Previously: part 1: The Gold LPs
Welcome back to the S&R/Lullaby Pit Best CDs of 2010. This week, part two: the Platinum LPs.
Brief format note: The CD title will link to the AllMusic Guide or eMusic (where you can sample and click to buy, if you like it), followed by a brief comment or two by me.
The Platinum LPs
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: I Learned the Hard Way
On the first Dap-Kings record the band sounded a lost recording straight outta 1970. Everything from the songs themselves to the instrumentation and arrangements to the gritty, no-fi studio production was designed to mark the band as a neo-soul novelty act. An incredible neo-soul novelty act, mind you, but there was no reason to believe they had much in the way of sustainable long-term future ahead of them.
Then something happened. They started growing. They became less self-consciously defined by a hip moment four decades ago and allowed themselves to become a leader in the now-booming neo-soul/R&B revival, a movement that is, at its best, dedicated not to museum pieces, but to taking the bygone moment and updating it, making it something distinctly contemporary. It looked for awhile like Amy Winehouse was going to define this style, and Duffy is doing well for herself, too. But with each passing CD it becomes clearer that the real leaders of contemporary neo-soul are Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, a group that has gotten bigger, badder and slicker as their talent and confidence has grown.
I Learned the Hard Way is a mature, seasoned effort that surpasses anything the band has done before. They’ve expanded the range of instruments they bring to the game and Sharon, who has always been a stop-the-traffic singer, has grown even defter in moving between smoky bluesy heartbreakers (“The Game Gets Old”), twangy R&B dancers (“Mama Don’t Like My Man”) and ballsy soul ravers like “Money.” And the band ain’t never laid one down like the hard-living “She Ain’t a Child No More.”
Forget the novelty tag. SJ&tDK have been something special for awhile now, but with I Learned the Hard Way they have established themselves as one of the best bands in the world today, period. No matter which way the winds blow musical style and fashion, this is a band you’re going to gladly pay to hear for the rest of your life.
The Scottish Enlightenment: St. Thomas
Moody, with a knack for blending haunting minimalism with a rich ambience that fills the entire cathedral. The sad beauty that characterizes St. Thomas has a timeless feel about it, but it also manages to sound very contemporary. Shoegazer is a genre that’s been with us for going on 20 years now, and most of the bands working the style today fit more or less into three or four categories. However, since it’s a style that historically relies on noise and dissonance, it’s not something that has been readily given to the stripped-down lo-fi that characterizes so much of today’s indie.
It’s remarkable, therefore, that TSE can technically adhere to an indie aesthetic while intimating sound that isn’t actually there. For a hint of what I’m getting at here, pick up around the 2:30 mark of “Taxidermy of Love.” There’s a lush beauty thriving in the tension between music and negative space here that’s simply captivating.
Rabbit Velvet: Crows & Doves
Rabbit Velvet is Danielle Kimak Stauss, and some of you may know her as the former frontwoman for The Lost Patrol. When Danielle contacted me to announce a solo CD I was ecstatic, but I had no idea what to expect.
The CD that arrived was a revelation. My attempts to triangulate it led me to describe it to friends as both melodic and dissonant, “kind of like Imogen Heap meets Switchblade Symphony. With maybe some Goldfrapp and Kate Bush and Siouxie thrown in here and there.” The sound was crisp, ethereal, meticulously crafted, and cool to the touch. At the risk of sounding pretentious (and when has that ever stopped me?), Crows & Doves is like that girl you find in college who’s artistic, offbeat, and unconventionally pretty. When she looks at you she sees something that other people don’t see. She’s alluring but a little unnerving. It’s impossible to ignore her.
When Danielle explains, as she did in an April interview with S&R, that the whole CD was done on Garage Band, you have a whole new opportunity to think about the nature of the soul that is revealed through technology. I mean, we know that you can now do things on your desktop that a generation ago required very expensive studios. But the existence of the technology doesn’t automatically make you a producer, and powerful tools in inexperienced hands often do little more than emphasize the amateurism. Maybe there are more accomplished sets of ears than mine out there who can find reason to criticize, but all I hear is a deft, consistently appropriate hand on the wheel. She notes in the interview the debt she owes to Stephen Masucci, and those words are important here:
I also must give respect here to the master. I got to work with Stephen Masucci in The Lost Patrol for about seven years. I never worked with anyone who was so analytical, methodical and prolific about songwriting. I had understood basic music arrangement through schooling, and learning to play the flute, and singing in chorus as kid. Even in writing with all the other bands there was discussion of the elements that could make up a song – the beats, the verse, the chorus, the dynamics of things, and I learned a great deal every step of the way but, nothing comes close to working with Stephen. He taught me how to listen to everything, and try to analyze what was interesting, strong, and unique in music, even if it was something that you may not have listened to in the usual sense. He knows an immense amount about the qualities and physics of sound – it’s mind-blowing. He also knows a great deal about pop/rock music history. Really, there is no one like him on the planet. He is a genius and there is no escaping his effect…
The landscape of Crows & Doves is an iced-over forest sparkling with the whiteness of birds, haunted and challenging, forboding and seductive all at once. It’s a significant achievement and we can’t wait to hear what Stauss cooks up for us next.
Bettye LaVette: Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
As a rule I don’t include cover collections in my Best of lists, but Northern Soul legend Bettye LaVette’s latest goes way beyond covering the classic rock standards. She strips them to their bones and reconstructs them in the R&B/Soul mode, crafting a finished product that’s sometimes so far removed from the original that it might as well be a different song altogether.
At its best, these songs are as good as it’s possible to get. The disc leads with a gospel/funky take on The Beatles’ “The Word” that, in the words of the immortal Nuke LaLouche, announces its presence with authority. Zep wishes its version of “All My Love” had taken LaVette’s smoky low road, and the same goes for Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” She even adds some lyrics of her own to the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” and winds up with a gospel/social/political anthem that makes a pointed statement about our contemporary condition. “Nights in White Satin” is one of those reimaginings, like Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” or Space Team Electra’s “Paint It Black,” that makes you never want to hear the original again.
Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect a project like this not to miss a note or two somewhere, and I really do wish she had left “Wish You Were Here” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” alone. But when you’ve just clocked 10 in a row into the upper deck, the manager isn’t going to complain about a couple of ground balls.
The Birthday Massacre: Pins and Needles
A good friend, after listening to Pins and Needles, said that “this may be the one that puts them over the top.” Maybe. Although stylistically it’s hard to imagine something this steeped in glam-goth fashion is going to have major breakthrough potential. Still, let’s consider the things they have going for them:
- fantastic tunes: check
- a compelling look: check
- powerful performers: check
- commitment to building an audience through relentless touring: check
- a dynamic, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her lead singer: check, check, and check again
So maybe. If Evanescence made some noise, there’s no reason that a darkpop/synthrock band as energetic as TBM shouldn’t. The best news is how really, really great the songs themselves are on P&N. I thought their songwriting on 2007’s Violet was outstanding, but they took a step back on 2009’s Walking with Strangers. This disc, though, features their strongest collection yet. In terms of sheer listenability, my Last.FM account says it’s the disc I listened to most in 2010, so that has to be some kind of recommendation.
By the way, the live show is a sight to behold. It’s the CD times a hundred. If they come to your town, go. Take earplugs, though.
New Young Pony Club: The Optimist
I just discovered NYPC this year (thanks to my buddy Mike Smith of Fiction 8), and I can’t honestly tell you that I loved their 2007 debut. It emanated from a twitchy corner of the Nu-Wave universe, one a little too given to the yelp and doofiness of the B-52s (the Beefs got away with it, but it’s an approach that doesn’t lend itself elegantly to imitation). In its best moments the first CD reminded me of Elastica – a very good thing – but those best moments were too outnumbered by not-best moments.
Something has happened, though, because this group has grown the heck up in the last three years: The Optimist is a far richer, more coherent effort than I could have expected. The yips are occasionally employed, but it’s for effect, not because it’s the only trick in the bag, and the range of the band’s songwriting and performing has expanded to the point where “Oh Cherie” almost plays like an homage to “Abacab.” On the other end of the spectrum are stripped-back neo-’80s synth-party-dance vamps, and its all carried off with aplomb by singer Tahita Bulmer, whose vox stylings recall both Justine Frischmann and Luscious Jackson.
I’m hard-pressed to recall when I’ve seen a band make this huge a leap forward between their first and second discs. It’s also been awhile since a CD grew on me so much over the course of a few months.
Two Door Cinema Club: Tourist History
It’s probably not completely unfair to call 2DCC the Phoenix of 2010. While it’s not enjoying the commercial success that Phoenix did last year (the disc has gone Silver in the UK, whereas Phoenix is now Gold in the US, Canada and Australia), Tourist History is so meticulously constructed and infectious in its performance it’s just about impossible not to be drawn in.
They remind me of a lot of great music from the early 1980s, although when asked about their influence in an interview last year they pointed to everything from “Stevie Wonder and John Denver to Kylie Minogue, At The Drive-in, Idlewild, Death Cab For Cutie and Mew.” Mmmkay. I might have expected a passing reference to XTC, Haircut 100 or maybe Style Council. That said, the Death Cab for Cutie nod is dead-on: not only are there songs that have distinct Death Cab moments, lead singer Alex Trimble frequently sounds just like Ben Gibbard. On the whole 2DCC is far more the pop band than Death Cab, though.
While we should always go in fear of the totalizing power of labels, Tourist History strikes me as perhaps the finest indie-pop disc of the year.
Eels: Tomorrow Morning
Mark Everett is unarguably one of our generation’s purest popular music geniuses. He’s literate, insightful, intuitive, humane and unusually intelligent. His sense for the craft of a song is, if we take the body of his nine Eels studio releases and his two releases as E as evidence, simply immaculate.
Lately he’s been prolific even by his standards: Tomorrow Morning is his third full-length CD in about 18 months, and it’s hard not read them as a narrative arc. 2009’s Hombre Lobo (a Platinum LP selection) was a marked break from E’s restrained chamber pop sound, a howling-at-the-moon collection of raw desire. His first CD of 2010, End Times, chronicled the gut-wrenching end to a relationship and it captured the anguish of desperation and loss as well as anything I’ve ever heard. Finally we get Tomorrow Morning, which I guess we might call the “it’s gonna be all right” album.
I’m tracking pretty closely with E these days. In roughly the same time frame I’ve faced soul-scouring desire, soul-stomping loss, six kinds of despair, and only now am I beginning to feel like maybe it’s gonna be all right. The problem with the emotional cycle here (and I imagine most of us have faced it at one point or another) is that it lends itself to false positives – you hurt so bad and for so long, and then there’s a lull in the storm and it’s easy to convince yourself that the storm is over. But those who live near the coast can tell you, that lull is called the “eye” and it just means you have a few minutes before the torrent begins again.
Tomorrow Morning is the real thing, though. He has reached a point where the storm truly has passed and the morning has dawned full of actual sunshine and the songs of actual birds. It’s going to be all right.
It’s a powerful message from an artist who lives the full extent of the emotions in his life and who does so with as unerring a sense for the authenticity of experience as you’ll find. He doesn’t shield himself from the pain, because if he did he couldn’t tell you about it honestly. And when the sun comes out, it wouldn’t shine quite as brightly.
Chatelaine: Take a Line for a Walk
I read somewhere that Toni Halliday, the former frontwoman for Curve, set out to produce a project in Enya’s general musical neighborhood. What she wound up with, as Chatelaine, is halfwayish between Curve and Enya, in the vicinity of Imogen Heap and Goldfrapp. If you think about Goldfrapp’s 2008 release, The Seventh Tree (and I try not to), which was their attempt at something more warm and organic than their usual icy electro-glam fare, you might imagine Talk a Line for a Walk as being what would have happened had The Seventh Tree succeeded.
There’s no mistaking Halliday’s dynamic voice, her sense of the dramatic or her feel for chord progression (especially noticeable on the CDs lead track, “Broken Bones,” which almost feels like an self-conscious bridge from her past work), but as the preceding paragraph suggests, what she’s after here is considerably less aggressive than Curve, more reflective, more approachable. “Cuddly” isn’t quite the word, but Chatelaine is softer, very at home with pianos and down tempo tunes that eschew the razor edge that defined so much of Curve’s best work.
I loved Curve. And I really, really love Chatelaine. It’s great to have Halliday back in heavy rotation.
The Lost Patrol: Dark Matter
This isn’t the first time The Lost Patrol has made an appearance in my year-end Best of list – in fact, it’s becoming something of a habit. Which is a little odd when you consider the challenges facing artists trading in narrowly defined styles. TLP is known for an ethereal, twangy spaghetti Western sound that invokes the likes of Duane Eddy, Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti. TLP provides soundtracks for cinematic, empty badland vistas at dusk, and it’s an oeuvre that’s not quite like any other artist I know of. One would think such a tightly defined sound would be inherently limiting and that after awhile it would all sound the same. Unlike the average indie band, there’s no way of veering off into something a little different without it jarring the expectations of the listener. If a Ben Gibbard wants to experiment a bit, the reaction is “hey, Death Cab is being experimental.” If TLP tries something off their established brand, the reaction is going to be “hey, where did TLP go?” It’s a whole other dimension of challenge than most bands face.
Somehow or another, though, The Lost Patrol has managed to remain who they are while finding interesting ways of growing and expanding. It’s hard to fully credit the enduring creative and technical genius of founder Stephen Masucci, and Michael Williams, who’s primarily the rhythm guitarist, shoulders a lot of responsibility in the way role-players always do in successful bands (I imagine this is especially true live because they seem not to travel with a rhythm section. Not that I’ve ever gotten to see them live because they never stop in Denver. Hint, hint)…
But a huge part of the reason for the artistic success of Dark Matter arises from the emerging versatility and songwriting prowess of Mollie Israel (whose mom is Amy Heckerling, by the way – I just found that out). This is the band’s second disc with Mollie at the mic and she has really made the gig her own – not bad, considering the band looked as good as done when previous vocalist Danielle Kimak Stauss departed after 2007’s excellent Launch and Landing. It’s unusual for a band to lose its defining singer and make a successful transition to a new front, but TLP has done it, and spectacularly.
Dark Matter is seductive in ways that bypass the consciousness. It’s intensely personal and shiveringly tactile, driven by Masucci’s epic, otherworldly guitars and an emerging gift for storytelling (such as we see in Israel’s “Justine,” my favorite track on the disc; there’s a level of maturity here that we tend to encounter only in artists who have been at it longer than Israel, who’s only 25. Oh, and sweet gods, the guitars – crank this track up to 11 and listen to what happens at the :53 mark).
Perhaps the thing that makes The Lost Patrol so vital is that there is literally nobody else like them. Their music is a unique, evocative experience that’s as sexy as it is starkly iconic.
Now they’re hard at work on what may well turn out to be a 2011 release. That kind of energy is fantastic news for the band’s fans.
The Gaslight Anthem: American Slang
The band’s exceptional debut, The ’59 Sound, was easily dismissed, if you wanted to dismiss it, as being a Springsteen knock-off and little more. While I don’t find that criticism (which I have heard, more than once) to be particularly fair, I can at least see where it comes from. It did sound a lot like Bruce, although not so slavishly as some might pretend.
Good luck dismissing American Slang, though. Yeah, Brian Fallon sounds a little like Springsteen and there’s no question as to the Jersey Sound influence (especially on the title track), but this CD is a lot more diverse than its predecessor. It’s soulful in places, it’s quite gospel in others, and it’s built on an unabashedly punk backbone from one end to the other. All these influences establish American Slang as pure Rock & Roll borne of all the roots influences that have defined American Rock. These songs are gutsy and nuanced, brash and thoughtful, and from the time you hit play they demand your attention. They twang on familiar strings, if you will, but never in ways that an honest listener could dismiss as derivative.
It’s been a long time since Rock & Roll was a cool term. Rock has fractured into a million sub-genres and these days all the acceptable stuff has to begin with “indie.” I suppose you could call American Slang indie-rock, but you’d just be flailing about for street cred if you did.
This is Rock & Roll, period. And it is brilliant.
Up next: The CD of the Year
Categories: Music/Popular Culture
I’ll have to give “The Optimist” another spin. One of the things I liked about NYPC’s first one is that, like you mention with the new disc, it sticks with you. I probably kept “Fantastic Playroom” in my car CD player for a couple of months. It has staying power like so few things do.
Glad to see the Eels in there 🙂