To make a record these days, all you need is Pro Tools, a CD burner and a pulse. And judging by some of the dead-in-the-water discs that cross our desks on a weekly basis, that last requirement is optional.
Like noisy widgets, more albums than ever are being cranked out. But it's not all detritus -- there's also a boatload of good albums that slip by unnoticed.
With this in mind, we decided to share a handful of our favorite overlooked discs. Here's some of the best music you've probably never heard:
The Engine Room, 1515 Pease, 713-654-7846.
Early Man appears Sunday, November 20.
Emiliana Torrini possesses a voice so soft and warm, it sounds spun from cotton. She sings in an innocent whisper, her songs like lullabies -- even when they're about getting drunk. Torrini often draws comparisons to Björk because of her nymphlike vocals, Icelandic heritage and the electronic flourishes of her previous works. But that should end with Fisherman's Woman, a spare, homespun record on which Torrini strips her songs bare, leaving only touches of acoustic guitar, pedal steel and piano to fan her flickering voice. It makes for a record as soothing as a long shoulder rub.
13 Ft. and Rising
13 Ft. and Rising is as infectious as chlamydia, which we're betting the dudes in Throw Rag know a thing or two about. This bunch is as drunken and debauched as sailors on shore leave -- and in keeping with a nautical theme, their front man dresses like a sea captain. On 13 Ft. , the bandmates navigate randy rockabilly and crusty rock and roll, with an emphasis on finding the hooks buried beneath two tons of grit and empty Jack Daniel's bottles. They've got a washboard player in their ranks, a sweaty dude named Jacko who also blares on the trumpet. This gives the band more swing than most of its peers, and makes 13 Ft. a dirt-rock record that you can actually dance to -- especially if you're a gal in a G-string. No seedy strip club is complete without this disc.
For Those About to Shop, We Salute You
Is there anything better than great nachos at a great price? Not according to Parry Gripp. And upon hearing the former Nerf Herder front man's recent solo bow, we're inclined to agree. The idea for the disc first came to Gripp when he was asked to pen a short song for use in a waffle commercial. Gripp's tune didn't make the TV ad, but the experience led him to write a whole album of stupidly catchy faux jingles like "Say Hello to Your New Favorite Pizza" and "Waffles Are Outrageous." Mostly under a minute long, these overly perky pop confections romp through everything from Euro-disco to country and will have you strangely craving everything that Parry pretends to be selling, from "Bran Flakes" to a "Nice Motherf@#!*&g Truck." Novelty aside, the album serves as a witty commentary on the ease of selling crap to suckers like us.
Parade of Small Horses
"Sometimes there's peace in givin' in," sighs C. Gibbs at the outset of Parade of Small Horses, sounding as if he's resigned himself to drowning in the "Devil's Water." His voice is as creaky as an old wooden staircase, but unlike most sad-eyed troubadours, Gibbs -- a former guitarist for Modern English -- eventually finds redemption. Amid moaning harmonica, Wurlitzer and pedal steel, Gibbs's voice brightens as he apologizes to his lady and speeds away from his troubles in an old Ford. It makes Horses one of the rare late-night drinking albums that leaves listeners with a measure of closure and the resolve needed to survive the next day's hangover.
If you've ever sewn a Venom patch onto a sleeveless jean jacket, you must own this album. Seriously, this is devolved, old-school metal, meant to be blasted while crushing empty cans of Milwaukee's Best on your forehead. Early Man consists of two dudes who make enough noise for four, bashing out ill-tempered rippers about fighting, killing and dying. The riffs are catchy and primitive, topped by gruff barks and Ozzyesque wails. It all congeals into prime, fat-free metal that'll leave necks sprained from here (literally: they're playing at the Engine Room on Sunday) to Hades.
Searching for a Former Clarity
Fat Wreck Chords
Wow, this is what happens when hardcore kids grow up. Not a trace of emo posturing, just passionate bellowing, hard chords, hand claps, angry politics (the refrain of "From Her Lips to God's Ears" is "Oh Condoleezza, do you get the fucking joke?") and a mercifully varied rhythmic attack. Almost enough to restore your faith, blah blah blah. Nice song titles: "Unprotected Sex with Multiple Partners" (about the music business) and "Even at Our Worst We're Still Better Than Most." No argument there.
James Blood Ulmer
Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions
On a record consisting of fairly straight renditions of songs by Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush and other classic blues-canon fodder, the free-jazz guitar god and pioneering Black Rocker is having plenty of fun: His guitar tone here is so natural and aggressive that at times it could pass for a wind instrument. Longtime Blood protégé Vernon "Living Colour" Reid is also on hand, as if there weren't already enough fretboard damage. If Led Zeppelin had been four old black guys who listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin they still probably wouldn't have been this good.
I Ain't Even Lonely
The leadoff title track is sodden country; track two is bluesy in a less smart-assed-than-Loudon Wainwright mode; and then it's pretty much back and forth for the rest of the disc. Keane sounds relaxed and at ease; the whole thing has a conversational feel, with smart, peculiar little jokes here and there recalling both Lyle Lovett and Paul Simon at times. There are plenty of wry lyrical passages, like "now we live in Texas / where the winter lasts from five to seven days," and a beautiful duet with Guy Forsyth on Tom Waits's once-raucous "Anywhere I Lay My Head" proves once again what a great writer Waits is and also what a solid interpreter we have in Keane. Album closer "Odysseus" brings all his intellectual and shit-kicking tendencies together in one talking blues.
The Happy Bullets
The Vice and Virtue Ministry
An actual smart, interesting guitar-pop band. An ever-so-blatant Village Green Kinks influence raises its head from the start, and really, how can that be bad? Well, it's not. Plus, these Bullets add antiquated-sounding synth lines and other anachronistic touches to mix things up. Added value: The band's bio mentions the Decemberists as an influence, and lo and behold, "Mr. Gray" sounds like Colin Meloy subbing for Ray Davies on an Arthur outtake. Exactly. Truth in advertising, how admirable.
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