Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

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.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Lou's Top 20 of 2006, Part 3

Here's the third 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.

6) Neil Young- Living With War (Reprise)

No one but Neil Young could have made an album almost wholly about a political topic without it coming off as heavy-handed and pretentious. Hell, probably no one but Neil Young could have made an album prominently featuring a 100-voice choir and trumpets without the same result. The legend does both here, and he makes it great. Taking raw emotion and alternately pummeling or caressing it into timeless music is what Neil has done best throughout his career. When he wails "...Don't need no stinkin' waaarrrrrrr!" in the first seconds of the opening track, it is clear that he means it, and he takes it from there. Whatever is inside Neil Young that has made him the most powerful single force in the history of rock comes out in his voice and guitar all over this record. It just happens that the songs are political, though I'll admit no one singing what amounts to a political slogan has ever made my ears perk up like Young does here--with the possible exception of Phil Ochs, who Neil thanks for inspiration in the liner notes. In both cases, this isn't beacuse of the words they're singing, but who they are and they power they bring to the song as individual performers. On a purely musical level, this is the most inspired and authentic record Young has made since Rust Never Sleeps. Sure, he could have chosen a better word here or there, or paid a little closer attention to fitting the melody into the backing track just so, but name me a Neil Young record that is conventionally perfect. Through its courage and timeliness, but especially for the energy, quality, and authenticity here, this album does more to add to his to his legend and mountainous stature than any Neil Young has made in decades.

(Note: Reprise will release Living With War Raw, undubbed rough mixes of the basic album tracks, with a bonus DVD December 19.)

7) The Minus 5 (Yep Roc)

Scott McCaughey has been writing and recording great songs for upwards of 20 years now as leader of the Young Fresh Fellows and now this solo project cum supergroup, making its seventh full-length release here. But his writing has truly become more inventive--especially lyrically--over the years, while sacrificing none of its most refreshing and engaging qualities. In some ways, this is a back-to-basics release for McCaughey, with the studio accoutrements of his recent Wilco-backed releases mostly giving way to solid yet simplistic backing by core support players Peter Buck, John Ramberg, and Bill Rieflin, and unquestionably strong pop sensibilities that have sometimes been muted in the M5 coming to the fore. The Help! through Revolver Beatles are a palpable influence throughout, especially in the well-placed guitar breaks, middle eight harmonies, and Harrison-esque solo of "Out There On the Maroon." The bouncy piano- and organ-driven "My Life As A Creep" veers closer to early solo McCartney territory with its barked title vocal hook followed by a bright-sounding bridge. Despite his deserved reputation as a fun and occasionally downright goofy songsmith, McCaughey has never shied away from darker themes, though they're sometimes kept nearly undetectable through sprightly presentation. The M5, though, has been an outlet for his more overtly "downer" material over the years, and McCaughey takes both tacks here. "Aw Shit Man" is maybe the most apparently painful lyric that he has committed to disc, but is immersed in a brisk cartoon punk tune, while "Bought A Rope" is almost eerie in its melding of discomfiting lyrics, whining pedal steel, pulsing synth, and echoey electric piano. To wrap things up, Scott lets his garage roots show on the totally rocking "Original Luke."

To say that an album ranks among the best in McCaughey's catalog is no faint praise, and this one fits the bill.

8) Skygreen Leopards- Disciples of California (Jagjaguwar)

This is probably the most aptly titled release of the year, as the Leopards (who are in fact Californians) revisit the bygone era straddling the turn of the '70s when the Golden State turned out the best music in the world. You'd almost swear these guys had to have been there listening as the Notorious-era Byrds rehearsed a set of new tunes for the first time, or as the classic original Flying Burrito Brothers lineup coalesced at the storied "Burrito Manor." Disciples doesn't come across as an imitation or a tribute to the timeless music that transpired in that time and place, but seems to capture the very essence of what makes it great without attempting duplication. The songs are stripped down and starkly presented, with free spirit and the love of simple, yet beautiful music more identifiable as a link to their predecessors than any sonic element. Truly just about every song here is majestic in its simplicity, with aching vocal hooks and plaintive twelve-string making the best moments more powerful than any more complex or sonically faithful rendering of the era. This record is not only worthy of its influences but a heartening illustration that their spirit lives on.

9) Ben Kweller (ATO)

Kweller's third full-length taps the strenths of each of his first two records, combining the alternately uplifiting and heartrending pure pop of 2002's Sha Sha and the more developed and serious song structures of 2004's On My Way. Kweller's incredibly expressive voice ably exudes sorrow, longing, and jubilation, it seems all within one song on "Sundress," augmented with more than a hint of Spector-style production. "I Gotta Move" is simple of both melody and mind, but totally fun and infectious. "Thirteen," an emotional solo piano ballad, is a series of lyrical snapshots that could make anyone who's ever been in love a little misty. It's just the kind of track that makes you love the soaring melody and propulsive backing of "Penny On the Train Track," which follows, even more. "Until I Die" may have a little too much of the overt sentimentality that somewhat burdened even some of the best songs on Kweller's debut, but he effectively counteracts it with the hard rocking knock-out punch of "This Is War." Anyone who loves pop music should find plenty to embrace in this record.

10) Vetiver- To Find Me Gone (DiCristina)

Vetiver's Andy Cabic is lumped into the "weird folk" category with the likes of his sometime collaborator Devendra Banhart, though I'm hard pressed to see what's all that weird about his simple, acoustic-based songs and smoothly delivered vocals. True, the raga-like album opener "Been So Long" isn't exactly Top 40 material, but it features a conventionally pretty melody. Cabic sounds like Jerry Garica on a downer on the next couple tracks, then moves on to the delightful "Idle Ties," which sounds akin to a Melanie side or some other '60s psych-pop gem. "I Know No Pardon," another highlight, follows, with Cabic combining a longingly poetic lyric with a perfect country-rock backing track that conjures Gram Parsons or early Jackson Browne. The track is nearly seven minutes long, but I wouldn't mind if it went on all day. Variations on these fairly normal themes continue throughout the rest of the record, though you do get some swirling atmospherics on "Double." The closing "Down At El Rio" gets the Dead out once again to good effect. Rather than take simple music based on timeless influences and make it spooky or odd, Cabic strips it down to its essence, which isn't weird but is in its own way unique on today's music scene.