January 23, 2009
While seemingly worlds apart, the genres of country and punk have become an incestuous pair in recent years. Maybe the whole outlaw mentality of good country music is sympathetic with the social isolation often associated with punk music. Whatever the motivation, some damn good music has spawned from this awkward love affair. The following is a short list of some bands that successfully incorporate ideals from both genres. Check them out if you are a fan of one or both types of music, or if you just like to get drunk.
“Bloody knuckles and a broken nose, all of that before I ever got home/I fought in bars, fought in the streets, four more years of fighting ’til they’re done with me.”
The drunkest band in Memphis is quite a title to earn, but these boys are probably more deserving than most. Notorious for playing until they literally cannot stand anymore, Lucero bring an unprecedented punk energy to country rock. Quitting their respective punk bands to form a country band, Ben Nichols and the guys have played their asses off for years to finally earn a bit of comfort and respect. Recently signing a deal with Warner Brothers, Lucero is certainly trying their damnedest to break the stereotypes placed on them from the beginning. In truth, Nichols and company have indeed straightened up a bit. They do their best to finish shows in a respectable fashion (i.e. not falling into the crowd from intoxication), and have evolved their sound into a unique brand of Springsteen-esque rowdy rock and roll.
“I’m thirty-seven, and I don’t feel old/Still listening to punk rock, still like my beers cold.”
No genre (or combination of genres) is immune to tragedy. Boston-based Lenny & The Piss Poor Boys are a testament to this unfortunate circumstance. After releasing an absolutely stellar debut album, the band lost their bassist Jon Johnson in a vehicle accident. Heartbreak and misfortune aside, we can at least focus on the amazing music that the band was able to make in its short-lived prime. Lenny & The Piss Poor Boys is an almost perfect album in every way. Full of smokey sing-along choruses and sharp pedal steel, no album so seamlessly meshes country and punk. Within you will find stark imagery of bar fights, substance abuse, and even a heart-wrenching elegy in the form of a Ramones tribute song.
“If no one’s on your canvas, I’m achin’ to be.”
By definition, The Replacements were neither alt-country nor punk, but you’ll hear their name come up in many a discussion regarding both genres. Spending most of the 80’s playing their asses off to punk crowds, The Replacements quickly earned their famous “play loud, play drunk” reputation. Paul Westerberg used to make fun of the fact that The Replacements thought they were a punk band for a while (see debut Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash). The truth was that The Replacements were nothing more than a great rock band that acted like punks. But, as so many educated books and films will tell you, punk is as much an attitude as it is a musical style. So where does the country influence some into play you ask? Well, in the band’s later years, on album’s like Don’t Tell A Soul, songs like “Achin’ To Be” with its steel guitar sweetness sound like they could easily fit in on a Whiskeytown record. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Westerberg even joked about the later years: “By the end, they wanted us to play punk rock, because it was coming back in style, but I was more interested in upright basses and steel guitars. We never were in stride with what was hip at the moment.”
I’ll probably add some more to this as I think of more bands.
January 19, 2009
As promised, the remainder of my favorite albums of 2008.
5. Phantom Planet – Raise The Dead
Pop/rock is such a broad genre that it has practically dug its own grave in recent years. Perhaps this is the justification behind the name of the new Phantom Planet record. Part concept album about cults, part infectious pop masterpiece, Raise The Dead is terribly refreshing. There isn’t much more to say—this album is addicting as hell.
Recommended if you like: Weezer, Rooney
4. Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life
Every now and then a band will come along and literally save a failing genre. Maybe it’s just that Fucked Up came along at a time when people needed to hear good hardcore punk, or maybe they are just that fucking great. Seamlessly blending punk, garage, shoegaze, and dozens of other elements, Fucked Up have crafted an experimental masterpiece with The Chemistry of Common Life. Built around the bittersweet theme of rebirth, the record has a weight that most modern punk releases lack—there is a tremendous sense of urgency pulsating within each song. Fucked Up may have saved a once lost way of music, or maybe it’s been here the whole time—maybe they are simply doing it better than everyone else.
Recommended if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Minor Threat
3. Ratatat – LP 3
Mike Stroud and Evan Mast may be the hippest instrumental dance duo to come about in quite some time (possibly ever), but LP3 proves that they also know how to chill. Diverting from their usual high energy infectious grooves, Ratatat has made a truly atmospheric record. Don’t worry, the swarms of guitar harmonies are still there, but they take more of a low-key role here, allowing the rolling synths and tight bass lines to do the work. With LP3 Ratatat have proved that their unique sound is completely malleable, and that they are capable of doing whatever they want with it.
Recommended if you like: The Rapture, Air
2. Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ’08
Who could have guessed that one of the year’s best collections of pop songs would come from a punk kid in Memphis? Whether or not his arrival was properly forecast, Jay Reatard showed up anyways, and he showed up big. This hodge-podge collection of singles released over the past year is short on filler and abundant on hooks. The guitars are noisy, yet polished. The vocals are streamlined, yet unforgettable. The result just may be the catchiest garage record made in years.
Recommended if you like: The Ramones, Black Lips
1. She & Him – Volume One
Zooey Deschanel was born to be a singer, not an actress. Her voice shifts through melodies like a pop singer from the 1950’s or 60’s on tracks like “I Was Made For You” and “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today”. But while classic in style, Deschanel’s voice is also deceptively versatile. Zooey’s heart-wrenching delivery on the country tune “Change Is Hard” is reminiscent of a young Tammy Wynette. While Deschanel leads us through this whirlwind of forgotten pop perfection, M. Ward clearly establishes his self as the conductor of this orchestra, gently weaving together slide guitar and delicate string arrangements. There is something beautifully simple here, though a careful ear can become easily confounded with Deschanel’s endless layers of harmonies. The record feels effortless and fun, something that has been missing from today’s pop music for some time, and this is enough in its own right to earn She & Him Nation Full Of Ivy’s top nod for 2008.
Recommended if you like: Old 50’s/60’s pop songs, Old female country (Wynette, Rondstadt, Lynn)
January 6, 2009
This has been an interesting year for new music, but interesting does not necessarily mean abundant in this case. I will focus on quality over quantity here and give you my “Top 10 Albums of 2008” with appropriate honorable mentions.
10. Deerhunter – Microcastle
I had long avoided Deerhunter, mainly due to the host of snobby, music elitists who sang their praises. Man, was I a fool. I think shimmering is the best way I can describe this record. Everything is drenched in reverb, and I’ll be damned if two of the danciest bass lines I’ve heard in a while aren’t on here. This record taught me a valuable lesson: never judge a book by the obnoxious pricks who read it.*
* I also know plenty of awesome people who like Deerhunter, but you know the types I’m talking about.
Recommended if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Ride
9. Punch Brothers – Punch
I never liked Nickel Creek, but there was never any denying Chris Thile’s prodigal understanding of the mandolin. Here, with the help of some fellow virtuosos, Thile has pushed himself musically and emotionally to create a truly unique record. Seamlessly blending traditional instrumentation with stark originality and a beautiful use of dissonance, Punch sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. There are parts that sound like true Appalachian bluegrass, but the record is equally littered with a classical sensibility that is unmatched in most contemporary music. The fiddle player will chop out some old-timey pieces and follow them directly with classical violin bowing patterns that are desperately moving. Centered around an ambitious four movement concept piece, Punch is a daring record that is truly pleasant to the ears.
Recommended if you like: Nickel Creek, Allison Krausse and Union Station
8. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down In The Light
“And I wander and lay in whatever old bed, with good earthly music singing into my head.” Good earthly music is just what Will Oldham has accomplished with his recent offering under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Simultaneously more lofty and focused than previous efforts, Lie Down In The Light is simply hard not to like. Pedal steel, violin, cello, female backing vocals, it’s all here, and it’s all good. Admittedly a more country-oriented collection of songs, Oldham’s new record floats from track to track effortlessly, resulting in a simplistically gorgeous album.
Recommended if you like: Ryan Adams, Sufjan Stevens
7. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
The hardest working blues-rock duo in Akron stepped out of their comfort zone with this year’s Attack & Release. Not content to make another grungy blues record in their basement, The Black Keys enlisted esteemed producer Danger Mouse to help them broaden their sound. The result is a meticulously arranged record that still manages to stay true to form. Organs and pianos abound in this sonically lush effort by a band that had long identified themselves as “underproduced”. Don’t worry, the fuzzed out guitars and violent drumming are all still there, but Danger Mouse has successfully helped The Black Keys find the soul their music has lacked in previous releases.
Recommended if you like: Jimi Hendrix, Stax Records
6. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
The greatest living southern rock band returned with another larger than life release in 2008. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is an honest look into a band that has perpetually struggled to find itself from record to record. Don’t get me wrong, DBT’s previous releases are phenomenal, but the juggling of three unique songwriters often caused the band to trip over itself. Their most recent record finds the band literally finding each other. The loss of integral songwriter Jason Isbell was not enough to slow down the DBT machine, and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is testament to this.
Recommended if you like: Drag The River, Lucero