Albums Of The Year; 2009

There were a ton of amazing records released this year, and as you’ll see in a minute, most of them were released by Swedish bands (no, wait), I mean Canadians (uh, what?), let me rephrase that; oh just read…

25. Volcano Choir – Unmap (Jagjaguwar; September 22nd)

volcano-choir-unmapBon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and the guys from math rock outfit Collections Of Colonies Of Bees make their debut record; and it’s a fractured take on music, experimenting with sound and structure until the song itself doesn’t so much resemble an actual song as it does a collage of noise and textures. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not experimental in the “I can’t listen to this nonsense” way, it’s experimental in that it seeks to achieve musical harmony without traditional or conventional instruments. In fact, the studio itself is the main instrument on Unmap– that also doesn’t mean you won’t hear Vernon‘s trademark falsetto (it’s there in most of the songs); it just doesn’t dominate the landscape like it does with his day job. And there ain’t a whole lotta guitars on this records either; there’s an mbira, some auto-tuned vocals (that I hate to say really work nicely here) and more cuts and edits with a certain super-expensive premium music software program that I should hate, but strangely have endeared themselves to my ears far too often these past few months.

Key tracks: Island, IS; Husks And Shells, Still, Seeplymouth

24. Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms (Lefse Records; October 13th)

neon_indian-psychic_chasmsDo you miss your old Sega Master System? Cuz I miss mine; I was thinking about buying one off eBay so I can play Out Run and Alien Syndrome and Alex Kidd In Miracle World. See, this album by Alan Palomo (the one-man 8-bit army behind Neon Indian) has got me jonesing something fierce for my old video games. We weren’t as cool as the Nintendo kids, we got Sega for Christmas in 1986, while all of our friends were playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros., we had Hang On and Safari Hunt (the bastard cousin of Duck Hunt). Our friends would come over to play and treat the Sega as a leper, refusing to play or even look at it. That’s what this album reminds me of; the soundtrack to a childhood spent down my basement trying to get to the next level of Black Belt.

Key tracks: Deadbeat Summer, I Should Have Taken Acid With You, 6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know), Terminally Chill

23. Japandroids – Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar Records; April 28th)

japandroids-post-nothingApparently no one plays bass anymore. That ain’t a bad thing- just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Everyone follows the bass” and I immediately blurted out (to no one in particular) “I fucking hate bass players”. Yeah, too bad everyone that starts a band nowadays either wants to be the drummer or guitar player. Later, bass. Vancouver garage duo Japandroids don’t need one anyway, their “heavy-on-the-toms-and-cymbals” sound fills the air with what could be some low-end notes, but a bass would really slow these guys down. They both share singing duties, trading back and forth or going at it together. If there’s one thing the Pacific Northwest can do is rock the shit out of a garage. Without a slow, plodding bass-playing jerk fucking them up. I fucking hate bass players.

Key tracks: Young Hearts Spark Fire, The Boys Are Leaving Town, Wet Hair, Rockers East Vancouver

22. Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake (The Leaf Label; April 13th)

wildbirdsThese Swedes rely heavily on larger-than-life vocals from Mariam Wallentin and drum circle beats from her husband Andreas Werliin. Now Bjork would be too obvious (because of Sweden’s proximity to Iceland) and I’m hearing something else in there as well; but it’s really hard to describe in the context of direct influences. This is pretty unclassifiable as far as a genre is concerned; they won the award for the Best Swedish Jazz Act of ‘08- but it’s not quite “jazz” as much as it’s a freak-out, albeit a controlled one. There’s really no “instruments” besides drums, vocals and occasional ambient synth washes or a few notes here and there; oh, and drums. Did I say drums? Every song is a workout, there’s an amazing amount of range in Wallentin’s voice (sometimes it’s bare, other times she’s multi-tracked over herself, I’m hearing Siouxsie, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush) and the timbre of the drums go from warm to bright and open to resonant. Wildbirds & Peacedrums The Snake is one of the “dark horse” records of the year- coming from out of nowhere. I’m glad people are making music like this.

Key tracks: There Is No Light, Liar Lion, Island, Chain Of Steel

21. The Rest – Everyone All At Once (Auteur Recordings; April 21st)

The-Rest_fullBig, anthemic songs wrapped in heavily orchestrated strings- I’m hearing great hooks here; the vocals recall both the yelpings of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth and the plaintiveness of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch; the music is akin to Arcade Fire’s brand of baroque pop with a dash of The National’s shadowy melancholia thrown in for good measure- but it doesn’t do this band justice by lumping them into those easy comparisons. Showcasing a vast array of styles, Everyone All At Once is exactly that- you get everything all at once. Retreating to the faraway northern woods of Ontario to record this record, this band has crafted a genuine masterpiece- fully realized, beautifully crafted and dynamic in scope; The Rest should be the next big band to come from The Great White North, and if they aren’t on critic’s “year-end/best-of ‘09” lists I’m formally lodging a criminal investigation to as why they aren’t.

Key tracks: Modern Time Travel (necessities), Walk On Water (auspicious beginnings), Apples & Allergies, The Lady Vanishes

20. DM Stith – Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty Records; March 10th)

dmstithSince there isn’t a track on the record called Heavy Ghost, I’ll just have to say that the name captures the feel of the record- it’s somber, haunting and reflective. Stith’s vocals are lilting and ethereal, the sparse guitars and reverb-drenched pianos are at times juxtaposed by strange percussion (or none at all); it’s a charming and creepy psychedelic folk album that at times abandons what could be considered “western popular music structure”. DM Stith creates a creepy and fragile (yet insanely interesting and charming) alternate reality within this record- it’s a haunting reminder that some of our waking hours are inhabited by unseen forces that can be a burden; or we can acknowledge them and try to make peace.

Key tracks: Thanksgiving Moon, Pity Dance, Braid Of Voices, Isaac’s Song

19. DOOM – Born Like This (Lex Records; March 24th)

doombornxMF, Metal Face, Metal Fingers, Viktor Vaughn, Supervillain, King Geedorah. Whatever name Daniel Dumille wants to use, he creates a new persona just like that- and here on Born Like This, he uses all the top producers; Jake One and Madlib as well as a few unreleased beats from J Dilla (who is still the best producer in the game, three years after his passing). It never sounds recycled or stale- obviously the work of this gang of hard working crate-diggers is beyond anything anyone else is doing and the samples are getting more obscure. Should I also mention guest rhymers like Raekwon (rhyming over the slowed-down version of ESG‘s UFO) and Ghostface (appearing here as his Tony Starks character) straight slay the mic on their tracks; but they don’t steal the spotlight from DOOM– it’s his record and it’s full of verbal acrobatics.

Key tracks: Microwave Mayo, Yessir! (ft. Raekwon), Angelz (ft. Tony Starks), Gazillion Ear

18. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino Records; June 9th)

bitte-orcaAccessible? You bet- Dave Longstreth‘s music is usually a workout; it can be both hard to listen to and lyrically obtuse (but not even a little bit on Bitte Orca). This is more of a group effort and Dirty Projectors’ sound is rounded out by the lovely voices of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman; as if their David Byrne-collaboration wasn’t a precursor to how awesome their music was about to sound; when this album leaked the internets basically shit themselves in anticipation, by the time the album hit the shelves the reviews were pouring in with accolades. Crafted with care, it’s artier components aren’t that much of a stretch (try listening to Slaves’ Graves & Ballads or the New Attitude EP if you want to be challenged), conceptually it follows the design laid out by Longstreth in previous releases- brown finches, sleepwalking through life, post-9/11 paranoia, war, etc. There’s music for stupid people and then there’s music for thinkers. Guess which one this is…

Key Tracks: Stillness Is The Move, No Intention, Cannibal Resource, Temecula Sunrise

17. Dark Was The Night – A Red Hot Compilation (4AD Records; February 16th)

dark-was-the-nightYou know; humanity’s defining feature, the one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope for this seemingly doomed world is the fact that when faced with adversity, we humans have a remarkable knack for banding together and breaking down our self-imposed barriers- so at a glance the musical pairings on this record would suggest the gap between artistic differences can be easily bridged. Some not so unexpected; Dirty Projectors have culled a huge influence from David Byrne’s catalog so I can totally hear how the album’s opener Knotty Pine works, Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues (teaming up for a cover of Amazing Grace) have toured together, Leslie Feist’s collaboration with Ben Gibbard is well matched (both write really nice three-minute pop gems) and Conor Oberst paired with Gillian Welch is no stretch; two insurgent country mainstays sharing a track seems natural enough. What’s hard to believe that some of these songs would be considered “throw away” tracks, not making it on to these bands’ albums; The National, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Beirut all have given excellent songs. The centerpiece of the album (placed at the end of the first disc) is Sufjan Stevens‘ cover of CastanetsYou Are The Blood, turning it into a sprawling and strange epic, an electro-classical magnum opus with piano breaks and brass sections over club-banger beats- it’s as if he’s trying to convey the entire scope of his musical output in ten minutes and fourteen seconds, joining the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit with his Seven Swans-era and those states-themed concept albums. Canadian hip-hopper Buck 65 remixes this track on the second disc, adding his two cents in the way of furiously spit verses.

Key tracks: Tightrope (Yeasayer), Sleepless (The Decemberists), Knotty Pine (Dirty Projectors + David Byrne), You Are The Blood (Sufjan Stevens)

16. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2 Records; May 26th)

wolfgangamadeusphoenixI wanted to hate this so bad. I knew what it was (electro-synth pop/rock), knew who made it (the French) and have read so much hype on this band before the album was even out that I was rolling my eyes every time I saw their damn name. Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix every-fucking-where. You know something, it’s a really great record. Songs like 1901, Lisztomania and the album’s closer Armistice are a few of this year’s better tracks, and they’re all on one record. It’s like that damned MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular– initially I hated its freaking guts, but it kept polluting my mindscape until one day I let my guard down and BAM! I got it. And I get this- it’s supposed to be fun, dancy keyboards-and-guitars pop for the iPod generation. That’s exactly what it is. Can’t fight that…

Key tracks: 1901, Lisztomania, Armistice, Fences

15. jj – n°2 (Secretly Yours; July 1st)

jjn02This album has a stickiness factor of nine; once you get these songs in you you’ll be humming them to yourself throughout the day. They seamlessly jump from genre to genre; at once they’re dipping down low into downtempo chillout trip-hop jams next to African-influenced sing-alongs up against tropicalia beach tracks then on to an acoustic, folky number and back again… Are these kids for real? Oh, they’re Swedish, so they were born with the “Scandanavian pop melody gene” inherited from ABBA and heard in Jens Lekman, The Knife, et al. I knew they were too good to be true.

Key tracks: Ecstasy, Things Will Never Be The Same Again, Are You Still In Valida?, My Love

14. Taken By Trees – East Of Eden (Rough Trade; September 8th)

Taken-By-Trees-East-of-EdenMy god, this is a beautiful record- another Swede (damn they’re talented) named Victoria Bergsman (who you may remember as the female voice from Peter Bjorn & John‘s ubiquitous song Young Folks) made one of the surprise albums of the year by traveling to Pakistan to record with local musicians; let’s just say the effect is stunning. Perfect pop sensibilities crossed with Eastern instrumentation infused with polyrhythmic drumming and Sufi vocalizations from Sain Muhammad Ali. There’s a theme running through East Of Eden; of ancient harmonies given current twists- Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox stops by to lend his ethereal lilt to a track, as well as give his blessing to a cover version of one of his band’s songs. In short; a Swedish singer doing Beach Boys harmonies over Middle Eastern music.

Key tracks: Watch The Waves, My Boys, To Lose Someone, Anna

13. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino Records; January 20th)

merriweatherEnvision The Flaming Lips having an orgy with The Shins on really strong microdot while channeling Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s tape-loop manipulations, all the while conjuring up a seance with Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds harmonies; that’s a pretty close idea to what Animal Collective has done on Merriweather Post Pavilion. And the artwork is pretty rad; stare at it long enough and you’ll get the sensation of movement. Maybe you can still see it with your eyes closed. Maybe, you can get yourself into that “tunnel” and really trip out. Who out there knows what I’m talking about? Indubitably the Collective’s Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist have been inside that lysergically-induced mind warp and this record will probably serve as some sort of spirit guide for a new generation of chemically experimental kids, much like Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s did thirty-plus years ago.

Key tracks: My Girls, Brother Sport, In The Flowers, Summertime Clothes

12. The Love Language – The Love Language (Bladen County Records; February 10th)

thelovelangWhere’s this band been hiding all my life? Ahh, North Carolina, Raleigh to be exact. Okay, next question: how do you get that delicious reverb coating on your songs? This whole record has that wonderfully lo-fi Tascam four-track feel to it (or could be Fostex) and the aesthetic works to great avail; the songs are so wonderfully melodic they could’ve been recorded underwater and I’d still get the point. The back story is also too good to ignore; lead singer/main songwriter Stuart McLamb gets kicked out of previous band, breaks up with abusive girlfriend, drinks a lot, ends up in an overnight holding cell, moves in with parents, sobers up and writes/records this album. I swear, Hollywood writes shit like this; but it’s too good to not believe- and I for one am a believer. Another huge surprise album for me in a year filled with nice surprises.

Key tracks: Lalita, Sparxxx, Two Rabbits, Stars

11. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Discos; September 15th)

ashes_grammarAshes Grammar is a 63-minute icicle of ambient-electro-shoegaze-dream pop from the Philadelphia sextet known as A Sunny Day In Glasgow (they got the name from a former band member who spent some time in the lovely Scottish city); there are hints of murky psychedelia, club/dance beats half-buried under said murk and noisy passages strung all throughout the journey here- think My Bloody Valentine crossed with Stereolab produced by Brian Eno. It’s got some of the most gorgeous music I’ve heard this year, there are little bits of the record where it drags at times but if you can just sit through those few awkward minutes, you’re rewarded with some true aural beauty, time and time again.

Key tracks: Close Chorus, Shy, Curse Words, Failure

Stay tuned for albums #10 to #1, coming tomorrow!

St. Vincent – Actor

St. Vincent – Actor (4AD Records; released May 5th, 2009)actor

I first learned of Annie Clark (who is the singular member of St. Vincent) about a week before I was going to see The National back in 2007, she as the supporting act. Of course I downloaded her album and quickly tried to immerse myself in her work, not wanting to be ignorant of her music. That album (Marry Me) quickly gained plays and made its way up my Last.fm chart, garnering her a #43 spot on my Top 50 list of ’07. I called her Quirky without being weird, she’s like (a) Regina Spektor crossed with a happier version of Fiona Apple…” Looking back at that quote, it does her absolutely no justice; she’s a way more talented musician than both of them combined.

Her maturation as a musician goes something like this: attends Berklee College of Music to joining Sufjan Steven‘s touring band to playing guitar with The Polyphonic Spree to releasing Marry Me in 2007 to critical acclaim, opening shows for Arcade Fire, Xiu Xiu, Television, Midlake, John Vanderslice and Death Cab For Cutie. Needless to say she’s kept herself in pretty decent company over the last five years- and she’s been able to wrangle a lot of big-name musicians into her recording sessions.

So on her latest release, Clark‘s sound continues to mature. Where Marry Me was a diverse, guitar-driven, beautiful sounding pop record that’s arty without being pretentious; Actor is its older sister- a little fuller, darker and more explorative. Produced by John Congleton (who’s worked with, well… everybody), the record has a deeper, more percussive quality at its core; there’s lusher string orchestrations (Black Rainbow), guitar noise freak-outs (Marrow), piano dirges (The Party), tongue-in-cheek song titles like Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood, and getting all self-referential (a jab at the critics?) with Just The Same But Brand New. The main focus, however; is the music- I mean, for chrissakes, the woman can play like 15 instruments.

As her music explores many different genres, she explained that unlike Marry Me (which was mainly written on guitar and piano), Actor was composed on Apple’s Garage Band. She then worked backwards, taking things out, adding melodies and lyrics- and while her lyrics explore many different subjects, there’s still a common thread running through the album. Mainly; being in the dark, blackness or lack of light. She plays around with words so delicately to get this point across; like an out-of-work actor that’s really a caterer but still tells everyone they’re an “actor”.

She refers to her various lovers in the album’s opener, The Strangers:What do I share? What do I keep from all the strangers / Who sleep where I sleep…” and uses the phrase “paint the black hole blacker” as if love could fill the giant hole inside of her. Her lust can’t be satiated by getting what she wants (Save Me From What I Want, the second track) so she resorts to “pour(ing) wine into coffee cups“, then “roaming blackouts on the streets” and meeting “psychotropic capricorns” in the song The Neighbors.

Then the album’s title track of sorts (and first single) explains why Clark‘s St. Vincent character does what she does; have a look-see:


Revisiting the theme of darkness is Black Rainbow, as StV relates how there’s one hanging over her house, reiterating that “here it’s night time, all the time”. There’s a (what should be, but oddly it’s not “out of place”) clarinet in this song during a passage between verses; the song builds on repeated and heavy staccato attacks as the instruments all come together- the release is the centerpiece of the album as the violin screeches itself into decay. Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood is as macabre as it gets, yet the lyrics display an in-the-moment type of vibe, calling herself an “amnesiac” one moment and wondering what the future holds in the next. I guess it’s in those moments when we’re experiencing an injury that we really are just in that moment.

Marrow sounds like a dancefloor banger; it’s got electro written all over it- deep, snaky basses growl under a Depeche Mode-like beat, shimmery synths and the off-key guitars wind up and away from the low end. Here, StV is ready to surrender, spelling it out in plain english “H-E-L-P-M-E“, a desperate plea from a desperate woman. The Bed is perhaps the funniest song on the album, possibly unintentional- it’s child-like and innocent at one instance (We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out”) and the next line is in perfect contradiction to it (With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve gotta teach them all a lesson”). It’s an admission of malicious intent as well as a confession- StV can’t reconcile the fact that she sees herself as both a man-eater and naive chanteuse.

The Party is my favorite track on the album, I think Clark is at her best when she’s in ballad mode- the downtempo drums, deep bass, dark piano and ethereal vocals (there’s really no chorus, it’s just four bars of oooooohs) gives it a creepy (beautiful creepy, not scary creepy) feel. The song has a false ending, returns after a few seconds at rest and comes back even slower and darker. The lyrics explain some type of accusation, perhaps the idea of infidelity has been introduced as a party is winding down.

The album comes to a close on the final two tracks, Just The Same But Brand New and The Sequel– the two are linked because the first tells of a jilted lover trying to find coded meanings and hidden messages that just aren’t there in the letters he sends; she believes she can get him out of her mind but she’s still just the same, despondently wanting to be brand new again in an irretrievable relationship. The second of the dyad replays over and over the events of their last night together: Oh honey I was there in the dark where you lay / And I saw you with a scent on your hands going out to get you something / One, two, three flight apartment streetside / Bodies like wrecking balls fuck, fuck with dynamite”.

So the recurring theme of black holes, darkness, roaming the streets at night- could it be Actor is the nighttime record to Marry Me‘s lighter, airier, daytime appeal? I’m saying yes to that rhetorical question while posing another altogether: if Bat For Lashes‘s recent album Two Suns played on the imagery of light and celestial bodies, then is this record the antithesis of that? I also have other questions (like why ain’t Annie Clark a household name like Katy Perry and/or Lily Allen; it’s obvious she has more talent than them as well) but I can save them for an ill-timed rant in the middle of another review later on down the line…

Tracklisting:

1. The Strangers
2. Save Me From What I Want
3. The Neighbors
4. Actor Out of Work
5. Black Rainbow
6. Laughing With a Mouth of Blood
7. Marrow
8. The Bed
9. The Party
10. Just the Same But Brand New
11. The Sequel

St. Vincent

More 30-Second Reviews!

I’m not even going to make any excuses anymore, this whole “short review” thing is kind of fun to do; I hope they’re fun to read. Glaring omissions aside (and by that I mean both records I’m just straight up not even going to try to listen to and what’s left out of reviews by cutting them down from a thousand words to barely a hundred), I’m going to keep at this all year. My goal in January was to listen to 100 releases from 2009. Well, I’m half-way there.

Zu – Carboniferous (Ipecac Recordings; released February 10th, 2009)zu

Holy fuck this is a heavy album, and I don’t mean heavy like heavy metal; I mean heavy like sludgy, post-rock jazz prog-metal. I don’t even know what to call this, it’s so immense. It just feels like “weight” if you catch my drift. Barreling headlong into so many different styles can be both a blessing and at times confusing- it has prog’s weird time signatures, chunky, churning riffs like sludge metal, drumming that would make Buddy Rich blush and that post-rock cinematic grandiosity. It’s an intense listen. That being said, it gets bogged down in the aforementioned sludge at times, but there’s so many different facets to this record it’s at least an above average album. Grade: 7/10

Mountains – Choral (Thrill Jockey Records; released February 16th, 2009)mountains

Barring a Brian Eno record in the next eight months, I’d say this is the best ambient album of the year. These two art-school chums (Koen Holtkamp & Brendon Anderegg) make aural art with a slow, atmospheric record- designed to both entrance the listener and melt into the background. As much as you want to walk away from it, it holds your attention. Like a sculpture you didn’t know was in the room and when you suddenly realize it’s there, it’s like the most important thing in there. Remember those cheesy New-Age Pure Moods albums with Enya and Moby from the late 90s? Yeah, fuck those. This album is the shit- floating out there in the ether somewhere between Discreet Music and that Fennesz record from last year. Grade: 8/10

Fol Chen – Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made (Asthmatic Kitty Records; released February 17th, 2009)folchen

From Fol Chen‘s bio on Asthmatic Kitty‘s website: You know that mysterious black object that the creepy family is staring at on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Presence” album?  Fol Chen sound like that. So Fol Chen sounds like a 12-inch square black dildo? Not exactly, but they revel in extraordinary pop music of the future; it’s got synths, 808 hand claps, bass lines out the wazoo- but they’re not a dance band per se, more of a sway band. Tracks like No Wedding Cake and Cable TV are there to get the party started, while songs like The Believers and You And Your Sister In Jericho shut it down. If there’s such a thing as post-pop, Fol Chen is it. So that’s what that damn family is staring at… Grade: 8/10

These Are Powers – All Aboard Future (Dead Oceans Records; released February 17th, 2009)thesearepowers

I was hoping this band was British because you can never have enough reasons to hate on the English. Then I saw that they’re from Brooklyn. That sounds about right. I was going to give it a three, but look at this album cover. I mean, really- this is why sometimes you gotta love those shitty reviews in Vice Magazine, because my immediate knee-jerk reaction to this album was, “God damn it, do they even know how to match up the drums and bass, or are they doing it on purpose to be edgy?” Then the album cover convinced me, they really have no idea… Grade: 2/10

Kurt Vile – God Is Saying This To You (Mexican Summer Records; released March 3rd, 2009)kurtvile

Please, send me your address so I can mail my fist to your face for not listening to Philly’s Kurt Vile. Sometimes member of The War On Drugs, Mr. Vile‘s two albums have been in heavy rotation for the past two weeks. Three reasons I miss living in Philly: the Phillies’ World Series Win last October, cheesesteaks and probably being able to run into Kurt Vile at a.k.a. Records. It’s like a trip down memory lane listening to this record- that is, if I was alive to hear early 70s AM radio; so I’m imagining that memory anyway. With Vile‘s classic voice and the fractured way he pastes his lyrics and songs together, another record that’ll be up near the top of a year-end list. Obviously any album I give a nine or ten to I’m recommending highly. Duh. Grade: 9/10

Say Hi – Oohs & Aahs (Barsuk Records; released March 3rd, 2009)sayhi

No. Just no. I saw this guy at the Khyber a few years ago as Say Hi To Your Mom, actually discovered his music from a skate video- his first three albums are aces; really nice bedroom recorded glitchy emo-pop. Then he dropped the “To Your Mom” part from his name, and in the process lost a lot more than three words. I think part of why I’m not being as objective as I should be is because I met this guy and he was kind of a dick. Oh well- I guess moving to Brooklyn to start a band will do that to a person.  Grade: 1/10 (which is as low as I can go, I’m saving the zero for something really awful)

Bishop Allen – Grrr… (Dead Oceans Records; released March 10th, 2009)bishopallen

Bishop Allen‘s 2003 debut album, Charm School is a great record. Bishop Allen‘s 2006 12 EPs (one for every month of that year) are really good little records. Bishop Allen‘s 2007 album, The Broken String is a terrible record. Bishop Allen‘s 2009 album, Grrr… is an average album. Jimmy Mac’s 2009 review of Bishop Allen‘s career is awful because he uses superlatives and hyperbole like “great”, “good” and “terrible” which they teach you to never do in rock critic school. In indie rock school (unless your band is named Vampire Weekend), using strings in almost every song is not allowed. Bishop Allen breaks this rule early and often. Grade: 6/10

Handsome Furs – Face Control (SubPop Records; released March 10th, 2009)handsomefurs

I wanna say this band is “The Kills, Part Deux” because electro-rock duo Handsome Furs are a Canadian version of them. The husband-wife team of Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade) and Alexei Perry create an album rife with the imagery of high-stakes Russian club culture- songs like Talking Hotel Arbat Blues, Passport Kontrol, Nyet Spasiba and Radio Kaliningrad reference the post-Soviet party, all over jagged guitar riffs and pulsing beats. It’s a sleazy, post-apocalyptic dance party with skinny blonde Russian mail-order brides and mobsters and all that, like that episode of SVU a few weeks ago… Grade: 6/10

The Mountain Goats & John Vanderslice – Moon Colony Bloodbath (Cadmean Dawn Records; released March 18th, 2009)mooncolony

So this is a split EP between Darnielle and Vanderslice– recent tourmates (as this is a tour-only release) trading 1-2 punches; tracks 1, 3, 5 and 7 go to JD and 2, 4 and 6 to JV. Both are master songwriters, both have keen, almost overly aware powers of perception and the ability to put it into words and from there to melody. Upon repeated listens, there seems to be a common thread- three songs mention Colorado hills, one mentions the desert outside LA and on references the moon. Maybe something about harvesting organs in there as well. Grade: 8/10

Condo Fucks – Fuckbook (Matador Records; released March 24th, 2009)condofucks

Condo Fucks is not Yo La Tengo. Yo La Tengo is Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew. Now; (follow me here) Kaplan, Hubley and McNew are Condo Fucks. Got it? Basically, it’s their new “project”, more of a lo-fi garage sort of thing that totally rocks. I was just thinking the other day, “Man, I need a summer album…” Well folks, this is probably gonna be it, unless Wavves or No Age drop a record in the next three months, which, considering their output, isn’t that far of a stretch. Anyway, Yo La Tengo Condo Fucks would love to have you believe that they’ve been around for years, even going so far as to make a “fake” bio on their Matador Records page. I could care less, this record fucking rocks. Covering songs by The Small Faces, Richard Hell, Beach Boys, Electric Eels, Troggs, Flaming Groovies and Slade– it’s pretty much a raw-ass, gritty sounding record and I love Yo La Tengo Condo Fucks. Grade: 10/10

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (4AD Records; released April 21st, 2009)cameraobscura

Twee as all fuck. It’s an easy listen- and if there’s anything I hate more than an easy listen it’s getting drowned in velveteen and chenille, because that’s exactly what this record feels like; cheap showy fabric designed to hide the fact that there isn’t a ton of substance. It’s the elevator muzak version of Belle & Sebastian, which is as close to being an elevator version of itself as any band on the planet. There’s the nice strings, soft melodies, vocal harmonies that would make Madison Avenue circa 1963 ad men jizz in their drawers. Only two listens, no more, please! Grade: 3/10

The Breeders – Fate To Fatal EP (self-released; April 21st, 2009)breeders

Kim Deal, what’s yr deal? A cover of Johnny MathisChances Are? Whoa now, shark jumping aside, really? I should’ve known this EP was gonna really suck because they self-released it. Did they give it to 4AD (who released last year’s Breeder‘s average-at-best Mountain Battles album) and the label was like, “Uh, yeah, Kimmy, babe- we don’t want our good names sullied by this crap…” and Kim and sis were like, “Fuck you guys, we’re doin’ it…” and then I paid a dollar for it on eMusic and even I feel ripped off? I never feel ripped off- but these four songs (three suck, actually the first song I kinda like) are why people “steal” music off the internet, If I paid .37 cents I would feel okay about it, because that’s what it’s worth to my ears. Any typos in this review? I don’t care, I’m fucking mad as hell at The Breeders and I can’t type when I’m mad… Grade: 37 cents on the dollar

Dark Was The Night (A Red Hot Compilation)…

dark-night

Various Artists – Dark Was The Night (A Red Hot Compilation from 4AD Records; released February 17th, 2009)

Can a compilation album change the world? What if a record label assembled an all-star cast of the indie music world’s heaviest hitters under the premise that proceeds would go to benefit worldwide HIV/AIDS research? The folks at the Red Hot Organization have offered us fifteen compilation albums going back to 1990, and among their releases the most notable have been the 90’s alt-rock standard No Alternative, the songs of Cole Porter on Red Hot + Blue and the hip-hop culture-meets-jazz stalwarts record Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool.

As the message boards on assorted websites like this one fill up with Bonnaroo vs Coachella debates (really, who cares?), all arguments can be quelled by the fact that 4AD‘s Dark Was The Night compilation is the music event of 2009, probably of this new millennium’s first decade- the only records coming close would be last years’ awesome Living Bridge compilation, or any of those ridiculously fantastic and free Stereogum tribute albums.

While it feels like one of those aforementioned music festivals’ line-up list, the mood has an overall subdued tone- after all, we’re talking about a pandemic that’s killed about 25 million people since 1981, which can put a damper on any party. And this ain’t no party music.

You know; humanity’s defining feature, the one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope for this seemingly doomed world is the fact that when faced with adversity, we humans have a remarkable knack for banding together and breaking down our self-imposed barriers- so at a glance the musical pairings on this record would suggest the gap between artistic differences can be easily bridged. Some not so unexpected; Dirty Projectors have culled a huge influence from David Byrne‘s catalog so I can totally hear how the album’s opener Knotty Pine works, Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues (teaming up for a cover of Amazing Grace) are touring together right now, Leslie Feist‘s collaboration with Ben Gibbard is well matched; both write really nice three-minute pop gems and Conor Oberst paired with Gillian Welch is no stretch; two insurgent country mainstays sharing a track seems natural enough.

But even as some of the pairings seem “normal”, like the Gibbard-Feist collaboration, it gets weirder as you see the choice of covers- that duo teaming up on a Vashti Bunyan song, The Books and Jose Gonzalez doing a Nick Drake song and the title track; an instrumental cover of Blind Willie Johnson by the dark and minimalist string foursome Kronos Quartet, it gets stranger as you go on- but only on paper. It plays cohesively as much as a compilation album should; there’s a general theme in there somewhere; unity through a common cause.

It’s hard to believe that some of these songs would be considered “throw away” tracks, not making it on to these bands’ albums; The National, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Beirut all have given excellent songs. Just the fact that Colin Meloy & Co. left Sleepless off of their upcoming album Hazards of Love leads me to believe that that record is going to be amazing. Speaking of amazing- the centerpiece of the album (placed at the end of the first disc) is Sufjan Stevens‘ cover of CastanetsYou Are The Blood, turning it into a sprawling and strange epic, an electro-classical magnum opus with piano breaks and brass sections over club-banger beats- it’s as if he’s trying to convey the entire scope of his musical output in ten minutes and fourteen seconds, joining the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit with his Seven Swans-era and those states-themed concept albums. Canadian hip-hopper Buck 65 remixes this track on the second disc, adding his two cents in the way of furiously spit verses.

More about the covers; My Brightest Diamond doing an amazing job at Nina Simone‘s Feeling Good, Antony & The National‘s Bryce Dessner taking on Bob Dylan‘s I Was Young When I Left Home, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings get way beyond funky with Shuggie OtisInspiration Information, TV On The Radio mastermind Dave Sitek on his creepy-but-cool version of The TroggsA Girl Like Like You and two artists covering themselves, sort of; the Oberst-Welch cover of Lua from his Bright Eyes days, Andrew Bird is consistent as always with a cover of Handsome Family‘s The Giant of Illinois, and The New Pornographers covering their own band member Destroyer‘s Hey, Snow White.

The forgettable tracks; Spoon mailed theirs in with the less-than-average Well-Alright, My Morning Jacket‘s El Caporal is el crapola, Stuart Murdoch sans his Belle & Sebastian cohorts is sub-par at best and the album sputters to a finish with Blonde Redhead‘s When The Road Runs Out (with help from the Aussie band Devastations) and Kevin Drew‘s Love vs. Porn, both songs lackluster and without much feeling. But with 25+ tracks of exceptional music the blind spots are covered; that’s why music players come with a “skip track” option.

Curated and produced by The National‘s Dessner brothers (Bryce & Aaron), Dark Was The Night is the indie super-compilation I’ve been waiting for; having all these excellent artists together on one album makes for an accurate snapshot of who’s who in the current scene, it’s like “here’s every band that’s at the top of their artform right this minute”. Or it can serve as an introductory primer for beginners too stand-offish to completely dive into any of the featured groups’ body of work.

Either way, it’s a stellar listen; two-plus hours of music packaged into two discs or three records all the while supporting a worthy cause, it’s the “can’t miss” record of 2009.

Tracklisting:

DARK WAS THE NIGHT

THIS DISC
1.  Knotty Pine – Dirty Projectors + David Byrne
2.  Cello Song (Nick Drake) – The Books featuring Jose Gonzalez
3.  Train Song (Vashti Bunyan recorded, written by Alasdair Clayre) – Feist + Ben Gibbard
4.  Brackett, WI – Bon Iver
5.  Deep Blue Sea – Grizzly Bear
6.  So Far Around the Bend – The National (arrangement by Nico Muhly)
7.  Tightrope – Yeasayer
8.  Feeling Good (popularized by Nina Simone) – My Brightest Diamond
9.  Dark Was the Night (Blind Willie Johnson) – Kronos Quartet
10. I Was Young When I Left Home (Bob Dylan) – Antony + Bryce Dessner
11. Big Red Machine – Justin Vernon + Aaron Dessner
12. Sleepless – The Decemberists
13. Stolen Houses (Die) – Iron and Wine
14. Service Bell – Grizzly Bear + Feist
15. You Are The Blood – Sufjan Stevens

THAT DISC
1.  Well-Alright – Spoon
2.  Lenin – Arcade Fire
3.  Mimizan – Beirut
4.  El Caporal – My Morning Jacket
5.  Inspiration Information (Shuggie Otis) – Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
6.  With A Girl Like You (The Troggs) – Dave Sitek
7.  Blood Pt 2 (based on original song “You are the Blood” by the Castanets) – Buck 65 Remix (featuring Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti)
8.  Hey, Snow White (Destroyer) – The New Pornographers
9.  Gentle Hour (Snapper) – Yo La Tengo
10. Another Saturday (traditional song) – Stuart Murdoch
11. Happiness – Riceboy Sleeps
12. Amazing Grace (traditional song) – Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues
13. The Giant Of Illinois (Handsome Family) – Andrew Bird
14. Lua – Conor Oberst + Gillian Welch
15. When the Road Runs Out – Blonde Redhead + Devastations
16. Love vs. Porn – Kevin Drew

Dark Was The Night