CAT STEVENS/YUSUF Tell ‘Em I’m Gone –
How does that Bee Gees song go? “I started a joke……” Well, not only were folks not laughing, they accused Cat Stevens of being in league with terrorism following his conversion to Islam and questionable comments about Salman Rushdie. Post 911-xenophobia aside, his long expulsion from this US had to be the catalyst for something, and folks, this album is it. From the haunting opening confession “I Was Raised In Babylon” (featuring Richard Thompson on guitar) to his affecting cover of Edgar Winter’s “Dying To Live”, this is the diary of a man scorned, who nonetheless cares for humanity, while sharing in words his journey of self-realization and societal critique that is as gorgeous as it is trenchant. And it’s scary to hear traces of the cockeyed optimist in his signature tenor, sounding as if frozen in time on “Cat and the Dog Trap” and the gritty “Editing Floor Blues” – exposing how our soundbyte culture so easily vilifies whatever you say. The crediting of both Yusuf and Cat on the album cover shows a man willing to embrace his past, revisit it even, while observing life through a different lens – one of experience and enlightenment.
COLDPLAY Ghost Stories –
Ssssh – don’t tell anyone, but I pretty much signed off on Coldplay following X&Y: the convoluted excursions Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto were just too much for me, especially since it did nothing to advance the group’s songwriting. In Coldplay’s case, “if it aint broke” certainly applies, which is why the by turns saturnine and spirited Ghost Stories was such a surprise. Yes, there are a lot of dare I say, contemporary sonic touches being employed here, but now subtlety is the order of the day, and accentuates rather than ingratiates. “Magic” suggests a less histrionic, more romantic Thom Yorke, with minimal R&B touches and Chris Martin‘s plaintive lyricism. “Midnight”‘s angular guitar work and ethereal vocals sound more Enoesque than anything he’s produced for U2 – and that speaks volumes. The Avicci-produced single, “Sky Full Of Stars” pulls off a dancefloor miracle, as the song’s anthemic thrust is tamed by popish keyboards and aural textures which would appear anathema to Coldplay’s rock-forward aesthetic. But the song that makes this album worth buying alone is the heartbreaking, “Oceans” – an obvious paean to the dissolution of his marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow: “Wait for your call, love/The call never came/I’m ready for it all – ready for the pain/Meet under blue skies, meet me again in the rain” made all the more wistful as the bulk of the song rests on Martin’s aggrieved voice and melancholy acoustic guitar. Congratulations, Chris – I always knew you had a Sea Change in you….though I wouldn’t have wished the circumstances that brought it about.
DAVID CROSBY Croz –
Didn’t know that the rebel-third of CSN released an album this year? Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me given the current state of record charts and radio – which makes calling a song that rails against apathy “Radio” not only subversive, but vintage Crosby. And that’s what you’ll find on this most auspicious recording. While being backed up by the same power trio that graced his CPR album (featuring son James Raymond and guitarist Jeff Pevar) some years back, the difference on Croz is that two decades of anthropological decline has given Mr. C a lot to (justifiably) bitch about. Topics ranging from xenophobia and the deficit of compassion, to prostitution (“If She Called”), atonement (“Put That Baggage Down”) and desolation (lead single “What’s Broken”, featuring a killer solo from Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler) benefit from unencumbered arrangements and Crosby’s emotive vocals, which still manage to enthrall. Keyboardist/songwriter James Raymond (who only discovered Crosby was his dad in his mid-30’s) has certainly been absorbing the CSN catalogue, as tunes like “What’s Broken” and “The Clearing” are less paeans to his dad as extensions of his musical lineage. And if you need evidence that Crosby is not clinging to idealistic nostalgia, check out the poignant “Morning Falling”, whose tale of border immigration and the search for freedom plays against a sonic backdrop that made me do a double-take, as it could easily find space on a Radiohead album. No kidding – Thom Yorke should totally cover this one.
THE PRETTY RECKLESS Going To Hell –
Pretty Reckless frontwoman Taylor Momsen beats the sophomore slump on this follow-up to Light Me Up, which featured the inscrutably popular hit, “My Medicine.” And yet, has this album gotten even half the airplay that song received? No. Are rock fans (read: disgruntled teens) this fickle? Regardless, this album is ten times better than it needs to be. Led by the power trio of guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins, Momsen combines riot grrrl angst with some very impressive pipes. The single, “Heaven Knows” (which, to be fair, did receive marginal airplay – very marginal) filters Joan Jett through the lens of Stone Temple Pilots – that hybridization alone gets two thumbs up from me. Elsewhere, it’s like Momsen is rock’n’roll historian, giving props to everyone from Jett to Hole, to Heart (“House on a Hill”) to Soundgarden (on the multi-tiered “Sweet Things”). And before you can accuse her of all bombast and no range, Momsen kicks your butt with “Burn” where, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, she lays her vulnerability on the table: “The darkness (it’s) eating on my brain/The fire is blazing/But you wont let me out alive.” Roger Waters – are you ready for your mystery date?
BECK Morning Phase –
I said it once (in my initial album review here) and I’ll reiterate it – predicability has never been Beck’s modus operandi, but admittedly Morning Phase is the bookended response to 2002’s somber Sea Change. And as such, it does work, as this album takes a sunnier musical approach via Laurel Canyon, even when the subject matter isn’t necessarily upbeat. When it comes to creating atmosphere however, Beck Hansen is a seasoned pro, and he has definitely assembled a marvelous song-cycle here: sweet string arrangements, beautiful harmonies awash in reverb and echo, and melodic references of everyone from Seals and Crofts (“Heart Like A Drum”) to Scott Walker (“Blue Moon”) to Nick Drake (“Blackbird Chain”) and other 70’s pop heroes. While the lyrics aren’t up to Beck’s best, he does convey the right mood, and working with the same crew as on Sea Change insures that the two albums share a symbiotic connection. If it were anyone else but him, Morning Phase would be a career pinnacle, but we know what Beck is capable of. Still, this is a marvelous tapestry that rock’s sonic chameleon can be proud of.
EMPERORS OF WYOMING (Eponymous) –
Though this album did appear two years ago in Europe (where it received good press), Butch Vig‘s lesser known band project, Emperors Of Wyoming saw the domestic appearance of its debut in 2014, adding a couple of extra tracks, including a very serviceable remake of Afghan Whigs‘ “Birth Of The Cool.” The vibe is akin to new-traditionalist country, with touches of that workman’s Southern rock which made Tom Petty a household word. Indeed, if ever there was a Petty song he didn’t write, it would be the Emperors’ “Avalanche Girl.” Elsewhere, Americana flirts with the blues, as on “Pinery Boy” and the ragged beauty of “Drinking Man’s Town”, reminiscent of Joe Henry, circa Short Man’s Room. Considering the album’s production values (made possible through file sharing and home studio technology) Emperors Of Wyoming boasts a cohesiveness and fidelity comparable to any indie label release. In the end of course it’s the music that matters – the result is a collection of deftly written and smoothly executed numbers that leaves me itching for a sequel in 2015.
NICKEL CREEK A Dotted Line –
It’s a Nickel Creek album – need I say anything more? Probably not, but a one-sentence review would be inadequate to assess the band’s fifth album (their first collection of new tunes since Why Should The Fire Die? back in 2005). If one subscribes to conventional thinking, you might worry that the passage of nearly a decade could prove problematical, but it’s not as if the trio of siblings Sean and Sarah Watkins and force-of-nature Chris Thile were resting on their laurels. In the interim, Sarah and Chris found themselves working with legendary bassists John Paul Jones (of Led Zep, who helped produced Sarah’s solo disc) and Edgar Meyer, respectively. And as you would expect, those side projects bring a lot of fresh energy and ideas to the table: from the hi-lonesome feel of “Rest Of My Life” to the refrain of “Christmas Eve” (which hearkens to Toad The Wet Sprocket), technical proficiency is not utilized to the detriment of creativity. Case in point: what the heck are they doing covering indie outfit Mother Mother‘s goofy “Hayloft”? Or penning a earnest critique of Harold Camping on “21st of May”? What else would you expect but the unexpected from these guys? A Dotted Line is a welcome return and worth the wait.
JOE HENRY Invisible Hour –
“It wasn’t peace I wanted, so it wasn’t peace I found/The bird on my shoulder has not one kind word to say….” are the opening lines from “Sparrow”, but that acoustic and slide guitar, that simple, unadorned yet majestic voice? It couldn’t be Joe Henry! I thought we had lost you when you started your blues thesis, with a minor in American history. If I must be the only music critic to say it, then I will: I stopped digging you around the time of Scar onward, where your radical musical departure may have been admirable, but the “songs” (if that’s what you could call them) were theoretical exercises that were bogged down by the weight of their portentousness. I mean, even They Might Be Giants would have a hard time navigating “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation”. With Invisible Hour, Henry appears to have returned from whatever trip he was on – the folk/country vein suits him (and his voice) perfectly. And things only get better. “Sparrow” is followed by the confessional tone of “Grave Angels”, the emotional honesty behind the title track (I’ve come back to plead and dance/To forgive us both, all in advance…”). “Lead Me On”, a lovely duet with Celtic singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan, is pretty without being cloying, and Henry’s lyrics are not only more decipherable, the journalistic perspective has given way to his poetic disposition. I can even handle the occasional orchestral flourishes (oboe, cornet) that dart in and out of the otherwise perfect “Alice.” Joe Henry, David Gerard loves you madly again.
IL SOGNO DEL MARINAIO Canto Secondo –
The second installment in his idiosyncratic rock opera finds bassist Mike Watt, guitarist Stefano Pilia, and drummer Andrea Belfi at it again: making tuneful pastiches out of beat verse, with a strange brew of punk, progressive, country and jazz providing the musical foundation. Many of the songs here explore dual genres, and gracefully segue from one to another, even when that change appears on the surface to be abrupt. Among the highlights: Pilia’s “Mountain Top”, Belfi’s subversively Germanic “Auslander”, and Watt’s “Nano’s Waltz”, which of all things, dances around a circus sideshow melody. These guys are now so in sync with each other, improvisations like “Alain” sound incredibly tight, and the aural transitions economically precise. Not since the indie days of fIREHOSE have I heard a song so enchanting as “Us In Their Land”, which morphs from a free-form progressive rock jam into a quiet section that evinces a gorgeous, minimalist middle-eight. Will their third album complete the trilogy in a rewarding fashion? Time will tell – all I know is, Canto Secondo is gonna be a pretty hard act to follow.
PHILIP SELWAY Weatherhouse –
Four years have transpired since Philip Selway (drummer of the band Radiohead) released his first solo album – the satisfyingly diverse Familial – abetted by members of Wilco and Soul Coughing. Selway’s tutelage began with his participation in Neil Finn‘s 7 Worlds Collide project, where he learned a lot about songwriting from the tunesmith of Split Enz and Crowded House. It was an unanticipated work of passion and dedication that was so good, it placed No. 1 on my list of the Best Albums of 2010. Starting this year, I decided my ten albums of note should not capitulate to chart enumeration – had I not changed this policy however, Selway’s follow-up album Weatherhouse would’ve scored another Number One. While Familial was more comfortable settling among a traditional folk-rock landscape, Weatherhouse shows a more confident Selway – both in his songwriting and his singing. From the slow-burning opener “Coming Up For Air” to the invigorating “Around Again” (which gleefully reprises the sonic construct of Radiohead’s “Dollars And Cents”) and the absolutely stunning “It Will End In Tears”, Selway knows his range and stays within it, but his emotion seeps through every song. The unguarded intimacy on “Let It Go” and “Ghosts” is as revelatory as any piece you’ll find on Beck‘s Sea Change, and “Tears” is destined to become a radio staple, regaling in Odessa-era Bee Gees splendor. With its stellar musicianship and measurable growth in comparison to its predecessor, Weatherhouse is as flawless as an uncut diamond, and equally admired.