Wolf Parade – At Mt. Zoomer
At Mt. Zoomer is another piece of mastery from this Canadian quartet. Between Wolf Parade releases both of the band’s songwriters have released albums that don’t stand up to their talents as collaborators. The album works both as a singles album as well as a coherent piece thanks to the prowess of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. The aesthetic is similar to their previous works, keeping with the lo-fi sound, punchy guitars, and swirling keyboards. The production, coupled with the imagery of ghosts, static, radios, and constant danger, reminds me of a time when child abuse was common, muddied long-johns were a display of productivity, and the macabre was all the rage.
Walkmen – You & Me
After their misstep “A Hundred Miles Off” in 2006, the Walkmen put out an album this year that’s both a return to form as well as a fresh take on their patented sound. The usual instrumentation is everywhere- the trebled guitars, piano, that straining voice- as well as a few new additions. The bass sounds like it was recorded underwater on both the intro track “Donde Esta La Playa?” and “On the Water.” There also seems to be a bigger emphasis on the bass drum and floor tom, which gives the music a greater depth. They’ve continued to use horns to great effect, allowing for a more worldly image. This record is mostly a mellow affair, one that could be enjoyed with a glass of red wine and some mood lighting.
Koushik – Out My Window
Using a combination of downbeat hip-hop beats, electronic manipulation, psychedelia, and ambient/shoegaze vocals, this guy has come up with one of the most amalgamated and fresh sounding albums of the year. Some of these songs sound like they belong on a J Dilla record while others fit in with Caribou, RJD2, or Four Tet. I was absolutely blown away upon first hearing this album, and also really disappointed that nobody has mentioned this as one of the best albums of 2008.
Koushik - Be With.mp3
Mount Eerie – Lost Wisdom/Black Wooden Ceiling Opening
Lost Wisdom showcases much of what’s great about Phil Elverum’s songwriting talent. Though the words are moody and cryptic, he states them matter-of-factly, displaying the disparate elements of each song. Here he teams up with Julie Doiron, a Jagjaguwar folkie/solo artist, to help sing. Thanks to these female backing vocals, this release sounds most like the Phil/Mirah tag-team of early Microphones days.
Then there’s “Black Wooden Ceiling Opening.” It kept being described as metal, which it definitely is not. The music is distorted and slapdash, reminiscent of a mid 90’s punk band recording in their basement with one microphone in the center of the room. This album is not recommended as an introduction to Mount Eerie, but is a great anomaly in the discography of a very prolific songwriter.
Shearwater - Rook
Everywhere that Okkervil River has gone wrong in the last few years, Shearwater has gone right. I should give props to Okkervil River for giving Jonathan Meiburg a chance to sing on their newest record, but why bother waiting around to hear a snippet of his voice when you can pick up a Shearwater record and bask in it? This record is dramatic, often utilizing a loud/soft dynamic to establish moods of beauty and terror at once. The band uses a boatload of instruments, including dulcimer, glockenspiel, pump organ, horn section, and a string quartet. And Meiburg offers what so many rock bands can’t, which is a pure voice that could break glass. There’s no idiosyncratic tone or word manipulation, just a great range and powerful delivery.
Bottomless Pit – Congress
Late last year this band released “Hammer of the Gods,” a surprisingly amazing album (ep?) from the former Silkworm guys. I never especially liked Silkworm until I heard this last album. The guys in this band have only gotten tighter and more comfortable with themselves musically over the years. Each new release better explains the previous one, showing both their progress and methodology. Still keeping the 90’s low-end indie rock torch lit, the Bottomless Pit are a band that Chicago should be proud of having as an alternative to Kid Sister or Fall Out Boy.
Bottomless Pit - Fish Eyes.mp3
Dr. Dog – Fate
Fourth release in as many years, “Fate” serves as catchiest album on this here year-end list. Scott and Toby alternate songs on this album (as usual), and though there are none of Toby’s stand-outs like “Goner” and “Pretender,” buried deep is “The Beach,” a show-stopper live. Scott’s “The Old Days” moves fluidly, like the roaring Mississippi, while “The Rabbit, the Rat, and the Reindeer” is pure ear candy from start to finish. Sure they blatantly rip off the Beatles, but so do SO many other bands, and not as well as this band (dear Oasis: fuck you). How these guys aren’t more popular I don’t understand.
Beach House – Devotion
I wasn’t expecting to really enjoy this album, as their first one was ok but didn’t show much room for growth. Their second full-length shows them using the same formula to greater appeal, highlighting both vocal and guitar work this time around. I’d like to see them experiment with keyboards a bit more, but for a band that’s only been around for two years, they definitely know how to write some dark, dreamy lullabies. If you think Brightblack Morning light are a little boring, and She & Him was too glossy, this is definitely the album to check out.
Beach House - Gila.mp3
Benoit Pioulard – Temper
Thomas Meluch (aka Benoit Pioulard) appears to be shaping himself as the next Lindsey Buckingham. His powerful, pulsating fingerpicking work rivals Buckingham’s, and the two share a lo-fi intimate atmosphere so commonly shunned in the age of digital recording technology. The tense moods and paranoia are more prominent on Temper than they were on Precis. Where Meluch branches off from Buckingham is in his use of found sounds and atmospheric washes. This experimental bent provides a layered backdrop for Meluch’s bedroom pop.
Benoit Pioulard - Idyll.mp3
Other good albums this year:
Portishead – Third
Sparks – Exotic Creatures of the Deep
She & Him – Volume One
Dianogah – Qhnnnl
Spiritualized – Songs In A & E
Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
School of Seven Bells – Alpinisms
School of Seven Bells - Iamundernodisguise.mp3
Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
Jamie Lidell – Jim
Jamie Lidell - Another Day.mp3
Dungen – 4
Izza Kizza – Kizzaland
Album that should have been good but wasn’t:
TV on the Radio – Dear Science,
Album that should have been bad but wasn’t:
Kanye West – 808’s and Heartbreak
24 December 2008
A twofer on this Christmas Eve:
The Walkmen - Christmas Party.mp3
This song is awesome, because it's a Christmas song sung by a guy and girl who sound drunk, singing about being drunk and singing a song at a Christmas party.
The Staple Singers - Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas.mp3
A classic soul track from the Staples Family.
22 December 2008
I've always admired the Dismemberment Plan for making the music that they do, because it's pretty much unlike anything else. It's sort of punk, but not really, and it's arty, but not inaccessible. The music is a mix of weird, intelligent, funny, horribly depressing, and sometimes annoying. Here's a Christmas song of theirs that is none of the above really, but it's very catchy.
Dismemberment Plan - This Christmas.mp3
21 December 2008
Here's Of Montreal's take on Christmas consumerism.
Christmas Isn't Safe For Animals.mp3
19 December 2008
Slade gets into the Christmas spirit.
Slade - Merry Christmas Everybody.mp3
17 December 2008
Christmas music is a dichotomous affair. I think it's fair to say that the people who enjoy the classics/standards do so out of sentimentality, and not for quality of the music. I, for one, am sick of the classics, and I doubt I'm alone. Sentimentality and nostalgia are nice, but the quality of "We Three Kings" and "Jingle Bell Rock" far outweigh the pleasant memories I have of the songs. Then there are the newer Christmas songs. I was surprised to find out the sheer number of contemporary artists that have written songs about Christmas, whether they be funny, serious, arty, sad, or (surprise!) sentimental. Again, a lot of these songs are total garbage. From Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time" to Bob Geldof's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to Mariah Carey's cover of "All I Want For Christmas Is You", there's a lot of crap out there. All in all, the bulk of Christmas music is wholly terrible. There are a few gems around, and over the next week or so I'll post a few Christmas songs that I think are actually of merit for one reason or another.
James Brown - Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year.mp3
15 December 2008
Sometimes there are bands that have names that properly serve their identities. Cannibal Corpse? Yeah, I know what I’m getting into. Nickelback? I knew what they sounded like before I ever even heard that horrible drivel on the radio. Korn? Limp Bizkit? Intentional misspellings are ALWAYS a dead giveaway that the band sucks. Sonic Youth and Throbbing Gristle are both perfect for their respective music.
Then there are bands that have good names but make terrible music. I want a band named Destroyer to kick my aural ass. Or take Australia’s own, Baseball. If you’re from a country that has nothing to do with the greatest sport on earth, and you name yourself after it, you better make the finest slice of harmony this side of the Eagles. But no, you get yokel on fiddle and sloppy incompetence on guitar and drums.
The third category is for people who make awesome music but have terrible names. What kind of shelf life does a band named Stereolab have? Do I really want to hear what a rapper named Common has to say? Steely Dan was named after a dildo! Holy Fuck fall into this last category. No doubt they’ve offended many parents, religious leaders, and Canadian arts-subsidizing organizations over the years.
Name aside, this band is pretty on-point live. On record they’re a mix of electronic and krautrock, but live they’re a dance machine. Normally I’m pretty opposed to dance music. For one, the mastermind behind such music generally involves some fat 40 year old vocalist living with a bunch of cats who goes by the name of DJ Saucy, and for two, people that listen to dance music often have ecstasy-induced holes in their brain that enable them to wear tight white pants or use bolt-cutters to cut their hair, giving a whole new meaning to “a layered ‘do”. Anyway, Holy Fuck aren’t really an ordinary dance band. They have an insanely tight drummer, letting the drum samples act as enhancements rather than backbones. Their on-stage activity is unrelenting, blowing acts like Kraftwerk out of the water in a live forum. Like a lot of dance artists, they have vocals, but the difference is that Holy Fuck only sort of have vocals, occasionally using a highly affected microphone to either yelp or say thanks. And most importantly, they’re less of a stereotypical dance band than they are an experimental electronic band with lots and lots of drums, thereby making it very beat-oriented. This distinction probably doesn’t make a difference to the girl who decided to pop some E, put on a bowler hat and a half vest, and rave until her teeth hyper-grind through her permanently close-mouthed smirk. But for me, it makes them one of the best live acts I’ve seen this year.
13 November 2008
So my old boss, Kip, plays in this band called Dianogah. I went to see them in the summer of ’06 in Chicago, mainly because he told me Andrew Bird would be playing a couple songs with them. This collaboration has born fruit, namely on Bird’s “Daytrotter Sessions” and a few tracks off Dianogah’s new long-player, “qhnnnl.” Bird’s involvement with the band is worthwhile, to say the least, but not really why I’m talking about them. Instead, the reason is the last song they played at that show. All three members of the band sang (or more appropriately, yelled) out raucaus lyrics over a punk drum beat and a noodley bass line. It was a throwback to the great Chicago indie/punk of the early-to-mid 90’s, reminiscent of Braid, Planes Mistaken For Stars, Small Brown Bike, etc. I went home to look up the song, and to my dismay, found nothing about it. I never remembered to ask Kip about the song, and figured it was something they had buried in the vaults, or something they whipped up at practice, never to see the light of day again.
The aforementioned LP “qhnnnl” was released in August of this year, and I was quick to snatch a copy. When listening to it while cooking dinner a few weeks ago, what do I find buried on Side 2, amidst the instrumental low-end post-rock that Dianogah has fully mastered? Why, it’s this very song! And what’s more, my ex-co-worker, stomach slapping compatriot, and Traitors goof-off Billy Smith played guitar on the track! All this time and it was right under my nose.
Dianogah - You Might Go Off.mp3
30 October 2008
While at work on a sunny summer day I heard something interesting on the speakers. I thought, "Is this the new Ryan Adams? But it's…good!" It wasn't Ryan Adams, and that guy still stinks. It turned out to be Loudon Wainwright III. Album II. "Me & My Friend the Cat." I started doing a bit of research and found that Loudon has existed on the periphery of fame for nearly 40 years. As the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H*, the original sidekick to David Letterman, and the dad of both Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Loudon has reasons for fame aside from his incredible 38 year, 22 album career.
I found that some of his music was a little hit and miss, but overall, bafflingly good. He mixes humour with heart-wrenching pain, nostalgia, and self-deprecation better than any songwriter I've ever heard. He was originally heralded as "the new Bob Dylan", but unlike Dylan, Loudon didn't reinvent himself a dozen times, never lied about where he came from, and doesn't suck live.
His talent lies in his willingness to discuss personal details fully and precisely, such as the time he hit Martha in the car, or his divorce from Kate McGarrigle, or his career failures. Loudon can construct songs in a variety of genres- lounge, reggae, folk, country, rock, blues- and always sound comfortable and authentic. A reggae song about being a pathetic tourist in Jamaica, or a rowdy bar song about the alcoholic implications of dinner parties with friends ("drinks before dinner and wine with dinner and after-dinner drinks"), or a cheesy "Running-On-Empty"-esque country song about his biggest fan (both literally and figuratively) being a bigger fan of both Bob Dylan and Neil Young: this is all just typical Loudon- personal, funny, and poignant.
All this has gotten him a decent career and following, but rarely any commercial success. His only real single was "Dead Skunk," a minor AM radio hit over 35 years ago. He's had acting roles in a variety of things, notably Tim Burton's "Big Fish," and the TV show "Undeclared," but it's probably too late for a full-blown entry into stardom. So ol' Loudo will have to remain on the fringes, as he's done for nearly 40 years, getting his name spelled wrong on marquees worldwide.
Me & My Friend The Cat.mp3
The Swimming Song.mp3
Wine With Dinner.mp3
T.S.M.N.W.A. (They Spelled My Name Wrong Again).mp3
26 October 2008
15 October 2008
Philip Glass performed his new composition based around the poetry of Leonard Cohen Saturday night at the Sydney Opera House. Although not a typical show for me to attend, Book of Longing was an inspiring and well-paced look at both the mind of a starkly-isolated man as well as a minimalistic genius.
Before ever hearing Philip Glass' music, or the music of his colleagues, I mistakenly equated "minimalism" with "music for the compulsively bored." In fact, it has more to do with subtle variations and creating shifts that scrutinise repetition. It's less boring than it is intriguing, less tedious than it is exciting. Minimalism is a strange term- anyone unfamiliar with that genre who witnessed the show Saturday night would have described it as anything but minimal. An eight-piece ensemble performed the intense pieces while four vocalists sang Cohen's poetry.
I initially thought the singing would be distracting and too interpretive, but was mostly wrong. Cohen's poetry (and lyrics) are introspective and self-absorbed to the point of isolation. At times Cohen's recorded voice boomed over the music and projected self-portraits, usually prompting a laugh from the audience. Quips are only part of Cohen's work, but one which Glass must have considered most true to him and him alone. For all the longer poems, the vocalists took duty- both in solos and choruses. The choruses proved more effective, as it left less to the vocalists' personal interpretations and more to the commanding nature of the words themselves.
The music was best when fast-paced, on schedule for doomsday. Set in a minor key, my favorite piece revolved around pacing drums and an urgent chorus that called to examine the players in the Holocaust as puppets. A later song, musically similar but taking on the subject of God's intentions to let Cohen philander as he so chooses, was another of the highlights. Glass also wrote solo instrumental pieces for the cello, violin, and tenor saxaphone, which were well-placed in the otherwise vocal-oriented performance.
As a performer, it appeared that Glass largely elected to sit this one out. As a 71-year-old man and unequivocal genius it's his right to do what he wants. Glass sat in the background, hand on chin, observing his performers throughout most of the show, only occasionally offering but one helping hand to the keyboard on his side of the stage. As I know little about classical performance, I'm not sure how involved the composer gets, or how much of his duty calls for him to perform at all (most composers are dead when their work is performed anyway). Perhaps Glass felt obliged to be seen, if only as a still-life, for the sake of the audience. Perhaps he enjoys the spotlight. Perhaps he has arthritis. I had only hoped I'd see a little liveliness with his presence.
What hints at Glass' knowledge and experience in live performing, however, was not in his presence, but within the measure of the set. Solos and Cohen's recorded quips interjected the varied moods of the lengthier compositions, thematically set around love, lust, religion, age, and decrepitness both morally and structurally, all laced with Cohen's brevity and bravado. If anything, the 100 minutes felt too short, or maybe just enough, to glimpse, if only marginally, the genius of two of the most well-respected musicians living today.