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Steve Holtje: January 4, 2009

Best New Rock Albums of 2008, part 3


  1. Randy Newman – Harps and Angels (Nonesuch)

    Newman’s output as singer-songwriter has slowed to what’s looking like an album per decade, but happily Harps and Angels is so good that I’ll still be getting chuckles out of it when the next one (I sure hope there’ll be another; he’s 65 now) rolls around. The highlight is “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” somewhat country-ish and drawled as drawlingly as possible as he delivers such bon mots as “A President once said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ / Now, we’re supposed to be afraid / It’s patriotic in fact and color-coded” and, of the Supreme Court, “I defy you, anywhere in the world, to find me two Italians as tight-assed as the two Italians we got.” “A Piece of the Pie” channels the cabaret style of Kurt Weill in support of another great set of sardonic lyrics (sample: “There’s a famous saying someone famous said / As General Motors goes so go we all / Johnny Cougar’s singing it’s their country now / He’ll be singing for Toyota by the fall”). There is at least one utterly sincere and personal song, however, “Losing You,” presumably about his divorce. Mitchell Froom and Lenny Waronker co-produce, but my fear that Froom would get all freaky on it proved groundless and in fact it sounds pretty much like Newman’s piano-and-strings ‘70s classics. Brilliant and loveable.

  2. Sam Phillips – Don’t Do Anything (Nonesuch)

    To quote from my review for “…self-producing…shift[s] her sound into grittier and darker territory. There’s lots of fuzztone guitar and thudding drums, and even when there’s a string quartet, it’s not a shiny song along the lines of her classic ‘90s albums, but instead distorted (“Don’t Do Anything”) or stark (“Signal”). The sound fits the grim lyrics; this is clearly a breakup album—the very first words we hear are, “I thought if he understood he wouldn’t treat me this way.” .... That said, when even the darkest lyrics are sung to such catchy melodies, and in Phillips’s eternally alluring voice, the effect is transcendent.”

  3. Gutter Twins – Saturnalia (SubPop)

    If you like voices soaked in whisky and smoke, and lyrics hatched in darkness by tortured souls, this team-up of Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli will be your favorite album of the year. They collaborate with an array of indie-rock fellow spirits including Joseph Arthur, Lanegan’s Queens of the Stone Age bandmate Troy Van Leeuwen, violinist Petra Haden, even (oddly) Brit diva Martina Topley-Bird. The only track Lanegan and Dulli aren’t both on is “I Was in Love with You,” which with its keyboard emphasis and strings suggests a grunge ELO, or stoned Radiohead. Throughout the disc, every sonic nook and cranny is filled with instruments, the dense production amplifying the sense of foreboding that courses through every track.

  4. Dengue Fever – Venus on Earth (M80)

    Chhom Nimol is up to three English-language songs on this band’s third album, but the musical flavors remain a freshly exotic hybrid. After listening to their great Escape from Dragon House, practically every day for most of Summer 2007, I wasn’t sure whether a new album could captivate as strongly, but after two plays it had its hooks in me. It’s a more varied, sometimes more subdued (more romantic!) program, with even more musical influences felt at some points, but the swirling organ and throbbing rhythms still carry the listener along a trippy path.

  5. New Bloods – The Secret Life (Kill Rock Stars)

    More post-punk revival, and better than most. Much current post-punk sounds too slick (The Rapture being a prime example). A major part of New Bloods’ authenticity is the primal drumming of Adee (band members go by first names only); no near-disco beats here. It fits perfectly with this Portland, OR trio’s thrillingly ramshackle playing, capturing the spirit of such similarly all-female post-punk bands as the Raincoats. Their sound is uniquely their own, however, partly thanks to their unusual instrumentation: violin, bass, and drums.

  6. Marnie Stern – This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She is It and It Is It and This Is That (Kill Rock Stars)

    Stern’s debut album was very guitar-focused and kinda mathy, a daring punk-metal-prog hybrid. This time out, still working with Hella drummer Zach Hill (plus alternating bassists), she’s refined her writing and structures, putting her machine gunnish hammer-on guitar heroics in more substantial frameworks. And her singing’s gotten better, though not much less aggressive, conveying her wryly witty lyrics with punchy power. This is still some wild and crazy stuff, but just enough more accessible (without compromising her sound) to be a great leap forward for her.

  7. Scott Kempner – Saving Grace (00:02:59)

    The Dictators guitarist (AKA Top Ten)/ex-Del-Lords leader keeps on keepin’ on even though his rootsy, hard-rocking yet not totally raw music is out of fashion. With Del-Lords drummer Frank Funaro and Smithereens bassist Mike Mesaros providing the underpinning, Fifties and Sixties rock with touches of rockabilly and country twang inform most of the songs, not least on the Dion co-write “Heartbeat of Time,” yet the mix is timeless. There’s nothing superfluous here; this is sinewy rock that’s tough and agile. If you don’t like this, you either don’t like rock or don’t really understand it.

  8. The Dears – Missiles (Dangerbird)

    The Dears have made yet another album chock-full of catchy songs. The credits here are (seemingly deliberately) confusing and possibly incomplete, but apparently the band’s core is now a multi-instrumentalists duo of leader Murray Lightburn and the only other remaining original member, Natalia Yanchak, who along with a shifting cast of session players pile up layers of keyboards with corrosive guitar bursts mixed in for a thick, dirty sound that’s orchestral in density and more than a little reminiscent of Radiohead in tone, but looser and more varied from track to track.

  9. R.E.M. – Accelerate (Warner Bros.)

    It’s weird how little respect R.E.M. gets. I’ll grant that this is no Murmur, but it’s still a fine, fine album, yet barely left a ripple as it sank from notice. They sound great and rock with real fire here (Peter Buck comes up with many killer guitar riffs), and Michael Stipe gets off some snappy lines. This is a big comeback if you ask me, their best album this decade.

  10. Aimee Mann – @#%& Smilers (Superego)

    Mann’s best album in eight years, not that any of the previous ones have been dogs, is a return to her ‘90s style of tight pop songs with sneakily snarky lyrics and full, old-fashioned arrangements complete with strings. There’s nothing indie here but the distribution, in other words, and yet, such solid, unassuming, well-crafted, unflashy music is distinctly out of style in both the mainstream and the underground, so soldiering on with it is quite indie in attitude even if not sound. No gimmicks, no concept, no movie tie-in, just ace songs sung with cool conviction. I’ll take that any day.


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