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

Put It In Context For Me…

I don’t know where I read it, but basically there’s this whole school of thought out there that all popular music is just stolen from other popular music; I mean, there’s only twelve notes that can be played/heard, multiply that by “acceptable” chord progressions, rhythms, etc.- there’s really a finite number of “sounds”, and even though it probably numbers in the hundred millions (or even billions), music is gonna get recycled at some point. Or at least sound that way.

So, in reverence to the “classics”, I’m going to review some of the following records in context to their influences (or what I perceive their influences to be). I hope this starts some epic arguments, after all- if we heard everything the same, music would be boring…

P.O.S. – Never Better (Rhymesayers; 2/3)pos

I’m pretty sure I can call 2009 “The Year I Fell In Love With Hip-Hop Again”; in response to my lack of any rap coverage over the last few years I made a conscious decision to recommit myself to an art form I used to hold so dear and I haven’t been disappointed so far, thanks to the good folks over at Rhymesayers Entertainment. Enter Minneapolis-based P.O.S.– not your average rap artist; he produces eight of the 15 tracks on Never Better, he samples Fugazi (on Savion Glover), mentions the prog-metal band Isis on Purexed: they kick that gingivitis / them rappers got the ‘itis / catch me bumpin’ Isis in a crisis…” and generally has a “fuck you” attitude towards the major label rappers. What do you expect, he grew up obsessed with punk rock- so he can reference hardcore bands like Lifetime, sample Christian screamo bands (Underoath) and get fellow Minnesotan and Hold Steady singer Craig Finn to guest star (except all these things happen on previous records, Ipecac Neat & Audition). 8/10

Dananananakroyd – Hey Everyone! (Best Before, 4/6)danana

Dude, this is screamo-pop. And that means I should probably hate it but I don’t. I can hear influences as far ranging as Refused, Blood Brothers, Black Eyes, Les Savy Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Mae Shi and Los Campesinos! in here- but what would you expect from a band that’s name is a portmanteau of Dan Akroyd and the Batman theme (da-na-na-na-na-ak-royd!)? I mean, really- I for one, am sick to death with music reviews as an academic thing; this band pushes your head right into the crapper, fucking takes a huge shit on you then rips the fucking toilet seat off of its hinges, beats your face with it, scoops the dooky out of the commode, lights that shit on fire and throws it at your mother. I could’ve done this review in two words: FUCK YEAAAAAAAAAAH! 9/10

Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake (The Leaf Label; 4/13)wildbirds

These 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. 10/10

Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade; 4/21)darkdays

I had a passing fancy with SFA a few years ago and couldn’t quite put my finger on their brand of fun, quirky Welsh pop. Then I revisited some krautrock lately (as I was trying to ready a piece on progressive rock that’s stalled a bit, maybe I’ll finish it soon?) and it hit me- they’re like a poppy version of Can; that four-on-the-floor motorik beat is present in a lot of their songs, as is the aural psychedelic landscape dotted with bliss-kissed synths and that funky experimentation. But singer Gruff Rhys has a much lovelier (yet less expressive) voice than either Damo or Malcolm. There’s even some singing in German (on the track Inaugural Trams, courtesy of Franz Ferdinand‘s Nick McCarthy). I’m really digging this record; I’m sure it’s going to grow on me as the year matures, and I’m currently immersing myself deeply into their back catalog. 8/10

Moderat – Moderat (BPitch; 4/28)moderat

I fucking hate techno. I can’t think of anything more boring and repetitive than this shit- this is the crap that’s playing when you walk into a store that you 1) immediately get dirty looks from the shitty Eurotrash wannabes working there 2) because they know you can’t afford anything anyway and 3) get in a huge fight with your girlfriend over how much she spent there that 4) eventually causes your break-up which is 5) good because she was an idiot that shops at a store with an unpronounceable name with awful people working there named Jens or Britta that like this terrible music. I’m also offended that this album took three fucking people to make- I thought the Germans were known for efficiency. Did they all get paid to click the same mouse? It’s like “Here’s beat #11, here’s bass line #3 and let’s drag and drop “ambient synth #43” on top, thanks ProTools! Because it’s all made on their laptops- ever wonder what those guys are doing when they’re playing live? You just paid 20 bucks to watch a guy check his e-mail, dumbass! This album cover saves this record from getting a zero, because that bitch punching herself in the face is an actual artist’s rendering of the first person to buy this record. 1/10

Thee Oh Sees – Help (In The Red; 4/28)theeohsees

The first time I ever heard The Velvet Underground I was probably fifteen; I don’t remember exactly, it didn’t seem that important at the time. It was probably another five years before I “got it” and understood the massive significance of their influence, I had to listen to them backwards (my term for getting into a band through their influences, e.g.- kids who like Interpol could follow them back to Joy Division, likewise; young folks who dig The National or The Hold Steady could easily then understand Springsteen). So what’s all this have to do with Thee Oh Sees‘ newest album? Let’s just say a fifteen year old discovering this record today could easily bridge the gap back to the Velvets or any other psychedelic/noise/garage band of note, in fact- I’d say just skip this record and put on anything by King Khan, BBQ, maybe the Black LipsLet It Bloom, no- actually, skip all them too and just listen to Sister Ray over and over. I think that’s what the MC5 and The Stooges did, and look at the bands they’ve gone on to influence, trickling all the way down to The Oh Sees, et. al. 4/10

Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms (Secret City; 4/28)watson-wooden-arms

I can think of one reason not to move to Canada: Patrick Watson. That’s the name of the singer/songwriter and his band. Pretentious much? His last album, 2007’s Close To Paradise, won a Polaris Prize (the Canuck equivalent of a Grammy, so yeah- pretty pointless). But who’d he beat out? Not only did he win over Leslie Feist‘s The Reminder but Arcade Fire‘s Neon Bible. Now, I haven’t listened to Close To Paradise, but there’s no way in hell that it’s a better record than both The Reminder and Neon Bible. But this record, Wooden Arms– is crap. I can’t think of a sleepier record, and not “sleepy” in a good way, like when I used to fall asleep to Efterklang‘s Tripper, I mean “sleepy” in bad way, like doze-off-on-a-four-lane-highway-and-into-oncoming-traffic-sleepy. When it’s not a snooze-fest, boring you to death; it’s annoying- using things you find around the studio for percussion instruments isn’t groundbreaking, interesting or even edgy. It’s just lame. And tired. I’m tired now. 2/10

John Vanderslice – Romanian Names (Dead Oceans; 5/19)romanian-names

In terms of melody, Vanderslice is par excellence and his lyrics are emotive and poignant without being overwrought or corny. That being said, he’s the most likely to break out to a bigger audience; I’m somewhat shocked he hasn’t already- he could should be bigger than that twit Bono and what’s their names? But as the mainstream public is usually slow to react to brilliance he’ll probably find his music being misappropraited into an episode of one of those awful CW shows like Gossip Girls or the new 90210. I can’t see JV letting that happen, he’s still “ours” for the time being. On Romanian Names, Vanderslice is at it again- a short and effective album; perfect three-to-four minute pop songs built around catchy-ass hooks that feature imaginative production values captured to two-inch tape in his all-analog studio. He’s a bit of a throwback and I think that’s why he’s so endearing, oh- and his songs, man. 8/10

Hoots & Hellmouth – The Holy Open Secret (MAD Dragon; 6/2)hootsandhellmouth

On the track You And All Of Us, H&H deliver a hearty ole foot stompin’ and hollerin’ right there in the studio; I can envision their live show because this basically sounds like a live album, all amped up with hoedown shout-alongs and hootenany rave-ups. This is old timey music; and a big “much respect” because they’re Philly boys- it’s nice to see a little scene like this going on in my old hometown. It also helps that Sean Hoots, Rob Berliner and Andrew Gray produced this with Bill Moriarty (who did both Dr. Dog‘s and Man Man‘s last records). It ain’t all uptempo songs, however; it’s nicely balanced out with some balladry and melancholia. The most inviting aspect of H&H‘s sound is the three-part harmonies worked to absolute perfection; vocals weave in and out of each other, under, around to create excellent songsmanship. And more props to their record label (MAD Dragon), owned and operated by the students and faculty at Drexel University; it’s actually the only student-run record label in the USA with a national distribution deal (with Warner subsidiary Rykodisc). That’s pretty rad- to think I wasted college on pursuing an education degree, I shoulda started a record label. I’m wasting my life… 7/10

Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador; 6/9)sonic_youth

I can’t claim undying allegiance to Da Yoof, not since 1992’s Dirty (in fact, I had to give the seven albums in between then and now a listen to see what I’ve missed out on) so at the very least I can say I’m somewhat caught up on the trajectory of their sound; which if you’re a diehard fan you’d probably agree that it goes from somewhat mainstream to nigh unlistenable from record to record- they can bend their sound to either end of the spectrum. But for the last 28 years no other band smells as much like New York as SY, it’s like riding the D train from Coney Island up to Fordham and back again- kind of scuzzy, a little scary, way-too-hip for someone who grew up in Philly; that’s Sonic Youth in a nutshell. But the songs are all there- Kim Gordon has moved over to guitar as Mark Ibold (ex-Pavement) takes over on bass, so now there’s more diversity on the low end of things, and more interplay between the awesome axe-wielders Ranaldo and Moore. Of course, since it’s their most diverse offering it’s also caused the most division among hardcore fans- “it’s not experimental enough” because it’s not like NYC Ghosts & Flowers; “it’s not as polished as Dirty” because uber-producer Butch Vig wasn’t twiddling the knobs, etc. I don’t care about SY‘s hardcore fans- I can appreciate them as a band that’s dedicated to maintaining a healthy relationship with itself while making music that’s at times haunting and dissonant but still extremely listenable. In short, it’s a damn fine album- I’ve listened to it more than any other album this year (because I burned it to CD so I could listen in the car). 9/10

Ten Albums…

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty (Matador; 1/20)get-guilty

I’ve been slow to warm up to The New Pornographers; which is weird considering I really like both Neko Case and Destroyer‘s solo work. Most of my nit-picking with the Canadian supergroup is irrational; I’m just not huge on their brand of power pop. So I blame Carl (A.C.) Newman for that. I’d call his solo efforts New Pornos-Lite, as if you could water-down their treacle even more; he renders it down to a sub-aspartame quality of sweetness. Which is nice if you wanna impress your date by popping this CD in the car’s stereo before bringing her to a coffee shop after a Renee Zellweger movie, but if you’re that type of person I seriously doubt you’re reading independent music websites to inform your tastes. Anyway, if you like catchy indie pop like Rilo Kiley and Death Cab, you’ll like this. Grade: 5/10

Matt & Kim – Grand (Fader Label; 1/20)matt-kim

Touted as the younger, hipper version of Mates Of State; I’d say that’s only accurate in that the similarities they share are: yes, they’re a couple and yes; they play layered, synthy electro-pop. The comparison ends there – Matt & Kim are fun; while Mates Of State are a duo that sounds as if they’re stuck in a never-ending couples therapy session and every little marital slight and inadequacy is written down and set to music. Back to Matt & Kim; too much Matt, not enough Kim– when she finally does appear (not until track 6, Lessons Learned) her vocals are (big surprise!) pushed way down in the mix in deference to Matt‘s annoying vocal affectations that are akin to that awful singer from All-American Rejects. I said it was fun, but fun doesn’t necessarily equate to good. I guess this is how their relationship works; it’s basically a Matt solo project and he’s letting his girlfriend sing some la’s. Oh, she plays drums, too, but it seems as if most of the tracks have a drum machine. It was probably his idea she get hit by that bus… Grade: 3/10

Brother Ali – The Truth Is Here EP (Rhymesayers Entertainment; 3/10)brother-ali

Brother Ali got some flow. He’s got the rhymes, he’s got tight beats, he’s got enough balls to put out a nine-song, 34-minute record and call it an EP. He’s got the respect of the underground hip-hop community as well as the attention of rap magazine/bible The Source and got a little blurb in Rolling Stone‘s New Artist To Watch column. With three full-lengths and two EPs under his belt, Ali (real name: Jason Newman) seems poised to step up to the level of Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Kool Keith, Sage Francis, the anticon. collective, El-P, MF Doom, Del, Murs– all the “underground” stars. His raps are confessionals; he’s adept at telling you exactly where he’s at in plain English but ain’t afraid to mix it up with superb metaphors and inoffensive tact. Ant of Atmosphere did the music (this collaboration is infinitely more interesting than his last record with Slug) and there’s so many great hooks and phenomenal samples. I’m also using this review as a soapbox to pledge to my readers that it’s a start in covering more hip-hop. Grade: 9/10

Asobi Seksu – Hush (Polyvinyl; 2/17)hush

Dream pop without the fuzzy guitars just doesn’t seem all that appealing- apparently their last album Citrus, from way back in ’06 was closer to shoegaze and got kick-ass reviews. Maybe I’ll listen to it someday. For now I’m stuck with Hush; its gentle melodies, soft atmosphere and breathy vocals- the album’s title implies exactly that, save for the track Me & Mary (there’s some fuzzy guitar). Asobi Seksu is Japanese for “casual sex”, so if you’re looking for something that you can spend one night with and never have to see again, you found it in recorded music. Let’s just hope this album doesn’t get all stalker-esque on you and start trying to message you on Facebook- we said “no strings attached” and didn’t exchange phone numbers. Please, just go… Grade: 4/10

Vetiver – Tight Knit (SubPop; 2/17)tight_knit

Remember when SubPop was known for exploiting that Seattle Sound about twenty years ago, all the way to the bank? Seems these days they’re hitting us with waves of easy-listening folk-rock from Band Of Horses, Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, Tiny Vipers and the newly acquired Vetiver; banking heavily on their blend of bland acoustic/slightly amplified naturalismo/nuevo-hippie pap. It’s about half-interesting, half-boring in that I can listen to it as a critic and vaguely understand what it is they’re trying to do- they do that well; as a fan of music in general I can listen with reserved incredulousness that there’s yet another band blindly thrown into the mix playing this same ol’ shit again and again. With regards to Vetiver‘s talent- they’re a fine band, serviceable even. With regards to their overall sound (what I’m basing this review on) is that Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh, I fell asleep. In short; whatever. Grade: 5/10

Royksopp – Junior (Astralwerks; 3/23)royksopp-junior

If I had a time machine I know what I’d do with it. Not go back and stop Hitler, or AIDS, or ask a different girl to the prom circa 1993- I’d go back and kill those fucking robots that call themselves Kraftwerk so that electronic music would’ve never happened. Now wait a minute- that means no Brian Eno, New Order, Depeche Mode, etc. but I’m willing to take that risk so that bands artists performers computer geeks like Royksopp and that god-damned Daft Punk would never exist as well. For every electronic musician that kicks ass, there are five that should’ve never happened at all. In this regard, I could go back even further and kill Karlheinz Stockhausen, considered by nerds everywhere to be the father of electronic music, but no one listens to him anyway (you can’t snort coke and dance to his music). Plus, Brian Eno could’ve then been a famous painter, New Order could’ve found an Ian Curtis-sound alike and stayed Joy Division and Depeche Mode… you know something- someone else could’ve made Violator in 1990 (INXS, possibly?) and no one would’ve missed out on anything. That album is the shit. Royksopp‘s Junior is just shit. Even the album cover makes me angry. Also, I haven’t figured out how to put the little dots over the o, because it would just be a waste of time and search engines don’t care about umlauts anyway. Grade: 1/10

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk; 3/31)lost_channels

I was trying to figure out why I liked this record so damn much; it’s by a Canadian band that plays a nice blend of folk and Americana- then it hit me. Canadian bands do Americana better than American bands nowadays- I think that’s because whatever the American Dream once meant means more to Canadians than it does to Americans. Things like civil liberties, freedom of press and universal health care are all American pipe dreams; in Canada they are reality. Politicizing aside; Great Lake Swimmers make great, laid-back folky tunes in that whole echo-chamber aesthetic completed by mandolins, banjos and wistful church organs reminiscent of early-70s MOR light rock. Grade: 8/10

Wolves In The Throne Room – Black Cascade (Southern Lord; 3/31)black-cascade

So as I’m record shopping last week over at the Berkeley Amoeba and I’m in the little metal section checking out the newly released vinyl Mastodon LP; I overhear two metal-heads- and one says to the other his favorite album this year is Wolves In The Throne Room‘s Black Cascade. Oooh, I think- what’s that? I hear the one say “it’s black metal” and the other was like, “No, man- it’s black ambient metal…” Duh, dude. I have no idea what the fuck that means, but as an audiophile it got me interested. I mean, “metal” is a relative term- like “heavy” and “black” (no, wait; black is absolute). Anyway, here goes a review: I have never listened to black ambient metal, my initial impression is that it’s sort of like superfast heavy metal played over synthesizers (like the ones you’d hear on side two of David Bowie‘s Low) that add “atmosphere” to the mix. So since I have no reference point to weigh this record against anything in its genre or compare it to (except speed metal on top of Brian Eno‘s keyboard washes) I’m going to say it’s a “demanding” listen, for the simple fact that it’s almost fifty minutes of skull-crushing drumming and endlessly droning power chords. I’m hearing elements of prog, hardcore punk and obviously thrash metal played with serious speed and technical prowess. There are some nice “soft” passages as well- the middle section of Crystal Ammunition is actually quite “pretty”, but the shortest song is ten-and-a-half minutes for Satan’s sake. It’s not for the faint of heart, and with song titles like Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog and Ex Cathedra, I’d say dudes who write endless hours of programming code in their parent’s basements (only stopping to play World Of Warcraft and chug Red Bull while never getting laid underneath their Lord Of The Rings posters) love this shit. Because those are the two dudes that I was eavesdropping on… Grade: 6.66/10

Crocodiles – Summer Of Hate (Fat Possum; 4/28)crocs

Can anybody tell me why I love this insanely fuzzed-out guitar pop? By all intents and purposes I should hate it- I grew up with an undying allegiance to and an appreciation for over-produced clean sounds, which carried into my 20s. Maybe it’s a subconscious rebellion slowly taking over in my mind. Anyway; I’m digging Crocodiles’ Summer Of Hate– it’s all the things I’ve been loving lately about music (see: No Age, Wavves, any reverb-heavy fuzz-pedal shit in general) that apes the whole Jesus & Mary Chain aesthetic. I could never fully get high on J&MC until re-visiting it through the ears of the aforesaid bands, but I blame Johnny Marr and Robert Smith for that; or any of the other bands I was into circa 1986. Grade: 8/10

Pink Mountaintops – Outside Love (Jagjaguwar; 5/5)pinkmtntops

I’ll get this out of the way first: best album cover yet this year. I’m loving the faux-Danielle Steele book cover set against a rumpled blue velvet background. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come from Stephen McBean‘s side project; he of Vancouver psych-rock outfit Black Mountain. It’s all dirgy and full of ballads of unrequited longing yadda yadda yadda… Basically the opposite of Black Mountains‘ in-yer-face wall of guitar sludge. I’m trying to feel this album because I’m a sensitive guy, I appreciate the heart-felt emotional output, but for some reason it just sounds hokey- sappy strings, corny crooning, things I abhor unless it’s coming from Morrissey or Bryan Ferry. Grade: 6/10