What has caught my ear of late …
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil – Van could sing the proverbial phone book, and I’d be hanging on his every digit. Here he’s singing country classics from the likes of George Jones and Hank Williams, complete with sobbing pedal steel and hoedown fiddles. It’s not as incongruous as it sounds. Van may be a classic soul/R&B singer in the vein of Ray Charles (insert bad heroin addiction joke here), but George and Hank had soul to spare as well, and these songs translate well. Thankfully, Van makes no attempt to replicate the twang in his vocals. He simply sounds like Van Morrison, and when he bites down hard on a bluesy, boozy 3:00 a.m. torch song like “Big Blue Diamonds,” he simply owns the material. It’s another fine album from a restless musical spirit who can pretty much do whatever he pleases.
Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway – This album is several years old now, and I keep coming back to it. It’s probably been in the CD player more frequently than any other album during that time. Mark Kozelek, former lead singer and songwriter for Red House Painters, has always had a serious Neil Young fixation, both in the high-register whine of his vocals and in the sonic shredding of his electric guitar. The shredding is still in evidence, particularly on “Salvador Sanchez,” but he mostly dials it back on this pensive, introspective, and frequently beautiful acoustic set. It’s a classic sound, Neil in Harvest mode more than Crazy Horse mode, but what really wins me over are the songs, which are uniformly well written, full of longing and remorse and not always happy memories, a guy wrestling with creeping mortality and the ghosts of loved ones.
I put my feet up on the coffee table
I stay up late watching cable
I like old movies with Clarke Gable
Just like my dad did
I think I’ve seen that movie, and I think I’ve lived that memory. So maybe this is my soundtrack to my fifties. I surely love the album.
Iarla O Lionaird – Invisible Fields – The best album I’ve heard in this still young year. Irishman O Lionaird sings in Gaelic, and these ballads in lesser hands could induce the Snorin’ o’ the Green. Fortunately, he has a spectacular tenor that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Even more impressively, O Lionaird is a sonic adventurer, not content to regurgitate traditional sounds. What he does with synthesizers and harmoniums here is akin to what Sigur Ros does with the electric guitar, and the slowly building whisper-to-a-scream crescendos will remind you of Iceland’s most famous sons. This is ravishingly lovely music, the kind you put on when the cherubim drop by for a pint of Guinness.
The Weakerthans – Left and Leaving and Reconstruction Site – I’m not sure what it is about Manitoba. It’s got to be one of the most godforsaken regions of the world, full of snow eight months per year and wheat and little else the other four, and the only reasonably close place to vacation is Fargo. One might think that the provincial pastime would be suicide. But tenaciously life affirming poetic souls seem to spring up there just the same, first Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, now John Samson, lead singer and songwriter for The Weakerthans. Samson can do introspective navel gazing like Joni, but on songs like “Aside” and “The Reasons” he updates the venerable genre and still rocks like crazy, something of which Joni could never be accused. He mixes it up with elements of power pop, punk, country rock, and folk. The only constant is the consistently excellent writing. These two albums are like old friends, and the literate, power-chord loving Samson sounds wise beyond his years.
Rock Kills Kid – Are You Nervous? – Yes, this is a blatant U2 knockoff, and there are times you’d swear that you’re listening to a previously unknown outtake from Boy or War. But previously unknown outtakes from those albums still sound like a better idea to me than, say, Zooropa or Pop, or about 90% of the music released these days. It’s derivative, but at least they’re stealing from the best. A recent appearance on “The OC” and the currently #1 requested song on KROQ also tell me that they’re going to be huge with the Abercrombie and Fitch set. I’ll try not to hold that against them.
Kocani Orkestar – Alone At My Wedding – A billing as the best Macedonian brass band in the world makes me wonder about the competition. I don’t really know much about Macedonian culture, and maybe the residents of Radovis and Strumica go apeshit over dueling darbukas on Balkan Idol. But the makeup of this band still intrigues me -- two gypsy singers, accordion, darbuka, banjo, clarinet, saxophone, and four, count ‘em, four tubas. Here in Big Ten country we put those folks out on a football field. And really, this album does have the feel of a Gypsy Marching Band. It’s strange, otherworldly, and often great fun. Give me an S. Give me a K. Give me an O-P-J-E. What’s that spell?