Albums Of The Decade, Part 9

I’m trying to think of a unifying theme of the last decade; if there’s anything to be said about people’s musical tastes over the past ten years it can be said that we’re definitely an eclectic bunch. That doesn’t necessarily mean “unfocused” (I’ve never misplaced my hard drive but have lost everything on it before…) or that we’re of the “ADD generation” (gimme my Ritalin) but if there is a common thread; it’s… wait. What was I talking about?

Music!

Deerhunter – Cryptograms (Kranky Records; 2007)

deerhunterCan I just re-post my initial review of this (from my old blogspot)? Edited, of course…

So there’s this choppy and churning, roto-Leslie effect on the guitar (its intent to possibly mimic a siren?) that signals the start of Cryptograms. It’s an ominous warning and Deerhunter wants you to take them serious. As in “dead” serious- it’s an album wrought with imagery of death, as their own bass player died in a tragic skateboard accident recently. It makes for a sad trip of an album, back and forth between light and dark until finally eschewing the grief and moving towards the light.

Track-by-track the same rotary effect is applied as a segue between (White Ink literally sounds just as it’s been named) with a few minutes dedicated to what amounts to white noise. But the ever-present theme of the album returns itself back to those densely layered, choppy delays to segue us away to Lake Somerset; which falls into a jam-band induced trance and drops you lightly into Providence with a toned-down reprise of that thematic and soupy churn of organs and guitar and finally into Octet-Stream.

Evoking both a psychedelic feel and emotive urgency, with that same disconnected lyrical and haunting musical recipe that worked so well in Grizzly Bear‘s excellent Yellow House last year. Other bands that come to mind when listening to this album: Slint‘s Spiderland, My Bloody Valentine‘s Loveless, and last year’s debut album from I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. (Side Note: albums I seem to give favor to often find themselves in company with other good albums.)

But at the halfway point of the album, that bubbling theme settles itself to a simmer with an ambient and atmospheric soundscape, and the album’s centerpiece is revealed with Spring Hall Convert and a nice segue into Strange Lights. So it basically took us about 25 minutes into this album before actual songs (as in rhythm, melody, hooks, riffs?) decide to make an appearance- to see if an actual album materializes. And it does quite wonderfully, after the aptly-named Tape Hiss Orchid gives itself into the arms of Heatherwood and its chanting chorus “was not seen again” playing us out of the album.

In short, a great achievement, musically, lyrically. This is where maximum creativity has been reached, definitely one of the better albums of the year. Deerhunter, as a band, has moved on and ultimately accepted reality, which makes for beautiful art.

There you go; my favorite album from one of my favorite bands- see them live when they come to your town.

Key tracks: Tape Hiss Orchid, Heatherwood, Cryptograms, Spring Hall Convert

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The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop Records; 2003)

chutes-too-narrowApparently the title of this record is a euphemism for anal sex; okay, I totally get it. Whether it’s an actual butt-sex reference or simply a metaphor (akin to “screwing the pooch” or “shitting the bed”, i.e.; any term for being a total fuck up) it’s gotta be the most successful album to sneak that one by the record-buying public. The Shins brand of radio-friendly retro pop (with tongue-in-cheek lyrics) really hit its stride on this album- whereas Oh, Inverted World‘s standout tracks had their dreamy and ethereal imagery, this one has shiny vocal harmonies dressed-up with slick production values courtesy of Phil Ek (whose resume includes albums by Band Of Horses, Fleet Foxes and Built To Spill). The Shins could never be accused of being unlistenable, (your mom was probably humming the tunes she knows from the Garden State soundtrack) and that’s their mass appeal; the fact that every one of their tunes sounds as if its ready for a drive-time playlist. Even the songs that aren’t totally saccharine-sweet pop have an understated beauty to them- take the lyrics to Pink Bullets; they have such a trenchant and timeless quality to them it’s as if lead-Shin James Mercer was channeling Nick Drake‘s ghost.

Key tracks: Pink Bullets, Kissing The Lipless, Gone For Good, So Says I

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Radiohead – Amnesiac (Capitol Records; 2001)

amnesiac“I’m a reasonable man, get off my case…” implores Thom Yorke on opening track Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box; it’s funny because Radiohead was in the process of becoming a sort of a cultural Rosetta Stone based on the critical success of Kid A, a phenomenal record in its own right. All but one track on Amnesiac was recorded during those sessions, and stylistically they share a commonality unlike any other back-to-back Radiohead offerings. Because this record was released so close to Kid A (seven months apart), it was glossed over because it was less obtuse, it had more guitar songs, had more singles and videos, etc. All specious arguments; Thom Yorke later said (when pressed to answer the question “why not release a double album or two records simultaneously?”) that

“They are separate because they cannot run in a straight line with each other. They cancel each other out as overall finished things. In some weird way, I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation. Something traumatic is happening in Kid A, this is looking back at it, trying to piece together what has happened. I think the artwork is the best way of explaining it. The artwork to Kid A was all in the distance. The fires were all going on the other side of the hill. With Amnesiac, you’re actually in the forest while the fire’s happening…”

That makes perfect sense; if they did release Kid A and Amnesiac together it probably would’ve been the greatest album of the last 30 years anyway…

Key tracks: Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box, I Might Be Wrong, Knives Out, Pyramid Song

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Minus The Bear – Highly Refined Pirates (Suicide Squeeze Records; 2002)

HighlyRefinedPiratesI can’t give one good reason or even remotely explain why I love this album so damn much; it’s got everything that makes people wanna scream and leave the room- prog-type excesses, over-the-top guitar noodling, ProTools cut-and-paste production values, it’s the antithesis of lo-fi and/or heartfelt singer-songwriter stuff. But I’m not here to defend my taste, I’m here to explain why I love these records- and this record fucking rocks. It’s basically forty-two minutes of guitar-driven, technically proficient post/math rock with some of the most awful song titles this side of Ween. They’re either inside jokes that only the band gets or lines of dialogue from awful sci-fi flick Starship Troopers (seriously), but the titles are almost never mentioned in the songs themselves, they’re entirely different subjects contained within. One review I’ve read of this album bunches them in with The Dismemberment Plan and Built To Spill (two bands I can’t stand because they’re boring as fuck) and yet another review places them in a league with pre-Fear Of Music Talking Heads and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic-era King Crimson (two bands/albums I absolutely adore) so to the haters on this one: go cram it with walnuts. This record kills. But that’s only my opinion, and until you get a blog and start writing about music; it’s the only opinion that matters…

Key tracks: Absinthe Party At The Fly Honey Warehouse, Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!, We Are Not A Football Team, Women We Haven’t Met Yet

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Madvillain – Madvillainy (Stones Throw Records; 2004)

madvillainYou’re probably gonna give me a ton of shit that this record’s only #31 on the list. I can explain; I think hip-hop’s heyday was the actual heyday of hip-hop (’88 to ’91); why else is that era referred to as “The Golden Age Of Hip-Hop”? I know that’s a weak defense; but in all actuality there’s been a ton of good “rock” music the last ten years, and not a whole lot of good “rap” music. This is a fact- turn on your radio or TV and this fact is indeed proven correct. That point is completely moot when talking about MF Doom and/or Madlib; they’ve never searched for mainstream ears- it’s obvious in the samples they use, ranging from such diverse influences as the space-freak jazz of Sun Ra, the shtick-rock of Frank Zappa, the minimalism of Steve Reich, the hardcore raps of Schooly D and prog wizards Gentle Giant; the common thread running through all of the aforementioned artists is their experimental and innovative natures, just like Madvillain. I would shy away from using the tag “experimental hip-hop” but if there is such a genre; Doom and Lib are at the forefront of that shit.

Key tracks: All Caps, Money Folder, Rhinestone Cowboy, Raid

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Vote, Vote, VOTE!

SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records: THE COVERS!

score

Various Artists – SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records: THE COVERS! (Merge Records; April 7th, 2009)

I usually don’t get jazzed up about compilations, but this year can be the rarest of exceptions. Less than two months ago, the good folks over at Red Hot put together the all-star jammy-jam of the millenium. So, not to be outdone, Merge Records co-founders (and Superchunk-ers) Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan (who’s also the man behind Portastatic) put together their own ridiculously awesome compilation, this one to showcase the collective talent of their own label’s bands.

But here’s the catch; it’s all covers of Merge artists’ songs done by non-Merge artists. That’s one hell of a hook- to be able to wrangle bands like The Shins, The National, Bright Eyes, Ted Leo, The New Pornographers, Les Savy Fav, Ryan Adams and Death Cab For Cutie; covering the likes of Arcade Fire, Robert Pollard, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields and Destoyer (also there’s four songs by the label’s flagship band).

I call Superchunk Merge‘s flagship band because that’s exactly what they are; Mac and Laura started the label to self-release their early 7″ singles as well as their friends in and around the Durham, North Carolina area. And the rest is history; twenty years of independent music history. It’s funny that people label so many bands as “indie rock” when in fact whenever I’ve thought of if indie rock even had a distinct sound, it’d be precisely what Superchunk sounds like (as well as bands like Sebadoh, Archers Of Loaf, Guided By Voices, Pavement, et al.) but it seems like everything released on an independent label these days is considered “indie”. That’s a whole ‘nother essay, someday…

Let’s just shut that off and get into the music; there’s 75 minutes of tunes here, so we have a lot of ground to cover. I’m just going to gloss over the weaker tracks and delve into what makes this record a worthwhile listen, and as most compilations are; a worthwhile cause.

Four Superchunk songs get the do-over: Ryan Adams does well for himself by speeding up his version of Like A Fool and The Hive Dwellers render My Noise as a completely different piece altogether- getting freaky and minimal. But the two standouts are Les Savy Fav sounding identical to on their cover of Precision Auto and Death Cab‘s really nice re-working of Kicked In.

The Shins shine on their cover of Tenement HallsPlenty Is Never Enough, and The New Pornographers play The Rock*A*TeensDon’t Destroy This Night, both songs penned by Chris Lopez, the voice behind both of those bands. Other standouts would be the beautiful Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers) duet by St. Vincent and The National, Bill Callahan‘s gruff and curmudgeonly work-over of VersusSanta Maria, John Darnielle‘s excellent guitar-vocal-Panasonic boomboox rendering of East River Pipe‘s Drug Life, Broken Social Scene‘s cover of The Clean‘s Complications (“this song was written before Born To Run” says the small child’s voice before the song- I can’t confirm if this is true; Born To Run was recorded in 1974, The Clean didn’t form until 1978. Hmmmmm…)

Other tracks worthy of mention- two Magnetic Fields‘ songs; Bright Eyes doing Papa Was A Rodeo and Tracey Thorn with Jens Lekman on Yeah! Oh, Yeah!

Now for the bad news (boo!) Okkervil River, The Apples In Stereo and Lavender Diamond: your songs are all terrible.

Dear Robert Schneider (of The Apples In Stereo),

Please, please, please stop making music. How is it you can cover a Neutral Milk Hotel song and make it unlistenable? I hate you- please retire posthaste.

Signed, Jimmy Mac

Also, that aforementioned Hive Dwellers rendition of Superchunk‘s My Noise: the worst song on the record, by far. When I said “freaky and minimal” I meant “lousy and awful”. There is one song I’m quite indifferent to, I like it and I don’t: Times New Viking on Arcade Fire‘s Neighborhood #1. See, I love the song. And it seems that ever since TNV released their album last year i go out of my way to slander them; alas, this isn’t as terrible as their album. It’s still got that annoying fuzzy reverb but there’s an acoustic guitar in there and the vocals aren’t as washed away. I think I like it. I’m not sure- ask me in a month.

So, there you have it; another really good compilation album in 2009. There’s at least five tracks on this that’ll be entered in the song of the year running come December, which had me thinking; should compilation albums and songs from them be considered as album of the year/song of the year finalists?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

Tracklisting:

01 Quasi: “Beautiful Things” (3Ds cover)
02 Les Savy Fav: “Precision Auto” (Superchunk cover)
03 The Shins: “Plenty Is Never Enough” (Tenement Halls cover)
04 St. Vincent and the National: “Sleep All Summer” (Crooked Fingers cover)
05 Broken Social Scene: “Complications” (The Clean cover)
06 Ryan Adams: “Like a Fool” (Superchunk cover)
07 Bright Eyes: “Papa Was a Rodeo” (The Magnetic Fields cover)
08 Lavender Diamond: “New Ways of Living” (Destroyer cover)
09 The Apples in Stereo: “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3” (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)
10 Laura Cantrell: “Cowboy on the Moon” (Lambchop cover)
11 Bill Callahan: “Santa Maria” (Versus cover)
12 Barbara Manning: “Through With People” (Portastatic cover)
13 The Mountain Goats: “Drug Life” (East River Pipe cover)
14 The New Pornographers: “Don’t Destroy This Night” (The Rock*A*Teens cover)
15 Tracey Thorn and Jens Lekman: “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” (The Magnetic Fields cover)
16 The Hive Dwellers: “My Noise” (Superchunk cover)
17 Ted Leo & the Pharmacists: “The Numbered Head” (Robert Pollard cover)
18 Okkervil River: “All You Little Suckers” (East River Pipe cover)
19 Death Cab for Cutie: “Kicked In” (Superchunk cover)
20 Times New Viking: “Neighborhood #1” (Arcade Fire cover)

SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records

The Shins – Wincing The Night Away

The Shins- Wincing The Night Away
(SubPop, release date 1/23/07)

Going in a new direction sometimes will get you lost. The Shins‘ new album sets out in this “new” direction but manages to still embody all the elements that make The Shins, well, The Shins. Basically, what I mean is this: it’s new without being too new. Make sense? I didn’t think it would, but here’s the gist- while many bands try to eschew their old sound by completely overhauling it, Wincing The Night Away presents a fuller, more self-realized sound without abandoning the New Slang slash Pink Bullets sound we’ve come to know and love.

There’s a little bit more distortion and feedback on here, used wisely, but still using that tambourine-snare combo that gives it a sixties-cum-modern folk feel, emblematic of their sound. Every song is rather good, which probably made it extremely hard for the band and the label to pick Phantom Limb as the single. My pick would’ve been Sea Legs, starting with a hip-hop beat and finishing with an amazing “jam” that lasts a few minutes, fading out beautifully. Split Needles is also an amazing track, with its soaring vocals and melodies, fuzz toned guitars, stop/start drum beat, and sampled synth lines.

Written over the last year and partially recorded in his basement studio, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist James Mercer got married, battled insomnia and struggled with some personal issues. So lyrically, it’s introspective, nostalgic and sentimental, but at the same time very forward-thinking. This will undoubtedly be on many critics year-end lists.

Look for it near the top of mine…



Wincing the Night Away