By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In no particular order:
1. Pleasant Grove: An exceptional band to emerge--quietly--from the mounting ashes of the Dallas music scene. Both recorded and live, the trio-turned-quartet delivers some of the most dense, satisfying tunes around--Low-era Bowie on tranquilizers, Ian Curtis resurrected as a rocker. Their first performance was early last summer at the Orbit Room's farewell, and while nobody could say who they were, everyone stood still to listen. The band doesn't play so often, but has lately recorded with Matt Pence in St. Louis, which should make for a damn fine self-release next year. Pleasant Grove's low-key approach to profile building is a harbinger for how the area's best musicians are going about their careers: subtly, thoughtfully, and focused on the music. Why fight the industry when you can ignore it?
2. Music From the Motion Picture Velvet Goldmine: As a visual feast, the film borders on porn for straight girls and gay boys. Todd Haynes' homage/send-up of British '70s glam rock has all the right parts: delicious boys, decadent music, goofy sentiment, and great rise-and-fall performances by the leads. (Ewan McGregor, as an amalgam of Iggy Pop-Lou Reed-Mick Ronson, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a straight-up Bowie-like character, pack more rock-star aura than most rock stars.) The soundtrack is the best thing Michael Stipe has been involved with since, well, since R.E.M. stopped putting out good records, and as the soundtrack's producers, he and Haynes have cleverly combined old gems by Brian Eno, T-Rex, and Iggy Pop and new material penned and recorded by Shudder to Think, Venus in Furs (featuring Thom Yorke, who's everywhere these days), and the Wylde Rattz, an indie supergroup consisting of Mark Arm, Steve Shelley, and Mike Watt, all of which stick well to the thick, glossy melodies and high drama of glitter rock. It's a complex, melancholy, and sometimes very droll album that celebrates wretched excess--a perfect foil for today's less-is-more leanings. Which brings us to...
3. Beck, Mutations (DGC): Proves once and for all that the Great Skinny Hope can write amazing songs, without the novelty crutches of looping and sampling--the trip-hop jitters. Mutations is a quiet, haunting, utterly spare album with the most satisfying melodic turns of his career--think Lennon-McCartney (the ripe, minor-key years) and double it. This ain't folk, country, psychedelic, or rock, but it takes bites off all these, chews them up and spits them out into a brilliant pile of sounds, West Coast style. And go figure: Last year's Beck is King hype has left the world burned out on the boy and looking elsewhere for the goods. Probably doesn't bother Beck too much--irony is his favorite toy.
4. Legendary Crystal Chandelier, Love or the Decimal Equivalent (steve records): Thank God Peter Schmidt never gave up. After months of frustration and backpedaling in the recording studio, the local vet finished his album last spring in a flurry of...well, not much recognition. Still, his debut sans band is extraordinary: This is what happens when a guy grows up to find himself left with nothing but his imagination and a studio, and actually has the sheer talent to make something of it. Nothing about this record sounds like a pander to anyone--industry types or Dallas fans--and the effect, instead of self-indulgent or alienating, is clear and generous. The songs combine timeless sentiment (plenty of loneliness and resentment) with both timeless and timely sonic textures: buzzy guitar--well, sure--and wrenching melodies, but dark-hued samples and loops acting as bones and joints. Only, unlike other rockers trying to convince the world they can dig the trip-hop, Schmidt makes the combination sound natural. That the rest of the country might not ever hear this stuff is a shame. That we know about it and get to spin it in our CD players whenever we want to is what keeps our faith in rock and roll.
5. Neutral Milk Hotel at Maxwell's: Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey, had been closed down while it recovered from bad ownership--someone had tried to turn the old indie-rock digs into a brew pub, for God's sake. So three owners (including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley) bought it back and reopened the club in August, and the first band to play the joint was Neutral Milk Hotel. Touring to promote its latest release, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, NMH played the show of a lifetime that night, chaotic and roiling and breathtaking, complete with plastic saxophones, a saw, accordion, flYgelhorns, and, of course, Jeff Mangum's wavering nasal tones over staccato guitar riffing. It was as rich as a tapestry and as soothing as morphine. Not a drop of alcohol in the house (the club hadn't secured its license yet), but no matter. The Manhattan commuters drank up every note, and after the encore, staggered out and lurched back to the train station, silent and exhausted.
6. Last night of the Orbit Room: Sure, it's easy to goof on the pierced and tattooed legions that used Orbit as a regular watering hole. It's easy to dismiss the club's crappy sound system and scabies-infested couches and ear-scraping jukebox noise between live sets. And it's easy to complain that the regular roster of acts was nothing more than uninspired garage rock. But really, in a city that can't afford to lose any more of its decomposing rock scene, the closing of the Orbit was an unpleasant shock. On occasion, the best and brightest graced those indoor and outdoor stages and played sets that would blow even the most cynical audience away. The cover charge was always reasonable, the Kozik wall art was great to gaze at five beers into the night, and the sound guys were chatty and helpful. The club even held regular matinee punk-rock shows for the oft-overlooked under-21 crowd. Its final night of existence, June 23, was a BYOB affair--the club's liquor license had been yanked the week before--and featured a lineup that included Pleasant Grove, Centro-matic, and the Dirty Three, who wouldn't stop playing; and the locals showed up in drunken droves to bid the place farewell. Shots and catharsis all around, great music, all outlined by a sharp sense of loss. It may as well have been New Year's Eve, 1999.