[10 December 2007]
Ever since Wilco began indulging their inner eccentrics, the band’s albums have been flashpoints for discussion. But Sky Blue Sky beat them all. It wasn’t a record that invited fence-sitting, as it found Wilco sanding the rough edges from their sound in favor of more “pop” leanings (a technique that didn’t work so well for one of the last bands to try it, Calexico). It seemed like half the world hated Sky Blue Sky for its seemingly simple songs, while the other half loved the very same heart-on-sleeve lack of artifice.
But despite many listeners’ extreme negative reactions, it seemed like many songs held some siren call in the other direction, be it the sublime guitar interplay of “Impossible Germany”, the rustic dreamlike quality of the title track, or the dissonant piano supporting the uncertainty of “On and On and On”. Sky Blue Sky is an intriguing, infuriating album that constantly makes you question whether your reaction is due to the album’s innate qualities, or due to preconceptions about what a Wilco record is supposed to be like.
It’s certainly the most organic they’ve sounded in quite a while, with the sonic experimentation that’s usually out front, now pushed back into the mix, acting like an undercurrent that pulls against some of the record’s plainspoken moments. Here we are at the end of the year, and the album’s still a bone of contention, which in itself argues that, whatever you think of it, Sky Blue Sky might be the album of the year.
Of course, where would any Wilco discussion be without comparisons to fellow Uncle Tupelo offshoots Son Volt, who just happened to release their own fine disc, The Search? On the surface, The Search shows the band making obvious upgrades to its sound (witness the blasts of horns propelling “The Picture”), but more importantly, it also captures Son Volt being a much better Son Volt than we’ve heard in a while. Jay Farrar’s songwriting, in particular, is sharp and energized (“Circadian Rhythm” comes across like the spiritual offspring of Farrar’s most timeless cover, “Moonshiner”, and one of his own lyrical triumphs, “Ten Second News”).
The Search is probably Son Volt’s strongest effort since 1995’s, Trace. Oddly enough, though, the full-length bonus disc may be even stronger. In the roots-rock world, the Son Volt/ Wilco debate seemed settled a while back, as Son Volt sounded increasingly uninspired while Wilco rode a wave of creative energy and critical acclaim. With The Search, Farrar and company make a case for their continued relevance.
Speaking of splits that could ultimately lead to strong parallel careers, 2007 also found the Drive-by Truckers’ formidable songwriting triad splintering as guitarist/ songwriter Jason Isbell departed for a solo career. I caught the Drive-by Truckers on their next to last show with Isbell, and I can’t imagine a more raucous celebration of rock ‘n’ roll in all its guitar-soloing, chord-crunching, eardrum-pounding, whiskey-fueled glory. Isbell’s departure immediately set off rounds of “Who’s Better Off?” debate, with Isbell’s solo disc, Sirens of the Ditch, doing very little to settle things. The disc sounded like it came straight from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama of the ‘70s, back when people cared about making a warm, crafted record, in stark contrast to most of today’s records (and even in contrast to the Truckers’ own albums, which usually sound like the amps are one glorious watt away from blowing).
However, the strong songs of Sirens lacked the rough edges and dynamics that seemed to benefit Isbell’s songs when he was with the Truckers. The Drive-by Truckers’ post-Isbell Brighter than Creation’s Dark drops in early 2008, with Isbell’s ex-wife, bassist Shonna Tucker, contributing a few songs. Expect the debate to continue, and, like the Wilco/ Son Volt arguments, to probably never be settled. At least let’s hope not, because that will probably mean that everyone’s cranking out great music.
On the soul front, Amy Winehouse’s success ignited arguments about what constitutes a real soul singer. Winehouse’s Back to Black, with heavy help from the Dap-Kings and Mark Ronson, sounded like a classic soul disc, albeit a very slick one. But many were unconvinced, whether it was because they were distracted by Winehouse’s colorful/ bordering-on-tragic personal life, or because of some insincerity they sensed in the music.
The debate over what constitutes “real” soul music has always been a thorny one to begin with, especially once skeletal Brits start singing it and tweaking Americans’ “Hey! That’s our music!” buttons. It didn’t help that three soul powerhouses—Mavis Staples, Bettye Lavette, and Sharon Jones—all released discs this year so that Winehouse’s effort could suffer from comparison. Staples, produced by Ry Cooder and aided by the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Freedom Singers, revisits her coming-of-age in the Civil Rights Era in blistering fashion on We’ll Never Turn Back. For her part, Lavette (backed by the Drive-by Truckers in one of the year’s most inspired pairings) sounds like a wizened old warrior whose fire has only grown hotter over the years. Jones’s 100 Days, 100 Nights isn’t as fiery as 2005’s Naturally, but she and the Dap-Kings (who sound more organic here than on Winehouse’s disc) still sound like they were time-warped straight out of a late-‘60s blues club.
If there’s not an internal debate within the blugrass world, there oughtta be, as the trend of bluegrass acts covering pop songs nears epidemic proportions. It started out humbly enough, with Del McCoury back in 2001, making Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” his own. And there were some novelty acts like Hayseed Dixie covering Motown standards, and Luther Wright and the Wrongs doing bluegrass covers of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And yeah, there was that whole series of Pickin’ On… discs that took seemingly incompatible acts (Pickin’ on Coldplay, Pickin’ on Nickelback, etc.). But at least then, you could divide things between the obvious cash-ins like the Pickin’ on ... series, and the interesting high-profile covers like McCoury’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or Dolly Parton’s “Stairway to Heaven”.
Now, it seems like anyone with a mandolin in the back of the van is required to cover a classic rock tune. There’s a solid argument in there somewhere that a quality song is a quality song, and can make the transition to any genre. But enough is enough. Getting a pass in this discussion, by the way, is Alison Krauss, whose duet album with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, was one of the year’s nice understated surprises.
Speaking of bluegrass, one weird, small controversy involved Merle Haggard’s The Bluegrass Sessions. Apparently, the Grammy Committee (in its seemingly eternal quest to match its watershed Jethro-Tull-is-metal moment) decided that the album doesn’t count as a bluegrass record. This despite, in the words of McCoury Music’s Chris Harris, The Bluegrass Sessions being “an album that Merle and Del [McCoury] decided to call The Bluegrass Sessions, produced by a bluegrass musician with bluegrass musicians, recorded at a bluegrass studio, released on a bluegrass label, racked under bluegrass in record stores, aired on bluegrass radio, covered by the bluegrass press, and it’s currently in its fourth consecutive week at #1 on Billboard‘s Bluegrass chart. If that’s not enough, even The Washington Post wondered why ‘no one had thought to pair Merle and Bluegrass together before.’” Go figure. Next they’ll decide that Bonnie “Prince” Billy is R&B because he appeared in Kanye West’s “You Can’t Tell Me Nothing” video.
The year 2007, just like any other year, was also a competition of sorts between the young upstarts and the wily veterans. On the new artists (or the “new” artists who actually have several records to their credit) front, Band of Horses are exploring the possibilities of southern-informed indie rock. Amy Lavere, Sarah Borges, and Miranda Lambert all made it easier to forget that Lucinda Williams’ muse seems to have left her for Mary Gauthier. The Avett Brothers continue to perfect their ragged synthesis of what seems like every decent band since the Beatles, in a fashion similar to the Rosewood Thieves, who just might be one of the most interesting new bands in quite a while for their ability to take what’s come before and forge a sound that doesn’t sound totally derivative. On the really retro front, African-American Piedmont string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops made some noise, while South Carolina’s Chris Smith (aka Sunshone Still) explored the saga of Kit Carson and America’s sense of Manifest Destiny on Ten Cent American Novels.
On the veteran front, the heavy hitters came out swinging. Lyle Lovett’s It Ain’t Big, It’s Large isn’t really any different from what you expect from Lovett, but it’s the best Lovett in years, a perfect blend of all the smooth stylings we’ve come to expect from him musically and the top-notch lyrics of which he’s capable. Bruce Springsteen’s Magic found the Boss reuniting with the E Street Band (possibly for the last time due to bandmembers’ age and health considerations) for a blast of classic rock and roll. Magic may be nearly as divisive as Wilco’s disc, though, dividing fans between those who see a classic return to form and those who hear an artist who’s lost his way. Neil Young made headlines with Chrome Dreams II, which pulls a few vintage songs of varying quality from the vaults and sets them alongside new songs of varying quality.
It’s an uneven affair, and certainly not the Great Neil Young album it’s made out to be. The word on John Fogerty’s Revival was that it was a return to his Creedence roots, but Fogerty’s always been the voice and sound of Creedence, so any sonic differences were subtle. Lyrically, though, he seemed to be seeking the old fire, with mixed results. The Holmes Brothers’ State of Grace found the group bringing their nice gospel/ R&B sound to Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me”, Fogerty’s “Bad Moon Rising”, and others.
Ryan Adams, who’s been around long enough to be considered a veteran, released the so-so Easy Tiger earlier in the year. However, the year’s-end Follow the Lights EP (complete with an intriguing cover of Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole”) hinted that he might actually be trying again. There were also records by Steve Earle (leaving Nashville for New York City with wife Alison Moorer), Porter Wagoner (in what turned out to be a fitting swan song), and the Band’s Levon Helm to consider.
The Eagles already had reserved parking spaces in Hell for their pernicious influence on modern country music and for their role in kickstarting the exorbitant ticket price craze. However, they’ve added insult to injury by making their bloated new double-disc effort, Long Road Out of Eden, available only in Wal-Mart for the first year of its release. Fellas, if you thought Satan couldn’t invent a few new rides for you, you obviously forgot that he’s got all the time in the world and plenty of cheap labor.
All in all, a fascinating year. Here’s to 2008 being just as interesting.
And now for the Top 10:
1) Bettye Lavette, The Scene of the Crime
Reports had Lavette and backing band/co-conspirators the Drive-by Truckers butting heads during these sessions, which isn’t surprising since both acts are noted for ferocity and stubbornness. Listening to The Scene of the Crime, it’s tempting to say that Lavette won the battle, and that the Truckers completely submit to the soul legend. The more you listen, though, you realize that the Truckers are doing exactly what a top-notch band should do: give what the song demands, and do it with as much personality as possible. “I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am)” finds Lavette strutting over thorny, intertwined Stones-type guitars, while “You Don’t Know Me at All” does its thing atop a Spooner Oldham-generated bed of R&B keyboards. And her cover of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Talking Old Soldiers”? It’s Lavette’s now. The Scene of the Crime is an instant classic that documents a meeting of the minds between a soul legend and her admirers.
2) Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Ritter leaves behind the Nick Drake-inspired sleepiness that nearly threatened to overwhelm previous efforts like Hello Starling, in favor of Conquest‘s full-band approach. And what a difference it makes. Uptempo songs like “To the Dogs or Whoever”, “Mind’s Eye”, and “Right Moves” leap out of the gate with an energy and vitality too often missing from the singer/songwriter field. Thankfully, though, Ritter doesn’t abandon his trademark, precision-tuned lyricism. “The Temptation of Adam” is a delicately constructed short story that skillfully blends love, poetry, crossword puzzles, and an understandable temptation to start World War III. Nuclear apocalypse never sounded so comforting.
3) Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand
Raising Sand doesn’t feature duets so much as harmony singing in the Everly Brothers tradition. The record ran the risk of being the year’s biggest trainwreck, but Krauss and Plant sing remarkably well together (this might be Plant’s best singing since he lost the top end of his vocal range). Producer T-Bone Burnette envelops Krauss and Plant in a shimmery sound (that definitely doesn’t suffer from having the likes of Mark Ribot on guitar) as they thumb through relatively obscure pages of the Americana songbook. “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is a standout, with Krauss singing in her most ethereal fashion over very Waitsian banjo and strings (they take on Waits’ “Trampled Rose” later), while “Rich Woman” and “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” find Plant in his rockabilly comfort zone. Raising Sand flirts with being a touch too sedate, but with vocal partners this sympathetic to each other, that’s easily overlooked.
4) Magnolia Electric Co., Sojourner
Jason Molina’s world is full of moons, wolves, ghosts, regrets, and Crazy Horse-style rock songs, adding up to music that’s spooky, twilight Americana. Molina’s recorded under several names, but his Magnolia Electric Co. work has arguably been his strongest. The handsomely-packaged Sojourner box collects songs from four separate Magnolia Electric Co. recording sessions, offering studio versions of many a live favorite (this listener’s especially grateful for “No Moon on the Water” and “What Comes After the Blues”). Divided into four discs (one for each recording session) and a DVD, Sojourner is no odds-and-sods collection full of filler. Any of this material would have easily fit into any Magnolia Electric Co. record thus far.
5) Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Swampblood
Th’ Shack Shakers have always had a level of schtick that threatened to overwhelm the frantic power of their music. With Swampblood, that dynamic gets turned on its head. Swampy, spooky, threatening, this is the sound of the Shack Shakers channeling swampy vets like Tony Joe White, Slim Harpo, or Creedence (if any of those folks had partied in a witch’s cabin on a Saturday night and then gone to a country church the next morning). Swampblood falters a bit toward the end as the band explore some less aggressive avenues for their hellbilly sound, but the first half or so of Swampblood is some of the most unrelenting southern gothic rock ‘n’ roll you’re likely to hear.
6) Lyle Lovett, It’s Not Big, It’s Large
Lovett announces himself in fine fashion on It’s Not Big, It’s Large, kicking things off with a full-band workout of Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe”. From there, it’s a quick downshift into the proud gospel of “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane”, and throughout It’s Not Big, It’s Large, we get tastes of everything that’s made Lovett a favorite: the ballads, the Texas Swing, the big band nods, the thoughtful songwriting. But whereas he’s followed one muse or another in passable fashion over the last few years, this effort finds everything working, possibly because Lovett the lyricist again seems the equal of these winning, dynamic arrangements.
7) Laura Veirs, Saltbreakers
“Waitaminute,” you say to yourself. “What’s she doing here? She’s not rootsy!” Fair enough, since the bookish, indie-leaning Veirs is every pale arty boy’s dream girl. Well, yes, but like Gillian Welch’s Time, the Revelator, Saltbreakers finds Veirs mining archetypal imagery in a way that’s distinctly unbound by genre. Teeming with imagery of dawn, constellations, mermaids, ocean depths, pirates, and countrysides, Saltbreakers makes an argument that someone might need to consider Veirs for the position of some kind of New-Folk-Poet-Rocker Laureate for the Pacific Northwest.
8) Bright Eyes, Cassadaga
Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst finally releases a record that doesn’t sound like it consists entirely of his diary entries. Well, at least not diary pages soggy with editor-starved ennui, anyway. Instead, Oberst gets outside a little, travels the country, and lets his experiences inform his songs. The standout title track blasts from the speakers on waves of violin, and throughout the disc, Oberst settles into comfortable arrangements of organ, fiddle, woodwinds, and/or pedal steel. Cassadaga sounds like Oberst has matured as a songwriter, not feeling the need to cram everything he can into each stanza. Aided by friends like M. Ward, Ben Kweller, Gillian Welch, Janet Weiss, and Rachael Yamagata, Cassadaga is Oberst’s most open-hearted record to date, and easily one of his best and most accessible. Just fast-forward past his requisite dissonant, filter-out-the-gawkers-and-casual-listeners opening track.
9) Amy Lavere, Anchors and Anvils
Lavere doesn’t make a grand statement on this sophomore effort. The Jim Dickinson-produced Anchors and Anvils is an eclectic, unassuming record that just works. A little over a half-hour and Lavere’s done, leaving a wake of torchy vocals and quirky arrangements that range from rock to funk to classic country. Her violin and reverb-laced cover of Paul Taylor’s “Pointless Drinking”, mandolin-flecked take on Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You”, and woozy funk interpretation of Carla Thomas’s “That Beat” show that she has a solid foundation when it comes to writing her own songs.
10) Various Artists, I’m Not There Soundtrack
Complementing the Dylan biopic of the same name (in which several actors and actresses portray Dylan), this soundtrack of Dylan covers puts two “house bands” (Calexico, and the John Medeski/Tom Verlaine/Steve Shelley-staffed Million Dollar Bashers) behind a who’s who of artists ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Sonic Youth to the Hold Steady to Charlotte Gainsbourg). Not all of it works—in fact, much of it doesn’t—but the tracks that succeed (such as Willie Nelson and Calexico’s transcendent “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” take the listener back to Dylan’s fresh-faced days as the father of modern folk, a time when songwriting-wise, anything seemed possible).