[8 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In my most cynical moments, I’m sure that the Zach Braffs and Starbucks of the world have rendered the singer-songwriter bloodless, toothless, and simple. That they merely produce fodder for producers of cheap television drama, to either remind us what we already know—that we’re in a pregnant moment—or to do the emotional work their lazy scripts avoid. This, in darker moments, is how I see the singer-songwriter of the new century.
But to give in to these lazy thoughts is to give those faceless corporations too much sway over how we react to and define our art. A singer-songwriter album is not all acoustic guitars, fey vocals, and easy confessions, as the overhead system at the organic foods store downtown might have you believe.
Neither, however, is it a product that comes solely from descendents of the Greenwich Village protestors and traditionalists, as purists might declare. That is a part of the legacy, surely, but there are also brilliant singer-songwriters operating in all sorts of genres, making plenty of vital sounds. And 2009 found the best singer-songwriters in all corners of the musical world. This year did yield great “traditional” singer-songwriter albums—ones that you could play at Starbucks if you wanted the Bluetoothed businessman waiting for his decaf macchiato to melt into tears. But there’s also a country singer crafting love letters to his hero. Or a woman bedding down in the abyss, rather than patrolling its edge. There’s dreamy power-pop, and sharp-fanged industrial pop. And there’s the clear, low rumble of a long-brilliant songwriter penning his swirling, expansive, hopeful masterpiece.
We got it all in 2009. And here, we have the ten best singer-songwriter albums—each a sharp, shining reminder that the bloodless voice, the one filling up corporate compilations and demographic-friendly TV soundtracks, isn’t real. It’s fabricated, and can be dismissed as such. The stuff right here—this is singing, this is songwriting. It lives, it breathes, and it bites. Hard.
Jason Molina and Will Johnson are two of the best songwriters in American music today, period. But they are also two of the most solitary, and when they get together on this record there’s no feeling of coming together. In fact, the two may sound even more isolated working with each other. On these creaking, whispered songs, both guys craft some of the strongest songs of their careers, from the shuffle of Johnson’s “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” to the piano balladry of Molina’s “Each Star Marks a Day”. The record is almost uncomfortably personal all the way through, with a quiet that falls over the record and draws your finger to the volume button, your ear closer to the speaker. And once there, they deliver words that cut to the bone, laid over barren landscapes that stretch over Molina’s Midwest and coat themselves in the dust of Johnson’s Texas. This isn’t the hardscrabble rock of their daytime bands, but it is, in its hushed way, just as powerful.
Thao had a party on her last record, We Brave Bee Stings and All. But now, she’s got to deal with consequences and hangovers and regret. Luckily for us, she tackles heartbreak with the same fervor with which she cannonballs into swimming pools. Her guitar work here is unsurprisingly stellar, although the dusty plucking of the last record is replaced here by hazy, overcast phrasings that keep the record bright while steeping it in just enough melancholy. That sadness, though, there’s nothing self-pitying or navel-gazing about it. Thao is, as always, on fire in these songs, whether she’s pissed at an ex-lover—“What am I”, she demands, “just a body in your bed?”—or herself on the title track. She isn’t hoping to get past regret on Know Better Learn Faster, she’s fighting through it tooth and nail. And the sound of it is as vital and seductive as it is brokenhearted. That lonesome feeling never sounded so good.
Maybe this would be just another dusty folk record, you know, if it weren’t for Alela Diane’s devastating voice. Sure, this is built on fragile acoustic guitar and confessional lyrics. But To Be Still isn’t like any singer-songwriter album you’ve heard. Diane’s voice, with its emotive rasp and deep range, is a marvel. And with it she lilts through effortless melodies, crafting songs with roomy haze that still feel under control. And her confessions are built on odd and affecting details. “I’d like to see your teeth lined up in perfect rows”, she proclaims on “Dry Grass and Shadows”, and you start to think Diane knows something you don’t. That she’s willing to admit things you won’t. Diane wants to go back, to a time before some big hurt. But she also knows she can’t. “I won’t strike my feet”, she sings, “in whatever dirt you’re tracking”. You can feel that pull—that she really wants to—if only to feel close to that person again. It’s on this fragile tension and jagged honesty the whole album is built. It doesn’t give us easy answers, instead it raises questions beautifully from start to end. So, no, this won’t fit over the closing montage on those TV dramas. Alela Diane leaves too much of the obvious out. Which is what makes her album brilliant.
It’s not as lo-fi as Vile’s other albums, but Childish Prodigy gets dragged through plenty of sonic muck. His low howl, coated in reverb and rust, injects each of these scuzzy songs with a deep soul. And whether he’s channeling blues-rock or folk, Vile is pitch-perfect through the whole record. He can break your heart with the finger-picked “Blackberry Song”, or he can work you into a wild-eyed frenzy with the epic spazz-out that is “Freak Train”. In nine songs, Vile covers more ground than most can in twice that—shifting tempos and moods while still holding onto the grasping, fuzzy tension that drives it all. He may be young, but this is his most complete statement, and the defining document from a new, white-noise Americana movement spearheaded by Vile and some of his Philly friends (we’re looking at you, War on Drugs). Watch out, because on Childish Prodigy, we find out just how tough it is to ignore this washed-out stomp. If Kurt Vile has anything to say about it, Americana may never be the same.
Michael Lerner writes catchy power-pop tunes. Propulsive drums, crunchy guitars, sweet melodies, and hooks that get deep in the skin. There’s no new innovation to be found in his songs, no eccentric touch to make them stand out over all the other power-pop acts out there. And it is that purity that makes Telekinesis! so damn good. It isn’t interested in affectations. These songs are tight and unabashed in their sweetness. All through the record, Lerner is dreaming and wishing. He wants to be in Tokyo; he wants to fall in love; he recalls imaginary friends and awkward kisses. But none of it comes off as naïve, as each bright track is coated with just enough bittersweet haze to make it seem as honest as it is shamelessly optimistic. Like so many great Merge artists before him, Lerner is concerned with making a great song, free of pretension or trendy flourishes. So while the ease with which we can get so much music over the Internet might make us all think ourselves above pure pop, Telekinesis is here to remind how deep it can seep under your skin when it’s done right. And you can work up quite a sweat dancing to it, too.
Annie Clark sounds like she could get you into some serious trouble on Actor. Among all the industrial clatter she coats her songs in, there is that siren’s voice, luring us into the unknown. She invites us to “paint the black hole blacker” and we do, because we are helpless at the sound of her devastating lilt, even as it’s delivered through a knowing smirk. And the playful nature of her songs—weaving as they do through folk and orchestral pop and rock while they squeal and bleep with pixels—makes her all the more unpredictable. But the mystery she brings, dark as it is, is also awfully charming. And standout tracks like “Marrow” and “Actor Out of Work” show off a delightful and multi-talented performer who can puff us up with love one moment, devastate us the next, and then make us burst out laughing. By album’s end, you’re pulled into her game, ready to smash glass or kiss a stranger or dance in the middle of the street. Or listen to Actor all over again.
Isn’t it enough that Darnielle takes big cuts out of the Bible and makes them his own? Doesn’t that qualify this as an amazing singer-songwriter album? How about the fact that Darnielle strays away from lunging wild-eyed for our jugular the way we kind of want him to? The strained piano chords, the often gentle pluck of a guitar, the whisper of vocals—they’re all delivered with a considered restraint. And for a dude as excitable as Darnielle, this is surely a feat. With a tempered voice, Darnielle grapples with all kinds of demons, and angels, with the help of the Good Book. There’s a cautious, fleeting hope in “Romans 10:9”, deep grief and loss in “Matthew 25:21”, and even that maddening frenzy we expect from him on “Psalms 40:2”. Through it all, Darnielle commits fully to his Bible references. Quotes work their way into these songs, and there are unabashed confessions of faith. It’s not because Darnielle has had any awakening, it’s because he’s a great writer battling to understand. And with that fearless eye, his lines hits hard and true in every song. “Drive till the rain stops… keep driving”, he pleads at the album’s end. The Life of the World to Come, and the very Word it’s based on—they can only take us so far. We have to choose to press on. Darnielle figures this out over twelve excellent songs, and leaves us to grapple with the crushing hope in having that choice. Sounds like a big book I read once.
To Willie feels so natural in its delivery that it’s hard to believe these are all covers. Matthew Houck’s love letter to Willie Nelson sounds like an intimate conversation between the two. When Houck and his band shuffle through ““Pick Up the Tempo” or stomp dust off the floor on “I Gotta Get Drunk”, it sounds like they’re downing whiskey with Willie and the boys. But when things shift, and Houck sings a ballad like “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way”, it’s like he’s feeling Willie’s hurt all over again. Like his heart is breaking anew for the Red-Headed Stranger. And in covering these songs, we see something of Houck’s own work, where he found the ability to make his own lonesome sound come across as so universal. We see all that Houck has learned from Willie Nelson, and all the other urban cowboys that came before him, but we also see the earnest emotion Houck puts into his music, the thing that can’t be faked. So, in honoring Willie Nelson, Matthew Houck has also taken hold of those sad country reigns. And there isn’t anyone around to take them from him anytime soon.
Life on Earth is the most silent tension you’ll hear in 2009, and perhaps the sparest album of the decade. It leaves you breathless because it breaths so hard itself, sucking up all the oxygen in the vast, black space around it. These songs aren’t interested in looking at the abyss, or in wondering about isolation. They throw themselves down there and shout at the rock walls that might be somewhere out there in the dark. Strings are plucked, chords rise from guitars, only when absolutely necessary. And around them the silence is huge and deafening, with Jesy Fortino’s rattled, baying vocals cutting bravely through it. She may be lost, but she won’t plead. Even as she sings, “I’m dying for a way out”, she sounds dangerous and untethered, not defeated. Fortino is facing the beasts and forging ahead into a landscape she can’t see. And that bare fearlessness is what makes this quiet record so rewarding. It demands of you—attention, energy, and emotion will be spent if you really listen—but the rewards are great and run deeper with each listen. So go ahead and get quiet.
In his days under the Smog moniker, Callahan could be awfully harsh. He demanded wives to dress sexy at their husband’s funeral, or got dangerously drunk at ex-lovers’ weddings. But these days, he sings lines like “I used to be sort of blind, but now I can sort of see”. And boy is he right. That resonant voice isn’t dismissive and clustered-up anymore; it’s deep with knowledge and searching for hope. And behind him, a huge band of players make a spacious and dreamy sound. Horns and strings and pedal steel swirl around him, swelling and pulling away from spare, steady percussion. At the middle of it all is Callahan, unmoving but searching for hope in the everyday. Here Callahan sets aside the caustic one-liner in favor of building a subtle, deeply felt moment. When he strings together a line word by word at the end of “Too Many Birds”, you’re hanging on every breath. And when he gets it all out—“If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat”—you’re left with a melancholy that feels oddly comforting. Callahan has long been one of our finest and most daring songwriters. But when he turned away from that dark, and towards some humble light, he made his most crucial work to date. No wonder he’s not hiding behind Smog anymore. This is a sound to put your name on, to be proud of, to be remembered for.