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.