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Treading Water
By Dan Nucci

Quarter Report: The Best Five Albums This Year… So Far


1. Califone- “Quicksand/Cradlesnakes” (Thrill Jockey)

Quote: “Left out in the rain too long there was not no glory to re-live…”

Amazingly, this second full album from Tim Rutili’s cashed-out indie blues folk collective gets better from start to finish. After a year spent on live/improv scores to indie film and animation(1), Califone picks back up on the stripped-down but structured take on Americana they proffered on 2001’s “Roomsound.” Throughout, Rutili’s Surrealist, stream of consciousness lyrics lie in dark contrast to his rootsy guitar, piano and fiddle accompaniment. Loops, electronic pops and whirs and layers of muted feedback weave in and out of tracks to further remind the listener that this isn’t a Harry Smith collection of lost jewels from a forgotten era of porch recording. Highlights: “Million Dollar Funeral,” “When Leon Spinx Moved Into Town,” “Stepdaughter.”


2.Everclear- “Slow Motion Daydream” (Capitol)

Quote: “I want to feel like I am living again.”

Art Alexakis’ world is one wrapped up in regret and an overwhelming urge for simplicity. Over and over, on album after album, he talks of exorcising his demons, leaving behind bad relationships, and returning to those singular moments of happiness where the world is benign. This, the band’s third full album in as many years, falls somewhere between the first and second installments of 2000’s “Songs from an American Movie” in quality. If you can get past the obvious radio-ready rock tunes like “Volvo Driving Soccer Mom” and “Sunshine (That Acid Summer),” the album’s quieter offerings are its true treasure. Highlights: “Science Fiction,” “Chrysanthemum,” “A Beautiful Life.”


3. The Minus Five- “Down With Wilco” (Yep Roc)

Quote: “I try to catch a piece of sky but I fly too low…”

This album is billed as a “Tragedy In Three Halfs”- but what it plays as is the more clean-cut kid brother to Wilco’s acclaimed “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Yes, Scott McCaughey is at the helm here- but the presence of the vanguard of alt-country as his backing band (along with notables like REM’s Peter Buck) makes this something more than just another singer-songwriter throwaway. McCaughey’s compositions portray the weirdness of small towns and the struggles of their inhabitants against their dashed dreams and limitations. Highlights: “Days of Wine and Booze,” “Daggers Drawn,” “Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit).”


4. Cat Power- “You Are Free” (Matador)

Quote: “Don’t be in love with the autograph. Just be in love when you love that song.”

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Chan Marshall in her guise as Cat Power. She’s back with venom, sorrow and empathy in equal doses, and grunge rock statesmen Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder are along for the ride. The arrangements are spare and emotive, often coupling piano and guitar under Marshall’s plaintive vocals (insert a guitar/drums pairing for the more driving tracks).(2) Unfortunately, the album’s biggest drawback is its packaging- a double-pouch digipak that hides a gigantic fold-out insert on the left and the disc itself- nearly impossible to extricate- on the right. Highlights: “Good Woman,” “He War,” “Shaking Paper.”


5. Quintaine Americana- “Dark Thirty” (Curve of the Earth)

Quote: “I don’t start shit anymore-but if it entertains me, I don’t stop it.”

The first time I saw Quintaine Americana- shortly after they relocated to Beantown from Mississippi- bassist Marc Schleicher was swaggering about the Middle East Upstairs stage in a ten-gallon hat. There was nothing like their Southern, trailer-trash noise rock in town at that time. Ten years and several albums later, they’ve added a second guitarist (Pete Valle), their sound is cleaner, more focused and less punishing, and Schleicher is involved in several other notable projects (Cracktorch, Coke Dealer, Liquor Tricks). Yet “Dark Thirty” delivers- Robert Earl Dixon’s raspy snarl is unmistakeable, and The Quint’s dark tales of love and life gone wrong still resound. Highlights: “Hitchhiker in Black,” “Set Me on Fire,” “Next to Go.”

-Dan Nucci

(1) See “Deceleration One” and “Deceleration Two,” available on the band’s imprint Perishable Records (www.perishablerecords.com). “Francis,” an animated film written by Rutili, is included on “Quicksand/Cradlesnakes” in Quicktime format.

(2) Bemused Late Show guest host Paul Schaeffer had no idea how to react to Marshall’s intense performance of “I Don’t Blame You” after her recent appearance on the show.