Circling the Wagons/Out Here in the Fields
This is a very off-the-cuff list of sounds, songs, and people that moved me this year. If I had to draw some sort of conclusion from the list , I’d say I circled the wagons around the styles that have consistently brought me pleasure since a young age (soul, punk, garage), but also didn’t hide out in those various genres and forget about the rest of the world. All in all, this was a good year. I think the underground has been more fruitful and more diverse than ever; I’m also seeing some serious pits out there, and at shows I’d have never expected to have seen them (I got punched in the lip at a Live Fast Die show and stepped on broken glass at King Khan & BBQ). Bring it kids!
Though his most well-known, and probably finest, musical statement thus far, Blood Visions, technically belongs to 2006, I’ll maintain that ’07 was the Year of the Reatard. I caught a few shows on the seemingly non-stop tour and was amazed. Despite playing nearly all of the songs from the above album at speed-metal tempos, the melodies still popped like a sucker punch. Credit must be given to Reatard’s backing band, the Boston Chinks (who had a decent 7” on Goner in their own right). I can only assume that it’s no easy task to play with Reatard, but these Memphis boys held it down ably and in style. To wit, their bass player chews snuff, the second guitarist looks like King Buzzo, and they shower together (according to http://jayreatard.blogspot.com). Of course, if the live experience weren’t enough, Jay released the excellent “I Know A Place” single on Goner, which presented some of his most pop-driven songwriting yet, and the equally stunning “Night of Broken Glass” 12” on In the Red. But hold on, you’ve still got Terror Visions’ World of Shit (seriously bleak, seriously infectious synth punk), Final Solutions’ Song By Solutions (a Memphis art-punk throw-together with Jay on drums), and all those blogspot jams. If you haven’t heard Jay Reatard in some form or another this year, it’s your fault and your loss.
No matter how much I read about Tinariwen, and how often I listened to their album, Aman Iman, they still seemed so otherworldly to me. Despite hearing traces of Richard Thompson, the Rolling Stones, and African desert blues, Tinariwen sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, yet I had such an immediate and undeniable response to their music. It hit me straight in the soul and made me realize that no matter how much music I think I’ve heard, there’s always something out there – new or old – that can unexpectedly move one to near tears of joy. Seeing the band live, stuffed into to the fairly tiny Other Music store, enhanced both of the feelings I described above. As they were decked out in full Bedouin garb, speaking little to no English, and looking maybe a little nervous, it would have been easy to have exoticized the foreignness of this literal band of refugees, but once the music began the cultural divide was quickly breached.
We’ll Never Turn Back is a collection of civil rights march songs, some of them traditional some of the reworked, and some of them written specifically for them album. The production, by Ry Cooder, is kept suitably raw, and Mavis’s voice, considering her age, soars. While I also enjoyed Bettye LaVette’s album from this year as well, The Scene of the Crime, it just doesn’t compete with We’ll Never Turn Back. This might have a bit to do with my feeling about the Drive By Truckers (which is basically “eh”), but more than anything else, it’s the subject matter of We’ll Never Turn Back that hits me in a way that maybe no other record this year did. These were songs with a deep political and social purpose, and Mavis is reminding everyone of that. I sincerely hope we never face a time during which these songs must be put to work again, but if we do, I hope Mavis is at the front the line walking tall.
It’s hard not to appreciate this most unique partnership of musical cultures (indie rock journeymen and Kenyan benga stars), but set aside for a moment the socio-cultural feel-good story (one that even involves Barack Obama) that is Extra Golden. What you’re left with, and this is surely the most important part of that story, is some truly joyful music. The band overcame the tragedy of losing original member Otieno Jagwasi to AIDS, and recorded this album, their second, with his brother Onyango. The result is an uplifting blend of world music styles. I’m sure an ethnomusicologist, or even a more savvy world music fan than I, could take certain guitar licks, melodic lines, and rhythms and dissect them in terms of their adherence to more western versus African musical traditions, and I don’t doubt that there have been numerous discussions over the general authenticity of Extra Golden’s music as it relates to the African musical diaspora, but I’ll have no part in either undertaking. For me, Extra Golden is first and foremost a truly seamless blending of musical styles and traditions; the two sides mutually learn from the other here until the two are one. You can practically hear that process happening here, and the effect touches the soul. Is this a simplistic, sentimental reading of Extra Golden? Perhaps, but I insist that the proof is in the grooves.
I’m generally weary of concept records, especially concept records by stoner-metalists with a penchant for mystical ramblings. That said, I loved this record. Whether at home on the subway or at work, Pilgrimage transported me. As the title suggests, the album works as a journey, starting out slow, and meandering down a dark burnt-out musical road where occasional battles must be waged, only to return to its original sonic outpost a just over 30 minutes later. The music is pure Om: repetitive, meditative, and pushing toward the sublime. And while nothing has changed much with Om’s style, it sounds more refined here, more parsed out, and ultimately more affecting.
There’s not a whole lot more I can say about this album that I didn’t say in my lengthy write-up for Dusted (click here). I’ll just remind everyone again that Mark Sultan is one of the finest songwriters out there today, for the simple reason that he’s able to draw fresh blood from the shot veins of our most simple and beloved forms of pop music. Also, the action he’s got going with his man Khan is so far off-the-chain-wild, I feel dirty and hung-over just mentioning it. This may have been the year of the Reatard, but next year it’s the King & BBQ show.
I can’t remember the last time I was willing to buy a record based purely on the label releasing it. I was probably 15 and the label was Touch & Go. Clearly, times change. At any rate, the Milwaukee label Dusty Medical Records reached that most difficult-to-obtain status for me this year. Everything I picked up in ’07 was uniformly excellent. The Thomas Function 7” “Relentless Machine” was on my turntable for a straight week after I bought it, and was forced on almost everyone that entered my living room. Jangly as fuck, they sound not unlike the Wedding Present after a tour of the Deep South. I fell hard. The Strange Boys came as much out of nowhere as T.F., and I look forward to more of the sloppy Velvets-meets-the Band choogle that they displayed on the “Nothing” 7”; the Tuff Bananas made an excellent bubble-gum/power-pop racket without getting too cutesy on “Candy”; and while the Plexi 3 groove to a certain dance-punk vibe that isn’t generally my bag, they do it with a scrappiness that I found pretty enjoyable. And then, ladies and gents, there’s the Goodnight Loving. They didn’t drastically alter their sound for their second LP, Crooked Lake, and that’s just fine, as they make some of the most bittersweet good-times folk-punk (or how about garage-folk?) I’ve ever heard. Goodnight Loving is party music for the supreme bacchanalia you dream about – no bad vibes, all the tussles end with a handshake, and if you don’t get kissed you can do the pony or walk the dog with the rest of the broken hearted. If that’s a scene that always seems just out of reach no matter how many beers you throwback, take heart, it’s right there on Crooked Lake. On the strength of this album alone, I’d give Dusty Medical the Label of the Year award. Keep ‘em coming Kevin.
This is a quiet treasure of an album, and gives new meaning to the phrase “confessional songwriting.” Bobo doesn’t rely on any one stylistic format to spin his tales of loss, heartache, and regret; instead, he pulls from a broad scope of pop and rock styles and uses the most basic versions of each to draw the listener in. Perhaps most interestingly, there’s humor and self-effacement here amidst the soul searching. And thank God for that, as there’s nothing worse than a solipsistic musical journal entry passing for “serious” and “deep” songwriting. Not the case with I’m Your Man, which becomes more enjoyable with each listen, even as Harlan T.’s “in-your-face humanity” (to borrow a phrase from the Simpsons) becomes all the more apparent. In fact that’s the true appeal of the album.
This is another record that snuck up on me to provide a wealth of unexpected pleasure. The cover of Memphis Treet instructs the listener to file under “Memphis grease and power pop,” and that’s almost all you need to say about this one. One-time Exploding Hearts member Louie Bankston has happened upon a near perfect mix of the two sounds on which Memphis built its musical reputation. Admittedly, “Memphis grease” covers a pretty wide spectrum, but Louie manages to hit all of them: country-blues, blues-country, soul, R&B, et al. It’s the sugary power melodies and skinny tie beat rubbing up against the grit and grout that gives the album its voice. Louie brings along an all-star band that includes Jack “Oblivian” Yarber and the aforementioned Harlan T. Bobo, among others, to the proceedings. Memphis Treet is good times in a bottle and, watch out for “Gypsy Switch” – it might be my song of the year.
THIS! This is what the kids need. While Alex White’s self-titled debut for In the Red had its moments and spoke of good things to come, her follow-up Space & Time burned the house to the ground. White uses every ounce of soul and fire her tiny frame can muster on these tracks, and it works. She also nicely side-steps garage rock convention. Sure, there’s plenty of stomping party jams and bluesy licks here, but there’s also a thick, hazy cosmic sheen to the album that recalls the blisssed-out tar-thick fuzz of the Jesus & Mary Chain and the Spacemen 3. Although the bits and pieces of her sound are everywhere these days, hers is a combination one doesn’t happen upon too often. Alex White has superstar potential, she just needs to get the word out.
Last Second Honorable Mention (single-song version):
This track from the Vashti Bunyan rarities album testifies to the truth of that set’s title. I like Vashti Bunyan well enough, but never quite understood the fuss when compared to a host of other similar female ’60s/early-’70s singer-songwriters. That said, “Coldest Night of the Year” is a wonderful little Swingin’ London reworking of the much more American “Baby it’s Cold Outside.”( Note: these are two completely different songs – different lyrics, melodies, and production – but the sentiments are identical.) The song is an absolutely perfect slice of 1960s British soul-pop, with just a hint of peasant-skirt folk and acid underground loopiness, and it’s also a lovely vehicle for Bunyan’s gorgeous voice. The rest of the Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind is quite good as well, but “The Coldest Night of the Year” is perfectly orchestrated pop bliss. Maybe it’s just the season, but the song’s familiar appeal for love and affection warms me every time.
The Best of the Rest:
Major Stars - Mirror/Messenger (Drag City)
The Staples Singers - The Best of the Vee-Jay Years (Shout Factory)
By Nate Knaebel