Our Best CDs of 2008 continues today with a review of the super-premium Platinum Award winners for Excellence in rocking and rolling. As with last week’s Gold Awards, these are in alphabetical order. Band Web sites link to the band name, and if the CD is available via eMusic, that links to the CD title. (Mike Smith of Fiction 8, in last week’s comments, recommended that you buy from the band’s Web site or Amazon, if possible, because the artists get a better cut of the proceeds that way. Duly noted.)
Speaking of Fiction 8, let’s get this out of the way first
Fiction 8 – Project Phoenix
I have a rule – I never include in my official ratings CDs that I had something to do with, no matter how great I think they are. And since I co-wrote “Hegemony,” the track that closes this disc, that means that Fiction 8 is officially disqualified. This doesn’t mean I can’t tell you what I think I’d think about the record if I weren’t laboring with a conflict of interest, though.
Project Phoenix represents a significant step forward for the band. Most notably, bassist Mardi Salazar has assumed a much greater role in the creative process, writing and singing about half the tracks on the album. Her contributions afford the CD a richer balance, both tonally and lyrically, than we’ve seen in previous F8 efforts. Mike’s angst and cynicism are still front and center, but are tempered by Mardi’s softer, helplessly romantic contributions.
Or maybe “softer” isn’t quite the right word here. F8’s music is unambiguously darkpop – industrial with goth overtones, but essentially pop in structure. Smith’s songs have always hit like a boot to the gut. Sometimes the rage is palpable, other times muted beneath layers of self-doubt, but even his most thoughtful moments – and perhaps especially his most thoughtful moments – leave some part of you hurting.
Mardi’s voice is more conversational, however. It packs plenty of punch – it’s just that the fist is enveloped in a silk glove.
The result is a real yin/yang interplay between despair and hope, and this interplay makes Project Phoenix the most nuanced Fiction 8 record to date.
And now, the Platinum LPs
The BellRays – Hard, Sweet and Sticky
Easily one of my favorite discs to listen to of the year. What Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings have done for ‘60s soul, Lisa Kekaula and Co. are doing for driving ‘70s rock. As you work your way through HS&S you can hear all manner of echoes and influences, from Detroit proto-punk (Iggy & the Stooges, MC5) to Brit Blues Rock (The Faces, for instance) and beyond. Rather than try to weave a rich narrative tapestry, let me offer, in bullet points, some of the things I’ve thought while listening.
- There are a couple moments where I almost think they’re channeling Deep Purple (“Psychotic Hate Man” pounds along like “Highway Star” on steroids).
- She’s almost like a female Chris Robinson.
- If AC/DC ever needs a new singer and they’re willing to consider a woman, they should call Kekaula. Of course, as great as this record is, she should politely decline.
- In their bluesier moments she reminds me a little of Maria McKee.
- Mother’s Finest. Enough said.
Kekaula exhibits a lot of range vocally, managing the softer R&B stuff with the same kind of passion she dumps into the rockers, although I think she’s probably at her best when the songs are in overdrive. The band also packs those songs with substance – Bob Vennum seems to be the principal songwriter, and he’s responsible for cracking this off:
The homeless and the poor
are glad to go to war
for the right to be
put down even more.
More than anything, this band reminds us that once upon a time it wasn’t so hard to find take-no-prisoners rock and roll. If you’re at all like me, Hard Sweet and Sticky will make you acutely aware of how much you’ve missed something that you never really realized was gone…
One of the things that stands out the most – aside from some really clever songwriting – is the production. The sound manages trippy and psychedelic, textured and layered, nuanced and even swirly, all without sacrificing clarity – which is pretty neat, since the whole effect comes off as very natural sounding. So credit the disc with some of the best production of the year, as well.
In the end, Earth to the Dandy Warhols samples from and updates a host of retro moments (including “Welcome to the Third World,” a funny riff on The Stones’ “Some Girls”).
Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Ben Gibbard is as indie-critical-darling as they come, and if it wasn’t clear why before Narrow Stairs, it should be now. A good friend once said that writers are cursed to observe life without ever getting to live it for themselves. That’s too absolutist, of course, but it reminds me of Gibbard’s enigmatic lyricism. His observations on the lives of those around him are acute and thoughtful, but there’s a disconnectedness about it all – he somehow seems more involved with his observations that he is with the actual characters.
I don’t mean to suggest that he’s unconcerned or callous at all – the voice is one that cares, but that perhaps is wise enough to understand which lines not to cross?
There’s a very small number of artists who never seem to strike a foul note. Everything they do, even their least impressive work, still manages to be better than everybody else’s best. These are people you don’t really need to sample. They have a new CD, you buy it without worrying if it’s worth the cash. Karl Wallinger, eels, Peter Gabriel, Graham Parker, these are the kinds of names that come to mind, and Death Cab is pretty darned close to being on that list, if they aren’t already. I mean, I bought this one after hearing just one song, didn’t I?
His latest is a departure in one respect. Don has been playing live with Jamie Hoover and Jim Brock for years, but this is the first time they’ve gone into the studio as a recording power trio. As Don explained in an S&R interview back in May:
I discovered Hendrix and Cream about the same time. Disraeli Gears and Are You Experienced? were both on the turntable a lot. I felt like what I wanted to do with The Nu-Look was more like the Cream side of things than Hendrix We’re a more balanced ensemble. So when asked for comparisons early on, I blurted out Disreali Gears as an example of a power trio that I had admired in my youth and it stuck.
Hoover and Brock have both been working with me in various combinations for a long time. We all have many projects going on and they know they can count on me. They know it’s a collaborative effort when we play and they also know that I will help them with their projects, usually behind the scenes – or at least I’ll stay out of the way. We play together because we like what happens on stage…it’s really that simple. I’m very lucky and I know it…
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (as it were), I’ll reiterate something I’ve said many times before: Don Dixon is an American musical legend, and the fact that he remains unknown to so many people who would love his music is a goddamned crime. The list I’m talking about above in the Death Cab item, Dixon is on it and has been since the ‘80s. I suppose it’s possible he might one day record something that isn’t worth listening to, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Duffy – Rockferry
I’ve been loving the recent surge of neo-soul and girl group acts in the last couple of years – Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Nicole Atkins, Lucky Soul, etc. So I was anxious to get my ears on this one when I started hearing all the hype. Initially I was having a little trouble getting into it, though. I think I expected something more along the lines of Lucky Soul’s pure pop approach, but what’s going on with Duffy is actually a lot smokier and more soulful than that.
After about ten spins I finally started to get it, and at this stage I think what Duffy has done here is richer and more substantive than Winehouse’s last effort (I should say previous, I guess, although I’m afraid it might turn out to be her last, after all). The made-for-Bandstand “Mercy,” which has been played pretty widely, is a lot of fun, but she’s actually at her best in the CD’s more somber moments, like “Hanging On Too Long” and “Stepping Stone.”
I’ve probably listened to Rockferry 30 times or so, and it just won’t stop getting better with each play. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
The Killers – Day & Age
I stepped out on a limb the day this disc was released and speculated that we may be about to hear a defining moment for one of the best bands alive today. As it turned out, we got something of a split decision. On the one hand, this isn’t the epic, career-defining third record I was hoping for. On the other, it is a damned good CD and yes, The Killers are one of the best bands alive.
After largely abandoning their neo-‘80s influenced sound for something that was aggressively Springsteenesque on their second release, Sam’s Town, the nu wave is back on Day & Age – a development that’s a little puzzling.
Bands this ambitious don’t move backward, and to be fair, while the musical vibe retreats a little, there may be a perfectly valid artistic justification for it. Brandon Flowers wasn’t born to the stage, and when you watch him live you can feel the effort it takes for him to connect with the audience. I note this because these songs are dominated by themes of alienation – a failure to connect, a struggle to relate to convention, a bafflement regarding the unwritten rules that bind society together. Given the quirkiness of some ’80s synth-pop – think Gary Numan here – maybe these are the sounds that fit this exploration best. Of course, I’m just guessing here….
I won’t be surprised to revisit what I’m writing here in a couple years and conclude that I missed something important, and even at this stage I have to acknowledge that the main hurdle The Killers don’t clear on Day & Age is the unreasonably high one I set before them myself.
In sum, a great CD that may age well. We’ll see.
thenewno2 – You Are Here
What if an insanely famous member of the greatest band in the history of the world had a son who looked exactly like him, sounded exactly like him, and listened to a whole lot of Tricky and Massive Attack?
Meet Dhani Harrison, whose brand of “electro-blues” (his first full-length effort) weighs in as the best trip/electronic disc of the year. I will warn you, though – don’t buy it because you liked his father, because thenewno2 (pronounced “the new number two”) sounds nothing like a Beatles record. Or a George Harrison solo record. It’s dark, downbeat, brooding, occasionally ponderous, and as thoroughly modern in 2009 as dad’s act was 45 years ago.
You Are Here is deft and clever and an altogether exceptional debut. Sadly, I can’t imagine that he’s going to enjoy the level of popular success that attended his famous father. Very sad, because at this stage of the game I’d say he’s every bit as accomplished as George was at the same age.
The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
Few bands in the rock history have exerted the sort of influence we now associate with The Jesus & Mary Chain, who along with Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine paved the way for some of the most interesting music of the past two decades. The debt Denmark’s Raveonettes owe J&MC is more obvious here than on their last outing, where they got a little too infatuated with studio slickness and lost touch with the rough edges that define their lineage.
Here the noise is back in all its distortion and reverb-soaked majesty. Not that this hurts the innate accessibility of the record in the least – in fact, the rawness of the mix accentuates the melodicism and of the songs and the purity of Sharin Foo’s vocals in a way that’s perhaps initially counter-intuitive to listeners who are new to dreampop, shoegazer and their related genres.
The band also released a couple of nice digital EPs on eMusic in 2008 – give them a listen, as well.
Rick Springfield – Venus in Overdive
Springfield has been cranking out vastly underrated Power Pop since back in the days of Dr. Noah Drake, and it’s a shame that he’s gotten so little critical acclaim. The truth is that his music, while never deep on what we might call a Proustian level, has always been thoughtful and meticulously crafted. He’s also one of the three or four most instinctively brilliant performing front men I’ve ever seen (a short list that includes Freddy Mercury and “She Called Me Bruce” Springsteen).
Rick is in the midst of a superb artistic rebirth these days. After 1988’s underwhelming Rock of Life he disappeared for a decade, but 1999’s Karma kicked off a run of studio releases that range from very good to fantastic. Put his latest in the latter column. Some guitar pop aficionados I know are calling this perhaps h is best CD ever, and while I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far quite yet, I’ll allow that it’s awfully close.
His trademark knack for cracking off an irresistible hook is present in spades – as always – but what really sets ViO apart is the sensitivity with which Rick confronts … women. Guys who have spent as much time on stage ducking panties as he has are bound to have done things. Questionable things. Things that are especially questionable in the eyes of the women that they were, you know, married to at the time. In a recent interview Springfield danced carefully around the subject, but the implication was more than clear, and he has finally arrived at a place where he’s worried about how men connect with women as people instead of flesh. This isn’t a new theme for him, by any stretch, but there’s a refinement in how he approaches the topic, and even the subject of “What’s Victoria’s Secret?” is interesting not because of her body but because of what she really represents beneath the surface.
If you like smart guitar pop that works as hard to hook the mind as it does the feet, this is your kind of record.
The Best CDs of 2008