2013 brought much good music to my ears; here are the dozen new records I enjoyed the most this year.
My favorite record of the year is Joel R. L. Phelps and The Downer Trio’s GALA (12XU). Phelps last released an album in 2004, capping off a decade of some of the finest music in any genre. He is a master synthesist, combining genres as effortlessly as Nina Simone or Van Morrison, only with a different mix of source materials (in his case the moods and rhythms of Joy Division, an approach to singing and guitar playing like Neil Young’s and borrowing more than cover songs from The Chills, Townes Van Zandt, and Iris DeMent). His feel and sense for arrangement are immaculate, whether he’s playing horns and keyboards, or sticking with The Downer Trio’s guitar/bass/drums lineup with longtime collaborators Robert Mercer and Bill Herzog. If I had any reason to need an arranger for a recording (any genre), I would call him as I know he would make anything from a piano ballad to thrash metal sound perfect. (Not “perfect” as in polished, but perfect in feel.)
Phelps continued to write after releasing 2004’s Customs though recording and live performances stopped soon after. Whatever experiences he had during that period of silence have produced some harrowing songs. His last batch of performances before the silence sometimes included “Nashville Sound.” Once he returned to the studio, Phelps recorded a stunning version for GALA, an album that ranks with his finest work and (with its mix of quiet acoustic ballads, anthemic electric songs and several mixing dynamics, spare keyboards, and just the right amount of feedback) is among the best records of the past quarter century. In addition to GALA, Phelps also recorded pieces with Stuart Dahlquist as Thine and old friends Tim Midyett and Andy Cohen as The Wilma Pool. All are reminders of how good it is to hear new music from him in 2013, and how much he was missed while he was away.
Bottomless Pit, Shade Perennial (Comedy Minus One)
Way back in the early 1990s, Phelps was part of the quartet Silkworm. Upon his departure, both he and his former bandmates began releasing records that surpassed their previous work together. (That said, Comedy Minus One is putting out a terrific reissue of their final album with Phelps.)
Silkworm ended when drummer Michael Dahlquist was killed in 2005. In the wake of his death, surviving members Tim Midyett and Andy Cohen founded a related yet different band, a quartet named Bottomless Pit. This group, including bassist Brian Orchard and drummer Chris Manfrin, has recorded three albums and one EP. Bottomless Pit’s records build precise arrangements around Midyett’s baritone guitar lines, and Shade Perennial continues that approach with a more raucous, live sound. The result is heavy rock like the opening “Fleece” and the gorgeous closing “Felt a Little Left.” Both are among the finest songs Midyett’s written, and this album as a whole is as powerful as BP’s debut Hammer of the Gods. (No small praise.)
If you have ever wondered what early New Order might sound like with Richard Lloyd on guitar, a clear mix free of Martin Hannett, and much better lyrics, seek this out. Some enterprising hip-hop DJ is going to mine this album heavily for beats and riffs, as what its contained is as rich in these as the Gogebic Range is in iron ore.
Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot)
The first time I saw Robbie Fulks was 1996, and he immediately impressed me as a brilliant singer, guitarist, and entertainer. Also a talented writer, occasionally veering on the smartassed, but also capable of affecting work grounded in country and drawing in styles that appeal to him. He’s released brilliant pop on Couples in Trouble and shown his affinity for R&B on his recent Michael Jackson tribute, but his voice and sensibilities are firmly grounded in country music. Gone Away Backward is a somber, mostly acoustic take on the decline of rural America that sounds like a bluegrass approach to Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, not the Roots). Fulks delved into these themes on the title track of his Georgia Hard album and has fleshed them out further here. He’s always been a talented writer and continues to grow in his fifties.
The Book-Burners, People’s Songs (Latest Flame)
The Book-Burners are led by onetime .22 drummer (and, based on his capabilities as a frontman, potential cult leader) Bradley R. Weissenberger. Since mid-2012, they have been astonishingly prolific, releasing several EPs at a pace that would exhaust Billy Childish. Some are chilling, stark acoustic folk, some rock out. People’s Songs is their first LP, and it splits the balance…not quite evenly. Rock wins out, with lead vocals owning something to Michael Stipe’s early work (though with clearer enunciation), and a take on folk-rock not quite like anything I’ve heard before (outside of those many, many EPs).
Eleventh Dream Day, New Moodio (Comedy Minus One)
This is a sort of reissue and also a new release. Eleventh Dream Day recorded these tracks in 1991 ahead of their magnificent El Moodio from 1993. Some, in more polished form, made their way onto that record, and others such as the brilliant “Thinking Out Loud” stayed unreleased until this year. Several of my favorite EDD songs (“Makin’ Like a Rug,” “Honeyslide,” “After This Time Is Gone,” and “Rubberband”) are included in terrific takes. I have no idea why neither this nor the eventual Atlantic release didn’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies to fans of electric guitar, but I am glad to have this LP two decades later.
Horse’s Ha, Waterdrawn (Fluff & Gravy)
Janet Bean plays drums in Eleventh Dream Day and guitar in Freakwater. She sings in both, and both have strong Americana elements (one in Crazy Horse rock, the other a take on acoustic bluegrass).
Horse’s Ha is different, sounding more like English folk rock as played by Martin Carthy or Richard and Linda Thompson. That’s in no small part due to her bandmate James Elkington, whose acoustic guitar suits Bean’s beautiful voice well. Then again, she sounds good in every setting I’ve heard her in.
Richard Thompson, Electric (New West)
Speaking of Richard Thompson, he’s been one of my favorite guitarists since I heard Fairport Convention’s “Tam Lin” one Halloween, and records like the solo Across a Crowded Room and the two French Frith Kaiser Thompson albums are among my favorite albums. Some of his songs feel fomulaic, and some of the production on his records (the clanky Mirror Blue comes immediately to mind) hasn’t been flattering, but Electric has neither of those flaws. It cannot hurt that fellow guitarist Buddy Miller produced the set, keeping the focus on Thompson’s songs and playing. The result does justice to Thompson’s live work.
Helen Money, Arriving Angels (Profound Lore)
Helen Money (a.k.a. Alison Chesley) used to be one half of Jason & Alison, which later became Verbow. My favorite part of that band was her brilliant cello playing, and since going solo as Helen Money, her music is all about the sounds she can make with the cello, some effects, and amplifier noise. It’s transfixing live and wonderful on record. If I win the lottery, I will commission a duet record between her and Richard Thompson.
Bailterspace, Trinine (Fire)
Evolving out of the Gordons, Bailterspace developed some of the thickest, most satisfying guitar textures of the 1990s, in some respects taking a similar approach to Tar. (Speaking of Tar, can I count their wonderful, Chunklet-released compilation 1988-1995 as one of the year’s best records? No? Even with the terrific packaging? Fine.) Now one of the noisier New Zealand bands is back with a trio lineup showcasing Alister Parker’s distorted guitar work, and the result is my favorite example of their work since 1996’s Whammo.
Toiling Midgets, 3rd Brain (self-released)
The California kings of the thick guitar texture crowd were — and are — Toiling Midgets. Paul Hood and Craig Grey are the stalwarts of a revolving door of members since 1980. Although that membership has included late Sleepers vocalist Ricky Williams and American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel, most of the Midgets’ catalog is instrumental. 3rd Brain continues that tradition, stripping down to the core duo’s two guitars (though Hood and Grey continue to work with a larger lineup in shows and rehearsals). This is part of a slew of activity this year that included Ektro Records’ issue of Live at the Old Waldorf, July 21, 1982 and participation in Tomfest, the benefit tribute to longtime drummer/producer Tom Mallon. (This album is available at the band’s Bandcamp site.)
The Cell Phones, Get You Alone (self-released)
If I describe a band consisting entirely of acoustic bass guitar, drums, and female vocals, do you think this would be gentle folk music fit for a coffeehouse? It’s not. At all. The Cell Phones are closer in spirit to X-Ray Spex, powered by Lindsey Charles’s loud, wild, and (above all) fun vocals. Even X-Ray Spex is a sloppy comparison; this band is like no other, wastes no notes, wastes no time, and is absolutely worth seeing live if you get the chance. (This album is available at the band’s Bandcamp site.)
the rutabega, brother the lights don’t work (self-released)
Bittersweet rock from a loud and melodic Indiana duo making its recorded debut. While I am making lazy 70s rock comparisons, I am willing to bet that fans of Big Star and Badfinger may enjoy brother the lights don’t work. One of the year’s best songs was “turn on the summer.” I was glad to have the opportunity to hear these songs live a couple of times this year. Though the rutabaga are not Lightning Bolt, they can generate a racket in concert. I mean this as praise. (This album is available at the band’s Bandcamp site.)
Albert Brooks once remarked that it is better to be known by six people for something you are proud of than by sixty million for something you’re not. The sales of all of these records are closer to the former than the latter, but all the involved musicians should be proud of their efforts. Should your consumptive tendencies involve purchasing music for others as gifts this holiday season, and any of these descriptions sound promising, consider tipping their sales a little closer to sixty million.