Taking stock last night, as the sun dove below the trees on the year’s longest day, it occurred to me that 2012 has already provided a harvest of good-rocking blessings.
There have been tough-minded albums that helped frame a difficult age from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Kevin Gordon, and some interesting collaborations — as Dr. John rocked out with the Black Keys, and Yes co-founder Chris Squire issued a terrific pop-inflected prog record with Genesis alum Steve Hackett. Jack White finally broke free of the White Stripes, even as we enjoyed a quartet of fully realized comebacks.
Mitch Ryder issued his initial U.S. long player in three decades, while the dB’s completed the first album featuring all four original members since 1982. There was also Van Halen (who finally managed an album-length collaboration again with founding singer David Lee Roth), Joe Walsh (who hadn’t put out a non-Eagles effort since 1992) and — maybe the most improbable of all — the Beach Boys.
All Brian Wilson and Co. did was issue their most consistent album since the early 1970s.
And 2012 is only half over? My highlights so far (click through the titles for complete reviews) …
MITCH RYDER – THE PROMISE (POP/ROCK): Eleven new originals — with the title track’s gritty portrait of a struggling middle America as its centerpoint — plus a live version of the Motown classic “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” recorded at producer Don Was’ annual Concert of Colors. The two first met when the producer was at work in the studio where Ryder was making 1980′s Naked But Not Dead, and their simpactico sense of things gives this long-awaited new album a directness and authority — notably on its thrillingly scuffed up new version of Ryder’s old tune “My Heart Belongs to Me,” which roils like a muscular old Memphis side. Ryder reminds us of his own promise here, and he makes good on it all over again.
JOE WALSH – ANALOG MAN (ROCK): Cleaned up and focused, Walsh can still deftly recall his hell-raising days of youth — tearing into a series of nasty-ass riffs on tracks like “India” and “Funk No. 50,” the last a scalding update of a key moment from his pre-Eagles stint with the James Gang. You’re reminded, all of a sudden, that Joe didn’t just play guitar with a chainsaw menace; he actually carried a chainsaw around. But there’s more to Joe Walsh, and more to this album, than that. Full of raw emotion, frank admissions, fun pop asides and memorable guitar gumption, Analog Man illustrates once more just how complicated this guy always was.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Kevin Gordon discusses his early days as a punk rocker who never took to church, and how the joys of John Lee Hooker eventually muscled past poetry in a young man’s heart.]
KEVIN GORDON – GLORYLAND (POP/ROCK): Returning with his first new album in seven years, this Nashville singer-songwriter drills in on the second half of that descriptor — telling stories that resonate like age-old fables, even on the first listen. Produced by Joe McMahan (Freedy Johnston, Allison Moorer), Gloryland is another milestone in a career that’s already seen Gordon craft well-regarded sides with producer Garry Tallent of the E Street Band, singer Lucinda Williams and Bo Ramsey, now producer and guitarist with both Greg Brown and Williams. Along the way, the Louisiana native’s songs have also been reinterpreted by the likes of Irma Thomas, Southside Johnny, Keith Richards and Levon Helm, too. His powerful new release underlines why Gordon has so quickly soared into that rarefied air. He’s got the goods.
JACK WHITE – BLUNDERBUSS (POP/ROCK): Stepping out, finally, into his own, White brings along familiar sounds and textures. You hear something of the White Stripes throughout Blunderbuss, and something of his many collaborative efforts since his partnership with ex-wife Meg White suddenly blew apart: There’s a riff reminiscent of the Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” on the new “Freedom at 21,” and “Trash Tongue” strongly recalls his recent grease-popping R&B work with Wanda Jackson. But, then again, this album is like nothing he’s ever done before, so full of musical ambition and quirky twists and thrilling chance-taking turns and startling successes, that Blunderbuss forces White into a whole new light: Were the White Stripes, who now sound startlingly direct — maybe too conservative, in retrospect — actually holding him back?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL (POP/ROCK): This album boasts the kind of sweeping aspirations that are all but lost in the download age, as Springsteen turned the ragged emotion and pent-up rage from a period of staggering loss into a project that took an intriguing number of musical risks — even as it took on even bigger themes. He talked about the haves and the have nots, about the difficulties of accepting things that are never coming back, about the way that faith can gird us in tough times. As with anything of such ambition, not all of it worked. No matter: Wrecking Ball quickly became one of the most-talked-about recordings in recent memory, and that was before the late Clarence Clemons came bursting out in the middle of “Land Of Hope And Dreams” — peeling off one final heart-stopping, tear-springing solo for the ages.
VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (ROCK): It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with David Lee Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in. That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two.
SQUACKETT, WITH CHRIS SQUIRE AND STEVE HACKETT – A LIFE WITHIN A DAY (PROG ROCK): Pop gems like “Perfect Love Song,” “Divided Self” and “Can’t Stop the Rain” remind us how both of these men emerged from the intricate layers of classically inspired 1970s rock in Yes and Genesis to scale the pop charts a decade later. But just when you get comfy, Squackett throws a curveball like “Divided Self,” which comes crashing down toward song’s end into a brilliantly spooky, broken-Moviola dirge. Elsewhere, there are more than a few fantastical, very old-school moments, notably on “Aliens” and “A Life Within A Day.” “Stormchaser,” meanwhile, possesses what can only be called an ass-whipping thump — sounding, as does the title track at times, like nothing so much as their interpolation of prog-rock Zeppelin.
DR. JOHN – LOCKED DOWN (ROOTS ROCK): The project begins with a humid closeness, as night sounds surround the title track’s lean rhythms, and it never backs away. Auerbach matches Dr. John’s cranky hoodoo-man vocals, song by song, with his own brown-gravy groove — and, in a move that gives the album its signature sound, encouraged Dr. John to explore his familiar penchant for spooky funk at the organ. What you end up with is the best Dr. John album in ages, as swampy and oozy as the Night Tripper’s 1968 triumph Gris Gris but as gnarled and tough as 1998′s Anutha Zone.
THE dB’S – FALLING OFF THE SKY (POP/ROCK): The reunited dB’s come storming out here, quickly dispensing with the expected sheen of lazy nostalgia from the opening track. Check out Peter Holsapple, filled with the pissed-off brio of classic Neil Young, squalling: “You better wake up, wake up, wake up!: That time is gone.” Chris Stamey follows with “Before We Were Born,” a resonant sunburst of jangle-pop, and in two songs the dB’s — together in the studio for the first time since 1982′s Repercussion with all four original members — have reclaimed everything that made them such a memorable snark-pop presence in 1980s-era rock, even as they deftly update their sound. There’s a deeper complexity to the music, and — in a few notable instances — an even harder edge to the songwriting.
BEACH BOYS – THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (POP): Who would have guessed, after decades of awful public squabbling, that the battling Beach Boys would return at all — must less in perfect harmony? The first new album in forever to feature founders Al Jardine, Mike Love and Brian Wilson, along with legacy members David Marks and Bruce Johnston, is highlighted by a stirring finale suite of songs, very much in the style and substance of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. If some — or, maybe all – of it feels steeps in late-summer reminiscence, well, that’s also part of the magic of their return. After all, Wilson was waxing poetic about things like transistor radios, beach bunnies and hot rods back when they were all shiny and brand new.