Monday, January 15, 2007 ... 7:35 PM

The Tent Revue Top 10 Albums of Two Thousand Six

Yeah, late to the party. Last to the party. Everyone's gone home. But last year I never even finished my Top 10, so this feels like an achievement.

10) Grant-Lee Phillips - nineteeneighties
This is one of a few albums this year that felt like the closing of a full circle in my musical life. Grant-Lee was instrumental in my transformation from "everything except country and rap" to Say-It-Loud suburban hillbilly. Mighty Joe Moon's deep foggy Appalachian mythology (however counterfeit it feels now), the warbling pedal steel dream of "Lady Godiva and Me" -- these were my gateway drugs to American history and hard twang.

Meanwhile, the very songs that Grant-Lee covers on this latest album were my gateway drugs to black eyeliner and fishnet stocking quasi-Gothness. Here in deconstructionist acoustic arrangements, embellished only occasionally with Jon Brion-flavored keyboard textures, Grant-Lee exposes the essential silly-mopey emptiness of the songs, and fills the space with his butter velvet voice.

With a few exceptions, these tunes don't hold a match to Grant-Lee's most saccahrine self-penned songs (what John Doe called, to Grant-Lee's face, passive-aggressive good-natured, "woman worshipping songs"). But if Grant-Lee recorded an album of Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, I'd probably listen even to that three times at least.

9) PJ Harvey - The Peel Sessions
It sags toward the end under the sopping weight of Polly's mid-career artsiness, but fresh versions of "Oh My Lover" and "Water" by the early trio, along with legendary non-album tunes like "Wang Dang Doodle," are as fiery and exciting today as 15 years ago, when I first heard "Sheela-Na-Gig" on the alt-rock radio and all my hair turned to lightning. This is how modern electric blues was meant to sound.

8) Old Crow Medicine Show - Big Iron World
They're the best country string band out there, even when they're doing a straight-up Dylan impersonation. Critter Fuqua -- who alone has a huge fanbase if my Google referrals are any indication -- figures largely across the album. Peculiar, since his ongoing commitment to the band has been guessed at since the last record, a few years ago. Is he in or is he out? I guess he's in.

7) Solomon Burke - Nashville
Tracking live in his living room, leaning on living room production values, Buddy Miller demystifies not only "Cry to Me" era Solomon Burke here, and classic Soul music with him -- but also Country music, The Nashville. So is the title ironic, or a "We're not CMA, but we are Nashville" sort of claim stake? Both I think.

Burke's footing isn't sure straight through, and Buddy is characteristically lead-footed with the stereo buss compression, giving the record a mashed-down sensation -- but mostly Nashville shines with the brilliance its pedigree suggests. The Gillian Welch contribution, "Valley of Tears," is the peak (you might have guessed I'd say), showing up all but Tom T Hall, and reminding how badly we need a new Gillian album.

Even Patty Griffin comes up aces here, her Nilla Wafer of a voice sticking nice to Solomon's bristly gristle. It's too bad an artist can't make the marquis as a backup singer, because that, frankly, is Patty's calling.

I haven't taken Nashville down from the shelf very often, but even now I can feel the density of its austerity up there, between Junior Brown and The Byrds.

6) Tanya Donelly - This Hungry Life
A soundtrack for the weary adulthood arrival experience of my demographic -- white middle class extra-mainstream suburban. It buzzes with post-9/11 maternal anxiety, suggesting that at this point a marshmallow filling of pedal steel is all that holds us together.

And for me it feels like another closing circle. In high school, Belly was a favorite band, enough that I saw them a handful of times over the 2-album span of their touring career. I still have a King concert t-shirt. I didn't follow Tanya's solo career until now, but it's exciting to me discovering that this 'HFStival veteran and 120 Minutes also-ran has, since last we met, discovered a bunch of the same music that I have. She name checks Lucinda, and the pedal steel is on display, not an atmospheric effect, but a twanging bulge at the belly of her melanquirky Boston pop. Strongly recommended for the thirtysomething or near-to with a pair of Chuck Taylors in the closet. I can't vouch for the rest of you.

5) Tim Easton - Ammunition
I said at HickoryWind that Tim Easton is our most under-recognized troubour, but Christ I don't know. There are a ton of troubadours out there on the troubadour circuit -- sleeping in troubadour rest areas, eating at the troubadour counter. The ruts they've carved with their rickety procession will last centuries, like the Oregon Trail. Most of them are just so God damn dull. Bad love, bad luck, drunk, hardscrabble life on the road, all that Bukowski blah blah blah. But something about Tim pinches me the right way. That his career has gone so long without a single duet with Lucinda or Emmylou gives him a sort of Altier-than-Alt cred, but that's not it. I'll have to think on it more.

Anyway, Ammunition won't change your life, or the world (though it grasps half-heartedly in that direction). It'll make you feel good though. Listen to it in August with the A/C off. It turns and cools steady as a ceiling fan.

4) Various - Friends of Old Time Music (boxed set)
Newly released recordings by the titans of Americana: Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Maybelle Carter, the Stanley Brothers -- Jesus, find me a better line-up anywhere in history. I'll owe you a Coke. And they're all in top form. This set is essential.

3) Sadies - In Concert Volume One
It sounds like knife fights and hot rod chases through the desert and cowboy standoffs and other peaks in tough guy American mythology, with all of which I have zero actual experience, or interest really -- and yet it makes me so fucking happy to listen to it.

2) Nina Nastasia - On Leaving
Her previous album, Run to Ruin, beautiful in places, was so uprooted and tenuous in its sinews it was in danger of disintegrating. A dandelion necklace out at sea. The instruments and melodies drifted apart. The lyrics despaired in heroin addiction, loathing, irony, cynicism. It was a drag.

On Leaving is all about disappointment, and fetishizes its many bittersweet memories, and although it doesn't hold out much hope -- memories are a sort of backhanded hope, right? It's not numb, anyway, as Run to Ruin was. On Leaving is alive with aching, joints aching and spirit aching. It's trying, hard, to hold things together with nothing but those memories. A big bucket of deep sighs, but guileless, almost embarrassing to share. Sort of embarrassing to write about.

The music is purely acoustic -- Nina's first record to give up on electricity altogether, which itself suggests a vanishing into the idealized past. The songcraft is brickwall solid, but hits like a mare's tail cloud. A guitar fingerpicked on steady tempos, and little more than a constant piano that dances around sort of aimlessly like a kid alone in the house eating a piece of cake. It sounds both lush and bone-spare, equal parts naked vulnerability and scathing strength. Expertly honed and deeply moving. A litany of paradoxes.

"Settling Song" (MP3 here), crying out for a pedal steel-gushing Sammi Smith cover version, is this year's best country song. In a world without "Star Witness," I'd call it the best song I've heard this year, period.

1) Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Is anyone surprised? Not anyone who ever visited this site. I'm in too deep to give perspective here; some of my earlier writing on this blog says it about as well as I'm capable:

It's all woodsmoke velvet and marbled mirrors, a feel similar to Blacklisted -- which is really all that I'd hoped for. But these songs are more natural in their space, sure-footed in the dark. Or more than that, the songs seem to have grown out of their space, which suggests a long incubation period. And much has been made in the current press blitz about the three-year production span of this record, but these songs sound not so much fussed-over as lived-in. They are wood-paneled rooms with the blinds down. It's like spending time in the Buried Child house. There's corn growing out back, and God knows what else.

Grand, ambitious, eccentric, well-contained and oceanic in depth; at once hip, personal and inclusive -- this record is poised for rocknroll immortality.



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Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"


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