So, here's a combo-post: a short wrap-up of some important recent releases that I haven't yet spoken upon.
The Beach Boys — The SMiLE Sessions (1966/1967)
choice dollar bin finds about a year ago and a revisit of Brian's SMiLE and I was anticipating this one pretty heavy. I bought the plain two vinyl version. It's ungodly amazing. The whole sequence from 'Cabin Essence' through 'Surf's Up' is just pure magic. I can understand why it was not released though. It's like, if Sgt. Pepper was the blueprint for the art rock, this was the perfection of that form. It was too much, too soon. The way that themes develop over the course of several minutes and several songs, while never becoming boring or obsolete is just the mark of a completely pure and resounding work. I love that idea of an album just being one long extension of one really great theme. And that dynamic is definitely at play here. I had a discussion recently with a friend about why the Beach Boys were considered amongst the greats of the classic rock bands when they really only released great singles. It's like, if you look at how they released 'Heroes and Villains' and 'Good Vibrations' as singles (two of the most artsy and challenging songs ever to be hits, if you ask me) and then released piddily crap on the proper albums, it's almost like they wanted to fail. Whatever. If this had actually been released in '67, the Beatles subsequent output would be deemed pleasant, but decidedly safe, while this would have been considered the great American pop art album for the ages. It wasn't so. And here we have a somewhat lukewarm final-issuing of the album over four decades later. It's one of the greatest albums ever made. Just like I expected. And guess what? It's not even my album of the year. They actually managed to get beat at their own game. And yet, it only took fourty four years for anybody to catch up.
Sigur Rós — Inni
I can't say enough good about Sigur Rós. They just seem to respectfully say to everyone else in the contemporary music world, "That's nice. Here's what we've been working on" and then proceed to play music that sounds nothing like anything or anyone else. To hear them in this live context —just the four band members, unaccompanied— is fairly stunning. To hear them open with the post-shoegaze gloom of 'Svefn-G-Englar' and then a few songs later burst out the ebullient 'Við Spilum Endalaust' is just impressive. The album runs the gamut from skygazing daydream wonderment to squalling feeedback drenched epic gloom. And man, do they not sound (and look) passionate. You really can't help but feel the downright soul in these performances. I bought it on clear triple vinyl in a very nice package and have played it a lot. Granted, it's just a live album, but I find that it's probably the best so far representation of what the band does and why that's so special. The DVD is excellent and the new song ('Lúppulagið') totally sounds like a Brian Eno circa-'76 album highlight, while still retaining that great calling card sound that has made the band so unique to begin with. Like I said: just can't say enough good about these guys right now. Who cares if they never make another album? This would be damn fine goodbye gift.
Kate Bush — 50 Words for Snow
Seriously slow. Serious. And slow. And quiet. But, jeez oh man, can Kate write resonating tunes or what? I still don't know what half the album is about, but it just has that sound that you just feel. Not a song here less than six minutes in length and there is so much space in these tunes that you may just start seeing stars up close. God, I love it. There's even a song here named after a natural landmark relatively in my backyard (that would be the eleven minute ode to ghost love, 'Lake Tahoe'). Most of this album is dominated by Kate and her piano and I have to say, I like it more for that. I know everyone wants her to release another genre-defining, technology-reliant masterpiece like Hounds of Love, but I just don't like that idea. There are a lot of shades of her past glories here (a lot of them occur in the album centerpiece 'Misty'), but those shades are stripped back to the bare essence and what you get is nearly Kate's unplugged album. A surprisingly good cameo from Elton John on the emotionally deep 'Snowed in at Wheeler Street' (I can name only a few more resonating songs in Kate's catalogue) and a nearly spoken funk-jazz workout on the title track round out the album and yeah. I will completely concede that I am still wholly unfamiliar with this one. I like that it's slow. I like that it lacks anything resembling a pop single. I love that it's so understated and almost confrontationally sparse. It often feels like the spiritual follow-up to the heavy-hearted concept proposed by side two of Hounds of Love. Yeah. it's that good. But I probably won't come to grips with it either for quite some time. It's a good one, that's for sure.