Destroyer of the Void
Goes well with: Neil Young, CSNY, The Band
Blitzen Trapper occupy a strange space in pop music. They're difficult to classify as folk or rock, and, as a result, they continue to craft albums that come across as surprisingly original.
Destroyer of the Void may not top 2008's stellar Furr, but it comes damn close. The title track presents a convincing argument for “song of the year” status—a six-minute exercise in prog, opening with crystal clear harmonies and blending elements of The Byrds, ELO, The Eagles and CSNY into an epic tune. “The Tree,” a stripped-down acoustic duet with female singer Alela Diane, is another lyrical stunner. Talk about a great addition to a band that already has a sleeve stocked with tricks.
Blitzen Trapper specialize in a dark Northwestern flavor of folk, a blend that works perfectly with Eric Earley's often morbid storytelling. The only other lyricist who seems to convey the same dismal emotion so effectively is Neil Young. In fact, I could easily imagine songs such as “The Tailor” and, especially, the rambling “Evening Star” popping up on a number of Young's '70s albums. And that is certainly a compliment.
My only gripe is that it seems like a bad choice for a summer release.
This is a late-fall or dead-of-winter album through and through. It's dark, dismal and yet somehow beautiful—the perfect complement to a cloudy, 33-degree day.
The Gaslight Anthem
Goes well with: Bruce Springsteen, The Replacements, Social Distortion
If any more underground bands cite Springsteen as an influence, he may end up turning into this generation's Joe Strummer. The only bad part is that overly earnest and nostalgic lyrics can grow old unless you're dealing with true pros of the lyrical prose. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn (another Springsteen disciple) is a pro, but Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem is still an amateur trying to close in on the ranks.
There are some great songs on here—most notably the energetic title track—but the rockers on this disc are drained of energy due to inexcusably weak production. What this disc reminds me of are the two Replacements albums (Tim and Pleased To Meet Me) that came out on Warner Bros. in the mid '80s, both forever sucked of their stone-cold classic potential due to their radio-friendliness.
It's tough to categorize The Gaslight Anthem as being anything other than a light version of The Hold Steady. When The Hold Steady get fast and heavy, they veer toward arena rock; when The Gaslight Anthem do the same, they veer toward pop-punk and emo. The 20-somethings looking for a next step forward from the Hot Topic circuit are sure to dig these guys, but it may take a bit more convincing to draw in the adults.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Goes well with: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale
I'm just going to come right out and say that this is Petty's best record since Full Moon Fever. And because that was technically a solo effort, this is his best record in a long damn time.
2002's The Last DJ was a middling effort—lyrically strong but musically bland. Mojo was, for the most part, recorded live to tape, and it's far better for it. Songs like “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” “I Should Have Known It” and “Running Man's Bible” will kill live, and, really, isn't that the point? The Heartbreakers are one of the very best live bands out there. Each new album is only going to have, at most, a handful of tracks that find their way onto the set list each night. That Mike Campbell and the boys can really enjoy a few new numbers in between “Refugee” and “Runnin' Down a Dream” benefits everyone.
Critics have accused this record of being lazy or too “bluesy,” and that's just bullshit. The juke-joint stomp of “U.S. 41” and midnight-in-Jamaica blues of “Don't Pull Me Over” are a couple of the strongest tracks on the record. And even when things do get simple, like on “Takin' My Time,” you can tell the band is having fun. Weenie album cover aside, Mojo only helps to solidify Petty and the gang as a true American classic.