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 much fun.
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.
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.