Top Ten Songs of 2015: #10-6

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the deluge of year-end “Best Of” lists is upon us, and Vintage Voltage is no different. What follows is the first batch of new music that I loved this year. All of these songs are 100% grass-fed, organic, Grade A rock & roll. We’ll be back next week with the final five, so don’t touch that dial.

This year, rather than the typical YouTube links, I’ve made a Spotify Playlist of these songs. You can find that at the bottom of the page.

  1. Don’t Wanna Fight No More, Alabama Shakes

Four out of five dentists agree: the second album is tough to crush. But according to almost everyone, Alabama Shakes did it. They tastefully updated their neo-soul sound without straying too far from the power of Brittany Howard’s voice or the solid grounding of the band’s rhythm section. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a great example—the whole track is drenched in spectral, haunting echo, but Howard’s painful squeal at the beginning of the song reminds you that however ethereal the band may get, they’ll remain grounded in the world of flesh and blood. And thank God, because we need them here.


  1. I’ve Been Failing, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Although it can’t touch “S.O.B” for sheer popularity, this is probably the second strongest cut on the album. It’s a mid-tempo track, but it swings hard on the back of an uncluttered piano figure and some great handclaps. It reminds me of “Soothe Me,” by Sam and Dave, and as a result I dance like a bad Motown* backup singer whenever this song comes on. Rateliff’s vocal is less frantic than in “S.O.B.,” but that actually allows his voice’s character to shine through better. Lyrically, Rateliff is really cornering the market on catchy tunes with emotionally ambiguous lyrics, and it’s difficult to say if this song’s protagonist is happy with where he is. Again, this hints at Rateliff’s depth as a songwriter, and I think will mean that the band weathers the incoming Soul Storm 2016 (of which more next week).

*For the three or four people who just sniffed at my “error,” rest assured I realize Sam and Dave recorded most of their big hits for Stax, not Motown. Now step away from the comment box.


  1. Send My Love (To Your New Lover), Adele*

Is anyone immune to Adele? She’s for sure your mom’s favorite, and you can’t blame her. She’s (Adele, not your mom) not the most musically inventive in the world, but Adele enjoys a sort of fan consensus not available to many musical acts these days. As many other critics have pointed out, another act that commands the same mass appeal is Taylor Swift, so it’s no surprise that Adele’s co-writers and producers on this track (Max Martin and Shellback), have penned a bunch of hits for Swift, including “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

I, however, prefer to think of this song as Adele’s own take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Like that song, “Send My Love” starts with a syncopated, funky hook, and builds to a great anthemic chorus with excellent sing-along potential. This should probably be the next single from 25, so liking this song may partly be a self-defense mechanism—because soon no one will be able to escape it.

*You’ll have to imagine this one, because it’s not on Spotify. Sorry about that.

  1. Blacka, Blackalicious

Although Blackalicious’ first album in ten years wasn’t meant to be a sweeping look at the state of American Blackness in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or D’Angelo’s Messiah was, Gift of Gab still makes his own statement of solidarity on this track. It’s a theme he’s addressed before (“Shallow Days,” off Nia leaps to mind), but he shows on “Blacka” that he’s lost none of his creativity. On this track, he compares the positive and negative connotations of blackness, broadly writ, insisting that he is both “darker than the random check of passengers” and “blacker than the President/well, half of him.” Chief Xcel’s production provides a nicely insistent syncopated underpinning, and his work really shines elsewhere on the album (“The Blowup” and others). Gab remains my favorite MC, and it was a treat to hear from him again this year. Fittingly, the track begins and ends with a Lee “Scratch” Perry sample that states, “I am the only man that can cure the world by speaking words.”


  1. Strangers, Langhorne Slim

On their new album, Langhorne Slim and the Law manage to capture some of the raucousness of their live show in a more polished, thoughtful package than their previous album, The Way We Move. “Strangers” in particular finds them with a slick, almost over-produced sound that should expose the band to a wider audience. Slim’s voice is still a treat to listen to, crackly and yelpy, while the band has managed to find a place for their banjo rock that doesn’t sound like they’re trying to fit in with a now-expired trend. This single represents a big step forward for the group, not least because at 3:36 it’s one of their longer songs. Even if the vocal hook sounds to me like it’s going to appear on an anti-depressant commercial any day now, it’s still a great tune. Go see these guys live if you can—they’re the real deal.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably saw a lot of these coming, but there’s a couple surprises on tap next week–including a new category: Guilty Pleasure of the Year. See you in a week!

Song of the Week: Février, Vincent Vallières

Click Here to listen to “Février,” by Vincent Vallières

Tonight, a legacy post from Turntablr, the spiritual predecessor to Vintage Voltage. And it’s only appropriate, given the winter we’ve had in the Northeast so far this year.

You know who knows about winter? People from Québec. They regularly get the kind of snow that would even make a penguin think twice, but rather then run away, they embrace it. This song, by French-Canadian pop singer Vincent Vallières, is a great example.

The name of the song translates as “February,” and the lyrics are sort of a free-wheeling association of all things wintery, from “February, little red nose/February, a bit drunk” to “February, lose your gloves/February, on skis.”

In three minutes, Vallières provides a great ode to “the little month that never ends” backed by strong handclaps and some random whooping. The song sounds like something he recorded in the midst of a booze-soaked night with a bunch of friends in a cabin—it sounds natural, and above all, fun. It’s an incredibly simple mix of musical elements that just works. There’s definitely a little sense of humor in the mix too: from the cough in the background at 0:35 that accompanies the lyric “Frileux et gripé” (roughly translated as “chilly and sick”) to the low whistle that sounds when Vallières mentions “le vent du nord” (“the north wind”) at 0:39.

Perhaps the reason why I enjoy this song so much is because I can actually understand the lyrics—it’s tough sometimes to appreciate songs in foreign languages, especially if you’re big into lyrics, although I hope you’ll get a kick out of this nonetheless.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 5-1

And we’re back! After a week of intensely scientific tabulation involving a horde of lab rats and a rather nifty slide rule, the editorial team here at Vintage Voltage has arrived at the top 5 songs of 2014. These are scientifically proven to be the best songs of the year, guaranteed to induce eargasm by the second chorus.

Ok, not quite.

The fact is, I’m just one guy. I can’t pretend that I listened to everything that came out in the last 365 days (apologies again to FKA twigs), and I don’t really have much of a finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not. But these songs meant a lot to me in the past year. They made me stop and listen really hard, and then hit the replay button. That may not be a very scientific criterion for inclusion, but these songs are my songs, and I hope that maybe they’ll become yours too.

5. Madman, Sean Rowe

There seems to be a few unifying factors going on in this list so far—rootsy guys with beards (cf. Ray LaMontagne), and singers with voices that will give your subwoofer a workout (see the next song by George Ezra). Sean Rowe has a voice I would know anywhere, dark and sweet as red wine. “Madman,” off of his album of the same name, contains a lot of elements that made me like “Desirée” so much: a soul/R&B groove removed from his solo acoustic work, bright, trebley guitars. But mostly for me it’s about that voice. If I could wrap myself in it like a buffalo robe, I would.

4. Budapest, George Ezra

I first heard this song sitting in my friend’s kitchen during the infamous 2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Riots–a story for another time. The song didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but after rediscovering it on the radio a couple months ago, I couldn’t get enough of it. When I first heard it, I thought the song’s vocal hook, the way Ezra stretches out “you” in the chorus, was kind of gimmicky. It is, but now I think it’s ok—especially because Ezra has such a nice voice, sounding like a slightly higher-pitched Sean Rowe (a rosé to Rowe’s claret). But beyond that, the song reminds me of Buddy Holly’s work—simple, not afraid to be a little silly (“be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby”), and relentlessly, criminally catchy. This song dominated my life for about a month after rediscovering it. His album will be released in the US on January 27th. It’s going to be big.

3. Christmas Eve, Nickel Creek

As a set of songs, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line is really satisfying. There’s not a weak moment on the album, and the band sounds wonderful together despite coming back after a long hiatus. I knew all this when I wrote about the album back in April, but now after months of living with this music, there’s a few tracks that float to the top.

“Christmas Eve” is all about expansions and contractions, with the sonic spectrum unfolding into a broad, full sound, and then condensing into simpler elements at the beginning and end of the track. It’s like a series of deep breaths, in and out. And deep breaths are necessary given the sensitive nature of Sean Watkins’ lyric, which resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back in April. The falling-out he describes so frankly has elements that are expressed in the music and vice versa. The confusion and mourning finds expression in small motifs, and Sara Watkin’s violin solo injects a shot of tea & sympathy into the whole arrangement. Nickel Creek isn’t the first band to create such a deft symbiosis between words and music, of course, but I think they were one of the bands that did it best this year. “Christmas Eve” is a song that has followed me and grown with me, and one I’ll always associate with 2014.

Note: Oddly enough, the entire Internet seems not to have the album version of this song available for me to link to. I’ve included a link to an inferior live version. You should try and find the album version on Spotify or something–it’s really worth it. Sorry, gang.

2. Seventeen, Lake Street Dive

I’m in love with this entire band and would take them all out for a nice steak dinner. Lake Street Dive sounds like nothing else out right now that I’m aware of, and not just because of Rachel Price’s sublime voice. They are an unabashedly brainy band, conservatory-educated, and they let it show in songs like “Seventeen.”

Of course, there has always been brainy music out there, as any Rush fan would loudly and insistently tell you. The Lake Street Dive difference, however, is that their musical complexity is accessible and unexpected. “Seventeen” changes tempo three times (!), seamlessly, the bass part mocks the pop/rock standard of only playing roots and fifths, and the drumming is tight tight tight. They also experiment with vocal texture by playing Mike Calabrese’s fuzzy high tenor off of Price’s liquid alto, a contrast which helps spotlight each voice.

They’ve done their homework, too. Sounds are cribbed from Motown, jazz, and the lighter side of rock, lyrics from Tom Petty (the hotel, you’ll note, is in Reseda). In many ways, Lake Street Dive is the ideal Vintage Voltage band, taking old sounds and making them new with great musicianship and a certain reverence.

1. Little Maggie, Robert Plant

So why isn’t Lake Street Dive number one? Well, they almost were. But in the end, although they made old sounds feel new, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space-Shifters managed to make new sounds feel old and comfortable while still being innovative–a far more difficult task.

Anyone could rightly expect Plant to just retire at this point. He’s got plenty of cash and respect, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him–he’s restless in the best sense of the word. For this album, he’s gone for an English folk/West African/blues sound with touches of electronic music. Just let that sink that in. There is no way that should work, but Plant and his band manage to find the commonalities between the styles and fuse them into this captivating blend that doesn’t seem to fully belong to either past or present, to one side of the Atlantic or the other.

“Little Maggie,” though not one of the singles, is the clearest expression of this sound, I think. It’s a traditional folk tune, but there’s pentatonic riffs played by banjo and doubled on a West African instrument called a khalam. The things that sound like fiddle breaks are played on a riti, another African instrument. And then there’s the pulsing synth bass. It’s almost too complicated for me to explain, so just hit the link. It’s like nothing else you’ll hear this year.

I can understand why Plant ripped up the Led Zeppelin reunion contract a month or two ago—while Jimmy Page acts as custodian, Plant is not done growing.

That’s it for another year, y’all. Thanks for reading–hope you found something to make it worthwhile. Best wishes for a safe and happy 2015.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 10-6

There’s nothing I love more than year-end Top 10 lists. Someone at Pitchfork is probably declaring the Top 10 list dead even as I write this, but for the rest of us they’re a great way to catch up on all the music you might have missed this year while you were brushing your teeth or whatever. And because every person will build a different list, they’re also a great opportunity for polite, thought-provoking discussion, or more accurately, a good excuse to defriend someone because FKA twigs’ album didn’t even crack their top 5.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see some familiar names on here, but there’s also plenty of new faces (spoiler alert: no FKA twigs. Sorry.) We’ll do numbers 10 through 6 tonight, and then return with the final five next week.

10. Back to the Shack, Weezer

I can’t pretend to be more than a casual Weezer fan, and I was introduced to the band at kind of a weird time—right in the “Beverly Hills” era. So “Back to the Shack” doesn’t really succeed in making me nostalgic for 1994, especially because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t sound a hell of a lot like Golden Era Weezer (“Buddy Holly,” “Undone,” etc.). The lyrics are a little cringe-worthy; I think if you have to write a song about how you’re rocking again, you’re likely not.

But damn it if this isn’t a catchy, bouncy tune from the Weez. It’s actually probably most like “Beverly Hills” in that it’s big on pop fun and relatively low on angst. For me, it’s always good to hear a new Weezer song on the radio, because it proves that the power-chord punk-pop that I grew up with is still alive out there somewhere, and Rivers Cuomo et al. are the guardians of the flame.

9. I’m Not the Only One, Sam Smith

Is it too easy to call Sam Smith the male Adele and be done with it? Both Brits sing modern pop that is a distant descendent of Dusty Springfield, and both have heart-stopping, jaw-dropping voices. “I’m Not the Only One” is Smith’s “Rumour Has It,” slightly more up-tempo than the first big single, and similarly about cheating on someone. As Smith hits the chorus, the effortless transition to falsetto along with the word “crazy” calls to mind Cee Lo Green circa Gnarls Barkley. If you don’t like this song, you must be some kind of monster. Which is ok, I guess.

8. Sins of My Youth, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, of all people, deserved a number one album this year. Not necessarily because Hypnotic Eye was the best album of 2014, but because they are an American institution, and in my opinion, kept rock & roll alive when everyone else had left it to rot. “Sins of My Youth” is the quietest moment on the record, a meditation on mistakes made and left forgotten. Texturally, it’s a sonic treat, with beautifully rich tremolo guitars and Steve Ferrone’s dry, close-mic’d drums. It’s a little reminiscent of “Riders on the Storm” in some stray moments but it’s much more accessible, and nowhere near as bloated.

7. My Wrecking Ball, Ryan Adams

I spent a lot of this summer and fall trying to explain to people that I wasn’t talking about 80’s hitmaker Bryan Adams. This is the solid-gold truth, and not a lame attempt at the least creative joke in history.

Ryan Adams has been around for a good long while and is wildly prolific (equal emphasis on “wild” and “prolific”), but there was a three-year gap between his last album and his release this year. “My Wrecking Ball” is one of the songs I liked best off of it, and it’s served as my entry point to the rest of Adams’ catalogue. It’s an alt-country ballad in the best tradition about the death of his grandmother. The first verse, with its implicit comparison between a beat-up car and the narrator is beautifully and starkly heartbreaking.

Also, Adams’ set at Newport Folk this year convinced me that it would be a blast to see him live—it not only rocks super hard, but is also funny and genuine. Listen to it here.

6. Drive-In Movies, Ray LaMontagne

This song finally sold me on Ray LaMontange. His typically powerful voice is turned down here, creating a dusty, breathy sound rather than the full bellow he summons most of the time. Musically, the track is a slick slice of Americana, with steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and an easy-rocking tempo. There’s some definite Byrds-like sparkle to the production as well. Lyrically, it’s a nice vignette of a slightly wayward youth spent sneaking cigarettes and blowing pocket money at the drive-ins. I’m not sure how many drive-ins there are left in the country now, but there was at least two within an hour of where I grew up, and LaMontagne captures them perfectly. I miss those drive-in movies too, Ray.

Top 5: Songs for Driving

After I’ve depressed the clutch and turned the key, the next thing I do in my car is reach for the power button on the radio. When I’m driving—and I’ve been driving a lot the past two weeks—music must be going. Particularly on long drives where the highway stretches out in front of me, I turn up the volume to keep me awake and focused.

There’s a real art to the ultimate driving playlist. I have made many, but the fact is that each trip demands different music. A few things, though, are constant. This is the time for simple drumbeats that you can play on the steering wheel and bombastic guitars that push your right foot a little more firmly on the accelerator than you’d intended. Here’s five of my favorites right now.


1. Panama, Van Halen
I don’t consider myself much of a Van Halen fan, but I’ve always liked this one. Blame Superbad. The best driving songs have a discrete intro and then a drop (for lack of a better term) that shifts you into fifth gear. Van Halen’s guitar grabs you immediately with this cinematic thirty-second-long introduction, until David Lee Roth’s “uuuh” kicks things off properly. And although his vocals are at times shrill enough to appeal only to dogs, he has great timing. The spoken interlude right around 2:35 is the best example—“I reach down between my legs and…ease the seat back.”

2. Radar Love, Golden Earring

If your car stereo doesn’t have good bass, I would prefer it if you skipped this one. The bass line to this song is so legendary that you should be able to pick it out in two notes after hearing it once, and deserves nothing less than speakers that will do it justice. It’s a long song, too, clocking in at about 6:30. While that’s generally not great if you’re just running out to get cigarettes and pop tarts, it’s ideal on longer trips—those six minutes pass quickly. My plan is to one day found a radio station that beams this song to the most desolate, static-ridden stretches of America’s interstate system. You’re welcome.

3. Runnin’ Down a Dream, Tom Petty

Maybe the quintessential driving song. The well-written lyrics are particularly appropriate, and I’ve always like the last verse: “I rolled on as the sky grew dark/I put the pedal down to make some time/there’s something good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.” Funny that the most memorable part of the song for me musically is the palm-muted, percussive strums that come after the first line of the chorus—not so much a musical statement as the absence thereof. An anti-riff, if you will.

4. Losing Days, Frank Turner

This came on during a drive to Massachusetts last week, and I was surprised at how much it energized me. I think it’s the opening crack of the drums and that mandolin intro, along with the interval jumps in the vocal part. It runs a little against the big guitars rule I established above, but it has the drumbeat, and it’s another great one for sing-alongs, particularly if you’re working on your harmonies.

5. Stacy’s Mom, Fountains of Wayne

A road trip is the perfect time for indulging guilty pleasures. You have a lot of time ahead of you, you’re alone, and thanks to modern automotive engineering, no one is going to hear you when you mangle the lyrics at full volume. If, for some reason, you do have a passenger, this is also a great candidate for an impromptu duet. I know it might be wrong, but I love this song, and you’re a liar if you say otherwise.

Album of the Week: A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek

It’s no secret that I like mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile. Until recently, though, I had only experienced him in a few limited contexts—like the excellent trad bluegrass album Sleep With One Eye Open. Some of his more experimental stuff, though, like Goat Rodeo Sessions or even the Punch Brothers, is a little too avant-garde for me.

I knew that Thile first got his start in a band called Nickel Creek, but it wasn’t until their new album A Dotted Line came out a few days ago that I really bothered to dig in.

The first thing you’ll learn about this album if you read anything about it is that it’s the band’s first record in nine years. This isn’t surprising given that as far as I can tell, Nickel Creek was (pardon this pun) disbanded in 2007 while the three members—Thile, along with fiddle player Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins—played in other projects and groups.

Critics generally lump Nickel Creek into the bluegrass genre, but in comparison to Sleep With One Eye Open, there’s very few of the genre’s touchstones present here. The songs are harmonically complex, played at moderate tempos, and lack the piercing vocalizations that spring to mind when the word “bluegrass” gets bandied about. Yet there’s something in the album’s acoustic instrumentation, the rich multi-part harmonies, and Eric Valentine’s clean and unobtrusive production that makes the album’s heritage apparent. You can tell what type of music they were raised on.

This tension between old and new is apparent in the first half minute of “Rest of My Life.” The opening guitar riff owes as much to American roots music reinterpreted through the Rolling Stones (cf. “Sweet Virginia” or “Sweet Black Angel”) as it does to Scruggs and Flatt. The harmonies appreciably flesh out the sound, but the cello chops during the bridge at 1:58 are more Goat Rodeo Sessions/Punch Brothers than trad bluegrass—although they evokes the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” as well.

Sean Watkins sings the two strongest songs on the album: the exquisite “Christmas Eve” and the joyful “21st of May.” “Christmas Eve”’s interval jumps in the melody probably make it a demanding song to sing, but Watkins handles them effortlessly enough that the listener can focus on his mournful longing rather than his technique. The chord progression is also consistently surprising, and moves in directions far beyond typically simple bluegrass patterns. It’s a well-crafted song that feels much longer—in a good way—than its 4:23 run time.

“21st of May” is just about as traditional as it gets on this album, with a undulating mandolin/guitar riff, and quaintly Evangelical lyrics. “They laughed when Noah built his boat/then cried when came the rain/and they mock me now but I will float/on the 21st of May” is hands-down my favorite chorus, again because of Watkin’s sincere delivery. He’s an empathetic vocalist and a clean guitar picker too—just listen to that riff.

Thile rivals Watkin’s for heartbreaking vocals on “Love of Mine,” but his most important contributions seem to be compositional rather than performed. He’s not slacking, but neither is he stealing the spotlight, as he tends to—consciously or not—with his other projects. This is actually really refreshing, particularly in light of Thile’s significantly higher profile than the Watkins siblings. Here, he’s the mandolin player in Nickel Creek, and not Chris Thile, MacArthur award winner and savior of mankind. His musical fingerprints are all over the songs, though, and I can’t help but think the tense reading of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” was Thile’s idea.

Sara Watkins’ fiddle provides a strong voice on the album’s two instrumentals, “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn.” She has a warm, rounded tone, and favors gilding lines over choppy ones. She’s equally adept at playing counterpoint when the other instruments have the melody, an essential skill for any violinist to learn, as the instrument doesn’t lend itself particularly well to rhythm playing. Her singing sounds like an extension of her violin playing, though on this album her brother is the stronger vocalist.

I think A Dotted Line’s strength lies in its accessibility. A listener can jump into the album at any point and immediately have a sense of what’s going on, while more experienced ears will marvel at the songs’ complexity and depth. I have to confess that I bought this album on a bit of a whim, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Although really, I shouldn’t have been. After more than 20 years working together, one Grammy and multiple nominations, I should have know (to paraphrase the oddly prescient Smucker’s corporation), “with a name like Nickel Creek, it has to be good.”

Album of the Week: Sunny Side Up, Paolo Nutini

Paolo Nutini’s voice sounds like a leather boot. It’s wrinkly and creased, but surprisingly flexible and resilient. More than any other instrument, it’s the singer’s sweat-soaked delivery that is the centerpiece of 2009’s Sunny Side Up.

Fittingly, it’s Nutini’s opening “hey!” at 00:09 that uncorks “10/10,”  an effervescent, cocky aperitif that promises musicianship and energy in equal parts as the album settles into its first course.

The organ-driven “Coming Up Easy” proudly wears its soul on its sleeve. Crisp, compressed guitar tones on the offbeats and a bari sax fill out the sound and call to mind vintage Stax and Muscle Shoals. It’s a textbook genre exercise that you could be excused for thinking was a Mark Ronson song. But Nutini is more than a tribute act—he’s a clever, gifted lyricist. His lyrics skew impressionist, which suits him well: “Sunday morning/got the hazy, hazy janes/I turn to you and inhale you where you lay.” He writes in such a way that you could be excused for thinking the song is about a break-up, and it is, in a way: “Hazy janes” is Scottish slang for marijuana, and the fact that the song reads equally well either way adds an element of depth to the whole production.

He hits deep soul territory with “No Other Way,” which is an Otis Redding-inspired howler that boasts a layered production and long legato horn lines.

“Pencil Full of Lead” finds Nutini and his band, The Vipers, working in a slightly different medium. It’s a 1920s jazz sendup that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-90s Squirrel Nut Zippers album. By either metric, the song isn’t terribly hip, but the muted trumpet line drips attitude, and the blistering harmonica and saxophone breaks swing the song so hard that the point is moot.

Like Van Morrison, Nutini—who is actually Scottish, despite his Italian matinee idol name—adroitly channels the powerhouse sound of classic American music, with fat horn hits and dynamic vocal performances. But he doesn’t indulge in the idiom throughout the record, and the big sounds of the disc’s soul songs alternate with more subdued arrangements that luxuriate in sonic simplicity and space.

“Growing Up Beside You,” for example, swaps horns for an accordion and dense, chorale-like vocal harmonies that contrast nicely with Nutini’s rough voice and wide vibrato up front.

“Tricks of the Trade” is my favorite of these quieter songs, which draws on an open guitar tuning and an Everly Brothers two-part harmony that manages simultaneously to sound like something you’d hear at your local open mic night and something that was dug up out of a vault of folk recordings. “We can see life hand-in-hand/the green, the blue, the rough, the sand,” has always been one of my favorite lines on the album.

If there’s one criticism that can be leveled at the album, it’s that Nutini seems to have difficulty uniting his two styles. His best effort at some sort of hybridization is track eight, “High Hopes,” which pulls together the orchestration of the soul tracks and a restrained, more spacious sonic setting. The pairing of flutes and quieter winds coupled with the peppy acoustic bass line and mixed percussion creates an identifiably original fusion. A reviewer from the BBC referred to it as “spiraling South American folk-gospel,” which is maybe not a bad way to put it.

Though it would be nice to have a litte more of this hybrid flavor, Nutini and his band offer a record that is by turns fun, cathartic, and soothing. The fact that the soul songs are a bit derivative doesn’t detract from their fun. And, to ape Stevie Wonder, with a voice like Paolo’s ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose.

Song of the Week: You Go Down Smooth, Lake Street Dive

Click here to listen to “You Go Down Smooth,” by Lake Street Dive

It goes a little against the whole point of this blog to talk about music that’s so new that it’s not even technically out yet, but I don’t mind breaking that rule for Lake Street Dive.

“You Go Down Smooth” is a great introduction to the group. They claim to be heavily influenced by both Motown and the British Invasion—a pretty trite remark coming from a lot of bands—but you can hear both elements here. The lightly distorted guitar and efficient drumming call to mind early Beatles or the Hollies, but the false ending and the horns that come in around the 2:28 mark owe a lot to mid-60s Detroit.

The real reason, though, why Lake Street Dive has blown me away is singer Rachael Price. Her alto is smooth and luscious with an impressive range. She doesn’t really have any of the huskiness of Adele’s or Amy Winehouse’s voices, though Price shares both women’s jazz-influenced delivery. Spider-fingered bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese provide bright back-up vocals to balance Price’s slightly dark timbre–like adding just a litte milk to your coffee.

This band is hands-down the most exciting thing I’ve heard in the past six months. They’re everything I want: a charismatic, experienced group of unsettlingly savvy musicians who are able to absorb the past sixty years of popular music and hip-check it out of orbit just enough to make it theirs.

Lake Street Dive’s new album, Bad Self Portraits, comes out on Tuesday the 18th. You need to go out and buy it.

Album of the Week: Stunt, Barenaked Ladies

Give credit where credit is due: “One Week” is probably one of the Barenaked Ladies’ greatest songs. For a lot of people, it’s the only song by the band that they know (excepting maybe “If I Had $1000000,” which I first heard on an old New York State Lottery ad). But if you stop listening to 1998’s Stunt after Steven Page cryptically intones “Birchmont Stadium, Home of the Robbie,” you’re doing yourself a disservice, because this album is the Ladies’ best.

I think this band gets unfairly written off as a one-hit wonder at best, and a novelty act at worst, because their songs often contain humor. But as anyone who listens to Flight of the Conchords knows, writing funny lyrics is far from easy, and belies a really solid grasp of rhyme, timing, and vocabulary. Lines like “Forget the café latte/screw the raspberry iced tea/a Malibu and Coke for you/a G&T for me” (from track six, “Alcohol”) aren’t necessarily inevitable, and the band should be praised for lyrics like that instead of written off. You can write funny songs without being a comedy act.

And it’s the wink and grin of songs like “Alcohol” or “Some Fantastic” which makes the rest of the album emotionally bearable. It’s pretty dark and unexpectedly creepy in places. “I’ll Be That Girl,” is told from the point of a depressive jilted lover who contemplates killing himself—the closing lines of the chorus “If I were the sun, you would be in shadow/If I had a gun, there’d be no tomorrow,” are frank and unsettling, especially when contrasted with the sparkly guitars that are way up in the mix.

“In the Car,” about a stunted relationship that is never really consummated, is more melancholy than outright dark. The narrator doesn’t seem too upset that the relationship is ending, but does have a sense of how strange it is to be with someone and then release them out of your life. The guitar intro and outro here are really top-notch, and quickly establish the song’s tone.

“Never is Enough” follows this one, and is pretty straightforward pop song about realizing that the only person you really need to do things for is yourself. There’s no need to keep up with the Joneses. There’s even some fun little turntable elements sprinkled throughout, which pair very interestingly with the layered acoustic and electric guitars.

Harmonically, none of the songs on the album are terribly complicated, but the group, especially guitarist Ed Roberston, has a talent for arranging these simple structures in engaging ways that make them sound more complex than they are. Take the simplicity of “Light Up My Room,” with a fingerpicked ostinato guitar part that propels the song throughout its 3:36 length.

More so than the Ladies’ other albums, the listener feels the raw nerves of sentiment here—particularly on the sublime “Call and Answer,” where Page exhausts himself with the strength of his feeling. It’s this emotional give-and-take that makes Stunt effective as an album: the band allows the listener to explore a world that is as manic-depressive as it is catchy.

Song of the Week: Judy in Disguise (With Glasses), John Fred and His Playboy Band

 Click here to listen to “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)”

I realized that we’re actually a little skimpy on vintage content right now, so today I’m digging up a one-hit wonder recorded in 1967. It’s a song that I used to hear on my local oldies radio station as a kid, before it disappeared when that station went under corporate control. I re-discovered it a few years later on the soundtrack to the film “Pirate Radio,” one of my favorites.

This song really has it all: a horn section, strings, a sitar outro, a singer that sounds like a less whacked-out Donovan, and light psychedelic elements. In a way, it almost seems like a crass approach to songwriting: let’s just throw out bunch of hip musical touchstones and see what sticks. Maybe the kids will like it!

Yet for some reason this over-caffeinated approach to hit making works, and I think that’s because the rhythm section on the song is so tight. You can’t say no to that drum and bass intro, and the bass part is wisely kept up in the mix throughout. The song grooves along on the strength of this bass line until about 00:37, when the horns come in. The horn hits and the groove have always made me feel like this is more of a R&B song than anything else—it’d be interesting to hear a version of this sung by Sam Cooke.

Despite the R&B undercarriage, the psychedelic elements don’t sound out of context. They add to the song’s character and keep it playful—it’s about stealing someone’s glasses, for God’s sake—even if they do feel a little tacked on. The song is a nice record of a time when, increasingly, anything was possible in a recording studio: if you wanted to bring in a string section, it was no problem. Want a sitar player to play literally seven notes in the last five seconds of the song? Go nuts.

So just enjoy this for what it is: a stylistic experiment, sure, but above all, just a blast to listen to.