Alejandro Escovedo and more...
With his 2012 release Big Station, Alejandro Escovedo struck gold with a release that built upon the widespread critical and commerical acclaim of his 2010 release, Street Songs of Love. 2012 was a victory lap of sorts, as Escovedo was able to bask in long-awaited praise as a roots rock legend, getting mainstream exposure and recognition. His ‘me and the boys’ communal spirit mirrors that of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. His deep knowledge and appreciation from artists spanning punk, roots rock, blues, and Tex-Mex have fashioned Escovedo as an Americana version of Jools Holland, serving as emcee of his annual SXSW closing night showcase at the Continental Club.
Big Station features the broad expansive mix that one expects from Escovedo’s repertoire, working in partnership with Chuck Prophet and producer Tony Visconti. The group plays ensemble rockers, spiritual ballads that yearn for a simpler time (Sabor a Mi, San Antonio rain). But Big Station features tracks that build upon his band’s ensemble strengths, showcasing horns and strings, wall-of-sound guitars and percussive hand claps, while showcasing the pathos of his storytelling. In much the way that his signature hit “Chelsea Hotel” conjures up the doom and gloom of Sid and Nancy, tapped from Alejandro’s personal experience as a punk scenester, Big Station is rife with stories, both tender and heartbreaking.
“Sally Was a Cop” touches on the human toll of Mexican drug cartel warfare, bringing to mind the tale of hurt and bitterness of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I had a Rocket Launcher”. In “Headstrong Crazy Fools”, he rattles off the woes of a cast of characters. “Common Mistake” conjures up the power pop of Look Sharp era Joe Jackson. And yes, he can still rock, as evidenced in this live clip of “Man of the World”, with its sing-along chorus and Duane Eddy/Eddie Cochran guitar riff. Dennis Shin
The Evens, featuring guitarist Ian MacKaye and spouse, drummer Amy Farina, know that less is more. As a co-singing duo inhabiting a gender gray zone, they eschew garage rock bombast, facile indie rock pretense, and processed pomp. Instead, as the muted cousin of Fugazi, which MacKaye helped helm for two decades, their appeal is found within reserved tendencies. They replace the emotional cliff-hangers and dissonant dexterity of that band with domicile (un)rock, even include house lamps on their stages. The nasally MacKaye maintains a kitchen sink style, wielding unfussy rhythmic thrusts that dance with Farina’s incessant, propulsive grooves and her stark voice, which echoes a bit of P.J. Harvey. Cadences found in the mesmerizing “King of Kings” unfurl at the speed of Lungfish and reveal wry wordplay and alliteration. Meanwhile, “Wanted Criminals” approximates an avid social critique, decrying an age of hive-mind shadow surveillance, while “Warble Factor – Version” and “Let’s Get Well” mine the existential tension between nature—life and dying—and fakery: media concoctions of beauty and finance. Recalling Samuel Becket’s sense of endlessly re-worked language, the band reminds listeners that intelligence is not measured by hype but by exploring the road less traveled. David Ensminger
Fang Island won acclaim here and there for its rousing, self-titled 2010 album. That record was full of great guitar riffs, solos, and fun power-chord rock. But the band was no backwards-looking throwback to ‘70s rock or ‘80s hair-metal. Instead, they used tricks picked up from post-rock and metal to give guitar rock a fresh twist. Major picks up where Fang Island left off, but quietly adds new elements to the band’s sound. The album opens and closes with songs (“Kindergarten” and “Victorinian”, respectively) that are dominated by piano and emphasize Jason Bartell’s singing. The guitars are relegated to background atmospherics for a change.
Things snap back to normal for the bulk of the album, which is again dominated by catchy riffs and soaring guitar harmonies on great tracks like “Chompers” and the hoedown-style stomp of “Dooney Rock”. But the band clearly put some work into the lyrics this time around, and Bartell’s voice stays out in front on Major. Fang Island is now going for vocal hooks as well as guitar riffs, and largely succeeding. The band straddles the divide between indie rock and metal, and their approach is unique. They want you to rock out to their guitar heroics and sing along with a huge grin on your face at all times. Chris Conaton
Life Is People
English folk troubadour Bill Fay rose to astonishing heights in recent memory when cameras captured Jeff Tweedy playing Fay’s track “Be Not So Fearful” in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. In that single moment, an icon once relegated to cult status was introduced to a new audience. Nearly 40 years on from his ‘70s albums, Fay returned to the studio to deliver Life Is People, a masterful reflection on mortality, broken humanity, and spiritual longing. Stand out songs include the lead-off track “There Is a Valley” with it’s shadows of “Pacific Ocean Blue” and “This World”, an upwardly melodic rocker which features Tweedy on guest vocals. As if to return the favor, Fay croons on a haunting and transparent cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.”
Fay has a penchant for detail, as found in the melancholic and searching narrative of “Big Painter” and points towards Christian spirituality with near-hymns like the aching prayer of “Thank You Lord”. Echoes of his classic album Time of the Last Persecution find their way in explorations of worldly power in tracks like “Empires”. With the aid of the London Community Gospel Choir, Fay pleads for inner harmony on “Be at Peace With Yourself” and finds his thematic crescendo on “Cosmic Concerto-Life Is People”, summarizing the “advice of his old Dad” with a slow building meditation on the true measure of life. World-weary, but heaven-focused, Fay returned to fine form, sounding like a grand storyteller passing song-strewn wisdom on to a future generation. Josh Antonuccio
The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Ben Folds is in a weird position. He has a large, dedicated fanbase that has followed him since the ‘90s through every permutation of his solo career. There’s another group of fans out there who abandoned him shortly after Ben Folds Five broke up, and were excited for their reunion album and tour. And yet, many of the reactions to The Sound of the Life of the Mind have been negative. People were pissed that it didn’t sound like the direct follow-up to the last Ben Folds Five album, despite that album coming 13 years ago. Others were aggravated that it sounded too much like just another Ben Folds solo album, as if Folds didn’t write 95% of the songs Ben Folds Five every played. Still others were annoyed that Folds still comes off sounding like a misogynistic asshole whenever he writes a “Woman done me wrong” song.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind is an album that can legitimately absorb all of these criticisms, and yet, it’s also pretty damn great. Esoteric tracks like the harsh and jazzy “Erase Me” and the character study “On Being Frank” sit side by side giant crowd-pleasing sing alongs like “Draw a Crowd” and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”. Through it all, Folds, drummer Darren Jessee, and bassist Robert Sledge still have the vocal chops to pull off their trademark three-part harmonies. Jessee proves both more subtle and more powerful a drummer than Folds himself or any of his solo collaborators, and Robert Sledge brings his best fuzz bass solos to the table. For better or worse, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a legitimate Ben Folds Five album. From this corner, it’s definitely for the better. Chris Conaton
Considering how vilified the practice has been in the past, it’s a little surprising that so many found it easy to accept Auto-Tune in 2012. I suppose that’s just where trends lie in the end, though, which is what made Future such an interesting litmus test for the year. A lot of the music he’s made and seems intent on continuing to make seems a little niche, which may hurt him a little going forward. But for now Future’s found him a way to make the audiovisuals of trap house economics feel relatable, clear and honest. Looking back on everything few albums feel as of its years as Pluto does, so, if you’re into the pop or the hooks at al, check it out. David Amidon