Let us admit that we can’t do better than the wag who said that Darker My Love’s Alive As You Are is “what the Byrds would have sounded like if they’d grown up listening to the Byrds.” That’s particularly good, because it’s so accurate. Alive As You Are is a throwback that would have seemed derivative if it hadn’t been flawless — a flawless time capsule from the late ’60s woodshedding/gone-to-Marin era, a country rock gem. One false note and maybe we would have questioned how a band whose leaders had once played with the Fall, and whose drummer was recruited from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and whose first two albums plied the wire between punk rock and neo-psychedelica, could have produced an album as sunny and light as this. Tim Presley and Rob Barbato are great singers, and superb songwriters, and these guys are to three-chord rock what Apollo Ohno is to the short track: they are graceful and precise, and know how to make their move. Alive As You Are at first sounded like some weird detour, but we’ll be surprised if, no matter what sound comes next, they break the phyllo-thin crust of harmony and joy that encased this record so delicately. Since the advent of the cassette deck, we’re hard pressed to remember more than a handful of albums we’ve listened to in their entirety, over and over, without cutting off one downer or dog from our playlist. The first J. Geils album. The Clash. Surfer Rosa by the Pixies. Take It From The Man! Darker My Love has just entered rare company: a band that has made a perfect album. And in 2010, as in any other year, you can’t beat perfection.
Archive for November, 2010
Alejandro’s physical recovery from his collapse seven years ago from Hep C might have been enough: just being able to get out and play again, sober and with his head held high, would have been an accomplishment. What is even more remarkable than just surviving is that after a perhaps understandably weak post-recovery album, The Boxing Mirror, his music has gotten stronger and better than ever before. We really like Real Animal, and not just for the way he mined his own story to produce, with Chuck Prophet, a batch of great songs. We liked how the album had a kick, and showcased a band that could snarl, as if Al wanted the world to know how he used to rock back in the day. When his acoustic trio came through town a few times since, we saw glimmers of delicacy and power sometimes in the same phrase, and I think we expected his next album would be like one of his solo records from the 1990s, filled with rockers, sure, but notable more for the soft and pretty songs than the ones with punk resolve. So we were totally unprepared for the sheer roar, the power and might of Street Songs of Love , probably the best album of Alejandro’s long and glorious career, and the hardest rocking album by an American punk this year. Next year Al will turn 60, but he shows no sign of slowing down, pulling his punches, or going soft. Thank God for life, sobriety, and whatever underlying rage that keeps propelling him forward.
By what alchemy is it possible that Kelley Stoltz can produce these handcrafted geegaws, mostly playing the instruments all by himself, that still swing like a band playing after midnight, when the crowd’s gone home, just for the sheer joy of proving their craft? Look, as some folks who hang out in these parts know, we believe an injustice was done to Kelley in 2008 when the jury at Tulip Frenzy awarded Bob Dylan Album Of The Year honors for Tell Tale Signs, an album of older, unreleased tracks, while Stoltz’ Circular Sounds was clearly the best album recorded and produced in that year. We would like, this year, to have awarded To Dreamers the laurels, but in the honors race, it was at best this year’s tribune, as the consulship was claimed, fair and square by someone else. Look, here’s what Kelley Stoltz does: he writes songs that veer from Ray Davies-like storytelling perfection to whimsical explorations of oddball sounds, and makes albums that contain beauty, verve, and kicks. That’s all. And he does it with a sense of humor, but mostly the sense of dedication to craft normally thought to be the province of, say, that woman in Naples who spends her entire life sewing just button holes, nothing else. Like Hans Chew (see below), Kelley Stoltz’s amazing To Dreamers is the kind of album that just doesn’t get made anymore. Oh, sure, Prince can still crank out two, maybe three albums a day over in Paisley Park, without contact with a single other human being. Stoltz’ work is more like that first John Fogerty album, that first Paul McCartney album, where an artist creates what he needs from the material he has: his own guitar, bass, and drums. He does it his way. We don’t want to emphasize solitude, because for all we know, Kelley may be the life of the party. What we want to emphasize is craft, deliberation, artistic clarity, dedication. All bundled up in album filled with whimsy, hooks, and rock’n’roll joy.
Interestingly, in the same time frame in which Leon Russell released an album with Elton John — which admittedly we haven’t heard, but which we presume was recorded in a brightly lit, expensive studio, with wet bar and catering — the pianist who seems to have most absorbed the sound from Russell’s first album, Hans Chew, produced a solo album that by contrast is a hand-polished work of understated, oft-time raucous craftsmanship. This is a whole grain and locavore labor of love, a slice of border-state realism produced, where else, in Brooklyn. If Elton and Leon’s album is a Carnival cruise ship, Tennessee and Other Stories is that Cris Craft beauty you want to cruise around in on top o’ Smoky Mountain lakes. We admit to being mildly amused by it when first we heard it, but then we just couldn’t quit playing it, until there reached a point that we realized Chew’s roadhouse piano and Three Calendar restaurant home cooking had the grit of substance and the flavor of sweet honey. And that it might just last, like a raree show oddity, and inspire generations with its purity, its great songwriting, and its quiet authenticity. And man, this guy can play piano.
If we’d wanted to have fun at the expense of our critical chops, we might list Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Black Dub, and the Black Keys, all of whom had decent albums in 2010, before these guys. But the best of the black bands were The Black Angels, whose Phosphene Dreams was a revelation. Earlier Black Angels’ albums have been one-dimensional affairs, and don’t get me wrong, with these guys, sometimes one dimension is enough. Phosphene Dreams., though, had playfulness in its late ’60s reverb, and not just drones but melodies, and just as a song shaped up in some kind of predictable form, they’d juggle the iPhone and a new shape would appear. If you were to draw a Venn Diagram and in one bubble had fellow Austinites the 13th Floor Elevators and, say, the Doors in the other, The Black Angels prowl the overlap. Yes, too much of what they do is still limited by some of the same elements of beat and vocal phrasing, but this isn’t a band that plays outside the box, this is a band that plays outside the dimensions any box might fit in. They opened for their pals Black Mountain on tour this fall, but this is one time where the opener’s album may have outshined the headliner.
Black Mountain has come a long way since Stephen McBean allegedly named the band for the stash of Afghani piled high on the table in front of him. While their early sound owed much to No Wave bands and Pere Ubu, and while McBean’s protean songwriting takes on so many shapes he has to channel different songs between Black Mountain and the Pink Mountaintops, what they’ve grown into is a classic, early ’70s album-rock band with strains of metal and folk and punk. It’s a pretty great combination, and when Wilderness Heart was released Tulip Frenzy rejoiced. We like the formula — Seconal riffs followed by Sandy Denny folk followed by real rock’n’roll — and we like McBean, who is shaping up to be one of the most interesting figures in rock. We love Amber Webber’s ululations, and whether it’s pounding out riffs in Black Mountain, or plying the B.C. villages with the Canadian equivalent of Americana with their band Blood Meridian, we have a soft spot for the immensely talented Matt Camirand (bass) and Joshua Wells (drummer extraordinaire.) The novelty of Jeremy Schmidt’s greasy organ riffs in no small part make the band, but since we weren’t Deep Purple fans the first time round, there’s no reason to start being one now. Still, the way these guys can settle into a groove on stage, and he breadth of McBean’s talents, make us fear the next time we have an opportunity to see them will be in a venue far larger than the 930 Club. We admire them, and wish them well, even as we fear we’re losing them.
What is this link between Dean Wareham and Andy Warhol? Yes, they both glommed The Velvet Underground’s vitality, and Luna’s version of “Season Of The Witch” first appeared on the soundtrack of I Shot Andy Warhol. But there is something deeper at work here, which is why it was brilliant of Andy Warhol’s museum curators to have commissioned Dean & Britta to record songs for showing during an installation of Warhol’s films. Having adored Luna, and been somewhat less than enamored of Dean & Britta’s post-Luna output, we were more than pleasantly surprised by this record when it came out. The obscure VU song they covered, “Not A Young Man Anymore,” is as catchy as “Plundered My Soul” or anything by Chappo, and we’ve found ourselves humming it all fall. The best thing was the way Dean & Britta play with a kick, for even on Britta’s songs, there’s nothing fey about these performances. Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for ‘Drella was a drag; this tribute to Warhol was one of the best albums of the year.