Category Archives: Music — 2000s

Top 20 Albums of 2010: #20-10

#20. Old 97’sThe Grand Theatre, Vol. 1
The Old 97’s continue their winning streak, even they did just squeak in at #20 (beating out all theHonorable Mentions, many of whom could realistically occupy this space.) This powerhouse country-rock quartet once again makes its traditional appearance on the Holy Bee’s Best Of list. The Old 97’s are my musical comfort food, and while they may never again reach the heights of Too Far To Care or Satellite Rides, their charisma and eminently agreeable blend of rollicking Tex-Mex and bubblegum power pop is something I can listen to at any time in any mood. Old 97’s are the old standbys. Bless ‘em.

#19. The Constellations Southern Gothic
This mixed-gender collective presents a travelogue through the sometimes seedy nightlife of their native Atlanta. Harnessing a jam-band mentality to a hip-hop framework, the best Constellations songs are so insanely catchy that they border on commercial jingles (“We’re Here To Save The Day,” “Felicia”), and even their worst make you admire their moxie (a nine-minute cover of Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up”? Really?). A word of warning: visually, they’re a nightmare, encapsulating everything hateful about insufferably smug “quirky” hipsters. (Avoid pictures of them. They will make you stabby. OK, click here at the risk of ruining your enjoyment of their music.) Continue reading

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Top Albums of 2010: Honorable Mentions

It’s that time of year. For the fourth time, the Holy Bee presents its Top 20 Albums of the Year. (2007, 2008, and 2009 lists can be found in the archives to the left.)

As predicted, 2010 produced a bumper crop of good music. I struggled last year to come up with twenty albums I liked well enough to put on my list. This year, I had a quota of twenty by springtime, and several worthy contenders had to get the chop. Here, then, are some albums that didn’t quite make the cut, but are certainly worth a listen.

Against Me!White Crosses
With its 2008 album New Wave, Against Me! managed to alienate its hardcore, politically-agitated “true” punk fans by abandoning social outrage and political sloganeering and embracing a more approachable (and more mature) viewpoint. White Crosses continues that trend, and puts a pretty fine point on it by titling its best song “I Used To Be An Anarchist.” The point when a band pisses off its already angry, narrow-minded “core” audience is usually right when the Holy Bee jumps on board, because that’s when a band has actually gotten good as musicians/songwriters, and has outgrown being the musical equivalent of spray-painting an anarchy “A” on the side of a Rite Aid, thinking they’re changing the world.

Black MountainWilderness Heart
This Canadian collective leaves behind the soaring, fantasy-Zeppelin jams of their previous record (#7 on my 2008 list) in favor of a quicker, more casual effort. These concise hard-rock nuggets sometimes sound a little too tossed-off, and don’t really stay in your head after hearing them. They certainly don’t have that “sweated over” intensity of their last album. Continue reading


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Top 20 Albums of 2009, #11-1

#11. Yeah Yeahs YeahsIt’s Blitz!

Both It’s Blitz! and my #10 pick below are similar in that their creators left behind their trademark buzzsaw guitar sound in favor of one that’s smoother, sleeker, more sophisticated. The aural equivalent of exchanging a leather jacket for a silk suit. The rough edges have been sanded away, and there’s more breathing room to explore the possibilities of the voice. There seems to be no escape from the throbbing synthetic influence of dance music in 2009, but if the electronic pulse of the discotheque is wielded with the amount of taste and confidence heard on It’s Blitz!, there’s no reason even the most Luddite classic-rock purist shouldn’t love it.

#10. Julian CasablancasPhrazes For The Young

Strokes frontman Casablancas (mostly) leaves behind the heavily-processed sneer that was the voice of his former band in favor of a more open, natural singing style. The strength of the melodies and the complexity of the arrangements — all by Casablancas himself — tips us off as to who the driving wheel of the Strokes’ songwriting really was. Other band members’ solo albums are certainly pleasant enough, but don’t give many hints of the powerhouse talent on display here. Much ink has been spilled (as with It’s Blitz!) over the use of synthesizers in place of guitars, and its Tokyo nightclub vibe, but rest assured Casablancas does vary up the styles and our friend the guitar is still very much in evidence. It’s not as good as I hope the next Strokes album will be (this fall, maybe? please?), but it’ll do for now.

#9. M. WardHold Time

Some fine, fine music has been made by just a guy or girl with a guitar. But what can be captivating at a coffeehouse or camp-out, or on a spunky debut album can begin to sound dull and repetitive over the course of several albums. Most recording artists know this, and by their third or fourth album, have begun to hang a little production flesh on their folk troubador bones. Hold Time is a sterling example. Ward’s already-strong songwriting is carried even higher by a funky, retro production style that’s part Pet Sounds, part T. Rex. And guest appearances from Ward’s “She & Him” partner Zooey Deschanel, Lucinda Williams, and Grandaddy‘s Jason Lytle are icing on the cake.

#8. Deer TickBorn On Flag Day

It’s not a very original statement to say that what passes for country music these days isn’t really country — it’s braindead, glossy pop, with a fiddle thrown in as an afterthought — so I’ll just acknowledge the truth of the statement and move on. If you want the real deal, you have to dig deeper. As hacky Nashville producers and song-pluggers began slowly killing mainstream country music over thirty years ago, a disenchanted musical response has always been bubbling angrily away, from the “outlaw” movement of the 70’s, through cowpunk bands like Jason & The Scorchers in the 80’s, to the earnest alt-country acts of the 90’s. In the 00’s, shitty Nashville country is more prevalent than ever, but the disgruntled, reactionary response by artists who know what true, soulful country should sound like is getting harder and harder to find.

The best country album this year was made by a band called Deer Tick from Providence, Rhode Island, which is kind of sad. It proves that the Deep South — the region that gave birth to every genre of music that I care about — is now almost completely culturally bankrupt. Deer Tick’s sound hearkens back to a time when that wasn’t the case. When they play stright country, it’s right from the Hank Williams/Lefty Frizzell style book. When they play rock, it’s Chuck Berry’s chugging, countrified R&B they use as their template. (“Straight Into A Storm” could be a lost Berry B-side.) A touch of folk introspection rounds out the package.

#7. Dan AuerbachKeep It Hid

That the solo album of one-half of The Black Keys sounds pretty much like The Black Keys is no surprise. Nor is it a surprise how good it is, as The Black Keys’ brand of gritty, lo-fi blues has been a staple on my playlists since their debut four albums and most of a decade ago. The main difference is Auerbach’s bluesy moans and reverb-drenched guitar are stripped of bandmate Patrick Carnahan’s clattering garage-band drumming, and his tentative attempts to strecth out (the excellent acoustic opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” for example) are given the necessary space.

#6. Jason Isbell & The 400 UnitJason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Three brilliant but moody songwriter-guitarists in The Drive-By Truckers was one too many, so Isbell was cashiered after a five-year stint, and immediately put out his impressive first solo record, Sirens Of The Ditch, which earned a spot on the Holy Bee’s 2007 list. With a new backing band on board, Isbell continues to hone his fiery bar-room sound and continues to develop as a lyricist. Isbell’s songs consist mainly of finely-drawn character studies or drown-my-sorrows honky tonk weepers, sometimes with a subtle undercurrent of political or social conscience. All of which are hallmarks of the best Drive-By Truckers material, by the way, but Isbell and the mighty 400 are doing it almost completely below the radar.

#5. The Avett BrothersI And Love And You

Famous for their raucous live shows featuring fleet fingerpicking and a slew of rural-music influences (folk, bluegrass, country) that informed their style but never defined it, The Avett Brothers throw us a slight curve by creating an album of mellow (if sometimes spooky or anguished) piano ballads. They have not abandoned their stringed instruments — far from it. Acoustic guitar, banjo, and cello/violin provide the frills and flourishes, but keyboards are the melodic bedrock here. If Elton John had been born in the piney hills of Carolina instead of somewhere in England, he might have sounded something like this.

#4. Pink MountaintopsOutside Love
Sister group to the harder-edged Black Mountain (represented on the 2008 list), Pink Mountaintps is the more experimental of the two Canadian collectives headed by Stephen McBean. I generally like a firm footing in my music, and am suspicious of a band trying to coast too far on atmospherics, but Pink Mountaintops’ ponderous, echoing, fuzzed-out sound is indeed all about atmosphere. However, it has such keenly-felt yearning (especially in the heartbreakers “While We Were Dreaming” and “And I Thank You”) in the vocals — delivered by McBean & friends in clusters of two or three, or in Wall of Sound choral unison — that its sandal-gazing self-indulgence is forgiven and the album ends up charming and captivating.

#3. The Dead WeatherHorehound

Another Jack White side project — alongside The Raconteurs — and another winner. White is not the main voice here, however, turning over the majority of the vocal chores to Alison Mosshart of The Kills. If The White Stripes bring a taste of noisy dissonance to standard blues forms, The Dead Weather deconstruct the formula even more. Horehound is a cacaphony of buzzes, drones, and howls, created by Mosshart’s feral vocals, Dean Fertita’s primitive-sounding organ, and White’s drumkit bashing. It seems on the verge of spiraling into a complete noise-rock clusterfuck, but clings to a grim level of listenability with the tenacity of a gutter-rat, its traditionalist heart beating strong under all the scuzz.

#2. Franz FerdinandTonight: Franz Ferdinand

Franz’s first album was a “typical” buzz-band debut — about four hot-shit singles and some pretty good filler. Their second album also followed the usual pattern — written and recorded too soon after the smash debut, and desperately attempting to force-grow some artistic development and sonic expansion. This can result in the dreaded “sophomore slump,” but in Franz’s case, it worked, and the second album was even better than the first.

Reputation firmly established, Franz Ferdinand took their sweet time with their third album. Tonight can be heard as a loose concept album chronicling a Saturday night in the life of a typical British lad: going to a Franz Ferdinand concert (hence the album title, and a trying-to-sound-like-ourselves cheeky rewrite of their biggest hit “Take Me Out” entitled “No You Girls”), meeting and becoming infatuated with a girl, going to an after-hours dance club (represented by the hypnotic techno throb of the eight-minute “Lucid Dreams”), and parting ways with the girl as the sun rises. Or it can be heard as simply a great pop album, with catchy choruses, dashes of electronica, and cool percussion, including exuberant cymbal crashes in just the right places.

#1. The Black CrowesBefore The Frost…Until The Freeze

I grow tired of defending The Black Crowes, mostly because their detractors are so often correct. They hold a special place for me because of the fierceness of their Stones/Faces-influenced first two albums. What of it? Some bands coast for decades on the strength of one album, releasing nothing but half-baked shit forever after (*cough*Violent Femmes*cough*), yet their fans are not mocked and derided the way Crowes fans are outside of the hippie/jam-band community. So yes, the Crowes spent most of the 90’s riding the beads ‘n’ beards pothead circuit, putting out a series of increasingly incoherent and mediocre albums, and then hanging it up in 2002 for a hiatus during which they were not really missed. But when they re-emerged in 2008, they were a different — much better — band.

Different, certainly, from the young gunslingers of their first two albums, but aging has suited them. Age has deepened their grasp of fundamental blues and R&B motifs, which they seemed to forget during the worst of their wretched jam-band era. Age has polished their songwriting, and most of all, age has improved their playing. I mean, these guys play well. It’s not just a few chords and a rack of effects pedals that seems to pass for guitar-playing these days (yes, by some on this very list.) Long-time guitarist Rich Robinson is joined by new guitarist Luther Dickinson, who also plays with the North Mississippi Allstars, and together they form a team whose prowess lies not just in flashy soloing — though they can certainly do that — but in perfect rhythm and feel. “Body music” as it is called by Crowes hero Keith Richards.

Recorded live (with most of the crowd noise edited out, a la Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps) at Levon Helm’s “Midnight Ramble” barn in upstate New York, the Crowes’ already formidable six-man lineup is augmented by an additional percussionist and a banjo/fiddle/pedal steel specialist in a grand display of instrumental virtuosity.

There were two versions of this set released: a standard length album (Before The Frost) and an expanded double-length with a different running order (Before The Frost…Until The Freeze). The extra tracks are for the most part quieter and quirkier, leaning more toward country-folk than blues-rock. This #1 ranking would apply to either one, but I prefer the more experimental longer version, which is also the only one available on vinyl. I don’t know how long the band can continue at this level, but my faith in them has been somewhat restored.

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Top 20 Albums of 2009, #20 – 12

I should point out that, in my opinion, 2009 was a dog year for music. Compiling my annual list was a challenge, because nothing stood out as incredibly special. My #1 album kind of became #1 by default, not because I was over the moon about it. It was just the one I had come back to the most. I found nice things to say about every album on my list, but bear in mind, there are things pretty high up here that wouldn’t even make the list in other years.

I am, however, looking forward to 2010 in music quite a bit.

To start things off, let’s reel off the Honorable Mentions – albums worth a listen, but fell just a tiny bit short of the Holy Bee’s exacting standards:

Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion

I guess my philistine, structure-craving ears just don’t get these guys. But every so often, the ambient noodling up-shifts into some really breathtaking moments, like seeing moutaintops above the cloud layer. (Regarding the linked clip from Coachella above, if you can stand there drinking bottled water and looking smug on stage while your music plays without you, something is wrong. Electronica is such a fucked-up genre sometimes.)

Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley BandOuter South

Used to be in the top 20, got pushed out at the last minute by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

U2No Line On The Horizon

Might have been a top-notch album before co-producer Brian Eno got his slimy, deconstructionist paws all over it. Like Animal Collective, this one’s more about great moments within songs, rather than great songs.

MastodonCrack The Skye

This is the one that pained me to cut. Call it #21 on my list. Love the whole idea of this band and this album, but it’s sheer heaviness means I can’t really listen to it all the way through in one sitting.

Monsters Of Folks/t

Some nice songs, but less than the sum of its renowned parts.

2009 offerings from Alberta Cross, 1990s, Girls, Wolfmother, These United States, Arctic Monkeys, YACHT, Eels, and Patterson Hood are all worth a spin as well.

Now, it’s time for Biggest Disappointments:

Holy Bee favorites Bruce Springsteen (Working On A Dream) and Bob Dylan (Together Through Life) both produced underwhelming albums this year. Dylan’s just sounded a little tired (some nice Tex-Mex accordian flourishes highlight the better songs), but Bruce’s flirted with outright suckage, and included the worst song he’s ever written (“Queen Of The Supermarket.”) Bob’s Christmas album had kind of a weird appeal, however (and the profits went to charity.)

Critics’ summer darlings Phoenix (ultimately boring, except for the single), Grizzly Bear (pretentious), and Dirty Projectors (pretentious AND boring) left me cold. Author/comedian Greg Behrendt, as a guest on a podcast, recently wondered about this new twee, arty sound that seems all the rage with young people by asking “don’t kids want to get laid anymore?”, and then answered his own question with the conclusion that the new generation of college kids have already been laid – thousands of times – and are bored with it by nineteen. The result: twee, arty, sexless (and soulless) music chock-full of ennui. I’m hoping the Arcade Fire will be back soon to inject a little passion into art-rock again.

And Jay Farrar has flushed a lot of the goodwill I had for him right down the bog. When he re-formed Son Volt in 2005 after a seven-year hiatus, hopes were high. Okemah And The Melody Of Riot was right up there with his best work. Then came the mediocre The Search. Then came this year’s appalling American Central Dust, where Farrar has completely lost his songwriting ability. Lyrics he seems to have made up off the top of his head as the tapes rolled are matched with totally tuneless acoustic strumming.

OK, enough with the griping. Let’s count down the Holy Bee’s Top 20 Albums of 2009:

#20. KasabianWest Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Britpop as a genre took a sickeningly steep plunge in popularity quite some time ago – everywhere but Britain. Every lunar cycle or so, the adorably hyperbolic British music press trumpets another group of collegiate lads with bedhead and Rickenbackers as the Second Coming, only to viciously turn on them as poseurs and sell-outs before the ink on their recording contracts is dry. Kasabian was the Band of the Week a few months back, slotted between The Kooks (wankers!) and The Rifles (soon to be wankers!). Kasabian registered a little higher on the radar for me due to their attempts to inject a touches of neo-psychedelic Eastern flavor (think Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles – or more precisely, Head-era Monkees, and that’s not meant as an insult). Blend that with some 70s-style glam and pub rock, all on top of a foundation of early-90s Madchester electronic grooves, and you have an album that gets an “A” for effort, even if it never rises above its influences.

#19. Cage The Elephants/t

More noise from the garage. If you can get past the half-rapped lyrics (admittedly, it is a challenge), this recorded-in-10-days wonder from the Kentucky quintet throws its hat into the “bring back real rock n’ roll” ring. Unfortunately, that ring is pretty crowded with forgotten hats, and Cage The Elephant doesn’t always do enough to differentiate itself from the crowd. You can forget all that when you’re actually listening to it, though, because it’s pretty damn fun in its Stones-meet-Chili Peppers way (that description alone is enough to cause some people I know to toss this one right in the trash), and it does contain one bona-fide anthem (“Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked”).

#18. The HeavyThe House That Dirt Built

Stax-Volt meets the MC5. Sometimes they play it straight with an earthy, neo-soul vibe, other times they aim for surreal, Tom Waitsian funhouse grotesqueries , coming off like the soundtrack to a Terry Gilliam movie set in Memphis.

#17. Green Day21st Century Breakdown

Rapidly becoming modern-rock elder statesmen, Green Day proved with 2004’s American Idiot (my Album of the Decade for the 2000s) that through diligent work at their craft and some very un-punk ambition, they have transcended the reductive “pop-punk” label and can stand of equal footing with U2 and R.E.M., who have a decade’s head start. Like American Idiot, the songs of 21st Century Breakdown collectively tell a story, and also like American Idiot, I don’t really give a shit what the story is, because each track works so well on its own. The individual songs all sound like singles, cut and polished and sweated over to hit the elusive bull’s-eye of the ear’s pleasure center, and make a big run at the charts. (Sadly, probably not the Rhianna-and-Ke$ha dominated charts of today, but perhaps the charts of yesteryear, or the charts that only exist in my imagination.) The only reason 21st Century Breakdown isn’t much higher on the list is that it follows the American Idiot template a little to closely, and comes off as a bit of a retread.

#16. Brendan BensonMy Old, Familiar Friend

Like A.C. Newman (one notch higher), Benson is known for his work in the genre called power-pop – music designed to be as hook-y and infectious as humanly possible. A nice treat, but a steady diet will rot your insides. I admit to a power-pop sweet tooth, and Benson’s fourth record provides me with a fix that doesn’t overload the circuits. Underneath the AM Gold guitars and big choruses, there’s some interesting – even dark – things going on lyrically, and the sound (expertly produced by Gil Norton) throbs a little heavier than your standard Cheap Trick-knockoff artists. This is a record meant to be played loud in a fast-moving vehicle.

#15. A.C. Newman Get Guilty

New Pornographers’ frontman Carl “A.C.” Newman continues to play to his strengths on his second solo album: a gift for melody, and a skewed, off-kilter sense of rhythm. Newman’s unpredicatble songs stutter and stop, lurch and sway. Bare-bones acoustic ruminations will suddenly get jumped and hijacked by booming, orchestral drama. Newman also seems to want to use every instrument known to western music at some point to build his baroque pop-puzzles, but the record never feels cluttered.

#14. Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone

Case’s song cycle about nature and its consistent physical and moralsuperiority over mankind was officially selected as the Institute of Idle Time’s Album of the Year for 2009, breaking both the gender and solo artist barrier for an IIT #1 album. Case’s arrangements remain idiosyncratic (including, but not limited to, piano “orchestras” and the ambient sounds of the old barn she recorded in), but her country roots show through in her phrasing and vocal warmth. I also don’t think anyone’s consistently writing lyrics at her level right now.

#13. Fruit BatsThe Ruminant Band

Mellow echoes of the old Laurel Canyon sound permeate this offering from Fruit Bats. Acoustic textures are to the fore, with some pedal steel woven in like silken thread. Lead singer/songwriter Eric Johnson is also a fairly recent addition to The Shins, so I hope his added workload won’t cause him to neglect his lesser-known band, who have produced here a warm, graceful, and relaxed entry in the annals of alt-country (a label that, like “Britpop,” may only have relevance to me as the rest of the world moves on as if there were an entire decade between us and the 90s. Wait, what?)

#12. MuseThe Resistance

Stadium-fillingly huge in Europe, and beloved a particular breed of prog-rock nerd stateside, Muse has thus far eluded the warm embrace of American popularity. It’s easy to say that Muse cribs from the Queen playbook, but I feel it goes beyond that. When they choose to go the Queen route (and they don’t always), it’s no mere imitation. It’s a full-on recreation and rebirth. That dense, layered sound and operatic bombast we thought (in some cases, hoped) was gone forever lives and breathes again, vital and exciting. Muse can also turn it down to a low simmer, and their three-part orchestral suite that closes the album? It’s actually a fun listen, unlike most attempts to scale that particular peak. So points to Muse for having the balls to try and pull off an album like this, and bonus points for doing it so well.

That’s all for Part One. We’ll take it from 11 down to 1 next time…

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Democracy? No thanks

The very misleadingly-named Institute of Idle Time is hard at work again, this time compiling a definitive list dealing with the best albums of the 1990s. The topic got me to thinking about two of my favorite 90s bands, Weezer and Oasis. (Oh, who am I kidding? The topic of Weezer and/or Oasis is rarely far from my mind.) Both bands have fallen on hard times in the 00’s, putting out a string of mostly-forgettable albums, and coasting on the goodwill of chumps like me who still pony up for them. What happened?

I’ll tell you in one word, my friends: democratization. Both Oasis and Weezer were once ruled with an iron fist. In their golden era, Noel Gallagher and Rivers Cuomo were white-hot supernovas of ambition and megalomania, driven by demons, and would not allow any other band member to take the all-important songwriting reins. Since those days, bellies and bank accounts have reached their fill, ambition and passion have cooled, and both Gallagher and Cuomo have announced, with no little sense of self-congratulation, that the songwriting in their bands is no longer a one-man show. Weezer and Oasis have switched from an autocracy to a democracy. And they have clearly suffered for it.

Has Cuomo’s and Gallagher’s talent faded since they became well-adjusted family men relieved of their personal demons? (Noel’s personal demon: his valiant, one-man attempt to hoover up most of the world’s supply of cocaine. Rivers’ personal demon: being a difficult, twitchy weirdo.) Hard to say, since they no longer write enough to judge. They shrewdly realized it was silly to knock themselves out penning and polishing ten or twelve exquisitely crafted pop jewels for each album as they did in their mid-90s heyday. They’re not hurting for cash (i.e. royalties), and it’s far easier to deliver two or three knockout numbers on par with their earlier work, and a couple of filler tunes, then proceed to leave the rest to the second guitarist, or even the drummer (!). Surely the bassist has a bulging knapsack chock full of a backlog of songs written in his little Mead notebook (some even dating from his junior college days in a shoegaze band) that had previously been suppressed by the benign dictatorship of the resident band genius. Surely these unheard gems can be trotted out, tweaked and re-arranged a little, and made into a passable track #8 on the new album so the resident band genius can spend more time working on his 2011 solo album and being interviewed by Mojo. Sadly, this seems to be the case.

The only way these bands can reclaim their former glory is for these guys to roll the tanks of their songwriting genius into the Tiennamen Square of the recording studio, and crush the infant serpent of band democracy beneath their jackbooted heel.

And if at all possible, avoid posing on their album cover in a cowboy hat and Brooks & Dunn moustache.


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My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (#10-1)

10. Dr. Dog – Fate
A long and winding Abbey Road leading to right to Big Pink’s door. There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve as long as you find something interesting to say with them. Dr. Dog has focused its previously rambling, wild-hare sound into a precise, nimble approach where every instrument and voice makes itself known with a unique (and endearingly simple) role within the song, contributing to a mighty whole.
KEY TRACKS: “Hang On” “The Rabbit, The Bat, And The Reindeer” “My Friend”

9. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Pity poor Vampire Weekend. Praised to the skies in the blogosphere before the release of their first album, these collegiate cardigan enthusiasts then suffered a backlash as nasty as it was rapid. Know-it-all amateur critics giveth…and taketh away. Pay no mind. Their pleasant Afro-pop (shades of Paul Simon and Talking Heads) is still fun to listen to, and their head-scratching lyrics haven’t lost their ability to both puzzle and please.
KEY TRACKS: “Oxford Comma” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”

8. Beck – Modern Guilt
Of the many creative folk who made 2008 a memorable year, production whiz Danger Mouse (mentioned twice elsewhere in this very list) must be at the top of the heap. Everyone’s favorite alt-rock troubador/sonic prankster Beck seemed to have lost his way on 2006’s unfocused The Information, but this fruitful collaboration with D.M. snaps him back into high gear. Like 2002’s melancholy Sea Change, Beck’s lyrics veer into some dark territory here, this time mourning not just his own personal heartbreak, but lamenting an entire world going down the wrong path. The bleakness of his words are offset by the propulsive, slinky arrangements (the slow-burning “Volcano” ranks among the very best songs he’s ever written).
KEY TRACKS: “Volcano” “Gamma Ray” “Modern Guilt” “Youthless”

7. Black Mountain – In The Future
Dark, disturbed tales of witches and sorcery eminating from a group of what appears to be mild-mannered, bearded Canadian grad-students? As a recent vice-presidential candidate might say, “you betcha.” Some of the more egregious Sabbath/Zeppelin bombast is reigned in by a natural indie-rock sense of decorum and self-consciousness, but enough Misty Moutain gloom and doom push through to ensure that by putting this album on at your next D&D tournament, you will be the coolest half-orc (or whatever) in the coven.
KEY TRACKS: “Stormy High” “Wucan” “Stay Free”

6. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
No ambitious artist wants to be known as a “jam band.” Being lumped in with Dave Matthews and The String Cheese Incident does no one any favors, and MMJ know it. They have been rebelling against that ridiculously reductive label ever since it was first stuck to them a few years ago, so their last two albums increasingly reigned in their reverb-heavy, country-tinged instrumental stretch-outs with touches of urban R&B (lead singer Jim James occasionally breaks out his Prince falsetto) and concise, straight-up hooks. Try to convince me 2005’s “Off The Record” or this album’s “I’m Amazed” doesn’t smack of old-school AM Top 40 pop.
KEY TRACKS: “I’m Amazed” “Librarian” “Thank You Too” “Sec Walkin’”

5. Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity
This Dallas quartet has been a mainstay of my Top 20 lists for a decade, and their latest once again goes from strength to strength. They pull off a fantastic musical trifecta of powerful pop hooks combined with countrified lyrics of superior depth and literariness…and they’re a shit-hot live act to boot.
KEY TRACKS: “No Baby I” “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” “My Two Feet”

4. The Raconteurs – Consolers Of The Lo
Basically the White Stripes minus the White Stripes’ arbitrary, self-imposed restrictions, the Raconteurs demonstrate the full flowering of Jack White’s preoccupation with rooting around in America’s musical attic. And oh, what dusty treasures he finds. When combined with co-leader Brendon Benson’s village-green Anglophilism, the result is an interesting batch of songs that give the listener a kaleidoscopic glimmer of old folk, old blues, and old Tin Pan Alley stylings while remaining comfortably anchored in the electric rock genre.
KEY TRACKS: “You Don’t Understand Me” “Old Enough” “Many Shades of Black” “The Switch And The Spur”

3. Marah – Angels Of Destruction!
Marah have sometimes been accused of “trying too hard.” Well, what the hell is wrong with that? It beats not trying at all. (Listen to Weezer’s latest. Or better yet, don’t.) AOD! is overproduced, yes. But the overproduction here feels like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thrill ride, rather than fussy technical wankery. The thinking man’s bar band, Marah churns out their best collection yet, careening from barreling rattlesnake shakes to torch songs awash in spritual imagery and regret, and always playing as if each song is the final encore.
KEY TRACKS: “Coughing Up Blood” “Angels On A Passing Train” “Blue But Cool”

2. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
The Gaslight Anthem have simplified and concentrated the tortured angst-rock of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” and the booming drama of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town-era E Street Band by forcing it through a spiky, post-punk filter. They don’t have a full orchestra or dozens of overdubbed Springsteens. Just a couple of battered Telecasters. Their lyrics are the most truly romantic of 2008, in the original, 19th century Byronic sense of the word. No greeting card platitudes here. The Afghan Whigs without the soul-music fixation and murder fantasies? A rougher, riskier Gin Blossoms? Something in between, I suppose. But those two bands were gone too soon, and I hope The Gaslight Anthem sticks around for a good long time.
KEY TRACKS: “Great Expectations” “Meet Me By The River’s Edge” “Old White Lincoln” “The ’59 Sound”

1. Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Blitzen Trapper race from idea to idea and mood to mood in an excited frenzy. Even their slower, melancholy songs seem to demonstrate their thoughts streaking ahead of their singing and playing. Rather than seeming schizophrenic (as last year’s Wild Mountain Nation sometimes did), the thirteen songs on Furr present themselves like an anthology of thirteen tiny one-act plays. The story and atmosphere is different for each one, but the listener can tell it’s the same creators and cast telling each tale. Like a series of fever dreams, a dusty Rocky Mountain saloon dissolves into an urban underground disco which becomes an open, unrecognizable stretch of lonely road. Not necessarily in that order. Then you wake up and try to put the pieces together.
KEY TRACKS: “Sleepytime In The Western World” “Furr” “Black River Killer”

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…and The Fireman rushes in from the pouring rain…very strange

When was the last time you were excited about a Paul McCartney project? Never, you say? The last time “Macca” burped up anything decent you were in utero or a glint in your daddy’s eye? Well, shame on you for buying into the falsehood that McCartney is anything less than one of the founding fathers of all that we hold dear in modern popular music. Maddeningly inconsistent, yes. Sometimes follows the path of least resistance, yes. But this is the man who wrote the lines “Your day breaks/Your mind aches/You find that all her words of kindness linger on/When she no longer needs you.” Ridiculously simple, yet totally shattering. “Why she had to go/I don’t know/She wouldn’t say/I said something wrong/Now I long for yesterday.” Only three words there that are longer than one syllable. But each one perfectly chosen, and married to a melody that sounds like a whisper from the muses. That is a gift called “genius,” and flashes of that genius rise to the surface throughout his solo career with much greater frequency than he is given credit for.

McCartney has spent his career alternating between painstakingly crafted journeyman pop, and semi-improvised toss-offs. The former can be impressive, but more often somewhat labored. Albums like Flowers In The Dirt, Chaos & Creation In The Backyard, and Memory Almost Full get respectful three-star reviews and polite “refreshing-return-to-form” notices from the big-time magazines, but are written off by those who fancy themselves more cutting edge. Really, though, the worst that can be said about these releases is that McCartney is unapologetically playing it safe.

Luckily, there is the flip-side. The riskier McCartney, the one that doesn’t overthink. These off-the-cuff moments can be fun (The Beatles’ song “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” or the roots-rock album Run Devil Run), or painful (The entire Wings album Wild Life, where he repeatedly rolled tape on the the first idea that popped into his cannabis-addled brain, resulting in gibberish songs like “Bip Bop” and “Mumbo.”) What rescues even the worst of these efforts is his almost scary facility for creating melodies. McCartney leaks tunes the way the rest of us leak sweat.

His latest release is from his side project known as The Fireman. Electric Arguments is the third release produced from this collaboration between McCartney and former Killing Joke bassist (and Verve producer) Martin Glover, who has reinvented himself as the elcectronica artist known as “Youth.” McCartney and Youth’s first collaboration was a 1993 set of remixes using tracks from McCartney’s sub-par Off The Ground album, followed five years later by the all-original Rushes. Both were vocal-less, ambient sound experiments, and heard by practically no one. But the minute Paul lends his famous pipes to the mix, everyone sits up and takes notice. Electric Arguments is a throbbing, thoroughly modern journey through inner space, an electronic headphone classic that just happens to have been co-created by (and featuring the voice of) an honest-to-goodness Beatle. It definitely falls into the spontaneous category, with its 13 tracks created over 13 days, and having been released to the public late last November with virtually no publicity or promotion (it’s just a side project, after all.) Could it have been on my Best of 2008 list had I discovered it a little earlier? Very possibly. Is it a clear reminder never to give up on the promise of someone with a towering musical gift? Most definitely.

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My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (#20-11)

20. The Switches – Lay Down The Law
This year’s Britpop spot goes to this explosive (U.S.) debut. (Bigger names like Oasis and Kaiser Chiefs were in the running, but both are trumped by this south-of-London quintent.) The Switches are nestled comfortably on the younger Franz Ferdinand/Arctic Monkeys side of the Great Modern Britpop Divide: pub shout-alongs and dance floor rump-shakers. As opposed to the older, statelier, rainy-day-mope-in-the-bedroom style of Travis and Coldplay. Another factor that raises Switches above their early-twentysomething competetion is that they have a familiarity with their instruments, and avoid plunking away at the same ringing chord through the whole damn song. I guess they’re trying to sound like The Edge, but The Edge they’re not. Many of these bands (eg. Bloc Party, Tokyo Police Club) sound like they just picked up guitars about eighteen months ago for the sole reason of making themselves more attractive to the opposite sex.
KEY TRACKS: “Drama Queen” “Message From Yuz” “Lay Down The Law”

19. Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
The electronica band for people who don’t care too much for electronica (i.e., me), Hot Chip’s synthesized bleeps and squiggles actually seem to have a human heart beating somewhere within. The relentless drum machine party is also crashed by the occasional atmospheric ballad, which keeps the album from slipping into the numbing, soulless monotony that is the stock in trade that of others of their genre, and appeals only to those on Ecsatsy, or those that like things cheap, plastic and shallow.
KEY TRACKS: “Shake A Fist” “Ready For The Floor” “One Pure Thought”

18. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
“Beggars all description” is a phrase which is rarely used anymore, but it applies here perfectly. This is the hardest capsule review of my entire top 20 to write because there is no easy way to describe the music presented here. It’s like trying to bottle smoke or pick up liquid mercury. The vocals croon and rage by turn, and icebergs of classic R&B, funk, and hip-hop break the surface in an ocean of thrumming U2-style atmospherics and modernist electornic noise. (Are you happy, TV On The Radio? You just inspired me to write the worst musical metaphor in recorded history.) An album that’s easier to admire than to love.
KEY TRACKS: “Golden Age” “Halfway Home” “Dancing Choose”

17. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
The Hold Steady’s one weak spot – the vocals – has noticably improved, with a little less raspy talk-singing and a little more melodicism. Their strengths remain in play: story-songs soaked in booze and desperation, a solid rhythm section, and a shredding lead guitar.
KEY TRACKS: “Sequestered In Memphis” “Yeah Sapphire” “One For The Cutters”

16. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
The fertile imaginations of instrumentalist/producer Danger Mouse and vocalist Cee-Lo once again harness up psychedelic soul to hip-hop beats. A little more disconnected and spaced-out than their debut, and continuing the thread of dark, eerie lyrics that belie the super-fun sunshine of the music (Cee-Lo has evidently not been cured of his paranoia and fragile mental health). Not as consistent as their earlier work, but still a nice chunk of ear candy.
KEY TRACKS: “Run (I’m A Natural Disaster)” “Going On” “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”

15. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
This year’s fastest-maturing musician award goes to the Artist Usually Known As Bright Eyes. Oberst’s “solo” album continues the progression demonstrated on last year’s Bright Eyes album, leaving intolerable adolescent weepiness behind in the hands of those who seem to have no clue how to progress beyond it (i.e., the increasingly irrelevant Dashboard Confessional). Wistful without being too self-pitying (still, someone should keep him away from the steak knives lest we have another Elliott Smith on our hands), and grown-up without being boring, Oberst’s shivery, cinematic tales will keep you coming back to peel another layer.
KEY TRACKS: “Cape Canaveral” “Sausalito” “I Don’t Want To Die (In A Hospital)”

14. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cardinology
Has Adams finally stopped genre-hopping and tossing out albums by the bucketload? Maybe. Adams-watchers have remarked that it’s been a whole year (gasp!) since the release of Easy Tiger, and his new backing band (at least new as of 2005, when they put out the excellent Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights) seems to have settled him into the classic-rock/country-rock groove where he thrives best. Perched on the summit of what came before, this album is the tipping point, and can easily serve as Adams’ entry ticket to the level of Neil Young or Gram Parsons.
KEY TRACKS: “Born Into A Light” “Let Us Down Easy” “Evergreen”

13. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
White people playing the blues is a dicey proposition. Try to be too reverent, and you get banal Starbucks mood music (Kenny Wayne Shepard, or every Eric Clapton album since he quit drinking). Try snazz it up with technical fireworks, and you undercut its simplistic purity, and end up just as banal. (Rest his soul, but Stevie Ray Vaughn was a fucking snooze. Seriously, does anyone get anything out of what he did apart from his admittedly amazing technical prowess?) So for the most part, it’s out of our performance realm. But The Black Keys’ two-instrument attack is not only not embarassing, it actually gets what the blues is supposed to sound like, without being a whiteface carbon copy. Another appearance by omnipresent producer Danger Mouse (there is one left to go) guides the Keys away from repeating themselves, and toward their best album yet.
KEY TRACKS: “Psychotic Girl” “Oceans & Streams” “Remember When (Sides A&B)”

12. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Five guys on (mostly) acoustic instruments singing close harmony on songs that sound like they pre-date the Civil War. For me, they conjure up feelings of sunrise in the freezing cold, watching the crystal clear stars begin to fade after a night of staying up talking to friends or just listening to the wind. It makes me want coffee and a quilted jacket, or a feather bed.
KEY TRACKS: “White Winter Hymnal” “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” “He Doesn’t Know Why”

11. Kings Of Leon – Only By The Night
The Kings weathered “southern Strokes” comparisons for their punchy first two albums, then disappeared into tuneless sonic murk with last year’s inscrutable Because Of The Times. They have emerged a better band, harnessing their new-found experimentalism to the rock-solid southern boogie that was always their bread and butter (or biscuits and gravy, if you like.) The result is less like a punky Skynyrd and more like an arty In Through The Out Door-era Zeppelin.
KEY TRACKS: “Crawl” “Revelry” “Notion”

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Goodbye 2008

After two-plus months of listening (and re-listening) to and scoring five other people’s “Best of 2008” albums for the Institute of Idle Time’s annual compilation (due out January 24, 2009, along with Issue #3 of the Idle Times zine), I am finally free to listen to music of my own choice again. This means a gleeful, Nestea-like plunge into the back catalog. I’ve been gorging myself on Bob Dylan and Prince, who are really two sides to the same coin, approaching similar levels of iconoclasm from two very different paths. Both artists have had their songs covered by others numerous times, but both remain the best interpreters of their own material. Compare that to Kris Kristofferson, who can’t sing a lick but writes good songs that only really come alive when others perform them.

Some artists, though, have such a personal voice that it seems impossible to imagine anyone else doing justice to their songs. 2008 marked the 15th anniversary of Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, which was reissued in a deluxe format this past summer. Like Kris, Phair is a writer who can’t really sing all that well, but unlike Kris, she writes songs perfectly suited to her vocal limitations, to the point where no one else could put them across with the same level of truth and intensity.

The songs on Exile were intended to be a response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, although having listened to both hundreds of times, I’ll be damned if I can see a specific connection. Phair’s Exile sounded like a series of diary entries from a very damaged soul. And I mean that in the best way. Phair’s innate sense of…well, taste is the wrong word for the self-described Blowjob Queen…I guess a certain lack of ego or self-obsession keeps her from going off the rails, lyrically. Korn songs sound like damaged-soul diary entries, too, but…yeesh.

Exile In Guyville quickly gained Phair a lot of notice among musical tastemakers of the early 90s. And at no time were musical tastemakers less fun to be around than the early 90s. “Credibility” and deadpan seriousness were everything. In 1995, Spin magazine (a few years before it became essentially Rolling Stone Jr.) even put out a glossy Alternative Record Guide which, naturally, I bought the day it came out. The Spin guide was so desperate to distance itself from the uncool dinosaur bones of classic rock that it insisted Phair’s Exile In Guyville was a response to noise-rock act Pussy Galore’s track-by-track re-recording of Exile On Main Street (limited to 550 cassette copies) rather than the Stones’ original. That perfectly illustrates the level of hardcore music snobbery one was forced to deal with back then. Thank goodness those days are over.

Phair finished out the 1990s with two more pretty well-regarded albums (1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg featured “Polyester Bride,” which I think is one of the best songs of the decade), then, in 2003, committed one of the most gloriously jaw-dropping acts of career suicide ever witnessed in my lifetime. She signed to Capitol Records, abandoned her old producer Brad Whatshisnose and hired slicky-boy producer Michael (“No Myth”) Penn, ditched every aspect of her songwriting that made her special, posed for a series of photos where she’s basically naked as a jaybird, and lunged gloriously for the brass ring of pop-chart success…and fell flat on her face.

Her old fans abandoned her like rats fleeing a sinking ship, and she did not acquire new fans in any noticeable quantity. Even Capitol Records decided Penn’s production wasn’t “commercial” enough (imagine!), and sent Phair back into the studio with a production team known as “The Matrix” who had recently guided Avril Lavigne to superstardom. Lavigne, of course, made her reputation by pretending to be as rebellious and honest as Phair really once was. And instead of nursing wounded feelings at home alone or driving alone from nowhere to nowhere, Lavigne nurses hers at the mall. Y’know, with all her friends.

I guess we can’t begrudge Phair’s attempt to tap into Lavigne’s audience and go for the big bucks. Every performer wants as wide an audience as possible, and don’t let them tell you they don’t. (Although as a widely respected recording artist for Matador Records and a popular touring act, I don’t think she was exactly starving on the streets as her old self.) And this isn’t the early 90s anymore. Slick, commercial pop in the Pink or Gwen Stefani tradition isn’t viewed as inherently terrible, or the antithesis of true art anymore. It’s actually pretty fun. But Phair’s journey from what she was to what she is is sad because of its brazen crassness. The honesty that has always served her well in her early songs compels her to admit in interviews that selling out is exactly what she’s done. And she also admits, in a roundabout way, that she has stopped writing songs with any meaning:

Rod Stewart—I mean, he used to make, like, brilliant music, right? And then he kind of went the whole celebrity route, and he stopped making brilliant music. But I wasn’t mad at him. I didn’t go, like: ‘You fuckhead! You fuckwit!’ I don’t get that. I just stopped buying [his] records, which to me is the appropriate response.

I’m not mad at you, Liz. But I will respond appropriately.

(OK, I actually didn’t intend for this little good-bye message to 2008 to turn into a lengthy screed on an artist who ranks pretty far down on my favorites list, but that’s where it went. So be it. Maybe if I hired a “production team” that went by a single-word moniker I could stay on track…)

Coming Soon: My Top 20 Albums of 2008 (#11-20)…

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The White Album Show

The Beatles, more commonly known as “The White Album,” is notorious among Beatles fanatics as the Beginning of the End. It was during the tense, fractious recording sessions for this album over the summer of 1968 that the Fab Four began their almost two-year process of breaking up. After four years as the World’s Most Famous Band, and after the much-lauded “Summer Of Love” ended like a wet fart, they were all sick of each other’s crap, and bursting with their own ideas. On the White Album, each primary composer ended up treating the other three like a backing band, and indulging their most out-there, un-commercial fancies. The result was perhaps the most musically diverse and interesting album (double album, of course) The Beatles ever produced. Although not intended as such, it takes the listener on a tour of western music: straight-ahead Chuck Berry rock & roll(“Back In The USSR”–with Beach Boys harmonies for good measure), classical (“Piggies”), country (“Don’t Pass Me By”), blues (“Yer Blues”), proto-metal (“Helter Skelter”), jazz (“Honey Pie”), folk (“Blackbird”), reggae (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), Tin Pan Alley/vaudeville (“Martha My Dear”), and the lush musicals of Hollywood and Broadway (“Good Night”). Plus detours down other paths, dead-ends, and experimental wackiness.

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the release of the White Album, Harlow’s in downtown Sacramento hosted an evening dedicated to this musical milestone on Sunday, November 23, 2008. “The White Album Show” featured 16 (mostly) local Sacramento bands, each assigned two White Album songs. The entire album of thirty-two songs would be performed in sequence, with minimal gaps between artists. (To facilitate this, all bands shared amps and a drum kit.)

It was a good, mellow crowd, skewing a little older and funkier, which is aces in my book. I have a fairly healthy (if realistic) ego, but I’ve been to shows where I’ve been the worst-looking person in the room. Everywhere around me is bangs and cheekbones and self-assuredness, and I keep hearing that old Sesame Street song “one of these things is not like the others” in my mind as I nurse my Newcastle, fully aware that every sip is contributing to the beer-gut that sets me so noticeably apart. No such worries tonight. I felt in my element, jostling cheek-by-jowl with fellow Beatles nerds and Aging Music Enthusiasts. (If I ever become the Gray-Ponytail-Silver-&-Turquoise-Bracelet-Wearing-Extreme-Aging-Music-Enthusiast, feel free to give me a talking-to, or a sharp slap across the mouth.)

It was a night for hats, though. Every third head both onstage and off was adorned with some kind of covering. I spotted only one Ironic Trucker Hat (sooo 2004) to illustrate how time marches on, but a plethora of trilbies and fedoras graced many a hipster noggin. The new rage seems to be the English driving cap. If one didn’t know any better, one would feel the crowd at Harlow’s to be heavily peppered with Cockney cabbies, each eager to give “guv’nor” a lift to Charing Cross station.

In the short time between songs, Jeanette Faith of Baby Grand filled in by playing various Beatles songs on piano. Each act was introduced by the “Tap Dancing Sign Girl” Amber Mortensen, who appeared to do very little tap-dancing, but certainly could hold the hell out of a hand-lettered sign with the band’s name on it.

After a short introductory video clip taken from the Beatles Anthology documentary, the first band hit the stage. The Broken Poet rattled the walls with spirited, primitive versions of “Back In The USSR” and “Dear Prudence.” The start of the second verse of “Back” gave us the first of about 750 lyrical gaffes of the night. I mean, really, it’s not like memorizing Shakespeare soliloquies. And you’re musicians, for Chrissakes. Shouldn’t the Beatles be embedded in your DNA? I know I’m being horribly nitpicky here. John Lennon himself was a notorious lyric-fumbler. (If you watch the Let It Be rooftop concert footage closely, you can spy a P.A. kneeling in front of him with the lyrics to his own songs on a clipboard.) Up next was another power trio, Darling Sweetheart. Like The Broken Poet, they had energy to spare and clearly loved playing the songs “Glass Onion” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which they pulled off handsomely without the sprightly piano and brass section that I originally thought was absolutely integral to the song.

Walking Spanish, a somewhat mellower act sporting a violin-player with the ubiquitous English driving cap was saddled with “Wild Honey Pie,” the fragmentary super-overdubbed doodle of McCartney’s that’s caused me to hit the “skip” button on the CD player every time. They fared better with the surreal Lennon musical comic strip “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill,” with each instrumentalist taking a turn scraping out the melody as the song eased to a close. Bright Light Fever did solid versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” I wondered how the guitarist would handle the famous Eric Clapton guest-star solo from the original “Weeps,” and the answer is: passably. Thus far, most of the bands had not radically re-arranged or re-altered the arrangements, but opted for fairly reverent interpretations, as far as their instrumental line-ups would allow. Only a handful of brave souls attempted to re-create the vaunted Beatles harmonies. (“Warm Gun” rumbled along without its famous “bang bang shoot shoot” backing vocals.)

This trend of staying faithful to the basic structure of the songs continued with Daycare’s “Martha My Dear” and “I’m So Tired.” San Diego’s The Silent Comedy began their two-song set with “Blackbird” performed as a solo acoustic number featuring their vocalist investing the lyrics with a tremulous, over-dramatic sing-whisper that did not do the song a great service. They quickly redeemed themselves when the full band hit the stage, and gave us the first truly radical re-imagining of a White Album song. With their buffalo-hunter locks and handlebar mustaches, they looked like fugitives from the set of Deadwood, or the cover of The Band’s second album. They turned “Piggies,” the George Harrison number based around a tinkling harpsichord and string section, into a barn-burning stomp that was one of the absolute highlights of the show.

Another act that definitely put their own stamp on the songs was Radio Orangevale, whose take on Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” was really the evening’s only low point. The fedora-sporting lead singer looked like he was plucked from the circa-1996 Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, used his own “vintage” microphone (which provided constant feedback squalls), and performed the song as an absolutely shameless Tom Waits “homage” (rip-off?). Like The Silent Comedy before them, Radio Orangevale pulled off a second-song save, turning “Rocky Raccoon” into Killers-style dance-rock, complete with robotic, vocoder-ized vocals. Prieta nailed an extended version of another McCartney toss-off, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” and then turned the gentle, acoustic love song “I Will” into a slow-burn reggae jam. It worked.

Fellow Idle Team trivia team members Jeannie Howell and Gillian Baldwin were up next with their band Ahoy! (also featuring Joy Stern and Julie Meyers). After a tentative start, their version of “Julia” found a sweet spot, making good use of Howell’s and Meyers’ crystal-clear voices as they swapped the lead vocal. They kicked the tempo up with “Birthday” and released balloons into the crowd, and closed out the first half of the show with a bang.

Lynus (who all looked about 15) covered “Yer Blues” and “Mother Nature’s Son” quite nicely, and were followed by San Diego’s Transfer, clad all in white for the occasion. Looking eerily like the droogs from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Transfer’s manic energy and not-inconsiderable chops crushed the back-to-back Lennon numbers “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” and “Sexy Sadie.” Saucer was a welcome contrast to all the rail-thin, frizzy-haired, arty-looking musicians that had heretofore graced Harlow’s stage. This beefy quartet looked like a bunch of steelworkers or longshoremen hitting the tavern after swing shift. They played the hell out of “Helter Skelter” and turned the delicate “Long Long Long” into an electric 4/4 rocker. Elder statesmen of Sacramento rock, Tattooed Love Dogs, gave the crowd a version of “Revolution 1” that straddled the fence between the slower, acoustic album version and the fuzzed-out rocker that was the flip side of the single “Hey Jude” (released a few months before the album.) Their version of the 1920s jazz pastiche “Honey Pie” was also pretty stellar.

And the snake-bit Stragglers. Victims of a snafu not of their making, they spent the week rehearsing “Martha My Dear” and “I’m So Tired,” which you know if you’ve been reading carefully was already ably performed by Daycare. Two hours or so before showtime, it was discovered that they were listed in the program as performing “Savoy Truffle” and “Cry Baby Cry.” They had about 90 minutes to learn two new songs, which was about one too many. Did I mention the Stragglers features Idle Timer Erik “3Dchain” Hanson? Old 3Dchain had to think fast. He solved one problem by inviting his sister, the aforementioned Jeannie Howell, onstage to perform “Savoy Truffle” with him as an a cappella duet. Sharing iPod ear buds pumping the actual song into their heads, the Hanson sibs succeeded in turning crowd bemusement into amusement, and got a pretty good clap-along going.

[An aside, if I may, about “Savoy Truffle.” WH sniffed condescendingly to me that it was a “good thing” the improvised a cappella performace was “only” “Savoy Truffle,” and thus not much of a sacrifice. Will is not the only one I’ve heard look down their nose at this George Harrison-penned track which warns of the dental dangers of eating sweets. Despite it’s goofy lyrics, it has a propulsive beat, a saucy little electric piano lick, a heavily-distorted brass section letting it rip, and a stinging guitar solo. What’s not to love? I consider it a highlight of the White Album and don’t understand all the haters.]

The Stragglers solved the “Cry Baby Cry” dilemma by performing it in a very simple, stripped-down acoustic arrangement that placed the focus on Erik’s voice. I may be biased because they’re my friends and all, but I really do think Erik and Jeannie had the best pure singing voices heard all night. It doesn’t hurt that the bearded Erik looks a little like Let It Be-era Paul McCartney.

I wish I could report that your Humble Narrator saw the last two performances of the evening, but he is reaching a Certain Age. The age where home, sweatpants, and David Letterman are more attractive than seeing a crowded club show through to the bitter end. My back was starting to ache from standing amongst the crowd for over three hours, my ears were going all cotton-y, and I had to work in the morning. So the free-jazz version of the entirely non-musical sonic collage “Revolution 9” by Race!!! and and the version of “Good Night” by David Houston & Sal Valentino that saw an actual string section take the stage went unwitnessed by me. (WH, who stuck around, said the twenty-five minute set-up for the strings before the last song was a “rhythm breaker” and pushed the show to an ungodly length, but the performance was impressive.)

That’s the back of my bald-ass head just to the right of the pillar. I bought an English driving cap as soon as I saw this picture.

Overall, it was the best evening of music I’ve seen in quite some time. Most of the bands I’ve never seen live before, and I was impressed by pretty much everyone. Kudos to Sac’s finest music rag Alive & Kicking and Jerry Perry for organizing the whole shebang. Follow the links above for more info on the artists, and if they come to your neck of the woods, check them out.


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