Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 : JPB's Best Of


I didn't write about as many discs from 2009 as I would have liked—I was busy traveling, and completing my work for the semester, and getting ill—but I thought I'd close out my writing for this blog with a quick top ten.

10. Jason Crumer, Walk With Me
Restrained minimalist compositions which periodically descend into shredding noise. Read more | Listen: "Luscious Voluptuous Pregnant"

9. Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport
I prefer the less polished raw energy of their 2008 debut, Street Horsssing, but this follow-up is still an undeniably fine selection of anthemic psychedelic stomp.

8. Mountains, Choral
This outfit, made up of former Apestaartje personnel, has released three fine albums of pastoral drone this decade. This newest one stayed in heavy rotation for me this year.

7. Sunn O))), Dimensions and Monoliths
The boundaries of the Sunn O))) project have grown broader with each release, absorbing more and more material like some kind of black metal Katamari. This album finds them experimenting with keening choirs ("Big Church") and transcendent horn playing ("Alice"). It's not always successful, but when it works it expands their scope breathtakingly.

6. The Antlers, Hospice
A staggering song cycle about death, loss, and grief. Best way to hear it is by yourself, in a slowly darkening room.

5. Freelance Whales, Weathervanes
This album filled the slot that was filled last year by Natalie Portman's Shaved Head's Glistening Pleasure, and in 2005 by Architecture In Helsinki's In Case We Die: indie-pop music, made by young people, charming, charismatic, polished, and addictively sweet. A slightly shameful pleasure, but also a true and abiding one.

4. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
This is the great indie-pop album of the year: upbeat, energetic, yet also somehow grandly sad. Read more | Listen: "Lisztomania"

3. Gregg Kowalsky, Tape Chants
The idea of creating music by playing recorded matter on 6-10 cassette tape players simultaneously may sound a bit like someone trying to update Philip Jeck's turntable installations and performances. But Kowalsky's project is really its own thing, with conceptual underpinnings that differ completely from Jeck's, and just one immersion into Kowalsky's invitingly smoggy low-fi drone makes it completely clear that this is a soundworld that must be appreciated on its own terms.

2. Dan Deacon, Bromst
The eleven pieces that compose Bromst mostly sound like the soundtrack an old-school videogame that you might have experienced in a dream: all velocity and candy color. But just when you're ready to dismiss them as whiz-kid geekery they open up into something lovely, possibly even holy. Listen: "Red F"

1. Jónsi and Alex, Riceboy Sleeps
Beautiful ambient tracks from this side-project of Sigur Ros vocalist Jón Birgisson. Each track arranges acoustic instruments, voices, crackle, loops and hum into a kind of billowing fog that permeates directly to my brain's pleasure pathways.

Jeremy Bushnell

2009 : 19-20 Jack Rose & Charlie Parr

Jack Rose and Charlie Parr are two guitars who are often called "new traditionalists." Finger-pickers harkening back to an earlier era, Parr plays traditional folk and Piedmont blues-style songs on 6- and 12-string guitars, and banjo; Rose comes from the John Fahey tradition, but also incorporates elements of Indian ragas and minimalist drone.

Parr's father grew up on a tenant farm in northern Iowa with 17 siblings and rode out the Great Depression on freight cars. He rode them to Appalachia and Texas and every other corner of the country. He finally settled into a job shoveling animal parts at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn where he raised Charlie. Charlie dropped out of high school just one year in and left home to see the country. He settled in a rooming house in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1985 learning songs by artists his father used to play on the record player: Elizabeth Cotton, Fred McDowell, and Doc Boggs among others.

Jack Rose grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He started playing the guitar at age 10 and joined the group Pelt in 1993. In 2001, he began recording more and solo acoustic guitar compositions, appearing on the seminal Wooden Guitar compilation on Locust Records. His open tunings and long form compositions never lost the psychedelic and rock flavors of his earlier music, almost defining the word "deltadelica."

Both Jack and Charlie carry a certain blues and folk tradition forward, while putting their own stamp on it, reinventing it, bringing their own influences to it. Here is Parr covering a Blind Willie Johnson song, "God Moves On The Water," while Jack plays his own composition, "Kensington Blues."

A sad footnote: Jack Rose died of a heart attack on Dec 8 at the age of 38.

Darren DeMonsi

Listen: Jack Rose >> "Kensington Blues" | Charlie Parr >> "God Moves On The Water"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 : 18 "Blood Bank" by Bon Iver

There is no song this decade that makes me feel a feeling of atmosphere the way "Blood Bank" does. The cover of the EP shows this snow-covered car with the door slightly open. This song sounds like walking through the snow to get that photo. There is no other way to put it. You know what I am saying if you have ever walked through snow so heavy that you need to pick up your knees with every step.

I also love this song for the topic matter. How many other songs are about specific episodes of TV shows? The fact that it's about a episode of Northern Exposure makes it even better. I love the idea of looking at a bag of blood and trying to figure out whose it is. Are the things that make us who we are in our blood or someplace else? All these ideas keep me coming back to this song.

Rich Thomas

Listen: Bon Iver >> "Blood Bank"

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 : 17 "You Don't Have to Be A Prostitute" by Flight of the Conchords

When I hear this song I sing it for hours. I am not sure if it is because it is making fun of the police or because it is catchy in its own right. The Flight of the Conchords are the best musical humor act of the decade. I want to remind you that this is the decade that saw Nerd Core artists become well known. The Flight of the Conchords are still the best.

Rich Thomas

Listen: Flight of the Conchords >> "You Don't Have To Be A Prostitute"

2009 : 16 "Tokyo" by Telekinesis

Am I the only person who thinks that this song sounds like an old Banana Spilts theme? I mean that in a totally good way. I loved the Banana Spilts growing up. I love that they capture that emotion and feeling without having to be a parody. This song makes want to dance and sing. Any song that makes me feel that way is successful. It is the small pleasures a song can give that are the best.

I-I-I went to Toyko

Rich Thomas

Listen: Telekinesis >> "Tokyo"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 : 14-15 Two tracks by The Decemberists

Okay, I'm a little biased. I've gushed about the Decemberists for a long time, but still—this is my pick for the album of 2009. It's surprising how many magazines and sites have given The Hazards Of Love borderline reviews. If you're not a Decemberists fan, you might dismiss these tracks. However, this album not only adds more complex storytelling but uses guest vocals for maximum effects.

In "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid," Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) provides an excellent, compelling interpretation of the evil queen in the album's narrative. She's singing and acting at the same time—listen to her draw out the word 'repaid.' Her voice is stunning and controlling. Meloy wisely lets her have the listener's complete attention.

"The Rake's Song" is one of the most straight-up rock tracks that the Decemberists have written. Meloy writes the character as completely without redemption or qualities. How many songs have a narrator describing how he killed his children?

Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove
Dawn was easy: She was drowned in the bath
Isaiah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath

It's gratuitous and over the top, but perfectly fitting for a villian straight out of Victorian fiction.

The album needs to be listened to in its entirety, but these tracks are the best examples of the full story. It's an ambitious effort, and a great example of how guest vocalists (Worden and Becky Stark) can add to a song's atmosphere. The Decemberists have a specific style, and it's not for everyone—but it's hard to deny the efforts and dimensions that went into the narrative structure, which enhances the music greatly.

Jamie Yates

Listen: The Decemberists >> "The Wanting Comes In Waves" | "The Rake's Song"

2009 : 13 "Drunk As Fuck [Top Billin Remix]" by Tittsworth

Way back when this blog was covering 2000, I wrote about the Queens of the Stone Age's track "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," noting that it describes "a lifestyle so hedonistic that it would kill the majority of its listeners very quickly were they to adopt it." I also wrote that the track "evokes a special type of vicarious pleasure in the listener's head," and that this process "is one of the reasons popular music even exists in the first place." Hip-hop, of course, excels at the creation of very dense constellations of incantations and images that trigger the vicarious-pleasure parts of listener's brains: this, in fact, forms a key part of its appeal. A great example might be Tittsworth's "Drunk As Fuck," which celebrates just about every taboo one can think of: from the reeling intoxication identified in the track's title to, uh, genital torture. Anti-social? Sure. Take it seriously and it's actually disturbing. But take it as an opportunity to temporarily put on the costume of someone irresponsible and dangerous—to become "the king of all sleazy things" without any risk to one's self—and it yields a very concentrated form of ridiculous delight.

Jeremy Bushnell

Listen: Tittsworth >> "Drunk As Fuck [Top Billin Remix]"

2009 : 12 "Demons Out" by Art Brut

On your visa it says "entertainer"
You'd better step it up or they're gonna detain you
It's all smoke and mirrors- don't go and see 'em
I wanted rock 'n roll- I got a science museum

I could have picked any of the songs from Art Brut vs. Satan. This is my record of the year. Every song makes me want to be 22 years old again, in a totally good way. Art Brut is smart, witty, silly and fun. Art Brut is the band for every Rob Fleming wannabe out there. They are the geeks with an apartment full of vinyl and comic books that actually decided to put together a band. What more can I say beyond the quote below.

How am I supposed to sleep at night
when no one likes the music we write?
Record buying public- we hate them
This is Art Brut vs. Satan

Rich Thomas

Listen: Art Brut >> "Demons Out!"

Friday, December 25, 2009

2009 : 11 "Poison Trees" by The Devil Makes Three

A lovely toe tapping little ditty with apocalyptic overtones.

April Walker

Listen: The Devil Makes Three >> "Poison Trees"

2009 : 10 "Effigy" by Andrew Bird

When I originally reviewed this album, I gave it some earnest praise, but felt that it didn't match up to Bird's earlier works. However, a few more listens have revealed a few ideas that I intially missed. Effigy" is moving, and musically, it's one of Bird's minimalist efforts. His penchant for combining varying vocal styles and multiple instruments is stripped down, making for what feels like a soft, singer-songwriter type track. His musical talents and acumen could have made this a longer, more complex song, but "Effigy" is a great example of less being more. Most importantly, it shows that he's comfortable in any given style.

Jamie Yates

Listen: Andrew Bird >> "Effigy"

Thursday, December 24, 2009

2009 : 08-09 Two tracks by Doom

I have said before that I would rather listen to Doom than Jay-Z. I know that says more about me than it does about Jay-Z. I think most of my friends would rather listen to Doom also. One of the reasons is because I can see no way Charles Bukowski would ever show up on a Jay-Z track. "Cellz" has such a good lyrical world. It really demands I pay attention.

I love "Still Dope" because Doom finds a way to re-use a sample he used on an older song, "Passion Flowers," in a way that makes the sample more interesting, not less interesting. Using it for this song makes it feel even better. It sounds to me like how a composer uses a theme to invoke the same feeling later in a work. That is the kind of idea I don't hear in other hip hop songs.

Rich Thomas

Listen: Doom >> "Cellz"| "Still Dope" (featuring Empress Stahhr Tha Femcee)

2009 : 07 "Lisztomania" by Phoenix

I spent a lot of time this year listening to this song and trying to make some sense out of its lyrics. The opening couplet reveals some sense of the futility of this task:

So sentimental
Not sentimental, no

If the underlying rhythm and melody weren't so joyous and energetic, one could mistake this tiny packet of self-canceling non-referentiality for a very compact Samuel Beckett play. The refrain doesn't exactly clarify matters:

Think less but see it grow
Like a riot, like a riot, oh
Not easily offended
Not hard to let it go
From the mess [?] to the masses

Um, OK? There's at least a noun here, relatively close to the pronoun... so... is this a song about the composer? Or about this film? Or... is "Lisztomania" a stand-in for popular manias of all sorts? That helps the "riot" lines to make sense, and maybe the thing about the "masses," but it doesn't really help with the stuff about being not hard to offend, or reveal anything akin to a point of view…

And so it went. The opacity of the song (the entire album, actually) bugged me, and then all it once it didn't anymore. When I was able to accept the lyrical content as rather inspired word salad, it freed me up to enjoy the album's bittersweet, nostalgic elation, which is actually communicated to the listener with absolute clarity.

Jeremy Bushnell

Listen: Phoenix >> "Lisztomania"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2009 : 06 Aught Music Roundtable: "This Tornado Loves You" by Neko Case

First Pass

It's what's on the inside that counts. For all the (well-deserved) attention to Case's sexy, almost campy album cover, the songs on Middle Cyclone were fantastic, with one or two misses. "This Tornado Loves You" is the perfect opening to what's superficially referred to as a 'nature album.' The melody is upbeat, the vocals are confident, and the lyrics are a great example of Case's gift for metaphor:

I carved your name across three counties
and ground it in with bloody hides
broken necks will line the ditch

Perhaps some might view this as a metaphor for a woman scorned, but for me, it goes beyond simple gender classifications. Sometimes, when we're trying to get someone's attention, we end up doing more harm than good.

Jamie Yates

Second Pass

This song is built around an amazing notion. There is something scary and thrilling in the idea of being loved by a tornado. I think the literal idea of this song is better than the figurative idea. I think we all love the Tornado, but I am never sure the Tornado loves me back. I guess Neko Case is sure.

Rich Thomas

Listen: Neko Case >> "This Tornado Loves You"