Decline of pop-music biz good for artistry
Its impossible to say for sure whether the current state of the recording business dismal has any direct connection to the artistry flowing out of musicians. But one theory I have is that most musicians have given up on the idea of huge radio hits, and are making music for themselves, or at least not so much intended for a mass audience. The result is music that is more personal, that dares to take risks, that speaks to the deeper, more particular tastes of a smaller audience.Just a theory. But for me, for whatever reason, the flow of CDs that crossed my desk this past year has never been more abundant, and it has never been as interesting, challenging and satisfying. Old rockers Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, John Fogerty, Deborah Harry, Levon Helm stormed in with fresh, relevant new CDs. Dependably productive artists from all genres Steve Earle, Govt Mule, Wilco, Joe Henry, Ryan Adams, the subdudes made their usual worthy statements. Marc Cohn released a CD (his first in nine years, and fourth in 16).Even better was the slew of younger artists mostly from the singer-songwriter end of things, lots of them female, all of them with an arty, progressive feel who released fine work this year. One suspicion I have is that were at one of those rare moments where the prevailing tastes in the recording world are lining up with my own; these arent the hair-metal or 80s revival or gangsta rap eras. Another notion is that I, like many others, are using modern tools to zero in on the musicians and CDs that appeal to us whether there is a big promotional machine behind them or not.Maybe the recording industry should have gone in the tank a long time ago.Heres what sounded best to me these last 12 months from the pop realm.Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritterproduced by Sam Kassirer (Victor)A pretty perfect example of a modern musician is Josh Ritter. The 31-year-old retreated to an 18th century Maine farmhouse to write and record his fifth CD, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. At times (To the Dogs or Whoever) he can sound like the next new Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home-era) or even a Jim Croce knock-off (The Temptation of Adam). Far more often, his acoustic guitar moves to the background, making way for chugging rhythms, horns, unexpected rhythm shifts and catchy, smart lyrical phrases.Worth noting: Ritter played Aspen this past year at Harris Hall, in the Aspen Music Festivals Aspen Late series, paired with classical violinist Hilary Hahn.Joe Henry, Civilians produced by Henry (Anti-)Is Joe Henry talking about the time of Lincoln, the era of Vietnam, or the days of Bush II on Civilians? Impossible to say, as he references Willie Mays (on the captivating Our Song), the nascent civil right movement of the 50s, and Lincoln himself (well, Lincoln Street), and wraps it all in a mist of nostalgia. Time seems to collapse as old-fashioned themes and thoroughly contemporary sounds are blended. In the end, time isnt much of an issue here, as Henry confronts the eternal issues of faith, fear, family, death and mostly, war in this stirring, artful masterpiece.JJ Grey & Mofro, Country Ghettoproduced by Dan Prothero (Alligator)Florida-based Mofro, led by singer-guitarist JJ Grey, re-examine Southern rock and soul with raw vigor on their third and most accomplished CD. Grey adds horns and swirling organ to the bands customary blues-rock, giving a touch of Otis Reddings Memphis to the sound and another dimension to their Southern-ness. Even while amping up the sound, Mofro retains its swampy tempos, a perfect rhythmic accompaniment to songs that reflect on the rural South Grey grew up in, and is watching disappear.Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55produced by Nigel Godrich (Because/Vice)Of the things she is known for, being a musician ranks a distant third for Charlotte Gainsbourg. (First is being the daughter of French bad-boy singer/actor Serge Gainsbourg, but that threatens to be overtaken by a burgeoning film career that has included recent appearances in 21 Grams, The Science of Sleep and Im Not There.) 5:55, featuring the team of producer Nigel Godrich (a regular collaborator with Radiohead) and the French electronica duo Air, is Gainsbourgs first CD in two decades. The music is clear and clean, Gainsbourgs hushed vocal style is filled with romance, drama and a touch of danger.John Fogerty, Revivalproduced by Fogerty (Fantasy)Former Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty finally settled his long, torturous battle with his old record label, opening the gates for him to restake his legacy. The joy is evident in the opening track, the glorious Dont You Wish It Was True, which spreads an infectious optimism while simultaneously acknowledging the fantasy beneath it. Fogerty is similarly upbeat and clever on Creedence Song, in which he celebrates past accomplishments. Elsewhere, he reverts to Creedence-style protest, taking direct swipes at the Bush administration in the bluesy It Aint Right and the manic I Cant Take It No More. He sounds happy to have something to wail against.Johnny Irion, Ex Temporeproduced by Ryan Pickett & Irion (Rte 8 Records)Johnny Irion starts with Harvest-era Neil Young the steel and acoustic guitars, the high pitch of the voice, the overall country romanticism but makes it grander, with touches like a gospel choir and horns. Moreover, his songs are distinctive, and at their best, like Short Leash, yearn for spirituality.Galactic, From the Corner to the Blockproduced by Count, Ben Ellman and Galactic (Anti-)For my taste, hip-hop the way it should be made with live instruments, a real sense of funk, and a conscience and sense of humor to go with the outrage and anger. And it certainly doesnt hurt that there is the beat of the Big Easy, laid down by Stanton Moore, who does things a drum machine could never imagine. New Orleans groove group Galactic enlisted two handfuls of MCs and DJs from the positive, poetic end of the rap spectrum (Chali 2Na from Jurassic 5, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Gift of Gab from Blackalicious) for an energetic and musical spin on hip-hop. Best of all is when the New Orleans flavor gets thickest, as on Second and Dryades, when Big Chief Monk Boudreaux joins the party.Wilco, Sky Blue Skyproduced by Wilco (Nonesuch)Wilco is aging remarkably well. On their seventh album, Jeff Tweedy and company are, indeed, aging. Sky Blue Sky is a mature record, with fewer outbursts of guitar noise or just plain noise than on past albums. But this is maturing in the best sense the songs are crisper and more accessible, and Wilco projects their energy without having to put it on a pedestal.Peter Rowan & Tony Rice, Quartetproduced by Rowan & Rice (Rounder)The twosome of Peter Rowan and Tony Rice is the musical version of chocolate and peanut butter combining to make a Reeses candy. On their own, Rowan is a wonderful songwriter and distinctive singer; Rice, a bluegrass guitarist without peer. Put them together, though, and magic happens; each adds exactly what the other requires. The two, long acquainted, first collaborated on a full-length project with the wonderful You Were There For Me. Quartet is even better, with spot-on interpretations of Rowans best songs (Midnight Moonlight, Dust Bowl Children) and gems like Townes Van Zandts To Live Is To Fly and Patti Smiths Trespasses.Iron & Wine, The Shepherds Dogproduced by Brian Deck & Sam Beam (Sub Pop)Simon & Garfunkel with an Indian twist, Delta blues as envisioned by the Kronos Quartet, Pink Floyd if it had decided to be a folk group and all of it on a foundation of a thumping beat. Iron & Wine aka Sam Beam, the Austin-based singer-songwriter who is the band takes gentle folk to a new, lush level on his third CD.Chuck Prophet, Soap and Waterproduced by Brad Jones & Prophet (Yep Roc)San Francisco singer-guitarist Chuck Prophet puts humor, twang, echo and sacrilege and occasionally a childrens choir into his post-modern take on rock n roll. Under it all, there is the lust of old-school rock: A womans voice can drug you, he deadpans, and further, You can make a doubter out of Jesus. Its not clear if these are meant as warnings or enticements.Feist, The Reminderproduced by Gonzalez, Feist, Renauld Letang (Cherrytree/Interscope)Canadian singer-songwriter Feist doesnt have to do much to get your attention on The Reminder. Her voice is soft, the arrangements are sparse, and the lyrics are like dreamy whispers about love and loss. But it always feels like theres more going on than there is.And another 16 fine ones: Govt Mule, Mighty High Mike Farris, Salvation in Lights Norah Jones, Not Too Late Grant-Lee Phillips, Strangelet Marc Cohn, Join the Parade The Bird and the Bee, The Bird and the Bee the subdudes, Street Symphony Im Not There: Original Soundtrack Bruce Springsteen, Magic Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger Talib Kweli, Eardrum Suzanne Vega, Beauty & Crime Neil Young, Chrome Dreams II Stephen Marley, Mind Control Lucinda Williams, West
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