Culturespill » Jim Ward

So Far: Best Albums of 2008

11th August

Now that we’re nearing the final third of the year [insert “how time flies” cliche here], the minds of all music dorks worth their weight in vinyl will gradually turn to the usual “best of” lists. We thought we’d put together a preliminary list of possibilities that may or may not make the final cut in December, but that’s the point: we, too, have already forgotten the names of those albums that came out in February and earned the fleeting rapture of our “this is the greatest album since OK Computer!” accolades, only to be tucked into the CD shelf and disregarded in favor of more recent thrills. So we’ve revisited that shelf of too-easily forgotten glories to take a second glance at CDs which, given the pace of things these days, will already be SO “last season” come Thanksgiving. But even if that sorry fate awaits these albums, at least they will have gotten their due here, in our not-so-middle-of-the-year list of 2008’s “Best Albums” contenders–in no particular order, by the way–what’s the difference between the fifth best and the 6th best album of the year? That’s right–nothing. So what’s the point? Check it out:

The Gossip: Live in Liverpool
000000727744.jpgNot since albums like Get Yer Ya-Yas Out or Lou Reed’s Rock ‘N Roll Animal have live albums been as much of an event as The Gossip’s Live in Liverpool. For starters–the title. Come on, what rock band today DOESN’T want to put out alive album called “Live in fucking Liverpool?” OK, maybe that would have been an even better title, but try this one out: Rick Rubin thought so much of this band’s power as a live unit that he declared their show the best he’d seen “in five years.” Coming from the mouth of Rick Rubin, that’s basically akin to comparing this band to Jesus. And rightfully so: now that even The White Stripes have gone all “art rock-y” on us with the truly icky Icky Thump, and The Black Keys suffered more than a modest share of polish at the otherwise skilled hands of Danger Mouse, The Gossip proudly (and loudly) pick up the slack behind the Mama Cass of Punk (Beth Ditto) with her rockin’ posse in tow. Just the first slap or two of Hannah Blilie’s drums on downright anthems like “Standing in the Way of Control” or the magnificently powerful “Your Mangled Heart” are enough to infect you with an unshakable love of l0-fi fury. There’s a reason why Rick Rubin decided on a live album as The Gossip’s first upon signing with Sony subsidiary label, Music with a Twist: they may be the best live band on the planet right now.

The Heavy: Great Vengeance and Furious Fire
0000131552_175.jpgThe world hasn’t heard music with this much groove since RHCP lured George Clinton into a studio to lay down some tracks with them on their underappreciated Freaky Styley album 23 years ago–you know, back before the Peppers became “arteests.” As the funktastic “That Kind of Man” explodes with a relentlessly massive sound that brings to mind some dude straight out of the late 1970s with a mile-high afro and an early boombox half his size clutched to one ear as he struts right by you up the block, it becomes clear that The Heavy aren’t taking shit from anybody. That’s probably why they include “big bad wolves just doing what they do” among their band members on MySpace. There really isn’t a more accurate description of their sound than that. These boys (and one girl–clutching an axe with a murderous stare on their myspace page, no less) are here for the long haul. The Heavy’s sound is Tom Waits backed by The Stooges, Muddy Waters back from the Dead to make an album with Danger Mouse (because Danger Mouse SO needs another project on his hands.) These guys are bringing taste back in a big damned hurry, and judging from the friends they keep on MySpace, it’s hard to conceive of a more fitting band to do it–The Sonics, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Tom Waits, and even Waits’s great label Anti. These people know a good groove when they hear one, and they’re threatening to bring plenty more of their own for good measure. Check ‘em out.

MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
51peen1ptyl_aa240_.jpgLike, DUH. If, halfway through the first rack of Oracular, it already feels like you’ve taken one too many sips of hallucinogenic mushroom tea while stepping inside another episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now,” especially the part where the featured “artists” do lots of drugs, get fat and completely forgotten by the world, and then try to not be forgotten anymore by making really terrible music in their middle age for a “comeback” tour attended by thirteen-and-a-half people worldwide, that’s as it should be: You’re listening to MGMT, a duo of self-described “mystic paganists” devoted to “opening the third eye of the world.” The album’s first track, “Time to Pretend,” which was featured in the that movie 21 about some MIT kids who took Vegas to the cleaners by learning to count cards, takes aim at every one of those VH1 cliches with the sharp arrow of the band’s notorious sarcasm. Drenched in addictive hooks that marry Prince and The Flaming Lips in a union of space-funk and soul that somehow captures exactly the sound the band describes on their MySpace page– “surf jungle country”–Oracular delivers a sound that’s as fresh in 2008 as Beck’s was in 1994, leaping onto the scene with the same “we don’t care” abandon that “Loser” brought to the biz back then. And people are “getting into it”–lots of them. It’s no accident that the album vaguely echoes The Flaming Lips. Oracular IS produced, after all, by David Fridmann, the captain at the console for many a Flaming Lips album. Roll Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with some speed-laced nicotine and you’ve got the addictive mindfuck that is Oracular Spectacular.

Bridges and Powerlines: Ghost Types
bridgesnl0.jpgThough the brand of power-pop these guys peddle reveals a compelling brew of influences, the results are no less their own. Tunes like “Uncalibrated” or “Middle Child” are so bright you feel like you’ve just stared directly into the sun after sleeping in a hole in the ground for a week in winter (no wonder they used to call themselves “Sunspots”.) The music explodes in your ear with the relentless burst of a synthesizer that laces the song’s manic drums and guitar with an enthusiasm as focused as it is unhinged. No band has sounded this damned happy to be making music since The Thrills put out their debut “we are California” LP, So Much For the City. Equal parts Acrade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” and Wilco’s “I’m Always in Love” with a tinge of Wolf Parade, most of the material on Bridges and Powerlines’ new album, Ghost Types, betrays the “love of the three-minute pop song” they say brought them together. With harmonies as soaring as the hooks and a psychedelic disposition that so perfectly suits the vaguely snotty abandon of taut rockers like “Half A Cent,” the band rarely lingers long in the unmapped musical terrain they explore. They prefer instead to wet their feet in the pond of your mind and run, leaving you to wonder whether what you just heard was of this world or the glittering residue of some wild and half-remembered dream. In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter–just as long as there’s more where that came from.

Sleepercar: West Texas
sleepercar-west_texas.jpgWhat an extraordinary exhibition of influence these songs offer: the echo of a latter day Lloyd Cole album drives a spike through the broken heart of “Heavy Weights,” the vaguely new wave “Sound the Alarm”–perhaps the album’s finest track–almost prepares you for Hall & Oates to take the mike and belt one out about a woman who only comes out at night as Mark Knopfler straps on a guitar and awaits his part. And if none of the material here really approximates Jim Ward’s vision of a rootsy American rock album as closely as he may have desired–Ward still sounds very much like the lead vocalist of Sparta throughout West Texas, the debut album from this dainty little side project–it’s in his aspiration for a sound so alien to the music he’s known for that brings him–and his listeners–to some unexpected creative landscape where willows drip with a melting and late-season snow as an iron and sweeping sky rushes the day to dusk. You lift the collar of your coat to combat a dank chill in the air–one of the last of the season–and you grin and walk right through it as the year closes in on so many warmer days. Only “Wednesday Nights” and “Fences Down” really hit the alt-country mark Ward seems to set his sights on here, songs that could quite easily pass themselves off as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtakes. But, again, it’s in the album’s misfires that something genuinely fascinating occurs. Don’t miss this record; it’s as close to a guaranteed pleasure as we may have heard all year.

Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely
raconteurs_consolers_of_the_lonely_cover.jpg“Needless to say, I was more than skeptical of the newest Raconteurs project. I accept and love that Jack White is a man of many escapades, including plastic camera and speaker manufacture, collaboration with the Gods (Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan), cell phone protestation, and home movies of snoring band mates (sorry Meg). With the exception of the premier Raconteurs album, he hits all these ventures out of the park. Therefore, I gave him an open, yet highly analytical second chance. Consolers of the Lonely, HOT DAMN! I’m sorry my lord for ever doubting your ability. I grabble at your feet in repentance! The Kinks got busy with Icky Thump and conceived Consolers of the Lonely, plain and simple. This album delivers Jack White’s signature raw energy viciously burned with blistering horns and riffs to rival Zeppelin. The band let the album speak for itself, doing zero promotion and allowing the content to leak on iTunes and the like. Bravo boys. White and company have created radio-soluble tunes capable of pushing facileness overboard. So long Linkin Park and Flobots! This album is a must for summer and pairs perfectly with open-windowed driving.” — Sara Mrozinski

The Boxing Lesson: Wild Streaks and Windy Days
imagephp5.jpg As if any further proof was needed, Wild Streaks and Windy Days confirms once again that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” The Boxing Lesson take us somewhere genuinely new with Wild Streaks and Windy Days; and if they have to fumble through a jewel chest of prior eras to get there, they never look back so long as to undermine a vision of their own. Oh, and check out our recent interview with the band!

Josh Rouse: Country Mouse, City House
joshrouse.jpg If much of Rouse’s music is no heavier than a breeze at the beach in spring–particularly on the supine Subtitlio he recorded after splitting with his wife and defecting to Spain (as good a reason as any to be “supine”)–it is no less substantive because of it. And anyway, just when you think you’ve got this cool cat cornered, an album like 2005’s Nashville thunders with a vaguely unsettled dirge like “Why Won’t You Tell me What,” a spare and thumping chant that delivers the kind of bluesy acrimony you’d expect of a middle-aged loungesinger at some watering hole up the block, positioning his 14th cigarette in an ashtray on the lid of a beaten piano that’s knifed with the names of a thousand long-gone couples. Amid the apparent serenity of Rouse’s more recent material–breezy tunes like “Quiet Town” or the flawless “Hollywood Bass Player” from 2007’s Country Mouse album–it’s this defiant strand of discontent that completes the complex character his songs reveal, a ballsy volatility that so many songwriters might be wise to consider.

Young Knives: Superabundance
3305744m.jpgWhen Franz Ferdinand followed up their brilliant, eponymous debut with that frenzied and self-conscious clunker of a second album, You Could Have it So Much Better (how right they were), it seemed that we had another one-trick pony on our hands, that what glories they had brought us in 2004 were not the kind of thing that comes around every year–or every ten, for that matter. As much as I hate to describe one band by discussing another–comparisons do a lot more to confine bands than they do to illuminate them–Young Knives, a geek-rock outfit out of England that look and sound every bit as “Young” as their band name suggests, are both picking up the torch that Franz left behind and taking it to the places we expected them to go. If Ray Davies is correct in his theory that a band’s third album is really the one that shows you whether or not the kids are for real, then Superabundance, the third Young Knives album (if we’re counting their 2002 EP–and why not?), documents the arrival of a potentially great band. Geek or no geek, though, give the “Terra Firma” video a little look if you doubt for a second the comparisons to Franz. The song is an incorrigible fit of post-punk revival sweetness that drives relentlessly through an adrenaline-overdrive of manic guitars laced over a backbone of disco that puts a lot into perspective: Why, for instance, a previous label of theirs was called “Shifty Disco,” or why an acoustic take on “Turn Tail,” one of several singles the album has spawned, was recorded directly to vinyl all in one take at London’s Westbourne Studios–something that hasn’t been done commercially since people like The Partridge Family could actually make a living in music. In other words, it’s been a long, long time.

Everlast: Love, War, and the Ghost of Whitey Ford
coverletters.jpgOK, so maybe this album hasn’t been released yet. But dammit, it should have been! And anyway, it’s gonna be good! At least we can now hear Everlast’s mash-up cover of Johnny Cash’s legendary “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is slated to appear on this long-delayed new album. The album’s currently on deck for a September 24 release–which means absolutely nothing, of course, because the album has been on deck for a release for months to no avail, pissing Everlast off to no end and infecting his fans with a brutal case of rumor-mill blues. And that’s no fun at all–just ask AC/DC fans. While the “Letters Home From The Garden of Stone” single is strong, making waves on iTunes for months now, Everlast’s cover of “Folsom Prison” is little short of brilliant. Check it out here.

Sleepercar: West Texas

12th June

sleepercar.jpg
Sleepercar Live at SXSW

Jim Ward is quickly becoming one of music’s most fascinating and prolific characters, launching his career with now-defunct but seminal hardcore punk outfit At The Drive-In, a group that never foreshadowed the creative paths ahead of him when he founded it at just 17 years-old. And that was exactly the problem–as Ward himself would complain years later, he always felt like he was 17 in that band, even when he was 25 (join the club, dude.) But when Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos wasted no time devising plans for a new group just as Big Hair Cedric snapped his fingers and had another band–The Mars Volta–to gig with, they knew who to call: Jim Ward, who promptly became the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Tony & Paul: Dude, can you please join our new band? Because, like, without you, we don’t have a band. DUUUDE!

Jim Ward: Um, OK–I’ll play lead guitar, and lead vocals, and lead songwriter, and you will KNOW MY NAME IS THE LORD, WHEN I LAY MY VENEGANCE. . .

Alright, alright. So maybe he didn’t go all Pulp Fiction on their asses, but, just like that, Paul and Tony found their leader in Jim Ward–a wise choice, as time increasingly proves. Part of the reason Jim Ward is becoming such a visible leader–not only in the bands he plays with but in the industry as a whole–is that, like some of the greatest rockers we have ever known (Neil Young, Bob Dylan), he looks away from no creative urge and never confines himself to a sound he thinks others desire (And anyway, the guy willingly admits that Billy Joel is an influence on his songwriting–the kind of thing you only say in public if you’ve got a brass set of moose balls on you.) Sparta’s debut LP Wiretap Scars made few friends among the hardcore punk community, most of which anticipated that Ward’s new project would deliver a sort of musical sequel to At the Drive-In. But Ward persisted undeterred, indulging his vision of a more theatrical sound–a soaring, massive and anthemic rock–following it wherever it may lead, even if it led him right down the clogged drain of rock ‘n roll dreams.

sleepercar1.jpg
Jim Ward

Their debut LP and its follow-up, Porcelain, delivered a ceaseless rush of intensity that demonstrated a yearning for melody no At the Drive-In song ever dared to dream of, but it wasn’t until 2006’s brilliant Threes that Sparta found a focus that helped them discover a voice of their own. And that, of course, is when it all went to shit–at least for a while. In 2005, not long before the release of Threes, the death Jim Ward’s cousin, Jeremy Ward, from a heroin overdose in 2003 caught up with him in full force. “I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with that,” Ward would say as people speculated that tracks like Porcelain’s “Death in the Family” were reflections on this terrible loss–one that, by Ward’s own account, promises to haunt him for perhaps the rest of his life.

He pulled the band off the road in mid-tour–one thing about rock ‘n roll is that its obligations tend not to take a back seat to grief–and embarked instead on a tour of his own soul: a two-month-long retreat during which he spoke to no one involved with his life in music. “I walked out in the middle of a tour…. I needed to get away from everything and everyone. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and I didn’t feel my life or the band was where I wanted it to be… I needed to step back and reassess everything” he would later explain. The strength of Threes–the album that resulted from this personal tumult–is either surprising or makes perfect sense, depending on your perspective. One thing that’s not in the eye of the beholder, though, is the genius of what came next: an alt-country side project called Sleepercar and their fantastic debut LP, West Texas.


Sleepercar: “A Broken Promise,” West Texas (2008)

If hardcore punkers who, since At The Drive-In’s inception in 1993, have preferred not to grow up since then were surprised at the comparatively more friendly sound of Sparta, then they’ll be downright despondent over Sleepercar, with its peculiar brand of indie pop and vague hankering for country. Even if an album title like West Texas is about as instructive of the band’s creative origins as a White Stripes album called “Nashville” would be, still Ward and the boys pull off the whole alt-country thing as convincingly as an Uncle Tupelo album. But it’s in their departures from that sound, as on the blistering “Sound the Alarm,” that things really start to get interesting.

The transcendent message Ward delivers throughout the album–“I will die and become stronger,” he threatens in the opening “A Broken Promise”–may or may not be the product of difficult ruminations imposed on him by terrific personal losses. But with an album as good as West Texas, it’s best to spend less time thinking about it and more time drinking it in–right down to the last available drop.

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What an extraordinary exhibition of influence these songs offer: the echo of a latter day Lloyd Cole album drives a spike through the broken heart of “Heavy Weights,” the vaguely new wave “Sound the Alarm”–perhaps the album’s finest track–almost prepares you for Hall & Oates to take the mike and belt one out about a woman who only comes out at night as Mark Knopfler straps on a guitar and awaits his part. And if none of the material here really approximates Ward’s vision of a rootsy American rock album as closely as he may have desired–Jim Ward still sounds very much like the lead vocalist of Sparta throughout West Texas–it’s in his aspiration for a sound so alien to the music he’s known for that brings him–and his listeners–to some unexpected creative landscape where willows drip with a melting and late-season snow as an iron and sweeping sky rushes the day to dusk. You lift the collar of your coat to combat a dank chill in the air–one of the last of the season–and you grin and walk right through it as the year closes in on so many warmer days.

Only “Wednesday Nights” and “Fences Down” really hit the alt-country mark Ward seems to set his sights on here, songs that could quite easily pass themselves off as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtakes. But, again, it’s in the album’s misfires that something genuinely fascinating occurs, and it’s for that reason that we expect West Texas to feature prominently in Culturespill’s end-of-the-year “best of” lists. Don’t miss this record; it’s as close to a guaranteed pleasure as we may have heard all year (and check out the awesome videos on their myspace page!).

Meet the Spartans (no, not the stupid movie)

30th March

Spartans!

For those interested in simulating the sound of Porcelain or Threes, Sparta’s latest and most focused outing to date, we’ve devised the following recipe: take two supernovas, one-and-a-half thunderstorms, any song from U2’s October, a flock of gazelles being shot at by a band of rabid man-eaters, any song from Radiohead’s The Bends, and one teenage girl who has just learned that her boyfriend’s been sleeping with her sister. Throw all ingredients down the stairs at once. Garnish with a dusting of speed and serve dangerously hot. Yields infinite servings.

Of course, you can always go for the old fashioned approach and just listen to the albums. But be warned: approximately 90 seconds into songs like “Taking Back Control,” the band’s most radio-ready single to date, you may begin to feel as though you’re trying to drink down a comet. Do not be alarmed. This is normal. You’re listening to Sparta, the second in Culturespill’s new series of “The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of.”

If you’ve heard anything about this rising bunch of slingers and singers from El Paso, then you might know that they’re half of what used to be known as At the Drive In, those now-defunct sorcerers of distortion-soaked hardcore punk. But don’t let that fool you. Sparta’s sound boasts as much testosterone but less of the angst of their famously afroed forefathers. OK, so maybe only one of them sported the whole let’s-be-white-dudes-with-afros thing, but Jesus, Cedric, that hair was really frickin’ big.

Sparta performing “Taking Back Control”

But if the only thing At the Drive-In is remembered for is big hair and, well, maybe that one time they pretended to be a polka chapel band just to score a live spot on a TV show (I’m still waiting to hear the polka-punk rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”–I would give my first-born child for that bootleg–hell, take ALL my kids–no, I’m serious. Please.), they’ve got Sparta to thank for it. Trading the slash-yourself-and-sing-about-it abandon of ATDI’s Acrobatic Tenement for the softened but still-present edges of their own Porcelain, Sparta has found a way to risk the leap from ATDI’s adolescent mania to a sound that some might be tempted to describe with the word that has driven a steak through the hearts of many careers in music–hold your nose now–“mature.” I know, I know. Here–take this barf bag.

But that’s just the thing about Sparta–if we must call them “mature” in our useless comparisons with their predecessors, they find a way to do it without sounding so bored you think they’re just singing along to their grandpa’s record collection. In fact, the lush, sonic roller coaster of “The Guns of Memorial Park” or the gorgeously trippy “Syncope” burst from the stereo like exploding stars, the blistering hooks of Keeley Davis’s guitar riding Jim Ward’s soaring vocals into the unexplored reaches of your dreams. Now with the searing single “Taking Back Control” climbing as high as #24 on US Rock charts, Sparta threatens to make a quick transition from “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of” to “The Best Band You’ve Heard Too Much About,” especially with their relentless touring of Europe recently with bands like Lola Ray, Lovedrug and My Chemical Romance (hey, don’t judge a band by the company they keep–Sparta’s got to make a living too.)

In the meantime, if you’re in Texas, you’re also in luck. Check out their website for the slew of dates they’ve got coming up in Lonestar country starting with an April 14th gig in Austin.