Archive for December, 2011
2. tUnE-YaRdS – w h o k i l l
Buckle up ‘cuz we’re gonna go quick, shake-a-shake-shake-a, gonna make-a you sick. – “Killa”
It’s been fun watching Merrill Garbus’ rise over the last two years. In that time, she’s gone from playing the Holocene with a lone bass player beside her; to Mississippi Studios; to the Doug Fir with a more robust backing band, saxophones and all; and, most recently, this winter at an absolutely packed Wonder Ballroom performance, which is impressive on any night, but I think this was on a Tuesday. Her live show is inspired, the woman herself inspiring. And although I had heard a lot of the songs on this list before the record came out, they’re all so good that it was inevitably going to be high on my list.
What w h o k i l l loses in the lo-fi charm and infinite-time-to-create of “bird-brains”, the songs and her style do not suffer for having the fuller production or the larger band. I tend to favor the lo-fi aesthetic and its DIY honesty in general. I like the reflections of humanity to be found in the imperfections of the music. On the other hand, tUnE-YaRdS is a force of nature, and the tools are only a means to an end. Here we’re shown that the songs that are just as potent whether cobbled together with the sounds from literal pots and pans or backed by a full horn section.
And this video for “Bizness” is pretty good, too.
1. Wild Flag
If you’re gonna be a restless soul then you’re gonna be so, so tired. – “Future Crimes”
Janet Weiss makes her second appearance on the top of my list, slaying the drum kit and singing backup for the fun and wonderful amalgam that is Wild Flag, joined by her ex-Sleater-Kinney bandmate Carrie Brownstein; Mary Timony of Helium fame; and Rebecca Cole of The Minders, Hungry Holler, and the Shadow Mortons (with Weiss). So by the line-up alone, this was a record I had highly anticipated. The Record Store Day 7″ (“Glass Tambourine” and “Future Crimes”, both re-recorded for the album proper) only heightened that. My expectations were exceeded, as not only are there are ton of other great songs on this record, but even the re-recorded ones sound better, beating out the primacy effect for once.
It doesn’t hurt that it starts and ends with end-to-end rock, and that the opener “Romance” makes for incredibly catchy radio music. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it sounds a bit like Sleater-Kinney, because they were a fantastic band. But perhaps the biggest thing for me is all of the little moments: hooks, guitar solos, “yeahs”, lyrics, “na na na”s, driving organs and drums. They add up to a whole lot of fun that’s greater than the sum of, in the hands of a lesser band, straightforward parts. It’s the infectious shaky enthusiasm in the way Brownstein sings “if you need help with your motor / well you can borrow mine / borrow mine” in “Boom”. The quiet whispering that builds to a frenzy in the middle of “Glass Tambourine”; the pounding rhythm and the entire opening, really, of “Electric Band”; the dual guitars interplay throughout “Black Tiles”.
In record form, the tracks are divided fairly perfectly. “Short Version”, which starts the B-side, is every bit of a good album opener as “Romance”— punchy and fierce. In fact, it’s the song that ends the A-side, “Endless Talk”, that is the only track out of ten that, while I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just… forgettable, and suffers in the context of a lot of other amazing rock tunes. But it makes “Short Version” stand out even more and maybe it’s all part of the plan.
December 30th, 2011
4. The Kills – Blood Pressures
What could be stranger than to be stuck outside your cage? – “Damned If She Do”
The Kills, hard-driving, blood-soaked, leather jacketed, mascara-smeared pulp novels wrought to life with thrashing guitars, head-banging rhythms, ping-pong ball beats, and last-gasp vocals. It delivers. ‘Nuff said.
The Kills – Future Starts Slow
3. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
I was made to mock charades, to call spades spades, when will it level off? – “Forever 28″
The album name is, honestly, pretty forgettable to me– I keep trying to remember it and only coming up with Real Emotional Trash, the 2008 Jicks release that I loved/love, and my favorite Jicks album to date. (As an aside, can we just call them The Jicks yet?) Mirror Traffic, produced by Beck, in a 90′s indie-rock nerdgasm team-up with the former Pavement singer/songwriter (Malkmus) and drummer Janet Weiss (of Sleater-Kinney fame, although she left the band after this album to pursue other projects), was reportedly recorded in just a couple of weeks. It’s probably all the better for it.
Oddly, a lot of the reviews surrounding the album talk about SM coming off of his year of touring in the Pavement reunion result in his most “Pavementy” record of his solo career but, in reality, this was recorded before that tour even began. And, honestly, it doesn’t sound any more like Pavement to me than Real Emotional Trash did except that perhaps most of the songs are more concise. I still like the previous album better but if I have learned anything from Malkmus it’s the way a song can grow on you. And there is a lot of eminently likable things here even on the first pass that I didn’t get from, say, Face The Truth (although a lot of those songs bore out much better in a live show).
There’s a lot that is “classic SM” here, which is never a bad thing. If you played the opening riffs from “Tigers” or “Brain Gallop” and made me guess who was making that guitar sing, I’m guessing it would be a short contest. But developing that sort of iconicity in one’s guitar playing without, say, a Stones “Satisfaction”-era pedal, is really a testament to how distinctive his style has become. It’s not just his unique vocal style, his impressive lyrical font, or his generally prolific songwriting; the fact that he can do all of that and play the way he does is an impressive feat.
My favorite tracks? “Fall Away” is a short, bittersweet song with a slow, gentle melody and quiet backing vocals, with lovely rhymes like “I know there’s action / in subtraction”. And he manages to rhyme something with “alacrity” (but why should I spoil the surprise?). “Asking Price”, which follows it, is similar in tone but similarly inviting, as our singer insists that he’s “not going to bait that trap again”.
But a pair of tracks stand out the most for me: the toe-tapping “Forever 28″, an introspectively-lyriced song that continually builds in instrumentation until we swell to the backing vocals (Janet or Joanna?) in the last verse until it goes in for one last freak-out to end the tune. Speaking of freak outs, the other track would be the aptly-named stream-of-consciousness speed poetry of “Spazz” (interspersed with interludes wherein presumably Malkmus can catch his breath). To wit, one verse reads:
Would you like to pet my rifle?
Summer can be such a drag
Or rip into my lemon trifle?
I’m too old to play capture the flag
No One Is (As I Are Be) (This song, though, does have French Horn in it.)
December 29th, 2011
7. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2
Also known as Pretty Lou aka Pretty Mike, switch up my name pretty much how I like. – “B-Boys in the Cut”
Since Ill Communication‘s release in 1994, it seems that each new Beastie Boys album is a longer time in coming than the one before. It was four years until it was followed up with Hello Nasty; six more years until To The 5 Boroughs dropped; and now eight years after that last, largely forgettable effort (I blame the lack of Money Mark), comes the long-delayed Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2.
From the presaging star-studded mini-movie pitting the Licensed to Ill era-Beastie Boys against their aged counterparts from the future, my interest level was high. The album did not disappoint. Although far removed from their egg-slinging bong-hitting rambunctiousness of yore, for the most part the rhymes here feel fresh. The Boys have always had a tendency to crib a lyric or three in homage to other rap songs, particularly from old school New York artists, and at this point in their career they have enough material to borrow from themselves as well, which can alternately feel fun or tired.
Ultimately, though, it works. The collaborations with Nas and Santigold are successful and not gratuitous (unlike some hip-hop albums that suffer from too many cooks); the songs, repetitive in places, are largely filled with good hooks and in the words of MCA they “keep the bass lines round”; the wordsmithing and flow is as good as it’s ever been and the sense of humor is firmly in place.
6. Nicole Atkins – Mondo Amore
My pain could learn to play the violin but it might not bring you back. At least we’d have a pretty soundtrack. – “Hotel Plaster”
We went to see Nicole Atkins play at Mississippi Studios last year. Actually, we went to see the opening band, Cotton Jones and, in reality, left before she played. In hindsight, although Cotton Jones is great in nearly every way, this seems to have been a pretty big mistake.
Not too long after that show, I had one of those cravings to listen to something entirely new and I came across Mondo Amore on the new release racks at Music Millenniuma so, on a whim, I picked it up figuring that if she was touring with one of my favorite bands then she’s probably doing something right.
I had thought that the style of music itself wasn’t something that I listen to a lot– but Wikipedia labels her genres as “psychedelic, alternative, folk rock”, so if you take those as the guidelines then I guess that, yes, that is My Kind of Music™. Her voice, rich and powerful, has a crooner quality to it that harkens back to a different era and the poetry of the songwriting itself reminds me a lot of Neko Case. Like Neko, there is also a undercurrent of country music influence, but it’s more understated here. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Atkins guested on A.C. Newman’s second solo album, “Get Guilty”.
Listening to this only on shuffle made it suffer for me at first. I ended up listening to the last three tracks, “War Is Hell”, “Heavy Boots” and “The Tower” quite a bit and, as the titles of the songs might imply, they are heavy songs and not always suitable for a sunny day or a plodding commute. My favorite tracks, as it turns out, are positioned closer to the other end of the album. Most notably, “Cry, Cry, Cry” is a catchy uptempo song whose structure belies its theme of sadness and the frustration of being “under the spell of a confidence man”; and “Hotel Plaster”, a sad ballad but extraordinarily beautiful in its imagery.
5. The Dø – Both Ways Open Jaws
I don’t want nobody to take me for someone I am not. I’m just playing my own part, don’t blame me if I’m on the run. – “Bohemian Dances”
I forget now what my search term was on Last.fm, but whatever artist I had been listening to— Cat Power?— led me eventually to a song by this French and Finnish duo. So I’d hope that these guys aren’t that unknown, because they’re really entrancingly great. I found this album as soon as I could— the band name is surprisingly googleable— and I’ve been listening to it steadily ever since. The music has a very dreamlike quality to it; simple keyboard melodies with beautiful vocals give way to sudden digital stutters like the abrupt mental trip of déja vu, or shifting gears into a technologically driven song entirely. Like dreams, there are recurring motifs of moonlight and mermaids that strike symbolism throughout. And it occurs to me only now that this is the sort of album that people would absolutely adore if Björk made it. But The Dø are perfectly capable of handling it themselves.
The songs feel, in turns, redemptive and self-exploring. The music itself reflects this, relying on a varied and interesting instrumentation that builds upon itself with increasing complexity without losing the obvious care on display. It’s rich music that would feel just as beautiful stripped down but benefits from the tapestry built around it. I’m not generally a fan of music that gets too built ups with synths, strings, horns, backing vocals, and other great swells— perhaps it’s a childhood aversion to “The Long And Winding Road” that spurred it— but The Dø manage to strike the balance, perform the balancing act, and other balance-type clichés, that allow them to pull it off without the usual accompanying pretension. The earnest vocals and beautiful melodies go a long way towards making this happen.
As a leo myself, I also hold a soft spot in my heart for the song “Leo Leo”. It will also make my eventual “zodiac” Saturday Playlist one song easier. But it’s an album with few chinks in its armor and a lot of variety and more than one ace up its sleeve. Favorite song of late would be “Gonna Be Sick!”, but I’m always a fan of that Lesley Rankine-esque vocal growl (when used in moderation).
Note: This album does not need to be used in moderation.
December 29th, 2011
10. Unknown Mortal Orchestra (self-titled)
I’m a smiling alligator and I tell lies that ring true later. – “Thought Ballune”
I like all of my life, all of my life, all my funny friends – “FFunny FFriends”
A last-minute entry that edged out a lot of other things by virtue of it capturing my attention every time it comes on. It reminds me, variously, of Of Montreal and Barrett-era Pink Floyd and, when it’s not reminding me of those, feels wholly original, whacked out, and I don’t understand what they’re saying half of the time but it’s buried in a myriad of other interesting sounds and I am a-ok with that. I can tell this one is going to grow on me. “Nerve Damage”, with its off-kilter four-note main riff and oddball intro/outro vocoder-thingy, is already worming its way into the heavy rotation.
This album gets two quotables because this one’s a quick entry but I’ll just say that if you like Piper at the Gates of Dawn, you should give these Portland kids a shot.
9. Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
I can’t live without your warmth. I just want to be adored. – “In My Head”
The subject matter behind these songs sounds bleak: the death of the lead singer’s mom as well as a bit of touring separation anxiety from her husband. And the record hits those notes eloquently, in that saturated Dum Dum Girls sound that comes off as just the right amount of melodramatic. I tend to shy away from reading record reviews, especially before I’ve heard a record, but for some reason was unable to avoid the reviews for Only in Dreams. The complaints of the album being very mid-tempo and overall kind of same-y are probably warranted but either you’re in the mood for an album like this– in which case, put it on and wash away in it– or you’re listening to it in the shuffle along with a few hundred other songs. It doesn’t feel like a flaw to me.
My favorite track would be “Wasted Away”, which to my mind captures perfectly the band’s aesthetic and has a up-beat rhythm and guitar contrasted against the albums themes of pain and loneliness: A song to rage your blues away.
8. Black Keys – El Camino
You know me, I had plans but they just disappeared to the back of my mind. – “Little Black Submarines”
Lead off by an advance stellar single (“Lonely Boy”) with a gimmicky record (it spins from the inside outward), I pre-ordered this album on the strength of the single and it did not disappoint. It’s a solid rock record with a lot of sorrowful lyrics to hang one’s solemn soul upon. A terse album— eleven songs, and only one is longer than four minutes— there’s a valid complaint in there about it all sounding much the same, but if it weren’t good then that might matter more. The album is still fairly new so it hasn’t sunken its roots into me yet, and these feelings may change, but outside of the first single, both “Little Black Submarines” and “Hell of a Season” really grab me, even if the vocal line for the latter song is, yes, incredibly similar to that of “Lonely Boy”. Still, this is my first real exposure to the band (despite their apparent prolificness as well as winning no fewer than three Grammys this year). As a first-time enjoyer of their music, it’s pretty damn enjoyable. Then again, I’m a sucker for a swaggering guitar riff, a pounding drum line, and a sad rock song.
December 28th, 2011
2011 was a fantastic year for music, if you (a.) ask me and (b.) like that sort of thing. Picking a top ten is a very year-endy thing to do and, although a lot of times it can take me some time to warm up to albums I later find amazing, I’m going to do this thing because (c.) it’s fun, and (d.) I can.
Ten isn’t a very big number, so there are a lot of things that I liked quite a bit that, nevertheless, don’t make the cut. Amanda Palmer’s live album in Australia was a lot of fun; Battles’ Gloss Drop was a remarkable recovery for a band that had lost its lead singer; Girls and St. Vincent both put out very interesting albums that I’m still sinking my teeth into. Kay Kay’s second album had some standout tracks. Viva Voce’s The Future Will Destroy You was in my list until I remembered just one more album that I had to fit into the top ten. Agesandages’ excellent Alright You Restless, a fun, upbeat album with swarms of warm vocals, was similarly bumped out for the last-minute number ten entry; I liked it well enough but it still pales a bit in my mind compared to the frontman’s previous band, Pseudosix. And, finally, Jolie Holland’s Pint of Blood is also highly recommended for anyone who likes Jolie Holland which should largely include “people with pulses” (taste being the objective thing that it is).
But there are ten more records that I liked just a bit more. So, onwards to the top ten!
The correct answer in this post was (c.).
December 28th, 2011