The first half of 2008 has already seen some great albums. There have been the majestic (Sigur Ros’ sunny new opus), the super hip (Vampire Weekend’s much-anticipated debut), the ultra-current (Girl Talk’s sample-mad Feed the Animals) and the chart-topping classic (Death Cab for Cutie with Narrow Stairs).
But many of the best rock discs of the year so far have been defined by a strong connection to older, natural forms of folk, country and blues. For the listener unsatisfied by a music landscape that seems to offer two roads — broad pop this way, cultish hipsterism that way — these acts offer a refreshing and unpretentious third option.
You want soul? Here’s soul. These bands could give the term “roots rock” a more positive connotation. If you missed them, now’s the time to catch up.
et Foxes, Fleet Foxes: The sonorous, multipart harmonies of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes bring to mind the Beach Boys, had they moved up the coast and swapped their surfboards for a campfire in the woods. Led by Robin Pecknold’s soaring vocals and acoustic guitar, the Fleet Foxes sound just down from the mountains (one standout is Blue Ridge Mountains). They also recall Crosby, Stills & Nash or an unplugged version of the Louisville band My Morning Jacket, but the Fleet Foxes forge a radiant, dynamic folk idiom all their own. Their self-titled debut is the revelation of the year.
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Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lie Down on the Light: Louisvillian Will Oldham has many alter egos, but lately he’s been sticking with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. But something’s changed. His songs are still as fragile as his quavering voice, but they now exude a country warmth absent from his darker dirges. From the languorous organ of For Every Field There’s a Mole to the gorgeous, rousing album closer I’ll Be Glad, Oldham’s gospel turn feels hard won and true.
The Black Keys, Attack & Release: For good reason, the ubiquitous Danger Mouse (half of Gnarls Barkley) has drawn much attention for his production. But for some reason, his fine work on the Black Keys’ fifth album hasn’t gotten its due. The Akron, Ohio, blues duo has always had an issue of sonic range being just electric guitar and drums. Their sound is expanded here with banjo, bass and piano, but the fleshed-out arrangements aren’t too lush. The Keys’ raw blues stomp is not only left intact, it’s made fuller — particularly on the smooth groove Psychotic Girl.
The Constantines, Kensington Heights: The Ontario-based Constantines are, along with the Hold Steady (whose new Stay Positive also is excellent), one of the bands today holding up Bruce Springsteen’s grand tradition of passionate, gravelly rock. Their 2003 disc Shine a Light is an indie classic that deserves a place in every bar’s jukebox. Kensington Heights, their fourth album, returns them to the peaks of Shine a Light while showing a newfound maturity. These guys can wail an anthem with the best of them; on Time Can Be Overcome, Steve Lambke sings the song’s title repeatedly, but it’s his late, plaintive wail that convinces you.
Dr. Dog, Fate: Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog had its breakthrough in 2007 with the excellent We All Belong, and its fifth album, Fate, proves the band does indeed belong. There’s not a band that sounds more like the Beatles, circa Abbey Road. They record in analog fashion and have an old-school ’60s quality, but Dr. Dog somehow sounds fresh. The theme of past and future pervades Fate, particularly on album centerpieces The Old Days and the horn-drenched Army of Ancients.
FYI: Dr. Dog will play the Forecastle Festival in Louisville this weekend. See Page 6 for details.
Firewater, The Golden Hour: On Firewater’s sixth album, before the song Bhangra Bros, an unidentified woman asks: “Do you have any message to tell the children of Turkey?” The band responds with an incredibly funky, upbeat jam led by muted horns by way of Istanbul — as good a message as any. In the vein of late-period Joe Strummer, Firewater’s Tod A makes a habit of traveling the world and adopting regional music to his punk sensibility — although the album’s lead track, Borneo, is more Morphine than Malaysia. On the band’s MySpace page, Firewater is identified as sounding like — as all the above acts could be — “music from the ... heart, words that say something.”