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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lou's Top 20 of 2006, Part 4

Here's the last 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.

1) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy- The Letting Go (Drag City)

Those of us who have stuck with Will Oldham since his bewitching early work in the Palace Brothers have had our share of rewards, but I for one had written off the possibility of him ever again reaching the heights of genius that the initial trinity of 1993's There Is No One What Will Take Care of You, 1994's Palace Brothers (aka Days In the Wake), and 1995's Viva Last Blues had. Yet here we are more than a decade later and Oldham--after a few persona shifts--has given us his most enchanting release. But while his early classics were glorious in their off-kilter and seemingly slapdash nature, his new masterwork gives me the feeling of a room where eveything is so perfectly in its place that you're almost afraid to breathe. The expertly placed acoustic and electric guitars; the often otherworldly supporting vocals of Dawn McCarthy; the heavily utilized string section; Oldham's phrasing and the spots where his voice echoes. Even the familiar sound of an uncomfortable (yet usually thrilling) crack in Oldham's voice seems to be thematically placed on the most effecting track, "Then the Letting Go," which perfectly conjures the bleak winter scene the lyrics set. "No Bad News" has the musical feel of a still fiery and defiant Phil Ochs in his post-topical period before segueing into a pretty coda reminiscent of some of Phil's far more innocent-sounding '60s folk contemporaries, a vibe which carries over onto "Big Friday." The grittier "The Seedling" is more typical Oldham fare, but is still far more meticulously arranged than most of his work. "I Called You Back," a somber pop ballad that brings to mind Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon, closes the album. Oldham's lyrics are far less opaque and more poetic than usual, with the depth of feeling closer to the surface and more likely to be evident in the song structure than in a lunatic wail. While you can see in this album's majesty a culmination of incremental style changes across past records, it is still almost shocking in its completeness and the very different brand of beauty it exudes from his beloved early work.

2) Belle & Sebastian- The Life Pursuit (Matador)

Continuing the theme of "the best get better" from #1, the acclaimed Scottish collective turn in their sixth and best full-length, a fantastically varied collection of pop tunes that persists in its perfection no matter in which direction they turn. While 1997's If You're Feeling Sinister--their second LP--put B&S on the map and remains a high water mark of post-1960s pop, it simply pales next to Pursuit and seems like a musical lifetime ago for the band. After that excellent record and a string of precious EPs, the quality of the group's output fell off dramatically on its next two records. 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress was an initital shock to fans in its departure from the band's well-defined sound. It was hard to be surprised anymore that the glorious spirit of Sinister hadn't been replicated, but repeated listens indicated that the band was better off for having moved beyond its initial m.o. into more adventurous, ambitious, and creative territory. Pursuit continues this evolution to astounding effect. "Another Sunny Day" sounds like the Mr. Tambourine Man-era Byrds come across another mystifying Dylan sketch to make their own, and maybe Clarence White happens into the picture a few years early to add some spine-tingling countrified guitar touches; "The Blues Are Still Blue" follows the path the Beach Boys could have if Brian Wilson had come back from lunch in the mid-70s; "Funny Little Frog" conjures the thought of a Bacharach-produced Blonde On Blonde; "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" blurs the line between Kevin Ayers and the disco-era Bee Gees; "Mornington Crescent" closes the album with a melancoly and loosely played yet strkingly pretty tune worthy of After the Gold Rush. What seems like effortlessly great songwriting mingles with beautiful harmonies and ebullient instrumentation throughout. Principal vocalist Stewart Murdoch's Donovan-esque whisper isn't the focal point it was in the early days, which seems to allow the overall sound to escape a tendency toward the twee, and guitarist Stevie Jackson's vocal chops are dramatically improved over albums past. The days of longing for that Sinister feeling have truly given way to The Life Pursuit.

3) The Lancaster Orchestra- Never Once Cried When I Could Have (Rootsy)

From the very limited information I can find about The Lancaster Orchestra, it appears that singer/ songwriter Carl Mathson is Swedish, or at least lives and records in Sweden. Which is surprising because the guy sounds like he couldn't have come from anywhere not within earshot of Nashville. This record is filled with beautfully melancholy country songs, some--like "I Remember That Time So Well"--sprightly despite their melancholy, and expertly played on acoustics, pedal steel, piano, organ, banjo, etc. by other apparent Swedes who happen to sound like they could have laid down the backing tracks to Nashville Skyline in their last session. The band veers in the direction of a more-polished Palace Brothers on "Rocks, Spits, and Cries." "Save Me From Myself," the album's poppiest track, brings to mind the most accessible work of Damien Jurado, whose voice Mathson's strongly resembles. Every track is a thrilling surprise in how complete, effecting, and faithful to the finest qualities of the Americana genre it is. And not surprising just because these recordings come from Sweden, but because they are as good as any similarly spirited album that has come before.

4) Danielson- Ships (Secretly Canadian)

Over the course of eight albums under a number of variations on the Danielson trademark, Daniel Smith has evolved from an utter enigma into merely an oddity: A Christian artist whose religious themes could be identified by probably only the most perceptive or imaginative listener, making records steeped in eclectic indie-pop and -folk and topped with his key-bending falsetto. All of his work is "interesting," to utilize a term that could be interpreted either critically or charitably, but has become less and less "challenging" over time, to use another. Ships brings to mind the most childlike work of Jonathan Richman or '60s British psych-folk as played by an elementary school marching band. Which makes it sound less expertly constructed and immaculate in its chaotic nature than it comes out. The songs are more coherently constructed and accessible than on any previous Danielson release, though the average Joe on the street still might go running for a set of earplugs if he heard this one. But I have a feeling being average or widely accepted is not something Smith has ever striven for or ever will, even should his work continue on an incremental path toward normalcy. He has proven himself a capable craftsman of distinctive songs and recordings rather than just a weirdo, but Ships is just normal--and weird--enough to be one of the best albums of the year and a great achievement for its artist.

5) Ladyhawk (Jagjaguwar)

The debut by this Vancouver four-piece is as purely a rock record as is likely to be made in an era rife with both reliance on studio trickery by the mainstream and the reflexive tendency toward minimalism in indie rock. Four guys banging and screaming it out with little more than some overdubbed hand claps or a heartily strummed acoustic creeping through the mix to dress it up. But, of course, most anyone can bang it out. Catchy pop songs and dread-filled dirges alike are enfused with raw emotion, captivating hooks, and engaging lyrical turns of phrase here. The intensity of both Duffy Driediger's expressive vocals and the musical responses bring to mind a sweaty, early Springsteen gig. "The Dugout" manages to recall both KISS and Pavement in the space of one monstrous hook. Ladyhawk clearly possesses in large quantity the indefinable quality that links great rock music of any strain or era.


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