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Mix Tapes From The Midwest:
New Songs

The other day, I realized that 95% of the music I have mentioned in my column so far is at least a few years old.

I don’t want everyone to think I don’t listen to any new music, so I decided to write this installment of my column: great songs from my favorite albums released so far in 2012.

Side A

1. Hurray for the Riff Raff – Look Out Mama (from Look Out Mama)

I love Alynda Lee’s voice. She’s a modern day honky-tonk angel, hitting sweet pure notes at times, and at other times letting her voice crack like ice cubes in a glass of bourbon. On Look Out Mama, HFTRR has added more of a fleshed-out full-band sound to their folk-country. The album version of this song features a barroom-style piano, and Alynda even breaks into some Hank Williams-esque yodeling. But on the version in this video, it’s just a fiddle and an acoustic guitar and Alynda’s lovely voice. It’s sparse without sounding lacking, and perfectly suits this tune about the prodigal daughter returning home. I’m a heavy, heady gal, full of sorrow. Don’t ask me how I got this way, cos it’s been too long to tell. But I’m getting tired of going down this road all by myself.

2. Leonard Cohen – Crazy to Love You (from Old Ideas)

This is the best album Leonard Cohen has released in ages, because he rid himself of that synth-obsession he had for so many years. This track features his distinctive guitar sound, that pretty finger-picking with the deep buzz at the ends of notes, and it of course includes his devastating poetry. His worn voice whispers a lullaby to the darkest places in all of us – Sometimes I’d head for the highway. I’m old, and the mirrors don’t lie. But crazy has places to hide in, that are deeper than any goodbye.

3. Franz Nicolay – Did Your Broken Heart Make You Who You Are? (from Do the Struggle)

If you don’t know who Franz Nicolay is, you should probably find out. He’s been in the circus punk cabaret group World/Inferno Friendship Society, and in the bar rock band The Hold Steady; he’s a founding member of the Balkan jazz ensemble Guignol, and the outlaw orchestra Anti-Social Music. With his solo stuff he’s…well, kind of a circus punk troubadour, I suppose. With this album, he has really come into his own. Sonically, Do the Struggle is kind of all over the place, but in a great way, because it’s never dull, not for one second. This song has a cinematic sweep and a jukebox-oldie swing. It’s happy and sad, and will make you want to swoon and weep. You are capable of anything, aren’t you? You learned it from someone, someone learned it from you. Cruelty is a virus, I know, it’s in my blood too. You think you know someone, but you never know what they will do.

4. Hop Along – Young and Happy! (from Get Disowned)

This band used to be known as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis – for this album, they dropped the second part of the name. That’s not the only thing that has changed: they used to sound all soft and folky, and this is a full-on rock album, distorted guitar and all. This song reminds me of the best of ’90s female-fronted indie rock/punk – sweet yet raspy vocals, and a complete wall of noise to rattle yer bones. Someone we love hitched a ride to Minneapolis, it aged him too soon. Someone, I never told you, I turned my back on. Now I think she hates me, hates me. To be a child again! and easily forgiven. But I’ve done my fair share to weaken the envied innocent. At least with you I got to be young and happy!

5. Bruce Springsteen – Death to My Hometown (from Wrecking Ball)

Wrecking Ball is full of the kind of stuff Bruce Springsteen is known for – sad songs of hard luck heroes, and raw and angry working class anthems. I’d venture to say we need those sorts of songs at this juncture in history more than we have in a very long while. Musically, it has its rock’n’roll moments, but it is also tinged with the traditional folk elements he has been working with in recent years. This track is an urgent Celtic march that would do the fellas in Dropkick Murphys proud. No armies stormed the shores for which we’d die. No dictators were crowned. I awoke on a quiet night, I never heard a sound. The marauders raided in the dark and brought death to my hometown, boys. Death to my hometown.

6. Dr. John – Revolution (from Locked Down)

Oh my, my. Dr. John just keeps getting better and better, showing no signs of stopping or stagnating. On his newest album, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, he strays away from his “Night Tripper” jazz-funk style and delves into blues and soul and even Afro-pop. Instead of his ubiquitous piano sound, he mainly plays a Farfisa organ. Let me put it this way: when you listen to his older stuff, you feel like you’re in New Orleans, but when you listen to this album, you feel like you’re in Memphis. This song in particular makes me feel like I’m sitting in on a recording session at Stax. Like the Springsteen track, this number is an anthem for our time, but rather than making me want to pound my fist on a bar table and sing along, this one makes me want to dance. Brother, the warpath is painted with liberty. Propaganda, hypocrisy. Have we lost our constitution?

7. Balkan Beat Box – Part of the Glory (from Give)

Balkan Beat Box are an amazing combination of hip hop, world beat, electro, funk, rock, jazz, and pretty much anything else you can think of. And if this song doesn’t make you want to move, you probably have no soul. Even if it’s true that Everybody wants to be big like a God. Everybody wants to have more than they have got.

8. Firewater – Nowhere to Be Found (from International Orange!)

Firewater was combining Eastern European musical styles with elements of punk long before bands like Gogol Bordello existed. They still do it; to great effect, in my opinion. This album (which was produced by Tamir Muskat of Balkan Beat Box) also sprinkles in Asian and Middle-Eastern sounds that Tod A. has picked up on his travels ’round the world, as well as the carnival-from-hell sound they’ve always had a little bit of. On this track, my favorite thing about Firewater – Tod A.’s darkly clever lyrics – really stands out. And the world (and my life) may be a mess, but this song makes me feel okay about that. She had a hole in her heart, cos they say that bullets can kill you – but it’s love that will rip you apart.

Side B

1. Japandroids – Fire’s Highway (from Celebration Rock)

The best way to describe this album as a whole is to say that it’s a Big Rock Album, and man, that’s such a good thing. This track starts out with a pretty, jangly guitar, and then the drums come in all furious and momentous, and it hits you. This is a love song to a one night stand; a great tune to blast while driving in your car with the windows rolled down. Some empty bottles, the cold sweat blues. Howling like outlaws from her rented room. No rising sun confession, dear, only a restless night I’ll nurse for years.

2. Dan Vapid and the Cheats – In a Heartbeat (from Dan Vapid and the Cheats)

I love every band Dan Vapid has ever been in, and his newest one is no exception. It’s in the vein of a lot of Lookout Records stuff (which is no surprise, as Dan was in Screeching Weasel) – straight up pop punk with a bit of a ’50s/’60s jump. This song just makes me so darn happy. At the end of the day, I did it my way. If I had to do it over again, I would do it in a heartbeat.

3. Joyce Manor – See How Tame I Can be (from Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired)

On this album, Joyce Manor have added a hint of new wave to their punk rock. They even cover The Buggles’ song “Video Killed the Radio Star!” This track definitely has an ’80s feel – just listen to the movement of the bassline. And the lyrics, oh, the lyrics; if the vocals were a little more polished, I could imagine Morrissey singing: See how tame I can be. In the reflection I watch myself watching TV. And it’s too much to take and so I say to myself, “I never told you that I loved you because I don’t.”

4. Tooth Soup – Another Year (from Casting Off Curses)

Tooth Soup are another pop punk band (I like pop punk, okay?), but a bit sloppier and rawer than David Vapid and the Cheats. Think early Against Me! rather than The Queers. It’s also the newest project of Chris Clavin, founder of Plan-It-X Records and member of many bands, most notably Operation: Cliff Clavin, Ghost Mice, and The Devil Is Electric. On this track, the voices of the two vocalists bounce off each other, sometimes blending and other times not quite, and I love that imperfection. Thematically, this song represents what, to me, is the best of punk, or really, the best of any music. Everything’s screwed up, but we won’t give up the struggle. I can still have fun, even though I’m up to my knees in debt.

5. Heavy Cream – The Jam (from Super Treatment)

I saw these cats open for Hunx and His Punx earlier this year, and was blown away. They’re a quartet from Nashville, consisting of three awesome women and one cool dude. This album is punk – but it harkens back to the early years; it’s reminiscent of bands like Iggy and The Stooges and Blue Cheer. Call it garage psych-punk. And this tune is pure sex, an “I Wanna Be Your Dog” for 2012. Got you in my bed, don’t you be too kind…yeah, I really want it, yeah I really really want it.

6. Hunx – Private Room (from Hairdresser Blues)

On Hunx’s first album without his Punx, he covers some heavier topics than he worked with on his earlier albums, such as death and absence, and it’s destined to be a classic. Don’t think it’s all sorrow, though. There are tracks such as this one, which is a super-fun ’60s garage-pop (listen to those ‘yeah yeah yeahs’) ode to reuniting with a lover that you haven’t seen in a long long while. It’s been so long since we’ve been together, and now that we’re finally gonna be, we’ve got some secrets to tell each other. I know I’ve got some secrets left in me.

7. Stripminers – Better Than a Song (from Movies)

At the heart of the Stripminers is the duo of Brett Anderson (formerly of The Donnas) and Paul Stinson (formerly of The Radishes), but all the other musicians are just as integral to their sound. If you hear a little bit of X and The Knitters, well, that is indeed DJ Bonebrake on drums and vibes. A good portion of this album is full of rollicking countrypunk/alt-country tunes, but they slow it down for this track. Brett and Paul’s vocals have the perfect interplay on this tune, and it’s very sexy. Yet there’s something almost sinister about it that I can’t quite describe, like it’s one small step away from being a murder ballad. Perhaps it’s that guitar creeping around in the background, or perhaps it’s lyrics like – Every time I bared my teeth, you offered me your neck.

8. Tim Barry – 40 Miler (from 40 Miler)

This is quickly turning into a ‘Tim Barry appreciation’ column, considering that I have already included both his solo stuff and Avail on different occasions, and now this. Ah well. 40 Miler is like what he’s been doing with his solo stuff from the beginning, and rather than getting stale, it keeps getting better. It has train songs, travel songs, his takes on old old tunes such as “Hobo Lullaby,” and songs like the title track – a full band folk-country number, complete with banjo, harmonica, slide guitar, and Tim’s self-deprecating sense of humor, plus a dash of hope. Whenever I’m feeling like I’ve wasted my life by writing and traveling, I listen to this song, and Tim tells me: It don’t take skill nor luck to never amount to much. But I’ve got miles and miles and miles, of nothing but miles and miles.

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