Albums Of The Decade, Part 8

Now we’re breaking into the forty best records of the aughts. Stylistically, I’m all over the place with these- experimental, folk, dance-punk, drone, noise pop, hip-hop, post-hardcore; it’s hard to keep track of all the newly invented genres (that mostly sound like slurs and epithets) just to classify all these records. I would have just two genres: good and bad. Maybe a third; so-so music. Or- great, good, so-so and bad. So we got through all the good records, let’s do the great ones now…

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife (Capitol Records; 2006)

TheCraneWifeOne part prog-folk song cycle, one part hyper-literate indie rock. That seems to be The Decemberists‘ formula as of late, the general idea being to make music both a listenable endeavor and as theatrical as possible. And to deliver a concept album-slash-rock opera as your major label debut, well now… I’ll let you in on a little secret, too: four Decemberists‘ records in my top 40 (really). So, if you’re not into melodramatic and sea-shanty based folk music rendered into a pop structure; well then. Here’s the review I wrote back in 2006 for this record:

Japanese folk-tale: impoverished man finds injured crane. Brings it in and nurses it back to health. Crane leaves. Enter beautiful woman, whom the man proceeds to fall in love with and marry. To make ends meet, wife weaves wonderful clothes from silk, but here’s the catch- he may never watch her at work. His greed increases, she works harder. She becomes ill. He peeks in on her to discover that she is in fact the crane that he nursed back to health and she weaves these beautiful garments from plucking her own feathers and weaving them into the loom. She flies away, never to return. Then Colin Meloy and his band sign to Capitol Records and he writes ten songs about it. I mean to say that he writes about the Crane Wife, not signing to Capitol. Although now that I think about it, I’d love to hear that album, too. Beloved indie band signs to major label. Because Colin could write about anything and I’d totally dig it, maybe even eat the peanuts out of his shit. In my world, Mr. Meloy is approaching Morrissey-level status. I mean, for fuck’s sake, he did a six song cover album of Morrissey tunes! I mean, what else does he have to do? Write the best album of 2006? Deliver the best tour of ’06 to the world? And on the seventh day he rested! Stylistically, this is closer to The Tain (prog rock) than Picaresque, although not too much unlike it. They changed without changing. So, asking me to pick a favorite song is really tough, but…

It’s funny how history can be revised, or; how that album (while still dear to me) fell from the #1 spot of ’06 and is all the way down to #40 of the decade- it should be in the top 10, but that’s how history and time can change your ears, I guess.

Key tracks: Shankill Butchers, The Crane Wife 1 & 2, The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning, The Crane Wife 3

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Liars – They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top (Blast First Records; 2001)

liars32Debut album from noiseniks Liars; mixes danceable drums and angular post-punk guitars with shouted lyrics and heavy, oppressive bass lines everywhere. This sort of hints at where they were headed- the record’s title is a play on the media’s insistence on lumping them into the dance punk scene; they don’t sound like they share too much in common with LCD Soundsystem (much spazzier) or Out Hud (or !!! for that matter; much dirtier) or Death From Above 1979 (not as formulaic) or The Rapture (less polished) or early stalwarts ESG (although they do cover an ESG song on here, the result is sloppier and “meaner”, for lack of a better descriptor). The final track, This Dust Makes That Mud is an entire half hour of repeated riff/bassline/beat that not only tests the limits of the listener’s patience, it’s also an exercise in trend-killing; seeking to destroy the so-called genre of “dance punk” it sets about alienating its audience and proving that you can only repeat yourself for so long until people tire of you. This album changed the way a lot of those aforementioned bands would make music; some of them would break up or be forgotten, some would rise to greatness. I guess the jury’s still out on that one…

Key tracks: The Garden Was Crowded And Outside, Grown Men Don’t Fall In The River Just Like That, This Dust Makes That Mud, We Live NE Of Compton

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Dirty Projectors – Rise Above (Dead Oceans; 2007)

DP_Rise_AboveI recommended this album to a Black Flag fan about a year ago; I never asked if they listened to it, but I’m guessing they didn’t because I never got punched in the face. The reason being (for the uninitiated) is because this record is lead-Projector Dave Longstreth‘s re-imagining (entirely from his teenage memory) of the 1981 hardcore punk classic Damaged. But done in an art-school sort of way; with fluttery guitars and Justin Timberlake-meets-Tiny Tim kind of croon, flutes, spastic drumming, dub basslines- on paper it sounds like a complete friggin’ mess but the result is really quite beautiful. The fear, isolation, teen angst, paranoia; all the original themes visited by Henry Rollins and crew are given an interesting slant here- if not an updated one. The fractured song structures, complete forgetting of lyrics (most often made up on the spot), everything that made Damaged a great record almost 30 years ago makes Rise Above a great record today. Musical styles may not be timeless, but the theme of man’s struggle over himself is.

Key tracks: Police Story, Rise Above, What I See, Thirsty And Miserable

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Jay-Z – The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella Records; 2001)

jay-z-the-blueprintShawn Carter just turned 40 years old last week, which is a pretty big deal considering where Jay came from (his story of running crack on the streets of Trenton and Brooklyn is legit; unlike his targets on the dis track Takeover, where he pretty much slaughters all his competitors with crisp and sharp lines like):

I don’t care if you Mobb Deep, I hold triggers to crews / You little fuck, I’ve got money stacks bigger than you / When I was pushin weight, back in eighty-eight / you was a ballerina I got your pictures I seen ya

and

You said you been in this ten / I’ve been in it five, smarten up Nas / Four albums in ten years nigga? I can divide / That’s one every let’s say two, two of them shits was due / One was nahhh, the other was Illmatic / That’s a one hot album every ten year average

The Jigga wasn’t taking any prisoners on The Blueprint, it basically established him as the emcee to beat this millennium- as far as mainstream circles go. You’ll eventually see a few more hip-hop albums on my list higher than this record (and Jay would eventually lose his crown); but they don’t have the reach and scope of this record (they also don’t have the luxury of major label distribution). They also don’t have killer beats from Just Blaze & Kanye, and an appearance from Eminem. But hey, if you had the net worth of Jay, you’d drop gems like this too:

I rhyme sicker than every rhyme spitter / Every crime nigga that rhyme or touch a mic because my mind’s quicker / I’m a eighty-eighter, nine-six to Reasonable Doubt / Temper short, don’t take much to squeeze you out / Yeah you shinin but the only thing you’re leavin out / You’re a candle in the sun, that shit don’t even out

– from Hola’ Hovito.

Pure swagger.

Key tracks: Takeover, U Don’t Know, Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love), Never Change

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Fugazi – The Argument (Dischord Records; 2001)

fugaziI was reading an article recently by writer Simon Reynolds (click here) about the slant of most critics’ decade-end lists leaning towards the first four years of the decade- which is also true for mine (somehow 2006 was the third-best year for music in my poll, maybe I’m just being overly sentimental there…) Anyway; this record, which would also be Fugazi‘s last since taking an indefinite hiatus in ’02 has stood up amazingly well- another album that sought to smash the confines of a media-imposed genre conundrum. It takes a bow in every direction; towards jazz, math and post-rock, dare I say prog? It’s all held together by airtight drumming from Brendan Canty as he lays out irregular and odd time signatures (not to mention drastic rhythmic changes as well), creating a pocket for Joe Lally‘s superb bass fills and groove-oriented mechanics. The whole thing is presented by both Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto‘s guitar dynamics- both intricately woven up and around each other, all the while having as much freedom as they need to make these huge walls of noisy, aggressive feedback. Lyrically, it’s as politically charged as ever- themes range from poverty, living in the nuclear age, nationalism, greed, modern ennui, globalization and then there’s self-examination; quiet introspection, detachment and selfishness. It’s Fugazi‘s most mature offering, recorded around the time they were all turning 40. It’s an enduring statement from four of the most ethical and intelligent musicians to ever grace the stage; to stare millennial dread right in the eyes and come away from it not only intact, but stronger and on their own terms.

Key tracks: Oh, Cashout, The Kill, Epic Problem

And if you haven’t gotten a chance to, please vote in The Musicologists 2009 Reader’s Poll…

The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

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The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love (Capitol Records; released March 24th, 2009)

Let me start by getting some of these “greater than/less than” equations out of the way:

Millions of true Who fans know this fact: Quadrophenia > Tommy

Pink Floyd fans agree on this also: Animals > Dark Side Of The Moon (we also agree that The Wall totally sucks)

Jethro Tull fans would add: Thick As A Brick > Aqualung

…and finally, this review will prove that:

The Hazards Of Love > The Crane Wife

But, most importantly:

My Opinion > your opinion

How’s that for pretentious? I’m wallowing in pretension right about now. What goes hand in hand with pretense and rock and roll better than the good old concept album? Those aforementioned concept albums/rock operas are at the pinnacle of ostentatious 70s progressive rock, and music criticism is at the forefront of early millennium pretension. So we’re made for each other.

Enter The Decemberists; they’ve basically made a career out of concept albums- Castaways & Cutouts, Her Majesty and Picaresque could (arguably) be loosely ushered under the umbrella of musical conceptualism; The Tain, The Crane Wife and the latest record are straight-up concept albums, no argument there. The Decemeberists are a band that thrive on conceptual continuity; themes like seafarers, pre-revolutionary Russia, Shakesperean-like tragedies, etc. keep popping up in their music. I’d say they mastered their musical vision here on The Hazards Of Love; this is a monster of an album, with seamless segues, a narrative that wonderfully and expertly defines setting, characters, plot- it’s as if Colin Meloy wrote this first as a play and then set music to it.

The story line follows our heroine Margaret (voiced by Lavender Diamond‘s Becky Stark) as she wanders through the taiga meeting an assorted cast of characters in search of her lost love William, voiced by Meloy (appearing at first as a shape-shifting faun), an evil forest queen (My Brightest Diamond‘s Shara Worden, who just about steals the spotlight), the child-murdering rake, you get the idea; each song is a new scene, each act split by a mid-album instrumental.

The whole affair begins with an inaudible but slowly building church organ with a solid minute and a half hanging on a D note, before going up an octave, then another, and still another octave up before going into a B-flat which then sets upon a meandering progression that revolves around that major scale. I mention that because most of the songs are built around B-flat, but that’s just something a music nerd like me notices.

I don’t wanna give too much of the plot away, I’ll give you an abridged version- you find out she’s pregnant (in the song A Bower Scene), has 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, guest appearances from Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Robyn Hitchcock, and you may just have earned yourself this writer’s Album Of The Year…

…but with nine more months to go, anything can happen.

Tracklisting:

01  Prelude
02  The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
03  A Bower Scene
04  Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
05  The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
06  The Queen’s Approach
07  Isn’t It a Lovely Night?
08  The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid
09  An Interlude
10  The Rake’s Song
11  The Abduction of Margaret
12  The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing
13  Annan Water
14  Margaret in Captivity
15  The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
16  The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
17  The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)


The Decemberists

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