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|Eight Albums From 2006 You Won’t Want to Miss|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Wednesday, 27 December 2006 03:35|
Augie March, Moo, You Bloody Choir. Charting number-one singles on the Australian home front, it's shocking that Augie March achieved close to no notice in the States. Elegant in its simplicity, the band's brand of rock can be compared to post-alt-country-era Wilco, but with a definite Aussie influence - think elements of Midnight Oil, but more literate. Past albums saw Augie March rushing forth like a speeding train, but this time the songs are built around acoustic, rather than electric, guitar parts, so they have a more cautious and quiet path to their destinations. From pop anthems to grandiose ballads, singer-songwriter Glenn Richards uses lyrics as instruments strung together to shimmer like violin strings or crash into one another like cymbals. While Australian critics sing the band's praises, and fans sing their songs, one can't help but wonder if we Yanks are simply mooing in the wrong bloody choir.
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. In a year that saw releases by prominent female singer/songwriters such as Roseanne Cash, Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins, Beth Orton, and Cat Power, Neko Case shows that it's going to take a lot more than a voice to impress. On Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, her skills as a songwriter and producer are more polished than ever, as evidenced by tracks such as "Margaret vs Pauline": "Her jaw aches from wanting and she's sick from chlorine / But she'll never be as clean / As the cool side of satin, Pauline." Case's voice is impressive and graceful, but the songs have a sense of authenticity and surprise not always found in the alt-country genre critics have dumped her in.
The Hold Steady, Boys & Girls in America. The main force behind The Hold Steady is vocalist Craig Finn. Choosing to almost speak rather than sing his lyrics, Boys & Girls in America builds upon past efforts. From recurring characters with names such as Holly and Charlemagne to ever-present themes of addiction, betrayal, and desperation, Finn's lyrics are narratives related in street vernacular in a similar vein to fellow East Coast songwriters Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed. While the songs are about little more than drinking and drunks, Finn manages to make them seem larger than life by giving his characters plenty of flash to go along with their flaws: "She was golden with barlight and beer / She slept like she'd never been scared." Boys & Girls in America is strong enough musically to get people out on the dance floor, but it's smart enough to warrant more intimate consideration.
Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies. Dan Bejar is a musician's musician; he rattles off his influences in his songs and his licks. Closing track "Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever" sounds like a cross between The Doors and Neil Young. On "A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point," Bejar sings, "Those who love Zeppelin will eventually betray Floyd." Bejar is so important because he does something so few artists do: He writes about being a musician and he writes for himself. If there has been a common theme in my first four picks, it's been lyrics, and Rubies is no exception. Introspective and littered with often cryptic allusions, it's hard at times not to feel overwhelmed. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't listen, because in the end, Rubies is highly rewarding.
Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped. Sonic Youth is known more for being a noise band than for writing songs, but on Rather Ripped, that's exactly what they do. With a more traditional verse-chorus structure - and the noise not necessarily kept to a minimum, but kept to the background - Rather Ripped contains few surprises, which is the biggest surprise of all. Tracks such as "Incinerate," "Pink Steam," and "Do You Believe in Rapture?" are all written around bizarre guitar tunings and noise but sound remarkably like pop music. Is this a sign the band has lost its edge? No. It's a sign that they've learned to control their noise and use it with such subtlety that their forays into experimentation have finally paid off.
Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit. Scotland's Belle & Sebastian return with their seventh (or sixth, depending on how you count them) full-length album. The Life Pursuit might be disappointing initially, with the songs seeming almost thrown-together carbon copies of past efforts. But seeing the band perform earlier this year in Milwaukee, hearing old songs reworked in the context of the new material, gave insight into how the band has improved as musicians and performers. On The Life Pursuit, no longer simply following Stuart Murdoch's lead, each band member has grown. Harmonies are in place, not out of tune; guitar solos are tight and focused, not meandering or uncertain; and even Murdoch's singing and lyrical dexterity have shown improvement. Rather than carbon copies, the songs on The Life Pursuit build upon past efforts. This is the work of a band in its prime, and proof that even good things get better with time.
Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye. On their debut album, Last Exit, Junior Boys were heralded as the next Depeche Mode, with romantic and sultry electro-pop tunes carefully crafted around synthetic beats and steadily pumping bass lines. So This Is Goodbye picks up where Last Exit left off, but it's a rawer and slightly more robust release. The highlights here aren't the softer tunes, but the ones that stand out and punch you in the back of the head. "Count Souvenirs," "The Equalizer," and "In the Morning" all benefit from frontman Jeremy Greenspan's vocals and guitar- and bass-playing skills. He even occasionally indulges himself in a solo here and there, showing that the focus is more on prowess than innuendo. So This Is Goodbye is still subtle enough, making it the perfect backdrop for nearly any situation: driving in the car, in the bedroom, or at a party.
Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards. When artists release compilation albums, it's usually out of contractual agreement with the record label. Required to put out a certain number of albums, the artist offers a collection of singles, highlights, or unreleased material. Orphans was conceived that way but ended up as new material intermixed with outtakes, soundtrack-only tunes, and rarities. With 56 songs spanning three CDs, Orphans shows that even Waits' leftovers and table scraps are better than most artists' main courses. Hell, the man could make you weep just by singing the ingredients off a box of cereal. From anti-war ballads such as "Road to Peace" to heart-wrenching pastiches such as "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" to creepy narratives such as "Children's Story," Orphans - of all the albums released in 2006 - is easily the one that shouldn't be missed.
Culley Smith is a writer and runs a local Web site (http://www.theairstrange.com) devoted to promoting the local music scene.
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