This year has already been a steady parade of intriguing new music releases, and the most exciting stuff is still to come. And though I've only heard one album that I'd call a shoo-in for this year's Top 10 list-- Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat
, which is actually sounding more and more like Top 5 material-- there have been plenty of new albums that have captured and held my attention. Here's what's been in my player this month:
The Little Willies, Little Willies
How cool would it be to have a feisty, laid-back, slightly inebriated bar band playing classic country gems in the comfort of your own living room? Pretty cool, I think—which is why I’ve fallen in love with the Little Willies, a terrific new five-piece outfit that includes Norah Jones and four of her country-loving musical cohorts. The Willies’ debut is a modest, low-key affair, but it’s also warm, loose, and improvisational, the sound of five musicians performing without ego, clearly having a blast playing music together. There are surprising moments of pathos and humor here, but mostly it’s just plain fun; and as great as the covers are, it’s the four originals that prove the Willies are a band to watch out for.
Josh Rouse, Subtitulo
Recorded in his newfound home of Spain, Rouse’s new album has some surprising Latin influences in the melodies and instrumentation, but mostly it’s more of the intimate, earnest folk-pop he’s become known for. Imagine if Ron Sexsmith was more heavily influenced by 1970’s AM rock, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this guy sounds like. The melodies here will grab you on the first listen, and the beautiful, pristine production will keep you coming back.
Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird
Working for the first time with producer extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett, genre-bending powerhouse Cassandra Wilson dresses up in her boldest, most cinematic colors yet on Thunderbird. There are keyboards and drum loops aplenty, and a couple of songs even sound like they could swim in Top 40 waters. Purists and longtime fans are already arguing over how well these new colors fit onto Wilson’s palette; personally, I think it’s the most thrilling thing she’s done in many years, perhaps even the boldest experiment of her career. You won’t believe how well she can pull of the pop-radio diva routine on songs like “Go to Mexico” and “It Would Be So Easy,” but, as always, Wilson’s greatest strengths lie in her abilities as a song interpreter, as evidenced by the smoking, smoldering blues numbers like “Easy Rider.”
Elbow, Leaders of the Free World
Take the soaring, euphoric melodies of Coldplay; the soaring emotional peaks of Arcade Fire; the twisting, mutating song structures of Andrew Bird; the instrumental innovation of Radiohead; and a lead singer who sounds for all the world like a young Peter Gabriel. That’s kinda what Elbow sounds like. If you enjoy any of the band above, just wait ‘til you hear these guys.
Sarah Harmer, I’m a Mountain
Huh… who would have guessed that Sarah Harmer’s finest work would come when she traded in her slick folk-pop sound for back-porch bluegrass? These are laid-back songs by a performer who sounds completely comfortable in her skin, with zippy, nimble performances and suitably simple production. Lyrically the album is largely inspired by a growing concern for our environment, but there’s also a heartbreaking ballad about a man suffering with AIDS, as well as an irresistible Dolly Parton cover.
The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site
Andy Whitman was right, gosh darnit—thanks to him I’ve made a new discovery that has me running back to revise my Best of 2003 list. On the surface the Weakerthans sound like another rough-and-rowdy pop-punk band in the vein of Green Day or current radio darlings Relient K, but pay attention. There are some subtle musical complexities here, as well as some remarkably assured flirtations with country, folk, and good old-fashioned rock and roll. This is an irresistible rock record, perfect for driving or starting your day off with a bang, but the most impressive thing of all is the songwriting. These lyrics are astoundingly literate, brimming with character and creativity. Even the song titles betray something of the cleverness on display here—“Plea from a Cat Named Virtue,” “Psalm for the Last Call at the Elks Lodge,” “Over Retired Explorer”… this album gets an A-rating for the lyrics alone.