We've had such tremendous responses to our Essential Prog Rock List and our Summer of '67 list that I decided to add my own two cents. As many of you prepare to escape the August heat and head out on your summer holidays (or prepare for Burning Man), here's some tasty road music for your iPods and other digital mobile music devices. Age and wisdom have a way of separating the bona fide artist from the once beautiful but withered pop star. And lately some of my favorite rock artists below have released solo albums worthy of their past triumphs from decades ago. An artist like Elvis Costello might be cut from similar cloth and has certainly maintained the most successful of career arcs -- sales -- and tour-wise, but the artists listed below have released some very vital music worthy of your consumption. All have maintained their own brand integrity and artistic merit, too, through touring and releasing new music on small boutique labels.
"How's Your House" - Ian Hunter Shrunken Heads (Yep Roc)
Of three new CDs released this year by three veteran songwriters mentioned, I latched onto Ian's first; it's receiving the most spins. The songs are a bit more memorable, perhaps because I saw him play a handful at a private event. He was joined by veteran drummer Steve Holley and electric guitarist James Mastro (formerly of The Bongos). Maybe 150 folks, tops. Even delivered a galvanizing acoustic guitar-driven "All the Young Dudes" with many of us straining to hit those high notes on the rising chorus "All the young dudes/Carry the Ne-e-e-w-w-w-sss"... (Last time I saw him play, he was fronting Mott the Hoople in Cleveland circa '74.) Check out this rousing sing-along about the plight of N'awlins. This could easily be Springsteen's next anthem.
"Couldn't Be Done" - Tim Finn Imaginary Kingdom (Manhattan)
Tim Finn is the founding father of New Zealand's first new wave outfit, Split Enz. He partnered with his brother's successful pop-rock juggernaut Crowded House and again with the Finn Brothers. With over 25 years in the biz, you think he'd slow down, but on his ninth solo effort he's even more introspective and reflective. This engaging pop-rock track kicks off his latest offering. Also check out his poignant ballad "Winter Light," first heard in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia.
"I Discovered America" - Graham Parker Don't Tell Columbus (Bloodshot)
Graham Parker, like Mr. Hunter and Mr. Finn, has maintained a steady, long, and musically viable career, reaching his zenith certainly with the 1979 classic Squeezing Out Sparks. While many of you Boomer rock fans may not have dipped into his recent catalog, he's still writing and recording some very vital music. Case in point, this hard-hitting observational song from the "angry older man's" latest long player.
"Who'm I Kiddin' But Me" - Over the Rhine The Trumpet Child (Great Speckled Dog)
This Cincinnati-based husband/wife duo -- Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler -- are two of the finest songwriters on the planet. Their 2003 double disc Ohio is a deeply moving, near-perfect record. Their 11th disc is just as compelling. It's a musical salon from a bygone era, more eclectic than the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with more earthy sexuality oozing from the binary code. Everything from simple sambas to '30s-era jazz with delicious textures -- brass, horns, strings, piano, upright bass. I dig this innuendo-heavy, Bessie Smith-like junkyard blues ditty, and the lyrically compelling country tune "If a Song Could Be President" that name checks Steve Earle, Neil Young, John Prine, even Emmylou as Capitol Hill heroes. Hands down, one of the finest releases of the year.
"All I Gotta Say" - Donna Jean & the Tricksters Donna Jean & the Tricksters (Heart of Gold)
You may remember fair Donna Jean from her salad days in the Grateful Dead. Well, she's never sounded better, as this track will prove. DJ and the (Zen) Tricksters have a new album of original material due out sometime later this year. In the interim, click on the link above to hear the partial mp3.
"Let's Go Surfing" - Daniel Wylie Let's Go Surfing EP (Neon Tetra)
My favorite summer track this season was actually written and recorded by this former Cosmic Rough Rider in Glasgow, Scotland. This acoustic and jangle-fest pop tart would do even Brian Wilson proud, even with its dark, foreboding lyrics. Mr. Wylie has released three stellar pop-rock CDs since striking out on his own.
I had that good fortune of catching Ms. Hendrix at The Mercury Lounge with longtime musical partner/producer Lloyd Maines a few years back. She was fierce. This track from her ninth album -- what she calls a "hippie folk record" -- is another worthy music investment. Her cover of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" is also worth downloading.
"One Man Tag Crew" - Dub Trio Cool Out and Coexist (ROIR)
More than just another homage to King Tubby, this instrumental punk-alt-dub trio boasts three very skilled white-boy session vets who've lent their chops to everyone from 50 Cent to Common. This Dick Dale psych-out dub-tastic track was recorded live at Union Pool in Brooklyn.
"Wake Up Boo!" - The Boo Radleys Wake Up! (Creation/Sony)
I was perusing the CD dollar bin at my local used bookshop -- one of the few left in NYC -- and found this golden nugget for two bucks. The title song is from their 1995 classic pop-rock commercial breakthrough. More importanly, it helped remove their initial "shoegazer" tag inherited from critic's proclaiming them the U.K. "It" band. This is a fantastic CD top to bottom; every bit as rich and delicious as anything from XTC.
I was stoked when I got the Sly reissues from Legacy/Sony a few months back. They finally tracked down the elusive funk master and got him to accept the fact that his timeless music needed some sonic upgrading. I hail all of his funk-rock, but this little ditty percolates like the La Brea tar pits in mid-August. This album was recorded while Mr. Stone was in the midst of his drug-induced spiral into Dante's Cocaine Inferno.
"World on a Whim" - Brooke Miller You Can See Everything (Sparkle Plenty Music)
And speaking of Sony/BMG, my old music publisher Danny Strick recently signed Canadian singer-songwriter Brooke Miller to a publishing deal. (A wise move, my friend.) Caught her live last month and she and her husband Don Ross excel on their acoustic instruments. This rootsy dobro-drivin' toe-tapper is one of my favorite new tracks from her new indie long player.
"Mes Illusions" - Antoine Bleck Mes Illusions (FrenchCrooner.com)
Born in the northeast of France, this skier-turned-NYC restaurateur-turned-musician is a welcome foreign voice in a city run amok with marginalized alt-rock outfits. He sings with conviction and suppleness. This title track from his debut is the romantic offspring of Serge Gainsbourg and Steely Dan. Proof that a musician's life can begin after 40, if you can convey the passion.
"Elusive" - Scott Matthews Passing Stranger (Island)
I hate reading the "sounds like a modern-day Nick Drake" or "the next Jeff Buckley" phrase every time some talented singer-songwriter starts getting fluffed up by the press, but damned if this young Englishman isn't intriguing in a Mr. Drake/Mr. Buckley kind of way. This single is anything but hard to grasp and was a favorite track on the BBC last year. Thankfully, it's finally migrated to our shores. The title song is even catchier.
"Missed the Boat" - Modest Mouse Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic)
Johnny Marr is one of the few modern-day guitar heroes worthy of praise. His work with The Smiths is legendary, but he's lent his magnificent skills to The The and his much underrated collaboration with Bernard Sumner (New Order) in Electronic. This year his guitar work helped anchor the musical cacophony of Modest Mouse -- a more restrained Pere Ubu -- and thus rendered it even more compelling. I don't know how long his hooks will last, but add this CD to your collection or download the majestic guitar track above.
"These Are The Eyes" - Bodies of Water Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink (BodiesOfWater.net)
Dynamic, rousing 4-part vocals from this 2 men/2 women LA-based quartet treads in the successful waters of Arcade Fire and The Polyphonic Spree, boasting as many as 11 musicians at some gigs. This song of joy is both rapturous and lyrically obtuse in a metaphysical anthem-building manner. "Nature forgave/But I cannot forget!" Try it during your next campsite sing-along.
"Inlakesh" - Lou Rhodes Beloved One (Cooking Vinyl)
Former singer with the U.K. trip-hop outfit Lamb, Ms. Rhodes has fashioned a truly transcendentally organic and delicately moving solo effort that features her soothing voice right out front of her acoustic guitar, bass, and other string instruments. "Inlakesh" is a Mayan word meaning "I am another yourself," as in finding someone who is the other half of you. Her music is the perfect soundtrack while gazing at a star-filled, late-night summer sky.
So those are a batch of new songs I've downloaded for my soundtrack to this sticky, hot Summer in the City. Let me know what new songs have made it to your playlists. Enjoy your vacations. Don't stare at the sun, drink plenty of water, and dance barefoot whenever possible.
Converge is the word.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!