Every two weeks, titans of the mediasphere give Nerve their music recommendations. This week: Rachael Maddux of Paste Magazine.
With hundreds and hundreds of CDs coming through the Paste offices and just about as many new artists landing in my inbox every week, it’s embarrassingly easy to let really excellent music fall through the cracks. Here are five too-good-to-sleep-on albums that quite nearly managed to slip by me unnoticed.
Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
I put off listening to this New Jersey band’s sophomore album until I was on a long drive through North Carolina recently, and I’m surprised I didn’t get pulled over, because it absolutely demands that you drive at least fifteen M.P.H. over the speed limit. It’s a pretty loose concept album about the Civil War, but also touches on a lot of themes about disaffected, modern-day American youth; it’s nerdy, completely crushing rock ‘n’ roll that references both "John Brown’s Body" and Bruce Springsteen. Frontman Patrick Stickles’ songwriting is somehow more mighty than his beard.
Visqueen – Message to Garcia
The only reason I picked this album up in the first place was its cover art, a portrait of an eye-patch-wearing cheetah by Portland, OR illustrator Ryan Berkley. I figured any artist who’d pick that image for an album cover couldn’t be half-bad; luckily, my completely baseless aesthetic judgement was proven correct. Frontlady Rachel Flotard made a couple of records in the early 2000s before taking a few years off from music to care for her father, who was dying of cancer. She made Message to Garcia during and after his death in 2008, and it suggests the freewheeling urgency of someone who’s been to some of the darkest corners of human life and emerged unwilling to waste anyone’s time. The songs are straightforward power-pop with a bit of a punk edge; Flotard sings like a gravelly-er, raggedy-er Neko Case, which is perhaps why she’s so often sung backup for Case on record and on tour, and why Case’s backing vocals on a few Garcia tracks sound so apropos.
Moonlight Bride – Myths
I’m from Chattanooga, TN, which doesn’t exactly have a reputation for producing great rock bands — or bad rock bands, or any rock bands — so when I heard about these guys from a friend in Atlanta last year I was a little skeptical. Turns out, they made one of my favorite records of 2009. It’s super-dark and moody and wrapped up in all these teetering guitars; lead singer Justin Wilcox’s voice is wounded-sounding but skirts all melodrama. Three of the best tracks ("If I Don’t See You," "Marlon," and "There You Are") blend into a kind of mini-epic, and it’s probably only a matter of time before they make a whole huge album like that.
Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown
Mitchell, who lives in Vermont and has released a couple of records on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, wrote a full-on musical retelling the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice a few years ago; it debuted on the stage in 2005 and, last year, she turned it into a really glorious proper album. She roped in a killer cast of musicians to voice the characters; Justin Vernon, Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, Greg Brown, and DiFranco all sing key roles. The whole project is incredibly well-executed, stunningly orchestrated, and heartbreaking. I hadn’t paid much attention to Mitchell before this, but now she’s on her way to being one of my new favorites.
Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
On paper, Matthew Houck’s band sounds like just my cup of tea — smart, rowdy, Neil Young-y folk — but for whatever reason it took me a long while to seek him out (even after a coworker raved incessantly about To Willie, his Willie Nelson tribute album from last year). What a fool I was. Every song on this album is my favorite song on this album until the next one comes up; I don’t think I’ve listened to lead track "It’s Hard to be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)" without immediately replaying it, and "Mermaid Parade" kicks my heart open every single time.