The Pratt Songs Best of 2007

It's time for a list. My favorite CDs from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, in no particular order. I only started this site in June, so I picked ten albums that stand out against the 50-something I've reviewed so far.

Of course, it's not that tough to figure out what I like and don't like, but being a bona fide music dork, I'm a sucker for a nice list.

  • Tim Hecker: Harmony in Ultraviolet -- Out of everything I've heard from the library's collection, I don't think there's any other album that I come back to more than this one. As I said in my original review, it's a tough listen that won't sit well with most people, but if you open up and give it a chance, you might be pleasantly surprised.

  • Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways -- There is a wealth of incredible music and history waiting out there, and I've just begun to discover it. This, like most albums from Smithsonian Folkways, is a must-hear for anyone who deeply cares about music.

  • Blackalicious: The Craft -- It's a great album, in every sense of the word. I've been listening to it since 2005, and I'm still not tired of it.

  • Josh Ritter: Hello Starling -- This little blog is actually teaching me to listen to music in a new way. Sure, a clever bassline that snakes through some self-loathing Britpop gem still gets my heart all a'flutter, but I notice simple songs with brilliant lyrics more than I used to. And lyrically, Josh Ritter is about as good as gets for this year's crop of EPFL checkouts.

  • Teitur: Stay Under the Stars -- I only gave this one a 3 out of 5, but the first song and his cover of "Great Balls of Fire" refuse to leave my mind. He found something dark and lonely in "Great Balls of Fire," something that most of us never knew was there.

  • Marah: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky -- It reminds me of why I started my other blog, and why it's such a shame that I've been neglecting it. It's one of the best albums I've ever heard about city life.

  • Brandi Carlile: Brandi Carlile -- I only gave her debut album 3.5 library cards, but I don't know if there's another artist I heard this year who has more potential than Brandi Carlile. I'm excited to watch and listen as her career unfolds.

  • My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade -- It's nice when a good but unexceptional band stretches themselves in all the right ways. I don't think anyone who heard MCR's previous albums could have predicted The Black Parade. It's an excellent album that proves these guys are far more talented than any of their peers.

  • Mika: Life in Cartoon Motion -- I understand that the album is pop fluff, but it's charming and infectuous pop fluff that's made from some substantial stuff. Mika seems to have a genuine talent and love for music.

  • Tanya Donnely: This Hungry Life -- "Little Wing" just might be the best song I heard all year.

Here are a few other year-end lists that you might want to check out:
Rock and Roll Meandering Nonsense
Layla's Classic Rock
Imagine Echoes
Bill and Dave from Rock of Ages


Eagles of Death Metal: Death by Sexy

If I didn't know anything about Eagles of Death Metal (which I don't, since I have no Internet access as I write this*), I would guess they're from Texas. They've got that crazy energy that seems to be synonymous with so many Texan bands: The crazy, oversexed fun of ZZ Top; the crazy, anything-goes attitude of Butthole Surfers; and even a bit of the crazy joy of The Polyphonic Spree.

Okay, so EoDM sound nothing like The Polyphonic Spree, but there's more than a passing similarity to the rawer moments of ZZ Top. In fact, Death by Sexy is a nearly perfect blend of stoner rock and basic '70s rock.

If sex-filled fun isn't your bag, don't even bother with Death by Sexy. EoDM mostly stays on the fun side of sexy, and the band only occasionally wanders into moronic misogyny. It's refreshing that "I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen)" celebrates the joys of getting it on with a lovely young woman of legal getting-it-on age, instead of the typical underage girls who have fueled rock fantasies since its earliest days.

(* The first thing I did after getting my Internet connection back was to read about Eagles of Death Metal. Apparently, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age is half the band, and he helped inspire vocalist Jesse Hughes to start EoDM. Hughes and Homme are both from Palm Desert, CA, which must have been founded by a bunch of Texan immigrants or something.)

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
If Death by Sexy had been cut down to 10 songs, it might have been a perfect rock album. "I Want You So Hard (Boy's Bad News)" pulled me right in, and I didn't come up for air until things slowed down a bit on the fourth and fifth songs. "Don't Speak (I Came to Make a Bang)" kicks in with all the authority of a perfect side-2-track-1, and the energy doesn't subside until the final howl of the psychobilly influenced "Chase the Devil." And that's where the album should've ended. The last three songs would've made excellent B-sides or online giveaways, but they don't stand up to the rest of the material on Death by Sexy.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Like the music, the design is lighthearted. A sense of humor pervades the entire booklet, but the words are incredibly annoying to read. It's a shame because Eagles of Death Metal knows how to thank people. (Thanks to James Brown? And England, and ODB, and Memphis, and The Donnas, and boogie pirates everywhere, and babygirls and honeybabies and sweet babies and honey girls and sweet lil' rock'n'rollas? That's how thank yous should be written!)

Listen if you like: It's a perfect blend of ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, and Queens of the Stone Age

If it were food, it'd be: A Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, but with Texas rock instead of peanut butter and stoner rock in place of the chocolate.


Damien Rice: 9

It would be easy to let the magic of the first four songs on 9 fool you into thinking this is a great album. From Lisa Hannigan's opening vocals (Rice proves his courage by letting someone else's voice introduce his album) to the wailing refrain on "Rootless Tree," it is clear that Rice is a talented musician. So it's easy to hear the strummy guitar and tepid lyrics of "Dogs" and think there must be something special happening beneath the surface. Unfortunately, there's not. "Dogs" is just a bland folk-rock ballad that could've been performed by anyone from Train to Bread.

Unlike "Dogs," most of the misfires on 9 are mixed into decent songs, so you can't just skip the crap. "Me, My Yoke, & I" reaches a frenzy that rocks like mad, but it's dragged down by adolescent lyrics that strive to be clever and sexually rebellious. Similarly, the chorus of "Rootless Tree" ("Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you...") is delivered with passion, but its bile relies on generic expressions of rage.

Rice is not a bad lyricist, but he bounces from creativity to cliché with no regard for the well-being of his songs. There are too many land mines scattered across the surface of 9 to ever let the listener sink into the music.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Rice is obviously a writer with very good ideas, but he failed to fully express them here. 9 had the potential to be a great album, in the vein of Jeff Buckley's Grace and Radiohead's The Bends. Instead, its shortcomings make it a good listen that exists in the shadow of what it could have been.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover is interesting on its surface, and is reminiscent of 0 (his debut) without rehashing its imagery. But the cover art suggests a meandering pointlessness that is reflected in the music. If this is a reflection of what is going on in Rice's head, it's no wonder he couldn't find a good album in the midst of his mental mess.

Listen if you like: Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke, Ryan Adams

If it were food, it'd be: a homemade chicken pot pie loaded with whole peppercorns that explode like little bombs and overwhelm the other flavors.


Tanya Donnely: This Hungry Life

I'm really confused as to why This Hungry Life won't leave my stereo. I don't like Tanya Donelly as either a solo artist or with any of her former bands. So why can't I stop listening to this? How did this happen?

Perhaps it's because of "Little Wing." This song is a flame in an album filled with sparks. I've played it for a handful of people, and they've all been captivated, regardless of whether they're fans of The Clash or Barry Manilow. There's magic in this song. She pulled fire from the sky.

To say that none of the other songs on This Hungry Life are as good as "Little Wing" would be like saying no other crab houses in Baltimore are as good as Bo Brooks. "New England" kicks the album open with a celebration of homeward love, the power of "Kundalini Slide" flows upward with a desperate energy, and the forgotten heroine of "Invisible One" is brought to life by the band that screams for her from the darkness of a stage somewhere in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The only song here that could even remotely pass as lackluster is "River Girls," an anthemic closer that doesn't take flight the way it could.

I guess it's time to stop not liking Tanya Donelly, because I absolutely love this album.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The band sounds like a bunch of old friends who've been playing together for years. It's a live album, but it has the kind of richness and depth that I'd expect from a studio recording. (The low end is a bit lacking in regular speakers, but the mix is wonderful in headphones.) The audience mostly sounds indifferent, but I assume it was a production decision to give the crowd an almost ghostly presence. Donelly's voice is strong yet vulnerable, and its timbre reminds me of a trumpet -- a welcome relief when so many female singers conjure the softness of woodwinds.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL)
The version of This Hungry Life at the EPFL is missing the real cover, but the front of the inner jacket is strong in its own right. The line drawings and two-color printing are surprisingly effective, and while they don't convey the depth of the music, they complement it well. The lyrics are included, though they don't shed much light on some of Donelly's more cryptic musings.

Listen if you like: Belly, Billy Bragg, Dolly Parton's Sugar Hill recordings

If it were food, it'd be: Breakfast at Morning Edition on E. Fayette St., with eggs and homefries and pancakes drenched in pure Vermont maple syrup and banana bread and fresh fruit and bacon and just-squeezed orange juice and a couple cups of incredible coffee. There are good friends at the table, and a bunch of friendly faces in the rest of the room. The weather outside is cruel and uninviting, which makes this little pocket of goodness all the more precious. And like Morning Edition (where the service is questionable and an occasional bullet flies past the front door), This Hungry Life has one or two little flaws that keep it from being absolutely perfect, but it is closer to perfect than it has any right to be.


Phoenix: It's Never Been Like That

This is simple, feel-good pop rock that gets more interesting with subsequent listens. It's Never Been Like That has one foot planted somewhere between '80s British punk and '80s British new wave, and the other is standing squarely in the front row of a Strokes show. It's a good mix of influences, and they manage to sound interesting even in the current flood of new wave revivalists.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's Never Been Like That doesn't have sharp teeth or bloody claws or even a fist raised in righteous anger. The music is catchy and the lyrics are smart, but the energy is restrained. Even the instrumental track, "North," adds something special even though its quiet nuances don't fit with the rest of the album. The songs are easy to forget once the CD ends, but as soon as it starts again, they slide into your ears like old friends who've found their way back onto your couch after a long absence. It'd be easy to let It's Never Been Like That slip by and dismiss it as take-it-or-leave-it pop. It'd be easy, and it'd be wrong.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover has that cheesy, homemade look for which people pay a lot of money. The simple red/black/white palette is effective, and the hand-colored accents add a nice touch. It's good to see a band who was willing to give up the entire back panel out of respect for the design, but the artwork isn't so powerful that it needed two panels to work. Likewise, printing the same picture twice on the center pages doesn't work. The background on the lyric pages is subtle, and it creates nice boundaries for the words without being overstated. I'm glad the song lyrics are included; the band may be French, but they write better words than many of their English-speaking peers.

Listen if you like: The Strokes and their many followers, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

If it were food, it'd be: Homemade mac & cheese. It's simple, but it stands out against its mass-produced peers.


Pedro the Lion: Achilles Heel

So very, very, very sad. And a little bitter, and a little envious, and a little self-righteous. But mostly just sad. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Sad.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
"Arizona" is a charming little story of love and betrayal that is so cute and clever, it kind of makes you want to throw up. "Bands With Managers" is on the other extreme of Pedro the Lion's scale, where boring bitterness reigns supreme. The songs on Achilles Heel move between the two sides, at one moment creative and touching, at the next bland and self-piteous. A few songs even show that David Bazan (he is Pedro the Lion, the lucky guy) has some deep roots in classic rock. "Start Without Me" is lifted straight from Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty," and the harmonies in "Keep Swinging" make me think that Bazan has listened to his fair share of Steely Dan records.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The illustrations on the insert tell a story. I'm not really sure what the story is, but a lot of people are crying and a lion is roaring, and then you turn the insert over and the lion is dead and a man is pointing a shotgun at you! So why were all the people crying? Did the lion eat their friend? Were they scared of the man with the shotgun? Were they teary because the lion was singing sad songs with words like, "Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble, for every stupid struggle? I don't know?" And why aren't there as many people on the back of the insert? Did they run away? Did the man with the shotgun kill them? Did they go back in the house and put on something a bit more chipper, like Joy Division or Dashboard Confessional?

Listen if you like: The Bends, Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine, Morrissey/Smiths songs like "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" and "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want"

If it were food, it'd be: a bitter pill, and the spoonful of sugar is all ... the ... way ... on ... the ... other ... side ... of ... the ... room ...


Burning Brides: Leave No Ashes

It's tough to make an original hard rock album. It's tough to find a creative new twist when hundreds of wannabe AC/DCs, Aerosmiths, and Alice in Chains have flooded this style of music with mediocrity. It's tough, but every few years someone finds a way to put their own stamp on hard rock.

Burning Brides is definitely not that band.

Leave No Ashes has elements of grunge, punk, horror rock, and metal. That could be a good mix for a more competent band, but Burning Brides is completely trite and unoriginal. We don't need to hear yet another crappy interpretation of the 1990s, especially one from a band who is incapable of separating that decade's wheat from its chaff.

Music: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I was going to count all of the lyrical and musical clichés, but there are just too many. If you can think of a formulaic rock trick, it's on this album. Pre-recorded crowd noise? Check. Cheesy guitar solos? Check. Irrelevant swearing? Check. Wrong-side-of-the-tracks imagery? Yep. Tough, bluesy power ballad with an acoustic guitar? Oh, you know it. Leave No Ashes sounds as if someone watched Blue Man Group's "Rock Concert Instruction Manual" and took it a bit too seriously. The sad thing is, the band has energy and there are moments where some genuine talent and creativity shine through the muck. If there were more songs in the spirit of "Vampire Waltz," Leave No Ashes might be an album that's worth hearing instead of ignoring.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover art is strong, and the band deserves credit for not plastering their name across the middle of it. Of course, the cover is the only good part. The faux-handwriting typeface used for the lyrics is just like the music: it's a façade of pain, desperation, and anger that overlies an unoriginal and corporate mentality. The most telling detail of Leave No Ashes is visible on the tray card: one side displays the band/album names (complete with anarchy symbols in lieu of A's) and the other side displays the copyright and legal information for V2 records, All Rights Reserved, manufactured and distributed in the United States by BMG Distribution, a unit of BMG Entertainment, unauthorized reproduction is prohibited by federal law and subject to criminal prosecution. Needless to say, there were no anarchy symbols on that side of the tray card.

Listen if you like: Godsmack, Stone Temple Pilots, Danzig, Alice in Chains.

If it were food, it'd be: regurgitated.


Marah: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky

I wish I could find a way to make this album fit inside this review. I wish I could take the music and the words and every emotion I've felt while listening to 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and cram it all into this measly little blog, but I can't do it. This album is just too big.

This is urban music, or at least, it's what urban music was before the phrase "urban music" was hi-jacked by record companies and filled with racist overtones. This is music about urban life. These are songs about living and dying and growing up and growing old in crappy streets filled with run-down rowhouses and Chinese take-outs and drug dealers and sunsets that tease you with promises of a better life.

Unlike most rock (and "urban") artists, Marah understands that joy and pain are soulmates who walk hand-in-hand through our lives. It almost seems like the darker the subject matter of the words, the harder the band worked to infuse the music with light. They understand that the city is a tough place, a place of perseverance, but it's also a place of hope and magic and love... sometimes even when you're an addicted tranny hooker or a kid who is dying in the arms of the only girl who loved him.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music is everything great rock music should be: passionate, energetic, and genuine. The album would shine even if the lyrics were generic moon-june-spoon crap, but these words are exceptional. Most of them can stand on their own as poetry, a feat that few lyricists ever achieve. David Bielanko has a genuine gift with words, and in a fair world, he would be held in the same esteem as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL?)
The artwork is a bit boring, at least on the EPFL's version. (Versions I see online are slightly more compelling.) The band offered an incredibly deep pool of lyrical imagery (not to mention an obvious reference to the original Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou illustrations of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and a more gifted designer could've done wonderful things with the cover and liner notes. But the lyrics are included, and with an album like this, that's the most important thing for the package to contain.

Listen if you like: Bruce Springsteen is an obvious comparison, but the band sounds as if they're channeling The Boss' spirit instead of ripping off his notes. Fans of Dylan, Waits, and other great lyricists should absolutely give this a listen. Anyone who simultaneously loves and hates living in the big city will find many friends and neighbors in the characters who inhabit the songs.

If it were food, it'd be: A couple of slices of greasy pizza from the mom-and-pop take-out joint on the corner.