Verbatim from the last two years: Everyone can do year end blurbs. Blurbs are, frankly, dime a dozen, and quite honestly, who needs ‘em- you can listen to the songs and get all the stuff. Here’s some writing about some music that I loved this year.
Tyvek- Nothing Fits
Tyvek’s first album cover features Play Doh-cast versions of the band members. If they had followed along with the motif, this album would have them made of Lincoln Logs. Lincoln Logs, impractical and monochromatic, were about as basic as toys got. Theoretically, if you have a pocket knife a free afternoon, you could make a dozen for your fancy. And Nothing Fits its about as basic as rock and roll get. It is shouted vocals, two guitar tracks (the word “interplay” is for suckers like Dream Theater. Don’t think of “guitar interplay.”) drum beats that do absolutely nothing but occasionally keep time, and, probably, some bass you could make out if you tried, etched onto plastic tape and then transferred to CD. So here’s how to judge this one: After you’ve heard the two below songs, you’ve heard the entirety of Nothing Fits. Interested?
Shrag- Life! Death! Prizes!
MiniBoone- Big Changes
You can play it two ways:
You can play it cool. Knot the double windsor on a dress shirt that cost so much money, it must be a costume. Find a rooftop bar, say to those around you “I’ve never seen the city from this angle” (though the people you say it to will think you are being sarcastic, you do not have to give any further indication that you are not.). Shower the night before, so your hair looks mussed. Own some things that are stainless steel or reclaimed wood. Dance a lot, and say you just quit, but thanks. Spend a lot of the night quietly thinking up the most clever, cutting, stupendous thing to say, and say it just as you’re putting your coat on, and know that everyone in the room will remember your name. It’s a good way to do it; you’re having fun, for real.
You can not. You can spit cliches like they were mucus and wear the mittens that a girlfriend knitted for your first midwestern winter at your liberal arts college. (She tried to spell out your whole name, but only got as far as “Br”). You can love as full and as raw as a small mammal shaking its life out on frozen concrete. You can own up to bad poetry, send gobs of text messages, write letters because you love the feeling of physical contact. You can wear your grandfather’s army jacket over your sister’s girl scout vest, and you can spend all day under the blanket sometimes if the weather seems to heavy. It’s a good way to do it, too.
Coltrane Motion- Hello Ambition!
In contrast to the new Four Tet album, Hello Ambition! is based squarely in our lives of no money, no job, some hope. These are songs for long-fought-for Friday nights and Sunday mornings where we try to put blinders on and forget what’s next. These are dance songs that are aggravated and wistful in equal doses. These songs emanate youth, with all of it melodrama and fierce love, both in the expertly crafted lyrics and the fuzz-bound music which splits the difference between bombastic beats and guitar that wraps around the sinews. I don’t think the group would mind me tossing out a cliché to describe Hello Ambition!, especially because it is, at a base level, incredibly accurate: Are you between 21 and 26, living in a city, scraping by for now, waiting and maybe in the back of your throat a bit worried? This is the soundtrack of your life.
Four Tet- There Is Love In You
What’s unbelievable to me is that There Is Love In You was played at some of the biggest clubs in London. Four Tet has always electronic music for people who press their earbuds tight against their inner ear and walk around empty city neighborhoods, not for people pressed against one another at a crowded club. And, to me, remarkably enough for an album which most critics, and even it’s creator seems to see as “Dance Music,” I hear almost the oipposite: something really spiritual. Tracks like “Circling” and “Angel Echo” do not build to dance hall peaks. They hover just above a listeners ears, the way light sometimes plays tricks on you. There Is Love In You does not have more than two or three discernible words on it, and the album feels cyclical- it’s first and last tracks begin with the same lonely, muffled kick drum. There are times when I found myself lost in this album, unsure when tracks ended or began, unsure of whether I had heard that melody before or not. That ethereal trance is what makes There Is Love in You such a compelling album, whether you can dance to it or not.
Josh Ritter- So Runs The World Away
This is not how the singer songwriter story goes. The singer songwriter strums and writes love songs and one political song per album, which is actually just a love song from a soldier to a guy (or girl) back home. The singer songwriter is supposed to be thankful for every moment they still have their record deal and not mind too much if you don’t remember their name or confuse them with Josh Rouse. The singer songwriter is not supposed to write transcendental, near 8-minute epics about arctic exploration, nor are their love songs supposed to be written from the POV of a reanimated mummy or a celestial body in an irregular orbit. The singer-songwriter is supposed to be derivative, but he is not supposed to be reverent and revisionary of the cannon, bring Stagger Lee and Louis Collins out of the textbooks and have them run around the street as though it hadn’t been 90 years since they last got to do that. The singer songwriter is supposed to be subtle and guitar based, not pounding, not sly, not loud. The singer songwriter could learn an awful lot from Josh Ritter. If he keeps making ’em as good as So Runs The World Away, he’ll keep that terrible label as far away as he likes.
Miles Kurosky- The Desert of Shallow Effects
The worst part of finger painting for young Miles Kurosky was waiting for the paint to dry. He was never the most patient painter as he distributed his colors on his nature scenes, and so the blue eyes of the rabbit on top of the yellow starlight on top of the greasy-gray grass came out the same way that the red of the Robin layered on the taupe of the dust road did: as brown. The whole thing was brown smudges next to brown streaks next to brown dots. Sure, there were hints of the fuchsia and egg-shell and flag-blue, but mostly it was brown. His teacher that year was almost old enough to fit into the schoolmarm image, but had smoked for too long to have the voice down. The one thing Miles remembers is her chair-scrape of a voice telling him “let the colors sit, let them take their place before you put the next one on.” The Desert of Shallow Effects is the sound of Miles Kurosky taking his teacher’s advice.
Wye Oak- My Neighbor/My Creator
Janelle Monae- The ArchAndroid
There is something to be said for hugging close to brevity like a safety blanket. My Neighbor/My Creator tunnels beneath oceans and traverses 20,000 foot peaks. It loves you enough to whisk you away from a world whose unfamiliarity is killing you, and it hates you enough to force one of the slowest, most calculated tell offs down your throat. It is fast and slow and everywhere in between. It is rushing and also solemn and then giddy, and then utterly lost. And, as far as I can discern from the lyrics, it is a complete retelling of the Garden of Eden story. It is the most miraculous piece of music this year, and it is 5 tracks- 17 minutes total.
There is also something to be said for shredding brevity like private documents and never looking at it again. The ArchAndroid is eighteen tracks, two interludes, two songs that sound like they were recorded in a gilded dance hall in the fifties, one that sounds like, if released in the late eighties might’ve single-handedly killed the careers of Cyndie Lauper and Madonna, because this and only this, is how the synthy-slow ballad should be done. There’s a bad trip stuck in there, and another one that manages to make you ignore how terrible and irritating Of Montreal are, despite their attempt to steal the show from Monae. There’s something here built for an opera hall. There’s a few made to echo off of dance floors, and a few built for hospital ERs. This in an album made from two complete suites, overtures and all. This is 70 minutes of sprinting. No one is supposed to be able to make it that far. Monae does.
The New Pornographers- Together
Oh New Pornographers, I had given up hope. I was lukewarm about Twin Cinema and didn’t even bother with Challengers. Your live performances were among the worst of any band I had ever seen, including having the gall at pitchfork a few years back to cover “We Will Rock You,” mid-way through your crappy set. Lest to say, you did not rock me. I bought Together because I had extra downloads left on emusic, I will confess. And then, holy shit, you release your catchiest, spunkiest, most fun, and best album yet. I won’t pretend to know what process makes a track like “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” coalesce: the perfect meeting of Neko Case’s immediate, 5th gear vocals, about eighty pounds of hands clapping hands, and a melody that bounces and pogos like the punk song it isn’t. Together feels joyous, and, as its title suggests, more collaborative than past releases. An album this delightful only comes along rarely, yet it seems like this was the one a group like The New Pornographers were always meant to make.
Superchunk- Majesty Shredding
People like to think that there is joy in going home after time away and seeing nothing has changed. These people have never actually done this. There is something desperate-seeming about things, people, places who seem identical after years have gone by. The cries that Majesty Shredding picks up just where Superchunk left off with their last full length, Here’s To Shutting Up, released nine years ago, worried me. But Majesty Shredding is not just a continuation of the Superchunk we knew and loved from the past. There are similarities between this album and the group’s past work, Mac’s summer southern vocals, Jon Wurster’s drip-drop-pounding drums, choruses as big as state fairs. But there are very important differences from old Superchunk. On Majesty Shredding the band sounds better than ever, both in terms of skills and production, and just as evidently, they also sound older. They’re writing just as much in the second person as the first now, as if they only know how to write about a few life lessons, but they’re smart enough to realize that the kids need them more than they do. The tenderness that holds these songs together does not diminish their giddy energy. This is eleven firecrackers packaged together in a shoebox wrapped carefully with a handmade bow.
Field Music- Field Music (Measure)
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists- The Brutalist Bricks
Well, maybe Marx is right. By all capitalist logic, my two favorite albums of the year should not exist. Neither Field Music nor Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are, financially, successful groups. Leo has, on his own website, talked candidly about declining album sales, and how hard it is to keep up the momentum he has maintained for 20 years at this point when he’s barely breaking even. Field Music, once a buzz band in the UK, broke up two years ago, seemingly to let that same buzz fade away, and returned this year with an album they had to have known was not going to sell well, a sprawling double-LP. And yet. And yet. Both of these albums do exist, and, at least to this music listener, provide a perfect rejoinder to all those tired arguments about art versus commerce. The Brutalist Bricks and Field Music (Measure) were not made to make money; they were made because they are great pieces of art. Outside of this, the albums could not be more different however.
I’ve already discussed how much hope and persistence there is on The Brutalist Bricks, but I want to say it again, with a bit more context. Ted Leo had always been an anomaly to me; a sonic experimenter who knew the value of an immediate pop structure; a political songwriter whose lyrics wouldn’t give you a clue as to who he voted for in the last election. He knew the value of drums and bass, of drinking guiness at fake irish pubs in Jersey Suburbs, of sitting in an attic with an unplugged electric guitar, singing to dust-blanketed boxes. He release a whole series of albums which continually made me smile. And then, in 2007, he released one which did not. Leo’s previous album, Living With The Living, was a total letdown for me. Its politics were too blunt and one sided, its slow rock felt exhausted. I listened to it through probably two or three times, and haven’t picked it up after that. I skipped seeing him in concert, for fear he would play “A Bottle of Buckie” or “The World Stops Turning” and I would crush my own heart.
I somehow ended up getting The Brutalist Bricks on the day it came out, and, the more I listen to the album, the more I am happy that I did. This is exactly the kind of album one runs home from a record store clutching and almost scratches the record or skips the CD as they excitedly put it on. The energy that begin on phenomenal opener “The Might Sparrow” does not let up until equally phenomenal closer “Last Days.” The Pharmacists, Leo’s backing band, have the same kinetic energy as The Attractions, Elvis Costello’s backing band to who they are rightfully compared. Just as importantly, Leo’s lyrical mastery is on full marque view on every song on The Brutalist Bricks. Really, the best compliment I can pay the album is to that that The Brutalist Bricks is an album which will make listeners want to do good.
I fell in love with Field Music’s latest album in the opposite manner. I downloaded it on the day it came out, listened to the first few tracks, and gave up, for months. I even blogged, guilt-ridden and worried that I still hadn’t listened to all twenty of the album’s tracks long after it had been released. This was not the album I would have initially hoped that Field Music would make. The band’s first two full lengths were poppy and sharp, the sound of valedictorians who stuck around their hometown’s gymnasium putting together songs piece by piece. The drummer would come in last, after working the afternoon shift at a bookstore/bar and add his two cents and his two sticks. They were wonderful, self-contained, simultaneously small and epic.
Well, after two years apart, the band’s most recently album gets rid of the small. This is EPIC, big, difficult, challenging, gratifying, growing, screwing, stacking, tumbling music. And the craziest thing? It’s a concept album about how difficult it was for the band to record a new album. Just to give you a peek into what I mean:
The positively melancholy first track, “In The Mirror,” has one of the Brewis brothers (Peter or David, the core of the group, and I’m never quite sure who is providing lead vocals on which song) singing “I wish I could and make new rules/and love myself better.” before lamenting “we are hopeless and lost,” almost losing hope altogether as he sings “We’re close enough to stop.” The song chronicles the band’s hiatus- the time in between, stuck wondering if it all was even worth it, and the music is all howling guitars and ghoulish oohs and aahs.
The listener is immediately rocketed into “Them That Do Nothing,” an anthem for moving forward. Here, the rhythm skips ahead and the melody opens and closes like a revolving door. The song’s central tenet is “Them that do nothing/Make no mistakes.” This is a band who are willing to have the blemishes, as long they’re new blemishes.
After that, the listener is treated to the gloriously lackadaisical, rock-as-fuck, “Each Time Is A New Time.” As close to classic rock as the band has ever tried, this is their first new statement of this release: The old game wasn’t working; here’s something new. And the album proceeds through 17 more beautiful songs from there, each as unique as a key cut for a new lock.
I won’t tell you that Field Music (Measure) is a bowl of ice cream. It isn’t a Smirnoff Ice, or a 0-120 roller coaster. It is not an easy, front-loaded straightforward listen. But it is supremely rewarding. A band like field music have recreated their sounds and their basic aims in making music with every album. It is thrilling to see them change in such thoughtful, iconoclastic ways. I’m not hedging my bets on where they’ll go next.
Thanks for reading. More regular updates will return in 2011.