It's always a comfort to hear a fine new album. It underscores my faith in music and the creative spirit that separates man from filthy, filthy beast. From the earliest melodic Cro-Magnon grunts to the most digitally refined electronica, man has managed to manipulate pitch, tone, rhythm and timbre in ways that invoke the full spectrum of emotions from within his listening audience. While the record industry might always be in some state of flux, the majesty of the recorded sound is unbreakable, and is continually strengthened by every unique creation released into humanity's collective earspace.
Sadly, they can't all be winners. I don't like to come down on musicians too hard for music that, in my opinion, doesn't really deliver. I like to think most of the music I absorb was created as a labor of love and/or passion, not of commerce; therefore, I can't speak to the creators' intentions or drivers. It also must be acknowledged that we choose to judge music through our own lens, chiseled by life experiences, musical background, and irrational impressions of art. Speaking to the latter: I can't stand flutes in rock/pop music. Why? Again, it's irrational. But most any song that prominently features a flute is automatically deducted points. But I digress...
I certainly acknowledge that one man's musical trash is another man's treasure; a fact I've repeatedly confirmed through intelligent discussion (re: flame wars on message boards..."It's not my fault you don't 'get' The Dirty Projectors. Fuck you!") So I humbly accept that you might disagree with one or all of these submissions, which I will not rank out of respect for the artists. Without further ado...
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Last year, Conor Oberst unleashed a scarily-good solo effort that led me to believe life after Bright Eyes held promise. Let's face it, Bright Eyes was pretty much Conor's enterprise anyway. Why wouldn't he deliver the goods without the moniker? But unfortunately, he let his band in on the action and the music suffered. Conor's stuff was still solid, but the roleplayers' contributions seemed little more than filler that diluted the album. Taylor Hollingsworth contributed the only solid non-Conor tune, disc-closer "Snake Hill", which I unexpectedly witnessed live when he opened for the Felice Brothers in September.
The Duke and the King - Nothing Gold Can Stay
Simon Felice left the Felice Brothers to head up his own project. Sounds good, right? I mean, Simon wrote some great songs--usually tender ballads--with the band, including the crushing "Don't Wake the Scarecrow" from the self-titled 2008 effort. Unfortunately, Nothing Gold Can Stay is a slate of largely uninteresting, and at times terribly corny tracks that seem to take all his talent and spread it out over 45 minutes. I understand the genesis of the album was a personal tragedy and I give him credit for channeling that into his art. His failure to achieve pan-album execution is somewhat analogous to Jason Isbell. His DBT's output was perfection, and, while his solo albums aren't bad, he hasn't created one that expands on the epic nature of his Truckers contributions.
The Hold Steady - A Positive Rage
The music? Great. The quality? Not so much. To be fair, it isn't easy to replicate the Hold Steady's live set. You need the following: Sweat, tinnitus, and Craig Finn's dramatic stage presence. None of that can be conveyed on record, especially one that listens more like a bootleg than an actual, worthwhile live recording. I'd stick to the studio stuff, and just nab some tickets next time the band rolls through. There is an adjoining DVD which I haven't watched, and I hear it's much more worthwhile than the album.
Langhorne Slim - Be Set Free
What a disappointment it was to hear track after track of lazy lyricism and musical cliches from a guy whose catalog I was so excited to finally explore. Slim is a brilliant voice who settled immensely for pretty much every aspect of this album...as I said, lyrics and chord progressions, but also song titles, album art, album title, and so on. I suppose it lacks depth, and doesn't seem like it comes from a very inspired place. I really can't take The Duke & The King album, but at least it sounds like they were trying. It's like Prince Fielder swinging so hard he falls on his ass--you gotta respect his effort, even if it was for naught. With Be Set Free, Langhorne Slim fouled out on a two-strike bunt. I apologize to UK readers for these overt baseball references. Feel free to post some crickett analogy in the comments section.
The good news is I'd originally planned on reaming five albums, but there were only four that were specifically offensive. Sure, some one-off listens and impulse buys I'll likely never revisit, but only the four above boasted an offensive ratio of expected enjoyment to actual enjoyment.
As always, feel free to contribute your own.