising talent
has future success.
3) "The Replacements," Tommy Womack
Story-songs usually blow, but "The Replacements," a
loving tribute to that legendary ne'er-do-well rock outfit from
lil' ol' Minnesota, starts out sharp, stays on message and never
gets tired through 8-1/2 minutes worth of loping, animated biography:
"... they weren't afraid of anything or anybody / like skinny
little dogs in a cage / they'd get drunker than you've gotten
in your entire life / have another drink on top of that one /
and walk right out onto the stage ..." Well done, Tommy Womack
(word has it that Womack's
album and live show are worth catching, too).
4) "Chief," Patty Griffin After
the likability of Flaming Red, Griffin's previous disc,
last year's 1,000 Kisses might be a slight fallback. But
considering the 2002 alternatives, it still ranks among the better
releases. "Chief," the tale of a Native American war
vet obsessively walking the streets of a small town, is vintage
Griffin especially when the chorus cuts to a key-changing
bridge that elevates the song into the neighborhood of heaven.
If you're not familiar with Griffin, try her first two discs,
then come back for this one. Better still, catch her live act.
She's a brilliant songwriter and uniquely emotive singer. Either
way, she's one to watch.
5) "Murder on the Dancefloor," Sophie
Ellis Bextor Disco music, at the risk of a gag-worthy pun,
always gets a bad rap. But the irrepressible genre, much like
rap music, serves its purpose, always has, always will. To this
day, nothing fills a dancehall with excitement like a well-placed
Bee Gees, Michael Jackson or Eminem romp. In that great tradition,
Bextor's "Murder on the Dancefloor" fits the bill for
2002. "Gonna burn this goddam house right down," she
croons all around the irresistible guitar lick. The album, a 2001
U.K. release, is reportedly a dud. But, while the song somehow
reached No. 5 in Canada this summer, it seems to have missed the
discos upon U.S. release. Not that I follow these trends too closely
Meanwhile, things are still cold in Minnesota, where
it's often said that there are but two seasons winter and
road construction. Well, last year they added a baseball season
to remember when, thanks to a checker-coated former used car salesman
who runs the sport like a checker-coated used car salesman, the
scrappy local heroes went from near extinction to a few games
away from a very unlikely trip to the World Series.
Besides, what other place can claim a Prince and
a Paul Westerberg, much less a Bob Dylan and an ex-Gov. Ventura,
among its ranks? It's all enough to fill any expatriate with pride.
And so now a year has passed since I explained a long-standing
ritual of sharing favorites with friends and friends of friends
every March and referring to it as The
Only Survey That Matters.