Where their debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, was largely a diamond in the rough with the band members unabashedly still feeling out their respective roles, Consolers Of The Lonely is undeniable confirmation that The Raconteurs have stepped out of the candycane shadows and into their own as a band. It’s clear from the very start of the title track that these guys have pulled out all the stops and are loving every second of it. Jack White and the gang are at their blistering, swaggering best, delivering a kaleidoscope of filthy-toned swampy southern rock tones with bluegrass, country and, well, a little bit of prog rock. The live feeling of each song adds to the rich, warm tones, and the band’s versatility is remarkable.
Consolers Of The Lonely is a bold step forward. The guys have found their sea legs and are boldly headed for uncharted waters, colors flying high. Admittedly, a good number of these tracks sound like multi-dimensional, fleshed out White Stripes coulda-been songs- but you’d be a fool to call that anything less than a great thing. If nothing else, this album serves as indisputable proof to any Jack White skeptic that they are either mistaken, deaf or soulless. When the man steps outside the fantastic (if a bit gimmicky) little red and white box we’re most familiar with seeing him in, it becomes immediately clear why everybody from kids in their parents’ basements to Bob Dylan want to work with him- Jack White is a living legend, a freak mutant blend of Jerry Lee Lewis’ demonic passion, Dylan’s songwriting wizardry and Son House’s blues genius. If you don’t believe me, go see him live- White Stripes, Raconteurs, doesn’t matter; go, and you’ll understand.
Perhaps the hipster naysayers, already fiendishly pecking away at the sheen of innovation Lonely possesses, are simply unsure of how to approach such an album. Avant garde retro bayou folk blues delta piano rock? Is there a more narrow category? A smaller hole to pack them in? Who cares? This album is awesome.
Acid Tongue was recorded mainly live over just three weeks in Van Nuys, CA, and produced by Johnathan Rice, the knob-twister on Rilo Kiley’s most recent LP, 2007’s Under The Blacklight (he’s also her boyfriend). Acid doesn’t possess nearly the same polished shine as Blacklight (an entirely intentional move), but through the more stripped, grittier delivery fans will find familiar ground in Lewis’ clever little lost-love meditations and meanderings. There’s just a lot more stompin’ going on.
On Tongue, Jenny comes across as the kind of dusty-road girl with britches too big for her little country town, like the fire-maned girl from back in 5th grade, in a world all her own; the one you couldn’t take your eyes off of but never quite mustered the guts to talk to.
She pulled in an eclectic mix of collaborators for Tongue. Album standout and upbeat drifter tale Carpetbaggers features a duet with a red-hot Elvis Costello (and kicks the almighty shit out of any other country transplant out there- that means you Jessica Simpson), while Zooey Deschanel from She & Him (and Elf, haha) provides backing vocals on a number of songs and bandmate M. Ward contributes a “moody guitar part” to Pretty Bird. Other appearances include Rilo Kiley member Jason Boesel, Davey Faragher of Costello’s band The Imposters, Rilo Kiley producer Jason Lader, Ana and Paz Lenchantin (the latter being the former bassist for A Perfect Circle) and Farmer Dave Scher. Even the family got involved this time; Jenny’s sister Leslie Lewis provides backing vocals on two tracks, while her father Eddie Gordon plays the bass harp and harmonica throughout.
It’s a great solo debut, and if nothing else, Acid Tongue showcases Lewis’ maturing talent as an eclectic and increasingly formidable songwriter. This album reaches for a more grown-up audience, more the soul-seeker types, but doesn’t abandon the pop genius of her previous work. It’s going to be exciting to see where she heads next.
Kanye’s still catching a lot of shit from the one-hitter-quitters for this record, but with 808s, West finally steps outside his own comfort zone to make an album that flips a proverbial bitch on the life’s-a-party theme laced throughout his previous offerings. In addition to an orchestral assault of strings, piano, synths and animal sounds on the album, Kanye’s traded out his ego-tripping hip-hop flow entirely and replaced it with, well, robot singing. And when I say entirely, I mean entirely. He doesn’t rap on the album. At all. 808s & Heartbreak is an auto-tune overdose that takes some getting used to, especially if you’re still burying your inner suburban white kid and your only reference for auto-tune comes from accidental stops at the R&B station on your FM dial.
This is West’s much-needed moment to clear out his baggage, and he’s carved out a big enough persona to take a sharp left without throwing his career off a skyscraper in the process. This album may be a self-declared piece of genre-defining pop art, but don’t call it a reinvention; he’s not gonna be a slow-jam sad robot crooner forever.
Pop art’s been done, sure. But it’s never been done Kanye style. And on 808s And Heartbreak, with the help of a little humility and introspection, he raises his own game much more than people are going to grasp for some time yet. But that’s OK. He’s not going anywhere.
Narrow Stairs, the latest studio effort from Death Cab For Cutie, has earned them at least one new fan. It doesn’t possess nearly as much pensive, sleepy mortality as its predecessor Plans, but maintains a familiar musical personality while adding an array of new elements that lubricates the translation of their sound to this longtime skeptic. This was no doubt aided in no small part by producer-guitarist Chris Walla, who’s also laid wax with indie darlings The Decembrists and Tegan And Sara.
Album opener Bixby Canyon Bridge is as close to typical Death Cab fodder as the record gets, ghostly guitar countering Ben Gibbard’s soft voice retreating down the California coast. A more rockin’ vibe descends when drummer Jason McGerr lays into his toms and the band goes full throttle, but Gibbard remains pensive in his quest to conjure Kerouac. “You wonder if you’re missing your dream,” sings Poet of Purgatory Gibbard, like a man lost at sea. “You just can’t see your dream…” The end jam and outro are perhaps the most psychedelically awesome thing the Cab has ever done.
The foundation of Narrow Stairs was clearly built on the strength of I Will Possess Your Heart, a hypnotically slow-building, slightly psychedelic groove that builds steadily for a good four and a half minutes before Gibbard delivers the first line of a tale of love’s confidence in winning the heart of a resistant muse. Atmospheric and ultimately complicated, this song is a grand masterpiece and serves as a the perfect cornerstone for a surprisingly solid album.
Considerably darker and more introspective this time around, Death Cab For Cutie comfortably flex all their muscles on Narrow Stairs with excellent results.
A punk/hardcore record, album of the year?! Blasphemy! What gives? Well, in short, The Bronx III is a 35-minute, well-oiled fist of triumph and utter perfection from the best and brightest rockers to come out of LA in over a decade. The Bronx hit their sweet-spot stride in a display of crushing dominance on their third LP, adding a whole new palette of color to an already-blistering sound.
First single Knifeman opens the record, a searing appraisal of the warts and wounds of a spun out, spoiled and bored Americana. With a jet-engine throat that puts his peers to shame, singer Matt Caughthran mourns the death of passion and disaffection when he belts out We used to be gifted and persistent / Now we’re bored, reminiscent / We used to laugh without misery, spoon-fed out desire / We’ve lost our fire! His lyrics throughout the album seem to be more of a direct call to action than damning assessment this time around, using the microphone as a defibrillator for disaffected youth in the ocean of chaos our world exists in today: We’ll all be damned if this machine turns life into routine, he wails, and in today’s day and age, that’s an idea we can all get on board with.
There is no meandering or long intros on Bronx III. Gone are the Dirty Leaves and Safe Passage distractions of old. Artsy, self-indulgent meanderings have their place, but not on this record. Start to finish, every song comes on strong and hard, trap-doors a-plenty, and the breaks don’t always come when you think they will, which makes for a pretty relentless half hour listen.
The attitude, the familiar LA flare, the balls-out pure rock fury- that doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a special blend of players who know what the fuck they’re doing and where they’re from. And if the fissure-torn shithole that is Los Angeles had to exist for the Bronx to come together and rock the fuck out, so be it. I say fair trade.
This record is special, and not in a cheap, gimmicky way that signifies a “new direction” or particular selling-point concept that everybody can hop on and co-opt. It simply belongs to the rare strain of smashing rock beast that leaves no space for pissing contests, no room for improvement. It simply fucking crushes, start to finish. And it’s the best of the best this year.
Check out the rest of our top ten here.