The Top 5
(in no particular order)
Beach House – Teen Dream: The problem with a release coming out at the beginning of the year is that by the end of the year you’ve probably put it aside and forgotten about it – unless of course that release is Beach House’s third album, Teen Dream. I’m always fascinated by all the different styles that are easily considered dream pop and Beach House has conjured up another facet to that category with a sound that is as equally low key as it is vibrant, joyous as it is somber. I mean it’s a real pleasure to listen to a Beach House record, as either a background soundtrack to whatever you’re doing with your day or as an intimate headphone excursion into all the simple, subtle nuances that make this band, and album, so incredibly great. In many ways it’s a sum of the parts – keyboards supporting the vocals, guitar accenting the keyboards – and while these tricks can make most anything sound interesting, what takes things above and beyond is the songwriting, which is again simple and subtle, but also immediately endearing the way pop music is supposed to be, but with a cryptic sincerity that goes beyond la-la-la poof and leaves these songs in your head not as an incessant buzz of pointless sing-a-long but like the comforting ghost of a nice dream from the night before. This became very obvious to me when Fran Healy covered album opener Zebra with just himself and a piano and I was struck with the absolute power of the song, which he delivered with all the majesty and reverence he seemed to have picked up from the original version. And while these songs do stand well as individuals, the full experience is in the album as a whole, the seamless flow of one melody into the next, an endless and spinning web of sound and ultimately vision, because Teen Dream takes you to another place, or at least another state, if you allow it to, and even though it is somber and is low key and is often quite melancholy (and deliciously so), the end result is not that of depression but intense relaxation, with the idea of, “I’ll have another, please…,” where repeat listens do not produce hangovers.
Fran Healy – Wreckorder: I’ve already given this release a proper once over previously on these pages, but I want to reiterate that Fran Healy’s solo debut is a fresh but familiar view from one of the great songwriters of the past fifteen odd years, and an obvious must have for all Travis fans. Travis is a band well known for a delicately powerful sound and as the principle songwriter Fran is certainly the brain behind such brawny beauty, however, the rest of the boys are integral to capturing, developing and expressing that sound. Fran knows this and uses it to his advantage by approaching these ten songs in his own way, a true solo effort that feels very relaxed, intimate and homey, allowing Wreckorder to stand on its own as something akin and yet apart from the impressive Travis catalog.
Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre, Volume One: The best thing about Texas keeps getting better, and one of the greatest things about The Grand Theatre, Volume One is that there will be a Volume Two. I am consistently amazed at the high quality output from these guys, and I don’t mean that as a doubt to their abilities, but at how they continue to develop a sound that is distinctly Old 97’s and yet remains fresh, engaging and foot stompingly singable (new word). Fifteen years and eight albums into the business they’re just as excited about writing and performing their music as they were when I saw them open for Chris Isaak in 1999 (and subsequently mop the stage with him) or in their 2001 radio daze or a couple of years ago when a more mature band showed a younger opener just how it was done – you plug in and play, no props or gimmicks. As with any good artist it’s about the songwriting first, how a tune stands up with just a bare instrument and a vocal, and then about how the rest of the group interprets where things should go from there and how well they pull that off. With Old 97’s, their standard rock approach of two guitars, bass, drums and vocals has rarely strayed yet always finds the dynamic necessary to make the ballads whisper soft and the rockers blow the roof off the club and take the first ten rows with it. So essentially the band takes this MO and applies it to the 12 fresh cuts on The Grand Theatre, Volume One, which in many cases runs like a greatest hits collection as one infectious tune after another bounces through the speakers. Rhett Miller’s songwriting is as witty and fun as ever, running the lines with break up songs (Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)), confounded relationship songs (The Magician) and pride in your home state songs (A State of Texas). And, per usual, Murry Hammond turns in a couple of numbers that nearly pull the rug out from under his good buddy, with the old school spiritually charged You Were Born to Be in Battle and the raucous (especially for Murry) You Smoke Too Much. Of course the big question with a multi volume set is, “Were the best songs released on the first album?” I’m going to speculate that they likely were not. These were the best songs to represent Volume One, similar in theme and in scope, and my guess is that Volume Two will likely run the same way, equally as strong but with something about them that makes them unique and special within their own collection. But regardless, a subpar Old 97’s song (if you can name one) is better than anything someone like say Whiskeytown ever put out. Oh yes, I did.
The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt: This kid can do no wrong – two albums, two EPs and some stray tracks totaling thirty odd songs of barebones, guitar-driven folk and not one tune among them that I don’t absolutely love. It’s all about the delivery, which in a word is impassioned. Kristian Matsson reminds me not only why I love to listen to music, but why I love to play it and write it as well. The Wild Hunt repeatedly jumps from giddy to heartbreaking, revealing personal and yet cryptic tales of love, of despair, of out and out daydreaming. From the ramble of the title track and the rollick of King of Spain, to the daring of You’re Going Back and menace of Love is All, there’s not a sentiment that isn’t touched upon and wrung dry of all use and flavor. And yet despite this gamut of emotions, The Wild Hunt is a pleasant, fulfilling and even a joyous listen, the celebration of life experience and the expression of that experience through art. Like the Dylan blueprint of nearly 50 years ago that he pulls so obviously and proudly from, Matsson should make anyone want to pick up a guitar and write a song. And as if this album weren’t enough, and it isn’t, an EP entitled Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird came out in September - and if Like the Wheel doesn’t break your heart into a billion little pieces, you never had one.
Belle & Sebastian – Belle & Sebastian Write About Love: After a four-year hiatus B&S return with their seventh studio album (eighth if you count the Storytelling soundtrack, which I guess I do), the tellingly titled Belle & Sebastian Write About Love. Musically things pick up pretty much where they left off with The Life Pursuit, that is a revisit and further reworking of 60s bubblegum pop and sensitive ballads, heart in chest to heart on sleeve tales of love and life that are as everyday believable as they are born of fantasy. Essentially it’s everything you want or should expect from a B&S release. They’re no longer interested in pushing envelopes and certainly not falling back to recreating sounds of the last decade. And while they’ve settled into a comfortable pattern that may be a touch formulaic, these 11 songs are no less exciting. This is a band that is all about the craft of songwriting, as immediate standouts I Didn’t See It Coming, I Want the World to Stop and the title track prove with the first spin. The melodies are fresh, the playing crisp and the overall delivery as believably genuine today as it was in 199-whatever…and I’m going to say probably even more so. What was a whimsical lark then is now a voice of sincerity, one many of the quiet heart have come to rely on to speak the things they cannot, and Belle & Sebastian Write About Love will not let them down.
Bruce Springsteen – The Promise: To be completely honest I’m a casual Springsteen fan at best and I’m intrigued more by his myth and the legendary adulation of his fans than the man himself or even his music. But there are moments when he truly brings it and the brightest, or rather darkest, of these moments is 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. So when I heard about a double album’s worth of previously unreleased material from that era my curiosity was piqued to be certain. In short, The Promise delivers in spades and is proof that he took the cream of the cream for the album that eventually became Darkness on the Edge of Town but still had heaps leftover to have released two exceptional, if lesser, follow ups. Of course the question remained as to why he sat on these songs for over thirty years? The man himself delivered an answer that I thought was pretty solid…he thought these songs showed their influences too much on their sleeve and he wanted to put out something that was unique and original. Kudos for sure (not to mention he did). And he’s also right, The Promise is definitely peppered with everything from doo-wop to 60 balladry to a downright Buddy Holly clone, but it’s delivered with a style and attitude that is Springsteen through and through, so for any hardcore (or casual fan) it’s everything you’d want and expect.
5 Shout Outs
Kristin Hersh – I’m a nostalgic Throwing Muses fan and hadn’t heard any of Kristin’s solo stuff until I started following her by whim on Twitter. She’s easily my favorite celeb to follow and her humility, gentleness and skewed humor have won me over to her more recent music as well. Crooked is a collection of weighty, angular pop showcasing her unique vision of the world, her wonder with a hook and her ease to pull an entrancing melody out of dark music. My friend Ryan laments that she’s lost her demons, but in point of fact I think she’s simply tempered them, allowing them to stay as long as they work for her – and they work very, very well.
Angus and Julia Stone – Down the Way: This Aussie brother-sister songwriting team are perfect foils for one another, conjuring depth out of simplicity, joy out of nostalgia, taking the everyday humdrum of life and giving it meaning, beauty and longevity. A lost love, a sunny afternoon with friends, there’s a bittersweet undercurrent in these mostly low to mid tempo narrations that hold to the past while steadfastly rolling into the future, and the future has never been so pleasantly bright.
Gaslight Anthem – American Slang: Despite my early on panning of this album I’ve since grown quite fond of it. The trick was listening to it at home as loudly as the missus would allow, and I recommend the same to all regardless of first impressions. As always the standout ingredient of the Gaslight Anthem is the driving passion and there are moments when the spirit of rock n roll rains down from heaven in all of its fiery glory. I still prefer The ’59 Sound, but this one won’t get dusty either.
Tokyo Police Club – Champ: I hate that I’m not more into this album. As JT said, it’s a thinker. The initial 1-2 Let’s Go! of earlier efforts isn’t necessarily gone, but it’s been refined, pulled back a bit. The result is a more mature, introspective effort, which is saying something because even at their dashing best these Canadian kids gave the mind a bit to chew on. But what Champ lacks in immediacy it makes up for in consistency and likely in five years this will be the one I reach for - consistently.
Magnetic Fields – Realism: Themes seem to be the game with Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt in recent years (e.g. Distortion, ‘i’). This outing is a dabble into folk pop, which is honestly not far removed from where he’s been in the past, though perhaps more stripped down. As always it’s a chuckle and a groan as Merritt takes us through love and its downfalls, with bittersweet melodies to help it all go down. The difference here is he’s wearing a checkered shirt and has a bit of straw in his mouth.
Still Need to Get
Brian Eno – I love everything I’ve heard, but I’ve been lazy and broke.