Tuesday, June 29, 2010

62. Year of Meteors

62. Year of Meteors, Laura Veirs (CD version) (Nonesuch, 2005)

Colorado-born Laura Veirs, a self-confessed latecomer even to listening to music, fooled around in a college punk band before turning to songwriting as a distraction during an unhappy geology expedition to China.  This composition foray resulted in a pair of self-released albums, beginning with a ’99 eponymous LP after a relocation to Seattle.  Veirs’s music is rooted in folk stylings, with the occasional western twang; her coarse first record features just vocals and acoustic guitar.  Her singing voice has an unvarnished quality much like the naïf sing-speak of Liz Phair’s early work yet with the timbre of Suzanne Vega.  Also like Vega, who grew from straight folk to the complex electronic tapestry of the ’92 LP 99.9F°, Veirs expanded her sonic palette over successive albums.  The instrumentation is augmented with each outing, first with double-tracked vocals, banjo, and mild effects; for ’03 third album Troubled by the Fire, a full band is added, with electric guitar, horns and woodwinds, keys, and strings; eventually, electronics would become a prominent part of her sound.  Veirs’s early work earned considerable attention, resulting in a guest spot on three Troubled tunes by veteran guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, who also grew up in Colorado.  By her fourth LP, Veirs would have a major contract, becoming label mates with Frisell on the Warner-distributed Nonesuch Records.  Carbon Glacier (’04), her first Nonesuch effort, is sparse and ghostly, its aura matching the dark, wintry landscape of the etchings on its jacket.  The folk tunes therein are accented with spectral, minimal electronics.  The backing band, dubbed the Tortured Souls and featuring drummer, accomplished producer, and future Veirs husband Tucker Martine, would serve on the remainder of Veirs’s Aughts catalog.

Fifth album Year of Meteors is populated by confident, hard-edged pop arrangements, a departure from Veirs’s previous folk-heavy releases.  Opening cut Fire Snakes begins with a gentle acoustic guitar pattern, Veirs eventually joined by simmering electro percussion, atmospheric guitar overdubs, and reverb-laden viola, creating an understated, glimmering vibe.  Galaxies features a downbeat rock arrangement with a playful, oscillating synth line running throughout.  Secret Someones is the most brisk number, its verses and choruses propelled by an insistent drumbeat and pulsing, double-tracked Veirs backing lines accompanying her main vocal.  Like the ’06 Sonic Youth song Or (see #74), it climaxes with an excitable music fan’s series of questions: “Tell me/Did you make it to the show?/Tell me/What did you make of the drummer’s hair?/Tell me/About the atmosphere/Tell me/About the faces that greeted you there.”  Parisian Dream is carried by a powerful drumbeat and vibrant viola figure; like the more delicate Spelunking, it uses a lighted lamp as a metaphor for a lover’s warmth.  Though Veirs’s arrangements have become more complex, the album has its share of acoustic ballads; the finest, and the album’s most entrancing song, is Where Gravity Is Dead.  To a stark accompaniment, Veirs sings of a willfully isolated figure who perplexes the narrator: “Don’t you wish for someone/To pull you on a string/Down from atmospheres/Down into a clearing/To kiss and box your ears?”  Saltbreakers (’07), her next and final Aughts album, lacks the allure of her other two Nonesuch releases; Year of Meteors, though, is an often enchanting career highlight and captivating expansion of Veirs’s sound.

NOTE: I prefer the CD version over the vinyl version issued by Kill Rock Stars, as the latter includes a different version of Galaxies that features a guest verse by Seattle rapper Specs One (the pseudonym-happy gent doing business here as "Kotos the Rock Thrower"), which Nonesuch declined to include on their version.  I hate to side with a major label when it comes to an artist's vision, but even the mellow groove laid down by Specs One—whose flow is, frankly, not the smoothest—is too much of an obtrusion for me when it comes to Laura Veirs music.  Take your pick of formats, but know what you're getting.

Highlights: Where Gravity Is Dead, Secret Someones, Parisian Dream, Rialto

Sublime bit: Those pulsating choruses of Secret Someones and Veirs’s murmured backing chant of “Hey/Hey/Hey/Hey” throughout the bridge.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

63. Bright Yellow Bright Orange

63. Bright Yellow Bright Orange, The Go-Betweens (Jetset, 2003)

Brisbane songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan produced six studio albums from 1978-88 with their co-ed group the Go-Betweens, earning wide critical acclaim and an adoring fan base in Australia and the UK.  The group possessed a sparkling, jangling pop sound; more notable, though, was the two leaders’ songwriting and its uncanny ability to depict the mundane and invigorating aspects of romance, friendship, and everyday life and retain a masculine perspective without avoiding sensitive or feminine qualities.  The continual lack of commercial success proving frustrating, the band parted ways in ’89 and its two leaders went on to separate careers while remaining close friends.  Both delivered a handful of strong solo records in the ’90s.  They occasionally performed their group’s songs together as a duo, until deciding to fully revive the brand with a new Go-Betweens album in 2000.  For that effort, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Forster and McLennan created a new roster including Sydney bassist Adele Pickvance (with whom they had both worked) and, on drums, Janet Weiss of US indie group Sleater-Kinney (the other members of Sleater-Kinney guested, as did Sam Coombes from Weiss’s side project Quasi).  The album was a striking return to form and on par with their best work, revealing the Aughts-model Go-Betweens to be a vibrant concern.

Bright Yellow Bright Orange is the second of three Aughts Go-Betweens LPs, and the eighth overall.  The Sleater-Kinney contingent no longer present, Forster and McLennan are accompanied here by Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson (who played on Forster’s ’93 solo LP Calling From a Country Phone).  The songs have a less explicitly acoustic feel than those of its predecessor, though the albums do feel of one piece.  Bright Yellow opens with a pair of crisp rockers; Forster’s Caroline and I imagines the parallels between two unrelated people with the same birth year, in this case himself and Princess Caroline of Monaco (“It gave me something small I could feel/That maybe as you grew you knew how I’d feel”).  McLennan’s Poison in the Walls follows, and could almost be interpreted as an oblique nod to the Go-Betweens’ prior run (“There’s nothing more that’s new/And where’s that brilliant juice/The flame that fired your heart/That made you want to start.”)  In Her Diary recalls Forster’s previous quotidian character examinations like The Clarke Sisters (’87); the subject’s diligent record-keeping leaves her disconnected from her own memories, with nothing other than “Some kind of thing/That reminds her of a photograph/Of some people she’s known.”  In Mrs. Morgan, McLennan reprises a character from the song Trapeze Boy on his ’91 Jack Frost LP (a collaboration with Steve Kilbey of the Church).  Bright Yellow closes with two sparse ballads, first Forster's Something for Myself; “Trapped within an image/Unable to move,” its protagonist vows to “get a new strength” and move beyond his own hangups.  McLennan’s Unfinished Business closes the album with a tender, quiet gesture to an exhausted friend: “Are you gonna make it?”  Like all Go-Betweens albums, Bright Yellow Bright Orange is just a simple collection of outstanding yet unassuming rock-influenced pop songwriting; Forster and McLennan’s ability to produce such winning material nearly thirty years after their first single—while sounding as fresh as their younger contemporaries—illustrates their standing as one of the great songwriting teams of the Aughts.

Highlights: Caroline and I, Poison in the Walls, Old Mexico, Something for Myself

Sublime bit: Old Mexico’s choruses: “You were so excited/But you weren’t invited,” with shimmering acoustic guitar and Pickvance harmonies.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

64. Two Against Nature

64. Two Against Nature, Steely Dan (Giant/Reprise, 2000)

It seemed nutty enough when, following some production collaborations, jazz-rock studio mavens Steely Dan regrouped for a ’93 concert tour to support frontman Donald Fagen’s then-current second solo LP Kamakiriad, playing their first shows since ’74 and making first use of the Dan name since their final (and weakest) album, the ’80 Gaucho.  The group, swollen with session players and dubbed “The Steely Dan Orchestra,” opened shows with a Muzak-style medley of Dan hits before easing into a set including tunes from Fagen’s and guitarist Walter Becker’s solo work.  This occasionally went beyond the sound of the group’s pristine, painstaking ’70s albums and into dullness, captured on the aseptic tour souvenir Alive in America (’95).*  Kamakiriad was a pale shadow of Fagen’s first solo effort, the excellent ’82 The Nightfly; and Becker’s debut solo turn, 11 Tracks of Whack (’94), is the abomination of the Dan cosmology.  Considering these inauspicious resurfacings, the notion of strong new Steely Dan product in the Aughts would have been a fool’s wager.  It would have been no stretch to imagine the routinely out-of-touch Grammys bestowing an award on the reunited pair, out of simple familiarity; it was one of the most shocking music-biz turns of the decade, then, when their 2000 reunion album Two Against Nature beat out hot items Eminem and Radiohead’s Kid A to win Album of the Year (and three other awards)—and actually deserve it.  For those who hadn’t heard the album, it was easy to presume this a Grammy blooper on the level of Jethro Tull’s notorious ’89 defeat of Metallica in the Hard Rock/Metal category; the reality, though, is that Two Against Nature is the best work from the Fagen/Becker camp since The Nightfly and the finest Steely Dan album since the 1977 classic Aja.

The reunion album’s main strength is its compositions.  Kamakiriad and Gaucho are both too heavy on forgettable numbers short on hooks, and their flawless studio craftsmanship and light-jazz habits push the lesser material into elevator-music territory.  Two Against Nature is impeccably played, courtesy of nearly thirty session musicians, yet its delivery is never dull.  The planning of a high-level prank in Gaslighting Abbie, the syncopated funk of the title track’s voodoo exorcism, and the exhilaration of an undoubtedly inappropriate romance in Almost Gothic provide compelling narratives.  Almost Gothic lends its enthralled narrator additional zing by giving each chorus a different lyric about the antagonist ingénue and an upward key change with each cycle.  The grind of everyday life punctuated by long-anticipated romantic moments dominates: What a Shame About Me finds an unfulfilled bookstore employee accidentally reconnecting with an old flame; in West of Hollywood the suburban narrator, whose regular life finds him “way deep into nothing special,” recalls “She reached out for my hand/While I watched myself lurch across the room.”  The naughty but good-natured romp Cousin Dupree scored its own Grammy songwriting award, though it does pale alongside its more nuanced companions here.  Steely Dan released only one more Aughts album, Everything Must Go (’03), yet toured for much of the decade focusing mainly on the classic ’70s material; two more solo LPs followed (Fagen’s ’06 Morph the Cat and Becker’s ’08 Circus Money, both improvements on their respective predecessors).  Each of these albums is adequate and will attract diehard fans; it is Two Against Nature, though, issued just two months into the decade, that holds up the best and delivers the finest material of the unexpected second incarnation of Steely Dan.

* I saw the group's Chicago-area gig in August 1993 and found it a largely soulless display of Dan-by-numbers.  Fagen explained in an interview at the time, when asked if playing his old songs stirred up any feelings, that he preferred to operate detachedly and with no emotional investment during the reunion gigs—if memory serves, he described his method as "laser thinking," though I can't track down the specific interview (which I recall as being in Musician magazine).  Steely Dan's press kits are awash with pranks and piss-takes, but even if this was another instance of intentional silliness it seemed to ring true during their initial comeback.

Highlights: Almost Gothic, Janie Runaway, Gaslighting Abbie, Two Against Nature

Sublime bit: Fagen’s delivery of Almost Gothic’s three different chorus lyrics, peaking at 3:15 with “First she’s all buzz/Then she’s noise-free.”
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Thursday, June 17, 2010

65. Hey Venus!

65. Hey Venus!, Super Furry Animals (Rough Trade, 2007)

Welsh psych-poppers Super Furry Animals began the Aughts in transition.  Their label, Creation, closed in ’99 shortly after declining to release their fourth LP Mwng.  The band had sung in English since their second release, the ’95 EP Moog Droog, in an effort to expand their audience; after three well-received albums that flirted with Britpop, allowing them a few chart successes, the Super Furries opted for a stripped-down, self-made LP in their native tongue.  Released in ’00 on their own Placid Casual imprint, Mwng achieved unexpected chart success and a Parliamentary recognition for perpetuating the Welsh language.  This linguistic tribute to the homeland would be short lived.  The group soon gained major distribution through Sony, and Mwng’s follow-up, Rings Around the World (’01), was back to English; it boasted an increased budget, a guest spot from Paul McCartney on nearly inaudible sound effects (the group had worked with him the year before on the experimental Liverpool Sound Collage album), and the flair of being the first album simultaneously released as a long-form video on DVD.  The band’s ’90s work is energetic and sprightly, inspired by ’60s psychedelic pop yet retaining a nervy edge, the affinity for impish wordplay and translingual puns intact since the days of the all-Welsh group Ffa Coffi Pawb from which Super Furry Animals emerged.  The slightly mellower pace that began with Mwng continued through most of the group’s Aughts work, often serenely soulful though still possessing electronic-filled, wall-of-sound production tricks and spirited, fluent genre-hopping that ensure each album has its share of inventive and exciting tunes.

Just as Creation’s dissolution sparked a shift in band dynamics, the conclusion of their Sony contract resulted in a new approach.  Signing to Rough Trade for their eighth LP, Hey Venus!, the band shifted strategy in several areas: production (replacing the previous two albums’ Mario Caldato, Jr., with David Newfeld); cover art (the first time since their ’96 debut LP that Pete Fowler didn’t handle the design); and, most importantly, a shift back to the high-spirited pop antics of their early days.  Hey Venus! opens with the 43-second The Gateway Song, a barreling little ditty announcing itself to be “a numero uno singalong” that “brings us up nicely to the harder stuff,” before crashing into the breakup song Run-Away, a sonic update of boom-sha-la ’60s girl-group sounds with frontman Gruff Rhys opening with the recitation “This song is based on a true story, which would be fine if it wasn’t autobiographical” before a grieving session including the crooned lament “I still recall your banking details.”  This frivolity continues on song like Neo Consumer, a wild glam stomper punctuated by a whooping refrain; it concludes, “I believe in death after life/Switch off the light/Bye! Bye!”  Baby Ate My Eightball employs an absurd lyric about an infant who swallows someone’s drug stash, and while the topic is grimly unsavory the funky, near-disco arrangement makes it the album’s resident dance blast.  The album offers more than just nutty romps; a handful of songs, most notably The Gift That Keeps Giving and the closing number Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon, are lovely down-tempo excursions. The band’s shortest LP by far at a breezy 36 minutes, Hey Venus! is also their most fun and a highlight of the Super Furry Animals’ Aughts catalog.

Highlights: Neo Consumer, Run-Away, Show Your Hand, Baby Ate My Eightball

Sublime bit: When Rhys shifts tempo ever so briefly during the closing chorus of bubbly pop-ballad showcase Show Your Hand, at 2:26.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

66. Streethawk: A Seduction

66. Streethawk: A Seduction, Destroyer (Misra, 2001)

Much transpired between Vancouver singer/songwriter Dan Bejar’s ’95 demo tape submission to the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s experimental Brave New Waves radio show under the nom de plume Destroyer and the 2001 release of his fifth full-length collection, Streethawk: A SeductionBejar began with his earliest work to formulate the literary approach that would make him one of the decade’s most celebrated indie songwriters, yet efforts like We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge (’96) and the cassette-only Ideas for Songs (’97) are middling juvenalia—fittingly issued on a vanity imprint dubbed Tinker—whose songs often sound less like compositions than the unplanned byproducts of learning how to use recording equipment.  After City of Daughters (’98), his first release to benefit from the help of other musicians, a professional studio, obviously deliberate craftsmanship throughout, and a modicum of distribution, Bejar branched out, collaborating with two other groups.  In 2000, he released albums with ex-Kreviss singer Sara Lapsley’s ebullient pop outfit Vancouver Nights (as guitarist) and ex-Zumpano frontman Carl Newman’s new group the New Pornographers (as songwriter and occasional lead vocalist).  These efforts redoubled the strength of Bejar’s primary project; while City of Daughters is a dramatic improvement over previous Destroyer works, it still contains a fair amount of tentative writing and has as many brief musical sketches as full-fledged songs.  Its follow-up, Thief, released the same autumn as the long-gestating New Pornographers’ debut, is a confident stride forward and the first exceptional Destroyer record.

As much of an improvement as Thief was, its ’01 follow-up Streethawk: A Seduction is an almost startling progression.  Recorded with the same five-man lineup as Thief and with bassist John Collins producing his third consecutive Destroyer album, Streethawk bests its predecessors in production, performance, and composition.  The labyrinthine, hyper-erudite lyrical style for which Bejar would become well known is in full flight here, each song a dense expository exercise.  Many of the arrangements are propelled by piano; along with Bejar’s emotive, high-pitched nasal croon, this lends the jauntier portions of the album a Tin Pan Alley feel.  Much of the album appears to address the music business.  “Express your bloated self/Willful and indignant/In the face of somebody’s lord,” he sings on the refrains of The Sublimation Hour, an abstruse depiction of relations with a label boss; English Music addresses the futility of a budding songwriter (“Write your English music/Though you know it will come to no good”).  A handful of the songs are primarily acoustic, especially on side two, but the album’s most sparkling moments come with the full band arrangements.  Bejar often peppers his lyrics with cultural references, frequently recontextualized so that they barely register as such; this is more prominent than ever on Streethawk.  A variety of bands, films, and other artists’ songs are addressed; the most dramatic instance comes in the extended coda of the seven-minute The Bad Arts with the repeated line “You got the spirit/Don’t lose the feeling,” paraphrasing the climax of Joy Division’s ’79 song Disorder.  A full analysis of the album’s allusions would require an essay of its own.  His final album before signing to Merge, the label that would remain his home into the Teens, Streethawk: A Seduction is an early Destroyer classic that established Bejar as a serious contender for indie rock’s songwriting crown.  Remastered and reissued by Merge in ’10 after a gap in availability, it is Bejar’s first essential work.

Highlights: The Sublimation Hour, Beggars Might Ride, The Crossover, Streethawk I

Sublime bit: When the guitar solo kicks in at 3:29 of The Bad Arts, presaging the vocal melody of the song’s Joy Division-quoting coda.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

67. Nixon

67. Nixon, Lambchop (Merge, 2000)

Kurt Warner quietly led his Nashville group Lambchop through the bulk of the ’90s, keeping his carpentry day job while releasing four LPs and one mini-album between ’94 and the decade’s end.  His collective, boasting a dozen or so members from release to release, slowly polished a modest sort of American musical quilt bridging country, rock, and soul.  Wagner’s natural voice is folksy and unadorned with a slight twang; he is capable of lush crooning, though, and from time to time uses a convincing falsetto.  The band’s instrumentation is broad, including piano, organ, vibraphone, strings, horns, and an assortment of percussion; the arrangements often understated, most songs unfold casually at quarter speed.  The music is often elegantly sparse, the ballads complemented by the occasional rave-up and, especially in the lyrics, a mild irreverence all the more striking because of the sedate music.  The group’s first clutch of releases, through the ’96 EP Hank, show a group finding its sea legs; often pleasantly shaky but not without success--2nd LP How I Quit Smoking (’96) is an early high point--their ’90s catalog is a charming set of preparatory materials for the bracing work they would accomplish in the Aughts.

Nixon, the sixth Lambchop record, expands on the developments of its predecessor, What Another Man Spills (’98), which included a faithful Curtis Mayfield cover, Give Me Your Love.  Just as when Porter Wagoner invited James Brown to the Grand Ole Opry, this crossover reveals the continuity between soul and country.  Nixon, in turn, is Lambchop’s soul album.  It swings more than any of the group’s previous work, and Wagner employs a passionate falsetto on nearly half the tracks.  Of Nixon’s soul showcases, You Masculine You and What Else Could It Be are sung entirely in falsetto, the latter with a sleek, mature disco arrangement; shimmering violin cascades are provided on that track and several others by guests the Nashville String Machine.  Grumpus is a grooving, brawnier affair, Wagner’s vocal skirting the rhythm ever so slightly and shooting to the higher registers at the end of the bridge.  The Book I Haven’t Read is even given a Mayfield co-credit, due to its similarity to his ’85 tune Baby, It’s You.  The album’s one single and the band’s only near hit, Up With People, is anomalous in the Lambchop catalog; a pulsing number with a diamond-sharp gospel chorus, its refrain finds Wagner and the choir freely declaring “We are screwing/Up our lives today.”  The album’s finest expository achievement is Nashville Parent.  The epitome of Wagner’s ability for documenting the mundane, it depicts domestic scenes of standing against the kitchen counter with arms crossed, neighbors fighting after a drinking binge, and spitting on the sidewalk but ending up having to wipe it off your shirt.  All of this is delivered in a silky vocal befitting a Johnny Mathis record, the accompaniment the first shining example of the smooth country-soul melange the group would perfect on later albums like Is a Woman (’02) and Damaged (’06; see #90).  The performances and Mark Nevers’s production are leagues beyond earlier Lambchop works.  The accomplishments of Nixon served Lambchop well; the band heretofore largely unknown, Nixon scored them Album of the Year in UK magazine Uncut.  That they would go on to even bigger musical accomplishments is testimony to Lambchop’s status as perhaps the most underrated rock group of the decade.  As for Nixon’s relation to the 37th President, his administration concurred nicely with the rise of the modern soul and disco to which Lambchop pay homage on what is their first great album.

Highlights: Nashville Parent, Up With People, Grumpus, You Masculine You

Sublime bit: When, achingly, Wagner sings the line “You look pretty swell/In your new position” for the second time in Nashville Parent at 4:57.
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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

68. The Sunlandic Twins

68. The Sunlandic Twins, Of Montreal (Polyvinyl, 2005)

The arrival of The Sunlandic Twins marked the seventh full-length album attributed to Of Montreal.  Kevin Barnes, the Athens, Georgia, group’s sole constant, recorded the first five albums with a revolving cast of three to six members; as part of the Elephant Six community—a collective of like-minded Athens musicians and artists—the various lineups shared members with groups like Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, and Marshmallow Coast.  A common thread of the Elephant Six music is the influence of ’60s psychedelic pop, revealing itself to varying degrees on the various bands’ records yet becoming a prominent touchstone for Barnes’s work in the first half of the Aughts.  His earliest material, such as Of Montreal’s ’97 debut LP Cherry Peel, is largely acoustic, nearly lo-fi, and dominated by playful, almost juvenile examinations of relationships.  The early Of Montreal years showed Barnes prolific almost to his own detriment and in sore need of an editor; with a weakness for intricate conceptual projects (though, like many such works, often with impenetrable story lines) and twee, fanciful arrangements sometimes missing musical conventions such as choruses, albums like the nearly tuneless The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy (’98) and the 70-minute Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (’01) can make for extremely trying listens.  Following the ’03 dissolution of the group’s primary label, Kindercore (Of Montreal never recorded on the Elephant Six label itself), and the departure of two band members, Barnes downsized the project and recorded the sixth album, Satanic Panic in the Attic (’04), almost entirely by himself.  Proving that sometimes less is more, it was the best Of Montreal album to date, a full realization of the swirling world of technicolour pop-sike he’d tried for with Coquelicot; this time, though, the whimsy was controlled, the sprawl largely mitigated, and—most importantly—the songs were full of hooks.

The Sunlandic Twins, issued almost exactly a year after Satanic Panic, repeated the formula of nearly solo, hook-laden pop music; it is reminiscent of ’60s-era lysergic sonic adventurists like many populating the Nuggets and Rubble compilations of period music, as well as the natural progression of early-’90s psych revivalists like Jeff Saltzman’s Cerebral Corps.  While Satanic Panic sometimes feels claustrophobic, as if trying to include too many musical ideas in some of the songs, The Sunlandic Twins is a balanced set of compositions whose inventiveness and impeccable execution show Barnes to possess a knack for studio wizardry suggestive of the indie-pop version of Todd Rundgren or Prince (not to mention incorporating stylistic qualities that would fit nicely on songs by either of those artists).  Several songs incorporate multiple movements, creating miniature pop symphonies (an approach Barnes would exploit to an extreme degree on the ’08 Skeletal Lamping).  The album contains some of Barnes’s most personal lyrics to date.  Oslo in the Summertime, about Barnes’s temporary relocation to Norway, mentions his wife by name; So Begins Our Alabee, a love song to their baby daughter, reveals his worry that “I never want to be/Your little friend the abject failure.”  The album came with a four-song bonus EP—another testament to Barnes’s restless prolificacy—but it’s the LP proper that dazzles.  There would be two more Of Montreal LPs in the Aughts, alongside a seemingly endless line of singles, EPs, and compilations; The Sunlandic Twins is near the top of the heap.

Highlights: Forecast Fascist Future, So Begins Our Alabee, The Party’s Crashing Us Now, I Was Never Young

Sublime bit: Barnes’s voice rising to a jubilant howl on the final line of “May we always/Stay/Stay/Gentle,” 3:36-3:48 of Forecast Fascist Future.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

69. Wagonmaster

69. Wagonmaster, Porter Wagoner (Anti-, 2007)

Missouri-born Porter Wagoner never quite captured the zeitgeist that allowed some of his contemporaries to resonate outside country and western circles.  An inveterate traditionalist, Wagoner made some mainstream inroads with his long-running TV program The Porter Wagoner Show (’60-’81), its middle years featuring regular cast member and duet partner Dolly Parton.  With his gaudy Nudie suits, bountiful pompadour, and taste for cornpone humor, Wagoner cut a figure that on first blush might seem best relegated to the cast of Hee Haw.  A closer look at his career, though, reveals a firm command of serious material.  Matched only by Cash, Wagoner recorded the earliest country concept albums; efforts like Confessions of a Broken Man (’66) and The Soul of a Convict (’67) go beyond well-worn country tropes of hard luck and show a keen insight on topics like depression and mental illness.  Issuing 81 charting singles since going solo in 1952 after leaving his local group the Blue Ridge Boys, Wagoner well earned his position as ambassador and unofficial host of the Grand Ole Opry.

Like far too many country legends, Wagoner endured a dry spell in the ’80s.  His 35-year deal with RCA ended and he did one-offs for a handful of labels until calling it quits in ’86.  He continued to perform; it wasn’t until 2000, though, that he released another album, the outdated-sounding The Best I’ve Ever Been.  Aside from the fortuitous ’02 Unplugged, his Aughts recordings were then limited to poorly curated gospel compilations in the ghastly tourist-country ghetto of labels like TeeVee.  In ’07, the luck previously afforded a handful of his contemporaries (see #119 and #121) was visited upon Wagoner when a proper, well-equipped record company plucked him from recording obscurity at age 79.  While those artists’ comeback efforts incorporated modern pop covers, rafts of indie-rock guests, or adoring though counterintuitive curators, Wagonmaster presents the artist undistilled and in his own milieu.  Produced by Marty Stuart, himself a country veteran, the album is backed by Stuart’s excellent band and the production is crisp and tasteful.  Like many aged country singers, Wagoner emphasizes material from earlier in his career; a whopping five songs are new recordings of material from his ’71 LP Porter Wagoner Sings His Own.  The pacing is reminiscent of a variety show, with a Stuart-sung hoedown theme opening and closing the record and a similar intermission at midpoint (in which Wagoner joyfully exclaims, “Everybody have a good time, son!”).  The album’s first full song, Be a Little Quieter, is its most celebratory in execution despite its lyrical wish that a departed lover’s memory wouldn’t echo through the narrator’s hallways each night.  Two other early-’70s pieces examine hard life through sunny arrangements: Albert Erving depicts a lifelong bachelor who cherishes a wood carving of an imagined lover, and My Many Hurried Southern Trips, a Parton co-write, is sung by a bus driver who shuttles all manner of troubled souls.  Hotwired, a cover of an ’06 country-rock tune by Arkansas singer Shawn Camp, is a bit of a misfire, yet Wagoner’s delivery is charming.  Wagonmaster’s most famous tune is Committed to Parkview, a Cash composition about a mental hospital in which both men spent time.  Wagoner’s opening recitation ends with “I hope I never have to go there again,” his voice bearing no trace of storytelling gimmickry.  A shining accomplishment after twenty years in record-company wilderness, Wagonmaster stands among the best country albums of the Aughts; sadly, it was Wagoner’s final album, as he succumbed to cancer just four months after its release.

Highlights: Be a Little Quieter, My Many Hurried Southern Trips, Fool Like Me, Brother Harold Dee

Sublime bit: The chiming group vocals that come midway through each verse of Be a Little Quieter are sheer spine-tingling country gold.
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