Albums Of The Decade, Part 6

I’m gonna go ahead and ease up on the use of Roman numerals for the titles of these posts here, I realize Arabic numbers don’t look so much like each other (unless we’re talking my actual handwriting, then you got problems); so good ol’ Trebuchet can lead the way. Yeah, in addition to being a music geek I’m also into fonts and various typefaces, but for now (I’mma let you finish, I’mma let you, but) here’s some more records…

Masta Ace – Disposable Arts (JCOR REcords; 2001)

masta_aceInstant classic; a modern-day hip-hopera, a ghetto concept album if you will. How this album isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Madvillainy and Stankonia I’ll never know- but Ace made a stunna here; it follows the story of a man released from jail and his return to Brooklyn. After realizing how tough it is on the streets, he decides to go back to school, but not any school- he enrolls in The Institute Of Disposable Arts; a hip-hop academy of sorts. It’s based on the shadiness of the music industry, the whackness of “thug life”, all that rap-poseurism shit and how to transcend it to stay true to yourself and just make good music; what’s in your heart and how to tap into that. Deep and introspective without being preachy, the beats and samples are some of the best collected on one record- choosing to work with virtual unknowns (producers from the New York underground) as well as some emcees also not known above ground. And since it’s a concept album, the skits are not only integral for the story but actually funny. Ace‘s wordplay and lyrical prowess are a sight to behold, every other line induces an “oh shit, did he just say that?”, it’s like watching a rap battle and everyone’s getting slayed. You may recognize his flow, it’s the one Eminem stole (don’t worry; Em‘s given Masta Ace mad props and the favor’s returned here- witnessed by the opening lines from Don’t Understand: I don’t do white music, I don’t do black music / I make rap music, for Hip-Hop kids…”) This is a triumphant return to form- Masta Ace had more or less dropped out of music for almost five years at the end of the century. I’m glad he made it back to drop this gem.

Key tracks: Acknowledge, Take A Walk (ft. Apocalypse), Alphabet Soup, Don’t Understand (ft. Greg Nice)

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Spoon – Kill The Moonlight (Merge Records; 2002)

spoonI’m pretty sure Spoon‘s Britt Daniel and Jim Eno are aware that when they’re producing their band’s albums, there’s basically an infinite number of tracks you can use in the studio, what with the advent of computer-based technology and all. So what does Spoon do instead? They record rock-and-roll in a minimalist style, each one near-masterpieces with the least amount of tracks and studio bullshit. I swear every song on this record could’ve been recorded on an 8-track, with at least two or three tracks to spare. Some songs don’t even have bass on them, but you never notice. Some songs (the album’s opener, Small Stakes) don’t even use the drum kit. Some tracks are synth-and-drum machine numbers with cool vocal panning (Paper Tiger, which is one of those songs with no bassline). First time I ever heard Spoon, I wasn’t blown away; Daniel doesn’t have the greatest voice and they aren’t the most technically proficient musicians. First time I ever really listened to Spoon (on headphones) I understood exactly what it was they were trying to do; recreate record-making before multi-tracking existed- and that more than makes up for whatever they lack in chops. This ain’t prog rock anyway, so who needs a Rick Wakeman-like keyboard vocabulary? It’s tight and precise, perfect little pop-rock gems cut into three-and-a-half minute jewels, and that’s usually all I need.

Key Tracks: The Way We Get By, Back To The Life, Jonathon Fisk, Small Stakes

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Calexico and Iron & Wine – In The Reins (Overcoat Recordings; 2005)

calexwineOpening track He Lays In The Reins is as soul crushingly beautiful a song I’ve heard since… maybe ever. Sam Beam‘s aching whisper juxtaposed up against Salvador Duran‘s deep operatic Flamenco vocals is pleasantly surprising- it shouldn’t work, but man does it. Likewise everything on here; it’s the best thing Calexico‘s done- they’ve always been hampered by the fact that neither Burns nor Convertino can sing like Beam, but Christ can they play. Their mastery of spaghetti western alt-country (as if there is such a genre) is wildly entertaining with all those assorted vibraphones, trumpets, guitars laid over laps, etc. The only thing that makes this less than great is that it’s only an EP, I’ve always felt kind of cheated that this session only produced seven songs. Nonetheless; they’re an amazing seven tracks, ranging from bar-room stompers (History Of Lovers; with its blaring horn section) to pedal steel magic (Sixteen, Maybe Less) to bluesy harmonica blow-outs (Red Dust) and Beam‘s laid-back, hushed delivery (Prison On Route 41); it’s a stellar collaboration between an artist and a band both at the apex of their respective careers. If the lyrics to Dead Man’s Will don’t choke you up a little, you have no soul…

Key Tracks: He Lays In The Reins; Dead Man’s Will; Prison On Route 41; Sixteen, Maybe Less

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Liars – Liars (Mute Records; 2007)

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This album has those noisy, sometimes scary freakouts (just like previous record, 2006’s Drums Not Dead), post-punkish rockers (hearkening back to another previous record, 2001’s They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument on Top), and some stuff in between (like 2004’s They Were Wrong So We Drowned); it’s sort of like a Liars‘ greatest hits compilation without the proverbial “hits”. Stylistically speaking it’s little pieces of everything they’ve ever done, crammed into a 39-minute package- like it was all thrown into a sausage grinder and these links are the album Liars; it tilts a bit back towards revisionism and leans forward into the future. Whenever a band can be a bit different but still the same from record to record (and I make that comparison far too often when writing these) it’s a good great thing; plus- you may just see another Liars‘ record on this list…

Key Tracks: Plaster Casts Of Everything, Houseclouds, Freak Out, Leather Prowler

The Mae Shi – HLLLYH (Moshi Moshi Records; 2008)

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Get it? HLLLYH = HeLLL YeaH! As in; if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go. I’m not sure if it was The Mae Shi‘s intent; but this record reeks (in a good way) of “concept album”. Oh man, do I love concept albums- and this one lampoons the hell (pun intended) out of the impending apocalypse. Electro-spazzcore at its finest; these LA twenty-somethings are fearless innovators, using an omnichord (this weird drum machine/keyboard hybrid they bought at a Goodwill) to play one of the greatest live acts I’ve ever witnessed, then break up a few months later. The brightest flames burn out the fastest; and after listening to HLLLYH over and over again; it’s amazing this band didn’t implode in the studio while recording- this record is like snorting hella truckstop meth after about 20 coffees. And did I mention the balls these guys had on this album? There’s an eleven-and-a-half minute dance track right during the middle of the album that’s basically a condensed remix version of the entire album. It’s fucking crazy; I really wanted to hate this band and this record but I absolutely adore it. And those are the ones that are both the most over-looked and the ones that sneak up on you and take you over…

Key tracks: Run To Your Grave, Lamb And The Lion, Pwnd, Boys In The Attic

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Dark Was The Night (A Red Hot Compilation)…

dark-night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracklisting:

DARK WAS THE NIGHT

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

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

Dark Was The Night