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Bipolar Express

Local writers and musicians offer their highlights from a topsy-turvy 2011

By Mike Breen · December 21st, 2011 · Music
A wise man (or woman, for all I know) once said, “You take the good, you take the bad/You take them both and there you have/The facts of life.” Life is, essentially, those ups and downs and how you respond to them in the spaces between. 

Though always true to some extent, in 2011 the good news/bad news balance was as evident as it’s ever been. But the lack of resolution or concrete answers also created an unshakable sense that the world is locked in flux — it’s a “rebuilding year” for earthlings, to use sports terms. Thankfully, there seems to be some sense of hope that everything will be all right and the “bad news” of the year will get better or resolved. But that might just be the proud American in me.

As we were going to press with this issue, I had my feelings of 2011’s ebb and flow illuminated by the latest major global development. A report on National Public Radio called the death of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il a classic “good news/bad news” situation. The good news? One of our planet’s biggest wild cards — and one believed capable of destroying that planet — was out of the way, lessening some worries about the region’s future. The bad news? Kim Jong Il’s son — let’s call him Lil’ Kim — is taking over, so the world’s governments cannot be assured that the “North Korea situation” will improve. In fact, some believe it could get worse.

Those kinds of news stories seem to be the norm today and they’re almost always coupled with a widespread sense of uncertainty — about the world’s economy, the future developments in technology, the next phase in America’s political life and many other tentative and/or tenuous situations.

Our global anxiety extended to the entertainment world. While we are all immersed in and consumed by our tech gadgets, we should remember that there’s a good chance, given the accelerated pace of technological advancements over last decade, that our current iPhones will be useless in a year and that in three years we may well be making as much fun of Facebook as we do MySpace. 

The music world is a good microcosm of our general state of instability. No one is sure how artists will make money in the MP3 age, for example. Hell, there might not even be MP3s in 10 years. 

CityBeat once again asked some of our favorite local musicians and music writers to contribute their own Top 10 lists about the topsy-turvy year of 2011, starting with some of the more important good news/bad news moments in the music world. (Tune in to CityBeat next week for our round-up of the year in local recordings.)

2011’s Impossible Highs and Obnoxious Lows


The good news? When it comes to the live music venue landscape in Greater Cincinnati, there are a lot of exciting things to look forward to, including promising new clubs in Northern Kentucky and the anticipated relocation of classic local Jazz venue the Blue Wisp Jazz Club.
The bad news? The area lost some clubs in 2011 that are going to be hard to replace. We lost a good home for original Hip Hop, Metal, Punk and Rock music (Dirty Jack’s), Covington’s clubhouse for youthful forms of Rock, Hip Hop, Dance music, Metal and more (The Mad Hatter) and the current incarnation of Newport’s Southgate House, one of the most beloved music venues in the Midwest. 

The good news? Spotify, the expansive music streaming service, finally came to the U.S. and lived up to its hype. Turns out, having almost every song ever recorded at your fingertips is something people are interested in.
The bad news? I experienced a weird sense of guilt when I started using Spotify because it doesn’t seem possible that the craftspeople who make the company’s “product” (the music) are going to be paid fairly. Oh, and Spotify’s coupling with Facebook (you must have a FB account to sign up for Spotify now) is just annoying (see below).

The good news? Social media continues to make the world smaller — and easier — for music makers and the fans who love them.
The bad news? Not all of us are so social we want people to not only know when we pooped out yesterday’s lunch (Twitter’s greatest gift to society, no?), but also where we are physically located at any given moment, what we’re watching on TV and every single song we listen to on Spotify. The crazy rise and omnipotence of Facebook has created the sense that it is the “be all, end all,” from now until the end of time. Just like MySpace. And daily newspapers. 

The good news? CityBeat (and its events team) had its best year since acquiring the MidPoint Music Festival, making it the biggest year ever for the festival in terms of attendance and quality. This past September’s 10th annual MPMF brought the cutting and leading edge of modern independent music to town, offering a sort of virtual Spin magazine of the future (’cause if many bands that played MPMF.11 haven’t been featured in the mag yet, there’s a good choice they will be soon).
The bad news? As usual, the MPMF bar was raised incredibly high (the MidPoint team, of course, seems up for the task and the city’s expanding embrace of the event will also help a lot). Also, MPMF.11 had more “at capacity” shows than ever, leaving some fans unable to get into certain shows. Ah, the price of success. 

The good news? The Afghan Whigs gave their fans an early Christmas present when they announced a few reunion shows for 2012, something most people were sure would never happen with one of Cincinnati’s greatest exports (musical or otherwise — sorry, Skyline).
The bad news? Three of the shows announced so far are in Europe and the sole U.S. date (again, so far announced) is in New Jersey. Someone tell the Whigs guys to take a look at the Pixies reunion for a lesson in “If you’re going to milk it, milk it with all the fury of a milkmaid on her period.” There simply must be more (and closer) shows added. At least until I can get to see them. 

A Crazy 2011 Playlist 


Well, this year has been kind of crazy for me in several different ways, both good and bad. I’m also a bit “high strung” and am plagued with a brain that annoys the hell out of me most of the time (and probably most of the people in my life, too). 

So I thought it might be fitting for me to write a list of 10 songs that always calm me down. I even have a playlist in my iPod for that very purpose — music soothes the savage beast, right?  

Then I had a better idea. How about an ode to insanity? Here are 10 songs about being crazy. They also happen to be some of my favorites.  

“Out of My Mind” by Rory Gallagher 

“Brain Damage” by Pink Floyd

“Under Pressure” by Queen

“Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix

“21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson

“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles

“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor

“Twisted” by Joni Mitchell

“All the Madmen” by David Bowie

“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne

Natalie  Wells recently released her stunning debut album, Mind the Gap, and performs Wednesday at the 20th Century Theatre. Visit www.nataliewells.net for more info.

Top 10 Females who PWNed 2011


Laura Marling The reign of Ms. Marling is imminent. Her third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, was released in September and has seen more press than her first two records combined. She also just finished a slew of sold out gigs across the states. She’s like Joni Mitchell, except not.

Amy Winehouse After her death in July, and her father’s continued efforts to keep her name in the news, her album sales saw a major spike. Island Records recently released a compilation of previously unreleased recordings.

Lady Gaga Minus that whole egg incident, Lady G stayed mostly normal this year. Singles from Born This Way continued to top the charts and that time she showed up as a dude was quickly overshadowed by Justin Beiber showing up as Ellen DeGeneres.

Britney Spears Brit’s back! Whether or not Femme Fatale really included “Dub” beats is debatable, but we’re all just happy to have our Pop princess back, if not until the world ends, then at least until she has another kid or shaves her head again.

Taylor Swift For better or for worse, she continued to win … pretty much everything, except a boyfriend. For the record, though: Strumming a banjo is not actually playing a banjo.

Kimberly Perry (The Band Perry) I liked If I Die Young after just one listen. Then radio and every single freaking award show quickly drove it into the ground. There’s plenty more from the sister and brothers, though. “Double Heart” is some seriously fun Country.

Nicki Minaj From Ellen to Taylor, everyone loves this Pink/Purple/Turquoise-haired rapper.

The Rap industry is pretty fickle when it comes to girls, but I think Ms. Minaj might be around awhile.

Joy Williams Better known as one half of Civil Wars, whose debut album was stark, beautiful and worth at least a million rotations.

Florence + The Machine Flo earned a cult following of “Flombies” with her 2009 release of Lungs. A cover of “Dog Days are Over” on Glee and a performance at the Grammy’s made everyone fall in love with the pale, flailing red-head.

Adele American radio seemed to almost completely ignore Adele’s first album, 19. The amped up production of 2011’s 21 brought her center stage. Whether she liked it or not.

Ten Albums from 2011 That You Should Definitely Check Out and Maybe Own


Another great calendar filled with music, another arbitrary list of the best of the year, another mumbling explanation to accompany it. I’d need a Top 50 to get close to recognizing the quality exhibited in 2011, and I’d still be complaining about what had to be excluded. R.E.M., Robert Pollard, Kate Bush, Fountains of Wayne, The Seedy Seeds, Deer Tick, They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet, The Black Keys and dozens of others could just as easily have occupied the slots to follow, and justifiably so. 

My longtime obsession Bill Nelson released three albums this year (a light schedule, by his yardstick), but he’s in my personal pantheon of greatness so I tend to leave him off these Top 10 exercises in favor of more commercially identifiable entities (although you can check out his work at www.billnelson.com and be converted). And, let’s face it, I’m still getting caught up on 2011; check my review blog, I Shall Be Released, at citybeat.com and you’ll see that I’m still pedaling my way through albums from the past five months that could have had a legitimate shot at this list. Maybe a better frame of reference for this list would be “10 Albums from 2011 That You Should Definitely Check Out and Maybe Own” or something equally thought-provoking and ponderous. And here’s the funny thing — I haven’t even finished reviewing this year and I’ve already heard three or four albums that would qualify for next year’s list. 

It really is a good thing there are no actual rules for this or I’d be jammed up and jelly-tight. Oh, and let’s not forget to give local retailers a holiday hug — any of these would make great presents for the music loving weirdo in your life.

Tom Waits - Bad as Me (Anti-/Epitaph)

Bad as Me stands as the return of Tom Waits to a more straightforward song structure as he largely dials down the tool shed percussion and impenetrable boho poetry in favor of some of his most lucid lyrics since his earliest work. It’s still Tom Waits — and he can go gloriously off the rails at a moment’s notice — but Bad as Me might be his most accessible album since the late ’70s.

The Decemberists - The King is Dead (Capitol)

The Hazards of Love combined Colin Meloy’s love of The Smiths and his newly discovered passion for British Folk, while The King is Dead added in some rootsy Americana bloodlust, with a few hat tips to R.E.M. The result is a fascinating album short on concept and narrative and long on diverse and irresistible songs.

The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time

For their first album together since 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, Gary Louris and Mark Olson set out to write the best Jayhawks album ever. Against all odds, the pair did exactly that, utilizing all the elements that made their early collaborations so hair-raisingly good: jangly guitars, a folkish lyrical approach and the purest and the poppiest harmonies outside of the Everly Brothers.

Tommy Keene - Behind the Parade
(Second Motion)

There aren’t many artists who can whip out a career album after three decades of pushing the Power Pop stone, but Tommy Keene has rarely put out an album that doesn’t qualify as a career album. Behind the Parade just happens to be the best thing he’s ever done … until next time.

Lucinda Williams - Blessed (Lost Highway)

Newly married and content, Lucinda Williams’ 10th album is appropriately titled Blessed, but she’s got plenty of unhappy muscle memory to sprinkle throughout one of the best albums in her estimable catalog. Williams and producer Don Was veer between Crazy Horse squall and Americana ambience with unforced ease, all of it in the service of some of Williams’ most powerful and heartfelt songs ever.

Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 (Capitol)

Adam Yauch’s 2009 cancer diagnosis could have turned the Beasties into wisdom spouting navel gazers. Instead it inspired them to even greater heights of Funk, Punk, deep Dub, Rap and a dozen other mix-tape magic tricks, all performed with the trio’s trademark sophisticated goofball humor. Maybe their best since Paul’s Boutique.

Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain (Nonesuch)

Emmylou Harris recorded her first album more than four decades ago, and while it is true that not every album she has done since then has been great, it is equally true that every album she has done since then has had elements of greatness. When she brings all of her gifts to bear on a single project, the result almost transcends music. The mesmerizing and brilliant Hard Bargain is one such project and quite possibly Harris’ masterpiece.

Dawes - Nothing is Wrong (ATO)

Dawes’ debut, North Hills, reflected Taylor Goldsmith’s absorption of CSNY, Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt into his songwriting wheelhouse, but Nothing is Wrong showed Goldsmith’s genius at turning those influences into his own unique sonic perspective. And if the Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon-tinged “A Little Bit of Everything” isn’t the song of the year, the terrorists have won.

Wilco - The Whole Love (dBpm)

Further evidence of Jeff Tweedy’s Pop divinity, The Whole Love combines the noisy sonic palette of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born with the folksy normalcy of Wilco (The Album) to create a set of songs that examines the sunshine-y highs and despairing depths of the title emotion, supported by a soundtrack that suggests Abbey Road as envisioned by Tom Waits. The Whole Love is Wilco’s spoonful of musical sugar to make Tweedy’s lyrical medicine go down. And it hurts so good.

Wussy - Strawberry (Shake It)

The beautifully twisted Pop Americana of Wussy’s first three albums and various related releases has been teased and tormented into a writhing, shrieking psychedelicized Roots Rock pocket symphony on Strawberry. Wussy’s songs began as naked confessionals on the relationship of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, but Strawberry finds the pair casting a first-person eye on everyone’s love gone right and oh-so-blissfully wrong with a glammy, baroque Pop magnificence.

The 10 Greatest Songs That I Heard This Year (And Were New to Me)


(Sorry that they’re not from 2011 … except for two.)

”Sunshine of Your Love” - Spanky Wilson 

Northern Soul rendering of Cream. All organs set to Awesome!

“Weather Report” - The Tennors 

Rocksteady Simon and Garfunkel cover.

 “Love in Song” - Wings 

Stop making fun of Wings, everybody!

“Holocene” - Bon Iver 

One of the few 2011 releases I actually listened to and liked.

“Down in the Willow Garden” - Everly Brothers 

Extra points for being the song Ed sings to Junior in Raising Arizona.

“Helen” - Ariel Pink 

I’m not a part of the cult or anything. But sometimes I want to believe.

“Mazes” - Moon Duo 

This should be your favorite band right now.

“Dream Baby” - Waylon Jennings 

Better than Roy’s. No foolin.

“Teddy Bear” - Red Sovine 

It’s not exactly what I’d call a good song. But you’ll never be able to erase it from your memory.

“The Ledge” – The Replacements 

That sweet spot between R.E.M. and Afghan Whigs.

Wussy’s new album Strawberry is available now. Visit the band’s new website at www.wussy.org for info. 

The Album Lives! Top LPs of 2011


Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)

Dan Bejar’s Canadian band has put out much good music in the past, but the lush romanticism and ambitiously orchestrated majesty of this one (think Blue Nile) make it their best. And the year’s best.

The Black Keys - El Camino (Nonesuch)

God knows how many bands have already tried to revive the tight, punchy, rousingly anthemic spirit of bluesy Garage Rock in the past and wound up mere revivalists. But Akron’s The Black Keys, with their terrific sense of dynamics and great songs, now sound as contemporary as anything on the radio — while maintaining their love of cool old Garage Rock. 

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow (Anti-)

Bush’s arrangements show her interest in the Minimalist ambiance and repetition of Philip Glass, and she adds strong, thoughtful songs delivered hauntingly by an expressively artistic voice. “Snowed In at Wheeler Street” is a great duet with Elton John.

Tom Waits - Bad As Me (Anti-)

At this point, Waits could cruise along as the Grand Old Man of clangorous, noisy Beefheartian rock and bathe in the praise. But on this, he puts his heart and beloved croaking voice into arresting, memorable songs with strikingly imagist lyrics. 

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)

This Montreal-based bass saxophone player, who tours with Rock bands and can hold his own in Avant Jazz circles, shows phenomenal technique on this album of ecstatic (mostly) instrumental music. His playing is recorded live in the studio in single takes.

Nick Lowe - The Old Magic (Yep Roc)

He has made a graceful transition from the Post Punk/Power Pop/Punk of his youth to meticulously crafted, emotionally resonant and mature crooning that is both sophisticated and rootsy. Here, he makes it look casual, hiding the immense accomplishment of his craftsmanship. 

Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place
(Asthmatic Kitty)

Heavenly is the best way to describe Barwick’s music, in which she loops and layers her wordless voice to sound like a choir. The music is pristine and expansive — sometimes it rocks, sometimes it’s ambient, sometimes it’s like an updated Missa Luba. 

Garland Jeffreys - The King of In Between (Luna Park)

Helped by ace co-producer Larry Campbell and still as inspired by his native New York as he was on his 1970s-era classic Ghost Writer, the poetically scruffy, Rock-as-salvation music that Jeffreys displays here should make Lou Reed or (over in Jersey) Bruce Springsteen take notice. 

Charles Bradley - No Time for Dreaming (Daptone)

A deep soul singer in his early sixties, Bradley finally got a shot at recognition this year from Sharon Jones’ label. He delivers songs of love and heartache with a gritty, serious-as-a-heart-attack voice that keeps overflowing with passion. Great production, too, as one expects from Daptone.

Wussy - Strawberry (Shake It)

Everyone in Cincinnati keeps hoping this beloved local band — so true to all that AltRock’s history stands for — will break through nationally. This album, with both Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker delivering mysteriously poignant songs, would be a deserving one to bring them wider renown. ©

Top 10 Personal Discoveries in 2011


Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches These became a staple of The Seedy Seeds’ touring diet in 2011. At some point we started calling them “Banay-nays,” after that Raffi song, but internally I always spelled it “Banannaise,” as if there would be banana-flavored mayonnaise. As repulsive as my last statement was just now, these sandwiches are terrific. Toast the bread just a bit, put the peanut butter on while it’s still warm, gets a little melty … yum.

Piano-based Old-Timey Ragtime Music I discovered that no matter what I’m doing, my thought processes are more organized and productive under the influence of The Rag. It started as a joke while Margaret (Darling of the Seeds) and I were working on answering some emails and other boring officey-type stuff — “Put on some music,” she says — and the first thing I always do is pick the worst music I can think of and turn it up. Old gags die hard, you see. But I put on Ragtime and got hooked. And as it turns out I am most productive around the influence of Scott Joplin.

Mad Men Rather like when I saw Clerks for the first time 10 years after its release, (the AMC television hit is) far enough away from the initial wave of popularity that people can talk about it again in down-to-earth terms and I can be a fanboy without annoying people.

Joe Walsh It’s quite commonplace now to “hate the f’n Eagles, man,” thanks to The Big Lebowski, one of the finest movies ever made. Though many people repeat The Dude’s sentiments, it’s clear that The Eagles had their moments. As it turns out, most of the moments I enjoy happen to belong to Mr. Joe Walsh — he just seems to be having a good damned time, all the time, despite his being an Eagle.

George Jones Now don’t get me wrong here, I’ve always been a fan of the Possum. But I did a whole lot of driving this summer, between touring and my day job in Lexington, Ky., and had a lot of time to listen to a lot of music. I began listening to Mr. No-Show and I really felt something click. I began to try to mimic his vocal style, singing by myself in my car. I love Jamey Johnson’s quote about him at the Kennedy Center Honors: “If your spirit could jump out and have its own voice and sing a country song to you, it’d sound like George Jones.” On a whim, the Seeds plus Ricky Nye, Ed Vardiman and Jason Wells created a George Jones tribute show in the Southgate House lounge one frigid October eve, and it was splendid as splendid could be. Do yourself a favor, go to YouTube or whatever, and listen to “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” and just LISTEN TO THAT GUY’S VOICE.

Judas Priest I got to see them on their “farewell” tour just a few weeks back at the U.S. Bank Arena. Zakk Wylde opened the show and it was just awful. Judas Priest put on one of the most genuinely majestic, metal, spectacular performances I’ve seen and, like I mentioned in the Joe Walsh diatribe, they were all HAVING FUN with it and you could tell how badass they knew they were, without being campy and silly.

Paul McCartney Playing at Great American Ballpark is the Best Concert I Will Ever See
I splurged, got the fancy seats for my mom and me, and saw one of the most incredible performers that has ever lived play an unapologetic, earnest, nearly three damned hour set to a sold out baseball stadium. It was unbelievable to witness this guy who wrote so many songs that mean so much to literally BILLIONS of people play them, like, right there — like, he’s the guy that seriously wrote that song, “Helter Skelter” didn’t come out of a cloud or a Time-Life CD collection. That guy there seriously went into a room and wrote that song. He sounded perfect, the band was great, whatever. Man, oh man.

Guided By Voices is the Best Rock Band in The World Now, of course, this is no surprise. I got to see their second-to-last “official” show in the early 2000s at the Southgate House and I remember it being fantastic, as many well know. But on their “classic lineup” tour, just through the very same venue this year, an indescribable thing happened — some dudes got up on stage and drank a lot and played a show. And it could not have been more clear that they were the only band that matters, the absolute gold standard for how you play a damned Rock show and how you be a damned Rock band.

I Willfully Drank Every Last Drop of the Technology Kool-Aid Currently powered-on in my immediate vicinity are two desktop computers, three LCD monitors, a laptop, a smartphone and a tablet, and I now use them all, all the time, and have found new and inventive ways to connect them all together. I share the music from the desktop and control it with the smartphone and use the laptop to control the desktop controlling the tablet. AND THEY ALL SHARE AN OLD USB LASER PRINTER I BOUGHT IN HIGH SCHOOL and I can make a file on the tablet and share it with the phone and print it off the phone through the shared printer driver that’s on one of the desktops!

I Am A Dog Person Margaret and our friend found a puppy in the streets of Newport, about to get hit by traffic, and they rescued it. Brought it to my place, put up flyers, called the police, canvassed the neighborhood, etc. No dice. Meanwhile, this puppy crawled right up into my heart, curled up in a ball and yawned, making a tiny little squeak while he did so. As it turns out, I like dogs. And now I have one. That’s a little weird, but things change, you know?

THE SEEDY SEEDS’ latest album, Verb Noun, is available now. Tickets are going fast for the “superfolkelectroindiepop” band’s show at the Southgate House Dec. 29.



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