Tidying Up…

This will be the last thing I ever have to say on 2009, I promise you this. This is me tying up all the loose ends; in case you were wondering what all my “Honorable Mentions” list looked like- it’s all the shit that overflowed from the proverbial toilet that was ’09. I can also assure you that I have little to no “honor” so this list to follow should be read with severe skepticism.

First and foremost:

The Ten Best EPs of 2009

10. Warpaint – Exquisite Corpse (Manimal Vinyl; October 5th)

warpaintMelancholy dream-pop in the vein of the Los Angeles eighties’ Paisley Underground scene; funny I should say “vein” because this six song EP is the aural equivalent of an opiate rush. It’s a mainline to your pleasure center; reverb-drenched guitars set to syrupy sweet vocals from Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman over plodding basses (courtesy Jenny Lee Lindberg) and a steady, understated backbeat from Stella Mozgawa. On their MySpace page, under “Sounds Like” they describe themselves as Happy Nightmare, no doubt a nod to the Kendra Smith-slash-David Roback (and later Hope Sandoval) project Opal (that would eventually morph into Mazzy Star). Pretty nice sound, and wonderful influences, ladies!

9. Suckers – Suckers EP (IAMSOUND; April 14th)

suckersFirst off, four songs at sixteen minutes is too short, and I’d only say that because this is good enough that I want more, at least 40 minutes of it. Second, Suckers make a unique brand of pop-meets-spiritual music in that they share a musical sensibility that’s equal parts Yeasayer and MGMT– so it’s both a gospel-esque sing-along (or shout-along) as well as rhythmic enough to get your head nodding, even danceable at times. Suckers are your urban hippies with synths- when music comes away from the campfire and into a studio full of electronics and midi sounds; the result is sublime- It Gets Your Body Movin’ is one of the best songs I’ve come across this year.

8. Abe Vigoda – Reviver EP (Post-Present Medium; February 17th)

abe-vAbe Vigoda gets a little more sloppy, slightly more experimental (there’s an almost two-minute noise excursion, a re-do of their own song Endless Sleeper; slowing it down by half and giving it a sonic re-interpretation, right in the middle of the mini-record) but for some reason it’s even more listenable- whetting my appetite for another full-length album from these guys. The track House sounds like there’s three or four different rhythms going on at once- each musician playing their respective instrument to the beat of their own disparate heart, yet it works so well; but the main focal point of the album is their cover (and liberal re-explication) of Stevie NicksWild Heart– it’s a pretty good summation of Abe Vigoda’s mission statement (if they were to have one), this band is like a “fever gone higher…” and the line “…running around like a spirit in flight” fit so well capturing the essence of AV. The droning bass line and the plucky guitar work in conjuction with Vidal’s emotive and yearning vocalization make this track one of the young year’s best- and the searing distortion sneaking into the song doesn’t hurt at all- it adds to the urgency. AV is hitting their stride- I’m really excited to see what else comes from their world in the next year.

7. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Higher Than The Stars EP (Slumberland; September 22nd)

higherTake some Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order, add a dash of jangly twee-pop and a slice of The Jesus & Mary Chain‘s sweet-and-fuzzy feedback and you got yourself a nice little sound here that TPOBPAH have cultivated into an EP of stellar tracks; not to mention their wonderful full-length released earlier in the year. It reminds me also (stylistically speaking, of course) of The Smiths in that the music has a sunny side yet the lyrics are dark and depressive- sort of like a subliminal message, with poppy side-effects…

6. Julianna Barwick – Florine EP (eMusic Selects; April 27th)

barwickWow. As far as I can tell, it’s just a woman, a microphone, various delay and reverb pedals, a looping machine, maybe a keyboard and a whole lot of creativity. This is one of the most soul-achingly beautiful releases of the year, a real sleeper. It sounds like a church service held at the bottom of the ocean, attended by whales and dolphins and run by some type of silken-siren voiced angel of a fairy. I don’t know. It’s psychedelic and it’s pretty. So there.

5. Beirut – March Of The Zapotec EP (Ba Da Bing; February 17th)

march_of_the_zapotec_holland_epAptly named for its Mexican funeral march feel, March Of The Zapotec was recorded with the help of a nineteen piece band, The Jimenez Band hailing from the state of Oaxaca. Inspired by Condon’s recent visit there as well as the Oaxacan/Zapotecan tradition of burying their dead with all their valuables, this EP is rife with the imagery and native folklore- the track La Llorona, (Spanish for “weeping woman”) is loosely based on the similar tale told throughout the Hispanic world. The instrumental My Wife, with its waltz-like tone shows that Condon can’t shake his eastern-European leanings just yet- which makes for an interesting study in an increasingly globalizing world- think of it as Beirut’s one-world philosophy; I think one thing Condon can say through his music is that we’re all basically the same. If indie hipsters can like the sort of music inspired by the clash of the Industrial Revolution and the Ottoman Empire, so be it.

4. Deerhunter – Rainwater Cassette Exchange (Kranky; 5/18)

rainwaterI got a chance to hear three of these tracks at Noise Pop earlier this year; before I went deaf for two days. Yeah, Deerhunter’s live show is akin to My Bloody Valentine’s- you better bring some ear plugs because you’re gonna get some guitars. Anyway, the band treated those shows as pre-tour exercises (meaning: they gave 110% but also used the opportunity to “try out” new tracks Disappearing Ink, Famous Last Words and Rainwater). I remember them being louder for some reason… Anytime Deerhunter can throw out a quick 5-song EP in between albums/tours, even if it sucks, I’ll happily lap it up. This does not suck in the least; yeah, it’s too short- but it’s an EP so it whets the appetite ever so slightly, I’m excited for what they have next. A band that’s big on conceptual continuity; you could lay their releases end-to-end chronologically, hit play and listen to them as a series of ideas, where slight shifts in perception create little ripples in the psyche. Some of these ideas from their earlier stuff are still being felt now- that’s why their albums are musically dynamic yet still true to their vision. I can’t wait for what’s next.

3. Hezekiah Jones – Bread Of Teeth (Yer Bird; September 12th)

breadI run the risk of sounding trite, but Hezekiah‘s been crafting these lovely, soul-crushingly beautiful songs since before I can remember; and I don’t say that because I know the guy personally, I mean it- he’s the best unknown artist in the world right now. You’re doing yourself an awful disservice by not checking out his rusty brand of American folk, but maybe you don’t want to be moved to almost tears by the track Traffic To The Sea, and I understand that, but these aching and fragile tunes (as well as the upbeat Iowa Alligator, a re-worked version of a reggae tune done by Hez’s old band StillWillis) will leave you wanting more; I guess a “stop-gap” EP whets the appetite as such.

2. No Age – Losing Feeling (Sub Pop; October 6th)

No-Age-Losing-FeelingThe guys from No Age sure have been busy- after 2008’s Album Of The Year award from yours truly they’ve gotten themselves fully immersed in the skate industry; first getting a clothing sponsor in Altamont and then an Ed Templeton-designed shoe for Emerica. Everything’s coming up No Age! Dreamy, shoegazey, at times heavy and fast; I guess the best approximation would be to just call them a noise pop band and send you on your way; but they’re so much more than that. Take the track Aim At The Airport; it’s an electro-feedback knob twiddling thing- I can’t tell if they’re using a backward guitar loops or some type of rotating Leslie effect, but either way it’s an interesting listen. I guess I’ll have to claim ignorance as to what studio/gadget trickery they’re using; regardless- it’s pretty awesome.

1. BLK JKS – Mystery EP (Secretly Canadian; March 10th)

blkjksBLK JKS‘ strength lies in its ability to harness the power of the drum. Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, and nearby Soweto; these four musicians are straddling the Atlantic- one foot firmly rooted in their traditional mbaqanga, marabi and kwela styles and the other in American indie rock. A perfect blend of polyrhythmic drumming, TV On The Radio’s dark and danceable synth pop, Lee Perry’s Black Ark dub and just a touch of psychedelia. It’s at times sparse, light and airy; others it’s dense, heavy and strangling. I could give you a million different styles of album reviews; however overwrought or unstrung they become with such a cumbersome tool like language- the fact remains that this EP serves as a glimpse into the mindset of the rapidly expanding globalization of our tiny world, a slice of modernization meets traditionalism. BLK JKS have come from a part of the world where I’d least expect this type of music to come from, and the result is rewarding if not compelling.

The Honorable Mentions; Albums #26-40

26. Mew – No More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away (Sony; August 17th)

mew-no_more_storiesAre you fucking serious? That’s not an album title, that’s a poem. Listen, reader- I’m not going to sugar-coat it; this is pretentious art rock with a side of rather proggy pop. It’s like these kids grew up with nothing but a few of their parents’ King Crimson and Yes records and a steady stream of ABBA on Danish AM radio. I saw these guys years ago open up for Bloc Party at The Stone Pony; most famous for being the Asbury Park venue that gave Bruce Springsteen his start. I remember thinking, if Bruce heard these cats play, he’d shit in his hat. And I think that’s why I love it; it borrows from over-the-top prog wankery as much as it does from Scandanavian ear candy (think Ace Of Base on mushrooms and ecstasy).

27. Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy (Matador; October 6th)

vilePhilly’s Kurt Vile has been killing it consistently, albeit in relative obscurity, for the better part of this decade- so when he releases three solo full-lengths, an EP with The Violators and still has time to play in The War On Drugs; you’d be apt to call him prolific. Lo-fi psych-folk jams that sound crusty and slightly aggro; through the syrupy haze of reverb-drenched vocals Vile‘s message is plain and simple- he’s here to rock. And he’s just getting started; inking a deal with Matador that’ll keep him in front of the pack, and keeping me looking forward to more of his stuff…

28. Califone – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans; October 6th)

califoneProbably the biggest sleeper record this past year; I say that because I slept on Califone since their last record, 2006’s Roots & Crowns. Three years between albums can make anyone forget your name; once you hear these fourteen songs you’ll realize that through all the densely layered tracks and intricately laced production, it probably took the better part of the last three years to make this. The result is a gorgeous pastiche of fractured Americana, a post-folk world where the soundtrack to Apocalypse: The Movie* is set to Califone‘s music.

* – not a real movie, this is me taking poetic license. Did you need this note here? Is this insulting your intelligence? Anyway, this album actually is a soundtrack to a real movie, directed by Tim Rutili about a psychic woman that lives deep in the woods somewhere. Califone makes a cameo appearance. That is all…

29. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (Vagrant; July 14th)

sharpeThis is what a traveling revival show would sound like if it was led by a crazy person that grew up on a steady diet that’s equal parts Jesus Christ: Superstar, CSN&Y and lysergic acid diethylamide. Based loosely on the concept that lead Magnetic Zero/Ima Robot guy Alex Ebert (appearing here as alter-ego Edward Sharpe) had of a being coming down to Earth to save us all, yet he keeps getting distracted from his ultimate goal because he falls in love over and over again. Sort of like a horny alien Jesus, or whatever the Scientologists believe in.

30. Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Jagjaguwar; June 23rd)

farmOkay, I’m ready to drop my hatred for J Mascis– I’ve been holding on to a grudge against him for so long now I forget why I hated him in the first place. Oh, that’s right- for kicking the immensely talented Lou Barlow out of DJr, which, in retrospect- no booting of Lou, then no awesomeness that is Sebadoh, I guess. I still refuse to listen to any non-Barlow Dinosaur records, and that’s just how it is with me. Plus, I’m not really missing anything- all those records are basically Mascis solo records, I mean, he even booted Murph out before recording 1994’s Without A Sound (with that awful Feel The Pain song, but hey- Spike Jonze’s golfing-through-midtown-Manhattan video was rad, right?) and starting a love affair with the mid-90’s fratboy set that fortunately for everyone involved died shortly after as DJr went on a ten-year hiatus. So I’d be remiss if I don’t mention previous offering Beyond (first album with the original lineup since 1988’s Bug); Farm is a rocking continuation of that record; if you’re not bowing at the feet of Mascis‘ guitar prowess right this minute, light a candle and hit your fucking knees at the altar, bitch. His walls of guitar noise, feedbacked distortion that’s been processed perfectly, Lou’s basslines thudding and plodding on top of Murph’s metronomic drumming, it’s the best pure “rock” record I’ve heard this year. What can I say about an almost nine minute song (I Don’t Wanna Go There) that’s isn’t the least bit boring, including an extended scorching solo? Of course, Lou gets his obligatory album closer- so there’s something for everyone.

31. Condo Fucks – Fuckbook (Matador; March 24th)

condofucksCondo 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.

32. White Rabbits – It’s Frightening (TBD; May 19th)

white-rabbitsI wish that I could just review a record without having to find out who produced it; when a record sounds as fully-realized as It’s Frightening does, I have to take a peek as the press packet to see who was twiddling the knobs on the other side of the glass. Spoon’s Britt Daniel is (in my opinion) the best producer in music today- just listen to any of his band’s albums from 1998’s A Series Of Sneaks up to now; he’s best at getting the songs to sound exactly what they’re supposed to sound like- this snare goes here, this guitar there, etc. Basically: perfect records. So White Rabbits entrusted Mr. Daniel to take their sound and do as he sees fit- the result is a heavily percussive affair (Percussion Gun) with piano lines doubling as bass lines (Midnight And I), layers of rhythm (Right Where They Left), textured bits of ambient passages (Lionesse)- White Rabbits are poised to make a surprise run at the top of some year-end lists.

33. The Decemberists – Hazards Of Love (Capitol; March 24th)

hazardsI don’t wanna give too much of the plot away, I’ll give you an abridged version- you find out Margaret’s pregnant (in the song A Bower Scene), has the baby (Isn’t It A Lovely Night?), the queen wants it (The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid), a terrible roustabout wants to destroy it (The Rake’s Song), Margaret eventually abducted and confronted (The Abduction Of Margaret), the river (Annan Water), the drowning (The Hazards Of Love 3 – Revenge!) and lovers re-united in death (The Hazards Of Love 4 – The Drowned). As far as the music goes on this record; it’s everything The Decemberists are known for: Meloy’s 12-string guitar and adenoidal vocal delivery, Jenny Conlee’s excellent keyboard work (I think there’s even some harpsichord in there, too), Chris Funk doing everything, and Nate Query and John Moen holding down the rhythm section. Take that basic recipe and then add all these newer ingredients: excursions deep into prog-rock, replete with chase music, power chord vamps, dizzying crescendos, the addition of both Shara Worden and Becky Stark and guest appearances from Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Robyn Hitchcock.

34. Real Estate – Real Estate (Woodsist; November 17th)

real-estateDreamy beach-pop (yeah, that shit was hot this past year) that sounds effortless; there were a slew of other acts in ’09 that did something similar but Real Estate did it better. And they’re from Jersey, so the same beaches that inform their brand of sun-kissed pop were the beaches that I grew up on. That’s an unfair bias, but spin this record and try not to smile, I fucking dare you…

35. The Antlers – Hospice (Frenchkiss; August 18th)

antlersSlow-burning anthems of melancholic regret weaved in and around a loose narrative of nurse falling in love with patient; the story line goes like this- lead Antler Peter Silberman moves to the big city, spends two whole years sequestered from society writing this album, losing touch with family and friends along the way only to emerge with this stellar offering of dolorous melodies and heartrending storytelling. Think Radiohead-meets-Bon Iver with an Arcade Fire fascination and you can begin to draw a line connecting The Antlers’ influences to one another. If you like pop songs structured around ambient textures and falsetto-styled vocalizations with anthemic aspirations, Hospice may be your favorite album of the year.

36. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (Slumberland; February 3rd)

pains-of-being-pureSince it’s a self-titled album, I didn’t feel the need to write it twice, that’s a pretty long name to begin with. And it sounds like a really bad diary entry, maybe something from Angela Chase. Except this is really nice fuzzy noise pop with a heart of darkness; it’s an homage to the best stuff I grew up on in the eighties (Echo & The Bunnymen, et al.) and early nineties (Teenage Fanclub, et al.) as well as lending itself to the shoegazer textures of bands like Ride and My Bloody something. Valentine? Yeah, they like those guys too, a little bit. Actually, their influence is heavy on these twenty-something New York scenesters- listening to songs like Come Saturday and Stay Alive, that wall of guitar sound is all over here, built up around lovely pop structures. My favorite track from the record; The Tenure Itch, sounds as if it was recorded for the Pretty In Pink Soundtrack– it just has that angst-ridden teenager feel to it; set upon a gorgeous late-80s pop sensibility. The album has that overall feel; it goes jangly guitars one song, drony and feedbacked the next; all under awkward and unsure lyrics- it is so teenager it’s not even funny. The track Young Adult Friction is a marvelous little pun; it’s set against the backdrop of the high school library (undoubtedly in the young adult fiction section). So I’ve cut and pasted (from their website) a typically teen all-caps shouting of the lyrics: “BETWEEN THE STACKS IN THE LIBRARY / NOT LIKE ANYONE STOPPED TO SEE / WE CAME THEY WENT, OUR BODIES SPENT / AMONG THE DUST AND THE MICROFICHE”. How innocent, yet there’s a line in the same song about taking vicodins- and another shout-out to opiates later on, on the track A Teenager in Love: “AND IF YOU MADE A STAND, I’D STAND WITH YOU ‘TIL THE END / BUT YOU DON’T NEED A FRIEND WHEN YOU’RE / A TEENAGER IN LOVE WITH CHRIST AND HEROIN”

37. Mos Def – The Ecstatic (Downtown; June 9th)

folder1I had given up on Mos Def. I thought Black On Both Sides was a fluke, and that I’d be consigned to get pissed every time I saw him in some shitty buddy movie, ranting and raving about how he coulda be a great rapper. Then Jimmy told me to check out The Ecstatic, and with skepticism I spent 16 of my valuable emusic credits getting it, swearing I’d never speak his name again if it sucked. Un-fucking believably good. That’s all I have to say. I knew it was all going to be ok when I heard Supermagic and it just kept getting better. His voice glides over the tracks, effortlessly weaving between, under, over and around incredible beats and samples.

Bad news and good dope
powder, potion, pills, smoke
baby how you trying to go
Duro o dulce
fast or slow
yay
no
it’s ok you can have it your way
naw, it aint all good but baby I’m cool
feeling great feeling good how are you
10% condition, 90% response
Survival mathematics the number man’s song

I swear the motherfucker just makes the shit sound easy, and like he was born to do it. I don’t pretend to be a hip hop aficionado, but Mos Def in his best form, as he is here, just inspires the shit out of me. -by Spencer

38. Morrissey – Years Of Refusal (Attack/Lost Highway; February 16th)

years-of-refusalSo what is Moz saying on his ninth solo album? That he’s wealthy (as opposed to “rich”) so there’s no need to worry about selling records (they will sell anyway, good or not) or pleasing the record company (he’s one of the few artists that the word “integrity” actually still means something to) and that he’s been able to maintain some semblance of a private personal life while selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million records worldwide (I’m combining his previous body of work); it’s become painfully clear that Morrissey doesn’t need anyone.

39. Mountains – Choral (Thrill Jockey; February 16th)

mountainsBarring 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.

40. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast (Fat Possum; January 20th)

andrew_bird_noble_beastAndrew Bird is a big fan of life; both in an intra-personal aspect and on a molecular level. Continuing on a concept from his three previous records of breaking the biological constraints of life down to its basest parts- the album is again rife with the imagery of elemental vocabulary like calcium mines, radiolarians (some type of protozoic life form that produces intricate skeletal systems), sea anenomes, etc.- it’s as if you need your old bio textbook to read his lyric sheets. I’m going to go ahead and start calling him Dr. Bird, he’s probably the most cerebral songwriter around these days; and I can’t quite call his music “pop”, being that he’s a classically trained violinist his music veers closer towards a baroque sentiment- imagine pop music of the late 1700s set to brainiac post-Ph.D lyricism. But the musicianship coupled with the uber-intelligentsia slant makes for repeated interested listens; highlights include Oh No, Masterswarm, Not A Robot, But A Ghost, and the hands-down best piece of music on the entire record appears after the 2:15 mark of Anonanimal– it’s actually one of the nicest breakdowns in a song I’ve heard in a while. But then again, Dr. Bird can write some really fine melodies; so it’s completely expected.

Honorable Mentions; Songs #26-50

26. You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) – Sunset Rubdown Dragonslayer
27. Hey, Snow White – The New Pornographers Dark Was The Night
28. It Gets Your Body Movin’ – Suckers Suckers EP
29. Born On A Day The Sun Didn’t Rise – Black Moth Super Rainbow Eating Us
30. I’m On A Boat – The Lonely Island (ft. T-Pain) Incredibad
31. No Intention – Dirty Projectors Bitter Orca
32. Cheerleader – Grizzly Bear Veckatimest
33. Microwave Mayo – DOOM Born Like This
34. You Are The Blood – Sufjan Stevens Dark Was The Night
35. Brothersport – Animal Collective Merriweather Post Pavilion
36. Lucid Dreams – Franz Ferdinand Tonight
37. So Bored – Wavves Wavvves
38. The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid – The Decemberists The Hazards Of Love
39. The Akara – Beirut March Of The Zapotec EP
40. I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris – Morrissey Years Of Refusal
41. The Tenure Itch – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart s/t
42. Blue – Julie Doiron I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day
43. I Am Goodbye – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Beware
44. And The Hazy Sea – Cymbals Eat Guitars Why There Are Mountains
45. Home – Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros s/t
46. Coochie – Blakroc (ft. Ludacris & Ol’ Dirty Bastard) Blakroc
47. Should Have Taken Acid With You – Neon Indian Psychic Chasms
48. Traffic To The Sea – Hezekiah Jones Bread Of Teeth EP
49. Bode – Julianna Barwick Florine EP
50. Papa Was A Rodeo – Bright Eyes SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records

Alright, that’s it for 2009. Later…

September Catching Up

Now’s a better time than ever to weigh in on The Beatles‘ 2009 remasters, or re-remasters, or re-released re-remasters, whatever… since they came out this past week (9/9/09). I’ve only had the pleasure of listening to Abbey Road & The White Album, since they’re the two best records in their catalog and the two I associate with their deserved reputation as the greatest rock-and-roll band of all-time. Basically; they’ve been improved by making them less “muddy” (not to say Sir George Martin‘s original production was muddy, he did the absolute best with what was available at the time), but there seems to be more “space” between each instrument and the vocals; it’s definitely “louder” and “crisper”, take the mix on I Want You (She’s So Heavy) from Abbey Road; the snare has much more “punch”, the cymbal hits are more present, Paul‘s bass feels as though it’s way more upfront, actually, everything feels like it’s more forward in the mix- the layered vocals during the chorus are actually distinguishable in that you can hear each part separate in the left/right channels (seriously; mess with your speaker’s knobs as the chorus plays if you wanna hear what I’m talking about.) Anyway- totally worth it if you’re a Beatles‘ fan.

Some of these albums aren’t worth the plastic they’re pressed on, but whatever…

maudlin Of The Well – Part The Second (self-released; 5/14)

maudlinThis record was one of those accidental finds- all I can say is it’s been one of the year’s most challenging listens for a number of reasons. maudlin Of The Well is an avant-garde art-prog outfit that veers dangerously close to post-rock; Part The Second is not an album you can throw on and clean the house to- it demands you pay close attention (for there are subtle nuances hidden all over this record) which ultimately leads to the record’s downfall; it’s challenging in that its overt influences make it somewhat pretentious; while the playing displays unparalleled virtuosity, the blending of rock with jazz saxophones and classical string arrangements make it too unfocused, the noodly guitars border on masturbatory, the vocal effects are annoying at times; it’s not a study in what prog should be (or could be), and for that I need my classic 70s stuff (Yes, Jethro Tull, et al.); there’s a reason the genre died- no need to exhume the bodies and study them again. This album is free if you want it, here’s the link. 5/10

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I (Rough Trade; 5/19)

jeffrey-lewisJeff Lewis is best experienced live- that being said; his albums are exercises in patience in that he’s as much a visual performance artist as he’s a musician, the music itself leaves a lot to be desired. His comic books are component pieces to his music; the time I saw him open for The Mountain Goats, his folk-punk story-telling was endearing because it was set as a narrative to his gigantic flip book of drawings (The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and others). Furthermore; his web/TV show is pretty awesome- he’s huge in the UK where most of the episodes are set, as is his record label. Anyway, for this album it’s more vintage Jeff Lewis (lyrically it’s self-deprecating in that whole “I’m a dirty poet that can’t get laid, Oh how I have to suffer for my art…” thing) which isn’t all that endearing on celluloid- again; plays great on the camera and the canvas, but here’s it’s trite as fuck. Musically, it’s more mature (read: better production, better musicians, etc.) so that saves it a wee bit, especially the eight-minute jam-out The Upside-down Cross, but for the most part, it’s just a so-so version of the Lower East Side’s punk-folk scene- which even the best of that is probably just below average… 5/10

Rome – Flowers From Exile (Trisol; 6/26)

romeAnother record I completely stumbled on by accident, how often do you find yourself perusing “industrial folk” duos from Luxembourg? I didn’t even know that genre existed, let alone the bold, deep baritone of lead singer Jerome Reuter‘s voice- which is at once both startling and comforting; he recalls Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and The National‘s Matt Berninger. Add Patrick Damiani‘s production (complemented by field recordings, foreign voices, ambient textures, dark and brooding industrial-type rhythms, Spanish guitars, etc.) and you have an interesting listen to say the least. The story line follows that of the Spanish Civil War; making the album dark and apocalyptic in its scope, revealing a narrative of a war-torn and displaced people, soldiers, isolation, desperation- acting as a modern-day protest record in itself. It’s as European an album I’ll find all year; it’s making me want to delve deeper into the Old Continent’s vast expanses of undiscovered music reserves to find something as new and rewarding as this. 8/10

Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Chamber Music (E1 Music; 6/30)

wu-tang-clan-chamber-musicBasically a mix-tape made by the RZA, even though only five of the Clan are featured (RZA, U-God, Ghostface, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck) it’s still a Wu release and for that I’m grateful. It’s the Wu, motherfucker; it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be available. That’s all. But you can’t put Tony Starks, the Chef and Bobby Digital in a room together and it not be good, again- it’s Wu, mother fucker. Plus, New York legends Masta Ace, AZ, Cormega, Sean Price, Havoc of Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap and Brand Nubian’s Sadat X all show up for guest appearances and Brooklyn-based funk/soul band The Revelations provide live instrumentation for eight of the 17 tracks; it’s an interesting combination. Working with various producers (Andrew Kelley, Bob Perry, Noah Rubin, Tre Williams of The Revelations and Fizzy Womack of M.O.P) give this album a cohesive feel; after RZA‘s production on 8 Diagrams created beef between him, Ghost and Rae for not having that “classic Wu sound” this can be seen as a return to that darker, sinister sound. Tracks like Harbor Masters, Evil Deeds and Ill Figures are all cut from the classic mold of Shaolin street knowldge; if you like hip-hop you’ll like this. If you like the Wu, you’ll love this. 9/10

Cass McCombs – Catacombs (Domino; 7/7)

catacombsThanks to Jason Dill for introducing me to Cass McCombs. If you’re unfamiliar with Dill, he’s the pro skater that was pals with Jack Osbourne on the first season of The Osbournes, the dude who had a bottle of Jack Daniels among his possessions. Anyway, Dill skated to a McCombs‘ song (What Isn’t Nature) for his video part in DVS’ Skate More (2005) and Jerry Hsu followed suit a year later, skating to a different McCombs‘ song (Sacred Heart) for his Bag Of Suck part. So there’s your skate-video-music-cross-referencing-nerd-shit that I do. So onto the review of this Cass record now; I’d like to add that with each subsequent release, Mr. McCombs becomes a little more refined, his songwriting gets a little better- he’s moved away from the ethereal sounding, churning dream pop and towards a more “American” sound (which is to say a countrified brand of folk-rock that isn’t too much of either). I prefer McCombs‘ albums A and PREfection to this record, as well as his last (2007’s Dropping The Writ). It’s still a decent album. One thing McCombs does that I really like is this idea of “conceptual continuity”, carrying related themes and threads of consciousness from record to record. 7/10

Clark – Totems Flare (Warp; 7/13)

clark_totems_flaresJust a quick peek at Clark‘s labelmates on Warp Records and you have an idea what they are before clicking play: !!!, Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73 and Squarepusher would all lead you to assume it’s electronic (correct) and dancy (somewhat) which would immediately raise an eyebrow- I like most of those artists (someonly for their visual collaborations; I’m looking at you Aphex Twin) but for the most part, I eschew any association with danceble electro music. Clark’s Totems Flare (minus the four songs that have vocals) is a decent album that doesn’t sway too far into hardcore techno or the other way into sleep-inducing downtempo trip-hopping; the other seven tracks are enjoyable as background music- never encroaching fully into your consciousness but hovering just below the line of noticeability. And for that, it’s a below average record. 6/10

The Duke & The King – Nothing Gold Can Stay (Ramseur Records; 8/4)

nothing-gold-can-stay“Is that Cat Stevens?” says my girlfriend from the other room. Dear The Duke & The King: immediate musical fail. Now before you freak out and say, “YOU DON’T LIKE CAT STEVENS!?!?” I’ll interject with; I like the Cat Stevens, I don’t like post-millennial ripoffs, the man is still alive for Allah’s sake. You know, I don’t like this neo-country folk stuff all that much, there’s no dividing line that separates it from all the other lousy drivel- there’s just no hook. At least Sam Beam and Justin Vernon (Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, respectively) have that hook, I can’t put my finger on it in so many words, but whatever it is they do have, The Duke & The King don’t have it. This makes me glad I didn’t experience 70s AM radio firsthand, I don’t think I can get through this whole record without at least one suicidal thought. When you see me next, say thank you for listening to all this crappy music so you don’t have to. I’m taking a bullet for you… 3/10

Destroyer – Bay Of Pigs EP (Merge; 8/18)

bay-of-pigsIf this record was made by anyone else I wouldn’t have given it the time of day. But since Dan Bejar has released three of the best records of the last ten years (2000’s Thief, 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction & 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies) he gets special handling. Why? Because it’s a damn disco record, an “ambient” disco record at that, clocking in at a bit over thirteen-and-a-half minutes. Halfway between casual dining music and 16-bit video game music (sorta like playing Sega Genesis at that hip Belgian place in the Mission) it doesn’t suck (completely) but it’s not gonna score high marks outside of the fact that it’s really a stretch for Destroyer, and going outside of your comfort zone is a big risk. But as far as the music goes, I’m not the type to hang out at Italian discos wearing guyliner and $700 shirts, so I’m gonna pass on Destroyer‘s Bay Of Pigs– at least the first track anyway. Track 2, Ravers, is a vocals-synth-and-organ tune that’s not as out of place as the EP’s title track, yet it’s not as interesting. It works out to be a confusing piece of music, all 21-plus minutes of it. 3/10

BLK JKS – After Robots (Secretly Canadian; 9/8)

blk-jksI’m going to contradict myself now; I said earlier that prog should rest in peace- I meant to say “only if it’s done poorly” as in the over-indulgent, self-aggrandizing form of the genre. Here comes South Africa’s BLK JKS (obviously pronounced black jacks) who can make rock music that’s both proggy and arty, sans wallowing in pretense. An exercise in energetic guitars, spastic drumming, deep-bottom basses, emotive and soulful vocals relating poignant lyrics from a part of the world that’s been sorely under-represented in popular music. They put out the best EP of the year so far (back in March, titled Mystery) and one of the best live shows I’ve seen this year; file them under Best New Act of 2009. The re-working of Lakeside (the stand-out track from the EP) on here isn’t as urgent and raw as it originally appeared, it fits with the overall mood of this record. If it remained as it did on the short-player it would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb; instead producer Brandon Curtis (of Secret Machines) made it a slower, more refined, vocals-up-front-mix. The album has a “dark cloud” sort of moodiness to it, all the while hinting at some type of silver lining; exploring dub rhythms, churning synths, interwoven guitar lines, out-of-this world drumming- BLK JKSAfter Robots is a welcome addition to any music fan’s library. 8/10

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador; 9/8)

popularsongsThis is YLT‘s 309th release and their 373rd year together. Not really, but it feels like it, am I right or am I right? More like 25 years strong (17 with current line-up) and 46th release (18th full-length offering) would have you believe that the gang ain’t going anywhere anytime soon- and with their latest, Popular Songs, they’re right back at it. With other bands, the term “paint-by-numbers” would come as a dismissal that they were mailing it in, but paint-by-numbers Yo La Tengo is a good thing because they’re better than your average band; I wouldn’t want them to put an album of garage punk classic out now, would I? Oh wait, they did that… Anyway, that’s exactly what’s so endearing about YLT; the fact that all three members have an equal say; all three have shared songwriting credits since 97’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One– and here on Popular Songs it’s an obvious group effort. Classic YLT would prescribe that the band can’t be hemmed into one specific genre; so there’s the fuzz-tone jams, something for the shoegazer in us all (By Two’s, I’m On My Way), their noisy brand of pop (incorporating strings in If It’s True and Here To Fall), a heavier reliance on the Hammond B-3 sound and long experimental-type songs (The Fireside, And The Glitter Is Gone). In summation, a YLT album is a very, very good thing. 9/10

BLK JKS @ Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco- March 9th, 2009

BLK JKS

w/ The Botticellis & The Dry Spells

Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, CA; March 9th, 2009

I can’t put into words how important I think this band is about to become- if you haven’t already read my review of BLK JKS stellar debut EP, Mystery; do that now. Keep that link open and listen to the whole record- I’m sure you have 19 minutes somewhere in your day to sneak in a listen. Don’t even read the review, just listen.

Okay, you’re back.

Last night at SF’s Rickshaw Stop I was able to get myself right to the front of the crowd as South Africa’s BLK JKS were loading their gear on to the stage; since this is not only their first tour of the states, it’s also their first visit here, so no road crew. I was also able to chat up their manager after the show, (yo Knox– you rule!) who let me in on what they did after they first arrived here (recording 12-hour days for three weeks straight) for the upcoming full-length album (possible release date the first week of August, look for that on Secretly Canadian). He basically said they have about two hours of songs that need to be cut down to about an hour, meaning more possible EPs? I don’t know, but I’m fucking excited for this band.

I also got to chat with guitarist Mpumi Mcata, who related how they traveled by van (Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago to LA to SF) to all their shows and were due to board a flight in about five hours to play a couple of shows in NYC, then fly down to Austin for a string of shows at SXSW Festival. Welcome to America, please enjoy your stay.

So what about the show?

I can rattle off a list of phrases like soulful, a mix of prog jamming and tightly orchestrated sections, at times scary- pure, unadulterated raw energy unleashed on the crowd from Mpumi‘s axe; the speakers were used like a weapon of mass destruction to all ears in the room. Between drummer Tshepang‘s volatile explosiveness behind the kit, to bassist Molefi‘s bend-down-low bass lines and lead singer Lindani‘s emotive vocals and spirited guitar playing, I was literally blown the fuck away. Amazing. So much so that words fail me; please- look at the pics.

blkjks1

blkjks2

blkjks3

blkjks4

blkjks5

blkjks6

blkjks7

blkjks8

blkjks9

blkjks10

blkjks11

blkjks12

blkjks13

blkjks14

blkjks15

blkjks16

BLK JKS – Mystery EP

blkjks

BLK JKS – Mystery EP (Secretly Canadian Records; released March 10th, 2009)

Globalization cannot be stopped.

The economic impact of both China and India’s rapidly developing industrial juggernaut looms somewhat menacingly over the landscape; as well as the astoundingly heavy and at times downright scary literary contributions of third-world writers and finally; all this good music.

Places that were once insular have also contributed to the globalization of independent music; in the past ten years there’s been a rise in the influence of Swedish pop (Jens Lekman, The Knife, Jose Gonzalez), New Zealand’s Dunedin Sound (directly influencing Pavement as well as Ruby Suns), the new wave of Scottish post-punk (Franz Ferdinand, The Fratellis), the dominance of Canadian bands (Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Stars), Icelandic post-rock (Sigur Ros, mum), Naturalismo folk (Devendra Banhart), the list can go on endlessly. I’m better off asking you, “Are you ready for globalization? Because it’s here and it ain’t going away…”

Enter Africa. After last year’s Amadou & Mariam‘s Welcome To Mali ended up at or near the top of about fifty year-end lists, people have been starting to take notice of the wonderful pop music coming out of Africa. I have to admit, outside of Ali Farke Toure‘s album with Ry Cooder and the one King Sunny Ade record I used to have, I know nothing about African music. Which is utter blasphemy- all popular music today can trace its roots back far enough to Africa. Even the banjo is an African instrument.

But the drums; now that’s what I think of when I think of Africa. Talking drums, djembes, ashikos; that’s Africa. And since all music revolves around a basic rhythm, what lays down said rhythm? That’s why I think the drum is the first of all instruments and everything else (hollowed out bones became flutes, stretched strings over a drum with a hole in it gave us lutes and such) came after.

BLK JKS‘ strength lies in its ability to harness the power of the drum. Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, and nearby Soweto; these four musicians are straddling the Atlantic- one foot firmly rooted in their traditional mbaqanga, marabi and kwela styles and the other in American indie rock. A perfect blend of polyrhythmic drumming, TV On The Radio‘s dark and danceable synth pop, Lee Perry‘s Black Ark dub and just a touch of psychedelia. It’s at times sparse, light and airy; others it’s dense, heavy and strangling.

Throwing themselves into Secretly Canadian‘s eclectic fold of artists, BLK JKS are currently on their first tour of the US- and as some interwebs have been buzzing on their next big thing status, they’ve been conspicuously absent from others. Check back tomorrow for a show review and pictures- I’ll be seeing them tonight at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop.

Lakeside opens the four-song EP with some dark synth ambiance; it kicks in with a punching and layered polyrhythmic drum as the bass angrily adds some growl. This is precisely why they’ve drawn the comparison to TV On The Radio‘s brand of dark and murky soul; lead singer Lindani Buthelezi‘s voice could pass as a dead ringer for Tunde Adebimpe‘s twin. This is a re-worked version of the track I originally heard back in December, and it’s the best song here- both danceable and cloudy in mood.

The next track, Mystery, goes a bit further into nebulous atmospherics- a layered vocal effect is used to great success here; not to mention a searing guitar solo from lead guitarist Mpumi Mcata that lasts a good three minutes without even remotely approaching boring.

Summertime is a dusky number, with the imagery of summer being a bringer of cancer and polluted warm winds; it slowly subverts into a crescendo of emotionality. Bassist Molefi Makananise and drummer Tshepang Ramoba, both from Soweto, are firmly locked into a tight sphere of rhythmic communion. The song comes to a screeching halt upon all four musicians expertly interlocked in a frenzy, twin guitars circling each other over a solid groove.

The EP comes to a close on the swirling and heavily processed guitar and vocal solo effort; It’s In Everything You’ll See. A trippy piece of psychedelia (as witnessed by the excerpt taken from their blogspot page: FUELED BY VOLUBLE CONGO BASIN CORDYCEPS FUNGI WITH HELP FROM YOUR COUSIN AND HER LITTLE FRIENDS), the song acts as both a confessional of sorts and a meandering space-out. Spiritual experiences can be brought about by ingesting large quantities of psychoactive mushrooms (no doubt), and this final track captures both the beauty and fear of laying your naked soul down through the act of purging your ego.

I could give you a million different styles of album reviews; however overwrought or unstrung they become with such a cumbersome tool like language- the fact remains that this EP serves as a glimpse into the mindset of the rapidly expanding globalization of our tiny world, a slice of modernization meets traditionalism. BLK JKS have come from a part of the world where I’d least expect this type of music to come from, and the result is rewarding if not compelling.

Tracklisting:

1. Lakeside

2. Mystery

3. Summertime

4. It’s In Everything You’ll See


BLK JKS