The Best Indie Albums of 2018... and some you might have missed!
By Lee Zimmerman
P. Hux, known formally as Parthenon Huxley, has a vast pedigree as far as power pop is concerned. Aside from a string of superb solo albums, he also performs as part of the Orchestra, a band whose membership includes veterans of ELO. Hux’s latest solo endeavor, aptly titled The One, offers another outstanding example of his ability to craft irresistible melodies, resonant hooks and songs that sink in on first listen. These are tunes crafted in a classic pop tradition, and if we were looking back on the ‘70s and ‘80s, suffice it to say they’d not only have been radio ready, but classic rock contenders.
Ad Vanderven boasts an extensive resume as both a singer and songwriter, as well as a tenure with Iain Matthews and the Brit folk trio known as Plainsong. Still, it’s Ad on his own that’s drawn the majority of attention throughout his career, and with his latest effort, I Was Hank Williams, he focuses on songs drawn from a vintage motif. Granted, there’s little here that actually references the album’s namesake, but several tracks do take on Dylan-eque designs, thanks to Vanderveen’s rustic-sounding vocals and an adept acoustic style drawn from poetic narratives and a genuinely soothing sensibility.
In his autobiographical memoir Big City Cat - My Life in Folk-Rock, singer-songwriter Steve Forbert candidly reflects on the circumstances that first brought him to the public eye and eventually led him to carve out a prolific 40-year career. The book is accompanied by its own soundtrack, an exceptional new album called The Magic Tree. With songs gleaned from previously recorded acoustic demos, and overdubbed with new backing tracks, it comes across as upbeat and optimistic throughout. The message is clear — that is, that age ought not diminish one’s lust for living. That’s always been Forbert’s mantra, and here again, his music affirms his intent.
Following the final retirement of The Band’s original incarnation, guitarist/vocalist Jim Weider stepped in for the departed Robbie Robertson and helped helm the group’s later line-up alongside founding members Helm, Manuel, Hudson and Danko. With all but Hudson now passed away, Weider formed The Weight Band, a group that effectively revives and recreates The Band’s original rustic sound. Most of the tracks on World Gone Mad, the group’s debut, are originals but two choice covers — Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locusts” and the Garcia-Hunter tune “Deal” — adhere to that vintage template. Granted, it may not be the original ensemble, but as a successor, it keeps that arcane spirit alive.
Suffice it to say Rob Picott is one of America’s finest singer-songwriters. An expressive artist who holds high standing among his fellow musicians, he’s been responsible for any number of outstanding albums over the course of his career. His latest, Out Past the Wires, succeeds on several levels, whether judged by quality, quantity or both. A double disc set boasting 22 exceptional songs, it runs through a wide gamut of emotions, from remorse and reflection to decisive determination. Picott has an outstanding group of support players alongside, including esteemed producer Neilson Hubbard, and guitarist Will Kimbrough, but clearly, it’s Picott’s original material that ensures the album’s success.
In the past, Matthew Houck, A.K.A. Phosphorescent, has mostly been known for his shimmering soundscapes and slightly off-kilter aural embellishment. That template still holds true for C’est LaVie, but as the title implies, Houck has also loosened up to a great degree. Granted, there’s still more than a hint of cosmic cacophony, but on the whole, the songs are more ebullient and effusive than ever before. It makes for a nice change, an album that evokes far more ease and appeal than any earlier offerings. Houck still maintains solid indie appeal, but the accessibility factor makes this a supreme statement throughout.
After an illustrious power pop career encompassing such singular combos as the Spinning Jennies and the Well Wishers, singer, guitarist and chief musical architect Jeff Shelton has fully engaged himself in a new project he’s dubbed Hot Nun, a straight ahead rock and roll outfit with the same melodic quotient as his previous outfits. The group’s sophomore set, the aptly named Born to Blaze, maintains that spirited approach throughout its six songs, confirming the fact that Shelton — a veritable one man band throughout — remains as spirited as ever. It’s well recommended for anyone partial to Cheap Trick, Sugar, Redd Kross or blazing rock ‘n’roll in general.
GospelbeacH (the capitol ‘H’ is deliberate) is a California collective in the ‘60s Southern California tradition, part Grateful Dead, part Neil Young and Crazy Horse, part freewheeling amalgam. Their music boasts a Pacific Ocean sheen, all Laurel Canyon luminescence with a sturdy rock and roll undertow, Although members come and go — several spun off from the Black Crowes camp — the essential trio of Brent Rademaker, Johnny Niemann and Jason Soda keep things on track. Not surprisingly then, the band’s latest effort, Another Winter Alive, is their most cohesive effort yet, flush with pure populist appeal and, its title aside, the sweep of a sunny, slightly psychedelic sensibility.
As a close colleague of America’s Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, it ought to come as little surprise that singer-songwriter Jeff Larson purveys a certain knack for creating sparkling melodies with an effusive charm. Billowing harmony and lithe melodies have always played a prominent role in his ongoing series of solo albums, a sound that often recalls The Beach Boys in particular. Yesterday’s Dream, a duo effort with multi-instrumentalist John Blakeley, maintains that upward gaze, and given the presence of veteran session drummer Scott Matthews, Brian Wilson sidekick Jeffrey Foskett and Jeff Pevar of CPR fame, it’s hardly surprising that the atmosphere and ambiance retain that supple suggestion.
In the early ‘70s, the British band Unicorn would have been scarcely more than a minor footnote had it not been for the fact that Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour signed on as their producer and sat behind the boards for their three albums. Like their U.K. cousins Starry Eyed and Laughing, they held a particular fascination for American West Coast rock, and their efforts emulated various familiar favorites — CSNY, America, the Everly Brothers et. al. Those that do remember — and even those who don’t — ought to enjoy this set of archival offerings titled Laughing Up Your Sleeve, 20 heretofore unreleased recordings and demos that sound every bit as engaging as the Unicorn heard back in the day. All wistful reflection with ample infusions of pedal steel, harmony and acoustic guitars, these blissful Gilmour produced melodies provide a soothing salve for today’s more hectic happenstance.