Very few albums have dropped me to my knees as of late. Can't really recall anything mind-blowing in the past year. Oh well, so it goes in the land of the single download. Why even bother with an entire disc when you can buy or P2P a hot MP3? Reminds me of my days combing through the 45 racks at the local record store back in Akron. I get a warm fuzzy feeling thinking about the Saturday I begged my aunt to take me to her local record store and she bought me The Beatles' "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" single on Capitol Records. Can you imagine buying a single with a "B" side that strong today? As a music fan, I want to, I really do. Now I get to cherry pick the tracks from a stack of CDs sitting on my desk. That means I still have to listen to an entire CD and try to find that moment when I can't wait to hit the repeat button. Not easy. And especially not easy with the hype of publicists and press releases and blogs with no sense of rock history. Think about all the sites that fling 4- and 5-star reviews at a new bands' CD. I can only chuckle and imagine those classic albums from the '60/'70s must be at least 20-star reviews in comparison. (The Doors' debut, below, is a perfect example.) But age can give one a certain advantageous perspective when writing about the arts. Okay, enough harping about the good ol' days, let's get down to my current picks for the spring 2008.
Sun Kil Moon: April (Caldo Verde)
On his third SKM effort, and one of his finest efforts to date, Mark Kozelek stays the course, building on his signature sound he developed with his first SF-based outfit Red House Painters so many years ago. His long brooding, laconic tunes are fully realized. Think Neil Young; slowed and deliberate, plenty of space from the drums and bass; part acoustic splendor, part electric guitar ferociousness. "Tonight the Sky," clocking in at 10:21, perfectly captures that prowess; "Like a Hurricane" meets "Ohio" (listen to his opening riff for a variation on that theme). This is one of the few CDs I've listened to start to finish on several occasions. Perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Mia Doi Todd: Gea (City Zen)
I love her classically trained voice, Nick Drake-like arrangements--nylon string guitar plucking, woodwinds and strings, conga-driven folk rock--and ten swirling, ethereal songs. On her sixth CD, she's like some forgotten English siren from the late '60s, even though she's very much alive and breathing in LA. Some critics hated her Mitchell Froom-produced, electronica-tweaked major-label debut The Golden State (Sony, 2002). I thought it brilliant, and it's and a perfect complement to this emotionally vulnerable effort, especially on the seductively simple lover's lament "Sleepless Nights."
Swamp Cabbage: Squeal (Zoho Music)
This Northeast Florida trio has a stripped-down, funkified Tom Waits-meets-ZZ Top vibe. Lead by the greasy fingerpickin' lickin' git-tar work and vocal snarl of Walter Parks, Richie Havens's guitarist since 2001, the songs drip sweat. Check out the Mardi Gras-flavored "New Voodoo Boogaloo" for some fatback crawfish blues.
Tyler Ramsey: A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea (Echo Mountain)
It took me a few spins to fully appreciate the sophomore effort by this Asheville, N.C.-based multiple instrumentalist, new guitarist in Band of Horses, and compelling singer/songwriter. But then I was transported back to days gone by; Neil Young's Harvest getting multiple turntable plays on some bleary-eyed Saturday afternoon. Not afraid to tackle one of my favorite Jackson Browne tracks, "These Days," which takes some serious balls especially given Nico's tremendous cover of said tune. Tyler makes it even more mournful with a quavering vocal on the verge of crumbling apart.
The Individuals: Fields/Aquamarine (Bar/None)
I admit I had a profound crush on Ohio-born bassist Janet Wygal back in 1981 -- even though the band was one of my favorites after moving to NYC during the short lived tenure -- and couldn't wait to tear into this reissue from guitarist/singer/songwriter (and Bar/None owner) Glenn Morrow. The power pop punk smarts of this Hoboken-based outfit still shine, especially on my favorite single, the quirky alt-pop-rockin' "Dancing With My Eighty Wives." Available everywhere July 22, 2008.
Al Green: Lay It Down (Blue Note)
The Reverend Al might have taught The Roots' ?uestlove more than the other way around on this wonderfully retrofitted CD. This is a vintage sound updated with the addition of guest vocalists John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, and Corinne Bailey Rae, plus the Dap-Kings Horns (Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse). All 11 songs work, even with the young guest vocalists, they really do, but I'm particularly moved by the horn-peppered, mid-tempo, love-centric "Just for Me."
Carter Burwell: In Brugess Soundtrack (Lakeshore)
Best known for his stellar soundtracks for early Coen Brother films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing) as well as the films Gods & Monsters, Velvet Goldmine and Being John Malkovich, the prolific N.Y.C.-based Burwell has composed a minor-key piano/chamber orchestra score that floats along with introspective grace. No easy feat when one considers that this an action/crime flick with plenty of dark humor starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Augmented by one of loveliest Townes Van Zandt ballads ever recorded, "St. John The Gambler," from his unheralded sophomore effort Our Mother the Mountain.
Jacob Golden: Revenge Songs (Echo)
Found this in the .99¢ bin at Academy Music in NY; the cover sticker boasting suspicious UK accolades. "The most gorgeous break-up record since Beck's Sea Change," stated Mojo. No, it's better. Born in SoCal, this Portland-based singer/songwriter's Art Garfunkel-like falsetto; simple, unadorned acoustic-driven sound; and pointed, postmortem relationship lyrics will stab you in the heart --again and again. Can't get it off my CD player, either. Check out his latest soul barring single "On A Saturday."
The Vulgar Boatman: You and Your Sister (Safe House)
"Drive Somewhere" is one of those songs that I'll never get tired of playing. Jangly R.E.M.-like guitars interweave with a galloping drumbeat. Perfect folk-rock pop for any road trip. I sure wish my friend--and label owner--Jim Reynolds would remaster this 1989 classic by Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence; it's so worthy. I forgot how much I loved it, until Jim gave me a copy from his personal archives.
The Doors: The Doors (Eagle Rock DVD)
"This is the end / my only friend, the end." Yes, this is how albums used to be constructed. And the audacious debut by Jim Morrison and The Doors is a complete masterwork -- a Classic Album. Watching this Bob Smeaton-directed documentary on recording it in 1967 leaves little doubt. And listening to the surviving members (Densmore, Krieger, Manzarek), their original engineer (Bruce Botnick), label owner (Jac Holzman), other contemporary musicians (Henry Rollins, Perry Farrell), and even beat era poet Michael McClure express their awe over this daring accomplishment only reinforces the deserved praise. The sprawling Oedipal climax--"The End"--should be more than enough proof of their majesty and mastery of rock.
David Ogilvy: Heaven & Earth (Thumbpick)
Rootsy musings from this London-based Scottish/American singer/songwriter. David possesses a James Taylor-meets-J.J. Cale quality with his easy vocal delivery (even after several throat operations), multi-string instrument proficiency, and Americana-leaning songwriting chops. On his third effort he offers plenty of heartfelt and engaging ballads, some clever cover arrangements (including Dylan's "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and Andy Williams's "Can't Get Used to Losing You"), and my favorite, the engaging up-tempo, blacktop-chugging "Roadmap."
This leaves me with one question: Who on the current music landscape is up to this task? Who in the last year, or even five years, has produced a masterpiece, start to finish? If anyone can recommend any other CDs that hold together from beginning to end, please share them with me, and our devoted readers.