Wednesday, January 03, 2007

#10 through #6

10. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America
There was no way that a record could sound this much like Born to Run and not make it into my top ten. Having said that, I understand why a lot of people don’t like this album, especially those people who loved Separation Sunday so much. Craig Finn expressed himself much less self-consciously on Separation Sunday than he does on Boys and Girls in America. The songs on both albums are about teenagers getting loaded and questioning their lives. On the new record, though, Finn is telling you the stories rather than just letting you observe them. His presence as a narrator is absolute, and the music loses something because of it.
Whatever it loses, however, is worth losing if it yields music that is so vivacious and pure. If Finn had pulled any of his punches here, the album would not have worked. But he has obviously drunk the Kool-Aid. He believes in the power of rock ‘n roll and is not afraid to put himself out there. He also believes that youth is wasted on the young. He finds redemptive power in nearly every facet of young America, from drugs to cars to whatever “love” means to those under the age of 25.
Sonically the album is quite adventurous if not all that varied. The keyboard accents are straight outta 1975 and give the album that larger than life feel that makes it work so well. The only place on the album where the formula falls flat on its face is on “Chillout Tent.” Finn gets too caught up in his role as storyteller, so much so that he uses Elizabeth Elmore and Dave Pirner as the voices of his protagonists. It’s an ambitious song, and I give them props for trying it. But it ultimately lacks what makes the rest of the album so great: the identification that Finn feels with the characters that populate his songs. He works best as a first person narrator. The third person omniscient style of “Chillout Tent” takes him too far away from the action. In order for the music to work he’s gotta be right in the thick of it, dancing and drinking and getting high with the best of them.

9. Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - All the Roadrunning
This is one of those albums with which I went through several stages before I ever heard it. At first I thought, “Wow, that seems like such an obvious pairing that I wonder why they haven’t done it before.” And it is quite a logical pairing. Then I thought, “Wait a second, two older artists pairing up for an album? Sound to me like it’s going to be maddeningly mediocre.” Now I love Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler as much as the next alt-country superfan. But this pairing definitely raised my suspicions. Once I thought about it, though, the temptation to see how two such iconic voices would sound together got the better of me. Good Lord, was it ever worth it! I’ve listened to it steadily ever since April and it just keeps getting better. Their voices go together as naturally as you would think they would. It really throws into perspective for me just how few really great duets there are out there these days. And the songs? They are gems, every single last one of them. There are some slow parts (“Donkey Town” could use some spicing up), but the album is remarkably consistent. “Red Staggerwing” and “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” are two of the best songs Knopfler has ever written, and Emmylou’s two songs, “Love and Happiness” and “Belle Star,” are typically strong affairs. These two are both class acts, and the music is magnificent throughout. Kudos!

8. Tom Waits - Orphans
I can’t write anything profound about Tom Waits. I have tried to convince everyone I know how brilliant he is through every means at my disposal and have, for the most part, failed. It seems that you either have that thing inside you that makes you love Tom Waits or you don’t, and a few people even actively detest the man. I believe that he is the greatest songwriter alive. Including Bob Dylan. And the album? It’s typical Tom Waits, neatly divided into three categories: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. It’s all fantastic. A few highlights are “2:19,” a bluesy number with some fantastic guitar and sax interplay, “Bottom of the World,” a lilting memoir reminiscent of the Mule Variations era, and “Shiny Things,” a beautiful number that brings to mind his earlier work. The man’s talent leaves me speechless. God bless him. This is why I love music the way I do.

7. Regina Spektor - Begin to Hope
This girl really loves making music. This is without a doubt the most joyful and eccentric album that I heard this year. It’s bursting at the seams with soaring melodies and wild originality. “Shake it up,” she says quietly at the beginning of leadoff track “Fidelity,” and she means it. Her previous album, Soviet Kitsch, was beautiful and eclectic but was too rooted in anti-folk to really allow Spektor to move beyond genre trappings and find her own sound. Begin to Hope veers pretty close to that territory at points. “That Time,” while one of the most energetic and lyrically accomplished songs on the album, smacks of the sort of self-absorption that makes anti-folk so intolerable for me. “Summer in the City” also veers that way, but its nostalgic portrayal of city life and love is a beautiful close for the album. Songs like “Samson” and “Hotel Song” more than make up for any slight missteps, however, and overall the album is an amazing effort from a woman whose best years are most likely ahead of her. Expect more great things from her soon. Oh, and she’s hella cute too. Not that that influenced me in any way shape or form…

6. Drive-By Truckers - A Blessing and a Curse
Southern Rock Opera was a seminal album for me. It not only introduced me to the Drive-By Truckers, it introduced me to the duality of Southern identity. Patterson Hood spoke so eloquently about it that the album not only got me to reconsider my musical opinions, it got me to think on an abstract level about who I am, where I come from, and why that is important. Pretty damn good for a rock record. The albums that the Truckers have released since then have been good, but they lacked that big, almost cinematic vision that made SRO so great. At first I thought that this was because Hood was not exerting enough control over the band. Jason Isbell had begun writing and singing, making the band a trio of songwriters as well as a trio of singers and a trio of guitarists. I was convinced they were falling into the Gomez trap of too many cooks in the kitchen. The fact is, however, that each of these guys is talented enough to lead a great band. Cooley has a gift for wordplay and insight that floors me, and Isbell’s songs are actually some of my favorites. On A Blessing and a Curse they finally figure out a formula that works for them. It’s much more a series of vignettes than a single narrative thread told through song, and this less ambitious approach makes for an incredibly tight and coherent album. All of the usual themes are there: the Southern thing, drinking, failed love, death, and hate. They’re presented in little packages that stand by themselves just as well as they do in the context of the album. All three of them are at the top of their game in terms of the songwriting. Hood still pens the majority of the songs, six out of the album’s eleven tracks. The best are “Feb 14,” a pounding remembrance of a relationship’s disintegration, and the title track, a meditation on the paradox of ambition. While he doesn’t change his style much, he continues to probe his own psyche with startling results. Cooley’s two tracks, “Gravity’s Gone” and “Space City,” are whip-smart and contain some of the best lyrics on the record. My personal favorite is, “So I’ll meet you at the bottom if there really is one, they always told me when you hit it you know it, but I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floating.” The real standouts on the album, though, are Jason Isbell’s two songs, “Easy on Yourself” and “Daylight.” He has quietly become my favorite of the three songwriter in DBT, which is no mean feat. The songs are lean and tight, with more melodic sensibility than most of the other tracks and just as much punch. A Blessing and a Curse shows just how great DBT is. They might just be the best rock band in the country right now.


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