Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Lou's Top 20 of 2009, Part 4

Here's the last 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.

1.) Holopaw – Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness. (Bakery Outlet)

I really feared we may not hear from Holopaw again after they went quiet following 2005’s excellent Quit +/or Fight, but they return here with a third release even more immaculately crafted and unique than its great predecessors. John Orth’s beautifully strange vocals carry otherworldly melodies that seem to materialize from nowhere, creating hooks where they shouldn’t be. The backing veers between propulsive and intricate and always seems to get it just right, and wonderfully placed strings, horns and woodwinds add vivid color. Perhaps no band has begun its career with a trio of releases as impressive as Holopaw’s, and this one sets a new gold standard.

2.) The Minus 5 – Killingsworth (Yep Roc)

The great Scott McCaughey turns in a tour de force here, the most realized manifestation yet of this genius songsmith’s darker side, while keeping sterling melody the inviolable rule. A who’s who of the music scene in McCaughey’s new home base of Portland helps to craft his most rootsy set yet with beautifully whining pedal steel leading accordion, banjo and mandolin in creeping through the cleverly utilized female harmonies. “Vintage Violet” offers pure poetry with a delivery worthy of Lennon, and “Big Beat Up Moon” is a stirring isolation ballad evoking the desolation of a Nick Drake lament, but is followed by a cascade of quirky roots pop tunes that rate among McCaughey’s best and cement this album as among his strongest. “I Would Rather Sacrifice You” is a wry country gospel singalong, while “Ambulance Dancehall” is simply one of the catchiest, most clever tunes you’ll hear anywhere. “Gash In the Cocoon” is truly a magnum opus for McCaughey and is the centerpiece here. An aching and surreal piano ballad that would fit on Plastic Ono Band with a chorus that is simultaneously soaring and devastating, it also contains one of my favorite lyrics ever in “I can play the trumpet like a horse” (whatever that means). The breezy “Smoke On, Jerry” and jazzy, Zombies-esque “Your Favorite Mess” lead to closer “Tonight You’re Buying Me a Drink, Bub,” which evokes the perhaps unlikely McCaughey touchstone Tonight’s the Night more than anything he has done before. To make a record not only among his best but also breaking new artistic ground 25 years into a brilliant career may be truly unprecedented, but Scott does it here.

3.) Langhorne Slim – Be Set Free (Kemado)

Aching uplifting manic melodic indie roots soul music. This guy is the real deal and just keeps getting better.

4.) Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers – Songs In the Night (Ramseur)

The full-length debut by this supremely talented young singer-songwriter is an almost disarming collision of despair and ebullience. Soaring melodies and propulsive country-rock backing are everywhere, but Crain’s unique voice and evocative lyrics seem inherently sad (OK, closer “The Dam Song” is just plain sad). Crying music to dance to—what’s better than that? A genius breakout that shows true promise for even greater things.

5.) Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk)

Another step forward for this band after 2007’s breakthrough Ongiara. Tony Dekker continues to become a more expressive singer-songwriter while moving the musical presentation further from his extremely subdued early work. Opener “Palmistry” and “Pulling on A Line” have a delightful Byrds-ian/R.E.M-y jangle as well as more muscle than anything the band has done before, while “She Comes To Me In Dreams” adds an always welcome pedal steel to the mix. “The Chorus In the Underground” offers wonderfully unabashed rootsiness with sprightly banjo and fiddle in the fore. Not that Dekker still doesn’t do the quiet/sad thing as well as anyone. “Concrete Heart” and “Stealing Tomorrow” could make anyone crumble. Closer “Unison Falling Into Harmony” brings it all together, with the weeping banjo and lonesome-sounding snare seemingly echoing Dekker’s beautiful despair.