Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lou's Top 20 of 2006, Part 2

Here's the second in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2006. Feel free to submit your own Top 5, 10, 20, or 25 to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting them.

11) The Kamikaze Hearts- Oneida Road (Collar City)

This Albany, NY band came out of nowhere, for me at least, on their brilliant second full-length. As far as comparisons to other current bands, Okkervil River certainly comes to mind what with the Hearts' mutual affinity for mandolin, accordion, banjo and aching-escalating-to-wailing vocals like on "Half of Me." And a few tracks sound so much like Swearing At Motorists that you'd swear it was them. It's not, though they share a penchant for making indie rock deeply rooted in Americana, but are more likely to come up with a song that sounds complete and well-crafted. A lot of the rest sounds like early R.E.M. if someone made off with their amps and they got stranded on some rural Southern front porch. And the Van Morrison vibe on a couple of tracks isn't necessarily a bad thing even if, like me, you're not enamored of the original article. The whole of this album is charming, refreshing, and original even given the well-worn musical threads it proudly wears.

12) The Tyde- Three's Co. (Rough Trade)

The Tyde is the kind of band you can almost convince yourself you're not that into until you can't get their songs out of your head for about a week and a half--and it actually makes you want to listen to them again. The songs are very simple but absolutely infectious. Stylistically, the album largely adheres to the formula that worked so well on the band's last release, 2003's Twice, though you're more likely to hear a fuzz guitar or effected vocal here. In spirit, though, it veers even farther from the trippiness of their 2001 debut, Once, which sounded much more like close relative Beachwood Sparks (the Tyde includes three former members of that group). The clear Beach Boys and Byrds influences reflect the group's California roots, but the band is best at its most propulsive, such as on the hook-filled opener "Do It Again Again" and "The Pilot." But the sorrowful, Spector-ish "Separate Cars" is also a highlight on which vocalist Darren Rademaker is as expressive as he should be more often.

13) The Long Winters- Putting the Days To Bed (Barsuk)

This band has managed to avoid both the aura of a bit too much seriousness that pervades their former labelmates and sometime collaborators Death Cab for Cutie and that of excessive cuteness that pop darlings like Apples In Stereo suffer from. John Roderick turns out well-crafted pop numbers that don't lack for substance or levity, and the rhythm section of Eric Corson and Nabil Ayers propels them just so. Roderick's is an unconventional pop voice but has improved across the band's three albums so that it remains unique yet no longer sticks out like a sore thumb. Presentation-wise, the Winters continue to move away from the cluttered indie-collective vibe that pervaded their 2001 debut, which only benefits the songs. A harder-edged rendition of the hooky "Ultimatum," the title track of an EP issued earlier in the year, is a highlight, and "(It's a) Departure" is appropriately titled in that it lapses into a relentlessly rocking glam-pop chorus/outro.

14) The Moore Brothers- Murdered By the Moore Brothers (Plain Recordings)

Two brothers, one acoustic guitar, 14 virtually perfect pop songs. Actually, there are a few guitar overdubs here, some tinkling piano is interspersed, and (gasp) some brushed snare appears on two tracks, which makes Murdered By... a full-scale production compared to the Brothers' last album--2004's Now Is the Time For Love--which stuck strictly to the two passing the axe. Sometimes I think these guys would do well to dress their stuff up like some Curt Boettcher record or something, but they may be smart to stick to the sparse accompaniment. Why unnecessarily obscure the incredible harmonies and beautiful tunes they seem to effortlessly toss off? The most obvious benchmark to compare to would be Simon & Garfunkel, who the Brothers sound quite a bit like on a few tracks, but their uniqueness within their extremely limited template may be what's most remarkable about them.

15) Calexico- Garden Ruin (Quarterstick)

A lot of indie-rock bands feature extremely capable singer-songwriter frontmen with a debt to Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young, though Calexico's Joey Burns has proven himself more capable than most over the course of the band's five full-lengths and a plethora of stray material. But not a lot embrace mariachi instrumentation as a staple of their sound--and incredibly effectively--so this aspect of Calexico has garnered most of the attention the band has gotten over the years, at the expense of Burns' less unusual abilities. But songcraft claims the spotlight on Garden Ruin, with Burns taking advantage of the opportunity to construct songs without fitting them into the template of the expansive and eclectic outfit the band had become. A Calexico record without the South of the Border feel is a little odd at first, though they do throw in "Roka"--complete with guest Spanish vocal by Amparo Sanchez--about halfway through. Most of the record, though, won't sound that unusual to fans who have done more than scratch the surface of the band's previous work. The opening "Cruel" would be the poppiest and prettiest tune on any of the band's previous releases, though, with an effecting vocal melody and well-placed guitars. The horns do make an appearance, but are kept in the background. "Yours and Mine" is a tender, acoustic-based number on which Burns' vocal is the most expressive he's delivered, though it's not a huge departure, either. "Bisbee Blue," with it's Baroque-pop flourishes, is where things get a little surprising. And "Lucky Dime" is very reminiscent of Chicago, believe it or not. "Letter To Bowie Knife" is a pretty straight-up catchy rocker with uncharacteristic roaring electric guitar that is delivered flawlessly by the band. It's tough to say that Calexico is stretching their sound out when they're really becoming more conventional, but whatever you want to call it they do it as effectively as on their most ambitious tracks.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Lou's Top 20 of 2006, Part 1

This post begins a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2006. Feel free to submit your own Top 5, 10, 20, or 25 to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting them.

16) Wooden Wand & the Sky High Band- Second Attention (Kill Rock Stars)

The prolific underground darling known as Wooden Wand takes a necessary step on this record from "Wow, this is weird" to Wow, this is good." Most of the loosely played, acoustic-based country-folk presented here has a decided Basement Tapes aura, while "Hot Death" is a little closer to "It's Alright, Ma..." territory. But there's something to grab a hold of in each of the songs here other than how unusual they might be. In fact, there's really not much at all that's unusual about this record, which suggests that Wooden Wand may actually be a talent to take note of.

17) National Eye- Roomful of Lions (Park the Van)

The second long player by this Philadelphia outfit finds them a bit more tightly in the Eno-Bowie orbit than on their debut, 2003's The Meter Glows, which doesn't detract at all from the pleasantly unconventional indie-folk/pop they offer up. These aren't exactly songs you'll find yourself humming in the shower, but they're put together well and the array of sounds and unique instrumentation keeps them all interesting. Still, the pop chops of "Juno 3" and "The Switch" are undeniable and the specter of Neil Young that was more prevalent on the debut remains on "Casimir."

18) Albert Hammond, Jr.- Yours To Keep (Rough Trade-U.K.)

First things first: I dislike the Strokes. Not even a passing interest. Hammond is rhythm guitarist and occasional songwriter in the Strokes. There's not much here that puts me in mind of the Strokes. ELO on "In Transit," yes. Weezer on "Everyone Gets A Star," a bit. The Shins on "Bright Young Thing," sure. A John Lennon or Pete Ham solo demo on "Blue Skies," a lot. Guided By Voices on "101," uh-huh. Ray Davies on "Call An Ambulance," you bet. My personal taste for these audible influences ranges from idolatry to distaste, but the common thread is well-constructed and well-packaged pop. That's the essence of this record, and the sound doesn't fall victim to its progenitors, but calls on them and brings them together without sounding like a rehash. Hammond's father is the legendary songwriter who wrote "The Air That I Breathe" among others, and it must be in the genes.

19) Paul Brill- Harpooner (Scarlet Shame)

Paul Brill's evolution from very straight-up rootsy singer-songwriter to near-avant-gardist over the course of four albums has been pretty remarkable, but so incremental from release to release that you could be forgiven for barely noticing it. Still, you're sort of left looking for the song during a couple tracks from Harpooner, and "Paris is On," the second track, is the only one you could convincingly call a pop song. Yet I'm perfectly happy when this one winds up. Maybe if I took the time to try to pick up the significance of each lyric and appreciate the sometimes otherworldly soundscape Brill puts together (I'm sure meticulously), I'd dismiss it as pretentious crap. But if you listen as passively as you would to anything you don't expect to be tested on, you're more likely to notice a reassuring presence in Brill's strongly image-evoking lyrics despite their inherent despair, and backing tracks that could have been the result of a few mad geniuses thrown into a recording studio with an array of instruments. I'm not sure which way Paul would rather have it, but I give him credit for making a record as easily enjoyable in its complexity as any of his more simplistic work.

20) Willie Nelson- Songbird (Lost Highway)

I'm a huge fan of Willie's material from his '70s heyday, but admit I probably wouldn't have been much interested in this record were it not for the involvement of Ryan Adams, who produced and whose band--the Cardinals--backs Willie. It comes out sounding unlike other records by either of them, veering stylistically from the bulk of Nelson's material and showing Adams and band carefully playing to the legend's strengths even as they compel him to stretch out of his well-worn comfort zone. It's easy to imagine Nelson singing Christine McVie's title track (and it's almost incredible he hadn't covered it before now), but what's on the CD--a rootsy jangle that hearkens to Adams' days in Whiskeytown--is markedly different from what you'd expect but still allows Nelson's aptitude for the song to show. It's clear that Adams wrote "Blue Hotel" with Nelson in mind, but it must have been Willie a long way back, as the track comes out with Nelson sounding more authentic and soulful than on almost anything he's done since his Atlantic Records days before he became a household name. The vintage Nelson original "Sad Songs and Waltzes" is faithfully reprised from that era, which should be a comfort to stalwart fans unsure of the direction he's sent in on a few of the other tracks, along with "We Don't Run,"--resurrected from 1996's Spirit--which wouldn't seem out of place on any Nelson album or set list in the loose and sprightly reading it's given here. And while Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" may seem like a far out choice, Nelson and the band make it sound like it could be one of his own. The only disappointment here is the reading of Gram Parsons' classic "$1,000 Wedding," which sounds like a genius match between singer and song, but Nelson just doesn't quite seem to grasp the melody and the arrangement is a bit ambitious. All in all, though, this is a satisfying record that those who would like to reembrace Willie or get a contemporary view of the beauty and virtuosity that occurs throughout his immense body of work should give a chance.