Monthly Archives: January 2009

2008 Countdown: 3, 2, 1

The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 concludes today with the three best albums of 2008…

 

3. The New Odds:  Cheerleader

cheerleader

With three of the four Odds back in the fold (Godspeed, Steven Drake) it would have been easy enough to omit the word “new” from the band name. I mean, hell…New Cars didn’t work, did it? New Coke? And wasn’t the failure to cash in for the big bucks from their now-housewife fans totally because that 80s phenomenon didn’t call themselves The Old Kids On The Block? But I trust Craig Northey’s instincts, and if he felt it was time for reinventing the band name, at least he retained the songwriting chops that made Odds (no “The”, thanks) one of the best and most cruelly ignored bands of the past twenty years.

The humor is much more sardonic than the early days. While I’ll never tire of “Heterosexual Man”, it’s songs like “Mercy To Go” and “I Would Be Your Man” and “Suppertime” that resonated far deeper. I could list thirty songs that are musically infectious but lyrically beautiful, and wrapping that up with pitch-perfect harmony and gigantic hooks was just icing on the cake. If I was stunned, album by album, by the lack of success the band found in the States, can you imagine what they felt? And of course, just as they finally looked to have a hit single (“Someone Who’s Cool”), radio formats changed and the band drifted apart…although Northey, drummer Pat Steward and bassist Doug Elliott continued to play together under various names as well as backing up several other artists. So when it came time to “put the band hat back on”, jam pal (and Odds fan) Murray Atkinson was drafted to fill the other guitar slot, and it’s as if they never left.

I sheepishly admit that the song I play the loudest, “My Happy Place”, is just a big, fun dumb rock song, which even Northey admits has “no tangerine trees and marmalade skies”, offering “I saw your chicken dance / Mr. Smartypants” instead. But I can forgive that when the very next track can toss “Vandalism is the voice of the people / when they’ve got nothing good to say” on the table as the opening bid. As with any Odds album, there are several great turns of phrase, wonderfully inventive chord structures and bridges, but mostly a collection of tracks that are as pleasing to play dashboard drummer to as they are to sit and ponder and appreciate as short stories. In fact, many of the songs sequester some pretty dark subject matter behind happy, hook-filled tunes that recall any number of classic upbeat pop bands like The Who, Badfinger and Squeeze.

“Breakthrough” is bouncy powerpop but about a mid-life crisis; while the finger-popping “Jumper” details the last thoughts of a suicidal man with a broken heart. Likewise “I Can’t Get You Off” might at first seem an optimistic “getting past you” tale; you’ll find yourself singing along with the chorus like it’s a bubblegum song. But the hooks aren’t the only think about the song that kills…the singer has just witnessed a fatal car crash and can’t escape the image that’s burned into his head.

I probably would have left a song or two off if I were the producer; “Leaders Of The Undersea World” doesn’t mesh as well and “Come To LA” isn’t the best way to end the album. Maybe that would bring better focus to absolute gems like “Always Breaking Heart”. The songwriting is group-attributed, although one song was from a Northey solo album, and I love the musical diversity and the production. But when Craig Northey’s voice soars over a swelling chorus with three pitch-perfect voices supporting it – like the last thirty seconds of “Feel Like This All The Time” – then I am in my happy place.

 

2. Marah:  Angels Of Destruction

marah-angels

Just when you think the Bielanko Brothers have found the perfect band to grow with, and into, the rhythm section is jettisoned and a new Marah starts to incubate on the road. But those results will be dealt with next time around; Angels Of Destruction benefits from the tight bond established with their former band mates (Adam Garbinski and Dave Petersen on guitar and drums, respectively) and especially their wild card instrumentalist and engineer Kirk Henderson. Coming off an album that most critics raved about as a major comeback the challenge was now to maintain the rediscovered momentum. As they have been prone to do recently, Marah whittled down a few dozen possibilities into a circular musical and spiritual theme, where aural and lyrical cues are repeated and cross-pollinated to reward those who use the repeat button instead of shuffle play.

The first few seconds of “Coughing Up Blood”, with its strange vocal snippet and tune-challenged guitar, probably caused even the hardcore fans to cock an eyebrow. But then the stew kicks in, throbbing bass, muffled chants in the background like someone gargling down the hallway, a truckload of instruments – literally bells and whistles – making cameo appearances as the train keeps chugging down the tracks. Segue, of course, right into the pounding “Time Ticking Away”, whose walking Philly Soul bass line steams alongside chugging guitar until it ramps up into a “Suffragette City” starburst and ends with a pop. That second of silence cleverly cleanses the aural palate for what is the heart of the album.

How else to classify “Angels On A Passing Train” except to say that Marah starts out like they’re doing a cover of Fastball’s “The Way” and then rocks the tango? “Wild West Love Song” is a hyperactive skiffle with mile-a-minute lyrics, breathlessly propelled by horns and a repetitive guitar loop (if Dave wasn’t singing I imagine he’d be tap dancing across the stage, with straw hat and cane, winking at the pit band). And then “Blue But Cool” just floors me, from the piano that’s just off the beat and just a microbe out of tune (but perfect), to the way the background response answers the call the third time the chorus comes slithering around. And like many of his beer-on-the-fire-escape reflections, it’s a poignant look at a relationship in transition where hope is there for the taking – or not (“now that we are home darling / how come we keep starin’ out the front door?”). I think Christine Smith’s influence (judging from her solo work) has helped strengthen these small introspective tales as well as add new color to their Big Mummer Moments like “Can’t Take It With You” (which now reveals that the line quoted prior to “Coughing” had a home after all. Perhaps flipping positions with “Wilderness” in the track order would have made the ending of the album stronger?).

I could lose “Songbirds” without complaint; it’s a decent enough song but the weakest vocal on the album and separates the joyous “Santos De Madera” from the anthemic title track. “Santos” throws in the kitchen sink – phasing, accordion, breathless background vocals and fiddle, a cumulative effect that echoes early Band, Bruce and Rod. “Angels Of Destruction” cannily borrows the same backbeat as “Santos” but layers something completely new on top; like stripping a car down to the chassis and rebuilding with other parts. Where the vocal and chorus of “la las” punctuate the former, it’s a fat power chord and handclaps driving the latter, a sneaky but effective way of making you seem familiar with the song the first time through. It would be a weak move if both songs weren’t instantly likeable; if there were such things as Marah hit singles both would qualify.

Yes, the beer and shots are gone, and the album is about seeing the world through new-found sobriety, which makes it personal (cue hidden bonus track “Tippecanoe”). But Angels of Destruction is an album about hope and redemption and choice. How ironic for an album released in January of 2008; do any of those themes ring a bell one year later?  I don’t know what Marah has up their sleeve for their next move, nor do I have the faintest idea when it will happen or who Serge and Dave will rope in to help create it. But seven albums down the road, I do know two things: (1) It won’t be boring, and (2) I can’t wait to hear it.

 

1. The Black Crowes:  Warpaint

crowes-warpaint1

The title Warpaint might be the perfect metaphor for a band that has regrouped figuratively and literally and is once again ready to take no prisoners. With yet another personnel shuffle and a recommitment between the Robinson brothers (leveraging the trust forged with Birds Of A Feather), The Black Crowes have not just climbed back in the ring, they’ve pounded lethargy and confusion into submission and regained the title.

“Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” is quintessential Crowes, each instrument layering in and warming up, then Chris Robinson’s soulful rasp jumping in the saddle (“put a little grease on my axle …nowwww”) and riding it home. The pairing of Luther Dickinson with Rich Robinson energizes an Allman-esque guitar interplay that seems to lift the entire band to another level of commitment, and Chris Robinson’s expressively raspy voice has only gotten fuller and richer with time. As a kick-off track, it’s as immediate a validation of an album as you’ll ever hear. And while the next track is also forceful, it’s the gorgeously mid-tempo “Oh Josephine” that’s the key to the sound of these “new” Crowes. They’ve struck gold with similar tempos before, but the stellar production on this album gives even the subtlest nuances a swagger that you can’t help be overwhelmed by.

“Locust Street” is a delicate country blues, utilizing mandolin, dobro and subtle piano flavorings winningly. “Movin On Down The Line” has a haunting opening that could be effortlessly slotted anywhere on Exile On Main Street; perhaps ideally book ending “Let It Loose”. But slowly, it transitions into a bluesy country shuffle that percolates into a full jam. “Wounded Bird” might bridge the past and present best – a filthy, fuzzy bong anthem. Slide guitar paces the Leslie-fueled organ and hop-skipping drums until finally settling into the final groove featuring Robinson extending syllables to coast to a stop. And speaking of Exile and muddy, filthy guitar, the foot-stomping gospel cover “Gods Got It” is infectious enough to lead a conga line into that church and raise the roof. While the band’s love of black gospel and blues might be well-documented (as is Jagger’s, for that matter), rarely did either find a vehicle as soulful and joyous as this.

The band heard criticism for the slow ballad “There’s Gold In Them Hills”, but I found it to be a beautiful, sprawling song that is begging for a Western worthy enough to showcase it. I suppose I could then bundle “Whoa Mule” along for the ride, although it’s the bottleneck slide I savor the most. Like an after dinner cocktail, the song itself is a gentle landing after the journey, intimate and quiet, like slipping into the shadows.

The first time the Black Crowes were on the David Letterman show they burned the place to the ground with “Jealous Again”, their impeccable Faces/Stones hybrid track from their debut album. Frankly, they were jaw-dropping breath of fresh air, especially after a decade and a half or noodly synth-crap passing as hit radio. Letterman, a bonafide rock fan, was floored… leading him to offer perhaps my favorite one-sentence review of all time…“that was just turn-the-dump-over, go-home-with-the-waitress rock and roll!” (As as a former bartender I know exactly what he meant!) Too bad that clip cuts off just before Letterman talks, but (1) when have you seen Paul have that much genuine fun, and (2) Letterman called the band “kids”. My god, we’re all getting old.

But honest, uncompromised rock’n’roll is timeless, and so are The Black Crowes. Who would have known at the time how much depth and tenacity and soulful spirit they would continue to have fifteen-plus years down the road? Even familiar with Warpaint after several dozen spins, I popped it in the player on a winding mountain drive and it spoke to me as vividly and religiously as it did on first focused listen. This is one for the ages; the best album of 2008.

And there you have it…Countdown 2008!

Thanks for reading…please stop back daily.

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2008 Countdown: 6, 5, 4

The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues…more of the top ten!

 

6. The Quireboys:  Homewreckers and Heartbreakers

Thankfully someone is waving The Faces flag and keeping the spirit alive, because God knows Rod Stewart isn’t going to do it. Spike and Guy Griffin have developed a strong songwriting partnership that evokes comparisons to Stewart/Wood; two men who think with one mind, play to each other’s strengths and create something as a unit superior to what they do on their own. The confidence they have developed over the past few years is manifested in a wider bandwidth of material than the sleaze/blues/rock formula that earner The (London) Quireboys their initial fame. That said, they can still bring it. “I Love This Dirty Town” is a gutbucket, fist-pumping rocker, and “Josephine” sounds like “Borstal Boys” after a syringe of Red Bull was jacked into its veins. “Louder”, as you’d anticipate from the title, is no slouch either.

But in “Mona Lisa Smiled”, the Quireboys have absolutely hit the bulls-eye, a mid-tempo classic that recalls the warmth and soul of the early Rod Stewart albums. Spike’s reading is pitch-perfect, and (as with “One For The Road” as well), the background of fiddles and keys bouncing off Griffin’s acoustic and Paul Guerin’s tasty slide is pure magic. Coupled with Spike’s raspy road tales, these more restrained efforts are a worthy descendant of the classic Pugh/Quittenton/Wood sound; studio sharp yet front porch casual. Kudos to Nick Mailing’s engineering and co-production (with Griffin), which allows equal attention to the band’s finesse as well as their power. “Late Night Saturday Call” is an introspective folksy blues, while the subtle shuffle “Take A Look At Yourself” should be in Van Morrison’s setlist at the very next opportunity.

But as much as I’m spotlighting the more mature Quireboys (did I actually use those two words in the same sentence?) they are still a kick-ass rock band; they’ve just gotten better and more versatile without giving an inch. I always hoped they were capable of raising the bar, but I wasn’t sure they were. With this, their finest effort, all my doubts are laid to rest.

 

5. Foxboro Hot Tubs:  Stop, Drop and Roll

Leave it to Billie Joe Armstrong to teach everyone else how to put aside the posturing and just make a fun rock’n’roll record. By now everyone knows that behind the faux album art and name, it’s just Green Day having a blast bashing out stripped down garage rock and pop rock. It’s as if they pilfered my box of 60s singles, then reanimated and reinvented new songs from the DNA. And any of these tracks, made with the same effervescent spirit as their forefathers, could be sandwiched alongside those Seeds and Raiders and Monkees singles without missing a beat. Drummer Tre Cool must have loved this project, as his closet Keith Moon side surfaces often, especially “27th Avenue Shuffle” (nicking The Who’s “Legal Matter”) and the title track. “Mother Mary” actually charted before people caught on, and why not? It’s “Lust For Life” filtered through “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (complete with James Honeyman-Scott guitar solo) sung by a sweeter sounding Morrissey. Sure, no chance of liking that, right?

Have fun playing “spot-the-influence” as you go careening through a dozen great singles. “Red Tide” is a Kinks song with Davy Jones on vocals; “She’s A Saint” sounds like the Sex Pistols’ take on “Summertime Blues”, but then adds handclaps and choruses of “ooohs” to morph into a classic powerpop track. “Alligator” owes its debt to “You Really Got Me” and fans of the The Yardbirds will do a double-take at “Dark Side Of The Night”. I can’t believe anyone put this record down as if Green Day was making some massive career mistake after American Idiot. To borrow the question from powerpop cult heroes Candy, “Whatever Happened To Fun”?

 

4. The Whigs:  Mission Control

This is the sound of a band finding its identity and going for broke, all the time knowing that there are no guarantees anyone will ever witness the trip. Not many albums start out with the urgency of “Like A Vibration”, a snarling, charging call-to-arms that sounds like equal parts Who and Replacements. Singer and guitarist Parker Gispert’s versatile voice is matched only by the wide variety of songs on the band’s sophomore album, and Tim Deaux’s very fluid bass lines make this trio sound a lot bigger than they really are. But with all due respect to them, it’s Julian Dorio who is the secret weapon on Mission Control. He plays drums like he has eight limbs and kicks even the moderate tempos in the ass.

“I Never Want To Go Home” echoes Snow Patrol at their peak, but “Sleep Sunshine” could be Radiohead with Frank Black at the controls, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought of The Police when hearing “Production City”. Sure, their Athens roots will bleed through on occasion – “Hot Bed” is a dB’s/REM cross-fade and “Already Young” would fit on Monster (and probably be the best song on that record). But I’m willing to absorb that caveat when every song has a great melody or hook, sometimes both, and the textures are so varied and hypnotic that my attention never wavers. Maybe Rolling Stone got one right when they picked them as the best (then) unsigned band in America. If The Whigs can pull off the mania of “Need You Need You” and the hypnotic pulse of the title track live on stage, I’m there…especially to watch that guy behind the drum kit.

Tomorrow, the countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues…just three left to go!

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Reunion Fever Strikes Again

Thanks to my buddy Siege for this tip…Looks like one of the hardest working bands in rock’n’roll is getting back together again for at least one night; although depending upon the results, who knows what happens next? If it’s anything like the 1999 reunion (which the article below omits, but trust me, it rocked), it might snap the earbuds out of the wandering masses and show them what they missed out on with all those years of shoegazing.

I saw the J. Geils Band so often in the 70s that I thought there was a law stating they had to be the middle act at any concert held in the War Memorial. They never disappointed, and Peter Wolf (one of the greatest front men, ever) made it his personal mission to get the last person in the last row as involved as the maniacs being crushed into the front of the stage. Mosh pit? How about dance floor? If they’re opening a new venue you know it’s wired, so hopefully there will be a live CD/DVD to slot alongside Full HouseBlow Your Face Out and Showtime.

Long before they were MTV’s (temporary) darlings, they earned their stripes on stage.  Hell, they could even rock you in the morning!

First they looked at the purse...

First they looked at the purse...

(The Boston Globe, January 29, 2009) It’s safe to say that tickets to see the J. Geils Band on stage at the House of Blues Feb. 19 will be hard to come by. The show, which has been rumored for a while but was only nailed down yesterday, should be a suitable spectacle to open Live Nation’s new Lansdowne Street concert venue. Since breaking up in 1985, J. Geils has not made a habit of re-forming. In 2006, Peter Wolf, Seth Justman, Jay Geils, Magic Dick, Danny Klein, and Stephen Jo Bladd jammed at Klein’s 60th birthday party at Scullers, playing a short set that included “Homework,” “Looking for a Love,” and “Give It to Me.” The band, minus Bladd, also killed at an ’05 fund-raiser for the Cam Neely Foundation, playing revved-up versions of “Ain’t Nothin’ but a House Party,” “Must of Got Lost,” “Centerfold,” and “Love Stinks.” But the band’s been silent since, with Wolf concentrating on his solo career. (The singer’s latest CD is done and due out this year.) Promoter Don Law says he wasn’t sure how the enigmatic frontman would respond, but figured it was worth asking. “We made them an offer, sure, but it’s more than money,” said Law, reached yesterday in LA. “These guys love this kind of venue and are tied into the history of the blues. This just makes perfect sense.” The show will be officially announced in a few days, and then tickets – all 2,400 of them – will go on sale. “We’re thrilled Peter took this seriously,” said Law. “We’ve tried before without success.”

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Mott The Hoople update:

Due to exceptional public demand, Mott The Hoople has added a third night at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday, October 1st. Tickets will not go on sale to the general public on the Ticketmaster site until Monday February 2nd.

But you Mott fans are not the “general public”, are you? Hint…get to www.mottthehoople.com ASAP.

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2008 Countdown: 10, 9, 8, 7

 The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues…as we’re down to the top ten!

Guinness, mate!

Guinness, mate!

 

10. The Love Me Nots:  Detroit

Jim Diamond might be my favorite producer of late; if for nothing else I should just let him enroll me in some “album of the month” club to take advantage of his scouting skills. But credit for the huge improvement between first and second albums sits squarely on the band’s shoulders, especially Michael Johnny Walker’s stinging guitar and Nicole Laurenne’s retro Farfisa and dynamic lead vocals. Laurenne can move from a seductive husky purr to a full-throated yowl with ease, and either will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

The first six or seven tracks, three minutes all, could just as easily be audition tapes for Nuggets as hit singles. “You’re Really Something”, “Bulletproof Heart” and “Secret Pocket” is a fierce one-two-three punch that grabs you by the neck, beats you like a piñata and tosses you back in a dazed heap. “Walk Around Them” – stay with me here – takes the hook from “The Munsters” theme, drops it into a pair of go-go boots and blasts it back through a wall of fuzz and reverb. The sexy shuffle “Treat Him Good” is so guttural it could be the theme from a Halloween film noir flick, while the seductive “Birthday Present” will probably start a long queue of (unwanted) suitors panting for Laurenne. Diamond has framed their sound so perfectly that you might be surprised to know the band is from Phoenix. Detroit is a far more apt title for their attitude, and with this exciting, danceable, rocking garage platter, they’re earned that association.

 

9. The Revisionists:  The Revisionists

If you told me that the rhythm section from Tonic and the director of a Wilco documentary were going to form a band, I’d have nodded ambivalently and asked you how things were going, sure to let yet another aimless piece of pop trivia fall by the wayside. But you didn’t tell me, so I didn’t even have the lowest of expectations. Instead, I was able to savor the joy of three guys capturing something organic and strong, one track after another. Sorry…I guess I ruined that for you.

The band touts its love of punk as well as classic 70s rock, but the sweet spot is somewhere between The Del Lords and AM-era Wilco. In other words, catchy and melodic enough to have been on the Big Deal label but meaty enough to slap next to anyone from The Figgs to The Foo Fighters. The first sounds you hear on the album are the guys plugging in and getting set to go, which is appropriate for a project recorded quickly in weekend sessions. It’s just ten songs in thirty-five minutes, but they’re tight and energetic, and Jones has the vocal chops to sell both the urgency of the music and the social commentary of the lyrics. I find myself drawn back most often to “Fic-Fic-Fiction”, a Credence/Motown hybrid, “Good And Bad” (Eric Ambel meets The Beat Farmers) and “See You Around” (The Gin Blossoms decide to R-O-C-K in the USA).

Bonus points for the urgent anti-war anthem “IDWK” (I Don’t Wanna Know)… and for mocking the required copyright notice in the liner notes.

 

8. The Fratellis:  Here We Stand

The phrase “rollicking beat” is probably as overused as “stadium-size anthems”, but in the case of The Fratellis, I must apologize for extending the common vernacular. Once again, an album brimming with clean, crisp melodies, big choruses, handclaps, perfectly timed key changes…it’s as if the songs were written to be debuted at Glastonbury in front of a sea of waving hands and teary-eyed fans. But damned if that doesn’t resonate out of a simple set of car speakers, even half a world away. Maybe it is just that simple: playing Fratellis albums just makes me feel good.

It’s great to see modern bands crib from their 60s ancestors in just the way those classic bands reached back to pure country, urban blues and three chord rock to create a foundation to build upon. The opening notes of “My Friend Tom” sound like they’re going disco, then country, but when the lead guitar snakes in you’re witnessing as good a cop of psychedelic rock as you’ll hear all year…and that took all of fifteen seconds! Next track, it’s as if Oasis were covering Squeeze (and permitting Jools to man the piano) but by mid-song there are enough handclaps and kick drums to make the Bay City Rollers jealous. Track four (“Look Out Sunshine”) a huge anthem, like every trick Oasis ever used rolled into one song, except…it’s fun! Track six – the bass player throws the band on his back and runs downfield (stopping to nick a chorus from “My Sharona” and “Virginia Plain” on the way). And so it goes, for every song…joyous, exuberant, and irresistible. My favorite song is apt to change every spin, but today it’s the incredible “Acid Jazz Singer”, which I’m feeling guilty about omitting from my “top ten singles”.

So in conclusion…what’s wrong with a huge sounding fun record, anyway? The only thing I was disappointed in was the cover. Where are my Sam Hadley babes?

 

7. Mitch Ryder:  You Deserve My Art

One of the true rock legends is not only still among us, but continues to carve out an amazing career and musical legacy…in Germany. Here in the United States we can barely muster up the energy to pay tribute to him at a summer oldies tour. God knows it’s far more important to find that next highly buffed American Idol than to listen to one of the greatest soul singers we’ve ever had. Frankly, it’s insulting that a record industry can make a fortune littering the cultural highway with the tripe that Britney Spears or Nickelback spews out, but they can’t spare a few coins for a Mitch Ryder. But then again, I lived to see the day Johnny Cash lost his Columbia contact because he wasn’t right for their target demographic, so I shouldn’t be surprised…I’ll just stay angry, thanks.

But enough about injustice; let me instead bring focus where it deserves to be. In Gandalf Murphy (Joziah Longo), Mitch has found a songwriter who is as suited for him as Burt Bacharach was for Dionne Warwick. “Rocket” and especially “Moondog House” fit Ryder’s voice perfectly and draw out wonderful vocal performances; I hope they collaborate more. But Ryder’s own songs are also vivid and exciting, and with Engerling (the German band he has been working with in recent years) he is able to slide from Mexican tinged gospel (“The Naked Truth”) to heartbreaking blues (“All The Fools It Sees”) to Doug Sahm Tex-Mex (“Under That Big Ole Texas Sky”) to straight-ahead, fun, rock’n’roll (“Strolling With My Mouse”). “The 21st Century” is flat out killer, Mitch starting slow and serene like the soulful funky music, then exploding into that classic bluesy rasp when the tempo kicks into a funky “Bonie Maronie” vibe.

Sure, the voice occasionally shows the wear and tear of sixty-plus years, but that’s like bitching about a pimple on a planet. Man, what pipes the man still has! I don’t know if he will ever again recapture the pure unbridled naked energy that made his Detroit Wheels singles so timeless and priceless, let alone the furious energy of the Detroit album (still a landmark almost forty years later). But that’s unfair, because no one else will either. Mitch Ryder isn’t back, people…he’s been here all this time making majestic, soulful, timeless music. America, you owe your son a fucking apology. And as for you, dear readers…seek and be rewarded.

 

Tomorrow, the countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues with 6, 5 and 4…

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2008 Countdown: 15, 14, 13, 12, 11

 The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues…

Yellow Man Group

Yellow Man Group

 

 15. The Tripwires:  Makes You Look Around

I was a big fan of the Model Rockets so I took a flyer on this one, since John Ramberg usually delivers. Glad to tell you his track record remains intact. Hooking up with a few Seattle luminaries including Ramberg’s Minus 5 buddies Scott McCaughey and Kurt Bloch, this is a huge-sounding yet warm record, whether it’s rocking and/or rolling. Or pickin’and grinnin’, for that matter – “Sold Yer Guitar Blues” shows me that these guys are cool enough to think that it’s never too late to pay props to The Lovin’ Spoonful.

There’s a variety of styles (all with tremendous guitar playing), but to my ears there are two main musical statements in the Tripwire sound. “Big Electric Light” and “I Don’t Care Who You Are” absolutely bleed that Big Star cum Posies vibe, and songs like “Monument” expose an obvious debt to pub rock, Rockpile specifically (the guitar on the intro is textbook Dave Edmunds…who probably copped it from Scotty Moore…ahh, never mind). Hope they make another one, and hope they hit the East Coast; if their cover of “Tulane” is any indication, they sound like they could really rip it up live.

 

14. The Respectables:  Sibley Gardens

Who would have thought that a band could blend the pop appeal of The Small Faces and the bombast of 90s hair metal into something completely irresistible? I really liked their first record, but Sibley Gardens sounds arena-size! The first four songs are a primer on how to get someone’s attention from the first note and hold it like a vice grip; had they ended there as an EP I would have crawled to their house like a jonesing junkie begging for more. Thankfully they included seven more songs for me to enjoy.

Guitarist Joey Gaydos is stellar…he’s got the power chords down to a science, of course, but his leads are tasteful and he never overplays. Drummer Donn Deniston isn’t flashy either, but he snaps that snare like a Swiss watch, and when you’re playing air guitar you need to depend on a guy like that. Nick Piunti has one of those great powerpop voices; a classic range but just the right touch of raspy to give it an edge. It’s why Ian Lloyd used to knock me out, and beyond the killer hooks all over this album, it’s the biggest reason I’m having a hard time getting this disc out of the player.

 

13. Three Hour Tour:  B Side Oblivion

Ten years ago Three Hour Tour issued 1969, a collection of singles recorded for Parasol, and then they were gone. Now out of nowhere, this gem popped up to serve ten new tracks from this collection of (now) powerpop legends? Darren Cooper, where the hell have you been? The roots of the band go way back to the Champaign Illinois days, where they evolved into powerpop icons…Adam Schmitt as producer and solo artist, Paul Chastain and Ric Menck with Velvet Crush, Brad Steakley (a/k/a Brad Elvis). Cooper formed Copper Records (was it really just a typo, Darren?) and had he done nothing else but release Cotton Mather’s Kon Tiki, he’d still be a pop hero.

And speaking of Kon Tiki, that’s the first thing I thought of when hearing “Easter Basket Grass”, one of those instantly hummable songs you find yourself singing long before you even care what the words are about. This is really Cooper’s show, and his love of Badfinger and The Byrds is pretty evident when you add up the chiming guitar chords, soaring vocals and irresistible hooks. “Lonely Place” is reminiscent of Myracle Brah (if they had George Harrison playing slide guitar) and “What Made You Change” is a marriage of John Lennon and Cheap Trick. Cooper’s vocals might sound eerily like Matthew Sweet, but this is a far, far better record than Sunshine Lies. Please don’t make me wait another ten years, guys.

 

12. Taylor Hollingsworth: Bad Little Kitty

This is raw as steak tartare, and really puts the lo in lo-fi…but damned if there are many records from 2008 that rock harder than this one. Taylor Hollinsgworth has picked up the baton from Something/Anything era Todd Rundgren, figuring the best thing to do when radio is dead is burn it down and start over. (Or maybe it’s Keef and Exile On Main Street. Whatever…) For Hollingsworth, that means sounding like Tommy Womack stealing guitar licks in “Damn Boy, What’s Wrong With You” (“Bang A Gong”, anyone?), Dylan fronting The Stooges (“Assassinate The President”), Ryan Adams and Paul Westerberg shaking off a hangover (“In The Dark”), The Dandy Warhols with a hit record (“Imaginary People”) or even The Cramps covering “Something Else” (“TNT & Dynamite”). It’s like stumbling into a roadhouse and finding the strangest jukebox you’ve ever seen (and most of my quarters would go for “!0 Good Reasons”).

Unfortunately he included two obnoxious snippets that had to be intended for stoners on headphones; the 30 second intro and 44 seconds of “I’m Dead” that unfortunately leads into the manic reprise of “Assassinate” segueing into “TNT and Dynamite”. Hell, even that is four minutes of Crazy Horse on acid, with Neil Young playing the shit out of the one guitar string he has left through an amp he kicked the shit out of just moments before. And two minutes later, after a Blue Cheer infected ramble he’s taking the piss out of Hank Williams with “You Don’t Know What You Do To Me”. Whether you think he’s a slyly paying tribute to some of the building blocks of American music or just a snotty but versatile show-off (my bet is the former), Bad Little Kitty is fascinating.

 

11. The Meadows:  First Nervous Breakdown

Cross pollinate the grandeur of Oasis arrangements and the beautiful delicacy of The Jayhawks, and your Petrie dish will likely have the DNA that generated the brilliance of First Nervous Breakdown. The Meadows are principally a two man band; Todd Herfindal and Kevin Houlihan handle the songwriting, production, vocals and most of the guitar/bass duties. The result is a collection of infectious songs that will appeal to fans of The Byrds, Gin Blossoms, Big Star as well as the aforementioned cornerstone bands…hell, even early Eagles fans will lap this up.

As impressed as I am with the vocals and the great musicianship on this album (there are several guests adding flavor), it’s the songwriting that slays me; there are ten songs on this album and every one could be a single. How does a band – or in this case, two guys – hit the mother lode like this without the whole world catching on? I don’t know either…but if you’re reading this, that’s one less person to notify.

 

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Check back daily this week for more of the countdown. We’re down to the Top Ten…

(The full list will be updated each day on the MUSIC tab.)

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2008 Countdown: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

 

 

The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues…

 

 

20. The Hold Steady:  Stay Positive

Craig Finn is on a roll. While I don’t think this necessarily The Hold Steady‘s their best album, each of them invoke so many moods that I’m constantly going back and forth between them. Of course, half the fun is digging through the circular references to past albums, the toss-away pop-culture references (“Saint Joe Strummer”, the “cutters”, etc.) and the endless ways he seems to be able to write interesting stories that start out with the protagonist going out to get hammered and (hopefully) hook up, which usually leads to some reflective perspective from the end point. Stay “positive” indeed!

“Sequestered In Memphis” is ten times as good as it’s title, end epitomizes the Hold Steady formula that knocks me out – driving guitar rock, tasteful (and tasty) organ/piano accents, stuttering rhythms, verbose but invigorating lyrics spewed from a guy who sounds like the Counting Crows’ Adam Durwitz channeling Dylan. On the title track, he’s eerily reminiscent of another verbose poet-turned-rocker, Jim Carroll. But perhaps Finn nails the best description of the band in the opening lines of the first song: “me and my friends are like the drums on “Lust For Life”

19. Derby:  Posters Fade

An impressively broad album, Posters Fade sounds like collaboration between Big Star and Wilco. The melodies are strong and varied, the arrangements diverse, and Derby avoids the common tricks and traps most bands feel safe with. There are layers of vocals and instruments building sonic tapestries which tease a million classic pop bands (Spoonful, Byrds, Kinks, ELO, etc.) before they unfold and lead to the juicy melody at the core. The production is dynamic yet varied enough throughout the album to never hint at anything repetitive and basic enough with which to pigeonhole them. Every track surprises.

And in their more simple, stripped down attempts, it’s as if a Simon and Garfunkel tribute was being hosted by members of The Shins and Snow Patrol. Consider “Episode”, whose gentle acoustic rhythm, sweet vocal and lilting pedal steel guitar frame the ironic subject matter (“I’ll wait here on my own/ I’ll go alone/sure beats hanging out with you instead”). I hear a million influences, every song is different, yet somehow through all of this, they craft an identity that’s irresistible – how do they do that? I don’t know and I don’t care – this is brilliant stuff and it only gets better with repeated spins.

18. Ray Davies:  Working Man’s Cafe

No, it’s not the great lost Kinks album many of us hope for, and yes, it’s pretty low-key overall, no Dave Davies wanking to be found. But when you stop and think about the best material Ray has done over the past twenty years, hasn’t the vast majority of it been more in this vein anyway? You can’t expect the man to do cartwheels and stage splits forty-plus years later (especially after he gets shot in the leg…but I digress.) Consider this a phone call from an old friend who used to tell you wonderful stories about other people, and now decided to tell you some about him.

Davies’ acerbic wit and sharp social observations are still keen, and his swipes at modern English life are not that far removed from his classic early material, except that the youthful dreamers and optimists have been replaced by the wiser, older pragmatists. He’s still the little guy facing off against the government or big (now global) corporations. The album doesn’t rock as much as it does chug along, but I don’t mind – Ray Davies is a person I always want to listen to intently. I don’t know if any of the songs will stay in my head forever – you have no idea how many Kinks Klassics are burned into my skull – but I suspect “Peace In Our Time” might be the appropriate best bet.

17. Graham Day and the Gaolers:  Triple Distilled

What if Cream decided to pursue the path of a pop band rather than the blues? Not that anyone would ever confuse Jack Bruce or Graham Day with light and fluffy melodies, but many classic rock and roll singles did have blues chops at their core. But much like the edits of “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “White Room” – not to mention the first several Who and Yardbirds singles that are also a clear influence – Day is able to fuse the mania into an infectious and memorable three minutes per shot.

This is not a subtle record – “Glad I’m Not Young” comes careening out of the speakers fueled by jangling guitar chords, foot stomping 4/4/ beat and drums from The Church Of Keith Moon, and it never lets up. You’ll barely have a chance to catch your breath blasting through thirteen amped-up tracks that sound like lost singles made by classic British rock bands; retro-cool yet fresh and exciting at the same time (well, until that sitar showed up…) Day was a founding member of The Prisoners, spent time with Billy Childish in Thee Mighty Ceasars and more recently wowed us as part of the Solar Flares. This is his second album under this moniker, and he’s clearly still at the top of the game. If Mike Myers ever makes another Austin Powers movie, he’d be smart to use this as the soundtrack.

16. The Venus Infers:  The Truth About The Venus Infers

Wow…I had heard a couple of their earlier releases and nothing prepared me for this. Hate to say it, but the departure of vocalist Trisha Smith was a blessing in disguise. Freed to take the lead, Davis Fetter bellows out minor chord anthems with the energy of a young Bono. The music, however, is deeper, operatic, bombastic and majestic, and with Fetter throwing in the kitchen sink vocally (delicate falsetto to arena-sized Springsteen at the drop of a hat) it is an album of non-stop passion and energy.

Of course, if the songs sucked that would negate the whole enchilada. Basically six songs long with an intro and outro, Truth is mesmerizing from the first note on the baited hook until you’re gently wriggled loose and dropped back into the water. As you listen to the middle songs you can almost imagine them deciding to drop-kick Coldplay, The Killers and Radiohead in order by beating them at their own game. “Waterfalls” is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard all year and Thom Yorke will retire if he hears it.

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Check back daily this week for more of the countdown. The list will be updated on the MUSIC tab.

 

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2008 Countdown: 25, 24, 23, 22, 21

Finally! The countdown of the 25 best albums of 2008.  
The Doctor says...play it louder!

 

25. The Mop Tops:  Ground Floor Man

 I had to double-check the player when “You Crucify Me” came over the speakers just to make certain I didn’t slip a brand new Walter Clevenger album in by mistake. (Note to Walter: get busy!) But that’s an honest mistake considering the label is Sound Asleep Records, and producer Eric Ambel worked his magic in Brooklyn’s Cowboy Studios. No matter that it’s yet another Swedish band usurping the classic hybrid of British Invasion pop and American roots rock, The Mop Tops have served up a platter of brilliant music that will thrill anyone whose radar touches down anywhere near the intersection of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds.

Tomas Nilsson’s songs are joyful, foot-tapping and memorable, all the more appealing with jangling 12 string guitars and snare-tapping drumbeats snapping from the speakers. Remember three-minute songs that got in, killed, and got out? Well, “Pink Wet Dream” might not have made it past radio’s censors, but forget them – roll that window down and enjoy cranking a dozen of them, loud.

 

24. The Crash Street Kids:  Transatlantic Suicide

Of course a band with a name like obvious will have almost a note-perfect imitation of their heroes, and on this album that’s “Cigarettes And Starf*ckers” (their asterisk, not mine). But while Ryan McKay has that sarcastic, condescending Ian Hunter-ish sneer down perfect (for that song, anyway), Ricky Serrano’s guitar is as channeling Mick Ronson and Johnny Thunders as much as it is Mick Ralphs. And within that triumvirate of influences lies this rock opera concept album within called The Supersonic Star Show, where glam meets hair metal and kicks its ass.

If you’re not familiar with this band, that makes three albums worth of ass-kicking to date after Let’s Rock and Roll Tonight and Chemical Dogs. I hear everything from Sweet and T Rex to harder rocking Jellyfish and Queen, but mostly I hear a wonderfully infectious intersection of powerpop, glam and sleaze rock that gets me every time. The songs are great on their own; the storyline just makes it more fun (note: CD comes with a bonus DVD to convert the doubters).

 

23. The Doughboys:  Is It Now?

You can go home again. Pop wunderkind Richard X. Heyman often referred to his time spent years ago in the garage band The Doughboys. Lo and behold, four decades later they not only reform but issue an exciting garage pop record that sounds at once contemporary and timeless. Armed with a few classic covers including “Route 66” and “I’m Cryin”, plus new appropriately raw songs from Heyman, this is anything but a reunion photo op for the former Café Wha? house band.

Gar Francis replaced original guitarist Willy Kirchofer (who sadly passed away as the material was being recorded over the past few years), and although you might not know his name, or vocalist Myke Scavone, or bassist Mike Caruso, a quick spin through their past reveals associations with a myriad of bands from Tommy James to Ram Jam to Billy Idol. Heyman, who can play anything, is on his favorite instrument, the drums. Is It Now bridges the gap between classic 60s garage singles and the current reanimation exploding with Cavestomp and The Underground Garage. What a great and unexpected surprise!

 

22.  The Gaslight Anthem:  The ’59 Sound

I usually have a bone to pick with any CD that starts with the sound of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record, as if to say “we’re old school rock”. But when you back it up musically, like The Gaslight Anthem does with its Springsteen-from-Dublin approach, all is forgiven. Like The Boss, they’re from Jersey, and this energetic, sing-along, punk-tinged quartet bleeds Bruce’s social observations, wanton loneliness and escapist angst without sounding like a wannabe copycat band. Musically they’re closer to a combination of the rhythmic Edge-like guitar chop of U2 and the sonic political energy of The Clash and…well, early U2.

Having “anthem” as part of their name is appropriate; their literate, lyrical songs resonate with importance and are sold with the passionate vocals of Brian Fallon. I can’t listen to “The Patient Ferris Wheel” or “Meet Me By The River’s edge” without stifling the reflex to pogo up and down, pumping my fist…not the best combination when driving. Of course, once I noticed that former Flogging Molly guitarist Ted Hutt produced it that explained everything. Hard to believe a band gets this good in two and a half years, but this album is so impressive that I’m grabbing their earlier effort on good faith.

 

21. Kelly Jones:  She Bang

Okay, so “There Goes My Baby” has far too much “Don’t Get Me Wrong” DNA in it to be completely original, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the most incredibly infectious singles of the year. Kelly Jones has a pop-perfect voice and her collaboration with wunderkind Mike Viola is an ideal partnership of skills; the production by the masterful Ducky Carlisle elevates everything another notch. There could be five singles here if radio has its head out of its ass…in a just world this would explode on the scene like Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual.

Call it girl-pop, Brill Building magic or Spector-esque…I call it a quantum leap from her previous (good) album, public notice has been served.

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(and hopefully soundclips!)

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