Lydia Loveless and more...
(Bloodshot; US: 13 Sep 2011; UK: 12 Sep 2011)
So yes, there was more to badass female country than Miranda Lambert (either solo or with the Pistol Annies). Coming on like Exene Cervenka covering The Virginian-era Neko Case—and with a liver-shriveling drinking habit to boot—21-year-old Loveless established herself as a Girl Not to Mess With on her stellar second album. (As if the gasoline-chugger on the cover wasn’t enough of a tip-off.) Whether raising her own rebel flag (“Bad Way to Go”, “Can’t Change Me”), feeling a mite introspective (“How Many Women”) or, uh, getting stalked by Steve Earle (“Steve Earle”), Loveless, on Indestructible revealed herself as a passionate woman with plenty of fuel to burn. Stephen Haag
The Old Magic
As the possessor of one of music’s more charmed—and charming—second acts, Nick Lowe has, over the past decade-and-a-half or so, become pop’s answer to bonsai: crafting pristine (but decidedly warm and humane) albums without a note out of place, at a when-I’m-good-and-ready pace. The Old Magic marks five albums in a row where Lowe has embraced this approach, and they’re all elegant beauts. Totally unconcerned with the prevailing trends, Lowe finds deep truths in simple couplets of even simpler-sounding songs (“House for Sale”, “I Read a Lot”) sets his mortality to a boom-chicka beat (“Checkout Time”), turns a wanderlust ode into a disco-lullaby (!) on “Restless Feeling”, nearly floats off the ground with joy on the burbling “Somebody Cares for Me” and even gets a little cheeky on a cover of Jeff West’s “You Don’t Know Me at All”. Be sure to pay attention to both keywords in the album’s title; goodness knows Lowe definitely has. Stephen Haag
Daniele Luppi and Danger Mouse
Opening with a soaring marriage of Pink Floyd acoustic guitars, lush strings and operatic vocals, the “Theme” to this quasi-soundtrack album introduced one of the most compelling releases of the past year. Recorded over a period of five years in Italy, with both vintage gear and musicians with connections to the original spaghetti western soundtracks (most notably The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), master producer Danger Mouse and arranger Daniele Luppi achieved a milestone with this collection of moody and hypnotic western soundtrack pieces. In addition, they recruited Norah Jones and Jack White (in one of his best vocal performances in quite a few years) to lend vocals to nearly half the record. Standout tracks include the acoustic driven “Black” (which made an appearance in this year’s finale of Breaking Bad), the melodic paranoia of “Two Against One” and the choir-driven swing of “Rose With the Broken Neck”. Josh Antonuccio
A Creature I Don’t Know
So Laura Marling is still just 21 years old, a remarkable fact considering that A Creature I Don’t Know is already Marling’s third record, one that finds her entering what sounds like a middle period of artistic maturity. Marling’s fellow Brits are wise to the singer-songwriter’s gifts, as Creature shot to number four on the British album charts, although Yanks were slower on the uptake. Working again with producer Ethan Johns, Marling lets her vivid alto drift over ten gorgeous jazz-folk originals. The Joni Mitchell comparisons have never made more sense than here, yet, young though she is, Marling sounds astonishingly assured as both a writer and performer all her own on an album, amid a growing number of nu-folk wannabes, as impressive as any you’re likely to hear. Steve Leftridge
Mates of State
Mates of State’s latest, Mountaintops, continues the path laid out by their previous albums, particularly 2008’s Re-Arrange Us. The duo’s greatest strength lies in their sheer enthusiasm. Their songs are frequently upbeat and insanely catchy, and Mountaintops is no exception. While Mates of State surely know how to write a great hook—“Total Serendipity” is a perfect example with its handclaps and jaunty piano—some of the more low key moments on the album also turn out to be standouts. Songs like “Unless I’m Led” and “Desire” are still well-crafted pop songs, albeit more subtle, yet they contrast nicely with the more energetic tracks on the album. Mountaintops proves to be another solid and genuinely enjoyable release in Mates of State’s output of already terrific albums. Jessica Suarez
Ancient & Modern
The Mekons are a critical and fan favorite, earning plaudits as much for their heady approach to songwriting, their unwavering social criticism, and their self-deprecating wit, as for their musicianship. Mekons maintain a long distance relationship anchored by Jon Langford and Sally Timms, fixtures of the alt-country music scene in their adopted Chicago, and various bandmates, including original member and lead singer Tom Greenhalgh across the pond. Perhaps because of the myriad of art and literature references or their puckish humor (Sally Timms and friends bumrushing the stage as Art Brut impostors at the Hideout block party in Chicago, attempting to fool some unsuspecting fans by repeatedly pounding out a percussive beat while chanting “We Are Art Brut”), the band doesn’t receive their just due for crafting beautiful songs. Ancient and Modern, the band’s 18th release over 34 years, may just change that. In tongue in cheek style, the album offers up a musical history lesson spanning a century, (1911-2011) offering a stunning indictment of a British society on the brink of collapse, embarking on the Great War that would permanently damage a Lost Generation. The band that famously declared it has “Never Been in a Riot” characteristically spurns the didactic or over the top stadium ready anthems, in favor of a contemplative style that by romanticizing the last relics of a bygone Edwardian society moments before the collapse, amplifies the tragedy. The opening track, “Warm Summer Sun”, is stunning, Tom Greenhalgh’s warbling vocals offering up a punkish snarl, a glimpse at a misguided soul exiting the cricket pitch, creating a sense of foreboding that sneaks up on the characters, as they stagger from a sense of entitlement towards an inevitable fate, which Tom wails is “the unimaginable health in front of me”.
Curiously, Ancient and Modern‘s anticipation of the calamity, through measured tones, finds the band just ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist, at a time, when the economic crisis have shaken faith in the global economy. As one of the most introspective, reverent, and spiritual releases of the year, Ancient and Modern’s song cycle is a thing of beauty, zipping forwards and backwards across the century, the sad reflection of “Warm Summer Sun”, giving way to the upbeat, glam rocker of “Space in Your Face” signaling the present day, followed by Sally Timms crooning to the vaudeville shuffle of “Geeshie”. Timms’ vocals offer a contemplative, gothic take on the angst of northern Welsh coal mining in “Ugly Bethesda”, while “I Fall Asleep” is a melodramatic ballad in which Sally and Tom offer a steadast reaffirmation of what appears to be false hope. The title track is the album’s centerpiece, with rich instrumentation and Sally’s spoken word reading lending a powerful gravitas, before giving way to a bone chilling chorus that captures the patriotism of an empire on the eve of war. By cycle’s song, the character’s fate sneaks up on the listener, with the soldier in Arthur’s Angel caught in no man’s land. Dennis Shin