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End of the Year: 2003 (Nathan Hogan)

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Nathan Hogan reflects on 10 records from 2003.

End of the Year: 2003 (Nathan Hogan)

2003 was the year that I reluctantly left college radio behind. As a result I only got to listen to a small fraction of records released in the summer and autumn months compared to what was accessible from January to June. These picks are skewed a bit towards the early part of the year, and there’s also a laundry list of music that probably could have squeezed on here if I’d had the chance to hear it. But in any event, here are 10 records from 2003 that I particularly enjoyed. They’re not terribly eclectic picks and they’re not any attempt to name “bests.” This is just some music that camped out in my stereo and became part of my year.

Cul de Sac Death of the Sun (Strange Attractors)
In a virtuoso showing that collapses crutch notions of “organic” and “synthetic” music, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based quintet works inwards and outwards from samples as diverse as the band members’ personalities. Though the foundations remain intact – Jon Proudman’s disciplined drumming, Glenn Jones’ spiraling guitar figures – at times you hardly recognize this as a Cul de Sac record. Death of the Sun functions alchemically, layering Creole laments, 1930s German a cappella, gamelan percussion and eclectic field recordings with ephemeral lines of bowed bass, sitar, toy piano, violin, and hunting horns. The atmosphere is hazy, mysterious, primordial, and the fragile acoustic melodies augment it beautifully. My favorite record of 2003.

Sun Kil Moon Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jetset) / Mark Kozelek “Duk Koo Kim” (Vinyl Films)
It’s true that some of these songs drag, clocking in at twice their requisite length, and I can’t excuse the ham-fisted version of “Lily and Parrots” (a pretty, acoustic version of which closes 2001’s White Christmas ), but otherwise this is Mark Kozelek (ex-Red House Painters) in top form. “Glenn Tipton” ploughs the same folky furrow of Kozelek’s recent Dylan Magierek-recorded AC/DC covers while songs like “Salvador Sanchez” use Crazy Horse guitar muscle more purposefully than many of the oft-maligned moments on Songs For A Blue Guitar . Ultimately, though, it’s Kozelek’s vocals that manage to etch themselves into the unshakable recesses of memory. On the 4AD records, it was the enjambment of lyrics (“Glass / On the pavement under your shoe / Without you is all my life amounts to”) and eerie images from childhood (“Big barking fish in the concrete stream / Growling for dogfood”) delivered over a haze of reverb. On Ghosts it’s the latent violence of a walking suicide watching old tapes of a boxer submitting to a fatal pummeling (“Duk Koo Kim”), and the sorrowful ambivalence that permeates tracks like “Carry Me Ohio.” I'm terribly biased towards everything Kozelek tries (read: AC/DC apologist), but this is terrific

John Fahey Red Cross (Revenant)
Though in all likelihood John Fahey couldn’t have known this would be his “final” record, the fact of his death hangs inescapably over every note. Still, Red Cross punctuates with a peacefulness that I don’t think anyone anticipated. Befitting a giant of contemporary music who, as Glenn Jones notes in his touching eulogy, was buried in sneakers and an XXXL t-shirt stained by Chinese food, the record reverberates with humor and sadness, but its predominant, near insistent mood is one of (earned) contentment. Fahey stretches his notes tenderly, and there’s a patience even to the most gnarled, dissonant selections that lends them calm. In particular, the purposeful way that “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six,” a shambling little rag, seems to gather itself as it lopes between chord changes is terrifically affecting. Red Cross is a record that cobbles together these sorts of moments. It spans Fahey’s career without the fuss of trying to encapsulate or define it -– it carries the quiet gravity of an ellipsis rather than the blunt impact of a period.

Town and Country 5 (Thrill Jockey)
I haven’t had much time to spend with this record, but I know that it fits a particular mood that nothing else in my collection does. It’s a second or third cup-of-coffee mood – a mood for weekends when the floor is cold but the sun is warm and there is nowhere on earth I’m required to be. I hadn’t noticed that “Sleeping in the Midday Sun” was the title of the first song (my favorite of the six) until very recently but in fact that’s perfect. These songs, comprised primarily of droning wind instruments, string bass, and light percussion, take such care in the act of balancing that you cheer against cohesion. With 5 aloof forms seem to melt their starched collar of pretense: just enough is offered – a tinkling triangle, a trembling cornet note – that the world suddenly makes better sense in parts. Time becomes irrelevant; it’s really the perfect thing for a weekend morning.

Various Artists – Wooden Guitar (Locust) / Jack Rose Opium Musik (Eclipse)
One of my favorite performances of the year was Jack Rose’s solo set at an acid-folk festival where breathing was collectively halted so that no one would miss a single fret squeak. In fact, one couple brought their baby along, and it was the only set of the whole night that the kid didn’t make a peep. Rose is one of four contributors to the Locust compilation, a marvelously dexterous collection of blues, raga, psyche, and folk-based six and twelve-string picking modeled lovingly after collections like Takoma’s Fahey, Kottke, and Lang record. Rose’s solo turn on Opium Musik is similarly great, shaded lightly by tanpura on one track but largely unadorned, thus offering a nice contrast to the deep, bowed swells of Pelt’s catalog. Over the last few years great records of this ilk have come storming back (Steffen Basho-Junghan’s Rivers and Bridges , Richard Bishop’s Salvador Kali ) with the assistance of terrific imprints like Locust and Eclipse, and I hope the trend continues.

Alasdair Roberts Farewell Sorrow (Drag City)
Casting aside his Appendix Out moniker, Ali Roberts delivers a new cycle of songs steeped in the traditional Scottish ballads that birthed much of our country’s Appalachian tradition. With melodic, full-band arrangements Roberts’ tenor wanders through narratives of murder, hunting expeditions, and pubescent marriage. The comparisons to Will Oldham are perhaps inevitable, but Roberts’s songs are more unrepentantly pretty, with melodic arrangements and quirks that feel intrinsic to their lineage. Farewell Sorrow is one of the prettiest start-to-finish albums that I heard all year.

Boxhead Ensemble Quartets (Atavistic)
Michael Krassner’s Boxhead Ensemble, comprised of a rotating cast of Chicago-based musicians – Fred Lonberg-Holm, Scott Tuma, Ryan Hembrey, etc. – make music that’s too flat-out gorgeous to evaluate from any kind of dry, conceptual standpoint but also too complex and multidimensional to place in the company of guitar-centered, cinematic rock bands like Mogwai and GYBE! Quartets is as achingly pretty as the ensemble’s other releases, but it’s less overtly thematic than The Last Place to Go , which concerns itself specifically with Braden King’s documentary on Dutch Harbor, Alaska, or Two Brothers , a record tethered to traditional American folk music and the Civil War. Similarly to the aforementioned Cul de Sac record, the Boxhead Ensemble articulate bold new connections between the past and present. You can find in their music the rigorous timbral focus of modern composition, but it’s also a skewed version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” they’re playing. Either way, they’re always exquisite.

Haley Bonar The Size of Planets (Chairkickers)
Alan Sparhawk brought this Duluth-by-way-of-South-Dakota singer/songwriter along for a number of Low dates this year, helping to expose predisposed audiences to her immense talent. Bonar’s sophomore record, released on Sparhawk’s Chairkickers label, looks pretty standard on paper: country and folk-inflected guitar arrangements and a couple of piano-based tunes. Nevertheless, Bonar’s got a voice that belies her age (she’s 20) and her songs are really captivating. Backed by Sparhawk and esteemed Duluth set musicians like Charlie Parr, many of these songs – “Am I Allowed,” “Out of the Lake,” “Car Wreck” – are as chilling as the cold winter air off Lake Superior, and I’m anxious to hear what’s next.

(Smog) Supper (Drag City)
The more I listen to Supper , the more I feel that it’s one of the best (Smog) records in years. I wrote a lengthy review of it this spring (and did an interview with Callahan that’s also in the archives) so I’ll refrain from rehashing those opinions here. But I will say that if you’re a casual fan of (Smog) and haven’t picked this up, it isn’t one to miss.

The Angels of Light Everything is Good Here / Please Come Home (Young God)
Having heard roughly hewn acoustic versions of these songs live and on limited edition Young God releases, I sensed that Gira was poised for some form of critical reappraisal. Fortunately, 2003 was the year that many music fans caught up with him again, and his post-Swans output started getting the sort of attention that Devendra Banhart received in 2002. Oddly, I think this is my least favorite of the three Angels of Light records, but I still love it. Something about living with these songs in a raw, stripped-down form for so long has made it difficult to fully embrace their lush, textured arrangements, but on the other hand many of these tracks – “Kosinski,” “The Family God” – benefit enormously from the transformation. Gira never ceases to impress me.

Thanks for reading. Have a lovely 2004.

By Nathan Hogan

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