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Halftime Report

Ten Albums Worth Mentioning From the First Half of 2004

Archived Report(s): Best of 2000-2004 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002

Posted: July 7, 2004

Aaah, it's July once again, a time of year synonymous with celebrating our independence, summer vacations (or, if you're like us, summer school) and Shaking Through's annual look back at some of the worthy releases of the first part of the year. Once again, the redoubtable Laurence Station and yours truly have picked through our reviews of the last six months and come up with some sturdy selections you might have missed or just not gotten around to buying yet. As always, this isn't a Top 10 list as such; we'll save that for the end of the year. Instead, think of this as extra credit: a sampler platter of discs we think are worth your time and attention (and, yes, money). There won't be a quiz, but we welcome your essays: So check out one or two (or all of 'em) and let us know what you think. -- Kevin Moreau, Permanent Substitute

Devendra Banhart: Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God)

Armed with an acoustic guitar and a free-associative take on the world, Devendra Banhart approaches music in a fashion similar to Jeff Mangum: The surrealism never feels forced or contrived, but rather a natural instinct to which the listener is privileged to be privy.

The Decemberists: The Tain [EP] (Acuarela)

Rapidly gaining in the Flaming Lips' rearview mirror on the highway of bold pop experimentation, Portland's Decemberists up the ante for their next full-length with this single-track, near twenty-minute slant on Irish myth.

The Hiss: Panic Movement (Sanctuary)

This Atlanta foursome was emphatically embraced by the U.K., which could be off-putting, given the mother country's penchant for substance-free hype. But The Hiss rocks with a lean, no-frills precision. Panic Movement meanders a bit toward the end, but there's enough controlled brawn and bombast here to reward rock fans and forever put so-called back-to-basics bands like The Strokes in proper perspective.

Patterson Hood: Killers and Stars (New West)

The head of the Drive-By Trucker convoy digs deep into a dark period for this arresting solo album. Recorded D.I.Y.-style over a couple of days during a period of band turmoil and romantic upheaval in 2001 (before Southern Rock Opera made him semi-famous), its direct breakup songs, pointed commentary, self-reflection and character snapshots and offer an unvarnished look at a talented songwriter grappling his demons without schmaltz or self-absorption.

Iron & Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)

Sam Beam refuses to beat listeners over the head with his music. Rather, his carefully strummed, delicately delivered songs insinuate themselves in your head, persistent but benign, a rare case of a whisper truly conveying more power than the most decibel-shredding scream.

Les Savy Fav: Inches (Frenchkiss)

Punk can be inflammatory. It can be political. More than anything, however, it should inspire people to have fun and blow off steam. Les Savy Fav has perfected this approach to the point that it should bottle it and sell it as an Eau de parfum for the fashion-conscious underground set.

Madvillain: Madvillainy (Stones Throw)

Goofy. Radical. Hyperactive. Inspired. Throw these adjectives into a blender and the resulting mix still doesn't do justice to the sound and production wizardry of Madvillainy. MF Doom and Madlib know every great hero requires a worthy villain; here's one primed with bong-loaded raps and ridiculously infectious beats. Hopefully, the duo will find the time to serve up a heroically slanted complement.

Now It's Overhead: Fall Back Open (Saddle Creek)

Studio maven Andy LeMaster crafts a buoyant and affecting song cycle on the second album from his recording project Now It's Overhead (which includes Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor of Azure Ray). Recurring themes of longing -- for love, growth, spirituality -- are played out over uncluttered dream-pop arrangements given added texture by LeMaster's questing, everyman delivery.

Snow Patrol: Final Straw (Universal)

Gary Lightbody makes his bid for Coldplay-sized success, and thanks to this platter of accessible Britpop, he seems to be succeeding. Melodic hooks and simple, effective arrangements make tracks like "Spitting Games," "Wow," "Gleaming Auction" and the lighter-waving ballad "Run" into memorable pop-rock showcases.

Spymob: Sitting Around Keeping Score (Star Trak/Arista)

The debut album from the band responsible for the sinewy grooves on N.E.R.D.'s In Search Of... synthesizes some unlikely '70s influences (Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan) into lively and intelligent power-pop. Spymob's wit and melodic exuberance fit somewhere between the New Pornographers, Guster and The Pursuit of Happiness.

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 Ratings Key:
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 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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