Sxip Shirey: A Bottle of Whiskey & A Handful of Bees (Album Review)

Old Muruch readers may recall my obsession with Luminescent Orchestrii. Since their last album (which I hope wasn’t really their last), Sxip Shirley has gone solo. His new album, A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees, was just released. It’s as weird and wonderful as I’ve come to expect from any Sxip project.

The standout track is “Grandpa Charlie,” which dives into that funky churn of genres Sxip perfected with Luminescent Orchestrii.

My other favorite tracks are “Just Drive By, Firefly,” “Woman of Constant Sorrow,” and “Bach, Stevie Wonder & Janelle Monae,” all featuring the exquisite voice of Rhiannon Giddens (formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops and currently on Nashville). If you like those songs, check out the 2010 Luminescent Orchestration/Carolina Chocolate Drops collaboration.

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Sxip Shirey Official Site

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Albums

In addition to my usual year end lists, I’ve also compiled Best of the Decade lists. Following are my favorite albums that were released between 2000-2009…

Muruch’s Best of the Decade: Albums

25. Muse: The Resistance

This is one of those albums that has classic potential, and I expect to move its way up the list as the years go by. A quote from my review: “Integrating classical and opera music into their theatrical electro-rock sound, Muse have created one of the most exciting song cycles I’ve ever heard.”

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24. Gaba Kulka: Hat, Rabbit

It was difficult to narrow how Gaba’s releases to just one, but I think her latest is her strongest to date. As I said when I named it #4 on my Top Albums list, it is “probably the most unusual and creative album” of 2009.

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Buy @ Artist’s Site

23. Soundtrack: Once

The soundtrack to the Irish independent film Once features The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. I said in my 2007 review that Hansard’s “lyrics are deeply poetic, his music is heart-wrenchingly lovely, and his beautifully raw voice conveys emotion as if the man were literally ripping his own chest open as he sings.”

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22. Antony & The Johnsons: Antony & The Johnsons

Instead of a best of 2005 list, I deemed it The Year of the Bird and that post says everything about how Antony’s music made me feel when I first heard it. While I Am A Bird Now was their more popular release, I’ve always favored their self-titled 2000 album.

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21. Pina: Quick Look

Pina sadly remains my best kept secret. I discovered her in the early aughts when a French pal shared mp3s of “I Loved the Way” and “Bring Me a Biscuit.” I also love Pina’s 2005 release Guess You Got It, but the rougher edges of Quick Look‘s production fit better with her “Gothic folk” style.

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20. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: Rattlin’ Bones

My 2008 review summed it up: “The flawless beauty of this album is almost beyond my comprehension.

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19. Hem: Funnel Cloud

I like this album even more now than when I called it a “nearly perfect album” in my 2007 review.

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18. Damien Dempsey: To Hell or Barbados

As I stated in my 2007 review, the album is a “genre-hop through folk, rock, electronica, and reggae…but the genre gymnastics still take a back seat to the stunning quality of Dempsey’s voice.”

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17. Anais Mitchell: The Brightness

My 2007 review said: “Like the greatest of classic literature, the compositions on The Brightness are the kind that softly seep through your skin and slowly make their way into your heart and mind before exploding in dazzling display of amazement.”

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14. Xavier Rudd: Dark Shades of Blue

Xavier has quickly become my favorite male artist in recent years, and as I said in my 2008 review: “the astounding quality of his songs make me wonder if future generations might consider Xavier Rudd to be the greatest artist of this era.”

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15. Mavis Staples: Never Turn Back

I’m almost ashamed not to put this at #1, because in many ways this is the greatest album of the past two or three decades. I simply don’t listen to it often as the albums listed below. I suppose this is because the weighty subject matter requires a certain mood. But as I said when I reviewed it two years ago: “We’ll Never Turn Back is what music should be. Gut-wrenching blues, earth shaking beats, hip swaying rhythms, deeply moving lyrics, and a rich voice that defies description.

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14. Luminescent Orchestrii: Too Hot to Sleep

I deemed 2005 “the year of the bird,” but that’s only because I didn’t hear Luminescent Orchestrii until 2007 when I said: “there’s a definite connection between their frenzied, violent approach to orchestral instruments and the punk cabaret of The Dresden Dolls, but neither description fully captures their unique and unearthly sound.

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13. Flogging Molly: Swagger

This album ushered in the Celtic Punk craze of the decade. There’s no such thing as a bad Flogging Molly album, but this one was definitely their best.

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12. Vienna Teng: Inland Territory

In my review I called Inland Territory a grand “display of Vienna Teng’s brilliance, grace, and talent.” I continue to fall more and more in love with this album with each listen.

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11. Kurt Vonnegut & Dave Soldier: Ice-9 Ballads

My #1 album of 2009. As I said in my review: “I can’t imagine a more perfect score for my favorite novel of all time.”

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10. Mary Timony: Mountains

I had never heard of former Helium singer Mary Timony until a friend sent me this album shortly after its 2000 release. Mary’s unusual mix of Medieval folk, chamber pop, and indie-rock was unlike anything I’d heard before, and it remains one of the most strangely beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.

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9. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: The Whole Fam Damnily

My #1 album of 2008. In my review, I called it an “inebriating concoction of swamp stomp and backwoods pluck.” But in subsequent listens I’ve found myself drawn more to The Rev’s lyrics, which accurately capture the perils of modern rural life.

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8. Allison Crowe: Live at Wood Hall

Oh that voice! Still gives me chills. I’ve posted about Allison Crowe so many times over the years that I consider her Muruch’s musical mascot. As I said in my 2007 review: “there’s really no way to convey through mere words how much the music on Allison Crowe’s Live At Wood Hall moves me” Forget Susan Boyle, Allison sang the definitive cover of “I Dreamed a Dream.” (mp3)*

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7. Soundtrack: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling

I always call it the “Buffy Musical” rather than its proper title Once More With Feeling.” Years before Dr. Horrible, Joss Whedon wrote a hilarious, poignant, and very catchy musical for an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I don’t know how well the songs translate if you never watched the Buffy series, but I still love singing along to the soundtrack. The album features vocals by actors Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allison Hannigan, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters, and Anthony Stewart Head. This is an example of why file sharing works – I and several friends burned our own soundtracks from mp3s recorded directly from the televised episode long before the soundtrack was released, yet we all purchased the official album once it became available.

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6. Xavier Rudd: White Moth

I could easily include all of Xavier Rudd’s albums on this list, but I tried to limit myself to just two. My 2008 review said: “Rudd deems the album his “proudest work” and it’s easy to understand why.” But it’s really only been with repeated listens over the past two years that I’ve grown to love and truly appreciate its magnificence. And nothing speaks to the greatness of an album like having a panic attack when you think you’ve lost it and knowing you must replace it immediately. Fortunately, I found my copy!

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5. Damien Rice: O

Unlike most Americans, I heard and fell in love with O when it was originally released in Ireland in 2001. My clothbound first edition of the album is a collector’s item now, but I wouldn’t part with it for anything. Rice seems to have faced some post-hype backlash in recent years, but that doesn’t erase the brilliance of this album. Most remember it for Lisa Hannigan’s delicate harmonies, but Rice’s use of strings and opera music were also very unique at the time. And the album as a whole has withstood changing trends in music over the years.

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4. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

This is another example of why file sharing can have a positive effect on album sales. Remember “Free Fiona”? If you don’t, Fiona recorded a version of this album with producer Jon Brion and her label initially refused to release it. Mp3s of the demos were leaked online, the fans loved them, and a huge campaign called “Free Fiona” was launched in hopes of getting the album released. It worked, though Fiona re-recorded most of the album for the official release. I was one of many who purchased the album even though I had the demo mp3s. My 2005 review also shifted the focus of this site from simply sharing music to encouraging people to purchase albums. It has since become one of my favorite albums ever, and I hope Fiona decides to grace us with another release in the near future.

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3. Soundtrack: Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Among the 2000-04 archives of this site that have been lost were my reviewes of the movie Hedwig & The Angry Inch (which I saw in a double bill with The Anniversary Party at a local film festival) and its soundtrack. Whether or not you’re familiar with John Cameron Mitchell’s awesome musical about a German transgender rocker, the soundtrack is one of the best rock albums of all time. There are thunderous punk rock numbers like “Angry Inch” and heart-melting ballads like “Origin of Love.” Why Mitchell continues to act instead of record music is a mystery to me.

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2. Old Crow Medicine Show: Big Iron World

In my November, 2006 review, I said “I don’t believe I’ve ever said this about an album before, but I think Old Crow Medicine Show’s Big Iron World is just about perfect.” I stand by that statement. I’ve played this album more than any other released in the past three years, and only one band could keep it from the number 1 spot…

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1. The Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls

Anyone who knows me or has been a longtime reader of this site knows that The Dresden Dolls are/were my favorite band. My posts about their self-titled debut (and the live A Is For Accident album that preceded it) were also lost with early archives of this site, but I’ve raved every other Dresden Dolls release since then. After “Over the Rainbow”, The Dresden Doll’s “Girl Anachronism” is my favorite song and this is possibly my all-time favorite album. Amanda Palmer proves without a doubt that – in the right hands – the piano is the most punk rock of all instruments.

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*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of artist

The Dresden Dolls: Roundhouse DVD

The DVD of The Dresden Dolls’ performance at London’s Roundhouse theatre on November 3rd and 4th, 2006 features band members Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, their artistic fan Brigade, comedian Margaret Cho, Luminescent Orchestrii‘s Sxip Shirey, Jason Webley, Lene Lovich, Reggie Watts, and other singers, musicians, and performance artists. The Roundhouse production was a much larger and more theatrical event than the more intimate Paradise DVD.

The concert begins with an introduction by Margaret Cho, clad only in red burlesque feather fans. Then the Dresden Dolls take the stage to perform “Sex Changes”. Amanda was surprisingly covered up in a large tshirt rather than her signature velvet mini dress, but that was the only variant in their presentation. An impressive curtain climbing acrobat and dancers put on a punk-goth Vaudevillian Cirque de Soleilesque show during “Gravity”. Amanda and Brian ask the audience to sing along to “Modern Moonlight”, then slide into “Mrs. O” to better showcase Amanda’s limitless pipes. “Backstabber” is followed by “Coin-Operated Boy”, the latter causing the crowd to erupt into cheers and applause.

The Dolls emerge from behind their respective instruments for a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy”, during which Brian plays acoustic guitar. They return to the piano and drum set for “Mandy Goes To Med School”. Performance group Zen Zen Zo entertains the audience during “Slide”, and a colourful selection from The Brigade sing backup on “The Jeep Song”. The Dolls round out the main set with “Dirty Business”, the catchy “Shores Of California”, and Brian’s acoustic guitar as well as The Brigade return for the so-called finale “Sing”.

But of course there was more. The three song encore began with a mesmeric performance of “Mein Herr” that finally revealed the cabaret corset that had been hiding beneath Amanda’s tshirt. Trash McSweeney of Australian band The Red Paintings and some actual painters joined the duo for “Mad World”, which sounded more like a tribute to the Gary Jules cover rather than the Tears For Fears original. The true finale of the evening was my favourite Dolls tune (and second fave song ever) “Girl Anachronism”.

The Roundhouse DVD also includes two bonus duets (trios?) – “Missed Me” with Edward Ka-Spel of Legendary Pink Dots and “Delilah” with the magnificent Lene Lovich. There are also interviews with the various performers and extra footage from the concert, during which we finally see clips of Sxip Shirey’s noisy circus act and Margaret Cho’s bizarre burlesque number with Jason Webley.

One might expect my adoration of the Dolls to fade now that they have gained some relative fame, but I felt just as giddily fangirlish watching the Roundhouse performance as I did when I first heard their music years ago.

The Dresden Dolls Official Site

Buy the DVD

Luminescent Orchestrii: Too Hot To Sleep

Attention! This is my new favourite band. Luminescent Orchestrii came to my attention in the same way that Elizabeth & The Catapult did, by playing with The Dresden Dolls. Apparently if Amanda Palmer likes a band, I will love them. The band’s press release describes their music as “circus musicians, punk rockers, Appalachian fiddlers, audio tweakers, irreverent composers, Romanian gypsy melodies, punk frenzy, salty tangos, saucy lyrics, unexpected haunting harmony, hip-hop beats, music to make you dance and kiss and scream”. They are all of this and more, their sound truly defying category. The vocals at times recall the Mediaeval Baebes cover from The Wicker Man, and there’s a definite connection between their frenzied, violent approach to orchestral instruments and the punk cabaret of The Dresden Dolls, but neither description fully captures their unique and unearthly sound.

The Luminescent Orchestrii is composed of Sxip Shirey on resophonic guitar, bullhorn harmonicas, and melodica, Aaron Goldsmith on guitarrin, Rima Fand on violin and viola, Adam Matta supplying human beatbox, and Sarah Alden, Kaia Wong, and Julianna Carney on violin. Males and females alike lend their vocal talents to the mix.

“Amaritsi” begins with acapella female vocals before the strings kick up into a catchy, spicy, upbeat tune that I can’t get out of my head. The screeching strings on “Stranger” remind me when the Devil plays his fiddle in Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down To Georgia”.

The band’s take on the traditional instrumentals “Freilach/Rabbi in Palestine” and “Cohen/Kolemeike” are exotic, spirited, and beautifully captivating. “Warsaw” could be an Appalachian folk tune if not for the seductive vocals and passionate music.

Songs like “Knockin” and “Too Hot To Sleep” sound like they could have been lifted from the Roma centuries ago, yet Sxip Shirey wrote them himself. The title track also has a hint of jazz mixed into its gypsy sound. “Tango du Réve” is the above referenced saucy tango.

There are so many genres in “Tea”, I don’t know where to begin. The track starts sounding like a Tom Waits song then switches to an ominously dark semi-bluegrass sound with female harmonies on the chorus before sliding into speak-sing blues and bursting into screaming strings that finally culminate in a chaotic explosion of sound. It’s mind-blowingly awesome, what else can I say.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a hip-hop fiddle tune until now. “She’s A Brick” bends genres with a mix of human beatbox and singing strings. The pretty closing track, “Sweet”, is the most peaceful that the album ever gets.

I haven’t been this excited about a new musical discovery since author Caitlín R. Kiernan first introduced me to The Dresden Dolls. Luminescent Orchestrii’s Too Hot To Sleep would unquestionably be my #1 album of 2007, except for the fact that it was released in 2005.

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