by carl wilson

Top 2004, 2: Twang Ten


The Drive-By Truckers

Another day, another niche-marketed Best of 2004 list. Expect a broader review of the year in my column this Saturday. Meanwhile, some context for this one:

To my shock, I've been a member of the Postcard2 email list for something like eight years now, joining a few months after its inception - it began as a spinoff of the Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco list Postcard, to allow for broader discussion of alternative country, roots rock, indie rock and traditional and (very occasionally) mainstream country. This was back in the early days of the No Depression zine, before P2 created Twangfest in St. Louis, back when alt-country was expected to flower into something grander that only briefly ever came to be. [...]

Many may call that a blessing - the class/race/gender-etc. politics and aesthetics of alt-country have always been suspect, though as P2 members know, why and in what ways they're suspected reveals as much about the perceivers as the musicians (many of whom never signed up to the "movement" in the first place).

Nonetheless, it was in P2 that I first participated in an informed critical discourse about music that seemed to hold up intellectually, and it introduced me to many musicians, friends and fellow critics such as David Cantwell, Bill Friskics-Warren, Barry Mazor, Jon Weisberger (all now senior or contributing editors to No Depression) and too many others to mention. Otherwise it's certainly unlikely that Zoilus would exist.

P2's glory days were glorious enough that many of us remain even after the inevitable social schisms of a long-running Internet forum and the migration of alt-country's vitality into other genres - including the Nashville mainstream right now, a shift P2 discussion has mirrored (much to the disgruntlement of some members and ex-members). (More on the new Nashville here.) My musical interests are generally elsewhere, but every year I try to contribute a specially tailored Top 10 to the list's annual poll, selecting my favourite "P2-type stuff." This is that list, insiderish remarks mostly intact.

1. Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South
The DBTs' "gangstabilly" adaptation of hip-hop themes to country-rock runs much further back, deeper and darker than Big & Rich (whom I like) or the Nelly/Tim McGraw duet (which I like much better in theory than in practice). The Buford Pusser songs are part of the theme of the album to me: They play devil's advocate for the outlaws in order to take down what the DBTs consider a phony southern legend (Walking Tall). I agree the trilogy is a bit much - the whole album could use an edit. But it's the hardest-slamming record yet by - maybe - the best live rock band in America.

2. Sam Phillips - A Boot and a Shoe
A near-perfect collection of light, poetic pop and gimlet-eyed observations on life and love, a little Beatles, a little Dylan, a little Brecht/Weill (and probably some Tom Waits), and it could deserve to be No. 1, except that it ain't really no part of country.

3. Gretchen Wilson - Here for the Party
My favourite mainstream country album in many years, with everything good about Nashville 2004 - not to mention a lot that's good about country anywhere anytime - and none of the crap.

4. Fred Eaglesmith- Dusty
Some fans have taken it amiss, but this is Eaglesmith's best album, to me, since 1997's Lipstick Lies & Gasoline. Dusty is built on skating-rink Wurlitzer, cellos and despair, exquisitely assembled by Fred and his producer Scott Merritt, on rough and wise old machines. Favourites include "Ship," "Codeine," "[I Still Look for You in] Crowds." Saw Fred live for the first time in a couple of years last month and damned if he didn't make me cry, though of course he made me laugh a thousand times more. We share a hometown - or at least a region - so I always feel a funny kind of pride whenever his fortunes - and his albums - are good.

5. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose
Again, you know all about it.

6. Tom Waits - Real Gone
Waits' most radical record in a long while has gotten a predictably rough reception, but he's clearly inspired by the rhythm-forward sounds of today (crunk, grime, etc) and providing his unique Waitsian take - just as he reacted to punk rock and new wave 20 years ago by creating Swordfishtrombones. Here when I thought he was set to keep repeating a limited set of gestures from record to record, he proves he's never to be underestimated, no matter how old he gets. The more fool me. And yes, essential listening for us Marc Ribot fans.

7. Iris DeMent - Lifelines
Buddy Miller made the blatant anti-Bush Christian protest album of this election cycle. Iris DeMent made the more elusive one, with this set of gospel standards and one original song about mercy for the weak and outcast that serves as a sharp reminder that Christianity and tolerance are not supposed to be in contradiction. But then, hearing Iris DeMent sing for an hour is heaven on earth, no matter what the material.

8. Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music
Another misunderstood gem, received skeptically among his fans, but it shouldn't be around here - indie-folk-rock songwriter goes Nashville, just like P2. I'd hesitate to say we've done it as well as Will Oldham and his crew of N'ville pickers. In a year where Nashville opened itself to novel voices more than ever before, it's a pleasure to see a gifted weirdo from the alt- side returning the gesture. Hope he'll realize the songs actually do sound better this way. But I have to watch what I say - I did a "what indie-rock album are you" quiz on the Internet this week and the answer came back, "You are Bonnie Prince Billy!"

9. Richard Buckner - Dents and Shells
It's an odd thing for me not to rank a Richard Buckner album among the top two or three of the year. This is his first outing on Merge, his first on a well-distributed label in quite some time, and it continues in the vein of his past couple of discs, it's true. But I'm a fan of those albums, and it's obvious from just a couple of listens that from song to song this is more of his consistently sophisticated, emotional and cryptically powerful stuff. So why haven't I listened to it more? In part I think I've come to take Buckner for granted - I've listened to Bloomed, Devotion + Doubt, Since and the more recent Impasse hundreds of times, all among my favourite records of the last decade. So I have enough Bucknerness stored up that this has become an album I always put off "till I can listen more closely" and so on. But on the other hand, despite all the beautiful lines and melodies and atmospheric sounds, there is too much of a feeling of interchangeability here, as if all the songs are mere fragments of one vast continuous song and you could swap the chorus of one for the verse of another. Is that a fault? Perhaps not. I'm not demanding he return to the more narrative songs of his first album. But I still feel a loyalty to the notion of songs as discrete objects, as specific and unique experiences - otherwise why work in song form at all? - and that leaves me a little less attached to Dents and Shells than I suspect it really deserves.

10. Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man
This list is becoming the Underdog Defense Squad's annual report. A local weekly called it one of the "worst records of 2004" today but I think Costello's suite of songs around the themes and imagery of Memphis country, blues and soul, among other things, is very enjoyable. It's no King of America - that kind of achievement has been beyond him for a long time, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint - but if you take it in itself, it's far better than what most songwriters can manage, and Costello's own vocal performances have only been growing stronger in recent years. (Lucinda Williams' bizarre duet performance is, of course, another story. I can only think that they were trying for some effect without realizing it hadn't come off - otherwise surely they would not have left it intact.)

ALSO ENJOYED: Allison Moorer (which I nearly put at No. 10 - a strong comeback after the weak Miss Fortune, I think), Melonie Cannon (a very good but not great debut), Big & Rich, Buddy Miller, The Sadies (their best disc ever), the Stephen Foster tribute, Iron and Wine, American Music Club, etc., plus Toronto's Backstabbers, Jenny Whiteley, Hank and Jon Rae & the River. Locally the upcoming alt-country-ish highlight is a new Fembots album. Fans of John Fahey, by the way, should keep an eye out for recent discs by the likes of Jack Rose and Montreal's Harris Newman.

See also Top 2004, 1 on the year's best Canadian music.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 30 at 11:05 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson