And by "the best music ever," I mean Soltero.
Soltero is always the Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Tim Howard, and often an ever-changing cast of talented others. With every album, Soltero is reinvented, and with every album Soltero gains more depth and breadth as a musical artist. If you currently are not familiar with any of his music, I would be happy to introduce you.
I'll list three great albums by three great bands that you may be familiar with, and if you like any of the albums listed, then you'll probably like the Soltero album listed after that.
Before Soltero became Soltero in 2001—before 'Science Will Figure You Out,' 'Defrocked and Kicking the Habit,' The Tongues You Have Tied, Hell Train, and long before You're No Dream—the genius behind Soltero put out two excellent albums that almost certainly aren't available on Amazon.com. I'll mention them here just to be thorough, but if you find yourself getting into Soltero's five amazing albums, I highly recommend you try to track these earlier recordings down as well.
The first was recorded under the name "The Tacocat," and is called, 'The Tacocat Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing.' The Tacocat album was recorded with only guitar and vocals on a four-track when Tim Howard's songwriting chops were still in their infancy, but it's still thoroughly listenable from beginning to end, features some great lyrics—such as "Would you take back that time...'cause it's the only good time...I'm gonna to have in a long time," or "When I'm beside you, I am beside myself"—and it actually benefits from the spooky textures of the lo-fi production.
After that, Tim Howard released the only album of his to date that he's credited to his own name. The album is called 'Times are Evil and You are Beautiful,' and is excellent. The songs are haunting, catchy, lo-fi, often instrumental, often experimental, but always accessible. Its songs are anthemic songs of youth, unrequited love, and being alone.
Science Will Figure You Out
'Science Will Figure You Out' is Soltero’s first album under the name Soltero—which means “the bachelor” in Spanish—and came out independently in 2001. The album features the acclaimed group the Mobius Band as Soltero’s backup, and from the guitar-line of "Memorial Drive" that slides like ice across a hot iron, to the unexpected drum machine that bursts into "The Priest," to the brilliant lyrics of "Communist Love Song" that compare love to Cold War politics—“If you're ever less than certain, I will be you iron curtain, I will be your Berlin Wall, and I will never fall"—this album is unprecedented.
If you like Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, or any Yo La Tengo, you will probably like this. If you like the full rock sound of the Mobius Band's City Vs Country, or any of their other stuff, see what the Mobius Band sounds like with Soltero at their helm. And if you like the raw indie rock of Slint's Spiderland, check out this album’s original sort-of-tribute to them: "Kentuckyland."
If you like any or all of the above three artists, it’s almost certain you’ll like Science Will Figure You Out.
Defrocked and Kicking the Habit
Soltero’s second album, 'Defrocked and Kicking the Habit,' was released in 2003 by Handsome Records. It’s depressing and grim, yet joyful; witty, yet deep; thoughtful, theological, troubled, and yet unrestrainedly rocking. Plus, unlike other Soltero albums, this one features the trumpet and horns of Tom Hummel, instruments that transform this album into a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Yeah! Every song on this album is great, but standouts include one of my favorite Soltero songs ever, "Fight Song for True Love," a love song to a girl telling off Boston's policemen; "Digging," a quiet song with a banjo descending insanely into static and muffled vocals bound to give you chills; and "The Moment You Said Yes," an existential love song that rushes to build into background vocals that explode and intensify into high-pitched ululations and slaphappy handclaps.
If you like the horns that stand out from the hits of Belle and Sebastian's Push Barman to Open Old Wounds or Cake's early Motorcade of Generosity, or the world-weary vocals of Leonard Cohen's Songs From a Room, then...well...then you have pretty good taste in music. I like you. Let's be Amazon friends.
But that’s besides the point. The point is, if you like those artists, you will almost certainly like Defrocked and Kicking the Habit.
The Tongues You Have Tied
Soltero’s third album is 'The Tongues You Have Tied,' and was released in 2003 by Three Ring Records. At times—depending on my mood—it’s my very favorite Soltero album. The album was recorded in a basement in winter...and it sounds like it. It sounds made to be listened to late at night, in the dark, driving on icy roads in a snowstorm. This is, for sure one of Soltero’s best—definitely his quietest and most intimate. Listen to it to relax, to unwind, and to creep yourself out.
If you like the spare sensibilities of Elliot Smith's From a Basement on the Hill, the quiet disclosures of Nick Drake's Pink Moon [Remastered], or the layered textures of The Mamas and the Papas' If You Can Believe Your Eyes & Ears, then this record is for you.
If you like any of the above, you’ll like The Tongues You Have Tied.
Soltero’s fourth album is simply called 'Hell Train,' and, after an initial label-less release, was wisely re-released by Three Ring Records in 2005. I honestly think it may be one of the greatest albums ever recorded. It’s a cohesive album that ties itself together in a thousand ways, that flows and rocks, challenges and excites. It will make you feel good, it will make you feel sad, it will make you think, it will make you press "Repeat All" and never want to leave the room. The structures of the songs are always original—often like nothing you've ever heard before—the instrumentation is inspired and unique, Tim Howard's voice is always dead on and sardonic and genuine, and the songs' lyrics couldn't be more clever or more original. For example: "If I had a chance to make things right, I'd only waste it on my life." The songs are electric and jamming, quiet and thoughtful, shambling and tight.
This is a seemingly happy album with astoundingly dark themes. At times it feels like the polyphonic playfulness of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, at times it gives a nod toward East River Pipe's Gasoline Age, and in moments the eclectic range of Pavement's Brighten The Corners can (not too) easily be divined.
If you like the above musicians, you’ll probably love Hell Train. But really if you love MUSIC, you’ll probably love it. It’s amazing.
You're No Dream
And this brings us to Soltero’s fifth album, an album so good, and so intimate, it almost makes me hesitate to tell people about it. The album, ‘You’re No Dream,’ was released in 2008 by two separate labels—by La Société Expéditionnaire in the U.S; and by Messie Murders, in France—and I am absolutely in love with it. Recorded almost entirely on a spooky little eight-track, it feels every bit as complex and summery as ‘Hell Train,’ and every bit as intimate and ethereal as ‘The Tongues You Have Tied.’ Howard has managed to continue to grow as a songwriter, and in a big way. Where his songs once reveled in their indisputable cleverness—with that heartfelt but tongue-in-cheek analogy likening love to communism, for instance—here he tends to eschew cleverness in favor of sincerity. The clever puns haven't gone away, but they are now comfortably outnumbered by genuine sentiment.
Words fail me when trying to describe this album, but let me just say that this is as summery a summer pop album as ‘Hell Train’ ever aimed to be, albeit a much spookier and more unnerving one. Fans of the Anthology of American Folk Music (Edited by Harry Smith) will get to hear what the ghosts of old-time folk might sound like if channeled through an East River Pipe. Fans of Best of Flamingos, in particular their version of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” will find an abundance of comparably terrifying love songs contained herein. And fans of the hauntingly lo-fi production of Iron and Wine's The Creek Drank the Cradle will find a similar tone here, though with poppier, more honest songs.
Fans of any of the above recordings, of Soltero’s past albums, and of all the miracles that music is capable of doing to the human consciousness, will find only goodness in You're No Dream. It is easily the Best Album of 2008, and arguably Soltero's Best Album So Far.
I hope this has been a helpful introduction to the music of Soltero. Know that none of my comparisons are dead on, and that many other comparisons could have been made in addition. Other reviewers have aptly compared his music to In the Aeroplane over the Sea if Neutral Milk Hotel had alt.country influences, to Neil Young's Harvest, and to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's I See a Darkness.
The music of Soltero is music that can often be a real challenge to categorize and to make comparisons to, but that’s just part of what makes it so good.
That, and how hard it rocks.
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