Local bands released new albums this year—many of them self-released—as if there was no tomorrow. And while our year-end music review usually recognizes local and global efforts, our hometown musicians were so prolific—and impressive—that we're going to go ahead and ignore the rest of the world like good, self-sufficient, independent, wishing-to-secede-from-the-Union Montanans should. In that spirit, here's your first-ever—and hopefully not last—review of this year's best local releases.
In Skipper of Reverses local stalwart Volumen takes its decade-old sci-fi sound and focuses it into 10 distinct songs, each crafted with sweet little details. "Electric" and "Beat Of" evoke '90s new wave at its best. Themes of time travel, dark underbellies, strange characters and space ships emerge through playful, energetic rock that never seems derivative. (EF)
With Human Tongue, a collection of covers by local guitar hero Russ Nasset, the delight is in the design, where images and themes repeat and resonate from song to song. "Peg and Awl" showcases Nasset's gravelly vocals, which remind me of old wood floors—beautiful and weathered. In "Boots of Spanish Leather" his twang is sweeter than honey and his tone resonates like a deep, shadowy coalmine. (EF)
Secret Powers and the Electric Family Choir sounds the way pop music should. It sounds like washing your tricycle on a bright waxy blue sunny day. It sometimes sounds like long feathered tresses and platform shoes, sometimes like Nehru jackets and sensitive facial hair. It sounds like girl-watching and dopey desire. It sounds like melted ice cream, dirty feet and sticky faces. It sounds like a big old dog-and-baby party. (AG)
Eden Atwood's Turn Me Loose (SSJ) is the perfect album for a Missoula July, as it's sultry, sweet, playful and flawless. Jazz singers remain a rare breed in Montana, and it seems unlikely that Atwood could find a way to honor her Montana heritage in this album, but that's exactly what she does. This album proves how lucky we are Atwood is one of ours. (MM)
Vera may emit an ethereal soundscape, but the duo's approach on Pupils Black to Black is far from soft. Cindy Marshall plays galloping, minor key power chords with a menacing confidence. Drummer Jen Parsons—who also sings—wields tough rock beats, matching the often-changing tempos that make Vera more progressive and metal than simply verse-chorus-verse pop music. The band's harmonies create pretty, sinister songs about terrorism, depression and, more positively, seizing the day. (EF)
White Sulphur Springs is exactly what a folk-country album should be—straightforward, plaintive and perceptive. Bolstered by sparse instrumentals (provided by a first-rate Nashville session band), Ben Bullington sings about America's working class, waitresses and drifters, but also Montana's wide-open spaces, ranch dogs and the ring around the moon. (MM)
Stevensville's Judgment Hammer delivers the kind of thrash metal on Arbiter of Fate usually blasted from stages around the Bay Area circa 1981–1985. For the uninitiated, that means songs about death, destruction and vengeance built inside five-plus minute opuses composed of multiple movements delivered by players who can flat out shred. This isn't mimicry, it's an homage. (CLT)
FagRag's debut, Centerfold, is a spitfire collection of frenetic energy and playful lyrics. Mikki Lunda huffs and pants to gritty guitar squeals and jogging drum beats. "Casino Liquor Store" basks in the sounds of keno machines and cash registers. Themes include alpha males, murder and personal space, while toeing the line between tongue-in-cheek silliness and creepy, dark truths. (EF)
Bob Wire has always crafted memorable stories of bars, cars, guitars and love. His latest, Buffaload, snares that same quirky humor. Songs like "Sh*t List" (about, among other things, his neighbor's dog taking dumps on his lawn) carry just enough witticisms to be smart, not cheesy. And "Vision in Neon"—sung with local favorite Tom Catmull—perfectly exemplifies deadpan storytelling with a wink. (EF)
Just when the rest of us Missoula musicians think Tom Catmull might be loosening his grip on the top of the food chain, he goes and releases his most ambitious album yet. Enter Glamour Puss, where the first song out of the chute, "Change Your Mind," signals an album with balls. Catmull's AM-radio vocal is supple and understated, adding just a hint of menace to the song. Looks like the king of the local music hill might just reign a while longer. (BW)
It's hard to imagine Wartime Blues playing its gritty workingman's folk on an elevated stage under hot lights. Ideally, you'd hear the band around the fire in some bygone military encampment while the audience drinks moonshine out of tin cups. Whatever the setting, this is a gropup worth hearing, and their first full-length album, Doves and Drums, is the proof. (AG)
Box Elder (Skeptical Records) is a bit like what would happen if you put Tom Petty, Mike Gordon, Weezer and the soundtrack from The Royal Tenenbaums in a blender. Whether he's pondering the production of children's toys in the remarkably catchy "Orange Lion" or calling for a new era of peace in "Watching Combat," Larry Hirshberg's distinct voice, creative melodies and compelling themes combine for a diverse album. (MM)
There's something a little bit Billy Joe Armstrong about Tyson Ballew's vocals—the way he sings about crushes made me recently unearth Green Day's 1,039/ Smoothed Out Slappy Hours just to hear "The One I Want." That said, the local troubadour injects his own dramatic notions of love into The Summer of Dodos (Tummy Rock) and darkens them with an end-of-the-world earnestness. (EF)
Rooster Sauce sounds like The Makers or the Oblivians, but the lyrics seem like the Beatles' White Album meets The Misfits—psychedelic crossed with monster mash. Zombie of the Ultra League shows that the local band, famous for its outrageous stage costumes, isn't trying to hide anything. They've got talent. Songs like "Snakeskin Monkey" shine, while "Hot Pocket" shows a sass and sensual touch that makes it about more than just a microwavable snack food. (EF)
Reviews by Erika Fredrickson, Ali Gadbow, Melissa Mylchreest, Chris La Tray and Bob Wire.