2006, Through Roots-Colored Glasses

Let’s face it. A trip to the record store every Tuesday just doesn’t cut it anymore. There’s just too much new music out there, even if you confine yourself to a few select genres. You might be able to fool yourself into thinking you’re keeping up if you just go by the shelves at your local indie store, but one pass through your favorite mp3 blogs or music magazines — even the ones that match your tastes to a T — quickly proves otherwise.

And even if you do know about something, what’s to guarantee you’ll even have time to hear it? I still haven’t heard the Gob Iron disc (a collaboration between Jay Farrar and Anders Parker), the new Ghostface Killah or Clipse discs, Van Morrison’s or Solomon Burke’s country records, or Kris Kristofferson’s return — and those were fairly well publicized discs. As for that marvelous Frankenstein’s monster of a Tom Waits set, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards? I’ve listened to it plenty, but still don’t quite have a handle on it. And as I type this, the radio’s playing a pretty interesting song by Anne McCue, an artist I’ve never heard — one more for the list.

Heck, I didn’t even notice that country music had gained dominance again, until I saw that Vanity Fair, of all places, published a country music cover. I guess this particular year, after I performed my civic duty by buying the Dixie Chicks record, I then tucked my head back in the sand, raising it only to catch fleeting glimpses of quality mainstream country by folks like Chris Knight and Alison Moorer. It was a good year to be a Willie Nelson fan, though, with the release of The Complete Atlantic Sessions and his Ryan Adams-produced Songbird.

Ah, but it’s the same old complaint every year, isn’t it? You do what you can, you hear what you can, and you wait to see what takes root in your brain as a keeper.

That said, here are the discs in a vaguely-defined rootsier vein that did it for the Field Studies crew this year (granted, there’s only one of us, but if nothing else, that makes sure there aren’t any fights over what to play):

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-) A grower in the best sense of the word; a record that reveals more with each listen. Case has lived up to a lot of hype over the years, but on Fox Confessor, she leaves the hype in the dust. The detail-rich “Star Witness” may be her best song yet, but plenty of others on Fox Confessor come in a close second. How can you not love a song bearing sentiments like “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers / I know it’s unkind, but my own blood is much too dangerous” and “I leave the party at 3a.m., alone, thank God” (“Hold On, Hold On”)? Or fever-dream imagery like “he sang nursery rhymes to paralyze the wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes” (“Dirty Knife”)? Case takes her lyrics to a new level on Fox Confessor, and her arrangements are equal to the task. The noir shimmer that’s been her trademark throughout her career gains new textures and depth here, and while she still bears an allegiance to country, she seems to be using the genre more and more as a distant guiding star, making sure she doesn’t get herself lost while she makes her own kind of music.

2. Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway) As fans and listeners, we’ve been eulogizing Cash since his death in 2003, but American V is like hearing his voice from beyond, uttering his final thoughts on this whole mortal coil business. These are the recordings he was working on as his death approached, when Rick Rubin kept a band on call for the increasingly rare moments when Cash felt well enough to record. Religion and death intertwine, as they often have for Cash, throughout this record. American V, though, finds Cash’s mood ranging from accepting (“Like the 309”, “Further on Up the Road”, and “On the Evening Train”) to apocalyptic (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” sounds like a marching song for the armies of judgment), showing that Cash didn’t lose his focus even in those final days.

3. Bonnie Prince Billy, The Letting Go (Drag City) To these ears, The Letting Go is Will Oldham’s best record since 1999’s I See a Darkness. Barring his recent dalliance with Nashville, Oldham has mainly confined himself to refining his template over the years, so if you’re familiar with his work, you know what you’re going to get: graceful arrangements, lyrics that seem universal even as they look inward, and the roguish spirit of a man unafraid to advertise his faults. What sets The Letting Go apart, though, are the vocal contributions of Dawn McCarthy, which go far beyond backing vocals — they’re an integral part of this record, responsible for much of its power. When Oldham really finds his stride on The Letting Go, he offers three layers of excellence: the frailty of his own delivery, the eeriness of McCarthy’s sympathetic vocals, and arrangements that soar even as they maintain an intimate feel.

4. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast) The spectre of Hurricane Katrina continues to scar the American consciousness, and a lot of music from the area is starting to reflect not only anger, but also weariness, mourning, and even some hope. For The River in Reverse, Costello teamed up with one of New Orleans’ living legends, Allen Toussaint. The album’s a mixture of vintage Toussaint compositions and new Costello works, and really feels like a natural blend of Costello’s angular wordiness and Toussaint’s jazz-informed grace. Fully half of the album deals directly with Katrina’s aftermath, resurrecting Costello’s angry young man persona (albeit in age-tempered form) for what can only be considered protest songs. Toussaint’s ability to keep things nimble and smooth is exemplified by “Ascension Day”, which finds Costello singing disaster-wracked lyrics over Toussaint’s unmistakeable “Tipitina and Me”.

5. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant) Coming across like the Replacements fronted by Springsteen on an especially verbose day, the Hold Steady unleash another set of desperate slice-of-the-nightlife vignettes. Taking a Jack Kerouac line — “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together” — as its cue, the Hold Steady compress Springsteen’s romantic notions of escape to something grittier and more fatalistic, but no less necessary. Even if Hold Steady characters like Holly and Charlemagne don’t know what they’re escaping from, what they’re escaping to, or even that that they’re trying to escape, they instinctively flail against the grind of their daily lives. In the Hold Steady songs populated by such characters, drugs, booze, clubbing, and hook-ups are acceptable — and sometimes the only — substitutes for big engines and the open road. Regret can’t catch up with you if you just keep moving fast enough through the night.

6. Josh Ritter, The Animal Years (V2) Ranging from delicate (the a capella “Idaho”) to insistent (the rumbling, running cadence of “Wolves”), The Animal Years finds Ritter growing out of his Nick Drake phase into a songwriter of surprising versatility and imagination. “Girl in the War” finds the troubles of the world testing the patience of even the saints, and the nine-minute-plus “Thin Blue Flame” might strike some as overwrought, but others will find it a thrilling lyrical triumph. Some of The Animal Years flirts with preciousness, but it’s a sign of Ritter’s growth as an artist that he embraces the challenge head-on and keeps himself from going over that precipice.

7. Roseanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol) Black Cadillac is about death, and the immediate impulse is to apply all of its songs to the death of Roseanne Cash’s father, Johnny. But she also lost her stepmother, June Carter Cash, as well as her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, in the same short span of time. You expect Black Cadillac to be meticulously crafted, and Cash doesn’t disappoint. What comes as a bit of a shock is Cash’s bluntness throughout the disc, addressing not only the loss of loved ones, but what that loss means for those like her, who are left behind. Black Cadillac is a triumph from an artist who had nothing to prove, but who obviously felt she’d left some things unsaid.

8. Los Lobos, The Town and the City (Hollywood) Los Lobos emerge from a holding pattern of compilations and collaborations to get back to business on The Town and the City, and wind up making their best album since 1992’s Kiko. Initially, the disc sounds like a treatise on immigration, but before long it blossoms into a top-notch Los Lobos album that examines the larger issues of the American experience.

9. Richard Buckner, Meadow (Merge) Possibly one of Buckner’s most unassuming albums in a string of increasingly unassuming albums. Buckner seems to willfully resist the easy choices in his songs, instead turning inward to the perfect left-of-center lyrics and the perfect guitar drone. For Meadow, he brings in friends like Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices), Kevin March (GBV, Dambuilders, Those Bastard Souls), JD Foster, and Steven Goulding (Waco Brothers, Mekons). The difference isn’t startling, but Buckner’s guests pull the songs in subtle new directions. Meadow might not impress on first listen, but like the best of Buckner’s work, it eventually persuades you to let it in.

Numero Group execs Tom Lunt
and Ken Shipley – ©Jim Newberry

10. The Numero Group’s steady stream of top-notch R&B compilations It’s a great time to dig into vintage R&B. Once upon a time, once you’d educated yourself about Aretha and Marvin and Otis, and learned about Stax and Atlantic and Motown, you pretty much had it figured out. The past year, though, has seen a wealth of obscure material that proves, if nothing else, that history’s indeed written by the winners. Numero released four additions to its “Eccentric Soul” series this year, continuing its tradition of unearthing soul nuggets in unlikely places. Mighty Mike Lenaburg takes a wide detour to Phoenix, The Big Mack Label excavates the soul archives of Detroit and gives new meaning to the phrase “standing in the shadows of Motown”, and The Deep City Label swings down south to Miami. The fourth, Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal, gathers examples of the Word put to a funky beat — at least one track, Voices of Conquest’s “Oh Yes My Lord”, with its trancelike singing and drumming that would make John Bonham jealous, may be unlike any gospel song you’ve ever heard. Numero’s the first label that’s earned my trust so completely that I’ll pick up anything I see under its imprint, no questions asked.

Numero isn’t alone in unearthing quality soul, though. Rhino continues doing its thing with the What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves (1967-1977) box set, which contains four CDs of funky goodness (including a nifty alternate take of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady”). There was also the Soul Sides Vol. 1 compilation (Zealous), an offshoot of the Soul Sides website, an excellent clearing-house for obscure soul. The Now-Again label continued its run of strong deep funk finds with the Kashmere Stage Band comp, Texas Thunder Soul: 1968-1974. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, thousands of soul songs were recorded and quickly forgotten — some of them quite good, and some of them even the equal of the songs we now consider classics. If recent releases are any indication, these compilations are mining a vein that might not run dry any time soon.