Continuing with the obsessive documentation of my listening habits as begun here, this post is meant to serve as a more analytical look at the more visually compelling post that kicked off this week's posts. I listened to 126 individual albums from beginning to end during the last three months. Those albums broken down by the year and/or decade of their release:
Compared to the last couple of years, my listening habits have swung pretty dramatically away from the 60s and 70s and into the 80s and 90s. This is due almost entirely to the book I'm writing. You can see evidence again when I break those same albums down by super-anal iTunes genre tagging:
Country and 60s and 70s Rock have gone way down—and krautrock is totally absent!—while Alternative and Classic Indie have both increased a lot. Not surprising.
In the past twelve weeks, six albums spent three or more weeks in rotation:
The Neko Case isn't surprising, nor is the Dr. Dog and Little Joy albums—both of which have become a kind of musical comfort food (high praise, I promise) since I bought them last year. When you break all my listens down by individual plays—full album, from beginning to end—rather than by week, you see some of the newer acquisitions jump up. That's me trying to get to know a record in a short amount of time. Records with the most individual spins in the the last twelve weeks:
It's a little surprising to see the Fennesz and the Peter Bjorn & John albums show up hear. The Fennesz I think I kept putting on while I was at work, hence my memory of listening to it doesn't match up with the reality of how many times I put it on. And Peter Bjorn & John—I think I was trying to force myself (unsuccessfully) to like that record more than I did.
In three months, I only downloaded about a dozen new-to-me songs from various corners of the internet—a shockingly low number, but that seems to be the way it's been ever since starting up with eMusic and just generally being busier in my real life. Nevertheless, here are six great songs I've come across in the last few months:
Taking a look at MBV's list of upcoming releases in the next quarter, summer looks to be pretty quiet. A few albums out this week or in the next couple of weeks, but beyond that not a lot that has me saving my pennies. Anything on the list that has you excited?
Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (June 30)
Haven't heard a single track off this record yet. I was scared off of Sky Blue Sky by a few tepid reviews when it came out in 07, only to pick it up in early 08 and be pleasantly surprised by about half of it. It hasn't proved to last in my ongoing rotation—I still prefer Summerteeth whenever I'm in a Wilco mood—but if anything it reminded me never to second-guess Tweedy & Co.
Spoon, Got Nuffin' EP (June 30)
Just announced last week and just released yesterday, this quickie EP will likely wind up in my collection though perhaps not right away. Despite finding Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga to be, arguably, the best album Spoon has done to date, I'm just not one to get excited for singles and EPs, comp appearances, or any other sort of non-album miscellanea. If I'm missing out, let me know.
The Fiery Furnaces, I'm Going Away (July 21)
I heard a track off of this album about a month ago and then decided to lay off until the record itself comes out. The Fiery Furnaces are a band of such detail that I find listening to anything other than a full album may miss the point. I've heard enough to know that it's not going to sound like Widow City, which is fine with me—another Widow City would be tiring right out of the gate. I trust that whatever they do, it'll be worth hearing. The Fiery Furnaces are one of the most interesting bands of this decade and I'm happy to follow them wherever they go.
Joe Pernice, It Feels So Good When I Stop (August 6)
I'll always have a place in my heart for Joe Pernice. Though I haven't been too keen on his last couple albums, there was a time when I preached the genius of Joe the way I've lately done for Andrew Bird. The guy, for a good five or six records in a row, could do no wrong. Since 2003's Yours, Mine and Ours I've felt that most of the Pernice Brothers' albums have been redundant, even if they do each contain one or two A+ tracks. It Feels So Good When I Stop looks to be an odd one, and I don't know if that will be a good thing or a bad thing. For one, it's a solo album—a good thing! Part of why the last couple Pernice Brothers albums have bored me is because the instrumentation, composition, and orchestration has become rote. The idea of Pernice keeping things stripped down is attractive, if indeed that's what he's done. On the other hand these are all covers and the album is meant as a "soundtrack" to the novel Pernice will be dropping on the same day. The novel is clearly the thing he's thrown the weight of his mind into, and this record seems more like a publicity stunt than an album to be taken seriously. Again, though, a tossed-off record might actually be a refreshing change of pace if it's a little rougher around the edges. (More good news: there's a couple of old-school country songs on the track list; does that mean we'll get a couple throwbacks to Pine Box-era Scud Mountain Boys? I hope so.)
Kings of Convenience, TBA (late September)
The Kings of Convenience made a brief announcement a week or two back letting people know their third album is finally done and is slated for release at the end of September. This excites me. I still listen to both of their other albums with some regularity and there will always be room for more of their Nordic Simon & Garfunkelisms. These guys take forever to make an album, but whenever one comes along I'll welcome it into my collection.
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
I'm not familiar with any of the Dirty Projectors' other albums, but on the strength of so much positive word of mouth I downloaded Bitte Orca from eMusic without hearing more than a snippet of the opening track. And... it's good! Not the pinnacle of brilliance, but good. As with a band like Grizzly Bear, I can sort of see why some people might regard this album or the band as a high-water mark of contemporary indie—it's certainly an ambitious record—though it ultimately doesn't get me in my gut, sorry. The band has a strong aesthetic—the skeletal songs are propelled more by the vocalizations of David Longstreth and his female co-horts than by the music itself. But as with other acts that have honed their overall sound to such a unique degree, the album itself starts to feel samey after awhile. I had a similar beef with Panda Bear's Person Pitch or Deerhunter's Microcastle; sure, one or two songs here are pretty outstanding, but what am I getting out of the album that I'm not getting out of those songs on their own? Then again I haven't owned the record for very long, and in Bitte Orca's favor I will say that different songs are still revealing themselves to me with each listen.
(A couple of other small peeves: Longstreth's vocals are at times too mannered—which might be why I feel like my good-not-amazing reaction to this album reminds me of how I felt about Shearwater's Rook last year; second, the sequencing of the album is a little jarring, as Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian take lead vocals for a few songs in the middle before returning the reins to Longstreth. Not major complaints, but these things to prick me a little when I put the record on.)
Tortoise, It's All Around You
Wait—this isn't the Tortoise album everyone is talking about! I know. I haven't got that one yet. Meanwhile, I did add their last album to my collection partly in anticipation of the new one. Like I mentioned in my Tortoise post a little while back, I skipped this one when it came out five years ago. My verdict today? It's good, it's fine, it's nice. I don't really hear anything here that justifies some critics' complaints that Tortoise lost the plot, though at the same time it's not as adventurous as their first two or three albums. As someone who likes having a stockpile of instrumental jams I can put on while I'm writing or editing, this is a worthy addition to my collection.
Fennesz, Endless Summer
Likewise, so is Endless Summer, which I like about the same as It's All Around You. As an album it hangs together well and is a nice listening experience. I've never listened to Fennesz before, though have always been meaning to ever since hearing a lot of buzz around Venice and this album. I was expecting something a little more groundbreaking that what I found, but that doesn't mean I don't like it.
Echo & the Bunnymen, Songs to Learn and Sing
Like the Morrissey album I talked about yesterday—actually acquired on the same day—Echo & the Bunnymen are just one of those bands I never spent much time with. Really the whole Brit Pop universe is something I've never had more than a casual relationship with. When these guys were at their height of popularity I was listening to metal. When I got into grunge and alternative and decided to get into older stuff I went to older American punk and indie. So I'm playing catch-up. This is a great collection of songs, no question. In the horse race that is all of my new acquisitions competing for my attention, I can't say Echo won a whole lot, but I do like everything here.
Grateful Dead, Workingman's Dead
Some of these acquisitions, like the Morrissey and the Echo & the Bunnymen, were piked up at the Beverly Hills library. Whenever I find myself there I always rifle through the selection and simply pick up any blindspots I've never heard or owned before, often regardless of exactly where my head is at. So it was with Workingman's Dead. I had a pretty heavy phase of 60s/70s country-influenced rock in the last few years and this disc follows on that taste trend. And while I do like this more than American Beauty—the only other Dead album I've heard—I just can't say this is the kind of music I've been craving lately. Like the Echo record, I'm just glad to have it in my collection.
Peter Bjorn & John, Living Thing
Sadly, the more records Peter Bjorn & John put out--last year's instrumental Seaside Rock, Peter Moren's solo album, and now Living Thing—the more Writer's Block seems to have been a fluke. Peter Bjorn & John have willfully avoided replicating the guitar pop sound of that excellent record, for better or (more accurately) for worse; perhaps if they did they might regain some of that magic. In the meantime, we're stuck with Living Thing, the trio's attempt, I guess, at a dance record. Guitars, bass, and live drums are not altogether absent but they have been pushed back in the mix in favor of programmed beats and synthesizers. A handful of the resulting tracks—"Lay It Down," "Stay This Way," "Nothing to Worry About"—are fun, but overall the twelve songs here are boring and repetitive. Living Thing lacks the depth that made Writer's Block so wonderful, so surprisingly rewarding beyond the hook of "Young Folks." There's comparatively little variation on this album; just simple beats, bloodless music, and mostly uninspired melodies. Both Peter and Bjorn, who share lead vocals, have somewhat lazy deliveries. Writer's Block's music somehow serviced Peter's sandy, laid-back drawl and Bjorn's laconic monotone perfectly. Here the cold music is dragged even further down by their mostly unenthusiastic vocals. Save a couple of bright spots (though nothing as bright as Writer's Block's best bits), Living Thing mostly disappoints.
Scott Walker: Scott 2 and Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel
After seeing the documentary 30th Century Man a few months back, my brilliant wife and I were both hankering to get a proper Scott Walker album or two, no longer content with the six or seven miscellaneous downloads we've accumulated over the years. These two were used at Amoeba, so these two we brought home. Both are pretty much outstanding. Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel might have the edge, since Scott 2's three best tracks also appear on this compilation. Like the Byrds and Dylan, Brel's songs somehow bring out the best in Walker. Songs like "Mathilde" and "Jackie" bristle with energy and drama, while "Next" is just gloriously ugly in its description of a young soldier losing his virginity in a whorehouse. Scott 2, meanwhile, has a slightly less bustling vibe when Walker isn't channeling Brel ("Jackie," "Next," and "The Girls and the Dogs" are the three overlapping tracks). But it does include the stellar "Black Sheep Boy"—not an Okkervil River original, I was surprised to learn (official credit goes to Tim Hardin). And while at times Walker can come off on Scott 2 like a syrupy crooner, his songs draped in orchestration, a quick scan of the lyrics demolishes that interpretation. Even before his late-career experimentation, Walker was clearly operating on a different level—I swear on the wet head of my first case of gonorrhea!
Akron/Family, Set 'em Wild, Set 'em Free
I flip back and forth between whether I want to include this album on the "best" or the "rest" side of the line. Set 'em Wild is a cohesive, well-composed, well-executed album. It's got great melodies, dynamic highs and lows, and its share of curveballs. I like it! If you told me it was one of your favorite albums of the year, I'd believe you! That said, it is missing that special something, for me, that takes it to that classic-of-the-year level. It's really good, but I'm not doing somersaults for it. Most of the record flips back and forth between songs that seem to throw in all but the kitchen sink—opener "Everyone is Guilty" or the massive "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon"—or really simple tunes like the title track or the They Might Be Giants-ish "River." I like the simple tunes more, though; there tends to be one ingredient in the stew of the headier songs that tastes funny to me—the jam-band feel of "Guilty," the cliche "Auld Lang Syne" outro of "Sun Will Shine." But at the same time I recognize the album would suffer if it were all kept simple. The quiet songs are all the better as an antidote to the woolier moments.
Whereas I give Set 'em Wild an A for effort and a B, B+ for overall quality, my brilliant wife us less forgiving. She finds the band wearing two too many hats—jacks of all trades, masters of none. It's true that nothing here excels to that song-of-the-year, jam-of-the-season level. There's a certain level of mastery that Akron/Family falls just short of hitting. Almost, but not quite. Still, it's a solid, quality record that I haven't grown weary of. As I continue to return to it, I could see myself a few months down the line recanting on some of what I've said here. Time will tell.
Morrissey, Bona Drag
I know! I know! For whatever it's worth I feel like I've had this album forever, as I knew almost every song here before finally adding a little Morrissey to my collection. What can I say? I've always had the slightest aversion to the guy. He always seems so self-satisfied. And so many Morrissey fans give off the sense of being privy to some special joke that apparently is going over the rest of our heads. But in the last few years I've finally come around on the guy and his songs, both with and without the Smiths. I still think his songs can get a little samey after a time, but when he hits just the the right lyric and just the right melody, it's pretty inarguable.
Mates of State, Re-arrange Us
I don't have a lot to add to my post from a couple weeks back. There's a fine line separating an average Mates of State song from an outstanding Mates of State song, and Re-arrange Us certainly walks back and forth across that line, but there are enough fun ones here--the ratio is about the same as on Bring It Back—that I keep getting drawn back to this record.
Brightblack Morning Light: s/t
All credit goes to my brilliant wife for bringing this one into the house. In fact it might have come into the house well before the period this post is supposed to cover, but I stubbornly didn't pay it any mind. (I tried getting into these guys back when this album originally came out and quickly stamped them overrated.) Then we took a trip to Palm Springs and on the way home—a night drive, no less—my brilliant wife put this album on. Dangers of listening to Brightblack Morning Light while driving at night aside, I was finally pulled into their aesthetic. And you do need to be on board with it to enjoy them: every song is a long, slow, almost tortuously hypnotic blues jam with harmonizing vocals wafting over the top. Over the course of one album the sound goes from being pretty cool to seriously monotonous to nearly brilliant. It's like the slow-core equivalent to David Letterman's "Oprah/Uma" joke. I actually bought their second album at the same time as this one but I've barely put it on. Two albums at once seems like overkill, so I'm soaking in this one until I get pruny; eventually I'll move on to the other.
Since April 1 I've picked up just twelve new-to-me albums. Actually that's a slight lie; I've also picked up a bunch of albums—some new to me, some re-purchases from years past—as part of my research for my book. But as those albums are, in a way, work, I've left them out of this roundup. (I will address them in a future post, however.) They're still a huge part of my listening hours—the biggest part, it sometimes seems—but writing about them in this forum is not quite right.
Anyway: of the twelve above albums, three are from 2009, one is from 2008, three are from 2000-07, and the other five are musical blindspots. As far the new releases go, I'm a little disappointed to see the quality set by some of the releases in the first three months of the year drop off, at least as far as what I'm purchasing goes. I have to admit that I've been terrible at keeping up with new music in the last few months. Between the book, a long-overdue vacation, my job, and other outside concerns, my mind has been pretty far removed from music circa 2009. I'd like to say that's going to change as the year progresses but I don't really think it will. I honestly have no idea where my attentions are going to be as far as music goes for the rest of this year. My recentish dalliances with krautrock and 60s/70s country rock have nearly evaporated, though that has more to do with my time and purchasing power than my changing tastes.
But I digress: what about these twelve records? As always I'll be breaking this week's posts into the best and the rest, starting with the best a little later today. I can't think of a period since I've started doing these MLH posts, though, where the line separating the two categories has been so fine, so take the division with a big grain of salt. There are a few albums here that are undeniably outstanding; but at the same time nothing grabbed hold of me out of this bunch the way, say, Middle Cyclone, Merriweather Post Pavilion, or Faust IV did in the last go-around. So I ask you: you can see what I heard above; what did I miss out in the last three months? What recent new releases have you sharpening your pencil for your best-of-the-year-so-far lists? What old album did you recently discover that knocked you on your ass?
Loads of stuff coming out in the next few months—including two that came out just a couple days ago—though only a handful have my ears perked up at the moment. Hopefully there'll be a never-heard-before surprise in the coming months. How about you? What's got you excited in the next three months? (And will Midlake and the Radio Dept. ever release their new albums?)
Peter Bjorn and John: Living Thing (March 31)
In 2007 I was way up on Peter Bjorn and John’s Writer’s Block, an album that offered loads more than its single, “Young Folks,” might have you believe. But PB&J’s 2008 output—an instrumental record and Peter Morén’s lackluster solo album—left me cold. I’ve heard two songs off of Living Thing, out this week, and my anticipation has returned to Writer’s Block-level expectations. I hope this is what I’ve been waiting for: great pop with just the right amount of curveballs tossed in for good measure.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz! (March 31)
Speaking of previous output that left me cold: the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s last album, 2006’s Show Your Bones, had a handful of terrific tracks (“Gold Lion” being the best of the bunch) but otherwise fell flat. I put it on a couple weeks ago just to remind myself whether I liked it or not; midway through I was skipping tracks before they got even a minute through. Yet I remain interested in hearing where they go next. I’ve heard talk that It’s Blitz! is more synth-heavy and splits down the middle between rockers and ballads. Honestly I don’t know if that means it might be interesting or a trainwreck. I find the opening track, “Zero,” a little annoying. But I remain curious.
Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (April 21)
After being an obsessive fan for five or six years—all the albums, all the 7”s, all the 12” remixes—I got off the Tortoise train shortly after Standards came out. Never heard It’s All Around You, nor anything else since around 2002 (if there’s been anything else). Yet for some reason I feel like now might be a good time to check back in.
Wooden Birds: Magnolia (May 12)
Another group I’ve been meaning to check back with is the American Analog Set. They apparently broke up when I wasn’t looking, but primary songwriter Andrew Kenny’s got a new act, the Wooden Birds. "Sugar" begins with an Iron & Wine feel but it eventually takes on that subtle, stubborn repetition that makes Kenny's songs so great.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (May 26)
Another one like Tortoise, I took a break from Phoenix on their last album; just completely missed it. I liked a lot of their first two albums, though they each have their spotty moments. Now for whatever reason I'm re-intrigued. I've heard a couple of tracks from the new album and both tell me Wolfgang's got some potential.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatamist (May 26)
Yes, despite still running cold on Yellow House, my nagging feeling that Grizzly Bear are supposed to click with me continues. If they can tone down some of their more dramatique inclinations, I think Grizzly Bear could put out a record that would knock me out. We'll see if this is it.
As a complement to this post, here's a little statistical breakdown. This is super-anal, I don't even really know what I intend to glean from this, if anything. Nevertheless I find it interesting to look over. In the first twelve weeks of 2009, I listened to 88 different albums at least once from beginning to end.
Those albums' release dates broken down by year and/or decade:
The same albums broken down by anal-compulsive iTunes genre tags:
11 albums spent three or more weeks in rotation:
This year I also began noting the number of times I listened to an album all the way through from beginning to end:
Usually I follow up "the rest" with a brief rundown of "the worst"—albums I picked up that I wound up actively disliking. Happily for me, that didn't really happen in the last three months. That said, there were plenty of albums that I just didn't connect with. Maybe it's their fault, maybe it's mine. Maybe they're actually mediocre; maybe I just need to hear them in another mindset, some other month or year. I'd still recommend most or all of these albums, with reservations and/or personal caveats that may not apply to you.
David Bowie: Low
For whatever reason, I seem only to connect with Low—supposedly Bowie's apex—on an intellectual level. It's certainly a daring record, thanks to the Eno-aided second, instrumental half. But I'm just not connecting. The first, more "pop" side, has a couple of high points (most notably "Sound and Vision"—a song no Of Montreal fan should hear, lest their illusions be shattered), but there are just as many tracks that are kinda ho-hum. The instrumental half, too, has its peaks, though I don't think it ever rises above Eno's best work. Low isn't a bad record—actually, it's a good record!—but it fell flat in the face of the expectations I'd built up for it.
Emitt Rhodes: s/t
I stumbled across Emitt Rhodes with no prior awareness of him whatsoever. The album was recorded in 1970, apparently in Rhodes' own garage with Rhodes playing every single instrument and backing vocal. The blog I picked the record up from claimed the result was something as transcendent as Oddessey and Oracle or Pet Sounds, which it clearly isn't. Rather, Rhodes sounds like Paul McCartney's star pupil. The pop craft at work here is near-flawless, though I think the record lacks that intangible quality that takes it to the next level. I can't hear any soul behind Rhodes' lyrics or in his delivery. When he sings "live til you die," I kind of want to slap him. It gives you a renewed appreciation for how much feeling McCartney could eke out of a platitude. But! At his best, as on the opener, "With My Face on the Floor," Rhodes' songs can sound like perfect little McCartney b-sides, which I mean as a compliment.
Karen Dalton: In My Own Time
Karen Dalton, on the other hand, has the opposite problem from Rhodes. On her second album, 1971's In My Own Time, Dalton's voice is nearly all ache and emotion—to the point that it often overwhelms the song itself. Like Rhodes, Dalton is able to hit a few unquestionable home runs, but her album becomes a bit tedious by the end.
Josh Ritter: The Animal Years
I picked up The Animal Years at the same time as The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and for that reason this album might have suffered a little. It's a slower, less fun—almost turgid—record compared to its followup. There are no real low points, and a number of high points—the first four songs are solid pop songs, and the epic "Thin Blue Flame" shows an ambition not seen on the later record. But somewhere around the midpoint the whole thing starts to feel, not exactly boring, but inessential. Still, when Ritter is at his best he can really knock it out.
The National: Alligator and Boxer
The National are one of those bands that I just never dove for. I've had a handful of mp3s for a few years, and I like them, but I always had the sneaking suspicion that they were... boring. Hearing both Alligator and Boxer, that sense is somehow dispelled and reinforced at the same time. On the one hand—especially with Boxer—each time I put it on I get the sense that everything is about to click. I hear something new, lock in on a lyric I hadn't heard before, pick up on some musical detail (by the way, the drummer for the National? Secret weapon). But by album's end I invariably feel deadened by Matt Berringer's insistence on using the same four notes for every single melody. I think it didn't help, too, that I got these albums at the exact same time (in fact, through the generosity of a friend, I got everything by the National at once—these two plus Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Cherry Tree, and Virginia, the latter two I still haven't even listened to yet). The National strikes me as a group you need to take slow, song by song, over the course of many focused listenings for many days or weeks or even months. I haven't given them that kind of attention. Each time I listen to Boxer, or a song from either album pops up on shuffle, I think this will be the week that I give it that attention. But it hasn't happened yet.
Jorge Ben: África Brasil
I've got a song by Jorge Ben, "Pais Tropical," that is absolutely one of my favorite songs ever. It's like Os Mutantes, only better than just about anything Os Mutantes did. But I didn't have an album by Ben. I'd heard this was one of his classics, so when I saw it a couple months ago I snapped it up. For what it is—tropicalia with an afrofunk edge—it's good. But it's not what I wanted. This album comes from 1976, about seven or eight years later, I think, than the era of Ben I'd most like to investigate.
Amon Düül II: Phallus Dei
My previous review of this record pretty much said it all. Phallus Dei has its moments, but most the time the band finds a way to irritate in the middle of what might otherwise be a great track. Yeti, the only other album I've heard by them, tempers the irritating moments better than here (though it doesn't eradicate them).
Grizzly Bear: Yellow House
Grizzly Bear is one of those bands I feel I'm supposed to love. People I know whose tastes run similar to mine flip for this band, and this album in particular. But I just can't feel it. I've had a handful of songs by the band for a long time—I like them, don't love them. But I was told they were an "album band," so when their discography showed up on eMusic I finally took the plunge. Nothing has really changed: I still think they're okay but not game-changing. I'm curious to hear the new album when it comes out, to see where they go next—so I'm told, it might be a direction I'll like more.
Neu!: Neu! 2
La Düsseldorf: s/t and Viva
I've already said my share about Neu! 2—probably my favorite Neu! album, so long as you delete the four tape-speed experiments sprinkled throughout. In fact something similar can be said for all three Neu! albums; none are perfect, none the quintessential, if-you-only-get-one-make-it-this-one record. There's always one or two tracks that see Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother slipping off the experimental ledge. So I made a little customized greatest hits from all three records that feels, to me, more satisfying.
For all intents and purposes you can add the best of La Düsseldorf's output to that playlist. La Düsseldorf was Dinger's band following his split with Rother (who went on to Harmonia—a group I haven't checked out yet). I expected a more pronounced break from the Neu! sound with La Düsseldorf, but much of both La Düsseldorf and Viva follow fairly naturally. The synths are still there (along with other instruments), Dinger's "navajo beat" is still in effect, and there's still that balance of prog-ambient and, well, goofiness. La Düsseldorf's opening track, "Düsseldorf," features a single lyric, "Düsseldorf," repeated off and on for thirteen minutes. Track two, "La Düsseldorf," features the same lyric over different but similar music for five more minutes. This is a four-track album, so we're already halfway through. Each song by itself is great, but the repetition does get monotonous. So like Neu! 2, we've got Dinger once again making something that is almost terrific but is hampered, ultimately, by its nuttiness. Viva, the band's second album, fares better—due in large part to the twenty-minute masterpiece that is "Cha Cha 2000." It's easily one of the best songs Dinger has ever had a hand in.
Animal Collective: Sung Tongs
I'm coming at Animal Collective all out of order. First Campfire Songs, then Strawberry Jam, then Feels, then Merriweather Post Pavilion. Now Sung Tongs. It's kind of a strange way to go about it. On the one hand I can piece together the evolution of the band—Feels seems like an explicit bridge between Sung Tongs and Strawberry Jam, and echoes of every record lurk somewhere in Merriweather—but on the other, some of these earlier albums don't feel like the revelation that they seem to have been for the fans of AC that have been on board longer than I have. That said, my brilliant wife is way into this album. It's her favorite next to Merriweather (which I'd bet she'd declare her favorite album of the year so far); she also loves Panda Bear's Person Pitch but runs hot and cold on Strawberry Jam and Feels—both of which I like more than the Panda Bear record. Clearly there are a number of Animal Collective debates in the PGWP household. Anyway: Sung Tongs. This is a strong record. I had complaints about portions of Feels that found the band going off on these spacey, drifting indulgences. They seemed to walk the line between genius ("Banshee Beat") and wankery ("Bees" or "Daffy Duck") like a drunk taking a DUI test. Sung Tongs sees the band more fully immersed in that sound, and for the better. Perhaps by dint of being more cohesive overall—there are no rhythm section–driven rockers like Feels' "Grass" or "Turn Into Something"—Sung Tongs becomes an album you can sink into. It can drift past you, yes, but at times that seems to be the intent. I dig this record, though I need to spend a lot more time with it. It probably wasn't wise of me to pick this up so close on the heels of Merriweather, an album so utterly different but also so much more fun.
Wavvves doesn't really feel like a full-length album. The brief record is technically twelve tracks long, but it feels more like six or seven suites, as instrumental fragments buffer many of the more pop-oriented tracks. ("Pop-oriented" because there are melodies buried under all that distortion.) I hesitate to say they're "filler"—they're more than that, though also less than standalone works. The whole record does add up to something; there is an aesthetic at work here—a kind of raucous experimentation, unpretentious and un-self-conscious. Also, juvenile and naive. Does that mean it's good? Yeah, it's good. It's fun to listen to. I wrote about Wavves a little while back over at Do You Compute, in the context of GodheadSilo—a band who I feel is a kind of ancestor to Wavves. I don't think Wavves takes themselves (himself, I guess) very seriously, and that's okay—though it has the effect of making Wavvves good but not essential.
Seefeel: Quique and Starethrough EP
It's funny: ten or twelve or fifteen years ago, when labels like Kranky and Warp were releasing record after record of genius space rock (the former) and heady electronica (the latter), I was lapping all of it up like Pavlov's dog. So how or why did I skip Seefeel, whose 1993 album Quique—guitar-based electronica—was like a bridge between Bowery Electric and Aphex Twin? I heard them back then, but for whatever reason I just didn't consider them seriously. Oh well: better late than never. There's no mistaking which decade Seefeel hail from, but still, Quique holds up pretty well. Their followup EP, Starethrough, I like even more. Perhaps by dint of being shorter it has the luxury of seeming more concentrated, more distilled.
Air France: No Way Down EP
On the other hand, Seefeel seems positively current compared to Air France, whose 2008 EP No Way Down sounds straight out of a Euro dance club circa 1992. It's a style of music I only liked in small doses back then and only like in small doses now. "Collapsing at Your Doorstep" is the highlight here—hence the track deservedly made the rounds of numerous mp3 blogs last year. The rest of the EP's quality depends on your tolerance level for airy, light techno. I personally liked their 2006 EP, On Trade Winds, a little more than No Way Down (the two are now available as a single disc, by the way), though "Collapsing" is probably the high point of either. Most of No Way Down is pleasant, but it drifts into background music whenever I put it on.
That's it for the today. Come back tomorrow for some Bowie, Jorge Ben, and the rest of the rest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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.
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.
I picked up twenty-four album in the last twelve weeks. Four of them were new releases; thirteen were musical blindspots, and the remaining seven were albums released in the last few years that I only just got around to getting. (I'll have much more of this kind of breakdown in the next few days.)
I'd say my listening habits of the last three months could be broken down into three segments: krautrock (Neu!, Faust, La Düsseldorf); stellar new releases (Bird, Case, Animal Collective); and, not reflected in the new-to-me images above, 90s indie (thanks to my newish project Do You Compute). I won't go too much into the latter right here and right now—if you're into it, then hopefully you're subscribed to DYC—and I'll get into the kraut stuff later today and tomorrow. But I do need to note that three months in, 2009 is kicking 2008's ass in terms of great new music. Three albums released in the last three months are already better than pretty much every 2008 release I heard last year. If I could remake my 08 list and factor in Noble Beast, Middle Cyclone, and Merriweather Post Pavilion, they'd easily be in my top four of the year, if not my top three. More on all three of those records, plus a few others, a little bit later this morning.
Taking this post and putting it down in terms of numbers rather than pictures, here’s a few more stats about how and what I listened to in 2008.
Number of unique full-length albums I listened to in 2008: 225
Those albums' release dates broken down by year and/or decade:
Broken down by anal-compulsive iTunes genre tags:
Classic Indie: 18
70s Rock: 15
60s Rock: 14
Dinner Music/Jazz: 11
Country, Krautrock: 6 each
French, Garage, Metal, R&B: 1 each
Through my regular “This Week’s Soundtrack” posts, I tracked any and all albums I played from beginning to end at least once during any given week. So a true picture of my listening hours are slightly skewed. For instance, on this week I listened to the Walkmen’s You & Me every day at least once, sometimes twice; everything else I only listened to one time during that week. On the other hand, the list below still feels roughly correct in terms of what I listened to most overall. These are the albums that popped up the most over the course of 2008:
Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs
Fleet Foxes, s/t
Vampire Weekend, s/t
The Ruby Suns, Sea Lion
Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha
Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam
Okkervil River, The Stage Names
Dr. Dog, Fate
Beach House, Devotion
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina, Elis & Tom
Brian Eno, Another Green World
The Fiery Furnaces, Widow City
The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band
Philip Glass, Glassworks
Holy Fuck, s/t
The Radio Dept., Lesser Matters
Paul Simon, Graceland
The United States of America, s/t
Of these twenty albums, sixteen were purchased in 2008. Armchair Apocrypha was purchased in 2007; Elis & Tom was purchased 2005 or 2006; Lesser Matters was purchased in 2003; and Graceland was purchased in 1986.
This isn’t exactly a proper way to use the numbers, but if you added the “# of weeks played” by artist (e.g., adding Mysterious Production and Armchair Apocrypha together), you get a somewhat better idea of artists I keep returning to, if not specific albums. This version of the list feels more intuitively right to me when I think about what I listened to this year.
Andrew Bird: 25
Okkervil River: 14
Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend: 11
Animal Collective, Paul Simon/Simon & Garfunkel, the Ruby Suns, Neil Young: 10
Elvis Costello, Faust, Four Tet, Philip Glass: 8
The Byrds, Dr. Dog, Brian Eno, Fiery Furnaces, Shearwater: 7
Beach House, My Morning Jacket, Radio Dept., Secret Machines, Spoon: 6
Cat Stevens, the Lovin' Spoonful, and Harry Nilsson all still feel curiously absent. Those are all greatest hits collections + random downloads that I tend to listen to on shuffle; their songs tend to crop up on multiple customized playlists I've made. Those three artists, and probably a few others I'm forgetting, are woven into the fabric of my everyday listening, yet somehow escaped my anal analysis.
This is the last of my exhaustive review of 08. Happy New Year everyone.
If we could do a cage match between all of the music released in 2008 and the music released in the first three months of 2009, which side would you put your bets on? Looking at MBV’s list of upcoming releases, there are at least two, maybe three or four or five albums that are contenders for best of the year status. Mind you, I’ve heard none of them—it’s just conjecture based on past pleasures. But what else is the internet for? Here’s a rundown of a handful of albums I’m keeping an ear out for.
Andrew Bird, Noble Beast + Useless Creatures (Jan. 20)
Me, excited for an Andrew Bird album? Shocker, I know. My only fear surrounding this album is that it will render my blog redundant. How many years in a row can I wax rhapsodic about Andrew Bird? Let’s try for three, shall we? By the way, don’t sleep on the limited-edition double-disc version. Usually I’d say an album’s worth of bonus instrumentals is not essential—Spoon’s Get Nice! addition to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga springs to mind as a mildly entertaining but forgettable treat—but Andrew Bird plus a couple guys from Wilco sounds like it could be good. Not to mention all the instrumental tracks coloring the last two Bird albums have been as good as the proper songs.
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Jan. 20)
I’m a latecomer to Animal Collective, having found pleasure in the band via Strawberry Jam and working my way backward through their catalog. Of everything I’ve heard, I still find Strawberry Jam their most compelling work, so I look forward to MPP as an outgrowth from that. I haven’t heard a lick of this record yet but it’s definitely the most exciting and unpredictable prospect of everything listed here.
A.C. Newman, Get Guilty (Jan. 20)
On the one hand, pretty much everything Carl Newman has done through the New Pornographers has been golden—yes, including Challengers. On the other, Newman’s other solo album, The Slow Wonder, is good but not great. It’s so close to, but not, the New Pornographers. Like coffee without the caffeine. So I’m intrigued enough for the new record and will probably check it out, though I’m not losing my shit in anticipation.
Polvo, Cor Crane Secret (Jan. 27)
Volcano Suns, All Night Lotus Party and The Bright Orange Years (Jan. 27)
I’ve had 90s indie rock on the brain for the last couple of months, particularly groups that didn’t seem to make as lasting an impression as one might have predicted back in the day. Polvo and the Volcano Suns both fall into this category, so I’m glad to see these reissues hitting shelves. I feel like there’s a lot of fifteen- or twenty-year-old indie rock just waiting to be rediscovered. Maybe it’s these bands, maybe it’s others, but I do predict a collective revisiting of the 90s canon soon.
Beirut, March of the Zapotec (Feb. 17)
Though I liked The Flying Cup Club, arguably even more than Beirut’s debut, I was still left lukewarm on Zach Condon the songwriter. I summarized that feeling in this post. Part of me feels that Zapotec will be a kind of final test for my tolerance of Beirut. He’s gone to Mexico for inspiration this time around! It feels like too much of a shtick. If his overall prowess as a crafter of great songs has improved, then it won’t matter. Good is good. But that remains to be seen.
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (Mar. 3)
Unlike Carl Newman, Neko Case’s solo material is a world apart from her contributions to the New Pornographers, so I’m considerably more excited for Middle Cyclone than I am for Get Guilty. 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was an incredibly slow burner for me. Despite buying it when it came out, it wasn’t until earlier this year that the album truly revealed itself to me. I appreciate that Case has grown beyond her Patsy Cline croon into a more mature songwriter. Hopefully she’s continuing on that trajectory (though I wouldn’t mind a few more uptempo numbers this time around).
Midlake, Courage of Others (TBA)
Peter Bjorn & John, TBA (TBA)
Not sure if these will come out by the end of March or not, but they're right up there with Andrew Bird and Animal Collective for most-anticipated album of the year. I spent most of 2007 listening to The Trials of Van Occupanther and Writer's Block. Unlike Bird and Animal Collective, I’m more anxious about this record—that is, less confident that the follow-up will equal or surpass the previous peak. I want these albums to blow my mind (especially the Midlake). Will they?
There's plenty of other albums on MBV's list; what's got you excited?
If you've been listening to Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday's mixes, you've heard a little country mixing in with the rest. That was the tip of the iceberg: I was introduced to so much great country music this year (almost entirely thanks to Setting the Woods on Fire), I had to dedicate an entire day's mix to it. If I had to pick just one or two tracks to urge you listen to... I'd have a really fucking hard time. But the Hank Willams, Buck Owens, and Lefty Frizzell tracks are all great fun. The John Hartford song is wonderful. If you liked the Dillard & Clark song on Monday or the Hearts & Flowers song yesterday, then be sure to check the Gene Clark & the Gosdin Brothers track today.
Today's batch includes my biggest earworm of the year ("Carrie-Ann"), the cruelest lyric of the year ("I've had her; she's nothing"), and the brilliantly arranged "My World Fell Down." Finally, I don't usually even pay attention when I see blogs throw up some contemporary indie act covering a well-known song, but after seeing Jens Lekman do "You Can Call Me Al," one of my all-time sentimental favorites, I had to hunt down an mp3 version of the song. (Anyone paying attention to the lyrics may notice the inspiration for my doings elseweb.)
Here's round two. I stumbled into a kind of weather theme today, for no good reason. Especially since this week has been the kind of shitty weather I thought was illegal in Southern California. Special shout-out to the Michael Nesmith track (2009 will hopefully see me pick up one/some of his solo material) and the beautiful Hearts & Flowers song. Enjoy! See you tomorrow with ten more.
No annual recap is complete in this day and age without a look at all the random singles you downloaded all year long. This week I offer you fifty songs, ten per day, that I discovered in 2008. The tracks range from the 50s through 2008—and one from 1928—from country to psychedelia to tropicalia to calypso to indie, and probably a few things in between. I should also take a moment to thank Paul at Setting the Woods on Fire and Brendan at the Rising Storm, who were easily the source of most of the songs you'll find here this week. Hopefully you're already reading their blogs regularly.
If you're reading this post in your RSS reader, I'm obliged to point out that I do have a convenient little mp3 player on my site—just press play, minimize the window, and go about your business. Let me soundtrack the next hour or two of your day. (The player will hit every mp3 on the site—this post and every post from last week too.)
Here are the first ten. Enjoy and keep coming back all week. Thanks.
Okay, so the requisite best 08 release list is behind us, as well as a rundown of some of my favorite discoveries of the year, plus my post on my most beloved record, personally, this year. Still, none are totally accurate. Lost in the cracks are the more recent albums that don't really fit into either category. In this year's case, that means adding three albums from 2007 that I didn't get to until 2008. Here's my list of my personal favorite albums of the year. (Again, the logic of the ranking gets a little fluid around number six or so.) Links go to any long-form posts I might have written about the albums in the last year.
2. Okkervil River, The Stage Names (2007)
3. Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam (2007)
4. Brian Eno, Another Green World (1975)
6. Fiery Furnaces, Widow City (2007)
8. The Lovin' Spoonful, Anthology (1965-69)
9. The Ruby Suns, Sea Lion (2008)
11. Little Joy, s/t (2008)
12. United States of America, s/t (1968)
I knew when I discovered Armchair Apocrypha last year that I’d found something special in Andrew Bird. This was an artist I wanted to savor. So I let my obsession with that album play out before I sought out another one of his records. It took about a year. By March of this year I felt I was ready to dive into another: Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs, from 2005. Like Armchair, it went on to become my most listened-to album of the year. Not only that, I was astonished to find a Bird album that was better than Armchair. Eggs is a masterpiece.
It’s a more melancholy album than Armchair. Although it has its moments of humor, it rarely gets as upbeat as the first half of that album. That turned out to be just fine for me: 2008 turned out to be melancholy year, to understate.
Part of why Eggs became so important to me, besides its more tangible qualities—great songs, stellar musicianship, etc.—is that it happened to enter my life just when I needed it to. I owned it for maybe one or two weeks before I was called to my childhood home to be with my dad for the last few weeks of his life. It was an ordeal, to say the least. a time of communal grief shared with aunts, uncles, sister, brother, wife, stepmother, mixed with a kind of simultaneous loneliness and introversion that can’t be articulated. Music, as with any other event in life, is there to be one’s psychological wallpaper. I’ve written about that already, the music I went to before, during, and after.
Eggs held a unique place at that time because it was mine. It wasn’t an album my entire family could find comfort in, like Graceland; it wasn’t identifiably my dad’s, like the O Brother soundtrack or Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. It wasn’t even an album to be shared with my wife, despite the amount of time we’d later spend listening to Eggs for the rest of the year. At that point, only I knew the record. I would eject myself from the house occasionally, off on a walk through my old neighborhood, sometimes venturing further from home than I’d intended. It was me, my headphones, and Andrew Bird. Because of Armchair, Eggs was familiar enough to embrace—to be embraced by—without reservation, yet strange enough that it gave my mind something to focus on. I had a conversation with Eggs for two or three weeks straight. We still talk sometimes.
Bird’s lyrics can be like a game, as you listen to how the sounds of the words melt into each other. “You took my hand and led me down to watch a papillon parade / and we let the kittens lick our hair and drink our chalky lemonade”—the words beg to be mouthed. The more familiar the songs become, the more meaning reveals itself—Bird is a wordsmith, not a gibberish peddler. In those early, difficult weeks of listening to the album, those meanings had yet to come through to me. Stray lines from each song wafted through my head, crystallizing into something that, combined with the wistful tone of so many of the songs, felt custom designed to my situation. “I was getting ready to be a threat,” Bird sings in the opening track, “Sovay”—as if to say that something had been cut short. The next song begins with a question posed to a panel of experts: “'Why are we alive?' / Here was their reply: / 'You’re what happens when two substances collide / When by all accounts you really should have died.'” That existential wonder manifests again in the gorgeous “Masterfade” as a child gazes into the sky “full of zeros and ones” before “you took my hand and said I shouldn’t be afraid.” The next song, “Opposite Day,” cries over and over, “Today was supposed to be just another day”—a cry I repeated to myself, attaching my own moribund meaning, over and over. Throughout the album there was a lyric or musical motif (“Sovay,” “Measuring Cups,” “The Naming of Things”) that seemed to comfort or commiserate.
Of course, the album in fact was not that literal. If anything it is an album about adolescence, not death. For a son watching is father die over a period of a few weeks, an album about adolescence presses the emotional buttons better than anything else. At any rate Eggs is not that sad of a record. It’s certainly not a stereotypical wallowing record. And that’s just it: Eggs helped me not wallow (not too deeply, at least). As melancholy as it could be in some places, it was also quite optimistic in others, if not downright humorous. That might be why it has managed to become more than just the soundtrack to one of my life’s lowest points. My personal story aside, it is an undeniably outstanding album, perfect from beginning to end. In Pitchfork parlance, this is a 10.0.
As I’ve been saying in a few posts here and there, I think 2008 turned out to be noteworthy for a lot of albums—sure, they’re good—that sit pretty comfortably inside larger trends of the last few years. I’m thankful for Andrew Bird, whether last year, 2005, this year, or next (Noble Beast comes out in a matter of weeks), because he is truly an individual voice in music right now. His strengths—lyricism, composition, musicianship, whistling!—are singularly his own. He’s got at least two stellar records to his name already (I’ll let you know when I get to the rest), and likely one more to come in less than a month. Happily, almost a year since I bought Eggs. I think I’m ready for it.
In 2007 my blind spot interests were fairly monogamous: my love of the Byrds morphed into a fascination with the Laurel Canyon scene, opening basically into a lot of 60s and 70s folk and rock. (Also, Elvis Costello.) That interest continued in 2008, though moving into a more country-rock direction—the Lovin' Spoonful's Anthology, for instance, was on of my favorite records of the year. I didn't listen to it a lot on its own, but nearly every track made its way into one iTunes playlist or another. I need to start picking up their proper full lengths.
Unlike last year, however, my interests diverged in a few directions in 2008. I started moving toward more experimental and/or less pop music: I resparked my interest in krautrock, finallybegan dipping my toes into contemporary composers, and enjoyed one or two more psychedelic albums. Toward the end of the year, mostly inspired by Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life, I also filled in a few blanks from punk and early indie bands. (Also, Elvis Costello.)
I didn't have any major obsession-sparking experiences with my purchases this year, the way I did with Big Star's #1 Record and Elvis's Imperial Bedroom. Still, there were pleny of great finds. I finally filled in the gaping blind spot that was Brian Eno. Another Green World was partly what I expected and partly a total surprise--highlighting, if nothing else, how clueless I actually was about why Eno is so great. I knew he was an ambient pioneer, but I sorely underestimated him as a pop auteur. This was reinforced when I picked up Before and After Science, which sounds like a proto-Talking Heads record.
My understanding of krautrock, previously defined mostly by Can, one or two Neu! songs, and the vague "motorik" sense of the word as it applies to bands of the last decade, also came in for reconsideration. Neu!'s warm but desolate electronics, Amon Duul II's ramshod improv, and—best of all—Faust's brilliant deconstruction of rock have me eager to find more, to really get deeper inside this genre.
Part of that journey through krautrock led me to the Monks, who really aren't remotely kraut; they're garage, or proto-punk. Black Monk Time easily ranks as one of my favorite purchases of the year.
One of my prized acquisitions of the year the United States of America's sole album, from 1968—an early example of rock incorporating electronica elements such as tape splicing and other studio-as-instrument techniques. Absolutely worth seeking out.
It wasn't all experimental shit for me in 08, though. Les Paul & Mary Ford's Best of the Capitol Masters has fully ingratiated itself into numerous playlists in my iTunes. I have a soft spot for music from the 40s and 50s that evokes a real sense of G-rated optimism; Les Paul & Mary Ford fit right in alongside my Doris Day and Fred Astaire albums.
I also continued to fill in holes for artists I've been developing a listening relationship with over the last couple of years: two albums each by Elvis Costello (Armed Forces and Get Happy!!), Neil Young (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps), and David Bowie. The Bowies I picked up weren't too hot (the dreadful Young Americans and the good but not mindblowing Station to Station), but Costello and Young both were predictably terrific. 2009 will likely see more purchases of albums by all three of these guys, including albums that I know are among their best but which I've still never heard.
At the tail end of the year I went headlong into a punk and classic indie rock spell, picking up a bunch of never-heards by the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, and Buzzcocks along with a bunch of re-buys, returning to albums I sold many years ago on some destitute afternoon trying to pay rent and eat a burrito while I was in college. Mission of Burma is great—I've got Vs. on hold for a future eMusic purchase. And the Buzzcocks—one of those bands, like the Lovin' Spoonful, who I realize I've heard many times over the course of my life but never understood "this is the Buzzcocks." I was expecting something a little more snarly, a little more Sex Pistolsy, but I was pleased to find an album full of pop songs about love (okay, and also orgasms).
Later today, my real favorite album of the year. Tomorrow, my official "top ten new-to-me albums discovered in 2008"—which will somehow manage to include still more albums I haven't even touched on this week so far.
So here's the full list. Beyond the first two or three or four, don't take the ranking too seriously. 9 could be 5, 6 and 7 could swap, and 8 could be 9. And 10 is like a ninja; it could spring into action at any moment, wreaking havoc on the list.
1. Fleet Foxes, s/t
2. The Ruby Suns, Sea Lion
3. Vampire Weekend, s/t
Last time I wrote about Vampire Weekend—not counting my Gilmore Girls fan fiction—I advised that everyone stop reading about Vampire Weekend, stop writing about Vampire Weekend, and just listen to Vampire Weekend. Many months removed, it's sort of amusing to think about how riled everyone got about this record. Inflated issues of privilege or colonialism aside, Vampire Weekend is just a really fun album to sing along to, to dance to, to smile with. It's a pleasure from beginning to end. I do wonder if the boys will be able to find a subject matter for their next record that isn't New England coeds, but for the time being this is remains a wonderful, light, fun album.
4. Little Joy, s/t
This is a late addition to the list—I've only had it for about three weeks. When the album came out it went right over my radar since it was marketed as a "Strokes side project"—three words that don't really generate much enthusiasm over here. Happily my wife took the time to listen. Now Little Joy has made itself nice and comfy around the house. We put it on while we cook, while we drive, while we read the paper, whatever. It's a relaxing, lighthearted record clearly made by a relaxed, lighthearted band. This short album is eleven simple songs that don't overstay their welcome—in the case of many, you wish they'd stay longer! These are pop songs made by friends looking for nothing more than the pleasure of each others' company.
5. Dr. Dog, Fate
Like Little Joy, Fate required someone intervening in my life and telling me I had to listen to it (in this case a good friend—one without a blog! crazy!—rather than my brilliant wife). It's such a rock record, so straightforward, so classic, so Beatlesy, so Bandy, so easily digestible indie-y. But six months since buying it, Fate has continued to grow on me. I originally thought it had two or three really fantastic songs and the rest good but not great. I'd go a month without listening to it, then I'd put it on again. I'd reconsider: like, four or five really fantastic songs and the rest good but not great. By now I'm up to about nine or ten really fantastic songs and the other three pretty good. By March this ought to be a masterpiece.
6. Beach House, Devotion
Devotion turned out to have more longevity than I originally expected it to. The same caveat still applies: you have to like the song this duo does, because they keep doing it over and over again. Maybe it just suited my mood this year, but I kept coming back. Victoria Legrand's voice is one of the best in indie rock at the moment, and Alex Scally does an exceptional job of adding just enough guitar to each track—coloring the song in without overtaking it. The whole of Devotion is like walking through a dense fog, with just enough light to lead you further in.
7. Okkervil River, The Stand Ins
The Stand Ins was the third of three Okkervil albums I purchased this year, which really was a kind of overdose. If I could rank The Stage Names in this list, it would probably be number one—but that was 2007. This year's album is still really terrific, thanks mostly to three or four songs as good as anything Sheff has ever done—among them "Singer Songwriter," and "Pop Lie." It took a little distance from my Okkervil Obsession, however, to notice that the rest of The Stand Ins is solid, but not consistently top-notch. A more than worthy album, though I'll still take The Stage Names for the best and most cohesive album Sheff's done so far.
8. Shearwater, Rook
I feel about Shearwater the way I feel about mushrooms: they are both delectable and detestable, awesome and awful, simultaneously. When I listen to Rook I hold my nose with one hand and make dramatic, swooping, Ronnie James Dio-like arm movements with the other. Yes, Rook can be overwrought at times, but it can also be captivating and powerful.
9. The Walkmen, You & Me
The nice thing about doing your end-of-year list in December is you get to read up on all the giddier bloggers' premature lists. I've had You & Me for about six days now, thanks to seeing it on a few different lists and checking out an mp3. Hearing "In the New Year" reminded me that I like the Walkmen. I dug Bows + Arrows when it came out a few years back but was scared off by all the tepid reviews for A Hundred Miles Off in 2006. After all, Bows + Arrows did demonstrate that the Walkmen had a specific sound they were going for; it could, conceivably, get old. That sound—a total absence of low end; the way the drummer seems to be hanging on by a thread; Hamilton Leithauser's disassociative lounge act—is still in place here, but that's okay. You & Me is far superior to Bows + Arrows. It's a more cohesive album, a more emotionally resonant album.
10. To Be Announced
Within days of posting my list last year, I discovered at least two albums that in retrospect belonged on the list. So, rather than toss on MGMT (which has four outstanding tracks—you've heard all of them—and a lot of okay songs) or some other album I'm lukewarm on just so I can round the list out, I'm going to leave this space open for now. I'll let you know if and when I fill it.
Using different criteria, you could as easily call the Ruby Suns’ Sea Lion my top album of 2008 as Fleet Foxes. I questioned in my Fleet Foxes post whether that album had actually broken into that nebulous group of permanent collection albums that are always on hand. Elis & Tom, Air’s first two albums, the Radio Dept.’s Lesser Matters, Tied & Tickled Trio’s Observing Systems—these are albums that, years after buying them, have yet to wear out their welcome. These are the albums you want to play when you’re getting ready to go out, when you’re tired from being out, when you’re writing or cooking or driving or working or just being.
Sea Lion, I already know, has made it into this category. Though the album never had the play-it-’til-you-puke period that Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend enjoyed, it’s nevertheless remained in consistent rotation for the last nine months. All these spins later, I still don’t feel like I’ve fully discovered everything it has to offer.
The best quality of Sea Lion is that it’s varied without sounding unnecessarily eclectic, Ryan McPhun has crafted ten songs that blend contemporary indie rock—yes, reverbed vocals and space-out ambient rock—with a dash of 80s new wave, 60s surf pop, tropicalia, and African rhythms. The end result is something not too dissimilar from, yet far more unique than, a lot of other indie du jour records out there right now. You guys can keep Deerhunter; I'll take the Ruby Suns.
It’s an atmospheric record, filled with dreamy vocal harmonies and sound effects that filter in and out of each track. But unlike, say, Person Pitch, Sea Lion isn’t content to sit in one place for too long. Just look at the first half of the record: opener “Blue Penguin” is a laconic song, moving at a turtle’s pace, followed by the Latin-influenced (with a tinge of Avery Island-era Neutral Milk Hotel) quick-strummed “Oh Mojave.” From there, “Tane Mahuta” gets fully into a Os Mutantes-like jam before segueing into the 80s-esque “There Are Birds” and finally falling into the structureless “It's Mwangi in Front of Me.” Yet the whole thing coheres. Vocal melodies in one song show up as musical motifs in another; songs melt into each other track by track. Sea Lion is a journey. It's easily the most underrated record of the year.
Until this weekend, when I set out to remind myself of some of my favorite new releases of the year, I hadn't listened to Fleet Foxes for a while. I'd burned out. But that's because I listened to their debut intensely for about three months out of the year. I wonder—I can't guess—if I'll return to this album again and again in the future or if it will forever and always just remind me of 2008—that era of my life when my brilliant wife and I lived in West Hollywood, when we didn't have kids yet, back when I worked for a museum, that year we vacationed in Hawaii, the same year my dad passed away.
Did Fleet Foxes crack that permanent rotation barrier the way 07 picks like Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha or Jens Lekman's Night Falls Over Kortedala did? Hard to say just yet. But even if it doesn't, that doesn't take anything away from the band or the record. It's a powerful album that managed to wrap itself around my life like a blanket. What better purpose should music serve?
And it is a powerful record. The big knock from its dissenters—and there are many, including pretty much every single one of my favorite fellow bloggers—is that it is somehow free of substance. Assuming you first discount the fact that this band is incredibly skilled—those harmonies ain't easy, buddy—the critique still only carries any weight with two tracks. My suggestion to the detractors is to try playing the record straight through, without the instrumental "Heard them Stirring" (which sounds too similar to Pet Sounds' instrumental title track) or the mantra-like "Quiet Houses."
Fleet Foxes has an aesthetic that is hard to get past, like a woman wearing too much perfume. You have to at least like the scent—er, sound—before you'll consider getting closer. If you don't like the current trend in indie rock of 70s-influenced folk rock (see also: Midlake, Feist), or if you don't like the current trend of lead singers obscuring their voices with some effect (reverb, fuzz, autotune, whatever), then your patience is going to run out with Fleet Foxes, and fast. Let's face it: the band breaks no new ground, sonically speaking. You have to find their ingredients compelling—the influences the band wears on its sleeve have to be pleasing and not irritating—before you can spend the time enjoying the album's finer points. For many, the journey with Fleet Foxes ends here.
For those of us that are beguiled by the sound, we get the added bonus of discovering the record's more subtle charms. Robin Pecknold is, in fact, a great songwriter: you can hear it in the details. I love the way "Sun it Rises" and "Ragged Wood" are held together by a thin thread of song structure. I love the way Pecknold breaks his phrasing in "Your Protector":
I love the imagery of "White Winter Hymnal," which feels like a nursery rhyme. The nostalgic lyrics are about nothing so innocent as children walking in winter. But like any good nursery rhyme, the song is deceptively violent—the sole verse ends with a child bleeding in the snow, turning it "red like strawberries in the summertime." That last line makes the song borderline psychopathic: the narrator is an adult, watching over the children to ensure they don't hurt themselves. When one child does, the injury reminds the adult of another, faraway innocent season. Hey asshole—call 911! It reminds me of the "oh well" tone of the last line of "Rock-a-bye Baby."
I love the structure of the album's closer, "Oliver James": the first verse is a capella; the second finds Pecknold's acoustic guitar harmonizing with his vocal melody; then the final chorus returns to a capella. I know it's a small detail, but I love that the guitar is playing a harmony to the vocal rather than simply doubling the melody as so many indie guitarists do (off the top of my head: Elliott Smith, Death Cab, the Shins, Deerhunter, Nirvana).
I could go on. Fleet Foxes, if you let it, is full of small, well-thought details. For that reason—added of course to the band simply sounding beautiful—it is an outstanding album. Add to that their phenomenal live show—even better than the album—which says to me that this is a band that can and will top itself. What a start, though.
Tomorrow, my #2 pick as well as the rest of my 08 favorites.
There they are: the 89 albums I acquired in 2008 (up from 57 in 2007!). As you may or may not have surmised from this post (actually I think a lot of people missed my point), I enjoyed what indie rock had to offer in 08, but I didn't depend on it: almost exactly 50% of my purchases—46 albums—were musical blind spots. 24 albums acquired this year were 2008 releases; rounding things out, 12 albums were from 2007 and 7 were from 2000–06.
For the rest of the week I'll be highlighting my favorite albums of the year, kicking of with a few posts on 08 albums and then moving into the blind spots, and ending on my "real" top ten of the year—a list that throws release dates out the window. Come back in a little bit and I'll have my favorite 08 album of the year. Tomorrow I'll have my #2 and the rest of the list; I'll round the week out with thoughts on some of the older albums. Oh, the fun we're going to have.
Jut for the hell of it, here are a few more statistics about my listening habits this year.
If you were to factor in the many one-off downloads I picked up all year long, the country and the 60s rock would both see a heavier representation of what's been occupying my headphones for much of 08. Next week will see a series of mixes dedicated to those songs, so stay tuned.
Come back in a couple hours and you'll see my favorite of the year. (Hint: it's way fucking boring.)
Pitchfork has a pretty exhaustive list of what's coming down the pike in the next three months. Here are a handful that are piquing my interest in one way or another.
Margot & the Nuclear So & So's, Animal and Not Animal (Oct. 7)
Yeah, I just finished saying that Margot's only other album was a disappointment. Why do I hold out hope? For one, I think Richard Edwards is a good song-crafter, and the record sounds good; its flaw is in its delivery. That's something that could, conceivably, be fixed. Then I heard about the band's travails with their major label—such a 90s throwback narrative for a band that itself sounds a bit like a 90s throwback. Anyway, the little trick of releasing the album they "wanted" (Animal) on vinyl and digital only, while referring to the album endorsed by the label (Not Animal) as "a collection of songs our label likes"—what can I say, it appeals to me. My expectations are properly adjusted, but I am a little curious.
The Little Ones, Morning Tide (Oct. 7)
The Little Ones' EP from earlier this year, Terry Tales and Fallen Gates, was good, though in truth it didn't really stick. If only because I so loved their first EP, I'm inclined to give them another shot. I know these guys are capable of a great pop record. We'll see if this is it or not.
The Spinto Band, Moonwink (Oct. 7)
The Spinto Band were kind of like my Dr. Dog of two years ago—a totally straightforward indie rock band that I enjoyed probably more than they deserved. Mostly that was due to "Oh Mandy," one of the most perfectly executed pop songs of the last few years. The rest of Nice and Nicely Done didn't really measure up to that song, but I've held out hope that it was a sign of where they were going. "Pumpkins & Paisely" doesn't exactly bear that out, but hey, if there's even one more of the level of "Oh Mandy," then the record will be worth it.
Secret Machines, s/t (Oct. 14)
I felt like some kind of junior high outcast in 2006, when everyone else was slobbering over TV on the Radio's mess of a record Return to Cookie Mountain and I was in the corner obsessing over Secret Machines' Ten Silver Drops. That album didn't get much critical praise. Since then, their guitarist quit and the band parted ways with their label. So, a lot of question marks surround their self-titled third album. Will they return to the more experimental structures of Now Here is Nowhere? How will a new guitarist replace Brandon Curtis' unique style? All I've heard thus far is "Atomic Heels," which is shiiiiiiiiity. Like, really disappointing. I do feel a certain kind of stubborn loyalty to the band, enough that I'll probably pick up the album.
Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping (Oct. 21)
A lot of people thought Hissing Fauna was an ascension to the next level for Of Montreal. I thought it was a mixed bag, a noble effort but ultimately an ambitious failure. Ambition is no bad habit though. I do think Kevin Barnes is capable of a masterpiece. Hopefully Skeletal Lamping is it.
School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms (Oct. 28)
Speaking of Brandon Curtis leaving Secret Machines, here's his new band. Based on this, the one song I've heard, School of Seven Bells at least seems to be more interesting than the current incarnation of Secret Machines. I'm not expecting a life changing album in Alpinisms, but I am curious.
Beyond October, nothing much is really ringing my bell. How about you? What's on your radar? What's got you excited?
When you pick up twenty-five albums in three months, it's inevitable that some percentage of them will disappoint, if not outright suck. For me, these six albums let me down, and/or have almost completely evaporated from my memory.
Most disappointing were My Morning Jacket and Pas/Cal, both albums I was looking forward to and had high hopes for. MMJ seemed to get slagged for taking too many risks on Evil Urges, but in fact it was all the risky songs—essentially, the first three or four tracks and the album closer—that succeeded for me; everything in between was boring, trite, and in spots completely insipid. Evil Urges is easily the band's most uneven album to date. As for Pas/Cal, I think I summed it up in my review of the record. In short, they tried way too hard to be interesting, sacrificing nearly all of the enjoyment.
Tied & Tickled Trio's 2007 album Aelita was another record I'd been waiting on for a while. Their previous full-length, 2003's Observing Systems, has proven to have surprising longevity in my rotation. I find the group's seamless blend of electronica and jazz to outdo just about everyone else who I've heard attempt it. So why, after all these years, would they choose to remove all the jazz elements? There are no horns to speak of on Aelita, nor any noticeably acoustic instruments. The joke of the T&TT has always been that they are a septet, not a trio; here, they sound like a solo project. It's a mediocre electronica record.
Beck: I can't say much more than I already have about Modern Guilt. I'll just offer this: I've never counted myself a great fan of his—I like him, but I also don't typically give much of a shit about what he's up to—and I don't even really recall how this album made it into my household. I also don't recall the last time I listened to it. Trying to psyche myself up for his appearance at Hollywood Bowl last week, along with Spoon and MGMT, I put all three bands' albums in a playlist and hit shuffle. Every time something from Modern Guilt came on, I reflexively hit the skip button. (P.S.: his Bowl performance was fairly boring as well.)
Margot & the Nuclear So & So's: based on one outstanding song downloaded years ago, "Skeleton Key," I picked up this album which more often than not doesn't hold up against that track's quality. As I've said before about this record: it's all earnestness, no authenticity.
Finally, Coldplay. To tell the truth I didn't even really care about buying this album, so to call it a disappointment is unfair. Somehow, despite not caring about Coldplay since some time around A Rush of Blood to the Head, I still own all of their records. In Viva la Vida's case, my brilliant wife and I were vacationing in Hawaii, where we'd rented a convertible (for the record: Hawaii is sooo much better with a convertible). But we had no music and our only selection of CDs to choose from came from a slashing-its-music-section Starbucks. Viva la Vida it was. The only real standout is the title track. There are a couple other earworms (notably "Lost!"), but it is otherwise a pretty uninspired album. There were times, driving on the road to Hana, that I found myself wishing I had X+Y instead. So that's saying something.
So we come to "the rest." These are albums that aren't bad; in fact many of them are quite good. They just, for whatever reason, didn't force their way into that part of my brain that compelled me play them over and over and over. Nevertheless I still recommend everything here. Sometimes the albums in this category are slow burners, either melting into a bunch of my playlists or just consistently sneaking their way into rotation.
The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights
Perfect example of albums that I don't really crave in full but am still ingesting song by song through playlists and shuffles: the Flatlanders and Sharon Jones. Back in July I placed both in the "best" category; I haven't changed my feeling on the quality of the albums, but I will admit that their sameness makes me less inclined to keep putting them on. Each album contains maybe four songs that are really, utterly fantastic, and a lot of other songs that are good, solid, but less identifiable.
Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps
Likewise, here are two records that are great, but I find myself listening to them more when I just put on my "Everything by R.E.M." or "Everything by Neil Young" mixes. Until July, Reckoning had the distinction of being the only R.E.M. album I'd yet to hear in full, from beginning to end, despite knowing most of the songs from isolated circumstances and despite R.E.M. being among my favorite bands of all time. I have to admit that I had assumptions about how I'd feel about the record, based in part on how I felt about Murmur and Fables of the Reconstruction; that is, I'm less of a fan of the early stuff, mostly due to how it's produced and how willfully muddled the records are. (That's not to say I don't like it... I just have a pretty firm personal perspective on the band.)
Rust Never Sleeps also boasts/suffers from intentionally poor production: it was recorded as a live album, with the audience subsequently pulled out of the mix. Additionally, the first half of the record is Neil and his acoustic guitar, and the second half Neil and Crazy Horse rocking out. The first half fares a lot better; not only are the songs better, but they handle the production limitations better too. The rockers just aren't that enjoyable to listen to, especially in comparison with the clarity of the epic jams of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, which I can't help but compare it to since I bought that one fairly recently too.
Amon Düül II, Yeti
Like I said on Monday, I'm having a krautrock moment. And I think I'm especially having a krautrock moment because Amon Düül II was so unlike what I expected. There's nothing "motorik" about them; I don't think it would even occur to me to put them in the same genre as Neu! or Can if I were taking the Pepsi Challenge. While not entirely without structure, Yeti is very freeform, and not really influenced by minimalism at all, in the way those other bands are. It's much closer in spirit to psychedelia than what I previously understood krautrock to be. And that's a good thing: it makes me want to seek out more of their records, to hear a few more Can records which I've never gotten to, to finally pick up some Faust (which I just did, yesterday), La Dusseldorf, Harmonia, Cluster, and others. That's not to say that Yeti is a perfect album, though. At nearly seventy minutes, it loses all focus in the last third, mostly due to the eighteen-minute title track, an improvised jam with occasional howling vocals. Like any improvised exercise by any band with aspirations toward the epic, the song flits between genius and tedium. More reined-in songs, like "Eye Shaking King," are wonderful, though.
Neu!, meanwhile, are the other end of the spectrum. Crisp, spacious, repetitive. I bought Neu! 75 a few months ago—and I liked it—but I like this more. I long had an impression of what Neu! was supposed to sound like, and Neu! 75 wasn't really it; this is. Neu! 2 is on my immediate horizon.
Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy
By now, I've exhausted myself as far as writing about Okkervil River goes. Newsflash: I like this band. Double-newsflash: I like the slow songs less than the fast songs. News analysis: The ratio of slow songs to fast songs on Black Sheep Boy (and the Appendix) is lower than on the later two albums, therefore I enjoy this one somewhat less. That said, "Black" may be the best song the band has ever done. Top two or three, at least.
Spoon, Girls Can Tell
Girls Can Tell was one of two Spoon albums I'd yet to pick up (the other is the recent Telephono reissue). I've heard others describe this as the acme of the band's output. It's a great record, but either it hasn't sunk in enough with me or I've just heard too many other Spoon albums prior to this one for it to feel revelatory. Me, I'll take Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga before this one. Of course, when you're talking Spoon, "better" and "worse" is all a matter of degree. These guys are like peanut butter to me—I'll take 'em any way you wanna give 'em to me; I know they'll be good.
Air France, On Trade Winds
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, Nancy & Lee
Both of these albums, while good, pretty much slipped right past me. I devoted very little time to listening to them, though when I did put them on I enjoyed them. Hey, you pick up the equivalent of a new album every three days, some of those albums are going to get lost in the shuffle. On Trade Winds is just four songs, adding up to less than half an hour; every time I put it on it was over before I started paying attention. I had a few songs from Nancy & Lee via Nancy's greatest hits album and a few stray downloads; from those I was expecting something a little darker—"Some Velvet Morning," for instance, is so creepy good—but a lot of the record is kinda goofy. That's not a bad thing, just not what I was expecting. I think the fact that it didn't match up to what I was expecting explains at least in part why I was less inclined to put it on. It is a good album, though, for what it is.
Later today: the disappointments.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I thought for a second there I was going to start doing these My Listening Hours posts monthly instead of quarterly, since they're so gargantuan. Well, I only managed to get through July before realizing that just wasn't going to work. Aside from it being more work rather than less, I think it also doesn't give the albums proper time to sink in. So, back to quarterly.
I acquired twenty-five albums in the last three months, thanks to the local library, eMusic, and Amoeba. Nine albums were from 2008; three from 2007; four more from the last few years; and nine musical blind spots. A fairly even ratio. If anything really defined the last few months for me, I'd say it was a move toward more instrumental music and a move away, for the time being at least, from all the country and Laurel Canyon-y stuff I've been listening to for most of this year and last. Nine of the albums here are mostly or entirely instrumental. Related, I think I'm re-entering a krautrock phase. I flirted with krautrock back when I was in college—when Tortoise and Stereolab were everywhere and the genre was being namedropped in every zine. But really "flirting" meant getting into Can. I never could find any Neu! records at the time, nor Amon Düül; I was always a little hesitant with Faust for some reason, and I was flat-out unaware of most everything beyond that. Enter emusic in 2008: a lot of this stuff is available there, so I'm restarting the journey down that road. You'll be seeing more of these albums enter my sphere in the future.
But I digress. Come back in a few and I'll begin my rundown of the last three months, starting with my favorite acquisitions.
God, looking down my recent posts list, it's a little sad. Six weeks nothing but those soundtrack posts. And August came and went without a My Listening Hours post, which back in July I said would start coming monthly instead of quarterly. Well, I'm rethinking that. I'm rethinking a lot of things. I think I'm spreading myself too thin, with the many blogs thing (not ready to kill anything yet, though). Related, I think I've fooled myself into thinking only a certain kind of post belongs on pgwp. Well, that's all gonna change, I think. Though the last thing you should ever believe is a blogger making promises. Something between the gargantuan multi-part posts here and the no-thought-required posts at I&A will start happening in these parts, soon. This week maybe. Meantime, here are some of my favorite downloads of the last 30 days. Just press play on the media player below and let the mix run while you go about your important business and/or time-wasting.
For the last couple years I've been doing these My Listening Hours posts every three months, which seemed like a good amount of time to let albums fully digest. But the last round, with twentysomething albums to go over, was far too time-consuming a post. When I saw I'd already picked up nine albums this month—and I subscribed to eMusic, so that number is going to stay consistently high—I decided to try doing this monthly instead. I may still do a quarterly report as well, as some albums may rise or lower in my esteem with time. Usually I break these posts into a week's worth of posts, but let's just get right to it.
(Don't forget that you can use the media player down in the lower left corner—just press play once and all the mp3s on this blog will automatically start playing in a row, like a mixtape.)
In the first six months of the year I only picked up a handful of actual 2008 releases; I think that trend is going to change going forward, if only because it seems like a lot of great albums are slated to come once the fall rolls around. This month, five of my nine purchases were 2008 releases; one from 2007; two from the last few years; and one from 1972 (though not released until the '90s). Here's how things broke down:
Fleet Foxes, s/t
This is definitely the highlight of the month, and as I said before, one of the best of the year. A few songs have diminished slightly since my original review—behind the lush harmonies, “Quiet Houses” lacks substance—but the strong songs are only burrowing further into my brain.
The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights
Both of these albums simultaneously thrive and suffer for the same reason: beginning to end, they’re just about perfectly executed, if wed to a template. For the Flatlanders, it’s rootsy acoustic numbers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s near-warbly vocals and Butch Hancock’s lovely harmonies, and a little singing saw thrown in for good measure; for Jones, it’s classic, throwback soul, with kicking horns, a fantastic rhythm section, and Jones pushing and pulling the Dap-Kings in every direction as a commanding frontwoman should. In both cases, the quality of each individual song is way up there, though they begin to blend together by the middle of the records. A few songs rise above the others as truly outstanding, while the rest are merely… really fucking good.
MGMT, Oracular Spectacular
As is pretty obvious to anyone who reads this blog regularly, in the last couple years my head has been drawn mostly to country, 60s and 70s rock, and new stuff that... sounds like country or 60s and 70s rock. But my brilliant wife isn't exactly traveling down that road with me. She keeps buying/downloading this... what is called, dance music? "Blog house," I heard someone call it recently? Tough Alliance, Hot Chip, Crystal Castles, Air France... it's all pretty good but just not what I'm digging right now. So then MGMT comes along. "Time to Pretend" and "Kids" have been all over the blogs and local radio; I like them both a lot—I think the lyrics to "Time to Pretend" are hilarious and genius (favorite line: "The models will have babies / we'll get a divorce / find some more models / everything must run its course"). But I was really expecting the rest of the album to lag well behind the singles. To my delight, the album is more varied and more interesting than I'd imagined. It's part Bowie, part Flaming Lips; and the ratio of dance beats to rock instrumentation is well balanced. I was surprised to see just how often I wanted to put this album on.
Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy
It took me a long time to get my engine started with Okkervil River. When Black Sheep Boy came out in 2005 it got nothing but raves, but whenever I heard a track from it I thought it was good but not mindblowing. So I never bought the album. After falling in sloppy love with The Stage Names, though, I went back to Black Sheep Boy. Listening to this album has made me realize how much more I like Will Sheff's songs when he goes for the upbeat tracks—"Unless it's Kicks" and "The Plus Ones" from The Stage Names, "The Latest Toughs" and especially "Black" on this album. When Sheff picks up the pace, his songs get into this real driving, full-momentum rhythm. I told my wife I needed to compile an Okkervil River workout mix, which she thought sounded like the most hilarious thing ever—but I made it and it works! Sheff's high-energy songs don't depend on their chorus the way a typical pop song does; they thrive on the lyrics cascading out of his mouth, and that makes for a real ride. As for his slower songs, they're not bad and are often outstanding, but there's something more predictable about the ballads; the rockers feel like rarer animals.
...Or I’d call, some black midnight,
fuck up his new life where they don’t know what he did,
tell his brand-new wife and his second kid.
And I tell you, like before,
You should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours
You want no part of his life anymore.
Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s, The Dust of Retreat
After putting off purchase of this album for two years, I finally decided to pick it up, partly in anticipation of the new Margot album coming out later this year. I downloaded "Skeleton Key" back when this album first came out and was mildly put off by it because of a Gin Blossomy undercurrent to the sound. But two years later I still play that song all the time. Hearing the whole album, my suspicions turned out to be correct: The Dust of Retreat is chock-a-block with mid/late-90s radio rockisms. There are bright spots, but mostly the album is indie MOR; I can see why they got picked up by a major for the next album. I like a lot of the arrangements and melodies here, but Richard Edwards's delivery is all earnestness, no authenticity. Overall this is an album that has 99% of the ingredients I like in a good songwriter-pop record, but it's missing that rare, magical 1% that would really thrill me. I like this enough that I'm curious to hear the new one—and I'll listen to it this year, even!—but I don't feel the urge to return to Dust.
Air France, On Trade Winds
At three songs plus an introduction, On Trade Winds barely counts as a release; it’s less an EP than a maxi-single. The four track pass you right by before you realize you put it on. It’s airy electronica, vaguely (sometimes shamefully) reminding me of my raver moment somewhere around 1996. Anyway, it’s okay. Recommended if you like fellow Swedes the Tough Alliance, whom I was similarly ambivalent about.
Beck, Modern Guilt
My opinion of this album hasn’t really changed since my review. I don’t think poorly of the album, nor do I feel compelled to continue listening to it.
My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges
I have a My Morning Jacket playlist set up in iTunes that collects all my four- and five-star favorites from each of their five albums. Six of the thirteen tracks from Evil Urges made their way into that playlist, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the album. While there are a few really strong points, the overall album becomes a less and less pleasurable listening experience as time goes on.
And that's my month in albums. Come back tomorrow and I'll have ten of my favorite finds on the blogs in the last month.
I'll wrap the week up with some of my favorite songs discovered (or re-discovered, in a couple cases) via rampant downloading in the last three months. As you may know I also began contributing to Star Maker Machine recently, and not only do four of the eleven tracks below come from SMM, but another four come from my fellow contributors' own blogs. Apparently my current tastes are being shaped by an elite group.
All things considered, I've picked up a lot of really great albums so far this year--but few of my favorites were actually released in 2008. Vampire Weekend's debut holds up as a solid release, and I find myself going back to the Ruby Suns' Sea Lion pretty frequently; but the rest of the 2008 albums I've picked up so far aren't really asking me to return to them. Beach House's Devotion is good but has lost some of its appeal with time, and it's too early to tell how I'll feel about the new Shearwater in a few months' time. I'd estimate that there are maybe two albums from 2008 that might make it onto my end-of-the-year list (compared to last year, when half of my favorites of the year had come out by now).
But I remain optimistic for the rest of the year. I've still yet to hear the new My Morning Jacket, which seems to be polarizing a lot of fans and critics; but then again the last one did too upon its release, and I came down firmly on the side of loving it. Meanwhile I've heard murmurings here and there about new albums from Midlake, Andrew Bird, and perhaps a few others, hopefully all by the end of the year (if not, then 2009 will look pretty good). Here are a few releases slated for the next three months that are piquing my interest--anything piquing yours?
Sigur Rós, með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (June 24)
Sigur Rós is a band to whom I feel doggedly loyal for some reason. Agaetus Byrjun hit me at just the right time and in just the right way when it came out nearly a decade ago, and it was enough for me to swear I'd support them for the rest of their careers (I feel similarly about Joe Pernice and Elliott Smith, too). That said, Takk... was good if a little pro forma. I've said in the past that one thing I'd really like to see the band do is simply change their production, if not their approach to songwriting. A really raw, less ethereal treatment could make a standard Sigur Rós track sound utterly new. So far I've heard just one song from the new album, released a couple days ago, but from the sound of it they really do seem to be setting out in a (relatively) new direction. I'm excited to hear the rest.
Pas/Cal, I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura (July 22)
I discovered Pas/Cal by chance many years ago when I was writing for the now-defunct Splendid, and their debut EP turned out to be one of my favorite indie pop albums not only of that year but of the decade so far. Other EPs have since come out though I haven't ever seen physical copies of them. Now word drops that their oft-delayed full-length debut is finally ready for the light of the day, and the lead single has my expectations way up. Screw Vampire Weekend: Pas/Cal might have the indie pop record of the year, if the rest is up to par with the epic prog-pop of "You Were Too Old for Me."
Radio Dept., Clinging to a Scheme (Sept. 10)
I could write the exact same leadoff for the Radio Dept... seriously, I could: I discovered the Radio Dept. by chance many years ago when I was writing for the now-defunct Splendid, and their debut album, Lesser Matters, has turned out to be one of my favorite indie pop albums not only of that year but of the decade so far. Their followup, Pet Grief, took some of the rawness away and went for a more 80s-influenced, almost ambient-pop direction. It was okay but not nearly as good as the debut. The first single from the new album doesn't knock me out, but I expect I'll take a chance on them one more time.
Okkervil River, The Stand-Ins (Sept. 10)
Speaking of best-of-last-year lists, The Stage Names didn't make mine because I was too slow to hear it. It would sit squarely in the top two were I to remake my list today. Hopefully Will Sheff's complementary Stand-Ins will be of equal caliber, so I can feel no guilt should I put this at the top of this year's list. This is currently my most-anticipated release of the year (unless some of the above-mentioned rumored albums get firm release dates).
So how about you? What have been your favorite albums of the year so far? How do you think 2008 rates overall at this point? What upcoming albums have you giddy with excitement?
Peter Morén, The Last Tycoon
My review of this album pretty much says it all. The Last Tycoon is not a bad album, but it’s not a good album either. It is a perfectly mediocre album—3/5 stars from beginning to end, no exceptions. And in a way that’s a more offensive crime than a bad album.
Enon, Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds
I got this album the same day I picked up The Last Tycoon, and I feel more or less the same. Though the music is wildly different—it’s spazzier indie rawk—it’s still pretty straight down the middle in terms of what it’s trying to do. Nothing groundbreaking, nothing essential.
Harry Nilsson, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night
I have so much Harry Nilsson on my iTunes library—thirty-five songs or so—yet I own no proper album. It’s all greatest hits packages and stray mp3s when I come across ’em. As with what I said about Lovin’ Spoonful yesterday, Nilsson is right up there—top of the list, actually—of songwriters I can’t wait to share with my (currently nonexistent) kids. His stuff is just unabashedly happy, even when he’s down. That said, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night was not the first proper album I should’ve picked up. It’s all syrupy standards—Nilsson doing things Sinatra-style, drenched in strings, etc.
Carolyn Hester, s/t
This album is notable for exactly one thing: young Bobby Dylan, new to New York and without a record contract, was invited to play his harmonica on just about every track. That aside (or not), this is a pretty mediocre folk record. Lots of standards (“I’ll Fly Away,” “Dink’s Song”) done in a not particularly interesting, sometimes quite irritating, way.
Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
I hate to be "that guy," but what do people see in Bon Iver? His songwriting skills are average—he makes me wish I was listening to Matt Pond PA instead, which is kind of a strange thing to wish for—and his vocals are just irritatingly bad. He does the same schtick that TV on the Radio does, which is to overlay really grating falsetto harmonies over the vocals. Easily the worst album I've picked up all year. Well, maybe neck and neck with Carolyn Hester, but at least she's got Bob Fucking Dylan on her record.
With so many albums purchased in a short amount of time, you can imagine that some albums spent less time in my iPod than others. These are the albums—some quite good, others mediocre—that for whatever reason simply didn't latch onto me all the way. As for the worst of the bunch, come back a little later today and I'll run down that list too.
The Fiery Furnaces, Widow City
Kim Gordon put it pretty well when she was asked for her current playlist by the New York Times a couple weeks ago:
“Widow City” feels like a song cycle, the way some things repeat themselves. One song seems to lead to the next, almost like an opera.... This record is incessant, it’s so wordy and dense, it wakes you up. It’s almost annoying and irritating to listen to, but it’s also compelling. The lyrics seem kind of obsessive. It pulls you along with it. The lyrics are fragments of meaning that you could maybe relate to, but I don’t mind that I don’t know what the heck she’s talking about. The lyrics are very filmic. There are images that don’t make sense. It’s kind of an act of suspended disbelief listening to it...
Really, there's not a whole lot else to say. Okay, I'll say this: I think Widow City is bordering on totally brilliant. I would say I was obsessive about this record except for the fact that it is (intentionally) a little irritating and a lot difficult. It's not an easy listen. I actually have interior arguments with myself about whether or not I want to put it on: "I can't get 'Philadelphia Grand Jury' or 'Clear Signal from Cairo' out of my head! I should put this album on!" "Jesus, don't put this album on. It is exhausting; it doesn't know if it wants to sit or stand." I've only had the album for a couple weeks now; perhaps if I'd owned it longer it would have made into yesterday's batch of albums. It's difficult for me to tell, at the moment, whether I'll keep coming back to this album or whether, ultimately, I'll never go back to it again.
The Little Ones, Terry Tales & Fallen Gates
I like this album—I swear!—though I do wish it were just a hair better. I still eagerly look forward to the full-length, to be released some time this summer, supposedly. I am confidently optimistic that their best tunes are still ahead of them—hopefully just a month or two ahead of them.
The Byrds, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde
The Byrds are probably my #1 favorite pre-1980s band. (Getting into all-time rankings, off the top of my head, they gotta start wrestling with R.E.M. at the very least.) They’re a relatively new discovery for me—my brilliant wife turned me onto Younger than Yesterday about four years ago—but in the last couple years I’ve slowly been picking up their albums in chronological order. Hence last year you've seen me going on about The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Now I’m officially out of the original-lineup territory. Dr. Byrds was the first album for which Roger McGuinn assembled an entirely new band—and rather hastily, I might add. Their resulting first outing is… okay. The title of the album refers to constant shifting between the country direction they’d been heading in over the last two albums and a more psychedelic sound closer in intent to Fifth Dimension. The genre-jumping isn’t too jarring—that’s not the flaw. It’s just not that special. I hear it gets better (then worse). Untitled is next on the list, as soon as I see it used at Amoeba.
So, given what I just said above, you can imagine I was in line for the new R.E.M. My expectations were in check, though. I’d heard “Supernatural Superserious” and thought it was okay but not amazing. It’s difficult to talk about a new R.E.M. album without addressing the albatross that is everything post-Bill Berry, so just for the record: I like most of the post-Berry stuff just fine. Sure, Around the Sun was 90% turd, but Up and Reveal—especially Reveal—get a huge bum rap. So my approach to a new R.E.M. is not “will they ever halt their downward slide?” but rather “I hope their one and only crap album was just an aberration.”
That said, Accelerate. It’s perfectly solid and totally mediocre. I won’t skip the songs when they come up on shuffle—does that count for anything? It gets HUGE props for avoiding anything resembling “The Outsiders,” the trainwreck of a collaboration with Q-Tip from the last album which by the way was the lowest point in the band’s history. At the same time, there’s nothing on this album that is better than “The Ascent of Man,” which was the high point of Around the Sun. Points for rocking, but I’m not convinced they mean it. The suit doesn’t quite fit like it used to.
The Beau Brummels, Triangle and Bradley’s Barn
The Beau Brummels were a group of also-rans from the the 60s California scene. Perhaps if they'd moved south from San Francisco to Laurel Canyon they might have had a little more success. Their music fits in well with that scene—a mixture of rock, folk, and country (the latter more apparent on Bradley's Barn than on Triangle). Sal Valentino's voice is the defining trait of the band's sound; it's a deep voice with a natural vibrato (think a more masculine Devandra Banhart), up front in the mix and seldom layered with any harmonies. It's a unique voice but iit can also become a little wearying after a full album. I'm finding that I like the BBs most when I hear single tracks pop up on shuffle, rather than listening to ten in a row.
Chris Bell, I Am the Cosmos
When I became enamored with Big Star’s #1 Record, I had no idea just how much of that was due to Chris Bell. I guess I just didn’t get how much of a presence he was on the album (it doesn’t help that his and Alex Chilton’s voices are not that distinct from each other). Thankfully a few of you commenters steered me to Bell’s one and only solo album. Any Big Star fans out there who, like me, love #1 Record but are cooler on Radio City and Third/Sister Lover, seek this one out. It’s by no means a perfect record—there’s a lot of religiosity that puts me off, and some of the 70s-isms just don’t work—but when Bell goes soft, as on “You and Your Sister,” it’s like returning to the best ballads of Big Star’s debut. Over the long haul—I’ve had the album for almost three months now—I don’t feel drawn to keep putting it on; but I’ve made a little Fantasy Big Star album, made up of my favorite tracks from this, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lover, which does a good job of simulating the ideal follow-up to #1 Record.
Bob Lind, Since There Were Circles
I came across this album via a post by Brendan at The Rising Storm, where I fell in love with the country-inflected "Loser." Lind's voice occupies similar territory as Neil Diamond or Lee Hazelwood—which I'm inclined to describe as "sandpapery." Lind isn't as creepy as Hazelwood or as robust as Diamond, though. He's got a little more ache in his delivery. The majority of this album is solid if not spectacular, with both "Loser" and the title track being the biggest standouts. I get a real kick out the chorus to the latter: "How long have I loved you? Since there were circles." Wow. That's a really long time. In all seriousness, though, I think the song has a real gravity to it. His love is not lighthearted, nor is it stalkerish; he's simply not joking around.
Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking
This was my first Fairport Convention album, though they've been on my radar for quite a long time. I'd been advised in the past to begin with Liege & Leaf, but darn it if the library didn't have that one. So Unhalfbricking it had to be. No matter: I quite like the album, or half of it at least. To some degree it's still sinking in with me; I don't feel like I've fully digested it yet, despite I-don't-know-how-many listens. The freer, looser material resonates with me a lot more than the Ye Olde Traditional stuff. Hence I think "A Sailor's Life," with its rustling rhythms in the beginning morphing into a guitar/violin jam are fantastic, while the more traditional folk style of "Cajun Woman" is, for me, less compelling.
The Tough Alliance, A New Chance
Not a bad record, though a little repetitive (and cheesy as all get out). I wish the singer had a little more range or knew a few more melodies, as the tracks get harder and harder to differentiate as the album goes on. That said, not a bad workout record, though it's really just not where my head is at right now. Can you tell I'm not the one in the family that picked this album up? I'm ambivalent.
Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs
Just looking at Saturday's post you can probably guess that this is my favorite purchase of the season (not to mention favorite of the year). I've written about this album's effect on me already, so I'll just add that, happily, I think it is so good that it will probably rise above any sort of personal connection to this period of my life. I hope so, at least. Meanwhile, I read Bird's posts at Measure for Measure with great anticipation for his new album, whenever it may be finished.
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
Five years ago I had zero Neil Young albums in my collection; now I have five. Harvest is still my favorite—I just love the mood of that album—but this one is a strong contender for the top spot, as Young gets a lot louder and a lot jammier. Epics like "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down by the River" are mindblowing, while the shorter songs like "Round and Round" and the title track have undeniable hooks. This album is outstanding from start to finish.
The Lovin' Spoonful, Anthology
The Lovin' Spoonful are one of those bands I didn't know I'd been listening to for pretty much my whole life. I never connected the band to their many, many hits ("Do You Believe in Magic," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," "Summer in the City," and a few others), so it wasn't the obvious songs that finally drew me to them. It was Paul's post at Setting the Woods on Fire on the roots of country-rock, which included "Nashville Cats." I fell in love! A few weeks later I was at the library and saw this greatest hits collection, at which point I realized just how many of their songs I already knew. The collection bounces around between their British Invasion-inspired tunes and their more explicit forays into country. It's the latter songs I respond to the most.
There are a handful of songwriters or bands that fall into a special category for me—i.e., songs my imaginary toddlers will love. I'd say at least half of this collection, if not the whole darned thing, fits in nicely. (Also in this category: Harry Nilsson, a lot of Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel, a few bossa nova tracks and country songs, and probably a bunch others... perhaps a post for another time.)
Les Paul & Mary Ford: Best of the Capitol Masters
Acquired at the library on the same day as the Lovin' Spoonful, I could say a lot of the same things about this wonderful collection, which also fits into my imaginary toddler playlist. Mary Ford's voice (is she overdubbing her own harmonies? I think so) is just so lovely, and I honestly cannot figure out how Les Paul's fingers can dance across the fretboard; his style is absolutely unique and I've never heard anyone after cop his sound.
Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces
Last year, thanks to Imperial Bedroom, I went from liking Elvis Costello to flat-out loving him. So I've begun filling in the holes in my collection, trying to move chronologically through his ouerve at least until I get to the spotty part of his career. Which brings me to his third album, Armed Forces. I can see the progression between the first two albums, which were buoyed at least in part by a lot of sheer attitude, and Imperial Bedroom, which is wall-to-wall perfectly executed pop songwriting. The songwriting on the first half of Armed Forces is pretty much right up there with Imperial Bedroom: "Accidents Will Happen," "Senior Service," and "Oliver's Army" are all fantastic. Somewhere around the middle things falter a little; I'm not too fond of "Goon Squad," and everything after that falls a little flat for me. Not bad by any means, just not to the highest caliber Costello is capable of. (And for the record, while I like "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," it's never been one of my favorites.)
Philip Glass, Glassworks
I've been flirting with contemporary composers for years now, in a very shallow way: bought Koyaanisqatsi some time in college, picked up Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians five or six years ago, bought a box set of early electronica forbears (which includes the likes of Cage, Young, Stockhausen, and others), and then a few months ago got Terry Riley's In C for a whole dollar. So I don't profess to have anything more than a passing knowledge of the genre, as evidenced by my just now getting Glassworks, which is probably a (rightly) obvious place to start. It's really a fantastic collection of pieces, mostly for piano. Unlike the other material I already own, which is either hour-long works asking you to immerse yourself and listen or brief, literally experimental exercises, Glassworks is short and easily digestible. That's not the best endorsement, but what I mean is that it really does feel like a kind of gateway drug, moreso than the other discs I've tried (and liked) in the past. So, a question for those of you more schooled than I: where to next? Other works by these composers? Other composers altogether? Who are some of your favorites?
The lone 2008 release to make it into my favorites this time around. And at first I really didn't think it would. Rook requires some patience, to say the least. In terms of songwriting, performance, and production, it is pretty much flawless. It feels epic, and composed, despite running under forty minutes altogether—which in itself is an accomplishment, in an age new releases that include "bonus tracks" on already overlong albums (off the top of my head: Fiery Furnaces, TV on the Radio).
So why did I hesitate, at first, in liking Rook? The voice. Jonathan Meiburg, who is the singer, songwriter, and overall creative force behind Shearwater, has a very pretty, obviously trained vocal delivery. His timbre, tone, and projection are all very practiced, sometimes a little mannered and often careening into the dramatique. At one point during "Home Life" I halfway expect Meiburg to don a little white mask and sing about the music of the night. It's a little offputting at first, in other words. But! Every other element of Rook is outstanding, so you sort of keep going back to it despite the oily bits that make you cringe a little. And after a few more listens Meiburg's vocals stick out less and less, until finally everything clicks. (It took me probably five listens before I realized that the vast majority of my least favorite vocal parts were all in one song—again, "Home Life.") In the end, Rook really works, and it's becoming one of my favorite releases of the year so far (though, I admit, the playing field is not that crowded at the moment--more on that later this week). It's also worth emphasizing that Rook works best as an album; tweezing a single track out from the pack doesn't exactly get across how fluidly the songs work together. The sum is most certainly greater than its parts. Nevertheless:
The United States of America, s/t
I've long been on the hunt for this album, ever since hearing reference to them in regards to Broadcast many years back. In fact it seems like I only hear about the United States of America when they're being namechecked in a Broadcast review—which is kind of a shame because this record is a lot more varied than those mentions would let on. Only the (excellent) first song, "The American Metaphysical Circus," sounds like a precursor to Broadcast. The rest is a simply outstanding psychedelic album full of cacophonous overlapping sounds, otherworldly production, and not a little sense of humor, as on "I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar." This record is way, way ahead of its time.
Tomorrow, the rest (and the worst).
It's that time again: this week I'll be running down in depth, including a boatload of mp3s, everything I've picked up in the last three months. And I gotta say, this week couldn't come soon enough. Somewhere around mid-May I started preparing for these posts when I saw just how many albums I was acquiring this season... 23. That's a lot. In fact, it was closer to 30. I also picked up two albums I once owned but haven't had for a long time (but since they're not new to me, they don't count for this post); two albums brought home from the library that were new to me, but I frankly just haven't had the time nor inclination to listen to (for the record: a Yardbirds greatest hits and Thom Yorke's solo album); and another five discs, again from the library, comprising incomplete box sets (3/4 of a doo wop box set and 2/4 of a 1960s-70s reggae set). I've techinically listened to all of this, but most of it has come up on shuffle; I haven't dedicated any sort of thoughtful time to the stuff (though I should mention that the reggae stuff is outstanding).
At any rate, here's the preamble to all I've picked up since the end of March: 23 albums! That's the most I've ever picked up in one three-month period since starting these quarterly posts. Here is the breakdown: Five albums from 2008; three from 2007; one from 2005; and fourteen from the 1950s-70s. In general, a pretty great haul. There are at least three, maybe four albums here that I'll continue to come back to for years, and the majority of the rest are the kind of albums you like to have populating your iTunes library: good, solid albums that will be welcome listens when the right mood strikes. (And to be completely honest, probably another two or three albums I could just as soon trash altogether.)
Come back a little later today and I'll begin breaking things down in detail, starting in a couple hours with the best of the bunch. Tomorrow, the rest (and the worst). Wednesday I'll take a look at my listening year so far and a look forward to what's coming out in the next few months. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for a bonus post or two of miscelleneous outstanding mp3s I've snagged from the blogs in the last three months too. Like I said, a boatload of music this week.
Now may be a good time to remind those of you reading this via rss feeds that I have a handy dandy media player on this blog, so you can simply come by any time, press play, and cycle through my many offerings while you read, as if you were playing my mixtape on your stereo.
Every album I listened to, week by week, for the last three months. Scroll over the album cover if you want to know the artist and album title.
Come back Monday: the next installment of My Listening Hours commences.
Here's the final batch of songs I've been enjoying in the last few months that didn't come from full-length purchases. Hope you've been enjoying this week's mp3 binge.
More songs I've discovered since January that have been sticking. Have a ball. All of these songs, except for the last one, come once again courtesy my two favorite mp3 blogs (if you haven't guessed yet): The Rising Storm and Setting the Woods on Fire.
There are six albums on the horizon that have perked up my ears, and four of them have me marking my calendar for essential trips to the record store. Have a look at this list and tell me what you're looking forward to.
R.E.M., Accelerate (4/1)
R.E.M. fans will forever debate which was the best era for the band and where it all went wrong. I think everyone pinpoints it differently. Me, I give them more credit than most: R.E.M. has exactly one bad album, and it’s Around the Sun. That means I have a tremendous amount of good will set aside for the band. “Supernatural Superserious” doesn’t bowl me over on its own but it does give me hope.
Little Ones, Terry Tales & Fallen Gates EP (4/8)
April 8 is a big release date for indie rock—Tapes n Tapes, Breeders, Gnarles Barkley, Nick Cave, Clinic, Man Man, and Colin Meloy—but I can’t say I’m stoked on any of it. The only album I am excited about is a new EP from the Little Ones. When I picked up their Sing Song EP early last year, I thought it was solid if nothing new. Boy, my opinions have changed since then. Those seven songs were stuck on repeat in my house for months on end. Seeing them live only enhanced my feelings—honestly I have never in my life seen a happier band on stage before. Those guys had stupid grins on their faces from beginning to end, I walked out of that show saying to my wife “I hope that never changes for them.” This EP—and the new full length, slated for the summer—are among my most-anticipated releases for the year.
Portishead, Third (4/29)
I’m tempted by the hype here. I loved Dummy when I was in college in the late-90s, and I thought their second album was pretty good but not great. I haven’t listened to either in at least five years, maybe longer. But everyone who’s heard the leak seems to be blown away by it. I’m keeping my ears open.
Mates of State, Re-Arrange Us (5/20)
Bring it Back just sorta fell into my house about a year ago, and it took me probably four or five months to even care enough to try it out—so convinced was I that this was nothing more than straightforward indie rock (ho-hum). Okay, it kinda more or less was. And occasionally Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel weren't quite as on the money as they thought they were when it came to harmonizing. But! I just couldn't deny the pop hooks. Every song is catchy as all get-out and just fun to sing along with, occasionally flat harmonies be damned.
The Notwist, The Devil, You + Me (early June)
Finally, finally, finally! I flipped out for Neon Golden when it came out six freakin’ years ago. I still put it on now and again, and at least some of these guys are also in the Tied & Tickled Trio, whom I think I love even more. That said, the new track, "Good Lies," doesn’t thrill me on its own. There’s something kinda dated about it. Nevertheless I’ll be picking this one up as soon as it hits the store.
Spiritualized, Songs in A & E (6/3)
Ever since picking up Lazer-Guided Melodies a few months back, I’ve been hovering around the Spiritualized used bin each time I go to Amoeba, on the lookout for commenter-recommended Pure Phase or the canonical classic Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space. No such luck, though the bin is filled with post-Ladies & Gents albums. Perhaps not a good sign. I likely won’t buy this album right away because I’m attracted to the idea of taking this band in roughly chronological order. But we’ll see if that holds up once the mp3s make their way out.
My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (6/10)
I was ready to write My Morning Jacket off after It Still Moves, which I found too jammy and not terribly engaging. But 2005’s Z brought the band back into my good graces. In fact, I think Z is the best album the band has done to date—a claim that sets my brilliant wife on edge, due to her steadfast allegiance to their outstanding first album, The Tennessee Fire. Of everything listed here, Evil Urges has the most potential to blow me away and the most potential to totally disappoint me. I’ve been both places with MMJ so I’m trying to manage my expectations and have been ignoring most pre-release hype posts.
And you? What's coming down the pike that's got you excited?
Five more miscellaneous mp3s I've discovered in the last few months; enjoy.