Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lou's Top 20 of 2011, Part 3

Here's the third in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2011. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

6.) Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire (Pax-Am)

Last year, I lamented Ryan Adams' spotty output since his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker when including that fantastic album in the upper echelon of my best of the decade list. Finally, he returns with an album approaching those heights. Adams seems to rediscover his gift for heart-tugging melodies impeccably delivered in his aching voice. The backing is subdued, rootsy, and totally authentic sounding, better than the pleasant but somewhat forced-sounding Cold Roses or Jacksonville City Nights. While his efforts to explore various genres and stretch out of his comfort zone have been oftentimes laudable, its good to hear Adams back in the domain in which he is a master.

7.) Dolorean - The Unfazed (Partisan)

Al James continues to become a more expressive and complete songwriter on his band's fifth full-length. He can still break your heart, but has tempered his melancholy tendencies with prettier melodies and more fleshed-out backing tracks. Not that most of the songs don't remain somewhat devastating, but that's James' strength, and he only continues to hone it here.

8.) I Was A King - Old Friends (Sounds Familyre)

Norway's I Was A King stays out of the trap of many '60s revivalists by bringing enough of their own exuberance and creativity to the proceedings rather than being entrapped by perceived faithfulness to their progenitors. It doesn't stop them from gloriously channeling the Byrds with a delightfully psychedelic 12-string break on "Learning to Fly," the Hollies' harmonies on "Nightwalking," or the Zombies' moodiness on "Here To Stay," not to mention fellow disciples like Teenage Fanclub and Apples In Stereo throughout.

9.) Little Scream - The Golden Record (Secretly Canadian)

A deeply inventive album with parts that seem to come from nowhere, recalling genres all over the map, the constants being the evocative songwriting and vocals of Laurel Sprengelmeyer. While "The Heron and the Fox" stands out despite (or perhaps because of) its status as the most straight-up folky tune here, "Guyegaros" and "Red Hunting Jacket" sound like tracks that Neil Young and the Doors, respectively, were never quite weird enough to make (which is obviously pretty weird).

10.) Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

A truly eye-opening record somewhat radical in its sheer simplicity, with Baird's heavenly voice and plaintive acoustic augmented only occasionally by the perfectly utilized pedal steel and dobro. More focused than her work with Espers and a more worthy heir to the great female-led American and British folk of the '60s and '70s than much else that has been done since.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lou's Top 20 of 2011, Part 2

Here's the second in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2011. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it. 

11.) Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong  (ATO)

It might be an understatement to say that Dawes' excellent 2009 debut, North Hills, was heavily influenced by The Band, so it wasn't shocking that they ended up backing Robbie Robertson on tour early this year. So it is with their relationship with Jackson Browne, who they are now backing. Nothing Is Wrong channels Browne's plaintive, often heart-tugging poetry and the accessible yet highly authentic instrumental backing of his wonderful early records, which for my money are too infrequent touchstones today. But as with the debut, despite the plain debt to their progenitors, there are some simply killer songs and performances here that transcend eras. Taylor Goldsmith has a knack for songs which are heartwrenching and buoyant all at the same time, "Moon in the Water" being perhaps the finest case in point here.

12.) Marissa Nadler (Box of Cedar)

An artist whose back catalog I have somehow been oblivious to, Marissa Nadler is unmistakably a beautiful and haunting singer-songwriter. "The Sun Always Reminds Me of You" is simply one of the most affecting songs you'll hear--intoxicating, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at once. "Baby I Will Leave You In the Morning," alternatively, is incredibly intense despite Nadler's voice barely rising above a coo. The instrumentation belies its subdued folkiness with numerous creative wrinkles and deceptive power throughout, though when "In A Magazine" fills out the sound a bit and Nadler's voice floats beautifully on the low end and becomes entwined with the pedal steel it's something of a revelation. An impeccably crafted record perfectly suited to a clearly gifted artist.

13.) Bird of Youth - Defender (Jagjaguwar)

The debut from this vehicle for singer-songwriter Beth Wawerna is simply chock full of incredible hooks delivered by a charmingly disaffected-sounding Wawerna. Both the songcraft and the organic yet often energetic backing offer strong nods to Okkervil River, whose Will Sheff co-produced.

14.) Okkervil River - I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar)

For years now, each time I get wind of a new Okkervil River record on the way a part of me expects it to be the one where the bottom falls out, where there will no longer be any discernible connection to the stripped-down indie-folkies I fell in love with way back in the early 2000's and I'll just let them drift away. But it hasn't happened yet, even as Will Sheff and company continue to take the band's sound further and further afield from where it began. Though the backing tracks keep sounding more and more like a full-blown stage production, there remains no other writer as gifted as Sheff with a clever phrase or a penetrating hook, or a singer as irresistibly emotive, and he and his cohorts have ably met the challenge of maintaining the quality of their craft with a greatly expanded palette. Perhaps I should no longer be surprised that Okkervil River remains among the best out there.

15.) The Cynics - Spinning Wheel Motel (Get Hip)

The legendary Cynics stay hip with their finest release since 1989's seminal Rock 'n' Roll. While 2007's Here We Are seemed to find the band moving into a more subdued space perhaps befitting a band that has been around for nearly 30 years, Motel  is fairly evenly split between the garage rock vein which they have mined more successfully than any band this side of The Sonics and Byrds-ian forays like "Gehenna" and the simply lovely "Circles, Arcs and Swirls." Regardless of genre, the songwriting of frontman Michael Kastelic and guitar god Gregg Kostelich (the band's constants over the years) has only become more polished with time, Kastelic's vocals are as incisive as ever, Kostelich continues to add more creative touches to the bedrock riffs he produces better than anyone, and Moon-esque Pablo Gonzalez stands out from the long line of Cynics drummers on the anthemic closer "Junk."


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lou's Top 20 of 2011, Part 1

Here's the first in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2011. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

16.) Witches - Forever  (Bakery Outlet)

The primal indie-rock three-piece at its finest and most pure, Athens, Ga.'s Witches--led by Cara Beth Satalino--conjures other rough-edged yet highly melodic female-fronted outfits like Scrawl. Glorious in its simplicity.

17.) The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing (Saddle Creek)

The second outing by singer-songwriter Paul Banwatt and mates brings the same brand of intense, hooky confessionals as their excellent 2009 debut, perhaps sharpening the focus on songcraft over raw emotion just a bit, but to the detriment of neither. Springsteen, Death Cab for Cutie, and Husker Du are all touchstones without a bit of incongruity.

18.) Bodies of Water - Twist Again (Thousand Tongues)

A more subdued but no less adventurous outing from this L.A. collective which throws in everything including the kitchen sink to create a constantly fascinating melange of moods and sounds which meld easily into a unique and wholly satisfying experience.

19.) Mount Moriah (Holidays for Quince)

The full-length debut from this North Carolina band delivers crushing hooks on both roots-inflected and more straight ahead indie tunes.

20.) D. Charles Speer & The Helix - Leaving the Commonwealth (Thrill Jockey)

I stumbled upon these guys live earlier this year, which was a pleasure, as is this platter of mostly fairly authentic honky tonk. Granted, there are certainly some psych elements and what I suspect must be unconventional lyrical themes (there may even be a Civil War concept), but you could totally dance to it and not really notice. Anyway, anyone doing country music well nowadays is fine by me, and this band fits the bill.