Lullaby Pit’s Best CDs of 2012
Usually, when I put together my year-end music roundups, I have identified a theme or two and am able to sort of construct a series that tells a larger story. 2012 was weird, though. I’m sure there were themes, and perhaps they’ll become apparent as I look back with the benefit of time and distance, but I’m damned if I’m really seeing any of it right now. Which is strange, given the whole Mayan Apocalypse thing. Instead, 2012 felt more like a holding pattern year.
To be sure, there were plenty of worthy CDs and they span, as always, a range of genres. So without further ado, let’s dive right in, and we’ll begin with the Honorable Mentions. And, as always, a caution: I love music and I write about music, but I am not a reviewer. Apologies in advance for not being Lester Bangs.
Best CDs of 2012: Honorable Mention
The Explorers Club: Grand Ballroom
If you’re in a mood to be dismissive, it’s easy enough to write TEC off as a bunch of imitators and revivalists. And that they definitely are. If you’re of a more charitable bent, you might instead prefer the word homage. Whatever it is, damn, are they good at it. Grand Ballroom plays like a long lost Pure Pop gem from the mid-1960s, laden with delicious Beach Boys-esque harmonies and sunny horn arrangements and songs Burt Bacharach wishes he’s written.
I won’t tell you that it’s critically ambitious high art, but I will tell you that it’s marvelously executed and a genuine pleasure to listen to.
Tamaryn: Tender New Signs
How do you feel about unapologetic, unreconstructed early ’90s Shoegazer? This New Zealand duo hits you with a lush wall of fuzz that draws heavily from Cocteau Twins and the Emma Anderson half of Lush’s output, and if I played it for you and told you it was from a long lost 1992 album by a band you’d never heard of, you’d believe me.
Shoegazer is easy to do, but hard to do well, even if you’re actively working to ape a known formula. As is true with any other style (well, except for Jam Bands), there’s simply no way to fake your way through weak songwriting, and this is what makes Tender New Signs click. The distortion is built on a solid melodic infrastructure and Rex John Shelverton’s guitars weave beautiful threads through the tapestry of glorious noise.
Two Door Cinema Club: Beacon
I loved their debut and was anxiously awaiting Beacon. There’s a wonderful new breed of Indie Pop making a name for itself out there, and TDCC slots in nicely alongside the likes of Phoenix and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in carrying the standard.
When Beacon arrived, it wasn’t quite what I expected. Beautifully crafted and produced, there’s not a false note anywhere. Still, they may have overcorrected a tad. Heather Phares nails it, I think:
Two Door Cinema Club returned with Beacon after a couple of years touring in support of their debut album, Tourist History. While that set of songs was already pretty sleek thanks to the production skills of Eliot James, the band opted to polish things further with the help of Jacknife Lee, who has worked with R.E.M., U2, Snow Patrol, and plenty of other epic-sounding artists. With Lee’s assistance, the band made Beacon a more sophisticated-sounding set of songs: witness the clever chord changes and harmonies on “Next Year,” the more prominent electronics on “Wake Up,” the intriguing percussion on “Pyramid,” and the big brass swells on “Sun,” which make the song a knowing nod to the band’s ’80s influences. However, this polish comes at a price, and much of the nervy, scrappy energy that made Tourist History so appealing is missing from Beacon. Songs such as “Handshake” are never less than pleasant examples of the band’s bright, bouncy dance-rock, but they’re not particularly distinctive; on the other hand, attempts to rock harder like “Someday” aren’t entirely successful either — the guitars don’t just sound heavy, they sound weighed down, and the gulf between them and Alex Trimble’s soothing vocals is nearly as big as the disconnect between the music and Beacon‘s borderline-saucy album cover.
In other words, as good as Beacon is, there’s not an “Undercover Martyn” or a “Something Good Can Work” here, and we’re the poorer for it.
Van Halen: A Different Kind of Truth
No, this isn’t 1984. But it is a lot better than I expected when I first heard about the Roth/Van Halen reunion, particularly given all the pointless wanking about since they decided they could no longer coexist back in 1985. (Wow. Has it really been that long? Damn.)
While there’s a certain amount of filler here and there, there are also spots where Eddie sounds more or less like the Eddie of old – yes, he can still play – and the grinding, ballsy, synth-free back-to-the-demos ethos might make you at least momentarily forget that Sammy Hagar ever happened.
And the political side of me can’t help loving “Tattoo” especially for that last verse:
Uncle Danny had a coal tattoo
He fought for the union
Some of us still do
On my shoulder is the number
of the chapter he was in
that number is forever like
the struggle here to win.
Best CDs of 2012: The Gold LPs
The Birthday Massacre: Hide and Seek
I don’t know that you’d characterize anything TBM has released as bright and chirpy, but Hide & Seek is arguably darker than what we’re used to, at least thematically. Musically, our favorite Toronto Industrial/Goth rockers are working familiar enough ground: grinding, crunching and loud, while at the same time remarkably melodic, they manage to channel the doomed romanticism of nuclear generation ’80s radio pop through a sonic onslaught that is very, very modern. As for the tunesmithing itself, I still feel like they haven’t quite matched the verve of 2005’s Violet, but they set the bar pretty high with that one, didn’t they?
They haven’t released an official video yet, but here’s some pictures and the lead single, “Down.” If you don’t know their music, you’ll get the idea.
Alex Clare: The Lateness Of The Hour
You’ve heard Alex Clare this year. Even if you don’t know it, you have, because his people licensed everything on this disc to just about any advertiser with a few bucks in their pocket. Hard to fault him, though – TV shows and ads are the new radio, and there’s no telling how many people went running to iTunes after hearing a riff from “Too Close” or “Up All Night” in a commercial.
Crass commerce-driven product marketing notwithstanding, this is a damned fine CD. It’s easy enough to classify him with with a legion of other emerging neo-Soul stars (think Adele or Duffy or Sharon Jones here), but what sets Clare a bit apart is how his sound is informed by electronica. Yeah, the songs are clearly indebted to ’60s and ’70s R&B, but this is the farthest thing from revivalism. Slick and contemporary, yet thoroughly soulful, this is about as great as commercial pop gets in this day and age.
The dB’s: Falling Off the Sky
Let’s see, it’s been how long since we heard from alt.Jangle Pop pioneers The dB’s? Well, 15 years since the last release, and 25 years since we had an album from the original lineup. Once upon a time Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple (who later came to be regarded as the unofficial fifth member of REM), Will Rigby and Gene Holder were unwitting canaries in the music industry coal mine. Great things were happening with younger bands, but radio wanted no part of it. Hell, the sainted REM was on their sixth freakin’ album before programmers would touch them. So The dB’s had to leave the US and go to Europe to establish a reputation, and there have been few bands in history who ultimately failed to get their due quite like these Winston-Salem, NC natives.
But enough history lesson from the grumpy old man. Falling Off the Sky is a scintillating comeback, highlighting the songwriting and deft musicianship we remember them for, but at the same time demonstrating for us what it means to age gracefully. In short, this CD sounds exactly like The dB’s, only more mature. If there’s a tad less edge to the sound, it has been more than compensated for by a clear emotional depth and polish. If you’ve ever met up with a friend from your youth after 25 years, only to find that he or she was the same but better, this is that record.
Fun.: Some Nights
I remember this cool little Indie band from Phoenix a few years back called The Format. Did a couple really good records and also knocked down a parody called “Fake Talking Heads Song” that’s as funny and deadly a spoof of David Byrne and Company as it’s possible to imagine. That front guy Nate Ruess would wind up in something as ambitious, as theatrical, as occasionally over-the-top and as commercially successful as Fun. frankly never occurred to me.
We do not live in an age where real rock stars aim high, swing for the fences or otherwise engage in overtly generation-defining anthemic behavior. No, that’s the domain of prefabricated, reality show-driven corporate pop. Serious artists “keep it real.” But there are moments here where we’re clearly dealing with very talented artists dabbling in the sorts of larger than life artistry that might evolve, in 20 years or so, into the Millennial generation’s version of Classic Rock. Quoth Tim Sendra:
On songs like the lead single “We Are Young” or the rollicking “All Alone,” he provides a very human core that grounds things even as the music builds to ornate crescendos. Indeed, the album is really, really big sounding and could easily have ended up collapsing under its own weight and pretension, but the opposite happens and Some Nights takes flight instead. The songs are both anthemic and human-sized, the heartfelt words and naked emotions are never buried, and the music is uplifting, not overpowering.
That Ruess is able to collaborate with Hip-Popper Janelle Monae without pandering is also impressive. These days it seems like white artists feel compelled to do a track or two with a rapper, perhaps in hopes that it will lend some urban grittiness or street cred. I don’t know. Usually these efforts outright suck, and in the best of circumstances they interrupt the continuity of the CD. Here the imminently talented Monae is deployed so organically that it actually improves the entire production. More of that, please.
Garbage: Not Your Kind of People
The last couple Garbage discs engaged in a variety of stylistic explorations, even including such out of character moments as “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go),” a nifty little bit of ’60s girl group riffing from Beautiful Garbage. None of that here. If NYKoP reminds you of the band’s previous work, it’s more likely to be the first two releases. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it:
Unlike their two W administration-era albums, there is no grappling with new sounds and styles, only an embrace of the thick aural onslaught of “Stupid Girl” and “Vow.” Garbage have homed in on their essence and are unafraid to revive memories of their past glories. Old pros that they are, they’re able to deliver their hooks cleanly and efficiently, accessorized in just enough ruckus to cut through the murk. There is no evident flab in either the composition or production; the album avoids the moody detours that sometimes bogged down their latter-day records, and there is a noted emphasis on the pure, simple power of melody. Every hallmark of Garbage is here, the only concessions to their advancing age arriving via Shirley Manson’s keenly aware lyrics, leaving the rest of the record to stand as a simultaneous testament and revival of their strengths.
I’m not sure I think the songcraft is as strong as I’d like it to be, but the bottom line is that while so many of the bands that defined the ’90s alt movement have faded away, Garbage has remained vital and viable, even as the music industry has chosen to ignore them as best it can.
Gossip: A Joyful Noise
Beth Ditto & Co. have pretty well established themselves as the Indie dance party band of the day, sort of like The B-52s were back in the ’80s. Here, though, the band moves rather deliberately in a more polished, commercial-friendly direction. Underneath the stylized gloss the meticulous attention to hooky song structures remains and A Joyful Noise is uninterrupted groove from one end to the other. But there’s little hint of their gritty punkish history, and much of Ditto’s sassiness has been switched out for what I guess I’d call a wistfulness and, if the term is really applicable to a dance pop disc, reflectiveness.
If you’re married to Gossip’s early sound, this disc might put you off. If you’re okay with your grungy party divas putting on some lipstick and going clubbing uptown, though, A Joyful Noise is a real treat.
Lee Fields & The Expressions: Faithful Man
Lee Fields has been around forever, and if you never heard of him, don’t feel bad – I hadn’t either. But thanks to the whole neo-Soul movement, we’re not only hearing young artists influenced by the Soul and R&B gods of the 1960s and ’70s, we’re actually seeing the revival of the careers of some of those original artists (Bettye LaVette is another one, for instance). Hal Horowitz at AMG describes his sound this way:
While his early material was heavily funk influenced, Fields has since shifted into an alternately gruff and tender world-weary soul belter/crooner; think more Wilson Pickett than James Brown, although there is a bit of JB’s rasp in his seismic singing.
Without making too much of an issue of it, let’s just say that Faithful Man is hands-down the make-out CD of the year.
Ida Long: Walk Into the Fire
Singer, dancer, and front for Baron Bane, the Swedish outfit that earned a Platinum nod for last year’s LPTO. Ida’s solo disc is a bit darker and moodier tonally, more Auraphonica than Indie Pop, and leans far more intently into the Kate Bush influence that I have noted in the past. It’s certainly fair to say that WItF is an artier effort, one distinctly in line with Ida’s parallel career in modern dance.
It’s a beautiful, thoughtful project that rewards the reflective listener, although it works wonderfully as an ambient mood-setter, too.
Let’s get this out of the way: I think I’m in love with Emily Haines. There’s a certain breed of intelligent female-fronted pop that draws on the ’80s, contemporary synth-pop and Electronica, not afraid of the occasional minor chord and willing to wear its somewhat-jaded-yet-still-hopeful-romantic heart on its sleeve that I’m just a complete sucker for. In thinking about artists like Haines, I can’t help reflecting that had she been born a few decades earlier her only hope of being heard would be to fall in with with a svengali who’d control her every move, writer all her songs, pick out her wardrobe, tell her where to be and when, and maybe pay her a few bucks if the record sold and she didn’t cause trouble. One of the greatest accomplishments of the past couple of decades has been the way our culture has unchained these voices and given them license to tell their own damned stories.
It’s probably not fair to make Metric into some kind of feminist manifesto everywoman, especially since there are three guys who have some input into things, as well, but the emotional honesty in Haines’s songs (the CD begins with “I’m just as fucked up as they say,” which is how you say hello when you’re not interested in small talk) is inherently compelling.
The worst thing you can say about this CD is that it’s really a lot like the last one. True, it doesn’t set out to remake the band’s brand, and in this case why should it? If they’re still recycling the same old same old in ten years, fine, but for now I’m good with tuneful, thoughtful, and genuine.
of Verona: The White Apple
If you like Metric, you might want to give of Verona a listen, too. There are clear stylistic similarities: strong female lead, electro-tinged pop, etc., although this emerging LA band draws far more heavily on old school Trip-Hop of the Portishead variety (they might also remind you of the first Supreme Beings of Leisure CD or perhaps Girl Next Door, maybe even Frou Frou, and these are all good things). Mandi Perkins concerns herself with the inner landscape of emotion lyrically, but her vocal delivery is hardly retiring: rich and assertive, she’s confident that what she’s thinking and feeling is relevant and worthy of your attention.
Odds are you haven’t heard of Verona before (or even heard of them). They’re definitely worth a spin.
Silversun Pickups: Neck of the Woods
I frequently find myself disagreeing with the real music critics of the world, and while I sometimes think they’re idiots, I try and respect the informed opinions of those who listen to even more bands than I do and who write about it for a living. This is one such instance. Matt Collar at All-Music thinks Neck of the Woods is a step up from Swoon, which earned a super-platinum nod in my 2009 wrap-up. Here’s his take:
Building upon Swoon’s layered melodicism and once again showcasing lead singer/songwriter Brian Aubert’s knack for evocative, introspective lyrics and fiery, multi-dubbed guitar parts, Neck of the Woods is an even more infectious and nuanced affair.
Well, there’s no arguing the core of his argument, and we do agree that this is a very good CD. Still, I was more persuaded by the songwriting on Swoon, which I thought hit some very high spots, and I thought the sonics were more immediate and compelling. Silversun Pickups are sort of equal parts Smashing Pumpkins and early ’90s UK Shoegazer – fuzzy and moody, fusing melody and aural dissonance in ways that aren’t always intuitively obvious, but which bloom into a gestalt that manages to be far more than the sum of the parts.
I’m keenly aware of the fact that I seem to be talking down this disc, and I don’t mean to. I guess I’m saying that I like it a lot, although I loved its predecessor. However, my guess is that the critical consensus is against me, which means you might like it even more.
Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania
Like most folks, I haven’t invested much energy in keeping track of Billy Corgan in about 15 years. He’s done some work under the SP banner and a bit more under his own name, and when I have heard snatches of these projects I’ve quickly tuned out. However, in Oceania we have what’s certainly his best work since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and I’m about convinced that I think the 2012 release is even better. AMG calls it “an exuberant, gloriously melodic, fluid return to form for Billy Corgan,” and I have to agree.
Conceptual conceits aside, these are some of the most memorable and rousing songs Corgan has delivered since 1993’s Siamese Dream, the album that Oceania most closely mirrors in tone and aesthetic. Which isn’t to say that Corgan is treading old ground; on the contrary, there is something fresh and inspired about the songs on Oceania.
Here’s hoping that Corgan is back for an extended stay.
The eagerly awaited follow-up to the 2009 Dhani Harrison (yes, that Dhani Harrison) and Oliver Hecks debut leaves me a little conflicted. On the one hand, they’ve remained true to the course they set three years ago, engaging in thoughtful contemporary excavations of the ground that Massive Attack broke back in the 1990s. On the other, I don’t quite know what to do with the pointless collab with RZA. I know, I know. Massive Attack had Tricky. But at that moment in time we were seeing innovative explorations of an unfolding new genre, whereas these days it seems like … well, see what I said above in my comments on Fun. I don’t know that it’s fair to accuse Harrison of pandering in the way the entire corporate pop machine does, but it would be easier to see artistic merit in it if it went somewhere. As such, these moments feel like stapled on sidetracks that derail the flow of an otherwise pretty good CD.
Bitching aside, it has to be observed how very rarely the children of major artistic superstars ever accomplish anything of merit in their own right. Oh sure, they all get chances because they grow up with every advantage and their rich and famous parents are good for bankroll and connections. George Harrison’s boy is the exception, though. thenewno2 is every inch worthy of the famous father’s legacy and it’s not hard at all to imagine landmark creative moments in Dhani’s future.
The Well Wishers: Dreaming of the West Coast
As Bill Kopp’s worthy review linked here indicates, the really hard thing about being a Power Pop artist is staying within the well-tread stylistic boundaries without being derivative. A lot of bands can write a great song, but it’s a rare talent who can write albums full of great songs without it all getting repetitive.
Enter Jeff Shelton, whose music I’ve been enjoying for years. I love a hooky, tightly wound 3:30 guitar pop song and immaculate harmonies, and when the next track is somehow what you came for but not exactly what you were expecting, it’s hard to get bored. Here he runs a stylistic gamut, from the bouncy, jangly “Now and Then” to the garagy crunch of “Allison” to the Rundgrenesque piano ballad “Tonight.” In doing so it becomes clear that the artist himself is keenly aware of the genre’s boundaries and limitations, and is paying a great deal of attention to the task of keeping it fresh.
Best CDs of 2012: The Platinum LPs
It should come as no surprise that my Platinum list covers a lot of stylistic territory. Or that most listeners out there probably haven’t heard of a number of these acts – most of the best music being made these days plays for far smaller audiences than it deserves. Still, artists are going to express themselves. Let’s give them a listen. Onward.
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
This one is on a lot of year-end lists. Maybe all of them. Their brand of bluesy, muscular retro-Southern Soul is the sort of thing that authenticity-seeking audiences and critics alike are bound to flock to. Comparisons to The Black Keys and Sharon Jones are more than fair – in fact, I’d love to hear Brittany Howard collaborating with Jones – that could be something special. Hell, add Lisa Keukala of The Bellrays to the mix and point me to the pre-order form.
Boys & Girls is an odd one for me, though. I respect it and fully get its value at a critical level,
but I didn’t like it as much as I did most of the rest of the discs on this year’s list. But that’s the way it is – sometimes the heart and the head disagree, and when that happens you can’t let taste get in the way of giving due credit.
Bat For Lashes: The Haunted Man
I discovered Natasha Khan late in the year and can’t say I fully have my head around The Haunted Man just yet. But what hooked me in was, I suppose, the intricacy of her songs. There’s a fragility and sparseness to the whole proceeding, the delicate arrangements crafted so as to never obscure the melody or the message. I tend to detest the plinky lo-fi affectations afflicting so much contemporary Indie, but with Khan, the minimalism goes in service of artistry – there’s not much you could change that would improve things.
There are a lot of next-generation Kate Bush devotees recording these days. Not many of them are striking this fine a balance between her avant and pop sides, though.
wrestled before trying to caption it, and the closest I’ve heard anyone come is “Americana-noir.” Tony Hamera’s arrangements draw on a variety of distinct Americanisms (from “Palisades Park” style organs to surf to jangly Southern gothic guitars lifted straight from mid-1980s Peter Buck, with a little psychedelia sprinkled in for flavor) and, if you’ll indulge a fit of poetic fancy, Kate Hinote’s panoramic vocal style, equal parts intimation and evocation, shimmers like a mountain lake in the blue hour. A bit much? Sorry. Still, a sweeping, minor-key romanticism permeates every corner of Stealing the Moon, rich and layered and textured, as unconditionally committed to heartbreak as it is to love. When the Rust Archives review linked above references Patsy Cine, Roy Orbison and “David Lynch-esque Blue Velvet world of dark shadows, cigarette smoke and strong liquor” they’re really onto something (minus the seething undercurrent of menace native to a Lynch project).
The Blueflowers were on my Platinum list for 2011, too, and at one level it’s easy enough to say that if you liked that one you’ll like this one. However, In Line With The Broken-Hearted is a raw confessional, a tight cycle of songs devoted to closure. I’d love to hear the backstory, but suffice it to say that when relationships go wrong, we hit a point where we have to cleanse ourselves by saying what must be said. Maybe we say it to our ex’s face, maybe it becomes a series of poems in an as-yet unpublished book [ahem] or maybe we write an album about it.
After all the purging, we end Stealing the Moon on a sweet note, albeit one that reaffirms the willingness to internalize the pain around us:
sing me a story how you’ll steal me the moon
while i dance in its beams
a painter and poet with a spell
without it where you would you be?
when the pieces fall down around me
there’s your hands
but it goes by so fast that we barely have time left
seek out your lonely where they rest
give them just a tasting
if i could only be myself
i could keep all their pain for me
The 2011 release was also a little more given to what, once upon a time, we’d have called the “singles” (that was back when radio stations would play tracks by actual artists). Only “Hole of Sorrow” (and perhaps “My Gun”) from StM really stand alongside “Hesitate,” “The Lovely Ones” or “In Line With the Broken-Hearted” as potential jukebox-fare, but Stealing the Moon makes up for it with consistency and perhaps even a little more thematic depth. Tony and Kate recently welcomed their first baby, and if that in some way lent an extra measure of maturity to their work, so be it. We rarely complain about art borne of emotional maturity around here, do we?
Chromatics: Kill for Love
At first listen I didn’t think I was going to like Kill for Love (despite how much I dug 2007’s Night Drive). It kicks off with a bang (figuratively, not tonally), offering up a narcotic cover of Neil Young’s classic “Hey Hey My My,” here retitled, appropriately enough, “Into the Black.” If you recall what Cowboy Jumkies did for “Sweet Jane” (and if you’re one of the few people on the planet fortunate enough to hear Space Team Electra cover “Paint It Black”), that’s the territory we’re in here.
After that the disc sort of wafts away into the ether, a pleasantly languid sort of comfortably numb soundtrack that was fine for the background while I was working. After about 15 spins, though, the wheels caught. I can’t honestly say why it took so long. Maybe I was just distracted by other things and not paying sufficient attention, but there’s a lot more going on here than I realized. AMG sums it up neatly: “atmospheric, deeply stylish aural landscapes in pop song silhouettes, and darkly glistening electronic ‘pop’ infused with post-punk’s steely, nihilistic ennui.”
Maybe it’s that ennui thing. Take these lyrics from the title track:
Everybody’s got a secret to hide
Everyone is slipping backwards
I drank the water and I felt alright
I took a pill almost every night
In my mind I was waiting for change
While the world just stayed the same
Everybody’s got a secret to hide
Everyone is slipping backwards
I can’t remember if I like what I said
I can’t remember it went straight to my head
I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed
I put a pillow right on top of my head
But I killed for love
I said at the top of part 1 that I hadn’t really uncovered a theme for the music of 2012, that it seemed to be a “holding pattern” kind of year. Here we have a nice expression of that sentiment (and an intimation of the psychic toll it takes), don’t we? Maybe holding pattern isn’t just a descriptive for the year past, maybe it’s an active thread, characterizing a world waiting for something to happen. Underneath the ennui, though, we still care, desperately and passionately. We anesthetize ourselves because it’s the only way to deal with an endless stream of dead end days.
Apologies if I’m projecting, but it’s something to think about. Preferably while listening to Kill for Love.
The Gaslight Anthem: Handwritten
All young bands start out imitating their heroes. Slowly but surely they assimilate and grow, and the good ones eventually reach a point where they have internalized their influences and emerge with a sound that is distinctly their own. The ones who aren’t that good wind up playing Holiday Inns.
TGA is one of three major bands in recent years to find themselves confronting their significant Springsteen influences, the others being Marah and The Killers. Each dealt with the need to grow in different ways. Marah actively began evolving away from the Boss, although in doing so they failed to find new ground that was as creatively interesting. The Killers embraced the the Born to Run sound, but channeled it though a 1980s lens. The Gaslight Anthem has chosen not to worry about it, but instead to simply evolve organically and un-self-consciously. The result is that while they sound very much like the Springsteen disciples that they are, they’re driven by outstanding songwriting and an occasionally rootsy, occasionally punk edge that keeps you focused on them and not their heroes.
Gregory Heaney at All-Music feels like the band has well and truly arrived:
It feels like the Gaslight Anthem have reached some new evolutionary stage in their growth, bringing together all of their influences into a sound that’s more distinctly theirs. While there are still the strong overtones of Springsteen and Social Distortion present on Handwritten, it feels like the Gaslight Anthem have figured out how to adapt those sonic touchstones into a sound that, though familiar, is their own. Changes aside, what feels more important with a group like the Gaslight Anthem are the things that are the same. Handwritten is still possessed of the same grit and earnestness that have become staple weapons in their musical arsenal.
It’s hard to imagine that there will ever come a time when you don’t hear echoes of that Jersey sound in The Gaslight Anthem’s music, but it’s now becoming evident the ways in which they’re bent on expanding and growing a rich tradition. This is a superbly realized moment for one of America’s premier young rock bands and I’m enjoying every note.
Green Day: ¡UNO! / ¡DOS! / ¡TRÉ!
These are three distinct releases, but I’m going to treat them as one because it’s useful to highlight the larger context. As the reviewers will explain (and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, linked here, is pretty solid), ¡UNO! is the “arena rock” offering, hewing closely to the brand the band has built in recent years. ¡DOS! is a breakneck garage romp. And ¡TRÉ! is, in his view, sort of a morning-after/what’s left over collection.
Individually we have three CDs that are, well, pretty good Green Day CDs (I’m liking ¡UNO! the best, I think, although it’s possible that’s because of how much I appreciate the sentiment behind “Kill the DJ”). But considered together, this ambitious Punk/Pop trilogy further extends Green Day’s legacy of innovation through a willingness to again explore the boundaries and limits of a well-defined (and restrictive) genre. The first great moment, of course, was American Idiot. After spending several years early in their careers establishing themselves as the go-to for thoughtful three-chord Punk/Pop, Billie Joe found himself utterly fed up with the political corruption of the Bush years. The result was the core reason they became my choice for CD of the Decade.
With American Idiot and its sequel, 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day explored extended song cycles, concept album conceits and multi-section suites that structurally had more in common with Rush and ELP than with the Sex Pistols. Now they’re back to more conventional fare, except that these albums are arrayed as a trilogy. More noodling with form and expectation – interesting.
The bottom line is that no Punk band has ever aimed so high or been so relentlessly focused on making more of the genre. Once upon a time, Punk came bounded by a whole set of strict limitations. Now the possibility is dramatically greater than before. Whether their creative trailblazing sparks a generation of Prog-Punk disciples remains to be seen, but for the moment their own work justifies the experimentation on its own.
“Boredom and Joy is an ode to freedom – the gift of having the peace of mind to find joy even in the mundane. It’s about longing for simpler times without the humdrum of our modern distractions,” Jets Overhead’s lead singer Adam Kittredge explains to Rolling Stone. “As a boy I remember being thrilled when I threw a twig in the creek near my house and watched it float down stream. It filled me with joy to wonder where the water would take it.”
When I first encountered JO on their 2006 release Bridges (my CD of the Year, by the way), the vibe was decidedly backward-facing, owing a great deal to 1960s California psychedelia (filtered through the misty, rainy murk of Pacific NW Indie). With each passing release, though, the band more fully inhabits the present. Their evolving sound also becomes more and more radio-friendly over time, albeit in ways that continually foreground the artistic intimacy that has always defined their songwriting and performances.
Boredom & Joy is perhaps their most accessible CD to date, with fresh, clean melodies and subtly layered arrangements serving a song cycle concerned with the growing complexity of relationships over time. Even in moments where the songs evoke an almost disco vibe (“Love Got in the Way” comes off like an homage to The Bee Gees, which would normally be ten points from Slytherin) the message is disarmingly direct and honest. And danceable.
The band also gets major bonus points for their video of “What You Really Want,” which features a second or so of yours truly. (That good looking bald guy at the 1:45 mark? Yeah, that’s me.) The video for the title track, by the way, is the best I saw all year.
The Raveonettes: Observator
The Raveonettes are one of our most keenly interesting bands, continually evolving and pushing the boundaries of Indie noise pop in ways that are always a little surprising. For instance, Observator is as bright as 2011’s outstanding Raven in the Grave was dark and heavy. Didn’t really see this coming, although the result is wonderful.
Listening to the disc is sort of like strolling through the history of Rock & Roll, occasionally pausing to ask “what if this band had listened to lots and lots of Jesus & Mary Chain?” On “Young and Cold,” for instance, the artist being tried on for fit is Buddy Holly. And then on through a gamut that soundchecks everything from Byrds/REM-esque jangle to Echo & the Bunnymen to Lush (admittedly, this one isn’t much of a reach) to – am I imagining an Airplane vibe about “You Hit Me (I’m Down)”? Along the way, Sharin Foo’s vocals never quite let us forget how much The Raveonettes seem to dig the likes of The Ronettes and Shangri-Las.
This nifty little Danish duo has been as consistently outstanding over their last four CDs as anybody in the business, and I’m not going to be the least bit surprised if they break out with a serious CD of the Year candidate in the future. Heck, they’ve been on the short list two years in a row now.
Ryan Shaw: Real Love
Had Ryan Shaw come along 50 years ago we wouldn’t be talking in reverential tones about Otis, Wilson, Marvin and Sam. We’d be talking in reverential tones about Otis, Wilson, Marvin, Sam and Ryan. This. Is. Not. Hyperbole. Ryan Shaw’s voice is just that stunning, and here we find it wrapped powerfully, painfully, lovingly, soulfully around a dynamite collection of original tunes.
The neo-Soul movement presents us with a huge range of approaches: the throwback Soul revivalism of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings; the girl group-infused contemporary ethic of Adele and Duffy; the updated girl-group/combo sunshine of Lucky Soul; the ’70s R&B inflected pop of Alex Clare, Fitz & the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne; the rootsy Southern Soul-Pop of Allen Stone. To name a few.
Shaw is very much the purist, although he relies on thoroughly modern production values, and readers looking for a slightly easier label might try this one: he’s a male Adele. In fact, when it comes to pipes, he’s probably a better singer than she is. Real Love is also driven by more consistently excellent tunesmithing, although there’s a certain apples-to-oranges quality about the comparison: Adele’s most recent CD was built around a tightly unified, excruciatingly intimate confessional dealing with a painful breakup, whereas Shaw’s songs are more of a traditional Soul melange favoring themes of love and infidelity.
For the time being Shaw remains comparatively lesser known, which is a damned shame. Maybe he should go on The Voice….
The Shins: Port Of Morrow
Another CD of the Year shortlister. The Shins have always been a band I respected and kind of liked, but none of James Mercer’s previous efforts really grabbed me viscerally. (Mercer has completely changed out all of the personnel here, by the way, so it might be more useful to think of Port of Morrow as a solo project.) Perhaps his songs struck me as a tad distant thanks to a certain disaffected Indie production aesthetic. Hard to say. I keep wanting to use words like “tactical” or “technician” to characterize my reaction to, say, Chutes Too Narrow.
In any case, that was then and this is now, and Port of Morrow is a thoroughly realized and engaging effort. In addition to striking me as generally more textured throughout, Mercer’s songwriting seems to be warming to the idea of a wider audience. I say this very cautiously, because the last thing I was to be seen as doing is accusing him of selling out. It’s just that this effort is gifted with tracks that have what I’d consider to be a much broader appeal than he has enjoyed in the past. “Simple Song” is positively anthemic, for instance, and is one of the most compelling down-tempo ballads I think I have ever heard, centering on an absolutely gorgeous bridge/chorus hook. Wonderful stuff.
Rick Springfield: Songs For The End Of The World
Thanks to that whole Noah Drake thing Rick Springfield has never gotten the respect he deserves. Never will. But he’s an icon for those of us who frequent the Power Pop underground, and this CD is a great illustration of why.
If Songs For The End Of The World had been released by, say, Foo Fighters, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise its relentlessly engaging melodies, its full-speed-ahead sonic guitar attack and the thematic thoughtfulness of an artist confronting the need to sweep decades of negativity from his life. But it isn’t Dave Grohl, it’s the soap opera pretty boy.
From a public perspective, there have been four distinct phases to Springfield’s life – teen idol, General Hospital soap heartthrob, ’80s pop icon, and whatever happened to Rick Springfield? Unfortunately, while all the attention is focused on phases 2 and 3, that last phase is where so much of the really interesting stuff has transpired, including the struggle with being a creative artist after the crowd has moved on, marital strife, sexual addiction, and a lifelong battle with depression.
“It becomes the thing that you use to make you feel good. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m feeling turned on tonight.’ It’s a power thing. It’s like, ‘If I have sex with this pretty girl that’s got to mean something — she is OK with having sex with me. So there must be something OK about me’ — because you start so far down in your own self-esteem,” Springfield said.
“That’s my home down there, and I’ve had to fight that depression all of my life. I see how it crushes my wife. I know that we all have our problems, but I’ve never personally spoken to anyone that has had a sh–tier childhood. There were times when I’ve not wanted to be in my own skin, and that’s a very scary feeling.”
Keep this in mind as you watch the video below, by the way.
Artistically, Rick is best remembered for wanting “Jessie’s Girl,” and his first couple of post-GH albums were populated by standard guitar pop fare – love and lust, mainly. But then Living in Oz rolled out, featuring some intensely personal reflections (as well as a pointed critique of the rise of impersonal synth-pop) and that was followed by Tao, where we met a more mature and surprisingly introspective artist thinking more substantively about this whole love thing.
The truth is that unlike so many artists, who have their best moments early and then fade as fame and fortune bleed away their hunger, Rick Springfield’s best work has come later in his career. And I don’t mean “best” in the way it’s used to justify latter-day offerings from a lot of artists, where they’re more intellectually and spiritually inclined but the songs themselves are about as lively as stale dishwater. No, the actual songs here, the hooks and the melodies and harmonies, are as good or better than anything he has ever produced.
A number of critics are calling SftEotW one of his best in years, which is technically true. However, I’d also point you to Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance (2004) and 2008’s Venus in Overdrive as evidence that Springfield has remained vital. IThe last eight years have given us three of his best albums ever and there’s no reason to look forward to his next release with anything less than high expectations.
Best CDs of 2012
I couldn’t make up my mind a couple years ago and the result was a tie for CD of the Year between Eels and Munly. It’s happened again, as 2012 presented us with two artists at the peak of their powers. So what’s your pleasure: apples or oranges?
The Killers: Battle Born
If we take how often I played it as the yardstick, then Battle Born was easily my favorite CD of 2012. I completely lost track of how many times I spun this one driving around, but I couldn’t help myself.
It has grown so unfashionable to be a rock star in the traditional mode (ie, the Golden Age of 1970s Classic Rock swagger – think Zep or The Stones) that bands simply don’t swing for the fences anymore. Instead of striving to make art that is larger than life, the mores of the era dictate intimacy and “keeping it real.” Frankly, this has hurt our musical culture. No, I’m not advocating for a parade of strutting, self-obsessed cockrockers, but there’s something to be said for an artist who aspires to greatness, to produce something timeless and legendary. Show me an artist without an ego and I’ll show you a bad artist, I’ve often said, and while that ego doesn’t necessarily need to manifest itself in a public life of debauchery and excess, I do like to hear an album with ambition, one that strives to be grand.
Battle Born is a CD with a dream. Grounded in a simple enough story – boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, then things go to hell as reality sets in – the disc revolves around a narrative straight out of the Springsteen/Mellencamp School of Heartland Working Class Rock Opera. Take this, from “Runaways”:
We got engaged on a Friday night
I swore on the head of our unborn child that I could take care of the three of us
But I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild.
It’s in my blood
She says she might just runaway somewhere else, some place good
Now, sift that ethos through the doomed nuclear generation romanticism of the ’80s and you have a fair approximation of the Battle Born gestalt. About the only things missing here are covers of “The River” and “Forever Young.”
It certainly helps that The Killers’ limitless ambition is matched by a remarkable gift for songcraft – no rock band is going any further than their songs take them, and here we have perhaps their strongest collection of tunes to date. These lyrics demand melodies and arrangements that evoke the simplicity and essential beauty of youth.
I remember driving
In my daddy’s car to the airfield
Blanket on the hood, backs against the windshield
The Killers may not be the biggest band in the world right now, but they’re damned sure working on it. They’ve always been obsessed with Born to Run, which is about as big a target as Rock has generated in the last 40 years, and their particular ear for how “Thunder Road” might be cross-pollenated with ’80s radio TechnoPop (Human League, Berlin, Alphaville) and Post-Punk (The Cure, Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen) yields a sound that evokes not one significant moment in our musical history, but two or three.
There’s plenty of room in the world for intimate, introspective Indie. It’s refreshing to hear that there’s also a taste out there for bands who long for the spotlights of the grand stage. For too many years that place in the American zeitgeist has been ceded to prefabricated corporate pop of the American Idol ilk, while real artists retreated deeper and deeper into their own navel-gazing.
Not everybody thinks that The Killers’s actual music is as substantively iconic as the pose they strike (AllMusic.com, linked above, gives Battle Born four stars, which is about a half star less than it deserves, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review migrates from getting it…
The great open secret about the Killers is that they only make sense when they operate on a grand scale. Everything they do is outsized; their anthems are created for fathomless stadiums, a character quirk they’ve grown into over the years as they’ve gone from scrappy wannabes fighting their way out of Las Vegas to the international superstars they’ve longed to be.
…to a characterization of them as professional technicians:
They’re veterans at this game, a group who has been trading in these stylized, glamorized fusions for a decade, and that slightly weathered attitude is now part of the band’s appeal; they’re veterans that know how to use their tools, so even if the raw materials may not be quite as compelling as their earliest singles, the overall craft on Battle Born is more appealing. And if age has changed the Killers attack, it has done not a thing for Brandon Flowers as a lyricist, who remains committed to gobsmacking poetry and allusions, and cracked observations that somehow sound endearing when encased in the well-lubricated machinery of Battle Born.
In other words, he says, The Killers are craft, not art. Well, if I ever meet Erlewine I’ll buy him a beer and maybe we can talk about this. No, Brandon Flowers isn’t Yeats, and he’s not Cobain, either. But if you recast the songs from Battle Born as Punk or perhaps a grittier, less studio-savvy Indie and put them in the mouths of, say, Jack White, the critics would be flinging five star reviews around like confetti on New Year’s Eve.
I wish more artists would take the cue and aim higher.
Bob Mould: Silver Age
Some years back, Bob Mould decided he was going to issue one more sonic guitar blast – The Last Dog and Pony Show – and then he was going to go off and do other things, like Techno. Boy, am I glad he’s back.
Noisy and aggressive, Silver Age harkens back to the early 1990s, when Mould released three records with his Sugar power trio project: Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening (1992 and 1994, respectively) were five-star masterpieces, and sandwiched in the middle we got Beaster, a fun little filler EP comprising pissed-off outtakes from Copper Blue. Taken together, this three-year arc serves as a textbook case in how to execute raucous guitar-driven Power Pop (and here I use the term in The Who sense, not The Beatles sense).
It’s perhaps helpful to better understand Mould’s place in the American Alternative/Indie landscape, so try this. Start by going back and spending some time with his first band, Hüsker Dü – maybe Zen Arcade or New Day Rising. Then break out your old Grunge CDs and listen to them again. Got it? Okay, now listen to those three Sugar discs. Check out “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Your Favorite Thing.” Next go listen to some Foo Fighters. Now, connect the dots. Mould rarely gets the credit he deserves for his influence on the last 25 years of music, but I promise you the artists you love know all about him.
So if I say that Silver Age could easily be treated as the fourth Sugar record, arriving after an 18-year hiatus, understand that praise doesn’t come much higher in these parts. And when I tell you that Mould is still angry after all these years, witness his take on the contemporary disposable corporate pop diva, which we get right out of the gate:
You had a chance to go around the world
But you had to be a silly bird
A revelation wouldn’t matter much to you
Silly bird, you bought a lousy dream
You took a number from the star machine
The star machine is spitting numbers out on you
You leave your family and some friends behind
It wasn’t long until you lost your mind
The star machine is doing fine but how are you?
You tell the world you had to fire the band
Your little world has gotten out of hand
The star machine will hand your ass right back to you
Then he has some words about his place in the pantheon. Are you listening, Jann Wenner?
Another live saint gonna take my place
You say a cheap prayer to my pretty face, yeah
You better pray for rain, yeah
Never too old to contain my rage
The silver age, the silver age
This is how I’m gonna spend my days
Gonna fight, gonna fuck, gonna feed
Gonna walk away
Stupid little kid wanna hate my game
I don’t need a spot in your hall of fame, no
What a fucking game, yo
I’m wiping my face of the shit you say
In the silver age I walk away singing
The silver age is calling out a melody
Silver Age devotes a good deal of energy to reflection, to rage and even to moments of raw regret. Oddly, I’m reminded of another angry young man who didn’t lose his edge as he aged. Graham Parker once put it this way:
The words come out
Not twist and shout
‘Cause that’s not what a grown man writes about
This is a mature CD, the work of a brilliant artist who has had plenty of time to ponder his life and legacy, and it’s clear that he’s not yet at peace with the world. The video for “The Descent,” which you can watch below, perhaps affords a clue or two as to what the future holds. In the meantime, Mould has, after a few years experimenting with other genres and stylistic approaches, circled back around to his greatest strengths, batteries recharged and empowered with a brutal honesty about both himself and the world he inhabits.