The Year in Rock/Pop
On January 10, 2005, Jess Klein's album Strawberry Lover landed on eMusic like a bright pink sweater in a thrift-shop pile, ready for some lucky browser to pick up and love. Klein's fifth album was the first of hundreds to arrive on eMusic this year; I discovered it when I decided to browse through all the 2005 additions in search of unsung treasures. I was in need of a bright pink sonic sweater. I donned Strawberry Lover and warmed up.
Klein's album inspired this column's slightly unusual approach to Ye Olde Year-End Best List. Instead of putting forth a grand pronouncement about 2005's most significant releases, I'd like to take you on a little thrift-store trip.
This is how I try to live my life: not chasing fashion, but keeping my senses open to little gems and hidden wonders, whether I'm popping into my local Goodwill, finding a leaf pile for jumping instead of dragging my daughter to Gymboree class or experimenting with unfamiliar music because I like the album title or the cover art. Browsing for surprises is a pleasure critics can forget about when they get too wrapped up in their roles as arbiters of taste.
Browsing online music sites benefits greatly from a thrift-shop attitude. I don't mean that what you end up with is worn down like a $50 couch, but that it takes a little hunting and an open mind to find the less-than-obvious gems. So I approached the year as if it were my local St. Vinnie's on a Tuesday — the day they set out all the new old stuff — and really dived in. (A caveat: eMusic is like a really huge St. Vinnie's; I'll offer more picks next column.) My only requirement was that something about the record had to jump out from the pile. That's part of the thrift-shop game, to recognize cues: a cool label, a clever band name, something new from an old companion — these signals prevent your browse from becoming overwhelming.
The first album I tried after Klein's was from another sharp-looking gal, Sylvie Lewis. Her album title, Tangos and Tantrums, sounded funny in an early k.d. lang sorta way, and her cover photo evoked a Fassbinder movie heroine. Soon I was enjoying a swoony collection of cocktail musings sung in a velveteen alto that would have made Julie London proud. And the production's great — courtesy of fellow vintage shopper Richard Swift. Tangos and Tantrums was like the sparkly shawl you pick up on a whim from the dollar bin and wear every Saturday night for the next year.
I needed a little boy energy after that, and two very different bands fulfilled my craving. In the '60s suede vest category — hippie, but cool — is Dr. Dog, Philly's favorite uncategorizable phenomenon. New York Times critic Kelefa Sanneh tipped me to this band when we were both in Love City to review Live 8 last fall, but it took me a while to get to Easy Beat. When I did, was I glad. I'm going to save my deeper thoughts for another column; suffice to say, this is lay-back music of the highest quality.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, there are the Frames. Another expert — my daughter's nanny, Carrie, an expert music fan — has been enthusing about this bunch of earnest Irishmen for a couple of years. Finally I found them on eMusic, and damned if they didn't turn out to be the Coldplay I'd been looking for: atmospheric, passionate, brooding — and yet not maddeningly wanky. Burn the Maps is dramatic and real, the classic leather coat you dig up at St. Vinnie's.
Sometimes what you uncover in a thrift store is not something new to your wardrobe, but an old friend, like a pair of well-worn Levi's. One such find was Copper Moon by Tom Freund, a guy I'd enjoyed back in my New York days, who'd moved to California in between stints playing stand-up bass with the Silos and Graham Parker. This 2004 album finds Freund doing more of his best — mooning about the ladies in an open-hearted but not dumb way, and waxing huskily philosophical. In the roots-folk world where Freund lives, sidestepping clichés is an accomplishment, and Freund manages. This is the kind of record I want to share, not necessarily with my fellow rock-crits, but with my brother or my best pal.
I'd turn on the rock-crits to Londoner Stephen Coates 'project the Real Tuesday Weld, a find that fits right in with certain current trends — wittier-than-thou songwriting, antique instrumentation, indie rock musical comedy. Yet The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid, Coates 'latest, garnered only tepid press. Reviewers seemed to prefer Coates '(really quite stunning) previous effort, I, Lucifer. In my book, that excellent work doesn't diminish the more casual pleasures of this one, which meanders through fields of love and hedonism in a satirical haze. A thrift-store attitude allows me to enjoy small pleasures like this album, which is slightly tattered, elegant and definitely tweed.
What trip to the thrift store would be complete without something shiny and outrageous? That's the Buttersprites. Based in the town where I live, Pan-Asian Seattle, this brainy lady band offers a skewed feminist take on Japan pop that crackles with D.I.Y. charm. I'm always up for some shiny happy punk rock, especially when it's made by nurse uniform-wearing artistes whacking away at stereotypes of Asians with blunt instruments — and covering Iggy Pop just for fun. I put on their debut album like a pair of rhinestone earrings, when I feel like making it a party night.
I've hit the mid-year mark with the Buttersprites. Time to take a breather. Next column I'll show you another fun online-music trick: the art of composition, download style. Until then, happy thrifting!