Each year, thousands of CDs are released to little fanfare. Here are a few of the smaller releases that were overlooked in 2004 and are worth tracking down for your collection.
“Van Hunt,” Van Hunt
Van Hunt may be the most heralded “unheralded” artist of the year.
Though his self-titled, debut disc barely registered on the music charts, it didn’t go unnoticed: Critics and true music connoisseurs fell in love with the disc, and after hearing it, it’s easy to see how one becomes so quickly enamored.
Hunt, who’s also a songwriter and producer, provides an exquisite, melodic blend of ’70s guitar-infused funk, rock and psychedelic soul along with romantic, wistful lyrics that are a little out there, but accessible enough to strike a chord with any listener.
Though he’s been described as Prince-like, he’s not a Purple knockoff; songs like the dreamy “Down Here In Hell (With You),” and the syncopated “Her December” recall Prince’s wit, but sound distinctly original — like Van Hunt himself.— Nekesa Mumbi Moody
“Summer in Abaddon,” Pinback
Pinback’s “Summer in Abaddon” is the ultimate “overlooked” album. At first listen, the San Diego band’s soft melodies don’t make a dramatic impression, but you’ll find yourself reaching again and again for this CD, at first not knowing why. Not that you’ll be mesmerized into a “Field of Dreams” hypnosis, but eventually, the warmth of these sunny, beach-drenched tunes shines through, revealing humble pop gems.
The smooth sounds of the band’s central members, Armistead Burwell Smith IV and Rob Crow, on this, their third full-length album, are subterfuge to darker ideas: “If I could reach your throat, I could strangle you all / Did I say that out loud?” But whatever the lyrics, voices are here used like an instrument, melding perfectly with intricate guitar lines and cruelly precise drums.
Though Pinback’s subtle harmonies do the trick, they’re best when breaking out of the dreamy mold, which, fortunately, they do plenty of. A soaring verse of “Fortress” moves into a hand-clap-paced groove, while “AFK” concludes the disc with a harder edge that a typical punk band might easily manage, but with illuminating, melancholic downshifts unique to Pinback.
It’s easy to imagine Pinback, sleepy-eyed, contentedly jamming away into summer nights — whether we listen or not.— Jake Coyle
“White People,” Handsome Boy Modeling School
Tight-beat connoisseurs should not forget to taste the latest delicious concoction from the Handsome Boy Modeling School. Despite a jumbled menu, “White People” easily mixes old with new to create a fresh dish. The producing duo of Dan “The Automator” Nakamura and Prince Paul (aka Nathaniel Merriweather and Chest Rockwell) add flavor from such white and non-white artists as Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, RZA, Jack Johnson, John Oates, the Deftones’ Chino Moreno and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. It might seem like there are too many chefs in this kitchen, but collaborations are what make the Handsome Boy Modeling School, well, handsome.
The kooky pair (they both sport fu manchu ’staches) seamlessly blend old school hip-hop, new school guitar riffs and distinct melodies. The style on “White People” ranges from seductive (Cat Power on “I’ve Been Thinking”) to trippy (De La Soul on “If It Wasn’t for You”) to epic (Chester Bennington and Grand Wizard Theodore on “Rock and Roll.”)
There’s 12 songs on this 16-track disc. The non-music segments are skits featuring “Saturday Night Live” alumni Father Guido Sarducci and Tim Meadows (as his horndog character the Ladies Man). These humdrum pieces are the stale breadcrumbs in an otherwise tasty melodic meatloaf recipe.— Derrik J. Lang
“Achilles Heel,” Pedro The LionIf you spent the last year patronizing one-off nightclubs in one-off towns from California to Texas to Florida, you might have caught Dave Bazan’s band, Pedro the Lion. Bazan was everywhere a thoughtful audience was in attendance.
The king of shoegazer prose gave his growing sphere of fans ample opportunity to enjoy him, and the uninitiated can as well with his 2004 release, “Achilles Heel.”
Bazan’s often plodding approach on subjects like love, being a musician and striving for success are formed of the purest poetry, with tales both beautiful and pain-filled at once.
Pedro’s success begins with Bazan’s voice, always spot on key as he drones about life.
“Bands with managers are going places/ Bands with messy hair and smooth, white faces,” Bazan sings on “Bands With Managers,” perhaps opining about elusive levels of success in the industry.
Bazan has never forced himself into the spotlight, taking instead a let-them-come-to-me approach with his minimalist brand of rock. It makes him that much more special here.
If I’m not mistaken, a brokenhearted Bazan is singing about shoving himself in front of an oncoming train on “Transcontinental,” seeking some sort of morbid release. And how this comes off as beautiful and upbeat as it does is a nod to Bazan’s clean lyrics which are unconvoluted by pretentiousness that afflict the Radioheads of the world.
Pedro The Lion is truly unique in an industry where few others are. And he appears to have a stockpile of brilliant songs that hasn’t run dry yet.
Good for us.— Ron Harris
“She Like Electric,” Smoosh
When you’re 12 and 10 years old, like sisters Asya and Chloe of Seattle’s Smoosh, who really cares if anyone likes your music? You’ve got homework and snowboarding and a whole life ahead of you, not behind you. This freedom has served Smoosh well and it came through on their first album, “She Like Electric.”
Asya handles the vocals (well) and keyboards while her kid sister Chloe tackles the drums (passably). Sure they’re the adorable stuff any soccer mom would be proud of, but Smoosh is no gimmick. Not as long as Asya is singing like a youthful cross between Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan.
This music is light, airy even. They’re too young to sing about lost love, heartache and booze-fueled road trips, so friends and chasing the occasional dream suffices here instead.
“You can get discovered/ Never find yourself,” she sings to a little reverb on “Massive Cure.” Chloe bangs out a driving beat on this one. Her fills are a little slow, but strong and proficient enough.
“It’s Cold” is the best track on the album. Asya’s keyboard runs are appropriately light, before turning strong and purposeful as the cool hook approaches.
And Asya proves she’s quite the rapper too on “Rad,” punctuating some lines with “Uh-huh! Yo! Yo!” It’s got a great beat and a nice I-can-achieve-anything message.
Jason McGerr (Death Cab For Cutie) spotted these two in a Seattle music store and passed the family his card. It turns out the chance meeting was a good decision for all involved, and Smoosh was soon born in classic garage band fashion.
So where does Smoosh fit? They’re too young for Amos fans and there are no surefire hits here to create any type of kid-friendly Hansonesque frenzy. But this album worked without any overproduction or heavy-handed studio tricks. The girls just know how to rock.— Ron Harris
“After Hours,” Rahsaan PattersonRahsaan Patterson has been on the neosoul scene for years, but like a lot of other artists in the genre, he tends to get overlooked by a mainstream set focused on top-selling stars like Jill Scott, Maxwell and Erykah Badu.
They don’t know what they’re missing. Patterson, whose high tenor recalls another neosoul veteran, Raphael Saadiq, creates gorgeous grooves perfect for chilling out, making out — even falling outs. Some of his best work is featured on the self-released disc “After Hours,” which also features production work by Van Hunt.
“So Hot,” is a club-friendly track that harkens back to those early ’80s, smooth R&B jams, while “You Make Life So Good” is an upbeat, romantic ode that instantly lifts your mood. Among the best tracks is the nostalgic “Don’t Run So Fast,” is soulful ballad with lush blend of acoustic guitar, strings and honey-dipped vocals.
The disc is not a perfect gem: It bogs down toward the end with tracks that sound a bit too similar to soul classics. But overall, “After Hours” is a soothing, enticing musical journey that’s perfect any time of day.— Nekesa Mumbi Moody
“The Futureheads,” The FutureheadsThe Futureheads can be counted as the first band to fashion an anthem for that transcendent, previously undocumented human experience: the first day at a new job. As the pace of “First Day” gradually quickens to represent the increasing demands of a new occupation, Barry Hyde sings, “You are so look-y on your first day.”
If “look-y” didn’t give it away, they are, indeed, a British band, whose songs (of the 15 here, only two clock in over 3 min.) have a bit of Ramones in them, loads of new wave punk (5 tracks are produced by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill), and the style of Devo (just look at their name).
The Futureheads might be obsessed with “firsts” too. “Meantime” seeks to take down first conversations: “You are a decent person / and you have a function / so why do we say hello / it’s just a fashion that we follow that we should be forgetting.”
Though there are certainly a few duds here, rockers like “The City Is Here for You to Use,” an interesting cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” and “Decent Days and Nights” all practically necessitate robotic gyrations. The Futureheads might not be the first to make music like this, but when it’s this look-y, it’s hard to resist.— Jake Coyle
“Stillhouse Road,” Julie LeeAlison Krauss and Vince Gill are among the guest performers on the first studio recording by Julie Lee, who shows she has the talent to play in their league.
The Nashville songwriter’s sunny soprano gives an appealing lilt to the 12 tunes on “Stillhouse Road,” and there’s an impressive breadth to her timeless, rootsy material. Lee swings, sings the blues and gets twangy on topics ranging from homemade cornmeal bread (the banjo-driven “Made From Scratch”) to the might of love (“Many Waters,” with Krauss joining Lee on soaring, shimmering vocals).
Lee saves her best for the closing “Till The Cows Come Home,” a spellbinding ballad about devotion featuring just her voice and guitar. Despite a large cast of session musicians elsewhere, including standout Rob Ickes on dobro, the record has a charming continuity and warmth. Krauss and Gill provide harmony vocals on two tunes each, and it’s clear Lee is worthy of an invitation to sing on one of their albums sometime.— Steven Wine
“Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein,” Bill Charlap TrioBill Charlap leads what might be the best mainstream jazz piano trio on the scene today, but he remains largely unknown outside jazz circles. Leonard Bernstein is widely known as one of the leading 20th century American composers, but his Broadway tunes from such shows as “West Side Story,” “Wonderful Town” and “On the Town” tend to be overlooked as sources for jazz standards. This CD — which recently received a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental album — just might help remedy these oversights.
Charlap, the son of Broadway composer Moose Charlap and pop singer Sandy Stewart, rarely tries to show off his keyboard virtuosity, understanding that sometimes the music is better served by silences and fewer embellishments and notes — as on his sensitive solo version of the poignant ballad “Somewhere” where he plays the melody almost note-for-note while the dynamics build in intensity. The pianist knows how to interpret songs from a singer’s perspective, using his arrangements to draw out the essential meaning of the lyrics, whether it’s the edgy swagger of “Cool,” played in an intense driving bebop style; the lightly swinging “Lucky To Be Me,” with its walking bass lines and cymbal accents; or the exuberant “America” on which Charlap’s percussive lines and dense chords are propelled by the insistent Afro-Caribbean rhythms. It’s a tribute to Charlap’s skills that he even manages to find possibilities for jazz improvisation in such unlikely Bernstein material as the operatic “Glitter And Be Gay” from “Candide.”
Charlap also benefits from his seamless interplay with the superb rhythm section of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation), who despite being much in demand have worked with the pianist for nearly seven years. They can be subtle and nuanced as they drift through the romantic ballad “Lonely Town,” highlighted by Peter Washington’s lyrical bass solo; set a blistering tempo on the next track “Jump,” done here as a bebop burner, and then shift back into slow drive on the next tune, “Some Other Time,” that features some delicate brush work by Kenny Washington.
There once was a time when jazz piano trios like those of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner were able to capture the popular fancy without sacrificing their artistic integrity. Charlap’s elegant and tasteful trio is capable of doing the same if given the chance by open-minded music lovers.— Charles J. Gans
“Real Gone,” Tom WaitsTom Waits has thrown dice in the back alleys of music before and found perfection in its gutters. The gravel-throated hipster knows you’ve got to be real gone to have gone far enough at all.
Depravity, desperation, righteousness and redemption — these are themes of “Real Gone,” Waits avant-garde mix of haunting melodies and beat poetry that explores a human rawness only few understand, and few other than he could convey so flawlessly. With spoken word poetry on “Circus,” Waits tells of horse-faced carnival workers and a one-legged orangutan.
Backed by industrial drums and a throaty guitar on “Hoist That Rag,” he cries of an everyman’s defiant retreat with a voice jagged enough to cut mirrors. But if the album’s quest was to reach deeper still, Waits voice degenerates into mechanical hisses and screams that deconstruct the fabric of his own music on “Clang Boom Steam” and “Chick a Boom.”
Elsewhere, the music and lyrics rise from the grimy places Waits creates to find everyday poignancy and beauty in unseemly places. “The Day After Tomorrow” tells of that soul-deep apprehension a soldier feels leaving home for unnamed destinations, and wondering if he’ll ever come back. And “Make It Rain” is a plea for something new and clean from a man whose wife left for his best friend.
“It’s the same old world, but nothing looks the same. Make it rain,” Waits bellows.
While Waits made his bones singing jazz standards with a boozy drawl — a self-proclaimed “jitterbug boy” always going to the next show — “Real Gone” may have been where he was headed all along.— Ryan Lenz
“East Nashville Skyline,” Todd Snider
Far beyond the bright lights and shining stars of Nashville’s country music culture, you’ll find Todd Snider gazing back from the East Nashville Skyline with a sound purer than any rhinestone cowboys.
Reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s foray into country music called “Nashville Skyline,” Snider’s album, “East Nashville Skyline” is a collection of stories — some his own — modeled in the tradition of hard-living country renegades such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. And just as those greats found humor in the absurdly tragic — Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” put a humorous spin on the emotions of an imprisoned man awaiting execution — Snider does the same as a wordsmith.
He talks of getting in a drunken fight and arrested on “Tillamook County Jail,” and at the end of the night wanting nothing more than a telephone call, two Tylenol, and someone to come pay his bail. “Iron Mik’es Main Mans’ Last Request” describes what it would be like for the guy who carries the boom box in Mike Tyson’s entourage to ask the fighter for $300 dollars. It’s bar humor Snider knows well.
But like Cash and Haggard, Snider moves on a single album from songs as entertaining as Iron Mike’s boom box flunky to others about personal, and often political matters. “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican America” has Snider comparing himself to right-wing America. (By the way, the album was released before the election.) The differences are in black and white for Snider, the proclaimed “tree-huggin, pot-smokin, porn watchin”’ folk singer who’s nothing like the “soul savin’, flag wavin’, Rush lovin’, land pavin”’ subjects of his songs. Snider is probably right.
He comes from the other side of town.— Ryan Lenz
“Sabou,” Mory Kante
There’s a reason why West African music star Mory Kante was the first African artist to sell one million records with his dance hit “Yeke Yeke.” The man can make you shake a tail-feather.
On “Sabou,” Kante sets aside his electric kora and some of his pop-music sensibilities for a return to traditional African instruments and a more earthy sound that’s just as danceable. “Sabou” which means “The Cause” is dedicated to Kante’s home town of Albadariah, Guinea, and showcases the artistry of this griot.
There’s no drum set, and with the exception of an occasional electric bass line, the instruments are all acoustic. The balafon (Africa’s xylophone), kora (a 21-stringed lute-like instrument), and the breathy, African flute offer syncopated melodies and compelling improvisations. Scrapers and hand drums weave the intricate rhythmic foundation. Kante’s story-teller voice, often in call-and-response with a chorus of women, lets out high-pitched wails then trickles down to a sigh. All combined, the sound is as organic as an exceptional field recording — without the cricket cries.
The funk and soul influences are evident in the kora solos on the rump-shaker “Nafiya,” a song discouraging bad behavior. Let the final track — “Biriya,” about the passage from boyhood to manhood — play in all its nearly seven-minute glory, and get your groove on.— Aimee Maude Sims
“Consider The Birds,” Woven Hand“Holy king cause my skin to crawl /Away from every evil thing.”
So starts “Consider The Birds,” David Eugene Edward’s second full-length as Woven Hand. Making no attempt to conceal his faithful intentions, Edwards offers countless praises to God in a trembling, towering yowl that yearns of redemption.
Though he’s proselytized before with his primary rock outfit 16 Horsepower, the Denver-based songwriter has never done so with such fervor. Essentially gospel music with guitars, Edward’s uninhibited earnestness and intensity lay bare his introspective struggle and surrender to a higher power.
On the sparse acoustic hymn “Chest Of Drawers,” he sings, “Go into the Lord’s House/Go in a mile/The World will bow/The knees will be broken for those who don’t know how/ ... he takes no pleasure not in the cleverness of men.” Edwards sprinkles his shadowy melodies with priestly chanting that lingers like sacremental incense.
Besides a clear passion for Christ and a voice similar to Nick Cave or the Swans’ Michael Gira, influences don’t really translate. Displaying sincerity quite rare in today’s musical landscape, its genuineness makes the recording so captivating.
Invoking an Old Testament world where God was feared more than embraced, the poignancy of this portrait of the artist as a devout man is heavens away from your typical red-state righteousness: unflinching, impassioned conviction that makes a real case for singing as praying twice.— Jake O’Connell