Year in Music 2008 midterm report
It's halfway through the year more or less, and while I still buy lots of those strange archaic shiny things called CDs, I haven't been buying a ton of new music (oddly, I've been filling in gaps in things like the Rolling Stones' classic 1960s work and my newfound Scott Walker obsession). But of what I've picked up from this year so far, here's what I'm digging the most:
Beck, "Modern Guilt." Just got this last week and I've listened to it a dozen times already, so that's a good sign it'll be in my year-end favorites. Beck teams with DJ Dangermouse for a trippy, psychedelic disc that's my favorite Beck since "Sea Change." It's got a gloomy undertone like that fine album, but leavened here by some addictive beat-heavy production and Beck's most emotionally forthright tunes in a while. The marvelous "Gamma Ray" sounds like a shoulda-been 60s dance craze and "Chemtrails" is a hazy, slow-building epic.
Elvis Costello, "Momofuku." Quick-tongued and angry like the best of Costello's work, "Momofuku" is a good-natured jam that boasts some terrific songwriting and a sense of enthusiastic fun that makes it worthwhile for any Elvis fan. It's as carefree as 2004's "The Delivery Man" but more polished lyrically than that one, although it lacks the sonic inventiveness of his last real masterpiece, 2002's "When I Was Cruel." But it's a fine set of songs -- "American Gangster Time" particularly is spot-on, and it's great to see Elvis at 50 still making music with a point to it.
The Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride". I wrote about how much I dig the Mountain Goats before, and this squawky gem of an album is one of John Darnielle's most professional releases yet – fuller sounding than his earlier bare-bones guitar-and-boombox albums. The raw and urgent indie ethos is here but this is his most mainstream sounding album, with orchestration that enhances rather than detracts from Darnielle's goaty bleat of a voice. "Sax Rohmer #1" and "Autoclave" are eccentric little statements about love and loss that still feel like anthems to me. Great stuff.
Cat Power, "Jukebox." Of course, I saw her perform much of this album in a terrific live show back in March and while it's an album of mostly cover tunes, it's not a stretch to say this is one of Chan Marshall's most personal set of songs. In paying homage to the artists she loves like Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Aretha Franklin she unveils something sacred about herself. And man, that amped-up version of her own "Metal Heart" is just a stunner. Crackling bluesy alt-rock and Chan's voice has never been sexier or stronger.
...And while I wouldn't call it great, one disc I think has been rather unfairly panned is Scarlett Johansson's "Anywhere I Lay My Head", a collection of Tom Waits cover songs. Now, does she sound like Tom Waits? Not at all. Can she sing? Well, not technically, but her deep moan of a voice does remind me a bit of Nico and old Sinead O'Connor. The production by TV on the Radio's David Sitek is really heavy to cover up the thin voice, but put it all together and it's a nicely moody little album, kind of fractured fairytale lullabies with a dreamy, gauzy tone. It's far more idiosyncratic and interesting than most actress-turned-musician CD releases, and I've found myself frequently playing it as kind of mellow late-night background music. Its biggest flaw is that as a Tom Waits tribute, it falls far short of the original material's growly majesty and sounds more like a 20-year-old girl reciting poetry to herself in her bedroom. But still, not as bad as all that really.