A small record with a thin voice and a big heart, The Fine Art of Self Destruction bridges the gap from glam-punk to alt-country power pop with the best weapon of all – an album full of top notch songs. This album oozes New York, as Malin brings that high and lonesome sound to the five boroughs, tracing a lost love who “liked Tom Waits and the poet’s hat / Sixties Kinks and Kerouac” in the anthemic “Wendy” and tracing lost youth in the unsentimental lament “Almost Grown”.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
It takes a set of stones to even try to pull off a near-seamless suite of thirty songs in seventy-eight minutes, but to pull it off with such utter conviction and perfect execution is a towering achievement. The veteran Canadian power-poppers aren’t cowed by the influence of the Beatles; instead, they take Abbey Road as an idea to be expanded on. This silver disc is chock-a-block with ideas the way Manhattan is packed with tall buildings, each gleaming in the light and casting their own long shadows.
Of all the Noughties New Dylans, none were more divisive among rock fans than Conor Oberst. The haters found him cloying and overwrought, his champions saw the voice of a generation. On I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, he fulfills his promise with a toned down, subtle, beating not bleeding heart, confessional alt-country classic. It’s the soundtrack to a million disaffected teenage lives.
Monday, December 28, 2009
The Animal Years is Josh Ritter’s march to .400, his 30 win year, his 55 homer campaign. To belabor the baseball analogy a little bit further, it’s a journeyman’s MVP season. While his prior three releases hinted at greatness, The Animal Years swings for the fences (sorry) and delivers a perfect game (I’ll stop) bookended by the twin classics of the topical, urgent “Girl in The War” and 9 and half minute stream-of-consciousness harangue “Thin Blue Flame”, a Dylan-inspired song poem that shouldn’t work but succeeds on every level.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Well Darlene Love has just rocked out yet another joyous version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on Letterman, so it's officially Christmas. We'll pause our countdown to wish everyone a safe and Merry Christmas... hopefully you get to share it with the ones you love.
Ike Reilly - "Christmas Star"
The Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team - "Christmas in The Faces"
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Escovedo emerges from his gritty cowpunk roots and achieves pure grace on this set, where his sharp eye and commanding voice conspire to push beyond any artificial constraints imposed by the alt.country label. “As I Fall” should’ve been a hit, and “Velvet Guitar” is a classic, no matter how many folks never heard it.
Fully embracing the power of the beard, the Fleet Foxes debut album is filled with the sound of a thousand voices, ranging from Laurel Canyon to the hills of West Virginia. Like a beam of sunlight on a cold winter day, Fleet Foxes will warm you up and wrap you in a blanket of harmony. It’s ethereal, other-worldly magic.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Name the one band over the last decade that was best able to combine artistic significance, commercial clout and critical accolades with arena filling power. You might say Radiohead or Wilco, but you’d be wrong. It was Green Day, and American Idiot was a political manifesto that was too long, had its share of clunky lyrics, but bristled with the power and the fury found only in the greatest rock and roll records.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. When Stay Positive came out, I wrote a lot of words comparing the arc of Craig Finn and company to that of Bruce Springsteen, and I stand by every one of them. Here’s The Hold Steady’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album about the complications of growing up, bolstered by hope, and powered by the relentless belief that rock and roll is a bridge to better things, an idea that sounds naïve only until you hear it come to life.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
A completely solo affair with a surplus of indelible melodies, Surf features only the acoustic guitar and wounded tenor of the once precocious, teenaged linchpin of Aztec Camera, who burst on the scene in 1983 with the brilliant High Land, Hard Rain. These are late night, love gone wrong songs, and often the pain is self-inflicted. This particular refrain crystallizes the album’s lovelorn mood:
“When I was young the radio played just for me. It saved me,
And now I don’t want anyone who wants me, baby
Tuning out the darkness,
Turning on the dawn,
If life was like songs, I’d surf into the waves,
And in a flash of silver she’d be gone’
Roddy Frame - "Surf"
Linda Thompson has kept a spectacularly low profile (3 albums in 25 years) since her high profile personal and musical split with uber-guitarist ex-husband Richard. Versatile Heart is a subtle, austere collection of brusied heart ruminations on the pains of being pure in love, bathed in an acoustic glow that sits somewhere between Olde English folk and Nashville pop. But the stone cold stunner is a solemn live reading of Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow”, a heart-breakingly gorgeous plea from a soldier who wants nothing more than to see his 21st birthday. Goose bumps.
For those who believe Steve Earle lost his way after 2000’s Transcendental Blues, you need to check out Hayes Carll’s Trouble in Mind. His world-weary drawl and slyly dry sense of humor give just the right amount of punch to beat-up narratives like “Drunken Poet’s Dream”, “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart” and the how-could-he-compare lament of “She Left Me For Jesus”.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Ron Sexsmith’s brilliance lies in making a hard thing seem easy. Melodic, concise songs pour out of him with such stunning consistency that it’s easy to think that anyone can do this. But anyone can’t, which is why he’s earned the respect of masters like McCartney and Costello even while toiling in relative obscurity. But don’t let the professionalism fool you, there’s a vulnerable, sentimental heart behind every song, always willing to go out on a limb, like on “Whatever It Takes.” That song would be sap in lesser hands, but it’s pure amber in Sexsmith’s.
The perfect album for the multi-culti new millennium, it effortlessly crosses barriers of race, gender and nationality. It takes all the shop-worn pointless questions (Is it pop? Is it rock? Is it rap?) and responds “who the $%#& cares?” It’s music, and damn fine music at that.
Once I would have considered this a pejorative, but now it’s a high compliment: This is a thoroughly professional rock album. The songs are perfectly constructed and executed. Bright, sturdy, resilient. And the sound is clean and huge, the kind of thing that effortlessly reaches the back row of a football stadium. And despite all the technical brilliance, it retains the trait that has always marked the band – a big, overwrought, generous heart.
Lucero - "Anjalee"
Lucero wears their desperation and outsider status as a badge of honor, mixing equal parts pathos and self-loathing in an explosive cocktail of punk country, worthy heirs to Jason And The Scorchers and The Replacements’ throne of misfit desperado losers. The songwriting tightens up a bit, on this, their fourth record, and if you’re not a convert after the first 15 seconds of “Anjalee”, then god have mercy on your soul.
Forget the Dylan/Band comparisons, this is timeless folk music by one of the best American bands of the last ten years. Tonight At The Arizona is creaky, dark corner, gothic campfire tales, its somber mood broken only by the backwoods stomp on Jimmie Rodgers “T For Texas” and the ramshackle rave-up of Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer”. Ian Felice’s Dylan wheeze may be an initial roadblock, but stick around, the beautiful ache in songs like “Ballad of Lou The Welterweight” and “Hey Hey Revolver” will reward your effort.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Kasey Chambers sings folk songs rooted in the deep South, it’s just the deep south of the Australina bush of Nullarbor. Featuring lived-in, wide eyed romantic lyrics, Chambers calls to mind the ache of Lucinda Williams, but without the bitterness. The title song is a wonderful tribute to a brother’s selfless dedication.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Adams is famous for throwing stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks, and never has more stuck than on this album, which is loaded with songs that would have been radio staples had they come along thirty years before (and thanks to Tim McGraw, “When the Stars Go Blue” achieved that fate this decade). “Harder Now That It’s Over” is a classic heartbreaker, and “New York, New York” took on its own spooky aura in light of the events that transpired just after its release.
A half-century in, anyone who can make a rock and roll record that sounds strange and unprecedented pulls off quite a feat. Emo in the best possible sense of the word, this is music that makes something well up inside, a rising of voices and flicker of light. Luminous.
After a 25-year hiatus from making a string of classic albums together, this could have been a disaster. Instead, it was a revelation, two old masters bringing the best out of each other again, and doing it in entirely new ways. Their previous collaborations (under their own names and with Talking Heads), were dark, brooding and funky. But here, it’s mostly lush and light and open. Comeback album of the decade.
This album is so disarming, so wry, and so full of surface appeal that it’s easy not to notice that it’s also great. Not in that dismissive great-for-a-pop-record sense. Just great. Melodic, bouncy, buoyant, and wickedly funny, with more awareness of tradition than it lets on. There’s old English dance hall music here, there’s soul, there’s Two-tone. And joy. Lots and lots of joy.
Matching the sneer of prime Dylan with the swagger of early Replacements, Ike Reilly plums the seedy underbelly of the urban Midwest. He spits out tales of lovable losers – these are the stories you share with drunken, jackass pals when you’re way past your limit. Salesmen And Racists is jam packed with instantly memorable choruses wrapped around biting, funny and often touching lyrics that inspire and bewilder. “Hip Hop Thighs # 17” is the greatest song you’ve never heard.
Ike Reilly - Hip Hop Thighs # 17
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Reflective, wry, bitter, joyous, but most of all, consistently memorable, ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker stepped into the solo spotlight and delivered a batch of songs ranging from whispers to screams. Well, not screams as much as a complicated man loudly proclaiming interesting things. And his sample of the Tommy James classic “Crimson and Clover” on “Black Magic” makes for one of the decade’s best recycled sounds.
Mann succeeds where so many sullen singer-songwriters fail, because she possesses a facility with melody and a belief in the power of the chorus. She’s also a fine editor, which results in the songs on this album – her best – being densely packed with ideas and pop hooks. Her icily detached persona makes lines like “now that I’ve met you/would you object to/never seeing each other again” all the more powerful.
It’s great to see a band indebted to both the Velvet Underground AND Chuck Berry. Coming on like the class of ’77, The Strokes made making music sound fun again. And soon a thousand similarly mono-monikered bands plowed the same field, but nobody matched the accessibility and muscle of this stunning debut. Of course, none of them wrote songs like “Last Nite”, “Someday” or “Take It or Leave It”.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Rock and roll isn’t any one thing, but one thing it used to be is dance music. Now it is again because James Murphy knows that a riff is as good as a vamp when it comes time to get your boogie on. And “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” is my song of the decade.
Classic songcraft from Canada’s uber-troubadour. Not many songwriters squeeze the likes of “This Song,” “Foolproof,” “Cheap Hotel” and “Just My Heart Talkin’” into a career, let alone a single album. Thirty years earlier, songs like this made people superstars. Now they just make cult heroes.
Though it’s hardly heavy metal, The Life Pursuit marks a clear break from the band’s gossamer past. The songs are fully fleshed out, and in places, verging on muscular, while delivering the wry, off-kilter hooks that form the foundation for B&S’s entire oeuvre. And “The Blues are Still Blue” ranks with the Pretenders’ “Watching the Clothes” among the best songs ever to be set inside a laundromat.
To a suburban yankee brought up on Motown, Springsteen and punk rock, country music was an anathema to me until 1986 when I heard Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and Steve Earle’s Guitar Town blow the cobwebs out of Nashville’s slick big hat machine. The floodgates properly opened (hello Johnny, Willie, George, Waylon, Merle and Gram), now 22 years later Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song sounds like a revelation – the best country record in recent memory.
There’s enough heartbreak, broken promises and shattered dreams to last a lifetime on this record. But the 60’s girl group sheen, sharply drawn portraits and impeccable arrangements make feeling bad sound pretty good. The title track updates the universal theme of youthful escape - think "We Gotta Get Outta This Place" shot through with estrogen. Sadly beautiful.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
On Satellite Rides, the Old 97’s leave the country behind and dive headfirst into no frills power pop. Lead 97 Rhett Miller has a mile-wide romantic streak, and here he burnishes the proposal to be of “Question”, the flirty come-on of “Buick City Complex” and the titanic “King of All The World” with insidious melodies that just won’t leave you alone. A special shout out to Philip Peeples, whose propulsive drumming is the band’s secret weapon.
Old 97's - "Question"
Old 97's - "Question"
Monday, December 07, 2009
While it basically sounds like a couple of guys and their laptops, two things set Postal Service apart from thousands of cheap imitators – Ben Gibbard’s sweet, choirboy voice and classic pop songwriting that eludes so much of indie rock. Loaded with pleasant blips and gurgling beats, Give Up’s shimmering dance pop endures on the strength of the Pitchfork nation wet dream of “Such Great Heights” and the gentle but anthemic declarations of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “We Will Become Silhouettes”.
How can a band so conventional – this is a guitars/bass/drums outfit, after all – sound so consistently original? How can they take elements that have been around for forty years and make them sound like they’re from the future? And how can they sound like androids while making music that’s so deeply human?
Two albums released simultaneously in a single package, but Abattoir Blues is where the real action is, as Cave backs his literary ambitions with the Bad Seeds’ full-throttle roar and a gospel choir’s Pentecostal furor, and creates a spiritual/sexual reverie unlike anything else this decade. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” name-checks both Dylan Thomas and Johnny Thunders, and the album sits precisely atop that unlikely intersection.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
A tap dancing drummer? More precocious than Conor Oberst? More fun than free beer? Creating a ruckus that could be fatal in lesser hands, Tilly and The Wall sound like nothing less than the joy of kids making music for their friends, with boy/girl vocals filled with the excitement of Saturday night. It’s DIY bubblegum for the aughts.
Bustling with the electric energy one associates with “the city”, Streets of New York is a love letter to the New York we always hope to see. The ringing guitars and sentimental lyrics showcase Nile’s gift as a plain spoken everyman while capturing the joy and terror of “Asking Annie Out”. Bonus points for his Joe Strummer tribute, a rollicking cover of “Police on My Back”.
Willie Nile - "Police On My Back"
Friday, December 04, 2009
Is it rock and roll? Is it power pop? Is it singer-songwriter AAA? As XTC said “This is pop! Yeah Yeah!” Best known as Jack White’s wingman in The Raconteurs, Brendan Benson has quietly, if sporadically, been making effortlessely well crafted pop records since 1996. It was a tossup between this one and the previous Lapalco, but Alternative to Love gets the nod based on the McCartney-esque “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” and the Spector-meets-Fountains of Wayne brilliance of “The Pledge”.
Thursday, December 03, 2009
After some forays into the jazzy ether, Henry rediscovered gravity on this 2007 effort, his best song cycle in years. That he could create a song called “God Only Knows” that rivals the Beach Boys’ tune of the same name testifies to his immense and understated talent.
The back story, the documentary and the cultural heft tend to obscure how Jeff Tweedy managed to take the conventions of country rock and turn them inside-out, to create something that is both recognizable and difficult, and in many songs, disarmingly simple. And “Jesus, Etc.” is the band at its most luminous.
Ike Reilly returns with ten Hard Luck Stories about sex, drugs, returning vets, fucked up losers, fucked up winners, sex and drugs. Drawing on Dylan's deep, twisted phrasing and the feral gut punch of prime punk rock, Reilly is a master storyteller who's bringing back two things sadly missing in rock and roll - humor and swagger. The dude is a fist fight wrapped up in a three minute explosion of rock and roll, complete with pulsing, soaring chouses that imbed themsleves deep. If we did this roundup six months from now, this would place much higher.
Ike Reilly - "The War on The Terror And The Drugs"
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Foot-stomping, bare bones greaser rock that takes the early Uncle Tupelo template for punk country and filters it through the self-destructive, self-loathing desperation of The Replacements, adding Pogues-style fist-pumping choruses. Singer Micah Schnabel’s 5 pack a day croak on “Camo Jacket” out-phlegms Craig Finn and Tom Waits. A blazing rock and roll band best experienced in a 3/4 empty dive at 1 am on a Friday night.
Electronic, but not electronica, Manners delivers meat-on-the-bones songs that are enhanced by squiggles, squeaks and squonks. In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, protagonist Rob Fleming is the DJ for a happening recurring party billed as “Dance Music for Old People.” Rob’s crowd would have eaten this stuff up.
In the least heralded but most welcome reunion of recent vintage, Buffalo Tom returned with something most other reunions lacked – a batch of finely crafted rock and roll songs. The ghostly Big Star harmonies of “Bad Phone Call”, the propulsive jangle of “Bottom of The Rain” and the blast of urgency “Good Girl” remind us that these guys were one of the great lost bands of the early 90’s indie gold rush.
And please check Buffalo Tom kingpin Bill Janovitz’s essential blog, which comes complete with hyper-literate rambling and a free to download “cover of the week”.
And please check Buffalo Tom kingpin Bill Janovitz’s essential blog, which comes complete with hyper-literate rambling and a free to download “cover of the week”.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
This is the most consistently engaging album by Philly’s rock and roll true believers for the obvious reason: It’s their best batch of songs. From the Stonesy crackle of “The Closer” to the elegant imagery of “Walt Whitman Bridge,” the band displays maturity and versatility without sacrificing their trademark calamity. And “The Demon of White Sadness” delivers precisely on its thorny title.
The album that put these clear-eyed Southern boys on the map, it’s a ferocious and lucid reflection on the complicated heritage handed down to thoughtful men born beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. And by the end of “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” you’ll realize that Bear Bryant, George Wallace and Ronnie VanZant had more in common than you could previously have imagined.