There are a select few artists and bands whose albums I will buy sight-unseen (sound-unheard?). Because I'm a culturephile, I have tinkered with actually putting together this list. I mean, List. Mostly, it's just artists I like a lot. But upon reflection, it seems that really all you have to do is put out one album I truly love, and you will make your way onto the hallowed List and stay there until you do something disappointing enough to warrant being removed. (Being on my List is a privilege, music industry, not a right.) People like Brandi Carlile and The Weepies made such strong first impressions that they rocketed onto my List, where they still stand today, each having survived the dreaded sophomore slump. Others, though, like Pete Yorn, also shot onto my list, only to come crashing down again. Yorn's debut, musicforthemorningafter is a brilliant, near-perfect record. That tricky sophomore album tripped Pete up, though: Day I Forgot -- while not being a BAD album -- was mediocre enough that it stripped him of his elusive List privileges. Maybe someday he'll be back, maybe he'll never recapture that debut album magic again…*
Two artists who are both List members have recently put out new records. Will both maintain their List status? Read on, with baited breath…
Ben Folds – Way To Normal
I admit to being a somewhat late-adopter of Ben Folds. Really I didn't care much about the Ben Folds Five, and it wasn't until one of my college roommates played Rockin' the Suburbs for me that I became a huge fan of the "BF". Therefore, I don't have the same sort of nostalgia-happiness about Folds' new album Way to Normal that many folks probably do. I enjoy the back-to-the-future, fuzzy-bass-guitar, rocked-out sound fine, but I am also (primarily) a fan of Ben Folds the contemplative balladeer (yes, I'm a pansy), so I tend to like the quiet, beautiful songs; Way to Normal features a much higher "rock & roll" to "ballad" ratio than the past two solo discs, which is both good and bad. I'm sure it appeals to the older fans – those going back to the early, heady BF5 days, surely – and though I like rock & roll as much as the next guy, it also makes for a slighter, sillier total package as far as I'm concerned. The songs on Rockin' the Suburbs are pretty timeless songs, I would argue (with the obvious and notable exception of the title track, which I naturally hate). The songs on Way to Normal are fine. Some are very good. But the songs that Ben Folds rocks out are also the dumber songs, and if there are more rocked out songs on this new album…well, then you can probably see where I'm going. These songs aren't necessarily "dumb" – that's overly harsh – but they certainly don't have the poetic weight, cleverness, or sturdiness that many of the songs from his last two albums had. There are some great moments: "Cologne" and "Kylie From Connecticut" are standouts for me, and "Hiroshima" is a lot of (rocked-out) fun. But some of the other songs feel like retreaded ideas: "Bitch Went Nuts" or paper-thin: "Errant Dog" Or worse!, like "Free Coffee," which is just an out-and-out bad song. All things considered, Ben Folds stays on my List. He is an exceptional songwriter, and his best moments are a whole lot better than anything any other Folds-contemporaries/clones are putting out. But this album, though on the whole I enjoy it a lot, is a bit of a stumble. I'm not used to skipping tracks on my Ben Folds albums, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to get used to it on Way to Normal. If I had to snarkily re-title the album, I would call it Less of the Same.
Couldn't possibly be weirder or sillier:
Ray LaMontagne – Gossip in the Grain
Ray LaMontagne, on the other hand, I have loved from the very beginning, as he burst out of the gates with the phenomenal album Trouble and followed it up with the even sadder, starker, awesomer (sic) Till the Sun Turns Black. His new album Gossip in the Grain could snarkily be titled MORE of the Same, But Better. Sure, that would be an unimaginably bad album title for real, but hopefully it makes my point somewhat. I could have happily listened to another Trouble or Till the Sun… but LaMontagne gave me something even better: an album that builds on the many strengths of his previous albums, while managing even to stake out some new ground. It's not a wild, reckless change of pace, nor is it a re-make of past successes. He picks up the pace (and some horns!) on the leadoff track, "You Are The Best Thing", showing us a little bit of upbeat soul, and if you are a fan of LaMontagne, you know that "upbeat" is not an adjective that gets thrown around much in his reviews. He gives us the weirdest, coolest, possibly creepiest love song is recent memory (ever?) in "Meg White" – a White-Stripes-drum-thumpin' good-time stalker-song with a killer bassline. "Hey Me, Hey Mama" takes him into full-on banjo-pluckin' gentle-country-shuffle-jug-band mode, while songs like "Let it be Me" and "Winter Birds" are beautiful, slow, and mournful – THERE are the words you expect to see in a Ray LaMontagne review! It's the mark of a great artist to do something exceptionally well, like LaMontagne does slow & sad, while also expanding into new and different sounds, all the while still holding on to that primary talent. I think of Emmylou Harris and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Adams as two people who are able to work similar magic, but it's a rare ability. Ben Folds makes me nervous: his back-to-the-future approach showed no real sign of continuing to innovate OR continuing to deepen those aspects of his music he does exceptionally well. Gossip in the Grain, on the other hand, is a rare, terrific album from an artist who shows no sign of letting up, or playing it safe, or relinquishing his vaunted place on my List.**
*Other artists who have lost List privileges include: Rhett Miller (The Instigator = A, The Believer = D), Travis (The Man Who = A, The Invisible Band = B+, 12 Memories = F!!!!!)
** And because I love you, fellow culturephiles, here is my List. I can't say for sure it is comprehensive, but it's a start, anyway.
Ryan Adams (with or without The Cardinals)
Tift Merritt, probably