The Year in Rock—So Far 

A look at some of the year's most highly touted rock albums

A look at some of the year's most highly touted rock albums

Any year that produces an album as stunning as Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose—so rich, spirited, funny and aching—has to be counted as a pretty good year. And 2004 has seen other highlights: Kanye West's smart and tuneful College Dropout, The Walkmen's raging, textured Bows + Arrows, the well-cushioned mini-epics of Elbow's Cast of Thousands, the finely wrought mood pieces of local acts Lambchop and Swan Dive.

Largely, though, 2004 has been a shaky year. Most of the major pop acts have been on the sidelines, watching themselves get displaced by newcomers like TV on the Radio, whose avant-garde-ish Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is adventurous, but a little hard to enjoy; and The Secret Machines, whose proggy Now Here Is Nowhere cuts thunderous electric blues with pained lyrics and Flaming Lips-style sweep.

According to the rock press, the breakout act of the year are Scottish quartet Franz Ferdinand, whose eponymous debut LP careens from art-funk to jagged indie-rock. The digressions on Franz Ferdinand—a martial drum roll here, an extended disco break there—are often exciting, but the band's music often devolves into yet another '80s post-punk rehash in an already saturated market. Still, like Morrissey and Robert Smith before him, singer-guitarist Alex Kapranos has the right attitude, making dramatic self-absorption and humane openness of a piece.

At least Franz Ferdinand's disc is consistently more entertaining than the upcoming album by much-buzzed neo-disco act !!!. Louden Up Now! includes 2003's hot single—the beat-crazy 10-minute pastiche "Me & Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard"—plus nine more tracks, some of which are as enjoyable and multilayered, but none as inventive. Most of the songs are either abrupt, like "King's Weed," or overextended and sketchy, like "Shit Scheisse Merde." It's hard to know what to do with lyrics like "What did George Bush say when he met Tony Blair? / 'Shit'/ 'Scheisse' / 'Merde.' "

It's commendable that !!! is addressing (albeit in a goofy way) the world of 2004, but relevance isn't a virtue in itself. Bad Religion's impending The Empire Strikes First is a furious critique of American foreign and social policy, full of songs with titles like "Let Them Eat War" and "Los Angeles Is Burning." Though the record is exciting conceptually, musically, it's pretty staid. The melodies are stunted and the band's punk bash is about on a par with any high school hardcore act. Which may be the point: to perform simply some simple songs of rage.

Though blunt instruments may be necessary, I prefer the subtle persuasions of Ron Sexsmith's Retriever, an album of rich, orchestrated pop that marries the hooks of Marshall Crenshaw circa 1982 with the sophistication of Elvis Costello today. Sexsmith brings a subtle urgency to a set of songs that could double as proverbs. The best song on the record, "Wishing Wells," is a "time to put away childish things" command set to a swinging beat and propulsive guitar, summed up in the line, "I fear sometimes we ain't got a hope in hell." But the soul of Retriever lies in the closing line of its final song: "Though in your house sorrow dwells / It never stays / I know it well."

No such comfort is forthcoming on Wilco's bruised, druggy new album A Ghost Is Born, which has the "dispatch from the fringe" quality of classic rock albums like Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers and Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. It's more hit-and-miss than either of those, but it's also more deeply felt than the fussy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (which was still a near-great). Employing dynamic arrangements, coupled with some of the free-form jam style he brought to last year's underrated Loose Fur project, Tweedy rips himself open on songs like "At Least That's What You Said" and the 11-minute vamp, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." The lyrics are impressionistic and the music leans heavy on abrasion as a distancing effect, but Tweedy's plaintive piano-plunking and blazing electric guitar speak to the pains of trying to communicate to a mass audience while wanting to shrink into a corner.

Which leaves what could be the defining album of 2004, if crazy ambition and obscured pleasure are the musical bywords this year. The Fiery Furnaces rushed onto critics' lists last year with the promising Gallowsbird's Bark, but the due-in-July Blueberry Boat should squander a lot of the goodwill garnered by the shredded folk-rock of that debut, even as it becomes a cult favorite. It takes almost 80 minutes to get through the record's 13 erratic suite-songs, most in the spirit of The Who's "A Quick One (While He's Away)." One such effort per album is usually plenty, but strung together, a suite of suites is kind of disorienting, however thrilling its fragments.

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