Words By: David Schultz
:: HITTING THE TRUNK ROAD - 2013 IN REVIEW::
If Harry Nilsson were ever asked, the man who once proclaimed one to be the loneliest
number would have definitely declared December to be the loneliest month in the music
industry. With the exception of Phish’s annual Madison Square Garden run, spontaneous
Beyonce releases or box set stocking stuffers, rarely does anything exciting happen in
December. It makes for the perfect time to look back at the year that just elapsed, even
if it’s not an entirely comprehensive review.
Lou Reed has interchangeably served as the creator, innovator and Godfather of punk
rock, alternative rock, avant-garde rock, art rock, celebrity cool and New York attitude.
Given his resume, it was extremely disappointing that the majority of the obituaries that
followed his passing in October dwelled upon Metal Machine Music, discussing his
long-debated 1975 album as if it was the defining moment and exemplar of his life and
career. That’s not to say that Reed went improperly eulogized: Velvet Underground drummer
Maureen Tucker and Metric’s Emily Haines offered heartfelt sentiments and Chuck Klosterman
accurately noted that the general public’s ability to separate their appreciation for
Reed’s music from any ill-opinion of him as a person (he was legendarily cantankerousness
and that may be an understatement) may be the truest form of art appreciation.
One of Reed’s last public moments was a review for The Talkhouse of Kanye West’s Yeezus, a case of a
former generation’s outsider artist offering his opinion on this generation’s
controversial, outspoken artist. In showing his appreciation for West’s bravery, his
braggadocio, his honesty of expression, Reed seemed to be saying that he found someone
else who understands the art of music as well as the music of art. It’s unlikely that
JamBase readers and Ye’s target demographic have a significant overlap but if one can
listen without prejudice, the near-unanimous denomination of Yeezus as one of this
year’s best is eminently justified.
With no disrespect to Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” which went from selling less than 50
copies/week on iTunes to 37,000 copies/week following the finale of Breaking Bad,
Lorde’s “Royals” would have to be the song of the year. An insightful and
ridiculously catchy riposte to hip-hop/bling culture, the attention being foisted upon the
17-year-old New Zealander seems like it may ironically result in her being able to afford
those Maybachs and jet planes that she thinks are out of her reach. As good as the song
may be, Pure Heroine, her debut album, has nine other songs that sound much too much like
it. Perhaps she broadens her horizons once she graduates high school.
For as much as music moves forward every year, it often does so by looking backwards. None
cast as reverential an eye towards the sounds of yesteryear than Foxygen’s Sam
France and Jonathan Rado. On We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic,
Foxygen meshed together old-school Rolling Stones rock, Brooklyn ennui, wild-eyed hippie-
folk sing-alongs, measured Link Wray crawls, Shakedown Street digressions, pacific Velvet
Underground reveries, Beatles-like harmonies and Rocky Horror weirdness, often within the
same song. The duo’s breakout potential quickly vanished when France had a public meltdown
under the SXSW spotlight and then fractured his leg in the midst of a Minnesota set.
Fueling rather than quelling break-up rumors, Rado finished the year by releasing Law &
Order, a solo album cut very much from the Foxygen mold. They weren’t the only band to
expertly crib from what came before. Pond, the side project of Tame Impala’s rhythm
section, released Hobo Rocket, whose psychedelic heft easily matched their more
well-known incarnation. Yuck, a marvelous band of young Brits, adapted to the
departure of Daniel Blumberg, their distinctively voiced lead singer, by moving from the
Pavement-inspired indie rock of their self-titled debut to the Day-Glo psychedelics of the
'60s on Glow & Behold.
The annals of rock band hype are replete with acts that made a big splash but failed to
follow it up with anything of note beyond an “indefinite hiatus” post on their Facebook
page. Rising above the multitude of artists that fall to the wayside with each passing
month, in 2013, a small handful emerged into brands. With Trouble Will Find Me,
The National cemented their place on the Mount Rushmore of dad-rock, making urban
ennui, languishing resolve and Matt Berninger’s resonant baritone their immediately
identifiable hallmarks. Once Ivy-league dandies that could hardly stumble on the sidewalk
without somewhat whispering “misappropriation” or “entitlement” behind their sweater-
vested backs, Vampire Weekend unleashed on the year’s best albums in Modern
Vampires Of The City. What once seemed pretentious now comes across as inventive and
musically and thematically, the band is becoming weightier as they mature.
Arcade Fire took the biggest leap from band to brand, generating a groundswell of
attention for Reflektor, their James Murphy-produced follow-up to the Grammy
winning The Suburbs. Although Murphy shut down his own business in grand
documentary style, he’s kept his dreams alive, somewhat converting the indie-darlings into
ARCD Fire System. Win Butler and company have always had grand artistic ambitions but if
they are using U2 as their model for world acclimation, they have released their
Zooropa, not their The Joshua Tree.
Battling lineup changes ever since The Stage Names, Okkervil River made people
forget the hiccup of its last go-around with this year’s conceptish The Silver
Gymnasium. After the Grammys showed their ignorance of For Emma, Forever Ago in
awarding Bon Iver Best New Artist for Bon Iver, Justin Vernon moved on to
Volcano Choir. With Repave, Vernon shows that regardless of who’s around him, he
has his own distinct sound. Learning how to cope in a world where they are no longer the
sweetheart of the Internet press, with Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, Cold War Kids
proved they have matured into a dependable rock outfit still capable of telling short
passionate stories in song while backing it up with weighty hooks and memorable riffs.
Kurt Vile may never do anything more than churn out ambling 8 minute mood-pieces.
However, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile’s fifth, shows that that’s all he may ever
need to do.
Not every once-hip act reveled in renewed success. Black Joe Lewis released
Electric Slave but kept the throwback funk and soul at home. Their Austin brethren,
White Denim, released Corsicana Lemonade, a perfectly fine follow-up to
their breakout D. However, instead of going wilder, modern rock’s brightest hope
seemed to reign in their ambitious impulses and play it closer to the vest. (Their live
show remains as energetic as ever). Sophomore efforts by Polica, Caveman, The Head And The
Heart, The Joy Formidable, Truth & Salvage Co. and Local Natives were far from steps
backward. Nonetheless, in offering more of the same from their respective debuts, it
wouldn’t be unfair to think the bloom may be off the rose.
In the post-Mumford world, Americana-flecked bands had an attentive audience with ears
eagerly attuned to the strumming and plucking of acoustic instruments. Bursting through
the opening created by bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and, to a lesser extent,
Carolina Chocolate Drops, young bands took advantage of the biggest folk-rock boom since
the Coen brothers resurrected “Man Of Constant Sorrow” in O Brother Where Art Thou
and brought old-timey music to the forefront of the collective unconscious. While bands
like Spirit Family Reunion and Hurray For The Riff Raff continued to build their fan
bases, Indiana’s Houndmouth proved to be the year’s brightest folk rockers on the
horizon. With a communal style reminiscent of The Band, Houndmouth channeled the rootsiest
of rock on their marvelous debut, From The Hills Below The City. No matter that
Brooklyn is hardly synonymous with authentic folk music, the hipster borough’s The Lone
Bellow emerged as one of the most polished, expertly crafting beautiful harmonies over
a sound that feels fresh without sounding new. No youngster, guitarist Jason Isbell
continued to thrive in his post Drive-By Truckers career and Southeastern, his fourth
since leaving the Alabama rockers, is his most accomplished and complete record to date.
For those who prefer their roots music a little dirtier, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn
Band offered up Between The Ditches, their latest collection of swampy and
earthy blues-based rave ups. Rev. Peyton truly needs to been seen live, especially where
the fire code permits Breezy Peyton to unleash the wildest flaming washboard solo this
side of the Mississippi.
A stalwart on many of the past decade’s year-end lists, My Morning Jacket remained
relatively silent and inactive in 2013. In the absence of a new album from the prolific
Kentucky rockers, Jim James filled the void with Regions of Light and Sound of
God. With a feel more reminiscent of his collaborations with the Monsters Of Folk,
James’ first true solo album unlikely satisfied the MMJ true believers but served as
viable sustenance until the band reemerges (likely sometime in 2014). Not as prominently
featured in his band as James in My Morning Jacket, Scott Tournet, the lead
guitarist for Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, stepped into the spotlight with Ver La
Luz. An easygoing collection of rock-based songs that makes a fine complement to
James’ solo effort, Tournet infuses his solo-effort with just enough guitar passages
reminiscent of Roy Buchanan to remind audiences that he remains an intriguing axeman. With
The Decemberists taking time off, their most identifiable member, Colin Meloy,
engaged in a solo tour that saw a limited release of a series of Kinks covers. Speaking of
the Davieses, the perpetually battling brothers did their part of keeping the brand vital
by actively refusing to deny that there's a possibility for a Kinks reunion. Peter Gabriel
also deserves mention for stoking the embers of the perpetually persistent Genesis reunion
tour by likewise confirming that he hasn’t ruled it out. Never has not saying no been so
In the fictional realm, Roddy Doyle returned to Barrytown with The Guts, picking up
the story of Jimmy Rabbitte, the brash young impresario that put together The
Commitments, the titular band of the Irish author’s debut novel. In The
Commitments, which served as the source material for Alan Parker’s 1991 film of the
same name, Doyle tells the tale of a remarkably talented soul troupe that comes together
in the ghettos of Dublin, Ireland, only to burn out brightly instead of fading away. A
quarter century later, Doyle has not reunited The Commitments: sentimental prose awash in
the warm glow of nostalgia has never been his forte. Rather, in true Doyle fashion,
Rabbitte has been diagnosed with cancer, which leads him to reconnect with some of the
musicians he handpicked for his band decades ago. In bringing Outspan Foster into the
narrative, you can almost envision Doyle crafting a role with sufficient gravitas that it
lures Glen Hansard back to the role for the inevitable movie adaptation. The Irish
Springsteen remained relevant in 2013, paying homage to the Jersey version with a stirring
rendition of “Drive All Night,” a song he has long covered on stage with The Swell Season.
Beyonce may have dominated December headlines with her surprise release but Hansard’s
December EP served as the best release of the notoriously slow month.
Courtney Barnett, merged two prior releases into The Double EP: A
Sea Of Split Peas and has whetted appetites for what she could do with a full album. A
trenchant observationalist, on “Avant Gardener” she notes that “the paramedic thinks I’m
clever cause I play guitar, I think she’s clever cause she stops people dying.” Katie
Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee, could also lay claim to the Phair-throne
of 2013, On Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield bears her soul with unflinching frankness
and honesty, proclaiming that she has no desire to be anyone’s girlfriend and that she
will not do what you want her to because...well, because she just won’t. Laura
Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle shouldn’t be pigeonholed for making the best use
of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” chord progression over the course of an entire album but
Marling truly makes you hear the sound of the faces in the crowd.
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2013 was the March release of The Next Day,
an out-of-nowhere offering from David Bowie. Matching the thrill of a set of new
material from The Thin White Duke was the fact that the songs were top notch. While he
hasn’t exactly been in hibernation, Elton John’s first solo collaboration with T-
Bone Burnett (the two helped resurrect Leon Russell’s dormant career in 2010) did mark a
return of sorts to the Elton John that was one of the most beloved and respected musicians
of the 70s. By returning to the road with a predominantly greatest-hits set list, John
spent a healthy part of the year reclaiming his classic rock legacy.
The biggest concert news of the season came late in the year when Billy Joel
announced that he would become Madison Square Garden’s newest “franchise.” (Upon making
the announcement, he was immediately deemed more successful than the Knicks). Following
Phil Lesh, Joel will adopt the Levon Helm system of bringing the mountain to Muhammad.
More ambitious and less homier than inviting everyone to a living room in the midst of a
Woodstock forest, Joel will play monthly shows at the Garden for as long as people feel
like putting bread in his jar. Unquestionably, Joel’s longevity at MSG will be tied to the
greed factor of everyone involved. At the present, tickets have remained at the
comparatively inoffensive $100 - $125 range (before Ticketmaster “fees”). In contrast, The
Rolling Stones celebrated 50 years of rock and roll with a brief tour that begged the
question of "how much is too much" for concert tickets.
For those that like their rock bluesy and classic, New Yorkers Leroy Justice put
out a consideration for album of the year with Above The Weather. On the left
coast, Tea Leaf Green released In The Wake, their most ambitious and most
accomplished studio album. Lusher production dresses up keyboardist Trevor Garrod’s songs
in the manner they’ve always deserved and give a slightly decadent glam rock feel to
guitarist Josh Clark’s songs.
Hands down, Parquet Courts’ Light Up Gold was the most exhilarating album of
the year and the Brooklyn-based foursome are the latest in a long line of distinctively
New York bands. Starting with the Velvet Underground, New York City has always had a
distinctive form of rock and roll. In a non-linear fashion, it’s made its way to the
present day through Television, The Ramones and Patti Smith to Sonic Youth to The Strokes
to nearly every band from Williamsburg banging out three chords with a hipper-than-thou
attitude. The other debut album of significance came from across the pond. Silence
Yourself and the all-female Savages from the U.K. were simply a revelation and are
everything you might want from a young rock band. Full of attitude bordering on
pathological disdain, Savages aural assault and angry patois are like pairing Patti Smith
with Black Sabbath’s rhythm section.