29 December 2010

Black Breath, Blitzen Trapper

We're back from the holiday break, and ready to review some records...

Black Breath
Heavy Breathing
Released March 12, 2010 (Southern Lord)

Short Notes: Seattle metalers follow up acclaimed EP with solid Swedish metal throwback

Click Here To Watch The Video

I generally believe there are two main avenues for making a great album: be innovative, or be the best at what you do. Take, for instance, the last metal album on this list, the one from Agalloch. That's the first kind of greatness, something that non-fans can appreciate, even if they don't necessarily love it or feel a connection to it. Then you have this Black Breath album, which isn't anything new: the comparisons to early 90's Swedish metal (Entombed seems to come up a lot in reviews) are apt and there's more than a bit of late 80's thrash as well. It kicks some ass, even if it's a straightforward ass kicking, the kind you're (perhaps) embarrassed about. Heavy Breathing won't win any new converts to the style, but should satisfy anyone already initiated -- nearly the exact definition of a 'B' album.

This is the first album we’ve had in this little project that I would have never listened to otherwise. So I’m branching out. I’m also totally unqualified to provide a competent review, since I’ve got no context in which to put the album. Musically, it’s got some thrash (the drummer really likes his speed metal fills), with enough tempo shifts in-song (“Black Sin”) or slower tunes (“Unholy Virgin”) to keep it a little interesting. Honestly, my biggest surprise was to discover that this was an American band. The idea of a fast, anti-religious (and the images are replete, I tell you, and sometimes gratuitous), scream-vocaled metal band is, in my mind, clearly linked up with Northern Europe. So, if you’re not a metal fan, this isn’t the place to start. Otherwise, I defer to my man Lin. All I can say is that a thrash fan is probably going to find more to like here than an indie pop fan would have found in that mediocre Belle and Sebastian record. That’ll get you a B- in my gradebook.

Blitzen Trapper
Destroyer of the Void
Released June 8, 2010 (Sub Pop)

Short Notes: Attack of the mellow, from the band that brought you the “Black River Killer”

I really dug the last Blitzen Trapper record, and I went into this one with high hopes. It’s not a bad record, and I can see putting it on when I’m wanting something that sounds like a cross between the Grateful Dead and Stray Gators-era Neil Young (with a little Pure Prairie League in there for good measure), and I have neither on hand. This is a record that succeeds on its own (circumscribed) terms, and that will be enjoyable to folks that like this sort of earthy but electric mix of mostly slow and mid-tempo songs. But it’s not going to be at the top of my list, either.

I like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of modern musical history. The frustrating part of this is that I find myself half-listening to new music fighting the urge to switch over to their influences and getting the goods from the source. Destroyer of the Void is one of these albums, even if its influences are better amalgamated than most other mediocre releases. The title track is the most interesting piece here, the reviews calling it "prog," though it's more akin to Beatles-style prog than, say, King Crimson. So, in a way, the 'C' I'm giving this is misleading: it's not a bad album, I'm just not sure why you'd go with it over something else.

24 December 2010

2010 Albums: Big Boi, Big K.R.I.T.

Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Dusty Chico
Released July 5, 2010 (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)

Short Notes: Who would have thought the Speakerboxx follow-up would be the best record by an OutKast member in 5 years?

With the all of the changes to the music industry since Napster flipped everything, Hip-Hop has experienced perhaps the biggest change of all. As sales have dropped and “big stars” like Rock Ross barely go gold, there’s been a lot of new room for local hip hop idioms and artists to have national stylistic influence and commercial exposure. At the same time, it’s gotten harder, not easier, for casual hip hop fans like me to follow new developments in the genre. The internet--the blogs, the mixtapes, the whole thing--actually make it more difficult for someone like me to get a foothold on what’s happening, and the emphasis on singles and unofficial releases doesn’t fit in well with my more traditional album-based ways of getting and thinking about music. I’ve retreated somewhat in the last few years from hip hop--not out of the music, but into known artists and labels (Rhymesayes, eg). All of this makes a big album by a “known” quantity like Big Boi really appealing (even if the cheapness of the official videos, especially "Shine Blockas," which does a real half-ass job of dealing with Gucci's prison-related absence, reminds us this is a new, austere era in rap).

Thankfully, the album is more than good enough to deserve the hype. Some of these songs--”General Patton” and the killer Gucci Mane collaboration “Shine Blockas”--date to late 2009, but the new tracks, most notably “Shutterbugg” more than make up for the inclusion of some previously available stuff. And how’s the music? Big Boi, despite sometimes seeming overshadowed by Andre 3000’s antics, is a monstrous rapper and rock-solid lyricists, and the beats--put together by a range of producers--are up to date and, for the most part, banging. I’d be hard-pressed to imagine another record unseating this one for “Best Hip-Hop Album” of 2010 (although I haven’t really digested Kanye’s newest yet). Highly recommended.

I sometimes feel like I've lost -- or never even had -- the ability to adequately judge new music that meets a minimum level of competence. I find myself often resorting to variations of "it's fine, but doesn't appeal to me." Nowhere do I encounter this as much as with rap. A good beat is a good beat and relatively easy to spot: but because of this, the beat has become necessary but even less sufficient for a great track. I'm neither rapper nor poet, and I know I miss more of the wordplay than I catch, especially when I don't have the time or desire to get into it. So, more often than not, I've started listening to most new rap, and think it's fine, but not especially special.

Sir Lucious Left Foot is more or less the same. I want to like it more than I actually do. I can't point out too many reasons for my lukewarm feelings beyond the belief that the album is ~15 minutes too long and sporting a couple of slow sections. Most of the selections are solid, if not mind blowing (outside of "Shine Blockas," which is great, especially the remix). The additions of "General Patton," "Tangerine," and "The Train Part II" probably provide enough reason to come back a few more times, but isn't enough for regular rotation.

Big K.R.I.T.
Krit Wuz Here
Released July 13, 2010 (self-released)

Short Notes: Southern rock newcomer is all over the mixtape scene in ‘10.

It would be fair to say that it’s hard for me to evaluate a self-produced mixtape (even one as good as this one) on the same day as a Big Boi record. I love the bangers on this record--”Hometown Hero” and “No Wheaties” are big tracks, and totally live up to the hype that K.R.I.T (a new Def Jam signee) is pulling down. But unlike the Big Boi album, I find that this record drags as often as it succeeds--the 19 tracks here are dominated by that kind of mid-tempo, rhyme-heavy rap that everyone likes in theory, but that only works in practice when paired with the most transcendent of beats. I’d love to see a 12 song studio album, something more focused, true to the man’s vision, but with a little more variety.

As a side note (and in partial response to some thoughts spurred on by Lin’s reviews), I’m wondering about the difficulties of evaluating new hip-hop albums (in whatever format) in the context of expectations we’ve formulated about what an albums is. The current indie/rock/metal/americana scenes, for all their diversity and evolution since the early 2000s, are still mostly about producing collections of songs that suit well-established expectations about what an album is--in terms of length, sonic and artistic cohesion, packaging, and distribution. Rap albums, going back to De La (and further, obviously), with the skits, and the multi-producer records of the 1990s, have always been different beasts. Mixtape culture is even further from the idea of the “album” a guy like me brings to the table, and I know that the few hip-hop albums on our list will suffer in our evaluations from the lack of conciseness and cohesion they often exhibit relative to, say, the Beach House record. This issue comes to a head, I think, with Kanye’s new record, which, for all its diversity, sounds more like a conventional rock album to me in the way that the songs are linked thematically and sonically. Just something to consider as we proceed.

I'm glad this is running the same day as the Big Boi review, as much of the above applies here too, except that I enjoy K.R.I.T. Wuz Here more. Is it better? Probably not, overall: there's not a whole lot here that I can point to and say "I've never heard anything like this before." The highs are just as high, though -- see, for instance, "Hometown Hero," which stands a good chance of being one of my favorite tracks of the year, or "I Gotta Stay." Overall, though, there are too many tracks here that are merely 'okay,' making the album feel exactly as long (70 minutes) as it is.

23 December 2010

A Whoopee in Hell Christmas, Redux

Once upon a time, not long ago, when people wore pajamas and lived life slow, we used to post mixes on this blog. The most popular of them was the 2008 Christmas mix I made from tunes I'd scraped from across the blogosphere--nothing traditional, but soul, blues, country, indie rock, and hip-hop. In the spirit of Christmas (and because we're a day or two behind on our reviews, what with Christmas travel), I'd like to post (a slightly updated version of) that mix, along with a much revised version of the text that accompanied it.

I've lived in the Upper Midwest most of my life, and what I've missed most these last few Christmas, in California and Texas with my wife, or even worse, sitting on the knife edge of the quickly approaching Sahara Desert in Nigeria, was the snow and cold. Obviously, apartment living helps--I haven't shoveled a meaningful amount of snow in three years. But today, I'm back in the Upper Midwest, at the parents' house, looking out on some light drifting, and feeling the sharp bite of the cold when I go out. I'm not much for Christmas--frankly, it's a holiday that has little meaning for me, now that I'm grown and in that liminal space between being my parents' son and having my own family--but I do love winter.

As such, we begin this mix with the Rev. A. W. Nix, who has a depression-era message of Christmas warmth--the kind that you feel deep down up in your bones from sidling up next to Satan.
Having gotten our priorities and our souls right with God, we're able to get down to our sexy, funky business. While I love a great pop song more than the next guy ("Baby Jesus, born to rock!" is E's Christmas manifesto on track two), my highlights are the blues and soul songs, particularly Sonny Boy Williamson II's message of Christmas materialism (blues singers almost inevitably call St. Nick "Santy Claus," which is fine by us), and of course Clarence Carter's loverman "Backdoor Santa," who looks ridiculous but still cuckolds you Christmas morning--"he don't come but once a year," if you get his drift.

Also, some of you may recognize the lead singer of Adam's House Cat as the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood. He and guitar hero Mike Cooley were singing about smack-addled Santas long before writing the "Southern Rock Opera." And we end, naturally, with some spoken-word recollections my Mr. Johnny Cash, from his 1963 Columbia album, "The Christmas Spirit":

Christmas came, and Christmas went,
Christmas that year was heaven-sent.

And my daddy put on his rubber boots
and faced the floor, waitin' for the thaw,
back home in Dyess, Arkansas

A Whoopee in Hell Christmas, Redux

1) How Will You Spend Christmas - Rev. A.W. Nix
2) Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas - Eels
3) Christmas With the Devil - Spinal Tap
4) There ain't no Santa Claus on the Evenin' Stage - Captain Beefheart
5) Christmas Feeling Ska - Toots & the Maytals
6) Poor Mr. Santa - Andre Williams
7) Santa Claus - Sonny Boy Williamson
8) Backdoor Santa - Clarence Carter
9) Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin' - Albert King
10) Christmas Celebration - B.B. King
11) This Christmas - Donny Hathaway
12) I Hear Jingle Bells - Freddie King
13) Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas - The Staple Singers
14) Lonely This Christmas - Lucky Soul
15) Christmas Time is Here - Mayer Hawthorne
16) Christmas '83 - Centro-matic
17) Listening To Otis Redding At Home on Christmas Day - Okkervil River
18) Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis - Neko Case
19) Grateful for Christmas - Hayes Carll
20) Merry Christmas from the Family - Robert Earl Keen
21) Too Much Wine - The Handsome Family
22) Christmas is for Losers - Mike Nicolai
23) Here It Is Christmas - The Old 97's
24) Jesus Christ - Big Star
25) The Christmas Song - Weezer
26) Sometimes You Have To Work On Christmas - Harvey Danger
27) A Poundland Christmas - Wild Billy Childish & The Musicians of the British Empire
28) Christmas In Baghdad - Black Lips
29) Christmas Lullaby - Cary Grant
30) Santa's Out of Rehab by Christmas - Adam's House Cat
31) Merry Christmas Baby - The BellRays
32) Jingle Bells (Dan The Automator Remix) - Dean Martin
33) Thank God It's Not Christmas - Parenthetical Girls
34) Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa - De La Soul
35) Christmas in Harlem - Kanye West
36) My Christmas Bells - Hard Call Christmas (Peanut Butter Wolf)
37) Jingle Bells - Ice-T
38) Santa Claus is Sometimes Brown - El Vez
39) Please Come
Home For Christmas - Charles Brown
40) Santa Claus' Daughter - Charlie Rich
41) They Shined Up Rudolph's Nose - Johnny Horton
42) Lonesome Christmas (Part 1) - Lowell Fulson
43) Silent Night - Tom Waits
44) Christmas As I Knew It - Johnny Cash

part 1 (tracks 1-20) here
part 2 (tracks 21-44) here


21 December 2010

2010 Albums: Ben Weaver, Best Coast

Ben Weaver
Mirepoix and Smoke
Released on October 19, 2010 (Bloodshot)

Short Notes: Airy, subdued fall/winter record from Upper Midwest singer.

This is a lovely, sparse record from St. Paul-based singer-songwriter Ben Weaver, who has apparently been putting out these kinds of folk songs since 2002. It really is just Weaver’s soft, sometimes gravelly tenor, his fingerpicking (guitar and a bit of banjo), and the occasional harmony by Erica Froman, and he does (to these ears) a wonderful job of playing with silence and space to make something of these songs that sounds rather bigger. If you’re not interested in a record with such a limited palette, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are, you’d be rewarded by a wonderful little set of songs about love and regret (“Drag the Hills” is a real standout) that sounds like woodsy (“Maiden Cliff” speaks at some length about gathering wild mushrooms) version of The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely. Recommended, especially for Americana fans.

It's more my fault than Ben Weaver's that the first thing I notice about this album is what it's not, especially vis-a-vis similar artists. In particular, whenever the solo-banjo opens a track, I'm reminded of William Elliott Whitmore, but this is more subdued, lacking the same sort of dynamic movement and raw pathos of Whitmore's best work. Mirepoix and Smoke is the sort of album that rewards familiarity by revealing the subtleties of Weaver's Americana storytelling. It's sparse without being desolate: I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing, but it is a rare thing.

Best Coast
Crazy For You
July 27, 2010 (Mexican Summer)

Short Notes: Hook-filled, slightly anti-feminist bedroom pop.

This sounds, for all the world, like Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville re-written by a girl-group fetishist. It’s got that fuzzy, insular indie pop sensibility that goes back to the old C-60 days, and singer Bethany Cosentino has that same snotty, laid back vocal quality that made Phair’s early work so emotionally cutting--everything was an thrown-off, backhanded insult. But Cosentino’s songs aren’t so much about getting over the guy who fucked her over as they are about getting him back. Sure, she’s angry at him for leaving, but she can’t really get along without him, either:

And nothing makes me happy
Not even TV or a bunch of weed
Everytime you leave this house
Everything falls apart

She’ll promise him she “won’t be such a brat” (“Bratty B”) if he’ll come home, but the real problem, of course, is her own self-deprecating lack of self-esteem. Rather than Phair’s infamous “blow job queen,” Cosentino is sure she can’t really keep her man happy, especially when she measures herself against all the other American Apparel-clad girls on the scene:

The other girl is not like me
She's prettier and skinnier
She has a college degree
I dropped out when I was seventeen
If only I could get her out of the picture
Then he would know how much I want him

I love this as a pop record. It’s all jangly fuzz and chorus, with a timelessness to its approach to pop that makes it much easier listening than, say, Ariel Pink’s 70s AM throwbacks. But Cosentino’s lyrical insistency--she loves her boy, she has fun with him, but is lost without him, why won’t he come back--drags a bit after about 10 or 11 tracks. Quibbling aside, it’s a fun (if ultimately minor) record by an interesting band. I’d love to see how she feels after another break-up or two.

I mentioned in a previous review how much I'm annoyed by the fuzzy, washed out production that seems so in vogue these days. Let my spoil the surprise early by saying that this is the biggest problem I have with Crazy For You. But unlike, say, that Ariel Pink album, Best Coast has actual identifiable songs with some catchy hooks and witty lyrics: with different production, this is at least an A- for me. Brandon's Liz Phair comparison is a good one, but it's a frustrating comparison as it highlights how much I would enjoy this album with a few different stylistic choices. The highlights for me are those with darker tones, where the muddled production doesn't take away so much, namely "I Want To" and "Honey."

20 December 2010

2010 Albums: Agalloch, Belle and Sebastian

Marrow of the Spirit
Released November 23, 2010

Short Notes: More metal, more power and more everything leads to an instant classic.

So, as will be readily apparent, I’m not a metal guy. At best, I’m one of those indie kids with the Black Mountain and Mastodon records. At worst, I’d have to admit to enjoying Judas Priest’s first eight records far more than the vast majority of the new metal records Lin’s sent me over the years. That said, it was clear from the second track on (the first one is a compelling, if slight composition featuring cello playing over the top of the sound of a gurgling stream) that this is a major record. I may not be able to tell you how it fits in with the current metal trends, but I can tell you that Agalloch have made a deeply affecting record with tremendous musicality. I’ll leave the heavy philosophizing to Lin, but it’s my assertion that if you can get past the heavy metal vocals, there’s a lot that most indie rock fans with a foothold in heavier music (say, a teenage education in stoner rock and its classic rock antecedents, in my case) would find enjoyable and engaging. The musical twists and turns (it’s proggy, but in a way that never degenerates into virtuosity demonstrations) keep it engaging, and there’s top-notch guitar interplay for the headphone listeners. Highly recommended.

Lin: A+
Agalloch's 2006 album "Ashes Against The Grain" was my go-to choice for many of the long winter days and nights I spent in downstate Illinois. It's what I picked when I didn't know what I wanted, when in that indescribable mood brought on by unrelenting melancholy. So I wasn't particularly looking forward to this, their follow-up: 4 years later and the preemptive sense of disappointment that 'the one after the great one' usually brings? Still, there's always hope, right?

Marrow of the Spirit is better -- better than any previous Agalloch, better than almost every other metal I've heard and, it looks right now, better than any other album that came out this year. The appropriately (or ironically?) titled "And They Have Escaped The Weight of Darkness" opens the album with cello washed over an icy creek, sounding exactly like the album cover looks. If we have indeed escaped the darkness, Agalloch is here to tell us that the light doesn't hold any real promise: "Into the Painted Grey" incorporates the black metal that Agalloch lost circa their second album. It hits, and hits hard, but to call it 'black metal' ignores the complexity of...well, everything. This 12-minute tracks takes us a quarter of the way through the trip and I'm already blown away.

But then comes "The Watcher's Monolith," which is getting all the press. It's good, for sure, great even. But it's followed by "Black Lake Nidstang" which is -- let's just admit it -- epic. At over 17 minutes, "Black Lake" is the temporal and emotional centerpiece of the album. I've only listened to this piece a dozen times, so I don't yet have the words to adequately describe it, but it's already made the short list of my favorite metal songs ever.

If there's a knock against this album, it's that the first four tracks are so exhaustingly good. I'm not sure I really paid that attention to the last two songs -- 20 minutes worth -- on my first listen through. I was catching my breath. But on subsequent listens, they're as rewarding as what came before it. "Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires" would be my favorite track on hundreds of other albums. "To Drown" closes things out the way they should be closed out, bringing back the opening cello in washes of electronic guitars and an increasingly tense circular figure.

It may not be the best place to start for metal or even within Agalloch's catalogue, but if you have any love or desire for the genre, Marrow of the Spirit is a must have.

Belle and Sebastian
Write About Love
Released October 11, 2010 (Rough Trade)

Short Notes: The Boy’s got no Arab Strap...(and yes, I know how dirty that sounds.)

Belle and Sebastian have been in a sort of quasi-hiatus since 2006’s outstanding The Life Pursuit. Sadly, this record, while going after a similar classic pop sound (replete with horns and a 60s vibe), is far inferior with regards to songwriting and hooks. I love the idea of a poppier, more hi-fi version of the band that gave me If You’re Feeling Sinister, but this record doesn’t reflect the breezy brilliance of the last one. This one’s only for the die-hard fans.

I've spent some time -- not a lot of time, but a significant amount -- trying to get into Belle & Sebastian. But, for some reason, I find it fairly difficult outside of a few songs scattered throughout their discography. I tend to, in general, find their music pleasant enough if completely boring. Their newest does little to alter my opinion. At best, Write About Love sounds restrained, leading to an odd 'tenseness' in the music that keeps it from reaching the level of easy-going contentment that I found intriguing -- if not always appealing, given my own proclivities -- in the sunshiny pop of earlier albums. Only really worth picking up if you're a Belle & Sebastian completist.

18 December 2010

2010 Albums: Beach House

Beach House
Teen Dream
Released January 26, 2010 (Sub Pop)

Short notes: Drowsy Baltimore duo make a Sub Pop record. Beautiful, but not entirely attention-grabbing.

I think that the idea of "pop" has changed a fair bit within the indie community over the last 5 years. I see this record described often as what I might (borrowing an idea from my political science day job) call "pop with adjectives"--dream pop, psych-pop, chill pop. It's as thought the idea of "pop" has become either so divisive, disagreeable, or broad that we can't really see what it all might have in common. So when I say that this record doesn't sound like "pop" to me (and singer Victoria Legrand certainly doesn't sound like Stevie Nicks, which is a comparison made by several otherwise reputable sources. Ok, so maybe her voice has a certain timbre reminiscent of Stevie, but the way she sings--the phrasing, the way she lifts her voice--is completely different), you'll forgive me. There's nothing really exuberant here. There's emotion, and dynamic variation, and arrangements sometimes evocative of pop, but what I think of as essentially "poppy"--the energy, really--is largely absent.

There's still a lot to enjoy here. The songs are beautiful, all laid back organ swirling and jerky drum machines, with Legrande's vocal dynamism (I'm led to believe she shows rather more range here than on previous records) out in front. But the wide-eyed, simple, and soft approach of a lot of the current indie crop (Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, these kids) leaves me a bit cold. At the end of the day, it sounds a bit like a genre exercise, rather than the great pop record everyone else seems to be hearing. Recommended, but not without reservations.

Except for those rare moments where I have some free time to just listen to music, I'm doing something else while I have my headphones on. So, when I say that an album doesn't hold my attention, it's not necessarily a damnable critique. But when 'what I'm doing' is 'work,' where I'm often looking for a little distraction, then it's a little harder to give the music a pass. This isn't a bad album at all -- the songwriting is pretty good, the music isn't bad -- it's just mostly boring outside of its beginning and end. It'd make a great soundtrack to some indie hipster romcom, where the pleasant sheen and lack of significant hooks is beneficial and bolstered by images.

17 December 2010

2010 Albums: Ariel Pink & Haunted Graffiti, Backyard Tire Fire

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Before Today
Released June 8, 2010 (4AD)

Short Notes: Scenester, Animal Collective bud washes off the taint of association, gets hi-fi.

Hot off the heels of yesterday's anointment of "Round and Round" (this album's "single") as the track of the year by the folks over at Pitchfork, this record now comes with the endorsement of (at least) half the writers here at She's Making Whoopee in Hell. Like the Beach House record we'll be reviewing in a few days, Before Today represents not only the "mainstream" debut of one of indie rock's recent touchstones, but the mainstreaming of a major indie sub-genre, so-called "chillwave," or what I like to call, simply, "cheap synthesizer pop." But none of the backstory really matters, thankfully, for your listening enjoyment. As a pop fan, there's a ton to like about this record. Ariel Pink's a hell of a songwriter, and it sounds like (in Pollardesque fashion--not that this sounds like GBV), he's learned to keep the lo-fi affect from getting in the way of the hooks. Unlike a lot of the major indie releases we've got on tap for this project, this record succeeds entirely as a pop record first, which is rare enough. And do have a listen to "Round and Round," which I really wish I'd had for those long summer afternoons of driving. It's outstanding. Highly recommended.

Feel free to chalk this one up to me just not getting it -- because I just don't get it. Somehow, the album doesn't hit (or hit close enough to) my musical touchstones. Maybe I'm just too uncool and old-fogeyish and lack the will to discover (or put up with) the new trends. Much of the album sounds like half-baked ideas resurrected from demo cassettes recorded in 1983. I can't say the production reflects that metaphor, but it [the production] is a big reason I do not like the album: it's hard for me to stomach the "washed out" sound -- akin to turning the contrast way up on your monitor -- that's been perpetuated recently by bands like Animal Collective. Pink may have some songwriting chops ("Butt-House Blondies" and "Little Wig" are alright) but it's not immediately obvious, buried under everything else.

Backyard Tire Fire
Good To Be
Released February 16, 2010 (Kelsey Street Records)

This should be right up my alley (and actually, I did enjoy their last record). Lead singer Ed Anderson has a nasal yelp that reminds me, occasionally, of Jim Heath (the good Reverend Horton Heat), and the band has a style that recalls the Bottle Rockets, but this record just doesn't bring the quality songs. There's a lot of decent pieces here (and an appealing southern gothic vibe), but the whole just isn't the sum of the parts. The funny songs aren't really funny ("Brady"), and the serious songs aren't tugging my heartstrings ("Food For Though," "Once Upon a Time"). Definitely sounds like a band not entirely able to translate the energy of the live show onto wax. Too bad.

Backyard Tire Fire's 2007 LP Vagabonds and Hooligans was one of the more pleasant albums I've discovered by randomly picking it up. This album sounds much the same; Anderson's fairly distinctive voice and the production are the two closest connections. The songs, too, sound familiar. There'd be some points off for that even if retreads of brilliance are still brilliant. Unfortunately, the songwriting isn't at the same level -- which only enhances the been-here-done-that feeling. The second half improves things a bit, highlighted by "Hell and Back," which reminds me of a poppier Jay Farrar, followed by the title track and "A Thousand Gigs Ago," which would be a much better song if it didn't trade on so many clich├ęs. Still, a couple of mix-worthy tracks don't make an album.

15 December 2010

2010 Albums: Anais Mitchell, Antony and the Johnsons

Day 3, two more reviews!

Anais Mitchell
Released March 9, 2010 (Righteous Babe)

Short Notes: "Quirky" Vermont singer/songwriter signs to Ani's label, recruits major guests (Bon Iver), gets Greek.

So, she's calling this a "folk opera," the story of Orpheus and Euridyce set in Depression-era America. The first time I heard this, I had no idea what to make of it (although thanks to ye olde liberal arts education, I did "get it"). The arrangements (done mostly by her collaborator Michael Chorney) are lush and interesting, and the vocal guests (especially Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and folkie Greg Brown) are spectacular. The first time through, it seemed like a novelty at best, and a mishmash of cutesy, folky over-reaching at worst. But subsequent listenings have been rewarding--this record's a grower. And despite my wife's judgement ("It's boring. Turn it off."), I find the eclecticism of it all endearing. Frankly, the weakest part of the album is Mitchell's own voice, which is a bit high, nasally, and shrill, like a less pleasant Nellie McKay. But there's little enough of that, and the album's ambitious vision is both fully realized and successful. Highly recommended.

(Note that this version of "Why We Build The Wall" is not the album version.)

I knew nothing about this album before putting it on except its impressive roster of guest musicians. This may have been an asset: part of the fun was trying to figure out what the hell was going on -- the album's internal logic. But it's also a liability: I spent my time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. It's a concept album and sounds like it, which isn't necessarily a good thing given the frequency of style shifts. Still, the individual tracks do work, more or less, especially those closer to the gothic country of Jim White ("Way Down Hadestown") or the "noir film soundtrack" that reminds me of Black Heart Procession's Amore del Tropico ("Why We Build The Wall"). I've listened to this a couple of times and I'm still not ultimately sure what to think; like people that you just can't get a read on, it’s also intriguing.

Antony & the Johnsons
Released October 12, 2010 (Secretly Canadian)

Short notes: Consistently good, but not a step forward, either.

Antony's had a great run since 2005, when I Am a Bird Now brought his unique talent to wider exposure. Swanlights, technically his fourth record (but the third since '05) is a worthy addition to the catalogue. While the sonic palette on an Antony record is, at this point, relatively predictable, that doesn't subtract from the emotional punch or the evident craftsmanship. On this record more that past alums, I hear Antony using his voice to play with space--repeating words, ever adding a bit of scat singing on "I'm in Love," my favorite track. But despite the high praise, this record isn't quite at the level of his best work, either. If you don't know him, better to start with last year's The Crying Light, which was slightly more consistent with the quality of the writing, or his exceptional turn as vocalist on 2008's Hercules and Love Affair record, which gave him a rather broader sonic canvas than his own records. Recommended, especially if you're already a fan.

Any discussion of the best vocalists in current music has to begin with Antony Hegarty -- in my mind, this argument is QED'd by the 1-2 of Hercules and Love Affair's fabulous dance track "Blind" and Antony's own absolutely devastating "Hope There's Someone" (from 2005's I Am A Bird Now). The previous two albums pulled off the (surprisingly difficult) trick of being emotionally resonant despite being thematically dissimilar to my own life, i.e. it's easy for me to get behind songs about alcoholics, unrequited love, and the ennui of modern life, but self-gender image is something entirely different. (I wish to note, though, that even pointing that out does a disservice to his ability to tap into the universal.) Which is a long way of saying that, this album? Not as much. It's still good, but lacks the -- I don't know... cathartic gravitas? maybe? -- of the previous works. It's still there at times (the title track, the first single "Thank You For Your Love") but the missing emotional cohesion between tracks gives just enough room to pull the blanket of ironic detachment over your head.

14 December 2010

2010 Albums: Against Me!, Alcest, Alejandro Escovedo, Aloe Blacc

Here's the first batch of capsule reviews! Please consult the series introduction for detailed information about whatinthehell is going on.

Against Me!
White Crosses
Released June 4, 2010 (Sire)

Short notes: Accused sell-outs (and victims of Wikipedia vandalism) actually follow a well-worn punk path, with reasonable success.

So, this isn't the old Against Me! (not that it has been for awhile now). And you know what? I'm good with that. Unlike the scene kids, I never had any stake in Against Me! as a movement or a standard-bearer, and this incarnation is a hell of a lot less sanctimonious. This is a band that’s mining the same earnest, not quite punk place as the Gaslight Anthem and Social Distortion, albeit, I'd argue, somewhat less effectively. I've got a huge soft spot for that sort of big, anthemic guitar pop with a kick, so I like this album a fair bit. There's not a lot of variety here--everything soars, everything is remarkably serious (the occasional wry humor of their earlier records is entirely gone, primarily in favor of Robert McNamara references), everything rocks out (except the song about Bob Dylan, which starts with a harmonica and has some of the worst lyrics this side of Ke$ha). It ain't subtle ("Suffocation! Modern life in the Western world..."), but it ain't bad.

That punk music traditionally concerns itself with the tearing down society doesn't mean that it necessarily should. While it's not correct to call this happy or optimistic -- album highlight "Because of the Shame" makes that clear -- White Crosses at least approaches that line from the side of reflection or, occasionally, contentment. It's damning with praise to say that this appeals to my mid-life middle-class ethos, the part of me that gets excited about gardening and and minivans. "I was a teenage anarchist but the politics are too convenient," Tom Gables sings after asking us if we remember when we wanted to set the world on fire. The price of growing up is the recognition of complexity and the knowledge that destruction isn't the answer even if it is easy.

Ecailles de Lune
Released March 29, 2010 (Prophesy Productions)

Short Notes: Dude's name is Snow (not THAT Snow, at least I don’t think so), at least in French.

I don't really have the tools to effectively analyze music like this, but I can tell you a few things. First, it's not exactly metal. There's full-throated screaming and fast, heavy drumming, but there's a lot of shoegazey droning and noodling guitar atmospherics. Pitchfork compared Neige's singing to Jonsi from Sigur Ros, and in places, I think that's a fair comparison (about the only one I'm able to make, as this really doesn't sound like anything else I listen to). I enjoyed listening to it while writing, which is about as strong an endorsement as I'm likely to give mostly instrumental guitar music.

Shoegazer impulses have only ever appealed to me in a metal context, where the power of the music overwhelms the "wallowing in self-misery" feeling that I traditionally find associated with that genre. The best moments on this album are those that more closely approach post-rock, like the penultimate "Solar Song," but it doesn't really satisfy the metal itch and doesn't provide me much more than Explosions in the Sky or Russian Circles or the good parts of Sigur Ros -- but that's just because I'm usually looking for something that forces me to listen. This album is too passive -- too shoegazy? not metal enough? -- for my taste, but good for throwing on while doing other work.

Alejandro Escovedo
Street Songs of Love
Released June 29, 2010 (Fantasy/Concerned Music Group)

Short Notes: A legend continues his long swerve into the middle of the road. But that doesn't mean it's bad.

Guys with back catalogs going all the way back to legit 70s California punk have to change it up pretty frequently to sustain that level of productivity. Since his near-death Hep-C experience in 2003, Ecsovedo's put out 3 "solo" records, which is a decent level of productivity for anybody in trad guitar rock not named Neil Young. And he's still an electrifying live player--a recent appearance on Austin City Limits highlighted his hot and blue guitar and his new band, the Sensitive Boys. But the songs on the new record, for all the great playing and the not bad lyrics ("The first time I saw you, I thought I must of dreamed you up," for instance, could go either way), are uneven. Reviews call it "radio-ready," and there are indeed some hooks here. But there's a bit too many slow ones, or fast ones that reward more with instrumental drive than with lyrical depth. This is, for better or worse, Dad-rock, from a guy with legitimate chops and a bit more nuance than the Claptons and Knophlers of the world.

Working through the back catalogs of popularly established artists who've already started to make alright-but-not-great albums isn't particularly sad since you already know what you're getting into. I got into Escovedo right at the end of his most fruitful period; indeed, it's his "With These Hands" that immediately comes to mind when I read Brandon's intro to this project. Which is to say: my expectations are pretty high for each new release. Escovedo has one of the great voices in music and it has lost little of it's power, polishing up some of the mediocre-by-comparison songwriting and keeping the album from being a legitimate disappointment. Nothing is bad here, but nothing is great either.

Aloe Blacc
Good Things
Released September 28, 2010 (Stone's Throw)

Short notes: Recession zeitgeist-capturing soul single. Yeoman soul in an era of electro-Hip Hop, brought to you by those retro cats at Stones Throw.

Nothing terribly innovative for anyone familiar with the post-neosoul revival template(1999-2006, say). Mayer Hawthorne's exceptional "A Strange Arrangement" album from last year, also on Stones Throw, comes to mind. That said, it's pretty damn solid. Even the ballads and mid-tempo non-burners work here, although the highlight is still the single ("I Need a Dollar"). Beautiful, if not radical production and arrangement with good-to-great songs ("Politician" and "Miss Fortune," especially) with a consistent, mid-70s soul ghetto-observational focus, updated for the Great Recession (he drops a bank bailout reference on "So Hard"). Altogether worth the 50 minutes.

It's not often that a cover -- let alone a cover of such a recognizable song -- saves its album, but that's what Blacc's version of Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" does. It's hard to explain, but it was that point in the album, two-thirds of the way through, where it clicked for me. Before that, the single "I Need a Dollar" and the beat to "Politican" were all I was taking from the album. The album lacks anything revolutionary, giving it the "comfort food" feeling, reminding me of early 70's Philadelphia soul at times. Five good/great tracks ("Hey Brother" and "Miss Fortune" being the other two) and competent filler makes this worth at least a few repeat listens.

13 December 2010

2010 Albums: Series Introduction

So, what's this?

On the phone the other day, Lin and I were discussing how difficult it is to forge the same sorts of connections with music that we used to back in college. Now, I don't want to be one of these guys who's nostalgic for college at 30, but the ages of 14-22 were a time in my life when I frequently had the opportunity to forge deep, permanent relationships with new albums on a pretty regular basis. It was easier back then to find a couple of hours to listen to something on repeat--to live inside of it, to memorize the lyrics and study the liner notes, to imagine what life was like for the band, and to have the record become part of who you were at that moment.

I've written before--really, a pretty long time ago--about how different my life was when I only had 300 albums, and I knew them all by heart. I wouldn't trade my knowledge of music now for what I had back then (or my life now, for that matter, for what I had back then). But back before Napster and file trading, before the blogs, and before we became adults who work and don't have time to go to that many shows any more, the sheer pleasure of discovering a new band, or a new record was so pure, so magical. It's so rare that I find that anymore, and I think it's not just because I'm older.

Part of it is, for me, the lack of community. The people I see everyday don't know me as a music fan. They know me as a college professor, as an African politics guy. That's alright with me, but I don't really talk music, except on the phone and on Facebook. It's not the same as getting some beers and going back to my apartment and listening to records for hours. I lack--I miss--that sense of community. But that's not an excuse.

I think, really, that it's because I don't take the time. I have friends, my age (who play in bands, not coincidentally), who seem to make time, and who seem to forge new, meaningful relationships with music. I'm jealous, and for that, there is only one cure: I'm going to publicly shame myself into listening to about 200 new records (with 2010 release dates) over the next 3 months or so, with Lin over here. We're going to post short, capsule-style reviews, complete with professor-style letter grades. And at the end, we're going to post a list of our top 40 for the year gone by. If we were smart, we'd have started in October. Hell, we'd have started in January 2010. But here we are. Wish us well, and here we go... -- Brandon

The Opening Bit:

Outside of an unfortunate bit of data loss in February, I had a pretty good music year, forcing myself to go back through some stuff I'd listened to once and forgot and then resetting my foundation with the classics, finally sitting down with some famous albums I'd never bothered with before. I re-thought through how I interacted with music and how I wanted to track my listening and make the stuff I like more accessible in the future.

Because the sad fact is that Brandon's absolutely right. Back in the day when I had 200 albums, it was easy to know which ones were the best and which tracks were best skipped, my fingers reflexively reaching for the "next" button on the CD player. A few albums later, and a fundamentally different way of approaching listening (primarily the switch to solely digital) and it's downright impossible. A new song has to seriously WOW for me to remember it a week later.

This is why I generally don't concern myself with much new music and instead try to focus on back catalogues of artists I love and other classics. I try to use time to my advantage, letting others do much of the whittling away of the superfluous.

But then December rolls around and I feel like I've failed in my duties of a music geek. I feel like I've missed out on something that might’ve enrich my life.

So, here's to 200 or so 2010 albums in three months or so, looking for the gems that would have been completely avoided or missed with just one introspectiveless pass. -- Lin

A note on grading...

Brandon: As I tell my students every semester, grading is far more subjective than either students or teachers often like to admit. We’re unable to offer any particular access to the universal, or the Platonic form of the “good” pop album, and so the only way to make the ratings we offer valuable is to be as specific as possible about how we constructed them. For me (Brandon) at least, I’ve pretty closely followed the old Robert Christgau Consumer Guide rubric, which can be found here.

In short, A/A- records are thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding listens, B+/B records will be appealing to people who like that sort of thing, but are (in our opinion) unlikely to move the uninitiated to rapture, and C and below are generally good hackwork or bad artistic statements.

Lin: To keep things sane, I'll also use Christgau's rubric. I like that it makes it as difficult to get a bad grade (I'm a fairly forgiving grader, though my former students may disagree) as the highest grades. Most modern music (I have a tendency to argue) isn’t particularly bad -- if anything, it’s usually just boring. My ratings will most likely reflect this. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the rating itself is just a single datapoint and that two albums may be awarded a “B” based on entirely different criteria. So, of course, I recommend also reading our blurbs for further justification or excuses. As always, comments are welcomed, especially if you disagree.