Happiness is the Road
The Lost Dogs Hit Route 66 for Their Best Album Ever

I live about an hour away from the starting point of Route 66.

I can pick up the famous Mother Road a lot closer, but if I want to start at the beginning, I only need to drive into Chicago, something I do all the time. Then, if I so choose, I can follow the road west like so many migrants during the Dust Bowl era, traveling all the way to California. The western end point is a little farther south these days – the Santa Monica pier – and the route is a series of different highways now, since Route 66 was discontinued in 1985. But the journey itself is remarkably similar.

Route 66 is almost a cliché at this point, a symbol of old America and a metaphor for any pilgrimage you want to illustrate. But there’s still gold in them there hills, and decades of mining hasn’t diminished the simple power of the image. I’ve never seen a band commit to it quite like the Lost Dogs did in 2008: they decided to make the trip themselves, climbing into an old van in Chicago and driving it out to California. Along the way, they played shows, visited landmarks, met people, and wrote songs.

It was certainly a move loaded with symbolism. The Dogs are all middle-aged men now, and their journey hasn’t been what any one of them would have expected. Who could have known that this good-time Americana side project would turn into such a long-running partnership? Who could have foreseen the death of one of their own, the late great Gene Eugene, 10 years ago? Who could have guessed the Dogs would continue, but that it would be a decade before they completed their long, slow climb back?

Terry Taylor, Derri Daugherty and Mike Roe have been through a lot together. They’ve all still got their own projects – Daugherty’s, the Choir, has a new album set for next month, in fact – but they’re devoted to each other, and the Lost Dogs. After Eugene’s death in 2000, they persevered, and they’ve made good-to-great albums since then. They added Choir drummer Steve Hindalong four years ago for the best of the bunch, The Lost Cabin and the Mystery Trees. It was the start of a rebirth, the best thing they’d done since they became a three-legged dog. And now, that rebirth is complete.

The Dogs’ journey across Route 66 has not only strengthened their bond, it has gifted them with what might be the best album they’ve ever made. It’s called Old Angel, and it’s the longest, most varied, most confident, and most complete Lost Dogs album in 10 years. It’s a record about setting out to find God and America, and ending up finding yourself. It is funny without being goofy, and at times heart-stoppingly beautiful. It is full of prayers and travelogues and glorious songs of wonder and joy.

It is an earthy album, built largely on acoustic guitars, but it is also a remarkably full, lush work. Opener “Israelites and Okies,” a hymn wishing pilgrims safe travels, is a pulsing, mellow introduction, Taylor’s voice joining with Daugherty’s and Roe’s in lovely harmony. It’s a whispered beckon to join them on their travels, and it sounds both like a dirt road and a spectral, golden path. The tone remains the same throughout – these are mostly simple, folksy songs, but the production is rich and bountiful. There are banjos and accordions and fiddles and pedal steel guitars and mandolins and all manner of percussion from Hindalong’s bag of tricks, and every element works.

Old Angel is also the most democratic Lost Dogs album since Eugene’s death. Half of the new songs are Taylor’s, the rest co-written by the Dogs in numerous combinations. The band also puts its own spin on a song from Taylor’s old band, Daniel Amos – “The Glory Road” stands as something of a mission statement, both a look back and a starting line. This version is better and brighter, but retains all of the original’s quirkiness.

But it’s the new songs that shine. Amidst the acoustic prayers, like the pretty “Traveling Mercies,” and the thunderous rockers like “Wicked Guns” (all about Wild Bill Hickock, if you can imagine), are songs unlike any the Lost Dogs have ever done. “America’s Main Street” is a blues-on-fire spoken word piece, Taylor nearly cracking himself up by the end. “Pearl Moon” is one of the most affecting, a dark piece about the inhabitants of a Depression-era slum, and its ghostly melodies will stay with you. “The World is Against Us” is a despairing a cappella piece, the Dogs’ voices entwining on the final verse to amazing effect.

This album is wonderful all the way through, but near the end, it truly takes flight. “Desert Flowers” was written after a visit to Red Sands Mission School, on an Arizona Navajo reservation, and it’s unforgettable. “In defiance of scorching suns and prophets of doom, desert flowers still bloom,” Daugherty sings, before the band launches into a refrain sung in Navajo, and complete with Native American drumming. After that, you need a break, and “Dead End Diner” obliges – the funniest and best of the “rest stop songs” here, this one allows bass god Tim Chandler a chance to do his molten lava thing under a bed of ringing guitars. As the backing vocalists note that “Obama’s on the radio,” Taylor sings to his waitress, “Keep the change, honey.”

But it is “Carry Me” where the album reveals its heart. A simple acoustic ballad, this song takes on grand proportions in Mike Roe’s hands – he sings it like an angel, feeling every note. “Carry me, I’m too proud to crawl, carry me, I’m too tired to run, carry me over Mojave, under the Navajo sun…” It is an acknowledgement that we cannot make the journey alone. We need each other, and we need something greater.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Old Angel, but this album has left me in awe. There have been times over the last 10 years when I’ve stuck with the Lost Dogs simply because I love these guys, but with this record, they’ve completed their long, strange trip home. It may be their best ever. It may even be one of the best of the year. It is, most certainly, a wonderful set of songs by a band that’s done finding its way, and is ready for whatever’s next. I’ve loved every Lost Dogs album, but I don’t think I’ve ever loved one as much as this.

Try it here. But it here. Now, if the Choir album is this good, I’ll be a happy music fan.

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I have never been able to properly describe Hammock.

I think they’re the greatest shoegazer band in the world, but that means nothing to anyone not familiar with the term. And it doesn’t quite capture them, either, since shoegaze music is often characterized by a huge wall of distorted sound (see My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain), and you’ll never hear that from Hammock. What they do is more like what former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie does, but bigger and thicker and more melodic. Their sound is guitar-based, but the guitars sound like wisps of clouds, and the whole thing has an unearthly quality beyond words.

Yeah, it drives me somewhat mad that I can’t adequately tell you what Hammock sounds like. But then I put on one of their records, and I’m overcome, stunned speechless by the infinite beauty of the music. And that’s all it will take for you, too. You don’t need me on this one. So all I’m going to do is talk a little about how great the new Hammock album, Chasing After Shadows… Living With the Ghosts is, and suggest you purchase it. If you want to save some time, seriously, just scroll down to the link at the end of this review.

The basics: Hammock is Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson. Byrd plays impossibly gorgeous guitar that rarely sounds like a guitar. Thompson plays electronics that rarely sound like electronics. This new album is 72 minutes of the greatest ambient instrumental wonderamas they’ve ever made. Some of these songs have drums (by the great Steve Hindalong, among others), some of them don’t. Many of them are augmented with delicately arranged strings. (“The Whole Catastrophe” makes stunning use of them.) Vocals, when there are vocals, are usually wordless, and sometimes sung by Byrd’s angel-voiced wife Christine Glass Byrd.

Much of this album was mixed by Tim Powles of the Church. The songs that weren’t were mixed by Derri Daugherty of the Choir. If you know these names, you know they’re marks of quality. These 12 songs all have a cascading, washing-over-you feeling to them, especially “Andalusia” and the amazing nine-minute “You Lost the Starlight in Your Eyes,” the one song with lyrics. If you need more incentive to buy, the limited edition of Chasing After Ghosts comes with a hardbound photo book by Thomas Petillo, and a four-song EP of even more otherworldly goodness.

Blah blah blah. Hammock doesn’t need me to describe them for you either. This is music that’s meant to be experienced, loudly in a darkened room. It is transporting in the best sense of the word. I can do nothing for this record that one listen through couldn’t do a million times better. So what are you waiting for? Go here.

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Sticking with the mellow theme, then:

Of all the bands championed by the indie press, I don’t think I’ve heard a more depressingly average one than the National. I’d love to be on board with this band, since on paper, they sound like one I would like. A Brooklyn quintet based around two pairs of brothers and a singer with a distinctive baritone, the National writes slow songs built on atmosphere. True, they used to rock a bit more, but with 2007’s The Boxer, they settled into a hushed, reserved groove. Everyone and their brothers went nuts over The Boxer, but I thought it nudged perilously close to boring more often than not.

The National’s new album is called High Violet, and while it’s fuller and richer, it’s not any louder, or any more memorable. I would like to like this thing, but I can’t find very much to hang my ear on. The songs are just as skeletal as those on The Boxer, only here they’re covered in strings and percussion and various effects. I like the ones with a pulse, like “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” but I can’t remember them, and ditties like “Lemonworld” pass by without leaving a mark. I’ve heard High Violet three times now, and I couldn’t hum most of the songs if I had to.

Perhaps that’s not the point. Maybe they’re aiming for the same space as Hammock, and the mood is what’s important here. But if so, I don’t think they’ve done that very well either. The album is full to bursting with sound, but it all collapses into sonic mud. Matt Berninger’s voice is arresting when it sits atop stark backdrops, but here, it just fills in the bass register a little more without standing out. Dynamically speaking, this is flat and boring – it’s thick and massive, but it just lies there, not moving.

Good songs can survive overeager production, but these are not very good songs. My favorite is “England,” and even that is repetitive and melodically nonexistent. In the end, these songs aren’t atmospheric enough to be the out-of-body experience they want, and they’re not well-written enough to demand my attention. They just spill out of the speakers and collapse in front of you. I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but for the life of me, I just don’t understand the acclaim this band gets. There’s just nothing here I respond to.

Faring much better is Mark Eitzel, the sad-sack leader of American Music Club. It’s been five years since Eitzel graced us with a solo album, and his last one was the bizarre, half-instrumental Candy Ass. While American Music Club has essentially plied the same trade for its entire career, Eitzel’s solo output has been widely varied, jumping from jazz-pop to electronica to stark folk to covers of his own songs with traditional Greek musicians.

His new one, Klamath, is no exception. This one seems to combine many of Eitzel’s fascinations – it’s dark and dreary, based around acoustic guitars and thumping bass, but sprinkled with electronic atmospheres, and propelled by subtle drum machines. The songs are mostly laments, delightfully depressing slices of melancholy, and the tempo rarely rises above a watery calm. Eitzel’s voice, as always, can make anything feel like a soundtrack to slitting your wrists, and it’s well-suited to this material.

And these are strong songs, the strongest to appear on an Eitzel album since The Invisible Man, back in 2001. “The Blood on My Hands” will stay with you, its pitch-dark gracefulness accented by bell-like piano notes. “There’s Someone Waiting” is built on an electronic vibraphone pattern and a monotone verse, but the harmonies on the chorus are splendid. The strummed “What Do You Got for Me” is the album’s high point, its relatively upbeat melody positively drowned in keyboard drones and crashing piano runs. (Trust me, it works.)

Klamath is, in fact, Eitzel’s strongest solo effort in almost a decade. That’s why it’s such a shame that no U.S. label would release it. Eitzel’s been forced to press this record up himself, and package it in a minimalist sleeve. It won’t be sold in stores, or on iTunes, he says, but only at his website. I nearly missed this album – it came out in late 2009 – and I bet I’m not alone. The fact that only a handful of very attentive people will get to hear this album is a crying shame, because it’s further proof that there’s only one Mark Eitzel, and he’s pretty great.

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We’re careening full speed toward the end of my list of the top 20 records of the 2000s. In fact, after I reveal #2, there’s no way most of you won’t guess the top pick. But hell, I’m committed. Here we go.

#2. Rufus Wainwright, Want (2003/2004).

I’ve been having an argument with a colleague about Rufus Wainwright lately. Specifically, about Wainwright’s new album All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu, on which he pays tribute to his departed mother by singing some very sad songs alone at a piano. I think it’s beautiful stuff, while my friend says it barely even meets the definition of art. It’s a risky record, and a divisive one, and while I love it, I can see why others are turned off.

I can’t imagine having the same discussion about Want, Wainwright’s finest hour. (Well, closer to two hours, really.) Want is a double album released in halves over two years, but it’s meant to be heard together (and was packaged that way in a reissue). This is everything you need to know about the finest songwriter to emerge in the last 15 years, an almost overwhelming tour de force that plays like a variety show. On this album, Wainwright can do no wrong, and on these two discs, you will find the best pop songs (and songs of many other stripes) of the decade.

Want is sort of like Rufus Wainwright’s White Album, on which he tries everything and anything. Its sprawl is a big part of its charm – Wainwright’s persona has always been one of excess, of a showman trying hard not to let his mask slip. Ironically, he has always used this masquerade game to write intensely personal songs, and then dress them up in lavish arrangements and take them out to dance. Here, he sings about his own narcissism, his addictive personality, and his aching desire to connect with people, but he does so with beautiful, singable explosions of multicolor sound.

Though it is one complete album, Wainwright put the more accessible material on disc one, and the more esoteric on disc two. That makes Want One the better of them, for me, since it’s a non-stop carnival ride of wondrous melodies. Just “I Don’t Know What it Is,” by itself, would sell me on this record, but we also have the ever-building drama of “Go or Go Ahead,” the infinite sadness of “Pretty Things,” the kitschy fun of “Vibrate,” and the inescapable joy of “Beautiful Child.” Even the often-overlooked ones are masterpieces – Paul McCartney could not have written a more lovely song of friendship than “Natasha,” for instance.

Above all this is Wainwright’s voice, once a thin buzz but now a golden instrument. He puts those unique pipes through their paces here, and the results are wonderful. The melodies are even more complex on Want Two, but given time, they resonate with greater depth. Who else would start the second disc with a six-minute spectral lament sung entirely in Latin? Who else would give us the prim and proper “The Art Teacher” next to the unrepentantly silly “Hometown Waltz,” and who else could deliver a one-two punch of glorious sadness like “Memphis Skyline” and “Waiting for a Dream”? And then there is the magnificently filthy “Gay Messiah,” Wainwright’s most confident step into camp territory.

Everything here is given exactly the right amount of too much by Wainwright and producer Marius de Vries. Horns blare, strings soothe, pianos pound, choirs sing (most strikingly on “14th Street”), and oceans of backing vocals take the songs to new heights. But when needed, everything drops away – “Pretty Things” is an oasis of calm in the middle of the mayhem, and the quieter moments on Want Two are the album’s most heartbreaking. It is one of the most perfectly-made records I own, juggling huge waves of sound and never losing the emotional soul of the songs.

The picture that emerges is of a brilliant songwriter finding his voice. There is nothing here that doesn’t work – even the nine-minute orchestral-prog closer “Old Whore’s Diet,” a duet with Antony Hegarty, ends up as sublime fun. I mentioned earlier that this is Wainwright’s White Album, and I know I’ve placed it on this list ahead of a number of Sgt. Peppers. But I feel very strongly about Want. No other artist’s work fills me with such absolute joy. This is delirious, ambitious, utterly fantastic (in every sense of the word) music, and it makes my heart sing. No other record I heard last decade made me quite as happy to be alive as this one.

But it’s not number one. Next week, some honorable mentions, and on June 2, my choice for the best album of the 2000s.

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Next week, more and more again, with the Black Keys, Band of Horses, LCD Soundsystem, Stone Temple Pilots, Michael Roe, and anything else that comes my way. Also, I will probably have something to say about the end of Lost. 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.