Every day this week, Impact 89FM will post a list of favorite albums from a different member of our music staff. Today, we check in with Nick Van Huis. In addition to co-hosting The Progressive Torch and Twang on Tuesdays from 8pm-midnight, Nick helps manage the music review team.
No album that featured vaguely African guitars or close knit vocal harmonies (trust me there were plenty to come out this year) mesmerized me more than Local Natives’ debut album Gorilla Manor. Engaging you from the beginning, there are no sleepers on this album. Gorilla Manor, named after the house that the band members shared, sounds just like that: a band who knows each others’ ins and outs. Though the band features three songwriters, the album works as one cohesive unit shifting seamlessly from the epic blues stomp of “Sun Hands” to the instrospective “Airplanes”, and from the folk rock rambler “World News” to the epic indie pop of “Who Knows, Who Cares”.
See also my interview with Local Natives here.
Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Bob Dylan comparisons are thrown around a lot these days, but no artist that carries the weight of that label on their shoulders deserves the accolade more that Kristian Mattson aka the Tallest Man On Earth. From the get-go, Mattson wove homespun Americana with just his voice and guitar. But Mattson separates himself from the pack of singer-songwriters with his gritty yelp and his mastery of finger picked guitar playing. Mattson truly perfected his art on The Wild Hunt whether telling stories of youthful rebellion “Kids on the Run” or even using his predecessor as a lyrical touchstone, the album standout “King of Spain”, Mattson is an exciting artist whose promise greatly outshines any comparisons that may be attached to him.
Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
“This is a war we can’t win,” moans Patrick Stickles on The Monitor’s centerpiece “Four Score and Seven”. But rather than looking at this as a point of introspection, Stickles and Co. don’t bemoan their state of affairs, they use it to craft a merciless rock album. A concept album loosely based on the Civil War, The Monitor starts out on a fiery pace and only lets up for a few seconds to allow a few distorted speeches break up the tracks (kudos to Craig Finn speaking as Walt Whitman). But The Monitor isn’t just a great rock record, it is a record that finds Titus Andronicus taking the heartland rock of fellow Jersey native Bruce Springsteen and turning it on its ear moving from bar room bangers (“Theme From Cheers”) to country ballads (“To Old Friends and New”) and straight up punk ragers (“A More Perfect Union”). Even with eight of the ten songs clocking in at over five minutes, The Monitor never drags, from the instant Stickles asks you to “Rally around the flag” you are in it for the long haul.
Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
In an unfortunate time when country music is associated with Rascal Flatts who are more eighties radio rock than actual country music, Phosphorescent is a beacon of hope for real Americana music and real Americana artists. Phosphorescent is the moniker for Matthew Houck, the one-man band that crafts multilayered introspective folk music. But since Houck recruited a full band for the release of For Willie ‑ a Willie Nelson Tribute Album – Phosphorescent has glown up into a full-fledged alt-country band. Instead of simply taking pages out the well worn alt-country playbook – Ryan Adams I’m looking at you – Phosphorescent instead improves upon the formula with Here’s To Taking it Easy. Employing the same warm harmonies and Houck’s distinct singing hiccup that were benchmarks in all of the previous Phosphorescent albums, Here’s To Taking it Easy moves on to bigger and better heights. The clear standout “Mermaid Parade” carries all of the emotional heft of a country ballad, but moves beyond the tears-in-your-beer lyrical tropes that dog so many country songs and tells the story of a recently divorced couple with muscle instead of resigning to prom dance slowness. From the rocking opener “It’s Hard To Be Humble When You’re From Alabama” to easy country gallop of “Heaven, Sitting Down” and the Crazy Horse crunch of “Los Angeles”, Phosphorescent has poised themselves to be one of the best roots rock bands out today.
Fang Island – Fang Island
Fang Island ROCK. Pure and simple, there is no music being made right now that has the same simple pleasures of rock music than Fang Island’s self-titled debut album. The album starts out with the sound of fireworks, which is perfest foreshadowing for what is to come. The album is an onslaught of four part harmonies, tapped guitar leads and punishingly loud yet melodic song structures. The album is epic and it moves the listener to want to be epic as well. The songs aren’t lyrically dense and the music may seem to border on hair metal cheese at times, but the every track is so earnestly joyous its hard to knot head bang along. And make no mistake the music deserves to be listened on your stereo LOUD, I listened to this album so much that I blew out the speakers in my car. Fang Island ROCKS, and don’t be surprised if start to see your little siblings begin to scribble that in the margins of their notebooks alongside their math notes.
After releasing their music highpoint Fate, it was hard to imagine what Dr. Dog would do next. They answered that question by moving out of their home studio and enlisting an outside producer for the first time, Rob Schnapff. The result was Shame, Shame one of Dr. Dog’s best albums to date. Still employing the retro-ish sound that Dr. Dog has perfected, the band continues to expand its sound. Shame, Shame moves easily from the soul leanings of title track “Shame, Shame” to the Band-esque roots rocker “Station”. But Dr. Dog are still at their best when they are banging out perfect pop gems like “Shadow People” and “Mirror, Mirror”, and the gems are abound on this album.
“Orion is dead and gone,” is more of a thematic lyric than a simple looking in the rear view mirror lyric. On the Orion Songbook, Frontier Ruckus relied on their Michigan heritage almost as a crutch but on Deadmalls and Nightfalls Frontier Ruckus are poised for bigger things outside of the Midwest. Though Michigan is still a large part of Frontier Ruckus’ lyrical palate it is now softened to the point where these “Deadmalls and Nightfalls” could be in any city in any state creating a relatable and enjoyable listen.
Having recently seen Superchunk live, I now understand why the band took a nine year hiatus: it takes a lot of energy to be Superchunk. Jumping and thrashing around on stage, the band starts with high energy and never lets up. Majesty Shredding caught the lightning of Superchunk’s live show in a bottle. The album starts up with a bang with “Diggin For Something” and never relents. Stripping their sound to the essential sounds, two guitars, bass and drums, Superchunk has returned in rare fighting form. The effortless melodies of “Rosemary” and the charged up power-pop-punk of “My Gap Feels Weird” showcase the band’s strong suits while still allowing some growth in the breezy jangly guitars of “Winter Games.” With Majesty Shredding we are easily reminded why Superchunk has lasted as long as they have while adding another awesome album to a catalog of already awesome albums.
Understated isn’t a word you would associate with the Arcade Fire, and The Suburbs is no different. They are still reaching for the rafters with every album, but they do so with out bloated sentiments or by simply recycling what they know works. Basically, they aren’t U2 even though some may disagree with me. The Suburbs is an album that requires full listens; even though the tracks all stand on their own, the albums works best when listening the songs flow into one another. Though the crushing monotony of the suburbs isn’t really new material, the Arcade Fire give a refreshing take on the boredom and listlessness that is created in a Stepford Wives environment. The apparent influence of Bruce Springsteen is not new to the Arcade Fire but on The Suburbs the Arcade Fire add one more new influence, Neil Young. On the album opener “The Suburbs”, the band perfectly employs Young’s easy strum to their canon of sound making it fit along side more Arcade Fire-esque rockers like “Ready to Start” and “We Used to Wait”. But the clear album standout is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” that finds the band in a quasi-disco mood comparing the endless strip malls found in every town ever to “Moutains Beyond Mountains”. The Arcade Fire aim for big things and never let us down in their pursuit.
After seeing Drunken Barn Dance live I was a little disappointed by their debut album. In their live show they rocked the tiny room they played in and the five people that were in attendance were all awestruck by a band they had never heard of before. So when I went home to listen to the album I had just bought I was a little surprised and a little let down. The album was more of a solo album featuring little more than a man and his guitar, and though the album was still filled with great songs, they all fell a little flat in their solo context. On their second album, Grey Buried, Drunken Barn Dance deliver on the promise of their debut album. Fully fleshing out the songs with the full band at hand, Grey Buried rocks and rambles through its ten songs. Creating the album Band of Horses should have made this year, Drunken Barn Dance creates epic folk rock that focuses just as much on story as it does on music. The lyrics are all emotional and poignant, and every track reveals a new story with new characters that draw you in deeper and deeper, revealing new twists and turns with each listen. With Grey Buried, Drunken Barn Dance has created a lived-in album that is as genuine and authentic as it is engaging.
The Delta Spirit – History From Below
The National – High Violet
The Walkmen – Lisbon
Gil-Scott Heron – I’m New Here
Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
Chief – Modern Rituals
Cotton Jones – Tall hours in the Glowstream
Futurebirds – Hampton’s Lullabye