Home, Sweet Home

The peak performances by Colorado artists in 1997.

In last week's issue, Westword celebrated 1997's finest albums by national acts. Now it's Denver's turn in the spotlight. What follows is an alphabetical roster of the finest discs released during the last calendar year by locals or recent graduates of the scene. They make always buying Colorado seem like an idea whose time has come.

The Apples
Tone Soul Evolution
(spinART)

The lo-fi essence of previous recordings by the Apples has been replaced on Tone Soul Evolution, the act's long-awaited new full-length (which will be re-released by Sire Records next week), with crystalline clarity. For a lesser band, this decision could have presented a myriad of problems: Nakedness can be intimidating, you know. But the compositions of Robert Schneider never needed to be smothered in fuzz in the first place. Here they shimmer like the perfect pop creations they are.

Cabaret Diosa
Hi-Fi Latin Exotica
(Exotica)

Too many of the albums attempting to capitalize on the public's renewed interest in big-band, swing and Latin music are presented satirically, as if the music can be enjoyed only as a quaint joke. So give Cabaret Diosa credit for balancing its exuberance with affection and respect. Exotica blends originals and traditionals that are as spirited as a bottle of fine wine.

Electric Summer
Electric Summer
(Soda Jerk)

An EP that comes closer to capturing the punky mayhem these guys create on stage than anyone had a right to expect. Producer Bill Stevenson, of All and the Descendents, keeps the sound raw and righteous, then sits back and lets the four Electricians plug in and power up. The words they bellow are appropriately surreal--e.g., "Shock! I'm a panda/Shock! I'm a picture/Shock! I'm a soda," from "Shock"--and the pace is unremittingly fast. Speed thrills.

The Element 79
Dig Out!
(360 Twist!)

Although this band has gone the way of all flesh, it survived long enough to complete this engaging chunk of neo-garage racket. The three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust formula is used to perfection, resulting in a CD that's innocent and knowing at exactly the same time. Gone but not forgotten.

The Emergency Broadcast Players
Only a Test
(Cookware)

All too often, modern jazz albums are merely reproductions of post-bop recordings that didn't need updating in the first place. But Test, put together by Geoff Cleveland and a daunting collection of Denver's most respected instrumentalists, eschews easy-listening stereotypes in favor of musical adventurism that's particularly bracing.

Five Iron Frenzy
Our Newest Album Ever
(5 Minute Walk/SaraBellum)

If you want to think of the folks in Five Iron Frenzy as the nation's premier practitioners of Christian skacore, you can, but that's certainly not necessary: Messages about faith pop up every now and again on these twelve songs, but heathens simply interested in rocking to the beats can do so without fear of conversion. This genre seems completely exhausted until Five Iron Frenzy begins to play. Then it comes to life again.

Front Range
Ramblin' on My Mind
(Sugar Hill)

Although Front Range has released five albums on Sugar Hill since 1992, the band remains one of the bluegrass community's zealously guarded secrets--and that's too bad, because Mike Lantz, Bob Amos, Bob Dick and Ron Lynam do what they do very well indeed. The picking can be spectacularly rapid-fire, but never at the expense of songs that sound like old friends the first time you hear them.

Ralph Gean
A Star Unborn, or What Would Have Been If What Is Hadn't Happened: The Amazing Story of Ralph Gean

(Hierarchy)
There aren't many genuine originals out there--and only a few of those who deserve this honor are as singular as Gean. Unborn assembles several decades' worth of Gean-penned oddball opuses that transcend novelty status by dint of a quirky darkness over which even Ralph himself doesn't seem to have total control.

The Hate Fuck Trio
Ol' Blue Eyes
(Shaky)

Coming on the heels of You Know, For Kids, the Trio's delightfully obnoxious 1996 full-length, Ol' Blue Eyes, a loving deconstruction of the Frank Sinatra myth, initially seems overly silly--a curio rather than a fusillade. But taken on its own terms, this EP, which blends rewrites of "I've Got the World on a String" and other Sinatra treasures with a couple of appropriately snotty originals, emerges as a joyous blast of anarchy in a world haunted by normalcy. A curveball thrown for a called strike.

The Hectics
Everything I Need
(360 Twist!)

Anika Zappe, Juli McClurg and Dan Tafoya make punk the old-fashioned way: They bash it out without worrying if every note is in tune and every vocal is pretty. Everything I Need assembles the fruit from several raucous vinyl offerings on a convenient platter overflowing with a drunken sense of fun.

Sherri Jackson
Sherri Jackson
(Hybrid)

Jackson fans who already own her indie platter Moments in Denial will be familiar with some of these tracks, including "Maple Tree" and "Rice and Beans." But her debut for Hybrid, a national company whose first release this is, can't be dismissed as a retread. The production, by Los Lobos veteran Steve Berlin, brings out the best in Jackson and her longtime band (Glenn Esparza and Brian McRae), as do guest spots by the likes of John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood. To know her music is to love it.

Munly de Dar He
Munly de Dar He
(Top Notch)

The previous offering by singer-songwriter Jayson Munly Thompson, who recently moved from Colorado to Austin, was a solo disc, the wonderfully odd Blurry. This time around, he's part of a full-sized band that adds heft to his tunes without muting his idiosyncracies. The music has a roots feel that occasionally recalls 16 Horsepower; it's simple yet varied, tuneful yet moody. But Munly's unhinged vocals and lyrics epitomized by song titles such as "Seven Warts on Pa's Belly" give it personality. Weird never sounded so good.

Tim O'Brien
When No One's Around
(Sugar Hill)

Right now O'Brien is in the limelight because he landed a composition, "When There's No One Around," on the Garth Brooks blockbuster Sevens. But the strength of his latest for Sugar Hill serves as a reminder that he's more than a tunesmith. A cast that includes Jerry Douglas and Hal Ketchum supports O'Brien throughout numbers that brim with feeling and authenticity. And sorry, Garth, but his version of "When There's No One Around" beats the hell out of yours.

The Russian Dragon Band
When Kentucky Was Indiana
(Synergy)

Art Lande has been one of the Denver jazz scene's treasures for years, and the Russian Dragon Band, in which he collaborates with Dwight Kilian, Khabu Doug Young and Bruce Williamson, is bound to further enhance his reputation. The quartet fuses various elements into a package that's accessible without being the slightest bit predictable.

The Shakes
The Shakes
(Shattered)

What The Shakes lacks in production value it more than makes up for in sheer catchiness. The act specializes in pop music sans the bombast, delivered with a warmth that's beyond most of today's Oasis clones. Because the presentation is so modest, some listeners may overlook the album's charms. But pay closer attention and you'll discover that there's a lot of merit in these grooves.

Nina Storey
Shades
(Red Lady Music)

On Shades, the big-voiced Storey visits Joan Osborne territory again, but she does so in such a showy, entertainingly brazen way that she gets away with it. She handles slow tempos competently, but it's her sassiness that's most appealing: She rips through burners like "Let Us Walk" and "Coffee and Margaritas" like a woman possessed. Storey has an extremely commercial kind of talent that may well take her beyond her current state in the near future.

Otis Taylor
When Negroes Walked the Earth
(Shoelace Music)

It's a shame that Taylor hasn't recorded more often since his days with Zephyr, because he has a lot of excellent music in him. On Earth, he writes intelligent blues songs filled with historical references that lend them gravity. Better yet, he and his first-rate accompanists (bassist Kenny Passarelli and guitarist Eddie Turner) render the compositions in a manner that embraces mystery, an element all too often neglected by today's blues ambassadors. Deep, generous, moving.

Various Artists
Melt
(Club)

An electronica sampler of uncommon merit, Melt features Colorado artists whose work is just as worthy as that of their peers in the capitals of dance culture. Sundog, Technicolour, Apparatus, Aquatherium and the rest provide a varied slate, dabbling in music that touches on ambient, house and other approaches that are more difficult to categorize. Melt is more than an introduction to the area underground; it's a consistently intriguing listen.

Various Artists
Superstars of the Cricket on the Hill
(Sixpence/Hip-O Records)

A documentary on disc, Superstars provides a platform for more than twenty Denver acts even as it re-creates the ambience of the venue celebrated in its moniker. Venerable types such as the Rock Advocates and Baggs Patrick shake, rattle and roll alongside Thee Lovely Lads, Backspackle and other new-blood donors. Fun for the whole family.

Wendy Woo
Angels in the Crowd
(Skytrail)

Woo is a quadruple threat: She sings, plays, writes and produces with skill and taste. Her songs are earnest without being maudlin, her settings are rich but not obtrusive, and her vocals exude a sensuality that's unexpectedly subtle. There's an army of Lilith Fair sound-alikes in the marketplace right now, but Woo is talented enough to stand out from the Crowd.

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