Pretty Vacant

New Times' panel of critics searches for musical gems in a disheartening 2001

TOP REISSUE YOU DIDN'T GET TO HEAR: Donny Hathaway, Live (Label M): It was the best of years for reissues (the first three Neu! albums, the last-word Dylan-Band "Basement Tapes" box A Tree With Roots, the expanded/remastered James Brown Live at the Apollo Vol. 2, etc.), but it was also the worst of years as bottom-line politics frequently overrode archival aesthetics. Evidence? This transcendent concert set from late soul king Hathaway. Not to be confused with a similarly titled earlier album, it was recorded in August and October of 1971 at Hollywood's Troubadour and NYC's Bitter End and features a smokin' version of Hathaway signature funk-jazz classic "The Ghetto" alongside covers of "What's Going On" and "Jealous Guy." Then literally on the eve of its September release, the record company, Label M, had its plug pulled, leaving the CD in limbo.

THE KEITH MOON MEMORIAL AWARD: While Spiritualized got all the headlines for its (admittedly excellent) Let It Come Down CD -- which included a reworking of "Lord Can You Hear Me," originally penned during S-ized leader Jason Pierce's Spacemen 3 days -- it took Pierce's erstwhile bandmate Pete Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom, to go looking for the real heart of rock 'n' roll on the highways and byways and in the motel rooms and swimming pools of Middle America. Touring with nary a new record to promote (or, for that matter, a U.S. label to underwrite the tour), Mr. Boom and his band Spectrum spent November in the States performing a set cheekily titled "Songs the Spacemen Taught Us" comprising mostly Spacemen 3 classics. The band was enthusiastically received, too -- save for one motor lodge's desk clerk in rural North Carolina who took exception to the band's decidedly foggy, somewhat uncontrollable demeanor and called the cops. Reportedly, Spectrum was escorted from the Tarheel State a few ounces of weed (and Lord knows how much powder and pills) lighter, leaving the notoriously pro-drug Kember to do some serious scavenging down Route 66 for his, ahem, kicks.

1. Lucinda Williams, Essence (Lost Highway): For a quote/unquote "alt-country rec," this is about as unclichéd as they come, an intimate, oftentimes fearless portrayal of emotional stasis and how it can bring one's life to a shuddering halt. It's also erotic as hell -- "C'mon, baby, let me taste your stuff," Williams purrs, as if she were a phone-sex operator dialing in from somewhere down on Main Street. And sonically, it's got an uncommon potency and heft that artists, it must be said, rarely chance upon twice.

Austin trio Spoon came of age with its 2001 release.
Austin trio Spoon came of age with its 2001 release.

2. Beachwood Sparks, Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop): As with Roger McGuinn's cosmic cowboy musings and Gram Parsons' recastings of Hank, Merle and Johnny as arbiters of the national conscience, the Sparks have a hybrid sound that's suffused in sincerity and soulfulness. It only coincidentally includes the twang, hum and chuckle of Telecaster, pedal steel and banjo, by the way; the band could've just as easily picked up samplers and synths. Herein observe post-teenage symphonies to God performed with philosophical reserve and instrumental abandon.

3. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Global A Go Go (Hellcat): Grandpa or godfather? Nope. Spokesman for a generation? Not a chance. Strummer himself told me that folks can "hose off" if that's their take on him. Instead, the ex-Clash main man opts for a less-restrictive mantle of musical spelunker, digging deep for everything from Afro-pop to Middle Eastern trance-rock to spliff-happy dub 'n' rocksteady, all deftly integrated into a compelling framework of fiery, take-no-prisoners punk rock. Socially pungent lyric of the year, courtesy Mr. S: "God sure baked a lot of fruitcake, baby!"

4. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia): As musically energized as it is lyrically rustic and quirky, the album voted Most Likely to Top All Critics' Lists also has an unavoidable apocalyptic tone that seems downright creepy when you realize that it was released on September 11. "High Water (For Charley Patton)," in particular, cuts to the bone: "Don't know what I'm gonna do/'Don't reach out for me,' she said/'Can't you see I'm drowning, too?'/It's rough out there/High water everywhere."

5. Mogwai, The Rock Action (Matador): So monumentally magisterial, its musical alchemy signifies it as no less than the post-post-rock era's Sgt. Pet Sounds' Lonely Hearts Club Band, an entire daydream nation's worth of Nu-Psych. Scrims of winnowing keyboards, swaying strings, peripatetic fretboard meanderings and sweet choirs contrast with massed-crescendo, horns/Mellotron/guitar soundscapes, constantly prodding the listener's emotions into states as suggestive as a TM session with the Maharishi.

6. Tindersticks, Can Our Love . . . (Beggars Banquet): Laying aside some of their previous forays into moody psych- and flamenco-pop in favor of the vintage sounds of Motown, Philly and Memphis, the 'sticks sculpted a passionate evocation of connubial bliss and illicit release. Singer Stuart Staples comes on like Al Green, pulls back like Bryan Ferry, then offers consolation like Curtis Mayfield. In the face of today's painfully formulaic R&B/hip-hop -- Destiny's Child? R. Kelly? Please -- these white Brits come off as the most soulful act on the planet.

7. Steve Wynn, Here Come the Miracles (Innerstate): In the same year that his unqualified early classic saw a remastered/expanded reissue (the Dream Syndicate's Days of Wine and Roses), Wynn unexpectedly hunkered down in Tucson and went about painting his masterpiece. Rock noir at its best, baked in the heat of the unforgiving Lower Sonoran sun and bursting forth with edgy, lyrically rich, punk-inspired heavy garage.

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