Best of 2008…maybe (Redux)

Over the course of his last few releases, Ry Cooder, guitarist extrordinaire and renowned musicologist and producer has regaled us with some gutsy and brilliantly developed “concept” albums. “Chavez Ravine” was a musical docudrama on the displacement of a Hispanic Angeleno neighborhood to make way for Dodger Stadium. Cooder brought to life the Mexican R&B of the late 40’s and early 50’s, threw in a little UFO Sci-Fi and told his story in a novel and compelling way. Last year’s “My Name Is Buddy” had Ryland going back to his Depression-era folk roots with an allegorical tale of a cat and his mouse pal’s travails through a “Grapes Of Wrath” and “Bound For Glory” backdrop. With the new “I, Flathead” Cooder does it again, mixing post-war hot rod culture, Asminov sensibilities and gutbucket, sparse, East L.A. rock and roll to take us on a little journey while showcasing another facet of our American musical heritage. Along with Brian Wilson’s “That Lucky Old Sun” and Randy Newman’s “Harps & Angels”, Cooder has provided another cinematic opus that could have only come out of the foothills of Pasadena and proven that, at least in Hollywood, the concept album lives.

Speaking of cinematic concept albums, here comes Randy Newman. If there is a better American songwriter not named “Dylan” out there, I haven’t heard ’em. Newman travels familiar musical ground on “Harps & Angels” but his trademark subtle, wry, dagger-twisting irony is intact. This album touches on aging, America and life in general in typical Newman fashion and does nothing to diminish the man’s reputation  as the 21st century Stephen Foster. Just another notch in his gunbelt. Brilliant stuff.

My Morning Jacket gets a lot of play in the press. Right now, they seem to be the critics’ darlings and occupy a lofty perch on the American music scene. “Evil Urges” is a fine, fine album…but, the more I live with it, the less satisfying it becomes. MMJ are what they are, and although this is a well-crafted, tuneful album I can’t help but feel I’ve heard it all before. You know why? Because I have. I know its asking a lot for groups today to do something original and separate yourself from comparisons to 60’s and 70’s artists. It’s daunting. This list is heavy on acts that have been putting out records since before Methuselah was potty-trained and that’s too bad. But the fact is… you can’t make a “psychedelic” folk album if you’ve never dropped acid. And why the fuck do you want to sound like Boz Scaggs? Everything is derivative, but at least choose your influences well. With that said, I still like this record.

Speaking of influences, B.B. King is over 80 years old and he still kicks the shit out of 99% of the crap out there. I’m sorry folks, who can claim B.B.’s crown? John Mayer? Give me a fucking break. I got nothing against young Master Mayer, but this is the real deal. Sure, King is a shadow of his former self, but with T-Bone Burnett’s production help he lays down an album that can serve as a blueprint for anyone who wants to walk The Crossroads. If anyone will dare.

I know I’m getting to be an old, grouchy man. That’s probably why I kinda like the new R.E.M. You know you’re over the hill when you think of R.E.M. as a “new” band. Now, they’ve had their bright spots over the years but hasn’t it all been downhill since “Murmur”? I may be cynical, but at least I’m not Michael Stipe. On “Accelerate” the band keeps the songs short and sweet and seem to have reclaimed a little of the muse they lost, what? 20 years ago? I’m not saying its a “great” album, but I believe its the best R.E.M. in a long, long while and that’s not too bad a deal.

A lot of you are probably looking at this list and wishing I would get my head out of my Ancient Ass. You’ve probably written me off as an old geezer who just ain’t “with it” as the cool kids say. Well, bite me. The fact remains that Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band can put out a 4-song, live EP and blow the socks off The Hold Steady or whatever else you whippersnappers got. That’s not dissing The Hold Steady, its just that they aspire to be what The Boss already is, and that’s The Boss. Anybody who thinks The Hold Steady aren’t E Street Lite has Cheerios in their cranial cavity or is hampered by being English or something. This is a killer sampler of “Magic Tour” guest spots with Tex-Mex hero Alejandro Escovido, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn and former E-Streeter, Danny Federici (who is unable to tour due to illness). I am particularly blown away by the absolutely screaming, scorching, fry-your-head guitar interplay between Bruce, Nils Lofgren and the incinderary Tom Morello on “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Amazing. The closing “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is simply exquisite. I’m sorry, kids…but you’ve got a hill to climb…and somewhere near the top is Bruuuuuce and the E Street Band. The proof is in the hearing.

OK, that ain’t all, folks! We’ll add to the list a little later. Maybe we’ll even throw in some punk for Thom G. We’ll see. Stay tuned!

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2 Comments on “Best of 2008…maybe (Redux)”

  1. ThomG Says:

    OK, I have to argue with you about The Hold Steady. Yes, the Boss is the Boss, but The Hold Steady doesn’t want to be the E Street Band. They want to be themselves. And they rock, man. Stay Positive is the best damn CD I’ve heard all year.

  2. Melvin Kurtzman Says:

    Well, I quite enjoy the Hold Steady’s newest, although I can see Philbert’s point. My favorite of the year by a wide margin thus far has got to be Dig Lazarus Dig by Mr Cave. His best, even over Boatman’s Call.
    Thom, I agree Phil needs to dip his toes in the punk rock pool—how about startin’ him off with some Foxboro Hot Tubs, eh?


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