Spirit of '96

Last year showed pop still has more than a ghost of a chance

Dem's Good Beeble
The Gourds
Munich Records

Crowning Injustice #77(c): A band like Counting Crows steals a mantle as precious as "the new Band" on the basis of a vague soundalike while the Gourds toil away in the impressively vast Local Band Hell of Austin, Texas. Without really sounding like that august and essential group, the Gourds incorporate the basics of their approach: a love of past form and tradition that can't be denied paired with a modern sensibility that cannot help but color everything that passes through it. Match that with some of the strangest, most oblique lyrics around--expanses of everyday experience punctuated by blasts of pure weirdness and gusts of eerie poetry--and you've got a brilliant, uniquely American album.

Dead Spy Report
Craig Ross
MCA Records

Not only does Craig Ross have a knack for bouncing a hook off of your brain--witness the addictive "Mudslide" that kicks off Dead Spy Report--but he reports with equal acuity on a wide range of emotion--desire, disgust, and despair. Of course, that's a singer/songwriter's job, but Ross' modern-rock take on the task is uncommonly bright.

Braver Newer World
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Elektra Records

Gilmore's third in an increasingly brilliant series of recent albums, Braver Newer World is country in the sense that Emmylou Harris referred to when she--describing her own groundbreaking Wrecking Ball--said "we live in a country," so it's country music. Actually, it's hard to imagine the music on this album being limited by something as prosaic as national borders. As sweeping as the Baghavad-Gita, as sly as a Zen koan, and as piercingly clear as mountain air, this is drive-time country for the space shuttle.

The Fun of Watching Fireworks
American Analog Set
Emperor Jones Records

"Boxes and machines are instruments too!" is a battle cry being heard with increasing frequency these days. While the AAS definitely subscribe to a philosophy in which an instrument's electrical impedance might be as important as its tuning, they also have a belief in song structure which they hew to or abandon at will. Still, they are a bit more earthbound than many experimentalists, anchored perhaps by a subtle appreciation of cheesy '60s electronic keyboard sounds. Dreamy, a little detached, and worth the trip.

Fading Fast
Kelly Willis
A&M Records

While the work of other heroes of Americana (Wilco, Son Volt) sometimes seems overwrought and even belabored, the most remarkable thing about this EP from Kelly Willis is the utterly natural and offhanded way she offers us a glimpse of future promise: the joining of Americana and real country to the betterment of both, a mix blended with the same obvious respect and affection that made the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle be Unbroken such a keystone--and in less time.

(Tie) Romance Involidable
Eva Ybarra y su Conjunto
Eddie "Lalo" Torres is Everywhere!
Eddie "Lalo" Torres y su Conjunto
Rounder Records

With these two releases, Rounder helps keep Norteno-style conjunto music alive against the encroaching modernization--and leveling--of Tejano, going back into San Antonio's musical history for a couple of pearls: one whose history is well known (relatively speaking) and one that has perhaps been obscured.

Neither album is as country-crossover friendly as that of master SA accordeonista Mingo Saldivar: although Ybarra has a fondness for similarly rapid 1/16 and 1/32 note runs. It's actually Torres who's a bit more Tejano--in the assimilated (country) sense. Starting watershed conjunto Los Pavos Reales in 1957 with his brother, this album is Torres' announcement of a return after a serious illness. For Ybarra it's an announcement of female empowerment and arrival--even after being on the SA scene for almost 40 years. A more than satisfactory realization of the promise of her first Rounder record A Mi San Antonio, Romance Involidable, like Torres' Everywhere, keeps alive something evermore obscured by electric guitars and banks of synthesizers. It's the grit implied in the slightly off-kilter chords of the bajo sexto and a texture we're so much the richer for keeping.

Nydia Rojas
Nydia Rojas
Arista Latin

Rojas' Madonna-does-mariachi take on a style long on folklore and relatively short of flash might trouble rock-ribbed traditionalists, but she's put mariachi before a whole new audience with even more effect than loving modernists like Campanas de America. This could well be one of those albums that are looked back on as watersheds, harbingers of greater change.

Honorable mention:
Slop, Pork; Emperor Jones.

El Paso Rock: Early Recordings Volume 1, Bobby Fuller; Norton Records.

Daydreaming from the Labyrinth, Tish Hinojosa; Warner Brothers Records.

Spanks for the Memories, Asylum Street Spankers; Watermelon Records.

You Can Say That Again, Johnny Rodriguez; Hightone Records.

With These Hands, Alejandro Escovedo; Rykodisc.

The best national albums of 1996

Elektra Records

Southern boys whacked out on Christianity, morality, and electricity, jennyanykind have made their Revelator the most appealing--and challenging--freakout of the year. Splintered guitar lines and raw-throated yelling not that far removed from a corner streetpreacher's bids you look down and see the Blood of the Lamb slathering your arms up to the elbow--then you'll feel the walls (and what's beyond them) closing in on a perspective that a post-modern Flannery O'Connor would appreciate. After all, a good band is hard to find.

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