This is the graduating class from last year, the bands I fully expect great and surprising and delightful things from in the future. So promising are these first steps that my faith is high that they have much more to give music. As we wait for what comes next, we have these damn fine platters to savor and study.
7 Walkers: 7 Walkers (Response)
Thick and undulating as black river water, this primo quartet – Papa Mali, Bill Kreutzmann, Matt Hubbard and George Porter Jr. (the great Reed Mathis plays on the album) – is hands down the most promising post-Garcia phoenix to rise from the extended Grateful Dead family, a band with the subtlety and muscled musicality to steer music into interesting new places – swampy, New Orleans haunted, outlaw inhabited places. With lyrics largely written by Robert Hunter, this feels like a classic already. These songs will take years to fully blossom and reveal themselves, and then they’ll be ripe for others to tackle. There are multiple lifetimes of rich experience at work in this band and the music hums with all that time, adventure, sadness and beauty
Big High: Big High (Big High Music)
This Seattle quartet have all the markings of a great hard rock act, very much in keeping with clear forebears like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, except Big High has, well, bigger wood for 70s hesher gold and monster amp stack rock. What swirls here is a potent muddle that feels distinctly strong and powerfully good washing over one. Lead singer Mesa is a compact powerhouse that stirs memories of young Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers, and he dances atop a trio – Ari Joshua (guitars), Sandy (bass) and former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin – that’s alternately howling or surprisingly delicate. Their ballads really do have power and when they pump up the big cylinders they growl real nice. And several ace guest turns by R.E.M’s Peter Buck don’t hurt this debut one bit.
Big Light: Animals In Bloom (reapandsow)
There’s nothing quite like Big Light in modern rock. But modern they are, admiring classic song craft and the odd Beatles cut but equally steered by curious sonics, sharply angled guitars and leaping gutter poetry in their catchy yet never simple lyrics. Always there are shadows on the edge of the party, fog rolling in and today’s jittery character wrestled into notes. This batch has hooks galore but nothing clearly aimed where radio/video culture wants young bands today. Big Light’s music hangs together with a shambling grace, spiked by Jeremy Korpas’ consistently cool guitars and the slow falling, hard to pin down voice of Fred Torphy. Animals In Bloom is fun and fascinating, very easy to dig but resistant to easy explication.
Black Dub: Black Dub (Jive)
Daniel Lanois has never really been in a band before Black Dub. His fingerprints are all over modern music – Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young – but always from the hidden perch of the studio rat. Here he steps out and lets his guitar and sweeter-than-you-can-believe voice fly alongside Trixie Whitley (vocals – daughter of the late, absolutely great Chris Whitley), Daryl Johnson (bass) and all-time Top 10 drummer Brian Blade (Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell). This is the highest caliber musicianship you’re likely to find but they restrain themselves wonderfully, playing to the bones and soul of these well crafted songs, which reverberate with gospel, blues and classic soul echoes in addition to the artfully distorted and bent rock elements. It’s a slow grower in some ways, hiding some of its charms for those willing to really sit with the material and let the real intentions and artistry at work here sink in until something holy is revealed.
The Contribution: Which Way World (SCI Fidelity)
Deeply felt and delivered in a way that conveys the great skill and thought that went into this music, the first offering from The Contribution, a supergroup of sorts, is just plain good, pleasantly mature, quality rock. Comprised of New Monsoon’s Jeff Miller (guitar, vocals) and Phil Ferlino (keys, vocals) and songwriting partner Tim Carbone (violinist in Railroad Earth, singer and multi-instrumentalist here), with String Cheese Incident rhythm pals Keith Moseley (bass) and Jason Hann (percussion), this band has a focus and weaving drive that pulls one into interesting emotional & philosophical spaces, the ground where truth stands naked. While that kinda deep water can drown a band, The Contribution moves fluidly and with no small grace.
Drink Up Buttercup: Born And Thrown On A Hook (Yep Roc)
A great, rattling modern slab, there’s a sensibility afoot on Born that seems utterly contemporary, a fractured worldview that nonetheless hangs together well. From opener “Seasickness Pills,” which eerily approximates the topsy-turvy wobble of its namesake ailment, through myriad other warbled and smooth passages, this set displays voluminous imagination, genuine pop savvy and utter fearlessness in comingling elements. If The Beatles had stayed on the Magical Mystery Tour, stopping to visit and learn from folks like Village Green-era Kinks, 10CC, The Move, Roxy Music and fellow Philly contemporaries Dr. Dog, then they might have turned out like Drink Up Buttercup. Sick and weird and quite delightful is this attention grabbing debut.
Free Energy: Stuck On Nothing (Astralwerks)
Nailing non-ironic, positivity infused pop-rock is no easy task, yet Free Energy makes it seem a breeze on Stuck On Nothing, which instantly takes its place alongside the good stuff from Cheap Trick, Badfinger and 80s purveyors like The Outfield and The Cars. One instinctively moves to put the top down as “Free Energy” – as fine a band anthem as I’ve heard in a decade – pours out, prompting one to shout along, “We’re breaking out this time/ Making out with the wind/ And I’m so disconnected/ I’m never gonna check back in.” On the surface, Free Energy doesn’t seem especially deep but there’s real purpose in music this fun, a skipping reprieve from the endless misery of the news and all the crap humans needlessly heap on one another. This album, produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, is good times distilled into pheromone rich sweetness.
Futurebirds: Hampton’s Lullaby (Autumn Tone)
Capable of knee slappin’ back shed-i-ness and high skied, full bore hugeness, Futurebirds are a beautiful marriage of jangle and slap, real contemporary rock that’s absorbed much of the past 40 years and come up with something of their own. There’s banjo but not always twang, huge Radiohead-y guitars and moments of raw-whisper intimacy, and every cut sweeps one up with a sureness that’s a kick. It’s not always clear where we’re going but the ride is a blast and you’re likely to ask them to do it again after it comes to a halt. Futurebirds’ whole demeanor forces rock to be the open-minded, flexible creature it can be, while still giving casual listeners plenty to snag upon.
OFF!: First Four EPs (Vice)
These 16 tracks renew one’s faith in punk rock – in its power to angry up the blood over the right things, to pinpoint and prick at our sore spots as a society and in its potential to thrill in less time than it takes to make microwave popcorn. Almost no cut is over 1:30, some even less than a minute, and yet each is a perfect hurled gob hitting its targets square and true. Singer Keith Morris (Circle Jerks/Black Flag), guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless, Rocket From The Crypt) and bassist Steven McDonald (Red Kross) generate a highly focused racket that immediately recalls where Morrison left off with Black Flag, except now he’s a better lyricist and singer and the whole band tears at the music like fast, hungry tigers – lethal, intense, utterly effective. [And look forward to a lengthy, wild chat with Keith Morris on the Impound soon!]
Sam Quinn: The Fake That Sunk A Thousand Ships (Ramseur)
The cover painting of a whale cresting above a grassy field with a rainbow fanning out behind it may be one of the most misleading handshakes ever offered. What’s inside this solo debut from the everybodyfields leader isn’t sunshine and unicorns but instead a complicated emotional miasma, the strange snarl of feelings we walk around with and struggle to untangle throughout our lives. The mood is early 70s Topanga Canyon country rock given a bunch of nifty twists. It goes down easy but digesting Quinn’s tales is easier said than done. His honesty, his willingness to be hurt and to long openly for things, is refreshing and encouragement to us to do the same. None of this is to say this album is a downer – far from it – and Quinn’s way with melody and verse is if anything strong than ever. His gifts are just way more exposed in this setting than with the everybodyfields, and that’s nothing but rewarding for listeners.