2006 Top 20 continued!

January 5, 2007 at 8:58 am (Uncategorized)

10. Radio Birdman, ZENO BEACH.

Take a minute and think of the coolest human you’ve ever known. Now up the ante and try to come up with the coolest human you’ve ever heard of…Got someone in mind? Cool. Now I’ll go out on a limb and say that whomever it is you’re thinking of, they’re maybe only 25% as cool as Radio Birdman guitarist/songwriter/svengali Deniz Tek. Bear with me for a few paragraphs, because this guy is one of the most fascinating characters in rock history.

You wanna make a movie about Rock and Roll? Make it about Dr. Tek. Deniz grew up in Ann Arbor and as a teenager began hanging out in the scene that brought the world the MC5 and the Stooges…to the point where just before he shipped off to Australia for medical school, he’d acquired one of Fred “Sonic” Smith’s vintage axes. In Australia in the mid-1970’s, he found some likeminded fellows and put together Australia’s most important prehistoric alternative band, Radio Birdman. Combining Detroit punk, surfy guitars, and even a dollop of Blue Oyster Cultish metal, the Birdman had a unique sound that was a touchstone for Ozzie bands as far flung on the musical landscape as Midnight Oil and INXS. Birdman managed two albums during their career, but called it quits in 1980 when Tek got his medical degree and moved back to the States….

…Where he enlisted in the US Navy and began fighter training school at the exclusive posting in Pensacola. Some guys researching a film met Tek and got wind of his “Iceman” handle, thought it was cool, and the rest is TOP GUN history. After 10 years as a fighter pilot/flight surgeon, Tek moved to The Dakotas and became an ER trauma doc. He also started hearing missives from the masses. The criminally ignored Radio Birdman had become latter-day critical darlings, a secret shared by bomber-jacketed enspectacled music geeks like one of the names of god. In 2001 Sub Pop released a compilation CD that was hailed throughout the music press and gobbled up by bands who’d only heard of the band in vague legends.

And so that brings us to 2006 and ZENO BEACH, the first new Radio Birdman album in 25 years. It isn’t that this is a swell comeback album–because it is, obviously. What it is is that this record has no right or reason to be as utterly amazing as it is. The various Birdmen are all well into their fifties now, but if you didn’t know you sure wouldn’t be able to tell by giving ZENO a spin. The explicatory “We’ve Come So Far (To Be Here Today)” kicks things off with the best opening track call to arms of the year. The band wastes no time in shifting to the riff-heavy “You Just Make It Worse”, and things just keep cranking from there. The whole group of geezers sounds energized beyond anything I’d ever think them capable of, but new drummer Russel Hopkinson (of You Am I) really helps push this whole thing from rock goodness to rock greatness with his relentless Moonish flourishes. If anything, ZENO BEACH is even *heavier* than the earlier incarnation of Birdman, and occasionally, things sorta lag a bit in the middle of the record.

The title track that closes everything out redeems all that and then some. “Zeno Beach” rolls along with the thunder of the rest of the album, but also with a deft melodic touch, some Ventures-esque guitar flourishes, and a brilliant closing kick. The song serves as something of a promise of more to come, that Radio Birdman have some more great rock and roll in them, regardless of their fossilized status.

“We’ve Come So Far To Be Here Today” (Full length)
“You Just Make It Worse” (Full length)

9. Sonic Youth, RATHER RIPPED.

Is there an act in rock history with a more fascinating creative arc than Sonic Youth’s? Seemingly eager to transcend their arty-no wave noise rock beginnings in the early ’80’s, they made a definitive artistic statement in the massively melodic and challenging DAYDREAM NATION in 1987, and then managed a commercial stab at the brass ring with GOO a few years later…

…and then spent much of the 1990’s making records that were so predictably unpredictable that they ended up…well…boring. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have always had the ability to effortlessly toss off oddly interesting guitar sounds, but SY seemed unable or unwilling to find real songs to wed those sounds to for nearly a decade, and it seemed like the world sorta forgot about these folks. I know I did.

Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I approached their SONIC NURSE album ready to be bored, and instead heard hints and suggestions of the brilliance of earlier works like SISTER and DAYDREAM NATION. What the heck? I thought The Yoot retired that sound a decade earlier? Obviously not.

Which brings us to RATHER RIPPED, which happens to be the best Sonic Youth album since NATION, which is saying something. Apparently Moore has been earning some checks on the side writing music squiggles for a national wireless commercial campaign, and one can hear echoes of the succinct accessibility spread out all over RATHER RIPPED. For one thing, the record opens with the hottest 1-2-3 punch in the band’s career, with “Reena”, “Incinerate”, and “(Do You Believe In) Rapture”. If they let off the gas a bit after that, a track like the elliptical “Turquoise Boy” picks things right up again with a lovely, haunting guitar figure and vocal by Kim Gordon. (Let me take a minute to say that early on in my exposure to Sonic Youth, songs with Kim’s vocals appealed to me about as much as the songs on John Lennon records with Yoko singing. Kim has really refined her singing without compromising herself or selling out; that two of my favorite tracks on this record–“Reena” and “Turquoise Boy”–feature her singing speaks volumes to the way these folks have evolved.)

The next ten picks are going to be rife with references to age; things from here on out seem basically split between geezers and greenhorns. Let me say then, that the ability of Sonic Youth to forge a 25-years-and-still-going career in music without ever selling out their original artistic vision is something to salute and hold them in highest esteem for. RATHER RIPPED may not be the best disc of the year, but when this record hits its peaks, no other disc from 2006 ascends higher.

“Reena” (full length)
“(Do You Believe In) Rapture” (full length)
“Tourquoise Boy” (full length)


Let me list the crimes of Van Hunt right from the get-go: JUNGLE FLOOR is about four songs too long, and Van is a little too hung up on another funky guitar-playing R&B hero from years past (that album cover features purple a little TOO prominently). That’s about all I got here.

Hunt knows his musical forbears well–JUNGLE FLOOR is filled with knowing nods to Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, and even Shuggie Otis; in the case of the most obvious touchstone, it can be said pretty confidently that this year Van Hunt made a better Prince album than, well, Prince. Hunt even throws in a little sweaty Lenny Kravitz guitar funk workout on “Ride Ride Ride”…and yeah, it sounds better than anything LK has put out in a decade.

While “Hot Stage Lights” gets things shaking early, it isn’t until “Ride”, “Being A Girl”, and “Suspicion (She Knows Me Too Well)” that this record takes off. Many in the so-called neo soul genre can blandly ape the sound of an old Al Green or Marvin Gaye record, but Hunt here crosses genres and sounds like crazy, the mark of a genius who has absorbed his influences but isn’t locked into just blandly parroting them. As a result, a song like “Suspicion” has a slick Prince-esque guitar figure, a sweet Curtis Mayfield vocal, and a funky, nagging Family Stone horn section tying it all together and making the song into something wholly original.

And yeah, we gotta mention the Iggy cover. Grabbing the obscure “No Sense Of Crime” from that late-period Iggy/James Williamson period was an interesting choice, for starters. Hunt manages to find a sweet groove with it, removes the weird claustrophobia of the original, and manages one of the most unique and excitingly original covers in recent memory.

Van Hunt’s Myspace Page. Go nuts on “End Of A Slow Dance” and the awesome “Priest Or Police”.


If you’re a music fan, this year you heard a rumbling from just over the horizon, perhaps felt a tremor in the ground under your feet anytime the subject of The Hold Steady came up. Yeah, that Hold Steady backlash is building up, ready to unfurl and strike at some point here if it hasn’t already. The hipsters who discovered the band and claimed first rights back in 2004 have really thrown these guys under the bus for the unforgiveable crime of….well, being really freaking amazing, I guess.

It has long been a debate amongst the indie-minded as to whether a fiercely independent artist ends up gravitating towards the mainstream, or whether the mainstream ends up embracing the independent. I hear a lot of Hold Steady early adopters claiming that the band has sold them out because now they….well, what, exactly? The Hold Steady has always been about gigantic arena-rock riffs and Craig Finn’s gonzo delivery of his weirdly poetic lyrics, and they certainly haven’t changed that on BOYS AND GIRLS. Maybe because there seemed to be a unifying concept to the debut, and because there absolutely was an album long story thread to SEPARATION SUNDAY, and maybe because that seems absent from the new disc….no that can’t be it either, can it?

In this case, I think what we have is definitive evidence of the mainstream approaching the indie. The big separator in the Hold Steady’s case has always been Finn’s voice and “singing” style, which always gets prominent play, and seems dramatically unsuited for mass appeal. At least that was the idea for the smug indie kids: it gave them an “out” to let them actually rock out for a change, so long as they thought that Finn’s vocals would keep the frat boys at bay. Here’s the thing though–all that crap is overblown. Finn might have a radically different vocal approach, but it takes about 10 minutes to get used to, and then the brilliance of the choices he makes and the way the band delivers the goods makes it all good for even the most mainstream of palates. With Finn doing a little more conventional singing on the new disc, the Springsteen comparisons are even more inevitable, and perhaps thats why the band is being thrown under the bus by its early champions.

One of the great critical kisses of death in years past was being anointed as “The New Dylan”; it cursed commercial careers from John Prine to Loudoun Wainwright to Donovan. They finally hung that tag on the right guy, though, and Bruce Springsteen took it and ran with it. The reason it fit him like a crown of gold instead of thorns is that The Boss was the real goods–he understood the sound and poetry of what he was doing, and could transform it into mainstream appeal. And so but now with BOYS AND GIRLS we can pass on the crown of “New Springsteen” once and for all to The Hold Steady. Like Bruce, these fellows know what they want, and seem to know exactly where they’re going. Long live The Hold Steady!

“Chips Ahoy”
“Massive Nights”
“Stuck Between Stations”

6. The Society Of Rockets, WHERE THE GRASS GROWS BLACK.

There’s one major reason that people who have heard “indie rock” hate it and everything about it–lately “indie” is just a code word for “precious” or “over-weaning”; too many bands hailed by the halfwit magpie-brained pitchfork writers make music that sounds like the audio equivalent of wretched fingerpaintings on a doting mother’s refrigerator door. Small wonder then, that the few critics who bothered with this disc dismissed it completely; GRASS GROWS BLACK is about as fey, mannered, and precious as an Australian-rules football game.

That’s the best thing about this disc, the sophomore effort from a San Francisco band that used to do the pretentious indie thing to death in an earlier incarnation as the Shimmer Kids. This disc sees them finding their voice, in this case channeling early 1970’s rock from a place where soul, funk, and rock all met one another on equal terms. In fact, The Society Of Rockets at times sounds like nothing so much as Janis Joplin fronting Exile-era Rolling Stones…and yeah, I think that comparison holds even though Society frontman Josh Babcock is a guy.

Getting the sound right is only half the battle though, and this record would go nowhere fast except for the fact that it is laced with some of the year’s best and most ass-kicking rock and roll songs. If the opening track, “Tangerines & Cigarettes” doesn’t have you wanting to shake it like you’re at Altamont, then maybe the swaggering, sweaty, greasy “Out In The Evening”, “End Of The Line”, and “Ballroom Kicks” will get your butt moving.

Surprisingly, TSoR can do nuance, too. “Suicide Summer” is a lovely, layered, soulful lament, and the eleven-minute closer, “Old Glory” is worth every second of investment it requires. Both songs are given bigger life and brighter color than they might otherwise possess thanks to Babcock’s impassioned, over-the-top vocals. His voice would probably make most professional voice coaches cringe, but for fierceness, passion, and balls-to-the-wall, pour-it-all out soulfulness, no singer this year topped him.

“Tangerines & Cigarettes”
“Ballroom Kicks”
“End Of The Line”


Perhaps it’s the unlikeliness of their backstory (a band of geeks from South Dakota fronted by an electrical engineer), perhaps it’s lead singer Jason Ward’s vocal ability to channel a less-yelpy Ted Leo, or maybe the insistent brilliance of J. Waylon Miller’s drumming, but this record is the embodiment of the whole far outreaching the sum of its parts. I mean, on paper, there’s just not that much spectacular going on here–chunky, amateurish guitar riffs, three-chord melodies, and vocals that sound lifted right from the 1980’s new wave how-to book.

Thankfully, we listen with our ears instead of on paper, and you’ll hear what I mean about 10 seconds into this startling debut’s opening track, “Modern Text On Love”. Built around a nagging melody, whomping rhythm, and clever run-on lyrics sung with incredible earnestness by Ward, its an instantly likeable anthem that sets the tone for the rest of the record. Lest you be thinking that nothing on the disc can approach that first track…well, just as things start to lag a little, The Weather Machines roll out three of the best rock and roll tracks released this year: “Latest In Company Brides”, the sublime “Old School Vs. Liberty Girls”, and “Last Stop”.

Which brings me to the point in this list where I mention that it’s bands like The Weather Machines–groups who come from the middle of nowhere and manage to take something overfamiliar and make something fresh and exciting out of it–folks like this are the reason I hope I never get too old for that Devil’s Music The Kids Are Digging So Much Nowadays. There’s a moment on the bridge of “Old School Vs. Liberty Girls”, when Miller plays an awesome snare/cymbal counterpoint to Ward’s guitar, and then brings the whole thing back home with an awesome snare roll into the final chorus that still–maybe a hundred plays later–gives me goosebumps. The Weather Machines have such an air of charming inspired amateurism going on throughout the record, that hearing that bravado Charlie-Watts-ish bravado turn come outta nowhere just knocks the socks off. No idea if The Weather Machines can top this, but they certainly are a band to watch–if they can figure out how to keep things going now that half the band lives in Portland Oregon.

“Modern Text On Love”
“Last Stop”
Better yet, you can still hear the whole record right here at the band’s website. (The radio controller is in the top left corner of the screen. You gotta hear “Old School Vs. Liberty Girls”, seriously.)

4. The Essex Green, CANNIBAL SEA.

I’m as guilty of overindulging in retro pop as the next pop knob, believe you me. I’ll hear a song that sounds like a passably modern update of The Turtles or Love, and I’ll just go ga-ga beyond all reasonable need….and then realize a week later that the same song sort of sucks, since all it is is a pale imitation of something better.

The retro-pop tag is a nasty one to hang on a band, frankly, because it implies a lack of creativity, a paint by numbers approach to making music. No musical artist can escape the influences of music they heard and enjoyed in their formative years, but “retro pop” seems to imply that those cursed with that tag are unable to rise above the sum of their influences and instead are bound to them like a ball and chain.

All of which goes to say that since the first Essex Green song I heard back in 2000, I’d tossed them onto the retro-pop scrap heap, and I’ll stand by that–their early releases just sound formulaic and wholly derivative to me. That impression I held of The Essex Green kept me away from this disc for over a month, despite it receiving glowing reviews around and about.

I finally took the plunge and….in a word, “wow.” Whatever was going on on earlier EG releases, well, that’s in the past. What’s going on with CANNIBAL SEA is that you have a band, obviously well-informed with classic 60’s pop, using it as a springboard (instead of a crutch) to launch an album full of swell songs that are more timeless than retro, to paraphrase their record company’s publicity flack.

The biggest thing this new disc has going for it is songwriting. “This Isn’ Farmlife” and “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)” are an incredible opening wallop that also neatly shows off the respective vocal skills of Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter. (When Bell takes lead vocal duties, this new Essex Green iteration sounds like nothing so much as a more classicist version of Rilo Kiley, especially on tracks like “Farmlife” and “Uniform”; take note, fans of Jenny Lewis.) CANNIBAL SEA is just stuffed with terrific songs and amazing bravado flourishes of arranging and composing, from the guitar builds on “Stay” to the call and response between Bell and Ziter on “Snakes In The Grass”.

“Don’t Know Why (You Stay”
Essex Green’s Myspace page

3. Steve Wynn And The Miracle 3, …TICK…TICK…TICK

You ever wonder what happens to yesteryear’s niche/cult rock and roll heroes? I do. Like, what the heck are the guys in JFA or Saccharine Trust doing nowadays? Did the folks in Fetchin’ Bones ever find gainful employment? Is the dude from the Georgia Satellites selling insurance these days?

I can tell you for a certainty that it must be awfully tough for yesterday’s independent-minded rock and roller to carry on into their elder years. I mean, if the Kirkwood Brothers want to make another Meat Puppets disc, I’m pretty sure they’re footing the bill for the creation and distribution of that themselves. I’m equally sure that when an old warhorse like Steve Wynn sits down to write a new solo album, there are no record execs promising him that he’s on the verge of stardom (and yeah, that happened back in the heyday of Wynn’s first band, The Dream Syndicate).

No one would blame Wynn, then, if he decided to call it a day and do something else with his time….and it is affirming beyond belief for this particular old fogey listener that the 47-year-old Wynn is refusing to go gently into that good night–not that his band, the appropriately named Miracle 3, would let him. Although he’s been on a wonderful creative roll for the past three albums, this 2006 release is the pinnacle of Wynn’s solo career thus far, and that it points for even greater things to come is all the more reason to celebrate it.

Although most reviews of this disc will focus on Wynn (and we’ll surely get to him), I wanna start off talking about The Miracle 3. I saw Wynn on the tour he did in 1997 with ZuZu’s Petals, and wasn’t surprised when he recruited their drummer, Linda Pitmon away, as she was one of the most electric drummers I’ve ever seen. She’s the secret weapon of Wynn’s resurgence, a killer arranger and even more ingenious a player. Despite her cuddly, waiflike appearance, behind the drums she turns into Keith Moon. Dave DeCastro is an excellent bassist, I’m sure….and then there’s lead guitarist Jason Victor. I have *no* idea where Steve Wynn found him, or what Victor did before embarking on this career, but he so effortlessly channels the Holy Trinity of New York Punk Guitarists (Lloyd, Verlaine, and Quine, if you were wondering) that if you want to believe he was beamed in from some alternate dimension, I’m good with that. Whatever their origins, the Miracle 3 is one helluva backing band, and they push Wynn….

…and the Old Man is clearly up to the task. …TICK is loaded up with some of the best songs in Wynn’s career, as good as his ’97 disc MELTING IN THE DARK (my favorite album of that year) and even going back to that remarkable first Dream Syndicate long player. If Wynn gets your attention with the punk snarl of “Wired”, it is the second track in, “Cindy It Was Always You” that will have you punching the repeat button on your iPod. Co-written with crime novelist/”The Wire” screenwriter/Wynn fanboi George Pelecanos, “Cindy” is a noir novel/”Wire” episode brought to life in all it’s gruesome, jarring glory. Wynn then shakes loose the sheathing from the wires on the Bo Diddley-on-meth raveup of “Killing Me”, before finally loosening the grip a little on the meditative “Deep End”, maybe the loveliest song Steve’s ever penned.

Wynn has a closing kick here, too, and it’s a doozy. The Petty-esque “Bruises” eventually gives way to …TICK’s closer, “No Tomorrow”, which Rolling Stone columnist David Fricke labeled as “Wynn’s ‘Layla'”. Sure, it has a two-part structure, but while Layla gets all wimpy and soggy, “No Tomorrow” roars to a ragged, perfect finish.

The entire disc sounds as if it were recorded live, possessing an immediacy and “art as it happens” vibe that gives an already vibrant album an almost crackling electric jolt. And–hard as it may be to chart on a career arc–Steve Wynn sounds as reborn and fresh as he ever has, making his best music in the third decade of his recording career. He and Pelecanos are already talking about working a collaborative effort for the next Wynn/Miracle 3 disc, and if “Cindy It Was Always You” is an indicator, that meeting of the minds could be a wonder to behold.

“Cindy It Was Always You”
Nearly hidden radio player on the right side of the screen to hear “Bruises” and “No Tomorrow” in their glorious entirety.

2. The Modern Machines, TAKE IT, SOMEBODY

I’ve probably bored way too many friends and acquaintances with tales of how hearing my first Husker Du and Replacements songs in the same week back in 1985 saved my rock and roll life. My friend Marc has a similar story about hearing Soul Asylum doing a live version of “Jukebox Hero” from that same year. I’d imagine if you asked a lot of us old fogeys, we might all have our Minneapolis indie rock redemption tales. Those heroes of yesteryear have moved on, and are doing their own things; the records they make these days are a little slicker, a little more informed by the wisdom of years and ages, a little more world-weary. We buy new Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould discs and occasionally sigh and think about the first time we heard HOOTENANNY or NEW DAY RISING, and get all wistful and nostalgic…

…and then along comes a band like Milwaukee’s The Modern Machines to kick our nostalgia trip right upside the ass. Now yeah, I know that there have been a handful of bands who too closely worship at the Replacements Altar (Goo Goo Dolls, I’m looking at you), able to sound the right notes without doing anything original enough on their own to rate much excitement. Now I’d imagine that by now the Momacs have heard early records from The Mats, the Huskers, and Soul Asylum, but what makes them (and this record) so damn great is that they seem to have stumbled on their sound accidentally–if frontman Nato Paisano (yeah, his real name) sounds as if he’s channeling a teenaged Dave Pirner playing Bob Stinson guitar licks, it’s coincidental, not over-obvious homage.

It takes a few spins for TAKE IT, SOMEBODY to work its magic. “Flash Infatuation” is the first song to hang your hat on, with the best “whoah-oh” chorus in over a decade. “You’re Getting Married” is an angry rant about an ex-girlfriend that would do prime Westerberg proud. “Cheap Rent, Cheap Beer, Cheap Shots” is the obvious anthem, what you’d get if HOOTENANNY-era ‘Mats ever decided to do Springsteen. There are some goofy, sloppy digressions, too, like “Elegy For Love” that nearly fall apart, but end up endearing after a couple of times through. Better yet is “Pay Off The Hangman”, which manages to be epic despite it’s less-than-three minutes length. You’ll see what I mean halfway through when the MoMacs show off their ragged chops and turn the whole thing into a heavy heavy metal workout before kicking it back into a coda of the first verse.

Paisano handles most of the songwriting chores here, and if he isn’t quite able to turn a phrase like his ancestors, he’s at least able to come up with some pretty memorable lines (like on “What I Be Leavin'”: “Well I grew up in a strange little town/With a lot of Republicans around”). “The Road I Didn’t Take” is a wonderful anthemic spilling of the MoMac’s raison d’etre, even if it does sorta nick the guitar riff from Uncle Tupelo’s “Graveyard Shift”. Speaking of the immortal Tupelo, TAKE IT, SOMEBODY has a stunner of a closer, a 5-minute acoustic lament that takes the whole ’86 midwest punk sound these fellas have been mining to new heights by offering up the best Jay Farrar song that Jay Farrar never wrote.

This past year, I realized there was a lot of stuff I was listening to that threatened to edge into “Dad Rock”, and nearly invested in a rocking chair and a “GET OFF MY LAWN” sign. The Modern Machines came along and kicked my ass up one side and down another, reminding me that every new band of kids with guitars isn’t necessarily interested in doing whiny emo garbage. Nope, TAKE IT, SOMEBODY is a wonderful disc, a fantastic shot of rock adrenaline from a band rippling with youthful energy and chops, the sort of disc that reminds us obsessives why we became so enthralled with this Devil’s Music in the first place.

“Flash Infatuation”
“You’re Getting Married” (you’ll have to right click and “save as” to use this)
“Cause I Do” (again, make with the right click and “save as”)

1. Finn’s Motel, ESCAPE VELOCITY

I’m not sure every year of music listening for me has had a thesis statement, but all of the best years have…and ESCAPE VELOCITY is 2006 boiled down into one 40-minute blast of angst, joy, anger, and thrills for me. I’m not sure of a whole lot, but I’m real damn sure that this is the best record I heard this year.

A little back story might be necessary here. Joe Thebeau basically is the guiding vision behind Finn’s Motel, being lead singer/songwriter/guitarist; he once fronted a St. Louis band called variously The Finns and The Finn Brothers, but that was back in younger, less-responsibility-filled days of a decade ago. I gather that Thebeau had basically put the rock dreams behind him for more socially-acceptable means of support. However, legendary punk band Prisonshake had relocated to St. Louis years back, and a few years ago they’d sort of recruited Thebeau as an adjunct guitarist. ‘Shake guitarist/Scat Records honcho Robert Griffin heard some demos of songs that Thebeau had been hobbying around on for a lark in his basement during the decade of his “retirement” from rock music, and the result was this record.

On first, second, and maybe even third blush, ESCAPE VELOCITY looks like some weird sci-fi concept album, with song titles like “Dramamine For Engine 3” and “On The Need For Repeatable Systems” and “Recent Linear Landscapes”. In actuality, that sci-fi sheen wears off really quickly; those expecting Futurama should search elsewhere. Instead, the whole concept of the disc centers around that familiar problem that hit me like it hits everyone (hopefully) someday: the reconciliation between getting old and not being all that willing to just fade away.

Every good concept album needs a good thesis, and so few of them tend to deliver one. Kudos to Thebeau for doing just that on ESCAPE VELOCITY’s second song, “Accelerate And Brake”boiling down the emotions that run through the record in a few succint lines. That song kicks off full of Superchunk-ish guitar sturm, but about a minute in, changes directions in a breathtaking, goosebumpy way, and Thebeau spits out:

“And this daydream is my only escape
From the same thing, caffeine, gasoline, routine
Cylinders firing in boring order.”

The song finishes with an outro that will be all-too-familiar to those of us required to go to work each day in dress shirts and ties and looking like a corporate factory coughs us out:

“I think I caught your eye for a second
You were looking this way
No, I don’t always look this way
It’s who I have to be
For the Man, for the money
If I could find another way…”

The entire record is fueled by such sentiment (the four song cycle from “The Physics Of Drunk Driving” through “Concord Village Optimist Club” is one of the most emotionally stirring 12 minutes in the last few years), but that is hardly its only virtue. Enlisting pop maestro Adam Schmitt for some studio help (and no doubt egged on by Griffin) ESCAPE VELOCITY teems with genius rock flourishes. There’s the stereo ping-ponging guitars that open “Concord Village”, or the shouted “Hey!” in that song’s final coda. There’s the multi-tracked vocal on the word “accelerate” that shoots “Drunk Driving” into the stratosphere as it builds and builds. There’s the acoustic, bluesy finish to “Accelerate And Brake” that wouldn’t sound outta place on a vintage GnR record. There’s the tinny vocal sound on the gorgeous “Hangover In An Aging Suburb” (if you can hear Thebeau sing about longing for rockets launching in Florida or “dreams of California where the summer has no end” and not be moved, I don’t want to know you.) The thing of it is, everyone associated with this record is every bit the music geek that we are, and they’ve listened to decades and decades of rock and roll, and obsessed over piles and piles of records. ESCAPE VELOCITY is jammed full of brilliant little details copped from a wide variety of influences without ever being wholly under the thumb of those previous sounds.

All of which equals a ten-years-in-the-making craftsmanship you can admire from within as a music obsessive; this disc is fantastically interesting to listen to, and richly rewards repeat listening. Or, take it from without; in the latter case you’ll know you’re hearing a great, great disc, without being able to pin down specifically why it is so wonderful (beyond Thebeau’s memorable lyric turns.) In any event, ESCAPE VELOCITY is the disc that moved me the most, got me through any lingering midlife crisis of getting old, reaffirmed that yeah, age is just a number and not a prison sentence if you’re willing to let it be so.

The Finn’s Motel Website Click the “Media” hotlink and you can hear this remarkable record in it’s entirety. (You gotta at least give that run from “Physics Of Drunk Driving” through “Concord” a shot. Also, the sort-of closer “Equilibrium” is a stunner. And the opening track, “Dramamine” into “Accelerate And Brake”….hell, just buy it, and thank me later.)


  1. steve scariano said,

    Kid, where do we begin to thank you for all the amazing and kind words? Thank you so much my friend, and I hope you get to see us live someday…

  2. Leah said,

    Hey Chris,
    Just rechecking your list. Hate to break it to you, but the Society of Rockets album came out in ’05 – or is this what you liked this year and not necessarily what came out?
    I guess you’re not too keen on Indie darlings The Decemberists? or on Indie sweetheart M. Ward? or Indie sugar pie Jay Farrar/Gob Iron? or Indie kissyface Jenny Lewis? buttercheeks Tom Waits? One of my faves this year was Cat Power… but I guess you just don’t buy into the solo female artist anymore?
    Anyway, loved the list. I’ve already picked up Finn’s Motel and the Essex Green disc and am enjoying both. Keep up the good work and let me know what you really think of the above artists when you get the chance. I think JG has my email/phone number for your handy reference.

  3. Chris H. said,

    Don’t trust allmusic on this one!

    The band’s own website lists it as February, 2006, as does Amazon. So there!

    I will say this for Cat Power: I liked The Greatest more than any other Cat Power disc.

    Oh, and Bettie Serveert nearly made my list, which is a band, but Carol Van Dijk is the Bettie.

    Awesome to hear from you, you’re so damn Austin!

  4. Leah said,

    ha, didn’t check allmusic – I have the album, and it says 2005.

    did you check out the Camera Obscura album of 06? I’d say it was their best so far, it would have probably made my 11 spot. and “nearly made it” doesn’t count. I think there is some definite sex discrimination going on here.

    If I’m “so Austin” then I was made for it all my life because I like the same kind of music that I did before I left! (Mendoza Line is from Langley, no?) and you’re so midwest, so why are you in DC?

  5. Kyle said,

    Thanks, Trig — Just blew 50 bucks on Amazon this morning getting the ones I didn’t already have… Thought that was it, but then saw you had another 10 albums in your top 20… damn… gonna go broke.

  6. Kyle said,

    Wow, getting to listen to that Wynn album and it’s hot! Great find, thanks!

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