Close, But No Cigar

Yet another list – this one of 2006 releases I gave a good deal of listening time and from which I received a good deal of listening pleasure, yet aren’t the top of the pile.

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit. This one may be a victim of circumstances. Released early this year, I listened to this a lot through the early spring. However, I haven’t had any great desire to listen to it since then, and when I did break it out again recently I was kind of bored. It is good, but has two failings for me – a little too samey, and not an advance on the leap of Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Highlights for me: “Blues Are Still Blue”, “Mornington Crescent”.

Bishop Allen – the monthly EPs. The decision to release a mailorder EP a month is both good and bad; an interesting “upping the stakes” on the Wedding Present’s singles project from the early 90s, and the resulting boatload of dross with some shiny nuggets in the midst. Once this project finishes up (I expect December will show up at the house in mid-February) I’ll address it as a whole. Highlights: “The Monitor”, “Central Booking”.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar. One of the few artists deserving the title “living legend”, his latest stands tall in the company of his classic Atlantic recordings. Sometimes delicate and sometimes challenging, the double bass quartet gives such strong support for Ornette’s improvisations that he has the freedom to explore and open up the structure of his songs. Highlights: “Song X” (nice counterpoint to the Metheny/Coleman versions from the 80s), “Matador”.

Dresden Dolls – Yes, Virginia. If you take away a few dogs (particularly the weak attempt at a mainstream hit, “Sing”), this would have been a challenger for the top of the heap. A move away from some of the cutesier aspects of their debut (there is no “Coin-Operated Boy” sequel, thank heavens) and the emergence of Brian Viglione’s drumming as a more forceful part of their recorded music (his playing live has long been a bigger feature) pays great dividends. Pianist/singer Amanda Palmer is moving past the aping of Weimar-era cabaret and finding her own sound. Highlights: “My Alcoholic Friends”, “First Orgasm”.

Elvis Perkins – mySpace songs. There used to be a few other tracks on his homepage, but all you need to hear is “Ash Wednesday” – my song of the year, were I to be listing singles. There is definitely a touch of Jeff Mangum/Neutral Milk Hotel in his vocals, but “All The Night Without Love” and it’s gypsy swing hint at some less angsty influences. Highlights: I’ve heard a few tracks not on his mySpace page but the two mentioned here are my favorites.

The Evens – Get Evens. A strong second album, with a bit more Fugazi peaking through the cracks. Ian MacKaye stays on baritone (aka “surf”) guitar again, but opens up his sound with greater angularity of attack and with space for drummer Amy Farina to play. The resulting album is more direct than the effuse and relatively subtle debut, and the lyrics match that clarity with more pointed criticism of particular figures as opposed to authority in the abstract. Not surprisingly, the target is mainly Bush and the policies he enacts. I get frustrated with the sometimes too smartsy lyrical style (You fell down/You feel let down), but MacKaye has been doing the same kind of things for 25 years so it ain’t gonna change. Highlights: “All You Find You Keep”, “You Fell Down”.

Kaki King – …Until We Felt Red. I didn’t care for Ms. King’s earlier work – virtuoso guitar playing of the thumb slapping/lightning fast picking variety is better in abstract than reality. Here she teams with Tortoise’s John McEntire and her sound expands with washes of textural orchestration and even singing (though, to be honest her singing is breathy little wisps that are best ignored as words and appreciated as another sonic layer). Her skillful guitar is still present, just not the only point of the exercise. I appreciate soundscapes; Kaki King and co. have crafted a varied and multi-layered one on this album, but there is a better one this year which keeps this on the outside looking in. Highlights: “You Don’t Have To Be Afraid”, “Ahuvati”.

Lady Sovereign – Public Warning. The fact that I had or had heard 8 of the 13 tracks really made this anticlimactic. Note to Sov – if you are basically releasing a singles compilation for a debut full-length album then include your best song. The absence of “Ch-Ching” is glaring in that light. Though I’ve heard much of this over the last few years, it still is really well done (except for the laughable back-in-the-day reminiscing of “Those Were The Days”. Nothing is more pathetic than the musings of lost youth at the ripe old age of 19). The beats are minimal but moving, and the self-proclaimed “biggest midget in the game” has an engaging style and definite skills. Should have been out a year and a half ago, when it would have been met with greater appreciation. Highlights: “Random”, “Public Warning”.

Lambchop – Damaged and Decline of Country & Western Civilization, Part II: The Woodwind Years. The Nashville collective ‘s latest album and their rarities/b-sides compilation are both good for different reasons. The previously unreleased song “The Gettysburg Address” from Decline may be their zenith – “We hold these truths to be self-evident/We drink beer in bars” is one of my favorite couplets of this or any year. On the other hand, Damaged is just that; a document of pain, faith and recovery, inspired in no small part by bandleader/lyricist Kurt Wagner’s battle with cancer that included the removal of a part of his jaw and it’s replacement with a piece of his hip. Even with that he only makes one joke about his side hurting when he laughs. It is an album to listen to alone and attentive. Highlights: “I Would Have Waited Here All Day”, “Prepared [2]”.

The Long Winters – Putting The Day To Bed. Part of me loves power pop and good old sing-along rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ll freely admit I’m also a little skewed. The Long Winters seem to approach songwriting with this in mind, as John Roderick has a tendency to add extraneous bits or just draw things out too long and sabotage his little pop gems. On this album he seems to try to rein in those tendencies and it backfires a little. Where 2003s When I Pretend To Fall soars and crashes in equal amounts by throwing in My Bloody Valentine inspired squalls of noise and campy Camper Van Beethoven-esque violin powered hoedowns, 2006 finds Roderick and his current cohorts riffing like Cheap Trick without the knowing camp. I also find it a tiring listen, as it is mastered unbearably high and hot – the waveforms are just a solid block of sound, with all the dynamic range of a brick to the head. Despite all this, the songs are catchy and I’ve listened over and over – just in the car and not on headphones. Highlights: “Fire Island, AK”, “Honest”.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 – Olé! Tarantula. I’ve already gone over this ad nauseum, but I really do like it. Repeated listens verify the early impression that it is the best thing he’s done in a fair while, and I’m sopping it up like the metaphorical sponge. Highlights: “Museum Of Sex”, “Olé! Tarantula”.

The Streets – The Hardest Way To Make An Honest Living. I may be the only person to like this album, but I like him whining about how his life is still crappy now that he is famous (at least in the UK) and rich. Instead of tirelessly repeating himself like every other urban artist, he tells stories about what is going on in his life, and is honest about what a prick he can be and how misanthropic as well. It isn’t A Grand Don’t Come For Free, but it has some good tracks. I wish the beats were a little more varied, but there are some solid ones here, particularly the swing of the title track and the “Let It Be” similarities of “Never Went To Church”. Highlights: “The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living”, “Can’t Con An Honest Jon”.

Various – The World Is Gone. I know squat about British dance music, and can’t tell dubstep from garage from drum ‘n’ bass (that might be oversimplifying, but not much). So I’ll call this electronic music with acoustic guitars. Strum ‘n’ bass, perhaps? I like the mix of organic and mechanized sounds; The Notwist album Neon Golden is probably my favorite of this decade, and I’ve championed Lamb to all who would listen. This reminds me of the latter band, and were I to find out any of the principles from Lamb were involved in this project I wouldn’t be surprised. The album leaps from the hard, clinically sterile electronics of opener “Thunnk” to the soft acoustic guitar of “Circle of Sorrow” and it’s Beth Orton like vocals. Flipping around throughout that broad spectrum, The World Is Gone is an entertaining and engaging listen. It won’t supplant Lamb’s What Sound from it’s place as my goto acoustolectricstravaganza (I sometimes wish all I did was make up faux Parliament song titles), but I do enjoy listening. Highlights: “Lost”, “Sir”.

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