Albums Of The Decade, Part V

So I’ve been keeping tabs on all the other websites’ best-of the decade lists, and I gotta say- great work everybody. I like the way they’re doing it over at Aquarium Drunkard. Likewise Largehearted Boy (who was rad enough to include us in their roll call; gracias and mad kudos!), also check out their extensive and daily updated list here.

Some were laughable (Paste Magazine, I’m looking in your direction) some were head scratchers (Better Propaganda), some are eerily similar to mine (eMusic), some were extremely Spencer Krug-centric (Oceans Never Listen) but mostly they’ve been insanely interesting to read. I hope the same can be said about this list. Someday…

Death Cab For Cutie – We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk Records; 2000)

DCFC

Poor Ben Gibbard; he had Jenny Lewis but lost her- he had to settle for Zooey Deschanel instead. Boo hoo, Benny boy. All jokes aside, I much prefer Gibbard‘s heart-rending (dare I say emo?) version of this band recorded right before the turn of the century, not his major-label cash grab records as of late. Death Cab‘s definitely lost something since Transatlanticism, I can’t quite put my finger on it; it’s a combination of a lot of things. Most of the things that make this record so wonderful have been completely stripped from DCFC‘s repetoire; the warm, lo-fi feeling of this album has been erased in favor of the $300 an hour studio with Atlantic Records‘ money, but hey- isn’t that the whole point; to have your music heard by as many possible ears as you can? When nobody knew who the hell these guys were is when they were still making great records- the most important thing Gibbard and Co. lost was a sense of urgency; a sense that here’s a band, toiling along in relative obscurity up in the Pacific Northwest and no one’s gonna get hear our best stuff so we get to keep both artistic integrity and there isn’t an ounce of pressure on us to do anything we’re not comfortable with. I have this feeling that they know this is a prefect record and they’ve been trying to recapture the beauty and wonder of this ever since- but most folks won’t get to hear it. Instead they’ll get to hear their late decade radio friendly drivel…

Key Tracks: Company Calls Epilogue, 405, For What Reason, Title Track

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Destroyer – Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra Records; 2001)

streethawk

Dan Bejar‘s lyrics are so cryptical, yet I feel like I understand every one. I can’t pretend that I really do- and that’s the biggest part of his appeal for me; they mean whatever I want them to mean. Like on the track The Bad Arts, when he sings: “Goddamn your eyes, they just had to be twin prizes waiting for the sun…” I’m sure I know exactly what he means there, and at different times in my life that’s meant different things to me about different people. I think. Then, he ends the song with the line “You got the spirit, don’t lose the feeling…” aping the line from the Joy Division song Disorder. It’s classic Destroyer; borrowing from the past- simultaneously revering it and ridiculing it. Nothing is sacred, except everything. This observational irony is a calling card of his work, so even when I don’t get it, it’s okay- I don’t know if Bejar himself gets it. And that’s sort of the whole point, right?

Key tracks: The Very Modern Dance, The Sublimation Hour, Streethawk I, Beggars Might Ride

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Talib Kweli – Quality (Rawkus Records; 2002)

Talib_Kweli_Quality

Two tracks from J Dilla, three from Kanye– this album was the hot shit back in early ’03; I can’t remember who gave it to me but it didn’t leave my car’s CD player for months. It’s just as well I can’t remember who gave it to me; it doesn’t matter- all that matters is that it was my intro to Talib, Dil and Ye (two out of three ain’t bad…) and the rhymes, beats, everything came together here on Quality. I think of this record as the tipping point- Kweli was a connector of sorts for me, from here I got into BlackStar & Mos Def, learned of Jay Dee‘s production prowess, that sick record he did with Hi-Tek; all his collaborators on here became instrumental in making me pay attention to hip-hop again. Maybe my friend Andrew the Jerk got me into this record, maybe it was that quiet chick who lived with her grandmother I dated a few times. I can’t remember for the life of me who gave me this damn record. Maybe that’s the appeal of this album; it’s memory to me is as underground as its reputation- ask anyone who listens to mainstream rap if they know this record (be prepared for blank stares), but they’ll surely remember Talib from his appearance on The Chappelle Show or his appearance on Kanye‘s track Get ‘Em High. Oh, well- Talib is a rapper’s rapper; he’s probably your favorite MC’s favorite MC.

Key Tracks: Get By, Rush, Shock Body, Good To You

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Paavoharju – Yhä Hämärää (Fonal Records; 2005)

yhä

When I think of Finland, I think of massive amounts of snow, dense forests with herds of reindeer running free and rosy-cheeked vodka drinkers. If you were to mention Finnish music, I think of 80s hair band Hanoi Rocks, the synth-driven Children Of Bodom and Bam Margera’s favorite band, HIM– basically; cheesy-ass metal. Paavoharju could be called a lot of things, and cheesy-ass metal isn’t one- more like lo-fi experimental electro/acoustic freak folk (maybe?) I can’t put my finger on what it is they do, but they’re the only ones who do it, so I guess by default they’re the best. Makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is their story; a pair of born-again Christian hippie commune-living brothers (Lauri and Olli Ainala from Savonlinna) that make other-worldly sounds, decompose basic song structures into their barest parts but still manage to create songs built somewhat around hooks and pieces of hooks. Recorded over parts of five years with an ever-revolving cast of musicians/singers; it’s an accomplished debut- equal parts beautiful and creepy. Influenced by such diverse people and bands as William Blake, Burzum, Ed Gein, Boards Of Canada, Jesus Christ, Portishead and Ingmar Begman; that’s sort of what this record sounds like, with Paavoharju serving as dinner hosts.

Key Tracks: Syvyys, Ilmaa Virtaa, Musta Katu, Valo Tihkuu Kaiken Läpi

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No Age – Weirdo Rippers (Fat Cat Records; 2007)

Weirdo_Rippers

Turn this shit up, way up. LA two-piece that plays some of the finest noise pop for this here internet generation; equal parts balls-to-the-wall lo-fi hardcore and hummable, fuzzed out surf pop. Imagine The Jesus & Mary Chain knocking up Hüsker Dü; the resulting offspring would be Randy Randall & Dean Spunt‘s twisted take on rock and roll. One minute they’re experimenting with ear shattering, scuzzy feedback; the next sounds as if they’ve discovered how to create a sonic representation of dryer lint (warm, ambient and wooly). Anyhow; this Weirdo Rippers isn’t a real album per se, more or less a collection of 7-inches, b-sides and assorted paraphernalia that strangely enough, sounds cohesive. And don’t worry; if you’re looking for their “other” record, it appears on the “numbered” portion of this list…

Key tracks: Neck Escaper, Boy Void, Everybody’s Down, My Life’s Alright Without You

Albums Of The Decade, Part IV

So far we’re nineteen albums into my best of the decade list (there are 74 total) but I don’t think that means much to my loyal readers (both of you) until we get down into the numbered selections, probably appearing sometime later next week. Let’s keep the ball rolling…

OutKast – Stankonia (Arista Records; 2000)

Stankonia

OutKast‘s fourth album (also known as “their last good one”) is a genre-bending, aurally ambitious offering from the Atlanta duo that became synonymous with that crunk-ass Dirty South, introducing freaky rapping styles to mainstream ears; quite possibly one of the first hip-hop records to get both critical acclaim and sales while staying true to the spirit of experimentation. Not to take anything at all away from Big Boi‘s standard hip-hop gangsterism, but André 3000‘s ideas (as far as his lyrical content goes; all that weird shit about the underwater land of Stankonia) at the time of this record was head and shoulders above the rest of the hip-hop world, he’s more on par with a crunk version of George Clinton or a ghettoized Prince. I mean, c’mon- they did almost all the beats and all the music (with a little help from Mr. DJ and Organized Noize) but this is OutKast‘s vision here, and if they had to choose one mission statement to be their best representation of what they were, it’d be Stankonia.

Key Tracks: B.O.B., So Fresh So Clean, Ms. Jackson, Humble Mumble (with Erykah Badu)

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Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian; 2003)

Magnolia

An album that lies at the intersection of “working class rock, white soul, swamp rock and outlaw country” (according to the one-sheet accompanying this record), Songs: Ohia has been native Buckeye-stater Jason Molina‘s singular vision since 1996. His songs of love and hate on here are heralded as a major change for him both lyrically and musically, but ask him and he’ll tell you previous release Didn’t It Rain was the last Songs‘ record- he leaves behind the spare arrangements in favor of a bigger, fuller sound. Either way, Molina‘s channeling the kindred spirits of Springsteen, Neil Young and John Cougar– blue collar country rock with an attitude; a shot and a beer with Jason and his road crew while Hank Williams plays on the jukebox at some hole in the wall in Skokie or Wabash. Guest vocalists Lawrence Peters (doing his best Merle Haggard impression) and Scout Niblett appear on two tracks right in the middle of the record; meshing with the material perfectly. Oh, and it’s produced by Steve Albini himself, so…

Key tracks: Farewell Transmission, Just Be Simple, I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost, John Henry Split My Heart

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Kings Of Convenience – Riot On An Empty Street (Astralwerks; 2004)

Riot

This record gives me a warm feeling every time I spin it; it’s as if this Norwegian duo figured out a way to bring the serene and tranquil heat you get from a fireplace and somehow box it up. Gorgeous melodies wrapped in whispered folk tunes, in the spirit of perfect Scandinavian pop- think Abba-meets-Iron & Wine at a Tahoe ski lodge. Riot On An Empty Street is an apt album title; that’s exactly what it sounds like. Actually, every song on here has a feel described by the song’s title- Homesick, Misread, Cayman Islands, Sorry Or Please, Gold In The Air of Summer; they sound like they should. Of course this album isn’t hurt by the fact that a one Miss Leslie Feist appears on two tracks (these were recorded right after she finished her work on the acclaimed Let It Die, released the same year) which are as beautiful as anything on her record. Never mind that drums don’t even show up until the sixth track- this record has such an easy climb to the centerpiece, the wonderful I’d Rather Dance With You, a sublime track extolling the virtues of a wordless exchange on the dancefloor; shhhh- don’t speak (you’ll ruin the moment…)

Key tracks: I’d Rather Dance With You, The Build Up (with Feist), Misread, Know How (with Feist)

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Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies (Merge Records, 2006)

Destroyers_rubies

Dan Bejar has taken so many chances, made so many different records; basically risks everything his name stands for with every release you can’t help but love the man, even when his records are completely awful (2004’s Your Blues) or one of the best of the decade (2000’s Thief). Obviously I just gave away one of my albums of the decade by admitting that Thief is a tremendous work in its own right, but my third favorite Destroyer record is Destroyer’s Rubies– the kind of record you throw on when it’s time for a soul-searching road trip. And I said third favorite, so you’ll be seeing another Bejar-led record on my best-of list as well. This review, however- let’s talk about the album’s opener, Rubies– one of the finest songs Bejar‘s ever written, a nine-and-a-half-minute opus that references both a Smiths‘ song and a CCR song and introduces us to the (loose concept) album’s main character, the “Priest”, referenced again in two more songs (one being the album’s final track). Bejar‘s razor-sharp wit, his uncanny ability to recall 1970s pop culture minutiae, both his adherence to and rejection of the popular song structure; every album creates a world unto itself- here his Rubies have created a world where both The Band and David Bowie are revered as gods that are not only to be worshipped but mocked and ridiculed, then finally laid to rest as the relics they are.

Key tracks: Rubies, Sick Priest Learns To Last Forever, Painter In Your Pocket, European Oils

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TV On The Radio – Dear Science (Interscope Records; 2008)

Dear_science

Another band that’s going to have three albums on my best-of the decade list; obviously- have you ever fucking listened to TVOTR? No, scratch that- have you ever seen TVOTR live? Sonically, they’re light years ahead of the rest of the field- mixing post-punk, electronica, noise, funk and rock into a seamless blend of styles that they can call their own (nobody does it like these guys, period); not to mention lyrically there’s not a subject they won’t (or haven’t) touched: sex, love, racism, aging, death, disease, modern life, technology, travel, on and on ad infinitum. Having their fingers pressed firmly on the pulse of today, there isn’t another band around right now that can explain the curse of growing up in America these days; this challenge of how we can comfort one another by relating at once our collective human condition to each other while living both within the borders of our paranoid country and inside our paranoid mindscapes. Dear Science, please start solving problems and curing diseases or shut the fuck up.

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