Monday, May 6, 2013

Album Review: Four Records That Have Gotten Me Through Spring

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, each and every one of my days on this earth remains finite in its capacity. That means that, despite my best efforts, I simply do not have time to tell people about all the great music that I'm lucky enough to find myself being exposed to these days. After watching the White Sox blow a tremendously winnable game this Sunday I decided that that, in an effort to cheer myself up, I should finally start working my way through  the backlog of great albums that have been figuratively been piling up on my iPod with nary a drop of digital ink expended on them.

With genuine spring finally starting to take hold here in Chicago, I hope that everyone will be spending a little extra time in the sunshine in the coming weeks. There's nothing that aids the euphoria of nice weather after a stubbornly long winter than aural accompaniment. With that in mind, I humbly submit the following four records to help you make the most of your only-slightly premature sunbathing.

1. Lady - Lady  Buy It
For anyone who says that it's not worth showing up for the opening act, I say to them, what about Lady? Ever since seeing them open for Lee Fields & the Expressions this March, I scarcely taken their album off my turntable. Comprised of two R&B vets, American Nicole Wray and Brit Terri Walker, their self-titled debut was recorded with the Expressions as their backing band and it is one of the most heavenly slices of neo-soul I've run across in years. These two have written an album full of assertive songs that brook no bullshit but are also incredibly fun. Whether demanding satisfaction ("Good Lovin'", "Tell The Truth"), honoring their friends and mothers ("Sweet Lady", "Please Don't Do It Again") or just singing some love songs ("Waiting On You", "If You Wanna Be My Man") Wray and Walker deliver vocal performances that command respect while displaying impressive emotion. Behind them, band shuffles through Motown, beach music and baby-makin' '70s soul backings without blinking an eye.

Since I've written a decent amount about Lady already, I'll just shut up and let the music do the talking. My favorite song is currently the menacingly sultry "Karma", which I've included below but any of these songs could easily get themselves lodged into your head. "Fairly warned, be thee" says I. 
Listen/Download: Karma

2. Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts - Them & Them & Us [EP]  Buy It
As a Midwesterner, I had a stark realization recently. I realized that almost all of my favorite punk bands today are coastal creations. Though I've been wearing out the 0's and 1's on my Naked Raygun, Effigies and Hüsker Dü songs, I noticed that regional punk has dropped off sharply since Reagan. Then, I got an email from a guy named Jake Simmons that reassured me that there was still someone in the heartland making punk rock worthy of the name.

Joined my his band, the Little Ghosts, Simmons' latest EP, Them & Them & Us is a thoroughly satisfying nugget of politically-minded punk that's been an ideal drive-time palette cleanser after many a heartbreaking or enraging news bulletin this spring. The songs are scratchy, seething and just hopeful enough to get you through the day. Simmons sings about the feeling of abandonment, stymied hopes and other frustrations of life in the Obama years with a disappointment that never veers into disillusionment. This is all backed by stellar production; guitars crash, drums thunder, basslines undergird everything, all with a forcefulness and clarity that brings out the visceral appeal of this brand of meat-and-potatoes rock.

I've got the video for the lead single below, although my current favorite is "Who Are You", a slow solo number reminiscent of Ted Leo circa 1999 so I threw that up there as well. The band's also touring some of the finer towns of the Midwest this spring, you should take the opportunity to say hi.
Listen/Download: Who Are You?

3. Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In  Buy It (it's only five bucks!)
There are some artists who are just so up your alley that as soon as you discover them, you get a little angry that it took you as long as it did. For me Caitlin Rose was that kind of artist. My first exposure to her has been through her third album, The Stand-In, which blends country, pop and rock with a hooky sweetness that calls to mind Linda Ronstadt and Jenny Lewis, both of whom I have a tremendous predisposition 

As befits a good country album, The Stand-In is full of songs about loss, accented by organ and pedal steel that lets them drip with a sweet sadness, slightly tinged with a kind of serene resignation. Songs like "Pink Champagne" and "Everywhere I Go" best exemplify Rose's weepy side but she's got more than one trick up her sleeve. "Waitin'", for example has a gentle swing to it that provides a spoonful of sugar to make it's heartbreak go down. On the other end of the spectrum, "No One To Call" and "Silver Sings" both have more than a little power pop in their DNA while "Menagerie" adds a little stomp and George Harrison-esque slide guitar to the mix.

Perhaps because it most directly recalls the Ronstadt during hid mid-'70s heyday, "Only A Clown" has been my go-to song from this record, which I've included below. That being said, this is definitely a record that is worth getting lost in as a front-to-back listening experience. It won't be hard, trust me.
Listen/Download: I Was A Clown

4. Freddie T. & the People - Gypsy City  Buy It
Fred Erksine is a veteran of more indie bands than you can shake a stick at, the best known of which is probably June of 44. His latest project, Freddie T. & the People, is nominally a soul band but it also contains so much late '90s indie rock and noisy pop-punk in its DNA that it practically begs for its own multiply-hyphenated genre. Their second album, Gypsy City was released in closing days of last year but it's functionally a 2013 album and one of the finest of the year at that.

From the first crashing wall of sound that opens"You've Made A Man Out Of Me" to the fade out of the Stax-throwback instrumental "Dunn Deal", Gypsy City is a gloriously schizophrenic mess of an album. Whether it's ruminative singer-songwriter material ("The Show"), sensual R&B ("Midnight") or some wonderful mixture of pop-punk and galloping soul ("Everything Is Broken") there's a restless energy that suffusing the music that makes it compulsively listenable and re-listenable.

Like one of my favorite records of last year, Gypsy City is a mature record that never sounds tired or preachy the way that such statement records often do. Instead, Erksine writes what he knows, delivering a set of songs about the tangled mess of fear and excitement that is modern urban existence. Rousing and soothing at the same time with music just as compelling as its songwriting, this is the Lays potato chips of albums - betcha can't listen just once.

Listen/Download: The Show

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