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Here’s the final installment of my top 40 for 2011. Hopefully you’ve found a few potential new favorites on the list. Have a wonderful holiday season and a terrific New Year … and let’s all hope for more great music in 2012!
(Missing Piece Group)
At first listen, the title of Matthew Sweet’s eleventh studio album seems at least a little ironic. On Modern Art, the artist draws his inspiration (as he always has) from the classic power-pop sounds of The Beatles, The Byrds, Big Star and The Raspberries. The luscious “She Walks the Night” chimes with Byrds-style guitars and lyrics about a dream girl who’s always just out of reach. “Late Nights with the Power Pop” adds more guitar crunch to the mix. “A Little Death” is a chiming ballad; the title track glides on stately, echoey piano and synthetic strings. “Ladyfingers” takes a bluesier approach, while “My Ass Is Grass” is more folky-sounding. And on “Oh, Oldendaze!” the band twists the guitar riffs and rhythms around on themselves, making the song sound like an experimental out-take from The Beatles’ Revolver. Guitarist Dennis Taylor and drummer Ric Menck provide great support, and Sweet’s overdubbed harmonies might impress a Crosby Stills & Nash fan. Even though the songs echo classic pop, they’re still informed by the artist’s own sensibility. The title isn’t so ironic after all: as with the best modern art, Sweet’s inspirations and sources may be obvious, but the end result is all his own.
Culture of Fear
The sixth album by the Washington, DC-based combo Thievery Corporation is a non-stop roll of simmering, downbeat grooves. Despite the disc’s title not to mention the reputation for pointed commentary that the group earned with some of its earlier recordings the group takes an oblique approach on Culture of Fear’s few politically-minded tracks. (The title track, featuring a rap/rant from hip-hop MC Mr. Lif, is a notably funky exception.) Instead, the group lets the music suggest the angst and unease that seem to permeate modern society. Hazy-sounding cuts like “Web of Deception” and “Light Flares” convey an ominous mood, as do reggae-informed tracks such as “Overstand” and “False Flag Dub” (both featuring toaster Ras Puma). “Tower Seven,” the disc’s longest track, is a spacy multi-part suite. Multilingual singer Lou Lou croons on “Take My Soul,” “Where It All Starts” and “Safar (The Journey)”; Shana Halligan of Bitter:Sweet lends her sultry voice to “Is It Over?” Homeboy Will Rast brings members of his band, The Funk Ark, to help steer the Corporation’s grooves home. The disc ends on a note of hope, as singer Kota lifts the closing track “Free” with her angelic voice. Culture of Fear is sure to add that lowdown, late-night groove to any occasion.
(Verve Forecast Records)
New Orleans-born Trombone Shorty (né Troy Andrews) offers a feast of soul and funk grooves on his seventh studio album, For True. Andrews shows off some impressive chops on trumpet and organ (and trombone, of course), as well as an excellent, soulful singing voice. “Buckjump” sounds like prime-period P-Funk, with liquid-sounding bass over percussion and handclaps; the horns from the Rebirth Brass Band support Shorty, as guest vocalist 5th Ward Weebie exhorts listeners and musicians alike to let go and get into the groove. Kid Rock adds his grainy voice to “Mrs. Orleans”; a couple of the Neville Brothers help Shorty out on “Nervis.” The strutting two-part track “Lagniappe,” the laid-back “Dumaine St.” and “Big 12,” and the title track all are great instrumental showcases for Shorty and his backing band, Orleans Avenue; the star shows off his ability to do it all on the one-man-band effort “Unc.” Even guitar heroes like Jeff Beck (on “Do to Me”) and Warren Haynes (on “Encore”) draw less attention than Shorty’s own singing. For True is a great album that will satisfy any listener with a taste for funk, soul and/or jazz, and will add pizzazz to any party playlist.
W H O K I L L
On her second album under the name tUnE-yArDs, Merrill Garbus assembles her tracks with an approach that feels cut & pasted, but ends up as fully realized as any pop music heard this year. “My Country” turns the well-known patriotic hymn into an energetic playground chant with a saxophone section. The bluesy guitars of “Es-so” move to a shuffling wind-up toy rhythm. From there, several of W H O K I L L’s tracks form a mini-opera about life, love and loss in the ‘hood. On “Gangsta,” the protagonist warns the listener, “You’ll never move to my ‘hood/‘Cause danger is crawlin’ out the wood.” “Riotriot” starts out with a woman’s quiet confession of attraction to a uniformed cop; from there, the track becomes denser and noisier, layer by layer (much like inner-city unrest itself). Over a sunny, African-flavored melody, the protagonist of “Doorstep” insists on justice for her murdered lover: “Don’t tell me the cops are right in a room like this.” The lullaby “Wooly Wolly Gong” wraps up this mini-suite on a dark, mournful note. Throughout the album, Garbus’ music is so imaginative and vivid, it feels almost as if you’re hearing it while she’s creating it. Her elastic voice moves from bluesy belting to airy falsetto in a single line, from girlish and playful to passionate shout in one verse. Quirky without becoming precious, sophisticated without sacrificing its DIY feel, freewheeling without ever losing focus on the songs, W H O K I L L is a remarkable album from an artist who seems to be just getting started.
With production assistance from Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Twin Shadow the one-man-band project of George Lewis, Jr. debuts with an album full of instantly catchy melodies, danceable pop grooves and a few emotional surprises in the lyrics. “Castles in the Snow,” “When We’re Dancing,” “I Can’t Wait” and “Yellow Balloon” are Eighties-inflected pop. “Shooting Holes” sports quick, darting synth accents and some very graceful one-man vocal harmonies in the chorus. “Tether Beat” starts off to a shuffling, mechanical rhythm; Lewis gradually blends in an African-flavored guitar groove and percussion to lift the song’s spirit. Over the perky groove of “For Now,” Lewis asks the rueful question, “Is there anything as quiet as a night alone with you?/Had it ever been as clear on the day that you went away?” Lewis shows a pronounced Morrissey influences, both with his singing and in lyrics like, “You’re my favorite daydream/I’m your famous nightmare … Here’s all I know/Your checkered room and your velvet fold/Your Elvis song in my ear/That moonlit voice that I hear.”) Forget is an excellent debut that’s got me looking forward to what Lewis will come up with next.
The Future Will Destroy You
The sixth full-length CD from the Portland, Oregon-based husband-wife duo of singer/guitarist Anita Robinson and drummer Kevin Robinson offers a relaxed, smoldering blend of indie rock, psychedelia and classic rock. “Plästic Rädio” opens the disc with swooping, spooky guitars over a laid-back rock groove. “Analog Woodland Radio” lays a sunny, drive-in-the-country guitar feel over its chugging rhythm; “Black Mood Ring” shifts unexpectedly from a similar rhythm to a waltz-time bridge. “Diamond Mine” develops plenty of atmosphere, with Anita’s voice echoing over electric piano and a dry beat; “A Viking Love Song,” appropriately to its title, evokes a cinematic feel of standing on the dock at sunrise, watching the ships sail away … yet it gets all this across in under five minutes. Throughout the disc, Anita Robinson sings with a cool, alluring tone similar to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval; when she blends her voice with Kevin’s (as on the folk-flavored “We Don’t Care” and “Cool Morning Sun”), their harmonies add more presence to the overall feel. On The Future Will Destroy You, the Robinsons’ approach to the sounds of classic rock results in a set of songs that listeners will want to enjoy again and again.
The War on Drugs
On its second full-length album, the Philadelphia-based indie-rock band The War on Drugs infuses spacy psychedelia with an all-American rock & roll approach … or perhaps the other way around. Tracks like “Brothers” and “It’s Your Destiny” start out with chiming electric guitars, but gradually build into a cinematic expanse of keyboards; the effect feels like driving through the desert at dawn, as the sun slowly illuminates the endless vistas all the way out to the horizon. “Best Night,” fittingly enough, reflects the other end of the day, with its extended coda of shimmery guitars and sparkling piano. This sense of drone and space, ebb and flow seems to grow stronger and more absorbing as Slave Ambient continues. The feedback shadings of “I Was There” move over a steady, chugging rhythm, suggesting the feeling of driving after dark. “Come to the City,” the instrumental “City Reprise #12,” “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Baby Missiles” are the songs that lean the most into the rock & roll side of the band’s formula; those numbers feature plenty of brisk momentum and near-arena-level sonics. Slave Ambient works great for mood listening or for you guessed it a long highway drive. (Incidentally, former WoD guitarist Kurt Vile’s 2011 album, Smoke Ring for My Halo, is well worth a listen too, although its mood is much better suited to home listening.)
Four of the most talented musicians to emerge from the Pacific Northwest in the Nineties Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, Helium’s Mary Timony, and the Minders’ Rebecca Cole combine their talents in Wild Flag. Brownstein and Timony’s guitars and voices, Cole’s poppy organ-playing, and of course, Weiss’ powerhouse drumming drive the band’s hurtling, rushing blend of Seventies-style punk, Sixties girl-group pop, vintage Stones and garage rock. The opening track, “Romance,” jumps out of the speakers with an instantly appealing blend of pop smarts and rock & roll vigor. Songs like “Future Crimes,” “Boom” and “Something Came Over Me” carry that same urgency. As with the best groups, the whole is more than the sum of its parts: the band members’ chemistry enlivens the whole disc. Timony brings a trippier sensibility to songs like “Black Tiles,” “Glass Tambourine” and “Electric Band,” but her bandmates keep those songs in the pocket. On the other side of the equation, Timony and Cole’s playing prevents the group’s songs from sounding too much like Weiss and Brownstein’s previous band. Wild Flag is an outstanding debut from musicians who acknowledge the past without dwelling on it … and who sound like they’re having a blast right here and now. (By the way, Weiss and Brownstein’s former bandmate started The Corin Tucker Band in 2011 and released an excellent album, 1,000 Years. Despite Sleater-Kinney’s ongoing hiatus, it was a good year for the band’s fans.)
The Yes We Cans
This Colorado Springs quartet mixes just the right Sixties-style garage rock and classic country flavorings into its tuneful power-pop. “Vampire Girl” and “You and Me” are fast, crisp rockers; “Messages” is an energetic country-styled farewell to a past love. The band blends its rock and country touches beautifully on the title track, and adds some tasty Farfisa-style organ to “A Place to Hide” and “Motor City Anthem.” On that last track, The Yes We Cans also offer this message for our times: “Things will turn around, my friend/This I promise/Hold your head up high/Give it time/Don’t give up on the power of a little faith.” Throughout Better Days, guitarist John Sayers sings with youthful brio, lead guitarist Brandon Rogers adds the right touches while always putting the song first, and bassist Sean Beedle and drummer Troy DeRose come through with the right groove every time. And the band’s overall energy and enthusiasm never falls short. My favorite local release of 2011.
For her second album, Italian singer Federica Zammarchi decided to give tribute to her favorite rock artist, David Bowie. With the help of her four-man combo, she transformed eleven of Bowie’s tunes most of them from his early-to-mid-Seventies glam phase with invigorating, challenging jazz arrangements. Selections like “All the Madmen,” “Life on Mars?” and “Andy Warhol” mix touches of Seventies-style jazz fusion with interludes of late-night, smoky piano-bar ambience. The quintet adds traces of bossa nova to “Loving the Alien” and “Time,” applies some genuinely tricky rhythm shifts to “Aladdin Sane” and gives “Lady Grinning Soul” a slow-burning treatment over flamenco guitar. And the renditions of “After All” and “The Man Who Sold the World” offer hints of how Ella Fitzgerald might have approached Bowie if she’d gotten around to recording the Great British Songbooks. (Zammarchi really didn’t need to gender-flip the lyrics of “Space Oddity,” though. “Tell my man I love him very much/He knows”? If any songwriter should be comfortable with gender-ambiguous interpretations, it’s Bowie.) An intriguing, entertaining work, Jazz Oddity shows that Ziggy Stardust’s influence still raises its brightly colored head where you might not expect it.
Delvin Neugebauer hosts the Overnight Music Mix each Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.