Wiring Prank at Rubber Gloves, July 19
Absolutely worth the wait. The half-irritating low-profile mystique perpetuated by a drummer who left the band earlier this year has fallen away and finally given the others a chance to breathe. Denton's longtime best-kept secret took the stage at Rubber Gloves last summer and played four songs that made up an unpretentious 35-minute set, every one of the tunes unfolding with relaxed yet complex grace. Instrumentals are always a tricky proposition in the rock sphere, yet Wiring Prank's canon comes off like a soundtrack for the evening, approachable yet intrinsic; the bright riffs spill over into darker atmosphere, the dense rhythms cut with sunny guilelessness. Centro-matic's Will Johnson fills in on drums now, but young Brian Vandivier and company are the inspired songwriters here, and when they play, the room belongs to them.
"Via Chicago" may be Jeff Tweedy's finest moment. Which is saying a hell of a lot.
On How Life Is
This Los Angeles chanteuse burst on the scene with scant pre-hype and an album that could blow holes in the Hoover Dam. Soulful, playful, deep, and sexy, On How Life Is careens along its own thumping path with nary an apology for not sounding like anything else. (Until Beck came along with Midnight Vultures, that is.) Gray can crow like a diva on a speedball bender, can whisper like little girl lost, can croon like a grizzled nite bitch, and while she tosses out lyrics with the casual abandon of a spoiled kid, most every chorus seethes with the wisdom of the ages. In an era of rotten, clichéd paint-by-numbers music, this is one of the most heartening debuts of not just 1999, but perhaps the decade.
The Prolific One at his most wrenching and epic. The perfect album for late-night drives from Denton to Dallas, it's overripe and decadent and languid by songwriter Will Johnson's standards, which means it's pretty much a perfect foil to both the band's scrappy debut Redo the Stacks and this album's follow-up, the equally scrappy The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1. Most of Navigational's 16 cuts were recorded during the band's Illinois residency last year, and these are the sad, trenchant tunes that together form an album of startling cohesion. The opening "Nevermind the Sounds" gets the voodoo rolling, and the mood just escalates. Through the world-weary "Ruin This With Style" to the ironic tale of "This Vicious Crime" to the accusations of "Numbers One and Three," it's crowned by the majestic outro "The Beautiful Ones." But not before you find yourself swimming in some of the best lyrics of any release anytime; like a young Faulkner, Johnson circumvents cliché with stream-of-consciousness wordplay that ends up targeting the big-picture point far more directly than you might expect. "The king will shine and the trumpets sound today / The promises and the godlike things he says / But he'll kick you when you're down, and he'll burn this fucked-up town / With the matches that were stolen from your nightstand yesterday," he sings (in his distinctively raspy, plaintive tones) on the buzzing and buried "Lasted til Today," and despite yourself, you wince. Somehow you know exactly what he means.
This is an album that could come only from the minds of veterans with nothing to lose. It single-handedly dragged my attention back across the Atlantic; I had forsaken British pop music for some time. Sure, it echoes the techno-looping-meets-raw-guitar zeitgeist of the day, but Blur never directly cops anything from anyone, putting their own spin on sonic trends and making it all distinctively and inarguably their own. If anything, this is the Blur album that let the band fully realize its love for experimentation, spontaneity, and moodiness. While some might accuse them of style-hopping too often, this is actually the result of both high success and a fading spotlight: freedom to make the record it has always wanted to but didn't have the balls or personal space to do earlier. The band evolved in a decade that continually smashes yesterday's rock templates, and they've rolled with every punch. So what do you do now, in an age where every kid with a Telecaster and a sampler puts out a record, where every rock fan has the attention span of a ferret? Do what you want and fuck it all. And what a fascinating and utterly listenable result. Plus, 13 epitomizes the kind of album that grows on you like a clinging moss -- you can't really shake an album this insidious, you can't tire of an album this loose and vast. So, the ball is back in the Limeys' court. Which, in effect, led me to...
Us and Us Only
Not to be profane, but this release, in the wake of the death of the Charlatans' excellent keysman Rob Collins, is the best thing the band has ever done. The songs are fuller, rounder, and instinctively on-target, the arrangements complex but never overwrought. Frontman Tim Burgess' previous affair with whining is gone too, his voice and lyrics sounding mature, weary, and infinitely more insightful. It's simple, really. The band grew up. It's tragic that it happened through the death of their bandmate, but the boys are now men, and Us and Us Only is their debut.
George Jones at Billy Bob's Texas, January 30
It's the golden tonsils. Jones plays a packed house at Billy Bob's a couple of times a year, and each time, every soul in the crowd is transfixed. Jones' knowing cuts through the room and your skin and your bleeding heart with the clarity only a bona fide C&W veteran can muster. He's voicing the truths behind your every dire heartbreak and weary road trip and lonely night, and it's not the cut-and-paste lyrics that deliver. It's the texture and emotion in the bellowing Voice.
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Return of the Grievous Angel
Those of us born after 1965 would be hard-pressed to recall the glory days of Gram Parsons and his Flying Burrito Brothers. Sure, we might know the tale of his carcass-exhuming buddies, might have heard of his intense creative affair with Emmylou Harris, might have caught wind of his boot-licking behavior with the Rolling Stones. (Mick never did like the smooth-faced Gram much.) But in one fell swoop, this tribute album proves what a friggin' excellent songwriter he was; voila, a new set of fans is born. Perhaps the most telling aspect of any tribute album is the caliber of artists that agree to perform on it. Parsons has always had more than his fair share of luminaries promoting his canon in interviews about "my biggest influences," so it's no surprise this tribute surfaced a who's-who of songwriting greats: Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Jeff Tweedy, Beck, and of course, the angel-voiced Emmylou. The duets featuring Harris are the scene-stealers. Chrissie Hynde and Emmylou, then Beck and Emmylou, then Sheryl Crow and Emmylou -- ah, hell, she's the best evocation of Parson's spirit anyway. But there's not a bad song on the disc; it's the kind of release (and rare tribute) that you can put on and let spin all the way through without a single irritating note.
Jets to Brazil at South by Southwest, March 19
On the tail of its rip-fueled debut Orange Rhyming Dictionary, Jets to Brazil managed to work an appearance at March's South by Southwest into its tour itinerary. It was a toss-off for them; when they took the stage at the overcrowded Atomic Cafe, former Jawbreaker frontman Blake Schwarzenbach seemed as nonplussed as someone allergic to attention. This mostly obscure band was simply unimpressed with the music-seminar concept, didn't feel as though they belonged there, and made no bones about it. But when they surged into their first song, everything changed; the crowd stood hypnotized at the continuous power pouring off the stage. The guitars sounded like hyper-melodic buzzsaws, and Schwarzenbach's voice cut through the room with earnest, raw intensity that left his former ambivalence in the dust. Tunes like "Morning New Disease" and "King Medicine" became noble, caustic anthems for the evening, soaking the band in sweat and the kids in catharsis. Jade Tree's newest band wasn't looking for a label deal, just another much-needed outlet for all that gut-knotting energy.