As we usually do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #463:
The Shivvers – Lost Hits From Milwaukee’s First Family Of Powerpop 1979-82
Every day, there seems to be yet another rediscovery of a great band from decades ago that never “made it,” at least in the old mass-media sense. And more and more frequently,it’s becoming clear that those “unknown” bands were usually way better than what was on the radio at the time. This 2006 reissue includes most of this extraordinary group’s studio recordings as well as a surprisingly snarling, intense live set. In the studio, keyboardist/frontwoman Jill Kossoris’ vocals were quirky and detached, notably on the closest thing they had to a radio hit, the chirpy but cynical anticonformist anthem Teenline. But live, she was a powerhouse, most notably on the second version of You’re So Sure here, which sounds like the early Go Go’s. There’s also No Substitute, like the Raspberries with a girl singer; the scurrying new wavey/Beatlesque Please Stand By; the rich, ELO-inflected Remember Tonight; the punchy garage pop of My Association (“There’s a place I can go where I don’t have to be an outcast”); the George Harrison-esque Hold On; the absolutely gorgeous Life Without You; the Orbisonesque Nashville noir of It Hurts Too Much and Blue in Heaven, their offhandedly attempt at a big artsy (6 minute) synth/guitar anthem…sung by a dead girl! The whole thing is streaming at yucky myspace; here’s a random torrent.
Of all the excellent rock-en-Español bands in and passing through New York, Pistolera represent the elegant, catchy, tersely literate front. Their energetic, businesslike set at Joe’s Pub last night further cemented that reputation, mixing songs from their three albums which draw equally on ranchera ballads, American powerpop and older, more rustic Mexican styles. Frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velasquez kept her vocals smoldering and low-key for the most part, although she showed off a surprisingly powerful upper register on the most dramatic (and most intensely applauded) song of the night, a big, wounded border ballad. The bassist swung hard through his relentlessly rising, melodic lines as the drummer switched from straight-up, four-on-the-floor rock, adding a funkier edge or a scurrying shuffle beat on several other numbers.
Otherwise, the show was like Very Be Careful (with a better singer) playing Mexican rock. Not that Very Be Careful isn’t a great live band, or that the accordion isn’t a beautiful instrument: in the hands of Pistolera’s Maria Elena (a black belt kickboxer, as it turns out), there was a nonstop river of gorgeously plaintive tones sailing over the punch of the rhythm section. Too bad that other than vocals, that’s all there was in the mix. Pistolera gets their signature sound from the jangle and clang of their guitars, and throughout the set, the lead player was seldom audible and Velasquez hardly ever. Joe’s Pub isn’t known for good sound: this was a new low, and it doesn’t seem to be related to ongoing renovations which have shuffled the tables and bar seating.
But the band didn’t let it phase them. Even without the guitars, Todo Se Cae (Everything Falls Down) was an understatedly potent, anthemic reminder of the precarious state of the world. After alternating several similarly anthemic tunes, notably the irresistible, resolutely bouncy Nueva York (from their new concept album El Desierto Y La Cuidad) alongside a couple of pensive, minor-key laments, they closed with a practically gleeful version of the banda-rock hit Policia. “This is about when I got arrested,” Velasquez smirked, referring to the incident that inspired the song, when she discovered that it’s now illegal in this country for a woman to wear a bullet belt while boarding a flight.
An idea as to how Joe’s Pub might be able to banish the nasty feedback that plagues the PA system here, without turning off the guitars: why not do what the Rockwood Music Hall does? The sound booth at both of the rooms there is up in the rafters, just as it is at Joe’s Pub. But Ken Rockwood’s people operate as a team: in the larger room, the sound engineer tweaks the frequencies while a colleague makes his or her way through the crowd, texting the engineer with any needed modifications. It works like a charm there. Or maybe Joe’s Pub ought to take Rockwood onboard as a consultant: they sure could use him, or somebody like him, right now.
File the “new” album Blow Wind Blow by the Blam under great rediscoveries. Why did the Shins get so popular and not the Blam? The Blam’s hooks were just as catchy, their guitars just as jangly, their vocals just as pleasantly pensive. And they never got to the point where they started imitating the Smiths and sucking at it, either. If you’re wondering why all this is in the past tense, that’s because the Blam is finished. Other than a rare reunion show, they’ve been history since the early zeros. But just like the Beatles, a band the Blam closely resembled, they still had some songs left in the can after the breakup. Their third album, unreleased until this year, is a breath of fresh air, one casually sunny, smartly tuneful three-minute hit after another. Maybe, rather than counting this among the best albums of 2011, we should go back to 2004 and see where this one falls…hmmm…maybe somewhere between Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill and Neil Finn’s One All?
The title track plays off a briskly shuffling, casually biting, lush acoustic guitar riff, balmy vocals “coming in out of the ill wind…thought you’d hit me with the rough stuff….” It’s kind of like the Shins with balls. The catchiest songs here go straight back to the Fab Four: the gently swaying, all-acoustic I Don’t Know, with its gorgeously terse twelve-string guitar leads; That Girl, sarcastically bouncing up the stairs and leaving the poor guy wanting more; No Surprise, which with its cool repeaterbox guitar wouldn’t be out of place on a late Elliott Smith album; and Careful Measured Careful Plain, its vocals matching the slow-burning guitars, Itmar Ziegler’s bass rising casual and McCartneyesque, the perfect blend of Beatlesque and shoegaze. There’s also See the Monkeys, whispery bossa-tinged Zombies-esque pop with a recurrent ominousness; One Good Blow, which evokes Crowded House at their loudest and most guitarish; and Now Entering Sandwich, an allusively apprehensive, Dylanesque folk-rock number that foreshadows Mumford and Sons (and also the direction frontman Jerry Adler would take with his subsequent solo project, Flugente, whose two often brilliantly lyrical albums have just been remastered and reissued as well). The album ends with the tensely tuneful Will Still Kill, just acoustic guitars, harmonica and vocals, more kiss-off than lament:
You might get soiled on the way
Or encounter quite a dry spell
Your heart’s million miles away
Breaking like the Liberty Bell
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album was #496:
Patti Rothberg – Between the 1 and the 9
Discovered busking in the New York City subway (the album title references the local train running between Harlem and the Battery), Rothberg debuted auspiciously with this in 1996 and has replicated its clever lyricism and catchy, smoldering rock sensibility several times since then. The sarcastic garage rock anthem Treat Me Like Dirt went to #1 in Europe, while the characteristically tongue-in-cheek Inside reached the American top 40; the rest of the album ranges from pensive, symbolically charged purist slightly new wave-flavored pop tunes like Flicker, Forgive Me and It’s Alright to the sarcastic powerpop Perfect Stranger, Change Your Ways and Out of My Mind as well as the coyly sultry This One’s Mine. Everything Rothberg has done subsequently, especially the 2007 album Double Standards, is worth hearing. The whole thing is streaming at grooveshark; here’s a random torrent.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #500:
Twin Turbine – Jolly Green Giant
The second album from these New York underground rock legends blends the surreal guitar assault of Guided by Voices with more straightforwardly melodic British Invasion and punk sounds. It’s got creepy, intense stuff like Fade For Sunday – frontman/guitarist Dave Popeck sounding like Roger Waters doing his best Darth Vader imitation – along with the scathing Made for TV Murder, a Jon-Benet Ramsey narrative. Downsizer, the single, is even more timely in these depression days, with its bitter lyrics and catchy Stiff Little Fingers-inflected tune. The best of all of these is Susquehanna, a gorgeous, vengefully hallucinatory anthem setting layers of guitars over a swaying country backbeat. There’s also the squalling Love Rock & Roll, the Stoogoid Stop This Thing and Womankind, and Both Kinds, which sets an old 60s garage rock riff to 90s GBV crunch. A cult classic from 2005, it’s AWOL from the usual sources for free music – even Spotify doesn’t have it – but it’s still available from the band.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #504:
Crowded House – Together Alone
Their best album, an alternately lush, jangly, and sensual Beatlesque psychedelic pop gem from 1993. The opening track, Kare Kare offers swirling atmospherics, followed by the catchy pop tune In My Command, and the album’s best track, the absolutely gorgeous, crescendoing Nails in My Feet. Neil Finn, as good a guitarist as he is a tunesmith, gets dark and edgy on the biting mood piece Fingers of Love; Pineapple Head and Private Universe are gently romantic, while Black and White Boy and Locked Out are scorching, guitar-fueled riff-pop. A janglerock masterpiece, Distant Sun has one of the alltime great choruses; there’s also the jagged Skin Feeling along with the slightly trippy Catherine Wheels and the title track. The suicide of excellent drummer Paul Hester made the prospect of a reunion unlikely, but Finn’s put the group back together with a new one, and they’re reputedly as entertaining and tuneful as ever. Here’s a random torrent via Neurotico y Romantico.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #530:
Devi – Get Free
The 2009 debut release by this Hoboken, New Jersey psychedelic powerpop trio is a feast of good guitar and solid tunesmithing. But Debra, the band’s frontwoman, doesn’t let her virtuoso chops clutter the songs: instead, she goes for intricate layers and textures, with the occasional long, exhilarating, blues-infused solo. The genuine classic here is Welcome to the Boneyard, a haunted 9/11 memoir told from the point of a ghost in the rubble, drenched in watery riffs played through a Leslie organ speaker. When It Comes Down and the title track are the big concert favorites, all rises and falls and scorching solos. There’s also the wickedly catchy, gritty Howl at the Moon; Another Day (which could be the Runaways if they’d had better chops); Demon in the Sack, which pokes fun at gender stereotypes and sexual politics; Love That Lasts, which finally crosses the bridge over into exuberant metal; and a richly textured cover of Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done. The album is streaming in its entirety at bandcamp and available as a free download at the band’s site.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #533:
Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear – The Ghost of Rock n Roll
Ex-Hangdogs frontman Grimm’s second album with this fiery, Social Distortion-esque Iowa highway rock band is what the Dead Kennedys might have sounded like, had they survived Tipper Gore’s assault and traded in the surf music for Americana. This 2009 release mixes snidely, sometimes viciously humorous cuts like Hang Up and Drive (a hilarious chronicle of idiots calling and texting behind the wheel), Cinderella (the self-centered girl who wants it all) and My Girlfriend’s Way Too Hot for Me (a raised middle finger at the yuppie who has everything but the hot chick, and who just can’t seem to complete his collection) with more savage, politically fueled songs. The centerpiece is the cold-blooded, murderous 1/20/09, celebrating the end of the Bush regime and looking forward the day when the “cloistered and dull trust-fund kid” might have to face up to his crimes in The Hague. There’s also the amusing Wrath of God, a sendup of doomsday Christians; White, an irresistibly funny, spot-on parody of white hip-hop; the triumphant and quite possibly prophetic singalong One Big Union, and the LMFAO Ayn Rand Sucks, which bitchslaps the memory of the “Nazi skank.” Mysteriously AWOL from the usual sources for free music, but it’s still available from cdbaby. The band’s first album, Dawn’s Early Apocalypse, is just about as entertaining too.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #536:
Ward White – Pulling Out
One of the world’s most literate rock songwriters, Ward White’s sardonic, sometimes scathing lyrics use devices usually found only in latin poetry or great novels – but he makes it seem effortless, maybe because he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s also a great tunesmith, and a first-class lead guitarist. Choosing from among his half-dozen albums is a crapshoot, since they’re all excellent. This one, from 2008, has a purist janglerock vibe, with keyboardist Joe McGinty turning in his finest, most deviously textural work since his days with the Psychedelic Furs. It opens with the bitter Beautiful Reward; Getting Along Is Easy cruelly chronicles a high-profile breakup; Let It All Go hilariously examines family dysfunction in Connecticut WASP-land. Miserable contrasts the catchiest tune here with the album’s most morose, doomed lyric. And The Ballad of Rawles Balls (White was once their bass player) immortalizes the legendary, satirical New York cover band from hell. There’s also bleak, jaundiced chamber-pop and a Big Star homage of sorts. Too obscure to make it to the share sites, it’s still streaming at White’s own site, where copies are also available. And his latest, 2011 release, Done with the Talking Cure, is just about as good as this one.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #547:
The Wirebirds – Past and Gone
By the time this 2003 album came out, the great New York Britfolk band was finished: they did one final show that year, and that was the end. With three first-rate songwriters – frontwoman Amanda Thorpe, guitarists Will Dial and Peter Stuart – they alternated between lush, Richard Thompson-inflected anthems and more stark, bucolic material. This album is pretty much their entire catalog. The album opens with a blast of twelve-string guitar a la the Church with the big, sweeping Can You, winds through a bunch of warily apprehensive ballads before they hit their high point with Dial’s towering, apocalyptic This Green Hell (our predecessor e-zine’s pick for best song of 2003). Stuart’s catchy, lusciously jangly, rueful One Way Ticket would have been the big radio hit in a smarter universe, a vibe he takes to the next level with Time Stands Still. Fourteen tracks in all, including a biting cover of the English folksong Three Ravens, all with soaring three-part harmonies and layer upon layer of jangling, roaring, crashing guitar. Thorpe would go on to reach equally intense heights as a solo artist, and then with the Bedsit Poets. Strangely absent from the sharelockers, the whole thing is streaming at Spotify, and it’s still available from cdbaby.