Far - Regina Spektor. This was the most anticipated release of the year for me, owing to five songs by my fave producer, Jeff Lynne. The nice surprise was loving the rest of the album, owing to the infectious music of these piano-based songs and the endearing charm of Spektor's vocals. She has a deliver all her own, whether she's singing, speaking, whispering or doing dolphin imitations. Those who criticize Lynne for 'over-producing' can normally take a flying leap, but in this case they can strap on some heavy stones for effect. His work here, while instantly recognizable, is perhaps the most understated of his career. Even when he breaks out the strings, drums, electric guitar and backing harmonies, he never really goes all 'Jeff Lynne' on us. The bonus is that the rest of the album is equally strong. I'm reluctant to delve too far into the songs individually. In my amateur analysis to divine their meanings I fear they may lose their power over me. I do want to highlight "Laughing With", the song Spektor played most often on the talk shows she was on which she appeared. It's sentiments jibe with my thoughts on religion -
god could be funny
when told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way
and when presented like a Genie who does magic like Houdini
or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket or Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious
iTunes as an exclusive live EP, 'Live from SoHo' that makes a nice companion to this album.
More Help For Your Nerves - Roger Klug. Roger Klug is a Cincinnati-based artist known for his Beatles-influenced power pop. When my friend Jeff told me he pursued and hired Klug to play at his wedding reception, Klug was as skeptical as I was. Jeff's prodding, however, not only led to a great performance, I think it helped Klug emerge out of something of a career exile as he was finishing up this album. Picking up musically where 2000's 'Toxic' left off, Klug tunes his guitar with all the colors of the pop spectrum. At the forefront his whimsy, bouncy drive, and reverence for 'Revolver'. "Dump Me Hard", for example, is a direct heir to "And Your Bird Can Sing". The song itself is for every guy who always things there's a chance the girl who broke his heart will change her mind (she won't) and advises against stalking her (Don't beat around the bush. Don't sneak around the shrub). "Bi-Curious", an infomercial for the sexually confused, has my favorite couplet - Dial the number/you lazy cucumber. Klug is a man of many influences. "The Day I Had My Brain Removed" shows he's a one-man version of the Knack. On the a capella "My Life Is Sweet", he multi-tracks his vocals, managing to sound like the original Beach Boys harmonizing together. The album closer, "Your Diary", is very solo McCartney by way of 'Abbey Road'. He's innovative as well, using what sound like barber scissors as percussion on "Bogeyman". Having followed Klug for ten years, I think this is his best album yet.
Hills and Valleys - the Flatlanders. After their 2002 revival, 'Now Again', the Flatlanders found their masterwork hard to live up to with '04's 'Wheels of Fortune'. 'Fortune' was a musical misstep that found each playing solo with the other two as their backing band. It's not until 'Hills and Valleys' that we find a worthy follow-up in the Flatlanders legend. There's a certain magic that happens when they're writing together, singing together and trading lead vocals. The enjoyment they get from the experience draws the listener in. Each member's individuality still shines through. In "After the Storm", Jimmie Dale Gilmore shares his love bygone eras - "The paddlewheels are turning/the steamboat whistles cry." In "Wishing for a Rainbow", Butch Hancock carries on his theme of an unrequited existence - "Love letters in my heart go undelivered." In "There's Never Been", Joe Ely bares his Texas heart -
there's never been a season yet/that never had an end
there's never been a reason yet/for lovers to pretend
In these songs of life, love and loss, four decades of friendship and musical intuition is on display. Regrettably, the Flatlanders have only existed for a unit for about a quarter of that. Here's to making up for lost time.
Together Through Life - Bob Dylan. If you've ever heard Dylan's satellite radio show - 'Theme Time Radio Hour' - you know that he has an engrossing affection for old blues 78s. So it comes as no surprise that he'd make an album trying to emulate that style. The result is a laid-back, swampy roll. Dylanologists can put their decoder rings down, as this may be his most lyrically simple work to date. At its core is Dylan the romantic, to whom sincerity is king and obscurity doesn't have a place. For example, from "Life is Hard" - "I pass the old schoolyard/admitting life is hard/without you near me". "If You Ever Go to Houston" reflects Dylan's sense of humor - "Well I know these streets/I been here before/I nearly got killed here/during the Mexican war." and "Mr. Policeman, can you help me find my gal?/Last time I saw her was at the Magnolia Motel." That's not to say simple words lack their own meaningful poetry. On "Forgetful Heart" he sings - "The door has closed forever more/if indeed there ever was a door." Even on this collection of 10 sparely produced, accordion-laced songs, Dylan's power to surprise and confound is not diminished.
Ready for the Flood - Mark Olson and Gary Louris. Louris is the only one making a repeat appearance from last year's list. When it comes to these former Jayhawks and producer Chris Robinson, I have enthusiasm for the work, but lack erudition. I'm also lacking inspiration for something to say, and I don't want to force it. So, it's a bit of a cheat, but since I forgot to con my pal Jim Bates into writing a review, I'll link to the one at AllMusic.com.