Best Albums of 2007 (15 through 11)

January 10, 2008 at 5:29 am (Best-of lists, cool band alert, reviews, rock and roll)

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.

Dream In Color
“Soft Asylum (No Way Out)”(Video)
“Raise The Spirit”(Video)
“Same Blue Devils”(Video)

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.

“The Search”
The Son Volt Website, where you can hear “The Picture” and “Circadian Rhythm”

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.

“Shout It From The Rooftops”
“Gasoline Soaked Heart”
“Blood On The Knobs”
The Whole album available in *.zip format, 320 kps mp3.

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.

“Meat Market”
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.

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