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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 9 – Dad Horse Experience and Secret Machines

These are the last two albums in my top 11 of 2008. I should have more to say on Dad Horse, but I’m tapped for right now. I’ll probably revisit it later this year.

The Dad Horse Experience “Too Close to Heaven”

I don’t usually like novelty music, and when I first heard The Dad Horse Experience, I thought it was a joke and nearly skipped past it. A simple description – German guy plays twisted gospel murder ballads on banjo and kazoo – makes it sound just about as unappetizing as a record can be. Something in the music made me listen a little longer, though, and I realized that this is, in fact, a brilliant album. Dad Horse Ottn, who supposedly started playing music at the age of 40 (though I don’t know how much of his story is true and how much is fabricated showmanship), sings songs of sin and redemption and then more sin, for good measure. The music deconstructs old-time gospel folk, updating it and mixing it with folk German sounds and modern melodies. At times I can almost hear a Violent Femmes sort of voice peeking through. Through it all, Ottn’s pleas for redemption and the tales of why he needs to be saved give the album a bizarre, hallucinatory character that makes this by far the most original record I’ve heard this year.

The Secret Machines “Secret Machines”

In 2004, The Secret Machines released their debut long player “Now Here is Nowhere,” fifty minutes of thudding, head-nodding rhythms and spaced-out electric guitar and organ texture. It is wonderfully crafted album, sitting just on the psych-pop side of stoner rock, leaning away from the more metal, Sabbath-influenced style. If I smoked dope, that album would probably provide the soundtrack more than just about any other.

They followed “Nowhere” with “Ten Silver Drops,” an album that lost some of the edge and repetition of the first album in favor of more radio-friendly, more focused songs. Influences not heard on the previous album began to shine through, with scraps of “Joshua Tree”-era U2 floating in and out. Though it features some of their very best songs, like “Daddy’s in the Doldrums” and “I Hate Pretending,” I missed the simpler rhythmic style of the first album.

With their eponymous third full length, the first missing guitarist Ben Curtis, The Secret Machines have split the difference between the earlier two records. Keeping the more polished production and bigger textures of “Ten Silver Drops,” the band has also brought back some of the driving simplicity of the first album. Bowie, U2, Pink Floyd and Zepplin all find voice at various points in the songs, but the album never sounds derivative. The record, like their others, is timeless, fitting alongside the best rock music of the last four decades. The departure of a founding member is always cause for concern for fans of a band, but here The Secret Machines have proven that they can still make a top notch album.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 8 – Earth and The Cool Kids

The last four albums in my top 11 of 2008 are getting short-changed. I have had too much on my plate this week. Suffice it to say that these albums are just as strong as the others. I just have less to say about them right now.


Earth “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull”

In 2005, Dylan Carlson’s Earth returned from a seven year hiatus with “Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method,” a sharp departure from the genre-defining droning doom that had built the band’s reputation. Gone were the walls of distortion, and in their stead was a stripped down sound. Where before they had evoked nothing short of a glacier’s slow, unstoppable mass, here the songs brought to mind the oppressive heat of the Deep South, all slow moving rivers and tangled weeds. It’s dark and heavy, but cleaner and, in my opinion, far better.

Earth’s latest album continues the trend that “Hex” started, pulling yet further away from the monstrous power of the older Earth. In the past, guitars had stretched like thunderheads, all dark and booming and massive, but now they ring out Morricone-like and stringy, but still slowed as if passing through the honey in the album’s title. The suffocating heaviness of Earth’s past has given way to a much more interesting focus on melody and structure, and it’s all built on a strong base of drums and organs, the guitars finally sharing the spotlight. This to me is Earth’s finest record, and the first one that has really made an impact on me.

The Cool Kids “The Bake Sale”

I first heard the Cool Kids on their “Black Mags” single, released several months before this ten-song EP. I was caught up by the sound of minimalist hip-hop with screwed-up samples and beats backing up these two guys rapping about their Dynos. When the album finally came out, they followed through on the promise of their single by giving us ten songs of fun-loving retro hip-hop that doesn’t sound like a nostalgia act. Instead of trying to perfectly emulate the sound of an earlier era they pay tribute by rapping in the spirit of the time. Their songs are about being fly and not much else, but each statement of their own greatness is tempered by their self-deprecating humor.

The duo’s voices are quiet, like they were recording their parts at night and trying to not offend the neighbors, and the lines are delivered with a carefree sort of laziness that keeps the album better suited for hanging and playing Madden with your friends than wildin’ out.  The music is generally minimal. Traditional 808 beats – many with the screwed up sound of “Black Mags” – form the bulk of the accompaniment, with occasional burps of squelchy bass and stabs of samples appearing from time to time. This isn’t groundbreaking music by any stretch, but it puts a smile on my face like few hip-hop records have recently.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 7 – The Gaslight Anthem “The ’59 Sound”

Part 7 in a series that ends very, very soon. This entry offers more Springsteen worship.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is his finest work and one of the greatest albums ever produced. Its ten tracks paint heartbreaking pictures of desperation, regret, and bare-toothed determination in the face of hopelessness. Whereas “Born to Run” spoke to a need to break out and did so with optimism, “Darkness” is the story when that optimism fails.

Despite all of this, the album is somehow not depressing, to the credit of Springsteen’s arrangements and the E Street Band’s gusto. Steeped in the Jersey Shore mix of fifties rock and early R&B, Springsteen and John Landau’s production is bombastic, and the band fills every space, with an often joyful noise that stands in direct juxtaposition to the lyrical themes. It’s an emotionally complicated record that rewards the listener’s efforts to peel back the layers.

It’s unfortunate that more pop and punk musicians aren’t influenced by The Boss. Until recently, one of the only bands openly showing their Springsteen influence was The Arcade Fire. Their excellent sophomore album, “Neon Bible,” captures much of the essence of “Born to Run,” filtering it through that Canadian orchestral indie rock sound that has been so popular over the last several years. It’s a brilliant record, but sometimes I wanted something different, something that kept the feeling of those early Springsteen classics but with a more direct sound. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I found The Gaslight Anthem’s latest album “The ’59 Sound” (click to listen at Lala.com).

Sobriquet Magazine described the Gaslight Anthem’s sound as what pop music might have sounded like if Springsteen had ignored Landau and let the Ramones record “Hungry Heart” instead of keeping it for himself. That is absolutely the best description I’ve heard of the band. Their music is a stripped down and sped up Jersey Shore sound, replacing most of the funky R&B influence with punk grit. The songs lend themselves to reflective late-night drives or a night around the campfire after the laughter and conversation have died down. The album eschews studio trickery, opting instead for more of a live sound: guitars, bass, drums, voice, and a slap-back reverb that evokes a small bar in the late hours. You can almost smell the smoke and hear the glasses clinking together and the murmur of people at the bar. The album is wonderfully suggestive.

Singer Brian Fallon doesn’t have a distinctive voice like his musical forebears, but if he lacks there, he more than makes up for it with his lyrics. Like Springsteen, Petty and the other heroes he Fallon references in his songs, he writes stories, three minute slices of life in some nostalgic fantasy America that never really existed outside of rock and roll songs. Oddly enough, he (along with the music, even) reminds me of the best moments of Doug Hopkins and the Gin Blossoms, without the bounce and shine of the early 90s production. Like Hopkins, Fallon is a talented songwriter, and in him we may see what the former could have achieved had alcoholism and depression not brought him an early end.

Springsteen is still making quality music, and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Still, forty years into his career, it must be nice to know that there are groups that he can pass the torch to. Fallon and his group have had a quick start to their career, a momentum that is hopefully sustainable in the years to come. If so, they could be the ones to pick up the slack when the Boss calls it a day.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 6 – School of Seven Bells “Alpinisms”

Top 11 of 2008, part 6. In this installment: bad metaphors and ineffectual descriptions!

Some time ago, my friend Jason invited me to dinner at Kashmir. I was not familiar with Indian food then, my only taste of it having come in the form of a very bland saag paneer. I’m always willing to try new food, though, and agreed to give it a shot. Needless to say for those that know the joys of that sub-continent’s cuisine, I was in for a treat. I hadn’t realized it, but it had been a very long time since I had tasted anything new. Sure, I had tried dishes I’d never had before, but they were ultimately built around familiar flavors. That night, the baingan bhartha brought me a whole new flavor experience, delicious in an exotic and wonderful way. It was a surprise. I didn’t know I was even missing something until I tasted what I had been missing.

So far, my top records of 2008 have been new twists on familiar sounds. Compared to my list for 2007, I’ve spent quite a bit more time reminiscing and drawing comparisons than describing the album’s sound, simply because the albums have leant themselves to the former. They are new, but they are generally built from familiar parts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I want something different, even if I don’t know what “different” is until I hear it. This year, School of Seven Bells (SVIIB) has provided me my musical baingan bhartha in their album “Alpinisms” (click link to listen at Lala.com).  It is not as exotic as some of my picks from last year, as familiar elements bubble up to the surface from time to time, but the way the various ingredients blend and play off of one another creates a wholly unique musical experience.

Taking their most obvious cues from early 90s dream-pop, SVIIB layer their songs in gauzy electronics and ethereal melodies. Rhythms that move between the dance floor and the after party give the songs structure, and guitarist Ben Curtis, formerly of Secret Machines, adds body and brings elements that will be warmly welcomed by fans of his old band. Everything, though, is only there in support of the band’s main attraction, the voices of identical twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. With voices so similar, they are able to create incredible harmonies when singing in unison, and complex melodies punctuated with moments of dissonance when they part, alternating between dueling with and supporting one another.

Normally I don’t enjoy music that could be described as dreamlike or gossamer, but something in the way SVIIB fits all of their constituent pieces together causes the music to burrow its way into me. The melodies stay with me long after listening, and each new listen reveals new details as my ear searches past the vocals, difficult enough with how much attention those voices demand. This is the band’s first full length album, having been preceded only by a single and an EP. I very much look forward to what this band will give us in the future.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 5 – Young Widows “Old Wounds”

Part five of my year-end musings on music. This chapter finds our plucky young hero scratching the surface of topics that no one cares about.

It has been said that Slint’s “Spiderland” album defined post-rock. Whether that is a bit of revisionist hyperbole or not is beyond my ken, but that album’s widespread and long-lasting influence cannot be denied. The phrase “sounds like Slint” was so common in discussions of indie rock music in the 90s that it became a joke. Through the rest of the decade, while bands across the country were aping Slint’s sudden dynamic shifts, mumbling prose vocals and general disregard for common song structures, bands in Louisville either built upon the musical foundation the band had laid or tried to put as much stylistic distance between themselves and Slint as possible. The result was a decade of prolific creativity that kept the city blinking on the next-big-thing radar.

While Louisville’s bands had been diverse and often difficult to label, there was always a certain quality to the music that made it distinctly of its geography. The distance between the city and other major cultural centers served to isolate it in the pre-internet days, and born of that isolation was an intangible but undeniable common quality to the music. At some point at the turn of the decade, tides started to shift. As access to the wider world of music grew with the advent of the internet and the increasing frequency of Louisville being a tour stop for bands traveling the nation, local bands increasingly looked for inspiration outside of the city’s borders. As a result, the uniquely Louisvillian aspects of the music were quickly diluted. Local artists continued to produce incredible music, to push boundaries and defy expectations, but something was lost along the way.

As much as I appreciate the importance of “Spiderland” in the evolution of independent rock music both in and outside of Louisville, I don’t particularly like the album or most of Slint’s material. It happens that with many pivotal bands in rock history I enjoy the music influenced by or created in response to those bands more than that of the originals. I’ll take Hendrix over B.B. King, for example, but I recognize that without King’s influence, there may not have been an Experience. Likewise, I’ve never cared much for the Jesus Lizard, Chicago’s noise rock kings whose pounding rhythm section and jagged guitar inspired a generation of punks to abandon 4/4 time. I’ve found far more to love in the music of those inspired by the Jesus Lizard than I ever have in that band’s own work.

Over the past few years in Louisville, there’s been a wave of music inspired, at least to some extent, by the noise rock sound of the 90s. Bands like Lee Van Cleef, Brain Banger, Trophy Wives, Prideswallower, and others have incorporated, to varying extents, aspects of the noise rock sound to good effect. None of them, however show their influence as readily as Young Widows has on their latest album, “Old Wounds,” (click to listen at Lala.com) a record seemingly made up of two parts Jesus Lizard and one part… I don’t know, weed? It’s dangerous to wear so much of one’s influences on one’s sleeve. A band that does risks being written off as derivative, as rip-offs who are either too lazy or lack the creativity to craft their own identity.

Recorded half live and half in the studio, “Old Wounds” manages the rare feat of overcoming being openly derivative by fulfilling the promise of noise rock and marrying it to just a hair of pop sensibility. The songs retain the sound of noise rock: the drums thunder, the bass drives, and the guitar stabs and roars. Singer/guitarist Evan Patterson’s vocals are often a little on the atonal side for my tastes, but I like them more than the typical noise rock gibbering Yow-imitating singer. All of the qualities of noise rock that I like are there, but what’s different is that these songs catch in the brain. I don’t think anyone would call this record poppy, but it has hooks, something most bands of the style are lacking. In place of the genre’s typical frenetic spasms are head-nodding rhythms. It’s not laid back, per se, but it doesn’t agitate the senses in the way I’ve come to expect, a departure even from Young Widows’ first album, which more closely fit the noise rock mold.

Anyone familiar with the Jesus Lizard or noise rock in general may be tempted to look past this album as more of the same, but if they stop to listen, they’ll be rewarded. “Old Wounds” is the quite possibly the best rock album released in Louisville since Erchint’s “Macho Cock Rock” tape. More importantly, it’s not just a good local record resting on its home court advantage. Instead, it makes its mark as one of the best American rock albums released in 2008 and the best indie rock album I’ve heard in years. Here’s hoping that the heat is here to stay.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 4 – Foxy Shazam “Introducing Foxy”

Part four of the neverending best-of list. In this episode: backhanded compliments!

My parents made the mistake of buying me a Walkman while I was still in grade school, and afterward I wouldn’t go anywhere without headphones clamped onto my ears, especially on trips to visit family in Monticello. As a young hesher, I didn’t have a varied palette, and at any given time the tinny sounds bleeding out of those headphones was likely to be one of the big four: Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer or Metallica.

On one visit to the family, my uncle Robert handed me a tape of “Queen II.” I wandered to another part of my Granny’s house to listen to it. I don’t think I made it through side one before taking it out, dropping it somewhere and forgetting all about it. I just didn’t get it at all. It would be years before I realized what an opportunity I missed that day. I firmly believe that when someone gets Queen for the first time, it changes their musical landscape forever. It certainly did for me. The theatricality, the refusal to be classified, the ability to back up the audacious choices with top-notch musicianship… It all combines to redefine what is possible or acceptable in rock music. With songs like “Under Pressure” and “Fat Bottom Girls,” beautifully crafted pieces of rock-and-roll perfection, they earn every bit of leeway they ask for. As much as I love Queen, though, I never really listen to any of their albums straight through. Their eclecticism makes for great songs, but the albums can feel disjointed as a result.

The same cannot be said for Foxy Shazam’s “Introducing Foxy,” (click link to listen to the album at Lala.com) a spastic, hyperactive record that I never expected to enjoy but find I can’t get enough of. Whereas Queen showed their many influences and personalities in their wide range of songs, Foxy Shazam seems to want to cram all of their stylistic shifts into each composition. The result is an album that has a cohesive sound, despite jumping around within each song like an Adderall-crazed lab ape, all flailing limbs and slobber. Trying to accurately describe what this band sounds like is difficult. The songs are miniature carnivals of rock, soul, screamo, pop and theater. Piano and guitar careen wildly about while the rhythm section pounds away, and over it all vocalist Eric Nally grunts and whinnies like a Broadway star in fits of epilepsy. In short, I should hate this, but somehow out of this frenetic racket emerges some of the catchiest hooks and the most fist-pumping-dramatic choruses I’ve heard all year.

This is not a deep record, by any means. It could be accused of being too much style over substance, but I feel like that misses the point of a record like this. It’s exuberant and fun, like a summer blockbuster that is just smart enough to keep those of with brains sitting in the seats. Whether the goofiness of the album is intended or an earnest-but-misguided attempt at something more, it’s entertaining, and that’s all I really need from an album sometimes.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 3 – She Keeps Bees “Nests”

Part three of my top eleven records of 2008. In this edition: reaching to make connections that do not really exist!

Sometime near the end of eighth grade I joined BMG music club, drawn by an offer of 12 cassettes for the price of one. Among my choices, I’m happy to say, were classics like Wu-Tang’s debut and PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me.” While sharing very little in terms of style and mood, both albums were… well, I hate to use the word, but they were gritty like nothing else I had really heard to that point in my life. They were raw. Wu-Tang’s unpolished, hungry mien felt more honest than most of the supposedly hard-scrabble punk bands I listened to at the time, while Harvey’s album sounded great, raw in its emotions, rather than its sound. They were, and still are, visceral records – music for the blood more than the mind. Both albums, in their own ways, opened doors onto new worlds of music for me.

Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” is without a doubt one of the most important hip-hop albums of the 1990s, but in 1994 I had no concept of what effect it was having on the rap world. In fact, I had no concept of hip-hop culture at all, outside of a love for Digable Planets and a general disdain (since corrected) for the G-funk style that dominated radio and MTV in the wake of “The Chronic.” To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in learning more about hip-hop until I heard Wu-Tang’s debut album. Instead of the busy, bright, melody-heavy rap I was used to hearing – with its high-whining synths and repurposed Funkadelic choruses – the Wu brought dark, spare beats and little else. Muted samples of pianos, strings and stabs of soundtrack noise add texture, but the rough beats and rougher voices are all listeners have or need for most of the album. Even songs with more frenetic arrangements, like ODB’s introduction “Shame On A Nigga,” drop everything but the voice, bass, and drums for extended stretches. I had expectations of what rap music sounded like and what kind of character it had, and Wu-Tang completely destroyed those preconceptions.

Whereas the Wu-Tang broadened my hip-hop horizons, in the end it only helped redefine that with which I was already somewhat familiar. PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” offered me something else entirely. Like the Afghan Whigs’ “Gentlemen,” the Harvey record was a revelation unexpected. It was my first “difficult” record. It took work to wrap my fourteen-year-old brain around the music and the lyrical themes. Listening to it now, that notion seems laughable, but to my still-developing ears, this was a hard album to get used to. For the most part, it’s not catchy, and the songs do not always follow traditional verse-chorus structures. The angst in the lyrics and their delivery is more mature, more complicated than the ‘my-parents-just-don’t-understand-me’ frustration I identified with in the grunge music of the previous few years or the full-bore anger of the punk and metal I was weaned on. I knew that I liked this album, or at least I thought I did, but I had to figure out how to listen to it.

My efforts were eventually rewarded. In science, when one finally masters a difficult concept, understanding it on a fundamental level, it has two effects. First, it adds a new dimension to the concepts that came before it, and second, it reveals a whole new set of concepts to be tackled. Likewise, coming to terms with “Rid of Me” changed the way I heard much of the music I had listened to before that album. More importantly, I could see new musical vistas spread out before me, new challenges to tackle. Music that I would have simply written off or been intimidated by before now became a puzzle to be solved, further doors to unlock.

It didn’t have to be “Rid of Me” – surely every music lover has a similar album in their past. I can’t help but wonder if “Nests,” the latest album by She Keeps Bees, might be a mindset-changing album for some budding musicophile. Drawing comparisons from most reviewers to the PJ Harvey classic, “Nests” shares something of the feeling of that earlier record, though it is quieter. Where “Rid of Me” howls, the volume never quite reaches a shout on “Nests.” Vocalist Jess Larrabee sounds a little like Harvey, but more importantly, she delivers her lines with the same sort of convincing passion. The comparison is somewhat overstated, but it’s a good bet that to fans of “Rid of Me,” this will feel like a familiar record, despite the sonic differences between the two pieces.

She Keeps Bees is a duo that sounds like a duo. Though having virtually nothing in common stylistically with the roughneck Wu-Tang brand of hip-hop, it evokes their classic debut in its strong, spare arrangements and dark palette of sounds. Often, Larrabee’s smoky voice hangs out on its own, accompanied only by muted guitar or sparse percussion, if at all. Even at their busiest, the songs leave wide-open spaces for every element, letting the vocals sit comfortably in the cleverly simple music.

“Nests” is not “Rid of Me” or “Enter the Wu-Tang.” In fifteen years, it is doubtful that I will be writing about this album. Right now, though, it is captivating me, not just because of the ways it brings other old favorites to mind, but also because it is a great record in its own right.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 2 – Disfear “Live the Storm”

The second of my ramblings about my favorite records of 2008

After twenty-one years (seriously) of listening to metal in its many forms, I find myself turning to it on an increasingly less frequent basis. When I do want to listen to metal, more often than not I end up firing up a long-time favorite like “Seasons in the Abyss” or “Wolfheart” instead of something newer. The time when a new – or even new to me – metal album could stand a good chance of catching my attention seems to have passed, with a few exceptions. When something does break through, it’s usually on the strength of some new flavor or dimension that the old standbys lack. Most recently, “Here Come the Waterworks,” Big Business’ brilliant album from 2007, has had me totally entranced, sounding like nothing else in my collection. These new discoveries are not all that common, but they happen just regularly enough to keep me looking for more.

On very rare occasion, though, a metal album that offers no innovation will grab me by the curly hair and not let go. This year, Swedish d-beat ragers Disfear released an album that did just that. There’s a problem with that statement: d-beat is not technically metal, but a form of hardcore created by Discharge. The whole genre evolved from a simple galloping drum beat. If any form of music exists in direct opposition to the idea of innovation, this is it. As such, a d-beat band distinguishes itself by staying true to form but still creating a unique identity and a unique piece of art. The metal/hardcore distinction is unimportant; genre lines between metal and hardcore are so thoroughly blurred at this point that I’m comfortable calling this album what it feels like to me: a metal album.

Live the Storm” (click the link to listen to this album at Lala.com) is by far Disfear’s best album, a thirty-five minute blast that sounds like nothing more than the pounding hooves of some newly risen Scythian horde charging forth on fire-breathing demon steeds. The drum beat that launched an entire genre tattoos its unrelenting rhythm into the brain while the bass churns along with it, a Minotaur’s roar that keeps the rhythm and melody tightly locked and gives the recording serious weight. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg delivers each line like a desperate, barbaric battle-howl, invoking gods of storm and fire as he calls his soldiers, the “dead but dreaming youth,” to arms. Over it all, the guitars blaze, but they’re not just revving engines. They bring melodic aspects that help keep the album from being monotonous, as this genre can so often be.

The thing about a good metal record (or hardcore – whatever), is that it makes you want to go off. A really good one makes you want everything around you to go off, too. This record starts with serious power. “Get it Off” breaks like a tidal wave over the listener, an anthem that says this record is Not. To. Be. Fucked. With. It starts the fire, and the following tracks stoke it ever higher. Sitting at work with track 3, “Deadweight,” blasting into my skull, I’m so amped at this point that I want to leap onto my desk and raise a pillar of speakers made of skulls and fire to fill the room with this sound, a tornado of paper and sparks whirling around me as the lights strobe and black lightning crackles and the cubicle-dwellers smash their computers and tear down the walls in a riotous orgy of hedonistic glee.

The best part is that it never once falters. Too often albums like this will have a couple of superb songs and a bunch of filler. This album is end-to-end raging perfection, a flawless expression of frustration boiled over. They should just break the d-beat mold after this one.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 1 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!”

I’m finally getting around to posting about my top 11 albums. While they’re not presented in any specific order, this one is a strong contender for album of the year.

Good music often tells a story. A top-notch songwriter knows how to tell a story not just through the words themselves, but also through the phrasing and delivery of those words, the arrangement of the music, and the interplay between vocals and instrumentation. Whether personal stories like Greg Dulli’s tense dramas on the Afghan Whigs’ “Gentleman,” or the fictional tales about characters and places by the likes of Springsteen or Cash, these vignettes manage to communicate more about the human condition in three minutes than most novels can manage in a hundred pages.

I have the utmost respect for musicians that can spin stories in their songs, but for every Springsteen, whose music I actively enjoy, there’s a Richard Thompson, an artist who – despite how much I respect his talents – just doesn’t do it for me. My good friend Jason tried to turn me on to Thompson, but he was unsuccessful. The songs were at times brilliant, but I just couldn’t get into the music or Thompson’s voice. I keep trying him from time to time, just to see if my tastes have changed, but so far the result has always been the same.

Years before that, another good friend had introduced me to another great songwriter in Nick Cave. My first real introduction to Cave was via his early post-punk band The Birthday Party. Described by Allmusic as one of the “most challenging post-punk groups to emerge in the early ‘80s,” The Birthday Party made music that to this day inspires bands the world over. Frankly, they do absolutely nothing for me, but my ambivalence is an improvement from the active dislike I harbored toward the music in years past. Still, even through the music that grated on my nerves, I thought Cave to be a genius songwriter.

I expected I would enjoy Cave’s post-Birthday Party albums with his band The Bad Seeds, but that music never grabbed me. It was frustrating. If asked what I thought about Cave, I would always have to qualify my answers. “He’s a brilliant lyricist, but I just can’t get into his music.” After a couple of years, I pretty much gave up on liking Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Then he went and released “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!” and changed my attitude completely.

“Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!” (click the link to listen at Lala.com)  is a flawless album. The modern definition of Southern Goth, the Bad Seeds create the perfect mise en scene for Cave’s vocals with their deeply pulsating and swaggering rhythms and swirling, sparking organs. Cave and the band are full of energy, something many have attributed to the recent Grinderman side project that involved much of the same cast. The fire they unleashed on that record is still burning, but here it’s reined in, tamed enough to better serve the songs and allow more breathing room. Throughout, Cave is in top form, a half-mad preacher holding service with his unholy orchestra in a kudzu-choked grove in the darkest depths of a haunted swamp.

This album enthralls, and more importantly it inspires me to take another listen to some of Cave’s other work. This fourteenth album just might be the gateway drug that leads me into some of his more challenging work.

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Top 11 Albums of 2008 – The Short Version

I’m currently working on lengthier writings about my top eleven records of 2008, but in the meantime, here’s the list. In no particular order:

She Keeps Bees “Nests”
Young Widows “Old Wounds”
Disfear “Live the Storm”
Foxy Shazam “Introducing Foxy”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!”
School of VII Bells “Alpinisms”
The Cool Kids “The Bake Sale”
The Gaslight Anthem “The ’59 Sound”
The Dad Horse Experience “Too Close to Heaven”
Earth “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull”
The Secret Machines “Secret Machines”

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