Wednesday, December 31, 2003

We're down to the mildly anticipated #1 album of the year. But first, a few honorable mentions: Ryan Adams - Love is Hell (Part 1), Crooked Fingers - Red Devil Dawn, Mojave 3 - Spoon & Rafter, and Josh Rouse - 1972.

#1: Pernice Brothers - Yours, Mine & Ours

Yours, Mine & Ours is the third consecutive indie-pop masterpiece from the vastly underrated Pernice Brothers. Although lacking the string arrangements of 2001's The World Won't End and 1998's Overcome by Happiness, it still comes across as lushly orchestral pop music. The overall mood of this one doesn't really break any new ground as compared to previous releases, but is still an excellent blend of hook-laden songs with brilliant harmonies and, once again, leaves me anxiously awaiting the future work of Joe Pernice. This is a feeling that once was reserved for Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy, and Jay Farrar. Although Tweedy is the only one of the three that has yet to fall from his pedestal, the top step is now reserved for Mr. Pernice.

The album opening, "The Weakest Shade of Blue", and "One Foot in the Grave" are power-pop gems in the tradition of "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)" and "Bryte Side". The pace slows down considerably for "Baby in Two" and "Blinded by the Stars", which despite being described by one reviewer as a bad Chicago song, is still a gorgeous number regardless of the Peter Cetera vibe. My personal highlights show up late in the album, most notably "Judy", with its perfect expression of earnest longing in lyrics such as "And I won't always mind the certainty it leaves in doubt" and "Tell her that you saw me"; and the most appropriate album closing track, "Number Two", which offers the bittersweet sadness of lyrics such as "You were my life-sucking power monger, even still you were mine" and "I hope that someday we meet both broken. It would feel so good to see you...".

The Pernice Brothers may have outdone themselves with this one, possibly their strongest effort to date.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Only #1 to come after this, and if you've been paying attention, you should know whether or not to expect a newcomer or a repeat offender...

#2: The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow

While not as instantly catchy as their debut, Oh, Inverted World, The Shins' sophomore album is brilliant from start to finish. Most of the songs are more stripped down efforts than those on the debut record, but despite the simpler approach, Chutes Too Narrow presents itself as an eclectic mix of retro-pop inspired sounds.

"Kissing the Lipless" is a stunningly powerful album opener that starts off slowly, then kicks in like a four-barrel engine on a 70's muscle car, before fading out beautifully. "So Says I" is its equal on the power-pop scale and is probably the album's most radio-friendly song. "Young Pilgrims", "Saint Simon" and "Pink Bullets" slow the pace down a couple notches, but are equally, if not more, enjoyable. "Gone for Good" is one of this year's masterpieces, with its gorgeously lilting pedal steel set to James Mercer's vocals perfectly expressing the song's sad, but uplifting, theme of moving on.

If you liked Oh, Inverted World, I can't guarantee it, but you just might love Chutes Too Narrow.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Well, I needed to squeeze two into one day, so here goes...

#3: Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway

"Some like K.K. Downing more than Glenn Tipton", Red House Painters' frontman Mark Kozelek suggests on the opening track of his latest side project. Frankly, I think I was always partial to Glenn Tipton because I thought he looked cooler, but I definitely couldn't distinguish one's guitar playing from the other's.

Moving, if not focused, tributes to obscure characters are a major theme on Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of the Great Highway, as Kozelek also offers odes to fallen pugilists Salvador Sanchez and Duk Koo Kim, both of whom died tragically within months of each other in 1982, at the age of 23; Sanchez in an auto accident, and Kim in the ring. Kozelek's haunting vocals and songs about life's tragedies evoke the memory of Rust Never Sleeps side one, particularly on the 14-minute epic "Duk Koo Kim". The album's least quiet moments, "Salvador Sanchez" and "Lily and Parrots", even offer Crazy Horse-inspired riffs, although not in the garage trash vein of Rust side two.

Summing up, though, an album that pays tribute lyrically to one of my favorite heavy metal bands of my teenage years, and sonically to my favorite rock 'n' roll could it go wrong?
I'm not sure if the following Lucinda Williams/Cal Ripken analogy is valid, considering Cal played almost 1000 consecutive games in the time it took Lucinda to complete one album, but I think it gets my point across...

#4: Kathleen Edwards - Failer

This album is the one that I couldn't stop listening to during the first two months of 2003, and it still sounds like fresh, albeit straightforward, Americana as I revisit it late in the year. There is no doubt that Kathleen Edwards wears her Lucinda Williams influence on her sleeve. There is also no question that Failer is a far superior effort to Lucinda's mediocre (at best) World Without Tears, despite the latter's inclusion on many critics year end best-of lists. I guess this is the alt-country equivalent of Cal Ripken continually being voted to start in the all-star game, despite the fact that players such as Travis Fryman and Troy Glaus were more deserving of the honor.

One criticism that Kathleen Edwards has received is that hers is a somewhat forced authenticity, but I'm still impressed by her cleverly biting lyrics in songs such as "Six O'Clock News" ("You spend half your life trying to turn the other half around"), "One More Song the Radio Won't Like" ("No one likes a girl who won't sober up"), "Hockey Skates" ("Going down in the same old bar and I don't even order anymore"), and "12 Bellevue" ("I was thinking about drinking my way through the day"). Alright, so I'm enamored with drinking references, but that's what turned me on to Uncle Tupelo and the entire alt-country (or whatever you want to call it) genre in the first place. Not that I'm comparing Kathleen Edwards to Uncle Tupelo...oh, no, no, no. That would be like comparing Travis Fryman's career to Cal Ripken's.

Anyway, if you're not convinced of her genuineness, check her out live. That should do the trick.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

A couple of familiar faces and a few newcomers in the top five...

#5: The Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music

The Jayhawks return to their roots on their latest effort, after two albums that strayed, albeit with positive results, from their trademark roots-rock formula. However, instead of the alt-country twang of their earlier efforts, namely Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, Rainy Day Music features a folk-rock sound, with pop sensibilities, reminiscent of Poco and The Byrds.

As usual, Gary Louris contributes a tremendous blend of softly melodic gems such as "All the Right Reasons" and "Will I See You in Heaven", mid-tempo rockers "Tailspin" and "Angelyne", the pure jangle-pop of "Stumbling Through the Dark", and the gorgeously harmonious "Save it for a Rainy Day". Tim O'Reagan takes the reins quite capably for the Ziggy Stardust-esque "Don't Let the World Get in Your Way" and the quiet ode to life on the road, "Tampa to Tulsa". The only track that is off the mark is "Madman", which recalls a mediocre effort a la Crosby, Stills & Nash.

As for the album's title, I'd say the mood is not as sad as Rainy Day Music would imply. This is definitely music for sitting home and enjoying the laziness of a rainy day, rather than languishing over one's troubles.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Counting on down to New Year's Eve...

#6: Gillian WelchSoul Journey

I may have missed the boat...well, sort of...on Gillian Welch's last album, Time (the Revelator). What I mean is, I ranked it as my #9 album of 2001, but now I realize that it was clearly her best album, certainly better than her latest, Soul Journey. Nevertheless, Soul Journey is a tremendous album in its own right, and is also the record that has made me truly appreciate the subtle genius of today's best contemporary folk artist. So, maybe Time is the one that nudged me and, admittedly, should have rated higher, but Journey gets the credit as the one that has really put me over the top.

"I wanna do right but not right now", Gillian sings on the album's opener, "Look at Miss Ohio", and then she and partner David Rawlings proceed to do everything just about exactly right. The album received mild criticism for being status quo from No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock, who still considers Time (the Revelator) the best album of the current decade (so far). Despite the fact that this effort really doesn't break any new ground, the quality of songs such as the opening track, "Wayside/Back in Time", "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father", "I Made a Lovers Prayer" and "Wrecking Ball" add up to another masterpiece from Welch and Rawlings. If you only pay attention to one artist in this particular sub-genre, this should be the one.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Looks like I've fallen a day behind, but I'll catch up by the end of the year...

#7: The Minus 5Down With Wilco

R.E.M. part-time sideman and Young Fresh Fellows leader Scott McCaughey adds Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach and Glenn Kotche of Wilco to his usual cast of characters that includes Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies), for this past year’s best Wilco-related project. McCaughey and Co. create an infectious blend of Beatles-inspired indie-pop that is neither guilty of employing the same old retro-formula, a la countless of other bands attempting to conquer this trendy sub-genre, nor of taking itself too seriously (see the Jim O’Rourke/Wilco collaboration Loose Fur).

Jeff Tweedy only takes the lead vocals on one track, “The Family Gardener”, and it is hardly the album’s shining moment, so this is definitely McCaughey’s baby. However, the Wilco influence does add some wonderful, but subtle, eclectic touches that complement McCaughey’s affection for frolicking power pop. A few of the many highlights include the ode to having once been, “Retrieval of You”, the wandering jangle-pop of “Where Will You Go?”, the hints of E.L.O. in “The Old Plantation”, and “View from Below”, which sounds reminiscent of something that I just can’t put my finger on. I guess you’ll just have to hear for yourself.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

As if yesterday's hint wasn't too obvious (or, as if anyone's paying attention)...

#8: Neil Young & Crazy HorseGreendale

“How can all these people afford so many things? When I was young, people wore what they had on”, sings the semi-autobiographical Grandpa on “Falling from Above”, the opening track to Neil Young’s idyllic rock opera and concept album, Greendale, which also marks Crazy Horse’s triumphant return after a seven year hiatus. “A little love and affection in everything you do; will make the world a better place, with or without you” is the opening song’s refrain, and also serves as the album’s thematic centerpiece. “Some day you’ll find everything you’re looking for” on “Bandit” and “Share your loving and you’ll live so long” on “Grandpa’s Interview” echo these charismatically idealistic sentiments.

I witnessed this album performed live before ever hearing the record and I was instantly captivated by its images of simple folk in small town America caught up in a tragic scandal, and its anti-sensationalist and pro-environmental rebellious rants. I looked forward to the record’s release date, and, I must say, it did not disappoint. Although Neil’s usual guitar partner, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro’s role is reduced (in the live production and on record) to organ playing and, therefore, there are no Crazy Horse trademark dueling guitar interludes, this is the best Neil and the Horse have produced since 1990’s Ragged Glory.

Only Neil Young can get away with being this sappy, without sounding trite, and still manage to get his message across. I know I was listening.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Continuing with my year end list...

#9: Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks Pig Lib

Most Pavement albums included two or three catchy, hook-laden songs, a handful of solid, if not inspiring, indie-rock songs, and a few throw-aways. An inconsistent formula, but one that worked well, as their best songs often grabbed your attention long enough for you to overlook the sometimes mediocre material.

Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus’ second solo album is the most consistent record he’s made, with the possible exception of Slanted & Enchanted. While the only song that measures up to some of Pavement’s infectious indie-pop numbers is “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster”, there is also not a single throw-away to be found. The material is strong from the opening “Water & a Seat” to the closing “Us”. Highlights include the aforementioned “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster”, “Sheets”, “1% of One” and “Witch Mountain Bridge”, which includes a mid-song slow jam somewhat reminiscent of “Down by the River”. In fact, for me, Malkmus’ guitar playing on this album occasionally helped to fill a Neil Young & Crazy Horse void that had been empty since 1996’s Broken Arrow. That is until…well, we’ll get to that later.

Monday, December 22, 2003

I created this blog space to accommodate my random musings about mostly baseball and music, including one of my favorite pastimes, top ten lists. Some of these may seem to come out of left field, hence the name.

I've decided to start this off by counting down my top ten albums of each day starting today right up until New Year's Eve, when my #1 will be revealed.

Before I present #10, I will say that for the second year in a row, Ryan Adams failed to make the list. This may not necessarily seem like such a surprise, except for the fact that Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac ranked #1 on my 1997 list; Ryan's solo debut, Heartbreaker, was #1 in 2000; and Whiskeytown's Pneumonia and Ryan's Gold both made the top ten in 2001.

Despite the fact that everybody's favorite former alt-country poser/heartthrob released two EPs (Love is Hell, Parts 1 and 2) and one full-length (ROCK N ROLL or LLOR N KCOR, whatever the fuck it's called), none were top ten worthy, at least in my estimation. However, I think that if Ryan had focused on creating one great album rather than trying to be "prolific", he might have come up with something truly special, because there are some memorable moments on all three releases, particularly the more depressing, and less rocking, Love is Hell EPs.

Sorry, David Ryan. You ain't no Robert Zimmerman. Anyway, on to the list...

#10: Clem Snide - Soft Spot

This one definitely took a little time to grow on me. I appreciated it right from the start, but it took repeated listens for the quirky "art country" charisma of this band to really make an impact on me.

A major factor in selecting my top ten is, not necessarily is it really great in terms of what the critics will say, but how did it make me feel? Was it an album that drew me in, that had me wanting to listen to it every day, or even more than once per day? Did I have to resist these urges in order to not wear it out? While the albums that place in my top 5 most definitely fall into the category of those that I had to force myself not to listen to at times, Clem Snide certainly was one that spent its share of time on my regular "can't wait to listen to" list.

Like many of the bands I'm into these days, singer Eef Barzelay's somewhat nasal vocals fall into the category of potentially annoying to those who are easily annoyed, but they fit well with Clem Snide's songs of innocence, vulnerability and hope. Although most of the songs are slow, their sound is finely augmented by touches of violin, cello, organ, and various types of percussion.

Memorable moments include the summery optimism of “All Green” (“I’ll tie a string around my finger, so I don’t forget, not to get so tied up to the things that I regret”), the playful anticipation of “Action” (“You’re everything I want to do, ‘cause when there’s love, there’s action”), and the tongue in cheek humor of “Happy Birthday” (“half-Jewish boys make kick-ass drummers”). An additional highlight, “There is Nothing”, showcases the closest this album can come to despair (“Find love, then give it all away”).

The music may be slow, but the mood is bright.