By Eleni P. Austin
Is life getting back to normal? Kinda, sorta feels like it. I was lucky enough to see at least 25 shows this year, almost making up for those dark pandemic days when live music felt like a faraway dream. The desert has some new music venues, The Alibi, AWE Bar and the Acrisure Arena. Which almost makes up for the fact that my very favorite place for live music has changed hands, dumbed down their bookings, abrogated any pretense of hospitality, community and customer service, effectively killing the vibe that the previous owners cultivated so effortlessly (but that’s a rant for a different column). Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention musicians that we’ve been forced to say goodbye to this year. The ones for me that hit hard were Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobbie Nelson and Loretta Lynn, Wilko Johnson from Punk/Pub Rockers Dr. Feelgood, Chris Bailey from Australian Punk band The Saints and Mark Lanegan. It’s shocking/not that shocking that Taylor Hawkins left the building. But I was truly gutted by the loss of Specials vocalist Terry Hall, Olivia Newton John (believe or not) and Fleetwood Mac songbird Christine McVie. Even when I was torturing my mother with my Punk records (“Eleni, this music is making my heart beat faster/turn that shit off!”) We could always find some middle ground with Fleetwood Mac. “Warm Waves” was her jam. Listening to them now feels bittersweet. But on to the task at hand: aren’t you itching to find out what my favorite ten records of 2022 are? I thought so…. (By the way, I contemplated doing this David Letterman style, working my way up from #10 to #1, you know, create a little suspense….but I quickly realized you could just skip ahead to the bottom of the page, missing out on the mystery. There’s something to be said for delayed gratification, Kids. Especially at my advanced age). Alright already, let’s get to it.
- ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS “The Boy Named If” (Capitol Records)
Elvis Costello (ne’ Declan McManus) has been my forever spiritual boyfriend since I swapped out a Police Regatta de Blanc cassette I received on my 17th birthday (I already had it), at Gemco for Elvis’ fourth long-player, Get Happy. EC has taken me down many different musical roads since then, opening my ears to genres like Country, Classical, Bluegrass and Jazz. He’s collaborated with everyone from Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett and The Brodsky Quartet, to Loretta Lynn, Allen Toussaint and The Roots. His latest, (his 33rd), studio album, echoes early touchstones like This Year’s Model, and mid-career highlights like Brutal Youth and When I Was Cruel. A combustible mix of erudition and verbal venom, the tensile melodies are powered by stripped-down instrumentation from his longtime backing band, The Imposters. Lyrics offer a treatise on the tumultuous transition between adolescence and adulthood. Still, Elvis finds a way to touch on his old themes of guilt, revenge, shame and infidelity. There’s a feral ferocity to this record that feels positively thrilling. After this one, he’ll probably return to his long-gestating Broadway musical version of the Budd Schulberg/Elia Kazan film, A Face In The Crowd. But for one brief moment, he seems content to flex old musical muscles. Raw, visceral and immediate, The Boy Named If is wall-to-wall brilliant.
- THE RAVE-UPS “Tomorrow” (Omnivore Recordings)
For me, The Rave-Ups performance in Pretty In Pink was the best part of John Hughes’ overcooked, wrong-side-of-the-tracks teen romance. (Seriously, how poor was Molly Ringwald’s character? She drove a vintage Karmann Ghia and had an answering machine. I didn’t have my own car until my 20s. Bitter much? You bet. But I digress). During the early ‘80s, the band, fronted by Pittsburgh, Pa. native Jimmer Podrasky and featuring guitarist Terry Wilson, drummer Timothy Jimenez and bassist Tommy Blatnik, were the toast of the L.A. club scene. They released Town + Country on a small indie label, offering a rollicking amalgam of Country, Rock, Folk and Power Pop. Once they signed with Epic Records, they seemed poised to take over the world. Two superlative albums followed, 1987’s Book Of Your Regrets and 1990’s Chance. But their label didn’t know how to market them, and their music slipped through the cracks, too Country for Rock radio and too Rock & Roll for Country stations. Naturally, they broke up.
Fast-forward three decades later and The Rave-Ups reconvened. Jimmer had carved out a solo career beginning in 2013, and the rest of the guys had continued to work in the music industry, but the time felt right to make create new music together. The result is Tomorrow, an 11-song set that feels as raucous, rebellious, crisp, caustic and concise as their classic ‘80s music. Richly evocative narratives hopscotch from puckish portraits of unrequited love, to poignant vignettes that touched on religious hypocrisy, prejudice, mental illness, senility and sunnier topics. All of it couched in their trademark combo-platter sound. There’s a joy and a buoyancy to this album that transcends the years. The Rave-Ups still have the goods.
- LIZZO “Special” (Nice Life/Atlantic Records)
I have to give credit to my pal Tom, for urging me to listen to this record. I did, and fell deeply in love. From then on, it was “bad bitch o’ clock, and thick thirty” 24/7 here at the maxi-pad.. Lizzo’s music is truly so many things at once: a frothy cocktail of Fizzy Funk, Pop and Soul. Not only are her lyrics funny and flirty (the phrase “you my bitch” has never sounded so sentimental), they’re au courant, tackling issues like body image, self-confidence and dignity. Her physicality is part of her charm. Fiercely advocating Girl Power, she puts boys on the back-burner until she’s ready to trust someone insisting “if you love me, you love all of me, or none of me.” Dance-floor ready, effervescent, assertive and introspective, Melissa Viviane Jefferson (a.k.a. Lizzo) takes you to the club, and then she takes you to church.
- DAWES “Misadventures Of A Doomscroller” (Rounder Records)
Another record that has rarely left the turntable. Dawes have been around nearly a decade and a half, and their music primarily drafted off the rustic sounds originally pioneered by (Laurel) Canyon dwellers like The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne Flying Burrito Brothers, Warren Zevon and East Coast compatriots like The Band. But on this, their eighth long-player, they made a hard left turn into Steely Dan territory. “…..Doomscroller” offered up a sleek seven-song set that matched sophisticated, melodies to syncopated instrumentation, labyrinthine arrangements and sly, sardonic lyrics. There aren’t too many bands out there that could radically reconfigure their sound, but Dawes execute a stylistic 180 and stick the landing. But this isn’t a case of musical onanism, there is a grace and economy to their shred. This record is equal parts sprawling, sublime and succinct
- THE WILLIAMS BROTHERS “Memories To Burn (Regional Records)
When The Williams Brothers, identical twins Andrew and David, sing, they achieve that kind of familial harmonic blend that seems effortless. They began singing together as kids, showbiz was in their blood (their Uncle, Andy Williams, was an Easy Listening hit-maker with his own weekly variety show on TV). They were briefly teen idols in the early ‘70s, but a decade later they began carving out a career making music in the thriving L.A. scene. Between 1987 and 1993, they released three beautifully-wrought, harmony-heavy records before deciding to go their separate ways, at least professionally. Luckily, their producer, Marvin Etzioni (a talented musician in his own right, who played bass in the original incarnation of Lone Justice) remembered the brothers had recorded a few songs just for fun in the mid ‘90s. Once they located the tapes, Marvin and Andrew cleaned them up and edited a bit. The result was Memories To Burn,” a 10-song set that featured a few Marvin originals, a couple of Robbie Fulks favorites, covers from The Kinks, Iris DeMent, Buffy Sainte-Marie and a lone Andrew-David original. The pared-down production, features Andrew’s acoustic guitar, Marvin’s bass, pedal steel from the legendary Greg Leisz and Don Heffington behind the drum kit. The uncomplicated arrangements shined a spotlight on the brothers’ beatific vocals. This album is truly a gift. A lagniappe for longtime fans.
- JOHN DOE “Fables In A Foreign Land” (Fat Possum Records)
John Doe will always be best known for fronting (along with his ex-wife, Exene Cervenka) L.A.’s premier Punk band, X. But he has also nurtured a richly rewarding solo career. Even as he toured with X this year, he also managed to write and record his 12th solo effort, Fables In A Foreign Land. The sharp, 13-song collection is credited to The John Doe Folk Trio which features Kevin Smith on bass and Conrad Choucroun on drums. This record runs the gamut, from cracked Country Waltzes, South-Of-The-Border charmers, apocryphal songs about cowpokes, bears and balloons, flat-out Rockers, unrequited love and the sins of manifest destiny. Front and center though, are John’s sublime honey and woodsmoke vocals.
- FREEDY JOHNSTON “Back On The Road To You” (Forty Below Records)
Freedy Johnston has been making essential music for more than 30 years now. Back in 1994, Rolling Stone proclaimed him Songwriter Of The Year and the appellation felt totally apropos. Since the beginning, the Kansas native consistently wed idiosyncratic character studies to wildly accessible melodies. That tradition continues on his 2022 opus, Back On The Road To You. His reedy tenor pairs nicely on separate duets with Aimee Mann, sultry Bangle Susanna Hoffs, and Susan Cowsill. Then there’s the Tropicalia Twang of “Madeline’s Eye,” the baroque Bacharach-y breeze of Somewhere Love and the snap, crackle pop of “There Goes A Brooklyn Girl.” A mordant and melancholy meditation on life and love.
- PATTY GRIFFIN “Tape: Home Recordings And Rarities” (PGM/Thirty Tigers Records)
Patty Griffin is such a protean singer-songwriter, that even when she serves an album of demos, home recordings and rarities, it’s still pretty enticing. Here, she contrasts sharp character studies with bitter kiss-offs, sturdy chansons and stripped-down torch songs. The album’s highlight is “Don’t Mind,” a flirtatious, come-hither duet with her erstwhile paramour (and perennial Golden God Of Rock) Robert Plant that simply grooves. By turns sly, vulnerable, affectionate, jubilant and introspective, Patty is always good company.
- BIRD STREETS “Lagoon” (Sparkle Plenty Records/Deko Entertainment)
“I gotta tell you, I’m kind of a mess, live through the day, just to get to the next, can’t return a call, never mind a text, the monster inside me, it don’t get no rest.” That’s Bird Streets (a.k.a. John Brodeur) cataloguing his woes on “Sleeper Agent,” the opening cut from his sublime sophomore effort, Lagoon. Lush melodies, kaleidoscopic arrangements and baroque instrumentation wrap around emotionally complex lyrics that detail broken romances, substance issues and moments of angst and ennui. The saddest sentiments are wrapped in blithe and beatific packaging, rendering them simply irresistible.
- STEPHEN McCARTHY & CARLA OLSON “NIGHT COMES FALLING” (Have Harmony Will Travel/Bob Frank Entertainment Orchard)
Although Stephen and Carla have known each other for decades, this debut marks the first time they’ve collaborated on more than one song. He’s best known for his work as guitarist and vocalist for The Long Ryders. She made her bones fronting The Textones and recording the critically acclaimed, 1988 effort, So Rebellious A Lover. Partnering with tragically beautiful ex-Byrd, Gene Clark, they created an alt.country (Americana, whatever) masterpiece. She and Stephen drafted off that template and the result is a sparkling 11-song set that matches nuanced narratives with razor-sharp arrangements and melodies that blur the lines between Country and Rock & Roll. To paraphrase the end of Casablanca, Night Comes Falling feels like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Well, that’s it. I have to shout-out albums that almost made the Top 10. They include Sloan’s Steady, Grant-Lee Phillips’ All That You Can Dream, Bonnie Raitt’s Just Like That…. and Hoodoo Guru’s Chariot Of The God. See you in 2023.