Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Half-Way Point

We’re now at the midway point for 2006, which seems as good a time as any to take a look back on the musical highlights of the first half of the year. Here are mine:

Benevento Russo Duo – Play Pause Stop – Jazz meets The Chemical Brothers meets The Flaming Lips. Endlessly creative, and top-notch musicianship.

Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift – Biram takes the raw minimalism of The White Stripes and does it one better – he’s a one-man band. Ravaged vocals, a Delta Blues sensibility, questionable but enthusiastic guitar skills, and a broken heart like Hank Williams.

Birdmonster – No Midnight – Imagine The Strokes with banjos. Or Interpol with cellos. Then imagine an unhinged singer who sounds like Win Butler from The Arcade Fire. You’re in the New New Wave ballpark.

Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country – A sweet early ‘60s girl group reprise, but with decidedly modern sensibilities. Gorgeous pop music.

Johnny Dowd – Cruel Words – Gritty but poetic songwriting, a gravel-voiced visionary, an organist who worships at the B3 altar of Jimmy Smith, a guitarist who takes his cues from Black Sabbath and Metallica, and a drummer who aspires to play in a prog rock band. Crazy? You bet, and great.

Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat – Yes, it sounds like a Steely Dan record. The problem? Nobody does slick jazz/rock better than Fagen, and “Brite Nightgown” is the funkiest song I’ve heard this year.

Jolie Holland – Springtime Can Kill You – Although she doesn’t work in the jazz idiom, Holland surely sounds like Billie Holliday at times, and the way she sidles up to and dances around notes is a thing of beauty. She’s a great singer. As a bonus, she’s also a fine, idiosyncratic songwriter.

Lambchop – Damaged – Kurt Wagner can’t sing in the same way Tom Waits can’t sing, which means that although he won’t be taking out an ad to teach voice lessons, he’s still pretty great. He wants to be a romantic crooner in the tradition of Mel Torme or Tony Bennett, so he employs a lot of schmaltzy strings. But then he sings lines like "Here’s a little story ‘bout regret/Doesn’t have an ending, it’s not finished yet" and “You’re dripping wet from a midday shower/Soon you’ll be drying off your dick/I want to be romantic about it/But there’s really not much more to it.” Don’t look for him on Easy Listening radio anytime soon.

Iarla O’Lionaird – Invisible Fields – Celtic music meets Sigur Ros. O’Lionaird has a soulful, soaring voice, and these ethereal soundscapes frame it perfectly.

Derek Trucks Band – Songlines – Great slide guitar work, and the funkiest southern fried/soul/African/Indian/rock band you’d ever want to hear. I particularly appreciate Trucks’ eclecticism, and the marvelously soulful vocals of newcomer Mike Mattison.


danthress said...

Yesterday we spent five hours in the car going to and from the game in Cleveland. I forgot to bring any CDs. Although I didn't think it was possible, Cleveland radio may even be worse than Columbus which is unbearable. It's like eating McDonalds three meals a day, everyday of the week.

So I kept wondering whose at fault here? Rock-n-roll, radio, or me. Why are we still being subjected to music from the 70s and 80s?

I think at fault is greed, comsumerism, and clear-channel. From what you're saying, people are still making music worth hearing. Trouble is it's almost impossible to hear it.

ps. The only saving grace was a Josh-Neds-Fox mix CD that saved my butt about half way home. I was beginning to think the entire country had been castrated.

Andy Whitman said...

Dan, Cleveland radio sucks, and has for decades. Back in the '70s, WMMS used to win the Rolling Stone Magazine poll for best radio station in the country. Trouble is, they're still playing the music that made them poll winners in 1976. News alert: David Bowie and Boston aren't cutting edge.

Columbus is a little better, if only for the eclectic music programming in the mornings on WCBE.

But radio, almost by definition, sucks. It's like complaining that you can't hear any good music on MTV or American Idol (as if someone would do such a thing :-)). No joke. So here's my advice: turn it off.

2006 has been a fantastically amazing year for music. Truly. I listed ten albums that have blown me away so far this year, but I could have easily listed fifty more. These aren't albums that I think are okay. These are albums that I think are really, really great. Bands/performers have figured out this Internet thing, and have learned to bypass the major labels and radio stations entirely. A band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah can release an album on its own, sell it on its web site, and rely on word-of-mouth to sell 100,000 copies, all of that money going as pure profit to the band. And many other bands/performers are following suit. That's a great thing.

I receive more CDs than I can listen to, many of them very good, but I realize that that's not normal. So I would suggest checking out Internet radio when you want to get your New Music fix. That won't help you in the car (although iPods and podcasts might), but it will at least provide an outlet for good new music.

Here are some Internet radio stations that I think are very worthwhile:

Paste Radio ( hey, it had to be here\

KEXP in Seattle (

KCRW in Santa Monica (

I hope that helps.

danthress said...

Thanks Andy.

I was going to ask you for some internet radio favs.

We're looking at a car that is iPod ready. Annie has a pod so we could load up that way.

My suspicion is that those satellite radio stations are crap too.

Thanks for the tips and the health report. Maybe there's hope.