EDITOR’S NOTE: I couldn’t let this newsletter sit in my inbox any longer. Twangville guest author Bobby K offers yet another fine selection of annual picks from the previous year. Enjoy! -Tom
As always, the following is a link to iTunes to download a playlist containing songs from many of the records I reviewed below: BOBBY K’S 2009 PICKS. I took great care in arranging this playlist, which I think you’ll enjoy as a CD in and of itself. If you click on an artist’s name below it will take you to his/her web site. Clicking on the title of the record will take you to a site to buy the record.
We all agree that age doesn’t prevent one from making viable contributions to society. But isn’t it a little different when it comes to rock-n-roll? We’ve been programmed to believe that rockers disappear as their youth fades. As Neil Young said “it’s better to burn out, than to fade away”. Well, as I’m writing this Newsletter, I’m listening to the new record by Ian Hunter. Yes, Ian Hunter of Mott the Hopple fame. You remember Mott the Hoople … All the Young Dudes, All the Way from Memphis. These songs were recorded in 1972, 37 years ago. In fact, Ian Hunter is now 70 years old. Isn’t there something inherently wrong about listening to and digging a new record from a 70 year old? This year I saw Springsteen play seven shows; five of which were utterly brilliant. Bruce is 60 years old! Isn’t there something unusual about thinking that a 60 year old man is the coolest person on earth? Isn’t one of the adopted anthems of rock-n-roll My Generation, in which The Who shout “I HOPE I DIE BEFORE I GET OLD”?
Rock-n-roll was invented by the young. They owned it, they breathed it, they lived it. They made the rules governing rock-n-roll. We all know that the youth can bring change and new ideas to society with their bravado and vigor. But we also know that the young have not lived long enough to gain wisdom. So when they made these great proclamations that rock-n-roll was only for the young (i.e. Jethro Tull’s “Too old to rock-n-roll, too young to die”), they didn’t understand that growing old was not going to break their relationship with rock-n-roll. It is true that the first generation of rockers, Elvis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee, etc… did not make any major contributions to music after their youth. The second generation of rock-n-rollers, however, Dylan, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, Fogerty etc… and all succeeding generations thereafter have produced and continue to produce great music in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and yes, even 70’s. So while the generation of kids from the 50’s and 60’s may have programmed us to think rock-n-roll was a young persons’ game, they’ve been proven wrong. They just didn’t understand that they had invented a medium that was so powerful and life changing that it would last for decades and beyond. I guess we can say the young inventors of rock-n-roll didn’t know “Diddley”.
The mix of records reviewed below were made by artists in their 20’s to an artist as old as 70. As Bruce once said “trust the art, not the artist”. I hope you enjoy the music that touched me this year.
THE AVETT BROTHERS – I AND LOVE AND YOU. Talk about a record with a bullet. Every top ten list I read so far this year includes this record (Amazon #2, NPR #5, Paste #9 of the Decade). I think this record is an absolute classic. Unfortunately it reminds me of Dwight Gooden’s season in 1985. In ‘85 Gooden was 24 &4 with a 1.53 ERA. At the time the great Bob Gibson said “unfortunately the kid peaked early and will never achieve a season like this again for the rest of his career”. At the time I thought it was such a silly comment by an ex-great player to make. But, in retrospect Gibson was prophetic. For some reason I feel that way about this record. The Avett Brothers have been becoming steadily more popular in a quiet way for a few years. Their songwriting has been getting better and better. Then to top it off, the great Rick Rubin, master producer and co-head of Columbia Records decides to produce their record. Rubin is an incredible producer who has produced artists of all different musical types with stunning results: The Dixie Chicks, Justin Timberlake, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Green Day, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, LL Cool J, Tom Petty, Metallica, Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, etc… This is the man in the industry. On this record Rubin took incredible mid-tempo rock-n-roll/folk songs and made each of them into an event … a happening. The instrumental texturing on this record is very impressive. Many of the songs build to a dramatic crescendo … not with volume, but with a piano, an organ, a banjo. Rubin’s production style is simple, but when he adds production elements, he does it in a way that doesn’t suffocate the music. This is a record that was clearly made with a big budget. Almost all songs are standouts, but my favorites are I and Love and You, January Wedding, Laundry Room and I With Want. As we all know music is purely subjective. Undoubtedly, some of you will not agree with this review. However, those who do will look back at this record years later and put it next to the greats in your collection. Hopefully these brothers will be able to match this achievement in their future recordings and do not suffer the fate of Mr. Gooden.
LANGHORNE SLIM – BE SET FREE. This record reminds me of an album a young Cat Stevens would have made. In my last Newsletter, I reviewed Langhorne’s self titled record and described it as folk punk. Well this record is much more accessible, but it still has a little edge to it. Langhorne’s voice is terrific as it drips with emotion. The record has 13 songs, 12 of which I absolutely love. How many records can you say are really good from start to finish. It’s really hard to say which songs are my favorites, as it keeps changing. Right now I’m hooked on I Love You, But Goodbye; Land of Dreams; and So Glad I’m Coming Home. This is a five star record from this talented 30 year old.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WORKING ON A DREAM. This record emphasizes the point I made above regarding rockers growing older, as many of the songs on this record address love as we enter into the latter part of our lives. Young love has always been the key essential element of rock-n-roll. But it’s hard for 50, 60 and 70 year olds to sing about California Girls. We are now seeing artists write mature love songs. For instance, in the beautiful song Kingdom of Days, Bruce sings “And I count my blessings that you’re mine for always. We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays. Sing away, sing away; this is our kingdom of days”.
While I really like this record, unfortunately I do have many complaints about it. First, Brandon O’Brien the producer is destroying Bruce’s recorded work. One of Bruce’s few weaknesses is his love for dense, cluttered sound. He always loved the Phil Spector “wall of sound”. For a brief period of time (Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River), Bruce’s sound was clear and separated. Each instrument had room to breathe. Starting with the 2002 release of The Rising, O’Brien has produced every Bruce record and they all sound as if they were made for MP3 players, rather than sophisticated stereo equipment. If you listen to this record, it is hard to find the piano or the bass. There are just too many instruments playing at once and the production pushes them all together, rather than spreading them out. In fact, the only song on the record that wasn’t produced by O’Brien is the bonus track, The Wrestler (produced by Bruce himself), which is the cleanest sounding song on the record. Bruce should use Rick Rubin (see The Avett Brothers’ review above) to produce his records so that we can once again hear the full talent of the E Street Band. The other problem I have with this record is the placement of an 8-minute epic song (Outlaw Pete) to start the record. To me it takes away from the song and makes it difficult to get into the record. I think they invented foreplay for a reason. Well Bruce just jumped into it on this one, and it wasn’t satisfying for me. That being said, the record has so many good songs. On the album version of this record, side two is just great with Tomorrow Never Knows (a song John Prine would have loved to have written), Life Itself, Kingdom of Days, Surprise, Surprise (I can live without this one), The Last Carnival (which is a beautiful song written for the late, great [and I mean great] Danny Federici) and The Wrestler. To me The Wrestler is just pure perfection. The words, the instrumentation (listen to the syncopated piano) and just how this song encapsulates the whole movie in 3 minutes. All in all a real good record from Bruce, which is substantially better than his last record Magic, but definitely doesn’t rank with Bruce’s greatest works. I believe it fits nicely within the middle of Bruce’s catalog. This man still has plenty of greatness in him and I expect at least one more classic record from him.
WILLIE NILE – HOUSE OF A THOUSAND GUITARS. What can we say about this 61-year old rock-n-roller that keeps getting better and better and more prolific? Everyone who listened to his classic 2006 release Streets of New York proclaimed it an all-time classic. Well less than three years later, Willie produces another record that people are debating whether it is as good as Streets of New York. In my humble opinion, Street of New York had a greater number of phenomenal songs, but for some reason this record flows a little better for me. Willie is a rocker’s rocker. I want him to mellow out and release a record of his beautiful ballads. But, like Bruce, this old man just wants to keep rockin. Just listen to the explosive three songs that kick off this record, House of a Thousand Guitars (a fun song about deceased rockers playing in heaven), Run (a song The Ramones could have written) and Doomsday Dance (a raucous rocker in the vein of an early Replacements’ song). After the first three songs, the record gets very interesting with the atmospheric Love is a Train (one of my favorites on the record), Now that the War is Over (a tale of the tragedies of war seen through the eyes of relatives of deceased and injured veterans) and the magnificent pop classic, Give Me Tomorrow (one of the catchiest songs of the year). The last four songs on this record are quieter piano based songs, my favorite being the last song When the Last Light Goes Out on Broadway. Some people have mentioned to me that Willie’s vocals (especially his phrasing) have been too heavily influenced by Dylan. I respond to that by saying so what. It’s a magnificent style that due to the creative light going out in Dylan, we don’t hear enough. Willie clearly comes from a line of Dylan, Springsteen, Lou Reed and The Clash. How much better can you get! Willie is currently putting the finishing touches on a new record that he believes is better than The Streets of New York and House of a Thousand Guitars. The record should be released in the first half of 2010. While I don’t know how this guy is doing at his age, all I know is that I’m sitting back and totally loving it.
ROMAN CANDLE – OH TALL TREE IN EAR. Another winner from a brother duo (Logan and Skip Matheny with Skip’s wife Timshel) from North Carolina (see The Avett Brothers above). Isn’t that weird? Roman Candle has, and continues to, receive incredible acclaim from the press. The Mathenys all attended Chapel Hill together and are the darlings of the Chapel Hill circuit. People have been comparing them to early Wilco and later stages of The Replacements. Both Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) craft songs that are so sweet … they ache without becoming cheesy, while still maintaining their edge. Roman Candle has this same ability. I know it is very high praise, but listen to the song Big Light and you’ll understand what I mean. The second half of the record is not quite as good as the first half, but it is still a very, very strong record. Standout tracks include Eden Was A Garden, Why Modern Radio is A-OK and Big Light. On Why Modern Radio is A-OK, the band has one of my favorite rhymes of the year: “Don’t play Neil Young. Don’t play Van Morrison. Just let some high school emo band start versing and chorusing because there’s no way it will break my heart as far as I can see, and that’s why modern radio is A-OK with me”. This is a really good band that I predict will be making good records for a while. This is a good addition to my music library.
IKE REILLY – HARD LUCK STORIES. Ike is back! Any faithful reader of my Newsletters knows that I’m an Ike freak. This guy just hits me. It’s his voice, his bluesy, soulful, hony-tonk inspired music, his catchy hooks, and the fact that he’s probably the funniest, wittiest writer I’ve heard in years. Ike has the ability to write about unusual, downtrodden characters, yet he infuses them with dark humor. The music on this record is the most melodic, groove-oriented music Ike has produced to date. I’m finding myself alternating between listening intently to his lyrics and singing along with the choruses. Anybody that wants an interesting artist in the vein of Dylan should check Ike out. By the way, this record is only currently available through I-Tunes. Apparently, the CD will be released in February.
JONAH SMITH – LIGHTS OUT. Finally, a new record from this young, talented artist. Jonah is a piano player that has a great soulful sound, like John Hiatt. The record starts off with five excellent songs in a row, most notably Lights Out, Cabin Fever and World Without Love. The second half of the record has a terrific cover of Traffic’s Can’t Find My Way Home and a couple of beautiful ballads. All in all, a fine record from Jonah. This is an artist that shouldn’t have trouble finding an audience. This is a record I will listen to for years to come.
ROBERT BRADLEY’S BLACKWATER SURPRISE – OUT OF THE WILDERNESS. Nobody is recognizing this record. I mean no one. Not the cool Music Magazines, like Paste. Not the great alternative music Websites, like Twangville. NOBODY. I just don’t get it. This blind man just smokes… playing swampy soul, country rock and R&B. His soulful, passionate voice is one of a kind. It’s a voice of a man who has lived pain and knows how to emote it when singing. The production on this record, by the great Bruce Robb, is right on the mark. Beautiful Girl, Good Times in My Life and Alabama are classics. The rest of the seven songs are quite good as well. Check this record out.
FROG HOLLER – BELIEVE IT OR NOT. One of my favorite unknown bands finally releases a record! It’s been 3 years from their last release. This Americana/Alt-country band is the closest thing to The Band out there today. The instrumentation on this record is so sophisticated and sweet with lap steel guitars, banjos and mandolins teasing each other. Bands like Uncle Tupelo could only dream of making music like this. Darren Schlappich’s voice is so soothing; it’s a perfect compliment to the music. Fans of The Band and Neil Young will love these guys.
CHUCK PROPHET – LET FREEDOM RING. I have been waiting and waiting for the next great Chuck Prophet record. After all, it’s been 7 years since the release of his classic No Other Love. Along the way Chuck has released some really spotty records, with a couple of great songs on each. The record starts a little slow for me, but from song four on (Let Freedom Ring) the record is just great. The four great songs on this record are You and Me Baby (Holding On), Barely Exist, Love Won’t Keep Us Apart and Leave the Window Open. People have been comparing this record thematically to Springsteen’s Born in the USA, with its themes of patriotism seen through the eyes of the disenchanted. Another Springsteen parallel is that Bruce’s old drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter plays on this record. With this record Chuck has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for his music. Welcome back Chuck!
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE – MIDNIGHT AT THE MOVIES. I really enjoy this record from Steve Earle’s 27-year old son. Justin plays so many different styles of music ranging from modern mid-tempo rock, to country to bluegrass. The music is mature for such a young man. Justin began playing at a really young age and it shows on this record. The writing is strong as Justin clearly takes after his father with his intelligent lyrics. Justin does a great version of the Replacements Can’t Hardly Wait. For those of you that like a bit of country, this record will hit the spot.
M. WARD – HOLD TIME. At first I was a little baffled as to how to describe the music on this record.. Is it folk … yes, in a little distorted way. Is it mellow rock-n-roll … yes. Is it pop … yes. Is it alt-rock … yes. Is it Americana …. kind of. But then I realized the undercurrent of M. Ward’s inspiration for this record. It’s, Buddy Holly. A distorted and groovy Buddy Holly, but Buddy no less. I should have realized this from his cover of Buddy’s Rave On. But when I heard his cover version, my first thought was that Buddy is rolling over in his grave. But after a couple of listens, I realized the cover was original and brilliant. I guess you can say his music is kinda …. groovy (whatever that means). There are really, really good songs throughout this record, including a great cover with Lucinda Williams. This guy is just the epitome of the Portland music scene.
BEN KWELLER – CHANGING HORSES. This is a really nice record. Ben is one of the best young songwriters around. Up until this record, his style has been pop rock-n-roll with an “Alt” feel to it. His strength has always been his songwriting. This time around, Ben set out to make a country record, which reminds me of something the great Gram Parson would produce if he was alive today. This record is an anti-iTunes record, as the sum of the whole works better the its parts. I’m looking forward to Ben getting back to his old style of writing, but this was a nice respite.
WILL HOGE – THE WRECKAGE. Any fan of melodic, straight ahead rock-n-roll will dig this record. I was really anxious for this release, especially after the great Draw the Curtains (his last record) and the car accident that almost took Will’s life and broke almost every bone in his body. I was sure that this immensely talented artist was going to release the record of his career. Well, I bought this record on the first day it was released, listened to it and initially was very disappointed. I thought the record lacked the soul that made Draw the Curtains so special. I listened to it a few times and just put the record away. My friend Doug Mangel kept telling me that I should listen to the record again, as it was quite good. After a month or so I listened to the record, this time with no expectations. After a listen or two I realized that the record is really good. More straight forward then Draw the Curtains and not as much of the soulful, Van Morrison sound. This record is more Tom Pettyish with great songwriting throughout. Definitely, the comeback record of the year for me. The song Even if it Breaks Your Heart is the perfect, radio friendly, rock song. In another world, this song would have catapulted Will into mass stardom. Other Memorable tracks are Hard to Love, Highway Wings, The Wreckage and My Winter Coat (which reminds me of Mandolin Winds).
ERIC LINDELL – GULF COAST HIGHWAY. Well Eric just keeps releasing a consistent record every year. This record may be the best of Eric’s young, but productive career. It hard not to love his Van Morrison/swampy New Orleans sound. This CD doesn’t deviate much from Eric’s past releases, except that it is emphasizes his horn section a little more. Since I’m a sucker for horns (i.e. my obsession with Southside Johnny), I really dig this record. I’m interested to see where Eric goes from here as he is getting close to fully covering this genre. Nevertheless, a really strong record and fans of Eric will dig this record as much as I have. If you aren’t familiar with Eric’s music, you need to devote you attention to him.
CONOR OBERST AND THE MYSTIC VALLEY BAND – OUTER SOUTH. – AND MONSTERS OF FOLK – MONSTERS OF FOLK. Outer South is the first Conor Oberst record that I’ve liked cover-to-cover. I believe the Mystic Valley Band is bringing more depth to his music. On this record many of the songs are written by his band mates, and a few are even song by them. Although I would still call this electric folk music, some of the songs rock pretty darn hard. In fact Cabbage Town could have been on The Clash’s Sandinista record. All in all, a real enjoyable record.
Monsters of Folk is an “indie super group” comprised of Conor Oberst, M. Ward and Jim James (My Morning Jacket). The music is electric folk/mid-tempo rock-n-roll with strong harmonies. Many of the songs remind me of Simon and Garfunkel songs (i.e. I’m a Rock) … with upbeat harmonies. I don’t want to overstate how good this record is just yet, since I’m just getting into it over the last week or so. But I think it might belong in the best of the year category. If you’re a fan of Conor Oberst, M. Ward or My Morning Jacket, you should pick it up.
DANIELIA COTTON – LIVE CHILD. This is a great little record containing 7 of her songs from her 2008 release Rare Child, played live with a sort of unplugged feel to it. Danielia just flat out rocks, yet she has the soul of a black Janis Joplin (who was a white r-n-r/soul singer) … so I guess it comes full circle. The songs from Rare Child in this more stripped down format emphasizes her writing (which is real strong) and her soul style, that gets a little muted by her heavy rockin band. Check out Clancy, her bongo player on this record . . . a real superstar. Danielia is one of the best female vocalists around. She sings her guts out like few artists out there today. We were delighted to have her at our house this year and she just blew 150 people out of their chairs. This is an EP to pick up. If it wasn’t an EP it would have been in my top ten of the year.
IAN HUNTER – MAN OVERBOARD. What can you say about a 70 year old rocker that keeps producing very good records. Ian has been doing his thing since the early 70’s with Mott the Hopple. In 1979 he released the great record You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic. In 2007 he released one of my favorite records of that year, Shrunken Heads. While Ian’s voice is getting understandably more weathered with the years, he still pours his soul into his songs. The music on this record is melodic, soulful and dramatic. His music can comfortably fit next to John Mellencamp and Tom Petty with rhythmic guitars, organs and pianos. I said in my opening remarks, artists like Ian Hunter have proved that the original rule that rock-n-roll is for the young, is just not applicable in this society. Maybe 70 is really the new 40.
RUTHIE FOSTER – THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO RUTHIE FOSTER. This is good record. Unfortunately, Ruthie set the bar so high on her last disc The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster that this record didn’t have much of chance. As a result, when I first listened to it I was definitely disappointed. I put the record down for a couple of months and went back to it and really started to appreciate it. Ruthie’s voice is in great form (just listen to Tears of Joy). She is clearly one of the best vocalists around. Ruthie fans will not be disappointed. Just don’t compare it to her last disc.
GINA VILLALOBOS – MY SON’S HOME. This is a fine record from a young songwriter. Gina is a chick with balls. I’ve been waiting the last couple of years for a woman artist that can grab the mantle of the rough and tumble Lucinda Williams and we may have found her. Her vocals (think Melissa Etheridge meets Trish Murphy) burrow right into your soul. Her music is a blend of country, roots rock, with a strong sprinkling of pop. All throughout this CD, the jingling guitar brings a sound to this record that reminds me of a modern day Roger McGuinn (The Byrds). Gina really knows how to build a song to a crescendo. This coupled with her powerful, gritty voice leads to some real music moments.
ISRAEL NASH GRIPKA – NEW YORK TOWN. I don’t know a lot about this young songwriter, except that he was born in the mid-west, moved to NYC and released a fine debut record. He plays a brand of electric folk music sung with a big old operatic John Fogerty type voice. His songs are well written and some have real catchy melodies. I will keep my ears open for future releases from this artist.
SLAID CLEAVES – EVERYTHING YOU LOVE WILL BE TAKEN AWAY. This Austin based songwriter released a really beautiful record this year. The first song Cry is one of the best songs of the year. Slaid has a great folk rock, country style. All the songs are smartly written, with good melodies and hooks. The record gets a little too mellow towards the end, but I have a feeling it will make its way back to my CD players for years to come. For those that like to dig deep into the Klausner selections, this is a good one to check out.
Well I hope you enjoy the music and I wish you and your family a happy and healthy New Year.
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