Lee, Leo and Low
And the 1st Quarter Report

At the bottom of this week’s column, you’ll find my first quarter report for 2007. I’ve decided that since it was such a hit last year, I’m going to keep posting early drafts of my top 10 list as the year progresses. If nothing else, I find going back to the early ones pretty amusing, especially after the final list is written.

I’m mentioning it up front, though, because you won’t find my current favorite record of the year on that list. That’s because it’s not out yet – I heard it through the band’s MySpace site, and so can you. Anyone who was near a radio in the mid-‘90s remembers this band, and it’s kind of amazing to me that I’m about to recommend their disc above all others I’ve heard, but here it is.

The band is Silverchair.

That’s right, the erstwhile Pearl Jam tribute band. Believe it or not, they’ve grown up into pop geniuses, especially leader Daniel Johns, who proved his worth as a songwriter on 2005’s Dissociatives project. This guy is incredible – the melodies on Silverchair’s new album, Young Modern, go every direction except the one you’d expect, and every song’s a keeper.

I’ll put up a full review next week, along with my thoughts on the new Fountains of Wayne, but for now, check out Silverchair’s site. You can hear the whole record for free, right now. If you only remember Silverchair for their grunge-heavy hits from the days of flannel, prepare to be blown away.

Meanwhile, here are some other albums I heard this week, including another contender for the year-end list. I’ll save that one for last. We begin with a minstrel. Well, he’s not really a minstrel, but he plays one on TV…

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Grant-Lee Phillips may be named after two opposing Civil War generals, but there’s nothing conflicted about his music. For more than a decade, he’s trafficked in confident, propulsive American pop, both on his own and with his old band, Grant Lee Buffalo. I’m not sure he even could sound uncertain – he has one of those voices that just convinces you to believe in whatever he’s singing.

Phillips has taken a couple of interesting detours lately. His last original album, 2004’s Virginia Creeper, wound down a knotty acoustic path, and last year, he gave us Nineteeneighties, a set of stripped-down covers of ‘80s tunes, like “Wave of Mutilation” and “So. Central Rain.” These were neat records, but I longed for a return to thicker production and meatier songwriting.

And here it is. Phillips has called his fifth solo album Strangelet, but there’s nothing strange about it. The album is 12 straightforward, strummed pop tunes with a bevy of beautiful embellishments. “Dream in Color,” for example, is a classic Grant-Lee tune, low-key and bright, with sweet strings and horns all over it. It’s like the second coming of “Hummingbirds,” and I love it.

Phillips maintains his twangy charm on songs like “Hidden Hand,” a mostly acoustic number that sounds like an old standard, but he reaches for the Beatles references he’s ignored for too long on tunes like “Chain Lightning.” His voice is in top form here, occasionally sounding like a more sedate Mike Peters.

As much as I enjoy his more upbeat tunes, it’s the slower, moodier ones here that really do it for me. “Same Blue Devils” is terrific, a languid electric piano piece augmented by a great string line. And “Killing a Dead Man” may be the highlight, a dusty blues with a weeping cello and some great rasping by Phillips.

The record turns more traditional by its end, with closer “So Much” offering a pleasant wave goodbye instead of a grand finale. And that’s the biggest problem I have with Strangelet – it doesn’t really present itself as anything significant. It’s just 12 pretty good songs, performed pretty well, and in a year like this, that’s not enough to bring out the superlatives.

But if you’ve ever liked Phillips before, you’ll like this. And if you only know him from his recurring role as the Stars Hollow minstrel on Gilmore Girls, well, this is a good place to start checking out his day job. Strangelet isn’t anything earth-shattering, but it is a good way to while away 48 minutes and not feel like you’ve wasted any of them.

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The indie purists are gonna hate me for this comparison, but it’s true: Ted Leo is what Joe Jackson could have been, had he not discovered the piano and a taste for jazz.

Since the 1980s, Leo has been writing and playing melodic guitar-pop, the kind Jackson made on his first three albums. But where Jackson drifted off into some (admittedly fascinating) orchestral dimensions, Leo’s sound has rarely changed – he’s still making guitar-bass-drums rock music with a hummable pop twist.

Leo convened his current rhythm section, the Pharmacists, in 1999, leading them with his semi-snarky (and very Joe Jackson) voice and his knack for catchy guitar riffs. The band’s last album, 2004’s Shake the Sheets, was a virtual riff monster, a consistently enjoyable slab of punky, danceable rock ‘n’ roll. There are no frills on a Ted Leo album, nothing to distract you from the songs themselves, and on Shake the Sheets, the songs were marvelous.

The same is not always true of Living with the Living, Leo’s fifth album with the Pharmacists. It’s hard to tell what’s disappointing about this album, since it sounds almost exactly like the others. It just seems like the spark isn’t quite there this time.

Living isn’t quite a clone of the first four records. Leo has taken some neat detours here, most notably “A Bottle of Buckie,” a nifty folk song that sounds like the Goo Goo Dolls playing an Irish pub. (Buckie is the nickname for Buckfast Tonic Wine, produced in southwest England.)

That song is so sweet that it leaves you unprepared for the next track, “Bomb Repeat Bomb,” with its explosive guitars and Rage-like political shouting. It’s louder and more aggressive than anything Leo has ever done, and a definite highlight of this record. Also worth noting is “The Unwanted Things,” which incorporates a heavy reggae influence. (Again, like Joe Jackson…)

But elsewhere, it’s business as usual for Leo, and this time, business isn’t quite as good. “La Costa Brava” stretches its two-chord framework over an endless six minutes, a malady that afflicts much of the back half of the record. Ted Leo is very good at writing catchy three-minute tunes, but when he tries his hand at six-minute power ballads like “The Toro and the Toreador,” the results are decidedly mixed. And stretching a groovy ditty like closer “C.I.A.” to six and a half minutes is nearly criminal.

In the end, Living with the Living is something of a chore to sit all the way through. It’s more than an hour long, and its bonus EP, Mo’ Living, is more of the same, without much life to it. I want to like this more than I do, because Ted Leo has a way of making simple little rock songs sing, but here he just plods along, workmanlike, for a distressing percentage of the running time, and it’s a bit of a bore.

As with any no-frills artist, Ted Leo albums rise and fall on the songwriting. When he’s on here, as he is on delights like “Colleen” and “The World Stops Turning,” the melodies carry the day, but there aren’t enough tunes like these two to match the unbeatable Shake the Sheets. Leo didn’t do anything wrong here, per se, and his fans will still like this record, but there’s definitely something missing, and I hope he finds it before pressing the record button again.

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Almost as an antidote to the same-old same-old of Ted Leo, here comes Duluth, Minnesota’s Low with an album quite unlike anything else they’ve done, or in fact anything else I’ve heard. It’s called Drums and Guns, and it’s one of the most harrowing albums of the year so far.

Low has always been about minimalism, but this album takes that aesthetic to a new level. Gone are the sonic embellishments of The Great Destroyer, and in their place is a creepy, skeletal, twitchy bed of nails, one that underscores the darkness of the anti-war poetry that nests in this album’s soul. Many of these songs sound like wailing prayers, framed by stuttering percussion and deep rivers of organ and bass.

Drums and Guns is unsettling, in the best way. It’s been a while since an album has shaken me as much as this one does. It opens with a feedback dirge called “Pretty People,” over which Alan Sparhawk chants, “All you pretty people, you’re all gonna die…” That leads into “Belarus,” which sets the sonic template – a repeated piano note, a thin layer of vocals, some pattering percussion, and the twin voices of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, harmonizing in the right channel. The whole album is panned hard to one side or the other, usually drums in the left, vocals in the right.

The lyrics are just as unnerving, and often just as minimal. “Belarus” goes like this: “To my mouth, frozen shut, mother’s son, paper cup, pressing light, brighter sound, black and white, fading now…” Aside from eight repetitions of the title word, that’s it. But the effect is hypnotic. “My hand just kills and kills,” Sparhawk moans in “Breaker,” and it sends chills. The Eastern harmonies in “Sandinista” will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

There’s hardly any respite, no steady ground to stand on. “Breaker” is a handclap, a foot stomp, an organ, some feedback and vocals, and that’s all – it gives you nothing to hold onto, nowhere to hide. Drums and Guns is rarely an enjoyable listen, but it is a mesmerizing one. Just listen to the sparse crawl of “Dust on the Window” to hear just how beautiful ugliness can be.

Like a shaft of light breaking through, “Hatchet” provides a single moment of brightness on this dark, woodsy jaunt. Its riff, though spare, is almost funky, and the song revolves around the line, “Let’s bury the hatchet like the Beatles and the Stones.” It’s two minutes long, and it barely fits in here, but as a breather, it’s welcome. After the minute-long, mostly a cappella “Your Poison,” we’re right back in the darkness for the rest of the album.

“Take Your Time” is a masterpiece, its thudding piano nearly drowned in waves of ambience as Sparhawk tells the tale of a prayerful girl working on a mysterious stain. The words “take your time, sweet thing” have never sounded creepier. The final three songs almost sound like bonus tracks after this thing, even though they are no less shiver-inducing.

“In Silence” is almost the mission statement of the record, a song of hope that builds and builds to a powerful climax. “They thought the desert would divide us, they filled our hearts and hands with violence, it’s time to leave the fields behind us, in silence…” It’s gorgeous. The final two songs put lie to its redemptive tone, however – “Murderer” finds the singer offering his services to God, standing ready to do his “dirty work,” and “Violent Past” ends the record on a note of hopelessness. It’s all a cycle, violence begets violence, and it’s inescapable. Forever and ever, amen.

Drums and Guns covers a wide breadth, and all of that in 41 minutes. It is, sonically, the most fascinating album of the year thus far, and lyrically, a powerful statement in miniature about the planet we all share. This is an incredibly brave record – it sounds nothing like anything else out there right now, and very little like Low, either. But it is the only album I’ve heard thus far in 2007 that sounds birthed from necessity, like it simply had to be made, and made this way. It’s astonishing.

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Which brings us to the 1st quarter report, and it’s no surprise that the Low album made its way onto the list at the 11th hour. The rest should be no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention over the past three months. It’s only the order of the entries that I struggled with.

The coolest thing? It’s only the end of March, and I would stack this list up against the final drafts from several of the previous years of this column. Best year ever. Here’s the list:

#10. Menomena, Friend and Foe.
#9. Joy Electric, The Otherly Opus.
#8. Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City.
#7. Loney, Dear, Loney, Noir.
#6. Low, Drums and Guns.
#5. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.
#4. Explosions in the Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone.
#3. Aqualung, Memory Man.
#2. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible.
#1. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away.

As I said earlier, this will change next week, when Silverchair comes out. Plus, I’m expecting new ones from Fountains of Wayne, Marillion, Jonatha Brooke, Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, Wilco, and numerous others that could land on this list before long. Check with me in three months and we’ll see where we are.

Next week, Young Modern and Traffic and Weather.

See you in line Tuesday morning.