Tuesday, August 2, 2011

2011 Sky Full of Holes by Fountains of Wayne

This choice was hard to resist. Fountains of Wayne won the very first Album of the Summer in 2003 for Welcome Interstate Managers, which included the hit single “Stacy’s Mom.” Furthermore, Sky Full of Holes is being released in the U.S. today (8/2/2011), so the timing is perfect. Repeat winners are not an ideal circumstance, but there is precedent: Regina Spektor is a two-time winner. Although this album is a mild departure from their earlier efforts, Williams College alums Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingswood continue to pump out clever, punchy songs. Rolling Stone recently called FOW “rock's sharpest storytellers.”

Most importantly, the thirteen tracks of Sky Full of Holes include some great music. This is FOW’s first album since 2007, and the songs show a bit more maturity. For example, there are slightly fewer references to characters who are drunk. As usual, FOW have no problem meeting the happiness criteria. Well over half of the songs are upbeat driving pop numbers typical of the band. There is plenty of humor, but Schlesinger and Collingswood are also starting to probe deeper, more melancholy subjects. Indeed, the last song on the album, and one of my favorites, “Cemetery Guns,” is about a military funeral. Similarly, "Hate to See You Like This” is a beautiful ringing ballad about someone trying to help a friend out of a depression. But there are also great alt-pop numbers that could easily be radio singles, including “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” and “Dip in the Ocean.“ The best story pieces are “Action Hero,” about a Walter Mittyish middle-aged father of three who is beginning to buckle under the stress, ”Richie and Rubin,” about two failed entrepreneurs who solicit investments from friends, and “Acela,” about a guy trying to get home to Boston. Finally, “A Road Song,” is an innocent country-ish number about a touring band member calling home to tell his girl he’s written a song for her. America, the aging casino-circuit rock band recorded a cover of “A Road Song” before Sky Full of Holes was released.

Here is the first music video to come out of Sky Full of Holes, the song "Summer Place":

This is "Dip in the Ocean" from FOWs July 28, 2011 appearance on the Late Night with David Letterman:

You may ask, “If Sky Full of Holes is being released today, how is it you can make this announcement so quickly?” Two reasons. First, due to the long gap between albums, several of these songs have been part of FOW’s concert repertoire for some time. Emily and I heard ”Cemetery Guns” and “A Road Song” two years ago at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY, and a number of the new songs have been on YouTube for a while. More importantly, however, FOW released a streaming version of the entire album on their Facebook page a week prior to the official release date.

2011 Album of the Summer Honorable Mentions

I and Love and You by The Avett Brothers

Some of you already know about this alternate country / folk rock group from Concord, North Carolina, but they were new to me. This album was released back in September of 2009 and has received considerable acclaim. Once I got ahold of it, I played it compulsively for a couple of months. The music is beautifully rendered, and the lyrics are frequently thoughtful and moving. Many of the songs deal with issues of loss and disappointment, but others like “January Wedding” and “Laundry Room” are blushingly innocent love songs. Several of the happy songs feature banjos. The infectious, uptempo “Heart Like a Kick Drum” includes the sweet lyric “It’s not the chase that I love / It’s me following you.”

The heavier songs on I and Love and You tackle philosophical themes, and they are often quite successful. The best of these are “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” and “A Perfect Space.” The latter is a beautiful ballad about getting older and discovering what you want out of life:

I wanna have pride like my mother has,
And not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.
And I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.

The vocals are frequently infused with the brother harmonies of Scott and Seth Avett, and the results are consistently rewarding. I and Love and You is an ambitious album that succeeds on every track. Thank you to the Avett Brothers. They produced my Album of the Autumn and Winter and gave me many hours of pleasure. If you have not already come across them, you should give them a listen.

Here is the official video of the title song:

And here is a great version of "Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise":

Myna Birds by Gavin Glass

Ireland continues to be fertile ground for contemporary music. Damien Rice and The Swell Season have received AOTS Honorable Mentions in previous years, and this Irish entry is equally wonderful. Gavin Glass, while a star in Ireland, is not yet well-known in the U.S., and MYNA BIRDS is only available as a download here (iTunes, Amazon, etc). Glass plays in Lisa Hannigan’s band (more about Hannigan below) and has produced two albums on his own. He combines country, folk rock, and big band sounds (there are horns) to produce some wonderful songs on this album.

Glass’ dominant genre is the tragic love song, well-exemplified by the opening track “Just Like Rome.” He is often plaintively tragic in songs like “Just Like Rome,” Wake Up,” “State of Emergency,” and the wonderful but somewhat inscrutable “Minor Miseries.” He moves into the angry tragic mode on “Bleed” and especially on the deliciously belligerent “Awake on the Weekend,” which includes some great Keith Richards-like whining guitar work.

Finally, the title track, “Myna Birds” is a lovely ditty written about a friend’s young child. Here is a high quality video of a live performance of this and another outstanding song “Slight of Hand” (I have spent some time pondering that spelling):

Despite his European origins, Glass’ music has many country overtones. He wears a western tie and vest. Of course, American country music has European roots that extend to Ireland, so he’s entitled.

This album does not meet the Album of the Summer happy criterion, but it is wonderfully evocative and creative. Highly recommended. Glass’ previous album, Gavin Glass & The Holy Shakers is also great.

The Unfazed by Dolorean

This time it’s country music from Portland, Oregon. This is the kind of mournful music you would expect to hear at a roadside juke joint where Budweiser is the house drink and nobody is dancing—except perhaps for one couple who just met tonight and are now asleep on each other’s shoulders. Hard-luck, pissed-off, breakup songs that are fairly unremittingly hopeless, but so, so wonderful. Once in a while Dolorean slips up and writes a song with an upbeat message, as in the title track “Unfazed,” as well as “Sweet Boy” and “These Slopes Give Me Hope,” but the music is reliably doleful throughout. The wistful “If I Find Love” fluctuates between hope and despair. The line “If I find love I’m gonna make it mine” later morphs into “I have a habit of getting in too deep / If I find love it’ll be the end of me.” A crawling tempo and a sweetly crying fiddle at the breaks give this song great drama and substance. If you’re in that kind of mood, The Unfazed is a great album.

Here is a live performance of the title song:

Alpochalypse by Weird Al Yankovic

I am going to go out on a limb here and say I think Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. A national treasure, even. He has been at it for thirty years, and when he releases a new album it is an event. Alpochalypse does not disappoint. High musical production values combined with Yankovic’s amazingly clever lyrics and clear enunciation make this another great collection. Alpochalypse includes classic Weird Al parodies of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (“Perform This Way”), Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (“TMZ”), Miley Cirus’ “Party in the USA” (“Party in the CIA”), and the B.o.B./Bruno Mars number “Nothin’ on You” (“Another Tattoo”). The video of the Lady Gaga song is creepily hilarious.

As much as Weird Al is known for his parodies, some of his most impressive songs are original compositions. I love “Hardware Store” from Poodle Hat, which features some amazing speed singing. Alpochalypse introduces several clever originals including “Skipper Dan,” about a failed actor working at an amusement park, “Craigslist,” which is both a sequel to the earlier “eBay” and a generic Doors parody, and “Ringtone,” about a guy with a remarkably annoying one. But without question, my favorite song on the album is the enormously funny “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me,” which is best experienced by watching the official video below. This is one of the happiest albums I came across this year. You will laugh.

And here is the best song on the album, "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me":


Two Sides by Above/Below

Conflict of interest statement: Among the members of this phenomenal funk-jazz-hiphop-fusion group are faculty colleagues and friends David Dorfman (baritone sax) and Gabe Chandler (vocals). No matter. In my unbiased (wink) opinion A/B is the best thing to come out of New London, Connecticut since The Reducers. Great horns, soaring guitar work, and the amazing rhymes of MC Stat (AKA Professor Chandler). Plus, I really like their politics. The album is very appropriate for summer. The songs are upbeat and danceable. I particularly like “J Street,” “Socialist Todd,” and “The People’s Bailout.” Earlier this summer Two Sides won a New London Whalie Award for Album of the Year, and now A/B can add an Album of the Summer Local Artist Award to their accomplishments.

Here's a video of Above/Below's performance of "Socialist Todd" at Sailfest 2011:

Two Sides is available through the band’s website as a “name your price” digital download, or for $10 you can order the hardcopy CD. On the website, you will also find the band’s two-song album featuring “Things Get Better” and “Alchemy.”


Rumor has it, now that Gabe Chandler has returned to California, Above/Below may be defunct. Let me add my voice to all those who cry, “Say it ain’t so!”

That's it for this year. See you next summer.


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