Released under the radar

If classes got in the way of your cultural interests over the past school year, you may have missed out on several noteworthy contributions to the world of independent music. Radiohead kicked things off in October by independently releasing its latest album In Rainbows online with a name-your-price payment system. In April, the Black Keys reached No. 14 on the Billboard album charts with the stellar Attack & Release. Some of the best independent albums, however, flew a little further under the radar. Here are three albums released since September that you probably haven’t heard about.

THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY – THE IZZYSMajor kudos is due if you’ve ever heard of The Izzys. They’re a primo rock ‘n’ roll outfit from New York City who sound more like they were spawned in the basement of a Memphis or Muscle Shoals recording studio. Unfortunately, you won’t find their latest disc on Amazon or at Best Buy. In fact, the only way to get a hard copy of this album is to send five bucks to the band via Paypal. That includes shipping, making the album one of the best bargains this side of illegal downloads.

This is the band’s sophomore effort and a huge step forward from their debut. The tracks are strongly reminiscent of the early-1970s Rolling Stones. The band’s delicious guitar interplay is showcased immediately on the opening blues-rocker, “The Madman Sleeps.” Lead singer and bandleader Mike Storey has a unique vocal approach that suits his country/blues songwriting sensibility nicely. His knack for penning beautiful mid-tempo country ballads is evident in the title track and “I’m A Rounder,” but the album’s peak comes during the loud and pounding “Dead Man.” It’s the kind of song that makes you want to march up to a major record label executive and slap him in the face for not knowing about The Izzys.

DIRECTIONS TO SEE A GHOST – THE BLACK ANGELSIf Pink Floyd made music for stoners and the Grateful Dead was for acidheads, then The Black Angels’ music is for victims of rattlesnake bites and heatstroke. Passover, the band’s first full-length album, released in 2006, was a stunning display of droning guitars and synthesizers, menacing vocals, and loud, hypnotic drums. Directions To See A Ghost continues where Passover left off, with more music that seems destined to be heard on long, lonely road trips through the desert. The Black Angels might not initially appear accessible, but they know their way around a solid hook. It’s these hooks that make an otherwise dense and serious album easy to like.

It might take a few passes to catch all of the album’s lyrics, but it’s worth the strain to your ears. The CD’s back cover and liner notes make no mention of the songwriters for any of the tracks, so it’s impossible to know which of the band’s five members to congratulate for coming up with some wonderfully uneasy poetry to go along with the music.

Whether Directions is an improvement over the band’s first album is debatable, but it’s certainly not a step back.

LET IT BE (RE-RELEASE) – THE REPLACEMENTSIf there was one band that was an antidote to the slick, shallow sounds of ’80s pop music, it was the Replacements. Their critically acclaimed 1984 tour-de-force has finally been remastered for a deluxe edition CD release.

Let It Be was the group’s third album and its last release on an independent label. About half of the tracks are firmly rooted in their hardcore punk act reputation, while the other half demonstrate singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg’s aptitude in writing great songs outside of the punk genre. The bittersweet, wobbly piano ballad “Androgynous” is perhaps the clearest instance of this departure. Westerberg’s bleeding raw vocals are never more appropriate than they are on “Unsatisfied,” one the best songs of its decade. Two songs later, Westerberg is shouting sexual nonsense in the aptly titled “Gary’s Got A Boner,” only to follow it with poignant commentary on adolescent sexuality in “Sixteen Blue.”

The re-release includes upgraded sound quality as well as six bonus tracks. Of these, the highlight is the T. Rex cover, “20th Century Boy,” though all of the extra songs are welcome additions to an album that was originally only 33 minutes long.