Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Best Albums of 2013

In 2013, I reviewed 57 albums, 34 of which were released this year. Here are my picks for albums of the year, with the usual caveats: I know my experience was far from complete, but I think I do a good job of picking out the things I’ll be interested in. If the list seems weird, it probably has more to do with my taste than with the number of albums I bought. I pick my top 5, with confidence that even if I heard all the popular releases this year, these ones would still likely fit in my top 10. And if I discover the ones I missed later, I’ll include them in my list of the best “old discoveries” of the year.

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Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly (Music Review)

Foreverly cover

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly

I’ve seen some other reviews of Foreverly, and it seems that they all follow the same pattern. First of all, they point out the unlikeliness of the concept. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is joined by Norah Jones to make a faithful track-by-track adaptation of an obscure Everly Brothers album. Then the review says that surprisingly, they do a good job of it: The unlikely duo harmonizes nicely, and the songs are good.

I think that this is maybe letting the performers off easily. These are wildly successful music stars, and “they don’t sound bad” is pretty faint praise. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was itself a collection of traditional country songs, and not necessarily an inspired list of choices. They beat you over the head with the emotional manipulation that was a country cliché a few generations back: There’s the song about a little boy’s dying wishes, the song about the little boy traveling to visit his dying mother, the song about the dying mother hoping to find her son before she goes, and so on. If The Everly Brothers had recorded this album thirty years later, it would’ve been all “my woman left me and my dog died” songs, and today it would be truckin’ and country checklists. We’re looking back at this album a half century later, so it’s a little more palatable than the modern clichés, but it’s still too much.

They’re good songs. Not one is wrong for a mix like this, but including them all is a little much. I would have much rather seen Armstrong and Jones put together their own collection of country standards, including just a few of these. Their performance is heartfelt and pleasant, and it does do justice to the sensibilities of past generations. It also strikes a nice balance between the washed-out production of 1958 and the loud production of 2013. I’d be happy to see what else they could do in this vein, but the only justification for this particular choice of songs is reverence for an album that wasn’t even notable at the time.

I know I’m probably being a little harsh on Foreverly, maybe in response to the uncritical praise. It’s an improvement on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, it successfully brings two music stars into a new genre, and it will introduce a new audience to some deserving songs. But compared to the many versions of these songs already available, there is nothing outstanding here, and it doesn’t make a good case for why this genre still deserves attention. It’s pleasant, I listened to it several times, and I like the way this team works together. I hope they make something more inspired in the future.

Grade: C+

 

Obits – Beds & Bugs

Beds & Bugs cover

Obits – Beds & Bugs

The tricky thing about reviewing Obits’ Beds & Bugs is that it’s difficult to avoid repeating my review of Moody, Standard and Poor. They have a solid, blues-based garage rock sound that blew me away the first time I heard it, but every album since then has felt like a faint echo of their debut, I Blame You. I want to like it: The Obits are the current band of Hot Snakes’ Rick Froberg, and after three consistent albums it seems like they’re in this for the long haul, but it also seems like it’s maybe a little too consistent.

The music is melodic, but with a mild distortion that makes the vocals difficult to focus on. This is a good balance between accessibility and comforting obscurity. More importantly, it puts the focus on the music rather than the lyrics. The band sings about things like making sure your pets will be cared for in your will (“Pet Trust”) or a detailed explanation of a birth gone wrong (“Malpractice”). These topics are presented in such a straightforward way that it’s difficult to tell whether they are intended to be an absurdist comment on modern culture, a Dadaist parody of songwriting, or true-life topics that actually resonate with the songwriter. This isn’t a major problem since the music is the important thing here. But while it was easy to enjoy mildly amusing topics like “Two-Headed Coin” in their first album, this is less hook-filled and doesn’t offer too much that’s new.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason that these songs don’t grab me. Some of it is probably familiarity from the last albums. The only real difference I hear between their best songs and the other ones is that I Blame You really seemed driven by the drums. Drummer Alex Fleisig has left the band since this album was released, so I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Either way, the drumming here is good but feels like it’s mainly following the guitar. The music retains its distinctiveness, and it’s always a little interesting, but it’s never vital.

The Obits are a good band, and this album doesn’t change that. Beds & Bugs does suffer from the standard they set in the past, though, and with none of the songs being worth hearing for the lyrics, it’s too easy to make these unflattering comparisons.

Grade: C+

 

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon (Music Review)

Wild Moon cover

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon

The Dirt Daubers released Wild Moon under the name JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers, but this album may have deserved a more drastic name change. People only familiar with Wilkes from his other Dirt Daubers albums are in for a surprise: The raw roots country and stripped-down sound have been replaced by raw roots blues and a full rock sound. The change does feel more understandable if you’re familiar with Wilkes’ old band, The Legendary Shack-Shakers, as this basically provides a lot of what the Dirt Daubers’ previous albums had dropped from the Shack-Shakers. At the point, it appears that Wilkes doesn’t intend to stray that far from his old band. The defining aspects of the Dirt Daubers now appear to be that Wilkes has discarded his jester image for a slightly more serious one, and of course that half of the songs are fronted by Jessica Wilkes.

Jessica’s confident, brassy voice makes a good fit for these proto-jazz (white person blues?) songs. She still doesn’t have quite the range to carry an album on her own, but it’s hardly noticeable for her half. However, this means she is best suited for songs that showcase the Wilkes family’s quirky personality. Her “Apples and Oranges” is the album’s highlight, a swinging, rebellious song structured around an old nursery rhyme and playful lyrics. Otherwise, the songs she leads sound like blues standards about love and loss. They’re perfectly fine, but something that you could generally find in other bands’ catalogs.

JD is similarly restrained. I understand his seriousness about southern culture and his desire not to turn it into a joke, and that inclination is what always made his crazier songs so solid. Here we get Southern standards of the “creek-is-risin’-and-my-dead-baby’s-in-Heaven” variety (themes that appear multiple times), but his wit and fervor only make minor appearances. JD’s standout moments are the ones that recall the Shack Shakers: The out-of-nowhere proclamation that “it’s all a SNAFU, let’s go AWOL, you get FUGAZI and I’ll get FUBAR” in “Let It Fly”, or the electric acid-country of “Hidey-Hole”.

I feel bad saying that The Dirt Daubers sound best when they echo The Shack-Shakers, because in last year’s review I was very excited about the new life they breathed into traditional styles. But at least this time, the new band is definitely in the old one’s shadow. That’s not to say this isn’t good, and I like the energetic performances that bring a lot more fun than some of their genre contemporaries. I do hope that more of the personality from Wake Up Sinners shows up next time, though.

Grade: B-

The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get’em (Music Review)

Debt'll Get'em cover

The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get’em

Well, this is a disappointment. YouTube is filled with videos of New York City country band The Defibulators, and a lot of them are great. But I bought Debt’ll Get’em, their sophomore album, and wasn’t very impressed. Probably the easiest way to right this review is to list the reasons why the album doesn’t work as well as browsing YouTube.

1. That “New York City country” thing

I’m no purist (and I’m a northern city person myself), so I can accept a bunch of New Yorkers singing country. But to do it, they need to figure out how to define themselves. A lot of the traditional language of country bands won’t work for them. Sometimes The Defibulators have this figured out: “Everybody’s Got a Banjo” admits to the trendiness of roots music and defends it as fun for everyone. (“If you mean it when you sling it, then you ain’t no fool.”) I find “Working Class” to be more troublesome, though. It’s a story of a privileged middle-class kid who was too lazy to get a good job. It’s witty, and I’m sure a lot of their audience loves it, but to me it feels inappropriate next to the great working class anthems it feels modeled after.

“Hee-Haw in Heaven” is a complete misfire. It’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it sounds like someone unfamiliar with country music trying to impress fans. There are also enough songs already about meeting country greats in heaven that this doesn’t sound clever or original. At times like this, it’s hard to forget any concerns about the band’s seriousness.

2. The energetic songs are lacking

Check out this live performance of “Go-Go Truck”. It’s a fun, wild song that gives Th’ Legendary Shack-Shakers a run for their money. Then listen to “Holy Roller” on Debt’ll Get’em. It’s styled like a religious revival and should be capable of matching “Go-Go Truck”. But the music is restrained and the back-up singers are minimized instead of let loose. It’s the sound of a studio band mimicking the hell-raising energy of another culture.

3. The quieter songs are easy to ignore

The band isn’t just about wild songs. They have plenty of sedate country crooners, and they aren’t necessarily bad. I certainly enjoyed the ones on YouTube. Here, I guess that I just don’t take them seriously coming from the singers of “Hee-Haw in Heaven”.

4. Not enough Erin Bru

The band has two vocalists: “Bug” Jennings and Erin Bru. Jennings is the wild frontman and is the soul of the band, but Bru’s smooth voice is a real gem. I’m not sure if she has the versatility to handle a band on her own, but her individual songs tend to be standouts. On YouTube, she seems to get almost have the time. On this album, she mainly sings duets and backup. She takes lead on the excellent “Pay for That Money”, the album’s one exception to the “boring slow song” rule. But that’s all.

Debt’ll Get’em has enough good moments to affirm that The Defibulators have skill. But they need to figure out what to do with it. This is a half-hearted effort.

Grade: C

 

Oblivians – Desperation (Music Review)

Desperation cover

Oblivians – Desperation

Nostalgia being what it is, I’m not surprised that so many ’90s bands have reformed in the past couple years. What does surprise me is how good some of these reunions have been. It helps that most of these bands weren’t superstars hoping to make a fortune with teir comeback. They were critical darlings like The Pixies who only became widely appreciated in recent years, or cult favorites like The Oblivians. The Oblivians’ new album, Desperation, shows just how some age and perspective can strengthen a band. They’re the same dirty garage punks as ever, and they haven’t lost that immature edge, but their topics are deeper and more varied. Unexpected covers (like Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup” and Stephanie McDee’s “Call the Police“) mix with songs about girls, music, and pinball.

The band bills themselves as “Greg Oblivian”, “Eric Oblivian”, and “Jack Oblivian”, and each member is credited with”guitar, drums, and vocals”. The names are an affectation, but the credits aren’t. All three members do switch between instruments and singing throughout the album. The lo-fi production helps obscure some of the differences between their performances, creating the continuity that makes it sound like all songs come from the same band. There are still obvious differences, but in the end it works to make Desperation a varied but coherent album. You get the thrashing “Run for Cover” and soul-influenced “Em” in one album, and it feels like they belong together.

Unfortunately, some of the most noticeable differences are in skill. Some songs have decently complex guitar or drums (by garage punk standards, at least), while others are simple and plodding. Songs like “Pinball King” have powerful vocals that really sell their combination of wild youth and knowing music veteran, while a couple like “Woke Up In A Police Car” feel more like the singer is sleepwalking through the performance.

Don’t let that discourage you, though. The best tracks are great. “Call the Police” (a cover of a zydeco party standby) and “Pinball King” (an unapologetic song about spending your life doing what you love) are my favorite simple dumb rock songs of the year. (Not that good “simple dumb rock songs” are ever as simple or dumb as they act.) Though they’re 90s punks, there’s a lot of Ramones or Dead Boys in their style, with strange choices of phrasing like “Little War Child” or “Fire Detector” that give the impression that they’re defining their own path rather than following a scene’s expectations. And “I’ll Be Gone” is a great opener for a comeback album, about their love of music and disdain for selling out or chasing trends.

I hope Desperation is the start of a great second career. It taps into the primal power of rock and roll, crossing generations and mixing wit with straightforward honesty. Even its less good songs feel appropriate. After all, rock as good as this should be messy and imperfect, right?

Grade: B+

 

Phosphorescent – Muchacho (Music Review)

Muchacho cover

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Phosphorescent’s Muchacho album art is dominated by singer-songwriter Matthew Houck looking carefree and surrounded by topless hippie women. That, combined with song titles like “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” might lead you to assume that this is all New Age messages of positivity. Actually, the recurring theme of the songs is that love is a painful trap, and Houck is happiest when not tied down. That also explains the women, I guess. But you could be forgiven if you listened to Muchacho dozens of times and still didn’t notice what it was about, because the songs are so quiet and shapeless that they’re almost impossible to pay attention to.

Yes, this is the album with the excellent “Song for Zula”: Its haunting, looping music perfectly complements the emotionally-damaged singer who curses love by contradicting “Ring of Fire”. If Muchacho had more songs like this, I’d have loved it. But most of the rest feel incomplete, like demos or codas. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to think of the entire album as a suite meant to echo “Zula”. That would be ok if this were an EP.

Nothing is bad. It’s just incomplete, with songs built on a repeating lyric that goes nowhere or gentle, lulling sounds that never feel like a finished work. It’s filled with interesting fragments, though. That hippie style merges well with some modern electronic flair, and it comes across as a production geek’s loving tribute to hippie songcraft.

Phosphorescent is a promising band that doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of the song. If you want background music, Muchacho will do excellently. If you don’t, this probably won’t work. I spent months wanting to give this a chance, and it kept turning into background music no matter how hard I tried.

Grade: C