Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt -
I've said it before (in my interview with Steve Weinstein) and I'll say it again - God bless Eddie Vedder. Being modern rock's elder statesman is an unappreciated and often thankless task, but that doesn't stop him from being the voice of a generation, and on Lightning Bolt, Vedder proves he and his bandmates have not lost any relevance, even if they reside in a climate where relevance seems dictated by pop culture rather than conviction. "Sirens" is one of those stealthily simplistic ballads that belies a haunting message about violence and apathy; "Mind Your Manners" is an acerbic commentary fueled by unbridled punk energy. "What is clear, far from the noise is swallowed whole" Vedder observes on the plaintive rocker "Swallowed Whole." And with co-conspirators McCready, Ament, Gossard and Cameron playing at the top of their respective games, Lightning Bolt holds its own against past milestones Yield and Vitology.
Steven Wilson The Raven That Refused To Sing and Other Stories -
Like Alan Parsons before him, Brit producer/engineer (and former frontman for the critically-lauded alt-rock band Porcupine Tree) Steven Wilson proves once again he's equally adept at his own material as he is at manning the sound board for others. The Raven... is a remarkable album that recalls the classic progressive-rock LP's of the 70's, right down to its song structures, harmonies and blazing guitar solos. From the Yes-meets-Tull opener "Luminol" and the glorious prog-rock of "The Holy Drinker" to the Parsonesque ballad "The Watchmaker", and "The Pin Drop" (which comes across as an uncanny postscript of Blinker The Star) Wilson's lyricism and delicate vocals wrap these melodies like a fuzzy blanket. And the iridescent "Drive Home" (anchored by a lilting acoustic guitar and majestic string section, courtesy of ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart) feels mutually informed by Nick Drake and Brian Wilson: while his namesake is no biological relation, Steven's ear for pop songcraft is on par with many of Wilson's lost-Beach Boys material.
Iron and Wine Ghost On Ghost -
After the commercial-mercenariness of Kiss Each Other Clean, it was gratifying to hear Sam Beem get back on track with Ghost On Ghost: the problem with the former was not its overarching musical ambition, but the calculated undercurrent that subsumed the quality of Beem's songwriting. The Paul Simon influence can still be felt here (like the melody line which opens "Caught In The Briars") but Beem has learned to honor both his signature voice and the quirkiness which allows him to flirt with various influences instead of seemingly co-opting them - the jazzy love song "Joy" hearkens to the underrated genius of Dean Friedman, while "New Mexico's No Breeze" sweetly updates the AM magic of Seals and Crofts. And with "Grace For Saints and Ramblers" Beem strikes that delicate balance between paying homage to the past, and imbuing the music with his exceptional storytelling and affable, emotive style.
Al DiMeola All Your Life: A Tribute to The Beatles -
From Wes Montgomery to Pat Metheny, jazz guitarists have felt a personal affinity for the songs of Lennon/McCartney - the results of such homages however, have been a mixed bag: Montogmery's versions were (unfairly) dismissed as "easy listening", while Metheny's take on tunes like "And I Love Her" was admirable, but not much different from the work of guitarist Tony Mottola before him. DiMeola's All Your Life, by contrast, is a true game-changer: with all pieces performed on acoustic guitar, and careful overdubbing providing the contrasting harmonic intricacies, DiMeola challenged not only his virtuosic chops, but his penchant for interpretation. The results are by turns stunning, audacious, and mind-blowing. DiMeola not only surpasses Metheny with his take on "And I Love Her", but reveals a flamenco edge with "Because", adds layers of complexity to "Penny Lane" and his stately presentation of "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" cements DiMeola's status as jazz guitar hero.
Laura Mvula Sing To The Moon -
And the 2013 Heat-seeking Missile Under the Radar award goes to..............Laura Mvula. Blessed with a voice more suited for jazz than soul, Miss Mvula was discovered in her native England by the UK division of RCA, who first released the stunning single "She" as part of an EP, before unleashing her full-fledged debut this past Spring. Her piano playing invites comparisons to the late, great Nina Simone, while her iconoclastic style bravely amalgamates past and present influences (including the densely-tiered harmonies common to Animal Collective) as on the aforementioned single, the jazz-tinged "Can't Live With The World" and the childlike innocence displayed on "Like The Morning Dew" - whose mellifluous tones are exactly what you'd expect from a graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire - what I wouldn't expect is for someone barely in her twenties to possess such an acute melodic and compositional pedigree, buttressed by a willingness to not only cross-pollinate genres, but to do so with such creativity and finesse. Perhaps too quirky to give Adele any sleepless nights, but trust me, this woman is one to watch in 2014.
Steve Martin & Edie Brickell Love Has Come For You -
On paper, this collaboration rightfully screams "vanity project." Steve Martin (who once used the banjo as a stand-up prop, and is now recognized for the gifted player he always was) and Edie Brickell (former New Bohemian-turned-Mrs. Paul Simon) combine forces for an album of original tunes showcasing the former's fingerpicking acumen, and the latter's Appalachian-inflected, laid-back delivery. And yes, despite the professionalism touted by both, this collection remains an acquired taste, but that doesn't make it any less compelling. Only a heart of stone would refuse to melt upon hearing the opener, "When You Get To Asheville" (a classic "I'll be around" love song); likewise, the square-dance tune "Get Along Stray Dog" and the countrified strains of the title track would be as at home on the Grand Ole Opry stage as A Prairie Home Companion. The lynchpin to Martin's understated elegance on banjo are the rural vignettes spun by Brickell, heightened by the tasteful arrangements of Peter Asher (Cher, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt.) Sometimes, vanity projects yield surprising dividends.
Sting The Last Ship -
Just when I wanted to relegate Sting's solo output to "barista patron music", the inimitable Mr. Sumner takes the biggest gamble of his professional career: writing a libretto and score for a musical which tells the tale of aging shipbuilders facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Many critics and fans of Sting have been left cold by The Last Ship, but I suspect these same folks were aloof to The Soul Cages as well. Which is to say, they wouldn't know a haunting melody and exceptional songwriting if it kidnapped them. Blending jazz, pop, Celtic and Broadway idioms, Sting bests Sondheim on "A Practical Arrangement", pays earnest tribute to The Chieftains on "Ballad Of The Great Eastern", turns "Hadaway" into a ballsy Gaelic reel, and shows his most vulnerable side yet with the jazz balladry of "I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else." Accompanied by top-notch musicians, and featuring guest turns by actor/singer Jimmy Nail and Becky Unthank, this labor of love is set to open on Broadway in early 2014, following in the footsteps of such projects as Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark and The Capeman. Here's hoping the right combination of casting and direction brings to life the grand ambition realized by Sting on The Last Ship.
Mountain Sounds [Eponymous] -
Formerly involved with 90's band Estates, guitarist Tim Hoyt and singer Franc Castillejos reunite as Mountain Sounds. Recording in Castillejos' native Guatemala, the pair craft songs that fall somewhere between indie-folk and emo rock, and that is not a pejorative. Castillejos has a warm, impassioned voice - his lyrics ranging from painterly prose to sociopolitic protest, usually disguised in elliptical passages that sneak their subversiveness into your brain, abetted by strong hooks and a gift for genre distillation. From the Ben Folds-flavored single, "Find That Man", to the deeply affecting "I Do What I'm Allowed" and the marvelous "Lion And The Bee" (which suggests a less self-consciously hip Black Keys) Mountain Sounds feels at once immediate and contemporary, but with an underlying timelessness worthy of a Michael Penn, Tim Buckley or (as on the trenchant "Barely Living Son"), Elliot Smith.
They Might Be Giants Nanobots
Sixteen albums into a lengthy and illustrious career, the tag team of John Linnell and John Flansburgh continue their peculiar hybrid of lyrical eccentricity and musical audacity which began with 1986's single, "Youth Culture Killed My Dog." On Nanobots, TMBG imagines a future none-too-removed from our dystopian present tense. "Black Ops" for example, may appear tongue-in-cheek, but the lyrics are actually critical in nature: "Dropping presents from the helicopter/Here come the drones/Before we make you gone, you'd best be running on." Similarly, "Replicant" tells the tale of an automaton that has apparently done away with its human prototype: "I found this when I was cleaning your room/I think you've got some explaining to do/You've got his eyes, same exact smile/All that he has, all this will be yours...." Peppering these fleshed out tracks with truncated pieces suited to their jingle-istic, "Dial-A-Song" days ("Sleep", "Nouns", "Tick") TMBG mines the best aural and lyrical gems since benchmark discs Flood, Mink Car and The Else.
Sigur Ros Kveikur -
Are they ambient, shoe-gaze or worldbeat? Probably none of the above, but Icelandic combo Sigur Ros make a elegant, otherworldly noise all their own, and on Kveikur they continue fusing glossolalia with big, orchestral gestures and transcendent harmonies. Long admired by fans of Radiohead and Dead Can Dance, the Sigur Ros formula (and make no mistake, there is a calculated precision to their music-making) eschews the traditional conventions of songwriting, which is why on some level, the ambient label most approximates their modus operandi. Primitive percussion plays against regal brass crescendos on "Hrafntinna"; Jonsi's trademark falsetto veers toward, dare I say, pop territory on "Isjaki" (while suggesting an unholy alliance between Thom Yorke and Yoko Ono.) Peeling church bells, processional percussion, an ominous cello (which wafts through the elegiac "Yfirboro", amidst reverse-tracked vocals and a minimal techno backbeat) and equally disparate sounds are juxtaposed here with more accessible (danceable, even) textures and a poppier, yet decidedly dark edge. In fact, it's hard not to wonder what the results of a genuine collaboration between Sigur Ros and Radiohead might yield. But maybe one should be content with both bands revolving around their respective orbits without the risk of a sonic collision.