The countdown to the #1 album of 2005 continues…
It’s hard to decide which is more impressive, Michael Penn’s intelligent lyrics or his pop music sensibilities. On his first album in five years, Penn leaves little doubt that both are in peak form and that the combination is potent.
“Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947,” is a pseudo-concept album exploring life in the post-World War Two United States. Rather than document the events of the period, however, he explores how they affected people at the time. The production and orchestration give it a theatrical quality, most notably on the soaring “You Know How” and “Denton Road”.
Meanwhile, Penn’s lyrics are as razor sharp and biting as ever. “There’s a few things I’ve got to say, make no mistake I’m mad, because every good thing I had abandoned me,” Penn declares in the brooding ballad “Walter Reed.”
In the end, however, he shows a shade of optimism on the stand-out “On Automatic.” “Things are looking up,” he declares, “In the meantime, things are looking up.” If more albums were this consistent and satisfying, things would be looking up indeed.
Key Tracks: Walter Reed, Room 712 The Apache, You Know How, A Bad Sign, On Automatic.
In a business so focused on parts (from the 45 single to iTunes) rather than the whole, it’s rare to find a collection of songs that work as well collectively as they do apart. Cruel and Gentle Things is such an album.
From start to finish, it maintains a consistent warmth and beauty. The mood is one of melancholy and yearning; “the summer’s lost, the leaves have turned, the sun’s moved on, I still burn for you,” declares Sexton on “Burn.”
Lyrically, the songs display a mature wisdom, combining a touch of weariness with a delicate hope. “Come on angel, we need those wings to lead us to this missing thing, Sexton sings on “Bring It Home Again,” “Something that we thought that we had but we left behind.”
Having established himself as a top guitar slinger (Bob Dylan and others) and, more recently, as an in-demand producer (Lucinda Williams, Los Super Seven), it is rewarding to see Sexton apply his experience to his own songs.
Key Tracks: Burn, I Do the Same For You, Bring It on Home Again, Regular Grind.
I challenge you to listen to Safe in Sound and not be infected by Jim Boggia’s optimism. His personality shines on tracks like “Live the Proof” and “Made Me So Happy” and, no doubt, inspired the musicians who helped bring the album to life.
Boggia is well-steeped in pop classicism, a probable owner of the entire Beatles catalog. It clearly shows in this masterful collection of intelligent, buoyant pop songs. Boggia channels Harry Nilsson on the sweet “Let Me Believe (Evan’s Lament)” while evoking Paul McCartney on the ballad “Supergirl”. From start to finish the production is lush and crisp, always focused on highlighting the beauty of the song.
In the end, however, it is Boggia’s personality the drives tracks like “Live the Proof”. Propelled by a pounding rock beat and catchy pop melody, Boggia implores listeners to think of the glass as half full. “Live the Proof, we can create our circumstance,” sings Boggia, “…nothing is ever left to chance; its no dream, we can begin the world anew. Here and now, Live the Proof.”
Key Tracks: Live the Proof, Underground, Where’s the Party, Once, Supergirl.
John Powhida is the life of the party. How many songwriter’s can you name that can get away with songs like “Oh No! (They’re Gonna Make Another One)”? And the irony is that the song makes you cry out for more.
After establishing his garage rock chops on 2003’s self-titled “The Rudds” album, Powhida demonstrates the full breadth of his talent with this latest release. He is equally comfortable blasting through a power pop track a la Cheap Trick (“Hot Child”) as he is gliding through a 1970’s Philly soul-inspired soul track (“Keep My Love”).
“Get the Femuline Hang On” radiates energy and exuberance, as much from Powhida as from the musicians who appear on the album. Guitarist Brett Rosenberg and bassist Tony Goddess are Powhida’s perfect foils, moving gracefully from power pop to grungy rock to soul ballad with aplomb. Special note goes to saxophonist Paul Ahlstrand who adds some subtle but spectacular saxophone to album stand-out “Older Girls”.
Key Tracks: Oh No! (They’re Gonna Make Another One), Something Great, Stand a Chance, Older Girls, Rock and Roll Napoleon.
Their website doesn’t lie: the Gentlemen rock. This album proves that they can roll, too. Sure, you’ll get the classic in-your-face Gentlemen rock on tracks like “Flame for Hire” and “A Lot to Say,” songs that conjure up the finest moments of the Stones and Kinks. On this outing, however, you also get the more pop-oriented “Creeping Secrets” and a smoking 1970’s soul groove on “No Need to Leave”.
The twin guitar attack of Mike Gent and Lucky Jackson continues to be ferocious. Gent, in particular, is one of the most impressive players around. He pens songs with killer hooks and brings them to life with his potent guitar playing. When not playing with the Gentlemen he can be found with the Figgs, who themselves moonlight as backing band for Graham Parker. Not a bad resume, indeed.
Of course the trademark Gentlemen sense of humor remains intact on tracks like “Hit That” and “Three-Minute marriage Proposal”. The latter track imagines the singer and his girlfriend heading to Memphis to be married by “the good Reverend Green” but remarking “Unless you’ve got something better to do… and I bet that you do.”
Key Tracks: Flame for Hire, Three-Minute Marriage Proposal, He Had a Mother Tongue, Hit That, No Need to Leave, Creeping Secrets.
Pure and simple, this is a beautiful album. Alternately melancholy and uplifting, the songwriting explores the many facets of romantic relationships with sophistication and splendor.
The highlights are plentiful. “Call to Love,” an enchanting duet with vocalist Lara Meyerratken, plays out the dialogue of a man trying to regain his lost love. Having lost the girl, the protagonist continues his plea in the mariachi-tinged “Valerie”.
The breathtaking closer, “Dignity and Shame” features Bachman backed by piano and the occasional slide guitar flourish. “And if you walk – walk away save yourself you’ve got nothing to prove,” he declares, “If you give what they take you can bet they will take it from you.”
Musically, this album has been painstakingly produced, the instrumentation complex but never overwhelming. Songwriter Eric Bachmann’s voice is prominent in the mix, giving additional weight to the splendor of his songs.
This is one of those cds that, if you spend time with it, will deeply reward you. What are you waiting for?
Key Tracks: Weary Arms, Call to Love, You Must Build a Fire, Valerie, Coldways, Dignity and Shame.
The Hold Steady are an interesting dichotomy: they will challenge you with complex lyrics but liberate you with their musical vitality. Anyway you slice it, however, they offer up a refreshing and potent album that offers nothing less than rock and roll redemption.
Take “Stevie Nix”, where power chords and a pounding beat provide the back-drop to singer Craig Finn’s rant, “She said you remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young, you got passion, you think that you’re sexy and all the punks think that you’re dumb.” By the time the band kicks into the chugging “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” you’ll find it difficult not to bob your head along with the music.
Finn’s singing style may be challenging to some, but it brings to life the characters about whom he writes. His characters struggle as much with religion as they do with drugs and personal relationships. “We gather our gospels from gossip and bar talk then declare them the truth,” proclaims Finn in “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”. They aren’t the type of people with whom you or I would want to spend time, but they make for great stories.
It’s the band, however, that push things over the top. Guitarist Tad Kubler attacks his guitar, blasting power riffs with an intensity that few can match. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay gives the sound a full-on feel – occasionally rivaling drummer Bobby Drake as the percussive force in the band.
The Hold Steady – enough rock to capture the classic rock crowd, enough punk to engage the indie crowd. Finn himself sums it up best in a line from “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” “And when the band stopped playing we howled out for more.” Amen.
Key Tracks: All of ‘em!
Did you miss albums #8 through #14? Click here.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.