It always amazes Noise how many people manage to actually record and release music, never more so than when trying to play catch-up with all the Texas recordings from any given year. Down the street and across the state, music is as much a native natural resource (or supernatural resource, perhaps) as cotton, cattle or that gunk that comes out of the ground currently cheaper than both. It also sells Texas to the world as much as football or a certain presidential dynasty on the outs, and for that we can all be grateful.
Several of these albums, whether they sold 50, 500, 50,000 or 500,000 copies, were among the year's best received and reviewed in their respective genres well beyond state lines. Most were made by Texas residents, and those that weren't carry the indelible imprint of their makers' Lone Star connections. Needless to say, Noise enjoyed many of these much more than almost anything from outside Texas.
Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal (Back Porch/Manhattan): Brilliant. Noise saw many of these songs live thrice before Animal finally found its way into his CD player: during a soul-baring springtime Continental Club gig, a Sunday-night ACL Fest set in front of about 12,000 and an opening slot for Los Lonely Boys at a sold-out October House of Blues show. They killed then, and do so again on record. Maybe more so.
2008 Texas albums
Both historian and pacesetter, one of the most nakedly autobiographical songwriters working today writes his musical autobiography — which means all the Bowie, Iggy, Velvets, Dylan, Joe Ely, X, Rolling Stones and Patti Smith you can handle, sometimes all at once. Bruce Springsteen liked pumping opener "Always a Friend" so much he called Escovedo out for an encore at his sold-out Toyota Center date — okay, make that four times — and even the Boss would be lucky to write a Jersey-shore ballad like "Swallows of San Juan."
Animal is loaded front to back with rockers, too, from glowering NYC punk menacer "Chelsea Hotel" via Staples-singing Highway 61 blues "People (We're Only Gonna Live So Long)" to Blasters-fueled L.A. rockabilly riot "Chip N' Tony," a nod to Al's former Rank and File mates. Real as an animal, and as alive.
Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway): The surfside place where Hayes Carll wrote his Lost Highway debut, known to cartographers and Ike refugees as the Bolivar Peninsula, effectively no longer exists. Except, now, on this album. Trouble in Mind, meanwhile, took Carll places that don't exist on the Saxon Pub-Mucky Duck circuit, like BBC Conan stand-in Later with Jools Holland and coast-to-coast airplay on Americana stations and satellite radio.
It's easy to see why Trouble reached so many new ears. It opens "I got a woman as wild as Rome / She likes to get naked and be gazed upon" (Ray Wylie Hubbard co-write "Drunken Poet's Dream") and just gets better. Carll takes Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark to heart (and mind) in a way that's thoroughly contemporary and totally Southeast Texas. And, thanks to Ike, already history.
"This line of work, no one retires," he sings on the highly Lubbockized "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart." Listening to albums as good as Trouble in Mind is why.
Bun B, II Trill (Rap-a-Lot): The éminence grise of Gulf Coast rap faces life as a solo act. "I'm too smart for that dumb shit," he spits on the title cut. Over tracks suffused with blues and gospel grief for partner Pimp C, taken all too soon in late 2007, Bun spins tale after tale of UGK for life, each one stickier and more trill (triller?) than the last.
From Bun's lips, as ever, candy-painted clichés become Lil Wayne-assisted archetypes. "Damn, for real, I love being from the Dirty South," Bun tells an anonymous confidant (a.k.a. all of us) on "You're Everything." The ridonkulous production is the thing champagne-bucket club dreams like "I Luv That" are made of, and Donald Driver's dad might be interested in "Get Ya Issue," an unflinching (and correct) critique of HPD and anyone else in authority.
II Trill boasts an impressive guest list (Weezy, David Banner, 8-Ball & MJG, Lupe Fiasco, Juvenile, Mya), but every time Bun opens his mouth, he steals the show: "It's like lookin' in a mirror because you playin' with yoself." And...scene.
Grupo Fantasma, Sonidos Gold (Aire Sol): En inglés, the title translates as the same as the EP spun off Pavement's 1994 indie-rock landmark Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. (Give or take a "z.") Sonidos lets lots of gringo-friendly acts into Grupo's musical fiesta (Beastie Boys, the Doors, Stevie Wonder), but never wavers from its Havana-based groove, and occasionally even invents its own sort of Afro-Cuban-R&B griot. Besides, titles like "Cumbia de los Pajaritos" and the Santana-smiling, Gary Clark Jr.-guested "Gimme Some" are irresistibly hip-shaking in any language. The Grammys noticed — come early February, this could be the Latin Contemporary album of the year. In Texas, it pretty much already is.
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, Two Men with the Blues (Blue Note): The Red Headed Stranger (with trusty harp virtuoso Mickey Raphael in tow, as always) and New Orleans trumpeter's four-piece join forces for a tour de force — recorded live at Lincoln Center in early 2007 — that explores jazz, blues and country without belonging to any. Even as many times as you've no doubt heard "Night Life," "Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind" and "Basin Street Blues," Two Men with the Blues reinvests them with the one-off ensemble's saucy interplay and improvised exuberance. Timeless.
Lucinda Williams, Little Honey (Lost Highway): Look out below — Williams has the happy woman blues on far and away her best album since 1998's epochal Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She cries "Tears of Joy" on that lovely gospel ballad, frets over her "Little Rock Star" and kicks ace band Buick 6 into serious 12-bar overdrive on the stinging, sexual "Honey Bee." Down-and-out Elvis Costello duet "Jailhouse Tears" is already an uproarious alt-country classic, and her knowing, steely cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)" should have Bon Scott applauding from beyond the grave.
Drew Smith's Lonely Choir, Drew Smith's Lonely Choir (Fat Caddy): Exactly the amount of horns and keys you'd expect from an album that starts with a song called "Nilsson Plays Newman" — a lot. And well-used in the service of the Austin-based Choir's songs, which suggest Brian Wilson and Otis Redding (and maybe Jeff Buckley) having a few pints down Van Morrison's pub. This is pristinely pop-savvy rock that's no stranger to the dark end of the street, and "Follow You Down" hits Basement Tapes-times Dylan square on the nose.
Buxton, A Family Light (Mia Kat Empire): While Pitchfork Nation flipped over the quirky neo-folk of acts like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, Houston went gaga over this impossibly young La Porte crew. Its debut suggests both Wilco's more acoustic musings (you have to wonder if Sky Blue Sky was in heavy rotation in the studio while they made this) and Sixteen Horsepower's spectral stomp. These are haunted, hopeful songs both brimming with youthful exuberance and wise beyond their years.
Miss Leslie, Between the Whiskey and the Wine (Zero Label): "There are people who will think they know what this album is about," Miss Leslie writes on the inside cover. Obviously, it's about heartbreak — titles include "Hold Back the Tears," "To Get Through This Day" and "You Left Me a Long Time Ago" — but it's also about 40 minutes of the purest honky-tonk to come down the pike in years. Drowning her tears equally in alcohol and heart-wrenching steel guitar, Leslie finds a shot of redemption in her heartsick honky-tonk truths.
Indian Jewelry, Free Gold (We Are Free): This unruly revolving-member collective's torrential noise only occasionally congeals into anything resembling actual songs, but that doesn't stop Free Gold from being the year's freakiest, filthiest listening experience. Like Sonic Youth swapping licks with Little Joe Washington in front of Fela Kuti's rhythm section, Indian Jewelry navigates a drone-y, disturbing path into uncharted musical waters. Both seasick and seaworthy, Free Gold is an international album that could have only come from a place as twisted as Houston.
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Honorable Mention: Sleepercar, West Texas; Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One: Fourth World War; Rodney Crowell, Sex & Gasoline; Carrie Rodriguez, She Ain't Me; Scarface, Emeritus; Johnny Falstaff, Honky Tonkin' Daddy; Okkervil River, The Stand Ins; Papermoons, New Tales; James McMurtry, Just Us Kids; Black Angels, Directions to See a Ghost; Nosaprise, Grown Folks Music; Z-Ro, Crack; Toadies, No Deliverance; White Denim, Workout Holiday
Year of the EP
Several of Houston's best up-and-coming bands just couldn't wait on an album this year, a welcome trend for those of us who think most albums are about twice as long as they should be as it is. Fired for Walking's moody self-titled six-songer roils with churning guitars and moody vocals, particularly on the thrashy, Crazy Horse-like "More Fear Please" and vintage Pearl Jam of "Sinbox"...On Glory Be!, News on the March bathes its country pickin' party in warm California sunshine...Tontons' barrier-busting Sea and Stars conjures Billie Holliday's late-night bloodshot vocals, while Jimi Hendrix leads the band...Balaclavas sees Dante's hell with Ian Curtis's eyes on the frozen, foreboding Inferno...Garage kids Something Fierce's Modern Girl gave Houston two new local anthems in bratty scene-stealer "Hey Houston!" and the wonderfully Undertones-ish title track. Most of these EPs are available at local record shops, but some only at shows — all the more reason to go see some of Houston's finest live.