The Year’s First Great Record
And a Couple Other Pretty Good Ones

Hooray, the good stuff is finally coming out. Let’s not waste any more time and get right down to it.

You can often judge a year by how long it takes for the first great album to hit stores. It’s not a foolproof method, I’ll grant you, but consider this: the first two months of the year are generally a cultural wasteland. Lousy movies, TV shows slowly trickling back onto our screens, and albums shunted off into that limbo between Christmas and spring. Some years, it takes until April for a really great album to make its presence known. If the good stuff starts coming out early, that’s usually a sign that there’s much more goodness to come.

I’m starting to have high hopes for 2013. We’re not even out of January and we already have the year’s first great record. I’m talking about Wolf’s Law, the sophomore album from Welsh trio The Joy Formidable, one of the most striking bands to hit these shores in years. A stranger and more intricate effort, Wolf’s Law isn’t getting quite the same amount of love from critics as their blood rush of a debut, The Big Roar. But I think this record outdoes the first one in a lot of important ways, playing to the band’s ambition while maintaining their edge.

The Joy Formidable is loud. For three people, they make a convincing riff-rock racket, locking into a fuzzy, constantly-moving groove on most of these songs. Their sound on record has a decidedly ‘90s sheen – I once said they sound like Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins might have, if Billy Corgan had let D’Arcy sing. Wolf’s Law builds on that foundation, adding strings and keys and harps. But if you’re worried that the increased studiocraft might dull their bite, listen to “Cholla,” the rough, explosive first single. Ritzy Bryan has a sweet, melodic voice, but she shreds on guitar, and the song’s tumbling riff will smack you bloody.

While the band has been careful to keep the thick guitar-rock sound at the core of this album, Wolf’s Law is a far more textured work. It’s Rhydian Dafydd’s bass that anchors the brief, awesome “Little Blimp,” and the tender “Silent Treatment” sticks to delicate acoustic guitar throughout. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the amazing “Maw Maw Song,” which begins and ends with plucked harps, and in between drops the biggest, most Zeppelin riff of the album. The verses speed along on what sounds like synth bass, colliding with that riff on the choruses, and making room for a two-minute arpeggiated guitar solo. The song is, hands down, the most fascinating thing here.

But the Joy Formidable is just as great when they tackle the shorter, more volatile tunes. Strings augment the likes of “Forest Serenade” and the infectious opener, “This Ladder is Ours,” but you won’t really care that they’re there – these songs are all about Bryan’s guitar, and Matt Thomas’ thunderous drums. The songs are all sharply written, even though it’s hard to tell what they’re about. “The Leopard and the Lung,” for instance, was reportedly inspired by activist Wangari Maathai, but it’s much more broad and enigmatic in its sentiments: “Hate, it’s going to overrun this town, as soon as the moon goes to nothing, wait, they’re always going to run you down, it’s better to face my something.”

Those who decried The Big Roar for eschewing a live sound in favor of studio bigness will probably have the same complaints about this album, if not more so. The album closes with a pair of sweeping mid-tempo pieces, the soaring “The Turnaround” and the piano-based title song, included as a hidden track. They don’t rock, but they are terrific. Wolf’s Law is the sound of the Joy Formidable kicking against their own idea, not content to just be a rock band. They are that, certainly, and much of Wolf’s Law rocks like thunder, but this album proves they’re aiming higher.

It remains to be seen if they can get higher than this. Wolf’s Law is a decidedly strange album – just listen to “Bats” – but a terrific one, and it showcases an ambitious band doing it right. They came in with a big roar, but the best moments of this album prove they can do more than shout. Wolf’s Law is the first great album of 2013, and I can’t wait to hear what this band does next.

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If the young’uns know David Lowery at all these days, it’s probably for his extraordinary open letter to NPR intern Emily White last year, excoriating her for stealing music online. It was a cranky yet well-reasoned argument, and for a while, Lowery was at the center of the debate, his thoughts becoming a rallying point for musicians tired of seeing their profits shrink. The controversy returned Lowery to the headlines after a long absence, and I wondered how many people reading that letter were hearing his name for the first time.

To be fair, it had been a while since Lowery had done anything worth hearing. His solo effort from 2011, The Palace Guards, was fair to middling, and Cracker’s last few efforts have been… well, they’ve been Cracker albums. Though Cracker is his most famous band, Lowery’s legacy will always be tied to the great Camper Van Beethoven, a band he co-founded in 1983. They have one of the greatest band names in history, and a discography that jumps wildly from the silly to the sublime. If you’re new to Lowery, you need to start with Camper.

And if you want a good jumping on point, I’m pleased to report that the brand new CVB album, La Costa Perdida, is surprisingly excellent. Reportedly inspired by their California roots – the title translates to The Lost Coast – this album is everything the last CVB record, the overheated New Roman Times, wasn’t. It’s the most straight-faced album they’ve made, in any of their incarnations, but there’s a playfulness to it, a sense of freedom and joy that had been missing.

Opener “Come Down the Coast” has rocketed near the top of my list of favorite Lowery songs, in a very short time. It’s a peaceful, swaying number, buoyed by Jonathan Segel’s mandolin and some lovely backing vocals. (There’s a strong Beach Boys influence on much of this record.) The band effectively tackles the blues on “You Got to Roll,” and stretches its surf-rock wings on “Too High for the Love-In.” That one ends with Lowery repeating, “Bring to me the anti-venom, and make me a sandwich.” Just in case you thought they might be taking themselves too seriously.

“Peaches in the Summertime” is just fun, its reggae-punk beat finding room for Segel’s violin. (That instrument gets quite a workout on this album, actually.) First single “Northern California Girls” is here in all its seven-minute strummy glory, Lowery’s shimmery accents lifting what is a pretty simple tune. The title song is a galloping, down-home, skipping country-reggae delight, and closer “A Love For All Time” is decidedly wistful and nostalgic.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Camper Van Beethoven album this much. If you were turned off by the odd, dense rock opera they turned in last time, it’s safe to come on back. And if you’ve never heard CVB before, you could do worse than starting here. (But definitely get the older ones too.) La Costa Perdida may not be instant-classic David Lowery, but it’s closer than I expected we’d ever get again. He may be more famous these days for railing against illegal downloading, but with this album, he’s made perhaps his strongest case for buying and supporting the work of musicians. If Lowery still has music like this in him, I want him to be able to make more of it, and ensuring that is worth my ten bucks.

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I vowed at the start of the year to try out more unfamiliar bands and artists. The first one I took a gamble on this year was Mountains, and it certainly paid off.

Mountains is a duo from New York by way of Chicago, and their fifth album is called Centralia. I’d never heard a note of their work before plunking down my money for this, but the descriptions I’d read – promising slowly-unfolding worlds of sound – made it an enticing prospect. Centralia is an entirely drum-less work, almost a drone album, but its textures and attention to detail offer a widescreen experience I haven’t heard from similar artists.

Opening track “Sand,” for instance, plays with shimmering keys over a constant one-note bed, but when the cellos come in at the nine-minute mark, it’s almost revelatory. Second song “Identical Ship” is built on an acoustic guitar whisper, atmospheric synths swirling around it. Throughout this long album, the two masterminds (Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp) set up contrasts between stillness and movement, amplifying the former to such a degree that any instance of the latter is monumental. The rotating bass line that snakes beneath “Circular C,” for instance, would be lost in any other context, but is captivating here.

Centralia also plays with contrasts between the electronic and the organic. Much of this album was performed live, and pianos and guitars sit nicely beside the wavery, watery keyboards that were added later. The result is surprisingly emotional music – the main acoustic melody of “Tilt” that starts about two minutes in sounds limitless in its joy, and the dark and droning keys that surround it only add to that sensation. The centerpiece of this album is the 20-minute “Propeller,” and it shifts and moves through electronic and organic sections with ease. The buzzsaw guitar noise that springs forth from “Liana” is initially jarring, but ends up fitting in perfectly.

I’ve never heard anything quite like Centralia, but I’m eager to hear more. This record has a warmth and a soul missing from a lot of electro-ambient efforts, and a real, human beauty winds its way through these seven tracks. It’s an entrancing, lovely album, one that requires attention and patience to fully absorb. I’m glad to give it both, and I’ll be seeking out this band’s earlier works, while awaiting future ones with great anticipation.

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Pretty great start to the year, no?

Before signing off, I wanted to mention Jonathan Coulton. I don’t have a lot to say about his situation with Glee, as it seems cut and dried to me – the show stole Coulton’s 2005 arrangement of “Baby Got Back,” and offered him no credit or acknowledgement. This isn’t the first time that Glee’s producers have done this, either – Greg Laswell, for instance, created the slow, mourning version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” that the show also ripped off. Fox is apparently within its legal rights, but morally, it’s a real dick move, particularly for the makers of a show about the triumph of the little guy.

Coulton’s response, however, has been magnificent, and I wanted to highlight it. This weekend, he re-released his version of “Baby Got Back,” which of course sounds identical to the one aired on Glee. He has cheekily subtitled it “In the Style of Glee,” and he promises to give all his proceeds for the track through the end of February to charity. Specifically, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project. So all the money he gets from this firestorm of publicity will go to further music education and help LGBT kids accept themselves.

That might be the classiest thing I’ve seen in some time. Coulton is still investigating the possibility that Fox used his actual recorded backing track for their “Baby Got Back,” and if they did, expect a lawsuit. (And a bunch of clever headlines.) But this move, supporting causes that should be close to Glee fans’ hearts, just proves that Coulton is a guy worth knowing, and worth following. You should buy his “Baby Got Back,” because it’s funny, but you should also hear his plethora of smart, charming original material. It’s what won him the legion of fans you’ve seen leaping to his defense over the past week.

While I appreciate Coulton’s graceful reaction to this mess, I secretly hope he has a legal claim here. That’s probably the only thing that will stop Fox from doing this sort of thing again. Keep up with the latest at Jonathan’s site.

Next week, an avalanche of new stuff, including Eels, Frightened Rabbit, Tegan and Sara and Local Natives. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Twitter @tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.