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Thank You, Boys (and Girls)!

April 21, 2010

With a big shout-out to my man Jay’s post featuring the 13th Floor Elevators, let’s begin our time together today with a shout-out for Roky Erickson’s new album, True Love Cast Out All Evil.  Erickson teamed up with one of my favorite bands on earth, Okkervil River, to create a sublime album that is simply amazing.  I’m happy to hear that Okkervil River took this task on as basically a backing band and their participation adds a tremendous depth to the music.  This got me to thinking about other bands and artists in my catalog that have taken a supporting role on others’ albums.  I’d like to take a few moments today to share with you some of my favorites.

I’m going to begin with one that’s not really a favorite, but one that is of note anyway.  It is the curious case of the Cardinals, notably of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals fame, who after being dropped by Adams found their groove again with New Zealand songstress Gin Wigmore.  After getting the boot, the band packed up and headed down under where they recorded Holy Smoke, Wigmore’s second album.  I have always felt that the Cardinals were a very talented outfit, but their talent is wasted on Wigmore’s thin songs and Mike Elizondo’s tortured production.  Here’s to hoping the group finds a collaborator with more weight next time, as this album is little more than Wigmore’s attempt to break into the American mainstream by walking the line between Amy Winehouse and Smashmouth, an almost certain recipe for obscurity.

I’ll move on to a much better subject, the object of my tortured infatuation, Jenny Lewis.  Lewis was joined on her 2008 album Acid Tongue by Elvis Costello among other indie-rock luminaries.  Costello’s contributions included a vocal turn on “Carpetbaggers” and production/songwriting assistance on various other tracks.  Lewis returned the favor later in the year by playing and singing on Costello’s Momofuku.  Although neither artist strictly speaking “backed” the other, each one influenced and improved on the work of the other, to great effect.

Athens-based Elephant 6 Collective members Elf Power, who have long been overlooked and overshadowed by the success of brethren Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, took a backing-band turn in 2008 as they serviced the late Vic Chesnutt.  The resulting album, Dark Developments, was one of the more interesting releases of Chesnutt’s career as Elf Power pushed him into new sonic territory.  This collaboration also birthed one of my favorite Chesnutt songs of all time, “Phil the Fiddler.”  Long live Elf Power, rest in peace Vic.

I know, I know, everybody loves The National.  Everyone loved thier 2007 smash Boxer as well.  The Brooklyn boys got quite a bit of help to craft that masterpiece, however, particularly in the keyboard/piano area as Sufjan Stevens and Doveman both took their turn tickling the ivories on various songs.  Stevens’ work on “Ada” is particularly gorgeous, even if it is too far back in the mix. 

My last and favorite turn of goodwill from a band comes from the 1998 version of Wilco, which included the late Jay Bennett, who (sans Jeff Tweedy) served as the house band for severely underappreciated Missouri singer-songwriter Jeff Black’s debut album, Birmingham Road.  Black has been largely overlooked in current popular music, which is an absolute travesty because he may just be one of the finest songwriters of his generation.  Birmingham Road is a basic mid-tempo country-rock album, but what makes it extraordinary is the depth and quality of Black’s songwriting.  And he never got a better band then Bennett, John Stiratt, and pre-Wilco firing Uncle Tupelo alum Ken Coomer, who sound as if they all could have easily found themselves in an alternate universe where Black was their band leader as opposed to Tweedy.  Alas, it was not to be, but sometimes I’m tempted to wonder what might have been.

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