The Lullaby Pit’s Best CDs of 2010

Things fall apart, but the band plays on.

There have been a lot of years where the competition for CD of the Year was hotly contested, but I’ve always been able to make a call in the end. I think I probably got it wrong a couple of times (like in 1999 – as great as Godspeed You Black Emperor’s F#A#Infinity was, the passage of a decade’s time has made clear that The Pinetops’ Above Ground and Vertical was the better effort) but I made the call, nonetheless.

This year I just couldn’t do it. 2010 presented me with two CDs that, in the end, I couldn’t decide between. Part of the problem is that there’s a serious apples-to-oranges issue in comparing the two, but the bigger issue is that both records were just outstanding and deserving of the honor. So, for the first time since I’ve been doing my year-end Best of list, 2010 ended in a tie. Rejoice – we have twice as much incredible music to celebrate.

Fittingly enough, given that 2010 was the worst year ever, both CDs inhabit a lot of darkness. Mark Everett, aka E, and Eels explore the final chapter of a beautiful relationship gone bad and Munly, perhaps the most important member of the Denver scene, conjures a psychodrama from which there may be no escape.

None of it is terribly happy, but the best art often isn’t .

Brief format note: We’ll start with the CDs of the Year, then progress onto the Platinum and Gold LPs. The CD title will link to the AllMusic Guide or eMusic (where you can sample and click to buy, if you like it), followed by a brief comment or two by me.

Here we go.

Munly & the Lupercalians – Petr and the Wulf
If you aren’t familiar with what’s generally called “the Denver sound,” we probably should start there. The term describes a dark (in some cases, very dark) brand of American and Western gothic that draws on alt-country, folk, traditional Americana, bluegrass and gospel. As Slim Cessna (of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, one of the movement’s defining acts) has been known to suggest, it’s a lot more Western than Country, although if you dig deeply into the underbelly of Appalachia you’ll find headwaters that eventually feed both C&W and the Denver Sound. Bands associated with the Denver scene include The Denver Gentlemen, Slim, 16 Horsepower and the various incarnations of Jay Munly (solo, Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots and Munly & the Lupercalians, as well as the Auto Club, of which Jay is also a key member).

When I say very dark, I’m talking primarily about Munly, who is perhaps cranking out the bleakest music being made in America these days. Steeped in a madness borne of both cultural and personal isolation, Jay Munly goes places that make Blue Velvet look like an Up With People extravaganza. The thing is, CDs like Petr and the Wulf (a retelling of the Prokofiev tale) and 2004’s Lee Lewis Harlots outing are every bit as brilliant as they are disturbing. I admit to being not much of a reviewer, so I encourage you to have at these excellent takes from Embo Blake, Matt Schild and Inchoatia.

In sum, Munly retells the story from the perspectives of several characters: Peter, his grandfather, the wolf, the hunters, Duk, Cat, and Bird. While the musical styles vary from bouncy gypsyesque to spoken word to the light-hearted, flute-driven offering from Bird, the overall effect is remarkably unified – this is not a collection of disparate songs, it’s a coherent suite, a concept album of the first order. Put another way, it’s not a selection of thematically related poems so much as it is a long poem in eight sections. And I use the word “poem” for a reason. While I usually resist any suggestion that a particular songwriter is a poet (poetry and lyrics are very different things, by and large), the lyrics for Petr and the Wulf stand on their own in ways that are quite rare. The misspellings of the characters’ names – Petr, Wulf, Duk, Gradfater – are merely the tip of a syntax that strips the language down into a backwoods oral tradition whose musical quirks demand the listener’s attention.

Twisted themes abound. Petr rescues Gradfater from Bedlam and then they set about trying to save and restore their family by imprisoning each other. Bird tries to deal with his abandonment by being a friend to Scarebeast. Duk’s idea of salvation lies in being eaten by Wulf. Wulf is consumed by his perceived betrayal by the people of Lupercalia, but he seems less concerned with being the beast who wreaks havoc on them than he is in playing the martyr to shame them. And the three hunters come bearing a proposition that stands to leave the town in worse shape than before.

Abandonment and betrayal. No one is whole, nor is there any promise of deliverance that doesn’t promise still more betrayal.

There’s a good PhD dissertation to be had in unwinding the depths of Munly’s narrative, and perhaps another beyond that in contemplating the deep-lying humor insinuated throughout the Petr and the Wulf cycle. In the end, the CD is a dense, complex and deceptively intellectual exercise, a shadowy passion play that reveals a little more with each listen and probably will continue to do so no matter how many times you play it.

Eels – End Times
Most popular musicians have, at some point or another, done a love song. And a break-up song. And a god-it-hurts-so-bad song. These things are as predictably rock and roll as tra-la-las, la-de-das, braindead drummers and groupies with self-esteem issues. When a thing has been done a zillion times it becomes ritual, and one performance of a ritual tends to be much like all the rest.

But occasionally an artist finds a way to do something truly special in the space where others have merely done what others do. 2010’s End Times is such a case. To some extent I think we just expect exceptional work from E (at least I do – not everybody seems to get his understated genius), but even by his standards this album is something special.

In brief, a relationship has ended and the woman he loved more than anything is gone, and gone for good. We’ve all been there. This cycle reflects on and attempts to vent the pain, tracking from it’s the end of the world to it’s gonna be all right. It’s a lonely affair because he’s not a kid anymore – when you lose this woman it has implciations for the spiritual integrity of your life. At 20, she can be replaced (pay close attention to “In My Younger Days”). When you’re an adult what you have invested is essential to your humanity and it’s not clear that what is gone can be recovered.

Those who know me well might read that last paragraph and get a sense that I’m projecting a bit, and they may be right. 2010 was a disaster for me in nearly every way, a year in which I lost more than I knew I had to lose. So much of End Times feels as though it were written specifically about and for me, and I’m conscious of the ways in which that sort of personal identification can color a man’s objectivity.

But not every broken heart ballad of the year clicked for me, and the things that make E’s reflections on loss resonate so genuinely have to do with the details. In “Gone Man” he steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for the crash, he talks to the dog to stay sane (been there) and invokes the spectre of death in the form of a headstone and epitaph. He reaches out to the rest of us with “i take small comfort in a dying world/i’m not the only one who’s feeling this pain.”

In “A Line in the Dirt” he confronts the essential aloneness of who he is as a man:

i say “do you want to be alone?”
she says “no, i don’t wanna be alone,
but i think that you do”

In the title track he identifies closely enough with a crazy homeless man that it’s uncomfortable to listen to. His reflections on a suicide bomber in “Paradise Blues” are even more troubling:

kind of hard to blame somebody
for going to a better place
for thinking there’s some kind of magic
up there past outer space

“Unhinged” provides a glimpse of the nuanced battle we fight when things fall apart. He has accepted his culpability, but he also fights back against “a mean old girl behind her crazy eyes.” It’s important to him to understand the truth as fully as possible, and that means he can’t absorb all the blame.

i defy you to define me
in your crazy state
you don’t know which way is up
and it’s way too late
to ever fix all of the things
that you did break
not least of which is my heart

He follows with “I Need a Mother,” the moment where the excruciating depths of his own soul-searching is revealed. We’ve gotten deep into the self-analysis at this point, and no artist writes a song like this without paying a price. Then, in “On My Feet,” perhaps the most real touch on the entire disc:

i pushed the bed against the window today
so there’d only be one side
well it’s a little less lonely that way
but i’m still dying inside
when i wake up in the middle of the night
no one’s gonna tell me i’ll be alright

He concludes with the promise that he’s going to be all right – he just has to get back on his feet. And you know it’s true, but you also know that for a very long time it wasn’t all right and that he wasn’t sure that he could get back on his feet.

They say the devil is in the details, but sometimes angels live there, too. E’s salvation (revealed later in the year with the release of Tomorrow Morning) hinges on his willing to honestly read the details of the break-up as they were and to slog through the weeks and months and years of small pictures that, in the end, make up the big picture. If he hadn’t done all that, End Times would have been just another collection of tra la las. A beautifully crafted one, no doubt, but certainly nothing like the definitive break-up album he has produced here.


The Platinum LPs

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: I Learned the Hard Way
On the first Dap-Kings record the band sounded a lost recording straight outta 1970. Everything from the songs themselves to the instrumentation and arrangements to the gritty, no-fi studio production was designe d to mark the band as a neo-soul novelty act. An incredible neo-soul novelty act, mind you, but there was no reason to believe they had much in the way of sustainable long-term future ahead of them.

Then something happened. They started growing. They became less self-consciously defined by a hip moment four decades ago and allowed themselves to become a leader in the now-booming neo-soul/R&B revival, a movement that is, at its best, dedicated not to museum pieces, but to taking the bygone moment and updating it, making it something distinctly contemporary. It looked for awhile like Amy Winehouse was going to define this style, and Duffy is doing well for herself, too. But with each passing CD it becomes clearer that the real leaders of contemporary neo-soul are Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, a group that has gotten bigger, badder and slicker as their talent and confidence has grown.

I Learned the Hard Way is a mature, seasoned effort that surpasses anything the band has done before. They’ve expanded the range of instruments they bring to the game and Sharon, who has always been a stop-the-traffic singer, has grown even defter in moving between smoky bluesy heartbreakers (“The Game Gets Old”), twangy R&B dancers (“Mama Don’t Like My Man”) and ballsy soul ravers like “Money.” And the band ain’t never laid one down like the hard-living “She Ain’t a Child No More.”

Forget the novelty tag. SJ&tDK have been something special for awhile now, but with I Learned the Hard Way they have established themselves as one of the best bands in the world today, period. No matter which way the winds blow musical style and fashion, this is a band you’re going to gladly pay to hear for the rest of your life.

The Scottish Enlightenment: St. Thomas
Moody, with a knack for blending haunting minimalism with a rich ambience that fills the entire cathedral. The sad beauty that characterizes St. Thomas has a timeless feel about it, but it also manages to sound very contemporary. Shoegazer is a genre that’s been with us for going on 20 years now, and most of the bands working the style today fit more or less into three or four categories. However, since it’s a style that historically relies on noise and dissonance, it’s not something that has been readily given to the stripped-down lo-fi that characterizes so much of today’s indie.

It’s remarkable, therefore, that TSE can technically adhere to an indie aesthetic while intimating sound that isn’t actually there. For a hint of what I’m getting at here, pick up around the 2:30 mark of “Taxidermy of Love.” There’s a lush beauty thriving in the tension between music and negative space here that’s simply captivating.

Wonderful stuff….

Rabbit Velvet: Crows & Doves
Rabbit Velvet is Danielle Kimak Stauss, and some of you may know her as the former frontwoman for The Lost Patrol. When Danielle contacted me to announce a solo CD I was ecstatic, but I had no idea what to expect.

The CD that arrived was a revelation. My attempts to triangulate it led me to describe it to friends as both melodic and dissonant, “kind of like Imogen Heap meets Switchblade Symphony. With maybe some Goldfrapp and Kate Bush and Siouxie thrown in here and there.” The sound was crisp, ethereal, meticulously crafted, and cool to the touch. At the risk of sounding pretentious (and when has that ever stopped me?), Crows & Doves is like that girl you find in college who’s artistic, offbeat, and unconventionally pretty. When she looks at you she sees something that other people don’t see. She’s alluring but a little unnerving. It’s impossible to ignore her.

When Danielle explains, as she did in an April interview with S&R, that the whole CD was done on Garage Band, you have a whole new opportunity to think about the nature of the soul that is revealed through technology. I mean, we know that you can now do things on your desktop that a generation ago required very expensive studios. But the existence of the technology doesn’t automatically make you a producer, and powerful tools in inexperienced hands often do little more than emphasize the amateurism. Maybe there are more accomplished sets of ears than mine out there who can find reason to criticize, but all I hear is a deft, consistently appropriate hand on the wheel. She notes in the interview the debt she owes to Stephen Masucci, and those words are important here:

I also must give respect here to the master. I got to work with Stephen Masucci in The Lost Patrol for about seven years. I never worked with anyone who was so analytical, methodical and prolific about songwriting. I had understood basic music arrangement through schooling, and learning to play the flute, and singing in chorus as kid. Even in writing with all the other bands there was discussion of the elements that could make up a song – the beats, the verse, the chorus, the dynamics of things, and I learned a great deal every step of the way but, nothing comes close to working with Stephen. He taught me how to listen to everything, and try to analyze what was interesting, strong, and unique in music, even if it was something that you may not have listened to in the usual sense. He knows an immense amount about the qualities and physics of sound – it’s mind-blowing. He also knows a great deal about pop/rock music history. Really, there is no one like him on the planet. He is a genius and there is no escaping his effect…

The landscape of Crows & Doves is an iced-over forest sparkling with the whiteness of birds, haunted and challenging, forboding and seductive all at once. It’s a significant achievement and we can’t wait to hear what Stauss cooks up for us next.

Bettye LaVette: Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
As a rule I don’t include cover collections in my Best of lists, but Northern Soul legend Bettye LaVette’s latest goes way beyond covering the classic rock standards. She strips them to their bones and reconstructs them in the R&B/Soul mode, crafting a finished product that’s sometimes so far removed from the original that it might as well be a different song altogether.

At its best, these songs are as good as it’s possible to get. The disc leads with a gospel/funky take on The Beatles’ “The Word” that, in the words of the immortal Nuke LaLouche, announces its presence with authority. Zep wishes its version of “All My Love” had taken LaVette’s smoky low road, and the same goes for Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” She even adds some lyrics of her own to the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” and winds up with a gospel/social/political anthem that makes a pointed statement about our contemporary condition. “Nights in White Satin” is one of those reimaginings, like Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” or Space Team Electra’s “Paint It Black,” that makes you never want to hear the original again.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect a project like this not to miss a note or two somewhere, and I really do wish she had left “Wish You Were Here” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” alone. But when you’ve just clocked 10 in a row into the upper deck, the manager isn’t going to complain about a couple of ground balls.

The Birthday Massacre: Pins and Needles
A good friend, after listening to Pins and Needles, said that “this may be the one that puts them over the top.” Maybe. Although stylistically it’s hard to imagine something this steeped in glam-goth fashion is going to have major breakthrough potential. Still, let’s consider the things they have going for them:

  • fantastic tunes: check
  • a compelling look: check
  • powerful performers: check
  • commitment to building an audience through relentless touring: check
  • a dynamic, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her lead singer: check, check, and check again

So maybe. If Evanescence made some noise, there’s no reason that a darkpop/synthrock band as energetic as TBM shouldn’t. The best news is how really, really great the songs themselves are on P&N. I thought their songwriting on 2007’s Violet was outstanding, but they took a step back on 2009’s Walking with Strangers. This disc, though, features their strongest collection yet. In terms of sheer listenability, my Last.FM account says it’s the disc I listened to most in 2010, so that has to be some kind of recommendation.

By the way, the live show is a sight to behold. It’s the CD times a hundred. If they come to your town, go. Take earplugs, though.

New Young Pony Club: The Optimist
I just discovered NYPC this year (thanks to my buddy Mike Smith of Fiction 8), and I can’t honestly tell you that I loved their 2007 debut. It emanated from a twitchy corner of the Nu-Wave universe, one a little too given to the yelp and doofiness of the B-52s (the Beefs got away with it, but it’s an approach that doesn’t lend itself elegantly to imitation). In its best moments the first CD reminded me of Elastica – a very good thing – but those best moments were too outnumbered by not-best moments.

Something has happened, though, because this group has grown the heck up in the last three years: The Optimist is a far richer, more coherent effort than I could have expected. The yips are occasionally employed, but it’s for effect, not because it’s the only trick in the bag, and the range of the band’s songwriting and performing has expanded to the point where “Oh Cherie” almost plays like an homage to “Abacab.” On the other end of the spectrum are stripped-back neo-’80s synth-party-dance vamps, and its all carried off with aplomb by singer Tahita Bulmer, whose vox stylings recall both Justine Frischmann and Luscious Jackson.

I’m hard-pressed to recall when I’ve seen a band make this huge a leap forward between their first and second discs. It’s also been awhile since a CD grew on me so much over the course of a few months.

Two Door Cinema Club: Tourist History
It’s probably not completely unfair to call 2DCC the Phoenix of 2010. While it’s not enjoying the commercial success that Phoenix did last year (the disc has gone Silver in the UK, whereas Phoenix is now Gold in the US, Canada and Australia), Tourist History is so meticulously constructed and infectious in its performance it’s just about impossible not to be drawn in.

They remind me of a lot of great music from the early 1980s, although when asked about their influence in an interview last year they pointed to everything from “Stevie Wonder and John Denver to Kylie Minogue, At The Drive-in, Idlewild, Death Cab For Cutie and Mew.” Mmmkay. I might have expected a passing reference to XTC, Haircut 100 or maybe Style Council. That said, the Death Cab for Cutie nod is dead-on: not only are there songs that have distinct Death Cab moments, lead singer Alex Trimble frequently sounds just like Ben Gibbard. On the whole 2DCC is far more the pop band than Death Cab, though.

While we should always go in fear of the totalizing power of labels, Tourist History strikes me as perhaps the finest indie-pop disc of the year.

Eels: Tomorrow Morning
Mark Everett is unarguably one of our generation’s purest popular music geniuses. He’s literate, insightful, intuitive, humane and unusually intelligent. His sense for the craft of a song is, if we take the body of his nine Eels studio releases and his two releases as E as evidence, simply immaculate.

Lately he’s been prolific even by his standards: Tomorrow Morning is his third full-length CD in about 18 months, and it’s hard not read them as a narrative arc. 2009’s Hombre Lobo (a Platinum LP selection) was a marked break from E’s restrained chamber pop sound, a howling-at-the-moon collection of raw desire. His first CD of 2010, End Times, chronicled the gut-wrenching end to a relationship and it captured the anguish of desperation and loss as well as anything I’ve ever heard. Finally we get Tomorrow Morning, which I guess we might call the “it’s gonna be all right” album.

I’m tracking pretty closely with E these days. In roughly the same time frame I’ve faced soul-scouring desire, soul-stomping loss, six kinds of despair, and only now am I beginning to feel like maybe it’s gonna be all right. The problem with the emotional cycle here (and I imagine most of us have faced it at one point or another) is that it lends itself to false positives – you hurt so bad and for so long, and then there’s a lull in the storm and it’s easy to convince yourself that the storm is over. But those who live near the coast can tell you, that lull is called the “eye” and it just means you have a few minutes before the torrent begins again.

Tomorrow Morning is the real thing, though. He has reached a point where the storm truly has passed and the morning has dawned full of actual sunshine and the songs of actual birds. It’s going to be all right.

It’s a powerful message from an artist who lives the full extent of the emotions in his life and who does so with as unerring a sense for the authenticity of experience as you’ll find. He doesn’t shield himself from the pain, because if he did he couldn’t tell you about it honestly. And when the sun comes out, it wouldn’t shine quite as brightly.

Chatelaine: Take a Line for a Walk
I read somewhere that Toni Halliday, the former frontwoman for Curve, set out to produce a project in Enya’s general musical neighborhood. What she wound up with, as Chatelaine, is halfwayish between Curve and Enya, in the vicinity of Imogen Heap and Goldfrapp. If you think about Goldfrapp’s 2008 release, The Seventh Tree (and I try not to), which was their attempt at something more warm and organic than their usual icy electro-glam fare, you might imagine Talk a Line for a Walk as being what would have happened had The Seventh Tree succeeded.

There’s no mistaking Halliday’s dynamic voice, her sense of the dramatic or her feel for chord progression (especially noticeable on the CDs lead track, “Broken Bones,” which almost feels like an self-conscious bridge from her past work), but as the preceding paragraph suggests, what she’s after here is considerably less aggressive than Curve, more reflective, more approachable. “Cuddly” isn’t quite the word, but Chatelaine is softer, very at home with pianos and down tempo tunes that eschew the razor edge that defined so much of Curve’s best work.

I loved Curve. And I really, really love Chatelaine. It’s great to have Halliday back in heavy rotation.

The Lost Patrol: Dark Matter
This isn’t the first time The Lost Patrol has made an appearance in my year-end Best of list – in fact, it’s becoming something of a habit. Which is a little odd when you consider the challenges facing artists trading in narrowly defined styles. TLP is known for an ethereal, twangy spaghetti Western sound that invokes the likes of Duane Eddy, Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti. TLP provides soundtracks for cinematic, empty badland vistas at dusk, and it’s an oeuvre that’s not quite like any other artist I know of. One would think such a tightly defined sound would be inherently limiting and that after awhile it would all sound the same. Unlike the average indie band, there’s no way of veering off into something a little different without it jarring the expectations of the listener. If a Ben Gibbard wants to experiment a bit, the reaction is “hey, Death Cab is being experimental.” If TLP tries something off their established brand, the reaction is going to be “hey, where did TLP go?” It’s a whole other dimension of challenge than most bands face.

Somehow or another, though, The Lost Patrol has managed to remain who they are while finding interesting ways of growing and expanding. It’s hard to fully credit the enduring creative and technical genius of founder Stephen Masucci, and Michael Williams, who’s primarily the rhythm guitarist, shoulders a lot of responsibility in the way role-players always do in successful bands (I imagine this is especially true live because they seem not to travel with a rhythm section. Not that I’ve ever gotten to see them live because they never stop in Denver. Hint, hint)…

But a huge part of the reason for the artistic success of Dark Matter arises from the emerging versatility and songwriting prowess of Mollie Israel (whose mom is Amy Heckerling, by the way – I just found that out). This is the band’s second disc with Mollie at the mic and she has really made the gig her own – not bad, considering the band looked as good as done when previous vocalist Danielle Kimak Stauss departed after 2007’s excellent Launch and Landing. It’s unusual for a band to lose its defining singer and make a successful transition to a new front, but TLP has done it, and spectacularly.

Dark Matter is seductive in ways that bypass the consciousness. It’s intensely personal and shiveringly tactile, driven by Masucci’s epic, otherworldly guitars and an emerging gift for storytelling (such as we see in Israel’s “Justine,” my favorite track on the disc; there’s a level of maturity here that we tend to encounter only in artists who have been at it longer than Israel, who’s only 25. Oh, and sweet gods, the guitars – crank this track up to 11 and listen to what happens at the :53 mark).

Perhaps the thing that makes The Lost Patrol so vital is that there is literally nobody else like them. Their music is a unique, evocative experience that’s as sexy as it is starkly iconic.

Now they’re hard at work on what may well turn out to be a 2011 release. That kind of energy is fantastic news for the band’s fans.

The Gaslight Anthem: American Slang
The band’s exceptional debut, The ’59 Sound, was easily dismissed, if you wanted to dismiss it, as being a Springsteen knock-off and little more. While I don’t find that criticism (which I have heard, more than once) to be particularly fair, I can at least see where it comes from. It did sound a lot like Bruce, although not so slavishly as some might pretend.

Good luck dismissing American Slang, though. Yeah, Brian Fallon sounds a little like Springsteen and there’s no question as to the Jersey Sound influence (especially on the title track), but this CD is a lot more diverse than its predecessor. It’s soulful in places, it’s quite gospel in others, and it’s built on an unabashedly punk backbone from one end to the other. All these influences establish American Slang as pure Rock & Roll borne of all the roots influences that have defined American Rock. These songs are gutsy and nuanced, brash and thoughtful, and from the time you hit play they demand your attention. They twang on familiar strings, if you will, but never in ways that an honest listener could dismiss as derivative.

It’s been a long time since Rock & Roll was a cool term. Rock has fractured into a million sub-genres and these days all the acceptable stuff has to begin with “indie.” I suppose you could call American Slang indie-rock, but you’d just be flailing about for street cred if you did.

This is Rock & Roll, period. And it is brilliant.


The Gold LPs

This year’s Gold LPs seem to line up according to genre. Up first are two very worthy discs in the category of…

SHOEGAZER

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Beat The Devil’s Tattoo
I’m not sure I think the band has fully recaptured the verve that marked their first couple of releases, and I never much embraced their side trip into howling Americana. BtDT is darkish and more gritty than noisy, I suppose: one reviewer locates BtDT about halfway between those two moments in the band’s history, and that’s probably a fair summation. By now it’s hard to argue against the proposition that BRMC is one of the world’s very best bands. They have a distinct voice, a willingness to take chances, and lots of songwriting chops. A good combination that should serve them well for years to come.

The Black Ryder: Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride
One might argue that this Sydney-based outfit isn’t really doing anything new, but as we’ve noted before, there’s always value in doing a thing well no matter how many times it has been done before. So, in a nutshell, here’s some stripped-down black leather shoegazer with an occasional twanginess about it for flavor. Like all things truly cool, this CD is never in a hurry.

ROOTS

Jason & the Scorchers: Halcyon Times
Back in the ’80s there was this wonderful moment where, all at once, you had bands emerging from the same rootsy DNA and representing their particular corner of the country in ways that were clearly of a piece, but also distinctly regional. Boston gave us The Del Fuegos. NYC featured The Del-Lords and The Blasters. Maria McKee hauled her Southern C&W vibe vibe to LA and formed Lone Justice. Another part of LA produced Los Lobos. Wisconsin’s The BoDeans were brilliant for at least one record. My hometown had The Right Profile. And from Nashville came Jason & the Scorchers, the hardest working cowboys in rock and roll.

Through the years the Scorchers have come and gone, waxed and waned, comebacked and disappeared, with the occasional bit of solo hellraising from Jason Ringenberg in between. The unfortunate truth is that for all their talent and energy, they’ve never sustained their focus or managed to attract the size audience that they deserve. Hopefully this latest rampage, by far their best effort since maybe their 1985 debut, will change a bit of that. I know they’re oldsters and all, but when you consider the range of country, folk and Americana influenced indie out there getting far more attention than it deserves, surely there’s a market for guys that rock this damned hard.

ELECTRONICA

BT: These Hopeful Machines
It’s a little hard to explain BT, but maybe if I ask you to think about how Delerium managed to intersect New Age, electronic, ambient with club and soft rock (especially in their monster collaboration with Sarah McLachlan) you’ll get an idea. These Hopeful Machines is part club, part trance, part glitch, and in places part rock fusion, and the collaborations with Rob Dickinson are worth the price of the CD all by themselves. Sometimes DJ/Producer types put stuff together in the name of experimentation (or in the name of just trying to be different) and it doesn’t work because they simply don’t integrate. Putting things side by side isn’t the same as putting them together. But BT takes all these disparate elements and forges them into something that’s truly unified and absolutely joyful to listen to.

ROOTS/ROCK/POP/POWER POP

Graham Parker: Imaginary Television
A basic premise: imagine television shows that don’t exist, then write theme songs for them. Or something like that. As Mark Deming suggests in the review linked above, GP may not be as angry as he once was, but he’s no less cynical. Imaginary Television isn’t the ambitious, defining moment that 2007’s Don’t Tell Columbus was, but it is an excellent collection of intelligent, well-crafted and deftly performed tunes. Parker is really a marvel – how many artists manage work that’s this relevant 35 years after their debut?

The answer: not many.

Hanson: Shout It Out
Yeah, I know. Hanson kids blah pop cute mmmbop kiddies blah precious blah blargh. Let’s be clear on some things. First off, Hanson was never anybody’s put-up job. They were actual musicians and actual singers writing actual songs even as kiddies. And while they were cute and precocious, they were never prefabricated product.

Second, that was then and this is now, and Shout It Out just flat delivers. Tee up the lead track, “Waiting For This.” Then see if you can sit still through “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’.” Seriously. Hit YouTube and check the video, too – the Blues Brothers knockdown is more than a marketing gimmick – it’s a legit claim to a spot in a tradition that the boys (by the way, Zac is 25 now) have rightly earned.

From one end to the other, this disc is absolutely packed with fantastic songs and tight performances. Give it a chance. You’ll thank me.

The Well Wishers: Post Modern Romantic
As I’ve observed before, it’s easy enough to do power pop. Specifically, it’s easy to do it in ways that are derivative as hell. What’s tougher is to work a vein that’s been mined as thoroughly as the genre that probably begins somewhere in the vicinity of Buddy Holly, tracks through the Beach Boys, Beatles, Who, Big Star, Badfinger and Raspberries, flows on through fairly well-known names like The Posies and Matthew Sweet and empties out into the bottomless ocean that is the modern pop underground while managing to sound fresh and distinct.

Jeff Shelton (ex-Spinning Jennies) always does a nice job of it, though. 2008’s Jigsaw Days was fantastic and this year’s crunchy, catchy collection goes a long way toward reminding us why we fell in love with guitar pop in the first place.

Tame Impala: InnerSpeaker
Periodically somebody will send me a link to a band plying its craft in the world of “Psych Rock.” I’m usually underwhelmed. Either they can’t write songs, or they can’t quite master the delicate task of weaving signal through the noise, or they sound exactly like their favorite band, or they don’t sound lkek much of anything at all.

Tame Impala is a whole ‘nother case, though. They don’t let the conventions of the neo-fuzzy ’60s get in the way of the songs (which are actually quite well constructed) and they manage to reference their influences without falling captive to them. At various points something will remind you of Zep or Sabbath or perhaps Cream, and definitely the more psychedelic moments of The Fabs. This last part is what really sets them apart – the impact that The Beatles exert here assures a greater attention to songcraft than some of Tame Impala’s contemporaries exhibit. That makes all the difference in the world – if you were to attempt this sound without a dedication to song structure you’d be….well, a jam band, I suppose.

NEO-SOUL/R&B

She & Him: Volume Two
Full disclosure: I’m in love with Zooey Deschanel. With that out of the way, her debut collab with M. Ward wandered back and forth between a Dusty Springfield/white ’60s girl group vibe and an overt infatuation with all things Patsy Cline. On Volume Two Patsy is exiled and Zooey devotes all her attentions to the pure pop ingenue things she does so, so very well. It’s charming as hell, it’s alluring, its sexy and enticing, and I like it a lot. That said, like most ’60s-influenced pure pop, it hangs close to the surface. I can’t help feeling like Zooey has some more depth to her, and she has such a marvelous voice that I find myself wishing she’d take some chances and stretch herself a bit.

Maybe on Volume Three….

Don Dixon: Don Dixon Sings The Jeffords Brothers
In the Carolinas it’s called “Beach Music,” and it has nothing to do with The Beach Boys. Instead, it’s an amalgam of ’60s dance R&B (thing Four Tops, Temptations, The Tams, etc.) and a horde of revivalists who do new music in the same style (like The Embers, The Catalinas, The Band of Oz, etc.) One such band is Dip Ferrell and the True Tones. Best I can figure (because reliable bio information on this point is hard to find) the Jeffords Brothers are the songwriting force in the band, and are old friends of Dixon’s.

It’s no secret that Don Dixon is a friend and that I regard him as one of the great underappreciated legends of American music. And it probably comes as no shock at all to learn that I really like this disc. It’s nice to see people keeping this tuneful, party-time little regional neo-R&B tradition alive, and it’s pure joy hearing Dixon work his around such great pop gems.

Ah, I miss Myrtle Beach…

Duffy: Endlessly
Duffy’s debut was so fantastic, so hyped and so commercially successful (something like 8M copies) that expectations were bound to be through the roof for the follow-up. And historically, sophomore efforts have often slumped, even for the greatest of artists. I hate to call Endlessly a disappointment, though, because even though I don’t think it quite stacks up to Rockferry, I also think I’d like it a lot if I weren’t comparing it to Rockferry. And hey, a lot of critics like it a great deal…

In truth, the new release is probably more consistent (although I could certainly have done without a song insisting on keeping my baby – that’s been done, and famously; and don’t think I don’t recognize an “Unchained Melody” sendup when I hear one), but it lacks the memorable high spots (“Mercy,” “Stepping Stone”) of the debut.

In the end, though, this is a nice, well executed CD that has me wondering what she’ll do next. And as long as I’m looking ahead instead of slamming the door, we’re still on track.

Lucky Soul: A Coming Of Age
Given the vibrancy of the current neo-soul/R&B revival (and the number of acts involved in it) it’s a little hard to understand why more attention hasn’t been paid to one of the genre’s very best bands, Lucky Soul. Stylistically they live closer to the Dusty Springfield end of the spectrum than to the James Brown end, and in many respects are probably better and more consistent than the similar, but far more famous Duffy.

Their sophomore effort, A Coming of Age, is certainly superior to Duffy’s Endlessly in every single way – better songs, better performances, more consistent, higher highs, and so on. Catchy, pristinely produced, alternately swanky and vulnerable, but confident in the end, Lucky Soul’s latest really leaves only question: what next?

NU-WAVE

Nothing Rhymes with Orange: The Happiness Struggle
I’ve always wondered why so few people seem to know about NRWO. Maybe they’re put off by the name, and if so, that’s understandable. However, these guys have been around for several years, cranking out some of the more tuneful, atmospheric neo-’80s wave pop in the country. There’s nothing critically earth-shaking going on with The Happiness Struggle, just a very tight collection of indie-pop that fans of The Killers, MGMT and The Mary Onettes might appreciate.

The Flaws: Constant Adventure
The Flaws caught me a little off-guard with Constant Adventure. Their previous release fit neatly with bands like Interpol and Editors, and I was expecting more of the same. Instead, I encountered a CD that frequently makes me think more of Death Cab. This isn’t universally the case – tracks like “Make Good” remember their ’80s roots, but the band does appear to be interested in broadening its sound and evolving. I’m not sure I think they’re quite there yet, as the overall effect is uneven in spots, but Constant Adventure is certainly worthy of a Gold LP and I’m really looking forward to hearing where this particular creative journey takes us on their next release.


EPs of Note

As a rule we only rate full CDs, but there were some awfully nice (and promising) EPs coming across the transom this year.

Able Archer: Arc 01
The new project from Splitsville frontman Matt Huseman, Able Archer, sounds precisely nothing like Splitsville. Yeah, the pop sensibility is still there, as is the unyielding attention to detail, but Arc 01 (which is the first of three arcs that are going to eventually comprise a full CD, I’m told) sounds more like Radiohead and Coldplay, with at least one part that reminds me a lot of Queens of the Stone Age. It’s all very cool, as it tries to find itself, and this comes from a guy who doesn’t like Coldplay and who doesn’t listen to much Radiohead if it can be helped. I’m very much looking forward to the next two sections in 2011.

DoCo: Snow Clone EP
The Booth Brothers can by god play. As a rule, they tend to be fascinated by musical styles that I couldn’t care less about, but Snow Clone features what I think is the best song they’ve ever written. And, did I mention that they can by god play?

Snake Rattle Rattle Snake: Self Titled
My initial point of reference to SRRS is Kit Peltzel, who was the drummer for the late great Space Team Electra. SRRS is a little different animal, although it does lean toward a dark, ethereal moodiness. I’ve heard singer Hayley Helmericks compared to Grace Slick and I can’t say that I think that’s unfair. It’s a commanding, self-aware voice and it works nicely over the top of a trancy, tribal rhythm attack. I’ve heard enough tracks here and there to think that a full-length release can’t be far away. I hope.

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