We did get to hear a lot, however.
We heard The Foreign Exchange, for instance, a collective of Triangle emcees and soul chanteuse Yahzarah fronted by Little Brother's Phonte Coleman. Constructed in pen-pal fashion by Nicolay--a soulful producer and programmer from the Netherlands--and Phonte's local crew including Big Doh, Big Pooh, 9th Wonder, Joe Scudda and Von Pea, Connected is a record ahead of the curve, intermingling soul savvy, classic group-style rhyme spitting and smooth-as-ice hip-hop sound palettes in one brilliant outing. Over a beautiful groove of bubbling keys and a straightforward drum loop, "Brave New World" finds Phonte delivering empirical social commentary about single moms, power struggles and avaricious politicians. Bad news: If you can't find something to like about this record, you may be dead. Album of the Year, and the year's hippest move to think outside of the Texas-shaped box of America.
Take Twilighter, too, a somewhat un-scene quartet from Chapel Hill writing mildly psychedelic folk songs about theology, angels, Zen, oak trees and homes back in the woods. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Brandon Herndon sports a Beck-beckoning deadpan deep into this idiosyncratic mix of three-part harmonies, synthesizer whirls, acoustic guitars and farfisa rolls. Comparisons to both The Bruces and a reflective Mike Doughty seem logical, but neither captures what is going on in Fortune is On . None of the parts are played perfectly, odd snippets of unintentional dissonance peeking through amid little background mistakes. Those free-wheeling intentions, combined with Herndon's esoteric musings ("No, I'm ready, ready, ready, ready / 'cause 45 xenons of the almighty"), make this debut not only intriguing, but also the most unexpectedly captivating record released in the Triangle this year.
In the same vein, Raleigh trio Ticonderoga is the most exciting new Triangle act I saw, spinning elliptical folk songs over intricate webs of interlocking keyboard, drum, guitar and bass strands. Just signed to Michigan's 54-40' or Fight Records, expect the official debut from the band early in 2005, with extensive touring to follow. If you were fortunate enough to catch one of the band's earliest shows, they distributed limited burns of a new LP or EP following each gig. Visit ticonderobics.com to download Prince_Town EP, a fractured portrait of what an In the Fishtank session between Low, Tortoise and Jim James may sound like. It was initially distributed on Feb. 28, following Ticonderoga's second show ever.
More good news in fresh faces: Durham's Pox World Empire released the debut EP from Raleigh's Schooner. You Forget about Your Heart is a fleet pop quintet driven by Reid Johnson's Mark Kozelek-meets-Isaac Brock stylings that catch like Nada Surf and occasionally unfurl like a shoegazer epic. Johnson is one of the most promising indie songsmiths to appear in the Triangle in a while, and fans of Morrissey will relish his smarts in the future. Pox also released Razzle's swan song, which made its debut at Go! during the first night of Merge's four-day 15th Anniversary celebration at the Cradle.
Shark Quest opened night three of that party, which also included Superchunk, Spoon, Lambchop, Destroyer, David Kilgour and a "ball-out" performance by Comedy Central's Phil Morrison. Shark Quest released the brilliant Gods and Devils this year on Merge, which features music adapted from the band's Monster Road score. Brilliant instrumental melodies subjected to tantamount counters and expertly executed excursions played with jaw-dropping precision make this a must-have. The same "required listening" tag goes for The Beautiful World, the seven-years-in-coming debut from Sara Bell's other band, Regina Hexaphone . Recorded by drummer Jerry Kee, The Beautiful World is a pastoral dream of evocative imagery and subtle style backed by the sublime violin playing of Margaret White.
White also plays with North Elementary, who made some pleasant, atmosphere-bound pop with Lose Your Favorite Things. The rocket that guided it never seemed to be operating to full capacity, though, and it stands as my biggest personal disappointment from a local band this year. John Harrison has major potential as a songwriter, but--until he and North Elementary commit to the ideas that they tinker with--they'll remain a bit too faceless for conspicuity in the currently glutted field of college pop.
Williams is a former member of The Comas, who finally released Conductor following a horde of well-documented band strife, relationship squalor and label wrangling. Frontman Andy Herod conducts a powerful space rock that recognizes the heartache while discovering the sadness, drugs and anger necessary to cope with it. Conductor is the most adventurous record Yep Roc released this year, if not ever. The label had plenty to brag about in 2004, too. Tres Chicas' long-awaited Sweetwater combined the enormous talents of Caitlin Cary, Tony Lamm and Lynn Blakey, who delivered a gorgeous blend of folk honesty and country charm on an album that includes covers from George Jones and Loretta Lynn and the original "When Was the Last Time," a perfectly plaintive ballad written by all three members. Triangle's Best Song of 2004.
Tres Chicas producer Chris Stamey released his first studio album in 13 years with Travels in the South, which includes guest appearances by Ryan Adams, Ben Folds, Don Dixon and a plethora of others. It's got twice the teeth as R.E.M.'s latest, the tired Around the Sun. And no Yep Roc year-in-review would be complete without mentioning Hands Up!, the latest and most significant record the Two Dollar Pistols have yet to tuck under its collective belt. Scott McCall has mastered the acuity of hurt with just six-strings, and John Howie Jr. persistently drinks down the pieces of his broken heart and spits them back up in perception-altering country moaners. Speaking of Moaners, watch out for Laura King and Melissa Swingle on Yep Roc early in 2005.
One rediscovered treasure was 420 Bickett Blvd., The Hanks' sessions recorded at that address with Jerry Kee in Five Points back in 1988. Years before anyone had grafted the "alt" label to the country classification used for the names of their favorite bands with a rockin' beat, The Hanks sounded a little bit like everything the ambiguous genre would become. Take a handful of big chord country songs about a "blue eyed love" and Watkins Grill recorded like Murmurs b-sides and slurred by a singer with grandparents from Granville County, and you have this one. Don't forget the sonorous bop of The Byrds and the George Harrison-styled licks of Ron Bartholomew.
The Ghost of Rock pummeled all rock 'n' roll bands in the Triangle this year with its self-titled testosterone injection, an auditory assault on the body that takes it to the old school with the reckless abandon of a no-brakes tractor trailer barreling down an on-ramp at 80. Nathan Asher, whose passions roar from the political to the personal and whose persuasions are backed by a mighty six-piece supporting cast, The Infantry, spoke his mind and found a following, as des_ark and Bellafea sported identical setups in refreshingly different fashions. Expect to hear more from The Strugglers, whose Randy Bickford is equipped with the songwriting acumen and uneasy voice to become a staple for fans of Drag City, Wilco and Neil Young. The same goes for The Nein, who finally saw official release of their self-titled and expanded EP on Hamilton, Ontario's Sonic Unyon. Buy this EP.
DJ Chela dished a Nov. 2-fueled mixtape featuring new rhymes by L.E.G.A.C.Y. and Phonte and new beats by 9th Wonder and The Applejuice Kid, while Hotstyle Entertainment offered the Local 506 compilation, sporting a savage take on Shelly B's "Underground Music" and a pair of tracks from Jozeemo, wherever he's hiding now. Kaze's mixtape was a welcome appetizer before the completion of his next album, which will undoubtedly get more than a sentence here next year. Plan B came across as a bit droll for its debut, while Pro-L --a multi-ethnic hip-hop band from Raleigh--nailed Appalindia, a concoction of bluegrass and Indian samples supporting roots rhyming about girlfriends, strip malls and mythology.
I certainly like Tift Merritt's new record, Tambourine, a proud sophomore effort full of Stax soul harmonies, meat-shaking arrangements and Merritt's most insightful writing yet. Of course, her recent country Grammy nomination is a bit misleading, as Tambourine--featuring a horn section, Benmont Tench's Wurlitzer fills and pedal steel phenomenon Robert Randolph--is a big slice of country-affected rhythm 'n' blues, rather than the cliche modern country melodrama that accompanies her in that category.
According to The Record Exchange and Schoolkids Records on Raleigh's Hillsborough Street, Merritt's Tambourine has sold over 250 copies in two stores alone since its August release. Her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, has sold 40 copies in those stores this year alone. As for the other local-turned-national name of Clay Aiken, the American Idol runner-up has only sold 40 copies of his 2003 debut this year. In fact, one of the stores has sold more units of Merritt in the previous 120 days than it has ever sold of Aiken. His Christmas CD has yet to sell 30 copies on Hillsborough Street.
Of course, Aiken has probably outsold Merritt three-to-one when the many mega-stores of the Triangle are incorporated. But--considering those almost equivalent numbers and her recent Grammy nomination for Best Country Record, and given her disheartening lack of radio and television support--something has to be said about the ubiquity of Aiken in popular local media, in light of Merrit's utter absence. WRAL-FM had the foresight to bring her on the air more than a year ago, but the country giant Merritt hears on her ride home from band practice--WQDR 94.7--refuses to play her music. A quick search of wral.com yields 133 matches for the quickly fading Aiken, although Merritt's name appears but four times on the entire site. In short, the local mainstream media's tiny, under-thinking head is still crammed up its monstrous, over-speaking ass. I hate television.
In most cases, the fecundity of any scene is tied directly to the availability of good clubs, especially mid-size smoke caves that give local favorites a chance to show off and rookies a chance to make a name. As such, it's impossible to comment on the year in Triangle music--and, consequently, its future--without a look at the current venue situation. In the past 12 months, veteran venues have closed, and newcomers have emerged with atypical avenues for bands to pursue.
Martin Street Music Hall opened in the space that was Retail Bar. Since we first reported Rob Farris' plans to turn the club into a revitalized Raleigh alt.country stomping ground, booking has been slim at the club. Farris, though, has handed those duties over to Linc Hancock, and he will work on persuading touring rock bands that consecutive Chapel Hill and Raleigh stops can be lucrative. According to Hancock, Martin Street doesn't want to complete with the Cat's Cradle or with Kings; the club simply hopes to expand the audience and avenues for live music in the Triangle. Already, though, Martin Street is recruiting a strong line-up of local bands, which threatens to undercut Kings, Bickett Gallery and The Pour House. Furthermore, more national interest seems destined to conflict with the Cradle's status quo. This is the show-going story to watch over the next year or two: Can two similarly minded and sized clubs coexist across 30 miles, or will competition eventually cripple one? Given the perpetually torpid booking conquests of The Lincoln Theatre, they threaten to force themselves out of that Triangle equation.
Although the unfolding of the Raleigh venue plot is likely to have the most effusive effects in the Triangle, Durham and Chapel Hill have club questions of their own. Will Ooh La Latte rejoin the local band circuit, even as Joe & Jo's becomes the quintessential Durham neighborhood bar, with the Kings-like addition of inventive music line-ups? Will there be a new theater in Durham, and will Clear Channel add it to its mounting ranks of global domination?
What about Chapel Hill? The continued welfare of such small rooms as Local 506 and Nightlight will likely be commensurate with the survival of many of the town's best acts. The Cave, of course, is under steadfast leadership, but that's not enough to support the number of bands the Triangle happily claims. With Go! gone and headed for rehearsal room-and-bar status, they will have to continue to attract club-filling bands if the scene on that end of I-40 is to maintain its prestige. And if Glenn Boothe's first six months as 506 owner are any indication, the club--and the town--are in able hands.