So High
JD’s best soft pop of 2003
For all of the bad pop albums that were put out in 2003, there were indeed some goodies that I got a chance to get to know. This was no easy feat because with the amount of stuff that comes out, true seekers like us can’t be expected to really get to know things. Geez, looking at Tangents web page every so often just makes me say, huh, there’s another 50 interesting CDs I’m not going to have a change to hear…

As everybody knows…Belle & Sebastian’s straight-up attack impressed me the most, I’m guilty to say. I know that they’re a pretty uncool band to like, because they were everybody’s little secret that got out. The album was called “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” by the way. It sounded a little clunky and forced at first, but whoever it is that writes the songs and does the arrangements (is it really just Stuart Murdoch?) is just one of the craftiest musicians working in rock, and the songs just float after a while. And I love that Beatle-y lead guitar player!

Pas/Cal are one of the best B&S rip-offs I have ever heard, because they add to the sound. They are from Dearborn, Michigan, which is like posh-Detroit. The songs are great on their e.p., “The Hand-Bag Memoirs” which came out on Le Grande Magistery. With coy and crass singing, reminding me a lot of mega-genius Dan Bejar of Destroyer, Pas/Cal comes off both cute and substantive (unlike a lot of other LGM acts). Plus the musicianship is really good for a little Michigan band. Michigan as a whole is not that impressive. I just got their new e.p. “Oh Honey We’re Ridiculous” and it has their best song yet, “Poor Maude,” what great studio work! Much better than the flock.

If you like oldies, you are stupid if you don’t check out Faris Nourallah. His band the Nourallah Brothers was stupendous, but his solo records are great too. This is only his second. He ferrets out all kinds of crazy cool pop gems, written and recorded ever so simply, in the Buddy Holly, early Ray Davies kinda way. And, he plays all of his own instruments too…really well! What separates him from the flock is that he’s an amazing keyboardist completely unafraid to use sounds that other rockers would consider cheesy (like Prince). “Problematico” is not quite as good as last years’ debut, “I Love Faris,” but it is 90% as good. Finally, equally talented brother Salim Nourallah will have his debut disc out in 2004. Can’t wait!

Louis Philippe continues to be totally ignored, especially now as the whole lounge, Italian Soundtrack phase continues to fade into the past. Here is a guy who has been recording super sweet light pop for 20 years, and his last four proper records have been great. This is his divorce record, and it’s full of vinegar, which for Louis is more like a bottle of slightly stale George DeBoeuf. “My Favorite Part of You” not only rocks lightly, but has great bossa, chorale, and classical elements.

Bjorn Olsson goes further in his cause to reinvent the Italian Soundtrack with his self-titled album which came out last summer, I think. And he’s Swedish! I think what struck me about the album is that it’s like classical music made completely with rock band instruments, and it’s completely lush and mellow, and about as un-proggy as you can get. Plus it’s instrumental, full of suggestive whistling and humming. However, there’s really nothing to grab onto. It’s not like you can say, I really need to hear that song…You kind of have to play the whole thing.

Unlike the Lost in Translation soundtrack, which you can jump around from song to song with glee. It can’t really be the album of the year, because it’s a mix and that would be really sad, but (My Bloody Valentine guy) Kevin Sheilds’ numerous contributions are such absolutely great instrumental gems with definite emotional clarity. You almost have to give this up as Sheild’s return. And then there’s a really cool new wave jam, and Bill Murray singing Roxy Music. I loved the album. I loved those songs while I was watching the movie.

Sean O’Hagan made his first non-cartoony High Llamas album, “Beet, Maize, and Corn,” a collection of songs which I could see being performed by jazz groups, chamber groups, or out-ies for years to come. No electronics here, limited ba-ba-ba’s and a restrained use of keyboards in general. This one is more swaddled in warm strings, over-lapping vocal melodies, and gurgling brass, with definite touches of early Americana. He continues to be the “G” word.

Lastly, there was an uplifting little pop album from a New Yorker named Jenifer Jackson, called “So High.” That was probably my favorite album of all. While completely singer/songwriter, it is also produced to the gills by some cat named Pat Sansone who is also in the Autumn Defense. Jackson’s songs are amazing musicially and lyrically, with great changes and transitions, and Sansone’s production is like a poor man’s Mitchell Froom/Tchad Blake, or Jon Brion. Concertinas, harpsichords, congas, you mention it, warm and earthy, much less of the string and brass stuff that you’re in for if you go for the High Llamas record.

So that was pretty much it. I hope you pick up one of these albums and feel the same way I do about it. I hope to have a bigger list in 2004.

© 2004 Jonathan Donaldson