The countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 concludes today with the three best albums of 2008…
3. The New Odds: 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
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
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!
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