The first half of 2008 has already seen some great albums. There has been the majestic (Sigur Ros’ sunny new opus), the super hip (Vampire Weekend’s much-anticipated debut), the ultra current (Girl Talk’s sample-mad “Feed the Animals”) and the chart-topping classic (Death Cab for Cutie with “Narrow Stairs”).
But many of the best rock discs of the year so far have been defined by a strong connection to older forms of folk, country and blues. For the listener unsatisfied by a music landscape that seems to offer two roads — broad pop this way, cultish hipsterism that way — these acts offer a refreshing and unpretentious third option.
You want soul? Here’s soul. These bands could actually give the term “roots rock” a more positive connotation. If you missed them, now’s the time to catch up.
Fleet Foxes, “Fleet Foxes”: The sonorous, multipart harmonies of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes bring to mind the Beach Boys, had they moved up the coast and swapped their surfboards for a wooded campfire. Led by Robin Pecknold’s soaring vocals and acoustic guitar, the Fleet Foxes sound just down from the mountains (aptly, one standout is “Blue Ridge Mountains”). They also recall groups like the Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash or an unplugged My Morning Jacket, but the Fleet Foxes forge a radiant, dynamic folk idiom all their own. Their self-titled debut is the revelation of the year.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Lie Down on the Light”: Though Will Oldham has many alter-egos, he’s lately been sticking with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. But something’s changed. His songs are still as fragile as his quavering voice, but they now exude a country warmth absent from his darker dirges. From the languorous organ of “For Every Field There’s a Mole” to the gorgeous, rousing album closer “I’ll Be Glad,” Oldham’s gospel turn feels hard won and true.
The Black Keys, “Attack & Release”: For good reason, the ubiquitous Danger Mouse (half of Gnarls Barkley) has drawn much attention for his production. But for some reason, his fine work on the Black Keys fifth album hasn’t gotten its due. The Akron, Ohio, blues duo has always had an issue of sonic range being just electric guitar and drums. Their sound is expanded here with banjo, bass and piano, but the fleshed out arrangements aren’t too lush. The Keys’ raw blues stomp is not only left intact, it’s made fuller — particularly on the smooth groove “Psychotic Girl.” The Keys should be everyone’s dark horse favorite band.
The Constantines, “Kensington Heights”: The Ontario-based Constantines are, along with the Hold Steady, one of the bands today holding up Bruce Springsteen’s grand tradition of passionate, gravely rock. Their 2003 disc “Shine a Light” is an indie classic that deserves a place in every bar’s jukebox. “Kensington Heights,” their fourth album, returns them to the peaks of “Shine a Light” while at the same time showing maturity. These guys can wail an anthem with the best of ’em; on “Time Can Be Overcome,” Steve Lambke sings the song’s title repeatedly, but it’s his late, plaintive “Oh!” that convinces you.
Dr. Dog, “Fate”: Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog had their breakthrough in 2007 with the excellent “We All Belong” and their fifth album, “Fate” (out July 22), proves they do indeed belong. There’s not a band that sounds more like the Beatles, circa “Abbey Road.” They record in analog fashion and have an old-school ’60s quality, but Dr. Dog somehow sounds fresh. The theme of past and future pervades “Fate,” particularly on album centerpieces “The Old Days” and the horn-drenched “Army of Ancients.”
Firewater, “The Golden Hour”: On Firewater’s sixth album, before the song “Bhangra Bros,” an unidentified woman asks: “Do you have any message to tell the children of Turkey?” The band responds with an incredibly funky, upbeat jam led by muted horns — as good a message as any. In the vein of late-period Joe Strummer, Firewater’s Tod A makes a habit of traveling the world and adopting regional music to his punk sensibility. The album’s lead track, “Borneo,” is more Morphine than Malaysia. On the band’s MySpace page, Firewater is identified as sounding like — as all the above acts could be — “music from the ... heart, words that say SOMETHING.”