Musically speaking, 2009 has gotten off to a quiet start. Unlike the first six weeks of last year, which produced much-lauded roll-outs from the likes of Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, Bon Iver, The Magnetic Fields, MGMT, The Helio Sequence, The Mars Volta, Adele, and Nada Surf, among others, there have been few notable releases so far in ’09 and comparatively little fanfare. Granted, some of the buzz that greeted the early ’08 scene-makers had been building in the previous year, and was seemingly overblown and anticlimactic by the time their records hit stores. Nonetheless, many of the recordings introduced at the beginning of last year stayed on the air for months and wound up on a lot of year-end best-of’s. Not an insignificant accomplishment, given the tumultuous and fickle nature of today’s music industry, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the output.
Luckily, 2009 holds the promise of many similar good things to come. So far, much-talked-about releases include The Crying Light from Antony and the Johnsons, Merriweather Post Pavilion from Animal Collective, and Noble Beast from Andrew Bird (there must be something about the letter “A”), all of which seem to be living up to expectations. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Antony Hegarty’s melodrama, and the hyperventilating over Animal Collective has been a bit of a deterrent. But I did pick up and have been enjoying the new Bird, which is another low-key, catchy collection of folk-oriented songs on par with his likable 2007 release Armchair Apocrypha.
And there’s much, much more to come. Bloggers and others are already chattering about and debating the apparent merits of new releases from The Decemberists, Doves, Neko Case, Lily Allen, M. Ward, Grizzly Bear, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as more established acts like Robyn Hitchcock (and The Venus 3), Morrissey, U2 — and even an LP of original banjo music by comedian Steve Martin — all of which are scheduled to be out in the next 3-6 months.
And while there’s reason to be excited about what’s forthcoming, there’s no need to hold your breath. I have been listening to plenty of great new songs from lesser-known bands (lesser-known to me, at least) thanks to a handful of Internet music outlets, such as the KEXP Blog, Stereogum.com, and rcrdlbl.com — all great resources for free (and legal) music. If you haven’t been to any of these sites before, I encourage you to click over and poke around in their collections. You will be surprised at the variety and breadth of what’s available. And you can subscribe to email newsletters and the like to receive information about and songs from bands that you may have never heard of but soon won’t be able to live without. It’s how I first encountered acts like Tokyo Police Club, Throw Me the Statue, Port O’Brien, and other bands I listened to continually last year and told as many people about as I could.
So here’s some of what I’ve heard so far this year, essentially in order of hearing it, and who (or what) I think they sound like, in case that helps:
Company of Thieves, “Oscar Wilde” — The warm, shimmery guitar-rich sound on this slow-burner from the Chicago-based group’s debut, along with some literate lyrics and a vocalist who’s a dead-ringer for Edie Brickell, made lifting it a no-brainer.
LoveLand, “Give Me Grace” — There’s an eerie similarity to Jeff Buckley on this beautifully understated, lilting, piano-driven song, down to the word “Grace,” the title of his best-known record. Also, like Buckley, John Spalding, the man behind this recording, died tragically young last year. More cuts and more information about the record can be found here.
Maria Taylor, “Time Lapse Lifeline” — It only took me one listen to get hooked on this folk-pop singer-songwriter. In fact, right after picking up this infectious single for free, I went to iTunes and bought the B-side, “Orchid.” Taylor’s plaintive, hushed sound is similar to Lisa Loeb’s or Brandi Carlisle’s, but with more of an edge.
Blackout Beach, “Cloud of Evil,” “Astoria, Menthol Lite, Hilltop, Wave of Evil, 1982” — The vocals and hypnotic quality of these two songs remind me of Ziggy-era David Bowie. But there’s a hint of Nick Cave’s (or Tom Waits’s) moody cynicism, framed by some spacey Pink Floyd guitar notes, that makes them even more appealing.
Abe Vigoda, “Don’t Lie” — The opening flourish of droning, swirling guitars, bum-ba-bum-bum drums, and vocal harmonies on this reminded me so much of Echo & the Bunnymen and The Cure that I had to play “The Killing Moon” and “Charlotte Sometimes” on my iPod just to satisfy my curiosity. Truth!
The Static Jacks, “Stay a Lover” — From the full-on power chords, kicking drums, and screech-scratchy vocals, I can see why these guys are getting compared to The Strokes. But this song soon slides into a bluesy, soulful groove that allows it (and, I imagine, the band) to stand in a different light all its own.
Ferraby Lionheart, “Dear Corrine” — This jaunty, breezy, alt-country missive, with its brushed snare and walking bass line, sounds like it could be an outtake from Wilco’s last record, Sky Blue Sky. I also hear echoes of The Shins in there and a more lighthearted Rufus Wainwright.
Peasant, “Exposure,” “Raise Today” — It’s true, this guy is channeling the late Elliott Smith — from the fey, layered vocals right down to the squeaky-string chord changes — but he’s added some additional instrumentation to achieve a fuller, richer sound that’s anything but a poor imitation.
Right on Dynamite, “Mantra for the Madness” — A trio that plays with guitar-heavy, garage-pop abandon, held together with strong vocals and tight drumming. The question isn’t, who do they sound like (I’ll give you a hint, if you’re “hungry like a wolf”)? Rather, the question is, what’s not to like?
Gentleman Reg, “How We Exit” and “You Can’t Get It Back” — With such a gallant-sounding moniker, one would expect nothing less than finely crafted piano- and guitar-driven pop songs from this chap. And one would not be disappointed, either. Think Squeeze or Crowded House, but with Nicks Lowe or Drake at the mic.
The Appleseed Cast, “As The Little Things Go” — I realize that to many people, the term “instrumental rock” is either an oxymoron or a turn-off. But as these guys prove, sometimes a song is so good, so lyrical and melodically elegant, it doesn’t need lead vocals or discernible words.
Richard Swift, “Lady Luck” — With Swift singing in his Smokey Robinson-best falsetto, backed by soulful ooooh-wooohs, some tambourine, and a solid piano-and-drums core, it’s Motown deja vu all over again here. And that’s a return to form that’s fortunate at any time.
But don’t take my word for it. Go download these few songs (they’re free!) and decide for yourself. I’m willing to bet that you will take the next step and go buy a few more songs from iTunes, Amazon, or wherever. (It’s what they want you to do, after all.) And who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself telling others about “this incredible new band” you just heard online, the one that will wind up on top of your year-end best-of list. Just remember to tell them you heard it first on Scribbleskiff.
Be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think of my choices, and feel free to recommend others I may have missed.