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Garageland and more
The best local rock of 2003

I owe the best local-rock moments of this year to a handful of entities: Zuzu, the Kimchee label, the Abbey Lounge, and whatever cosmic forces seem to dictate there being a garage revival every five years. Maybe that says something about the scene as a whole, maybe it doesnít: things have gotten so fragmented that you can love your favorite half-dozen bands without giving a toss whether the local scene is healthy or not. Which of course means that it probably is.

1) Paula Kelley, The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World (Kimchee)

Thereís something about a great hook that wraps up deep emotions in a beautiful way. Exhibit A would be the bridge that leads into the chorus of "Iíd Fall in Love with Anyone" ó a graceful high-note curl that speaks volumes about hope and longing. Thatís my favorite moment on this disc, which is Kelleyís quantum leap into orchestrated baroque pop. But there are enough gems that you can pick your own.

2) The Downbeat 5, ism (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

The easy thing would have been to make a CD that sounds like any hot night at the Abbey ó half of which have featured this band anyhow. Instead, the Downbeat 5 and producer Mike Mariconda opted for a sound thatís retro but sleek. This must be what the car radio of a vintage Thunderbird sounded like.

3) Dresden Dolls (Eight Foot)

The hyped-up success story of the year, but it deserves to be. If Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione werenít so good at getting magazine covers, the musical invention and the punk-torch nature of Palmerís singing would make them equally cultworthy. The image is a worthy part of the package, however: lots of people try to be sexy and strange, but few are this imaginative about it.

4) The Rudds (Sodapop)

Itís just not possible to make a bad album that opens with the line "So how you fuckers feel tonight?" Fueled by his love of Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, and Hall & Oates, Albany transplant John Powhida is a wizard and very nearly a true star, with barely a song in this bunch you wonít come away humming. In his world, it all comes down to finding the right girl to hang out with at the record store.

5) Consonant, Love and Affliction (Fenway)

This is a harsher, louder, and more Burma-like sequel to the homonymous debut that topped my list last year. In some ways, itís also a better album, since Consonant sound more like a fully realized band and guitarist Chris Brokaw has found his rightful place in the mix. So why isnít it higher up? Probably because weíre all starting to take the quality of Clint Conleyís work for granted ó which, after all those quiet years, is a real pleasure to say.

6) The Shods, Tippy (Poorhouse)

Speaking of people who get taken for granted: the Shods manage to do something different on every album. This oneís sort of their Road to Ruin: a more thoughtful set that feels like a blast, even though thereís barely a happy song on it. But singer/writer Kevin Stevenson infuses these darker sentiments with dogged optimism and what-the-hell humor, and the band as always cover everything from reggae to rockabilly to arena rock.

7) Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, Piece of Mind (Windjam)

Now this is the way to make a comeback: you wait till youíre good and ready, reunite the band youíve always had the best chemistry with, dig up some songs youíve never recorded but should have, make a new album that sounds exactly like the old ones everybody liked, play a couple of hot shows, then go back home and leave íem wanting an encore.

8) The Charms, Charmed Iím Sure (Sodapop)

No dark edges whatsoever here: this is AM radio as youíve always imagined it, with singer Ellie Vee and company bringing you along on a rock íní romance joyride. Extra points for a Farfisa sound that hasnít been heard since the first Blondie album.

9) Francine, 28 Plastic Blue Versions of Endings Without You (Q Division)

Once you get inside the layered soundscapes, work out the subtle hooks, and become acquainted with Clayton Scobleís clever wordplay, you start realizing that this is really a classic-model break-up album. And itís where Scoble proves that something new and resonant can still be said about pop musicís most time-honored topic.

10) Kenne Highland & the Vatican Sex Kittens, Be More Flamboyant! (Stanton Park)

Heís been around forever, but Iíve never had a bad time seeing this band; whatís amazing is that this is Highlandís first full album. Heís a living monument to rock irreverence, and heís soaked up all your favorite garage, punk, and glam licks. Those who get all the Inman Square in-jokes will love it all the more.


Issue Date: December 26, 2003 - January 1, 2004
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