A Look Back at Some Fantastic Releases That Didn't Quite Make the Final Cut
By Michael Henningsen
This little “websclusive” feature was assembled as a reminder of just how much great music came out in 2004, and hopefully offers at least a few more national and local releases to add to your wish list.
The reviews appear in no particular order, and were culled from the original batch of CDs from which the Top 10 National, Five More ..., and the Top 10 Local releases were chosen and ranked in our “Year in Music” feature.
Buttload of Killer National Releases
Joss StoneThe Soul Sessions(EMI)
Proving that she's not just another pretty face, 16-year-old Brit Joss Stone appears to be heir to the Family Stone, as in Sly-and-the. Her debut came about as an accident, recorded in four days during the sessions for an album of her own material that's to be released early this year. The Soul Sessions contains 10 stunning tributes to classic soul, from "The Chokin' Kind" to "All the King's Horses." Stone's voice sounds worked-in beyond her years, and her sense for nailing the groove and wrapping herself in it is so precise you'll wonder if she's indeed of this earth.
Ken Hatfield TrioThe Surrealist Table(Arthur Circle Music)
Picking up where his mentor, Charlie Byrd, left off, fingerstyle guitarist Ken Hatfield appears on his fifth record with a jazz trio that includes bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. One of few jazz guitarists to employ the classical guitar exclusively, Hatfield approaches his compositions with enormous fluidity and unparalleled rhythmic sense, using a subtle polyphonic technique that gives his playing a pianistic feel. The Surrealist Table presents a full gamut of emotion and musical colors, from gentle ballads to smoky blues to interactive swing. Fans of Byrd, Wes Montgomery and even Al DiMeola will be mystified.
The Red ThreadTension Pins(Badman)
Jason Lakis' (a.k.a. The Red Thread) debut was built on understated alt.country pop numbers that flirted with the broad, windswept soundscape tendencies of bands like Lanterna and the folk-heartedness of the Idahos and Haydens of the music world. Tension Pins doesn't stray far from that elegant formula, but Lakis nonetheless sounds more confident, more in-the-moment and startlingly more relevant with regard to both lyrical content and compositional skill. These 11 songs harbor a dreamlike quality that enables the vilified notions of soft rock to coalesce with indie aesthetics and inklings of countrified pop. Incredible songwriting and unpretentious instrumental prowess. Killer.
Meow MeowSnow, Gas, Bones(Devil in the Woods)
Upon shevling his presumed masterpiece, Smile back in 1968,Brian Wilson claimed he shitcanned the project because "it was inappropriate music to make," and that's a pretty accurate description of guitarist Kirk Hellie's noise-laden pop that makes up most of Snow, Gas, Bones. Twisted Beach Boys harmonies wander in and out of Hellie's monumentally effected and abstract guitar work for a sound that is as much '60s So-Cal as it is '90s shoegaze. Which is to say it's probably the best pop-ish record you've heard in a very long time.
Norah JonesFeels Like Home(Blue Note)
Sublimely gorgeous and simple in its elegance, Norah Jones' second record is everything the 8 million people who bought her debut expected and, surprisingly, more. Teamed again with producer Arif Martin, Jones teeters on the brink of being a jazz singer through 13 tracks of intensely lovely pop, where melodies float effortlessly over quietly understated instrumentation. There are three highly effective covers here, including Tom Waits' "The Long Way Home," but it's the songs penned by Jones herself and in the company of bassist Lee Alexander that shine most brilliantly. Buy this record.
Listening to a record by Henry Frayne (a.k.a. Lanterna) is like watching a slideshow or home movie picked up at a yard sale: You won't recognize the key players, but you'll nonetheless feel oddly connected to them. Frayne's economically chorused and delayed guitar work is more than just pompous wank—it's an expression of his mind's eye, and the melodies he creates are far more beautiful than any jackass with a six-string and a measurable level of pretentiousness could possibly manage. Listening to this—or any Lanterna record—is to eschew all preconceived notions of rock music. Go there. Go!
Eliza GilkysonLand of Milk and Honey(Red House)
Damned if Eliza Gilkyson doesn't have the silkiest voice since Bonnie Raitt wooed Clapton and King. There's nothing overtly sweet about her delivery, but there's certainly something so down-home and honest about her singing that a big plate of flapjacks covered in butter and your grandmother's Karo syrup seems just a dream away. Land of Milk and Honey, though it most likely won't, should be charted as Gilkyson's finest outing. The songs peel off naturally, with uncommon ease, and the meat of the fruit is so sweet you'll never forget how perfect it is. Hope it's not the last time.
David CrossIt's Not Funny(Sub Pop)
Comedian David Cross' second album for Sub Pop, It's Not Funny, is not only funnier than his first, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby, it's smarter, angrier and delves even more deeply into the sad current state of American politics. In fact, Cross' various indictments of Bush, Rick Santorum, Strom Thurmond and other racist, homophobic Republicans is at times so vitriolic it's painful. Funny and true, but painful. Cross is a master storyteller and funny in the same intelligent, forward thinking way that Bill Hicks was: taking sensitive, taboo and controversial topics and splaying them out unmercifully.
Sometimes it takes looking death straight in the eye to get intimate with reflections of one's own life. While he's made 20 records during his nearly 40-year career, Harmony is his most inspired in decades. Divine intervention happened in 2002, when Lightfoot suffered a near-fatal aneurysm. But after a six-week coma and six months in the hospital, the legendary folkster got back to business, resulting in a record that invites itself into the soul, its glistening melodies hovering there like guardian angels. Lightfoot's voice is among the strongest, most satisfying in the genre, and he's a lyricist of Dylanic proportions.
Ojos de BrujoBari(World Village)
It was bound to happen sooner or later; the coalescence of rumba catalana (traditional flamenco spiced with contemporary Latin rhythms a la the Gipsy Kings) with hip hop, funk and house music. Thankfully, it was done by Barcelona's Ojos de Brujo, an octet with roots firmly planted in flamenco first, then extending into other musical territories. The result is the best world music album to come along since the new millennium. Groovy, funky, dance-inspiring, melodically and technically challenging, and packed with such a tantalizing array of genre-bending that you won't need to buy another record for a good long time.
By Divine RightSweet Confusion(Linus/spinART)
By Divine Right are Canada's answer to Ohio's Guided By Voices, both in terms of having a former band member roster well into double digits and that kind of vaguely psychedelic power pop that can make you downright ecstatic. Jose Contreras, BDR's lone remaining founding member, writes with a Pollard-like grasp of imagery and Wayne Coyne's sense of slippery little melodies that work their way into your psyche and refuse to leave, leading you instead on a blissful ride through kaleidoscopic pop. Sweet Confusion is BDR's best effort to date. Buy it and fall instantly in love.
Operating as a collective under the Tangle Eye moniker, roots remix specialists Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds have created their latest project using the field recordings of legendary musicologist Alan Lomax as its foundation. Samples of a dozen or so a cappella performances recorded by Lomax between 1947 and 1960 get married to musical accompaniment courtesy of guests Corey Harris, George Porter, Jr., Dirk Powell and other contemporary roots musicians. The overall effect is stunning; disembodied voices of singers long dead fleshed out over grooves that are at once respectful of that era and uniquely modern. This one's pretty tasty.
Salim NourallahPolaroid(Western Vinyl)
Polaroid is a record that grows on you, but in a more literal sense than usual. It doesn't take repeated listens to come to like the record—Nourallah's first solo album—rather, repeated listens reveal more nuance, detail and subtle complexity. Running a strange gamut between sadcore and blissful pop, Polaroid manages to be all over the place while appearing cohesive. Stark and graceful, and marked by a restlessness that's only bred once in a great while by the kind of genius whose expression is fueled rather than hampered by honesty, Polaroid is a masterpiece.
SlipknotVol. 3: The Subliminal Verses(Roadrunner)
I have to believe that Rick Rubin's production has much to do not only with the fact that I can tolerate the new (and rumored to be final) Slipknot album, but that I genuinely like it. Vol. 3 sounds like it could have been put together using old Helmet and Filter outtakes. And what could have been a muddy sounding record is, in the capable hands of Rubin, clear, crisp and able to coax gray matter out of your earholes without any trouble. The one-two punch of "Duality" and "Opium of the People" is worth the purchase price alone.
WilcoA Ghost is Born(Nonesuch)
After the sacking of guitarist/songwriter Jay Bennett following the completion of 2002's brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and despite the fact that they can be boring as hell while still writing great songs I was nearly certain I'd never like another Wilco CD. So much for that. Ghost ..., like every record Jeff Tweedy and Co. have made since their 1995 debut is an entirely different animal than any of its predecessors. There's a Let It Be quality at work on Ghost ... that signals, perhaps, that Wilco find themselves once again standing at a crossroads—an ominously beautiful place that could just as easily be the beginning as the end.
Cannibal CorpseThe Wretched Spawn(Metal Blade)
The tired, old man that is death metal rarely wakens these days for anything other than a glass of seltzer and a Fleet's. But somehow, Buffalo's reigning kings of the genre have managed to stay relatively frosty for more than a decade, mostly due to inventive—rather than simply pummeling—guitar figures and George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher's signature throat-busting. Gore and asinine lyrics are still major players in the CC game, but they're so ass-clenching tight and nausea-inducing heavy that they're quickly becoming one of the last death metal games in town. Here's proof.
Louis ArmstrongThe Essential Louis Armstrong(Columbia Legacy)
No single artist has had a more powerful or lasting impact on jazz than trumpeter/band leader Louis Armstrong. The 37 tracks here trace Armstrong's remarkable career from 1925 through 1968 (he died unexpectedly in 1969), documenting his pioneering trumpet work and scat-style vocals. Those not versed in Armstrong's work will find this an incomparable introduction. Longtime fans will regard the collection as indispensable, not just as a career retrospective, but also as perhaps the most important chapter in jazz history.
EalimartTreble & Tremble(Palm Pictures)
In case you aren't through lamenting the loss of Elliott Smith, Earlimart has returned with a second album that's a sad, glimmering shoegaze remembrance of the late singer-songwriter without apologies. The thing is, Treble & Tremble also happens to be one of the prettiest damn records of the year, with its Beatles-esque popcraft and casual nod to lo-fi production techniques. Songwriter Aaron Espinosa drives the music with gentle piano-based melodies, which he leaves to simmer in sheets of low-key distortion and string-induced ebbs and swells. And with his gentle whisper, he does more than justice to Smith's legacy and memory.
Jay Geils, Duke Robillard and Gerry BeaudoinThe New Guitar Summit(Stony Plain)
Generally speaking, I'm no fan of all-star type, "look at what a virtuoso I am" records. That said, I was almost instantly taken with this disc. Rather than display the over-the-top chops they are most certainly capable of, Geils, Robillard and Beaudoin spend the album harmonizing brilliantly on melodies by Benny Goodman, Jack Wilson and the Gershwins to name a few. Both Geils and Robillard are pedigreed blues players while Beaudoin brings the most decidedly jazz flavor to the trio. Fans of Charlie Christian and that big, warm, fat-bodied acoustic-electric guitar sound are likely to be floored by the musical revelations here.
Bill Janovitz & Crown VictoriaFireworks on TV(Q Division)
It would be cooler of me to claim that early Buffalo Tom—SST days through the Birdbrain LP—was one of the great musical loves of my life than to tell the truth and admit that it was actually later, pop-ier Buffalo Tom that I truly fell in love with, but fuck it. Bill Janovitz came into his own as a songwriter on later BT albums, even though they weren't representative of the edgy, punkishness that brought the band much of its early acclaim. Janovitz' latest continues on-track with his late-model BT work, and I'm in love all over again.
Chet AtkinsThe Essential Chet Atkins: The Columbia Years(Columbia Legacy)
On one hand, Chet Atkins was largely responsible for the slicker-than-shit "Nashville sound" that to this day makes fans of traditional and outlaw country cringe. On the other, he's part of the reason country music ever made it out of the juke joints and rural communities of the '50s. And as a fingerpicking guitarist, Atkins was and remains without peer. By the '80s and '90s, Atkins had turned his attention largely toward jazz, resulting in some of the most wondrous instrumental guitar music ever put to tape. Much of it is included here. The Essential just that. A must-have.
Brian WilsonBrian Wilson Presents Smile(Nonesuch)
While Wilson's voice has deteriorated over the years, it's surprisingly agile here, and Brian handles most of the high harmonies with at least some of the aplomb that made songs like "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl" give listeners the shivers. And in the few places he couldn't quite stretch to the upper regions of his former vocal capabilities, his eight-piece band filled in the blanks rather expertly. Likewise, the instrumental performances sting of utter perfection, save for a few instances of synthesized brass.
Ultimately, though, for all its absurd grandeur and carnival-esque insanity, Brian Wilson Presents Smile suffers in a slightly sad way from 37 years of hype, mystery and fan- and press-generated legend it never had a chance of living up to. It's emotional music to be sure, with hints of Wilson's past genius all over it. But it neither surpasses nor equals Wilson's true masterpiece, Pet Sounds, as was hoped and expected in the days before and after the material was abandoned. Even so, hearing these songs together for the first time in a context Brian Wilson himself intended is a pop music miracle. God only knows what we'd be without it.
RazorlightUp All Night(Universal)
November's pick for the Libertines of the Month Club is London's Razorlight: the latest band to watch, and the latest to sound like a new Jarvis Cocker project. Cynicism—and overt influences—aside, Up All Night is one fine garage-pop record that's bound for greatness, commercially and critically. Razorlight have stumbled upon the perfect sound—a lucid, new wave-ish hybrid of Television's Marquee Moon and everything Pulp ever recorded. This is what rock is supposed to sound like: drunk on swagger, blitzed on pop sensibility and shitfaced on songwriting chic. You might as well just go buy it right now.
Dexter RomweberSolo! Duo! Trio!: Blues That Defy My Soul(Yep Rock)
Nearly two decades before Jack and Meg White went thrift store shopping for matching red polyester uniforms and spawned rock's latest Gap-like trend, guitarist Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow were actively putting the guitar/drums duo concept on the map; first in Chapel Hill, N.C., then across the country. After releasing nine records as Flat Duo Jets, Romweber and Crow split in 1998. Romweber is back with his third solo album, and it's a record that begs the question: Why did I spend all my dough on those White Stripes and Black Keys discs? This is the real thing, kids. Garage blues at its most surfalicious.
Bad Wizard#1 Tonite(Howler)
The only thing wrong with Bad Wizard's latest heavily greazed, '70s-metal soaked record is that it's too goddamned short. Nine songs clock in at just over 27 minutes, less time than it takes for all five members of Black Maria to pass the bong around the circle once. Thankfully, though, #1 Tonite is 27-odd minutes of sheer stoner brilliance. Thin Lizzy and Moby Grape fans will blow their THC-laden wads over this one. All of you assholes professing love for the MC5—a band you've still never heard—while purchasing copies of Hives and Von Bondies records, be damned!
The Dirty NovelsThe Dirty Novels(self-released)
On their new six-song, self-titled EP, the Dirty Novels offer straightforward garage pop that strikes an almost perfect balance of Stooges-esque trashiness and the sugar pop simplicty of the Archies, all bathed in a vat full of classic Stones and even a little Zombies. In that sense, you could call this Dirty Novels EP derivative, but the band have cultivated their own, unique swagger and delivery system (jangly AM guitars, sultry FM vocals and Romantics beats) that prevents them from sounding like every other third-wave garage band. These rock solid tracks kick ass!
simple.In Perfect Disarray(self-released)
Statement of disclosure: simple. bassist Joe Anderson is my best friend. That said, I find the band's debut entirely inoffensive, although not as awe-inspiring as I expected from such a dynamic live act. Production is incredibly crisp and precise, and Stacy Parrish and Dan Prevett provide some of the best textural guitar playing I've heard recently. Likewise, the rhythm section is spot-on. Parrish's lyrics and vocal style have always struck me as just a little too precious, but he meshes both respectably here, particularly on the tunes co-written by the rest of his bandmates.
The Mindy SetA Sugared Mind(Socyermom)
The album opens wide, instrumentally into a vast void left by sadly defunct groups like Starfish and then rushes headlong into a beautiful psychedelic haze that owes as much to the Beatles as it does to the Flaming Lips. A Sugared Mind, the Mindy Set's debut, is a rush of pop that encompasses several decades of rock—from classic to paisley underground to shoegaze to the quiet comfort of contemporary ambient a la American Analog Set. Brit-pop underpinnings lurk beneath shadows of The Jam and Fall-like grooves, creating a finely tuned psych-pop aesthetic that's downright addictive.
The Hollis WakeLo*Fi Highs/Hi*Fi Lows(self-released)
Guess what. There's a band in Santa Fe who've keyed into a perfect confluence of artistic chemistry and individualism. That band is The Hollis Wake, and their latest CD is one hell of a cohesive rock record when one considers that they employ the formidable skills of three signers and songwriters. Somehow, everything comes together—vocally, melodically, rhythmically and thematically—which is no small feat. Sleater-Kinney-meet-Buffalo Tom crossed with Jenny Toomey and harder-edged Versus.
The Big SpankRandom Acts of Spank(self-released)
On record as live, The Big Spank offer up a tantalizing mishmash of funk, metal, jam rock, thrash, reggae and other musical styles, all packaged neatly in a box labeled, "Ska." The sextet's latest release, Random Acts of Spank, even give passing nods to death metal ("Gringo") and Afro-Cuban rhythms ("Mike Go-Go"). A mostly laid-back, sipping-umbrella-drinks-in-a-hammock-on-the-beach record, the Big Spank's newest creation reveals a slightly less frantic outfit than they're often known to be onstage. It also reveals a group of musicians deliciously in the pocket and primed to groove.
Jason DanielloEverything Good(self-released)
While Jason Daniello's post-Naomi output has been consistently good, he has been unable to achieve the magic that was scattered across his former band's two releases. Until now, that is. Everything Good is the culmination of more than half a decade of re-evaluation, woodshedding, experimentation and dedication, and it shows. Daniello, now a bona fide multi-instrumentalist, has evolved into a songwriting force—composer, arranger, producer—and the results pour forth on the album's 10 mesmerizing tracks. With a little help from Ryan Martino and a few others, Daniello has finally set his solo career on the fast track. Killer!