During his tenure with Cincinnati’s beloved Afghan Whigs, Greg Dulli was so intent on burning his brand into the universe’s ass that he nearly imploded from the Herculean effort. Even in the band’s quietest moments, Dulli quivered with an intensity that was as terrifying as it was breathtaking, and with all of the standard excesses that accompany the demons that fuel that level of performance, more than a few observers predicted an early check out time for the hypnotic frontman. Even after the Whigs’ amicable split in 2001, Dulli continued to approach stages and studios with the swaggering bravado of a mad general storming a beach, secure in the knowledge that no prisoners were to be taken.
Thankfully, the evolution of Dulli’s post-Whigs project, The Twilight Singers, found him increasingly more reflective, a mood that was tragically intensified by the death of his friend, director Ted Demme, an event that had a profound impact on the outcome of the quasi-concept album Blackberry Belle. Not long after finishing his solo album, Amber Headlights (in actuality, Twilightesque demos done when the Whigs were on hiatus), Dulli experienced a mortality epiphany and charted a calmer personal course for himself. Rather than softening his approach, Dulli’s newfound lease on life inspired some of the best work of his career, including the Twilight Singers’ powerful and edgy Powder Burns in 2006 and 2008’s Saturnalia from The Gutter Twins, his ongoing project with Mark Lanegan.
Even though five years have passed since Powder Burns, Dulli has been relentlessly busy in that time, with The Gutter Twins, the Italian band After Hours and a recent solo tour. Still, the fifth album from The Twilight Singers, Dynamite Steps, feels like a natural progression from Powder Burns, as if little time had passed and no distractions had interrupted the sequence.
Dulli’s themes on Dynamite Steps are familiar ones — musings on fleeting life and impending death, the necessity of rejoicing in the former and the inevitability of mourning the latter — and his soundtrack for those lyrical concepts has never been stronger. Combining the Punk and Soul stew that he’s been perfecting for the past 20 years with an emotive and stirring orchestral Pop sense, Dulli runs the gamut on Dynamite Steps, from the dark anthemic drive of “Last Night in Town” and the quiet power of “Be Invited” (featuring Lanegan and Verve guitarist Nick McCabe) to the searing Rock menace of “Waves” and the soulful shred of “On the Corner.” Dynamite Steps moves seamlessly from strength to strength, with gut-wrenching balladry (“She Was Stolen,” “Get Lucky”) punctuated by epic and tasteful bombast (“The Beginning of the End,” “Blackbird and the Fox,” featuring Ani DiFranco) and visceral Rock face slaps (the aforementioned “Waves”).
Very few artists could get away with the style shifts that Dulli has managed to thread together, not only from album to album but from song to song on a single album. Dynamite Steps is a towering testament to Dulli and the Twilight Singers (whoever they may be at any given moment) and their collective ability to conjure dread, joy, despair and triumph from disparate musical influences and unreliable collaborators like passion and inspiration.
DeVotchKa sparked most people’s radar when they scored a Grammy nomination for their soundtrack to 2006’s Academy Award-nominated Little Miss Sunshine. But by the time the Denver band surfed the Grammy/Oscar buzz, they had already been honing their wildly eclectic sound for close to a decade. The title of DeVotchKa’s self-released debut album, 2000’s Supermelodrama, couldn’t be a more fitting word to describe the breathtakingly diverse music that they play, a genre salsa of Gypsy Jazz passion, Mexican Folk tradition, Flamenco flair, Prog Rock bombast and a classical sense of orchestral grandeur. On their three homegrown releases and their 2008 debut for Anti-, A Mad & Faithful Telling, Nick Urata and his merry musical pranksters sounded like a blenderized mash-up of Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman’s subsequent film work, Los Lobos, Pavlov’s Dog (the band, not the experimental canine) and Radiohead, conducted by the ghost of Frank Zappa.
On DeVotchKa’s new album, 100 Lovers, the band sticks to that blueprint while simultaneously dialing up the drama and widening their focus, becoming a shade more expansive and cinematic in the process. “The Alley” opens the disc with the bubbling tremble of an Indie Rock opera overture, which segues into the propulsive cantor of “All the Sand in All the Sea,” imagining a Danny Elfman/Thom Yorke collaboration on a Pop song for a Tim Burton weirdo noir epic while the ostensible title track, “One Hundred Other Lovers,” glistens with a World Pop sheen, like Johnny Clegg fronting The Police on a song that is equal parts Indie Rock heat and Pop ballad cool.
DeVotchKa doesn’t merely wear their influences on their sleeves, they sew them together into an outrageously wonderful patchwork tuxedo and wear it to Rock’s royal ball like a triumphant gypsy king. December’s lists will know DeVotchKa’s name.
When Gomez debuted with 1998’s Mercury Prize-winning Bring It On, there was a palpable sense that this was a band with a classicist’s love of Rock’s past, a visionary’s grasp of the future and a chemist’s skill in stirring it all together in the right proportion. Gomez fashioned their sound out of bits of gritty Blues Rock, airy Psychedelic Folk and energetic Indie Pop, while giving off the unmistakable air of a band that had the legs for a marathon career. The band has certainly lived up to that impression over the past 13 years, churning out six studio albums that have ranged from quite good to great, four EPs, a live album, a rarities compilation and a greatest hits package, crafting a catalog that reveals Gomez to be a band that routinely leaves its comfort zone in order to explore the fringes of its own creative imagination without ever forgetting the way back.
Most recently, that exploration has taken the form of solo and side projects — vocalist/guitarist Ian Ball’s 2007 album Who Goes There and a venture dubbed Opeation Aloha featuring Ball, drummer Olly Peacock and provisional member Dajon Everett, among them — and now vocalist/guitarist Ben Ottewell joins the fray with his debut solo album, Shapes & Shadows.
Ottewell’s distinctive tenor is most often at the forefront of Gomez’s songs; his irresistible voice drifts along on a melody like Chris Martin on a fistful of Quaaludes, and that unsettled calm permeates Shapes & Shadows. The opening title track exudes contemporary power and classic foundations, like a time machine collaboration between Radiohead and Blood on the Tracks-era Bob Dylan, “Blackbird” lopes along like Richard Thompson at his observational and musical best and “Chicago” starts as a lovely acoustic reverie, roars to noisy electric life at the bridge, and retreats to its original form at the close.
Ottewell has pointed out that the theme of Shapes & Shadows, co-written with childhood friend and former Tuung frontman Sam Genders, deals largely with recollection and the album’s bittersweet melancholy bears out that explanation. More than one review has cited Ben Ottewell as Gomez’s secret weapon; with Shapes & Shadows, he shows off his solo arsenal with a quiet brilliance.
Over the past decade and a half, Drive-By Truckers have rarely stuck with the same sound for more than a couple of consecutive albums. The band’s early albums were relatively Country-oriented affairs but their 2001 breakthrough, Southern Rock Opera, which metaphorically compared the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd to the decline of the South, got the band branded as Southern Rock, a label they’ve fought hard to shake with each successive album. And what an amazing fight it’s been, from the laid back darkness of Decoration Day to the conceptual mix of The Dirty South to the Roots-and-Brit Rock swagger of A Blessing and a Curse.
On 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, DBT returned to a more traditional Country direction and 2010’s The Big To-Do was a shift back to the noisy twang Rock that has been a part of nearly everything they’ve ever done.
Interestingly enough, the songs that comprise The Big To-Do and DBT’s latest, Go-Go Boots, were all a part of the same session two years ago. The band could very easily have divided the albums into half rockers and half shitkickers and come up with two very similar albums, which is exactly why they didn’t do that. The brilliance of Drive-By Truckers is that they work in very familiar sonic structures, but they use them as musical markers for their often unorthodox and typically character-driven songs, making the genres conform to the Truckers’ creative template rather than trying to cram their square peg into so many round holes.
“Assholes” is a good example of the Truckers following an almost textbook Country arrangement and applying it to a song that might just be too honest for the genre (“And you say that we‘re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/Are you still sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road”); they take a similar approach on the Blues (the title track), R&B (“Ray’s Automatic Weapon,” “Used to Be a Cop”) and dusty acoustic/electric Folk/Pop (“The Fireplace Poker”).
All of it is potent proof that the Truckers are blessed with three of the most incisive and evocative songwriters in music — Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and up-and-comer Shonna Tucker — and that Go-Go Boots is another Country-colored jewel in the elaborate beer hat crown that the Truckers are constructing for themselves.
Bayside has been through the Punk Rock wringer since their 2000 debut. The Queens, NY, quartet has more ex-members than albums and they lost their fourth (and perhaps best) drummer, John “Beatz” Holohan, in a tragic 2005 van accident that nearly killed bassist Nick Ghanbarian. While he mended, founder Anthony Raneri and guitarist Jack O’Shea toured acoustically until they could regroup with new drummer Chris Guglielmo. Their first album after the accident, 2007’s The Walking Wounded, was a brilliant return to form while also clearly exhibiting the growth and scars of the previous two years.
Killing Time, Bayside’s ninth album and debut for Wind-Up, is both a continuation and refining of the direction on The Walking Wounded. “Already Gone” channels Bad Religion’s poppier side, mixing Bayside’s Emo Pop tendencies with Brett Gurewitz’s anthemic streak, while “Mona Lisa” swaggers and sways with an odd mixture of intensity and whimsy, like an Everclear/Suicide Machines garage-jam Punk love song. Raneri gets reflective on the stutteringly solid “Sinking and Swimming on Long Island” (“I think I finally found the way to go to heaven without dying so I’m on my way/The harder you work, the harder you fall, you wake up one day with nothing at all”) but reverts to vitriolic observation on “The Wrong Way” (“You’re the type of girl who puts on cyanide perfume/then asks for kisses on the neck from every boy in the room”), a fist-pumping Bad Religion rocker with a Slash solo.
There are more than a couple of uncharacteristic moments on Killing Time; if Gurewitz and Burt Bacharach put their heads together for the theme to a feel good Punk movie, they’d be happy with the swinging Pop Punk of “Seeing Sound” and the string-sweetened “On Love, On Life.”
Killing Time finds Bayside incorporating their acoustic subtleties into their blistering electric howl, while also weaving plenty of Pop colors into their Punk tapestry. Old fans might bemoan Killing Time’s silkier sheen, but Bayside isn’t selling out, they’re growing up, as people and as artists.
If one is known by the company they keep, Susan James can boast an impressive profile by association without having to hear a note of her work. Her résumé is like a who’s who of contemporary music — opening slots for Lindsey Buckingham, Ratdog, Rufus Wainwright, Richard Buckner, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg and Daniel Lanois; guest appearances on her three albums by X’s D.J. Bonebrake, The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson and Brian Wilson’s favorite backing band, the Wondermints. With friends like those, who needs reviews?
That pattern follows on James’ fourth album, Highways, Ghosts, Hearts & Home, with a stellar backing band including members of I Can See Hawks in L.A., The Punch Brothers and Shivaree. But as on all her previous albums, the real stars of the album are James and her intimate and engaging songs filled with inventive characters, wry observations and bittersweet perspectives.
In a lot of ways, James’ approach to Americana is similar to Sam Phillips’ or Amy Rigby’s approach to Pop, which is to absorb its best qualities and transform it into something as personal as a fingerprint. Whether she injects her songs with Country Folk tradition (“Thank You Tomorrow,” the gorgeous melancholy of “How to Fix a Broken Girl”) or psychedelic colorations (“On Your Side”) or Pop passion (“Calling Mr. Zimmerman”), James finds the singular sonic sweet spot of every one of her songs with her clarion voice, songwriting vision and intuitive sense of what makes a great song, regardless of the musical ingredients used to shape it.
For the past five years, few Americana bands have embodied the sweet sting of melancholy better than The Low Anthem. The Providence, RI, group (once a trio, now a quartet) mix dusty Folk tradition with sonorous Chamber Pop atmosphere and a contemporary Indie Rock attitude, and in the process comes out the other end sounding like Jim James if he’d been using Tom Waits, 16 Horsepower and Wilco as the triumvirate for a new musical religion.
On the Low Anthem’s fourth and latest album, Smart Flesh, Ben Knox Miller sounds like a circuit riding preacher leading a shambling Gospel choir through hymns and waltzes they don’t quite know but sing from the core of their beings.
Smart Flesh was recorded in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, a space so expansive that it was acoustically prohibitive to play loud. As a result, the songs that worked best in the environment are the ones that whisper their aching messages and surround them with equally quiet soundtracks, like the scuffed lilt of “Love and Alter,” the mournful prayer of “Burn,” the teary banjo ode of “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes” and the beautiful desperation of “Matter of Time.” There are moments when the Low Anthem turns up the volume and energy and channel their inner Band, particularly on the lazily exuberant “Hey, All You Hippies!” and the propulsively thoughtful “Boeing 737,” which roars to life with horns and tambourines and a decade-old memory that stings like a fresh paper cut (“I was in the air when the towers came down/In a bar on the 84th floor...”).
Smart Flesh isn’t the feel good hit of the spring by any means, but if you have the emotional fortitude to withstand an album steeped in an almost therapeutic kind of melancholy, The Low Anthem has concocted the perfect soundtrack for the black and white reflection of a sad but hopeful afternoon.
I first became aware of Joan Armatrading in 1977, when I almost simultaneously heard a song by her on an Ann Arbor radio station and saw her name in the credits of Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone’s solo album, Smiling Face. But it wasn’t until college that I got to hear an entire Armatrading album; my best friend’s roommate had her eponymous third album and its brilliant follow-up, Show Some Emotion. After that, I was hooked. Her sound at the time was difficult to describe, a gentle breeze that could churn into a wild storm, made up of the Blues, Pop, R&B, Jazz, Reggae, Rock and all stops in between. And as a lyricist, few could match Armatrading’s way of soulfully examining the heart of a relationship, good or bad, and laying it bare for all to witness was nothing less than mesmerizing. In the intervening years, Armatrading has released her share of less than compelling albums, but even her lesser albums have had something to recommend them.
My two favorite Joan Armatrading moments are when I got the opportunity to interview her for a feature in 1996 and when my wife and I got the rare chance to see her live in Italy when we were on our honeymoon in 1985 when she was touring Secret Secrets, perhaps one of her finest albums. In the studio, Armatrading is cerebral Pop classicist with an unorthodox musical style that doesn’t fit comfortably in any standard pigeonhole. She doesn’t become any easier to classify in the live arena, but her musical and emotional presentation is considerably more visceral and elemental, a fact that bodes well for Live at the Royal Albert Hall, Armatrading’s third official live album, after 1979’s Steppin’ Out and 2004’s Live All the Way from America.
Armatrading’s past couple of studio albums, 2007’s Into the Blues and 2010’s excellent and Grammy-nominated This Charming Life, have been more Blues-influenced than anything in her previous catalog, and Albert Hall’s broadly inclusive set list benefits from her recent excursions down that sonic path. Armatrading’s range is best exemplified by her bold decision to follow the propulsive guitar Blues workout of her nearly nine-minute take on “Something’s Gotta Blow” with the gentle piano Pop balladeering of “All the Way from America,” and similarly with the blistering “Two Tears” and the heartbreaking “Cry.” But given the broad spectrum of her music, those moments are bound to happen in her live set without a whole lot of planning.
There are scorching versions of pretty much the whole breadth of Armatrading’s voluminous catalog (the show was recorded on last year’s This Charming Life tour), and while fans may quibble about omissions (what, no “Persona Grata”?), Royal Albert Hall is a wonderfully balanced evocation of her brilliant songbook. Be aware that there is a single disc, 10-track audio CD version of Albert Hall, as well as a double disc, CD/DVD combo, with a 15-track audio disc and the full 21-song set on the DVD. For fans and novices alike, the latter set is the one you want.