Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel, Hey Hey It’s . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band (self-released)
Unless you prefer your Americana dry-cleaned and decaffeinated, this second collaboration between two generation-spanning oddballs may be the 2013 answer to your folk-rock prayers. Stampfel’s the 75-year-old Wauwatosa, WI-born ex-Holy Modal Rounder, boasting as always a voice Alan Lomax might have hit the stop button for. Lewis is the 37-year-old Lower East Side-dwelling Lit major, anti-folk performer and good friend of/to The Moldy Peaches. And while banjos, mandolins, and fiddles form the bedrock for these thirteen tunes (even more so than the pickup drummer Stampfel/Lewis claim dropped by for a weekend’s worth of sessions), there’s a noize-toon indie rock drone at play that at times recalls Pavement at their most folk-jammy and singalong. But where indie rock drone too often settles for obscurantism, these two lyrics-first-except-when-they’re-second types are egalitarians extraordinaire, “more fun than anyone” as cordially boasted early on. Sure, they have a few gripes, although remarkably specific ones for committed progressives - some creep they met on the Internet who once gave them a good review comes in for particular scrutiny. But mostly they celebrate weirdo Yankee culture in all its pop-friendly and semi-bohemian glory: a beret-tip to the King of the Beatniks, the travails of no-time-for-soundcheck indie bands in vans, Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train” reconfigured as “New New Viola Lee Blues,” and self-proclaimed Reason Rome Fell Jersey Shore luminary Snooki. Stampfel and Lewis’ genius comes through inhabiting that latter personage with a wit, grace, and crudity that would be the envy of any of their less-egalitarian folkie comrades. Or maybe it’s just optimism. “Here comes October / there goes June,” the May/December duo croons. But “screw that jive / we’re still alive / I got all the time in the world”.
Court Yard Hounds, Amelita (Columbia)
Let your mind wander, and you’ll be hard pressed to distinguish these incandescent acoustic numbers with mid-drawer Sheryl Crow or top-drawer Shawn Colvin. Pay too close attention, and you’ll notice lines like “we are seeds with promises to keep” intoned with the same chirpy optimism as “if I believe in the good stuff / the world smiles”. So seek the golden mean which best suits this middlebrow continuation of the overpraised Dixie Chicks project - a few scrappy earworms (“Sunshine,” about a jerk who blocks it; “Amelita,” about someone who may or may not have lost their pride), a few tousled near-rockers (“Rock All Night,” which almost does so in the vein of Stealers Wheel; “Phoebe,” a chronicle of small-town hell which notes “boys can be mean / but girls are downright cruel”). Whether you indulge them their five-minute piano closer is strictly up to you, but both chorus and guitar solo struggle valiantly against the tempo.
Dub Club, Foundation Come Again(Stones Throw)
Easily-accessible old school dancehall from Kingston also-rans (has-beens seems too harsh, although given artist turnover rate in Jamaica, not inaccurate), lovingly if not amazingly produced by LA club promoter and DJ Tom Chasteen. SoCal reggae fans know Chasteen’s been flying his favorite also-rans from Jamaica direct to the Dub Club for years, and here is where he makes sure everybody else gets to hear new recordings from performers who’ve long been names on old imports only - Josey Wales! Lone Ranger! King Stitt! Prince Jazzbo! Welton Irie! Baltimore-via-Trinidad Danny Dread! And while all of these singers once had vocal gimmicks easily copied and reproduced in the early heyday of dancehall, everybody here aside from the mighty likes of Big Youth could be handily cut by Yellowman (not present). No matter. Eschewing dub and other funny business, nearly two dozen three-minute tracks plow smartly ahead, with odes to sensimilla and former Yabby You partner Trinity’s hard truths about daddy (“daddy was a drunkard!”) very much included.
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars(Columbia / Sensability)
Since confirmed southerner John Paul White is keeping mum, let’s ask Californian/ex-Christian Pop performer Joy Williams for the gory details on this are-they-or-aren’t-they-a-band-anymore band: “John Paul and I aren’t speaking right now but to me that doesn’t determine the outcome of the band because if we’re not speaking we can’t determine the outcome of the band at this moment. So the other elephant in the room is what’s happening with the band? The reality is I’m not even quite sure.” But don’t worry, cuz the album’s real good: “This album chronicles loss and regret and anger and victory and sweetness and loyalty and I hope that people get the chance to listen to it. It’s so honest and it’s so rich and, not to toot my own horn, I’m just really proud of what we created together. And we created it together — we just happened to be in a bit of a civil war ourselves.” No matter how clumsy you may find that final line, be forewarned it brandishes a more formally daring use of language than any of the lyrics within this mournful document.
The Dangerous Summer, Golden Record(Hopeless)
“Looking to groups like the Starting Line, Third Eye Blind, U2, and Name Taken for influence,” and you could stop right there, couldn’t you? But then you’d miss the treat of hearing A.J. Perdomo gently shred his larynx on such sad-sack existential meditations as “Drowning,” “Honesty,” and “We Will Wait In The Fog”.Inspirational Verse, selected from the not-ironic-enough “I’m So Pathetic”: “It’s in my work / the cast is setting in / I hang like no one’s ever / knocking at the door / So love this sense / and start your bothering / I paint the colors / that enamored you before”.