(What an odd saying that is, by the way.)
Close But No Cigar is my quick takes on albums that didn’t make it to my “best of” list this year but are still worth checking out. Some have a great song or two, many are consistently good but not great. Not quite “bridesmaids”, the “cigars” will slot somewere south of #40 on the list when all is said and done.
But that’s just one man’s ears talking. I’m hoping that you find an artist or three that knocks your socks off and/or rediscover something that you passed on earlier. Here are ten to start with, in no particular order…
Broken West: Now Or Heaven
Imagine if Wilco teleported to the 1980s and tried to beat Europop at its own game. Some very nice melodies, whiffs of Kinks on occasion, but ultimately a juxtaposition of styles that doesn’t quite flow from start to finish. If you enjoy the aforementioned bands and 80s pop as well as revitalizer bands like The Kaiser Chiefs and The Futureheads, this might grow on you. A good highway album.
Ian McLagan: Never Say Never
Mac is a little mellower than usual on this one, but there aren’t too many bigger hearts making records nowadays. Surrounded as always by great musicians, Mac’s soulful raspy vocals and expressive playing are framed by heartfelt songs, many obvious love notes to his late wife Kim. Ronnie Lane fans will like the organic feel of “Killing Me With Love” while Faces fans will delight in the barrel-house rocker “I’m Hot, You’re Cool”. The Bump Band is on tour where Mac’s material shines brightest, and I’ll wager some alternate arrangements pop up in the set-list.
Local H: 12 Angry Months
Talk about inspiration! Take one disintegrating relationship, one calendar and write a song for each month. With lyrics running the gamut from low-key disillusionment to sarcasm (“baby can you do me a favor/fall from the Earth and I’ll see you later”) to flat out anger (“BMW Man”), the music is all over the map to match. As you can imagine, that means introspective pop to proto-punk…I’m not certain it all works but I admire the concept and the effort.
Smith Brothers: Restless
The harmonies and songwriting are both pretty good, but not every song boasts both strengths. Restless starts off very strong, echoing classic power pop bands like Badfinger and the Beach Boys to more current practitioners like Teenage Fanclub and Sloan; the first three tracks are rock-solid. I can’t really put my finger on it after that – the hooks are there, the ringing chords, the pop guitar solo, the la-la-la vocals…somehow it just doesn’t jumpout of the speakers like I think it should. Maybe it’s the mix, maybe the energy level…ahhh, maybe it’s me…among pop fans I seem to be in the minority on this one. I’m going to keep trying…I think “Too Long” will grow on me. And the bonus track will make Gram Parsons smile from the great cosmic afterlife he’s sailing through.
Old 97’s: Blame It On Gravity
Just when you thought they were through, Rhett circles the wagons and they start synthesizing alt-country and pop again. A really enjoyable album, not their best, but a welcome addition to the catalogue, and I think long time fans were knocked out by it. It rocks in spots, a few Tex-Mex steppers of course, and twang enough for Buckaroos to savor. I put it in that group of albums that I am glad to hear come on the player, but I don’t find myself going out of my way to grab it on purpose.
Tom Petty can do pretty much whatever he wants to at this point in his career, so reuniting his original band to finally make that debut record was worthy on many fronts. It’s great to relax and return to his Byrds roots, and I’m sure the paycheck for the less famous guys was a nice perk. As you’d expect, Campbell’s guitar and Benmont Tench’s keyboards are completely in sync and Marsh and Leadon mesh well. Some choice covers and an overall Laurel Canyon vibe make it a pretty solid effort, far more organic than I expected.
Downfalls: Last Night
A nice surprise I found on a trolling mission through CD Baby, it’s exuberant pop that will appeal to the skinny-tie crowd as well as the more sophisticated power pop fans who expect a few more chord changes and song structure. There are a couple of immediately appealing tracks like “All The Way” and “Ghost Of Megan”; when they’re in that T.Rex meets Sponge meets Green Day sweet spot, I’m on board. But like many bands in this genre, it doesn’t hold up for an entire album…your mileage may vary, however.
Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul
Past their shelf life but not lumpy or sour…well, maybe a little sour…the boys decide to try and reclaim what was theirs only half a decade ago. Perhaps the ironic title of the album was a call to arms, but they only seemed to muster it up for the lead-off track before falling back into the same old Beatle references, both lyrical and sonic. “Bag It Up” is flat out killer, worthy of a “greatest hits” slot, but outside of “Waiting For The Rapture” there are no knockouts here. Still, songs like “Soldier On” have more than the usual depth to them and grow with repeated listenings. Not what I expected, but potentially a grower.
Young Sportsmen: If You Want It
If you’re a fan of fat chunky guitar chords, hummable refrains, head-bobbing choruses and the occasional bombast (think Tsar) leavened with sweet vocals (think Posies or Splitsville), these guys are for you. Sometimes reminiscent of Fastball, only poppier, there are several recommendable tracks including “Metropolitan”, “Girl Pants” and “Summer Ace” on yet another good album from these guys. And there weren’t too many better song titles than “Sesame Street Fighting Man” last year, either.
Raconteurs: Consolers Of The Lonely
Much, much better than the massively over-hyped Broken Boy Soldiers but it’s still frustrating to see a band that’s truly less than the sum of its parts. Jack White seems to be able to crawl into other people’s skin and work them like puppets, so why hasn’t he taken Brendan Benson’s solid pop DNA and worked it into some better material? Musically the chops are there, the instrumentation is diverse enough, but it all boils down to a lack of good songs to show off with. Hopefully the third time is the charm.
(I’ll get around to adding some direct links, but between Amazon, CD Baby, MySpace and your favorite online retailer, I’m sure you won’t have trouble finding some soundclips to listen to.)