- FAVORITE MELANCHOLICS: The Boondogs, who show no sign of slowing.
I came close. I almost ran a heartwarming essay about a live Nativity scene. Anything to escape the dreaded year-in-review roundup and all its narrow encapsulation. But I couldn't pull the trigger. Who am I kidding? I write about arts and entertainment. List making is my blood.
This year, I'm sliding even farther down the slippery slope. I've got a year-end list and a gimmick. The year in Arkansas pop culture, A to Z. (Make sure to check out the A/V version on line at Rock Candy.)
“Attraction.” If any local song was deserving of mass radio play, it was this one by North Little Rock's Riverboat Crime. Built around a bright, rhythmic guitar hook, the song shifts between Big Dumb Pop (“if you make me crazy, I'll drive you wild”) and Springsteen-ian moments (“all night we've been playing lookaway games”). Lead singer Josh Stoffer holds everything together with a voice so big and baldly full of feeling he almost sounds like he's from another era. Like maybe one where bands like Squeeze and XTC reigned supreme. Hear it on Riverboat Crime's debut “Walking Shoes.”
Boondogs. Now that Ho-Hum's on indefinite hiatus, Little Rock's favorite pop melancholics appear to be the scene's longest-tenured active band. They show no signs of slowing, either. A year and a half after the 'dogs released “A Thousand Ships,” they returned with a new one in November. “Take Shelter” continues along a similar path as previous records: Lead singers and songwriters and husband and wife Indy Grotto and Jason Weinheimer frame lyrics as if they're having a conversation, and one that often dips into dark territory. Lush pop leavens the mood. It's a timeless formula, but give credit to the Boondogs for branching out. Sonically, Weinheimer, who led the production, suns up the rhythm section, and not content to do the typical Little Rock promotional shuffle, he and Grotto hooked up with wunderkind New Orleans director Benjamin Reece to make a music video for their song “Heaven.” It's a gorgeous and naturalistic romp through the Crescent City, starring the couple's two small children. It's easily the best music video ever from a local band.
Cool Shoes. Dance music brought people together in 2008. In a town with a nightlife largely segregated by age, race and sexual preference, this monthly, all-ages get-down at Downtown Music was the picture of diversity. Call it dance floor democracy: Blonde teens in pink jeans shared the floor with college kids with nose rings and the grown and sexy. Black, white, gay, straight, rhythmic and not — everyone got down to obscure dance remixes they all seemed to know, but chances are, you would not.
Dan Penn. The legendary songwriter (“Dark End of the Street,” “Do Right Woman,” “It Tears Me Up”) served as a fitting coda to Danny Grace's tenure steering Hendrix College's Special Events program. For more than a decade, Grace, who heads the college's theater arts department, brought huge names to Conway for free shows, artists to make any music geek big-eyed: Lucinda Williams, John Cale, Bill Frisell, Howard Tate, Van Dyke Parks, Gillian Welch and James “Blood” Ulmer. In most cases, it was the musician's first time in Arkansas. Penn's performance, with keyboard accompaniment from esteemed session man Bobby Emmons, was transcendent. With just an acoustic guitar and country soul baritone that would make Charlie Rich envious, Penn reclaimed all his old hits for his own. Pick up Penn and Spooner Oldham's 1999 album “Moments from This Theater,” and you'll get the idea. And local arts organizations (Wildwood, I'm looking at you), don't forget about Grace. He's a booking dynamo.
Expats. As usual, Arkies abroad represented. David Gordon Green directed the year's funniest film, “Pineapple Express.” Al Green, at 62, reasserted himself as soul man number one with “Lay It Down.” Jeff Nichols' “Shotgun Stories” finally gained broad release and even broader critical embrace. Former !!! noise-maker John Pugh released a smart, dance-y EP with his new project, Free Blood. Lil JJ covered the election for Nickelodeon and toured with Bone Thugs. Clark Duke starred in a movie called “Sex Drive.”
Fabulists. Two of the best books of the year came from Arkansans who weren't afraid to make animals talk or delve into fantasy. Nor were Kevin Brockmeier (“The View from the Seventh Layer”) or Nate Powell (“Swallow Me Whole”) wary of taking traditional narrative constructs and making them their own. Brockmeier, in his short story collection, imbues Choose Your Own Adventure and sci-fi stories with a deep and gentle compassion. Powell, in his graphic novel about teen-aged psychic unrest, frames his story with lush pen and ink that almost seems as unmoored from the page as his protagonists.
Good Fear. The local (well, 4/5ths Fayetteville) Southern rockers named their latest album “Dirty Lowdown Adventure,” which was apt, considering they spent two years in four studios and enlisted more than a dozen guests. Soaking in all the stylistic diversity takes repeated listening. The best place to start: the lively “Tools of Trade,” a song that features everything that makes the Good Fear great — a hook (several, in fact) that's fun to holler along to, full-throated harmony, shifting dynamics and guitar solo that won't quit.
Hayes Carll. This adopted Arkie (he went to Hendrix, called his second album “Little Rock” and has a lyric that goes “Arkansas, my head hurts/I'd love to stick around and maybe make it worse”) released an acclaimed album, “Trouble in Mind,” that earned him a fervent national following, but his album didn't stick with me as much as “Crystal Beach Memories,” the viral promo video his label Lost Highway released earlier this year. It's a cartoon of the singer reminiscing about one of his first steady gigs — at a bar and grill where the cook was named Bull, pills went into the tip jar and the only thing anyone wanted to hear was “Free Bird.” It's wry and visually playful and unlike anything else on the web.
Isaac Alexander. The prolific local musician, who leads three bands (Big Silver, the Easys and Molten Lava) and plays in two more (Boondogs and the Libras) went at it alone with “See Thru Me,” a dark meditation on faith and relationships. As always, Alexander's easy way with melody brightened things up.
“Jump.” For the 100-year anniversary of the birth of native son Louis Jordan, “Arkansongs” host and longtime Jordan champion Stephen Koch teamed with Cliff Baker and Wildwood to produce a musical revue of Jordan's life for the stage. A down-home catfish fry (a la perhaps Jordan's best song, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”) with all the fixin's kicked off the night and hundreds filled Cabe Theater to see Lawrence Hamilton and an impressive local cast shine in the year's liveliest stage production. A close second: the Rep's winning take on “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.”
Korto. Arkansas felt a little more fashionable with Mabelvale's Korto Momolu representing on “Project Runway.” On her way to an impressive second place finish and fan favorite win, the designer made kale chic, couture from seatbelts and brought bleached jeans back from the '80s. She's already secured at least one international contract — from the president of her native Liberia. Meanwhile, she's still supplying wares to local boutique Box Turtle.
Little Rock Film Fest. In its second year, the festival didn't score the preview screenings or breadth of international fare it did in its inaugural run, but it still hosted an impressive line-up, particularly in terms of filmmakers in attendance. Charles B. Pierce, the cult favorite and Arkansas native, got feted with a retrospective and honored as the namesake for the festival's best in Arkansas prize. “War Eagle, Arkansas,” the honest and funny portrait of small town life in the Ozarks, deservedly took home the inaugural award. Props, too, to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Fest for scoring names like Albert Maysles and MC Frontalot and offering, as usual, a rich and diverse line-up.
Musicophilia. The best new mix blog on the web comes courtesy of Soundslike, the Little Rock native behind the 10-disc “1981” compilation of post-punk that a handful of locals were lucky enough to get a hold of several years back. With Musicophilia, he's offering downloads of most of those discs, plus new series — all with thoughtful liner notes and smartly designed cover art. Make sure to check out the “Le Tour du Monde” volumes, billed on the blog as “Moog-laden, Rhodes-fed, breaks-filled, string-kissed bliss-outs, futurist pop concoctions, mellow moods, and jazzy freak-outs.”
New technology. As in, “the embrace of.” Tired of getting turned down by people who don't carry cash anymore, mix CD purveyor SJ, of the 4X4 Crew, bought a mobile credit card machine. Veteran local DJ g-force used a plug-in that allowed him to blend music videos, projected onto LCD screens at Deep, with his turntables. Cameron Holifield used a computer program to live-sync video collages at Western Meds shows. Tons of folks made online video commercials for shows.
Oxford American. The venerable “Southern Magazine of Good Writing” very nearly gave up the ghost earlier this year after a staffer embezzled a crippling amount. But former Times staffer Warwick Sabin has come on as a steadying presence as publisher, and the mag's continued to do what it's always done — explore, provoke and give voice to the under-exposed. Further reason to celebrate: “The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing” (UA Press) and the 10th Anniversary Southern Music Issue.
Princes. Specifically, American Princes, the Little Rock band with the nearest claim on fame of local acts. This year they released the best record of their career, the '80s-flavored “Other People,” which at press time, according to well-placed sources, was set to be named Magnet magazine's album of the year.
Quintets. Specifically, the Ted Ludwig Quintet. For all but a couple of nights this year, Ludwig, a transplant from New Orleans who's a whiz on seven-string guitar, fronted a trio (also featuring Joe Cripps on bass and Brian Brown on drums). Not content with simply being the city's finest jazz act, Ludwig, with help from producer Rex Bell, secured all-star help for his sophomore album — New Orleanseans Michael Pellera (keys) and Tony Dagradi (sax), the leader of the internationally acclaimed jazz act Astral Project. “Shabang!” serves as a perfect name for the always swingin' release.
Riverfest. The annual summer festival drew a record 253,000, and it even rained a little. The newly opened Junction Bridge served as a perfect perch for catching acts in the amphitheater, and the newly established Arkansas Tent celebrated the state's musical diversity to the fullest, from the post-punk protest of the Moving Front to the rousing gospel of Pastor Michael Perkins and the Melody Makers.
Showcase. The Times Musicians Showcase drew big crowds, a surfeit of talented acts and ended with 607 taking home the title. He was the first rapper to ever win the battle. Let's do it again. Enter online at arktimes.com/showcase.
Thank God for Mississippi. Memphis, too. Our neighbors to the east did it right this year musically. Fat Possum offshoot Big Legal Mess put out the best thing I heard all year, “The George Mitchell Collection,” a 7-disc collection of weird and wonderful field recordings captured throughout the South over a 20-year period beginning in the early '60s. Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm, out of Holly Springs, Miss., kept the legacy of Cedric's grandfather R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough alive with their excellent sophomore release, “2 Man Wrecking Crew.” They were even better at White Water — hypnotic, raucous, essential. Based out of Memphis, but increasingly always on the road, Jay Reatard released a hugely infectious collection of pop-punk singles on Matador.
Unlikely concerts. Surely because of Jason White, the Little Rock native and de facto fourth member of Green Day, the band's alter ego, the Foxboro Hot Tubs, kicked off its national tour at Juanita's. It was mad fun. To promote his exhibit of country music memorabilia at the Old State House, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives played a rare show in the museum's historic legislative chamber. He treated the audience to stories about BJ's Star-Studded Honky Tonk (now Electric Cowboy) and Arkansas country legend Maxine Brown and a musical revue that seemed to stretch across the entirety of 20th century roots music.
Valley of the Vapors. The strongest indie festival around celebrated its 4th year by bringing nearly 30 bands from seven different countries to Hot Springs for a week. The organizers influence didn't end with the festival. In the fall, they hosted the Flaming Lips wacko sci-fi epic, “Christmas on Mars,” at the Malco.
Warhol. The Arts Center scored a coup with “Warhol: 15 Weeks of Fame,” an impressive showcase of the pop artist that includes the “Silver Clouds” installation. As a bonus, the museum recently opened “Factories: Warhol, Sex and Disasters,” an exhibit of Arkansas photographer Tim Hursley's work.
Xxzotic. The North Little Rock rap diva returned, from Houston, for her first local showcase in some two years. She was as dynamic as usual, but everyone, it seems, has forgotten about her. Only a paltry crowd showed up for her concert at Downtown Music. I'll keep following her from afar, but I'd be shocked to see her performing in Central Arkansas anytime soon, and that's too bad.
Young MCs. What happened to local hip-hop? Last year was a banner year. Dozens of good albums and several great ones came out. Rappers performed just about every weekend. DJs tore up the club with a few choice local singles. Arkansas seemed on the precipice of national exposure. This year, the scene seemed to go into hibernation. All the big players — 607, Conduit, Grim Muzik — slowed their output or took the year off altogether. Here's to 2009 being the year of the comeback. In the meantime, we've got some young guns on the rise to keep things interesting. Dat Heat representer Bware, 25, finally put out the long promised “No Jokes, No Games” album (it was worth the wait), and Hip-Hop school alum Maxx, 19, released his sharp self-titled debut.
Zii. Going in, I figured “Z” is for skipping in these round-ups, but then I remembered Zii, the rapper who used to go by just plain “Z” or sometimes “Zbra” and ran with the Dat Heat crew. He's in L.A. now, but still collaborating with the Dat Heat folks from afar and still posting infectious club bangers on his MySpace page, www.myspace.com/wacaman.