Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
I can't think of another record that made a better second impression than Middle Cyclone. on first listen I thought the album was too long, too ballad-heavy, to monotonous. Midway through my second listen a couple days later, my ears hooked into the lyrics of the title track—a sparse number comprised of Neko Case's voice and guitar, accentuated by angelic backing vocals and a tentative music box. Suddenly I was tuned into Middle Cyclone—an album I've quickly realized is the best of Case's career so far.
Much of Middle Cyclone seems to detail fundamentally flawed relationships—lovers who love passionately but without ever hearing each other. "Just because you don't believe it / doesn't mean I didn't mean it," she sings in "The Next Time You Say Forever"; "I'm a man-eater," she says in "People Got a Lot of Nerve"—"but still you're surprised when I eat you." Later a character in another song admits "I'm not the man you think I am." In "The Pharoahs," Case details a sixteen-year-old who falls for and marries a man who "said you like girls in white leather jackets... that was good enough for me." These are songs about men and women hurtling through affairs—the opener is called "This Tornado Loves You," if you need more evidence. Perhaps this is why the album overcomes that initial feeling of being too long and too slow: Middle Cyclone is full of passionate people—blindly, stupidly, violently passionate—caught in quiet moments of lucidity. The line from the title track that first caught my ear distilled this to four lines:
Can't give up acting tough
It's all that I'm made of
Can't scrape together quite enough
To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love
The song is one of many flawless moments—"Magpie to the Morning," "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," and "Prison Girls" are a few others. It's too early in the year to talk best of 2009 (though that hasn't stopped others from claiming same for Animal Collective). At any rate, this is a contender.
- Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
Andrew Bird: Noble Beast
My review of the record probably says it all. In short: I love the record, though not as much as the previous two. Bird is still my favorite musician working today, hands down, though I have burned out a little on the record; I think it's less to do with the album itself and more to do with listening to Bird, period, for the better part of the last two-plus years straight.
- Andrew Bird: Oh No
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather Post Pavilion and Noble Beast came out on the same day, January 20, and together the two albums have taken up the bulk of my listening concentration. Maybe it was the competition for my time between the two records that resulted in my hot-and-cold relationship to this record, but I started white hot—loved this record—for the first week or two; then the glow wore off in a big way, not to be rekindled until I saw them live. Now I'm right there with most the rest of the bloggers and fanboys out there who think this is the best album of Animal Collective's career.
- Animal Collective: Bluish
Faust: Faust IV
Is there a better feeling than buying an album by a new-to-you artist and being blown away by it, then buying another album by the same artist and finding it even better? Such was my experience with Faust. I went on about Faust's first two albums last year—Faust So Far, their second album, was particularly terrific. I picked up Faust IV in January, expecting it to be as good as what I'd come to expect, but this album shattered those expectations. From the opening head-expander that is "Krautrock" to the subdued masterpiece "Jennifer" to the So Far-reprising "Picnic On A Frozen River, Deuxieme Tableux." everything about Faust IV is more focused, more muscular, more cohesive than their other albums. Yes, that means it's also a little more accessible, though no less daring. This is a must-own album.
- Faust: Jennifer
Mission of Burma: Vs.
I summed up my feelings on this record already, so I'll just quote the last line: "Still, it burns me a little each time I hear the records: a little voice inside me nags, 'This record should be old news to you. It should have long been part of your vocabulary. You should have listened to everyone who ever recommended them to you.'"
- Mission of Burma: Trem Two
Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
In a way, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter doesn't feel like a new acquisition for me. Back at the end of 2007, when the album was popping up on a number of best-of-the-year lists, I managed to pick up six or seven mp3s—about half the album—without really trying. I liked what I had, either despite or because it was incredibly straightforward—Ritter is a song-crafter in the most traditional sense, content with a good turn of phrase built into a clear melody with a satisfying level of structure and repetition. Really great pop songs, in other words, without the unnecessary clutter of experimentalism or epic scope. Ritter has a sandy voice with a tinge of southern charm, and his songs are colored by strings, horns, or subtle electronics as often as they are stripped of everything but his voice and guitar. The album—easily the best of his ouevre—is pure twenty-first-century Americana; but for all his traditionalism, he's also refreshingly confident. I was satisfied for the last year with what I had, but I'm much more glad to finally have the whole record now.
- Josh Ritter: Mind's Eye
Del Shannon: Greatest Hits
I feel like I've talked about this before but I can't recall: I have an "awesome" playlist in my iTunes library, which I update every time I do one of these quarterly posts. The playlist currently stands at 910 songs strong, and is made up of anything in my library that is five stars and upbeat and fun and happy and basically any song, regardless of era or genre, that makes me or my brilliant wife go YES when it comes on. In this post-Indie 103 era in Los Angeles, the playlist is more essential than ever as it's pretty much become my radio station. Some artists are almost custom-made for this playlist: Harry Nilsson, for instance. Spoon. The Lovin' Spoonful. When he's joyous, Cat Stevens. The Beatles, duh. Not long ago my brilliant wife picked up Del Shannon's greatest hits for $2.99 and one listen in, we pretty much just shoved the whole record into the Awesome Mix. "Runaway," of course—who doesn't sing along full-tilt when Shannon Wa-wa-wa-wa-wonders why, why-why-why-why-why? But there's so much more: "Little Town Flirt," "Two Kinds of Teardrops," "Hats Off to Larry," "The Swiss Maid"... the list goes on. Probably the funnest record I've picked up all year.
- Del Shannon: Little Town Flirt