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The only survey that matters, 2005
Someplace close to heaven
by Mark Anderson

f there is a God, then women are her best invention and music isn't far behind.

KT Tunstall's Eye to the Telescope comes into focus via the live performance.

But combine the two properly and you find yourself someplace close to heaven. And every winter, when my list of the previous year's favorites gets made, that's the common thread.

Which is exactly how 2006 got off to an exceptionally proper start in January, with a hugely impressive show by KT Tunstall at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland.

Tunstall, a 30-ish Scot with distinctive songs, a strong voice and an assured way with guitars, oozed talent eons beyond any televised contest winner – despite the likelihood of being doomed to sell far fewer recordings and relegated to the relative shadows by compare.

Her "band" consisted of Tunstall and a stand-up drummer, although effective use was made of a sampling device, into which she'd sing a line or two, then loop back to provide harmonies in real time. Or she'd bang out a simple beat with a fist atop her guitar, then repeat that sample's steady pulse for her drummer and herself. Yet the trick never got in the way and the energetic Tunstall never over-sang. What came through was a warm, inviting, powerful voice that toughened up the textures of all the songs with an old soul's shadings of musicality.

The only encore, an intricate reworking of "I Want You Back," the Jackson Five's glorious first hit, was dazzling as well. In fact, seeing the performance transformed Tunstall's decent but somewhat homogenized album, Eye to the Telescope, into a snapshot of limitless talent on the rise – the best I'd seen since Leslie Feist pulled the same trick on the same stage in July. Which brings us to:

Favorite albums of 2005

Let It Die

Feist, Let It Die
This is the type of blasphemous statement that starts religious wars, but Feist's Let It Die has an affect on me very similar to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. In other words, there are very few albums that never fail – and those are two.

Time, of course, will tell if Feist's stands a half-century-plus test like Davis's.

But I wouldn't be shocked, because for more than a year now, Let It Die has served me incredibly well. What lifts it to top-of-list heights, then, are two things:

1) Let It Die got played at my house far more than any other album last year; and 2) Feist's roughhouse live show (even more so than Tunstall's) transforms the album's already celestial songs into earthy, engaging and powerful art. This is the fifth time Feist has found her way into tripewriter in 13 months, a real tattoo in a lick-and-stick world.

Dimanche a Bamako

Amadou & Mariam, Dimanche a Bamako
An unlikely duo known throughout much of the world as "the blind couple from Mali," Amadou & Mariam joined up with European mix-master Manu Chao to concoct a thoroughly gratifying album that most likely will end up getting lost in "world music" bins.

Too bad, because the record snaps and crackles and belongs in bins labeled "pop," "dance," and "alternative" as well. But to hell with labels – this album is really good. Amadou Bagayoka and Mariam Doumbia are both around 50 years young and apparently reaching the height of their powers.

Gimme Fiction

Spoon, Gimme Fiction
I've loved Spoon for several years, but last summer's opportunity to see them for the first time (Crystal Ballroom) and to hear their excellent new album was a treat and a thrill.

Honestly? These days I put a new Spoon album on a par with the anticipation a new Steely Dan release would bring in the '70s. These guys are that good, all their albums are exceptional and their live show totally satisfies. I've read where the main Spoon, Britt Daniel, lives in Portland these days; he did a solo show at Dante's a few months back and I was unable to attend. Here's hoping it's all true and there are lots more shows like that.


Maria Taylor, 11:11
Maria Taylor's first solo album, 11:11, defies any attempt to pigeonhole and there are no apparent bounds to the seemingly limitless styles at her command. The singing she's done on other people's projects (Bright Eyes, Moby) has worked to put her on a fruitful path of her own.

Just now reaching 30, Taylor has been wowing small masses for half her life – starting out in her hometown Alabama band, Little Red Rocket. This recent album's diverse, masterly strokes may be a springboard to a much wider audience. But with the way the world works, probably not.

Paradise Hotel

Eliza Gilkyson, Paradise Hotel
The music of Eliza Gilkyson has a timeless, earnest quality and it's not surprising to find that her father, Terry, was a successful songwriting folksinger in the '50s and '60s (he's credited for "The Bear Necessities" of Disney movie fame). Paradise Hotel, the daughter's eleventh album, is intimate art that effortlessly flows from folk to country to blues to pop to Tex-Mex to Latin to hymn to rock – leaving topics of love, God and politics in its gentle wake (after metaphorically listing the current president's laundry list of dubious doings, she sings in eloquent dirge: "... that ain't the teachings of a man of God ...").

The album, solid all the way through, finds its slow-cooking peak near the middle, when Gilkyson reels off "Think About You," an irresistible mid-tempo country offering, followed by a cover of Karl Wallinger and World Party's "Is It Like Today." Gilkyson's smoky voice has a slight edge but is never less than inviting and labeling her "country" would be grave disservice. Just know that Paradise Hotel seems built for repeat listening.

Five favorite songs of 2005

"Stop," from Lizz Wright's Dreaming Wide Awake

Lizz Wright, "Stop"
The "original" version of "Stop," by Joe Henry in 2001, was already a gem. But Lizz Wright's moody rendition takes it a step beyond. Based around piano and classical guitar, Wright finds perfection with an elegant groove that Madonna's rigid 2000 cover version never sought (Madonna, Henry's sister-in-law, actually "covered" it as "Don't Tell Me" before Henry's version came out).

"Tell me everything I'm not," sings Wright, "but don't tell me to stop." Under most circumstances that couplet's lack of true rhyme would bug me, but not here. The rest of Wright's album, Dreaming Wide Awake, is a middling investment, but "Stop" is timeless and classic. A keeper.

"Paper Doll," from Louis XIV''s The Best Little Secrets Are Kept

Louis XIV, "Paper Doll"
"Paper Doll" is a dirty little song by a raunchy bunch of bad boys from San Diego who sound like cocky, randy Brits. As their song says, "... if you want clean fun go fly a kite." Maybe it's the overripe teen-ager in me, but this guitar-loaded two-chord number is silly, dirty, giddy fun. It also rocks.

I can't vouch for the rest of the album because I've only heard this one particular track. But, ever since I found the song on a lark, I've been willing to live with the assumption that hearing the entire album would probably provide some sort of letdown. I play "Paper Doll" often and loud.

"You Bring Me Down," from the Like's Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?

The Like, "You Bring Me Down"
On paper, the Like is a trio of spoiled 20-something brats who got to make a recording because their daddies are music-biz vets. But in reality, Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?, the Like's rocking debut, contains 13 sharp, well-played songs and is a worthy investment. The band has been together for years.

And the real secret is that these girls sound good onstage, too – their November show at the Doug Fir was surprisingly solid and impressive. The Like looks to be a band from which we'll hear plenty more. But for now the one that I incessantly return to is the album's melancholy ballad, "You Bring Me Down."

"Tess Don't Tell," from Ivy's In the Clear

Ivy, "Tess Don't Tell"
Another irresistible piece of guitar-based pop, "Tess Don't Tell" is the sort of sing-along staple that ought to be coming out of car speakers as if it was still AM radio's heyday.

In my mind, Dominique Durand's soft and seductive voice should be singing the word "Kiss" instead of "Tess." But feel free to substitute any words you like and keep the volume at full tilt; words are not really the issue here, it's all about that sound. The rest of this New York band's album is ho-hum, but that's one good thing about this modern world: If all else fails there are likely places to download it for 99 cents, maybe less.

"What Does That Mean?," from Us3's Questions
"Stay Loose," from Verve Remixed 3 (Lyrics Born remix)

Us3, "What Does That Mean?"
Jimmy Smith (Lyrics Born Remix), "Stay Loose"
These two great songs go together simply because they happened to land next to each other on the homemade disc that played in my car most of the summer. Us3's album is unremarkable and by now the Verve Remixed projects have been done to death. But any album can launch a home run and here are two of the back-to-back variety.

"What Does That Mean?" is a semi-serious play on words that ruminates on various meanings of "peace" and "piece" amid scratching, a soulful backing track and a tasty hip-hop beat. "Stay Loose" takes a 1968 song by renowned jazzman Jimmy Smith and gives it a radically tricked-out treatment from the modern mix-master Lyrics Born. Both songs stand on their own, but together they form the sort of eight-minute vibe that can turn an ordinary party into a grand slam.

March, of course, is an ideal time to formulate a list such as this – the extra weeks afford the luxury of avoiding the clutter of everybody else's year-end list, along with the opportunity to look over their shoulders before beginning the task. (I've been making a list since the '80s, ever since a group of friends called it "the only survey that matters," and there's a story attached if anyone's interested.)

Meantime, on the topic of lists, if you're wondering what follows women and music on tripewriter's list of God's most heavenly inventions, well, pitchers and catchers reported to spring training just the other week ...

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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