Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lou's Top 20 of 2009, Part 3

Here's the third in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2009. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

6.) Fruit Bats – The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop)

Eric D. Johnson and cohorts return for the first time since 2005, and regain the brilliant form of their first two releases from early in the decade. Amazingly, despite their consistently high quality output, the band has not been dropped by Sub Pop yet. But anyway… Johnson is one of the most engaging pop songwriters and singers of really any era—think Rundgren without the delusions of grandeur—and offers a platter of simple but glorious and fun nuggets here with more of a full-band feel than previous releases.

7.) Neil Young – Fork in the Road (Reprise)

Neil’s work over the past number of years is an interesting mixed bag. It seems that when the legend decides to try to craft the type of album that would have been a classic in the old days (see Prairie Wind) it ends up being, to be blunt, an embarrassment. But when he decides to go the “just rock the fuck out/stream of consciousness” route, the old magic returns. This has been the case with Greendale, Living With War, and now this release, which to me represent Neil’s three best releases since his incomparable ‘70s output. Like on its predecessors, Young picks up a loose social theme here, this time his fascination with electric cars and, more broadly, the economic crisis. While perhaps not topics ripe for inspiring songcraft, they adequately color great, stomping rockers like only Young can create on “Johnny Magic” and the title track. Meanwhile, “Just Singing A Song,” which plays on comments Young made casting doubt on music’s impact on social change, is one of his most thoughtful and beautiful tunes in years. Throughout, Neil sounds inspired and vital in both his singing and playing. Say what you want about Young embracing corny concepts or churning out material that doesn’t meet expectations that are just no longer reasonable 45 years into a career, whatever keeps the man rocking is good enough for me.

8.) Southeast Engine – From the Forest to the Sea (Misra)

What if Ray Davies had come of age attending a black Baptist church in middle America? Well, he might have made an album like From the Forest to the Sea, the latest from Athens, Ohio’s Southeast Engine. Informed by concept albums like Davies’ Kinks klassic Arthur and shaped by his own less-than-conventional religious upbringing, SEE’s Adam Remnant has concocted the most ambitious, and perhaps the most beautiful, of his band’s four albums. A uniquely warm and intimate sounding record recorded primarily live to analog in a 19th century schoolhouse in rural southern Ohio, the songs track a spiritual search while skipping stylistically from roots to indie-rock to numbers owing a plain debt to the gospel influences of Remnant’s youth. There’s barely a moment here that doesn’t convey creativity, craftsmanship and enthusiasm in spades, which is becoming the norm for this criminally underrecognized band.

9.) Crystal Antlers – Tentacles (Touch and Go)

This band continues the thread connecting The Sonics, The 13th Floor Elevators, Black Flag, Mudhoney and others who imbue the reckless abandon of primal rock with surprising melody and substance. Jonny Bell somehow manages to outscream the piercing organ and searing guitar noise to top off the glorious commotion this band makes.

10.) Deer Tick – Born On Flag Day (Partisan)

Deer Tick’s John Joseph McCauley, perhaps more than anyone else I have heard in quite some time, possesses the singer-songwriter’s treasure of the ability to convey pain –whether it be through wryly clever turn of phrase or beautifully gritty vocal. While his aptitude with a country tune hearkens to the legends, his delivery more resembles Axl Rose, which is unusual but no less evocative. Through the alternating rockers, shuffles, and ballads here, McCauley and his crackerjack band deliver perfectly the unique romanticism of drinking alone, gritting your teeth at harsh reality, and thinking of cutting yourself. And having fun doing it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lou's Top 20 of 2009, Part 2

Here's the second in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2009. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

11.) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware (Drag City)

Will Oldham’s string of making some of the best albums ever heard wasn’t going to last forever, and it ends here, which isn’t to say that Beware isn’t at times beautiful and brilliant. “You Are Lost,” for instance, is one of his most striking songs. Most others, like the rollicking “You Don’t Love Me” and “I Am Goodbye” to the Vaudville-y “I Don’t Belong To Anyone,” are of the type that are great enough—though perhaps just normal enough—that you can imagine the likes of Haggard, Cash or Coe handling them. Of course, there are more than enough bold lyrical and musical turns to set this apart from most anyone else. While not the crowning achievement his last two efforts were, this is another strong building block in Oldham’s barely rivaled body of work.

12.) Ben Kweller – Changing Horses (ATO)

Having progressively mastered popcraft on his first three lp’s, Kweller effortlessly goes country here to delightful effect. Sure, hiring a steel player doesn’t make him George Jones, but it’s clear by a few tracks into this album—on the ebullient “Fight” followed by the aching “Hurtin’ You”—that although the essential character of Kweller’s brilliance hasn’t been dramatically altered, everything that is beautiful and authentic about country music is here. “Wantin’ Her Again,” “Things I Like To Do” and “On Her Own” are all further infectious trips to Kweller country with the man who could be our generation’s McCartney.

13.) Mississippi Man – The Snake Oil Salesman (self-released)

The debut release from these Angelinos is billed as e.p., but at seven songs and 28 minutes there is more than enough to establish them as something special. This group’s hooky pop and roots tunes are unleashed with unbounding energy and a wealth of creative twists and turns in the vein of Dr. Dog.

14.) The Mumlers – Don’t Throw Me Away (Galaxia)

On their second release, the Bay Area’s Mumlers further cement themselves as one of the most inventive bands on the scene today, defying categorization and breaking boundaries. The Dixieland horn section lends itself to a certain feel on several tracks, with which the vocals and lyrics easily comply without a hint of limitation on melody or originality. On “Coffin Factory,” which sounds like a garagey lost Animals side, and the breezy, rootsy “Golden Arm & Black Hand,” the band shows it can go in almost any direction with ease.

15.) Dawes – North Hills (ATO)

In my experience, bands like to sound like their influences, but not too much. If this holds true of L.A.’s Dawes, then this review of their debut may not get tacked to the wall of their practice space. Because, DAWES SOUNDS LIKE THE BAND! And this is a good thing, because I mean The Band at their best. Aching, Danko-esque vocals from frontman Taylor Goldsmith deliver stirring melodies that top off lots of earthy instrumentation. “Give Me Time” has a bit more of a CSNY ‘around the campfire’ type of feel that shows they aren’t completely obsessed. But just about every other cut here evinces a deep debt to the artists formerly known as The Hawks. I, for one, have always wished those guys had made one more great album, and Dawes gets as close are we are going to here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lou's Top 20 of 2009, Part 1

Here's the first in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2009. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

16.) Young Fresh Fellows – I Think This Is (Yep Roc)

The best rock ‘n’ roll band of the past three decades reconvened here long enough to lay down its best album since the early ‘90s. (Granted, it is only their third since then amidst long stretches of inactivity.) The Fellows do what they do best here: have a hell of a good time! The production from unlikely cohort Robyn Hitchcock is clean without losing the band’s trademark garagey goodness. And dual songwriting geniuses frontman Scott McCaughey and guitar god Kurt Bloch turn in top notch tunes, evinced no better than by the one-two punch kickoff of “The Guilty Ones” and “Lamp Industries.” Welcome back Fellows! Hope we’ll see you again in another few years.

17.) Mark Olson & Gary Louris – Ready For the Flood (New West)

After 15 years apart, the formerly estranged singer-songwriter duo of the original Jayhawks effortlessly regains its stature as one of the most achingly beautiful combinations of voices ever committed to record. Understandably tinged with a bit more world-weariness, the magic of their early ‘90s classics nevertheless immediately resurfaces on the near-perfect leadoff “The Rose Society,” and they make up for lost time with a track for each year of their separation on this extended disc. “Doves and Stones,” “My Gospel Song For You” and others return a pair of musical souls who seemed a bit lost without each other to their rightful lofty perch.

18.) The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns (Saddle Creek)

The names of this band and its full-length debut don’t exactly evoke the convergence of punky angst and raw energy singer-songwriter Paul Banwatt and mates storm through on “The Dethbridge in Lethbridge” and “Luciana.” In fact, there is little “rural” in evidence other than perhaps the howl of desperate isolation. Even when the band brings it down, a refined (albeit stripped down) poppiness akin to Death Cab for Cutie or the Decemberists comes through. But a common thread of earnestness and authenticity maybe not so far removed from the open prairie runs through it all.

19.) Garrett Pierce – All Masks (Crossbill)

A vocal ringer for the likes of Colin Blunstone or Nick Drake, this Bay Area singer-songwriter’s beautiful, moody and engaging material would capably suit those forebears he conjures. Hushed acoustic numbers like the string-textured “When All We Knew Was No” lack nothing in drama even when stacked up next to the dynamic “All Through the Night.”

20.) Or, the Whale (Seany)

The sophomore effort by this San Francisco band for the most part lacks the “county gold” flavor that my favorites on its debut, Light Poles and Pines, had in spades, though “Datura” comes close. But this album still has the heartfelt tunes, beautiful harmonies, and energetic takes on roots instrumentation that show this aggregation bursting at the seams with talent.