The Swell Season and more...
Tegan and Sara
The Swell Season
There is a tendency to confuse the real lives of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová with the characters they played in the extraordinary film Once, and this is not limited to the movie’s fans; Hansard himself has referred to it as a documentary in several interviews. Since the scruffy film’s remarkable success and after a year spent touring together, the members of the Swell Season reemerge on Strict Joy as a thoroughly cohesive unit. This is both a blessing and a curse, though, since much of the first album’s charm is a result of the spontaneity and excitement seen in the film and heard on the album.
In its place, Strict Joy is a much more controlled and confident affair, stuffed with ballads and ruminations about a breakup (Hansard and Irglová’s) with a few polished, up-tempo songs sprinkled throughout. The ballad “In These Arms” is the clear standout, though it suffers by direct comparison to “Falling Slowly”; upon repeated listens, however, it reveals itself to be one of several excellent songs presented here. It’s easy to imagine Irglová singing the forlorn “Fantasy Man” and “I Have Loved You Wrong” while walking through the streets of Dublin listening to headphones—her delicate performance here evokes that famous scene from Once. Many reviews dislike these songs and criticize her performance, but I find them completely consistent with what I liked about her contributions to the earlier album. At best, her tremulous voice provides a worthy foil to Hansard’s assertiveness, and their harmonies continue to be incredible. Ultimately, although it is unlikely to have the cultural impact of the first album and accompanying film, Strict Joy is an engaging and enjoyable sophomore record. Matthew W. Paproth
Tegan and Sara
The audacity of Canada’s favorite twin rockers, Tegan and Sara Quin! It’s not enough to reach the forefront of indie rock, breaking through with 2007’s The Con. They had to make Sainthood, all sparse and pristine, playing up its predecessor’s pop-rock edge. Oh, the gall of being titled after a line in Leonard Cohen’s “Came So Far For Beauty”. How dare these sisters craft an album straight from the 1980s new wave playbook! It’s like early ‘80s Madonna and Cyndi Lauper formed a duo and enlisted appearances from Tony Basil and the Go-Gos. Sainthood is intent on attracting new listeners but unwilling to comprise the duo’s lyrical heft. Tegan is the belting, hook-driven power pop rocker. Sara’s the soul searcher with the exquisitely quirky voice. Both navigate the terrain of unrequited passion and persistent heartbreak. Neither seems capable of penning a forgettable tune. They’ve got a lot of nerve, don’t they? Quentin B. Huff
Three young spitfires from Murfreesboro, Tennessee released what is arguably the most authentic, and indisputably the catchiest, alt-country album of the year. The Darlins are crackshots with serious range. When 18-year-old Jessi Darlin isn’t channeling Uncle Dave Macon and warning of the need to keep one’s skillet good n’ greasy, then she’s illustrating and directing a stop-motion animated music video for the Darlins’ first single “Red Light Love”. Kelly Darlin founded the Southern Girls Rock N’ Roll Camp, and all those would-be Lucindas would be wise to enroll if this collection points to what they’re preaching ‘round those campfires. The songs lean on the classic forms of the highwayman canon, feel as lived-in as Bad Blake’s bluejeans, and are topped off with the late-night drunken boasts of a David Allan Coe.
However, the Darlins aren’t just rockabilly revivalists—they break down these constructs and make them their bitch—charging down that smoky mountainside on revved-up choppers with the heart and soul of three Shangri-La leather tuscaderos. Their songs tell stories—good ones—ranging from the hilarious (“The Whole Damn Thing”, “DUI or Die”) to the heart-wrenching (“Mama’s Heart”). While the collection stands up on its own, it must be noted that the Darlins’ live show routinely blows minds. With speed, tautness, and focused rage, it might as well be Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee up there in in wigs, worse accents, and better legs. Let’s hope ukulele-playing Nikki Darlin’s recent engagement to Deer Tick’s John McCauley bestows upon the hipster generation its very own John & June, turning out beautiful music like this debut collection for decades to come. Ryan S. Henriquez
Vieux Farka Touré
About half-way through the year I wrote about Fondo, Vieux Farka Touré’s follow-up to his remarkable self-titled debut. Half a year later, it has not lost even a little of its luster. Indeed, it has accrued additional value, and this is one to cherish –- now and for the future. That he is ably carrying the torch his father, Ali, ignited several decades ago is wonderful on many levels. More importantly, the music Vieux has made (and presumably will carry on making) provides that proverbial window into other cultures and perspectives. After lurching into a new millennium that has increasingly obliged us to question some of our stalest assumptions, Fondo is a small, refreshing reminder of sounds and rituals that exist beyond our borders. This is world music and it is desert music, but it is above all compelling music. That Fondo provides considerable joy and exhilaration makes it an indispensable source of light at the start of an uncertain decade. Sean Murphy
The Bright Mississippi
There has been many an homage paid to New Orleans in the wake of the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina, from Dr. John to Lil’ Wayne. However, none have truly captured the touching combination of joy, sadness, pride and pontification beamed down upon this legendary American city quite like this jazz masterpiece by one of its most cherished sons. Allen Toussaint, whose contributions to the varied universe of New Orleans music through his collaborations with the likes of LaBelle, Professor Longhair, the Meters, Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey to name but a few is as quintessential to the fabric of this terrain as Beale Street itself, has the most perfect final say on the matter with The Bright Mississippi.
Toussaint, who was displaced from his home along with the countless legions of his townsfolk when Katrina hit the NOLA shores, pays homage to his beloved motherland through this stirring, excellently executed collection of compositions associated with such Nawlins immortals as King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Produced by the great Joe Henry and backed by arguably one of the most mind-blowing ad-hoc jazz ensembles in recent memory featuring the likes of Marc Ribot on guitar, Don Byron on clarinet and Nicholas Payton on trumpet, with cameos from master piano man Brad Mehldau and saxophone colossus Joshua Redman, this is more than the best jazz album of the year. Favoring the triumph over the trouble in his city waters, The Bright Mississippi could very well go down as the best of the last decade. Ron Hart
No Line on the Horizon
How much of a burden is the impossible precedent of the hall-of-fame past efforts of the world’s only soccer-stadium-filling rock leviathan? Quite a millstone, indeed, when No Line on the Horizon, an album of triumphal texture and almighty musicality is viewed as a letdown. The Lanois/Eno team fill the record with bloops and cosmic propulsion, and the boys in the band play with the unmistakable power of a group fighting for its one big break, not one that’s already put its flag on the summit. In doing so, U2 has crafted a set that recaptures the dark hunger of the group’s early punk-wave riot, yet the record also crystallizes into a pastiche of sensuous, shivering post-modern rock. The Edge, for his part, turns in a wonder, conjuring up his trademark of buzzes and starbursts and some of his best riffs to date. And the singer—perhaps you’ve heard of him—30 years in hasn’t lost a drop of range, power, or conviction. Just as it takes hardened cynicism to knock a guy for ardent activism, it takes real pretending to dismiss No Line, an album that serves as an accumulation, an innovation, a celebration. Steve Leftridge
After releasing a slew of fuzzed-out, folk-rock/psyche-pop albums, singles, and EPs over the past two years—along with his work on one of last year’s best albums, Wagonwheel Blues by fellow Philly outfit the War on Drugs—Kurt Vile stomped his way onto the scene in 2009 with Childish Prodigy. Unlike the Midwestern pastoralism of Bon Iver, or the West Coast mysticism of Wooden Shjips and Six Organs of Admittance, Childish Prodigy presents Vile as a distinct urban, East Coast variant to the whole freak-folk scene. The album also demonstrates that Vile is a capable craftsman in several sonic traditions, managing to somehow simultaneously conjure the voices of Townes Van Zandt and Ariel Pink (“Overnight Religion”), with guitar work recalling both John Fahey (“Blackberry”) and Neil Young (“Hunchback”). “Freak Train” even shows Vile shaking along to his drum machine as well any of today’s other electro-rockers. Sprinkle in some Pavement here, some swampy, urban blues there, with a little Metal Machine Music on top, and you get a great album that is easily more prodigious than childish. Louis J. Battaglia