What excited me in music this year?
Change. The Congos recorded an album with two avant-garde noise-rock producers. Cloud Nothings got furious and restless. Calexico showed some teeth. Hospitality grew indie pop up. Nick Zammuto shredded and rearranged his songs.
Continuity. Toys That Kill made a rock album that reminded me what it is about guitar, bass, and drums. John K Samson stayed in the city that raised him and wrote an album about it like it was the most important thing in the world, which, who knew, it kind of is. Dwight Yoakam made a Dwight Yoakam album and that was all it took.
Those who needed to, changed, and those who needed not to, stayed the same. Here are my favorite album of 2012.
Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, The Congos- Frkwys Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank (RVNG Intl.)
I hated this album for so long! I hated it because it took the beloved voices of the Congos, who made one the most interesting, elegant, and idiosyncratic reggae albums I’ve ever heard and shoved those voices in the back of what sounds like a clothes dryer full of grackels with firecrackers in their stomachs. I hated it because Heart of The Congos, the band’s first album and probably the best full length Lee “Scratch” Perry was ever involved with, was weird and skittish and twitchy, but ultimately inviting, whereas Icon Give Thank is weird but also syrupy and unstructured and cagey sounding. But the more I listened to Icon Give Thank, the more I realized this is an album about giving credit through clashing. M Geddes Gengras and Sun Araw produce intentionally obnoxious music, and to ask them to do otherwise would be as productive as asking them to give up music altogether. Listening to the album with that in mind, what the two producers and four singers do here, and what the album’s title reflects, is provide space for each other, albiet, a weirdly sculpted space. This album is built with dirty beats, sinking blips and protruding metal, but what it’s building is not a picture, it’s a frame. Listeners will find themselves back at the harmonizing, ethereal voices of the four members of The Congos. Really, they are given center stage. The mishmash ambiguity of the album title fits here. The thanks are almost certainly mutual.
Cloud Nothings- Attack on Memory (Carpark)
Sharon Van Etten- Tramp (Jagjaguwar)
On Cloud Nothing’s self-titled album, there was a song called “Didn’t You” which was poppy and perfect and bouncy and exactly 3 minutes 58 seconds long. The second track on “Attack on Memory”, Cloud Nothing’s third album, is nine minutes long. It is perfect and poppy and also brutal. This is a 9 minutes song which just fangs into you- It has no solos, no cascades of polysyllabic verses, no bridge sections or breakdowns, just nine minutes of puncture. It is music presented as a hostility. Singer/Songwriter Dylan Baldi rasps at you over and over, “I thought there would be more than this” but he didn’t need to; the music is pure frustration. This was a difficult one. One which sat unlistened to for months, and then I picked up again recently, only to realize how entirely worth the assault Attack on Memory is. A finely turned audio tantrum. Not for all the time, perfect for certain times. Tough times.
Speaking of difficulty; Tramp is an album which won’t let you in, at least not in the way you as a listener are accustomed to. Van Etten is will tell you “You’re the reason that I moved to the city/you’re why I need to leave”, but the song that line comes from, “Give Out”, is meant for one person particularly. When you try to ask the song who she means, Van Etten keeps you out. The magnificent, morose march “Magic Chords” is in the second person, it’s pronouncement repeated again and again is “You’ve got to lose sometime”, but it’s an act; it’s all about her. Even still, you wont know what is being lost. This kind of thing would be cloying if Van Etten didn’t sell these songs to you. She does and so the details, the specifics, become irrelevant in the moment. Tramp, in all its quiet and loud, its rage and its moodiness is the equivalent of a conversation with a close friend where you need to know what’s wrong. They may respond “nothing.” They may insist “nothing”. But listen to how they say the word- Tramp exists in the way “nothing” comes out.
Hospitality- Hospitality (Merge)
I don’t think I’ve ever seen indie pop grow up. Belle and Sebastian wrote a few songs about getting jobs on their newer albums, but they never sounded as convincing as their songs about artkids in sweaters with a bad streak. The Lucksmiths got close on their excellent album Wamer Corners, writing odes to tract developments and moving away for work, but most of that album was songs called “Young and Dumb” and closer “Fiction” which is about being too sheepish to get a girl’s number at a party. The fact that the characters are drinking beer is the only indication the actors in “Fiction” are not sixteen. Can you imagine if Beat Happening took “Indian Summer” and added in student debt, daily commutes, forgetting to renew your gym membership? What people forget is how young rock and roll is, and how incredibly young indie pop is within the history of rock. If the first indie pop bands came around in the 80s and 90s, and the average age of most members of most of those bands was probably mid-late twenties, then you can understand why the genre’s formative albums tend to be stuck in a veritable peter pan syndrome.
The story goes that it took Hospitality years between forming and releasing their first album. Years where the band wasn’t sixteen or twenty one or even twenty three and living on a shoestring. Years where they worked, had adult relationships, where they brought sig others back to meet their families for truncated trips home around thanksgiving, where they paid bills and worried about positions of privilege and started volunteering at a soup kitchen but gave it up when they missed a few weeks in a row and felt embarrassed returning. Hospitality’s first album feels grown up but it also feels excited to be grown up, not bummed about the responsibility but feeling ready to tackle stuff that would have made Stuart Murdoch circa-1996 lock his bedroom door and hide under the blankets. Hospitality is an album where maturity is something just as deserving of celebration as youth. If only all genres could age with this much poise.
Here We Go Magic- A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian)
Most people will never be architects. The mind of an architect, at least my image of it, is fundamentally different than that of non-architects. It is a highwire where utility, art, shelter, location, the physics of bodies, and there is no safety net. An architect cannot afford the emotion that a painter, writer, horse trainer, whatever can, because if an architect messes up, people’s lived get more difficult, or people die. Here We Go Magic construct their songs the same way; each element seems pieced in on graph paper. There are no stray marks, no mistakes. But, as I’ve argued before, this doesn’t mean the album is sterile or emotionless- it just shows its feelings in di fferent ways. It’s an album where things happen subtly, quietly. A Different Ship is the love letter of a committed architect.
Calexico- Algiers (ANTI-)
I know this is going to sound dumb, but maybe there’s something wrong with being consistently really good at something, especially if you’re good at that that in the same way over and over. I think people like a narrative; they want you to misstep so they can call your return to form “a return to form.” They want you to get awkward or say something questionably racist or have a nip slip or get drunk at an awards show or piss on the first few rows. Then you can have a comeback. If you’re a professional, someone really good at delivering consistently, that consistency will be your downfall. Calexico are as professional as a band can be. Their songs have a worldliness and ethereal quality that allows them to sound like art- finished, perfect, and very distant from listeners. And for many albums, they made their particular blend of Tex-Mex desert folk, and it sounded wonderful, even if it sounded a bit the same. On Algiers, Calexico sweat a bit, sound a bit more human; “Sinner in the Scream” is as menacing as the group has ever been. They actually sound raw and wounded on the quiet, humble “Hush.” The chorus of “Puerto” is surprising and epic. Calexico didn’t change their formula too much on Algiers, but this time they didn’t clean up the messy parts. That is more than enough to make Algiers their most exciting album in ages. The band says it best on the stunning, politically charged character study “Puerto”: “If everyone stays exactly the same/Then no one can move and no one can change”. Algiers is, among many other things, a change.
Toys That Kill- Fambly 42 (Recess Records)
Shrag- Canines (Fortuna Pop!)
Here’s what’s terrible. What is terrible is that as singularly engaging and genuinely rousing as both Fambly 42 and Canines are, they are doubly great because of how different they are. They aren’t garage rock trying to shove some corpsed-up dance move from the 50s down your throat; aren’t phony like that. They aren’t punk offering a five syllable answer to a 30,000 word question; aren’t disappointing like that. They aren’t indie or MOR rock; they aren’t chiseling their stern-looking visage into an ugly block of marble like that. These albums are rock music, unabashedly and unconditionally. Songs that go over two minutes on Fambly 42 feel epic; those over three minutes feel like rock operas. There are probably five moments of anything resembling quiet or order on Canines. There’s the one in the first five or so second of the first track, and one in the last five or so seconds of the last track, and probably about three other albums. Of course these are the kind of album where guitars get tackled and destrung and shitkicked in the most loving way. But what makes them even better and more important is, this year, they’re the only albums I can think of that were trying for this.
Zammuto- Zammuto (Temporary Residence LTD.)
Django Django- Django Django (Because Music)
Imagine a party where all the drugs were time-release, and everyone staggered their doses, staggered around thinking what was running through the mind of the rhinoceros shaped gentleman petting the edge of the sofa. Imagine a political news conference cut off halfway by an opera singer streaking across a drag racing field in Winchester at the newsprint-end of autumn. Imagine sage advice delivered by a disembodied voice sounding out from the speakers of the tunnel of love. Imagine a flight that lasts six hours, but when the wheels touch down the flight attendant, Betty or Betsy or something like that, announces Welcome to Cleveland where the local time is, and you realize that six hours ago you took off from Cleveland. Imagine office buildings built out of the strips of paper discarded from the edges of dot-matrix printers. Imagine Van Halen if David Lee Roth had picked up a synthesizer at Guitar Center instead of a Les Paul and then he got rickets and could only play with one arm, and then got that one armed drummer from Def Leopard and a one armed guitar and then called themeless Van Halen. Imagine, really.
Dwight Yoakam- 3 Pears (Warner)
To write a song as teenage-scratched as “Watefalls”, you have to stubborn yourself against the effect of having lived 57 years on this planet. To let out a scream, half-pain half-incendiary like the one in every chorus of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”, you’ve got to rip the entire page of words that begin with “self-” out of your dictionary. Get rid of -conscious and -reflective, -critical. To make a song like “It’s Never Alright” be more than a collection of rhymed phrases, you’ve got to know that “hurt” is an adverb, even though it might not appear as such in grammar books. If this kind of thing will help you buy 3 Pears, Beck produced a few of the tracks. A lot of reviews have said it is these collaborations which find Yoakam at his freshest. Those reviews are wrong. Given how inconsistent and self-serious Beck is these days, I hope Yoakam and his clear, contagious pleasure at making music rub off on the younger artist. Another in a long string of excellent albums from one of America’s best country singers. Don’t call it a victory lap. Don’t call it a comeback.
Cheap Girls- Bright Orange (Rise Records)
Until a shockingly late age when I realized people could google your name, I had a livejournal. I like to think that, maybe, the writing was decent , but the real reason you kept those things wasn’t to write well, it was to vent when things were at their worst. If you read any of the entries I wrote, you’dve thought I was a depressed kid. I was, to a certain extent (though, really, who wasn’t?), but it’s not a representative sample; you only wrote in those things when you were at your worst. When things were going well, you were almost certainly out enjoying them, not listening to Elliott Smith on Winamp and misspelling melancholy on your third try.
The kind of albums that come out of raw heartache are usually very intense, but only rarely are they good, composed, presentable pieces of music. Giant Orange is one of the saddest albums released in 2012- deflated, nostalgic, anti-hopeful, and resigned. But it sounds so well put together, so perfectly comfortable with its gloriously blasted pop punk that you can’t help but have a moment of cognitive dissonance. This is the kind of album you’ll find yourself singing along to, loudly, and it will take ‘till after the last chorus for you to realize how terribly sad the words you’ve been singing along to are. “And we always think of the right way last”, “With Manhattan on mute I start drifting lower/I’m finding it hard to keep myself around”
“when you first found me
I was dirty,
cored to empty
I’m not much better now”
Cheap Girls, these guys give you the worst feelings in their songs, but I kept coming back, again and again.
Field Music- Plumb (Memphis Industries)
Honestly, I didn’t think Field Music had this in them. Their previous album (Measure) was, I still believe, a masterpiece. But it was a masterpiece where you could feel the Brewis brothers clammy fingers tearing into every piece of sheet music from a failed draft of any song. Furthermore, you could tell that each and every song across that album’s two discs had many failures before the version you were hearing. It was an album that felt labored. The closest thing it had to an upbeat song told you “What started as a game/Became a chore before too long”, and it didn’t take too much imagination to realize the band is talking about writing, playing, performing the songs you were listening to. (Measure) was as labored an album I had ever heard, and it came after a 2 year hiatus. Even though the band got back together, even though they released a new album, there was no sense Field Music was necessarily enjoying playing music again. The smart, cheerful Field Music who made spontaneous dance parties break out in premature senior centers, who made home invatsion twee were dead and burried on (Measure).
Something changed. Plumb is a joyous album, one that is excited to meet you. Which is great- it is wonderful to see Field Music clearly having fun making music again. But Plumb is more than that, because it takes the structural complexities that the band labored so hard towards on (Meausre) and presents them as effortless; the double drums on “A New Town,” the time signature changes of “Start the Day Right” that make it sound like a Led Zeppelin song, the dissonance of angular guitars and a wagging tail of keyboards in “Is This The Picture”, the self-reflective final bridge of “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing.” Every track has such singular ideas. This is thoughtful, it is complicated, and it is an absolute pleasure to listen to. What started as a chore became a game once again.
Cold Specks- I Expect a Graceful Expulsion (Mute)
On one side, you’ve got “Heavy Hands”, strung together by a saw blade and maybe, at its most intense moment, rising to Death Valley elevation levels. The song is, to say it, a downer. Al Spx’s voice quivers in front of those misty guitars, and then it quivers behind those nasal pump horns.
On the other side, you’ve got “Holland” which starts with cello and an electric vining around one another. The song feels wise and decades older than “Heavy Hands”. And, at 2:05, it explodes. Every sound pounds into the sensitive spots. It is carried on the back of a mountaineer telling himself “one more step” when there are miles left to the summit. It is subarctic winds and vertical drop-offs and the threat of death by Yeti. And then it flickers out, paces back into the dusk.
But in both halves, you have Al Spx a young Candian living in London with a voice as emotive as Stipe, Smith (Patti or Mark E.), Oberst, Young, you name it. It’s not just that her voice is great, it’s that it isn’t one-size-fits all. It is powerful, except when it is self-doubting, except when it is furious, except in the rare instances it is calm. The album is more than the voice, of course, but what is so great about Cold Specks is you can tell the voice is more than this album. What a debut.
John K Samson- Provincial (ANTI-)
I moved to San Diego from Chicago midway through this past summer. I moved out to California for school, not because I was especially interested in living thousands of miles and several time zones away from most of the people I know and love. I was moving out in spite of what San Diego had to offer, not because of it. I’m not especially a beach person, hate the eternally mild weather, hate that, in the months I’ve been out here I’ve already gotten in a more serious bike accident than in all the years I lived in Chicago and NYC. Nobody walks in San Diego, there are more malls in this comparatively small city than there were in the entirety of Chicago, the mass transit is terrible and its expansion plan will extend the trains to the richest parts of the city, not the neighborhoods that need it. The sports teams suck and are one lease expiration away from skipping town. San Diego is a tough city to love.
You get the feeling Winnipeg is, too. But that’s exactly the point. Cities like Winnipeg, San Diego, Phoenix, Kansas City, Dayton, Greensboro are less immediately easy to love than New York or Chicago or LA. Their personalities are harder to discern, their smaller budgets (partially due to the fact that no one wants to go on vacation to Worcester, Mass) make education and social services constantly underfunded, they often feel like incubators for bigger cities; when you get too talented for the medium sized metropolis, you move to the real city. Such cities sometimes feel less like places and more like dense population zones, a few high rises, a nice park or two. It’s harder to love a place that doesn’t give you a millions reasons to love it off the bat.
But what John K Samson has spent his career wrestling with, and what he works through so eloquently on Provincial, his first solo album, is that such places have the same value as marquee cities. People live, love and die in Harrisburg the same as they do in Brooklyn. Provincial isn’t Our Town or the Spoon River Anthology, thank God. It isn’t an album which says “you can keep your big city life; we’re doing just fine here.” It’s an album that look very closely at a set of lives within Winnipeg, to show the hauntings, humor, and tenderness of the city. The sputtering academic in “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”, the dying woman in “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”, the spurned teacher in “The Last And”, the awkward teen in “Cruise Night”, and, just as often, the city itself, its broken hospitals (“Grace General”), slush-paved highways (“Longitudinal Center”), its sprawl (“Highway 1 West”) make up these songs.
Perhaps because of the constraint Samson works within on Provincial (many of the album’s songs appeared in earlier versions on a series of EPs about particular roads in Winnipeg), these songs have a specificity, a lucidity, and a refreshing variety of narrative voices. And, of course, because this is a John K Samson album, these songs are sewn deep with stunning language. “a circle of provincial flags are flagging in the front yard/ tired of trying to make us think that it hasn’t always been so hard.”, “the blinking snow and the dark dispersed/With a smeary moon.”, “Our demolitions punctuate/all we mean to say, then leave too late.” John K Samson has a love of language and a belief in its newness that you find more often in poets than songwriters. It makes sense he straddles the line. I have, in the past, expressed reservations about Samson’s character studies, but the portraits here feel generous, imaginative, and, most importantly, honest.
Provincial is Samson’s letter to his city. It isn’t a love letter. It is much, much more than a love letter. Every city- my city– deserves nothing less.
Have a wonderful new year. See you in a bit.