Hard to believe it’s December already.
We only have four columns left in 2013, and if you’re a longtime reader, you know what they all are. This week I am rounding up some of the records I missed (and some that have just come out). Next week I’ll list the honorable mentions and some of my favorite ineligibles, before getting to the top 10 list on Dec. 18. And then it’s Fifty Second Week on Christmas Day. Following that will be my customary week off, before we start the new year.
I do this little ritual every year, and I still get a charge out of it. I love lists. I love making lists, and reading lists, and arguing about lists. I hope that there are others out there like me, and my own little list causes a few discussions. I’m also hoping you’ll send me yours, and tell me what I missed.
Speaking of things I missed, here we go.
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It’s December 4, and I may have to revise my top 10 list.
This rarely happens, and when it does, it’s usually my own fault. The record companies hardly ever release good stuff during the end-of-the-year doldrums. (We got a new Brendan Benson album this year, and that’s about the best we can expect.) So if something sneaks onto the list in December, chances are good it’s been out for a while, and it just got by me. I hate that it happens, but it does.
The point being, I just listened to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern for the first time. And then heard it a second, and a third.
Isbell is the former lead guitarist for the Drive-By Truckers. Southeastern is his fourth solo album, but the first one I’ve heard. I’m not usually blown away by heartland Americana music – it uses the same chords in the same order a bit too often for me, emphasizing traditional sounds and authenticity over creativity and surprising melodies. Ryan Adams and Bill Mallonee are about as trad-rock as I usually get. An artist like Isbell, who writes pretty typical-sounding country-folk songs, needs something unique to reel me in.
Isbell has it. Not only is his voice compelling in and of itself, but Southeastern contains the finest set of lyrics I have encountered all year. (Sorry, Frightened Rabbit. Pedestrian Verse is now in second place.) His stories are raw and real, but his verse is imaginative and illuminating at every turn. He had me from the chorus of the tender, wintry opener, “Cover Me Up,” which goes like this: “Girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room ‘til someone needs medical help, or the magnolias bloom, it’s cold in this house and I ain’t going outside to chop wood, so cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good.” That’s just wonderful.
From there, the album moves from strength to strength. “Different Days” is a haunted tune about maturity, Isbell confessing that once he would have used people, but can’t fathom doing that now. “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might be the best “I miss her” song I’ve heard in a long time, as Isbell reminisces about the titular songs: “Wish You Were Here,” for instance, or “Yesterday’s Wine.” “Flying Over Water” is a lovely song of support, while “Yvette” brings a particular chill – it’s about an abused girl, and what the song’s narrator does about it.
The best and most poignant thing here, though, is “Elephant,” which explores with an unflinching gaze a man’s relationship with a woman dying of cancer. “I’d sing her classic country songs, and she’d get high and sing along, she don’t have a voice to sing with now, we burn these joints in effigy and cry about what used to be and try to ignore the elephant somehow…” It’s heartrending, and remarkably well observed. At the other end of the spectrum is the similarly excellent closer, “Relatively Easy,” about how love makes everything better. “Compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy, and here with you there’s always something to look forward to, my angry heart beats relatively easy…”
I’m not sure where Southeastern will rank when I finalize my list this week, but it’s probably going to be there. I’m rarely moved to tears or to big, wide smiles by music of this stripe, but Jason Isbell has made something special here. This is up there with the best stuff I have heard from Ryan Adams, and that’s a huge compliment. I wish I’d heard this earlier – it came out in June – but I’m glad I finally heard it. Thanks to those who recommended it. You were right.
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I recently picked up another album many have suggested to me – Days Are Gone, the debut from sister act Haim. And while this one didn’t strike me as thoroughly as Isbell’s did, I reservedly liked it.
Danielle, Alana and Este Haim are all young – the oldest is 27, the youngest is 22 – so it’s remarkable how steeped in Stevie Nicks-style pop from the ‘80s. Their album is slick and largely synthesized, with that big, hollow Me Decade drum sound and loads of harmonies and countermelodies. It’s all light and fun, even though occasionally it’s so weightless that it floats away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but over 11 songs, I found my attention wandering.
The first three songs set the Haim template well. “Falling,” “Forever” and “The Wire” are all pretty similar, with catchy choruses that nevertheless eschew big hooks, and warm synthesizers providing the cushiony bedrock. “Falling” is about perseverance: “I’ll never look back, never give up, and if it gets rough, it’s time to get rough.” Most of the songs on Days Are Gone are about love, in simple, poppy terms. “The Wire” uses a Gary Glitter rock beat, layering sweet guitars and harmonies atop it, while the lyrics are about that one mistake that ends relationships.
The album never hits those heights again, preferring to repeat the formula as often as possible. It’s a nice formula, but it gets wearying over an entire album. The one moment of diversion is a fascinating one: “My Song 5” incorporates more modern production techniques, augmenting a slow, clubby crawl with dark synths and vocal warping. It’s not entirely successful, but it is different. The rest of Days Are Gone represents a nice start from a band with an interesting sensibility. Looking forward to hearing where they go from here.
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Of course, you can have all the potential in the world and still end up squandering it. Case in point: there’s a new Boston album, and it’s awful.
The collapse of Boston has been difficult to watch. As I’ve mentioned before, I still consider their 1986 wonderama Third Stage one of my favorite records, trite as it is. That album took eight years to complete, and was the true start of Tom Scholz’ perfectionism. It paid off on Third Stage – that record sounds labored over in the best possible way, every note contributing to the whole. But it’s been 26 years since then, with only three new Boston albums. The subsequent records were separated by eight, eight and 11 years, respectively, and Scholz was steadily working on them during that time. He’s obsessive.
Unfortunately, it’s been diminishing returns ever since. Six years ago, original singer Brad Delp killed himself, which to me signaled the true end of Boston, particularly after the disastrous Corporate America album in 2002. But no, here’s record number six, Life, Love and Hope. And it’s somehow worse than even their lowest point to date. For one thing, it’s amazing that an 11-year effort by a noted perfectionist sounds this muddled and confused. The arrangements are messy when they should be full and rich. Scholz played almost all of the instruments, and while he remains a bold guitar player, he’s not a very good drummer, and the bedrock of each of these songs is shaky.
Scholz obviously considers himself the only real member of this band, as he taps four vocalists in addition to himself. Yes, Delp is here – he recorded his lead vocals on “Sail Away” before his death, but more egregiously, this album resurrects three songs from Corporate America and includes them, including two that Delp sang. Yes, the same songs from the previous album. One of them, “Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love,” is here in the exact same recording. Quite the rip-off, especially after 11 years.
The new songs aren’t terrible, but they aren’t good either. Lead single “Heaven on Earth,” sung by David Victor, is like a pale shadow of the classic Boston sound. “Sail Away,” written as a reaction to Hurricane Katrina (in 2005!), should be an epic – Delp soars, the guitars crash, the harmonies are where they should be, but the song stays earthbound. The straight-ahead rockers, like the title track and “Someday,” work better, but they just make you want to hear the older stuff again. Scholz himself sings “Love Got Away,” and it sounds just like you expect it would. Except for a couple of guitar fills from Gary Pihl, it’s the first Boston song created by no one but Scholz, and I think that’s the way he wants it.
It’s a shame, really. As much as I like Third Stage, I think Scholz learned the wrong lessons from that experience, and turned Boston into an even more sealed-off entity than it was. Life, Love and Hope is pretty awful, and it pains me to hear the late, great Brad Delp again under these circumstances. In the liner notes, Scholz describes himself as Boston’s harshest critic. I think he needs to find a harsher one. This is nowhere near the standard he has set for himself, and sounds to me like a waste of 11 years.
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In complete contrast to Boston, the guys in Hammock work very quickly.
Last year saw the ambient wunderkinds release their first double album, Departure Songs. Now here’s the follow-up, called Oblivion Hymns, and once again, they’ve made something soul-crushingly beautiful. Hammock music feels like experiencing the expanse and wonder of the universe, all at once. They work not in notes or tunes, but in waves, enveloping you with sound and lifting you off the ground.
So far, Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson have stuck to their template – lush seascapes of guitar stretching out to the horizon, with some drums and vocals occasionally. But on Oblivion Hymns, they stretch out, and somehow find a place even more beautiful. Most of these 10 songs use a full string section in addition to the glorious, treated guitar work, and many of them bring in a haunting children’s choir. The effect is ethereal, bringing a new dimension to what was already one of the most gorgeous sounds on the planet.
Opener “My Mind Was a Fog… My Heart Became a Bomb” introduces you to the strings, and they’re massive. They’re used more for texture than melody – the string lines don’t move a lot, but rather wash over you. When they glide in halfway through “Then the Quiet Explosion,” it’s like the heavens opening, and then the choir only adds to that feeling. I have no idea what words these kids are singing – everything on Oblivion Hymns is dripping with so much reverb that it all blurs together into a single sound. The choir is given a showcase near the end of “I Could Hear the Water at the Edge of All Things,” and for those two minutes, you won’t be able to imagine anything prettier.
Hammock saves the biggest surprise for the end. Timothy Showalter, of Strand of Oaks, provides lead vocals on “Tres Domine,” the hymn that closes the record out. His vocals are the most distinct element of the album, and when he reaches for the brass ring on “beneath the endless sky,” it’s soul-lifting in an entirely new way. Oblivion Hymns is proof that even though Hammock releases a lot of music – they’re working on an even newer album now – they’re not resting on a formula. They’re experimenting, and in this case, the experiment is a rousing, beautiful success.
Check them out here.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.