Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Monday, December 10, 2007

Lou's Top 20 of 2007, Part 4

Here's the last in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2007. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

1. Christian Kiefer – Dogs & Donkeys (Undertow)

The first thing that comes to mind when I listen to this is that it approximates early ‘70s Neil Young, which to me approximates godliness. Not that this is a ripoff; a lot of great stuff just happens to sound like that. Now according to the label Web site this record was wholly written about economics. Apparently, Kiefer is a noted avant-gardist and I suppose this concept would qualify as that. But there’s not much that unusual in the grooves except for how good this is. It’s hard to pick highlights—nearly every track shares a palpable power with simple but compelling instrumentation and Kiefer’s at times enthralling voice. If I had to pick one, I’d say “Fisher King,” though it’s a little more Desire-era Dylan than Neil. Or maybe “Slow Rivers,” which you could mistake for Calexico. But this album’s consistency and integrity are among its many fine points. If this is a concept album, it is a rare one that works virtually to perfection. Probably because it’s about something everyone can relate to. Err…

But, seriously, an amazing record and a great triumph for Christian Kiefer.

2. Or, the Whale – Light Poles and Pines

A shockingly strong debut from this San Francisco band that combines proclivity for great roots tunes with enough ingenuity to dismiss any thought of derivation or convention. “Death of Me” is one of the most perfect country songs I have ever heard without sounding out of place in the 21st century. Ditto with “Gonna Have To.” This is real, authentic modern heartbreak music. Brilliant multi-part harmonies and hot licks on a varied array of instruments are all over. The kind of record that makes feeling bad feel good. Simply wonderful.

3. Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk)

After two pleasantly nondescript albums that exemplify the most sympathetic connotation of “sleep inducing,” Toronto’s Tony Dekker and his sidemen wake us up a bit here. Sure, album opener “Your Rocky Spine” doesn’t exactly make you wanna pump your fist, but it’s enough to get your head bobbing a little bit. In the mold of Will Oldham or Jason Molina, Dekker’s Appalachian-tinged coo contains a delicate texture that some instrumental accoutrements only accentuate. When it is weaved amongst the banjo, cello, steady snare beat, and background vocals on “Backstage with the Modern Dancers,” the real eye-opener occurs, and the rest is just as beautiful. Dekker has found the proper formula for presenting his formerly stark sketches that sets him apart from the multitude of sheepish folkies.

4. Okkervil River – The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)

I would call this a return to form for this great Austin band if it weren’t so different from their past work. Songwriter/frontman Will Sheff trades in his confessional tack for a literary one, a process that I suppose may have begun on the group’s curious 2005 Black Sheep Boy releases, but just didn’t come off. Here it is wall to wall great songs, including the eminently ingenious “Plus Ones.” But more than that, this record just has a different feeling than past releases. This is the first Okkervil release I would really describe as a rock record, though certainly not every track has the Bowie swagger of “Unless It’s Kicks,” and the stunningly beautiful country-baroque “A Girl In Port” harkens strongly to earlier days and is the most striking track here. But there are plenty of pleasant surprises here for fans, not least of which is the manic reading of “Sloop John B.” incorporated into the closing “John Allyn Smith Sails,” on which Jonathan Meiburg’s soaring harmonies—magnificent throughout—particularly shine.

5. Damon & Naomi – Within These Walls (20-20-20)

As aging hipsters continue to romanticize Galaxie 500 17 years after that band’s demise, most unjustly fail to note that its former rhythm section has put together a catalog that far outstrips its forerunner’s depth and quality. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang’s sixth duo album is perhaps their best and certainly their most majestic, given its departure from their often minimalist arrangements. Both have developed into absolutely enchanting vocalists over the years and effortlessly weave lilting melodies around their own accomplished instrumentation and exemplary contributions from guitarist Michio Kurihara and sax player Bhob Rainey.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Lou's Top 20 of 2007, Part 3

Here's the third in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2007. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

6. Southeast Engine – A Wheel Within A Wheel (Misra)

An incredibly imaginative and varied sophomore set from this Athens, OH band that runs the gamut from country-folk to Beatle-y pop to grunge, sometimes—like on “Psychoanalysis”—all on one song. I guess the closest comparison may be to Ryan Adams’ schizophrenic oeuvre. Great melodies and enthusiastic instrumentation are the common threads throughout.

7. Mark Olson – The Salvation Blues (Hacktone)

Once upon a time—when he was leading the Jayhawks on their initial early ‘90s burst of greatness—Mark Olson was the next Gram Parsons. Then, like Gram, he headed out to Joshua Tree never to be heard from again. OK, really he retreated to the California desert with his wife and fellow singer-songwriter Victoria Williams (“Some people came here to die, we came here to live,” he sings on the virtually perfect “Clifton Bridge”) and made a few pleasant enough albums under the moniker Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. Unfortunately, it seems like it took their separation to precipitate Olson’s return to greatness here. The intensity and longing that make him one of the best vocalists ever committed to disc are back in force, and this record is chock full of touching, heartrending, and great songs worthy of his early work.

8. P.G. Six – Slightly Sorry (Drag City)

P.G. Six is New Yorker Pat Gubler and cohorts, who make their Drag City debut here. This reminds me a lot of ‘60s/’70s psych-folk genius Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine, which is saying a lot. It is beautiful and haunting. That’s really about all I can say.

9. Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days – Just Fall to Pieces (Well Worn)

Who says real country music is dead? These Californians unleash weepers complete with Telecaster-pedal steel tradeoffs and plenty of Gleason’s twang. Sure, “Right Back To Her Heart” owes heavily to Burritos-esque post-rock country with its Sneaky Pete-inspired psych-steel, but it leads right into “Train of Blue,” which could have come out of Sun Studio circa ’55. They go even further back with the country-blues of “Rusty Ol’ Halo” and the pure jukebox gold of “The Good’s Been Gone.” How about Western Swing on “Take Your Memory With You.” The aching ballad title track. And on and on through the annals of Americana in authentic and convincing fashion. There may not be another band like this one in the world today but God knows there should be.

10. The Dreadful Yawns – Rest (Exit Stencil)

Another beautiful, breezy, rootsy pop outing from these great and unheralded Clevelanders, and perhaps their best yet. Fittingly, they throw in a cover of a great and unheralded early Gram Parsons tune, “November Nights,” and it speaks volumes about the group’s own songs to say that it fits right in.

Lou's Top 20 of 2007, Part 2

Here's the second in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2007. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

11. Brandon Butler – Lucky Thumbs (Gypsy Eyes)

On his second solo outing, Butler—formerly the frontman for the unique D.C. prog/roots outfit Canyon—beefs up the sound from 2004’s sparse Killer On the Road. The band starts out rocking on the opening “Sparks,” adds an almost eerie intensity to “Heaven Help Us” and garagey swagger to “Throw Back Rockers,” and pours a whiskey-tinged honky-tonk jangle into Butler’s audible open wound on “Born Beautiful.” All this fits Butler’s mournful voice and songs perhaps even better than his great yet more ambitious former band.

12. Black Tie Revue – Code Fun (Gearhead)

Get out your Terrible Towels! Call me a homer, but I say BTR’s full-length debut is one of the best platters of pop-punk we’ve heard in quite some time. Just like their live shows, it’s nonstop energy, hooks, and flat out rock. I hope this makes some out of town lists, too, ‘cause there aren’t many bands better than this anywhere.

13. The Breakup Society – Nobody Likes A Winner (Get Hip)

More Pittsburgh! Or at least Pittsburgh by way of Phoenix. On B.S. songwriter/frontman Ed Masley’s first album as a former Pittsburgher, his producer and fellow ‘Burgh export Bob Hoag provides him with a much more expansive template than on 2004’s excellent James at 35. Hoag’s keyboards and background vocals capably color the hooky garage-pop herein. Highlights include the angsty title track, the infectious “Another Candlelit Night,” “By A Thread,” a piece of pop perfection only helped by having the legendary Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 at the vocal helm, and the uncharacteristically subdued “This Doesn’t Matter,” which is capped by an almost disarming barrage of Spector-ness.

14. Rosie Thomas – These Friends of Mine (Sing-a-long/Nettwerk)

Beautiful, melancholy love songs whose emotions come through perfectly in Rosie’s delicate, breathy voice. Some truly emotional and heartbreaking stuff here. And while the covers of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and Christine McVie’s “Songbird” seem a little obvious, it’s only because they suit her so well. Thomas’ numerous well-known collaborators (Sufjan Stevens and Denison Witmer, who co-produced, plus Damien Jurado, David Bazan, Jeremy Enigk, etc.) stay mostly in the background as she ably claims the focal point. Primarily acoustic and home-recorded, the album strays from the more commercial vibe of her previous two releases and is all the better for it. What Thomas brings to bear with her songs and voice doesn’t need to be dressed up. I hope she isn’t always as sad as she sounds, but I know I’m not always as sad as when I listen, so…

15. Dolorean – You Can’t Win (Yep Roc)

Dolorean’s Al James finds some middle ground between the dark textures of 2003’s Not Exotic and 2004’s more rootsy Violence In the Snowy Fields. Calling James’ voice monotonous would belie the great emotion it exudes; it’s just not the kind of emotion that warrants anything more than a somber coo. For sure, none of Dolorean’s records are going to provide any sort of pick-me-up. This is up there with the saddest stuff around. But everything here—whether simple or structured—is exceptionally well put together and presented. It’s almost comforting that despair can sound so good.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Lou's Top 20 of 2007, Part 1

Here's the first in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2007. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

16. SodajerkSodajerk 2

This band pulled out of Pittsburgh headed for Atlanta just when they were getting great and have now apparently gone on hiatus on the heels of this, their fifth and best release. The titles of this album and its eponymous predecessor indicate that the band acknowledged it was just hitting its stride, so let’s hope their layoff is indeed temporary. Frontman Bucky Goldstein was once Alex Brenner, a great indie-pop composer in the early 2000’s local band Manifold Splendour who decided to try his hand at country. Today he is without a doubt Bucky, a truly authentic and talented country writer whether on the heartfelt (“Another Town,” “Long Time Coming”) or the bawdy (“Fuck ‘N’ Fight”). George Jones could sing “Paid By the Tear” without anyone having a second thought. Smokin’ sidemen like guitarist Jim Relja, keyboard player Randy Baumann, fiddler Bill Calhoun, and pedal steel player Pete Freeman help bring it all home. This record is loaded with great licks and tunes. It should dispel any notion of Sodajerk as anything less than a real and a great country band. Now we just have to hope they come back.

17. Jesse Malin – Glitter In the Gutter (Adeline)

This record lacks the immediacy of 2004’s incredible The Heat. The production is a little too “radio-friendly,” let’s say, for my taste, and a few of the lyrics are downright bad. So why do I like it so much? ‘Cause it rocks, Jesse writes ‘em hooky as hell, and dude could sing the goddam alphabet and make it sound like the most intense and emotional thing you could imagine. Malin does have a very distinctive—and really, idiosyncratic—vocal style that could be a sticking point for some, but I for one eat it up. One of the best out there even if he didn’t quite hit the bullseye with this one. “NY Nights” would be an AM radio hit if there was still such a thing, though.

18. Salim Nourallah – Snowing In My Heart (Tapete Ger.)

You pretty much know what you are going to get from both of Dallas’s
Nourallah Brothers—Salim and Faris: Beatles, Badfinger, Kinks-inspired pop. The brothers have been traveling parallel roads since splitting up after their 2001 duet release, an indie-pop high water mark, and Salim takes the sibling rivalry’s prize for best solo release with this one, narrowly besting Faris’ 2003 Problematico. His disposition doesn’t exactly seem sunny (maybe cautiously optimistic at best), but that and his songs are both improved from 2005’s bleak Beautiful Noise. A 100% guarantee for pop lovers on this one.

19. Matt Pond PA – Last Light (Altitude)

I’ve always liked Matt Pond PA, but each succeeding sort of same-y charming soft-pop release (this is their seventh full-length) left me wondering more how long I would stick it out with them. But the feedback intro to the album-opening title track signals accurately that this record is a little different. A good deal of the tracks are pretty propulsive without losing their pop chops. Even a couple of the more sensitive tracks break them out of their previous cello-band m.o.: “Wild Girl” brings to mind an acoustic McCartney sketch, and “Sunlight” isn’t exactly a rocker but has an almost Stonesy swagger. Nothing here should be a total shock to long-time fans, but this record is a necessary step in a slightly new direction.

20. Phosphorescent – Pride (Dead Oceans)

This record is atmospheric. The songs seem like almost an afterthought. But there’s a bunch of crap going on and he is singing things and it sounds freakin’ cool. Think a country Galaxie 500 or Danielson on downers.