Here are a couple of disturbing statistics for you.
So far in 2011, I have bought 119 new albums. Now, there are some I haven’t heard yet, including the ones from this week, like Thurston Moore’s new album, and Neal Morse’s new Jesus-rock opera. But so far, a total of 53 of those new records have struck me as unremarkable, and not worthy of a review.
That’s not a bad average, actually. 2011 is shaping up to be the best year in some time. Under normal circumstances, the number of yawn-inducing albums would be much higher. Most of these discs this year are not going to be worth the three or four sentences I give them in my annual Fifty Second Week column in December.
But often lost amidst the flood of nothing much are often very good records that just don’t inspire me to review them right away. Sometimes these just slip right by until Fifty Second Week, and I find myself with less than a minute to extol the virtues of albums that deserved better from me.
So this week, I thought I’d make time for some good records that got lost in the shuffle already this year. None of these turned my world upside down, but all of them are worth hearing and owning. Here’s a look at three that almost got away.
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There’s an entire generation of kids now who only know Nirvana as Dave Grohl’s old band.
That amuses me to no end. You all know I’m not Kurt Cobain’s biggest fan, and I believe Nirvana’s three albums don’t even come close to deserving the enduring acclaim they get. But this isn’t about Nirvana. It’s about Dave Grohl, that band’s drummer, who has gone on to be one of the brightest lights in the rock and roll firmament.
To my mind, Foo Fighters have been a better and more consistent band than Nirvana all along. From the time they hit their stride, on 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, the Foos have put out one solid rock record after another. And now we have the seventh, Wasting Light, and it may be one of the best. Recorded quickly in a basement, this album contains no bells and no whistles. It is straightforward guitar rock from a group that knows how to do that shit right.
Wasting Light takes off right out of the gate with the one-two punch of “Bridge Burning” and “Rope,” two songs that continue the Foo Fighters standard of propulsive rock with hummable melodies. Bob Mould sits in on “Dear Rosemary,” a song with a Joe Jackson-esque verse riff, and Grohl takes on Motorhead (with a truly convincing scream) on “White Limo.”
The big news for old-school fans will be “I Should Have Known,” which brings Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic into the fold for four minutes. It is one of the most distinctive pieces here, its slow, almost bluesy crawl eventually exploding into a ferocious caterwaul. But it’s just another melodic monster on an album full of them. I’m particularly fond of “Arlandria,” with its killer chorus, and “These Days,” a bitter tale of ill wishes. And closing track “Walk” sums up everything that’s great about the Foo Fighters.
After I heard Wasting Light for the first time, I asked my Twitter legion if it was better than anything Nirvana had ever done. This is an uncomfortable proposition for a lot of people, but not for me – I think the answer is a resounding yes. This is unpretentious and unassuming stuff, the Foo Fighters content with writing tight, powerful little pop songs, and then playing them as loudly as they can. I love this kickass little disc.
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I owe this next one to Andrea Dahlberg. Without her, and her devotion to NPR’s new music reports, I may never have discovered The Head and the Heart. And my year would have been that much less joyful.
The Head and the Heart is a subtle, down-home sextet from Seattle, with an appealing piano-folk sound. I’m not absolutely sure why these songs work for me as well as they do, but I think just about every track on this thing is marvelous. “Ghosts,” for example, floats on an easy groove, but lifts off when it gets to its hummable chorus. “Down in the Valley” is similarly simple, but the piano figure that comes in near the end is haunting and wonderful.
“Rivers and Roads” is my favorite, and I was surprised to learn that it was initially not included on this record. The voices of Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Thielen intertwine throughout the song, but come together in a glorious yearning at the end: “Rivers and roads, rivers ‘til I reach you…” As I said, I don’t know why something so traditional works for me on so many levels, but it really does.
Similarly, I’m not sure why “Sounds Like Hallelujah” leaves an idiot grin on my face, but it does. And closer “Heaven Go Easy on Me” is no more interesting, on its face, than a million other songs that use the same chords, but this one gets me. Something about the loose, lush harmonies and the lovely piano. And the strings that bring the record to a close are shivering and sweet.
I don’t know why this record has crept into my list of favorites from 2011. I’m just glad it has. The Head and the Heart doesn’t do much for my head, but it grabs my heart and holds on. Can’t wait to hear more.
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One reason some of these albums slip through is that I just don’t have anything new to say about the bands that produce them.
A good case in point is Explosions in the Sky. This Texas quartet plays dramatic, sky-splittingly lovely guitar-based instrumental music, full of high drama and subtle interplay. They compose these mini-symphonies and play them with grace and power – they’re not a metal band like Pelican, but they’re not post-rock like Mogwai. They make beautiful noise, and they’ve essentially plied the same trade for 11 years.
And they’ve just done it again, with their fifth full-length, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. The sound is a little quieter, but no less cathartic and layered here, and these six tracks are as good as anything the band has ever done. But they sound just like everything else the band has ever done. If you liked them before, you’ll like this. If you’ve never heard them, you may as well start with this. It’s no more or less accomplished than any other entry in their stellar catalog.
One thing I can say – the packaging on Take Care is their most elaborate, and most striking. It unfolds into a model house, with illustrations inside and out, and includes a fold-out plot of ground to place that house on, with views from above and underneath. It’s fittingly both pastoral and ominous, and it provides you with the only reason I can think of to buy this record over any other Explosions effort.
It may sound like I think their consistency is a bad thing, but I don’t. I adore Explosions’ sound, and wouldn’t want them to change it unnecessarily. Take Care is another wonderful ocean of clean guitars and atmospheres, punctuated by moments of fury. They do what they do very well, and even though it leaves me with little to add each time out, I hope they keep doing it.
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Next week’s column is brought to you by the letter D, with Death Cab, David Bazan, Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.