Brandon’s Tips: February 19 and 26, 2008

Considering the roster of relative heavy-hitters (hi, Sheryl, Jack, Michael, and k.d.) which ushered February onto the calendar, the release slate for the month’s back half feels unusually pale by comparison. Nonetheless, Brandon’s Tips is on the case, fearlessly aiming to tell you what to attack and what to avoid.

What alleges to be the month’s most important arrival is Discipline, the latest effort from the fatally misbegotten Janet Jackson, whose relevance, unfortunately, receded after her 1993 triumph janet., and whose output (’97’s “Got ’til It’s Gone” and ’01’s “Son of a Gun” obviously excepted) in the ensuing years has been spotty at best. Her last two albums have yet to crack a million in sales, and from a woman who used to move ten million per album without even breakin’ a sweat, that’s pretty sad. Enter at your own risk.

You’ll almost certainly have much better luck with the always-welcome Cowboy Junkies, who are marking the 20th anniversary of their landmark 1988 album The Trinity Sessions — which gave the world a classic (and classy) cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” that continues to amaze — with the new Trinity Revisited. Recorded in the same Toronto church as the original, Revisited brings together the priceless Margo Timmins (of whom the ever-prescient Sherry Ann once noted, “Nothing comes out of that woman’s mouth unless it’s brilliant!”) and her terrific band, along with special guests Natalie Merchant (whose 10,000 Maniacs was right there in the trenches with the Junkies) and Ryan Adams (who has proudly carried the torch these guys helped light), to rework and rebuild Sessions’ twelve unforgettable tracks.

On the sophomore release front, 2005’s three most arresting newcomers are back and ready to take another shot at posterity. First up is Texas band The Afters, whose debut album featured a killer single (“Beautiful Love,” which would become a radio hit after being prominently featured on MTV’s 8th and Ocean) and an ingenious cover (pictures of a hare and a turtle facing each other, under the title I Wish We All Could Win). I’ve yet to hear any of their second effort, Never Going Back to OK, but I’ll be correcting that soon enough, and, justice prevailing, you’ll be doing the same.

All hail the thrilling return of Anna Nalick, whose status as this generation’s go-to twentysomething singer-songwriter is rivaled only by the riveting Michelle Branch. Nalick’s debut record, the exhilarating Wreck of the Day, was an instant classic upon its release three years ago, and this week, iTunes teases her forthcoming follow-up with its first single, “Shine.”

Also at iTunes is a three-track EP from the amazing Augustana, whose first record, All the Stars and Boulevards, will surely stand among this decade’s very best, and whose second album, Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, is due this May. The new set’s lead single “Sweet and Low” — which features more virtuoso work from lead singer Dan Layus — is included on the digital EP, alongside album tracks “I Still Ain’t Over You” and “Hey Now,” and for a music year which has been a bit slow to take off, this could be just the shot in the arm we’ve been patiently awaiting.

(While we’re on the subject of iTunes, don’t miss “Supernatural Superserious,” the great new single from Michael Stipe and the boys from R.E.M., whose new album Accelerate is due April 1.)

The sensational Josh Ritter, still riding high on his grand slam from last August, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, has re-released his 2006 live album In the Dark in a new two-disc set which includes both a CD and a full-length concert film DVD documenting a trio of Dublin performances. Ritter can also be found on a new album documenting the best of season one of Live from the Artists Den, a stunning series of concerts currently being shown on Ovation TV. Ritter offers one of Historical‘s highlights, “Right Moves,” to the collection, which also includes offerings from Once‘s Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (the Academy Award-winning heartbreaker “Falling Slowly”), Crowded House (the shimmering “She Called Up” from their latest album, Time On Earth), and the peerless Patty Griffin (the exquisite “Heavenly Day”), among many others.

To my ear, this week’s marquee release is the third album from the dazzling Americana enchantress Tift Merritt. Sounding for all the world like the soul-drenched love child of Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams (with just a dash o’ Dusty, for good measure), Merritt grabbed attention with her 2002 debut Bramble Rose and won a surprise Grammy nomination two years later with its terrific sequel Tambourine. Now she’s up with Another Country, which is winning glowing early reviews, and which will hopefully be just the stick of dynamite she needs to blow her into the big time.

The divine Merritt leads off this week’s first playlist, in which I have decided to delve deeper into my listening habits. Given the seeming incongruity of my recommendations throughout the history of the Tips — a sample question might be, “How in the holy hell can you love Roxette and Patty Griffin and Mandy Moore and Tori Amos?” — several of my readers have wondered aloud about the music that I really enjoy when the drapes are drawn. To that end, I thought it might be fun to peel the lid back on my iPod and reveal its fifteen most-played tracks. (Three things before we begin: a) the hard drive on my laptop quite literally vaporized in August 2006, so the statistics I’m preparing to throw at you only go back for eighteen months; having said that, I firmly believe this playlist offers a clarion cross-section of my aural likes and loves — I wouldn’t quite call these my favorite songs ever (though one of them is already there, no fewer than five of them will eventually be, mark well), but they nonetheless etch a fine portrait of one man’s taste; b) A, before you flip out at the thought of having to tackle a playlist with fifteen songs, understand that I’m extending it simply because you already own a fair number of these tracks; and finally, c) a sample answer to the above question might be, “Umm… because they’re all, like, good.”)

1. “Wait It Out” — Tift Merritt (from Tambourine) — I have no idea how this happened. I ran across the video for Merritt’s “Good Hearted Man” on CMT one day, ended up buying Tambourine on a complete lark a week later, and fell in ridiculous mad love with it. This song grabbed me instantly, and 64 spins later, I’m still utterly enthralled. Who could resist that sly organ, those rockin’ drums, and the inimitable way Merritt’s voice sizzles as it sings “I just got to burnin’ / and I won’t stop now” in the chorus?

2. “Heavenly Day” — Patty Griffin (from Children Running Through) — I feel like I’ve exhausted all my superlatives on these four extraordinary minutes of captivating majesty. So I’ll just say this: I’ve played this tune 51 times over the course of the past year, and yet, whenever it pops up in a shuffle, my grateful heart never fails to soar. And my big mouth, to sing along.

3. “Settlin'” — Sugarland (from Enjoy the Ride) —

me: “Man, I love this song!”

Sherry Ann: “That dude in Sugarland better be worried, because she’s good enough to just be Jennifer Nettles.”

me: “Honey, you’re aimin’ waaay too low. On this song, she’s good enough to just be Jennifer.

4. “Secret Spell” — Tori Amos (from American Doll Posse) — I keep trying to come around (and I suppose I always will) on the bloated, unbearable misfire that was Posse, but that project’s very best song hooked me from first listen. 45 have followed, making it the most-played — 11 spins ahead of second place “Past the Mission” and 18 ahead of third place “Jamaica Inn” — of the 361 Tori tracks in my iTunes library.

5. “SexyBack” — Justin Timberlake featuring Timbaland (from FutureSex/LoveSounds) — mission accomplished, boys.

6. “Debaser” — Rogue Wave (from The O.C. Mix 6: Covering Our Tracks) — for my money, this — a wickedly ambitious endeavor which reimagines The Pixies’ punk rock touchstone as a pop singalong and which features a spine-tingling vocal performance from the amazing Zach Rogue (and don’t you dare forget that name!) — was 2007’s finest album track.

7. “That Don’t Worry Me Now” — Shawn Colvin (from These Four Walls) — the most powerful track from a modern legend’s most consistently great album since 1992’s classic Fat City.

8. “When You Were Young” — The Killers (from Sam’s Town) — the album was shaky; its first single (and Brandon Flowers’ propulsive performance of same), astonishing.

9. “Grace Kelly” — Mika (from Life in Cartoon Motion) — silly pop never sounded so marvelous.

10. “Tomorrow I Will Be Yours” — Paula Cole (from Postcards from East Oceanside: Greatest Hits) — from this generation’s most gut-wrenchingly real singer, an alluring story song that cuts straight to the bone.

11. “The Long Way Around” — Dixie Chicks (from Taking the Long Way) — I’ve come to accept that I’ll never comprehend why these hopelessly goofy bitches didn’t choose this as their comeback album’s first single (I still contend it would have been a number one smash, but since the insufferably dopey “Not Ready to Make Nice” ended up sweeping the Grammys a year ago, who am I to judge?), and I’m more or less fine with that. But I’ll never not believe that these three women won’t someday come to regret burning as many bridges as they have, over a senseless sentence that deserved neither the hateful wrath its critics engendered nor the arrogant indignance its author(s) assumed.

12. “Look After You” — The Fray (from How to Save a Life) — masterful work from lead singer Isaac Slade — absotively a Rob Thomas in the making — launches an already-great song into hyperdrive.

13. “How Good Things Are” — Jann Arden (from Jann Arden) — a harrowing character piece, drenched with drama and melancholy, from an artist whose forte is exactly this kind of tune.

14. “Midnight Blue” — Lou Gramm (from Ready or Not) — after repeatedly reaching the pinnacle as the frontman for Foreigner, this man tragically never attained the success he so richly merited as a solo artist. “It’s either cherry red or midnight blue,” indeed.

15. “Downtown Train” — Rod Stewart (from Storyteller: The Complete Anthology 1964-1990) — part of me hates to see this song — easily one of my all-time top five favorites — appear on this playlist, because I have this nagging fear that A is going to detest it (and I’m still trying to get over his swift and thorough rejection of Counting Crows, whom he had the gall to deem non-melodic). Performances don’t come more genuine, or more exciting, or more ferocious than this; with one fiercely unexpected reading of Tom Waits’ masterpiece, Stewart managed to salvage his flagging career and capture forever the heart of a thirteen-year-old Texas boy coming to grips with coming of age.

In this week’s second playlist, we’re gonna head A off at the pass. Knowing him as well as I do, I’m certain one of the first things he’s going to say upon reading this tipsheet is, “So, tell me more about these Cowboy Junkies.” I’ll go ya one better, babe: I’ll offer you a handful of musical guideposts and let you investigate them yourself.

1. “Angel Mine” (from Lay It Down) — an unheralded classic from 1996 that — courtesy of its appearance during a pivotal moment of one of my all-time favorite movies (and soundtracks, natch), The Truth About Cats and Dogs —served as my introduction to this brilliant band. Part sweetly romantic, part heartbreakingly sad, all magnetic and magical.

2. “Sweet Jane” (from The Trinity Sessions) — the tune that put these guys on the map twenty full years ago.

3. “Speaking Confidentially” (from Lay It Down) — of all the great stanzas they’ve written as a band during the two-plus decades of their existence, I’ll go ahead and proclaim that none have been bolder and more fascinating than this song’s third verse (“…if the air you breathed / was so unique / would you use it up / to idly speak / or horde it / for a rainy week…?”).

4. “Ring on the Sill” (from Pale Sun, Crescent Moon) — Sherry Ann’ll kill me for picking this over “Angel Mine,” but I’ll risk her wrath and tell you that this track contains both Margo Timmins’ most insightful imagery and her most impactful, impassioned performance.

5. “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” (from The Caution Horses) — a rambling stream-of-consciousness stunner; as it starts, you’re thinking, “There’s no way I’m gonna like this,” and by the end of it, you’re thinking, “Damn, that was pretty good.”

6. “Hollow as a Bone” (from Miles From Our Home) — a rare (and most enjoyable) journey into uptempo territory for a band that generally likes to play the edgily mellow card.

7. “Anniversary Song” (from Pale Sun, Crescent Moon) — “have you ever seen / a sight as beautiful / as a face in a crowd of people / that lights up just for you?” Sweet without being trite, and moving without being sappy.