Culturespill » Best Albums of 2011

Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse”: The Transcendent Emergence of a Great Songwriter

3rd January


Achingly gorgeous from first song to last, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse (Drag City Records, 2011) sounds like the work of some 21st-century Jerry Jeff Walker who spent many hours ransacking his parents’ collection of Van Morrison LPs as a kid.

As on all records Callahan has released under his own name since leaving Smog behind in 2005, these songs color spare musical landscapes with flourishes of flute, piano or fiddle, the elegant but very occasional shuffle of percussion, and hard-bitten lyrics delivered in the kind of off-the-cuff, sort-of-singing-but-really-just-talking-to-ya manner of Walker or Lou Reed.

Taken as a whole, this brief song cycle explores a courageous and curious imagination that looks away from nothing and takes no easy turns. Callahan speaks of the man that “love’s coltish punch” empowered him to become. He discovers “the bee’s nest in the buffalo’s chest.” He watches Letterman somewhere in Australia while undressing American jingoism with ruthless sarcasm, dropping the names of giants like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones or Johnny Cash along the way.

The music throughout Apocalypse replicates the whimsy, beauty and restraint of records like Van Morrison’s exquisite Veedon Fleece, Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut Songs, or Will Oldham’s masterpiece, I See a Darkness. Just when you think you’ve got Callahan’s number, though, he shifts his tone to a truculent and foreboding rocker like “America!”

Apocalypse is urgently worthy of your attention; the same can be said of every Bill Callahan record to date. It is available for just five bucks at Amazon.com’s MP3 store; or you can pony up for the cause by buying directly from his label here.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “In Love with Oblivion,” Crystal Stilts

26th December

For the first foreboding minute of “Sycamore Tree,” the opening track of the second LP from Brooklyn-based quintet Crystal Stilts, you might think you’re about to hear a clumsy-but-inspired take on The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth.” Which would be an appropriate place to kick off the festivities on In Love with Oblivion, really, since Brad Hargett and his reverb-muddied baritone sounds like he’s shoveling somewhere deep within himself to unearth his inner Jim Morrison throughout the album.

Kyle Forester’s keyboard clamors in the tortured dark of the song as you wonder if you’re trapped inside some Twilight Zone rerun. Then Andy Adler kicks in with a mean bass line and suddenly the track erupts with chugging percussion straight out of a Sun Records-era Johnny Cash single. Guitarist JB Townsend turns in licks lifted directly from the psychobilly playbook of The Cramps, Hargett enters with a vocal performance that sounds like he’s singing from six-feet under, and the blue-plate special of influences these guys serve throughout Oblivion begins.

And that’s just track one.

Through the Floor” delivers a radiant and similarly lo-fi festival of hand-claps, jangling guitar layered over a stinging solo here and there, and Hargett’s booming voice draped in the chirping echo of background vocals. If Phil Specter wasn’t in jail for killing Lana Clarkson you almost might think he’s the man moving the knobs at the console. As if guiding you on some comprehensive tour of all-things ’60s, Townsend saunters out of the doo-wop era and into Byrds-brand psychedelia on the exceedingly jangly “Silver Sun,” where he sounds like he’s stolen Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and fully intends to keep it for himself.

Along with tracks like “Flying Into the Sun” or “Shake the Shackles,” “Silver Sun” is equal parts Highway 61-era Dylan and Murder Ballads/Let Love In-era Nick Cave as Hargett continues his relentless tribute to Joy Division and The Doors. By the time you make it through the nearly eight-minute-long “Alien Rivers,” the masterpiece of the album and easily among the finest tracks cut by any band all year, you might ask yourself “Why did no one cut this record in 1965?” You encounter the ghosts of many other bands throughout Oblivion, most of them at least as old as your parents–The Ventures, The Box Tops, Velvet Underground, to name a few.

Oblivion actually is the first of two records the Stilts have dropped this year; they released a fascinating EP in November called Radiant Door. There, Hargett shows off his upper register with such aplomb on “Dark Eyes” you wonder why he doesn’t go there more often. If you thought you heard a drowsy interpretation of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” somewhere in Townsend’s guitar work on “Alien Rivers,” Hargett makes “Dark Eyes” sound like it’s Michael Stipe Karaoke Night in your stereo.

A couple tracks later the Stilts turn in a devastating cover of “Still as the Night” by baritone badass Lee Hazelwood, known to you as the dude who wrote “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” for Nancy Sinatra in 1966. Hazelwood died in 2007 at age 78, but Hargett sounds perfectly pleased to carry the legend’s “Cowboy Psychedelia” torch himself. The cover is worth the price of admission alone, and the EP as a whole suggests that the Stilts are far from exhausting the creative vision they explore on their first two LPs.

The frenzy of genres critics contrive to describe the Stilts’ sound is a testament to how intensely the band has listened to the many long-ago groups they worship throughout this LP. From “garage-pop” to “neo-psychedelia” to “psych-pop” to “shoegaze” to the dreaded “post-punk,” a term as overused these days as “psychedelic,” what you end up with here is a band that has gone so far in a direction all their own you need a lexicon to interpret the mumbling and fevered attempts bloggers make at helping people understand what the hell they sound like.

To this blogger they mostly sound like a band called Crystal Stilts, and the wild fun they obviously are having throughout In Love with Oblivion makes it clear that they would have it no other way.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns,” John Hiatt

21st December

As usual, the vast majority of “Best of 2011″ lists currently saturating the music blogosphere almost invariably read like litmus tests for inclusion in the Twenty-something’s Indie Dork Club. The message is clear: If you’re not still young enough to get a bartender arrested for selling you a beer, or your metrosexual twee band has no kazoo player in it, or you happen to have released your latest album on a label that’s been around for longer than six months, well, then you’re screwed.

John Hiatt’s a guy who’s been banging away at a recording career for longer than most of the aforementioned bloggers have been alive, and so it is a likely bet that few of them are aware of his existence. He’ll trade your kazoo and conch shell for a Wurlitzer and a decent pair of jeans. He’s been making alternative country music since before there was an alternative to country. And his latest effort, Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns, features some of the best work of his life.

The LP, Hiatt’s 20th, serves up the usual harvest of breezy country-folk ballads like “‘Til I Get My Lovin Back,” but as always with Hiatt it’s in his departures from that script where his grittiest characters emerge. There’s the guy in “Damn This Town” with a brother who was killed in a poker game and a drunk daddy who died insane. There’s the restless woman in “Adios to California” whose tale Hiatt tells while she loiters in some rainy Pasadena “eatin’ donuts and reading Twain.” There’s the forsaken hellhole in “Down Around My Place” where “the sun and wind leave no trace,” the fields lay fallow, and kingdoms crumble. Such are the stories of ruin and redemption Hiatt follows to their bitter ends. When he is at his best, as he is often enough throughout Dirty Jeans, they are stories you’ll savor for years.

Hiatt seems to relish in the spare, bleak atmospherics of “Down Around My Place” as a whining maelstrom of organ and guitar slowly gathers into a devastating jam. “Damn This Town” is an explosive and memorable rocker on the order of past glories such as “Perfectly Good Guitar” or “Lift Up Every Stone.” And beauties like “Hold on for Your Love” revive the rawer, stripped-down approach Hiatt largely has abandoned for the more polished work he has produced since leaving Vanguard for New West Records in 2003.

It cannot be easy to bring fresh ideas to the studio when you’ve been making albums since the days when bands like Three Dog Night still were popular enough to take your songs to the pop charts, especially when you’re recording in the wake of masterpieces like Crossing Muddy Waters, Walk On or Bring the Family. But on Dirty Jeans, Hiatt seems poised to press on into the waning years of his career with his wry grin in tact and a continued willingness to pursue his songs wherever his imagination leads them.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “One Thousand Pictures,” Pete & The Pirates

20th December

You might think you’ve got this Reading, UK quintet figured out from the start when “Can’t Fish,” the opening track on Pete & The Pirates’ sophomore LP One Thousand Pictures, showers you in its theatrical and soaring gush of guitar and percussion. Perhaps you think you hear Band of Horses or even The National somewhere off in the distance of the song, and maybe you do. But when the alternately menacing and supine second track “Cold Black Kitty” mingles the roaring chops of Bloc Party or Interpol with the tender-hearted pop balladry of Ray Davies, the record comes off as a distinctly schizophrenic experience, and the band as one wholly uninterested in settling into any particular mode.

It is only fitting that “Cold Black Kitty” thunders with its driving guitars and pulsing adrenaline. After all, front man Tommy Sanders has just gotten done singing of light bulbs exploding in the streets and people leaping out of their windows on the opening track. Elsewhere, as on standout track “United,” the houses on his block are ugly and “hold meetings in the night time” as they stare him down and laugh. Yes, the houses are laughing. Just go with it.

For a record so replete with hard-bitten themes like violence, suicide and heartbreak, you’d think these tracks are the work of a band that takes themselves entirely too seriously. But then Sanders cracks a joke like “You’re in my heart / you’re in my car as well”  or explores such existential quandaries as “Who needs a train when you’ve got a train track and a motorbike with a girl and the back,” and you find enough emotional wiggle room to laugh off the tough stuff and be glad you withstood it in the meantime.

The video for “Winter 1,” which sports the album’s most memorable beat, exudes the kind of low-budget, geeky greatness of those early-’80s new wave videos we took so seriously at the time but giggle at diffidently today. (Be on the look-out for the wholly ridiculous, glow-in-the-dark-orange ski cap around the 1:20 mark. Glorious.) Check it out above.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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