by carl wilson

Albums That Deserved More
of Your (and My) Lurve in '07


Elizabeth Cook: "Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman."

As I've mentioned more than once, this is an odd year-end for me, because I essentially checked out of the following-new-releases game in about May and didn't fully check back in until about a week ago. Funny thing is that writing a book that rails here and there against the year-end-list-centrism of music criticism actually had the result of making those year-end lists very useful to me in getting caught up (some more than others) (not that some blog lists aren't great, but the 'sphere is prey to the usual "why is The National number 8 not number 1" nonsense). The whole obligation to "keep up" as a critic, the constant radar sweep, can be wearing, and when I finished the manuscript, I wasn't eager to jump back on the audition-and-evaluate merry-go-round I'd just spent months critiquing. (I still feel deeply ambivalent about the task.) My Idolator poll ballot, as I've mentioned, was the most perfunctory treatment I've ever given that kind of task. My enjoyment of other people's lists and polls and such has reminded me of the fun and usefulness of the process, so I'll be a tad more conscientious with my Eye poll ballot, realizing that the beauty-contest (or cool-contest) aspect is balanced by the utility to listeners who might have had other things on their minds (i.e., their lives) through the year.

However, there were some discs from this year that so far I haven't seen too widely touted - likely because people didn't hear them, for which I must take some blame: all my toils in the fields of meta-criticism not only distracted me from hearing much new music, it prevented me from writing about a lot of what I did hear. There's more than I note in this list (I omit records I've already written about such as Frog Eyes and Christine Fellows; I've barely begun to catch up on country and hip-hop, let alone chart pop - to see what this Ashley Tisdale fever is all about, for instance) but it's a start.

Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash. Like its honoree, a modest but sentimentally potent collection that cares for tradition, home truths and family, but has the guts to kick up its heels too. With Loretta Lynn, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Brad Paisley, Billy Joe Shaver, Patty Loveless and Kris Kristofferson (dueting), Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris in tow, you can forgive the Billy Bob Thornton cameo. The mystery of why Sheryl Crow (singing here with Willie Nelson) is on every tribute record ever made persists, but at least we are spared Bono.

Apostle of Hustle, National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts & Crafts). In general, regular readers know that I'm not a huge fan of the Broken Social Scene scene, but this record is getting neglected because it came out too long ago - February - and to me AoH is more satisfying than anything else that milieu produced, including Kevin Drew's recent overflattered disc. The Brazilian influence serves to discipline the Toronto loosey-gooseyness, and the subject-centric writing (songs for Jimmy Scott, for Victor Jara) and unshyness about pop hooks flatter the players. No masterpiece, but something I'm always glad to hear, especially the New Order-meets-Tropicalia title track.

Baby Elephant, Turn My Teeth Up (Godforsaken Music). A Prince Paul-produced disc, featuring Bernie Worrell and George Clinton and Nona Hendryx and Yellowman, this recalls the whimsy of the Handsome Boy Modeling School rekkids that critics adored a few years ago, but is actually musically more potent and weird. Uneven, of course, but so were the HBMS discs. Could it be the absence of rock crossover nods that kept it in shadow? That it wasn't named after, um, most rock critics? Turn My Teeth Up is among my favourite album titles of the year at the least.

Bishop Allen, The Broken String (Dead Oceans). They're certainly a longtime talked-up blogband, and partake in the literary-tasteful aesthetic there was, oh, a minor tiff over this year, but I found myself immensely impressed with the songwriting and performances on BA's second full-length. I think the reason lies in an exercise they went through that was at once very web2.0 and very old fashioned: In 2006, they put out an EP every month. The songs here are mainly rerecordings of those tunes, and the honing and reworking shows, the way it did when a combo, for instance, made a recording of music they'd been workshopping through months of regular residencies in clubs in the jazz era. It's not just the time invested but the time working it out in public, with the pressure on, that helps turn the raw materials to jewels. Pedantry aside, the songs are tuneful, charming, sceptical but not cynical - mumblecore that's figured out what it has to say.

The Blankket, Be Your Own Boss EP and the rest of the year's output from Blocks Recording Club. The international mini-fame of Final Fantasy doesn't quite seem to have clued the Arcade Fire-distracted hordes into the importance of Owen Pallett's base in this Toronto music collective to his aesthetic. I was surprised to see so many strong releases from Blocks this year go unremarked much beyond local precincts. In particular, Steve Kado's The Blankket (which did tour in Europe this year) hit the nail on the zeitgeist with his Be Your Own Boss Bruce Springsteen electro-sincerity covers project, before all the survey articles about Broooce's influence on the AF, the Hold Steady and the collective unconscious began to appear. BYOB presents Springsteen as both a chronicler of and tragically a creature of the effects of late capitalism on emotional life, with a raw but incredibly charming and funny use of electronics, guitars and extreme dynamic shifts, finding that sweet spot between tribute and satire where music can evoke the feeling of critical thought. (The Blankket's next project is about Theodor Adorno.) Also slept on from Blocks were The Phonemes' lovely, melodious and surreal (and often compulsively singable) tunes on There's Something We've Been Meaning to Do; the uneven but often mesmerizing, mostly instrumental, Afropop-and-Arthur-Russell-inflected loop-a-thons of A Sparrow! A Sparrow! by Nifty (who is the gifted musician Matt Smith, formerly in Les Mouches with Owen Pallett); the mordantly funny doom-folk of Tradition; and the multiple-Internet-meme-spawning, Arthur columnist and pop-culture-mashing author Brian Joseph Davis, whose audio works were collected into a lovely package called The Definitive Host (including 10 Banned Albums Burned Then Played and Greatest Hit - which combines all the songs on greatest-hits albums by the likes of Whitney Houston and the Carpenters into single tracks - and the new Eula, in which Sony's interweb-infamous End User License Agreement is turned into a choral love song). Why wasn't it beblogged everywhere? We know: It's because the internets don't like to think about more than one idea at a time. (Full disclosure here: most of these people are, to one degree or another, friends of mine - but mainly because of how much their work's meant to me, not the other way around.)

David Buchbinder, Odessa/Havana (Tzadik). The leader of Toronto's radical-Jewish-culture pioneers The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band finally gets his moment in the Tzadik sun, with an audacious cross of two local strongholds, Cuban and klezmer music, and the blend is an unfussy joy. It's only radical in its casualness about connecting two red-diaper musics and its utter multicultural confidence. The international jazz crits should be all over this one, but so far, they've been preferring Ned Rothenberg's lovely but more standard-Tzadik-issue Inner Diaspora; this Tzadik party-music record deserves to be bigger news.

Neil Cleary, I Was Thinking of You the Whole Time. (ind.) This isn't as memorable as Cleary's last disc, 2003's Numbers Add Up, one of my favourites of that year, mainly because the theme is more conventional: That record was more about growing up in (and out of) a scene, whereas these are all songs of romance and betrayal, but his ear for a hook, a play on words, a bitter twist, a storyline, remains robust. Fans of Fountains of Wayne and likewise power-pop polish should be cocking an ear (double-entendre intended) at this angle. And it includes one genuine meta-pop masterpiece, "I Once Knew A Girl (Norwegian Fuck)," that tells a story almost anyone can identify with, of an ambivalence stupidly maintained in defense against something genuine, until that truth was lost; part of its method is parodying the glib doubletalk of John Lennon's original. ("I once knew a girl, or should I say/ we used to fuck./ We were pretty good friends, but in the end/ not good enough.") But nearly every song has at least a line that cuts to the quick. A bit like a Gen X Nick Lowe.

Elizabeth Cook, Balls (31 Tigers). Featuring a title track that updates Tammy Wynette with the notion that "Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman," an opening cut that features a jaw harp and slags on Britney Spears, a Velvet Underground cover (okay, granted, it's Sunday Morning), and Cook's saucy-twangy but rich vocals, this Loretta-for-the-21st century merits a share of the enthusiasm that's been afforded Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson and (thank goodness, in a few quarters lately) Kelly Willis.

Deep Dark United, Look At/Look Out (Rat-Drifting). Last year, Alex Lukashevsky's solo disc Connexions would have been a leading contender for this kind of tally; this year it's the Toronto singer-songwriter's latest and best disc (recorded live at the Tranzac) with his longtime half-improvising band DDU, featuring altoist Brodie West, pianist Tania Gill, drummer Nick Fraser and the underwater-wooshy tones of Ryan Driver's synthesizer (also heard on Sandro Perri's Tiny Mirrors, which for the second time in 24 hours I'll mention was my favourite record this year). On Connexions we were plugged directly into the deep-sea strangeness of Lukashevsky's proudly perverse unconscious; it's much the same with DDU, but with funkier, multihued, electric fish constantly swimming by. (David Dacks had a nice appreciation recently.) On a side note - Rat-Drifting pickings were slim this year; just DDU and The Reveries' live album made in Bologna; I hope the latter band gets some of its tribute projects done in 2008 (Sade! Sade!), that Driver gets his solo disc out, among other potential wandering-rodent mind-melters.

Exploding Star Orchestra, We're All From Somewhere Else. (Thrill Jockey) I've just caught up with this one via the jazz lists, but haven't noticed it on more cross-genre surveys. With its science-fiction-big-band concept, PanAmerican/PanAfrican gestures, spoken-word smatterings and a title that recalls the quote "we all came from nowhere here, why can't we go somewhere there?", the quick tag that comes to mind is "Sun Ra for the 21st Century," but convener Rob Mazurek (of the Chicago Underground Duo/Trio, and leading candidate for that city's jazz scene's MVP of the decade, even though he now mostly lives in Rio) says he also had in mind the likes of Robert Ashley, Georgy Ligeti, Luc Ferrari, Stan Brakhage and Stanislaw Lem. More importantly, he has an amazing band, with star turns by flautist Nicole Mitchell (arguably Chicago's most important recent contribution to the music), the Tortoise posse on percussion, horn player Corey Wilkes and many more. The aim is, Mazurek writes, "to project a one-piece unit's sound into the atmosphere while retaining personality within that frame, in order to imagine the possibility of a non-border/non-restrictive world in which we can live full creative lives without the stress and absurdity of war and separation..." Perhaps 2007's most satisfying hunk of sonic utopianism, then.

David Grubbs and Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract. (Blue Chopsticks). The second collaboration between the Louisville-bred musician and sound artist and the Buffalo-based poet is an eerie, meditative journey into the irretrievability of the past and some of its utopianisms. Having seen Howe read from this new poem on her recent Toronto visit gave me a bit more entree into the recording, on which Grubbs provides backing with electronics and Laotian mouth organs called khaen that sound alternately like a harmonium and a buzzsaw; it's a sparse, word-centric record that requires more concentration than their last duo, Thieft, which was more collage-like, but it rewards it.

Heartbreak Scene, The Szabo Songbook (Fayettenam Records). I want to write about this at greater length, but this tribute to obscure Vancouver songwriterRob Mark Szabo, with the participation of the Heartbreak Scene's Marcy Emery and Mark Kleiner as well as various New Pornographers including Zoilus stalking-object Dan (Destroyer) Bejar, got almost no nods this year except this flicker of interest from Stereogum. Given that a whole record label was inspired by the project, the dead-accurate liner notes ("these twists and angles aren't - to use a word that needs to be purged from the rock-critical lexicon ASAP - quirks, but part of their deep structure, in full interplay with the songs' narrative and emotional heft") are by Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue, the Human Hearts - whose disc would've been on the 2006 version of this list, and whose singles catalogue is the next project for Fayettenam), and it comes with a John Darnielle endorsement... you would have thought some notice would be paid. But no. Is it because the songs don't live up to the hype? No, it is because the songs are too grown-up, neither settled-down middle-aged nor all-vistas-open youth-angsty, but Cassavetesian-realistic films turned to pop music, and there's not that much room for that much honesty. One of the three or four records this year I'd put on anytime, anywhere. Perhaps that says something about my year.

His Name Is Alive, Sweet Earth Flying. (High Two) I came across this one this week on jazz lists as well, as it's a tribute to the under-known saxophone player Marion Brown. Warren Defever of HNIA has been flirting with jazz for years now but this marks full immersion (much as his R&B; infatuation became full-blown in the early part of the decade). I haven't heard enough to assess it yet, but enough to say it's substantial - reverent, atmospheric, captivating. I was also surprised not to hear more in year-end lists about HNIA's other cd this year, Xmmer (which I've yet to pick up), after the attention paid last year's great Detrola, but perhaps Defever's consistent strength has him taken for granted.

Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul (Numero Group). This did get widely reviewed when it came out and I was looking the other direction, but in case you missed it, too: 17 tracks by other groups of kids doing what the Jackson 5 did (both predecessors and imitators) but who didn't make it big - a genre the compilers describe as "so deep and wide that it might be impossible to exhaust it." Need I say more? Clearly I need to delve further into the beautifully assembled catalogue of the Numero Group.

Bettye Lavette, Scene of the Crime (Anti). I'm not arguing that this is a historically great album, but it's superior to the previous Lavette-comeback albums both in performance (the all-ladies-songs album was better in intention than results) and songwriting, but most of all in the studio support she gets from the Drive-By Truckers, a band that's able to match her own ferocity and suppleness. In a year when "retro-soul" was the big tale, this should have gotten more of a shake.

Joelle Leandre & Kevin Norton, Winter in New York, 2006. (Leo Records) I got a big package of Leo recordings this fall, including several new Anthony Braxton records (which if I'd had time to absorb them at all, would be on this list), but the one that I reached for first was this disc, because French double-bassist Leandre is among my favourite musicians anywhere, seemingly incapable of playing a dull note. She certainly doesn't in this collaboration with percussionist Norton. Knotty, chiming, combative, but also swinging, almost rocking at times.

The Luyas, Faker Death (Pome Records). A critics' favourite in eastern Canada, but not yet adopted by many fans (I was startled how thin the crowd for them was at Pop Montreal), the Luyas are natural-rock-star Jesse Stein (guitar, voice, ex-SS Cardiacs) and Stefan Schneider (percussion) and Pietro Amato (French horn) of Bell Orchestre (Amato is also of Torngat, whose You Could Be album of geometric pop-chambre-jazz deserves mention here). Stein's songs have evolved since SS Cardiacs, where they were somewhat simplified-Spinanes confessionals, into Alice-in-Nightmareland dream monologues that rock out at the parable points, and the way that Amato and Schneider's more abstract colourations tinge and shade her stripped-down folk-rock structures makes the songs twice as mobile and complex (and probably less popular). This record hasn't quite gelled, I'd venture, and if they can stay together for another it promises to be a real killer. (One senses the depressive undertow of the songs pulling the recording apart digit by digit.) Still, I was genuinely surprised the woozy-hooky lead track, Flickering Lights (Will Likely Fail You) didn't become an MP3-blog hit this year.

So-Called, Ghettoblaster (JDub). Why didn't people swarm this vaudevillian accordion-player/hip-hop head's record featuring James Brown sideman Fred Wesley, NYC kool-klezmer figures Frank London and David Krakauer, theatre legend Theodor Bikel, Wu-Tang's Killah Priest, Feist sideman Gonzales, backpacker C-Rayz Walz, and Bagels and Bongos cult object Irving Fields? Well, I suppose that question is its own answer, but if "miscegenation" is the issue, this Montreal-based brat's record is the giddiest leap for it you could ask. Does it all work? Of course not. But every time I put it on, I want to get it on and keep it on. If this list were ranked it would go Top 10, just in discrepancy between potential appeal and realization.

Linda Thompson, Versatile Heart (Rounder). Full of tiny gossipy points for those of us who follow Thompson-Wainwright clan dramas, this is the most relaxed and fluid vocally of her post-comeback albums, and among the prettiest folk records of the year. The woman has a gravitas and flexibility that is hard to equal - it makes one look forward to what Joanne Newsom will sound like when she is 60. It includes the best Anthony (as in & the Johnsons) duet ever, on a song by Rufus Wainwright, who came back into his own in '07 too.

Venetian Snares, My Downfall (Original Soundtrack) (Planet Mu). In which Winnipeg's Mr. Aaron Funk presents a more digestible, less forbidding orchestral sound that's as hard to resist as his many breakcore masterpieces. The downfall in question (there is no film for it to soundtrack) could be romantic, erotic, moral or theological, but it leaves a very pretty mess.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 02 at 11:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

COMMENTS

Your reading last night at Tinto was very illuminating and I look forward to reading your book!

Thank you.

Posted by Janet Swoger-Ruston on January 30, 2008 7:15 PM

 

 

Thanks for the correction, Michael - I make that mistake all the time, because I see Rob's name so often, though I don't know his stuff.

Posted by zoilus on January 7, 2008 7:41 AM

 

 

hey there carl
i'm intrigued by the heartbreak scene album, although it appears that it's a tribute to Mark Szabo, not Rob Szabo as you report; the latter is a Kitchener-Waterloo/Toronto songwriter who's no slouch of a pop songwriter either.
great list: there's plenty there i've been meaning to check out. and it's nice to see some love for the Bishop Allen, Nifty and Venetian Snares; i didn't see those albums get any press anywhere else.
mb

Posted by barclay on January 6, 2008 12:24 PM

 

 

S., the only Szabo disc I had was the Capozzi Park record, and though I liked it, I didn't enjoy it as much as the Heartbreak Scene. (I hear better about other Szabo recordings.) What's admirable about the record, to me, is that they're able to increase the pop appeal of Szabo's songs without smoothing out their idosyncratic structures & such. (Much as Jenny Toomey did with her record of Franklin Bruno songs, to name my favourite instance of this kind of tribute.)

Posted by zoilus on January 3, 2008 8:11 PM

 

 

Neil Cleary. Yes! An underappreciated troubador.

Posted by John Wenzel on January 3, 2008 6:51 PM

 

 

Neil Cleary. Yes! An underappreciated troubador.

Posted by John Wenzel on January 3, 2008 6:51 PM

 

 

Welcome back Carl. There is so much music now, It's great to see an edited list from a trustworthy source. I've always liked year-end lists that have an opinion.

Posted by Half on January 3, 2008 12:28 PM

 

 

Carl have you heard any of the Szabo originals yet, either solo or with Capozzi Park? I agree that the Heartbreak Scene record is pretty swell but I still prefer Mark's own recordings as they're more off kilter and I think a bit more interesting.

Posted by s on January 3, 2008 11:33 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson