Monday, October 28, 2013

A Solbakken starter mix.

I was going to try and do an "In a Nutshell" post for Solbakken, but it would have been a difficult read for pretty much anyone except its author.  All five star ratings and impenetrable tangents of adjectives trying to convey just what it is that I love about them so dearly.  So, here, I will try to put the aborted "In a Nutshell" in its own nutshell: they are dark, noisy, sometimes too slow to bare, catchy, complicated, heartfelt, sometimes too fast to bare, passionate and they sing about isolated, yet inexplicably human things.  They are one of the most perfect bands to listen to in winter (maybe because their music is so warm, humane and coldly comforting — I don't know, honestly).  I have discussed them and my history with them here and here and now that I've finally reacquired their full catalogue (for a second time!), I've decided to ditch the words and let the music do the talking.  One of the best bands ever.  Just wish more people knew who they were.  In an effort to spread the word, here's my own version of the Best of Solbakken.




Solbakken has been dormant (and presumably broken up) for almost a decade now. I've only been able to keep up with guitarist Empee Holwerda's post-Solbakken band Kanipchen-Fit (and it's very good, very Solbakken-ish). Their albums are exceedingly difficult to find, so this mix was partially made to provide a listening party for those who are unable to obtain them.

Enjoy. I certainly do.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The American Analog Set in a nutshell.

I did a post a while back wherein I summed up the R.E.M. catalog in a few paragraphs (or at least the part that matters to me).  It remains one of the most read posts on this blog.  So, as the feeling hits me, I plan on reviving the "in a nutshell" idea where I'll just run down a band's output and point out the stuff that matters (again, to me — and, subsequently, like minded listeners).  So, here's part two in the series (is it officially a series now?).

The American Analog Set was America's greatest band that no one cared about in the mid and late 90's (sorry, Wilco, but you got redemption eventually).  Establishing their cult through Austin, Texas (and the instant credibility of the Emperor Jones label), the AmAnSet (as they lovingly became known) drifted by over the course of about a decade with generally favorable reviews and limited reception but nobody ever really got that excited about them because the music they created was so subtle and calm (and the revolving door cast of musicians —and subsequent lack of any sort of detail on the band's sleeve notes— certainly didn't help).  It's very easy now to hear them and say something accurate like, "It's like if Stereolab only did top tier songs all the time" or, "It's like all of their songs are variations of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit' on a smaller budget."  Just imagine the beautiful Soundgasm™ that would've resulted had they joined forces with like-minded peers the Sea and Cake.  So, let's go back to a strange and wonderful time when drop D power chords and meandering post-Kurt Cobain grunge dominated the airwaves.  And yet, here were these mellow Texas kids playing what was essentially shoegaze, only at reasonable volumes, who were led by a singer that preferred to whisper (or stand at least five feet away from the mic).  Yes, welcome back to the 90's.

The Fun of Watching Fireworks (1996)
To describe this band as "low key" or "subtle" just seems cheap. That's like calling Bill Evans' music "pretty" or Sonic Youth's music "loud." When that's what the entire manifesto of what the band is about, if you're first reaction is to call them "subtle", I think it's safe to say that you missed the point. An obsession with distance and a healthy dose of echo on the keyboards helps make the band's first statement nearly their definitive one. Beginning with one of the greatest side one/track ones ever, 'Diana Slowburner II' (part one has never been released — if it even exists, that is), should lull any astute listener into a near trance by ninety seconds in. And that's the game that is to be played here: repetition. The majority of the album's nine songs are six minutes or longer and the majority of that time is spent purely on repeating grooves. Are there any great pop songs here? In all honesty. . . no. This is like the most listenable fringe music you'll ever hear. The closest things come to accessible is the spaciously catchy 'Gone to Earth' but even that begins with a two minute instrumental vamp that has nothing else to do with the proper song.  So, yeah.  Want big pop hooks and endlessly catchy riffs?  Nothing here for you.  But, if you want just sheer impressions of dreamy sound, there's lots of that.  In the bigger picture, it's obviously just a warm up lap.  But the good tracks are among the band's best.  Highlight: like all good punk-minded bands, the AmAnSet began their first album with a side one/track one that's arguably their definitive tune with 'Diana Slowburner II.'  Love that elliptical riff.  Just wonderful.

From Our Living Room To Yours (1997)
The title is an allusion to the band's method of recording. And, while this one was recorded partially during the same sessions that yielded their first album, there seems to be a better overall assertion of purpose here. There's more variety, more thoughtful use of the songs' lengthy running times and, overall, just more consistency. The band, for the first time, feels completely right under (lead singer and main critical force) Andrew Kenny's direction. The way this album starts is just genius, with its hip hop-sized ego: a piece of dialogue sampled from who-knows-where declares, "We provide the fireworks, you provide the 'Ooooohh's and 'Aaaaahh's." And, bam, the super tight brush-stroked beat of 'Magnificent Seventies' hits you like you were supposed to know it was coming all along. That is how you start an album. When the sounds of sampled fireworks exploding finishes out the nine-minute opener, you know this is gonna be a really good one. And I should say right now: this one's heavier reliance on a definitively stated backbeat (no matter how lowly the drumkit is actually mixed in) is where it succeeds. Even the last three tracks (which are very deep "mood piece" type cuts, to be absolutely sure) remain their own distinct entities because of the more pronounced big(-ish?) beat. The band's first real pop song (use your imagination) is included with 'Where Have All The Good Boys Gone' and that Slowdive-esque ending is just killer, isn't it? Consistency, here we come! Highlight: the delicious Kraut-pop of 'Magnificent Seventies'; though closer 'Don't Wake Me' is not only like a more acoustic-y Joy Division-meets-Codeine, it also sets the scene for the band's somber masterpiece of a follow up.

bliss out v.9 (1997)
Part of the wonderful Darla label's "bliss out" series, it was the AmAnSet's first appearance away from their local Emperor Jones label. It's just two long tracks —the catchy Kraut-pop™ vamp-with-narrations 'Late One Sunday' and the seeming intended-for-meditation repetitious synth of 'The Following Morning'— that are very nice, but really just a nicely included subplot to our main story. Highlight: if you like one, you like the other.

The Golden Band (1998)
If the band has one big defining longform statement, this is it. This is that album that is not bound by any one or two hugely popular songs, but instead, sounds incomplete when not played front to back. This is the Astral Weeks of the 90's. It is about Andrew Kenny's growing up in, and coming to grips with the fickle nature of, for lack of better terminology, "the scene." It is romanticizing of the past, bitter about the present and hopeful about the future. Even though most of his work before this album and since then arrives at much more obtuse observations, this album is precise and poignant, like this was the record he intended to make the first time around. Rookie mistakes are now corrected (splitting 'New Drifters' up into four more easily digestible pieces is a fantastic executive decision). The way the band has developed so slightly, but so effectively, is heard on songs like the jangly 'It's All About Us', the incredible centerpiece 'The Wait' or the time signature trickery of 'I Must Soon Quit the Scene' is not immediately noticeable, but it will definitely become apparent on second or third listen. Intensely personal and just wonderfully catchy, this is the band's best. Highlight: the dreamy vibes on 'I Must Soon Quit the Scene.'

Through the 90's: Singles and Unreleased (1995-1999)
Figures that this band would release singles like they actually meant to get on the pop charts all along. This album is very unfairly named, as it contains 90% exclusive to this disc material. Sure, there's songs you've heard before, but the shorter takes on tunes like 'It's All About Us' are not only alternate recordings, they provide a fascinating peek at the band's process. And besides, it shows the band in full on hypocrite mode, managing an even spacier 'Diana Slowburner II' (seriously, why was this the single version?).  Otherwise, there's so much non-album material, it's pretty much like its own album. It wasn't intended to be a proper album, so it lacks on the sequencing and consistency, but all of the non-album material and especially the live recordings (which find the band in totally flawless form) make it absolutely essential for fans. Highlight: very tempting to say the Dr. Pepper jingle, but really, 'The Only Living Boy Around.'

Know By Heart (2001)
A long break between albums (three years, in fact, and the longest ever for the band) and label a switch and they came back with a streamlined version of their own sound. The kickoff tune 'Punk As Fuck' may have an attention grabbing title, but the actual tune is simple and effective, using a heavier reliance on vibraphone. There's a previously unnoticed new wave influence in tunes like 'Like Foxes Through Fences' or 'The Kindness of Strangers' (replace the vibes with early 80's synths and this is basically an Orange Juice song — I can't be the only one that hears this!). Meanwhile, 'Choir Vandals' is the sort of song that's so different and so good, you just have to wonder why it took someone so long to write it. There's a great revive of the meat portion of 'Gone to Earth' which just exemplifies how tight the band had gotten in the interim. The album closer 'We're Computerizing and We Just Don't Need You' points the band straight back into Golden Band territory, and boy, what a fine way to spend fourty minutes. Ben Gibbard's all over it (he was an unofficial member for a while there). It's really good; probably should be the second album you get into, unless it was your first. Highlight: 'Choir Vandals.' Fake neo-soul. Hell yeah.

Promise of Love (2003)
This album reminds me of the Feelies. It's rocked up for these guys, but, as always with a very serious consideration for layers of clean-toned guitar. It's definitely their most abrasive album (if you can even legitimately apply a word like "abrasive" to this band). Check out the uber-psychedelic opener 'Continuous Hit Music' and just marvel at how good the band had gotten at its "thing" by this point (a revive of the presumed demo of the tune as a hidden bonus track at the end of the album is definitely a welcome surprise). I don't love it like I do all of their other albums, but it's definitely the rawer, rougher "evil twin" (if you will) of Know by Heart, so that in itself, is fun. Highlight: 'Come Baby Julie, Come Home' for the gorgeous second half of the tune.

Home, Vol. 5 (2004)
A wonderful little side-thingy from the equally as wonderful Post-Parlo records series that finds the second half highlighting Andrew's acoustic solo recordings. The first half is Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and his half is good (he covers 'Choir Vandals' and it's good!).  Andrew's half features three songs, which at the time were new, and a cover of Death Cab's 'Line of Best Fit.'  Definitely worth it for 'Church Mouse in the Church House', which is surprisingly haunting and atmospheric for just a plaintive acoustic tune.  The whole thing's just straight, no nonsense acoustic guy strumming and it should go without saying that if you're even a casual fan of either of these guys, it's a must hear.  Highlight: 'Church Mouse' obviously.

Set Free (2005)
And finally jumping over to the Canadian Arts and Crafts label for their swan song. This album not only begins with one of the band's best tunes ever in 'Born on the Cusp' (I'd say top five, easily), it wraps things up nicely.  They finally stopped fiddling about and paid proper tribute to Codeine, one of their biggest influences, on the fantastically buzzing cover of 'JR.'  They had finally recorded a full band record in a proper studio and streamlined their songs into proper three or four minute pop masterworks.  This is especially evident as four of the album's tracks ('First of Four', 'Cool Kids Keep', 'Everything Ends' and 'Green Green Grass'), all of which clocked in at three minutes or less, were featured in much longer versions (seven and eight minutes) on their respective singles.  They had perfected what they did.  It needed to end, because there was nowhere else to go.  You can only repeat yourself so many times before it becomes mundane and the trick (however great it may be) starts to lose its lustre.  Andrew Kenny is a very smart man and obviously recognized this.  The band dissolved without much fanfare and Andrew resurfaced about five years later with the more acoustic-based Wooden Birds.  That's a good story, too.  But not one to be told right now.  Highlight: 'Born on the Cusp' which is not only catchy as hell, it's a helluva lot of fun to play for yourself.  Try it!

Hard to Find: Singles and Unreleased 2000-2005 (2009)
This puts the bow on the package that Set Free wrapped. And it's a big, colorful, understated bow. Unfortunately a digital-only release, if nothing else, it's worth it for the brilliant full version and band apex of 'Everything Ends in Spring.' It almost feels like that song is what they were working towards the entire time and they called it quits not long afterwords because they knew they could never top it. It's one of my favorite songs of all time and it makes me boogie. A few demos and some non-album stuff and this package is a perfect top-off to one of the most impressive runs in modern rock music. I can't recommend it enough. Highlight: 'Everything Ends' because the bassline is a killer too.

And yeah, Andrew then rebooted himself into Wooden Birds around the same time and got comfortable. Behind himself, he left the AmAnSet discography, fragmented, sidebar-filled and absolutely top gear the whole way through. Not really gone long enough to achieve revival popularity and not popular enough the first time around to stay on most folks' minds, their catalogue has sadly drifted out of print for the most part. But, jeez oh man, is it worth a revisit. The band is one of my all time favorites if for no other reason than what they didn't do: they never played anything when it wasn't completely necessary. Theirs is a music full of space and quiet moments. Contrarily easy to know what to expect from them — yet they were never short on surprises. The sheer audacity of a band to play shoegaze at quiet volumes is enough to get me on their side initially, but throw in absolutely top tunes throughout and you get one of the greatest nearly forgotten pop bands ever. May they play as quietly as they want for all time.