Giles's 2007 Year End Music Review
Best Albums of 2007
1. Joe Henry: Civilians
You know that feeling you get sometimes when you read the paper or watch the news – the feeling that maybe we’ve passed the point of no return as a civilized nation? That our best days are behind us, and something awful is lurking just around the corner? Joe Henry knows that feeling too, but he’s a much better songwriter than the rest of us, and that’s why Civilians is one of the most elegant, moving commentaries on the state of the union to have been recorded in recent memory. Don’t go into this expecting a political polemic – Henry sees life as it’s lived, from the bottom up, and doesn’t waste time with grand statements or public-policy rants. No, he has a gift for identifying small, crucial moments, and using them to make sense of the larger whole. A perfect example is “Our Song,” in which Willie Mays pays a visit to a Home Depot in Scottsdale and uses the occasion to speak deep truths about 21st-century America. Sound strange? It is – wonderfully so. Nothing else came close to it this year.
2. Duane Dolieslager: The Opposite of Optimist
Some people have called this album “power pop,” but that doesn’t really fit; that isn’t to say Dolieslager’s stuff isn’t powerful, or pop, but it lacks the crunch of, say, Cheap Trick. A lot of people have also compared Dolieslager’s music to Michael Penn’s, but you may really enjoy Duane Dolieslager even if you frequently find Penn’s songs to be gratingly “clever,” so that comparison doesn’t really hit the mark either. Vocally, he bears more than a passing similarity to A.J. Croce, but really, Dolieslager’s just very good in a very straightforward, classic singer/songwriter way. There’s no shtick here, and no gimmicks, just a dozen extremely well-written songs.
It also bears pointing out that The Opposite of Optimist is one of the most thoughtfully sequenced albums to make its way into the marketplace in years. In the age of random play, this might not matter much to most people, but if you still look for a listening experience in a new LP, you’re bound to appreciate this album’s artful blend of tempos and textures.
3. Bryan Eich: Sleeping by a Wire
Fans of deliciously hooky Britpop (by way of Brooklyn) have a new best friend in Bryan Eich and his debut, Sleeping by a Wire. Your mileage will vary based on how original you ask your favorite bands to be – Eich’s songwriting is deeply derivative, so if you’re looking for someone to reinvent the wheel, you’re liable to spit this out half-chewed. Similarly, if you are demanding when it comes to lyrics, this record will probably have a few dozen too many “babys” to suit your taste. You could say Eich elevates imitation to an art form here, and mean it as either a compliment or an insult. (This review falls 100 percent in the former camp.)
The album’s an indie production in every sense of the word — it was written by Eich and produced by the band (Eich, drummer Eitan Graff — who also handled most of the mixing — and utility infielder Assaf Spector). Eich even handled the artwork. Not bad for something that occasionally sounds like the best record Oasis never made.
4. Jeremy Fisher: Goodbye Blue Monday
Sounding like Paul Simon’s long-lost Canadian son, Fisher descended from the Great White North this year with Goodbye Blue Monday, a stunningly sharp collection of barbed-wire hooks and indelible melodies that came as close as any of this year’s releases to pure pop perfection. He wields an acoustic guitar and a gentle sandpaper voice, but don’t be fooled – as a songwriter, Fisher is positively ruthless: just try listening to tracks such as “Scar That Never Heals” and “Cigarette” without finding them stuck in your head for days. The album’s production is top-notch, too, hurling handclaps, Wurlitzers, and stacks of background vocals at the listener like fastballs aimed directly at the pleasure center of the brain. If there was a single program director left anywhere on the radio dial who could tell the difference between his ass and a hole in the ground, this record would have been inescapable this year. Alas and alack.
5. Martin Sexton: Seeds
Martin Sexton’s work ethic and knack for grassroots promotion earned him a trip to the majors in the late ‘90s, where his two Atlantic releases (1998’s The American and 2000’s Wonder Bar) earned lavish critical praise and miniscule sales returns. But don’t shed any tears for Sexton; since leaving Atlantic, he’s gone back to doing what he does best – namely, tour his ass off, make new fans wherever he goes, and sporadically release new albums. Seeds doesn’t offer quite the emotional depth or impact that some of Sexton’s earlier recordings boast, but that’s fine; this album’s happy, bucolic vibe is worth the tradeoff. It sounds like a warm spring breeze whistling through a row of empty beer bottles, with the creak of a hammock thrown in for good measure. If that description sounds good to you, and you haven’t yet made the pleasure of Sexton’s acquaintance, you need to avail yourself of his catalog immediately – and when he passes through your town, be sure to clear your calendar. Seeing him in concert is an experience not to be missed.
6. John Hammond: When Push Comes to Shove
Fans of the slide guitar have been well acquainted with John Hammond’s mastery of the instrument since his 1962 debut. For pretty much everyone else, sadly, Hammond has remained a perplexingly well-kept secret over the last four decades and change. Though he occasionally garners a bit of buzz for a project (such as Wicked Grin, the Tom Waits-produced record of Waits covers), he’s still given far too little credit for his work – you try releasing almost 30 albums and sucking as rarely as Hammond has. Still, if any of this bothers Hammond, you wouldn’t know it from listening to When Push Comes to Shove – it’s a leathery, spring-coiled beast of a blues record, one whose charms are more than able to withstand cameos and production work from marble-mouthed beer vendor Garrett “G. Love” Dutton. Hammond’s guitar has never had more sting, and his rust-coated vocals can still send shivers down any blues lover’s spine. If that isn’t enough to bring home the platinum hardware, hell, it’s everyone else’s loss.
7. Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage
To sax players – particularly tenors – Michael Brecker was a tremendously influential figure. But outside the jazz community, he’s always been widely regarded as sort of a poor man’s David Sanborn. This isn’t entirely fair, but it’s easy to understand; Brecker cut his share of pop sessions, blew a number of smooth, iconic pop solos for ’70s singer/songwriters, and recorded a slew of fusion-inspired sets both as a solo artist and with his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker, as the Brecker Brothers. But there was always more to the story -- even during the ’80s, when he and Tom Scott were helping make jazz a four-letter word -- Brecker’s stuff tended to have surprising compositional depth.
His sessions were also a locus for some of the most talented people in the business, including Mike Stern, Don Grolnick, Jim Beard, Don Alias, Elvin Jones…you get the idea. Consider that Pilgrimage features a band – and it is a band, not a series of guest stars – consisting of Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, Jack DeJohnette and John Patitucci, most of whom had played with Brecker on more than one occasion in the past, and you’ll start to understand what a major figure he was.
Brecker died earlier this year, the victim of a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome. He was only 57 at the time of his death, and -- as these recordings make clear – in his musical prime. Knowing that he was on borrowed time when he recorded Pilgrimage, it would be only natural to assume that this would be a subdued set, but nothing could be further from the truth -- it’s a feisty, uncompromising collection, heavy on technique and devoid of cheap sentiment. In fact, if there’s any kind of drawback to the album, it’s that Brecker and his crew concentrate almost exclusively on dense, angular, straight-ahead jazz. This isn’t any kind of problem, artistically speaking, but some listeners might find themselves pining for the simpler, more lyrical approach he sometimes favored.
Decidedly minor quibbles aside, there’s no denying the talent on display here. Michael Brecker went down playing, and he will be missed.
8. Patty Griffin: Children Running Through
Patty Griffin writes hit songs – the Dixie Chicks, who have covered Griffin on more than one occasion, proved this with their versions of “Top of the World” and “Let Him Fly.” So why is she releasing albums on a friendly little boutique label like ATO, contenting herself with sales in the tens of thousands? Sure, this state of affairs allows Griffin to earn a good living while avoiding all the headaches that come with being a household name, but still – it’s nonsense, utter nonsense. Children Running Through finds Griffin dressing up her typically spare folk melodies in some new clothes – the beautifully swelling strings in “Burgundy Shoes” and “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song),” for instance. Elsewhere, co-producer Mike McCarthy accentuates the material’s hypnotic rhythm (“Trapeze”) or desperate urgency (“No Bad News”). If Griffin has a problem at this stage of her recording career, it’s that the thrill of discovery has worn off. She’s reached such artistic heights that an album as powerfully solid as Children Running Through can feel almost ordinary by comparison – even when it isn’t, not by a long shot.
9.Tony Trischka: Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular
Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as non-ironic banjo in 2007 – and it’s capable of kicking much ass, as evidenced by this gorgeous collection of often jaw-droppingly difficult arrangements attests. Trischka is the closest thing to a banjo god that America still has, and he casts a wide net here, inviting such bluegrass luminaries as Earl Scruggs and (former Trischka student) Bela Fleck to share the spotlight, along with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Alison Brown and many others. If you can’t hear a banjo without thinking of “Deliverance” and/or Kermit the Frog, you must purchase this album – though its craft and depth will be most plainly evident to musicians, even the most casual listener should find himself unable to avoid falling in love with the music. Those still old enough to remember Steve Martin’s days as a ukulele-playing standup comedian will flash a knowing grin when they read his name in the credits – but the Martin-written “The Crow” is one of the biggest standouts on an album full of them.
10. Crowded House: Time on Earth
At first blush, it seemed like one of the least necessary reunions in a year overflowing with ‘em – Crowded House was always a songwriting dictatorship led by Neil Finn, after all, and even if drummer Paul Hester hadn’t killed himself in 2005, reconstituting the band could have been little more than slapping the brand name on a Finn solo album. It soon became apparent, however, that Finn reached out to House bassist Nick Seymour for all the right reasons, and the resulting album, Time on Earth, is the sweetly resounding proof. These are songs borne of a yearning for emotional connection, a restatement of brotherhood. They’re themes that Finn had been exploring with increasing clarity on his own – but here, knowing that he wanted to be in a band again, this band, and hearing him open himself so gracefully to the fans that mourned the group’s dissolution and Hester’s death, is undeniably powerful. It isn’t perfect – in pursuit of the album’s muted, ethereal vibe, Finn occasionally drifts too far from memorable hooks – but that only leaves room for improvement on the next album. Welcome back, Crowded House. We’ve missed you.