And now for a super belated stroll down memory lane… The sound of decades past.
Notable May 2009 releases:
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
One of my favorite bands on the planet, Grizzly Bear has a steady following but has never reached the level of respect I feel they deserve. Don’t get me wrong, they are critical darlings, and Jonny Greenwood (yes, that Jonny Greenwood) called them his favorite band when they opened for Radiohead in 2008, but they should be freaking household names.
On their third and greatest effort (and my #2 album of 2009), the art-folk rockers from New York get down to a more organic and (mostly) mellow sound – and I immediately fall in love. The vocal harmonies between Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen are epic and gorgeous, and the songs are consistently enthralling. The hit single “Two Weeks” may get all of the credit, and it is a damn catchy song, but there is much more the casual listener should check out.
The acoustic guitar and bassline that kicks off the record on “Southern Point” foretells the calm yet strange beauty that dominates this album. And don’t get me started on the chorus… “All We Ask” is my second favorite track here, and has this haunting quality that is hard to explain, but when things quiet down after a sharp yet melancholy intro guitar riff Ed sings “In this old house, I’m not alone…”, it gets me every time. The percussion here is stellar also, and this song is a great example of Grizzly Bear being truly a band in the real sense of the word.
Speaking of percussion, check out “Cheerleader”, a song that finds Chris Bear putting on a clinic in carrying a song – and what a song it is. Whether the dual singing/moaning that starts off “Dory” is creepy or elegant is up to the beholder, but the rest of the song is a fantastic example of what I mean when I label them art-folk. This is not your average hippie music, folks this is true art and will stand the test of time.
Finally, there is the gem of the record: “Ready, Able”. Over some sneaky earworm electric guitar parts, incredible rhythm section work and some epic keys, Ed moans some of the most heart-wrenching vocals this side of Thom Yorke. This augmented and dark love song is reminiscent of the equally stunning Radiohead classic “Lucky”, and is Ed at his finest: “I’m gonna take a stab at this, surely it’ll be all right; make a decision with a kiss, maybe I have frostbite… and as I shuffled on back home, I made sure to cover my tracks in the snow”. Easily one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, it fits right in with the rest of this truly classic recording.
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/6FIFqclBriPCb0SjWDaHIk?si=m0iwNE-QRImYsxQcWxS03g
Notable May 1999 releases:
Drive-By Truckers – Pizza Deliverance
Don’t let the sophomoric album title (or band name, for that matter) fool you: this is one of my ten favorite bands on the planet as they were just finding their legs. Their debut had a few moments that showed potential, but on this follow-up album you can hear the greatness coming through with much more consistency. The quality of the music, coupled with a relentless touring schedule that saw them play nearly 150 shows in the second half of 1999, helped them develop a cult following that would explode with the release of their next album. That classic, Southern Rock Opera, was mostly written during the touring for this album.
While Patterson Hood has always been the de facto leader of the band, and has written the majority of the songs (even while the ultra-talented Jason Isbell joined them for three albums), Mike Cooley (#CooleyForPresident) has evolved into a songwriting role so strong that on their recent live shows the two men alternate songs throughout. That process started here, with Mike contributing three songs, all of which are strong.
“Uncle Frank” tells of a man who came home and settled in to a rocky backwoods patch of ground after serving his country overseas, only to find his land flooded out in the name of a TVA dam and “progress”. The song concludes with the illiterate and jobless Frank hanging himself in disgust and fear or what to do next, and foreshadows some of the powerful songs Mike would write over the next twenty years.
There is another side to Mr. Cooley as well, and it is a real treat. The man has a knack for writing a snarky song that gets its hooks deep into you, and the rough but genuine love song “Love Like This” is a prime example: “Last night I slept with my boots on again, one cut on my forehead and one on my chin, on the hard old floor, with nothing to cover up with; you got me real good girl, and I must admit you pack a pretty mean punch for such a pretty little bitch, and it’s a shame to know most folks don’t ever know love like this.” Go listen to this song – right now.
Oh, and as for the aforementioned giant (metaphorically and literally) Patterson Hood, he shines here as well, with killer tracks including: “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)”, a song about a troubled teen phoning in to a radio preacher; “Nine Bullets”, which explores the potential uses for the nine rounds that lay waiting in his roommate’s gun; and one of my favorite DBT songs, the seven-minute rockfest “The Company I Keep”. That gem has an all-time great chorus: “Sometimes I feel like shit, sometimes that ain’t half of it; sometimes I’m so high I’m scared to go to sleep, sometimes I’m lower than the company I keep”.
This is unabashed rock that has some smart songwriting to boot. This is a band you need to know, and Pizza Deliverance is an album worth exploring, even if the title is as tacky as can be.
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/2n0NSgSZDhxpPNvJlgSdYB?si=IQYDEzkCQ72_i5FKVzCBFA
Travis – The Man Who
One of my pals in high school seemed to have either this or something from Pearl Jam playing in his car nonstop, and I fell in love with the gorgeous melodies and occasional rock moments this album provides. Yes, this is more Brit-pop that certainly was influenced by the same Radiohead-Oasis-Blur movement that spawned early Coldplay (aka good Coldplay), but Fran Healy (with a voice that absolutely sparkles) and company do have their own niche.
On their finest album yet, The Man Who, they shine as a band and Fran gives us a few all-time great songs. The stunning leadoff track “Writing to Reach You” even snarkily references Oasis’s “Wonderwall” within the first minute, in case the admiration wasn’t already clear by the music. Their sound has never been more tight yet free as it is on The Man Who, and this song is a good indication of what is to come over the next 45 minutes.
“The Fear” laments the sun not rising and the incredible power of being afraid, and has a pretty tasty guitar solo. On the lead single “Turn” we get a curveball as Fran departs from pretty crooning to some anthemic shouting, to great effect. While this is not one of his strongest lyrical compositions, if you jack up the volume I bet you’ll be shouting along as well. “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” is so melancholy that it should come off as cliché, but Fran sings it straight and it totally works, probably because the music the band supplies behind him is so damn lovely.
“Slide Show” is a solid album closer and comes with this refrain (note the Beck and Oasis references) “there is no design for life, there’s no devil’s haircut in my mind, there is not a wonderwall to climb or step around, but there is a slide show and it’s so slow, flashing through my mind”. Remember back when CDs used to come with hidden tracks that you had to wait a few minutes for? Well, “The Blue Flashing Light” which is the gem that comes after “Side Show” – its a legit rocker, and tells a dark tale of a vengeful outcast. That one is worth the few minutes of silence to get to it (or, you know, you could use technology and just fast forward to the start at 6:50).
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/1cUp1HbKtGF7CiSl962vH5?si=3xVxmj_GShqbz2f4kCj78A
Notable May 1969 releases:
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
How a 24 year old kid could create something as profound and mature as this album is hard to comprehend, but like always with Neil, he is a special case. By 1969 he had been a successful solo artist in Ontario, Canada; moved to L.A. and gained acclaim with Buffalo Springfield; gone solo again and released a solid eponymous debut. While Everybody Knows… is not his first album, it is where he finds his footing with the help of what would become his longtime off and on backing band, Crazy Horse.
Known mostly for his softer folk songs such as “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, or “Harvest Moon”, this record includes a few of Neil’s best known rockers. The iconic boogie that is “Cinnamon Girl” leads things off, and I don’t need to pile on to how great that song is. Two other tracks, “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”, are epic not only for their length (they take up half of the album’s 40-minute run time) but for their complexity and mind-blowing guitar work.
Side note: I remember the exact moment I decided that Bradley Cooper is not just some Hollywood douche but rather a cool dude with great musical taste: when I saw him years ago (well before that Lady Gaga movie) on a late night talk show playing full-on air guitar to the entire first solo from “Down by the River”. That is the one and only thing Mr. Cooper and I have in common, friends.
Two other songs help cement this as one of the GOAT’s finest records: the jangly and tinged with regret title track that laments the hustle and bustle of L.A. and stardom, and the country-flavored sad bastard ballad “The Losing End (When You’re On)”. These two songs alone would qualify an album as a must-listen, but when coupled with the guitar fury found on the aforementioned songs, this goes down as one of the finest audio recordings of all time. I have a list of all 41 of Neil’s studio records and a one to five star ranking for each of them (that’s for another, super boring post someday), and this one is the first of seven in his career that get the full 5-star treatment in my book. Give it a listen!
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/70Yl2w1p00whfnC7fj94ox?si=pyMDy-gWRn2xUHmJul1Tvw