Sunday, March 28, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2008

Erykah Badu — New AmERYKAH Part One: 4th World War

A schizophrenic and dark album with very few actual songs contained on it. Most of the tracks were divided between partial song sketches and things that played like extended interludes. While this made the album a great all at once listen for the first few runs, it exposed the lack of substance in the material fairly quickly. The fully fleshed out songs were on a completely other level of awesome though: 'Solider' was thought provoking and breezy, 'The Cell' was absolutely badass funk with one of the best basslines this side of 1975 and 'Telephone' was a confusingly personal and poignant tribute the late J Dilla. Overall, it was definitely a return to an actual muse and passion after the seeming apathy of Worldwide Underground, but it still wasn't seeing anything on Mama's Gun or Baduizm. As evidenced by songs like 'Telephone' and the seeming afterthought (but still an album highlight) 'Honey,' she's at her best when dealing with matters of the heart, while this album was dominated by political and social issues. As such, it came off mostly as an angry bunch of unfocused rants. And, as funky and as hummable as some of them were, it was more off-putting than it was satisfying.

The Breeders — Mountain Battles

Despite the two tracks in other languages, it sounded like Pod. Flippin' awesome. It was a noticeably toned-down affair with songs like 'Night of Joy,' 'We're Gonna Rise' and 'Sparks' containing almost no distortion whatsoever and slow tempos all around. However, there were some vintage sounding songs, too. Things like 'Walk it Off' or 'It's the Love' could have come from Pod or Last Splash (and would have been highlights there as well). Overall, it was easily better than Title TK and is arguably their second best album.

Nicola Conte — Rituals

Although the near-exclusive focus on vocal cuts was initially a disappointment, the tunes were so good that, repeated listens revealed it to be just another step in the man's evolution. There was much more of Nicola's own guitar to be heard on this album, so he actually seemed like a true bandleader this time around, instead of just a director. 'Karma Flower' is likely one of the best album openers of the decade, while 'Red Sun' was the sort of neo-lounge jazz that just felt like a timeless piece of music from the first time I heard it. The new traditionalist stance that Nicola has taken all along was personified with a rousing update of the standard 'Caravan.' The title track (the only fully instrumental tune) closed out the album on a meditative and gorgeous note and it solidified for me that, while maybe in the past, Nicola's constant contemporary updating of classic sounds may have come across as a bit forced, this album was the real deal. Sure, Other Directions inspired an entire scene, so I dig it more just because its timing left a bigger impression on me, but Rituals perfected the ideal.

The Cure — 4:13 Dream (and singles)

In one of the most awesome moves of album buildup not seen since the early 80's, the Cure released four (count 'em) two song singles, one per month, in the months leading up to the full length's release. While I was split down the middle with the success of the selected a-sides ('The Perfect Boy' and 'The Only One' were awesome, 'Sleep When I'm Dead' and especially 'Freakshow,' not so much), all four of the b-sides were exceptionally good (in the band's tradition, I guess). My expectations were kept at a minimum because I was expecting another self-titled album (great singles and b-sides, so-so everything else). I was wrong. Porl Thompson returned to the band for his third time overall, they ditched having a live keyboardist and funneled that newly found love of noise and heavy distortion into their most well-rounded album since Wish. Starting off with what is destined to be a Cure classic forever and ever, 'Underneath the Stars' was just absolutely the epitome of why the Cure is the Cure; and, subsequently, why the Cure is so damn unique in the first place. 'The Hungry Ghost' seems to be everyone's favorite from this album and I can see why. The six string was back on the seriously great 'The Reasons Why' and there was a Cure first, as 'Siren Song' had an (amazing) pedal steel riff. I was cynical as hell of good old Bob, but the album was seriously good regardless. Among their best albums? Probably not. A surprisingly strong and consistent later work? Without question. Absolutely restored my faith in the band.

Death Cab for Cutie — Narrow Stairs

And, speaking of bands making (perhaps surprisingly) strong albums after somewhat missteps. I can go back to Plans now and pick out the good aspects, but at the time, my expectations for Narrow Stairs were non-existent. That is, until I heard 'I Will Possess Your Heart.' At which point, my expectations shot somewhere into the lower stratosphere. The lead single for Plans was 'Soul Meets Body,' a nice jangly pop song, but very much what you'd expect from them. The lead single for Narrow Stairs was 'I Will Possess Your Heart,' an 8+ minute epic that was essentially a worryingly obsessive and dark narrative of unrequited love. And the bassline was epic. Well, the first time I heard the album, 'Bixby Canyon Bridge' blew me away. A disappointing and poignant self-realization, using Jack Kerouac's beautifully ugly life as its muse, it's the best DCFC album opener (yep, even better than 'The New Year') and, to be followed by 'I Will Possess Your Heart,' I knew I was in for some heavy shit. Reaching near Disintegration levels of gloom at some points, I was, in retrospect, completely perplexed that they became even more popular on the back of an album that was essentially one of the most brutal breakup albums this side of Rumours. I mean, the entire middle trilogy of 'You Can Do Better Than Me,' 'Grapevine Fires' and 'Your New Twin Sized Bed' was the equivalent of Ben just saying, "Love sucks, life sucks" repeatedly over different riffs for ten minutes. Closing with the confrontationally bleak 'The Ice is Getting Thinner,' Narrow Stairs is easily the band's darkest and most fully produced album yet. But, with the cabaret pop of 'You Can Do Better Than Me,' the angular post-punk of 'Long Division' and the post-rock-informed Appleseed Cast-esque noisy guitar mini-symphony 'Cath...' it was also their most most musically varied and diverse album yet. A confounding and labyrinthine work of beautiful gloom, it feels like the spiritual follow up to Transatlanticism and is definitely their second best album.

The Durutti Column — Treatise on the Steppenwolf

As much as I will sing the praises of Vini Reilly's output this past decade in this series, I will not, under any circumstances, support this release whatsoever. It was misleading, plain and simple. Sure, there's a couple new songs, but 85% of the album is old songs under new titles. Not new takes of old songs. Nope, they couldn't even be arsed to record new versions. A lot of the songs were rehashed from Sporadic Three. Sure, there were a couple new songs (mostly keyboard doodlings), but if anything good is to be said about it, this did have a couple insightful revisions of 'Drinking Song' (titled here 'A Beautiful Thought Part Two' and sounding like an even more heavily effected take of the tune than the one on Sporadic Three) and an extra long alternate take of 'Woman' (retitled here 'Stupid Steppenwolf Part Two'). Apparently, a stage production selected some Durutti songs as its soundtrack and that explains the album's existence. There are two live tracks (presumably performed at the actual stage production), including an excellent short take on 'Mello.' It would have been nice if all of the songs had had their proper titles listed on the cover, so I would've known exactly how many of these tunes I already knew note for note. Beyond disappointing. More like annoying.

The Durutti Column — Sunlight to Blue...Blue to Blackness

Alright, this is more like it! The picture of a much more youthful Vini on the cover was not just a cool photo for a cover; it seemed to be an acknowledgment of how the album's stripped down sound was more along the lines of Vini's minimal work from the early 80's when the photo was taken. Bruce is only on a couple tracks and the slow, quiet, mostly solo guitar melodies seem to be done in the grand tradition of jazz players recording an all ballads album to say goodbye to recently lost friends. Indeed, this was the first new Durutti material after Tony Wilson's untimely departure. As a calm and modest follow up to Idiot Savants, however, it was a brilliant move. Instead of focusing on the Technicolor-infused arrangements, it stripped Vini's sound back to its essence. And it sounded incredibly poignant because of that. 'Messages,' with its uncharacteristic harmonica and xylophone melody, has become one of my favorite Durutti songs, while the original acoustic-only instrumental demo for 'Gathering Dust' made the tune all the more important to me. Elsewhere, a revisit of 'Never Known' from 1981's LC was unexpected and awesome, while 'So Many Crumbs and Monkeys!' sounded like a Keep Breathing outtake (in a good way) and 'Head Glue' was a glorious feature for Poppy Morgan. Classic Durutti Column, circa 2008. How does he do it?

Fleet Foxes — Sun Giant EP

I'll say it right now: I don't get Fleet Foxes. I love them. But, who in the fuck exactly do they think they are, blending Crosby Stills and Nash with Slowdive? I don't know if this is something that would've been arrived at inevitably and they just had the balls to do it first, but I have a hard time thinking just anybody could conjure up something as epic and layered as 'Mykonos.' As far as what a pre-album EP is supposed to do (that is, build up huge anticipation with as few songs as possible), Sun Giant did its job astoundingly well. Come to find out, it was recorded after the sessions for the proper album. You don't say. A quick shot of brilliance from one of the decade's most unforeseen sources of quality.

Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes

I remember being boggled and having somewhat of an out-of-body experience the first time I heard it. I mean, I knew it was good. This was clear. It was just such a thick concentration of quality that my brain literally stopped. It just couldn't keep up. I listened to it damn near exclusively for a week before the songs even started to differentiate from each other. Besides the Appleseed Cast and his own music (and maybe Medulla), I don't recall any other album this decade giving me the same vibe and genuine outpouring of sheer emotion since David Axelrod. There is so much grasp in this music on maturity and life experience. I often listen to it and have trouble reconciling the fact that the majority of band members are all three to five years younger than I am. Robin Pecknold's voice was just belting and passionate and unlike anything I'd ever heard on an album that had so much consideration for internal evaluation. Tackling big life changes, using the change of seasons as its main device, in 'White Winter Hymnal' may seem like a tedious idea when I try to convey here in text, but listen to the song and it has a powerful effect; a warmth and clarity mostly unheard of in today's (indie) musical climate. There is a very distinct feeling in this album of timelessness and utter importance, but it never sounds like anything less than the naive and earnest document of young musicians coming to grips with the world as adults. Stunning, through and through. Definitely tops.

Al Green — Lay it Down

As a frequent poster on the message forums, I had been aware of a Questlove and James Poyser produced Al Green album for at least 18 months. After Questlove had mentioned it so many times and no news of it actually being released was ever heard, I just started to assume it would never see the light of day. Well, much to my surprise, it actually happened. And it sounded like classic 70's Al Green. Questlove wanted Al to record an album that would have sounded right at home as the follow up release to Call Me or or I'm Still In Love With You. And while we can get very cynical about the implications of Al Green recording music that purposely sounded like it was thirty five years old, the bottom line was: it was his best album since the late 70's. So, cynicism be damned. The whole thing sounded like outtakes from his classic period and, let's face it, isn't that what I what secretly wanted all along? Yes. Yes, it was. Fantastic.

Ahmad Jamal — It's Magic

At this point, he was cranking them out like it was 1964. Another batch of lively new compositions, another somewhat brief (but no less surprising) revival of 'Swahililand' and a percussionist this time and it's unbelievably high quality and consistent business as usual for a living freakin' legend. Not the best of his new millennium albums by a longshot, but better than a lot of the stuff even being mentioned in this series. When a musician sets the bar as high as Ahmad has set it for himself, even a seeming second tier album like this blows past most of its contemporaries. Ho-hum; the world keeps turning. He was nearly 80 when it was recorded. I've already accepted that I will do nothing this good in my entire life and I'm not even 30. But I love it.

The Occasional Keepers — True North

The first Occasional Keepers album was a strange, unexpected curiosity that I would have been completely happy if they had just pretended like the thing never existed in the first place and left the album to exist in a solitary unexplained mystery. When I heard about a second album, I thought, 'Well, hey, bonus!' But, as it turns out, True North is less like a side project and actually feels like the group has become a genuine working unit. I wanted it to be another dreamy curiosity, but it was actually a concise, song-oriented pop record; the sort of thing you would have expected from a Sarah records supergroup all along. Where The Beauty of the Empty Vessel felt like Caesar had a bit of input, but it was mostly Bob's show, True North is Caesar's show. 'If the Ravens Leave' and 'Town of 85 Lights,' which also sound nothing like you would have expected, were excellent songs. Bob did come by later on to drop 'Leave the Secret There Forever' —one of his best songs ever and easily among the decade's best tunes— but it really was Caesar who delivered the meat of this album. Beauty of the Empty Vessel sounds great at 2am, but True North sounds great anytime, quickly establishing itself as the better of the band's (so far) two albums. If they continue to develop this quickly, album number three will be better than anything Bob or Caesar has done previously. I look forward to it.

The Sea and Cake — Car Alarm

Returning to their old work ethic, the Sea and Cake let Car Alarm loose just a few months after the tour for Everybody had ended. And guess what? It ruled. I have emotional attachments to Everybody for personal reasons so I have a hard time saying any of their albums not called The Fawn or OUI are better than it, but Car Alarm comes damn close. The teaser pre-album track was 'Weekend,' a look back to the dancey, electronics-accented sounds of One Bedroom. I was not apprehensive though, because it was a concise, under three minute pop song (even with nearly a full minute of vamping at the beginning too!). It still strikes me as one of the decade's best, not to mention one of the band's best. The album was varied and energetic, providing a balance to Everybody's somewhat calm introspective tone. Songs like 'New Schools,' 'The Staircase' and especially 'Pages' showed the band was as creatively vital as ever. It may be a bit too all over the place for its own good, seemingly trying to summarize the band's entire history into one album, but when the songs are digested as works unto themselves, it can easily be looked at as another stunning statement of relevance by a band that never seems to run out of ideas.


Albums of the past decade: 2007

The Arctic Monkeys — Favourite Worst Nightmare

Although they were more hype than substance initially, I was still listening even after a disappointing debut album because, gosh darnit, I love British bands. The first single 'Brianstorm' was more loud tuneless Clash wannabe revival rock and I was a little bummed. But then, hey, 'Fluorescent Adolescent' came out of nowhere and I was genuinely taken aback. It struck me as a layered, thought-out, mourningly melodic classic Brit-pop single; something that truly was an heir to the throne of such greats as the Cure and the Smiths. When the next single was the surprisingly poignant 'Teddy Picker,' I knew something was up. I checked out the album and genuinely loved it from first listen. It's a varied, diverse collection of songs that shouldn't work well together but, for some reason, do. There's a lot of emotion and downright regret and pain in this album and, because of it's loud/pretty/quiet/loud again/pretty again dynamic, it still strikes me as one of the most sincere albums inspired by the early 80's post-punk goliaths to which the Monkeys were initially compared. There's twelve tracks and just about six of those are downright fantastic songs from where I'm listening. The heartwrenching epic breakup narrative 'Do Me A Favour' is the best the Monkeys have yet done —or, indeed, may ever do. A genuine surprise and I still listen to it frequently — despite the fact that I don't consider myself an Arctic Monkeys fan by even the most liberal of definitions. That says something about this album.

Bjork — Volta

'Earth Intruders' is one of the best songs of the decade, without question. But, when that was the pre-album single, my expectations were elevated to unachievable status pretty quickly. There's even better songs on Volta (hi, 'Innocence' and 'Wanderlust'), but this was the first Bjork album, well ever, that I was not blown away by. The bar had been set too unachievably high with the back-to-back combo of Vespertine and Medulla and I just wasn't that into it, besides a few songs. It was too all over the place and seemed to rely too much on people other than Bjork for its creative jumping pff points (seriously, two songs with indie flavor of the monther Paul Hegarty [aka Antony] was necessary?). I guess it goes to show how awesome Bjork is that her 'worst' album still had some stunning moments on it. Overall though, yeah, it's her worst.

Celebration — The Modern Tribe

Super awesome modernness from the revamped 4AD. It's like post-punk meets northern soul meets something I'm obviously unfamiliar with because I don't know what to call it. Blending an undeniable dance-punk drum stop with a distinct Hammond B-3 overtone and Katrina Ford's wailing show-stealing vocals, Celebration truly sounds like the sort of music that the 4AD label should be putting out in the 2000's: genre-bending, undefinable tone poems with dreamy undertones. I didn't get it at all at first. But the more I listened, the more I realized, this is fairly unique music in the current climate. Far too heart-bearing to be considered a dance band, but far too incidentally funky to be considered a traditional indie band. And plus, 'Heartbreak' is a total anthem for the ages. I love this album. It really did hit me without expectation; a rare occurrence in this age of instant information.

The Durutti Column — Sporadic Three

Going in knowing this was basically an odds and ends collection, I didn't expect much, but in true Durutti fashion, it knocked my socks off within the first three songs. Granted, I knew variations of a good third of this material before I knew these renditions, it didn't matter. The 4-track solo demo of 'Big Hole' (retitled here 'Dig A Hole'), the super effected third version of 'Drinking Song' (retitled here 'Drinking Time Version'), the stripped-down (and, let's face it, better) run-through of 'I B Yours' and a redux on the theme of 'Sing To Me' sans vocals (and retitled 'For Loretta'); it was all ear candy of the highest order for Durutti obsessives like me. But that's not to discount the original material. It all kicked off with 'Birthday Present (aka For Cheryl)' which is one of Vini's best solo multi-layered guitar instrumentals for quite some time. Elsewhere, 'Mama and Papa (aka Orphan)' managed to be a mind-expanding meeting of the twentieth and twenty first centuries through sound. Seriously great riff, too. As if all of that weren't good enough, 'Trust the Art, Not the Artist' is one of Vini's best songs period and it all ended with 'For Danny (aka Mavuchka),' which was an outtake from 1981's classic LC album (!) and it totally ruled, despite the (understandably) deteriorated quality. It was uncohesive as hell, but had enough good points about it that I played it to death regardless.

The Durutti Column — Idiot Savants

So, if Sporadic Three was the ugly outtakes and odds and ends collection, Idiot Savants was the James Cameron-style labored over and absolutely perfected masterpiece. Good god, this album is awesome. To this day, it's still like a new album to me. I play it relentlessly. Just when I think I've decided that, absolutely for sure, my favorite song is 'Gathering Dust,' I'll hear 'Interleukin 2 (for anthony)' in a different context and it will switch to that song being my favorite (and inevitably back again). It still seems incredibly fresh to me (nearly three years later!), so I really feel like I'm totally biased, but this album is Vini Reilly's late career magnum opus. All great artists have them. This is his. It's especially poignant, as it was probably the last new Durutti material Tony Wilson heard before he passed. Absolutely, positively, without question in my top five of the decade. Two words: Fucking masterpiece. Enough said.

Feist — The Reminder

If Let it Die seemed a little overproduced and reserved in retrospect, The Reminder rectified that within the first track. I don't know what it is —and don't get me wrong, because Let it Die is awesome— but this feels like Fiest's true second album. It's much closer in sonic comparison and overall emotional theme with Monarch than Let it Die was, it's almost like a different musician entirely. And plus, the songs just kicked ass. Just look at the first three songs: 'So Sorry,' 'I Feel it All' and 'My Moon My Man.' Truly, wow. But then there was '1 2 3 4' which was such a huge hit, I often forget that she's now considered a real pop star because of it. 'Honey Honey' is still the highlight for me though. I anticipated a studio rendition of it ever since she played an epic solo version of it live in a tiny pub in Sparks well over a year before The Reminder was released. And the proper version did not disappoint at all. One of the most satisfying albums I've heard in a really long time. And considering my expectations were really damn high, I'd consider this one of the decade's best.

Stephen Fretwell — Man On the Roof

I hated this album on the first few listens. What a load of indulgent tripe, I thought. I just didn't get it, at all, whatsoever. I loved Magpie right away, but that's because I had had a proper introduction to the highlights when he played them live. I had nothing to go on for this album, and it was cluster of intensely personal recollections that I just didn't get. Listened again. And again. And, then, those melodies... wait, is he really talking to KT Tunstall the whole time? Wow, he is pouring it all out there, isn't he? And, before I know it, I'm singing along with 'She' like it's a song I wrote. I said it when I first got hold of the album and I'll say it again here: Magpie was the crowd pleaser, this is the stereotypically 'difficult' second album that hides its melodies behind a mask of earnest vocal performances and willfully difficult subject matter. But the tunes are fantastic and very resonating, evoking an even more riled up Blood On the Tracks-era Bob Dylan, filtered through a distinct Manchester-via-Scunthorpe point of view. Yep, it's safe to say at this point: this is the better of Stephen Fretwell's (so far) two albums. Deep and soul-warming, in an admittedly gloomy way. Love it.

PJ Harvey — White Chalk

Well, at least Man on the Roof wasn't as bleak as this album. But, make no mistakes, I thought it was PJ's best since Is This Desire? It was just very down and very dark, that's all. I still very vividly recall her playing an amazing version of 'Grow Grow Grow' on Jay Leno at the time and thinking how out of place it seemed. She toured very sparingly for this new, piano-heavy material and, for us in America, it seemed like maybe she had all but forgotten the album just a few months after its release. But I still listen to it often. It's not a happy album, even by the most strained of definitions, but I do like it quite a bit regardless. It seems like one of those albums that will be forgotten about in the larger picture of her catalogue, twenty years down the line, but the tunes really are great, in a dark way. It does seem like a bit of autobiography being not so subtly passed off as 'artist speaking in character' narrative. The more I listen, the more I like it. But, as she might say, 'nobody's listening.'

Bobby Hutcherson — For Sentimental Reasons

An all ballads album that betrayed his live repertoire at the time, it was still excellent music because it was essentially a master practicing his craft. His competence at playing ballads was well-established before this album, but the gap between studio records made this satisfying as hell because it was all heart. Really getting into gear on the second half, he tackled mostly standards and made them shine in an intimate quartet setting. Add Geri Allen on piano and the whole thing was just pure class and just emitted endless good vibes (pun recognized, but not intended). I love this album. I love Bobby Hutcherson.

Timo Lassy — The Soul and Jazz of Timo Lassy

From the second I heard this album, I've said the same thing over and over: he sounds like Cannonball, but on tenor. It was most obvious on the samba/funk/soul/jazz cut 'Sweet Spot' — highly rhythmic music that genuinely recalls days passed. Soul and funk oozing from this dude who is undeniably technical. Man, such great stuff. 'African Rumble' was not a surprise because I knew it from a Schema records sampler earlier in the year, but its impact was not muffled here as the album's last track. If there were ever any doubts that soul jazz was not alive and well in the twenty first century, look no further than this album. It truly sounds not of its time — and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Grachan Moncur III — Inner Cry Blues

It should be well-established by this point that new albums by past masters are a shoe-in for mentions. Inner Cry Blues is no exception, but it sticks out because it was Moncur's first proper album in over two decades. It was firmly routed in post-bop and, considering his classic out-looking Blue Note albums, staunchly conservative. But listen to the album twice and you'll hear the nuances in the tunes reveal themselves and then it will hit you: this is a deeply spiritual affair. Not spiritual in the CCM sense, but more so in the Charles Mingus sense. Then ten minute long title track, for instance, recalls the most emotional of searching 1960's post-bop somewhat-ballads in the most sincere of ways. For an artist as associated with the free jazz and 'new thing' scene as Moncur is, Inner Cry Blues was a stunningly conventional update for a musician that, at this point, had nothing to prove. Refreshing and consistent are two words that come to mind. The guy was already an established legend years before this was released, so he was basically just having fun. And, for such a fun album, it's mighty heavy. But, on the other hand, for such a heavy album, it sure does satisfy and have a little fun every now and then.

Thurston Moore — Trees Outside the Academy

If there were ever any indications in the past that Neil Young had been a big influence over Thurston Moore, they were perhaps a bit obscured. Until this album, that is. But, as Thurston was playing incredibly tuneful, acoustic guitar driven songs, it never felt like a ripoff, but a really logical extension. As the emphasis on electric guitars was toned down and a good portion of the album was accented by a live string quartet, the album was (perhaps inherently) pretty; especially for a Thurston Moore record. Guest spots from Steve Shelley and J Mascis cemented it as one of the year's best and the happy outlook of the material makes for one of the most unlikely feel good albums I can think of. Pure awesome, but with such low-key presentation that you may not realize you're hearing some of his best material ever. THERE.

Radiohead — In Rainbows

There was a strange feeling in the air. They had been playing new material on the road for years, but there was absolutely no chance of a new record because they were not currently signed to a record contract. But then, all of a sudden, damn a record contract and damn the idea of a record sale. Want to pay nothing for a new Radiohead album? Go ahead, pay nothing. It's a kickass new album by one of the most interesting bands of all time, but yeah, go ahead, pay the less than a dollar credit card fee and nothing else. Why? Because Thom Yorke loves your cheap ass. As if the hype surrounding the album weren't enough, the actual music was a stunning synthesis of OK Computer's poppiest moments and the electronica-obsessed layers of Amnesiac. Arguably the most listenable of all Radiohead's albums, it had two mammoth highlights that are just about up there with anybody's best: 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' was the sort of guitar-effects heavy, super layered, post-shoegaze mini-epic that seems to be quintessential Radiohead by this point; while 'Reckoner' was like the future in real time. There was a bonus disc and it had some stunners, too. Overall, an understated and humble masterpiece that is quite possibly the most Radiohead-esque album to date. Satisfying as hell and proof that Radiohead probably isn't as overrated as their critical praise makes them seem.

The Sea and Cake — Everybody

It was their longest ever album to album break between this and One Bedroom, so there was a sense of a triumphant return and the mandatory anticipation leading up to this album was pretty thick for yours truly. When 'Crossing Line' was the pre-album teaser song, I just kind of blacked out. Sorry to get kind of personal here, but I remember it kinda felt like my first orgasm all over again. And guess what? The album was a surprisingly lowkey, modest affair that ditched almost all of the electronics and focused back on the straight pleasant dual jangly guitar attack of the band's first two albums. Instances of pedal steel, increased Archer Prewitt harmony vocals and focus away from post-production made this album feel like the band's best set of songs since the Fawn. If nothing else, it was the reassertion of a guitar band getting back to their roots and presenting some no-nonsense, concise material for the first time in roughly a decade. It may not be their best album, but it's easily in a tie for second place. Wonderful stuff. And easily in my picks of the decade.

The Sea and Cake — Anybody EP

If Everybody was the straight modest re-presentation of the Sea and Cake's classic sound, the Anybody EP was another entry in their predictably unpredictable EPs. It started off with 'All in Throws' which they played when I saw the tour (also told Archer I loved him and he winked) and which was one of those songs that was so good that it should've been on the album. The other two tracks, 'Breathless' and 'Mis,' recalled OUI and One Bedroom, respectively and, overall, the iTunes-only release was more than worth three three dollar price tag. As a companion piece to Everybody, it was a little schizophrenic, but 'All in Throws' was so good, it didn't matter. I would love to see a physical release.

Trembling Blue Stars — The Last Holy Writer

"The song on the radio makes you shiver and curl into a ball. It makes you want to be seventeen and forget the future." Even though it wasn't the first song on this album, Beth's 'Idyllwild' is arguably her best song ever and easily the best semi-opening song on a TBS album. And that's a good foreshadow for the rest of this album. I was a little hesitant initially, but now I've no problem calling this the band's best album. In a decade that saw the 'comebacks' of 80's alt-rock gods the Cure and Morrissey, Bob Wratten had none of the of the fireworks that those other records somehow justified, but with Seven Autumn Flowers and this album (and the coinciding EPs), Bob modesty and yet, overwhelmingly made the transition from 80's alt-rocker to 21st century songwriter extraordinaire. And, with his partner Beth Arzy in tow, they were able to make one of those rare late-period albums by a veteran who is just hitting a creative renaissance and rebirth for the second (or third) time. And not to mention, with songs like 'This Once Was An Island' and 'The Coldest Sky', he managed to do the Cure better than they were able to do it themselves (yeah, I said it). It was a bit of a miracle manifested that he wrote 'November Starlings' for this album, as it was not only his best song in several albums, but it was so reminiscent of the Field Mice, I had a hard time initially believing that it wasn't an old demo or something. In a time when reviving 80's rock cliches was the cool thing to do, one of the unsung pioneers of the entire scene came through and showed the kids how it was done with a vintage number. A classic for the ages, if you ask me. Oh yeah, it's also got 'The Tenth of Always' (with the epic uplift of a lyric: "If you think you've gone too far, just keep going") and an eight minute masterpiece dedicated to Oscar Wilde at the end. Absolutely a top album. Disappointingly, but in an expectedly dramatic fashion, Bob swore off live performances leading up this album. I guess, with records this good, he figured, 'Why bother?'

Trembling Blue Stars — Exploring the Shadows Extended Play

Beth fired another winner right away on this EP with 'Beautiful Blank,' a wonderfully catchy power-popper that you would swear should be a huge hit. The rest of the EP's other three songs were Bob's and while 'As Easy As Being Alone' was another terrific uber-pop jangle gem, the other half of the disc was quite dark and isolated. The contrast between sides 1 and 2 was immediately apparent, just like the contrast between jumpy and downtrodden was on Last Holy Writer. Because the EP followed the full length by just a matter of weeks, it was hard not to see it as an extension of the album. And, in that respect, it just made a great thing even better.

Windomoto — The Travels of Windimoto

I should preface this by saying that I am not really sure of the validity of my inclusion of this disc on my list because I am quite biased. I've traded conversations for years with both members of Windimoto on the message boards and I would have never even checked out the album were it not for my personal connection with the band members. That being said, I'm far from a dance music expert, but I do know that this music, while certainly being dance-focused, has a strong sense of melody and songcraft in it (perhaps, in comparison to its peers and my disinterest in them for the most part). 'Don't Let Me Leave Alone' and 'A Place For Us' are just great songs, no matter which set of ears you're hearing them with. The instrumentals showed a continued dedication to more than just a nice groove and actually had developed themes that went somewhere. The remixes were, in some cases, better than the originals and overall, I found myself enjoying the hell out of it as music for music's sake. There's something to be said about a distinctly genre-specific album like this that can have that sort of effect on an admittedly novice listener.


Friday, March 19, 2010

The Sound — The Dutch Radio Recordings

Ok, so I'm a huge fan of Adrian Borland and the Sound.

Just have a gander at my old reviews page to see how highly I think of them.

The London-based Renascent label has done a wonderful job of preserving the band's legacy over the years. Working at a local used record store in my late teens, I came across an old vinyl copy of In the Hothouse and it served as my introduction to the band. When Renascent issued the band's first three albums on deluxe edition reissue a few years later, I was right there, ordering direct from the label as soon as they were available. As the years have passed, I've recognized From the Lion's Mouth and especially All Fall Down as absolute Goliath-like figures in post-punk. I was generously allowed to hear the Sound as not one of my very first post-punk or new wave bands, but one of the first bands you dig into after you've digested the essentials. It was kind of like skipping straight to Don Cherry after digesting Miles Davis as my first instance of jazz trumpet.

And it blew my fucking mind.

No kidding when I say this, but: I will still recently hear some of Adrian Borland's songs and they will click with me. Even after roughly ten years of knowing and reciting them to myself. Just now, it's still all coming together.

To get to the point here: the Sound is one of my favorite bands of all time.

Well, a few years back, Renascent licensed a series of radio broadcasts that the band did for retail release. Because the Sound was always more popular in Europe proper than they were in England, all of the radio broadcasts were taken from Holland performances (where the band was most popular).

I, now regrettably, passed on these live recordings for years. Figuring that I'd heard it all on the records and on the proper live album, I passed, despite the unique setlists and the budget pricing.

Well, I finally just decided to go for it and ordered all five volumes of the Dutch Radio Recordings recently.

The package finally arrived, so let's just run through these treats. Before I get formally started, I should say that, no matter how great I make these performances seem, these recordings are for only the most dedicated of fans. I am devotee of the band's music, so these are less like new albums for me and more like studies in which to place the band's progression. But, just let this be known right away, given the right conditions: goddamn, are these worthwhile.

Volume 1: 8 March 1981, Amsterdam (The Paradiso)

So, this one is of interest because it was recorded before Lion's Mouth was released but contains quite a few tunes from that album. This was still early on and the band was still very punk-minded. So, if the bass was out of tune with the keyboards and Adrian was a bit afraid the microphone, who cared, right? Well, it makes for an admirably energetic, but less-than-great sounding performance. Clearly the passion is there and hearing early rough renditions of Lion's Mouth tunes is a treat, but there's something off about this one. Maybe it's the mix, maybe it's that the band was actually out of tune with one another, I don't know. It's very raw and the underproduced aspect of the whole thing comes to a head with two (count 'em) performances of "Heyday." I'd say everything comes together on the surprisingly urgent run through of "Unwritten Law." Otherwise, this is basically a very rough and nervous band struggling to find their stage presence. Still, there's a charm to it because of that.

Volume 2: 9 April 1982, Utrecht (No Nukes Festival)

A festival, so probably the biggest crowd the band ever played in front of. Adrian sounds rather pissed off the entire time, actually. Maybe there was some sort of dichotomy at work there: a guy wanting all that attention but seeing the hilarity in the idea of 'arena rock.' It's almost like he comes to that exact realization midset. He was not in the best of vocal performances on this evening (he seems to have a sore throat) and seems disgusted at the whole idea of festival sets. After a noisy and angry "I Can't Escape Myself" he asks the audience, "Is there anyone that doesn't like this?" A rather sizeable audience reaction in the positive prompts Mr. Borland to diligently shout, "Fuck off!" and the band launches into "Hothouse" like a group of the highest of professionals. I mean, even with Adrian's strained vocals, this is easily the second best version of the tune after the John Peel recording. And that's what's different about volume two: the band is tight. There are no musical mistakes to be heard here. As this was on the tour for All Fall Down, the material (disappointingly for me) only goes for three of the album's tracks, and shies away from the highlights (although there is an excellent "Where the Love Is"). Overall, it's hard to dislike this one, purely based on the sheer emotion Adrian emits throughout his performance and the between song bits. The two encore tracks, in the bigger picture, are worth it by themselves. An exploring, super emotional take on "Silent Air" and a purposely anticlimactic (and subsequently, entirely unique) run through of "Missiles" close out the set and it has you wondering how intimidated Bono may have been knowing he had to take the same stage later that evening.

Volume 3: 1 January 1983, Arnhem

Well, if the last one that also documented the All Fall Down tour was a disappointment in terms of the lack the then new material, then consider this one the crowd pleaser. It, perhaps oddly, begins with "Skeletons" and then launches into a mixture of Lion's Mouth and All Fall Down favorites. There's two rarities performed here for obsessives like me to cream over: the otherwise unheard "Oiled" and what I knew as a bonus track on All Fall Down, "Sorry" (titled here, "Who's Sorry Now"). I mean, you get "Monument," "Where the Love Is," "In Suspense" and "Party of the Mind." What else can you ask for? A bunch of stuff from Lion's Mouth and "Heartland" at the end? Yeah, it's all there. Truly, they sound like they're at the top of their game here. 100% pure awesome.

Volume 4: 1 July 1984, Den Haag (Parkpop Festival)

Leading off with the comment, "We don't do 'Missiles' anymore; we never do the obvious thing," you just know that Adrian was a bit agitated for this one. A unique, vampy build up into "Unwritten Law" and this one is a lot better than its setlist would propose. Amidst early run throughs of "Total Recall" and "Counting the Days," you get a drum machine-less (and arguably definitive) version of "Monument" and an actual calling of names when Adrian declares, "Fuck off, Jim Kerr!" at the beginning of "The Fire." Overall, undeniably strong stuff; and wonderful to hear them so fully formed and ending things so assuredly with an old favorite from All Fall Down. Great stuff.

Volume 5: 9 April 1985, Utretch

As this was recorded closest to In the Hothouse, the band sounds absolutely pro for the duration here. Few surprises occur, but when they do (namely on the All Fall Down songs), it's magic all over again. The focus is on the Heads and Hearts material and the band faithfully and competently renders the songs as though they were warming up for their live album. The highlight here is the long and meditative rendition of the old song "Silent Air" in which Adrian seems to be in a sort of trance. The song already feels poignant and important, but this version seems to reach for something even greater, something stratospheric. It's the sort of thing I mine vault recordings like these for. Stunning. The rest of the performance is dutifully good. "Missiles" receives a nice climactic encore performance and "Party of the Mind" sounds uncomfortably right as the closer as Adrian introduces it with, "I'm really sorry; I really am ill, this is the last one tonight, okay?" A fantastic, rousing run through of the tune and then they're done. The performances are straight and (besides "Silent Air") expected, but it feels like they have the highest of faith in their most recent Heads and Hearts material and the performances are anything except drab. A strong installment in the series, for sure.

Overall, I have to ask myself: Why did I wait so long?

These should have been immediate purchases for me. Especially knowing the fate of the Renascent label's license on the band's Korova, Warner and Statik albums (FYI: it has expired in all cases and the Renascent versions of the albums are highly collectible). For a band as mystic and shadowy as the Sound has been for a kid who discovered them in the late 90's, this series of live recordings shreds away the cold demeanor they possessed on their studio albums and exposes them as just a working band who was not perfect, but was entirely human.

Maybe that explains the enduring appeal.

Well, if I couldn't say it before... I can say I've got "everything":

At least as long as Renascent continues to procrastinate on this one:

(from the insert that came with the 1996 Shock of Daylight/Heads and Hearts CD remaster)

If nothing else, the Dutch Radio Recordings have cemented for me that the Sound is clearly one of the top tier post-punk groups to have existed.

That, and they totally play a not caring at all, feedback filled, worth for the price of admission by itself, epic 9+ minute version of "Glass and Smoke" on volume two.



Sunday, March 7, 2010

Show Review: Appleseed Cast: 6 March 2010

When it was announced that the Appleseed Cast —one of my favorite bands— would be touring and playing their two volume Low Level Owl album —my favorite of theirs— in its entirety live, I sought out a date, secured a group of friends to make the trip to San Francisco with me and looked forward to the gig for anticipating months.

Well, last night was the night.

Dave, Paul, Rob (a worthy group of gents) and myself drove down to SF, did some record shopping, had a fantastic meal in Japan town and then were off to the warehouse district to Bottom of the Hill.

The opener was Dreamend. I had never heard of them before, but they were good; in a 'hey, this opening band sounds like a competent imitation of the headliner' sort of way. A satisfying thirty five minute set breezed by like nothing and I was appreciative of their humbleness and apparent focus. One of those rare opening bands that doesn't blow you away, but at the same time, is good enough to make you remember their name.

The time between when Dreamend exited the stage and Appleseed sauntered onstage was probably only about fifteen minutes, but it felt like an eternity. For me, the tension in the place was extreme.

When Chris stepped on stage, I thought it was finally here. Dave tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the stage and just said, "Dude!"

But it was the ultimate move in suspense, as he silently tuned his guitar, strummed out a chord and then exited the stage again.

Damn this infernal buildup!

After it was all said and done, the band nonchalantly (and, admittedly, a bit anticlimactically) ventured onstage around 11pm one by one and then, before I knew it, 'The Waking of Pertelotte' was happening before a "Good evening" or even a modest "Hi" had even had the chance to take place.

That familiar riff, the unmistakable drum buildup.

'On Reflection'!!!!!!

And off they went!

No, this was not: play a song, wait for applause, say a humble "Thank you" and then on to the next song.


This was: play the album song for song, every small nuance and crevice to be unforgotten. Pretty sure a lot of this stuff was being played live for the first time since its studio inception, roughly ten years ago. Stuff like 'Messenger' and 'A Tree For Trials' —which may have seemed like negligible between song bits in the bigger picture on record— were represented as distinct, completely performed pieces; showing that, yes, everything on the original album was indeed quite intentional and relevant.

That initial run of tunes on volume one was flawless. 'On Reflection,' after a mostly instrumental run-through that echoed their expedited run through of the tune in Reno a few years ago blasted into 'Blind Man's Arrow' as efficiently as I could've hoped for, while the three song instrumental build up to 'Steps and Numbers' was nearly better than on the record. 'Steps and Numbers' itself was just as good and as epic as I remember it was when they played it on the Peregrine tour in Reno — except, this time, it continued into 'Sentence' like a literal (for me anyway) dream come true. Chris wailed away, "Do you feel the light is gone? Is it hard to remain strong; in the face of all you know?" and I subtly, uncontrollably mouthed along with his words in a state of pure head-bopping acquiescence to the music. Truly, the song is modern day classic. The masses just need to catch up. I felt that way last time I saw them play it live, but this infinitely more intimate presentation of the tune just solidified it for me.

The rest of volume one is a blur. I don't even recall stage mannerisms. Who cares, anyway? They were up there and they were playing it. Not until the bassline for 'View of Burning City' was presented did it hit me: they were really up there.

They were really playing what I believe to be a monument in modern music to roughly 250 people in a cramped bar, just hundreds of yards away from the Pacific Ocean. Like it mattered. For those roughly ninety or one hundred minutes, this music fucking mattered like nothing else before or after it. I am not a religious person by any stretch, but jesus christ, did it feel fucking relevant. It was jubilant gloom, in a way. I was happy to be there, slowly vibing to intensely introspective music that borders on self-indulgence and wanting nothing more than to just have the band never ever stop playing it.

They successfully presented a suspenseful and perfectly truncated two part version of 'View of a Burning City' separated by a brief five minute set break. I mean, when they came back on and literally picked up where they left off, it was like they never left.

Volume two, like on record, was a much more subdued and, if I may say, spiritual affair. "Shaking Hands" was a song I was looking forward to in anticipation of the show and, despite its modest presentation, I was quite pleased with the arrangement the band put forth. "Rooms and Gardens" felt like a finale, honestly. With its noisy penultimate movement, it was the closest thing I've seen to Sonic Youth on a stage since I saw Sonic Youth on a stage. As the rest of volume two is mostly instrumental, it was a time for the band to really work the dynamics on songs like 'Sunset Drama King' and 'The Argument.' And work it, they did. If the current lineup of the Appleseed Cast is not the most charismatic in terms of stage presence, they at least have a grasp on the full on wall of sound they are presenting to their audience. Indeed, there were points during these instrumentals that the only person in the band facing the audience was the drummer. No fault to the band, however, as the were all occupied twiddling knobs and making sure theirs was an organized noise. And speaking of volumes, the show was exceedingly loud — to the point that my ears, even at the point of typing this, are, quite literally, still ringing.

I was curious as to how the band would present Low Level Owl's final track 'Confession' in a live setting, but the way it was done was far noisier and much more of a free form, liberating rock and roll clamor than I had expected. A distorted keyboard outro from Aaron and they were off stage. Much applause and crowd noise and they were just as quickly back on stage to play an unlikely cover of the Van Pelt as an encore.

And then they were done.

It was roughly one hundred or so minutes of stage time, but I was not ready for it to end. However, like all good showmen, they left the audience (or me, at least) wanting more in the best possible way. The four hour drive, the maneuvering of San Francisco's labyrinthine corridors being passed off as streets, the returning home amidst freezing 5am Reno temperatures; it all seemed more than worth it.

Regrettably, I forgot my camera. After the show however, we stuck around and were able to get some chat time in with the band. Dave and I learned, amongst other things, that they are at least six songs into a new record, would love to play Reno again and, most of all, they are regenerated by playing some of the Low Level Owl material for the first time in years (or the first time ever); to quote Aaron, "By showing ourselves that we can play some of this material live, we feel like we can do anything." And though, even the drummer and bassist are not the members who played on the record, I feel like this lineup more than did the material justice and presented the album in a unique way that, even for someone who has studied the studio renditions over and over again, found much to consider and get excited about in the current lineup's performance of the material.

Of course, chatting with the band afterwords does have its benefits...

(Sorry to the keyboardist {presumably a member of Dreamend, first and foremost} who played with Appleseed for the duration of their set; I would've loved to have you sign as well, but you were nowhere to be found.)

Overall, I could not have asked for more. As if I did not hold Low Level Owl in high enough esteem already, the band presented it to me in a form that was expected, but no less exciting. It's a little weird, and plenty rewarding, to know exactly what the band is going to play next, and yet, still be surprised by the presentation.

Truly, the music, as played last night, felt as relevant and as poignant as ever.

I feel privileged to have been there.