Fleet Foxes, s/t
I'll stick with what I said in my original review—namely that this is the only 2008 release I've heard so far that took my breath away from note one. One of my qualifiers for a great album is noting how many songs become "my favorite" the more I listen. Thus far I think I've declared four or five different tracks here as my favorite. Most recently, "He Doesn't Know Why."
I look forward to Fleet Foxes' next album, whenever it may come, for two reasons. Now that they've got J. Tillman in the band, I'm curious to see whether his songwriting has any influence. More importantly, I saw Fleet Foxes live a week or so back and they were phenomenal, in a way that clearly shows that they have become better than what is currently on record.
- Fleet Foxes, He Doesn't Know Why
Brian Eno: Another Green World
Carrie Brownstein at Monitor Mix had a post a while back about playing a classic album for virgin ears, wondering whether it could hold up on its own merits, cannonization aside. her example was Patti Smith's Horses, but she could just have easily used Another Green World as her example. Eno is someone I'm shamefully unschooled in, considering my soft spot for the quietly abstract. He's surely a primary influence for plenty of artists in my collection, yet I've never heard any of his albums, other than an early Roxy Music album which I can't stomach. I always understood his solo material to be the starting point for ambient, so I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear how pop-oriented much of Another Green World is. It didn't start well, though: I was taken aback by "Sky Saw," which is almost comically dated, with its flanged-out guitars and fretless bass noodling. The fretless bass continues into the second track, too, so on first listen I was beginning to think all the uber-music nerds were playing a joke on me. Happily from there things get on track. All of the pop-oriented tracks—those with vocals, choruses, pop structures, like "St. Elmo's Fire" or "I'll Come Running"—are catchy yet complex. Then there are the instrumental tracks, which, aside from the first two, achieve a kind of timelessness. "The Big Ship" could have been produced last year. This is one of my favorite acquisitions of the year by a few yards.
- Brian Eno, The Big Ship
Okkervil River, The Stand Ins
2008 could arguably be described as my year of Okkervil River. The Stage Names, Black Sheep Boy, and now The Stand Ins (in that order) were all new to me this year. Taken together, Will Sheff and co. have occupied a substantial chunk of my listening hours (rivaled only by Andrew Bird, I'd guess). The Stage Names remains my favorite, but its companion holds its own pretty well. I'm especially pleased to see OR continue to bring the rock. The band's bouncy and propulsive rhythms complement Sheff's cascade of vivid lyrics better than the more morose, plodding ballads (compare highlights "Lost Coastline," "Singer Songwriter," and "Pop Lie" to the good-but-tiring "Blue Tulip" for evidence). Anyone can moan out a dramatic turn of phrase in a ballad, but it takes real skill to paint a nuanced lyrical portrait in a rocker, where so often simple chants about sex or nonsense suffice for all the rump shakers. Taking Sheff's many references to film as my cue: anyone can over-emote in their Oscar Monologue, but the true talent lies in sharp satire.
- Okkervil River, Pop Lie
Dr. Dog, Fate
I wasn't expecting much from Dr. Dog. For one, how much stock can you put in a band dumb enough to call themselves Dr. Dog? Too, my brilliant wife downloaded a sampling of tracks from all their early albums, most of which I found workmanlike at best. But upon the urging of a friend who couldn't stop listening to Fate, I took a chance. Though I still wouldn't take the "workmanlike" tag away from them completely—it's straightforward indie rock no matter how you slice it—I nevertheless grant big points to a band that has a true sense of craft when it comes to pop songs. Just about everything here, especially in the first half, is a total earworm, not to mention played with confidence by all members. The second half gets to feel a little samey—it could probably have lost at least two songs and been a stronger record for it—but then again the more I listen to it the more some of the later tracks reveal their quality. One more thing in Dr. Dog's defense: the Beatles comparisons made in nearly every mention of the band I've come across have got to stop. Yes, you can hear a little late-period Beatles in their songs, but the band is hardly ripping them off wholesale. I hear the Band in there too, not to mention the singer's voice resembles Wayne Coyne's more than anyone from the 60s, never mind Lennon or McCartney. They're contemporary indie more than they are some kind of throwback band.
- Dr. Dog, The Breeze
Holy Fuck, LP
Nearly two-thirds of the way into 2008, it is really dawning on my how great of year 2007 truly was for music. By the close of last year, I already had a top ten list I was pretty confident about. By the spring of this year I'd picked up a few more albums—The Stage Names, Strawberry Jam, and others—that would've placed high on that list as well. Still, I figured my 2007 purchases would taper off by April or so, but they didn't: I added Fiery Furnaces' Widow City to my list some time in May. Now, Holy Fuck. This album gets off to a so-so start—the music can feel a little faceless, so it really needs a strong melody or an unbreakable backbone to rise above Workout Mix caliber. Once "Lovely Allen" kicks in, segueing fluidly into album highlight "The Pulse," the entire rest of the record quite simply kicks ass.
- Holy Fuck, The Pulse
Four Tet, Ringer
After a Fridge reunion and three records with Steve Reid, I was beginning to wonder if Kieren Hebden was ever going to return to his Four Tet moniker. Looks like he has, if only for a quick four-song EP. Don't let the name on the album cover fool you, though: Ringer is a departure from Hebden's previous work. Most of the songs here remind me more of Orbital than Four Tet. That's not a bad thing by any means, unless the incessant 4/4 beat drives you up the wall. At thirty minutes, it doesn't get to me. In fact, it's encouraging to hear Hebden continue to branch out.
- Four Tet, Ribbons
MGMT, Oracular Spectacular
My love for MGMT has waned slightly since the last time I talked about them, mostly due to overexposure and their pitiful live show, which I caught when they opened for Beck and Spoon at Hollywood Bowl. Putting that aside, though, Oracular Spectacular is still a solid album and still great fun.
Philip Glass, Solo Piano
Steve Reich, Different Trains
This year I've begun to pick up more and more contemporary composers, finally wading a little deeper into a pool which I'd previously only dipped a toe or two. Earlier this year I picked up Glassworks, which I enjoyed immensely (though I know there is a lot out there more ambitious in intent). I like Solo Piano for the same reason: it's relaxing, it's not a single hour-long piece (so I don't feel obligated to concentrate on it from beginning to end when I put it on). I wouldn't go so far as to call it background music, though I do default into a relaxed mood whenever I put it on.
Different Trains is another beast, though. Far from relaxing, I've actually found it to be a great workout album! About thirty minutes long, steady and repetitive rhythm, and a narrative arc to keep you engaged as you go. As for the composition itself, the strings follow melodies dictated by voice samples of people talking about trains—first about travel in the U.S., then morphing into discussions of trains used during the Holocaust. It's affecting, if heavy-handed. I found it quite powerful on first listen, and still feel that power (though slightly less so) with repeated listens. Like a movie with tough subject matter, I can't say I'll reach for it over and over—unless I'm on a treadmill!
Later this week, the rest and the worst of the last three months.