As I look over the releases of the past 12 months, I realize that the ones I'm still drawn to, the ones that haven't wilted under the heat lamp of time, are often the ones I'd originally passed over. I call this the Inverted World Syndrome, named after the Shins' record of last year, which I'd written off as a weak copy of the Kinks until hearing it played five times in a row at a friend's house.
That's how it happens with these albums: One day you're on a road trip or home sick with the flu or pumped up on, um, coffee, and you reach for that little pile of banished discs, the ones you'd tossed aside. Suddenly, bit by bit, the CDs' attributes become clear. Whereas you were seduced by the better-looking graphics, the crazed media hype, the boobacious video of the hot-shit thing of the moment, you now realize that pretty and loud mean nothing. That darned slow tortoise has won the race.
In this spirit, I've assembled my favorite poky puppies from the past year, all of which took their own sweet time to reveal themselves:
Baby Grand, Spectrum (Spy-Fi) At the recent Baypop festival, this Sacramento band seemed out of place amongst all the '60s psych-rock legends and modern-day garage-niks. The group offers what its members call "regular music" -- the kind of fuzzy, chiming pop and sugary, girl vocals that went out of vogue with the Bangles and the Go-Go's. Nothing new, to be sure, but as one local scenester has said, everything old is fresh again, as long as you wait long enough. Baby Grand takes its recycled Who and Breeders riffs, feeds them caffeine and chocolate, and pops them into the tape deck of a '77 Camaro -- making perfect music for cruising in your car, even when it's hailing outside.
Neil Halstead, Sleeping on Roads (4AD) This British singer/songwriter is far from a nobody, having led Slowdive, the purported early-'90s successor to My Bloody Valentine, and Mojave 3, his spaced-out take on American country and folk music. Figuring a solo album by Halstead would be more of the same (and also less), I passed on it for months, until a roommate started playing it late at night. Soon I realized that Sleeping on Roads is the best thing Halstead has ever done. Instead of reworking U.S. icons like Neil Young and the Velvet Underground, he revels in his roots -- not kidney pie and crumpets, but rather the achingly pretty British folk of Nick Drake and Bert Jansch. And to top it all off, Halstead whispers about druggies and dominatrixes and love gone wasted, instead of such froo-froo claptrap as fruit trees and pink moons.
Koop, Waltz for Koop (Quango/Palm) I don't like downtempo, "chill out" electronica, or lounge-jazz hybrids. For the most part, those genres reek of faux sophistication, with lame electro-producers watering down the wonders of the past. Why listen to Jazzanova when you can play jazz? At first, the Swedish duo Koop's sophomore CD seemed like more dinner party fodder, with its sampled grooves, bongo and flute accents, and icy guest vocalists. But the group's singers -- including folk-jazz legend Terry Callier and teenage Japanese ingénue Yukimi Nagano -- have real chops, imbuing the tunes with a sunnier vibe than the usual chill fare. Having previously played in actual jazz combos, the Swedes also know how to place the emphasis on West Coast swing rather than European cheese.
Jeffrey Lewis, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane (Rough Trade) Lewis has a voice that takes some getting used to; when he sings, he croaks and creaks more than a bed frame in a flophouse. But his adolescent chirp perfectly suits his narrative-rich songs and his plaintive strumming -- the temptation is to compare him to early Dylan, both for his clever words and for his connection with a New York scene (the Moldy Peaches' "anti-folk" cabal). But Dylan sounded old even when he was young, and Lewis sounds like a kid trying to grow up and failing. Unrequited love is his great topic, tackled with shy humor in "Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song," stinging venom in "Another Girl," and bemused sadness in "The East River." And if you're looking for insight, look no further than "Life," in which he notes, "Kisses are weird/ But they can be fun/ Instead of shaking hands/ It's like shaking tongues."
Nate Denver's Neck, Prepare to Die (King Crab) Denver is the tall, charismatic bassist for Total Shutdown, local purveyors of a kind of thrash-metal-jazz-punk thing that sends people rushing for earplugs and thesauruses, simultaneously trying to muffle and explain what they've heard. His solo project is a lo-fi, home-recorded collection of tunes with names like "Masters of the Universe," "Skull Crusher," and "God of Worms." Yes, I know -- ugh. But someone put Denver's "Smashopotomus" on a mix CD, and the song -- a solo-guitar number in which a boy tries to escape from the clutches of a "tyrannical stuffed animal" -- won me over. I soon discovered that the rest of the record is similarly dark yet whimsical, with Denver's gentle plucking and childlike tone undercutting an overall feeling of dread. Plus, he turns Slayer's death metal into video-game synth-jazz. How cool is that?
Bill Ricchini, Ordinary Time (Megaforce) Ricchini likes Elliott Smith a bit too much. The mopey singer/songwriter's style is all over Ricchini's debut CD, along with those of such other sorrowful icons as Belle & Sebastian, Nick Drake, and Yo La Tengo. In fact, Ricchini is like an advertisement for the indie pop lifestyle -- you half expect his album to come with a denim jacket and a hoodie. But if you can get past the blatant hero-worshipping, you'll see that Ricchini's a talented songwriter, able to wring a great deal of emotion out of layered guitars, sleigh bells, the occasional horn, and his Droopy Dog vocals. And just when you think he can't come up with anything new, he whips out "Because of You," a hopeful, romantic, jazzy ballad.
The Scruffs, Wanna' Meet the Scruffs? (Rev-Ola) This reissue of the Scruffs' one and only LP gives the Memphis band a chance to be overlooked twice. The 1977 album sounds wonderfully dated, with the kind of power-pop riffs, plonky piano, and horn-dog yowls that made the Raspberries and Cheap Trick big stars, but failed to do the same for Big Star. It's hard to see how this record missed the first time around. Maybe it's because, like all great power-pop discs, the abundant hooks and sing-along choruses mask weird relationship power-plays: the salacious pleading of "She Say Yeah," the trapped put-down of "You're No Fun," and the Dear Jean letter of "Revenge," in which Stephen Burns yelps, "Revenge is such a dirty word/ But you're a dirty girl/ Revenge is all I want from you." Or maybe it's best to look to "I'm a Failure," with the immortal line, "I could never change the world/ I can't even get a girl."