I haven’t gone back and checked the exact number, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve reviewed at least one or two albums a week for Popdose, every week, this year. Other writers on our staff have contributed their fair share as well. So let’s say that as a group we’ve published around 200 album reviews this year. But untold thousands of albums were released. Hey, we’re doing the best we can. We try to concern ourselves with giving you a heads-up on the music that matters most.
Given these statistics, it’s a sure bet that I’m going to miss some albums that are worthy of mention. I’ve also found myself reviewing a lot of albums by older artists this year, and after all, I am the New Music Editor for Popdose, so thought it would be nice to hear some fresh music. So by way of a very small fix, here’s a group of albums that were released this year that merit some attention:
Pugwash – Giddy (Ape House)
Giddy is a compilation of tracks from the Irish band’s first three studio albums, plus two tracks from their new album, Eleven Modern Antiquities, which will be released next year. I use the word ‘band’ somewhat advisedly. Pugwash is really singer/songwriter Thomas Walsh and an ever-changing cast of characters that has included Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC (Giddy is on Partridge’s Ape House label), Michael Penn, Jason Faulkner, and Nelson Bragg of the Brian Wilson Band.
Walsh has channeled his classic rock influences including the Beatles, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, XTC, and others to create some of the most sublime pop music that I’ve heard in quite awhile. This compilation is the perfect vehicle to fall in love with the music that has gone before, and to whet your appetite for the new album. Giddy has secured a place in my top ten albums of 2009.
Tim Brantley – Goldtop Heights (BLACKLEDGE)
I first saw Tim Brantley perform at a Triple A radio conference in Philadelphia that I was covering earlier this year. I knew nothing about him, in fact I’d never even heard his name, but his performance that afternoon made me want to know more. Tim’s manager sent me home with an EP that day, and followed up with Tim’s debut full-length album.
You know how sometimes you see a great performance but then you go and check out the recording and it’s not so great? That didn’t happen this time. Goldtop Heights completely delivers on all the promise that I saw in the young Georgia piano player in Philadelphia that day. Tim Brantley is no niche artist or potential indie-darling. His music has mainstream success written all over it, and in this case that’s a very good thing.
We’re always talking about who the next big star might be, and these days people tend to point to the latest American Idol winner. Forget that. Check out some new music by a real American idol, who writes great songs, and sings them with the emotion and intensity missing from those tv creations. Someday you’re going to want to say that you bought the first Tim Brantley album before he got really big. This is your wake-up call.
Amusement Parks On Fire – Young Fight EP (Filter U.S. Recordings)
Amusement Parks On Fire is another example of a band that is basically a vehicle for the talents of a singular auteur, in this case Michael Feerick. The Nottingham, UK singer and guitarist started this project in 2004 by writing all the songs and playing all the instruments on Amusement Park On Fire’s self-titled debut album. A second album, Out of the Angeles, was released in 2005, followed by a series of vinyl EPs. Young Fight finds the band now a five-piece, and a powerful one at that.
Like Giddy, the Young Fight EP is a compilation of tracks from the previously released EPs, along with two unreleased songs. Though Feerick disdains the obvious comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, it’s unmistakable. But just when you think you’ve got Amusement Parks On Fire figured out, they bring on a more melodic, pastoral side reminiscent of Spiritualized or Sigur Ros, and then blend the two disparate elements together to make something that sounds very much their own.
Aimee Bobruk – The Safety Match Journal (independent release)
Music aside, the best thing about getting a cd from Austin songwriter Aimee Bobruk is the hand-painted album cover package that it arrives in. For some reason, Aimee sent me her cd twice, so I got two very different, and unique packages that I assume she created herself. Such determination is worthy of notice, but if the album within didn’t live up to the promise of the package, no creative design would make it matter.
Austin, TX is a city bursting with singer/songwriters, and boasts some pretty damned good ones. Bobruk more than holds her own in such esteemed company. Working with producer Darwin Smith, non-traditional instruments are employed to place each of Bobruk’s songs in a well-conceived sonic landscape. Synths burble, distorted guitars rumble, and bass clarinets, banjos, and cellos all make tasteful appearances. Lyrically, Bobruk finds inspiration in literary touchstones including Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbit,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”
Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – … And The Horse You Rode In On (Bloodshot Records)
“I hope you catch syphilis and die alone.” That is the opening line of the opening song on the latest album from the Chicago-based Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. As you might imagine, heartbreak is the centerpiece of … And The Horse You Rode In On, but it’s heartbreak that manages the neat trick of being intelligent and rocking all at once. Led by the Welsh-born guitarist and singer Elia, the SYGC blends guitar-driven indie rock with a chamber pop sensibility. The arrangements are often fleshed out with strings and horns.
If you like your self-pity tempered by a rock and roll kick in the ass, your storytelling informed by the experience of actually having read a book, and your romantic tragedy channeled through gritted teeth, this is the album for you. It’s albums like this that make checking out some of the albums that I missed the first time around worthwhile.
Note: On September 25, the members of SYGC were involved in a terrible automobile accident while on tour. Two members were severely injured, and one remains in the hospital. They also lost a lot of equipment in the wreck. The band’s record label, Bloodshot, maintains a web page with updates on the status of the band members, and provides a link if you would like to donate something to help them out:
Alec Ounsworth – Mo Beauty (Anti-Records)
For a holiday from his day job in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Philadelphia native Ounsworth decided to spend time in New Orleans. The result of the time spent in the Crescent City is his debut solo album. Working with noted roots rock producer Steve Berlin, whose credits include Los Lobos, the Blasters, John Lee Hooker, and the Replacements, Ounsworth has fashioned a moody, intimate album.
While Ounsworth definitely took advantage of his surroundings to employ some of New Orleans’ most noted musicians, including bass player George Porter, Jr. of the Meters, and Galactica drummer Stanton Moore, he managed to keep his feet planted firmly in the alternative world. The spirit of the album is informed by New Orleans, but this is not a New Orleans album. It is, however, a fine debut effort.
The Black Hollies – Softly Toward The Light (Ernest Jenning Record Co.)
The third studio album from New Jersey’s Black Hollies (go homeboys!) could rightfully be described as atmospheric, and the atmosphere in question would be feature some black lights and lava lamps, circa 1967. This one is a real throwback, blending fuzzed-out guitar, prominent organ, and blissed-out vocals, with songwriting that evokes another time.
While the sound is eerily reminiscent of early psych bands like the Electric Prunes, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock, this is no slavish impersonation. The Black Hollies have absorbed their influences and channeled them into something that is very much their own. At a time when garage and psychedelic rock is finding a new audience, this is a band to watch. Softly Toward The Light was such a fun listening experience that even before the album was done playing, I found myself wanting to go back and play it again.