The albums that have hogged the CD player of late ...
Hallelujah the Hills – Collective Psychosis Begone
Post-modernists will love Boston’s Hallelujah the Hills. “Made inventions, broke conventions/Raised a glass to new pretensions/Meta-meta-meta-and the novel is dead” singer/songwriter Ryan Walsh shrieks, and hipster literature professors will rejoice worldwide. The good news is that rock ‘n roll fans will rejoice as well. HtH exhibit the kind of madcap free-for-all egalitarianism that characterizes bands like The Arcade Fire. The band mixes equal parts fuzzed-out guitars, cellos, trumpets and synths. They chant in unison. They write songs with Sufjan-like titles such as “It’s All Been Downhill Since the Talkies Started to Sing” and “Slow Motion Records Broken at Breakneck Speeds.” And unlike Sufjan, they make an unholy racket. It’s a ramshackle, lo-fi, amateurish indie mess, but Walsh’s off-kilter David Byrne warble and the band’s unerring pop sensibilities combine to forge something that is both accessible and bracing. I’m hoping that the collective psychosis sticks around for a long time.
The Mendoza Line – 30 Year Low/Final Remarks of the Legendary Malcontent
Maybe it’s twisted, but divorce albums frequently make me very happy. Here are a few that have brought me great joy in the midst of profound relational misery: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Van Morrison’s Hard Nose the Highway, Exene Cervenka’s Old Wives’ Tales, and Bruce Cockburn’s Humans. And now we can add The Mendoza Line’s 30 Year Low to the list. Co-leaders Tim Bracy and Shannon McCardle recently split up after ten years of marriage, but they left a scorcher of a record in their wake, equal parts poetic grace and bitterness and recrimination. Bracy handles the poetic grace department, and his spare, Dylan-inspired folk songs are fragile and delicate and achingly sad. But it’s McCardle who stuns here, unleashing a snarling, barely contained rage on tracks like “31 Candles” that is frightening in its wrathful intensity. Don’t mess with this chick. Final Remarks of the Legendary Malcontent, the accompanying odds ‘n sods collection of live tracks and covers, is just fine, but it’s 30 Year Low that is truly worthy of your intention. Hurts so good.
The Safes – Well, Well, Well
The Louvin, Everly and Wilson clans have already taken this band of brothers concept as far as it can possibly go, but Frankie, Michael, and Patrick O’Malley – collectively known as The Safes – do nothing to damage that great sibling legacy. Taking their cues from The Kinks and The Who, they bash their way across ten short power pop anthems that clock in right at the thirty minute mark, just like ten great radio-ready singles should. There’s absolutely nothing innovative here, but as long as massive hooks, power chords, singalong choruses, and sweet brotherly harmonies ring out over boomboxes and iPod earbuds, there will always be an exalted place for songs like these in my musical pantheon. As one of the titles proclaims, “Cool Sounds Are Here Again.” Indeed they are, and this is perfect summertime music.
Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight/Hokey Pokey/Pour Down Like Silver/First Light/Sunnyvista/Shoot Out the Lights
Both Richard (Sweet Warrior) and Linda (Versatile Heart) have new or about-to-be-new solo albums out now, and they’re very, very good. But the new music has prompted me to revisit the six albums they recorded as husband and wife between 1974 and 1982. And I’ll just come out and say it: this is as fine a musical run as you will find in contemporary music, equal in substance and quality to what The Beatles and Dylan did throughout the sixties, what Van did from the late sixties through the mid-‘70s, what U2 did from the early to the late ’80s, what the newly sober Steve Earle pulled off from the mid ’90s through the early oughties, and what Radiohead has accomplished throughout their restless career. In other words, this is as good as it gets in terms of sustained greatness.
Bookended by the masterpieces they recorded at the beginning and the end of their tempestuous marriage, these six albums could loosely be categorized as “folk rock,” but any label is inadequate, and doesn’t begin to account for the sandpaper and sweetness of the harmonies, the jaw-dropping guitar work, the compassion of the social outlook, or the clear-eyed honesty of the love songs and anti-love songs, the ongoing chronicle of two people who loved and hated one another. In a more just universe, Richard Thompson would be widely heralded as one of the greatest songwriters and guitarists on the planet, and Linda Thompson would be justly celebrated as one of our finest singers. But the universe is not just, at least when A&R men and American Idol ratings and Soundscan totals are involved. So don’t look for them on a VH1 “Behind the Music” special anytime soon. Instead, revel in the wonder of two consummate musicians who sparked and burned and created timeless, beautiful, and harrowing music.