Here are my choices for the five best albums of the year so far.
1. Rosita Kèss - Northern Sky
Listen to Where Should I Go
Italy's Loss is Our Gain: Rosita Kèss is a talented singer, songwriter, and musician, originally from Venice, Italy. When she's not traveling and performing in Europe, she calls New York City home, and graces the good folks of the Lower East Side with frequent performances at Rockwood, often in tandem with singer-songwriter Richard Jullian. Rosita has a fresh voice and weaves folk, rock, jazz, Bossa Nova, and even some French cabaret into her mix. Northern Sky is a beautiful album that pairs well-written original songs with superb production that features infectious rhythms and instrumentation that varies from track to track. Richard produced the album, and also co-wrote and played on some of the songs.
There are several great guests appearing on the album including Jim Campilongo who added his electric guitar to Where Should I Go. Jim is a frequent flyer at The Living Room where it's a treat every time he takes out his guitar. Jim's guitar has just enough twang to give the song that cool country sound, and the swing in Rosita's vocal evokes the memory of Patsy Cline. It's impossible to pick just one track as representative of the record because the songs are so different from one another, but what they all have in common is that together they make up the best album I've heard so far this year.
2. Greg Brown - Freak Flag
Listen to Let the Mystery Be
A National Treasure: Greg Brown has an enormous repertoire of American music at his disposal, including folk, blues, country, gospel, soul, jazz, and rock; this is perhaps the most encyclopedic collection of songs of any working musician since Jerry Garcia. Greg's primary mode of musical expression is his live concerts. Unlike other artists who draw their concert material from their albums, Greg liberally mixes many cover songs with his own compositions, some of which may even be from his albums. His live show expresses whatever mood or point of view he wants on a given night, no two shows are ever exactly the same.
Once every few years, Greg goes into the studio to make an album and the result is usually cause for celebration among his fans. This is such a time. Freak Flag is so loaded with great songs and ear friendly production that this album should have appeal way beyond his fan base, which is likely why he chose to release it on Yep Roc instead of his own Red House label. Ten of the twelve songs are new originals by Greg, some of which he has done live during the last several years. Of the other two, one was written by his daughter Pieta Brown and the other is one of his wife Iris DeMent's most well known songs, Let the Mystery Be, which he has been doing live for some years.
Freak Flag was produced by Greg's longtime friend and collaborator Bo Ramsey who also played on the record. There are a few uptempo numbers that have a real nice interplay of two electric guitars (Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett) along with Greg's acoustic guitar. The slower, more thoughtful songs feature Bo's trademark smouldering and moody guitar leads. Guest Mark Knopfler played a nice electric solo on Flat Stuff. The electric guitar work sounds great on all the tracks and Bo knows just the right amount to use so that they don't overwhelm Greg or the songs. Greg has done so many great albums in his career that it would be hard to say that this was his best, but it's certainly one of them.
3. The Damnwells - No One Listens to the Band Anymore
Listen to Werewolves
No One Sounds Like This Anymore: It's a simple formula really - crisp guitars, tight bass and drums, strong vocals and great songs. Bands have been using this recipe for years, from the Beatles to Del Amitri. The Damnwells have subscribed to this philosophy ever since their inception in the year 2001. They were good when I first saw them in 2005 (they had the pleasure of opening for Julianna Hatfield's tour that year) and they're even better now. Formed in Brooklyn, The Damnwells consist of a core of Alex Dezen and Ted Hudson with other players rounding out the band as needed for touring and recording. Together they produced No One Listens to the Band Anymore; Alex wrote or co-wrote all the songs.
All the tracks are solid but have a listen to Werewolves (above), it's one of the best. Last Day of the New Age has a very nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars. The Great Unknown mixes acoustic guitar and organ with some great lyrics. Let's Be Civilized is more electric and also has awesome lyrics that you'll never hear on the radio, even if you are lucky enough to have a station that plays The Damnwells. It seems like AAA radio stations (stations like WXPN in Philadelphia) and record label release schedules are all dominated by groups that have mediocre singers or vocals buried in the mix (or both). Groups like The Damnwells are few and far between, and that's a shame because albums like No One Listens to the Band Anymore would be a breath of fresh air, both on the air and on new release Tuesday.
4. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Listen to 20 Years
Married, But Not to Each Other: The group is named The Civil Wars to reflect the many facets that a committed relationship can have over the course of a lifetime. The lyrics of their signature song, Poison & Wine (I don't love you, I always will) make perfect sense as they refer to the dichotomous emotions that such a married couple might have. Barton Hollow is filled with songs that play like intimate and personal conversations. The magic happens when their two voices intertwine within a simple and open production style that boils down to just an acoustic guitar accompanied by either violin or piano, depending on the song.
The Civil Wars are Joy Williams and John Paul White. They met at a songwriting camp of sorts in Nashville; as soon as they played with each other they both knew instantly that there was something special between them, both for songwriting and performing together. They began to work and within two months did their first public performance, at which they met Charlie Peacock, who would go on to produce Barton Hollow. When they did their second performance ever, the recording of the show sounded so good that they put it up for free download on their website. Virtually unknown, save for one major play of Poison & Wine (uncredited) on Grey's Anatomy, and with no records out, Live at Eddie's Attic was downloaded over 100,000 times. I saw them in Nashville back in 2009 at a venue called The Basement. Even though their album was still way in the future, every square inch of the place was filled with audience; when they sang the air was electric and the audience stood there in total silence. It was about the most magical moment of the Next Big Nashville festival.
Fast forward to the release of Barton Hollow and The Civil Wars pulled the lottery ticket that saw them played on AAA radio stations across the country and they quickly garnered sales to match, routinely landing in Amazon's top ten best sellers. The production on Barton Hollow provides the perfect setting for the two voices to mesh in a beautiful and intimate way. Listening to it you might feel like you are alone in the studio with Joy and John Paul while they sing to each other. The two of them wrote all the songs except Poison & Wine which they co-wrote with a friend. All the songs have vocals except The Violet Hour which is a gorgeous instrumental. Lest anyone think that The Civil Wars only do intense relationship stuff, they saved the fun for the two bonus tracks. One is a cover of the old Jackson 5 song I Want You Back which retains the original melody while having an arrangement that makes it totally sound like a Civil Wars song. The other is a cover of Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love; I find that I prefer this version to the well known rendition by Madeline Peyroux.
5. Elizabeth & the Catapult - The Other Side of Zero
Listen to Open Book
Beating the Odds: Every band that plays the New York City club circuit hopes to one day get discovered and be signed to a record label contract. Very few do. Of those who do get signed and make a record, only a very tiny percentage are lucky enough to hang in there with the label long enough to get to make record number two. Five years ago, Elizabeth & the Catapult was packing in the crowds at Rockwood Music Hall and the other clubs of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. In 2008 they got signed to Verve Forecast and began working on their first full length album, Taller Children, which was finished and released in 2009. In late 2010, they went back into the studio to make their second album The Other Side of Zero. The new album contains well written and melodic songs, well played and featuring the clear voice of Elizabeth Ziman.
Prior to getting signed they self-released an excellent EP. Both the EP and Taller Children have their moments of humor and quirkiness. On the new one, the quirky tendency seems to have matured into a theatricality that makes this record sound like it might be the soundtrack to a musical movie that is running in Elizabeth's head. According to their website, As it turns out, Elizabeth read (Leonard) Cohen’s Book of Longing collection from cover to cover while working on a Lincoln Center song cycle – performed last spring for a commission from NPR’s John Schaefer – that gave The Other Side of Zero its title and a handful of tracks. I would, just based on listening, hazard a guess that the first six songs came from that song cycle because the styles vary considerably on the later tracks. Worn Out Tune has a kickin' guitar line and is anything but worn out. Open Book has simple production that exposes Elizabeth's voice and songwriting at their most appealing. This album was recorded in one month with Tony Berg (Peter Gabriel) producing.