Danny Pound: Surer Days
After disbanding the Regrets, Pound descended into the creative basement for four years of writing and experimentation with a circle of musicians (David Swenson, Jeremy Sidener, Dan Benson) who now form his backup band. They came back upstairs with one of the most soulful albums released this year. Folks'll call Danny Pound roots or alt-country some fans from his '90s punk days with Vitreous Humor will shrug and wander off. But anyone who listens closely to the words, the music and the tense, drifting undercurrent of hope and resignation will realize that this music is what Americana really is, or at least what it should be.
Doris Henson: Give Me All Your Money (DeSoto)
Give Me All Your Money stomps and sways with visions of glory, pangs of longing and sighs of innocence, like a high school outcast drunk for the first time. There's guitar and lots of it, droning, sawing, tearing and doing all the right things. Meanwhile, Byron Collum's bass chords and Wes Gartner's arena-sized drumming blow the ground open in the back, and Mike Walker's trombone yaks in your face. But mostly, there's guitar. I can't discuss frontman Matt Dunehoo now that he's started doing a little freelance work for me at the Pitch, but if I ever have to fire his ass, I'll still enjoy this album.
Koufax: Hard Times are in Fashion
At one point, Koufax was local, employing former Get Up Kids as members, playing around Lawrence and recording Hard Times Are in Fashion a feast of snarky, irresistible, piano-driven rock at Black Lodge in Eudora. Then, it seemed, the band was banished overseas, where it toured and made waves on MTV Europe with the hilarious and strangely poignant video for "Isabelle," which is set in a chaotic Hollywood diner full of emotionally unstable naked people. Now, at the turn of the year, Julian Casablancas can relax for a spell because singer Rob Suchan is resting his own sly, full-throated voice in Prague with his family, plotting a 2006 American tour. Your New Year's resolution: See Koufax.
Ghosty: Grow Up or Sleep In
Duh sleep in! Following the youthful, melancholic example Ghosty sets on its first full-length, growing up simply isn't an option. Singer Andrew Connor leads with his reassuring unassuredness, his sleepyheaded tenor, and a knack for writing songs that capture those early-adult moments of shrugging self-realization: Armies fight and they die/So that I'll have the right to ignorant dreams, he sings on "Henry Greene." Add to that a backing band that doesn't know the meaning of "bad note," and you've got a group that Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips would be proud to sing with and did, on the final track of this delightful record.
Mark Stevenson and the Givens: Because Iniquity Shall Abound
Maybe you didn't know that iniquity shall abound, or perhaps you didn't get the memo that the love of many shall wax cold. But Jesse Howard did, and he made these proclamations (and others known to the people in and around Fulton, Missouri) via dire, dour and often bizarre signs that he put up on Sorehead Hill for the better part of the last century. Upon discovering these works decades later at an exhibit sponsored by the Kansas City Art Institute, former Snakebite Orphans leader Mark Stevenson was inspired to give them new life in the form of a raw, intimate and deeply respectful folk record with dust-kickin' hollers and head-scratchin' lyrics.
The Hearers: Don't Make the Captain Cry (Anodyne)
Talk about pulling it together. With a core member who lives in California (Marc Tweed) and six or so backing players in addition to the two other founders (David Moore and Darren Welch) all with schedules of their own it's a wonder that this second record from Kansas City's the Hearers ever happened. Don't Make the Captain Cry is itself a wonder. If the hippies borrowed country in the late '60s, then the Hearers have placed it in the hands of the alternative avant-garde, who though well acquainted with mandolins, pedal steel and lilting melodies are just as likely to growl, spin out ambient noise textures or just leave the space empty as try anything resembling a popular song. For those with long attention spans who are willing to indulge experimentation, Cry is the most interesting listen of the year.
Minus Story: No Rest for Ghosts
Much has been made of Minus Story's patented "wall of crap" approach to songmaking, but we're not talking Polyphonic Spree here (though Jordan Geiger doesn't sound wholly unlike Tim DeLaughter). Sure, the band throws in a glass bottle, a wood box or a "xylophoon" here and there, but ultimately, this is a quiet work of immaculate indie-pop architecture. Plaintive piano, weary harmonies, drum machines, waltzing guitars and Geiger's childlike voice make this a perfect record for anyone whose ideal musical experience would involve a hit of acid and stuffed animals coming to life and rocking out, Jan Svankmajer-style.
The Life & Times: Suburban Hymns
It takes a little while to get into L&T singer-guitarist Allen Epley's post-Shiner project. Maybe that's because Suburban Hymns, which came out in August, is a better album for the early nightfalls and frigid climes of winter. Or perhaps it's because there's just too much sweeping, pounding, layered majesty here to take in all at once. Every song on Hymns rises and crumbles like a tower built of guitar mortar and cinder-block rhythm as Epley's voice, clear and earnest, guides the sonic demolitions. In any case, we're there now, and we're not looking back.
Veda: The Weight of an Empty Room
If this list needed a girl, Veda would be a shoe-in, thanks to superwoman singer Kristen May. Well, this list doesn't need a girl, but as The Weight of an Empty Room proves, the diminutive May could school her male counterparts in artfulness, tone and sheer power. If you've seen Veda live, you know she's got it when it comes to stage presence, too give May a microphone and a Strat plugged into a fat stack, and watch out, lads, the walls are coming down. Backed by three creative and relentless bandmates (Jason Douglas and brothers Bryan and Drew Little) and possessed of the ability to turn the romantic lyrical imagery up to 11, May seemed unstoppable this year. With Weight planted solid on the ground for Veda, the only thing for the band to do now is step up.
The Golden Republic: The Golden Republic (Astralwerks)
The Golden Republic's debut full-length packs enough sass and swagger to send teenage jocks reaching for feather boas and enough hooks to tear the clothes off an entire cheerleading squad. Natural-born killers onstage, the Golden Republic spent this year on tour with groovy Swedish retro-rockers (and fellow Astralwerks artists) the Caesars, allowing the charming and humble Midwesterners to play sold-out venues in California. It's a good thing, then, that The Golden Republic is memorable enough to come home to and enjoy and still will be, even after these heady days have passed.