I find it inspiring that each year I do this list, it gets harder. The music industry may have taken a nosedive along with every other semi-profitable enterprise, but around here scrappy little bands with great songs seem to be a recession-proof commodity. In the musical history of Baton Rouge, it has always been tough to keep up momentum, but the ones that shine through are, to me, the city’s greatest assets. So before getting to the Top Five, here are some honorable mentions: Bones with Songs of the Id, We Landed on the Moon! with These Little Wars, and Thou with Peasant.
5 Man Plus Building Because My Name is Lion
Residents of this list excluded, I tend to think many bands are hindered by their vocalists, filling a prescribed need for lyrics to legitimize songs. Man Plus Building sidesteps this tradition with an album of windswept, glorious instrumental rock. The songs build like thunderclouds, swelling until they spill over, allowing the dense melodic structures to evoke more of a mood than any weak-voiced indie abstractionist can. I’m a sucker for hooks, and Man Plus Building is all hook, all the time. myspace.com/manplusbuilding
4 Cohen Paper Moon
When I first popped in Paper Moon, I had to check that this was a local CD, because rarely do I hear local singer-songwriters sound this complete on record. Cohen Hartman is a careful maximalist, filling his songs with a panorama of instruments—accordion, strings, glockenspiel, what-have-you. But Hartman curates his sonic menagerie precisely, using sounds to sparsely underscore the tender love songs therein. myspace.com/cohenbr
3 Melters Neato
Neato slipped onto my radar at the last possible moment but with repeated listens has become one of the more charming records of 2008. This power trio creates effortless urgency. It’s the kind of band that plays the in-store appearance at the record shop in my mind. It is what you want a young band to sound like, hungry and insistent yet a little wise for their years. The chaotic punk numbers careen delightfully off the rails and then quickly dissipate. The sunshine pop numbers ride their waves and then crash perfectly. Neato is likely the best 21 minutes you will find on a local disc. myspace.com/melters
2 Flatbed Honeymoon Flatbed Honeymoon
I am the most reluctant of country music fans. Vapid country stars in tight jeans and oversize hats couldn’t be more bloodless if they were actual mannequins. That’s part of the reason why Flatbed Honeymoon is such a welcome group. Recorded with sympathetic glow by Fred Weaver, the record embodies a mix of the humorous and the tragic that makes real country music so vital. The other reason is the different styles three vocalists bring to the mix, ranging from Neil Young-harrowing to George Jones-smooth. I’d say you could fire most country music programmers and just put this record on shuffle. myspace.com/flatbedhoneymoon
1 Harlan Spiderette
Harlan, at least the incarnation that recorded Spiderette last year, recently fell victim to the common flux of members getting jobs and moving away. Founder and songwriter John Norris now teaches painting at Arkansas State University, and drummer Scott Campbell is an Atlanta-based graphic designer. Even if the band never releases another song—though surely Norris will—Baton Rouge-era Harlan has left an indelible mark on this listener.
Norris has grown a lot as a songwriter since he sang about his favorite records on The Still Beat. Spiderette shows a kaleidoscope of artists coming together: Lloyd Cole, New Order and Eighties pop underdogs The Clean, just to name a few. But I hear them less as quotations and more like textures that undoubtedly make up the DNA of the band that grew after Norris’ solo debut to include bassist John Bossier and guitarist Britt King.
A month ago I had a song wedged in my head that I could not identify. I went through countless old albums searching for it. I scoured the titles in the Red Star jukebox. I subjected a friend to my humming in hopes he could pinpoint it, all to no avail. But then Harlan’s “Canceling the Frisbees” came over the KLSU airwaves. Mystery solved.
I hope the next incarnation of Harlan keeps me posted. A free download of Spiderette is available from the band’s Web site. thestillbeat.com