CD Reviews for 12/31/04 (Best of 2004) by Dan Ferguson

Compact Capsules Favorites for 2004

Welcome to the 13th annual Compact Capsules favorites of the year in which an attempt is made to single out a baker’s dozen of new releases from the past year that hit the sweet spot for this writer for one reason or another. Notice the word “attempt” as looking back over what was covered in these pages during the year (as well as a few scragglers which are still in the review queue), I found only a handful that I really consider bona fide favorites. The ground rules for inclusion are pretty simple, it has to be a recording released in 2004 and typically one that I kept returning to during the year. As I like to reiterate each year, the intent of Compact Capsules since its inception has been to emphasize independent releases, nearly 2300-plus recordings during its run if my math is correct. As I’ve said in the past, leave the big releases to the likes of Rolling Stone and flashy mags like that. If you’re open-minded about your music, I dare you not to find an album or three in the list that follows that doesn’t have the potential to change your world, even if only for a few spins. In no real particular order, let’s get down to business.

Jon Dee Graham, The Great Battle (New West)
The mid-fortysomething Graham has been rocking since his late teens when he took his guitar and left his Rio Grande Valley home to head to Austin where he joined seminal punk band The Skunks. In the years since, he has matured into a stellar songwriter who wears his emotions and life experiences on his sleeve in song at the same time never sacrificing that irresistible desire to apply a dollop of guitar muscle to his music. Proof positive is The Great Battle, an album on which Graham applies that scruffy croak of his (think Tom Waits for a quick comparison) to a collection of top-notch, oft-times “personal” songs that move between quiet subtlety and workmanlike guitar crunch.

Lori McKenna, Bittertown (Signature)
The story of Bay Stater Lori McKenna’s rise in the contemporary singer/songwriter ranks is one of those rags to (artistic) riches affairs. Still residing in the town in which she was raised, the mother of five who married her high school sweetheart continues to make great strides as both singer and songwriter as demonstrated by her 2004 album Bittertown. Drawing on her humble, small town upbringing, it is an album of songs that find the adult McKenna grappling with her feelings about choosing to remain in that hometown waxing both nostalgically and honestly about those defining days of late teen adolescence. Balancing full-bodied electric and spare acoustic arrangements, this album proves McKenna as one of those special singer/songwriters able to take everyday life experiences and weave them into narratives in such a way that it’s hard not to get sucked into her song web.

James McMurtry & the Heartless Bastards, Live In Aught-Three (Compadre)
This one is probably the first live album to make a Compact Capsules yearly favorites list. Having witnessed James McMurtry & the Heartless Bastards perform on their home turf of Austin on numerous occasions, I can personally attest to the oomph factor of the live show. Live In Aught-Three captures that live experience in all its sonic glory. A mere guitar-bass-drums configuration, for all its economy on the size side of things this trio displays plenty of muscle with its edgy roots rockin’ song mix. Son of celebrated author Larry McMurtry, it’s obvious where son James gets his highly literate, detail-filled songwriting touch. Spreading 14 tracks over almost 70 minutes, Live In Aught-Three kicks some very serious butt in delivering live versions of some of his best moments from days with the Columbia and Sugar Hill record labels.

Black Keys, Rubber Factory (Fat Possum)
As far as first couple of listens went, I dug last year’s Black Keys album Thickfreakness more than its 2004 entry Rubber Factory. Lately, though, the tide has changed and what I hear for all the blues rock ‘n’ skronk racket of Rubber Factory is a band that sounds more comfortable in its skin this time around. Gone is the sound of the duo trying too hard to make music that meshes with the Northern Mississippi blues outpost of both its current and deceased Fat Possum blues labelmates. For this release, the duo sticks its hometown, working class Akron, Ohio stamp all over the proceedings beginning with recording the darn thing in a deserted Goodrich tire factory (where the two just happen to reside). As hard-edged as it is soul drenched, Rubber Factory continues the ascension of this all-of-two piece unit.

Nora O’Connor, Til the Dawn (Bloodshot)
No album spent as much time in the CD player this year as Til the Dawn from Chicago-based Nora O’Connor. Well-known on the Windy City scene for her singing talents, ’til the Dawn represents the debut longplayer for O’Connor and what a beauty it is. Mixing buoyant country-flavored tunes with those that flirt with pop in a no frills kind of way, O’Connor’s sweet and airy delivery is form-fit to the nine tunes comprising this alluring album which divides itself between originals and an appealing collection of covers that span Lori Carson’s “Down Here” to Stevie Nicks’ “That’s Alright”.

Chuck Prophet, Age of Miracles (New West)
Love songs, oft-times sliding into bummer territory, sets the stage for much of Age of Miracles from Chuck Prophet. Prophet’s sounds-galore approach to music is fresh and utterly innovative defying any categorization with the end result an adventurous blending of tunes that touch rock, blues, soul, hip hop and funk and which for all its stylistic restlessness sound completely at home in Prophet’s drowsy drawl.

Lil’ Cap’n Travis, …In All Their Splendor (Glurp)
What if the Beach Boys went alt country? Here’s thinkin’ the end result would be something on the order of the whimsical songs and sounds laid down by Li’l Cap’n Travis. On its 2004 release …In All Their Splendor, the Austin-based five-piece delivers a wonderfully woozy mash of pop, country and rock with a decidedly slacker haze hanging over it all.

Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti)
Over the course of her first three solo releases for indie label Bloodshot Record, the mighty voice of Neko Case has been an instrument to behold. A bell of the alt country ranks, this past year saw her hook up with the higher profile Anti label debuting with the live album The Tigers Have Spoken. Offering shades of everything from alt country to the hard stuff to boisterous rockers to sublime pop, it is anything but your standard live recording in that nine of 11 tracks appear for the first time on a Case recording. The album mixes several fine originals with a broad spectrum of covers the latter of which demonstrates Case’s fine taste when it comes to song mining not mention her superlative interpretive skills.

Geraint Watkins, Dial “W” for Watkins (Yep Roc)
As solo artists go, Geraint Watkins is definitely one of those below-the-radar types. Yet, a look at his credentials and there’s stints with heavy hitters spanning Van Morrison to Mark Knopfler to Paul McCartney to Dave Edmunds to Dr. Feelgood to Nick Lowe. A fellow who has been satisfying the senses of music lovers in his native Britain for close to 30 years with his savory mix of Creole-tinged accordion and hot, R&B-flavored piano playing, Dial “W” for Watkins is his debut release on these shores. Simply put, cool sounds abound on this stellar outing. A soulful crooner who knows no bounds, strands of everything from Louis Prima to Booker T. and country to Creole are found on this outstanding release.

Southern Culture On the Skids, Mojo Box (Yep Roc)
The music of Chapel Hill-based trio Southern Culture On the Skids, or SCOTS as they are affectionately known, has never been about taking a listener deep. As Mojo Box and just about all of the band’s releases attest, the SCOTS music mission is about putting a big smile on your face and shake in your rump. In other words, a rock ‘n’ roll band that likes to get the good times rolling. Classify Mojo Box as arguably the best the band has offered in its 19-year existence. Sure the album taps into the same Southern white trash culture that has worked so well all these years. It’s the other looks, however, that make Mojo Box the boogie band tour de force that it is with plenty satisfying side tracks into surf, swamp, soul, garage and even a little Crescent City bump and grind.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
When you get up there in years, sometimes the best thing that can happen to a person is a youth injection. That is exactly what happened to honky tonk queen and country music hall of famer Loretta Lynn who teamed with flavor of the moment fave Jack White of White Stripes fame for what was easily the comeback event of the year event in music, her album Van Lear Rose. Rooted in country but with a most pronounced edge to it, Van Lear Rose is an album that is more about winning new fans than satisfying old ones. In addition to White, the youth injection is a supporting cast featuring players from Cincinnati garage rockers The Greenhornes and Detroit alt country band Blanche and a far cry from the Nashville variety that has typically graced Lynn recordings. It gives the album the kind of juice Lynn hasn’t seen since her feisty days circa-1960s and early 70s. With a voice as robust and twangy as ever and songs from the heart that strike like the best of her salad days, Van Lear Rose is an album on which Lynn should be proud to hang her hat.

Dale Watson, Dreamland (Koch)
You hear people saying how Music Row made a comeback this year getting back to “real” country music. Well, I dare anyone to put the best “real” country album the Music Row high rollers had to offer in 2004 against honky tonker Dale Watson’s release from this year called Dreamland and not give Watson the nod when it comes to authenticity. Whereas his label is based out of Nashville, Watson swore off Music City a number of years ago (check out his “Nashville Rash” from a mid-1990s release to get the real skinny on his feelings) preferring to record and base himself out of Austin. A traditionalist through and through, Watson is in a most definite honky tonkin’ frame of mind on Dreamland. From trickling honky tonk piano to savory steel guitar fills to sawing fiddle to twangy guitar to Watson’s nuanced baritone, Dreamland is real country purity.

Amy Farris, Anyway (Yep Roc)
Some Stephane Grappelli-styled Gypsy swing, a fragrant slice of Ray Price country shuffle, a touch of sweetened girl pop, some rootsy folk rock, a bit of simmering blues, and a dose of jazz for lovers, those flavors and plenty more are what one will find on the fine solo debut from fiddler/violinist Amy Farris. A classically trained violinist who until this album performed strictly in the side-person role, Anyway is Farris’s time to shine. The album showcases her virtuosity in all its glowing colors from her accomplished, multi-styled bow work on both viola and violin (not to mention some impressive mandolin strokes) to songwriting which up until this release was an unknown quantity to an out of the ordinary singing voice a little on the “girly” side which more often than not hits the spot.

A Few More Favorites: Bobby Bare Jr., From The End Of Your Leash (Bloodshot); Eddie Spaghetti, Sauce (Mid-Fi); Floyd Tillman, The Influence (Heart of Texas); Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked (Yep Roc); Dolorean, Violence in the Snowy Fields (Yep Roc); Cornell Hurd Band, Cen-Tex Serenade (Behemoth); Old Crow Medicine Show, O.C.M.S. (Nettwerk); Slaid Cleaves, Wishbones (Philo); Luna, Rendezvous (JetSet); Various Artists, Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Sugar Hill)

Favorite domestic reissues:
1) Bettye Swan, self-titled (Astralwerks/Honest Jons)
2) Various Artists, Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945 – 1970 (CMF/Lost Highway)
3) Red Simpson, Roll, Truck, Roll (Sundazed)
4) Red Simpson, Truck Drivin’ Fool (Sundazed)
5) Big Mama Thornton, With the Muddy Waters Blues Band – 1966 (Arhoolie)
6) Hasil Adkins, The Wild Man (Norton)
7) Red Allen, Lonesome And Blue: The Complete County Recordings (Rebel)
8) Lloyd Green, The Little Darlin’ Sounds of Lloyd Green (Koch)
9) Kris Kristofferson, The Essential (Legacy)
10) Johnny Paycheck, The Little Darlin’ Sounds of Johnny Paycheck (Koch KOC-CD-9800)

Most Memorable Live Show(s): Any of 13 shows that occurred in either of two living rooms here in South Kingstown during the past year from an eclectic array of performers that included the Mercy Brothers, Amy Allison, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, Coal Palace Kings, Bill Kirchen, Paul Burch, Dale Watson & the Lone Stars, Eric Hisaw, Lonesome Brothers, Matt the Electrician, The Meat Purveyors, Sara Cox, and Eliza Gilkyson. Call it South County’s best kept secret for live mus…