The List So Far…
20. The Weather Machines, “Bones & Brains” EP
19. Black Bunny S/T
18. Glasvegas S/T
17. Magnolia Summer “Lines From The Frame”
16. Hysterics S/T
15. Why? “Alopecia”
14. Skipping Girl Vinegar “Sift The Noise”
13. Novillero “A Little Tradition”
12. Cobra Verde “Haven’t Slept All Year”
11. The December Sound S/T (“The Silver Album”)
10. Kaiser Chiefs “Off With Their Heads”
9. Adrian Whitehead “One Small Stepping Man”
8. Beck “Modern Guilt”
7. Phantom Planet “Raise The Dead”
6. Prisonshake “Dirty Moons”
5. Vampire Weekend S/T
4. The Bellrays “Hot Sweet & Sticky”
And a three-way tie for 1:
1. Cheap Time, S/T
1. Blitzen Trapper, “Furr”
(Tied at 1.)Boss Martians, Pressure In The Sodo
It had been a long month.
September just seemed to drag and drag for me musically. I listened to a ton of music, and damn near all of it was dreck. I’d started to notice a few years ago that rock and roll’s old nemesis and arch-enemy, pretentiousness, was waging quite the comeback–only this time targeting the indie kids. Whereas “indie” had once implied a DIY ethos and been a close twin to punk, I’d started to hear an awful lot of over-mannered-ness and non-rock start to seep in around the edges, and by September of this past year I’ll confess that I was feeling rather like Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”, convinced that perhaps we were hearing the death rattle of rock as I thought I knew it. Over and over again I’d be listening to records, and over and over again I’d be bored to tears, wondering when the rock part came in, always left hanging because there was a distinct lack of anything kick-ass in anything I was listening to.
It was a Tuesday, usually a day off for me. I’d just done one big download of my entire Emusic monthly allowance, and was getting to the end of the pile, bored and distracted by one uninspired pretentious indie prick after another. I think I was almost nodding off, the music just appallingly quiet despite the fact that I had the speakers cranked. And then it happened. What happened? “Power Of Doubt”, the first track on the new Boss Martians album, happened. “Power Of Doubt” is almost, but not quite, as subtle as a cherry bomb in a toilet bowl. Opening with snarling guitars, Boss Martian frontman Evan Foster roared a first line that felt like the best wakeup call a guy in my position could get: “When it first started happenin’/I was stuck in a rut…” My world rocked, I cued up the whole record, and was frankly gobsmacked as one amazing, over-the-top rock song followed another here. What the hell was this all about?
The Boss Martians have been kicking around for a long time. They originally were a surf band…who gradually embraced a garage-rock influence…that morphed into a sort of power pop thing…and then after 2003 or so, they went silent. Pressure In The Sodo (“Sodo” refers to the Seattle neighborhood that was south of where the Kingdome once stood) is their first record in nearly 5 years. Their last, very poppy-sounding disc was flavored by Evan Foster’s ability to sound almost uncannily like a young Elvis Costello, something that got noted in almost every review (there are times on the new record where he sounds unsettlingly like a younger Jon Bon Jovi attempting to do a Robin Zander impression.) The band clearly wasn’t idle in those five years. In fact, for a band constantly evolving its sound, the last five years seem to have been spent absorbing kick-assness from the world around them and moving their music that direction
As testament to that, the second song on Sodo is a ripper called “Mars Is For Martians”, co-written and guest-vocaled by none other than Mr. Iggy Pop his own self. The Ig probably has a lot of stuff he could be doing other than helping out an unknown band who’ll never really sell many records, so if he’s giving his seal of approval…well, yeah, now hopefully you’re gettin’ the picture. From what I can tell, The Boss Martians are always evolving their sound, and they’ve somehow evolved into the loudest, hardest-rocking metal band from your high school years that you never heard. This album is just loaded full to bursting with one FM-radio anthem after another, built on a foundation that’s so brilliantly obvious that you wonder why the hell no one else has managed a rock record like this in recent years: it’s as if Foster and his cohorts said to themselves, “I wonder what The Stooges would’ve sounded like if they’d survived into the Metal Era” and then set about combining all that garage-punk influence from their early years into the hook-laden songwriting of their recent vintage and came up with sound that combines the best of all those worlds. Kudos for this masterpiece also go out to former SubPop house producer Jack Endino, who did a masterful job at the knobs on this disc.
Still, I think I’m missing the essence of this album and what makes it so damn special. Here’s the deal: if you ever, ever listened to The Stooges…or Iggy’s ’90′s solo stuff…or Def Leppard…or Cheap Trick…or The Misfits…or Thin Lizzy…or UFO…or Redd Kross…or, yeah, even Nirvana and thought “These folks KICK ASS” (in all caps), then you need to grab a copy of this record. Then you need to either make a deal with your neighbors or get a good set of headphones and make sure your computer or stereo will allow you to just crank the volume up to ghastly, deafening levels, and then let this sucker rip. You’ll be rewarded by taking delivery of the very essence of pure rock and roll on the single most kick-ass record of this year (or frankly, of many years).
“Power Of Doubt”
“And She’s Gone” (the inevitable “power ballad”, sort of sounds like a really young, freaked-out Jon Bon Jovi on a triple espresso fronting Cheap Trick
“Hey Hey Yeah Yeah” (why yes, that *is* the E-Trade song from the commercials with that creepy talking baby.)
“Elsie” (oh how this song kicks ass….)
(Tied at 1.) Blitzen Trapper, Furr
The worst marketer on the planet works at Sub Pop Records, because at some point after signing Blitzen Trapper–a band I’d heard of, but not yet heard–they decided to “package” them alongside labelmates and fellow-Pacific Northwesterners Fleet Foxes, using the success of that latter band’s quiet folkishness to try to angle in a fanbase for the former. Perhaps there are folks out there for whom the constant comparisons to Fleet Foxes worked, and these folks discovered and embraced Blitzen Trapper as a result…but for me the effect was just the opposite. I’m no fan of Fleet Foxes, even though I appreciate their unique sound collages; it just isn’t my thing, and so when Blitzen Trapper put out their fourth record but first on Sub Pop this past year, I ignored it for over a month due to the frequent and label-encouraged comparisons. I knew about Fleet Foxes, I reasoned, and had heard exactly as much of them as I wanted to, thank you.
Eventually and obviously, I did get around to giving Furr a test-spin, and almost instantly I was convinced that there was some mistake. Before we go any further then, let’s be clear about one thing, and let us get it out of the way right here and right now: Blitzen Trapper sounds as much like Fleet Foxes as The Muffs sound like Enya. Those two Sub Pop bands from up in forest country have as much in common as Anne Murray and Sloan. To be more blunt, when considering the relationship between Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, realize that one of those esteemed artists is a rock band, and one is probably not.
Having just pissed off a great many of you (sorry, calls ‘em as I hears ‘em!), let me get down to brass tacks on Blitzen Trapper. As referenced earlier, Furr grabs you right away, seconds into the whole enterprise with the song “Sleepytime In The Western World”, perhaps the most intoxicating invitation to give yourself over completely to a record’s charms since the Nazz kicked off their second album with the wonderful “Forget All About It”. Over a bouncing, swirling melody that combines equal parts Mott the Hoople (dig the Blonde on Blonde-ness of organ playing alongside piano) and snarling Mick Ronson-ish guitars, Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley draws you into the Winsor McKay world his band inhabits and makes it all but impossible to willingly leave the rest of this wonderful record.
And so having pulled you into Slumberland, Blitzen Trapper take you on quite the rough-hewn musical odyssey. Drawing on influences from country and folk but never straying particularly far from a tuneful AM-radio rock sense of melody, BT spins out wonderful tunes with a startling effortlessness. “Gold For Bread” hits you with a stunning chorus and amazing guitar lick that seems to come from nowhere. The title track is a gorgeous, rustic tale about a lad raised by wolves and then returned to the world, sounding for all the world like Dylan covering Procol Harum. Songs like “God & Suicide” and “Lady On The Water” have some of the hookiest melodies and arrangements you’ll hear this year, while “Fire & Fast Bullets” sounds like a song Steve Malkmus would’ve killed to have written and “Saturday Nite” is a ’70′s AM radio hit (maybe Hall & Oates doing Richard Thompson?) that never was.
There are two great musical touchstones for Furr, and both are favorites of mine. The first is the post-Fairport Convention band of Iain Matthews, known as Matthews Southern Comfort. MSC was a pretty short-lived enterprise, and only seemed to find their stride on their final of three albums, an lp called Later That Same Year. That same year, 1970, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, an amazing record of rock songs reconsidered with bluegrass and jugband instrumentation. Both records are essentially pop albums that aren’t afraid to put traditional folk and country idioms to work on a good rock and roll song. Blitzen Trapper sound as if they listened to the Nitty’s Uncle Charlie cover of Mike Nesmith’s “Some Of Shelley’s Blues” over and over and over again, and then put Iain Matthews’ “To Love” on and kept both songs on a constant loop and then went out and recorded Furr to sound as if it was a companion piece to those classic gems and succeeding grandly. Furr is a record that is utterly timeless, a wonderfully transportational and transcendent gem.
So here’s the deal, and maybe some of the hold up on me finishing this damn list: I can’t figure out how to order the final three discs I’ve got here. I know they’re the top 3–I’ve known that since before Thanksgiving. Since then, these three have been in even heavier rotation for me than they were before, when I initially fell in love with them. I’ve listened to them over and over again, and just when I think I know which is the third- and second-best disc for me for 2008, I hear something new in each of them and have to rethink things from scratch.
To hell with it then. What I’ve got here is a three-way tie for first. So I’ll get started that way, by randomly picking one and writing about it. I should also mention that when I started this list I was convinced that none of the records on it held a candle to previous, “stronger” years. I’ll amend that now, too. Any one of these three discs would have had the potential to sit atop any of my other year-end top 20 lists; I’ve come around to seeing that these three records are as good as anything to come out in recent memory, and I highly recommend all three of ‘em.
Lemme start this menage with….
(Tied at 1.) Cheap Time, S/T
The first thing that grabs you is the album cover. In front of a fading-but-garish orange background, the three young members of Cheap Time pout at you, hair feathered just so, the name of the band splashed out there in hot pink letters. The whole thing gives off this 1979 vibe, right down to the band name that evokes (sort of) a certain group of fellas from Rockford, IL.
They come to that feeling honestly. Drop the laser anywhere on Cheap Time’s amazing debut album, and you’ll hear these Nashville lads slamming away with great slabs of glammy guitar and screeching, trebly production. You’ll hear great lines like “I thought you were a flower/But you charge by the hour”. You’ll hear slamming drums and bouncing bass and more spit and spirit than almost the entire sum total of every other record to come out in 2008.
To really get at where Cheap Time is coming from, and to really understand just why this disc is so special, I think maybe it helps to understand the history of the influences at play here. Back in my days as a record store clerk, we had a copy of an album called “Wanna Meet The Scruffs” by a band from Memphis called, unsurprisingly enough, The Scruffs. The album was all late-seventies power pop, with all the compressed guitars, buried drums, and processed Raspberry-ish vocals that genre description implies. I played it a few times and noted the dated, overproduced quality of it all and my co-worker (and Prisonshake bassist) Steve Scariano mentioned that there were earlier Scruffs studio tapes that were quite different from what made it on to that record. The earlier Scruffs demo stuff sounded like it was done in one take after forcing everyone in the band to sit up all night chainsmoking and guzzling coffee. The production was raw as hell, the vocals ragged, and it was a lost rock classic. Thankfully those early Scruffs tapes got released on CD a few years ago, and the result was revelatory, showing the Scruffs to be thoroughly straddling the line where FM radio glam rock and punk intersected.
It also showed them embracing an even earlier ethos, and for that we have to go back to another Tennessee band, Big Star. You all are probably too familiar with Big Star to need me to revisit history in much detail, but I want to point out that the first Big Star album is produced to the gills, with everything sounding perfect and “just right”. Then the band realized how badly they were getting screwed by their record company, Chris Bell left the group, and the second album sounds much more ragged; Alex Chilton wrote almost every song out of his own vocal range, and then had no problem with the finished recording leaving in his valiant attempts to hit those notes, sometimes successful, sometimes not. In the past 20 years, you’ve had bands emulate the slick production of the first Big Star album to nifty effect…but the really great bands to wear the Big Star influence have proudly flown the flag of the raggediness of the second album.
And so having invoked two classic Memphis bands, I’ll mention that Cheap Time picks up where they left off. Jeff Novak, the frontman of CT started the band a few years ago when he was a teenager along with Jemina Pearl and Nathan Vasquez. Those latter two founding members split the group to concentrate on their own band, the now-defunct Be Your Own Pet. Novak recruited a new rhythm section and finished the recording of this debut.
Before getting to the meat of this disc, I s’pose I better discuss the production a bit; to be plain, the production here is, well, messy. Probably deliberately so. Vocals and guitars all “clip” badly, as if things were recorded heedless of volume (not inappropriate at all that this disc came out on In The Red Records, as you can practically see the buried needles when you hear these songs). Here’s the thing: the production is a masterful choice for this album, because if anything about it was “mannered” in any way, I’m not sure the full kick-assness off the record and band would come across. A knob might bitch about a song like “Back To School” sounding like someone standing in an empty parking garage yelling into a bullhorn while a barely in-tune band played the backing track through a payphone receiver, but that’d just miss the point that “Back To School” is 1:22 of the most awesome rock coolness recorded in recent memory.
Get over that hangup then, and dig what’s going on here. The temptation would be to call this disc a Novak solo thing, but that’d miss out on the wonderful bass and drum contributions from the rest of the band (“Jon” and “Stephen”, “Jon” now replaced by “Ryan”). The drums roll and thunder and snap and pop, and the bass bounces around, frequently carrying the melody to allow Novak to go riffing off into the ether on guitar. The result is probably harder-rocking than anything by the Memphis forebears I mentioned above–at times this sounds like a great lost Dils or early Redd Kross album–but still displays tremendous pop smarts. There’s the great bass break in “Too Late” that seems lifted right from “Virginia Plain” and just begs for Brian Eno to come glurping in with a cheezy synth squiggle. There’s the glorious spoken intro to “People Talk” (an improbable cover of an obscure Mississippi indie band that once contained Jack Oblivion on bass) that leads into one of the most kick-ass windmilling guitar riffs you’ll ever hear. To really change things up, they add piano to the leering jailbait fantasy of “Ginger Snap”, a song you can imagine folks twisting away to at some indie rock version of Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
I’ll wrap this up by mentioning an old TV show you might be familiar with, “Freaks & Geeks”. Cheap Time don’t sound like a band the kids in that show would listen to…they sound like the band the kids in that show would be in, with all the screwed up majesty that that description could possibly evoke. Do yourself a favor–grab this disc, get in your car and crank it up to ear-splitting levels, and pretend you’re in a Z28 with T-tops and spoiler meeting your buds outside the roller rink before you go cruise the strip. That’s the wonderful always-Friday genius of Cheap Time’s debut, and that’s rock and roll, baby.
Every year some new band explodes onto the indie scene with huge fanfare and deafening buzz, and every year I approach with suspicion and trepidation and end up with a rather predictable hatred and aversion to whatever Cute Band Alert bozos are being cleverly marketed to the art school set. So it was this year that the anointed ones were Vampire Weekend. Like a gajillion others suckered in by the clever marketing ploy of “bootlegging” their own album 6 months before it saw official release, I snagged a copy of the “CD-R” version of this last year, gave it a spin and thought “that’s utter dreck.”
I’ve told the story elsewhere, so forgive the retelling, but one night in late March after hanging out at some friends I was walking back home and it was cool and the stars were twinkling and the moon was low and I had my portable Sirius going and whatever station I was on was playing this very cool, sort-of weird African thing with these weird keyboard fills and it turns out that the answer to my question of “Who the heck is this, this is good!” was Vampire Weekend.
That’s the challenge here, then. Forget the hype, forget the biases and prejudices “serious” music fans develop naturally for overnight successes like VW, and give this disc another listen with your mind open. You’ll hear Chris Thompson beating the living crap out of his snare (seriously, he sounds as if he’s pounding it to smithereens on “Mansard Roof”); you’ll hear Ezra Koenig’s lovely, multi-faceted voice trill all over “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”. You’ll hear one of the year’s loveliest songs in “Bryn”.
You’ll also hear some of the most ingenious arrangements to appear on any record in recent memory. Anyone claiming that they were thinking of marrying sprightly strings and harpsichords to a reworking of Paul Simon’s Graceland period is either having you on or delusional. Yeah, there’s a nagging feeling that perhaps they ought to be sending Wes Anderson soundtrackist Mark Mothersbaugh some royalties, but mostly the sound is incredibly original, incredibly well-done, and adds one more element–pure joy. These guys knew they were on to something special when this disc was recorded, and you can hear the excitement and enthusiasm of the band fairly leaping right out of the speakers at you.
4. The Bellrays, Hot, Sweet, & Sticky
There had to be a time back last year when Bellrays leader Lisa Kekaula thought about just bagging the whole rock band thing. In addition to her band’s perennial tagging as “can’t miss” they remain anonymous and the ship of mainstream success has probably sailed…and then founding member and songwriter Tony Fate, called it quit bails on the group prior to the recording of their newest album. Kekaula doesn’t need the aggravation; she won a Grammy for contributing the lead vocals to the Basement Jaxx’ “Good Luck” a few years ago; that’s good work and she can get it.
She and The Bellrays are made of sterner stuff. Bob Vennum switched from bass to guitar, they recruited a new bassist, and went into the studio and scrapped all the rehearsed arrangements they’d done with Tony Fate and re-started Hot, Sweet, & Sticky pretty much from scratch.
And then they made the best album they’ve ever made.
Freed from Fate’s muscular (but occasionally monotonous) riffing, The Bellrays stay loud and aggressive on this disc…but everyone can do that. What the Bellrays do here that no one else does (and had only hinted at being able to do previously) is slow things down and let Kekaula embrace her ’70′s soul side. Other than the “isn’t that Aretha Franklin?” vocals, lots of bands can muster the slambang of a song like “Infection”, but the sultry soul sexuality of “Footprints On Water” or “Blue Against The Sky” shifts them to a higher gear that no one else has.
Fate’s departure has let Kekaula push the Bellrays into a direction that opens their sound into newer (the opener, “The Same Way” sounds like the best song the Black Crowes never wrote) territory and finds them finally realizing the promise they’ve hinted at for so long. Maybe too late to ever make The Bellrays stars, but whether they continue or not, they’ve finally made the landmark album they’ve always hinted they could.
Just to break things up a bit…
You know Phantom Planet, of course. They’re the overly-blessed L.A. sweeties responsible for that annoying theme for TV’s “The O.C.”. Or maybe you go a little deeper and know them as the band that Wes Anderson fave Jason Schwartzman plays drums in. Although they’re still pretty young, they’ve been around forEVER; the fifteen-year-old girls who originally went to their gigs are out of college now and are pricing minivans.
From that description, you know Phantom Planet, even if you sort of didn’t before. (Still not seeing their past persona? Lead singer Alex Greenwald became a teen heartthrob by being in GAP commercials; get it now?) Now forget everything you know about ‘em. Max Fischer quit the band back in 2003, and since that time they’ve been trying to sort of find a way to move away from the sound they were known for. They’ve spent the years listening to a lot of music, and letting the influence soak in; as a result Planet have reinvented themselves here as a sort of heavily-produced, more radio-friendly version of The Walkmen; if that doesn’t work for you, imagine what you’d get if you sent a band to a deserted island with only The Bends and OK Computer to listen to for four years. I mean this as a compliment: this album is the best early Radiohead album to come out this year.
Greenwald, in his role as frontman and songwriter has always caught heat for being over-earnest in filling that role…so what he’s done here is to ratchet the rest of the band up to his own level of hyper-caffeinated bliss, resulting a record that ends up loud and rowdy when it wants to be (“Do The Panic” and the sublime “Dropped”) yet gives it an aura of cool intensity when things slow down (“Quarantined” and “Demon Daughters”) and he can Thom Yorke it up.
Come to Raise The Dead skeptical, of course. This disc isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of joe….but if you’re willing to let a band who seem to have been fleeing their past engage in a little artistic awakening and give this a fair shake you may find that Phantom Planet has succeeded at making one of the best discs of the year. If you’re not sure you’ve got the time for such charity, at least give a listen to “Leave Yourself For Somebody Else” which in a just world would’ve been a chart-topper. Ironically, this is it from these fellows; they played a farewell gig in early December and have called it quits. Shame.
6. Prisonshake, Dirty Moons
(Forgiveness please–this review was a blog post that never was; a double-album 15 years in the creation phase deserves a few extra paragraphs. Sue me.)
Prisonshake’s first proper album in 15 years, Dirty Moons, is a record that does everything in its power to keep you at arm’s length, an album that double-dog-dares you to like it, a recording that pulls out quite a few stops to confound your expectations and even, dare I say, piss you off. It is a sprawling, snarling beast of an a record, and I’ll admit that the first time I listened to it all the way through my first thought was “Fuck this.”
Prisonshake–Robert Griffin, Doug Enkler, Steve Scariano, and Patrick Hawley–have been working on this record since ’95 or so, and since I worked with Steve and Pat and saw Doug and Robert all the time at work at Euclid Records or in the basement as Cicero’s, I remember vividly hearing details about intense practice sessions and heavy recording sessions. I remember the band going to Adam Schmitt’s in Champaign to record an early version of the entire album….and then also remember the band scrapping those sessions and starting over. And starting over again. And again. After I left St. Louis, I’d hear updates about recording and the faint possibility that the follow-up to 1993′s legendary The Roaring Third was due out “soon”. After fits and starts and more fits, I could hardly believe that the long-awaited album was finally going to see light of day here in 2008, some 13 years in the making.
And so my reaction upon first listen was this: “This took 13 years to make?” The record kicks off with a great arty, funky groove on “Fake Your Own Death”, but the song goes all over the place–at various points it has a prog rock feel, at other parts it’s heavy metal, and every time it seems to settle in on itself….the band sound as if they’re deliberately sabotaging it. This “sabotage” continues on the second track, “I Will Comment”; the song itself is built around a killer ascending rock riff and Hawley’s insane timekeeping on snare…and then codas into a sweet groove, which the band decides to mess around with by burying in phase and fadeout. “Cut Out Bin” opens with a bizarre recording of someone–a fan?–leaving a phone message about getting bit by rats at a Biohazard show and living in an iron lung.
What the hell’s going on here? Rock and roll is what’s going on here. “Cut-Out Bin” snarls to life with a what sounds like Peter Buck’s “Begin The Begin” riff as played by Richard Lloyd and then becomes a total anthem. “Dream Along” follows along, sounding like The Heartbreakers (Johnny’s, not Joan’s) covering Finn’s Motel. And then there’s “You’re Obviously The One”. That song is built on the best stupid rock riff Prisonshake’s ever written, and despite the snarl of the guitars and the drive of the rhythm section, you listen to the lyrics and…what the hell? The guys who did “Precious” and “Carthage Burns” have written a song filled with sentiment and pathos and…hell, the damn thing is downright sweet! Check that line:
“Just when you think the thrill is gone
You hear in your ear ‘You’re obviously the one.’”
Yeah, right? I mean, the ‘Shake isn’t turning into John Mayer here, but that’s still a pretty awesome sentiment to hear.
Even cooler, the song finishes with an amazing instrumental bridge that starts off like vintage Motown, with Hawley popping the snare in the pocket while Scariano’s bass runs all over the place…and then Griffin’s guitars come zooming in with a great counterpoint to the vocal melody, and the whole thing just rocks out like crazy….
…and you realize you’ve been set up. Played. Manipulated. The magicians got you looking one way, and you missed the force. See, the tracks where things are allowed to deliberately run off the rails and into unknown territory that confounds your expectations set you up that such will always be the case on Moons. So when that final coda kicks in on “Obviously”, you’re expecting them to deliberately do something…unconventional. Weird. I’ll say it: you’re waiting for them to “screw up” another one of their songs just when they hit the groove. Leave it to ‘Shake then to give you the finger right back: they play it straight, and what might’ve been a “very cool” moment on the record instead becomes a transcendant one. There’s a point as “Obviously” slams to the finish when you realize they aren’t going to play around with the track, and the danger of thinking they still might and the sheer thrill of “what if they don’t, though” combine to make it one of the great rock moments of the year.
Not that the rest of the disc isn’t daunting. Most of one album side is a five-part song cycle called “Scissors Suite” that seems bent on discouraging casual CD-skimming, that seems bent on keeping itself well outside an iPod song shuffle. There’s the ten-minute “Year Of The Donk” which veers wildly from interesting to exciting to self-indulgent and then back again.
The thing of it is, if you’re the sort who listens to a track or two of a disc and then flits off to somewhere else, Dirty Moons is an insanely difficult record. It buries its charms and hides its hooks and saves them for people willing to sit and listen to the entire double album. It dares you discover the amazing-ness of “The Understudy”; it defies you to hang on for the riff in “We’ve Only Just Tasted The Wine”; it wants the casual trend-followers long gone before “Crush Me” and “Fuck Your Self Esteem” come crashing in to the party.
Does an artist create art for an audience, or create art for art’s sake and not worry over whether it finds an audience? 99.99% of rock and roll is made up of artists convinced the answer is the former (whether they’ll say so or not). The greatest achievement of Dirty Moons is that there’s no way anyone will accuse it of being anything but an incredibly personal record that Prisonshake and Robert Griffin especially made for themselves and for their own aesthetic. If it puts you off, they don’t care. If you really, really end up liking it…well, good…but again, they don’t care. Much. (I penalized this disc 5 spots because these guys are friends and there’s no earthly way I can be particularly objective about the record.)
Happy New Year, and all that. Hope yours went well–I worked, then had a snifter of the bourbon I received from my brother for Christmas (A.H. Hirsch) and then headed home. I’m never much of one for drinking on “amateur nights” like New Year’s Eve or St. Patrick’s Day. Too many idiots. Happy to be home. At any rate, it’s now 2009, and I’m out of excuses for procrastinating the rest of my favorite records of 2009. Here’s 12 through 6!
12. Cobra Verde, Haven’t Slept All Year.
If you were gonna buy just one Cobra Verde album….well, this wouldn’t be the one to buy (Easy Listening from 2003 is just a staggeringly good album, and would be the one); thing is, these geezers from Cleveland know how to do the rock. Describing the CV sound in a nutshell isn’t easy, because they effortlessly jump from guitar rock genre to guitar rock genre, so they’ll do a glam rock song, then go right into an alt-country ballad and then swing into a bull-in-a-china shop punk song. Imagine if The Dictators were covering the Replacements trying to cover an FM-radio playlist from 1981, and that’s sort of what Cobra Verde sort of sounds like.
At the center of the gloriously raucous Cobra Verde universe is John Petkovic, who writes about rock music a lot and who has been using his wonderfully limited voice to front various Ohio bands for over two decades. The band’s sound is one informed by an immersion in all things throughout rock history, effortlessly blended into a sound that sounds like only Cobra Verde–where other bands who try to tour through various rock genres always sound like tourists, Petkovic and company sound like they belong; when they do a metal song, they sound like metal gods (albeit metal gods from the golden age of metal). When they do punk they sound like they could be opening for the Dead Boys circa 1978. When they do alt-country, they’re like some lost Gibson Brothers relic from 1989.
The only real problem with CV is that they’re not exactly prolific. This is their first album of original material since 2003, which is about right on their career pace. Haven’t Slept All Year lacks some of the joyful charm of its predecessor, the aforementioned Easy Listening, too. While tracks on the previous album sounded as if they were the result of happily drunken rehearsals and emerged effortlessly, the songs here sound more…well…forced. Sure, tunes like “Riot In The Foodcourt”, “Wildweed” or “Free Ride” are as good as any Cobra Verde song, promising tunes like “I Could Go To Hell For You” and “Together Alone” just don’t work as well as they could due to some interesting production foibles. Thing is, this is a Cobra Verde album. You listen to these guys alongside almost any other record in your collection and they just make damn near everyone else sound like frauds and posers. Petkovic and his merry band of rockers sweat and bleed rock and roll and that never fails to come across, and that feeling alone sits this album in the top 20.
11. The December Sound, S/T (“The Silver Album”)
With My Bloody Valentine reuniting for live shows and bands with fuzzed-out guitars and whispery vocals popping up all over the music landscape over the last two years, I think it’s safe to say that shoegaze is back. Problem is, everyone wants to play their own version of Isn’t Anything or Loveless–seems as if precious few bands want to try to imagine where Kevin Shields would’ve (or should’ve) taken MBV after 1991…
…but Boston’s wonderful The December Sound are interested in not just being influenced by MBV or Medicine, but also in taking that influence and doing something with it beyond just sounding like rote imitators. They’re not afraid to build a song like “Never” off the same aggressive drum beats that The Butthole Surfers used in their unlikely cover of “American Woman”, and they’ll use weirdly looped piano (in a nod to electronica cross-pollination) to gloriously unsettling effect on songs like “Drone Refusenik” and “Painkiller”.
All that might be enough for most bands, but The December Sound just keep pulling out interesting and fascinating stops. The beats behind “Kill Me (Before I Kill You)” have an undeniable hip-hop vibe. “12″, on the other hand, dispenses with any pretense of being a conventional “song” and instead takes you down a rabbit hole where The Jesus & Mary Chain smash headlong into Aphex Twin. “Maker” is Stiff Little Fingers as covered by Swervedriver, imagined through some kind of crazy hallucinogenics. Of course there are some beautiful moments scattered throughout the chaos, like the gorgeously noisy “Il Forte”. What really makes the whole “Silver Album” work so damn well is that at its heart, this is a record built on a foundation of tremendous songwriting and inspiration. The craftsmanship and care around how every second of this record will sound is incredibly apparent, and more than anything else it is what lifts this above the tide of so many recently-emerging similarly-inclined artists. As such, you can sit and marvel over the glorious melodic hook of a song like “No Heaven Like Hell”…or you can flip on the blacklight, put on the headphones and crank this sucker to eleven; either way it works. This is a band to keep an eye on; they’re doing something better than anyone else, and realize I’ve “penalized” this disc about 4 spots for having come out in December 2007 in limited supply and only hitting mass availability relatively recently.
Listen to the whole thing right here! (Check out “No Heaven Like Hell”, “Drone Refusenik”, “Painkiller”, and “Kill Me (Before I Kill You)” especially.)
10. The Kaiser Chiefs, Off With Their Heads
A cardinal sin, this–I’ve gone ahead and rated the KC’s a full four years after most English hipsters would tell you they were last relevant, but that’s music for you. Hooking up with superhot producer Mark Ronson (Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse) pretty much told you that these Leeds lads cared not a whit for any remaining shred of indie cred; having been there and done all that and then some, the Kaiser Chiefs were ready to come sit at the grown-up’s table.
So, yeah, if you’re looking for echoes of The Jam in their sound like the olden days, well they can be heard, sure…a bit, anyway. But you’re just as likely to hear them engage a healthy love for XTC (imagine Franz Ferdinand re-interpreting English Settlement), or to hear singer Ricky Wilson take his limited football chant voice and put it to service channeling Roland Orzabal (“Tomato In The Sun” is the greatest Tears For Fears song that band never recorded). Riding herd over everything is Ronson’s production, throwing around blipping keyboard washes and swoony, odd strings here and there, and using jaggedy, Gang Of Four guitars to take a sound that is unmistakeably the Kaiser Chiefs, but also which sounds rather new and fresh for them.
Look, here’s the deal. You know how us old geezers will talk your damn ear off about how great the Gang Of Four’s Entertainment was? Yeah. What we don’t mention is that two or three or four albums of that jaggedy guitar/society sucks/you’re not living your life right treacle just gets to be a fuckin’ drag (someone put that in a note for Interpol, Bloc Party, and Franzy, willya?) The neat trick the Kaiser Chiefs pull off here is making Off With Their Heads sound fizzy and effervescent and fun…while leaving the wry social commentary and nimble lyrics perfectly intact. In other words, the whole thing stands as a wonderful testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting genius. Have a seat Oasis. The Kaiser Chiefs are the best “‘uge” britpop band in the UK now.
9. Adrian Whitehead, One Small Stepping Man
The blogstory accompanying the release of this debut from this Melbourne, AU fella (hey, two discs from Melbourne in my top 20…just noticed!) mentions that the leadoff track, “Caitlin’s ’60′s Pop Song” was originally a song Adrian Whitehead made up on the spur of the moment at one of those post-funeral family gatherings (grampa died, I think) for his downcast niece. An anecdote like that already puts me 80% of the way to liking this disc; that the song itself is a glorious slab of McCartney-esque pop takes the ball right over the goal line.
One thing that sucks about Brendan Benson being a Raconteur is that we seem to have lost someone able to really put the craftsmanship behind a good classicist pop album. Oh sure, there are more folks trying to work that overplowed field than you can shake a stick at, but I’m talking about people who know how to write interesting songs that flow with verses, choruses, and bridges–songwriters who know how to not only do a middle eight, but also know when they can get away with two of those in the same song. With nothing new from Benson for 2008, and with Sloan having an off-album this year, Adrian Whitehead steps right up to fill the void.
The crazy thing about Small Stepping Man isn’t the wonderful songcraft Whitehead displays; you’ll get around to noticing that when you can’t get the hook from “Better Man” out of your head for a week. No, the crazy thing is how interesting he makes this album–this is a relentlessly creative-sounding and interesting disc that sounds as if it cost about a gajillion dollars to produce, what with strings, keys, piano, guitars of all sorts wandering around in the mix over a very tight rhythm section. Of special note is the subdued “Elle”, which Whitehead builds to a magnificent climax over what is, essentially a one-note piano melody (okay, the cello that comes in is pretty magnificent, too).
So here’s the deal–you could go put Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album on for the thousandth time…but maybe you ought to give this Aussie bloke a spin instead. This is one of the most hauntingly lovely, rainy-day pop albums to come out in years. Don’t miss it.
8. Beck, Modern Guilt
You’ve gotta have some kind of pity for ol’ Beck Hansen. Seems like every year he puts out an interesting album enjoyable on a multitude of levels…and because it isn’t Odelay or Sea Change, he never seems to get any respect at the end of the year when folks talk about the best discs to come out over the preceding 12 months.
So yeah. If Modern Guilt isn’t Beck’s best album, it’s close enough to put it in the sort of rarefied air that few other artists ever get to. Teaming up this time with Danger Mouse as a producer, 2008 finds Beck heading back to more moody, brooding sounds, which is sort of a surprise if that pairing suggested non-stop mashup hijinx to you. Oh sure, there’s plenty of weird genre cross-pollination happening here, but when the Brian Wilson airy vocals of “Chemtrails” yield over to an almost gauzy Moody Blues chorus and over-aggressive drums…you may not notice that those things shouldn’t work, because they work so well together. You might miss the prairie fiddle sample wending through “Walls” careening electronic rhythms, but again, it’s a nifty little detail that’s waiting there for you to discover.
If Modern Guilt has a fault, it’s that while there’s a uniform excellence to these subdued downtempo songs that you’ll find yourself wishing for a little bit of an uplift here and there (“Gamma Ray” gives it a good try). Still, by the time we get to the album’s final track (and hey, kudos to Beck for realizing that his albums always have about 20 minutes of filler and keeping the running time of this one to a brisk 36 minutes), the sprawling and wonderfully morose “Volcano”, we’re finding Beck finally at a position where maybe he can springboard into a position where he’s mentioned in the first wave of the most important and intriguing music artists of our time.