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Going underground
The Subways lead a pack of up-and-comers into 2006
BY MATT ASHARE

With bad news about 2005 sales figures flooding the accounting departments at the major labels in a year thatís ended on a flat note in record stores, itís easy to overlook just how well indie labels have been doing. From little olí Merge down in Chapel Hill, where big little bands like the Arcade Fire were joined by profitable reissues of Dinosaur Jr.ís first three albums, all the way out to Nebraskaís Saddle Creek, home to Conor Oberstís ever-changing Bright Eyes, to the tiny imprints like Secretly Canadian (which scored a big hit with Antony and the Johnsonsí Mercury PrizeĖwinning I Am a Bird Now) and Asthmatic Kitty (Sufjan Stevens, anyone?), the little guys have been reaching heights unheard of since Matador and Sub Pop were at the top of their game. The emergence of this new pop underground is clearly linked to the Fox teen drama The OC ó or rather to the ongoing series of popular compilations tied to the show, even as theyíve stood alone as promotional tools for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, the Killers, and Modest Mouse, to name but three recent modern-rock success stories.

The latest newcomers to be championed by The OC are a young British trio who donít even have an album out in the US. The Subways had already won over their native England with Young for Eternity, which was released last July to reviews like "The sexiest thing to sweep rock íní roll off its feet in years" (NME), when Music from the OC Mix 5 (Warner Bros.) came calling. Not only did the trioís romantic anthem "Rock íní Roll Queen" make the cut, itís the first track on Mix 5, which appeared in early November, just in time to prime fans for the Subwaysí first major US gig, a show at the Bait Shop. Yes, that is the name of the club in The OC, and the episode aired on November 17. Capitol couldnít have asked for a better set-up for the American unveiling of Young for Eternity, a waiting-to-be-huge album that was quickly moved up from March to Valentineís Day. Looking for more hooks? Well, scruffy frontman Billy Lunn and blonde bassist Charlotte Cooper, who often trade verses, are in pure puppy love, and drummer Josh Morgan is Lunnís younger brother. Itís almost too perfect. But this is the album to watch for in the first quarter of 2006.

The genuine indie upsurge begins on January 24, with a trio of very different female singers. Beth Ditto fronts the Kill Rock Stars blooze-punk powerhouse the Gossip with a Big Mama Thornton voice and a whole lot of sassy attitude. But on the guitar/drums/voice trioís Standing in the Way of Control, Ditto, an Olympia-by-way-of-Alabama force of nature, reveals her sensual soulwoman side for the first time. On Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love), Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis takes a step away from her indie-pop roots to play a little countrified folk with vocal help from the Watson Sisters. Some of her other guests include Death Cab for Cutieís Ben Gibbard and Bright Eyed Conor Oberst, and if M. Wardís first name is Matt, then he produced four tracks. (Lewisís Rilo Kiley mate Blake Sennett also has an album coming out on the 24th, Sun, Sun, Sun on Sub Pop, the sophomore disc from his rootsy side project the Elected.)

But the most eagerly awaited January 24 indie release comes from Chan Marshallís new and improved Cat Power. The Greatest (Matador) is as fully produced and confident-sounding as its title suggests. Itís also a departure: Marshall recorded it in Memphis with Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and Leroy "Flick" Hodges, the guitar/bass brother act who worked with Al Green and Willie Mitchell starting way back in the late í60s and havenít lost any of their soulful sense of swing or groove. Oh and while weíre talking roots, might as well mention Rosanne Cash: her Black Cadillac (Capitol), inspired by her father Johnny, may be a major-label release, but itís not likely to sell like one.

The indie boys get off to a slower start, with Palace Brother Will Oldham in his Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise partnering with Chicago post-rock pioneers Tortoise for a January 24 disc titled The Brave and the Bold (Overcoat). Itís good for both parties: Oldhamís always at his best when heís got a real collaborator, and, as their tour with Daniel Lanois last year demonstrated, Tortoise can be a little stifling on their own. But even that combination of talents wonít overshadow the return of the seven-piece Glasgow-based Belle and Sebastian, who hooked up with Beck producer Tony Hoffer in an LA studio to record The Life Pursuit (Matador; February 7), a typically cryptic title from a band whoíve always had literary pretensions. Whatís interesting this time is not just their choice of producer but rumors that they delved into a little neoĖnew wave. Itís hard to imagine Stuart Murdock getting his groove on, but anythingís possible.

Meanwhile, having inked a solo deal with V2, former Belle and Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell has joined forces with gruff-voiced Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan for a full-length due on February 21. It appears the two met when Lanegan was on tour with Queens of the Stone Age and bonded over a mutual fondness for Hank Williams. As a teaser, the Rambliní Man EP, featuring a cover of the Hank title tune, has already come out in the States. The full-length Ballad of the Broken Seas is scheduled for February 21, just one week ahead of Hank Williams IIIís long-delayed two-disc set Straight to Hell (BRUC). And before we move up from the underground, itís worth noting that Eels made a live recording of last yearís impressive orchestral tour and February 21 will see the release of the CD/DVD set Eels with Strings: Live at Town Hall (Vagrant), which documents a June 30 concert in NYC.

The majors start rolling out their big guns on, yes, January 24, when both Yellowcard and P.O.D. will have new discs in stores. P.O.D. pull out all the stops on Testify (Atlantic): guests include Hollaback grrrl Gwen Stefani, Kornman Jonathan Davis, rapper B-Real, and even Hassidic reggae sensation Matisyahu, whose major-label debut, Youth (Epic), is due on March 7. Pop-punkers Yellowcard, meanwhile, went the video-game route by licensing the first single from Lights and Sounds (Capitol) to EAís Burnout Revenge game. Some of the other commercial contenders scheduled for the first quarter of 2006 include the My Chemical Romance live CD/DVD set Life on the Murder Scene (Reprise; February 7); Kid Rockís imaginatively titled Live (Atlantic; February 14); Juvenileís cameo-loaded Reality Check (Atlantic; February 28); Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmourís first solo disc in more than two decades, On an Island (Columbia; March 7); an as-yet-untitled new Vines album on Capitol that, given the bandís reputation, will probably be pushed back past its current March 7 release date; an as-yet-untitled new EVANESCENCE disc on Wind-Up that at least has a debut single titled "Prisoner for a Long Day" (March 14); a Rick RubinĖproduced new one from the Dixie Chicks that Columbia has down for March 21; and, in April, new studio albums from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (the 4th), and Jet and Pearl Jam (both April 11).

In the wake of the passing of founding Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller last June, singer/guitarist Dave Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy have regrouped with former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson for the tentatively titled Crazy Mixed Up World (Legacy; April). And Astralwerks is checking into the possibility of having a track from Beth Ortonís Jim OíRourkeĖproduced Comfort of Strangers (February 7) on one of them OC mixes.

 


Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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