A Pack of Mutts
As far as music goes, I am not a tribal person. I am not prodded by Pitchfork Media nor narcotized by Relix, nor are my spirits lifted by No Depression. Not to say that those media sources are entirely flawed--indeed, each has its virtues. But each of these influential outlets approaches a CD from a sort of preconceived ideal, and should a work stray from that imagined purity, it often suffers in their estimation. Those mongrels and strays are the very albums I love--the ones that are too artsy and meandering for No Dep, too rootsy and plainspoken for Pitchfork and too concise for the hippies at Relix. Here's a list of ten of those records for all you other lone wolves out there.
1. My Morning Jacket, Z (ATO): Sure, the lyrics are stupid (burning kittens and babies in blenders, anyone?), and the pub-rock/Hawaii Five-0/carnival-in-hell middle stretch of the record sags a bit, but the seven masterpieces that bookend Z more than make up for those shortcomings. It'll remind of you everything from the Celtic righteous-rock of bands like U2 and the Waterboys ("Wordless Chorus" and "Gideon") to the fretboards afire and full-tilt keyboards attack of the Allmans ("Lay Low") to the narcodelic wooze of mid-period Floyd and early Radiohead. All that and occasional tinges of classical piano and soca and West African highlife guitars. Z is grandiose in the best possible way--an album that'll turn the inside of your head into an ornate, vaulting cathedral.
2. M. Ward, Transistor Radio, (Merge): Ward's Transistor Radio broadcasts from a stack of 78s that fell through a crack in time from Greil Marcus' "old, weird America," back when country was blues was jazz was pop, back when people drank legal cocaine in soda bottles and shot morphine before lunch. Ward has a ghostly tenor and is a deft acoustic fingerpicker of the John Fahey school, and with fellow West Coasters Two Gallants and Jolie Holland, there's a whole new generation of blues-drenched folkies out there that will be heard by a wider audience in the next few years. Might as well get on the bandwagon now.
Top 10 alt-country albums of 2005
3. Otis Taylor Below the Fold (Telarc): Imagine if Flatt and Scruggs did a tribute album to Mississippi Fred McDowell with new lyrics written by Chuck D. and sung by Ted Hawkins. That's the best way I can describe the eerie, cathartic trance-blues of Chicago-born, Denver-bred Taylor, who sings and plays guitar, banjo, harmonica and mandolin here. He is also one of the darkest and most compelling songwriters ever to have worked in the medium, a guy who says explicitly what earlier generations of bluesmen would only say in code. And come to think of it, Taylor is not a bluesman at all--he's an artist who works in blues in much the same way Picasso did.
4. Freakwater, Freakwater Is Thinking of You, (Thrill Jockey): Nobody in alt-country keeps it realer or rougher or more plaintive than Freakwater, whose coarse female harmonies sound exactly like what you still hear on crackly AM gospel radio in backwoods Appalachia. Lots of artists pay lip service to the ramshackle charms of the Carter Family, but only Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin carry it off masterfully. This is the kind of music that'll brighten your nights and darken your days. Together with fellow Kentuckians My Morning Jacket, Freakwater helped make this a great year for Louisville's hugely strange music scene.
5. Bobby Bare, The Moon Was Blue (Dualtone): In this comeback album, Bare's son Bobby Jr. and Lambchop's Mark Nevers create neo-countrypolitan arrangements, replete with cooing female backing vocals and spacey outros, that glisten like disco balls around the elder Bare's baritone. Bare père always did have a dab hand at song selection, and The Moon Was Blue is no exception. Material ranges from the tragically mundane (Shel Silverstein's "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan") to the utterly cosmic "Fellow Travelers," and opulent opener "Are You Sincere" is as plush and silky a country tune as you'll ever hear.
6. Clem Snide, The End of Love (spinART): The first album since Eef Barzelay's move from New York to Nashville finds him exploring the Snide half of the band's perpetual happy-angry yin-yang. As always, Barzelay sets his death ray wit on narcissism, this time as manifested in Christians ("Jews for Jesus Blues," "God Answers Back") and hipsters on the title track and the footstomping "Weird," with its memorable chorus: "You're not as weird as you'd like me to think." Barzelay's surreal imagery is as fanciful as ever; in his world, tiny European cars run on Spanish wine and choirs of James Taylor-crooning pedophiles worry they'll be seen as trendy. And if you're mad at your lover, there are few better laments to roar along with than "Something Beautiful."
7. Little Barrie, We Are Little Barrie, (Artemis): The young and bluesy Limey trio has a crisp, lean-and-mean style of old-school funk: all warbling bass, growling and glassy guitars and crunchy drums. Singer/guitarist Barrie Cadogan's multiple talents have won him the admiration of both Edywn Collins (who offered up immaculate production here) and Paul Weller, with whom he shares a certain blue-collar retro British aesthetic. Although the album is briskly paced, jazzy elements of jam band prototypes like Traffic and Joe Cocker creep in here and there. Not since the Average White Band have pasty white Brits sounded so genuinely funky.
8. Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now (Lost Highway): Stark, threadbare songs from one tough Cajun woman who has seen the abyss and returned with a heart full of love. The title track finds her doling out forgiveness to those who drove her to her demons, while "I Drink" finds a person utterly resigned to one of those same devils. Gauthier describes herself as a "truth teller" rather than a songwriter, and here, she's all artist, not artifice.
9. The Decemberists, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars): Many perish on this doomed voyage across singer Colin Meloy's peculiar seas. Some go by their own hands as in "We Both Go Down Together," others fall overboard as in "My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)," while still others are devoured, either by immense fish ("The Mariner's Revenge Song") or by the cannibal kings of the great America-in-wartime parable "16 Military Wives." And it's all damned funny. Musically, Picaresque hews pretty close to the elfin English folk and chamber pop of the previous two Decemberists full-lengths, but Picaresque somehow rises above the others. Ask their new label Capitol Records, if you don't believe me.
10. Johnny Guitar Watson, The Funk Anthology (Shout! Factory): An incredible reissue of the Gangster of Love's funk, disco and proto-rap recordings, this one ranges from hits like "Ain't That a Bitch," "Superman Lover" and "I Want to Tata You Baby" to should've-been smashes like "The Lone Ranger" and "You Can Stay but the Noise Must Go" to some unreleased stuff that holds its own. Watson was the living link between the country blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and the whacked-out, funky Southern rap of OutKast and Devin the Dude, and this double-disc captures him in all his stinging blues guitar, sly vocal glory.
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