I’m preparing to go out on the road to promote my latest, Hard Revolution. Among the many items in my suitcase will be my battered old Walkman, a box of spare AA batteries, and a CD wallet containing the following:
Comin’ From Where I’m From, by Anthony Hamilton
If this was just a good soul CD in the tradition of Otis Redding, as some have suggested, there would be no reason to own it, as you’d do better to buy the remasters of the Otis originals. But this marries 60’s soul, 70s funk and slo-jam, and 80’s electro-soul with modern beats, resulting in a sound both familiar and fresh. Hamilton’s passion for the material and the form is evident in each cut, and man, this guy can sing. Here, he steps up and grabs the neo-soul crown like a man who knows he has one last chance. The best record of its kind since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Get Happy, by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
The original had twenty tracks, a mix of ska, Merseybeat, country, ballad, waltz, rave-up, Motown and Stax/Volt soul, performed by Elvis and the Attractions at their raging peak. The new Rhino re-release/remaster adds thirty tracks of alternative versions, demos and live performances, all of them worthwhile. That’s fifty killer tracks for the price of a single CD. Uncut magazine recently called Get Happy “the encyclopedia of rock and soul.” I say it’s one of the greatest rock and roll albums ever recorded. What are you waiting for?
Youth and Young Manhood by Kings of Leon
You might have been put off by the too-easy marketing hook (three-brothers-and-a-cousin, sons of a traveling Pentecostal minister) or the labeling of the lazy rock press, who have incorrectly dubbed them the New Skynyrd and/or the Southern Strokes (they sound like neither group). But if all the hype has kept you away from this, you are missing out on the one of the most energetic records of 2003. There are some obvious influences here—Dylan, Mick, Ian Hunter, Tom Petty, Allmanesque guitars-but, trust me, this is brand new, as in, rock and roll that only the young and the cock-strong can create. Great songs (“Joe’s Head”), unbridled performances (“Trani”), and even a single (“Molly’s Chambers”) that makes you reach for the volume knob every time it comes up on the radio. Not to mention, these guys look like genuine freaks. Plus, the coolest band name, and record title, to come down the pike in years.
The Convincer, by Nick Lowe
I resisted this for a long time because of the cover photograph, depicting an immaculately attired, gray-haired Lowe in what can only be described as an anti-rock pose. Nick the Knife as Nat King Cole the English Gentleman just didn’t appeal to me, I guess. Now I wonder why I waited so long to add this to my collection. This is a great set of songs, wonderfully presented by a crack band and sung by a mature artist at the top of his game. Thank you, Nick Branchina.
American IV: The Man Comes Around, by Johnny Cash
Here is the final chapter in the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash sessions—the finest consecutive recordings of his career—and a fitting sendoff for a true legend. Cash kicks off the set with one of his best originals, “The Man Comes Around,” then proceeds to cover himself, Trent Reznor, Simon and Garfunkle, Sting, The Eagles, Hank Williams, Roberta Flack, The Beatles, and others. On paper the play list sounds dubious (okay, “Desperado” cannot be saved) but the resulting tracks, reinvented, are often astonishing. Spare instrumentation and the fragile voice of Cash give this the feel of a swan song and lend it permanence. If you think you are too rock, too young, or too hip-hop for this, you are mistaken. You only need be human to appreciate the beauty of this record and be moved by it. The soundtrack to your next late-night, stare-into-the-fire soul search.
Thickfreakness, by The Black Keys
This Akron, Ohio duo play guitar and drums like a four-piece. People compare these guys to The White Stripes because of the unusual instrumental lineup (no bass, though you wouldn’t know it by listening to the record), but The Black Keys are less punk hipsters than they are tradition benders, mutating Delta Blues via Zep and Cream. Another great party record from the folks at Fat Possum.
Darker than Blue: Soul from Jamdown 1973-1980
From Blood and Fire records out of England, a compilation of Jamaican covers of US soul hits from the 60s and 70s. Sometimes this kind of project comes off as a novelty, but Darker than Blue works in a big way because much of what the black American artists were singing about at the time was equally relevant to the black artists and musicians in Jamaica. That is, the passion and reverence for the material is obvious in each track. For proof, listen to Ken Boothe’s take on Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black?,” Milton Henry’s version of The Impressions’ “Gypsy Women,” or Tinga Stewart’s seven minute cover of Timmy Thomas’s immortal “Why Can’t We Live Together?” And just in case you still think that all reggae sounds alike, this collection features down-the-way funk workouts, inventive horn charts, made-for-headphones dub tracks (“Get Ready”), and unusual instrumental touches, like the melodica work on the Lloyd Charmers version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Darker Than Blue.” Eighteen cuts, extensive liner notes, period photographs, cool recreations of the original .45s, and beautifully packaged. This one comes courtesy of “Cool” Dave Slater.
Decoration Day, by Drive By Truckers
The latest DBT is not as monster-riff heavy as its predecessor, Southern Rock Opera, but it is a more impressive feat of songwriting and nuanced performance. These guys can still rock, as on the memorable “(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon” and the epic title track, and they can do the dirty blues (“Your Daddy Hates Me”) as well. But it’s the acoustic numbers in the middle section of the record—”My Sweet Annette,” “Outfit,” “Heathens,” “Sounds Better in the Song”—that stay with you. The overall effect is like “listening” to a novel by Daniel Woodrell or Chris Offutt. It’s that good.
Electric Version, by The New Pornographers
This Vancouver supergroup’s debut, Mass Romantic, was hailed as the second coming, and some folks like it better than this, their sophomore effort. I bought Electric Version first, so it’s my only frame of reference, and I like it fine. It’s energetic rock from the American school of New Wave, with intricate production and hooks galore. Unlike on most records, where the group shoots their wad in the first few songs, this one picks up steam and quality as it moves along. Nice sleeve photos of Neko Case, too.
Deliverance, by Bubba Sparxxx
This guy is no joke. Deliverance is, track for track, one of the most consistent, exciting hip/hop records of the year, and a New South classic in the bargain. Executive producer: Timbaland.
Station to Station, by David Bowie
“The return of the thin white duke throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” So begins the leadoff track of this 1976 release, one of Bowie’s very best and my personal favorite of his catalogue. In its digitally remastered version, this now sounds flawless and should be a part of anyone’s core collection. It showcases Bowie at his creative peak, moving from funk (“Golden Days,” “Stay”), robotic dance-rock (“TVC15”), to ballad (“Word on a Wing”). Among the crack band: Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitars and Roy Bittan on piano. Many consider the title cut, clocking in at 10:11 (on the eve of punk, no less), to be the pinnacle of Bowie’s art. I’ll give that honor to “Wild is the Wind,” a Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington composition that builds slowly to a spine-chilling payoff, with a not-of-this-planet Bowie going off like a man possessed. It is one of the great pop music performances ever recorded, and a perfect finish to this for-the-ages record.
Alternate: Scary Monsters, for the astonishing guitar work of Robert Fripp.
When I Pretend to Fall, by The Long Winter
Here’s a rarity, a solid pop/rock record filled with superior songwriting and craft. Takes you back to a time when a rock band wasn’t afraid to bring on the funk, the psychedelia, and the pop, often at once. Take “Scared Straight,” where the Winters evoke the ghosts of Stax/Volt, call and response club acts, and brass-heavy bands like the late, great If. More than anything, this brings to mind the joyous energy of early-80s, college-radio groups like Let’s Active and Love Tractor. Jim Saah turned me on to this, a genuine surprise.
It Still Fits, by My Morning Jacket
If you have been burned in the past, as I have, by critics who have praised bands like Spiritualized for their “interesting,” but completely unexciting, un-rock music, you have a right to be wary of My Morning Jacket, which has been getting a whole lot of good press for their latest, It Still Fits. But this is a complex record that also swings, combining the best of the past (The Band, Neil Young, Floyd, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the ghost of BOC’s Buck Dharma on guitar) and the near-present (Built to Spill). And it “scans” from song to song, naturally, the way albums used to do. They’ve got a nice live sound here, too, with Jim James having reportedly recorded his vocals in a grain silo to get the full reverb effect. Give this a few listens, as the hooks take some time to sink in. As they say in the classic car ads, no disappointments. In a word: Majestic.