For more of what floated our boat last year check out DI’s picks for the Top 12 Debut Albums of 2012!
The primary criterion for Dirty Impound’s annual list is artists that honored and creatively worked in the ALBUM medium – not a random assortment of new songs, not 2-3 good singles surrounded by filler, not nearly complete visions. Rock is our church, our guiding star, our reason for getting up some days, and for myriad reasons these selections made the world seem better, brighter, more intense, beautiful, sad, meaningful, fun, or maybe just plain ‘more’ than it was before they existed. These selections represent the cream, the top 10-percent, of the 310 new releases we checked out in 2012, and without exception, each shimmers with a special, compelling glow.
While the Impound generally eschews hierarchies in this year-end wrap-up, we feel compelled to single out two albums – Howlin Rain’s The Russian Wilds and John Murry’s The Graceless Age – that we’re absolutely certain will be considered classics in decades time, song cycles that will be shared by the music loyalists who haunt what’s left of brick & mortar stores, gleefully handing copies of these records to friends with a breathless, “Your life is incomplete without this!” Both albums took a few years to germinate and reveal the virtues of time and close care in their creation – each free of the rush, rush release energy that defines music today, each a modern answer to the kind of shining craftsmanship that infused so many pioneering works in the 60s and 70s. Interestingly, both happen to come from Oakland, CA-based artists, resounding proof that some of the world’s best music is still being generated in the Bay Area (further testified to by the killer albums from Chuck Prophet and Penelope Houston on the list this year). Also, each digs deep for inspired cover tune selections – Murry tackles Derek & The Dominoes’ “Thorn Tree in the Garden” and Howlin Rain glows on The James Gang’s “Collage” – which sparkle in their care and show how obvious and lazy the competition is in this area. Simply put, the Impound stacks these two albums up against anything in rock’s canon.
Now, on with the show…
Dirty Impound’s 31 Favorite Albums of 2012
Admiral Fallow: Tree Bursts In Snow
“Love this vessel while you’re aboard/ There’ll be no deposit from a cosmic landlord/ You don’t need to hang your hat on belief in bumper stickers/ There’ll be no love lost, just pull on that ripcord.” This moving, utterly tuneful sophomore effort from Scotland’s Admiral Fallow cements them as the best tunesmiths to emerge from that land since Belle and Sebastian gave us a sip of Tigermilk back in 1996. Admiral Fallow is considerably less snarky, eschewing cleverness for sincerity and a brawny, working class undercurrent. One’s heart swells three sizes at times during this set, and the overall feeling one is left with is one of quiet, abiding hope revealed by realists that still believe in beauty, love and other abiding bedrocks that endure past the pettiness and noise we humans too often mire ourselves in. (original review) (Dirty Impound Questionnaire with Admiral Fallow coming soon)
Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound: Manzanita
An intrinsic player in the emerging New Cosmic California movement, Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound generates a voluptuous noise but one not anchored to the past or overly eager to be weird for weirdness’ sake. In fact, this post-psych band presents such wonderfully formed, propulsive, seductive songs on this fourth long-player that they come across as a band that could have held their own against any headliner at the Fillmore West back in the day. However, unlike a lot of dabblers in reverb and distortion, Assemble Head isn’t retro. They are contemporary creators using some of the same tools as Blue Cheer and Quicksilver Messenger Service but what they construct is no homage. That said, in some ways, Manazanita comes across like the best album Future Games-era Fleetwood Mac wasn’t quite skilled enough to make, an appealing mingling of male-female energies with muscular reach and vibrant hues (or alternately, a band finally taking up the torch Traffic dropped after their debut and Dave Mason’s departure). (original review)
Theo Bleckmann: Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush
It’s a thankless task to tackle the work of Kate Bush. The woman defines idiosyncratic, a pop iconoclast so unique that it’s hard to imagine how one inhabits this material without it being, at least to a degree, an act of mimicry. However, Bleckmann and his very gifted ensemble pull off this trick repeatedly on this expertly chosen, arranged and performed exploration of Bush’s oeuvre. In their hands, the material breathes at a different pace, a bit more naked with all the Synclavier and production bluster stripped away, and thus a fine spotlight on perhaps the least discussed aspect of Bush’s music – her songwriting. Like the lady herself, Bleckmann croons these off-kilter fables with undulating romance, a singer willingly exposing himself to all the thorns and devils in the verses. This is also the best gender shift since Rufus Wainwright took on Judy At Carnegie Hall, where the familiar is turned on its head in a sly way. More than anything, it’s the subtlety and intuitive feel they bring to these tunes that make them feel beautiful and new. (original review)
Capsula: In The Land of Silver Souls
The latest from this taut, tough trio from Buenos Aires, Argentina is trippy with teeth, psychedelic to be sure but full of scorch marks and burning embers, kin to the Sonics, Stooges and others who explored freely but were always inescapably RAWK! Capsula, who first came to DI’s attention as the backing musicians on Ivan Julian’s fab The Naked Flame, get more done in less space than almost any other young act today. One feels they’ve traveled light years but the counter on the CD player shows it’s all occurred in under three-minutes. Their roar here shows that they’re aware of the advances of My Bloody Valentine and The Stone Roses, but they also toss in some hip-swivel worthy of Link Wray. Silver Souls is thick, sexy stuff, sticky in all the right ways, slithering close and biting your ear until you purr.
Moving on from their hardcore roots, these SoCal punks managed to do something on their fourth album that John Lydon has never been able to do – i.e. satisfyingly merge the sneer ‘n’ hooks of The Sex Pistols with the brittle modernity of Public Image Ltd. Zoo is downright sloth-like in spots compared to most modern punk, but like any good rock, it’s when a band slows down that one can really tell if they can play or if they’re saying anything worth listening to. On both counts Ceremony rates here, giving us a blunt force jab to the skull that encapsulates the feeling of America in the 2000s – pissed off, rattled, worried we’re too sick to get better. Throw in flashes of vintage Wire and The Germs and you’ve got the classic punk record of the year.
Mike Coykendall: Chasing Away The Dots
This is a banquet of pleasures. Normally, DI would slap someone who wrote that but Coykendall’s uber-charmer inspires such sentiments. You may not know Mike’s name but you know his sound if you’re a fan of M. Ward or She & Him, where Coykendall has been a crucial part of the sound both in the studio and on tour. Further back, San Franciscans and other lovers of quality West Coast jangle may recall his under-sung band The Old Joe Clarks. Chasing Away The Dots glimmers with bits & pieces of these projects but also offers a fuller picture of what this master rocker has to offer – weird soundscapes, Dylan-esque chooglers, gum-snapping ditties, and more and more. That it all hangs together so well is a testament to the unique artist behind this music, a lover of gurgling ambiance and hippie girls in equal measures offering us a sure, gentle wave to crest upon to shores just around the bend. (Interview with Mike coming to DI soon)
Dearly Beloved: Hawk vs. Pigeon
Toronto’s Dearly Beloved make other modern rockers seem lazy by comparison. There is something so full throated and fueled by wild animal craziness about them, but also focused, skilled and powerful like a predator in the shadows about the seize on the jugular of tonight’s dinner. Frankly, DI wasn’t sure they’d make a better album after 2010’s Make It Bleed but they’ve done it with Hawk vs. Pigeon, which marries the air guitar inspiring groin thunder of classic rock and proto-punk to their usual forward-motion modernity. Put another way, this struts without ever being vintage, retro or anything of the sort. If Iggy Pop was a teen right now this is the band he’d want to join. Partially captured at the justifiably legendary Rancho de la Luna studio , Hawk vs. Pigeon never complicates matters with too many words, each line incisive enough to draw blood and paired with a barely contained, feral energy that lives up to the band’s slogan: “Chaos, tempered by love and delivered with great fury.” With each new chapter, DI loves this band more dearly, and if you’ve got half a lick of sense you will, too.
Deerhoof: Breakup Song
Deerhoof have made a lot of albums since their 1997 debut, The Man, the King, the Girl, but never one so readily enjoyable as Breakup Song, whose title works as a modus operandi throughout this swift moving, oddly swinging affair. It’s as if their experimental yen ran straight into Prince’s punk-funk period to birth this deconstructionist groove fest. You want to sing and hum along but quickly give up on snaring more than a snippet of what’s going on in a track, ultimately surrendering to the flow, pogo-ing in thought and body to Deerhoof’s warming irregularities. DI has seen the word “quirky” used a lot over the years in reference to this band, and it’s way off the mark – use that word for what’s become of Zooey Deschanel on New Girl. With Deerhoof, it’s more an embrace of how fun it is to take things apart and put them back together in ways never originally intended – an arm placed where there was once a leg, a robot heart for a head, etc. Breakup Song takes the band’s many strengths and serves them up in a way you might be able to dance to. That’s cool, man.
Delta Spirit: self-titled
Third albums are usually where good bands blossom into great one…or nose dive into their own naval or worse capitulate to major label “notes”. It’s the stage where most groups worth their salt find their individuality, influences left behind as something unique rises, and that’s just what Delta Spirit pulls off on this eponymous joint. One is reminded of the turn My Morning Jacket took on It Still Moves or more aptly, the leap U2 took with War. Delta Spirit’s first two albums were intimate and strangely knowing, more weary and wise than a young band had a right to be. Now, that Everyman feel is infused with a powerful populist spirit, songs begging for the roared chants of large crowds, a band eager to grab every hand and lift every heart their music can. Some numbers come from a downtrodden place but always claw their way towards the light – there is a lot of fight in this band. One feels compelled to join their cause, and in so doing leave behind some of the disconnection Delta Spirit chronicle and lament, the music truly bringing folks out of solitude and into a community that sees each others’ scars and bruises as lovely signs of an engaged life.
Dr. John: Locked Down
At his best (and this is very much that), Dr. John is kinda scary, a lurker in the collective unconscious that slips a straight razor into our blind spots to make us aware of them. Here, he’s downright spooky at times, preaching in a Revelation-esque growl and leaning hard into the pocket. Locked Down contains some of the funkiest breaks to hit since James Brown provided hip-hop’s template (check the moment where the Doctor whispers, “Let’s all just pray on it, right now,” on “Revolution” as a prime example) anchored to pointed, politically charged themes. Just when we needed him, Dr. John waltzes in arm-in-arm with Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) to prod at America’s underbelly, a sharp stick to preconceptions and complacency. Hurricane Katrina riled up the Doctor a while back but he hadn’t found his classic swamp-rock magic until Auerbach surrounded him with this bunch of young cutters and whipped him from behind the recording console. We can only hope it signals more hoodooed vitriol to come as we move into a troubled 21st century. (original review)
A ferocious confidence permeates the third offering from one of rock’s stealth greats-in-the-making. Each cut is lined and colored with graphic novel bang – dramatic, filled with interesting shading, delivered forthrightly. Every song goes on just as long as it needs to and not a second more, every move taken with sure steps, arriving with arms open wide, clutching anyone they can get their hands on. While some of the introspection of Everest’s first two albums is lost what stands in its place is music ready to fill big halls and court a much wider audience – fitting for a band that’s opened for chums like Neil Young & Crazy Horse and My Morning Jacket at Madison Square Garden three times already. As evidenced by David Letterman’s exuberant response to the band’s recent appearance – “I would like to manage the band if that’s all right. No more of this van crap – business class!” – the days of being an opener may be winding down. Russell Pollard (vocals, guitar, drums), Joel Graves (guitar, keys, vocals), Jason Soda (guitar, keys, vocals) and Eli Thomson (bass, vocals) are simply some of the most dedicated, naturally talented guys plugging away at the rock game today, and this sparkling chapter shows their drive to continually broaden their scope and reach continues apace. (Interview with Russell Pollard coming soon)
Bill Fay: Life Is People
Without question, the most welcome return in 2012. It may have taken Fay 40 years to craft a follow-up to his cult adored pair of early 70s releases but this gorgeous, sure, achingly human (and humane) collection is a sure trigger for sighs, contemplation and compassion. One has to look to a work like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks for an apt comparison. This feels holy, carved with conscious directness and smart simplicity, prettier and less jazzy than Fay’s earlier work. A healthy chunk of the credit goes to huge DI favorite Matt Deighton (Mother Earth, Paul Weller, Oasis), who put together an empathetic core of backup musicians for these sessions comprised of Deighton (guitar), Tim Weller (drums), and Mikey Rowe (keys). One senses the effort it took to bring this music into the world, the years of pondering to create songs of such heart-wise wisdom and sonic delicacy. The album is further fleshed out by the London Community Gospel Choir, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and guitarist Ray Russell and drummer Alan Rushton, who both played on Fay’s sophomore record Time of the Last Persecution. If one doesn’t resist the sentiments and ideas here it might just make them an incrementally better person.
Penelope Houston: On Market Street
This is pure pro stuff, so well assembled and composed, a benchmark for what thoughtful, melodic rock can be. Houston, known to punk fans as the lead singer of The Avengers, brings a different but equal intensity to these tales of heartbreak and connection, where the truths she tells don’t need to be shouted, an explication of the dings love and neglect bring that ultimately balms because it’s so honest and full of hard earned spine. Her band here is SF Bay Area champs including Pat Johnson (guitar) and Danny Eisenberg (keys) that turn in flab-free performances that always serve the songs. The solos are models of strength and brevity, and the general group feel is just so bloody satisfying. Houston’s voice is smoky and alluring, full grown but flecked with endearing girlishness, a singer that shares her feelings in ways that make the listener feel. This stands next to Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid, Nickel Creek’s Why Should The Fire Die and Michael Penn’s Resigned, each stellar examples of mature, craftsmanship-minded rock at its finest. (Penelope Houston interview)
Howlin Rain: The Russian Wilds
Bandleader-guitarist-singer-composer Ethan Miller told me last year, “There was a point when we were really trying to blend Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town.” The resulting album reflects this oddball combination AND makes sense of it. Howlin Rain thinks and plays on a scale most contemporary acts just can’t manage. They can cover and better The James Gang because they’re a better band. That’s not hyperbole it’s fact. The Russian Wilds disproves the widely held notion that giant size, timeless rock is something of the past. This is as bold and accessible as Queen or Zeppelin in their prime. The passion and intense sculpting of this music is obvious even to a casual listener, and simply put, this is pretty much everything a classic rock fan could want. (Interview with Howlin Rain’s Ethan Miller)
Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons: Happy Book
How Jerry Joseph isn’t one of the most respected, well reviewed American rock musicians of the past 30 years baffles the Impound. This widescreen vision double album – roaring, philosophical, playful, rippling with muscle – should be on every Best of 2012 list, a Stateside answer to perennial critics darlings like Elvis Costello and Ian Hunter, except sparked by more punk energy than either of those chaps have possessed in decades. At times Happy Book comes across like a CNN broadcast hosted by Carl Jung and Joe Strummer – hyper intelligent and culturally savvy but brooking no bullshit, even one’s own, and making no bones about telling the truth as they see it. Joseph (guitars, vocals), JR Ruppel (bass, backing vocals) and Steve Drizos (drums, percussion, backing vocals) are arguably the least appreciated master trio in rock history, a unit that moves as one conjuring music that hums with their unspoken communication with one another. Here they’re bolstered by a choice guest lineup that includes Eric Earley (Blitzen Trapper), Jennifer Conlee-Drizos & Chris Funk (The Decemberists), Dan Eccles (Richmond Fontaine), Wally Ingram, Little Sue Weaver and Paul Brainard. The expanded sound works well and shows off the group’s greatest range to date, adding another significant song cycle to their already rich legacy. (Jerry Joseph Interview)
Damien Jurado: Maraqopa
Ten albums into a career is rarely when an artist produces their best, most fascinating work, but Jurado has long excelled at slipping free of expectations, following his muse wherever it might lead with little thought of holding onto what’s come before. However, Maraqopa takes thing further out while also solidifying his existing strengths, an intoxicating, unforced journey through finely crafted pop, experimental exploration, and bedsit folk with a modern gleam. In mood and sonics, Maraqopa sits nicely between Terry Reid’s River and John Martyn’s Inside Out, where an open heart meets an open mind and unexpected things emerge. Richard Swift returns to produce, building on the promise of 2010’s Saint Bartlett in a big way, the pair generating a grubby Wall of Sound that oozes into the crevices like musical mercury. And trust us this just gets better and better as you revisit it, continuing to surprise and tickle long after one might expect.
To call Liars an evolutionary group isn’t really accurate. Yes, they’ve changed a lot over the years but evolution suggests a contiguous trajectory, one step following another with what’s come before evident in trace characteristics. From album to album Liars are almost unrecognizably the same band except in their utter, nigh-vulgar commitment to go wherever their curiosity takes them. WIXIW (supposedly pronounced “wish you” – yeah, right) twinkles with Blade Runner-like shimmer, the soundtrack to one’s off world journeys to work in the New Colonies. It’s a great deal more inviting even in its grittier corridors than predecessor Sisterworld (2010), but like that album WIXIW doesn’t give up its secrets fast (or perhaps at all). One feels groped by technology and licked by human tongues, but it’s not always possible to figure out what they’re on about or how one fits into this music. That’s not to say WIXIW is off-putting – it’s actually quite groovy and a possible catalyst to white powered recreational adventures – but nothing comes easy for the listener, which is fairly characteristic for the Brooklyn trio. DI doubts the next album will sound anything like this one, but it’s a goddamn blast slipping into the future with this one in the present moment.
The Mars Volta: Noctourniquet
Anyone still expecting The Mars Volta to remake De-Loused in the Comatorium or Frances The Mute long ago left the real conversation about what one of the most consistently interesting and exciting rock acts of the past 25 years is up to. Noctourniquet is likely to really piss off such folks because it actively embraces melody, beauty and choruses you can sing along to. There are times in their catalog where as inspired and even brilliant as the music is it’s also a touch exhausting and maybe a bit of work, albeit for a good cause. By contrast, Noctourniquet flows, each track full of sweeping shifts but the progression of elements is organic, a rich buildup of ideas and sounds that envelops one. It’s the closest they’ve ever come to the endless (and frequently way off the mark) Pink Floyd tags they’ve garnered in their career, and Cedric Bixler Zavala has never sung with more romance and crooner seductiveness. The Mars Volta still isn’t likely to pick staunchly traditional rock fans, but it’s appealing to see them let go of some of the “otherness” that might have kept some folks at arm’s length. Framed another way, Noctourniquet marks the point where The Mars Volta discovered how to pulverize with a kiss instead of a steel-fisted beat down.
John Murry: The Graceless Age
”You say this isn’t what I am, well this is what I do, to warn your ghost away, I know you don’t believe in magic, well nobody does, not anymore…” This album will stop you in your tracks, and it won’t take long to do it. Murry has been a proverbial comer for the past decade, dropping one excellent album after another – DI particularly digs World Without End, his death songs set with Bob Frank – but The Graceless Age is one of the truest, most emotionally exposed albums we’ve ever encountered. To be really honest – warts and all, good and bad, shameful and prideful, kind and sincere – is rare in any art, and often such ballsy self-examination turns despairing in a hurry. But that never happens on The Graceless Age, which contends with some brutal topics – addiction and what loneliness and feeling lost can drive one to do, the ever present specters of mortality and loss – but shimmers with life, the music carrying the battle when Murry’s singing and sentiments falter. And such music! Think early John Prine and other foundational Americana crackling through a live wire charged with the same warbling shiftiness found in Radiohead’s best subtle moments. The late Tim Mooney co-produced this album, and it’s a hell of a note to go out on. Without ever drawing too much attention to any single element, The Graceless Age never stops being interesting to the ear. Some of the Bay Area’s best chip in here – Chuck Prophet, Tom Heyman, Sean Coleman and more – adding layers upon layers and stripping them back in a graceful ebb & flow. Murry sings in a voice caught between the life-saturated gravitas of American Recordings Johnny Cash and the matter-of-fact truth-telling drawl of Ronnie Van Zandt (and the gorgeous female counterpoint on Graceless Age further ups the Southern Gothic rock vibe). It’s a voice you pay attention to, leaning in to hear the hushed, hard-to-say secrets and stepping back when the blunt force of the words requires some distance (“Mama won’t tell you that love is a monstrous thing”). Not every album will change you – many of the greatest records fail in that regard – but allowed full sway The Graceless Age will, leaving one more tender and aware of the perverse duality of love, so fragile in some ways but also a force that draws us out of darkness and into the rough business of living. (Interview & Impounded Inquiry with John Murry coming soon) (The Graceless Age is currently import-only. The North American release with Evangeline Recording Co. hits March 5)
The Old Ceremony: Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide
There’s something so wonderfully smart and classy about Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s The Old Ceremony, who put everything together with such aplomb they make DI think of a pop-rock equivalent to the Modern Jazz Quartet, though with a black sense of humor and a knack for sneaky hooks and arrangements that camouflage the complicated, sometimes creepy thoughts inside their songs. Their fifth set and first for Yep Roc, a label with one of the most impeccable rosters today, further streamlines things, sharpening and editing so what stands is pretty damn perfect. Taking their name from Leonard Cohen, they do the lusty poet proud here by engaging with the mythology of daily life in a sweep that runs from a child dreaming of the stars above their room to that same child being tossed into the flow to sink or swim as fate would have it. Vibraphone, violin and other unorthodox instrumentation add sophistication to what is at the bottom a great rock band. In fact, this time out DI was struck by how they’re working a similar vein to Wilco at times, though with better singing and a less consciously manipulated sound. The places this goes are places we’ve all been in our path to adulthood, and chances are this will shift your perspective, albeit gently, to see things in a new light. (Impounded Inquiry with The Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins coming soon)
Anders Osborne: Black Eye Galaxy
Osborne (and his whap-ya-upside-yo-head collaborators, particularly main rhythm team drummer Eric Bolivar and bassist Carl Dufrene) make genuinely exciting music that hits the system like a shot of wheatgrass or zap from a cattle prod. This impact is present even when they slow down into the blues or a gentle love song on Black Eye Galaxy, where Osborne has finally condensed his voluminous live range into a potent studio equivalent. At every stage here one feels dealt with honestly, where nothing is held back as the musicians surrender to the music’s tidal pull. God is here, drugs too, and a whole lot else besides. One is sure to catch a glimpse of their own foibles and aspirations in these tunes. Fears are faced down and weaknesses acknowledged on Black Eye Galaxy, but love is quietly triumphant in the end, a harbinger of the healing process that’s begun for Osborne and hopefully for the rest of us black-eyed children, too. (original review)
Plants And Animals: The End of That
It begins with, “Love me now and leave me in the spring/ Sun done come and changed everything,” and concludes with, “I never dreamed we’d make it this far/ We’re running for our lives.” Everywhere one turns on The End of That – the pulsing rhythms, the sinewy, salacious guitars, the streetwise, experience-dappled words – there is motion. A gentle breeze that grows to a healthy wind emerges once you hit play on this fan-fucking-tastic Montreal trio’s third album. This music seems so right in every little aspect that it’s as if sprouted from the ground – earthy, appealingly green, well composted – which seems fitting given their moniker. Plants And Animals shares something with fellow under-appreciated rock trios Apollo Sunshine and The Slip, but frankly the Canadians serve up a sexier meal, just as brainy and musically robust as their compatriots but delivered with more hips and dips, a come-hither wink drawing us near. That would be enough to recommend this one, but it also happens to be eerily observant of the condition of Modern Man, chronicling our stumbling with wry empathy and a glimmer of hope, or as they put it, “Wishful thinking for the whole human race…or whatever.” (Plants And Animals Interview)
Pontiak: Echo Ono
A truly ridunkulous amount is packed into the compact boundaries of Echo Ono. Where earlier the trio let things flutter and whip, seeing what could be harnessed and manipulated in the maelstrom, this round they’ve tightened things to a streamlined edginess. This shift makes clear their quality songwriting – something sometimes lost on earlier efforts – and reinforces just how gutbucket powerful their playing is without having to resort to the excesses that mar so much befuzzed, psych-friendly rock. The Brothers Pontiak also explore some prettier places here, embracing melody and pushing the vocals further up in the mix than ever before. Echo Ono is confirmation that Pontiak is one of the sharpest young bands out there. They’re currently building their own studio to embark on the next record, and the Impound is officially stoked as fuck for what comes next. (DI Questionnaire with Pontiak)
Chuck Prophet: Temple Beautiful
Folks that leave a new Chuck Prophet record off their annual Best Albums lists either have terrible taste in rock or just aren’t paying very good attention. Prophet is a perennial pleasure, a rocker that does it all so well and looks cool doing it. Plus, he’s got one of the slinkiest, most distinctive voices (and phrasings) to hit rock since, well, that Presley chap kicked it off. Chuck’s so good he can make other greats step up to their best work ever (we’re looking at you Alejandro Escovedo). Temple Beautiful is par for the course, except maybe a little more so. Prophet and his great band – particularly Chuck’s wife and DI crush Stephanie Finch – have never swiveled and shaken quite like Temple Beautiful, a loose ode to his home base of San Francisco. Concept albums are usually a mixed bag at best but Prophet keeps throwing curves that get us swinging at a wide range of targets – politics, crime, and yes, baseball. He doesn’t yelp the words San Francisco to remind us of the unifying theme, instead approaching the subject with the diversity, divergence of opinion and feisty spirit that befit SF, its denizens, and history. This was a town that gold miners came to gamble, drink and screw, and Prophet snares some of that cantankerous, rowdy energy here as well as some of the romance that permeates the city. As ever, the man and his band do their town proud. (original review)
Rival Sons: Head Down
In spirit if not really sound, Rival Sons recall the arc The Black Crowes took on their first three albums: Arriving with a bang (2009’s Before The Fire) that felt classic out of the gate but still raw, the work of young men with something to prove but crucial lessons to learn; a sophomore album (2011’s Pressure & Time) that blows the debut out of the water, moving with sure prowess and tantalizing us with clever songs packed with real emotion and oodles of blazing guitar and irresistible rhythms; and now a third album that finds them reaching outside their comfort zones, shrugging off the classic rock mantle and finding sure-footed grounding in the here and now. On first listen Head Down didn’t seize the Impound by the ya-yas quite like 2011’s Pressure And Time, but after spending time with it, feeling the artfully angled aggression and enjoying the push and pull of it (the first mid-tempo ballad – something Rival Sons does better than anyone since the Crowes – doesn’t arrive until six tracks in), we think it’s their strongest set yet. It’s the complications, the un-careful forays into shimmy pop and other new twists that make this fascinating. Very much like the Crowes’ third Amorica, this album vibrates with possibilities to come. It’s a fine, highly enjoyable record in its own right, but what we’re hearing between the notes is the sound of a band coming into their own. Look out, Old Man Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rival Sons are coming for you.
Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
This is punk rock hiding in folk singer clothing. These hymns and fables are what sprouts when there’s rot in the system. The American Economy looms large in the backdrop here, as it does in society at large, and there are myriad reasons to be pissed off if you’re not one of the ethics-free jackals that have rigged the system to personally enrich themselves at the expense of any kind of remotely moral or reasonable social contract. Snider has a real talent for pantsing these blood suckers, and they are bare ass naked on Agnostic Hymns, where a world where “good things happen to bad people” is engaged with raw knuckled bravura. It’s not all railing against the machine – it’s never one thing with Snider – and we diverge into some crazy woman blues with Digger Dave and other characters, and the whole affair has a freewheeling rock vibe that’s tasty, the barefoot solo troubadour sounding increasingly at home with a beefy band at his back. However, the real knockouts delve into the anger one can feel thinking about how much more some folks have and resisting the urge to “kill this guy and take his shit.” This isn’t an incitement to violence but a calmative for it, something we can take that helps us put down the pitchforks and torches, our better angels actually better than these assholes, and lucky for them they are.
Stew & The Negro Problem: Making It
This album’s title functions on two levels, both a nod to success in show business and a wink to hooking up, and in this instance the two halves are interwoven, a creative and romantic relationship between Stew and vocalist-songwriter Heidi Rodewald at the center of Making It. While the romance is a thing of the past, this is the richest artistic offering yet from one of the smartest, funniest writing teams around. Gender, race and drugs all get run at it in enlightening and amusing ways here. Both possess interesting voices, seductive in the way they’re neither stage nor pop in character – though this song cycle began life as a theatre production – but lure one in with flair. The music is both raw and sophisticated like what Steely Dan might sound like if they didn’t over think every damn element, or even more music nerdy, an American counterpart to the Prefab Sprout that brought us Two Wheels Good. This album makes one think and chuckle, and only later does one realize the sting these nettles leave behind. (original review)
Tame Impala: Lonerism
Their website deck announces, “Tame Impala make psychedelic hypno-groove melodic rock music.” Sure, that’s the vibe, but given the army of Nuggets knockoffs around it shortchanges this Perth, Australia-based band by a lot. Actually, “band” is incorrect since the studio incarnation is just young mastermind Kevin Parker, who sang, played, produced and composed the lot save for a little keyboard help on two cuts from Jay Watson. That said, you’d never know it was a one-man show based on the lush layering and frisky energy on Lonerism, a title that hints at the Help!-like outcry couched in a vibrant musical, a complex outsider’s POV staring out from behind the swirl of colors. It’s one of several things that strongly remind one of John Lennon in his Beatles heyday. Parker’s voice is like something the Nowhere Man brought in from Strawberry Field, and the sly lyrical twists and vibrant production snap don’t diminish the impression. But, Parker is no mimic, and what one is picking up on with Tame Impala’s sophomore long-player is a talent that might be as giant size as Lennon’s one day. No telling yet with any certainty, but smart money says we’ve only begun to see the reach and depth of what Parker has to offer. (original review)
These United States: self-titled
It’s a point I’ve made before but it’s too apt in this instance not to repeat: Self-titled albums saying something about a band’s greater intentions. Sure, it may just be laziness for some artists to not title a record, but this far into the These United States’ story it’s safe to say singer-songwriter-bandleander Jesse Elliott knew what he was doing when he assembled this mission statement. From the blessedly crazed mock-old-timey map artwork on the sleeve to the pioneer spirit that informs many tracks, These United States is a cry for an America with greater compassion, more rollicking rock ‘n’ roll, and more heart in all aspects. For all the groups that get dubbed as heirs to The Band, TUS could be one of the prime contenders – if they ever wanted to actually vie for the title. Their big arms squeeze everyone, even the people they don’t like all that much because they need it the most. The music here is sinewy and rootsy, often kept moving in appealing ways by guitar and pedal steel whiz J. Tom Hnatow and drummer Robby Cosenza, one of percussions best kept secrets (but I’m letting it out because the dude is fucking money and he should get more gigs…same goes for Hnatow, who DI will have a Hey Shredder questionnaire with this week). This eponymous offering is saturated with history, death and dreams, a fitting chronicle for a country rich in all three.
Trampled By Turtles: Stars And Satellites
Dave Simonett is flat out one of the best songwriters to emerge in recent years. What he and this hyper-engaged, intuitive, drum-less acoustic combo are doing strongly recalls the early promise of The Eagles and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, where rock and twang bedded down in wholly satisfying ways. Yeah, there’s enough blue in their grass to snare the string pickin’ aficionados, but these songs are so universal in their reach that TBT isn’t meant to live in the folkie festival cul de sac. Simonett snares basic truths, fears and hopes in his songs, and the seemingly smooth but actually quite intricate music elevates the material further. TBT listens hard to one another, adding accents and commentary in ways that really adds up in the end. And while they can kick up dust as well as anybody, it’s when they ease into shadowy territory, simmering in places a lot of artists run from, that one sees the patience, talent and courage of this band fully revealed. Stars And Satellites is their current high water mark, but it’s a fool that thinks their tide level is gonna do anything but continue to rise.
When so much rock feels ridiculously domesticated, this collaboration between saucy, jail hardened 70-year-old Chicago soul rauncher Andre Williams and the ever-adaptable Sadies from Canada came off as positively dangerous. Spitting “niggers” left and right and calling out American on its disdain for the poor, Night & Day crackles with one overriding message: “Don’t. Fuck. With. Me.” Begun in 2008 when Williams was still using hard drugs, this scrapes like sandpaper and sticks like tar, the descendent of pre-Tina Ike Turner, Captain Beefheart and the barely controlled chaos of The Fall at their catchiest. There’s also a few convincing tips of the cowboy hat to country music, swelled by some sweet fiddle and Williams’ ability to land blows to the heart and mind that one doesn’t see coming. Think here backed by Brinsley Schwarz and you’re a good way to understanding the chocolate and peanut butter combo here. The band is all in, and Williams is given free rein to ramble with intent. Mean, clear-eyed, and ready to let some rum flow over its gums – that’s how one hears the witch when she howls according to Williams – Night & Day is straight game that bitch slaps suckers with impunity. (original review)