CD Reviews for 12/30/05 – Best of 2005

Compact Capsules for 12/30/05
by Dan Ferguson

Welcome to the Compact Capsules Favorites of the Year feature. As far as 2005 was concerned, let’s just say there’s been better years for new music. Frankly speaking, I can think of no recording that truly blew me away. In other words, lots of good albums, but few great ones. Let’s get down to business.

Spoon, Gimme Friction (Merge Records)
Once upon a time Austin’s best little secret, 2005 was a breakout year for indie rockers Spoon thanks to the album Gimme Fiction. Arguably the band’s most adventurous work to date, the looks are many as Britt Daniel and company venture into everything from dance-beat pop to flap-happy rockers to jaunty acoustic strummers. Sure there’s a commercial sheen to much of Gimme Fiction, but Spoon’s creativity-runs-amok approach to music making makes for sounds that have wads of pop appeal.

Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar Records)
Whereas previous albums saw Okkervil River opting for a gothic brand of creaky country, Black Sheep Boy found the band boiling up a melange of sounds fortified by things like mandolin, pump organ, lap steel, Wurlitzer, strings, horns, and such out-of-character elements as children’s keyboards, digitally-manipulated field recordings and distorted guitar. At the heart of it all is the songwriting and distinctive, but uneasy tenor voice of founder and leader Will Sheff whose sweeping suite of songs touch everything from murder to revenge to retaliation. Poetic in their construction and cinematic in their sweep, they along with the adventurous instrumentation make for an evocative brew. On a local note, the Black Sheep Boy artwork is by Providence artist William Schaff.

James McMurtry, Childish Things (Compadre Records)
McMurtry isn’t afraid to speak his mind with his highly literate songs. The king of working a groove for all its got on his guitar, with Childish Things he sets the record straight on everything from the grim state of affairs for the American working class (“We Can’t Make It Here”) to his disdain for our patriotic holidays becoming just another excuse for a dysfunctional family get-together (“Memorial Day”). By the way, he also rocks real hard in the process, with a rootsy authority.

The Hacienda Brothers, self-titled (Koch-Nashville)
Southwestern country soul blending guitar, pedal steel, accordion and a solid rhythm section defines the self-titled debut from the Hacienda Brothers. In founders Chris Gaffney (Dave Alvin Band) and Dave Gonzalez (The Paladins), you have a couple of seasoned vets of the roadhouse wars each of whom have logged 25 years in the music business. Combine that with a charismatic giant like Southern soul legend Dan Penn who produced this record and what looks good on paper comes across equally as well on disc.

Detroit Cobras, Baby (Bloodshot Records)
The starting point for The Detroit Cobras is deep catalogue soul and R&B and not the commercial stuff, mind you. Add an oft-times frantic garage angle along with plenty of swagger to the presentation and it adds up to one gigantic shimmy-shimmy shake. That, in a nutshell, defines the piledriver of a recording called Baby. Oh yeah, the two gal singers like to sing about hot dogs.

Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys, Empty House (Bloodshot Records)
Few bands in the alt country ranks have delivered the hard country goods as consistently as Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys. Hobart stays the course on his fourth release Empty House delivering a record marked by crafty wordplay and subject matter knee-deep in the pathos of C&W tragedy and heartbreak. Hobart’s songs reek of barstool bard purity and are lockstep with works from lyrical legends of the trade like Paycheck, Haggard and Jones.

Laura Cantrell, Humming by the Flowered Vine (Matador)With her first two albums, sweet and plaintive-voiced Laura Cantrell combined a pop flair with an allegiance to the roots of C&W. Her debut for prominent indie Matador Records, Humming by the Flowered Vine was poised to be the breakout album for the NYC-based artist. Clearly a more polished affair, a little extra shine shouldn’t scare anyone away as Humming by the Flowered Vine is a worthy follow-up that once again mixes well-chosen covers with Cantrell’s fine originals.

Michael Shelley, Goodbye Cheater (Confidential Recordings)
Classify Goodbye Cheater from New York City-based singer/songwriter Michael Shelley as one of those quirky, under-the-radar records. In other words, it’s an album that relies more on word of mouth. An album that owes as much to his love of catchy pop as it does his thing for twang, Goodbye Cheater is a quick moving collection of taut tunes chock full of hooks and melody to go with Shelley’s deft songwriting touch. Consider yourself informed.

Dave Knudsen, The Weeping City (Boronda Records)
Equally under the radar, while also plenty worthy of ears, is The Weeping City from Southern California-based Dave Knudsen. Remindful of a scruffier-voiced Loudon Wainwright III with a touch of Neil Young, Knudsen’s songs are deceptively simple and that’s their magic. Channeling country and blues in a spare way, Knudsen’s intimate heartsongs deal with the ups and downs of love and life with the end result an album that sticks in the craw and grows in leaps and bounds with each listen.

Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Soul’s Chapel (Superlatone/Universal South)Known for his hillbilly rock, one of the best Marty Stuart albums to these ears was the 1991 gospel release called A Joyful Noise that paired him with Alabama-based duo Jerry and Tammy Sullivan. The year 2005 saw Stuart finally deliver his own spiritual album, Soul’s Chapel. Backed by his superb band the Superlatives, it is a deeply soulful album that lives on the fringes of country music with dips into Delta blues, rockabilly, and soul.

Frank Black, Honeycomb (Back Porch Records)Frank Black Lite? In comparison to his other projects (Pixies, Catholics, etc), one can certainly make such a case. Label Honeycomb for Black what the album Nashville Skyline was for Dylan. Like Dylan heading off to Nashville and plucking a bunch of ace session musicians to back him on that country leaning affair, Black did much the same with Honeycomb. Whereas Dylan went country folk, Black goes country soul delivering a laid back and spare sounding affair that’s a complete 180 from his Pixies’ persona. A record that sneaks up on you, Black’s voice is one of calm and restraint and is completely in bed with the mix of originals and cool covers.

The Magnolia Electric Company, What Comes After the Blues (Secretly Canadian)A side project of one time Providence guy Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia fame, Magnolia Electric Company goes for the throat on What Comes After the Blues mixing grandiose roots rockers straight out of early Neil Young & Crazy Horse with a splash of Jayhawks, with savory numbers of personal solitude. The song “Leave the City” with its horn intro setting a tone of melancholy as Molina sings of second thoughts about departing a long-time home may just be this writer’s favorite tune of the year.

Bettye LaVette, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise (Anti)
Single of the year as far as recordings are concerned? Nothing can top the stop-in-your-tracks rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” that singer Bettye LaVette delivers, or make that bleeds, on her compelling recording I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise. Passion, soul, funk, and sensuality fill the grooves of this impressive comeback affair from LaVette whose career goes back some 43 years where as a 16-year-old she saw the release of her first single for a small Detroit label. An interpreter of the highest order, LaVette works her magic on songs from Williams to Joan Armatrading to Aimee Mann to Dolly Parton to Fiona Apple to Sinead O’Connor. Joe Henry’s production is fresh and inventive.

A Few More Favorites: The Mendoza Line, Full of Light and Full of Fire (Misra); Shannon McNally, Geronimo (Back Porch); Laura Veirs, Year of Meteors (Nonesuch); Charlie Sexton, Cruel and Gentle Things (Back Porch); Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard (Yep Roc Records); Dwight Yoakam, Blame the Vain (New West Records); Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Begonias (Yep Roc); Jim and Jennie & the Pinetops, Rivers Roll On By (Bloodshot); The Pernice Brothers, Discover A Lovelier You (Ashmont); Sarah Borges, Silver City (Blue Corn); Eliza Gilkyson, Paradise Hotel (Red House).

Favorite domestic reissues:
1) Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet, The Complete Mercury Masters (Hip-O Select)
2) David Allan Coe, Penitentiary Blues (Hacktone)
3) Doug Sahm, Groover’s Paradise (Collector’s Choice Music)
4) Various Artists, Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945 – 1970, Volume 2 (CMF/Lost Highway)
5) June Carter Cash, Keep On The Sunny Side – Her Life In Music (Columbia/Legacy)
6) Bob Dylan, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack – The Bootleg Series Volume 7 (Columbia/Legacy)
7) Roky Erickson, I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology (Shout Factory)
8) Johnny Paycheck, The Little Darlin’ Sound of Johnny Paycheck: The Gospel Truth (Koch-Nashville)
9) James Burton & Ralph Mooney, Corn Pickin’ & Slick Slidin’ (Sundazed)
10) Speedy West, Steel Guitar (Sundazed)

(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6-9 pm on 90.3, WRIU-FM. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)