By Lindsey Millar
If 2007 taught us anything, it's that Little Rock continues to have a vibrant local music scene that thrives in disproportion to our size. This year, the scene was self-aware. Compilations came out left and right. Thick Syrup Records surveyed the local indie scene with the essential “Arkansas Compilation,” while “Towncraft” revisited the roots of Little Rock's D.I.Y. culture with a feature film and an encyclopedic website that sparked interest about Little Rock all over the country.
The hip-hop community continues to evolve in positive and bizarre ways. Backyard Entertainment made a movie about a hip-hop superhero and a companion CD. Our most prolific and compelling rapper, 607, outsourced himself to “hip-hop starved” Russia and put out at least three new albums. Conduit Entertainment released a compilation album that demonstrated that they're our best hope to break through nationally.
The acts listed below represent some of the best and brightest in Arkansas. For no real good reason, I've excluded compilation CDs, and I feel certain that I'll be kicking myself in a week for forgetting something. Plus, there are several albums, like Grand Serenade's “Lean Times” and the Munks' “Sing Dirty Songs,” that came out too late in December for me to really absorb.
Happy New Year. Buy local.
1. Jim Mize, “Release it to the Sky” (Fat Possum)
In a banner year for local music, nothing resonated more deeply than Jim Mize's sophomore album. Born out of honky-tonks, juke joints, post-punk and catastrophe, “Release It to the Sky” fits firmly in the Southern musical tradition, but still manages to sound unique. Mize, who's in his 50s, sings full-throated, in a gravelly voice seasoned by bourbon and country living. His lyrics have a literate, plainspoken beauty to them. They're largely obsessed with American unease — impermanence, crumbling relationships, the road — which figures, since Mize works as an insurance adjustor and conceived most of the album “on windshield time,” en route to survey the wake of natural and man-made disasters. The powerful dirge “After the Storm” came from repeated trips to the Gulf post-Katrina. “Disappear in America” charts the promise of release across the miles of the U.S.: “Thunder, it hides as lightning/the sun rides the horizon/Once we get out of here/disappear in America.” Buy this record. Available via fatpossum.com.
2. Magic Cropdusters, “The Apartment”
(Basement Front Records)
A Google search for the Magic Cropdusters pops up a listing for Magic Cropdusters concert tickets via Ticketmaster. If only. The Cropdusters play out about quarterly, if that, and release albums, at least lately, once every decade. But count me in the thankful camp. “The Apartment” is filled with enough mind-searing, infectious pop to hold me for another 10 years. With help from bassist Jeff Matika and (at least on the album) Burt Taggart on drums, David Jukes has delivered an unassuming epic of an album marked by hooks that don't quit and a skewed, literate picture of life. Jukes' cryptic songwriting sounds at first like nonsense, stream of consciousness at best, but repeated listens reveal a strange, nostalgic world of cats and dogs come home, garden hoses, car parts and other seemingly mundane topics that become anything but in Jukes' hands. Available via iTunes.
3. Arkansas Bo, “I Know That's Right”/Goines,
“Lead by Example” (self-released)
There are dozens of impressive local rappers, but none seem as ready to represent nationally than the duo Suga City, Arkansas Bo and Goines. Deeply Southern, with twin baritones and drawls thick enough to make any word sound new, the duo favor laid-back, soul-infused beats and rhymes weightier than the typical party bullshit. A unit for sure, but lest you missed their individual quirks, each released a solo mixtape this year. Arkansas Bo led the way early in the year with “I Know That's Right,” a highly curated album drawn from string-heavy '70s soul — Teddy Pendergrass, the Lost Generation, William DeVaughn — that proved to be the perfect soundtrack to driving slow in the summer. Goines dropped “Lead By Example” in August. Equally curated and cool, but more minimal and biting, it showcased Goines at his clear-eyed lyrical best. Look for a Suga City full-length on national indie label Koch next year. Available via myspace.com/sonnygallins and myspace.com/goines1.
4. The Reds, “Economy of Motion” (Max Recordings)
Johnny Mac can write a mean hook. That's been the refrain since the days when he played Tuesday nights at White Water. These days, he's mostly traded the stage for his bedroom studio, where as fate would have it, he and his mates, local scene vets Graham Cobb (guitar) and Jason Thompson (drums), happened on an accidental slapback effect that doused “Economy of Motion” in glorious reverb. Which gives the spare, bass-heavy pop an extra spring in its step. Paired with Mac's smart, anxiety-filled story-songs, it's just the right amount of conflict to keep “Economy of Motion” in your head for months. Available via maxrecordings.com.
5. The Moving Front,
“S/T” (Max Recordings).
The Moving Front abides. As dozens of angular post-punk bands have cycled through the scene over the last several years, the MF have been busy shooting music videos and sewing patches onto matching jackets. If Smoke Up Johnny has owned the stage late in the year, the Moving Front ruled it early. With four, sometimes five brotherly-looking dudes working in concert, the band made politics and social injustice something you could sing and dance along to. Of course, it wasn't an unprecedented feat. The Brits figure in: the blue-eyed rock and soul of the Jam, the bouncy guitar workouts of Gang of Four and maybe most obviously, the righteous indignation of the Clash. Joe Strummer, especially, serves as a good touchstone for lead vocalist Jeremy Brasher's snarl. Call them derivative if you like, but there wasn't a band with more immediacy in 2007. Available via maxrecordings.com.
6. The Boondogs, “A Thousand Ships”
The Boondogs frame lyrics of inner turmoil and troubled relationships in sumptuous pop-rock. Back when the band was on the precipice of fame, legendary producer Jim Dickinson told co-lead singer/songwriters and husband and wife Jason Weinheimer and Indy Grotto to arrange their songs like a conversation. Though quick to laugh off any suggestion of Fleetwood Mac-style airing of actual personal drama, Weinheimer and Grotto don't hesitate to roll up their sleeves and delve deep into love and loss. With the Helen of Troy reference that gives the album its title, Weinheimer's “Things You'll Regret” explores the inevitability of low expectations: “Don't you know it's my thing to do the things you'll regret?” Grotto, who focused on dark themes on the band's previous album, comes with a sunnier disposition this time around. Her song of nostalgia and a wedding proposal, “I Do,” was one of the most effervescent, enduring pop songs of the year. Available via maxrecordings.com.
7. The Easys, “Blood Capsule”
The Easys often get lost in the mix. Most of its members play in at least three other bands, including Big Silver, the Boondogs, the Libras and the backing band for Jim Mize, and most all those bands tend to play out and draw larger crowds than the Easys. How 'bout a New Year's resolution for the band? Play more in 2008. Lead singer Isaac Alexander writes winning pop-hooks filled with sweet, nostalgic lyrics about girls. Wrapped in the band's stately mix of keyboards and bright guitars, they made the Easys one of the most infectious acts of the year. Plus, no one had a better album cover.
8. The Ted Ludwig Trio,
“Common Grounds” (self-release)
New Orleans' loss is our gain. After Katrina, Ludwig landed in Arkansas by chance. He and his family liked the pace and Ludwig discovered the community's small but vibrant jazz scene, so here we are: The 31-year-old seven-string guitar virtuoso has become the face of the city's jazz community. Every Thursday night he holds it down at the Afterthought, wowing increasingly large crowds with dexterous and improvisational readings of traditional jazz structures. His nine-track album, which features Bill Huntington on bass and Brian Brown on drums, captures the vibrant spirit of his performances. It was the headphone album of the year. Keep your fingers crossed that it's the first of many. Available at the Afterthought on Thursdays.
9. The Salty Dogs, “Autoharpoon”
(Big Bender Records)
In 2007, the undeniable kings of Little Rock honky-tonk put out an album to rival anyone's in country. Lead singer Brad Williams has one of those sonorous, honey-rich voices that bridge the gap between country and soul. He can channel the Bakersfield sound and do up-tempo, two-stepping gems like “Start Up Now,” and just as easily slide into mournful, salt-of-the-earth ballads like “The People Cried.” The band isn't afraid to get experimental either. Check out the psychedelic flourishes on the mini-song-cycle “Heaven's Gates/Hell's Flames.” Nick Devlin, a local guitarist who also plays with Dale Hawkins, offers impressive riffs throughout. Elvis' drummer DJ Fontana guests on one track, too. Available via thesaltydogs.net.
10. Smoke Up Johnny, “S/T”
(Thick Syrup Records)
Smoke Up Johnny made hangovers worth it in 2007. No local band played later or louder or with more spit-in-your-face joy. Born in Levy of cigarettes, cheap beer and a mutual affection for bands like Cheap Trick and Thin Lizzy, the dudes in SUJ did plenty of punk-rock posturing onstage — bassist Matt Floyd could kick your ass with a cross-ways look — but if you dug a little deeper, you'd see them wearing their hearts on their sleeveless shirts. Their music is pure rock ‘n' roll, an unmitigated blast of all that's simple and holy about rock, and Alan Disaster's night-moves lyrics of one-night stands and rich girls slumming on 12th Street made Smoke Up Johnny one of the most visceral, earnest and funny bands to come around in years. No album can capture the furor of their live show, but this one came close. Available via lastchancemusic.com.