Friday, July 11, 2008

REVIEWS OF GOOD 2008 ALBUMS

All but one of these reviews ran in Uncut, some of them in slightly different (read: more compressed) form. The one exception is The Bridges, from Paste.

THE EXPLORERS CLUB
Freedom Wind
Dead Oceans
Surf’s up again on a fully tubular Wilsonian tour de force


Hailing from the wrong coast, the Charleston, S.C.-based Explorers Club have done the near-impossible, turning an obsession with everything Beach Boys into an uncannily nuanced and utterly beguiling smart-pop album. The band’s sweet spot is the Sunflower-Holland era, meaning there’s as much Carl and Dennis as Brian. The LP opens with a reverb-drenched wall-of-sound beat, introducing the instant classic “Forever”, with its creamy four-part harmonies swaying like palm trees. The following “Honey, I Don’t Know Why” filters Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue through Big Star’s #1 Record, while “Lost My Head” sails right into Holland’s harbor. It’s a toss-up whether Jason Brewer’s classically crafted songs or the spot-on arrangements are more irresistible, as the group recasts these magical sounds for the 21st century.

ROBIN DANAR
Altered States
Shanachie
Tasty arrangements, inspired pairings make for an inviting covers record


Taking a cue from Mark Ronson, producer Robin Danar has matched a bunch of indie-pedigreed vocalists with a dozen classic songs of his choosing, frequently finding something fresh in the familiar. The long-time CBGB soundman has more recently been involved with influential L.A. public radio station KCRW, the only local outlet for singers like Rachael Yamagata, who does a shimmering take on the Stones’ “10,000 Light Years From Home”; Inara George, who channels Patsy Cline on the Johnny Mathis standard “Chances Are”; and Jim Bianco (who chillingly updates Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”). The buoyant centerpiece pairs the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan with the Pretenders’ “Message of Love”, and it’s a kick to hear him croon lines like “Oh, it’s good, good, good, like Brigitte Bardot.” But the most infectious track is the lone original, “Yell,” as newcomer Jesca Hoop unfurls layers of sensual vocals over Danar’s loping laptop groove.

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
Narrow Stairs
Atlantic
Indie stalwarts set the controls for the heart of the sun

Like the Shins with 2007’s sonically elaborate Wincing The Night Away, their Pacific Northwest neighbors in Death Cab are raising the stakes and leaving the limiting indie aesthetic – and quite possibly their indier-than-thou core fans – behind. The Seattle band’s sixth LP, and second recorded for a major label, extends the soundscape to IMAX proportions and tamps down Death Cab’s vaunted pop formalism, introducing open-structured pieces and unorthodox tonalities. “Bixby Canyon Bridge” unfolds with outright grandeur, sectioned out like a pocket symphony, and “I Will Possess Your Heart” rides a swelling, keyboard-driven groove for nearly five bracing minutes before the entrance of Ben Gibbard’s troubled angel’s voice, while the raga feel of “Pity and Fear” resolves with brutal power chords. This is the sound of a band surprising itself.

THE BRIDGES

Limits of the Sky
Verve
Southeast meets SoCal on family band’s delightful debut

Like Kings of Leon, Alabama’s Bridges are a family band — four siblings and a cousin — whose upbringing was dominated by music and religion. But four of these kids, aged 18 to 24, are female, with cousin Brittany Painter providing the lyrics, which are filled with natural imagery, and impactful lead vocals, Natalie Byrd sharing the foreground with her piano and the three Byrd sisters providing the ever-present three-part harmonies. Surprisingly, given their rural southern origins, the Bridges have cooked up a sound that’s rooted in the balmy West Coast folk rock of the Mamas & the Papas, Fleetwood Mac and the Bangles (nonetheless, they obviously couldn’t call themselves the Byrds). Their blend of emotional innocence and musical sophistication is underscored by the production of bona fide West Coast folk rocker Matthew Sweet and the evocative pedal steel and guitar lines of the brilliant L.A.-based sideman Greg Leisz. The chiming instrumental work spotlights the Byrd girls’ billowing harmonies as they alternately surround and counterpoint Painter’s accomplished leads. Lilting opener “All the Words” hits the choruses like a wave breaking against the rocks of Big Sur, “Pieces” climbs to an emphatic chorus payoff, only to rise to an even bigger crescendo and “Echo” features stunningly sophisticated multipart vocal interplay buoyed by Leisz’s pillowy pedal steel while “Under the Sun” goes for—and attains—a symphonic grandeur. Throughout, the group’s melodiousness is matched by something just as disarming—the complete absence of irony or cynicism.

RON SEXSMITH
Exit Strategy of the Soul
Yep Roc
Without warning, the veteran artist breaks out what he calls “shadow gospel”


Tracked in London by Swedish producer Martin Terefe, with horns and percussion overbubbed in Havana, Canadian Sexsmith’s ninth album sounds like it was made in Memphis. While not as immediate a grabber as the Beatlesque, Terefe-produced Retriever from 2004, the new LP gradually casts a powerful spell, as the previously introspective songsmith reaches for the metaphysical, his piano playing bringing a gospel-like fervor to the humanistic material while providing a gritty contrast to his silky, sliding vocals. “This Is How I Know” is as close as Sexsmith is likely to get to “Let It Be,” and on the gliding groove of “Brighter Still,” his subtle soulfulness evokes no less than Bill Withers.

GREG LASWELL
Three Flights From Alto Nido
Vanguard
Modern-day studio hermit fashions a digital Something/Anything?

As a multi-instrumentalist with a command of the digital studio, SoCal singer-songwriter Laswell has a limitless palate to work with. He puts it to full use on the follow-up to his 2006 breakup album Through Toledo, whose withering anguish was offset by elegant soundscapes. The new LP is even more expansive – and upbeat – with settings that sometimes seem to emanate from a full orchestra rather than one guy tinkering in a garage. “I’d Be Lying” sports a celestial choir of multitracked contrapuntal vocals a la Elbow, and “Days Go On” fires up a high-revving digi-groove worthy of Hot Chip, putting Laswell in the thick of today’s high-tech version of knob twiddling.

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
Flight of the Conchords
Sub Pop
Kiwi duo’s debut LP sports filled-out versions of songs from their HBO series

It’s safe to say that this is the most endlessly playable comedy album of the millennium. Multi-instrumentalist Bret McKenzie possesses a musical gift commensurate with his comedic talent, while he and Jemaine Clement may be the best blue-eyed soul singers since Hall & Oates – no kidding. The third team member is producer/programmer Mickey Petralia (Beck, Ladytron), whose command of ’80s synth-pop kitsch enables the Conchords to satirize in minute detail everything from the Pet Shop Boys (the sublime “Inner City Pressure”) and What’s Goin’ On (“Think About It”) to Bowie (“Bowie”). The LP serves as a reminder that “funny” and “funky” are only one character apart.

JAKOB DYLAN
Seeing Things
Columbia
At 38, the younger Dylan dares to enter the acoustic folk realm once ruled by his father

Stepping out from the protection of the Wallflowers, Dylan has turned to producer Rick Rubin, and together they’ve made an austere acoustic album that could’ve been titled American Recordings VI. The source material for these newly penned songs appears to be Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which once inspired Dad. The themes are traditional – the working man’s lot (“All Day And All Night”), conjugal devotion (“Up on the Mountain”), the sense of belonging to a place (“Will It Grow”) and, inevitably, life during wartime (“Evil Is Alive And Well,” “I Told You I Couldn’t Stop,” “War Is Kind”). The tone turns revealingly personal on the closing “Other End of the Telescope,” an overtly autobiographical contemplation in which the younger Dylan for the first time addresses his unique place in the universe. It ends with these provocative lines: “I see clear at last, I love, I loathe/On this end of the telescope.”

OLD 97’S
Blame It on Gravity
New West
A literate, unpretentious and rockin’ outing from first-gen alt-country survivors

Over 14 years and now seven studio albums, the Dallas-based Old 97’s have made a strong case for themselves as the latter-day American equivalent of Rockpile. Their latest is a stylistic grab bag of revved-up folk rock (“The Fool” sounds like the Byrds with Keith Moon on drums), Crazy Horse-style excursions (the galloping “Ride”), and country (the Dylan-meets-Cash hot-rod two-step “No Baby I,” the powerful and beautiful “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue”). The tracks explode with immediacy, as Rhett Miller’s detail-rich narratives mesh with the knowingness of his singing and the players’ tight grip on the material to reveal a first-rate band in peak form.

STEVE WINWOOD
Nine Lives
Columbia
Have Faith! Stevie reaches back for the real nitty-gritty

At 60, Steve Winwood remains one of Ray Charles’ most skillful disciples, his innate soulfulness bleeding into every note he sings and plays – as long as he’s feeling it, that is. Happily, the spirit is within Winwood for much of the 10th album bearing his name. Nine Lives revisits the jam-based work of Traffic rather than his refined ’80s synth-o-ramas, and that’s good news, because Winwood remains at his most compelling in immediate settings, while his primal presence tends to be tamped down within rigid structures.

After the palate-cleansing opener, “I’m Not Drowning,” a sprightly country blues solo piece consisting of little more than a circular guitar figure and that unmistakable, tree-bark-textured voice set against clicking drumsticks, the album proceeds to introduce its elemental extremes of air (the chilled-out excursion “Fly”) and earth (“Raging Sea,” with its British-blues-rooted chunkiness).

The Moment We’ve Been Waiting For Arrives with the spine-tingling snarl of an overdriven guitar, signaling the presence of the Lord – a.k.a. Eric Clapton. Right from the top, the master’s riffage cascades like molten lava, and Winwood rises up to meet his old mate’s fire with the churning of a massive, force-of-nature organ and a ferocious vocal, as the track reaches for, and achieves, Blind Faith godhead in its roiling payoff. It’s safe to say that neither of these guys has sounded so fully in the moment for at least a couple of decades.

The second half is lifted by the elegantly funky “We’re All Looking” (think AWB) and the vibe-y, Traffic-meets-Santana groover “Secrets,” as Winwood leans on the keys of his trusty Hammond B3 and pumps the keyboard bass while Paul Booth trills the Chris Wood-like flute embellishments. By contrast, the world-beat-flavored “Hungry Man” and “At Times We Do Forget” feel earnest but overly considered. The closing “Other Shore” is a more satisfying expression of spiritual yearning that resembles the less cranky side of latter-day Van Morrison, right down to Booth’s contemplative sax solo.

As reassuring as Nine Lives will be to longtime Winwood fans, it’s bound to leave them wanting more – like a full album of Winwood-Clapton interplay.

THE DOORS
Live in Pittsburgh 1970
Bright Midnight/Rhino
Turn on, tune in, play loud

The Doors camp has long held that the band’s May 2, 1970, show at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena was the tightest performance of its extensively recorded final tour, as the wildly erratic Jim Morrison showed up that night neither remote nor out of it but clear and focused. Following the replacement of a pair of long-missing sections by original engineer Bruce Botnick, this storied set can finally be heard, and absorbing it purely as an aural experience is, as they used to say, a trip.

This is music intended inspire a trance-like state – though it helps if the audience is already zoned-out to begin with (a given in this case) – and right from the opening “Back Door Man,” the three players cast their spell. The extended vamps unfurl in strikingly stark and eerie patterns, bringing to mind the otherworldly churn of Portishead, albeit with a human pulse; sometimes minutes go by with little more happening than a relentlessly regular drum-and-keyboard-bass groove from John Densmore and Ray Manzarek. These narcotic grooves propel surreal excursions like “Roadhouse Blues,” “Mystery Train” and “When the Music’s Over,” full of subtle variations in mood, rhythmic emphasis and dynamic intensity, as the band moves seamlessly between arranged and improvised sections.

In a committed performance as shaman/ringmaster, Morrison shape-shifts between a theatricality that’s practically Shakespearean in its declamation and his version of method acting. He speaks in tongues in the breakdown of “Roadhouse Blues,” while spontaneously working in bits of other songs during the stretched-out segments, keeping the bandmembers on their toes – but then, going with the flow is their strength. Morrison’s acuity allows guitarist Robbie Krieger to shine in his role as the echo in a call-and-response dialogue with the singer, using his trusty Gibson SG to capture the cadences and tonalities of the sounds Morrison emits, with Manzarek’s organ underscoring the interaction in the intoxicating payoffs. Throughout the set, the band masterfully conjures up the dusky atmospheres that enable the frontman to beguile and intimidate.

It’s safe to say that Live in Pittsburgh is the first Doors live album that captures the band at its spellbinding peak. From this point forward, no longer will Boomer need to explain, “You had to be there.”

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