Monday, June 28, 2010

Alasdair Roberts -- Too Long In This Condition

Scots folkie Alasdair Roberts tends to alternate between traditional material one year and idiosyncratic original songs informed by the Trad template (and esoteric metaphysics) the next. Since 2009's Spoils and The Wyrd Meme consisted of entirely original material, it only makes sense that Too Long In This Condition would hew closely to the Trad line.

In a departure from his usual solo settings of this material, Alasdair has a full complement of bandmates with him this time. It should be noted that this is decidedly Trad territory, and not the Trad rock of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, or Steeleye Span. Nevertheless, some of these songs will be familiar to fans of the latter bands -- most notably "Little Sir Hugh," "Long Lankin," "The Two Sisters," and "The Daemon Lover." Roberts and friends do them very well, indeed, and at some point he ought to be recognized as the finest contemporary practitioner of this ancient music. Now might be as good a time as any, and if you're unfamiliar with the seductive charms of these lovely melodies and bloody ballads, you could hardly do better than to pick up this album.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pete Quaife

Pete Quaife, original bassist for The Kinks, died earlier today. He was 66, which at one time would have sounded ancient to me, and now doesn't.

For many years, my knowledge of The Kinks consisted of their early British Invasion hits -- "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Till the End of the Day" -- and a few of the late '60s standouts -- "Sunny Afternoon," "Lola," etc. This was a band that released a Greatest Hits album in 1966, and since the radio didn't play much Kinks music after that, I assumed for a long time that their best music was limited to that small window following the explosion of The Beatles.

Wow, was I wrong. There were a half dozen great albums from the late '60s and early '70s, and I didn't hear them until sometime in the mid-'80s. While The Beatles and The Stones blazed their innovative trails, The Kinks retreated to quiet, pastoral, openly nostalgic music that invoked elements of country and folk and the English music hall, and that looked back to a simpler time. Most people scorned it or ignored it. It wasn't until years later that a few music critics began to recognize Ray Davies as the musical genius that he is. Pete Quaife was only around for part of that time, departing after The Kinks' 1968 masterpiece The Village Green Preservation Society. But he was a rock solid bass player, and by most accounts he was a stabilizing force who helped keep Ray and Dave Davies from throttling one another.

Damn, another icon of my childhood is gone. It's a shame when the mods grow ancient.

Anders Osborne -- American Patchwork

If I was running the universe, Anders Osborne would be in heavy rotation on WHIT, the radio station that would forcefeed you only the best, and that would be piped into your lives 23 hours per day (leaving one hour for prayer and family and other important stuff; screw the 9 to 5 routine). He can play the gutbucket bluesman and hot guitar slinger, and he can play the sensitive, soulful singer/songwriter, and he's excellent at both. His latest album American Patchwork, his first for venerable blues label Alligator Records, has predictably been released to nearly deafening silence. I don't get it. The guy is a triple threat as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, and he's consistently overlooked. Other than Thom Jurek (whose fine review of this album is right here), I'm not sure if anybody is paying attention.

And it's too bad, because I defy you to find two songs as widely different and as stellar as "Darkness At The Bottom" and "Call On Me" on any album released this year. The former is a shrieking blues monster with an overamped slide-guitar hook so menacing that hardened criminals would quake in fear, and the latter is a pensive, literate acoustic love song that puts Anders in the company of sensitive folkies like Paul Simon or Jackson Browne. Mastering either genre puts you in select company. Mastering both is mind-bogglingly great.

Not every song is that good, and a couple of these tunes devolve into somewhat generic blues stomps. But those two tracks, along with a handful of highly personal, idiosyncratic reflections on addiction and the toll it takes on every aspect of life, turn this album into something very special. American Patchwork is emblematic of Osborne's adopted city of New Orleans. It's soulful, wildly diverse, and keenly attuned to the seductive pleasures of Bourbon Street and the rueful regrets and recriminations of the morning after. It's thoughtful blues and raw, scorching singer/songwriter fare. It's one of the best albums you've never heard.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Record Store Guy, Part II

Anybody know which semi-famous album cover that cartoon is imitating?

I wrote about Bela and his blog about a year ago, right here.

Bela's a good dude, and an asshole, like most of us. But the good dude is in the ascendancy. In any event, he's pretty much wrapped up his epic tale of Ohio indie rock and debauchery. Maybe you had to be here, or have lived in the general vicinity of the God-forsaken neighborhood. But his blog has been a never-ending source of musical enlightenment and spiritual truth for me, although I have no idea what he precisely believes. I do know that I nod my head a lot when I read his words:

Jerry passed away in January, it was fitting that his death arrived amid snow drifts and the general crappiness of Ohio weather. Where the general mood is “what the fuck else can go wrong”, where many people tend to take the weather personally as another gray filled day is an act from God, exacting one more piece of a bruised soul. Anyway, this was how I felt when Jerry died, I had suffered from depression for many years and the old ways of dealing with it were drying up as much as I was trying to keep them wet. The music scene was changing for me, and much of my hopes in bands and artists were being vanquished by the personal choices the musicians were making. Jenny was living in Florida, having given up her music career as she stood on the brink of minor-celebrity in the indie-rock world, Moviola had shrunk from the favors of major-label overtures in favor of children and home buying, Appalachian Death Ride had basically ceased to exist as members battled their own demons, only the New Bomb Turks were still making music. Jerry was dead and I felt my life was now being defined by loss.

And

When my daughter was born, I wanted to show Jerry this fine frail creature that was at once a part but also completely separate from my being that I helped make. He would have cooed at her, as his own vulnerability touched her own and she would smile back at his adult goofiness. He loved Tom T. Hall, as I do, and we would both sing “Sneaky Snake” together, Jerry would sing it with a lisp making the ridiculous song even more ridiculous. Today, it is permanently on my MP3 player, painful as it is upon the four hundredth listen but I smile at Jerry bobbing his head to it, envisioning him singing it to my children. My son turns two this month, a gorgeous blond boy with curly hair that captures light and absorbs the sun into his being. He is a testament to all that I couldn’t do but was willing to risk; the children an honor to two friends who stepped over the line and never quite came back.

This is some rare wisdom from the obnoxious guy who hangs out in every indie record store. You know him. It's very much worth reading his blog, and getting to know the real human being.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Half Way Point (More or Less)

The only slam dunks for me thus far this year are Titus Andronicus's The Monitor and Anais Mitchell's Hadestown, with probably a slight edge to Titus Andronicus because 1) they're named after a Shakespeare play in which a dude's hand gets chopped off, and 2) they have a "rock 'n roll saved my life" desperation that I still find, even in my becalmed dotage, utterly irresistible.

Brad Mehldau's Highway Rider gets my vote for Jazz Album of the Half Year, and the country category is a good ol' boy tie between Jamey Johnson's The Guitar Song and Watermelon Slim's The Ringer. I'm fairly certain that Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid is a great album, although I still don't really care much for dance-oriented R&B. But she does it so well. Sharon Jones wins the coveted Old School Soul Award.

Everything else falls into the "good but not great" category, and that would include (thank you, iTunes):

The Acorn -- No Ghost
Alasdair Roberts -- Too Long in This Condition
Anders Osborne -- American Patchwork
The Black Keys -- Brothers
Carolina Chocolate Drops -- Genuine Negro Jig
Chip Robinson -- Mylow
Citay -- Dream Get Together
Drink Up Buttercup -- Born and Thrown on a Hook
Drive-By Truckers -- The Big To-Do
Erykah Badu -- New Amerykah, Part II
Fionn Regan -- The Shadow of an Empire
Horse Feathers -- Thistled Spring
Jaga Jazzist -- One Armed Bandit
Laura Marling -- I Speak Because I Can
Male Bonding -- Nothing Hurts
MGMT -- Congratulations
Mono -- Holy Ground: Live in NYC
The Mynabirds -- What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood
Nada Surf -- If I Had a Hi-Fi
The New Pornographers -- Together
Nick Curran and the Lowlifes -- Reform School Girl
The Pernice Brothers -- Goodbye, Killer
Peter Case -- Wig!
Peter Wolf -- Midnight Souvenirs
Plants and Animals -- La La Land
Scout Niblett -- The Calcination of Scout Niblett
Serena Maneesh -- The Abyss: No. 2 in B Minor
Shearwater -- The Golden Archipelago
Spoon -- Transference
Surfer Blood -- Astrocoast
The Tallest Man on Earth -- The Wild Hunt
Teenage Fanclub -- Shadows
These New Puritans -- Hidden
Tindersticks -- Falling Down a Mountain
The White Stripes -- Under Great White Northern Lights

Mild Disappointments

Patty Griffin -- Downtown Church
Frightened Rabbit -- The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The Gaslight Anthem -- American Slang
Jonsi -- Go
The National -- High Violet
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists -- The Brutalist Bricks

Major Disappointments

The Hold Steady -- Heaven is Whenever

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nada Surf -- If I Had a Hi-Fi

At the very least, that title ought to win Palindrome Of The Year.

But as it turns out, the album is pretty good too. Nada Surf will forever be cursed by their association with their one and only hit, 1996's "Popular." But the truth is they've gotten a lot better over the years, and the past decade has seen them churn out one power pop gem after another. If I Had a Hi-Fi is the semi-obligatory covers album that every indie band seems compelled to dispense with mid-career. But the covers range from totally obscure (The Mice, The Silly Pillows) to mostly obscure (The Go-Betweens, Dwight Twilley) to well-known-but-willfully-eclectic (Kate Bush, The Moody Blues, Spoon, Depeche Mode). All of them get the same treatment -- jangly Byrds guitars, a few power chords to add some needed punch, and airy three-part harmonies. Hey, it's worked for Teenage Fanclub for a couple decades now, and if the idiosyncracy of the original songs and artists gets lost somewhat in the jangle, it is nonetheless some very sweet jangle. Fans of the early Byrds, The Posies, and, above all, mid-'90s Teenage Fanclub, should snatch this one up quickly.

Here's the first single, "Electrocution," originally recorded by Cleveland's The Mice. Eat your heart out, Roger McGuinn.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chip Robinson -- Mylow

Chip Robinson's debut solo album Mylow just might be my pick for Roots album of the year. Chip was the head cowpoke in Raleigh, NC's The Backsliders. Their two late '90s alt-country albums arrived at the same time as local cohorts Whiskeytown's Faithless Street and Stranger's Almanac, and Ryan Adams, notoriety whore that he is, got all the pub. It's too bad because I always thought The Backsliders were the better band, and Chip Robinson the better songwriter.

So, eleven years went by. Chip's band got dropped by Mammoth, and he disappeared from rock 'n roll and lived a sometimes dissolute life. It's a familiar story. But he's come back with a beautifully written and worldly wizened album that owes more to Tom Waits and Townes Van Zant than the often moribund alt-country scene. The voice has lost some of its twang but acquired several layers of grit and soul along the way, and although there are still several raw, stinging rock 'n roll tunes here, the album as a whole has a decided air of wistful vulnerability and sorrow and loss about it, stories of screwing up and finding redemption amidst the mud and the muck. In other words, Chip has recorded my favorite kind of tunes. "The day I fell in love with you I pissed off my wife and my girlfiend too," Chip sings on the rueful "Fence," and you get the impression that he's not singing the usual, run-of-the-mill cheatin' song.

There are some wonderful sonic juxtapositions on this album -- the raw but hopeful uptempo title track is followed by the accordion-driven dusty two-step of "Mylow Dreams," which sounds like it could be a hit in Paris, Texas or Paris, France. The pensive folk dirge "Wings" gives way to the raging "Beesting," which barrels out of the speakers like The Drive-By Truckers. There's a superb cover of Ronnie Lane's all-but-forgotten gem "Kuschty Rye." And he wraps it all up with "Wishin' on the Cars," one of the sweetest lullabys you'll ever hear:

When your world is on fire
And your feet are out of juice
Losin' balance on the wire
The screws are comin' loose
I'll be there for you


He goes on like that for a few more verses, mixing metaphors like some kind of crazed lingusitic bartender, but the resulting concoction is so transparently heartfelt and lovely that it doesn't really matter. Call it whatever genre you like -- alt-country, folk, roots rock -- it all fits. But this is the sound of honesty and somebody who knows how to articulate the deep groanings of the heart. Those albums are rare in any form, and this is a superb comeback.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Gaslight Anthem -- American Slang

This music pushes all the right buttons for me, but I have to say that the buttons have begun to stick a bit, and are only semi-operational, because they've been pushed so many times. In the Great Springsteen Imitators Sweepstakes, these guys are considerably better than John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, but not as good as, say, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes or The Iron City Houserockers. American Slang is just fine as an E Street Band homage, but as hard as lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon tries to capture the mythic grandeur of The Boss's finest work, he still reminds me of the hacks I knew in Creative Writing classes who thought they could write like Hemingway. Just by writing short sentences. You know the type.

For a more creative and original take on blue-collar New Jersey desperation, stick with Titus Andronicus's The Monitor. For the unvarnished original deal, stick with Born to Run.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Jamey Johnson -- Black, White, or Otherwise

Jamey Johnson has a new, as yet untitled, album, or maybe albums, coming out soon. And it's all quite confusing.

Here's what I know: I've heard these 25 songs, spread across two CDs, and they're superb. I've written about Jamey before, and not much has changed. He still looks like a Hells Angels biker and he still sings like a Redneck Angel, equal parts Waylon Jennings and George Jones. He has a voice for the Heavenly Honky Tonk. Set 'em up, Jesus, and give me a double shot of redemption and grace. Better yet, his songwriting invests the most cliched country music subjects with freshness and authenticity. He's been to hell and back, and he'll tell you about it, but he does so more as a confessional singer/songwriter than as a Stetson-hatted hack. His 2008 album That Lonesome Song was about as good as country music gets, as far as I'm concerned.

So ... there are two albums here, one called Black and one called White, both possibly part of a larger concept album called The Guitar Song. Apparently it's still up in the air. Black is a song cycle of drinkin', druggin', cheatin' and generally pissin' life away, while White seems to offer some glimmers of hope. Take 'em together and they tell a story of redemption. Take 'em separately and there are about a dozen tunes here that deserve to be huge hits, and would considerably improve the fare heard over the radio.

I dearly love this guy. I'm fairly certain that anybody who loves George, Waylon, or Merle would love him, too.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Songs of Abject Misery

Here's Richard Buckner, looking forlorn, which is one of the things he does best. Sounding glum, too. The guy is just one big ball of angst and despair.

Truth be told, I'm a relatively happy guy. Most days I even kinda like my life, which is one of those things that sensitive artistes are never supposed to admit. I can't help it. Sure, shit still happens, to me and to people I love. But I have a great wife, great kids, a decent job, good friends, and a God who loves me and is changing me for the better. Don't tell anybody. I wouldn't want to blow my cover.

Still, I like a song of abject misery as much as the next sorry sumbitch. Here are a few of my favorites, if "favorites" can still be used to describe music that makes me want to slit my wrists.

Joni Mitchell -- The Last Time I Saw Richard
Bob Dylan -- You're a Big Girl Now
Eels -- Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor
Jacob Golden -- Out Come the Wolves
Nick Drake -- Place to Be
Red House Painters -- Katy Song
Strand of Oaks -- End in Flames
Richard Thompson -- God Loves a Drunk
Camera Obscura -- Dory Previn
Frightened Rabbit -- The Twist
Cat Power -- Lived in Bars
Scout Niblett -- Duke of Anxiety
Jackson Browne -- Your Bright Baby Blues
The Beach Boys -- Caroline, No
Derek and the Dominoes -- Have You Ever Loved a Woman?
Neil Young -- Tired Eyes
Loudon Wainwright III -- Motel Room
Uncle Tupelo -- Postcard

And yes, Richard Buckner, whose song "Lil Wallet Picture" is the sound of emotional collapse:

Damn this stretch of 99
That takes so many lives
One of 'em was mine

Indeed.

How about you? What's your soundtrack to misery?