I suppose I should come completely clean here: like much of the folks you’ll find on the internet, I happen to be utterly smitten by Barack Obama. You’ve heard all about how inspirational he is, and how incredible a presence he can be on the campaign trail. That’s all well and good.
You also hear a lot about two major knocks against him. The first revolves around his “experience”, or lack thereof. I get that, I really do. As a country, we voters are very hesitant to turn the car-keys over to a complete neophyte. It only makes sense by human nature.
This human nature, however, is ignorant of history. In historical survey after historical survey, the President who tops the list of “Greatest ever” is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln served a single term as a US Congressman, and did some time in the Illinois legislature, but his eloquence and the respect he commanded put him on the Republican ticket in 1860. Sound familiar? If you look at the careers of folks like Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, you’ll see folks who were sold short because of a lack of experience who rose to meet the challenge of being president. If you like, you can be more succinct, though. As Jon Stewart put it on the Daily Show yesterday (and I’ll have to paraphrase), being Governor of Arkansas doesn’t really imply an incredible depth of experience, either.
The second criticism frequently leveled at Senator Obama is his perceived lack of detail-oriented policy white papers to be enacted upon his election. If you go to Senator Clinton’s site, you can read until your eyes swim a variety of positions and concrete proposals she hopes to go forward with when elected. That’s all great…but at this point I think we’re all savvy enough as voters to understand that pre-election policy promises are a pretty bad bet to base electing a candidate on. I dug out my dog-eared copy of the Clinton-Gore Economic Plan from 1992 (yep, I bought a copy…I’m a geek, sue me). In it, I was able to find maybe 2-3 specific things (out of about 50) that Clinton managed in 8 years. Policy initiatives are great and everything, but a smart candidate for president has to realize that it’ll be Congress and current events that will occupy most of the new president’s time.
And so in Barack Obama I’m not voting for policy and I’m not voting for experience. I’m voting for the best leader in the group of current candidates, the guy who seems smart enough and seems to have good enough judgment and who is clearly inspirational enough to maybe get this country out of some awful messes it faces at home and abroad.
Having said that, I must admit that I’m rather baffled by fellow liberals and Democrats who aren’t moving Obama’s direction. With Republicans, I can understand–Obama is likley too liberal for their tastes. But Democrats? Come on! Win or lose, it seems certain that Obama’s candidacy will be historic in nature, a movement more than it ever was a campaign. I read about Bobby Kennedy, and think about what a tragic, stolen moment in American History that was, and I have to believe that the Obama movement feels much the same as the RFK movement in ’68 felt. For a liberal, I cannot imagine willingly standing at the station, watching this onrushing train go by, and not wanting to get on instead of left behind.
Finally: they say a picture is worth a thousand words. The picture below was snapped at a Saturday afternoon rally in Columbia, South Carolina before the polls closed. It shows people knocking over a fence and climbing over one another to embrace Barack Obama, and in the photo you’ll see a lot of young people…but also older folks too, and blacks and whites together. Look at this photo and try to imagine any politician in the last 30 years drawing a similar response.
The Stabilisers first properly-released stateside album ended up in my hands about 2 weeks after I’d fallen under the spell of their labelmates, The Len Price 3. “Oh great, another Medway band on Little Steven’s record label”. At risk of feeling my tastes in music to be too easily pigeonholed, I had every expectations of hating this.
And so yeah, I had it on shuffle, and “She Wants It All The Time” was the first Stabilisers song I’d ever heard, and I found myself thinking “Yeah, I loved that guitar riff back when Stiff Little Fingers and The Buzzcocks did it a thousand times 30 years ago…” But wait a minute here. “She Wants It” suddenly kicks in with a middle 8, and then they do a key change, and then there’s a stop/start…huh. One of the ways a lot of mediocre punk rock loses me is that most punk bands come up with a stomping riff and that’s all they can manage in a song. But here’s The Stabilisers writing 3 minute songs that never quite go where you expect them to, with dynamics and a pulse that seemingly no one else is able to.
One of the reasons I have so little patience for bands that have a sound that recalls some other, earlier rock and roll predecessor is that the new bands always seem to get the sound right, but not the rest. Hell, give any guitarist a Rickenbacker plugged into an AC-30 amp turned up too high, and they’ll sound awesome. Sadly, too many bands get that part down, and that’s good enough for them. Bands that get the sound and the fury and the verve and the spirit and the content all nailed are precious and few; The Exploding Hearts managed all that, but their tragic end pretty much left no one else as good on the scene to pick up for ‘em.
Until now. The Stabilisers just completely fucking get it. They get it all. They seem to have grasped with full mind and soul what it was that made The Jam, The Buzzcocks, and The Undertones so amazingly brilliant and beloved, and then they’ve made an album here that doesn’t imitate those artists, but rather taps into that same mystical kick-ass rock and roll magic their forebears also drew upon. You can try to play “spot the influence” on individual Stabilisers songs, but that’s a loser’s game. For one thing, you’re going to miss out on valuable pogo-ing time. For another, just when you think you’ve got ‘em nailed down, they’ll throw you completely off your mark with dramatic chord or key or dynamic change that defies such eggheaded knobbish analysis.
What all of that means is, don’t get hung up on the academics on Wanna Do, even though for the rock historian and theorist there’s a lot there to love. Instead, just crank this record as loud as your landlord will possibly let you (ok, headphones if you gotta) and let yourself fall under the spell of riff-rockers like “Wanna” and “Born To Kiss Arse”, or let yourself be rocked into next week by an anthem like the near-perfect “Belinda” or the amazing “The Way She Is” or shake your ass to rumble of “Problem Child” and “My Latest Obsession”. You’ll marvel at the fact that if The Stabilisers were a lesser band, this riff-heavy rock would get sludgy and gludgy and too heavy to be so much goddamned fun, and you might not even care that the reason it doesn’t grind down is that bassist/lead singer Jon Bott turns in one of the landmark performances in the recent history of that instrument by blending with drummer Francis Braithwaite to keep these songs nimble and angular and on the move.
What The Stabilisers do on Wanna Do The Wild Plastic Brane Love Thing seems deceptively easy, but it isn’t, because there are a thousand lesser lights out there who’d kill to be able to claim this disc as their own. The Stabilisers are the original article, a damn near perfect distillation of everything that is great and timeless about rock and roll rolled up into one 13 song testament.
1. The Blakes, S/T
Like this is a surprise, huh? Anyone attempting to engage me in a conversation about music since May or so has had to endure me yammering on and on about how freaking GREAT The Blakes are. I’m gonna try to tell you why, and I might get wordy.
You can start by mentioning the timeless sound they’ve cooked up. Garnet Keim manages guitar lines that sound as if he’s working over influences from ’50′s rockabilly, Dave Davies, the Velvets, Johnny Thunders, and even a little Peter Buck thrown in. His brother Snow compliments him ably with nimble, twisting basslines, and a more understated vocal counterpoint to Garnet’s rawer, more immediate vocal style. The not-so-secret weapon of The Blakes though is drummer Bob Husak. He plays with a Moon-like ferocity but an Al Jackson-like discipline (those unfamiliar with Stax records can substitute “Charlie Watts” if you like). In other words, he can go nuts with all sorts of original fills, but then find the pocket with a popping snare that dares your body to resist the whipcrack beat.
All that goodness makes for a good band. The Blakes, though, are a great band–in fact, they might be the greatest rock and roll band on the planet right now. So what else is there? There are songs, yo. The expanded, Light In The Attic Records version of this album (a few self-released copies were distributed by the band last year) opens with a headlong rush of seven songs that stand as seven of the best rock and roll songs you’re likely to hear this year….and they just fly off this record, one after another. The amazing thing is, there’s so much variation in those seven tunes that it’s almost as if these fellows showing off. “Two Times” opens the disc with a blazing blast of rock and soul fury, with Garnet Keim in full on wildman vocal mode (note to Allmusic’s clueless reviewer–Garnet’s voice is pitch perfect for this; anyone can lend full, raw vocal power to a song and not carry the tune, but Keim sounds like a 20 year old Mick Jagger on speed here, and–this is important–he’s always on-key and in service to the song). “Don’t Bother Me” is more of a tension-builder, showing off a bit of debt to the postpunks of the ’80′s. “Magoo” rolls with a barrelhouse magic that betrays a freakbeat moddish influence. “Modern Man” is an absolute stunner, with Keim playing an infectious riff over a Stooge-y guitar storm. The majestic “Run” adds a nifty wobbly ’80′s new wave keyboard and shows that these fellas listened to New Order’s Low-Life back in the day (imagine “Love Vigilantes” as interpreted by Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers.) “Commit” is another stunner, and maybe the best single song on the record thanks to Snow Keim’s bass work in the choruses, taking the tune in a completely unexpected melodic direction. “Don’t Want That Now” sounds like a modern update of some long lost Animals classic…
…and then the listless “Lintwalk” breaks the spell a bit. Hey, even Albert Pujols strikes out every once in a while. Thankfully, Snow’s “Vampire” gets things back on track with a song that sounds like nothing so much as The Grifters covering some Cure classic. They follow that with the anthemic, fist-pumping “Lie Next To Me”; if I was in The Strokes, I’d end my career right now, because in 2:47, “Lie Next To Me” does everything that band has ever tried to do over the course of seven years, and does it ten times better. “Pistol Grip” and “Picture” are both fine songs, and the band ends things with a flourish with the elliptical “Streets”, a song awash in weird guitar textures and postpunk attitude…until the chorus comes in and suddenly it turns into a “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” raveup stomp.
The neatest trick The Blakes turn is managing to be so multifaceted. If you need a hooky melody, few pure-pop guitar bands can match “Commit” or “Run”. If you need the punk, “Lie Next To Me” and “Two Times” are the obvious choices, but the whole disc is shot through with a punk-ish DIY energy and rawness that infuses even the introspective moments of this self-titled gem with a gritty toughness that runs far past any trends or poses.
Above all though, this is as much a soul record as it is a rock record. Arrange these songs a little differently, and you can imagine Otis or James Brown belting them out. It has that verve and edge of danger to it, shot through with a relentless beat that invites dancing more than moshing. The Blakes might be one of the most important rock and roll bands in the world, and this record suggests an almost limitless potential. Get on this bandwagon now, because this could be one helluva run.
4. Sloan, Never Hear The End Of It.
(Penalized 3 slots by being released in Canada and Europe in October of 2006, but not in the US ’til 2007.)
Get me wound up about Canadian rock band Sloan, and I’m likely to babble your ear off until you’re sorry you asked. Suffice it to say that Sloan might be the greatest rock band Americans have never heard of, an anonymous bunch of good-hearted lads who in the Great White North are arena-rocking superstars. I would happily admit that they might be my favorite band on the planet right now.
…and over their last two discs up until Never Hear The End Of It, I was sort of having to tell myself “Self, those Sloan boys are running out of gas, and quickly.” I’d find maybe one or two songs on those previous Sloan albums to embrace, and the rest was just filler. When I heard that they were coming back from a 2-year break from releasing new music with the 23-song opus here, I was more than a bit skeptical.
Putting the band on a temporary hiatus to raise families and bask in a career well-done did these fellows good. In particular, drummer Andrew Scott emerges from a dry spell to be primary songwriter on a solid chunk of the disc. Guitarist Jay Ferguson also deserves kudos for writing his best songs in nearly a decade (“Who Taught You To Live Like That” especially). If bassist (and Sloan’s heart and soul) Chris Murphy and guitarist Patrick Pentland have stepped back a bit, to be sure they provide two of the albums highest high points–Murphy on “Live The Life You’re Dreaming Of” and Pentland on the arena-shaking “Ill-Placed Trust”. To be sure, there are a few moments in this double-cd that don’t quite click (not sure what they were thinking with “Golden Eyes”) but that’s just quibbling really. Never Hear The End Of It is a stunning, brilliant high-water mark for the band, and hence for guitar-based rock in general.
“I’ve Gotta Try”(Video, and yes drummer Andrew Scott is playing guitar and singing while bassist Chris Murphy is on drums…They do that a lot.)
“Set In Motion”
“Who Taught You To Live Like That?”
The whole album is streamed here. Try “Fading Into Obscurity”, “Ana Lucia”, “Someone I Can Be True With” (pay special attention to the lyrics in the second chorus if you want to laugh your ass off), “Live The Life You’re Dreaming Of” and “Ill-Placed Trust” to start with.
3. Grand Champeen, Dial T For This.
So yeah, an Austin band of critic’s darlings made a tremendous guitar rock album this year drawing on a variety of genre-bending idioms and playing havoc with listener’s expectations…
….but I ain’t talking about Spoon. Grand Champeen pretty much out-Spooned Spoon in every way imaginable this year on Dial T, and if this wonderful disc had come out just about any other year, it’d be numero uno.
Champeen has always been dogged by comparisons to legendary indie rockers Superchunk, and listening to GC’s prior output, I suppose that’s a fair criticism. Spending over two years in the recording process, this 2007 effort is a quantum leap forward for them. Shedding the sloppy production of previous albums, Dial T For This spins out like a 13-song tour through guitar-based indie rock of the last 20 years. Starting with the Spoon-ish nod of “What It Beats” and “Different Sort Of Story”, they recall The Jayhawks and Replacements within “Nice Of You To Join Us”, while melding Superchunk to Cheap Trick on “Wounded Eye”. The keyboard flourishes that carry “Cities On The Plain” recall legends like The Great Plains and Get Smart, while “To The Ides” (perhaps the best song on the disc) opens with a Game Theory feel before turning into a vintage (circa 1987) Soul Asylum-flavored romp.
Grand Champeen are the kind of band the world needs more of; they play with a wide-eyed joyful sincerity that slays just about everyone else doing the rock and roll thing. These guys have made an incadescent, thrilling, joyride of a rock and roll record with Dial T For This.
7. Richard Hawley, Lady’s Bridge.
I’m baffled; I don’t know how Richard Hawley does it. He makes 3 records and an ep, and somehow manages to make each one better than the amazing record that preceded it. His 2006 disc, Cole’s Corner was just a landmark achievement in music, so how do you follow it? You put out a record in 2007 that is every bit that former disc’s equal, if not better.
Like Cole’s Corner, the title of Hawley’s 2007 album refers to a location in his native Sheffield in England. In this case, Lady’s Bridge is the bridge that separated the middle and upper-class sections of that city from the working class and poor (where Hawley hailed from). That’s one of the main themes that runs through the record, along with the familiar terrain of love and loss and redemption.
Hawley is another tough artist for me to rate, so I always over-penalize him. There’s literally no one else out there who sounds remotely like him. His ability to effortlessly blend styles and idioms from Elvis to Buddy Holly to Frank Sinatra to Roy Orbison and make it all his own is remarkable (his rather stunning voice doesn’t hurt matters, obviously.) Honestly, the only musical comparison I have for Hawley is the Chairman himself. Sinatra had an amazing run of records in the middle of the 1960′s and created this incredibly enduring block of music that will survive for as long as folks have ears for popular music. Hawley is in that same company; by my count he’s released about 40 songs in his solo career, and there isn’t a clunker in the lot of them. I have this nagging feeling that in 25 years, folks will be discussing Mr. Hawley as one of the most important artists of the 21st century. No need to wait that long to find that out for yourself.
6. The Len Price 3, Rentacrowd.
So I’m watching latenight cable a few months ago, not really paying attention whatsoever…and there’s this ad for Southern Comfort liquor that comes on. Whatever, right? Except there’s an amazing song in the commercial that sounds like The Pretty Things, circa 1967, except it isn’t them. A little google-fu reveals that the band with the song in the commercial is called the Len Price 3.
After picking up and giving the record a whole lot of spins, I realized that this was gonna be a fairly divisive pick for my best-of list. Let’s face it, these guys ought to be sending royalties to The Who, The Creation, and The Action. There’s nothing original about them, really, except the originality to choose really kick-ass influences. For some folks, they’ll hear a Len Price 3 song and think “This is too retro/unhip/derivative” and they’ll skulk off to listen to their indie rock and miss the whole point.
For other folks though, this album will be bliss. You know who you are–you’re the one whose pulse quickens when you hear the opening guitar chord of “The Kids Are Alright”. You’re the one who was nearly frugging in the aisle of the theater the first time you saw Rushmore and heard “Making Time”. You’re the guy who sees a band with a Rickenbacker guitar and Danelectro bass and knows that you can give yourself over to them utterly, and that said band won’t disappoint.
So yeah, it’d be easy (and rather missing the point) to dismiss The Len Price 3 as some version of The Rutles focused on The Who. I’m here to tell you that these three blokes write incredibly infectious, instantly memorable rock and roll songs with a timeless quality about them. If they occasionally do rip off their forebears (and yeah, the title track could be sued for sounding too much like “Substitute”), they redeem themselves by coming up with brilliant original songs like “Sailor’s Sweetheart”, or “Julia Jones” or “No Good” or “Turn It Around” that are thoroughly unique creations that stand on their own. (One listening tip: the album has a very trebly mix; to get the full wonderfulness of the Len Price 3 to come over, play this record freaking loud!)
5. The Dexateens, Hardwire Healing
From what I gather, The Dexateens have always sort of lived in the shadow of like-minded Alabamans The Drive By Truckers–the former as sort of the rowdy, devil-take-us snotty little brothers of the latter. I’d heard the previous Dexateens album a few times and while it was kinda fun, I thought it was kinda forgettable.
Color me impressed then by Hardwire Healing. Possessing just the right amount of their previous piss and vinegar, but abetted by a batch of killer songs and genius co-production of ex-Sugar drummer David Barbe and DB Trucker Patterson Hood…well this is a monster of a record, out-striping Jack White while tapping into a sensibility somewhere between Skynyrd, Exile-era Rolling Stones, and The Black Crowes. These Tuscaloosa lads can roar and stomp like the furies on songs like “Naked Ground” and “Makers Mound”, but they can also handle a deft and perfect melody like on the transcendent “Neil Armstrong”.
…and then there’s “Nadine”. Nothing on the record up to the point of this song (it’s track 10 of 12) prepares the senses for this sucker, perhaps the most nakedly beautiful song anyone recorded this year. It’ll rip your guts out, so just be ready for it. Right after “Nadine”, though, these fellas come up with what might be the niftiest song on their record with “Outside The Loop”. Showing a dynamic sense that they never foreshadowed before this disc showed up, they make “Loop” into a funky tour-de-force of rhythmic flow and dynamic grooves that sounds, god help me, like the kind of song Mick and Keith used to write in the early ’70′s…only the Dexateens make it completely their own.
I’m sure it’ll draw the ire of the numerous fans of the Drive By Truckers, but with Hardwire Healing, their upstart apprentices have made a record the former band would die for. The student has become the teacher, and all that mumbo-jumbo; The Dexateens are one of the great bands in the country right now.
10. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky.
Color me a bit stunned by the number of folks out there who not only missed the point of this album, but who also missed the context. Throughout his career, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has shown a rather graceful ability to have his music informed by his influences without standing totally beholden to them. As such, Tweedy’s done the punk thing, the noise thing, the Petty thing, the Neil Young thing…
…so why is it particularly surprising that he’s decided to do a Dylan meets Astral Weeks thing with Sky Blue Sky? I suppose the real surprise is that he didn’t do this album sooner–but then I suppose you can argue that the musical strengths of his current band made it a little more possible for it to happen now.
Getting the sound nailed would matter little if Tweedy’s songs were as week as the songs on Ghost, but this disc finds him returning to the fine form of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth. “Either Way” opens the album with a beautiful acoustic hymn with a lovely guitar figure that recalls Emmit Rhodes’ “Lullabye”. “Side With The Seeds” will make you think of George Harrison’s “Oh Darling”, without necessarily sounding all that much like that song, and “Please Be Patient With Me” is one of the most heartfelt songs in the Wilco catalog. If Sky Blue Sky isn’t perfect (there are a few patches where things are just too delicate and precious for a Wilco album), it shows the band ably working their way out of the corner that Ghost had painted them into.
9. Future Clouds & Radar, S/T
It hardly seems as if a decade has really gone by (and indeed, really it’s only been 10 years…)since Cotton Mather’s too-brilliant-for-words CD Kon-Tiki established Robert Harrison (the group’s frontman) as one of the most gifted and original indie-pop songwriting craftsmen on the planet. Cotton Mather never really got off the ground–despite Kon-Tiki being recognized and hailed universally (and despite Noel Gallagher proclaiming it the record of the decade before enlisting Cotton Mather on a UK tour to open for Oasis). The band members split after a 2001 disc got zero distribution. Shortly thereafter, Harrison suffered a debilitating back injury that left him bedridden for a year.
During his convalescence, Harrison’s daughter gave her pop a ukelele (a guitar was too heavy for him to hold) and legend has it that Harrison wrote a gajillion songs on it. Fully recovered now and ready to record, Harrison put together a new band, Future Clouds & Radar, and recorded this self-titled debut double CD–27 songs in all. Proclaiming that with this new disc, he wanted to try something different than his approach with Cotton Mather, Future Clouds And Radar ends up all over the map when taken on the whole…
….but frankly, the damn thing works more often than not, and even when it fails, it fails not for a lack of ideas, but rather perhaps just failed execution. And when it works? I’ve listed a lot of songs in this list to get to this record, but there is a moment on FC&R’s “Hurricane Judy” that wins that song the best song of the year award. You can’t miss it–just after the first chorus, Harrison pops a guitar figure in place of the second verse that sounds like a solo played by that other guy named Harrison…and then when we finally get back to the vocals, they’re punctuated by a blatting, wonderful horn (fake horn?) section that will have your mind’s eye seeing Yellow Submarines floating down Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields. Harrison can’t seem to help his vocal resemblance to John Lennon, so rather than run away from it, he uses it as a strength on a song like the slick but winning “You Will Be Loved” which will give you a good idea what kind of song John would’ve written had he lived into this decade.
To be sure, there’s a ton of electronic experimental noodling all over this CD, but much of the time it works (“This Is Only A Book” and “Drugstore Bust”). There’s a part of me that thinks that this wonderful double-cd would’ve worked better had about 12 songs been trimmed from it…but on the other hand, I’m left exquisitely happy that a fellow like Robert Harrison is willing to share even his interesting failures with the rest of the class.
8. The Bees, Octopus.
I’ll come totally clean on this: I may have dramatically over or underrated this record; I honestly can’t get remotely close to objectivity on it. More than any other disc this year, Octopus invariably put me into a gloriously happy mood, and while that isn’t particularly edgy or hip…it’s something worth saluting, right?
The Bees (or Band Of Bees as they’re known in the States) are a group of multi-instrumentalists who are probably have better record collections than I do. They certainly have a grasp of various rock and soul genres, and manage to bring ‘em all to the party on this wonderful, silly, giddy record. There’s the gut-bucket slide guitar on the jugband opener “Who Cares What The Question Is”, and then the rustic Byrds-y harmonies and swirl of “Love In The Harbour…which gives way to the old-school Jamaican rhythms of “Left Foot Stepdown” on into the funky Ides of March horns and soul stomp of “Got To Let Go”, which takes us right into the Sam Cooke-sounding “Listening Man”.
That five song opening salvo is just awe-inspiring, and it makes the second half of Octopus all the more disappointing. As much as I’d like silly songs like “The Ocularist” and “End Of The Street” to work, they just end up being jarring and taking you out of the glory of this disc. Even with those distractions though, Octopus‘s high points are so ridiculously high and wonderful that it spots this disc in the top ten for the year. The Bees sell a ton of records in England. There’s a reason. This is the happiest, sunniest disc of the year.
15. Grant Lee Phillips, Strangelet.
Well, this album was a relief. After the nonstop boredom of his countrified, folkish, plodding new wave covers disc last year, I had grave fears for Mr. Phillips, wondering if he’d emptied his tank of creativity. While I’ve greatly enjoyed a couple of his solo discs (Virginia Creeper and Mobilize), I have to confess that I hadn’t enjoyed any of them as much as I’d enjoyed any of his work as the frontman of the too-wonderful Grant Lee Buffalo.
And along comes Strangelet, and it is easily my favorite thing GLP has done since Jubilee, the final Buffalo album. Back from a hiatus are the sweeping, gorgeous melodies that float along with Phillips’ swooping, dramatic vocals. At times on this disc, Phillips taps into a new influence for him, sounding almost like John Lennon covering the best songs Marc Bolan never wrote. For the first time in his solo career, Strangelet also has a Phillips song that may be as good or better than anything he did in a group setting, the sublime “Dream In Color”, one of 2007′s best songs. If the entire album can’t quite live up to the languid sweep of that song, that’s more a testament to how good that tune is, and rest assured that songs like “Runaway” and “Chain Lightning” get very close to matching it.
14. Son Volt, The Search.
There is so much right, so much glorious goodness going on with the second album of Jay Farrar’s revamped and re-tooled Son Volt that it hurts that the weakness here lies in an area that used to be on of the former Uncle Tupelo guitarist’s greatest strengths.
But first the good, and there’s lots of that. The first thing is Farrar’s voice. Somewhere in the earlier incarnation of Son Volt (after the terrific debut album) and continuing through his mixed-bag solo albums, Farrar’s vocals seemed to be heading to a gravelly Dylan/Waits destination, but without managing the emotion that either of those two antecedents could pull. On The Search, Farrar sings as if he’s just discovered that he possessed one of the most expressive vocal instruments of the last 20 years; on the layered, mournful opening “Slow Hearse” he’s almost in falsetto(!); on “Methamphetamine” and the title track, he lets his voice go where the song takes it, even if it means singing at the top of his range. More good comes in with the second song, and it’ll hit you right upside the head. With horns blatting in the background like some erstwhile Beulah song is kicking off, “The Picture” sounds like no other Jay Farrar song in his catalog. Farrar spends much of The Search taking some real chances with the arrangements and production, and even if some of it doesn’t work, you’ll appreciate the obvious effort he put into moving himself forward artistically.
With all that said, this disc would be a sure-fire top tenner for me, except for, well, the lyrics. That’s the real puzzler for me, because this is the same Jay Farrar who tossed off with seeming ease lines about hometown, sametown blues, who wrote about only circumstances and differences that get in the way, and the wind taking your troubles away. Farrar has exhibited an amazing gift for subtlety, for a few words saying more than many ever could, for being something of a laconic genius at letting what was unsaid say as much as what was left in. Sadly, Farrar has let go of that gift here, and on much of The Search, Farrar delivers lines that sound like the work of bad coffee shop poets or overeducated hiphop MC’s, trying to pack a hundred pounds of message into songs that strain with their weight and hyper-gravitas. That much of the album is a rant against the war and the current state of our political leadership only makes things sound even more awkward, as the songs are given a treacly feeling that they neither need nor want. (Hey, I think the President sucks and the war is awful, too, but if you’re going to write a song to that effect, you’d better be subtle and funny and have a unique angle to get at; I don’t want an album that sounds like a Dailykos diary set to roots music yo.)
All of that makes it sound as if The Search isn’t an absolutely worthwhile disc, and it shouldn’t. This album is a snarling monster of anger and hope, and it works on so many levels that perhaps I’m just being too nit-picky and looking for it to do things it shouldn’t have to. Put this sucker in the CD player, hit repeat, and it’ll make a latenight road trip fly right on by.
13. Glossary, The Better Angels Of Our Nature.
Look, I blew it. I missed out on hearing Glossary’s stupendous 2006 album For What I Don’t Become until March of this past year, and over the course of dozens of listens, I realized that it was one of the best two or three discs that came out last year. I was determined not to make that same mistake this year.
Glossary hails from Murfreesboro, TN, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. I gather they’re something of an “occasional” band, with everyone having real jobs and families and such; when they get together to play music as a group, it’s more than just “band practice” or playing a gig…it’s a chance to hang out with dear friends and do something these folks truly, truly love. That sensibility comes roaring out of the speakers as soon as you put TBAOON on to listen. What you hear is a band committed to what they do, which is making art for art’s sake; they play magnificently as a band because they genuinely are thrilled to be doing what they’re doing.
Too many bands doing the alt-country/Americana thing tend to write mournful, sad songs about dead-end lives and looking for meaning in worthless jobs and loveless relationships. Glossary sets themselves apart from all that by writing songs that even when filled to brimming with sadness have a redemptive, hopeful quality to them; as such, Glossary live gigs tend to be foot-stompin’ glorious tent revivals where no one in the band or audience goes home feeling unrocked.
If TBAOON isn’t quite as good as For What i Don’t Become, it still serves up a heapin’ helpin’ of the year’s most memorable songs. “Gasoline Soaked Heart” is an absolutely gorgeous duet sung by Kneiser and his wife Kelly, and the album-closing “Blood On The Knobs” is as magnificent a statement of purpose as any band has ever written. Glossary also beat Radiohead to the “free distribution” model by offering up this disc in its entirety (in four different audio formats, no less) for free download from their website (and unlike Radiohead, you can still grab it all now.) Whoever said “the best things in life are free” must’ve had Glossary in mind.
12. Tom Stevens, Home.
I’m guessing the set containing “people who remember who Tom Stevens is” is getting awfully small in 2007. Stevens joined the legendary Long Ryders (who pre-dated the whole alt-country thing by 5-10 years or so) during the recording of that band’s legendary Native Sons lp in 1983, and immediately became that band’s “secret weapon”. Every Long Ryders album going forward would have one or two Tom Stevens-penned songs on it (the rest were by frontman Sid Griffin or guitarist Steven McCarthy), and like the Ryders’ version of George Harrison, Stevens always threatened to steal the show from his more prolific bandmates by writing and singing better than them in his brief chance at the limelight.
Stevens has been pretty much out of the music loop since the Ryders called it a day in 1987. He self-released a couple of solo discs 10 years ago, but that was it. All of that makes Home all the more this year’s head-scratching “where the HELL has THIS talent been hiding” disc so remarkable. One might suppose that this record is drenched in familiar Americana “No Depression” motifs. One would assume wrong. Stevens is well-versed in a variety of rock idioms, and seems to be able to find his muse where Gram Parsons, Lou Reed, and Alex Chilton all hang out to shoot the breeze. The album-opening “Ghost Train” starts off with an effects-drenched guitar strum and an echoing, Duane Eddy guitar riff, while Stevens sings in an almost hushed, dreampop tone. On “Death Wish”, he comes up with a song that sounds like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers covering something from an early Mark Lanegan solo record. “In The Basement” is a scorching miracle of a countrified rock, opening with a searing Parsons-esque slide guitar figure and then breaking out a perfectly-placed banjo in the verse. To prove he isn’t a one-trick pony on the slide, on “Away From The Great Cold City”, he damn near sounds like he’s starting an April Wine tune before swinging into the gorgeous verse. None of that quite prepares the senses for the surreal, almost psychedelic swirl of “Flying Out Of London In The Rain” which is absolutely one of the most stirring and flat-out gorgeous songs of 2007.
A couple of final notes on this. I think Stevens plays all the instruments here, and that is no mean feat. Usually in such one-man-band settings, you can hear deficiencies on one instrument or another, but here Stevens plays some amazing guitar figures, tosses off brilliant basslines, and even rips through the drum sections as if any of those instruments were his “natural” choice. Another note: there’s a lot of reasons to be cynical and pissy about the state of popular music nowadays. Then a guy like Tom Stevens records an absolutely breathtaking album like Home in his…well, home, and it reminds you that the best thing about rock music is it’s accessibility and populism. Tom Stevens would’ve recorded these songs, and they’d exist whether any of us heard ‘em or not. But now you know they’re out there, and if you hear something you like, paypal him a few bucks and support a guy who is truly doing things the right way.
“Flying Out Of London In The Rain” (video)
Tom’s Myspace page where you can hear “Death Wish”, “Ghost Train”, “Belladonna”, and “Flame Turns To Blue”
A rather low-fi 2-minute clip of “In The Basement”, because that song is so damned good.
11. Everybody Else, S/T
Let’s inventory what we have with this Los Angeles trio: three prettyboys, playing crunchy 3-minute pop songs that sound like vintage Cheap Trick fighting The Plimsouls over Jesse’s Girl, and a fanbase that seems to skew heavily towards the 17-year-old female demographic (yeah, no chance that ANYONE reading this is ever going to see these guys live, because that would be the creepiest damned thing I can possibly think of.)
Before you write them and me off completely, hear me out on these guys. First off, the name is cribbed from the oft-recorded Kinks chestnut, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”. Frontman Carrick Gerety (a Harvard–yeah, THAT Harvard–grad) isn’t some snot-nosed teen, either; he’s a thirty-year-old who had Pavement’s Steve Malkmus write liner notes for albums his previous band, the Push Kings. Drummer Mikey McCormack is another scene veteran, and his old band, The Waking Hours, were terrific back in the day.
So yeah, if Everybody Else is sort of marketed as a post-tweener version of Hanson, I suppose you do what you’ve gotta do when you’re in a band and have bills to pay. I could bore the teenyboppers in the audience by mentioning that Gerety’s scratchy delivery on songs like “Meat Market” and “Faker” sound like The Scruffs, or that a song like “Born To Do” he neatly channels Emitt Rhodes. I could really induce yawns by mentioning that “Rich Girls, Poor Girls” sounds like the best song Rick Springfield never got around to releasing.
What makes this album so special is that it has a very superficial appeal that seems to click with a wider audience…but if you’re a music geek, there are layers and layers here just waiting to be peeled away. In the end, it give Everybody Else a rather unique appeal, as their songs sound tremendously comfortable and familiar without ever shamelessly appropriating and imitating their influences.
The whole album is available to hear at the band’s Myspace page. Link not intended to encourage any of you dirty old men to engage in online stalking of adolescent Japanese girls.
20. Film School, Hideout.
You think you had a lousy 2006? Check out the doozy of a year Film School frontman Greg Bertens had: after the year opened auspiciously with influential indie-major label Beggars Banquet releasing Film School’s self-titled second album, the embarked on a US tour to support it. After a show in Ohio, Bertens was mugged and beaten outside the club. Two days later in Philadelphia, thieves made off with the band’s van and all their music gear.
The strain was too much for Bertens, and he dissolved the band to clear his own head. It must’ve worked, because Film School’s 2007 release, Hideout, builds on all the promise the band ever had, and delivers an album I never thought they had in ‘em. Film School play unabashed shoe-gazer dreampop music; one listen and you’re transported to the land of My Bloody Valentine’s woozy, swirling guitars and laconic if androgynous vocals. Yes, I know: lots of bands are doing that. What separates Hideout and Film School from the pack of shoegazer revivalists is that Bertens has an impressive batch of songs–if they aren’t as good as Kevin Shields’ takes on the genre, they’re at least in the same ballpark, which is no mean feat and thus makes Film School a band to watch and embrace. “Go Down Together”, in fact, is the equal of anything in the MBV catalogue (and one of the best songs of the year), and “Two Kinds” and “Capitalized I” aren’t far behind.
“Go Down Together”
19. Grand Atlantic, This Is…
In their native Australia, Grand Atlantic’s brand of instantly-winning radio-friendly (if radio didn’t suck) guitar rock has already gifted them with a couple of hits from their debut disc. Here in the States? Yeah, welcome to Anonymityville, fellas.
Still, this is a band to keep an eye on. With a huge sound that falls somewhere between Oasis, Cheap Trick, and Sloan, Grand Atlantic spends most of This Is trying on a variety of musical hats, from quiet, Wilson Brothers/Left Banke-y pop of “Prelude” and “Wonderful Tragedy” to bracing straightahead rockers like “Coolite” (great opening lines? Try “You, you’re my Penny Lane…”) or “Smoke And Mirrors”. Grand Atlantic spend much of their debut showing off a craftsmanship that elevates what could have been an utterly derivative and dull affair into one of the most exciting guitar rock discs of the year.
18. The Ponys, Turn The Lights Out.
I love The Ponys, I hate The Ponys, I love The Ponys…depending on which song from Turn The Lights Out is playing, my feelings toward this Chicago band changes. At various times I had this disc ranked as high as #3 on my list…and as low as being one of the year’s great disappointments. So yeah, they’ve gotta be doing something right, huh?
When The Ponys are on, they’ve found a sound that sounds something like a more focused, less-drug addled Brian Jonestown Massacre with a jagged postpunk bent to their songs. When they’re not so on, they’re indulging their worst indie-rock “aw shucks” tendencies and thus making a statement rather than actually rocking out. At their best, Ponys songs like “1209 Seminary” and “Double Vision” manage to walk the thin line between their two more indulgent sides and result in some of the most exciting and visionary rock recorded this year. Let’s Turn The Lights Out if nothing else shows The Ponys have it within them to be a landmark band cut from the same cloth as The Pixies, if they want it.
17. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand.
Perhaps you young’ns are too wee to remember, but back when I was in high school Robert Plant released two decently-received post-Zep solo albums that did reasonably well in sales and even yielded a couple of hits. The other thing those discs (and his work as the voice behind the Honeydrippers) revealed was that Robert Plant’s voice was all but shot. Drenched in reverb, echo, and multitracked to the point of being unrecognizable, it was all a far cry from the wailing, shrieking, Zeppelin front man of “Whole Lotta Love”.
So if you’re waiting for me to say “Robert Plant’s voice is back!” keep dreaming–although it is obvious he’s taking much better care of that instrument over the last few decades and hasn’t sounded this good since In Through The Out Door. Instead, by turning to a rootsy Americana setting and by collaborating with Alison Krauss, Plant has found a perfect vehicle and collaborator for what his voice can still do, and as such he reveals himself to still be one of the best vocalists in rock in the last 40 years. Together the two take off on a batch of songs drawn from American myth, whether they’re swampy chestnuts like “Rich Woman” or the Everly Brother’s rollicking “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)”, as well as a passel of newer songs (a wonderful unrecorded–new?–Zeppelin song called “Please Read The Letter” and Sam Phillips’ gorgeous winder “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” with Krauss singing lead).
The only thing keeping this glorious album in the bottom half of my Top 20 is T-Bone Burnett’s production. After hearing the glorious abandon of “Gone Gone Gone”, you’ll find yourself hoping and praying that at some point Krauss will decide to start sawing the hell out of her fiddle and that Plant will take a foot-stomping Appalachian melody and just rock the holy hell out of it…but Burnett and his hyper glossy faux-”old-timey” prodcution hovers over the whole enterprise like a fire extinguisher trying to keep two combustible artists from bursting into a bonfire.
16. Great Northern, Trading Twilight For Daylight
If earlier on this list we hailed the return of shoegaze, with Great Northern’s Trading Twilight For Daylight we can hail the return of dreampop to something other than the retro paint by numbers attempts of other bands. Using an almost 4AD-ish sound as a springboard, Great Northern’s principle songwriters/singers, Solon Bixler and Rachel Stolte manage to update that sound and give it a unique footing with their own voice.
Huh. That’s a lot of cross-referencing of obscure musical genres for one paragraph, so let’s try again: this is an entire album of songs that sound as if they could’ve been played over the closing credits of a Tim Burton movie, or would serve as the perfect soundtrack to a book of Neil Gaiman short stories. Songs like “Our Bleeding Hearts”, “Middle” and especially the stirring “Home” unfurl like mini-symphonies, self-contained movie soundtracks that never want for lack of visual imagery. If the band has a weak spot, it is their inability to not take themselves too seriously. Whimsical ethereality in art is a delicate balance, as Burton, Gaiman, and Lewis Carroll could tell you; get too serious about it, and you’ll crush it. In other words, I’d hate to see these folks end up as insufferable as The Decemberists. For now, make some darjeeling, grab a copy of “Stardust”, and enjoy this delicate little miracle of a snowflake of an album.