Monday, June 25, 2012

Mid Year pop music report

In alphabetical order, here are the 11 CDs that seemed to hold my attention the longest since the start of the new year. It's hard to say whether any of these will make my annual end of the year list. I need to listen to all of them more carefully between now and December. It's hard to know now whether they will bear up to repeated playing. And we haven't heard what else the year may bring. But, for what it's worth, these are 10 discs from the first half of 2012 worth seeking out.

Europe by Allo Darlin'. Tuneful ear candy from a young London band lead by songwriter Elizabeth Morris. The four-piece band plays soft, jangly, guitar-oriented indie pop and occasionally extends the music palette to ukelele. Morris's earnest vocals are easy to embrace; her lyrics are amusing and confessional. Highlights include "Capriconia" and "Neil Armstrong," a whimsical tip of the hat to the first man on the moon.

Bloom by Beach House. This CD, the fourth from Beach House, may be their most challenging CD yet. Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally have crafted a record that seems more like a suite of that meshes together in a dream-like sequence than individual songs. "It's not the band's most immediate music, but the album's challenging mix of heartbroken words and aloof sounds rewards patient and repeated listening," trills the All Music Guide.

Locked Down, by Dr. John.   Mac Rebbenack is back with a blistering set of hoodoo voodoo and he still sounds ticked off at the Army Corps of Engineers for what they done to his hometown, N'Awlins.  (They left the city unprotected to the wrath of Hurricane Katrina by allowing the city's levees to remain in a weakened state for decades). Locked Down isn't as swampy as his 1968 record, "Gris-Gris" but it may be his best record since that classic.  Its grooves are  raw and immediate; its lyrics are charged with righteous indignation. It melds primal rock, careening R&B, and electric blues in a downright nasty brew.

Voyageur by Kathleen Edwards. I'm a sucker for Kathleen Edward's alt-country sound and this 2012 release is up to her usual high standards. Her lyrics give listeners personal glimpses into life lived on an emotional roller coaster: the "voyage" at the heart of the record is a misguided love affair. Her lamentable choices, sung with heart-torn regrets and played with ragged glory by her band, go down as easy as Jack Daniels over ice.

Clear Heart Full Eyes by Craig Finn.  Finn's first solo CD feels like a return to form after the relative disappointment of Stay Positive, the Hold Steady's 2008 effort. Finn's songs on Clear Heart are fixated on the American fascination with religious experience, personal pilgrimage and eventual loss of faith. It's a journey worth taking. The band doesn't rock quite as hard as the Hold Steady does, but their performance seems to serve the contemplative nature of the songs.

Grifter's Hymnal by Ray Wylie Hubbard. Long associated with the outlaw brand of West Texas country music, Hubbard was introduced to the music world in 1973 when Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his classic, "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." For years, he's burnished his outlaw reputation with a rawboned version of country music that skews close to the heart of rock 'n roll. Put "Coricidin Bottle" on and hear the sounds of a band coming unhinged from the git-go. Lucas Hubbard, Ray's son, plays lead and makes his Papa proud. Ringo Starr has a vocal cameo on "Coochy Coochy."

 Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka. Rippling with a sweet and soulful vibe, this is the best world music I've heard so far this year. Home Again is getting huge support from Philadelphia's public radio station, WXPN, which has placed the  title track and a lilting blues called "I'm Getting Ready" into heavy rotation. You can hear echoes of Van Morrison and Bill Withers in his plaintive vocals.

Signs & Signifiers by J.D. McPherson. Not sure this one will have the staying power needed to make my end of the year list, but I'm pretty certain "North Side Gal" is gonna be one of my favorite songs of the year. McPherson and his band, wearing hairstyles straight out of "Grease", channel the swagger and swing of Elvis Presley's Sun Studio trio (Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black). If you can resist tapping your foot along to the dozen rockabilly-tinged songs on this record, you better have your pulse checked.

On the Impossible Past by the Menzingers. A short, sweet, burst of power pop/punk from Scranton's favorite sons. Sounds like Green Day ramped up on amphetamines that have been washed down with Red Bull. "The Obituaries" may be the best song you'll never hear on the radio all year, featuring hooks galore and a refrain replete with F'bombs that make it difficult to resist wanting to sing along with your car windows open. Dead solid certain to embarrass your 15-year-old if she's traveling with you. I speak from experience.  

Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen. A return to form for Springsteen, Wrecking Ball contains his best songwriting since Tunnel of Love IMHO. Springsteen's songwriting can be called calculating on this record, if only because he's so obviously penned a soundtrack to the 2012 election season for President Obama and the Democrats. You may not be okay with that, but count me all in. The stakes are high. "Easy Money" doesn't just rail at the fat cats on Wall Street, it's a bald face call to armed insurrection for their theft of the treasury. Woody Guthrie famously painted "this guitar kills fascists" on his instrument. Don't be too surprised if Springsteen  doesn't borrow that line for his summer tour.

The Lost Kerosene Tapes, 1999 by Bob Woodruff. Woodruff is barely  known, even among diehard alt-country fans. What a shame! Dreams & Saturday Nights is a hard to find, out of print classic from 1994. If you like Steve Earle's early CDs, (especially Guitartown and I Feel Alright) you'll probably dig Woodruff. The Lost Kerosene Tapes, 1999 are just that: an incredible collection of incendiary songs songs that were lost in the vaults of time for the last 13 years and recently recovered and released. Not likely to make him a household name but epic none the less. 

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