Best of 2008, 13-15….

December 10, 2008 at 6:42 pm (Best of 2008, Best-of lists)

15. Why?, Alopecia

Why?, the vehicle for Oakland free spirit Yoni Wolf is the kind of band that drives folks who need their music pigeonholed by genre to distraction. Is what they do rap or hiphop? They record for the avant-hop label Anticon, and Wolf is an inventive if vulgar rhymer…but especially now on Alopecia Why? is essentially a sort of indie rock band, with Wolf mostly singing with a his laconic, John Flansburg-ish nasal voice.

Alopecia definitely presents Why? as a rock band. These are songs that won’t be too unfamiliar to any indie rock fan…and Why? carries it off with deep beats and grooves that wend slyly through the proceedings. The result is a terrific mashup of genres that, while having been tried before, probably haven’t been blended this well since the first Basehead album almost 20 years ago. Things tend to wander around a bit, but Wolf is a wonderful ring master for what could become chaos but doesn’t. He’s right on top of things with his inventive if frequently crude (Wolf can make you squirm) lyrics and wordplay.

The danger for Why? (and frankly, for too many folks on the Anticon label) is getting too tied up in the intellectual/artistic statement part of what they do. What makes Alopecia special is that while it is a wholly-satisfying intellectual work of art, it also just sounds damned good.

“The Vowels, Pt. 2”
“The Hollows”
“These Few Presidents”

14. Skipping Girl Vinegar, Sift The Noise.

If you describe an album as uplifting or ascribe to it the cardinal rock sin of happiness, it evokes a sort of effervescent giddiness, so I want to be careful in how I praise this wonderful, gloriously charming debut from Melbourne’s SGV. Is it a happy record? Well, yes. Sort of. See, it isn’t the “happiness without strings” happy of early Beach Boys. Rather there’s a certain lingering sadness and weariness lingering at the edges of Sift The Noise that seem to evidence that this record–which sounds effortless–probably took years and years and years and years to make. The “happiness” of it is more the happiness of a guy on a life-raft who’s weathered some terrible storms (which he’d rather not talk about, thanks) to finally find rescue.

And so with that in mind, I will state that the title track here is one of the most gloriously ebullient songs you’ll ever hear. SGV tends to veer towards more acoustic material on the rest of the disc, but even there lead singer/songwriter Mark Lang is able to carry things off. What helps immeasurably is his ability to channel a vocal sound not at all unlike a young Peter Case (see “River Road” especially; that song could be an outtake from Case’s first solo album). If the middle of Sift The Noise is quiet and acoustic and pastoral, they find a sweet blue-eyed soul groove again on “Sinking”, before finishing with two lovely songs, “Drove For Miles” and the meditative “The Passing”. SGV won’t change the world, but it might change yours, or at least your mood for a few hours. They’re the kind of band for whom it’s easy to root for, and one hopes the success they’ve found in Australia eventually becomes a worldwide thing.

“One Chance” (Seriously, that could be Peter Case singing…
“Sift The Noise”

13. Novillero, A Little Tradition

Let me get this out of the way first: Novillero’s Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives, which came out in 2005, was not only my favorite record of that year, it might be my favorite record of the 2000’s. It showed a raucous, gritty side along with an ability to carry off songs with surpassingly brilliant melodies and topical, on-target socio-political lyrics. Waiting three years for a followup probably had me placing unattainable expectations on A Little Tradition. So what do we have here? Well, we have a good disc, one that, if you’re just discovering Novillero, might sound like one of the year’s best. For me it was a bit disappointing, as the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soulful moves of the previous disc seem much more muted here. I could take up this capsule review by talking about what Tradition didn’t do for me, but that wouldn’t be the point here.

What it does have, then, are some of the best songs of the year. The one-two punch of “Life In Parentheses” and the title track are wonderful, especially the reggae syncopation of the latter. If things sag a little in the middle, “Plastic Flag” does yeoman work propping them back up. “Paco Rabanne” is a terrific instrumental, and the record closes strong with “The Printed Word (Sucks For Inflection)” and “Far From Too Far”, the latter song possessing one of the great piano hooks Rod Slaughter’s ever written. I’ll be very interested to see how Novillero carries forward. They recently saw their bassist and occasional singer and songwriter Grant Johnson left the group right after after the disc came out. Fellow Winnipegger Rej Ricard from the wonderful Telepathic Butterflies joined Novillero to tour, but I suppose it’s an open question on whether he’ll contribute actively to future recorded output. I’d like to see it, that’s for sure.

“A Little Tradition”
“The Printed Word (Sucks For Inflection)”
“How Far Is Too Far”

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