Matt Ulery

Matt Ulery

Y’all mind if I poach NPR Music’s 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012 just a little bit more? No? You guys are the best.

I had the chance to take bassist and composer Matt Ulery’s album By A Little Light for a spin yesterday and have fallen more than a little in love with it, and not just because it features eighth blackbird, the sextet that’s held an Ensemble-in-Residence position at the University of Richmond since 2003 and probably holds the record for mentions on Artsline, WCVE’s daily arts and cultural calendar.

For me, the work’s most remarkable quality, aside from its outright beauty, is the way it allows for originality and brightness to flow through one another.

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I have yet to start this year’s top albums post. Is it because I’m a procrastinator? Yes. Well, yes and no.

I haven’t started yet, in part at least, because I’m still finding out about amazing albums that were released in 2012. In fact, I’m convinced that mid-December is the most wonderful time of the year to be a music lover. Year-end lists are worth their weight in gold when it comes to discovering new bands, and I’ve found one list to be particularly Fort Knox-ish: NPR’s Music Top 50 Albums of 2012. While so many lists simply confirm what you already knew — either about the site that posted them or about the quality of the albums that everyone knows everyone loves — NPR’s stands out by virtue of its breadth, with lots of great classical and international releases I had no idea existed. Particularly strong are the Spanish-language contributions, and Chilean group Astro is proving to be a clear favorite. Clear and distracting.

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Does everyone here have a Soundcloud account? If not, might I humbly suggest that you sign up?

Not only is the service great for bloggers who want to embed songs in blog posts like this one, with a visually appealing, waveform-revealing player that’s strangely fun to watch, Soundcloud lets users follow bands, so you can find out the moment they upload new tracks. You have your own personal dashboard with the latest “incoming” tracks, and that’s how I found out that… wait for it

Holger is back!

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Philip Glass

I love this video. I love it to death. I want to wad it up and carry it around in my pocket. OK, well I guess I technically already am carrying it around in my pocket, but you get the idea. This is going to sound crazy, but I’m convinced that this video of a “flash choir” performing “The New Rule” from Philip Glass’ opera Monsters of Grace has got to be one of the hippest unhip things I’ve ever seen.

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Yellow Ostrich

Strange Land

On June 16, this post about music ownership in the digital age, penned by an NPR Music intern, landed on the All Songs Considered blog with an echoing electronic thud. Emily White’s post spawned a whole mess of reactions, ranging from the self-righteous to the self-deprecating, and after a week of surprisingly reasoned Internet debate (I didn’t see anyone compare anyone else to Hitler, so that’s good!), it seems to be dying down a bit. So what’s left? Have any decisions been made? Have we figured out how artists are going make money from their music? Sadly, the answers to those last two questions are probably “No” and “No.” But I’m a little more hopeful about that first question. The optimist in me wants to believe there is something very real and very productive left behind by the frenzy that White’s piece whipped up — a lingering residue of awareness. Awareness and maybe a little well-intentioned guilt.

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Dr. John

Locked Down

The role of the record producer has always been somewhat mysterious to me. I mean, I think I have a pretty good idea of what they do — recruit backing musicians; oversee tracking, mixing and mastering; provide general creative direction, yadda, yadda, yadda — but when I was younger, I pictured the producer as a suit-wearing, arms-crossing grump who hung out in the control room, called people “baby” and yelled things like “You tell that sonofabitch that I’ll rip his head off and shit down his throat!” into a Zack Morris cell phone. Crazy, right? And I realize now that the linchpin that held this warped mental image together was the assumption that the producer was older, wiser and more powerful than the musicians.

Two recent albums have helped sweep away the few remaining shards of this ridiculous image, in large part because their producers are a whole generation younger than the artists they’re advising, and because the artists are already legends in the recording industry. The first of the albums was Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone, on which Jeff Tweedy of Wilco — 28 years her junior — has the producer’s credit (he wrote a few songs and played some guitar as well). In a way, it felt like he was curating as much as he was producing and participating, given Staples’ place in the soul canon and the reverence that Tweedy showed in all the interviews that accompanied the album’s release. The whole project had a wonderfully positive feeling to it, and the album itself is fantastic (I wrote a short post about it last May).

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Brooklyn Rider

Seven Steps

Last week turned out to be a cover song celebration, with one post about a monster collection of repurposed Bob Dylan tunes and another about Punch Brothers’ out-of-this-world takes on Radiohead. And while I didn’t really set out to double down on the covers, I couldn’t be happier that theme emerged, because it got me thinking differently about Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that has just released a new recording entitled Seven Steps.

Before going any further, I am obligated by the International Code of Music Blogging Ethics to point out that classical music is usually “not my cup of tea.” But it’s not “not my cup of tea” in the same way that, say, olives are “not my cup of tea.” Olives I hate with a passion. The word “tapenade” is an iron-clad deal-breaker when scanning the menu at fancy restaurants. Classical music, on the other hand, is something that I have a great deal of interest in learning about, but I have a long way to go, both in terms of appreciation and understanding.

So how did Brooklyn Rider manage to make connection with their 2011 effort, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass? I think Glass’ minimalist style deserves some of the credit. As with any learning endeavor, repetition is helpful, and the repetitive structures in Glass’ music engage without feeling overwhelming, despite the fact that a great deal of complexity is hidden within those patterns. But I think the lion’s share of the credit belongs to the group’s 4 musicians, who themselves are refreshingly relatable.

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Le voyage dans la lune

Who here likes scary movies? OK, people who raised your hands — have you ever thought about why? I like ’em too, so I’m not trying to get all judgy on you. I’m just wondering if we like them for the same reason. OK, I’ll go first. I think my favorite part of watching scary movies is the catharsis. You get all wrapped up in a terrifying scenario for a few hours, all the while knowing that, with the push of a button (or a stroll down the isle, if you actually went to a movie theater — people still do that, right?), it can all disappear. But in order to get a quality cathartic experience going, you need to be scared. You need to be challenged. You need to have your buttons pressed. I didn’t expect any such button pressing when I pressed play on NPR’s First Listen of French electronic duo Air’s new album, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, but I certainly found it. The album was commissioned as a soundtrack to the newly restored, color version of Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent masterpiece of the same name — a groundbreaking film that’s famous for being the very first science fiction flick. As hokey as the images seem today, its innovative narrative and techniques proved that film could be a playground for our collective imagination, and Air’s soundtrack taps into that sense of imagination beautifully. And whether they meant it to or not, it totally taps into my ever-expanding fear of flight. You know that stereotypical movie scene in which the astronauts are all strapped in,  just moments from taking off, and there’s always a distant, vaguely international-sounding voice counting down the seconds until the launch? This scene always terrifies me. Can you imagine that? Like, actually being in the cockpit of a shuttle, just chatting with your colleagues before HURTLING AWAY FROM THE PLANET AT A BAZILLION MILES AN HOUR? What do you talk about? Tell you what I’d be talking about — getting the hell out of there. I feel panicky just typing about it. Well “Seven Stars,” which features Victoria Legrand of Beach House, captures this scene perfectly, right down to the pounding heartbeat that follows the conclusion of the countdown. “Cosmic Trip” does the same trick, with the added personal irony of the announcement from a disembodied female voice that, “All of you will be back home safely, so join us with no fear on our fantastic trip to the moon.” No fear? Very funny, disembodied voice. A real ROTFLMAO-er. But that’s the great thing about movies and music that tap into our fears. I get to freak myself out by imagining what it’s like to take off into space, all with the luxury of staying at my beloved sea level. Preview these two tracks below, buy the album here and click here to watch Méliès’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune on YouTube.

Air — “Seven Stars” (feat. Victoria Legrand)

Air — “Cosmic Trip

Sharon Van Etten


“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave.”

[drops voice an octave] Hey there, blog reader. Can I ask you a question? Are those space pants you’re wearing? ‘Cause your ass is out of this world! [voice returns to normal octave] Hey hey hey, where are you going?!? Come back! I’m totally kidding! This here blog is spoken for. And besides, everyone knows those one-liners never actually work. It takes a lot more than a pickup line to start a meaningful relationship with another human being. Songs on the other hand… songs are different. One well-written lyric can bring a song together in a way that immediately endears you to the person who wrote it, a fact I had the pleasure of rediscovering when I was just a song and a half into the NPR First Listen of Sharon Van Etten’s upcoming (February 7) album, Tramp. The line that got me can be found in “Give Out,” a gorgeous song with sparse instrumentation, hand percussion and steady rhythm acoustic guitar playing, all of which make it feel like Van Etten and a few others could be playing the song right there in your living room. But as intimate as the arrangement feels, the song’s lyrics wrestle with the notion of intimacy and build up to a chorus that stopped me in my tracks — “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave.” Such a potent mixture of trepidation, self-confidence, vulnerability and hope in so few words — I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those rare moments when you instantly fall in love with a lyric and know that you need to hear it again and again and again. And nothing’s better in those moments than when the artist does the repeating for you, like the two of you are on the same page about the words’ importance. Like you understand and are understood. And while that’s a whole lot to ascribe to a single song lyric, the feeling is unmistakable and impossible to forget — much like those space pants you got on, blog reader. Oh snap! Preview “Give Out” below, click here to stream Tramp over at NPR and click here to pre-order the album from iTunes.

Sharon Van Etten — “Give Out