It's been a slow three months for new-to-me music consumption, capping what feels like a low-consumption year. I'll have a little more on my personal year in review soon, but in the meantime I thought I'd wrap up my quarterly MLH post so as not to obscure these eight albums amidst a longer list.
In a year where I didn't spend a whole lot of time keeping up with the newest releases, I tried my best to catch up on at least a few 09 albums I'd been meaning to get. The good news is that most of these records delivered! More or less! If I were giving letter grades, most here would receive a B or B+. I'm going to dispense with the week-long MLH post this time around since I have more year-in-review posts in the works. Without further ado, here's the rundown, in the order they were acquired:
The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms
Earlier this year I fell into a small Galaxie 500 hole, re-buying both Today and On Fire, reminding myself how great that band is after many, many years of forgetting about them. As part of that revival I bought and devoured Dean Wareham's memoir, Black Postcards, in which he spent a lot of time waxing on the Feelies as a big influence on him in his teen and college years. In a nice confluence of events, the Feelies catalogue was reissued at the exact same time, so I took it as the sign that I should finally put these guys at the top of my priority list. Glad I did.
Like Galaxie 500's albums, it takes a number of listens before the songs on Crazy Rhythms begin to differentiate themselves from one another. Each track features an airtight rhythm section and the same kind of raw unadorned guitar tone that was favored by many other late-70s bands. It reminds me of a less dancey Talking Heads or less syncopated Devo—it's hard not to think of Devo's "Satisfaction" when hearing the Feelies' "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey)." A further distinction from those two bands might be that Glenn Mercer's vocals are far less dynamic than David Byrne or Mark Mothersbaugh. No matter: the songs on Crazy Rhythms are so hypnotic—yet so fun—that a manic vocalist might just get in the way.
John Vanderslice: Romanian Names
I met John Vanderslice a long time ago, back when his first album, Time Travel is Lonely, came out. At the time I booked shows in Arizona. He was a nice guy, the album was great, and the show was great! Yet, eight years later, I never really did keep up with his output (though I'd heard raves from a few different quarters). On the recommendation of Rawkblog I checked out "Too Much Time," a melancholy bit of electroni-pop that has since become one of my favorite songs of the year. Though the electronics crop up here and there on Romanian Names, for the most part the rest of the album is much more guitar-oriented; the first half of the record is full of great indie pop—"Fetal Horses," and "D.I.A.L.O.," for instance. Moving into the second half things start to slow down, delving into more atmospheric and fragmented material. I appreciate the move into a different territory, though it never quite gets me in the gut. At any rate the album is solid overall. And I must admit a strange affinity to "Fetal Horses" after many weeks of feeling baby pgwp doing somersaults in my brilliant wife's belly. If it's true that fetal horses gallop in the womb, let's all be glad baby boys just kick a little.
- John Vanderslice: Fetal Horses
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Who expected Phoenix to make the best album of their career this year? Not me. It's not a perfect album—a few of the tracks on the second half feel a little too similar to "Lisztomenia" and "1901," as if the band decided to just start over on side two—but for those two singles and the apex that is the two-part "Love Like a Sunset," Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has been a great antidote to my recent listening slump. It's actually that latter track, the mostly instrumental centerpiece to the album, that has become the highlight for me. It spins WAP into a different place—somewhere more expansive, less pop-oriented. In fact, its epic quality is what sabotages the album's second half. When the band starts up again with "Lasso," featuring a vocal melody we've already heard a couple times in the first part of the record, you start to wonder if Phoenix only has two tricks up their sleeves and "Sunset" was just a fortunate case of lightning in a bottle. I like all the songs on the second half of the record, it's just that I want them to deliver more. The band hints at an escalation but then fails to escalate.
- Phoenix: Love Like a Sunset
Kings of Convenience: Declaration of Dependence
If I have to wait five years for every Kings of Convenience album, only to discover with each release that the duo basically refuses to develop their sound beyond that of their debut, 1999's Quiet is the New Loud... well, that's actually totally okay with me. With their third record, Kings of Convenience have turned in something about as surprising as Thanksgiving dinner. And I don't really have a problem with that; I'll take Erland Oye and Eirik Glambek Boe's eerily similar harmonizing voices and simply strummed acoustic guitars about as readily as I'll take a turkey breast and mashed potatoes. The first half of Declaration in particular—"Mrs. Cold," "Me in You," "Boat Behind"—is as good as the best material on either of their other albums. As of now I still find myself distracted by the time I get to the album's second half; the songs get quieter, darker, and a little less distinct. But the first half is so enjoyable that I continue to return to the record in hopes that the later songs' pleasures will reveal themselves in time.
(I'll be the first to note the vaguely positive reaction to this record vs the vaguely negative reaction to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, despite that I feel both records have incredibly strong first halves and somewhat indistinct second halves... I think it comes back to that idea of "hinting at escalation"; Phoenix points toward a more varied record and then backs away, while the Kings of Convenience rather staunchly remain in a single musical domain. Heck, you might even say they spell it out in their album title.)
- Kings of Convenience: Boat Behind
The Fiery Furnaces: I'm Going Away
Had I segmented this quarter's haul into my usual best/rest categories, I'm Going Away might have been the only record to wind up on the "rest" side of things. There are other records here that are more predictable than the Fiery Furnaces' latest, but that's not the same as saying they're more disappointing. I give this band a lot of credit for refusing to stagnate, to constantly needle their audience; but with their premeditated irritation comes the risk that fans (or I, at least) won't always want to stay on board. Widow City, their last album and my first exposure them, is one of my favorite albums of recent years—it's confrontational, idiosyncratic, funny, and smart. I'm Going Away is all of those things as well, just less fun to listen to. The new record depends more on piano, less on guitar; more on blues progressions, less on the proggy compositions that fired up so much of Widow City. That's not to say I'm Going Away is without its merits—songs like "Even in the Rain" still burrow into my head whether I want them to or not—it's just not, overall, quite the flavor I was hoping to taste.
Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark
After a couple false starts with getting into Gene Clark's solo material, I've finally hit upon the excellence I knew he was capable of. For his first of two collaborations with Doug Dillard, Clark hit on a modest but wonderful country/rock hybrid. There is something almost ego-less about the material here; the songs are simply good, aspiring to nothing more or less pure than that goal. Opener "Out on the Side" is one of the best songs Clark has ever written; his lead vocal aches while the backing harmonies, supplied by Dillard and former Byrd bandmate Chris Hillman, buoy the song beautifully. Those same harmonies—they're not as otherworldly as David Crosby's contributions to the Byrds, nor as steady as the Gosdin Brothers' contributions to Clark's first solo effort—lift many of the other tracks, like the gospel of "Git it on Brother" or the skillful "Train Leaves Here This Morning" and "With Care from Someone." Fantastic Expedition is just that—a fantastic expedition—and belongs in any collection that already includes records like The Notorious Byrd Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin, or American Beauty.
- Dillard & Clark: Out on the Side
Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind
Between Merriweather Post Pavilion—my favorite album of the year—and Sung Tongs, which was new to me this year, 2009 could be characterized as my year of Animal Collective (if it weren't already my year of Slint). It's fitting that one of the last new releases I'll pick up this year is this EP—sort of a little bow to tie it all up. And that's really how I perceive Fall Be Kind: not the latest statement from the almighty Animal Collective, but a nice capper, a stocking stuffer. The EP holds together as a cohesive, twenty-something-minute piece. It's spacier, less rhythmic than MPP, yet less playful than something like Sung Tongs and less meandering than parts of Feels. Have I placed it on the Animal Collective Map yet? Anyway, you either already have this and hold your own opinions or you could give two shits. I like it.
- Animal Collective: Graze
Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship
The very fact of a new Tortoise album this year spurred me to revisit their whole catalogue earlier this year, though I didn't finally get to Beacons of Ancestorship until just a few weeks ago. After being away from Tortoise for most of this decade, it's been nice to welcome them back to rotation. All of their albums stand up to close listening—they're impeccably produced and impeccably played—and they also work well as non-distracting "work" music. That's slightly different from "background music" in that even as a Tortoise album can stay out of your way, it still finds a way to inspire—to subtly, perhaps subconsciously, spur you to concentrate and excel at whatever it is you're doing.
That's a nice way of talking around the quality of Beacons of Ancestorship. At this point I feel about Tortoise approximately the same way I feel about the Kings of Convenience: every few years this group is going to get together and make a record that sounds more or less like the last one. If your expectations are properly adjusted, everything's cool. Ever since solidifying their lineup around the time of TNT, Tortoise has consistently created their trademarked brand of electronica/jazz/film score hybrid. I don't really have any complaint with adding such an album to my collection every few years, so if that's what Tortoise wants to do then that's what I'll take. I can't say there isn't a part of me that wishes they'd take more risks, push themselves as composers and/or improvisers, just be more adventurous. Do people remember or realize that fifteen years ago people talked about Tortoise the way people talk about Animal Collective now? The exuberance—the expectation—that surrounded a Tortoise or Tortoise-related release was pretty fucking high. For whatever reason the group settled into a comfortable place and, starting around the time of Standards, have tempered all of those expectations. It's sort of a bummer, but it also doesn't suck completely. Tortoise have become dependable, for all the good and bad that goes with that word.
- Tortoise: Monument Six One Thousand