January 29, 2008

Best of 2007, actually #5

I got the numbering wrong in my last "best of 2007" post, as if it matters. Laura Veirs was #6 on my list. The actual #5 was the New Pornographers' "Challengers", another swell album in a series of swell albums. (Not quite as good as "Twin Cinema", but still, damn.) They've been expanding their sound over the years, no longer delivering all-hyper-power-pop-all-the-time but bringing in melancholy ballads, cut-and-paste experiments, and hypnotic epics that have retroactively made me feel much more warmly about their second album, "The Electric Version", which I had once dismissed as a carbon copy of their first album. Now that they're making so few songs that recall their first album, I don't mind having two versions of it.

Here are two very different tracks: Dan Bejar's "Myriad Harbor", a song about New York with an opening call-and-response couplet that cracks me up every time, and Carl Newman's "Adventures in Solitude", a delicate number that opens up at the end with a great vocal from Kathryn Calder, holding her own in a band with Neko fucking Case in it -- not bad.

(Obligatory Amazon link for the acquisitionally motivated. Or go to the Matador website and buy the executive edition, which includes downloads of every associated B-side, a twelve-track live CD, and videos.)

Posted by Francis at 03:49 AM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2008

The mystery of the disappearing blog

My rundown of my top 25 albums got interrupted when I went to Boston to solve (and, as it happens, win) the Mystery Hunt, and I haven't picked it up yet since returning. Sorry about that (assuming people are actually downloading the samples).

The Hunt was...okay. Not the weakest Hunt I've attended, but considering the circumstances of its creation, the fact that it came together at all, much less that it wasn't a complete disaster, is fairly miraculous.

I might have been grumpier in general about the Hunt, but a lot of the puzzles I worked on were actually quite satisfying to solve. I was only too happy to abandon puzzles when it seemed like further beating of my head against them would not be rewarding, and it turned out that many of those puzzles were, in fact, completely impossible to solve, so I'm glad I didn't spend more time on them. (The full answer for that last puzzle isn't up yet -- but it has something to do with finding the middle initials of G.I. Joe characters, and also rotating the circles in the knot pictures to make pairs of knots topologically equivalent. Obvious, really.)

But enough about the broken puzzles. Here are some fun ones that you might want to solve at home. (Note that not all of the explanation of the answers are up yet.)

X2. I didn't solve this, but the group that did enjoyed it, and it looked fairly straightforward but cool.

Treasure Map. A not-too-hard combination of a Concentration-style rebus and jigsaw puzzle.

The Cult of Helios. A cool little logic puzzle. Interpreting the diagram is tricky at first, but once you've sussed what's going on, it's lots of fun.

What Incarnation of Palindrome Are You? (Palindrome is the team that ran the Hunt.) Another puzzle I didn't work on, but my teammates clearly enjoyed solving it, and I thought the concept of an online quiz parody puzzle was amusing in itself.

Cross Examination. I never saw this puzzle at all! But it's a variety cryptic by someone I know, so probably it's worth solving. I'll give it a try soon.

Chimera. Just an insanely cool idea. You need to be familiar with World Puzzle Championship-type puzzles.

Rotating Slider. We solved this entirely on paper. Might be fun to solve it in the applet, but I decided that would melt my brain.

Picture Puzzle. This is a Some Assembly Required puzzle with most of the puzzle pieces not provided. Challenging, but with an incredibly cool payoff at the end.

God's Gift to Cartooning. Funny even if you don't get all the way to the final answer.

Little Rascals. I didn't work on this, but it's a hilarious concept. I'll probably try solving this one later as well, since knowing the gimmick doesn't ruin the puzzle.

Monopoles. I wouldn't bother with the final step of this, but if a bunch of hard Magnets puzzles sounds appealing to you, these are for you.

Muppet Theater. Not too hard, and it has Muppets!

Our Unfortunate Aunt Edith. This was pretty difficult, actually. Took a few of us, taking turns having insights, to get through it. But it was never unfair, and made for a satisfying solve.

Subservient Chicken Loves the '80s. What more do you need to know than that title? If you follow only one link in this entire entry, this is the one to follow.

The Dungeon. We didn't solve this, but we should've, because it's very clever! Boo to us.

At the Canyon. Quick, easy, fun.

Department Store. Much more approachable if you know the standard puzzle type that this is based on.

Six Easy Pieces. Most of the puzzle here is figuring out what the instructions are telling you to do. It solves pretty fast after that.

A Mind-Flexing Exercise. A cross between a Rows Garden and a Siamese Twins. Pretty hard to solve (there were three of us working on it for most of the time), but like Picture Puzzle, it has a mind-blowing payoff at the end.

Frame of Reference. Not too hard, even though there's more than one aha needed to get to the solution.

Quartermaster. Pretty straightforward. Recommended for diagramless fans.

Whew. Soon, some more mp3s for you.

Posted by Francis at 11:45 PM | Comments (5)

January 15, 2008

You like monkeys, you like robots; maybe you don't like half-assed Jonathan Coulton references so much

Monkeys and robots are working together! Perhaps this means we'll be avoiding the dystopian future predicted in James Kochalka Superstar's haunting cautionary tale, "Monkey Vs. Robot" (also available in book form for the monkey-robot connoisseur).

Posted by Francis at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

Best of 2007, #5

#5: Laura Veirs, "Saltbreakers"
You might know Laura Veirs as "that other singer on the Decemberists' The Crane Wife", but of course she's also got her own thing going on. I bought her 2004 album, "Carbon Glacier", and loved a few songs utterly to bits while the rest were -- well, certainly not bad songs, but damnable with less effusive praise. I skipped the last album based on mp3s I heard, but when this album rolled around, there wasn't a non-earworm in the bunch. Here's a slow one and a fast one for you: "Wandering Kind" and "Phantom Mountain".

You no like to download? How about some YouTube videos, how do those work for you? Because this prize-winning fan video for "Phantom Mountain" is pretty great. I also like this one from the runners-up. Then consider buying the album for full price at Amazon but decide it's too expensive and make a mental note to try your local used CD store instead.

Posted by Francis at 01:29 AM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2008

Best of 2007, #4

#4: Andrew Bird, "Armchair Apocrypha"
At first, I was a little underwhelmed by this CD, partly because I'd heard about half the songs already in concert (and thus the recorded versions had to compete with the amazing live versions I remembered), and partly because the overall feel is so similar to that of his previous (near-perfect) album, "The Mysterious Production of Eggs". But it's such a lush album that it stuck with me, and I kept coming back to it, feeling more and more warmly about it each time. He's not repeating what he's done before, he's refining it. I might have missed seeing Jimi Hendrix do things with a guitar that no one else could do, but I get to watch Andrew Bird do the same thing with his violin; I feel pretty lucky about that, really. Can't wait to hear what he's going to do next.

Listen to "Plasticities" and "Dark Matter" and immediately improve the quality of your life. Then have some of this lovely Kool-Aid and buy the album.

Posted by Francis at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2008

I hope the sound of me nervously biting my nails down to the quick isn't bothering you

The Supreme Court may be getting a head start on deciding the next election.

Posted by Francis at 04:51 PM | Comments (1)

The latest in sweet sweet crossword action

...for those of you who don't solve the New York Sun every day (your loss). Today's puzzle is another collaboration between Patrick Blindauer and me, entitled "Squares Away". Right-click here to download (I recommend printing out before solving); you'll need Across Lite to open the file, if you haven't already installed it any of the thirteen spadillion times I've linked to it in the past.

Posted by Francis at 03:16 PM | Comments (3)

January 10, 2008

Best of 2007, #3

#3: Deerhoof, "Friend Opportunity"
I have a reputation, it seems, of listening to nothing but weird, inaccessible music that nobody has ever heard of. But if you downloaded the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss songs, you'll see that this is clearly a canard. Much of the music I listen to is stuff that I think most people would like -- but if you're not like me, trolling MP3 blogs all the time to hear what's new, it's pretty easy to miss anything that's not getting played over the sound system at Starbucks (not to denigrate the music selections at Starbucks -- god knows they have top 40 radio beat all to hell). Mind you, there are a lot of people like me, if the popularity of MP3 blogs in any indicator; it's just that the set of "people like me" and the set of "people I know" have a fairly small intersection. (Hi, Brendan!)

That said, this album is weird and many of you probably won't like it very much.

I haven't been listening to Deerhoof all that long. I bought their previous album but one, "Milk Man", based on a review that made it sound interesting and one track I downloaded which I dug. Unfortunately, that was the only song on the album that I really liked. So I sort of wrote them off, but then I ran across a gushing review of "Friend Opportunity" which compared it to the work of prog bands like Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson -- and there really isn't a much better way to get me intrigued than to drop the prog bomb. Well, with some conditions: I've gotten impatient with the pretentions that invariably accompanied the prog epics of yesteryear, and while sidelong songs like "Close to the Edge" and "Get 'Em Out By Friday" have been grandfathered in, nowadays I'm the sort of music listener who can't really summon up the energy to care about the Mars Volta. So I like bands that take what I like about prog -- a loose approach to song structure, innovative arrangements, a devil-may-care attitude about time and key signatures -- and still manage to write short, catchy songs. This album does a kickass job of that.

Well, there is one 12-minute song, but whaddaya gonna do.

Of course, before I bought the album, I downloaded quite a few songs. Having been burned before, I didn't want to base a purchase on only one track. But I liked everything I heard, so into my virtual shopping cart it went. And here are two of the songs that sold me on it, for your listening pleasure (perhaps): "+81" and "Matchbook Seeks Maniac".

But seriously, anyone I know who might care to own this album (hi, Brendan!) probably has it already.

Posted by Francis at 10:10 PM | Comments (1)

Best of 2007, #2

#2: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand"
I went on kind of a Robert Plant kick this year. I bought a ton of his solo albums (reissued with bonus tracks not too long ago) when I was shopping at the intensely overwhelming Amoeba Music in San Francisco, most of which I had owned previously on LP or cassette -- well, I mean, how often do you listen to your old LPs? Especially the ones that are still at your parents' house in Phoenix? God, those are some good albums. I think I might need to play you one of my favorite tracks -- here's the Zeppelin-ish "Mystery Title" from "Pictures at Eleven".

Anyway, listening to all of those meant that I was primed to react with full excitement when I heard the news that there was going to be a collaboration between Robert Plant and bluegrass idol Alison Krauss, produced by T-Bone Burnett. I believe my considered opinion was, "HOLY FUCK THAT IS GOING TO BE AWESOME."

It didn't occur to me until yesterday, but this seemingly unlikely pairing was foreshadowed in 2004, when Alison Krauss made a guest appearance on her brother Viktor's album "Far From Enough", singing the Robert Plant song "Big Log". (Download that here.) Dunno whether that recording actually helped lead to this album, though; the New York Times article about the genesis of the project doesn't mention it. In any case, it's a good article and you ought to read it.

The album pulls songs from a wide variety of sources -- Tom Waits makes an appearance three songs after the Everly Brothers, and later on there's a song by Stax Records' Little Milton -- and makes them sound like stops along the same songwriting continuum. The arrangements are spacious but lush, and frankly I'm kind of a sucker for just about anything that Marc Ribot plays guitar on. There's a fair amount of variety in the vocal presentation; Plant and Krauss go back and forth from duetting to trading lead vocals. I've picked two duets here, since I particularly enjoy the way their voices blend.

Download "Killing the Blues" and "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)". Or buy the CD, if you are so inclined.

Posted by Francis at 01:31 AM | Comments (1)

January 08, 2008

Tuning up

Well, every year I make a list of my favorite CDs; sometimes said list arrives fashionably late. After due deliberation seasoned with a few haphazard instances of saying "Eh, I don't know where to put this one exactly, I guess I'll just stick it in the teens somewhere," here's what I came up with for my top 25 of 2007:

1) Life in a Blender, "The Heart is a Small Balloon"
2) Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand"
3) Deerhoof, "Friend Opportunity"
4) Andrew Bird, "Armchair Apocrypha"
5) The New Pornographers, "Challengers"
6) Laura Veirs, "Saltbreakers"
7) Georgie James, "Places"
8) The Bees, "Octopus"
9) Dirty Projectors, "Rise Above"
10) LCD Soundsystem, "Sound of Silver"
11) Battles, "Mirrored"
12) Richard Thompson, "Sweet Warrior"
13) The Golden Dogs, "Big Eye Little Eye"
14) Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, "Living With the Living"
15) Ethan Lipton, "Mr. Softy"
16) Radiohead, "In Rainbows"
17) Jens Lekman, "Night Falls Over Kortedala"
18) Travis Morrison, "All Y'All"
19) Paul McCartney, "Memory Almost Full"
20) Iron and Wine, "The Shepherd's Dog"
21) Suzanne Vega, "Beauty and Crime"
22) Philip Glass, "Monsters of Grace"
23) Joni Mitchell, "Shine"
24) Feist, "The Reminder"
25) His Name Is Alive, "Firefly Dragonfly" EP

Normally at this point I'd add short commentaries about the above CDs, but in the interest of getting this posted before the Earth's orbit collapses into the Sun, I decided that what I'd do instead is post about one CD a day (for approximate values of "day") until I get through all 25. So Heaneyland will be turning into an MP3 blog for about a month, which is no more random than any of the other kicks I go on around here, really. (MP3 links will last one week each.)

#1: Life in a Blender, "The Heart Is a Small Balloon".
What better way to boost my indie cred than by picking an album by a local band that most non-New Yorkers have never heard of for my #1 slot? But seriously, this is a great fucking CD. I've loved Life in a Blender from the first time I saw them, way back in the days of "Chicken Dance". Nowadays they're still funny but less overtly jokey, and their song arrangements have only gotten more and more killer over the years. Live is still the best way to get the full Blender experience, but you could do worse than to force yourself to listen to "The Sweet Things" and "Blood Is Worthless". (Click through for download links.) Buy the CD direct from the label here or go see Life in a Blender play in Brooklyn in February and buy a copy at the show.

As for other albums...

Honorable mention, AKA other CDs I liked but which I deemed unworthy for one petty reason or another, in no particular order:
Robert Wyatt, "Comicopera"; Animal Collective, "Strawberry Jam"; Junior Senior, "Hey Hey My My Yo Yo"; The White Stripes, "Icky Thump"; The Go! Team, "Proof of Youth"; Caribou, "Andorra"; David Garland, "Noise in You"; Amiina, "Kurr"; They Might Be Giants, "Cast Your Pod to the Wind" ("The Else" bonus disc); Dungen, "Tio Bitar"; Fountains of Wayne, "Traffic and Weather"; Apples in Stereo, "New Magnetic Wonder"; Rodrigo y Gabriela; Charlotte Gainsbourg, "5:55"; Rush, "Snakes and Arrows" (yes, Rush, shut up); Sophe Lux, "Waking the Mystic"; Marnie Stern, "In Advance of the Broken Arm"; Menomena, "Friend and Foe"; Of Montreal, "Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer".

Album that, if I could take the best songs from it and add them to the best songs from his previous album, we might be looking at top 25 material:
Prince, "Planet Earth"

I recognize that these are both good albums but somehow I'm just never in the mood to listen into them:
Modest Mouse, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank"
Arcade Fire, "Neon Bible"

Kaiser Chiefs, "Yours Truly Angry Mob"
Bjork, "Volta"

Band I suddenly decided I needed to own a whole crapload of albums by, all because of "Surrender" being included in Guitar Hero II:
Cheap Trick

Oh, these CDs are actually from 2006? Crap:
Mates of State, "Bring It Back"
Imitation Electric Piano, "Blow It Up Burn It Down Kick It 'Til It Bleeds"
Alice Smith, "For Lovers, Dreamers, and Me" (Actually, let me give you another MP3 -- you should hear "Dream" from this album)

Hmm, this album was released in 2007 but it hasn't been released yet in the U.S., and I've only heard it because I downloaded it, but it's really good, and I swear I'll buy it when it comes out...but it better include some B-sides, goddammit:
Lucky Soul, "The Great Unwanted"

Back to 2006 -- how do I feel about last year's list?
Not bad. I think I'd retroactively scooch Belle & Sebastian up to #2 and Regina Spektor up to #4, and lose the Pipettes (I got kind of tired of their album after a while...Alice Smith can have their spot), but other than that, I'm still okay with it.

Pithy wrap-up:
I don't have one. More tomorrow.

Posted by Francis at 11:58 PM | Comments (5)

January 05, 2008

Paradoxically, I couldn't draw this cartoon until I drew this cartoon

After a rather long hiatus indeed...six things.


Posted by Francis at 02:31 AM in Six Things | Comments (6)

January 03, 2008

I give up

Since September, I've been writing a monthly easyish crossword for the online magazine Student Health 101. Each crossword is loosely (often very loosely) related to a subject covered elsewhere in the issue. Anyway, in case you'd like to give these puzzles a try, I'll be reprinting them here at irregular intervals. Here's the first one, "Abstinence".

(Download the Across Lite crossword reader here if you don't have it.)

Posted by Francis at 05:13 PM | Comments (2)