There’s a chill in the air and the sheets are shiveringly cool when I climb into bed at 2 a.m., so Fall must be upon us. The big three — Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas — are lurking in the wings, and that can only mean one thing for a music journalist: What will make my Top 10 albums of 2009? That might seem like a disconnect for you, but editors start looking for these year-end wrap-ups toward the end of October to make November/December issue deadlines.
Typically, when my daughter starts talking about costumes, I start thinking about the year’s releases. This has been a good year, so there will be a lot to consider, and at least one of my considerations is reviewed below.
Another area of concern will be the point of this blog come December. At present, there are 16 albums listed on the release sheets for the entire month, and 10 of them are reissues. My inclination is to go back through the voluminous stacks of releases I’ve accumulated over the past few months and pull out some of the titles I missed or enjoyed and wanted to discuss but ran out of time, and review them in the bleakest review month of the year. Maybe even do 20 a week in a quick blurby style to get as many in as possible.
Until then, there’s plenty to keep me occupied. Read on, reader.
For the past 10 years, The Avett Brothers (banjoist/vocalist Scott Avett, guitarist/vocalist Seth Avett and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford) have laid down an engaging Bluegrass vibe that blends the visceral impact of their indie Rock past with the naive energy of their blossoming front porch direction. The trio’s fan base gets more lathered up with each successive release, their press kit is bulging with glowing reviews and the industry paying closer attention as well, as evidenced by the Avetts’ dual wins at the 2007 Americana Music Awards for Best Duo/Group and Best New/Emerging Artist on the occasion of their last album, Emotionalism, nominated for Album of the Year.
Since then, the Avetts signed to Columbia and teamed up with uberproducer Rick Rubin to craft I and Love and You, their major label debut, an album as warm and inviting as a porch swing on a summer night and as dark and sweet as buckwheat honey.
While clearly not as raucous as some of their earlier work, I and Love and You finds the Avetts maturing into the kind of group that can produce a consistently great catalog over a three decade span. Hearkening back to the early ’70s piano-driven vibe of everything from Elton John and The Band to Hunky Dory-era Bowie and early Neil Young, the Avetts have reflected the darkness of the time in I and Love and You but temper it with a tentative hopefulness as well, evidenced by the range between the melancholy expanse of “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and the Violent Femmes-like fracas of “Tin Man” or the quiet majesty of the title track and the jaunty Everclear-meets-Sondre-Lerche thump of “Kick Drum Heart.”
I and Love and You is contemporarily driven, but the Avetts draw on influences and references from some of the most classic periods in Rock, Folk and Country in fashioning an album as timeless as the tide, the kind of forever album that transcends the period that spawned it and endures without aging.
At a certain point in a singer/songwriter‘s career, a covers album is not a cause for celebration. They tend to signal an attempt to appeal to a new audience in the face of the desertion of an old one or writer’s block or capitulation to a label who wants time-tested (i.e. commercially viable) material rather than risky new songs, or combinations of all of the above. Rosanne Cash’s new album, The List, is a covers album, and it’s none of the above.
The album began three and a half decades ago, when Johnny Cash decided that his daughter’s fixation with Pop and Rock music had left her woefully ignorant of Country’s long, rich heritage and so he assembled a list of the 100 most important songs in the Country canon, instructing her to learn them all. Cash’s list was deeply rooted in his understanding of the musical form and its development as a hybrid of Folk, Gospel and Blues, and Rosanne took his advice seriously, absorbing the essential elements of the style that would be the foundation of her career.
The List is a vibrant reflection of songs that have defined the parameters of Country music over the past half a century as interpreted by Cash from her dual perspective as the daughter of Country royalty and as a Roots/Rock artist in her own right. Clearly not content to paint inside the lines of the originals, Cash puts her own unique stamp on the material, from the jazzy swing of “Miss the Mississippi and You” to the rootsy lope of “Motherless Children” to the sweet Folk/Pop melancholy of “Sea of Heartbreak” to the smokily atmospheric Pop spin on Hank Williams’ “Take These Chains From My Heart,” complete with husband/producer John Leventhal’s guitar homage to Les Paul.
While Cash offers interesting readings of these chestnuts (including “500 Miles” and “Long Black Veil,” perhaps two of the most covered songs in the history of music), she balances her singular arrangements with the tradition that accompanies each song. Her take on “500 Miles” becomes a Folk/Pop hymn that tributes the song’s origins and Cash’s originality.
Cash — whose career was derailed by pregnancy-induced polyps on her vocal cords nine years ago — has never been in better voice, and she makes a sterling duet partner for a stellar array of guests: Bruce Springsteen (“Sea of Heartbreak”), Elvis Costello (“Heartaches by the Number”), Jeff Tweedy (“Long Black Veil”) and Rufus Wainwright (“Silver Wings”) all share the mic with her to spectacular effect. The songs on The List might be as familiar as an unchanging history lesson, but Rosanne Cash has breathed new life into Country music’s old hillbilly jukebox, a talent that she comes by genetically but nurtures and grows all on her own.
Lucero’s claim to fame for the past 10 years has been their unwillingness to assign a genre to their sound. With ingredients like Punk, Country, Soul and Rock, Ben Nichols and his rotating cast have varied the recipe from album to album and from song to song in order to prove that they hold no allegiance to any single creative direction. While it’s fair to say that Lucero has generally been in the Roots/Americana neighborhood, the band definitely shifts their center point to great effect.
Lucero’s sixth studio album, 1372 Overton Park, finds the Memphis sextet incorporating more horns into the mix and ultimately embracing the Rock-and-Soul sound that has helped defined their home base for decades. With this album, Lucero finally begins to merge all of their varied loves into a more hybridized singularity with less sharp deviations from the band’s sonic core.
Between the Drive-By Truckers intensity of “Smoke,” the Steve Earle ’roid rage of “What Are You Willing to Lose,” the Big-Star-meets-Van-Morrison chug of “Sounds of the City” and the Stonesy Blues thunder of “Sixes and Sevens,” Ben Nichols sweats, swaggers and shouts like Memphis’ answer to Bruce Springsteen — particularly on “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo” — and Lucero responds with E Street Band intensity, a blistering blend of precision and abandon. With 1372 Overton Park, Lucero has found the perfect way to present their ambitious sonic spectrum cohesively without compromising their diversity.
Is there any task more daunting than trying to follow up your work in one of the greatest and most influential Punk bands of all time? That would be tough enough all on its own; now imagine you’re the drummer.
Even with that rather substantial hurdle to overcome, former Husker Du beatkeeper Grant Hart has made a pretty decent showing for himself over the past two decades with his post-Huskers band Nova Mob and with his intermittent solo releases. And there’s a fair case to be made that Hart’s sixth and latest solo album, Hot Wax, stands among his best work.
With a supporting musical cast that features members of Silver Mt. Zion, Rank Strangers and God Speed You Black Emperor, Hart crafts a sound that touches on a number of styles and still manages to hold together as a cohesive whole. On “You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water,” Hart bristles with psychedelic energy, like the Seeds doing a glammy tribute to David Bowie, but on “Barbara,” Hart channels Brian Eno and the Left Banke in equal measure, coming together at the improbable intersection of Art Rock and Baroque Pop. The Hawkwind-tinged Prog Pop of “Charles Hollis Jones” gives way to the early David Bowieistic demo quality of “School Buses Are for Children” and “Narcissus, Narcissus”and eddys around in that vicinity for a good part of the rest of the album.
There’s a Ray Davies vibe on “I Knew All About You Since Then” and buzzy, beefy chunks of John Cale on “My Regrets,” but Hart never gives the impression that he’s borrowing heavily in these regards but referencing them within the fabric of his own style. With Hot Wax, Grant Hart evokes the artier Rock elements of the ’60s and ’70s while never forgetting his own place in Punk’s frenetic and oddly melodic history.