By Dennis Cook
Know where great music is flourishing? Right under your nose! Everyday people are pouring their hearts into real, amazing music. Changes in technology over the past few years have democratized the distribution of music, and like the singles boom of the 1950s, we're hearing more folks dream in melody all the time. Music that will shake you, enlighten you, or just plain tickle you is calling. Turn away from MTV and commercial radio. They'll take care of themselves. You have incredible independently released albums and Internet-only finds itching to come home with you. Now look down. I bet you there's at least one thing in this pile of new releases with your name on it. It's right here, under your nose...
Pick of the litter:
THE BRILLIANT OUTPUT OF THE MOTHER HIPS FAMILY
Sensations: Listen To My Shapes (self-released)
Blood-warm rhythms, crisp, brilliant guitars, and gentle complications abound in this crystal land of hooks and harmonies. This hums with the snap-crackle-pop of odder Cheap Trick, early Bee Gees, and other tunefully wistful masters. Each cut is a small world unto itself, the musings of fictional denizens that consistently ring true. It's the sort of music you learn all the background vocals to so you can sing along just right as you blast it at top volume. Led by Mother Hip Greg Loiacono and fleshed out by co-conspirators Todd Roper (Cake) and Paul Hoaglin (Mother Hips), Sensations embody the best qualities of earlier artists without sounding much like anyone else. Hips fans will find succor in "He's So Brave" and country-rock rambler "This All According To You." There's a Roy Orbison lilt on "Slow to Show," but that's just Loiacono's flexible pipes joining the great continuum of singers that crawl into our lives to stay. "I, As A Ghost" is like discovering some lost peer of the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee." His softly wandering words carry a heightened sense of feeling, be it the forward-tumbling hope of "Superscout" or the Who Sells Out-like swoon of "Avery (I hear you)." And there's the matter of the title tune, a journey towards a dark sun quite unlike anything Loiacono has penned before. A great deal of thought and care is poured into every moment, producing a labor of love that amply rewards the listener's attentions.
Tim Bluhm: California Way (Fog City)
A ringing tone poem to the things that disappear and the ones that stay with us, Bluhm's newest makes us lean in conspiratorially. It's a song cycle that may only reveal its full, bruised beauty set on repeat some sleepless night – that nowhere time where your dreams and disappointments chatter in your head. Reminiscent of the early work of John Gorka, David Wilcox, and John Prine, there's blood on the strings and off-the-cuff understanding that's healingly astringent. Not so much glum as realistic, Bluhm, armed mainly with an acoustic guitar and his holy voice, delves into private spaces even his revelatory songs in The Mother Hips rarely reached. It's also a tearful love note to a fading California, full of references to Steinbeck and rising above the fog and riptides - a nod to a place that once held verdant, pastel orchards and increasingly settles for being a Silicon Valley. Painfully honest and dappled with crooked smiles, California Way glows like the sepia tales we tell when we flip through old photos, letting more slip out than we'd probably intended. This kind of incautious, unutterably true storytelling should always be treasured.
The Mother Hips: Red Tandy EP (Camera)
A perfect single is a rare beast today. An a-side that catches and quickens you and a b-side that gives you something to ponder. Rare indeed, especially given the 7" vinyl format has largely been given over to indie and punk rock. Enter the Hips, classic rock sans nostalgia, joined to a girl that likes it hot especially when records play. "Red Tandy" is a longtime live staple that always hinted at the studio greatness here. Flip it over and "Colonized" wanders sharp-guitared corridors that leave both the narrator and us wondering why this life is so short. The CD EP version tosses in an extended alternate version of "Red Tandy" and a choice Greg Loiacono-led "Blue Tomorrow." Like all their music, these new ones will stick with you like the best work of the Kinks or Velvet Underground. This should tide us over until the new full-length arrives this Summer.
Thomas Denver Jonsson: Barely Touching It (Kite Recordings)
While others have hailed Neil Young's lukewarm Prairie Wind as his return to form, a young Swedish musician has quietly shown what really comes after the gold rush. In a keening, sun-kissed voice, he entangles himself in emotions in a way that compares admirably with early Bob Dylan. And like his Bobness's first albums, one gets a tiny palpitation that this is just the beginning for this seer. While clearly drawing inspiration from Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Brothers) and Young, Jonsson's musical template is hummingly rich – pedal steel splashes and caressing bass, acoustic guitars bleeding into charged electrics, a beautiful mixture of the intimate and the up-tempo. Only Denver's second release, this is comfort for weary souls. A major growth spurt occurred between his debut, Hope to Her, and this set. He seems to be pulling more and more out of living and funneling it into his songs. The poetic leaps and density of feeling are touched by a grace beyond his years. The results are strikingly lovely and not a little insightful.
2nd Runner Up:
The Dirtbombs: If You Don't Already Have A Look (In The Red)
The only music history lesson in 2005 likely to make you strip shirtless and spill beer on your wildly shimmying bod. This is the band that should be getting the Michel Gondry videos and universal accolades currently being heaped on the White Stripes. This 52-track singles collection (with six new cuts) is primal grind – urgent and unhinged, hopped-up like the best '50s and '60s rock, sure to set you pole dancing as you chase that inner sex god you keep trying to deny. Singer-guitarist Mick Collins (he of late '80s Detroit legends The Gories) leads the two-bass, two-drum unit. Eno-style broken synths and breathy vocals occasionally infiltrate, puncturing the Sonics-like assault with faux-future pop accents. Disc One is the originals with saucy titles like "High Octane Salvation" and "Little Miss Chocolate Syrup" and a tone that's not far from recent Queens of the Stone Age, though far less self-importantly cerebral. Disc Two is a kaleidoscope of covers that touch on Stevie Wonder, Cheater Slicks, Lou Rawls, Flipper and the Bee Gees, and dozens more. There's nothing here that's less than righteous. As good as their full-lengths are, this is pure Dirtbomb heaven. Ignore at your own risk.
Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 (Spin Art)
Penn may be more wistful than any man alive. He's five albums in, and the world's weight remains squarely on his shoulders. Personally, I dig it. These are frivolous times, and Penn's seriousness, especially when married to a melodic imagination worthy of Lennon and McCartney, is welcome. Like all his albums, the full measure of his talents takes time to sink in. There are always themes and ideas cross-talking from beginning to end, perhaps never more so than on Mr. Hollywood Jr., which supposedly tells a linked story. After a dozen spins, I'm still unable to tell anyone what that story might be. What I can say is he's got a great, emotionally vibrant voice and he puts it to use on some of the most artfully crafted pop ever produced. Give him three-minutes and he CAN give you the world. He sings, "Captivate my interest with an answer for it all." Penn catches us up in his search for meaning below all the mistakes and missed signals human beings endure. Rumor has it there's a Part Two to this tale. I can't wait.
Kelley Stoltz: The Sun Comes Through (Sub Pop)
A fictional lost weekend with Ray Davies (Kinks) and Mike Heron (Incredible String Band) jamming languorously by the side of a rainbow-colored stream. At least that's what this five-track taster from SF's Stoltz puts in my dome. A precursor to his first full-length on Sub Pop, this dabbles in fuzzy boogie, distorted pianos, and a phalanx of thick, dreamy guitar. Only the title tune will appear on the new album, and all odds and sods assembled here are well worth savoring. There's a kind of playful mescaline saunter to this EP when taken as a whole, mayhap something George Harrison might have stumbled into if he'd stayed on the path of All Things Must Pass. I said it in my 2004 Year In Review column but it bears repeating – Expect big things from this hyper-talented cat.
Eric McFadden Trio: Joy of Suffering (Terminus)
From the first notes, it's clear we're in for some heavy weather. But in these featherweight days, it's invigorating to find an axeman who bears down hard like Robert Johnson sparring with Metallica AND whose tunes hum with apocalyptic menace. McFadden infuses a Dylan-esque landscape with punk and metal seasoning. The initial flavor is aluminum and regrets, but the bittersweet aftertaste will stay with you. Wisdom only comes after years of healing and introspection. There's a whole range of emotions in between experience and insight, and McFadden and his extraordinarily organic rhythm partners, Paulo Baldi (drums) and James Whiton (bass), excel at exploring what happens when life pricks us. "Long Way Up" is about the pang of almost getting what you want, or maybe more accurately, almost being what someone else wants. Suspect the buzzing cover of the Talking Heads' "Memories Can't Wait" is a nod to Byrne and co. but also Living Colour, who used to do the song regularly. Parts bring in elements of flamenco and pure country, but the bouillabaisse works well. Rather than simmer in bitterness, McFadden sifts the interesting parts hiding in life's dark matter. Sunny it ain't, but the evening has rarely had badass odes like these.
Mike Coykendall: Hello Hello Hello (Stereotype)
With a breath, something comes alive. There are intimations of birth pains but also abundant vibrancy, new colors between the old shades, a hint of wisdom in the woodpile. This solo debut is a far cry from Coykendall's Big Star-esque work in the Old Joe Clarks. Hello has the meditative layered bedroom brilliance of early Elliott Smith but with greater instrumental texture. A bent wit touches the production and oblique lyrics. Just when you think the flying saucer is about to lift off, you wobble into straight boogie - unpredictable but in a totally unforced way. He's just following the natural flow of the soul in these tracks. It's the rush of "Hope (the Good Angel)" into "If I Only Knew" that really punches you in the heart. That's meant positively. If you crawl inside Coykendall's world and let it envelop you, you'll discover his backyard spirituals may harbor foreboding, but light, diffracted and faint, breaks through even the Devil's haze. Glorious.
Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City)
Hard to say if it's the gut-level satisfying guitars or the perversely good-natured words that first catch you. Head Jew David Berman has the moxie of classic punks that learned to play like Husker Du and The Minutemen, but he grafts that prickly touch onto lyrics Paul Westerberg would give his left nut to have written. In the same tune, he cries he'll love you to the max and then follows that by saying, "Let's not kid ourselves, it gets really really bad." This is a shiny bauble with a cloudy center - Nick Cave fronting The Smiths under the direction of John Cale. Yes, it's that tasty. Among those helping the wandering tribe this time are Stephen Malkmus, Bobby Bare Jr., Will Oldham, and Cassie Berman, who provides a wonderful female counterpoint to David's heaviness. Philosophy, especially philosophy you can really use, is rarely this tuneful. Five albums in, and they keep getting better each time out.
Various artists: Elizabethtown soundtrack (RCA)
Cameron Crowe makes a good mix tape. He also weaves together images and songs in a way that puts most other populist filmmakers to shame. Elizabethtown is no exception. Concerned with loss and love, Crowe dips into the catalogs of Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Patty Griffin, and others to provide his characters with an inner voice that dialog can't provide. Unlike most contemporary soundtracks, he doesn't focus exclusively on new artists. "My Father's Gun" by Elton John and The Hollies' "Jesus Was A Crossmaker" are decades old but stand out because of their emotional resonance. Not everything from the film makes it on here or the limited edition companion set, Songs From The Brown Hotel. No solo acoustic Lindsey Buckingham doing "Big Love" or My Morning Jacket doing "Freebird," though MMJ does contribute the exclusive (and amazing) "Where To Begin." The new kids like Helen Stellar, Eastmountainsouth, and I Nine are pleasant enough but strikingly soundtrack-quality material, if you know what I mean. Overall, it's a sweet soul dream if you just surrender to his mood.
Vinny Peculiar: Whatever Happened To... (Shadrack & Duxbury)
Here's the foundation upon which Vinny built his great Growing Up With Vinny Peculiar. This assortment of early odds-and-ends has hints of the stylish wit and disarming charm he's exhibited in his recent work. "Uno Disco" could be a lost New Order single but with more tongue-in-cheek than those dance godfathers muster. "Jesus Stole My Girlfriend" is Prefab Sprout if they had a better sense of humor. Beefy guitars abound, as do wisps of Sartre, Burt Bacharach, and XTC. Mr. Peculiar is adept at myriad styles and guises, but ultimately - as evidenced by the tender, funny work on his new Two Fat Lovers single – he's decided to be himself, which is all the more satisfying for his listeners.
Super 400: Live 05 (Electric Mombie Music)
The pictures of this upstate New York trio inside the booklet show folks utterly enslaved, utterly blasted by the power of rock. Right on! It should hit you where you live, especially on a live set. Super 400 are a heady three-piece in the colloquial sense – big bong-hittin' goodness pulled from their instruments with dirty nails. Touchstones include Free and Thin Lizzy, bands that worked soul into their rock and mused aloud about the universe. You might also pick up strains of Led Zeppelin, the Isley Brothers, and Sly Stone (who gets a serious nod on their version of "Que Sera Sera"). Singer-guitarist Kenny Hohman's vocals are beautifully controlled like Paul Rodgers or Badfinger's Pete Ham. Lori Friday's popping, aggressive bass and Joe Daley's "When-The-Levee-Breaks" heavy drumming keep things thumpin' even on contemplative numbers like "All Is Right." They do linger a bit too long on a few tracks, but that's par for the course with concert recordings. Mostly you'll need a bungie cord and a couple valium to keep your arms from playing wild air guitar. Then again, maybe you should just windmill in your living room and enjoy their groove.
Espers: The Weed Tree (Locust)
Instantly reminds one of Steely Span, Tim Hardin, and The Incredible String Band – blessed minstrels with a vaguely otherworldly quality. After releasing one of the best debuts of the new millennium in 2004, Greg Weeks, Meg Baird, and Brooke Sietinsons wanted a little breathing space before their sophomore effort. This mostly-covers collection exceeds its stop-gap intent, further muddying their psychedelic soft parade with colorful sweeps into the catalogs of Nico, Michael Hurley, The Durutti Column, and some traditional fare. Worth owning just for their inspired revamping of Blue Oyster Cult's "Flaming Telepaths," which, trust me, sounds nothing like the BOC classic, taking it way out like the Cardigans' version of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath." My second-favorite album to accompany a new rising sun in 2005.
My favorite wake-up album of 2005 is...
Bart Davenport: Maroon Cocoon (Antenna Farm)
You could mistake the opener "Welcome To The Show" for the best Graham Nash tune you've never heard before, but it's all the gentle imagination and pop facility of the Bay Area's Bart Davenport, a man who excels at warm distractions from the stresses and strains of urban life. His flexible voice and melodic gifts would have made him a household name on '70s AM radio. Put him next to Gerry Rafferty, The Carpenters, and early solo George Harrison and the lad would hold his own. Sadly, the world pays little attention to tunesmiths like Davenport these days. Using acoustic guitars, keyboards with a fireplace glow, ancient drum machines, and layered vocals, Davenport has crafted a dozen should-have-been-hits. "Lately, She's Been Changing" belongs on the Garden State score, while "One More Reason" slithers like Steely Dan. It's the non-syrupy sweetness of cuts like "Into Music" and "Clara" that mark Davenport as an undiscovered classic. He tugs at your heartstrings in the gentlest way. His lightness of touch is what will keep folks coming back for more.
Jenny Scheinman: 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone)
Scheinman draws inspiration freely and without prejudice from myriad musical strains. Her latest session as bandleader and chief composer has a fluid melodiousness. It skips between dissonance and spirited tunefulness with grace, charm, and agility. Cornet and clarinet chatter with accordions above the limber bass and drums. And everywhere is Scheinman's glorious violin sewing up the pieces. "Sleeping in the Acquifer" makes me want to write love letters and recite them with this tearful violin behind me, the ache we struggle to capture in language rendered clearly by her strings. There's a soundtrack quality to some compositions, especially "Suza," which suggests the Marx Brothers' madcappery. Guitar legend Bill Frisell shines in this setting, building on the rapport he shares with Scheinman in his band. The second half is lighter in tone, which may leave you feeling less full than the first section. 12 Songs might have benefited from a different configuration that spread the denser material at both ends. American folk forms and Nina Rota also surface in her work here, but mostly it's a landscape of her own making, a place where instrumental music tells stories that require no words.
Magnolia Electric Co: Hard To Love A Man EP (Secretly Canadian)
Jason Molina has a voice like a fresh wound. The blood is slowed but hasn't stopped or scabbed over yet. His earlier work in Songs:Ohio focused on the pain of this wound, but his new band touches on the healing that ultimately comes after every cut. The title tune is from their fab debut What Comes After The Blues and is joined by three new songs with the elegant stateliness of The Band's "Tears of Rage" – gently warbled howls against that goddamn lonely feeling we carry around inside. "31 Seasons In The Minor Leagues" has the raw breadth of Neil Young's "Fontainebleau." This five-tracker concludes with a grin-worthy take on Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London" that offers a spot of humor amongst the dense clouds.
Michael Shelley: Goodbye Cheater (Confidential Recordings)
This would sound good mixed up with Beatles For Sale, Michael Nesmith's 1st National Band albums, Badfinger's No Dice, and The Mother Hips' Later Days. There's a purity of vision, a purity of spirit even, to Shelley. Each of his albums is a lesson in breathless pure pop touched by a country wind. While Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation In The Backyard was a gentle reminder of past Beatles glories, Shelley's new one is the direct descendent of all the virtues of pre-Revolver Fab Four. Opener "We Invented Love" is surely a giddy regular on God's jukebox. "The Leaves Fell Off The Trees" encapsulates autumn in just a few minutes, and the title track has the plaintive power of '50s singles. Only Cheap Trick and the Smithereens have sustained anything like Shelley's unbroken pop quality. This is an especially fine example of the man at his best.
Earthling Society: Albion (Nasoni)
A head lunge into brilliantly hued waters, liquid envelopment that discovers gills where before you had fine pink lungs. England's Earthling Society does their part to redeem the badly worn word 'psychedelic' on their debut. They proclaim themselves "a combination of pro-pagan thought" that incorporates the druidic order, the re-introduction of our ancient festivals, the full legalization of marijuana, and the support of real ale breweries and micro brewing. Hear hear! Fred Laird (voices/vocoder/guitars/synth/piano and recorder), David Fyall (voices/bass/bass synth/vocal percussion), and Jon Blacow (drums/percussion) summon up a funky befogged haze. Drift and drift and after four or five turns of the cosmic wheel, the true golden shine will appear. In more earthly terms, their precursors include Steve Hillage, Black Sabbath, Pentangle, Broadcast, and the hypothetical meeting of Holger Czukay and Stereolab. Forget all that referencing though. It's their own stoned-as-fuck vibe that compels us to roll another number and settle in for the duration.
Vintage Stash Selection:
Gary Higgins: Red Hash (Drag City)
"What do you intend to do, young man? Where do you intend to go?" This is one of those albums that thrive at sunrise and sunset, the in-between times where contemplation comes easy. Originally released in 1973 on Higgins's own Nufusmoon label, Red Hash is a skewed folk-rock sleeper on the order of John Martyn's Bless The Weather, Bridget St. John's Thank You For..., and Fred Neil's 1967 Capitol debut. It's music that exists outside of time, relating to human beings on an intuitive level, ready to deliver its secrets whenever someone stumbles off the beaten path into these fragrant woods. A specter of overdose lingers but not enough to truly ruffle the sativa vibe of these expanded afternoons and stoned conversations. The general feel is summed up by the title "I Pull Notes From The Sky." "Unable To Fly" could be the Beatles, and "Down On The Farm" suggests a hash-pacified Captain Beefheart. Cello, phased electric piano, and steel string guitar conjure a soft glow not dissimilar from The Band's revelation of the power in playing quietly. For everyone doing cartwheels over Vashti Bunyan and other Devendra Banhart-sanctioned artists, here's something infinitely more ingratiating waiting to flip your wig. Long unavailable after its first tiny-print run, Red Hash is without reservation the reissue of the year.
Vintage Stash runner-up:
Traffic Sound: Yellow Sea Years – Peruvian Psych-Rock-Soul 1968-71 (Vampisoul)
A bilingual mind-bomb that shoves Joe Cuba and War into a Jefferson Airplane. Close your eyes, and pinwheel colors spin past while the bending rhythms carry you into the vortex. Once again, Spain's Vampisoul has unearthed another rock pioneer from outside the usual British/U.S. pantheon. Complex riffs and Kansas City hard sax give them a striking resemblance to the more famous Traffic, but there's more nasty heat to their guitars. Sometimes they evoke early Grand Funk as on "Marabunta," which takes a great left turn at the end that sounds like the Buena Vista Social Club. There are choice covers of Malo ("Suavecito") and The Animals ("Sky Pilot") to break up the thick originals. This is the very definition of a rediscovered lost jewel.
Up next, the Corner's 2005 Year In Review edition and then a new baker's dozen format for 2006 that will whittle things down to a more digestible 13 reviews per month. We value the time you spend with us and happily answer the demands of a busy society by scaling back. That's the kind of love you have waiting here. Really. I mean that most sincere...
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