With the nation’s 236th birthday behind us and summer about halfway done, I was hoping I could report that Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” was still blasting out loudly from my windows, annoying other drivers on Pagosa’s mean streets and bringing the cops to my front door after the neighbors complained about the noise. After all, I highly praised “Wrecking Ball” last March, predicting that its stickiness was no fluke, a soundtrack for my summer if not the marching music for the Occupy movement.
As with so many things, I was wrong: Not only did Springsteen’s album lose most of its initial luster, losing my interest as a result, but the promised Summer of Occupy has failed to materialize. Like much of “Wrecking Ball,” the 99 percent protestors seem to lack the staying power I thought both would have.
For both, the power and the promise that was there in force at the beginning appears to have sputtered to an infirm rattle, cylinders shuddering with a desperate gasp at remaining ready for the road.
Wrong as I often am, I’ve developed a strategy for twisting the wheel in another direction, determined to find another way out, another way forward. If the Occupy movement doesn’t earn an inch of ground, it might indicate that the great middle of America is not much enamored with huge papier-maché puppets, loudmouths in need of a bath and pseudo-Marxist rhetoric. If Springsteen’s last album didn’t satisfy me in the way I’d hoped, I stash it with the last six Boss CDs that ended up falling flat.
In my heart of hearts, I knew he’d never produce another “Born to Run” or even a “Nebraska” but (hopeless optimist that I am), I was willing to place some chips on a bet for another “The River.” Alas, as much as I reached to find ample lyrical and musical merit in “Wrecking Ball,” the notes eventually fell as flat as a glass of soda sitting in the sun all day.
Nevertheless, the wheel always twists (whether I have my hands on it or not), and while my summer has had a fair share of highlights and low points — taking the big leap into matrimony bringing the happy-happy-joy-joy, my old stomping ground reduced to ashes and embers being the nadir, last week’s Supreme Court decision on health care reform bringing a major doubletake (I’d have lost big on that if I’d dared a bet) — it is summer after all, and I’ve been mostly satisfied with the music that’s come my way so far this year, plenty to usurp the Boss’s esteemed place on my pod, more than enough to cruise around with the windows down and the volume cranked all the way.
Bringing the noise (by the ton) early this year, it took me awhile to adjust to Sleigh Bells’ “Reign of Terror,” especially after their excellent 2010 debut. While that album was heavy on the Indie appeal, tossing hip-hop and industrial metal into a brew that ruled college radio, “Reign of Terror” felt more retro by several degrees, as if M.I.A. had suddenly started sampling Black Sabbath and AC/DC. That shift gave me a moment of pause, but only enough to make me appreciate the fact that they had not remade “Treats” but rather had kicked things into sleazier corner of the alley from whence they evolved. Again, wrong at the start, 2012 has taught me that if I hang in there, the reward is immeasurable.
Around the same time that “Reign of Terror” was released, I took a shot at downloading “Howlin Rain” by The Russian Wilds, an album produced from the opposite side of the galaxy that brought us Sleigh Bells. In fact, if the latter resulted from far away transmissions originating from New York City and Compton, The Russian Wilds were getting their vibe from the Fillmore West circa late-’60s/early ’70s.
Channeling Small Faces boogie, Santana precision, Grateful Dead good-timey blues and Buffalo Springfield harmonies, The Russian Wild might sound (on paper) like a bunch of stoners trying too hard after spending an undue amount of time in the basement with their parents’ album collection. That would be a wild miscalculation: The sound is fresh, crisp and exhilarating. I haven’t had this much fun with nostalgia since My Morning Jacket.
Nostalgia reared its pretty little head again in late spring (I was beginning to worry that 2012 had hit a musical lull) with the release of “Blunderbuss” by Jack White, his first solo release. While there are some Boogie Band rave-ups (especially “Sixteen Saltines,” “Trash Tongue Talker” and a cover of the Little Willie John classic, “I’m Shakin’”), White spends a great deal of time travelling lonesome country roads, revisiting territory he explored with his recent work fronting the Raconteurs, or sitting on the side with Alison Mosshart and Loretta Lynn.
Never one to cover up the heart on his sleeve, White’s lyrics are masterful in describing just how toxic love can be. While that may seem like a downer, rarely has emotional torture been so compelling. Probably the deepest, most inspired work White has done since the classic 2003 “Elephant” with The White Stripes.
Yes, there’s been plenty of music to warrant shaking the rafters off of my house this summer. And while I’m not sure most of my readers would find Sleigh Bells their cup of sludge (in fact, I’m fairly convinced of that), The Russian Wilds and Jack White would most likely redeem myself with the vast majority of those who find this column a weekly mainstay.
Having said that, I’ll briefly mention two bands that only the hardcore (who accept that most of my music tastes tend towards the equivalent of a fist to the face) will appreciate.
King Tuff’s eponymous release is a hot-summer-afternoon-at-the-carnival burst of joy, a garage-pop gem that takes nothing seriously except the determination to have fun. It’s the soundtrack for the Tilt-a-Whirl, checking chicks out in the parking lot and a cooler full of PBR all rolled into one. It’s the kind of album that summers are made for.
On the other hand, the Liar’s latest release “WIXIW” is dark, daring and, in my estimation, their most expansive to date. Weirdo geek that I am, I’ve followed these guys since “They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top” (I’ve always loved their overly-long titles) and heard them shift from being unapologetically experimental (with sound loops and distorted drums) to being on the vanguard of post-modern weird. What’s so cool about this latest Liars release is that they, once again, refuse to fall into any single category. And again, it’s my favorite Liars album to date … until the next one comes out.
My only disappointment for this summer (aside from how quickly “Wrecking Ball” went stale and hearing that Ween broke up) is that a rumored new release by Outkast was, just recently, denied by Andre 3000.
I’d also read an interview with Merrill Garbus earlier this year that hinted at a new tUnE-yArDs release this year; she was being too coy by half, I’m afraid.
If you recall my Dec. 27 column (and really, why would you?), I said, “My M.I.A. of this year (meaning, the most original, audaciously fun, envelope-pushing and down-right interesting artist this year) came from tUnE-yArDs on ‘w h o k i l l,’ proving them to be a band that did not allow a single excellent idea to go unused. Seamlessly integrating afro-pop, reggae, hip-hop, electronica, soul, rock and flat-out weirdness, ‘w h o k i l l’ was by far the most fun I had listening all year, keeping me guessing — and grooving — the entire time.”
Needless to say, it was my favorite album of the year.
Fortunately, two artists with a South Seas (and huge single) connection somewhat filled the void for me: Gotye and Kimbra.
On “Making Mirrors,” Gotye expands the boundaries of pop (throwing in everything from weird samples to West African thumb pianos) without massacring the melodic conventions that make the best pop hummable and memorable. Likewise, the more soulful Kimbra (too often, and unfairly, compared to Bjork) makes a sumptuous brand of R&B that never stoops to being derivative and is never boring.
The fact that both are responsible for “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Kimbra providing vocals that Gotye wrote and arranged) — by far my favorite single of 2012 — provided me with more than enough pleasure to survive the letdown of no Outkast or tUnE-yArDs albums. Indeed, both releases have been getting the most rotation on my pod this year.
The heat the past few weeks reminds me that we still have a lot more summer ahead of us and I await releases from will.i.am, 50 Cent, Passion Pit, Baroness, Yeasayer, Tantara, Wiz Khalifa, Animal Collective, Gallows, The XX, Grizzly Bear (their advance single was a bit of a yawn, though), Lupe Fiasco, Big Boi and maybe — just maybe — Atoms for Peace.
Still, 2012 has treated me well, life-wise and musically. Gotye and Kimbra have been my tUnE-yArDs of this year.