Many bands have combined minimalist composition with maximalist guitar noise. Yo La Tengo does this best, carrying on without so much as a chord change while guitarist Ira Kaplan screeches and wails away. But the trio also stands out because this is far from its only trick. YLT brings an encyclopedia of influences and a knack for moody, tasteful arranging.
I once wrote that the Felice Brothers have one capable lead singer at best: while Ian Felice sings more expressively than his brother James, it’s not a pretty sound. But I was overlooking the Catskills folk-rockers’ third brother, Simone.
On Mermaid Avenue (1998), Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote and recorded music for some of the 3,000 tuneless lyrics Woody Guthrie left behind. The stunning result was so much more than a reverent, Pete-Seeger-and-friends tribute album could ever be: the great Guthrie expanded in our cultural imagination and introduced to a new generation.
The Blanco Sessions, by Janis Martin. In 1956, RCA signed “the female Elvis,” 15-year-old rockabilly pioneer Janis Martin. But a secret marriage and a pregnancy soon led the label to drop her. In 2007, neo-rockabilly powerhouse Rosie Flores coaxed Martin out of retired obscurity and produced a comeback album for her.
Ruthie Foster has a powerhouse of a blues/gospel voice, which she never allows to overpower a song. If you’re not sold already, Foster made her newest album in New Orleans with the Blind Boys of Alabama and a cast of hotshot players. It wouldn’t have killed them to restrain the Hammond organ player once in a while, but that’s being picky: the project brings a truckload of soul and grit.
M. Ward’s solo albums reveal that he surpasses his more-famous collaborators (Conor Oberst, Zooey Deschanel) on all fronts. His sound has a sepia-toned timelessness; it’s both inventive and a whole bunch of kinds of old-fashioned.
The first question to ask about a Paul McCartney standards album is why it took him so long. The guy’s always been fascinated by the American Songbook, and unlike some pop singers who have taken detours to the land of jazzy old tunes and swinging little combos, Sir Paul has a powerful and chameleonic voice.
On her third album, Shannon Stephens reins in her chamber-folk experimentalism in favor of a bluesy little band that takes her songs to unexpected places. Her sound remains relatively subdued, yet it grooves and pops and even swaggers.