Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lou's Top 20 of 2012, Part 2

1.    Ben Kweller – Go Fly A Kite (The Noise Company)

A consistently brilliant artist over a decade-long solo career, Kweller comes up with a platter of pop greatness here worthy of masters like Cheap Trick, Badfinger, ELO, and Rundgren. The guy just churns out hooks, shines equally on rockers and ballads, and has developed his penchant for sappiness into  mature but plainly heartfelt songwriting. Kweller proves himself more than ever as a singular talent here.

2.    Damien Jurado – Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

Damien Jurado has moved progressively away from the spare, ultra-melancholy approach that without a doubt served him well over the course of what for most singer-songwriters would be a very accomplished career. But nudged along by producer Richard Swift, he has pursued an expansion of his sound that reaches new heights on Maraqopa. The trippy acid guitar of opener “Nothing is the News” and perhaps even more trippy child backing vocals of “Life Away from the Garden” set the tone for this enthralling dream sequence. While the songs on the second half of the lp hew more closely to Jurado’s past work, each ranks among his best, with Swift’s accents only burnishing them.

3.    The Darkness – Hot Cakes (Wind-up)

It’s easy not to take the Darkness seriously, but if you’re not too self-important to have any soft spot for cock rock, it’s tough not to acknowledge their brilliance at it. They rock as much as you always wished Queen would have, cast hooks worthy of KISS, and deliver the crunch of AC/DC along with the lyrical subtlety they lost with Bon Scott. They seamlessly tie in art rock flourishes and the sentimentalism of the finest power ballads. And over the course of their three releases they without question have grown more adventurous and accomplished without losing grasp of the unbounded enthusiasm that filled the arenas in the first place.

4.    Sera Cahoone – Deer Creek Canyon (Sub Pop)

Cahoone’s haunting voice and aching melodies each reach new heights on her third lp, whose tracks strike the perfect balance between rootsy and modern, melancholy and (well, relatively at least) uplifting. Perfect complements of banjo, steel and strings make this an exceptionally well constructed record.

5.    Spirit Family Reunion – No Separation (self-released)

It’s as easy to imagine this motley band performing on the back of a flatbed somewhere in the deep South in the ‘40s or ‘50s as to picture them in their real-life Brooklyn street corner and subway station haunts. So it’s no surprise that their debut full-length is as authentic as any bluegrass/Americana release in recent memory, yet infused with a youthful spirit and new perspective which frankly gives me renewed faith in something much bigger than just the music here.

6.    Langhorne Slim & The Law – The Way We Move (Ramseur)

Slim continues his tenure as the troubadour of a searching generation feeling its way into adulthood, aptly conveying its optimism and jubilation with his energetic folk tunes despite self-doubt and the inefficacy of society as a whole (see “Great Divide”). In more heartfelt moments, he beautifully confronts the mortality of a loved one with “Sid’s Song” and his own coming of age on “Coffee Cups.” Another triumph for this gifted performer and songwriter on his fourth full-length.

7.    Lauren O’Connell – Quitters (self-released)

I’ve just discovered Lauren O’Connell, but at age 24 she is on her third full-length and it’s one of the most encouraging things I’ve heard in a while. From moody, powerful opener “Every Space” and its beautifully layered vocal parts, to the gritty roots-rock of “I Will Burn You Down,” on to the sneeringly Dylanesque “If Found” and the sparse, aching “What Breaks (and What Doesn’t),” a uniquely gifted singer-songwriter is evident from beginning to end of this album.

8.    Great Lake Swimmers – New Wild Everywhere (Nettwerk)

Tony Dekker’s ability to craft alternately aching and buoyant indie-folk and envelop it in understated yet markedly creative arrangements seems to have become almost formulaic by this point, but it’s a formula which seems to get more intoxicating each time he concocts it.

9.    Woods – Bend Beyond (Woodsist)

The most focused Woods record yet, Bend shies away from the extending jamming which somewhat marred 2011’s Sun and Shade for me. Instead the songs stand out, with great hooks and Jeremy Earl’s incisive vocals—along with just enough psych accoutrement—delightfully coloring the jangly/rootsy tunes here.

10.    Trembling Bells Featuring Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Marble Downs (Honest Jon’s)

Bonnie’s past couple full-length efforts have seemed to me the most unremarkable of his generally brilliant career, but this collaboration is a breath of fresh air. The songs and adventurous instrumentation of (the heretofore unknown to me)Trembling Bells are unlike anything else to which he has lent his often thrilling voice, what with its amalgamation of British folk, baroque, psych, and Americana. His recent penchant for excellent work with female duet partners continues with Lavinia Blackwell, and the excellent songs of Alex Neilson are augmented with a somewhat hair-raising rendition of “Riding” from BPB’s past life in Palace Brothers and the late, great Robin Gibb’s “Lord Bless All.” Hopefully participating in this project will help end the uncharacteristic funk in this great artist’s own work.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Lou's Top 20 of 2012, Part 1

11.    Nude Beach – II  (Other Music)

On their debut, Brooklyn indie power trio Nude Beach channels early Costello/Attractions at their most amped up.

12.    Ladyhawk – No Can Do (Triple Crown)

Vancouver’s Ladyhawk have been one of the most criminally unrecognized bands of recent years, and continue their penchant for gritty, largely bare bones indie rock on their third full-length. Heavily laced with pop hooks as always, some subtle new wave hints are the only slight adjustment to their winning formula.

13.    Harlan Twins – Old Familiar (self-released)

Despite a revolving door rhythm section, Pittsburgh’s own indie-roots darlings the Harlan Twins have come into their own this year. Principals James Hart and Carrie Battle are constantly becoming more confident and engaging vocalists, Hart’s leads more eye-popping, and a more muscular and infectious sound has replaced the few unfocused or meandering moments that dotted their sets in the past. Their second lp ably memorializes this coming of age for the band and their well-hewn trove of songs that range from aching to danceable.

14.    Human Cannonball – Let’s Be Friends (self-released)

Jesse Remnant plays bass and sings beautiful harmonies in the great Southeast Engine, which is fronted by his brother, Adam. The second outing from his solo project leans heavily toward perfect pop tunes and hooky indie pop recalling Guided By Voices rather than the rootsiness of that outfit, however, and proves him a talented songwriter and engaging lead vocalist in his own right.

15.    Green Day – Uno!, Dos! & Tre! (Reprise)

Including these three albums separately would have meant devoting quite a bit of space to Green Day here (not that they are undeserving of it), and I assume they are meant to be somewhat of a piece. I’ve never really gotten off the Green Day bandwagon, although one “punk opera” really would have been enough. But these three platters chock full of the 2-minute pop numbers they do best is the best possible antidote to that brief overindulgence. Each record has a bit of its own feel: “Uno!” is heavy on the hook-filled pop-punk that made the band famous, “Dos!” incorporates some garagey elements recalling the band’s 2008 Foxboro Hot Tubs masquerade, and “Tre!” leans more toward power pop and new wave elements which show Billie Joe’s songwriting evolving to great effect even as he confronts his personal challenges. All three of these releases offer great encouragement that Green Day is beginning a third decade of exciting and meaningful music.

16.    Catherine Irwin – Little Heater (Thrill Jockey)

On her second solo release, Irwin stays firmly within the achingly authentic roots vein mined so well by Freakwater, the brilliant combo she has co-led since 1989. Will Oldham adds perfectly suited Appalachian-tinged backing vocals to leadoff track “Mockingbird.”

17.    Hal – The Time The Hour (Tri Tone)

Dubliners Hal finally resurface with their sophomore effort after an interminable layoff since their brilliant 2005 debut. It’s easy to wonder whether they did much other than listen to the Bee Gees during their break given the strong nods to both early- and Disco-era Gibb creations here. And when they shift gears a bit with “Rocking Chair” it nearly evokes a chuckle for its (admittedly delightful) Neil Young mimicry. I’m a staunch proponent of derivation when its sources are as good as those here, but this release lags the debut in terms of freshness and originality.

18.    Calexico – Algiers (Anti-)

After a few somewhat tentative steps toward cementing itself as a band focused on the songs rather than its penchant for genre bending, Calexico—and specifically singer-songwriter Joey Burns—take a significant step forward here not necessarily toward conventionality but certainly toward a new indie-folk comfort zone which may not be as unique as some of their past work, but no less engaging or accomplished.

19.    Neil Young with Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)

In his unexpected autobiography also released this year, Waging Heavy Peace,
Neil makes much of the fact that this nearly simultaneous recorded and released album is the first he has written without the aid of marijuana, and conveys his deep concern over whether he could create music sober. This experiment turns out to be a success, with somewhat more plainly stated lyrics perhaps the only giveaway, though the envelopment of nearly every track in sprawling jams ironically gives it a decidedly stoned feel overall. Indeed, the 87-minute double disc contains several of the longest songs of the man’s career, and takes the ballsy move of leading off with the 27-and-a half-minute “Driftin’ Back.” This doesn’t prevent a number of them from being among the most expressive and engaging of Young’s recent work, like the alternately gritty and yearning middle-agers lament “Ramada Inn,” or “Walk Like A Giant,” which suggests the image of a ancient mountain continuing to tower over the landscape despite the long torture of the elements over time, as autobiographical as sketch of Neil Young as any.

20.    The Breakup Society – So Much Unhappiness, So Little Time (Get Hip)

Longtime Pittsburgh rock stalwart Ed Masley’s Breakup Society seems to finally have shifted his musical base completely to Phoenix, his home of a half decade or so. Still, Pittsburgh’s Get Hip imprint gives us a third Breakups release which highlights Masley’s songcraft with a bit more nuanced and subdued instrumental palate, while expertly working in just the right amount Who-like raucousness throughout and a throwback garage riff on “Here Comes Floyd.”