Culturespill » Best Albums of 2010

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Good Things,” Aloe Blacc

25th December

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Few artists making waves in 2010 have it goin’ on like Aloe Blacc. The kid looks like he makes his living as a Sam Cooke impersonator, he sings like some lost son of Tracy Chapman and Bill Withers, and he brings a fire to the mic that you only find in the bellies of guys like Sage Francis or Immortal Technique. Blacc’s voice bares all the guts and grit of the bad breaks and rough nights you need to live through to sing the stories he has to tell. Whereas Immortal Technique leans on obscenity as a gimmick through which his seething message burns through, Blacc needs only the ferocious beauty of the voice he was born with to make you think twice about the kind of world you consent to live in.

“If I share with you my story would you share a dollar with me?” asks the lowdown dreamer in “I Need a Dollar,” the knockout single from Blacc’s sophomore release with Stones Throw Records, Good Things. By the time Blacc’s done telling the tales of the characters he explores throughout the record, you’ll be eager to drop as many bones as you can to hear more–thanks in no small part to the uncommon restraint with which producers Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman allow those tales to be told. An instantly engaging piano riff and the occasional drizzle of brass is all Blacc’s voice needs to smoke “I Need a Dollar” down to the filter of its hard-luck confessions. A pipe organ jackknifes the mix on “If I” as Blacc’s plaintive vocals drown the song in their gush of cold rain, and Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” plays somewhere off in the foggy distance of  “Mama Hold My Hand,” a gorgeously understated ballad.

Withers is hardly the only echo of Blacc’s musical heritage to be heard on Good Things. You also hear Sam Cooke warning once again of the change that’s gonna come, you hear Al Green begging his long-gone baby to call him, you hear Solomon Burke damning the chains that bind him. “Soul” is a genre that has vanished since then into the glitzy vapor of contemporary R & B, a genre FM radio only bothers with if it’s dressed in lingerie and begging to get banged. And that, above all, is the reason that Aloe Blacc’s Good Things is such a warm and welcome surprise–a soul record that returns the genre to its rightful owners, a record that knows what’s up every time guys like Green or Burke step up to a mic in a town near you. This is soul for people who remember when the world first heard those Marvin Gaye records that now have their disciple in Aloe Blacc.

“My purpose for music is positive social change,” Blacc says. “Even if the music itself does not explicitly express anything that may signify positive social change, the product of the music will.” While Blacc is not too shy to toot his own horn–his profile at Stonesthrow.com daringly likens Good Things to Marvin Gaye’s watershed What’s Goin’ On–to suggest that no explicit call for “positive social change” exists in his music is to undersell his achievement.

The people you meet throughout Good Things are the people you know in your neighborhood–some of them, in fact, may be you.  They are broke and scrounging for work wherever they may find it; they are stitching the busted seams of their hearts; they hear the whiskey bottle snicker as they try to stay clean one day at a time; they fall in love just as they fall through the cracks in their lives. They learn that “money don’t do everyone the same” and they walk the misted boundary between want and need. One too often looks just like the other in the songs Blacc sings–and in the lives of nearly anyone who hears them.

Blacc’s cynical eye calls to mind the bitter sarcasm with which Kanye West lambasted materialism and excess on his landmark 2004 LP, The College Dropout. But the difference here is that Blacc confesses where Kanye lectures; he shows you what Kanye is more content to merely tell you. The truth to be heard throughout Good Things–and there is plenty of it to be heard–is not necessarily anything you didn’t already know.  You know it’s tough times in America, worse for some than they are for others, but there’s something remedial about staring into the mirror of another man’s soul and seeing your own reflection stare back at you, about crossing paths with the nameless others who know the dark moments of your days just as well as you do. That’s the crossroad these songs bring you to, the place where struggle makes brothers of us all.

Note: You can download Good Things from Stones Throw Records for just ten bucks here.
Click here for Aloe Blacc’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “In Black Robes,” Sarah June

25th December

 

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Sarah June sings like a dead girl’s ghost. She’s got the kind of voice that sounds like the wind when it howls through door locks and window panes, the high-pitched and breathy wail of a drowned child’s spirit calling your name from the underworld. It’s the kind of voice you run from in your nightmares—not so much haunted as it is chilling—and the moment it raises a hair on your neck or a goose bump on your arm is precisely the moment June’s songs live in. To hear her sing for the first time is to never forget her, and the songs on In Black Robes, her sophomore LP released this past March on Silber Records, are no easier to get out of your mind than the name of the one who first broke your heart.

“This is the end, my friends / we’re all skeletons / with crossbones in our eyes / and wing-tipped shoes shined,” she sings. “I rattle like a poison snake / but that’s just the chance you take / when you get too close.” The song is called “Crossbones in Your Eyes,” one of the finest tracks to come out all year, and the second track on a record that plays like a goth-folk party in the graveyard of your mind. That’s where you’ll find Sarah June, rattling the bones of your fears and inviting you to delight in the mortality you’ve been sentenced to since the day you were born.

She’s cruising in her jet-black ’68 Caddy with blown speakers one minute and getting summoned to judgment day by a hooded man who points at her with his bony finger the next.  “And now I’m just a lonely skeleton / in my coffin black / singin’ love songs to the grim reaper / I hope he brings me back,” she sings on “Judgment Day,” one of the record’s many standouts. Elsewhere she sings of peeling the label off of the bottle of regret amid a jazzy atmosphere of shuffling percussion and acoustic guitar that sounds like something off of Van Morrison’s Moondance, of the girl she studies from across the street as she ties her shoes–the one she loves “more than the girl on the second floor” or “the boy with the metal heart.” But mostly these songs gladly wander where your parents told you never to go, places where the night turns trees to “skeletons with filmy thin tired skin” and the people you cross paths with may be the last ones to see you alive.

In Black Robes is the work of an authentic American voice whose originality cannot be overstated. No one is making music like this–nobody. And while the songs may indulge an attraction to the mabacbre, they only do so with one eye fixed firmly on the influences that June weaves into her music like patches in some quirky quilt. She’s ballsy enough to drop an unmasked nod to Blue Oyster Cult (“don’t fear the reaper ‘cuz he’ll bring ya’ home”) just as she channels early ’60s girl-group pop with a shout out to The Crystals on “Mowtown,” her love letter to the Detroit where she cut her teeth playing gigs after dropping out of school as a teen (“and all the girls in the background sang /  ‘da doo ron ron ron da doo ron ron”). She turns in a Jaynetts cover with “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” and reaches all the way back to turn-of-the-20th-century gospel on “Bluesy Melody”:

Well this is what they call life, baby
That bluesy melody that swings me
that sweet chariot that brings me home

June’s guitar playing exhibits the aplomb of Dave Van Ronk, and the songs on In Black Robes are just as unadorned as the music that high priest of folk made famous in Dylan’s prime (It was Van Ronk who taught Dylan to play “House of the Rising Sun,” later immortalized by The Animals). June summons more power from the snap of someone’s fingers on “The Reaper” or the shy intrusion of percussion on “Crossbones in Your Eyes” than a more ornate production ever could have. Her stripped-down delivery reveals a confidence in her craft that puts In Black Robes on par with some of the most rending acoustic albums ever made–Hurt Me by Johnny Thunders or Springsteen’s Atlantic City come especially to mind. It’s that cycle of songs you only encounter once every few years, performances of such sincerity that they need little more than a lone guitar and a good mic to play it for.

The songs almost never linger beyond the four-minute mark, and the record feels like it breezes by in the time it takes to say your prayers. And how fitting that is, because after June takes you on her trip to meet the ghosts that haunt the anguished landscapes where she finds her songs, you just might want to say a prayer or two.

Note: Silber Records offers a download of the album for just five bucks here.
Click here for Sarah June’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “July Flame,” Laura Veirs

23rd December

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You don’t know it yet, but you are already a fan of Laura Veirs. You’ve fixed dinner or cleaned the house with the television braying somewhere off in the background when that LG Optimus cell phone commercial came on, and suddenly the song in the ad was no longer off in the distance. Suddenly Veirs’s voice rushed into the forefront of your mind like the memory of a lover long gone; nostalgia mixed love and loss into some sweet melancholy you’d like to hold onto for a while, maybe forever. You didn’t know it then, but you were listening to the opening track of Laura Veirs’s July Flame, and it’s about time you did know. It’s About time a lot of people know, actually, about this magnificently gifted singer/songwriter out of Portland, Ore.

Several songs on July Flame play like love letters to summer–songs like “Summer is the Champion,” “The Sun is King” or the brilliant title track, which easily ranks among the finest songs of the year as it gathers into an angered sea of haunted strings and backup vocals. “Can I call you mine, can I call you mine” Veirs intones as the track pulls you deeper into the whirlpool of its longing. Elsewhere on the record, the pluck of a banjo reverberates through the open space of the song like someone calling your name from across a cave, the acoustic guitar Veirs strums is recorded with such clarity as to be made of crystal, and her wistful piano work on tracks like “Little Deuschutes” is enough to bruise the heart in the manner of Aimee Man’s “Wise Up” or Nick Cave’s “We Came Along this Road.”

The songs don’t so much bring to mind the season they celebrate as they do the first flower to pierce the melting snow of a long but waning winter. These are songs of renewal, of some emotional torment lived through and left behind, of a yearning as painful as it is alluring. They tell tales of a life lived fully enough to have tempted the dangers of the heart and survived in fighting form, of pain stared down until it turned to poetry. “Sure is hard to dance across the room when you’ve got one foot on the floor and one foot outside the door,” Veirs sings on “Little Deuschutes.” “I want nothing more than to dance with you.” These songs embrace a desire that is as dazzling as it is destructive, and through them all Veirs works toward an understanding that you don’t get one without the other.

Veirs’s Wikipedia page reports that the singer did not “listen seriously” to the folk, classical and pop music that surrounded her in childhood until she reached her 20s. The music she makes today demonstrates that when she did start to “listen seriously,” she didn’t just listen–she absorbed every chord and lyric like a dish rag under a faucet. “Summer is the Champion” borrows the thumping drums and piano of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” before waltzing off with a horn section that evokes the devastating close of Tom Waits’s “Earth Died Screaming.”The undercurrent of percussion on the title track resembles the opening moments of “Mental” by The Eels. And her gorgeous voice is borne of a heritage that includes Natalie Merchant, Iris Dement and Jennifer Warnes. But even as this pageant of influences parades through Veirs’s songs, the record as a whole remains entirely her own and begs for another listen the second it’s over.

Click here for Laura Veirs’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire

21st December

 

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2007’s Neon Bible found Arcade Fire sneaking early-’80s Bruce Springsteen into an abandoned church in Quebec and having him sing about antichrists in the television while the band kept the car running. It’s a safe bet that few among the legions who dropped to the floor in love after their first full listen of Funeral had the slightest clue that Springsteen owned  a fraction of the influence from which that music emerged. And it’s just as certain that even fewer gave a flying dog turd about Springsteen themselves. So to hear Win Butler wear that affinity like a shocking tattoo on Neon Bible was an alienating experience for fans of the band’s debut LP.

Neon Bible was no Funeral, and even The Suburbs, for all its obvious brilliance, also suggests that the fire the band trapped in the bottle of Funeral burns at a different temperature these days. It still blazes, but its environment is just a bit less volatile and prone to fewer sparks, its flames have changed color from their atomic tangerine to some pale hue of iris. It’s neither better or worse, but perhaps a bit easier on the bottle it writhes in, a little less likely to burst. The more music Arcade Fire releases the more Funeral sounds like the document of a fevered imagination; everything that we hear now is the sound of the aftermath. It is still beautiful but more conventionally so, still rending but cautious, still spontaneous but self-conscious.

The foreboding atmospherics with which Neon Bible opened reflected the paranoia of a band suddenly struck by the discomforting possibility that Funeral had turned them into some big important band now, the sort that wears the ankle weights of fans’ expectations in the studio. Win Butler sang of “waking from a nightmare” only to find himself in some moonless landscape in the black of night. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, “shot by a security camera” as he struggled to even make out his own reflection in the “black mirror” of uncertainty. The track so seamlessly played like an outtake from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters that it was as if the band clung to that familiar ghost for comfort in the tortured terrain of the song.

Keep the Car Running,” like “Antichrist Television Blues,” was an absolutely brilliant reclamation of the band’s powers after the album’s uncertain opening statement. And the rest of the record’s grab-bag of sounds spanned a range from pipe organ to  woodwinds to hurdy gurdy that demonstrated nothing if not the boundless confidence of a band in full possession of its powers, fear of fame be damned.  It was an excellent record on its own that never once approached the pathos of “Crown of Love” or “The Backseat,” and it seemed to almost deliberately sidestep the radiant unpredictability of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or “Neighborhood #2 (Laika).”

Neon’s grandiose departure from the sound they honed on Funeral continues with The Suburbs, if a bit more quietly. A palm tree arches over an aging sedan on the cover art’s fading canvas as if to signal that the band is more at ease after the venting of their last LP.  The record is less bombastic and opens on a noticeably more settled note than that darker predecessor with its breezy gem of a title track.  “Ready to Start” crackles with all the sunny adrenaline of “Keep the Car Running,” and the haunted “Deep Blue” is quite possibly the finest piece of music the band has ever put to tape. The lyrics themselves are a restorative measure that heal the fractured psyche explored on “Black Mirror,” as Butler sings of being back in his own skin where he “can finally begin” and do so at a pace so completely his own that he kicks back and watches the century pass him by. A more majestic four minutes cannot be found on any other album released this year.

And yet “We Used to Wait,” the very next track,  somehow manages to sustain the power of its predecessor. Suddenly Butler’s not so sure about all that talk of self-assuredness he just got done with on “Deep Blue.” The lovers he sings about find their lives in the throes of change and can only “hope that something pure can last.” Regine Chassagne, who spends much of the album waiting behind its velvet curtain, returns to center stage with a stunning nod to new-wave on “Sprawl II (Beyond Mountains).” Her voice floats through the song’s misted air of whining synths that at times recalls the blue ruin of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” If the record’s energy flounders occasionally on the many tracks between these high points, it is only because its best moments set standards no band can possibly expect to meet for the full length of an LP.

The Suburbs is superior to Neon if only by a horse’s nose at Belmont Stakes, and as a whole it is the band’s finest statement to date even if moments on Funeral scale heights the band is still yet to revisit.  Only The National’s High Violet has any claim to the throne Arcade Fire seizes with this LP.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com