The Bad Actor

Josh Ritter Got Divorced.

Unassumingly, in the second biggest newspaper in Boston, in the middle of an article about a series of concerts called “the Valentines Day Massacre,” referring to his marriage to Dawn Landes, answering a question which innocently asked about their writing practices, “we’ve actually decided to split, which is hard, but is going to be better in the end.” Old level-headed Josh. He had a child with Dawn Ritter, had lived with her, has been married, but it “is going to be better in the end.” The interview went on from there.

Josh Ritter (and Dawn Landes)

Josh Ritter (and Dawn Landes)

I saw Ritter on that tour. Terminal Five, the cologne gunked bottle service wasteland of  midtown west, the venue that seems to grow a foot bigger and a modicum less interesting every time someone says how much they hate it. He played joyously, seeming as OK as the quote in the magazine suggested. Played “Kathleen,” which I can only imagine was tough for him. You know, everyone’s got their own way of coping, I know. But after The Beast in its Tracks, all the OK feels malingering, and it’s all bullshit, and I don’t know why he’s doing it.

Funny story about a breakup 1: __________________________________________________________ New Jersey Transit ___________________________________________  sobbing in Newark Penn Station!!!!

Normally, Josh Ritter stays distant, smart, creative. It’s his skill as a writer and the depth of his imagination which enable him to write a song like “The Temptation of Adam.” The song is a story about the post-apocalypse, an engagement with our military industrial complex (what’s left after everything else? A giant missile with an american flag painted on it), and a bunch of words that will make you think about love, in the way a good love song does. It is all of these things, but it is not about Josh Ritter.

Ritter has another song, “Folk Bloodbath” where Stagger Lee acts as cupid, and another about atoms, the big bang and planetary rotations which is actually about the merging of two lives. All of these are love songs in one way or another. Josh Ritter was in all likelihood in love when he wrote them, but these songs, you will know without working too hard, are not about Josh Ritter. They are full of genuine sentiment, but they are fictions, and it takes a good songwriter to do that, let me tell you.

Photo credit Laura Wilson/KXPN

In contrast, Josh Ritter’s newest album finds him treading pretty gunky, stagnant lyrical water. He compares his broken heart to “fallen debris” (“Hopeful”), refers to his ex as a ghost on at two songs (“A New Lover,” “Joy To You, Baby,”), and uses phrases like “little white lies.”   And then there are lines which make me very uncomfortable.

These days I’m feelin’ better about the man that I am
There’s some things I can change and there’s others I can’t
I met someone new now I know I deserve

I never met someone who loves the world more than her
She has been through her own share of hard times as well
And she has learned how to tear out the heaven from hell
Most nights I’m alright still all rocks roll down hill

These lines from “Hopeful” don’t feel like lines from a song. They feel like the kind of speech someone gives when they drunk-corner you at a party, the kind of things they repeat to themselves a few times so they can make the inflections convincing. Yet it all feels like bad acting and it’s all phony and no one is buying it. There are other examples of lyrics as egregiously false as this one, but what’s the point in kicking a horse when its heartbroken as shit.

Now, arguably, such moments are meta. Maybe these songs were written when Ritter really was feeling better, when his mind was clear and he was back to living an uninterrupted life, and he was trying to recreate the feeling of lying about how OK you are.  But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.   The problems, then, with The Beast in its Tracks are twofold.

Problem One.  It came too soon. Despite what Ritter claims in interviews, or what the reviews say, many songs on The Beast in its Tracks are doing a bad job of what they’re aiming for- trying to tackle the pain of break-up in Ritter’s usual removed, literate tone. There’s too much anger and hurt for that tone to work, and that because Ritter doesn’t seem to have processed his emotions as much as he claims he has.

Problem Two. Problem two is that, because The Beast in its Tracks came too soon, a fair amount of it isn’t very good. Which is shocking, coming from such a consistently satisfying and original songwriter like Ritter. Well, I mean, it’s shocking and it’s not. The crazy thing about the end of longterm relationships is that there is a period that feels like mourning. If that sounds melodramatic, well, of course it is, but it’s also about as accurate a description as your likely to find. And, probably, any art you make relating to the deceased relationship during that mourning period is going to be shit, it is going to be too raw, too hurt, too pained to be any good or provoke anything except cringing from an audience. You’re in a weird period where you’re writing explicitly to someone you’re no longer speaking with.

He may have a new lover, as he says over and over, and over, and over on this new album, but the songs on The Beast in its Tracks are not over Dawn Landes.

There are no funny stories about breakups. Arguably, there are no stories, no narratives to breakups.  Just hurt that has no timeframe.

So did this album have to come out at all? I’ve written a hell of a lot of breakup poetry myself, but most of it stays in the documents folder.  I can understand why Ritter wrote these songs and how they might have helped him.  I can understand how recording them might have seemed like a nobel experiment and might have actually proven to be cathartic.  But why share them?  Why did Ritter feel the need to share these songs written so entirely for Dawn Landes, who will never listen to them.

Well, maybe because of “Appleblossom Rag.” It’s the most devastating and the best thing on the album. It starts with a recording of a female voice talking, a voice I’m imagining to be Landes. The song, struggles to hold itself together as it also struggles to cover up that recording.  It’s a devastating and openly wounded- no attempts at saying things are fine, no “I’ve got a new lover.”   Just a really sad, really deflated, really beautiful folksong.  No harumphing drums, in fact nothing breaking the quiet.

And that’s not the only moment on the album that reminds me of what I love about Josh Ritter.  In the gothic, wonderful, wordy “Nightmares,” Ritter mutters

I know where the nightmares sleep
On what fodder do they feed
I’d been awake so long by then
They thought that I was one of them.

And “Joy To You Baby”  has the excellent line “If I’d never had met you/You couldn’t have gone/But then I couldn’t have met you”. Even though the rest of the verse dulls the intensity of those lines, I’m going to let him have that one, too.

Elsewhere in “Joy to You Baby,” Ritter sings to Landes, “Joy to you baby, wherever you sleep,” but that line tells  how far he has to go before he’s as ok as he’s projecting on large swaths of this album. When you’re doing ok, really ok, you know exactly where the person sleeps. You’ve refriended them on facebook or stopped impulsively going to their still-unfreinded profile. You’ve seen them snuggled into the neck of someone new or can imagine as much without all the nausea. You know where they’re sleeping and you realize, knowing this, that you’re not crushed by the thought anymore. Maybe by then you’ve met someone new who would never qualify as a rebound.  Maybe you haven’t- that’s not a requirement for feeling better. But what’s happened is the person who you used to love has gone from being insidious, from invading every thought and every vision, to being cataloged away.  Despite what it will tell you, The Beast in its Tracks is a record of what come before that.

Hopeful”, “The Appleblossom Rag” and “Joy To You Baby” are from the confounding new Josh Ritter  album The Beast in Its Tracks.

The Bad Actress” is from the Josh Ritter album Hello Starling.

Also, Superchunk Fans,  Good NewsBad News!

Also, have you heard of Young Fathers?  I will write more about them soon, but for now, listen to Young Fathers.

Deadline” is from the Young Fathers EP Tape One.

the day we ghosted

Jason Molina in Fragments, Memories, Ghosts, Poems, Songs

It’s Easier Now” is from Jason Molina’s album Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go though this version is taken from a performance on an Italian radio station.

We don’t have a name for the kind of sound that takes up space and does nothing more- a tone without a key, a breath flattened and frozen, friction without an object to release itself onto. Listen to the song above, a Jason Molina track recorded on an Italian radio station in 2007. The sound is everywhere in this song. I might not have a name from it. Jason Molina has at least as dozen. He would call it the dark or the blues  or he would call it ghosts, for a few. I think he got strength from putting those names onto that sound which seemed to stick to him more than most. I’ll get back to the ghosts, I promise.

***

IMG_20130318_103116

Hot Black Silk” is from the Songs: Ohia’s album Axxes and Ace.

Seventh Ave Wonderland” is from a long out of print Songs: Ohio seven inch.

One of the most touching collections of music I was ever given was given to me by Carissa Hamman of Cincinnati, Ohio in my freshman year of college. It was a CD-R, in a delicately folded and meticulously scotch-taped paper enveloped.  the cover was a pressed-pen drawing of a flower of a mostly blackened flower, a few bits of pink slighting out near the top. The track listing was written in the kind of script that looks like a series of precisely placed fallen eyelashes. Though, I will say, I read “Hot Black Silk”  as “Not Black Silk” until I had to look up the title, just now.  Before I even listen to the mix, a collection of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company music, I could tell that this was the kind of music you put this much effort into presenting to someone. Sad songs flatlined into those two track-dividing seconds of silence only to be  brushed off and hung up as scarecrows with the start of the next, slightly-less-sad take. I was terribly sad when I thought I lost that CD in a move, and very relieved when I found it some months later.

***

Being in Love” is a live version of a Songs: Ohia song from The Lioness.

That wasn’t the only relationship that had some form of a start involving Songs: Ohia. The first time I drove my current girlfriend home, she got giddy when she found Songs: Ohia on my iPod, and then indignant, berating me for not having more Songs: Ohia albums (still don’t have The Lioness, probably to my own fault). We spent the entire car ride talking about Molina, his recent struggles, the different circumstances under which we’d seen him live, the connection, the deep, unyielding connection we had with certain songs of his. The funny thing about Molina’s songs and the music that accompanies him is that it isn’t meant for or built on such connections.  Songs often contain only enough space for Molina, an eerie light source, some of that ghost sound or blues sound.  With rare exceptions like “Being in Love” and “Captain Badass,” Molina songs exist without

***

 “Shenandoah” and “Hope Dies Last” are from the Magnolia Electric Company album Josephine.

Next, US-27, driving out of Cincinnati, the sky a cup of coffee
spilling perpetually. Then, road-side, We saw a stage.
A stiff-lapelled MC waved. We tucked, rolled into slush-felling dark.
He told clean jokes, then, with a gloved hand,
summoned a clean cut group of executioners. Someone clawed at the walls
You squeezed my coat sleeve as bullets took flight.

***

Image courtesy of Chunklet/Wez Frazier.

Image courtesy of Chunklet/Wez Frazier.

Long Dark Blues” is a demo of a song that appeared on the Songs: Ohia album The Magnolia Electric Company.

Farewell Transmission” is from the Songs: Ohia album The Magnolia Electric Company.

You can’t think of Jason Molina as a perfectionist, because it seems he didn’t think perfection was a reasonable goal. Songs titles like “Almost Was Good Enough” suggest as much. It’s why images (Ghosts, Highways, Bells, Moons, The Blues, Chicago) appear again and again- Molina wasn’t expecting things to work out perfect. He just wanted to say it the best way he could, and so he was willing to try, again and again, with the same words, the same themes. It’s the beautiful coda of Farewell Transmission- “Real truth about it is, no one gets it right.Real truth about it is, we’re all supposed to try.” In addition to stitching such ongoing themes themes throughout his songs, he perpetually reworked songs he had already recorded.  Like the best poets, but unlike most songwriters, you get the idea with Molina the song wasn’t finished just because it had been recorded.

***

The Night Shift Lullaby” is from the Magnolia Electric Company album What Comes After the Blues.

Almost Let You In” is from the Jason Molina and Will Johnson collaboration Molina and Johnson.

The voice your are now hearing is marrow.
living cement. Also, casing–the composure
that accompanies the ghost story it tells. The casing
is highways jointing out from teratomic lands like Iowa
and Indianapolis. Miles of exits with no services. The voice
you are not hearing prefers air travel,
not being a wet blanket, being heard.
The voice you are now hearing
is swaddled. Has been since birth
in soaked sheets
until it stopped shaking.

But that’s wrong. Jason Molina sucked at stage banter, came off cagey. I heard from friends around Bloomington that he was a closed book much more than he was open. At least in these songs, that wasn’t him. Listen to what he does with Scout Nibblet and Will Johnson here. He lets them in. All the way.

*** 

April 09 (Trip Home, Richmond, Ann Arbor) 217

Didn’t It Rain?” is from the Songs: Ohia album Didn’t It Rain?

34 Blues” is from the Jason Molina and Will Johnson collaboration Molina and Johnson.

closing the book on last licks

was making banana bread and listening to Sea Change.  Sea Change ended and this song came on.  I didn’t recognize it.  I looked at itunes, then looked at the internet, then looked at the two dogs alternately begging for batter and acting as stumbling blocks, and none of the above could tell me anything about the song. Bedroom Guitars is a mystery when mysteries don’t exist any more.   Bedroom Guitars is also the least misnomered band name I’ve ever encountered.  Bedroom Guitars sounds like wires plugged into an surge protector which was previously powering a blow dryer, string of lobster lights, a vhs rewinder, and an alarm clock with fake wood paneling.  Bedroom Guitars sounds like hands moving towards eachother in a night-lit pool taking up most of a backyard in Palisades Park, in the part of town over by the fake pagoda’d former-japanese restaurant.  Bedroom Guitars sounds like close.  Very close. And, of course, because indie subculture is obnoxious for the sake of being obnoxious sometimes, Bedroom Guitars has only released their sole release on cassette tape.  Cassette Tape.

Do You Still Fall Asleep With The Music On?”  is from the Bedroom Guitars CASSETTE TAPE Rapping At My Chamber Door.

Also, pitchfork’s got (another) new Marnie Stern.  If it’s not loud enough, just press the headphones closer to your ears.  This one’s gonna be killer, no doubt.

They’re not leaving ’till they’ve seen a ghost.

Well, first off, Shrag, one of my favorite British bands, one of my favorite rock bands, one of the only bands in this blog’s history to appear on TWO end of year best-of lists, announced yesterday that they’re splitting up. Drag. If you live in England, you’ve got a chance to see them before they do.  If not, you’ll be forever pissed you didn’t go that one Popfest show a few years back.

There are two albums which I struggled with putting on my top albums of 2012 list.  If I had put them on, they would have occupied last place. I think they didn’t make it, more than anything, due to time constraints.  I really wanted to get my list up, and wanted to make sure it was well-edited before I posted it.  It’s not that these albums are bad, at all.  It’s just that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re great minus something.

The story of The Deadly Syndrome should be a terribly sad story.  A look at their wikipedia page explains it- the band was buzzed about in the mid 2000s, toured as openers for bigger indie bands, some of whom (I’ll leave you to figure out which ones), are significantly less interesting and creative than The Deadly Syndrome are.  They released a second album which, despite getting positive review from “important people” attracted considerably less attention than their first (the notes for this album inform you that one of its tracks was used in the soundtrack to the feature film Jackass 3.5).  All Wikipedia has to say about thier most recent album is “All In Time was released on August 7th, 2012.”  This is the type of story that should break a band’s spirit and heart, make them record bitter albums about the fickleness of the music industry, about misunderstood geniuses and the like.  But The Deadly Syndrome are too good, too cool for that. Instead, All In Time is a records that is overwhelmingly confident and unflappable, and oftentimes stirring in a gauzy, lightheaded sort of way. There are songs on All In Time which brute themselves at you like a running of the bulls, but singer Chris Richards always sounds sleepy, druggy, calm.  It’s an interesting contrast, and it works very well when the tempo is high, which is about half the time.  When the band slows or quiets things down everything just snails along a bit too much.  Still, there’s a perseverance which doesn’t sound like perseverance on All In Time.  It just sounds like a day’s work. It suits the group nicely.

Spirit of the Stairs”  and “Maine” are from The Deadly Syndrome album All In Time.

Half-supergroup, half-proof that Woody Guthrie needed a better editor.

Half-supergroup, half-proof that Woody Guthrie needed a better editor.

Similarly, there’s New Multitudes, the Woody Guthrie tribute which features the combined musical skills of Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Jim James, and a guy I had never heard of but who piqued my interest named Anders Parker.  Like All In Time, when New Multitudes works, it works very well and when it doesn’t, it is a huge reversal from the album highlights.  The band members are working with such reverence for Guthrie, there’s a feeling of giddy discovery to a lot of these songs. And the band does interesting things with them, the pyrite gilding of “My Revolutionary Mind”, the shaken up fuzz of “VD City”, the minimal, whispered “Chorine”  and “Talking Empty Bed Blues”.  The problem, unfortunately, is that sometimes the lyrics really don’t hold up, and I would guess the songwriters felt very tied to what Gurthrie had scribbled down, even if those words were longwinded (“New Multitudes”), mundane (“Fly High”), or terribly cheesy (“My Revolutionary Mind”).  I get why the band did what they did here, but all the same, it doesn’t make some of these lyrics any easier to swallow.  On the other hand, there were very clearly gems discovered in the search- “Hoping Machine” is a mood-setting, contemplative opener, “No Fear” is as simple and defiant as its title would suggest, and “Old LA” is a detailed paean to an unexpected location. Let’s hope that future such efforts will spend a little more time chosing lyrics, or will view Guthrie’s words less like sacrament, more like drafts.

Hoping Machine” and “No Fear” are from the New Multitudes album New Multitudes.

Also, after their somewhat scattershot last album, I’m relieved and intrigued by this track from the forthcoming Mice Parade album.  While Mice Parade songs have always been built out of rhythms, normally those rhythms are as complex as galaxies, as fragile as fall leaves.  “This River Has A Tide” still begins and ends for me with its drum beat, but here those drums are slurry, angry ugly.  The whole song has an ugliness to it. Adam Pierce, songwriter for the band, tell you it’s a song about The Hudson River (and he’s right; south of the Tappan Zee, the river is actually a tidal estuary) and a break-up, and the scabbiness of it all suggest something grand falling apart, which is grand in its own way.

This River Has A Tide” (it’s a link to sound cloud, not an mp3, btw) is from the Mice Parade album Candela which is due to be released on March 12th of this year.

a year of warmer moonlight (Gabe talks about what music he loved this year, part 3)

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.

twelve

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.

Sunshine” and “Food Clothing and Shelter” are from The Congos, M Geddes Gengas and Sun Araw album Icon Give Thank.

eleven

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.

Our Plans” is from the Cloud Nothings album Attack on Memory.

Magic Chords” and “We are Fine” are from the Sharon Van Etten album Tramp.

ten

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.

Argonauts” and “All Day Today” are from Hospitality’s self-titled album.

nine

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.

Hard to be Close” and “How Do I Know” are from the Here We Go Magic album A Different Ship.

eightCalexico- 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.

Sinner in the Sea” and “Puerto” are from the Calexico album Algiers.

seven

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.

Mobbed by the 3’s” and “Waltz One Million” are from the Toys That Kill album Fambly 42.

No More Memories” and “Tears of a Landlord” are from the Shrag album Canines.

six

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.

The Shape of Things To Come” and “Yay” are from Zammutto’s self-titled album

Waveforms” and “Default” are from Django Django’s self-titled album.

five

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.

3 Pears” and “It’s Never Alright” are from the Dwight Yoakam album 3 Pears.

four

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,

broken,

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.

Cored to Empty” and “Gone all Summer” are from the Cheap Girls album Bright Orange.

three

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.

From Hide and Seek to Heartache” and “A New Town” are from the Field Music album Plumb.

two

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.

Heavy Hands” and “Holland” are from the Cold Specks album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion.

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.

Highway One West” and “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San” are from the John K Samson album Provincial.

Have a wonderful new year. See you in a bit.

I have eaten more salt than you have rice (Gabe talks about what music he loved this year, part 2.)

So, first off, I’ve got a request to make of you.  It’s one that is important to me as a writer, a reader, as someone who cares deeply about community, as someone who cares deeply about Inwood and Washington Heights, the two northernmost neighborhoods of Manhattan, some of the places I felt most at home and most excited in all of New York City.

When I lived in Inwood, there was very little happening by way of public arts. Sure there was a free Shakespeare festival in Inwood Hill Park and jazz brunches at Indian Road Cafe, but they were the kind of events which catered to the well-to-do, white population on the west side of Broadway, not the much larger working class Dominican and Black population on the east side. There’s nothing wrong with that per-se, but arts weren’t something bringing people together in this part of New York. Then, a few months before I moved to Chicago, I heard about a bookstore that had opened up in my neighborhood, a place called Word Up.  I visited the store all of once before I left the city, but the visit had a profound impact.  This was a space that was not only trying to make an impact and provide a resource to the community, but to do so while being as inclusive as possible. The store had almost as many spanish language books (Wash Heights and Inwood are the biggest Dominican enclaves in NYC) as it did english books. It had as many practical books (GED prep, baby books,  tax help books) as it did books of poetry and literature. And the events that the space hosted weren’t just trendy authors from Brooklyn talking about their adventures making kombucha. Instead they were a representation of the interests of the community, the whole community- storytelling events in spanish and english for kids, open mics, Washington Heights punk shows, bi-lingual meditation, lgbtq speakers, and writing workshops in the two languages of the community.  The space became more than shelves where you could buy books.  It became a space for expression, for learning.  It became exactly what the community needed.

The store opened as a pop up and is now looking to move into a permanent space. There are lots of places you can give or spend your money.  But if you’ve got any to spare and want to help a bookstore that cares about its community, Word Up needs your help.  You can read more and donate here.

Ok.  Now onto the music.

Janna Hunter, singer of one of the bands on this list, wrote a very compelling essay not too long ago about music streaming sites like Spotify where she said, “If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to.”  I agree wholeheartedly.  One of the most wonderful and also masochistic things about being a not-totally-rich music fan is not being able to buy every album you want when it comes out.  Sometimes things move from the “I want this now” to the “If there’s money left after groceries”  to the “well, if I don’t go out for drinks this weekend, maybe i’ll pick that up.”  It doesn’t make the albums any less good or worthy.  Probably the opposite. When I finally have 15 extra dollars and get a copy of an album I’ve been waiting for, I have no doubt  waiting and sitting with these albums helps me appreciate them for how good they are,  So here you go- the best music I listened to in 2012 that was released before 2012.

Charles “Packy” Axton- Late Late Party

White dudes making music in Memphis.  Where have I heard that story before...

White dudes making music in Memphis. Where have I heard that story before…

I don’t know who to blame for this, or if to blame anyone. Late Late Party is an album which makes me deeply uncomfortable. But it’s not the music’s fault. The songs, all the kind of taut, near-boiling soul that made Stax records something really special, are all pretty amazing. They stand as relics and they also stand as sticks of railroad dynamite which could blow up the museum at any point. These songs simmer, is another way to put it. But what makes me uncomfortable is how these songs are presented.

Charles Axton didn’t write many of these songs. Charles Axton sings on, as far as I can tell, none of these songs. Charles Axton plays saxophone on some of these tracks. On “Last Night” the most well-known song here, he is one of two saxophone players. Zero of the tracks on this album are credited to Packy himself. On some, especially the three dim, late night specters contributed by the group LH and the Memphis Sounds, there is almost no saxophone at all and Packy doesn’t even have a writing credit on the tracks. So my question, my sadness, my confusion is that you can’t google LH and the Memphis Sounds; nothing substantial comes up save for one old blog post. LH White, the singer on those three tracks only found his way onto my iPod becuase there was an enigmatic white guy sitting somewhere in the recording studio. I don’t mean to dismiss Packy Axton (though, reading his biography, it seems like he got what he got because his mother and uncle owned Stax records).  This is a great album, and the argument could be made that as long as the music is out there, does it matter how it is being packaged?  For me, yeah, it does.  Because a good number of the players, songwriters, singers, the people who make the music on Late Late Party really special are black, and yet there’s the name of a white saxophone player on the album’s spine.  It’s not a bad album.  It’s just complicated.

House Full Of Rooms” By LH and the Memphis Sound, and “Key Chain” By The Martinis are from the Charles “Packy” Axton compilation Late Late Party (1965-67).

Lower Dens- Twin-Hand Movement

You go to see a movie because you want to see something happen. It doesn’t have to be something good, doesn’t have to be something exciting (sometimes you go to see a movie to see time tick off the seconds), but you go to see a movie to see something happen. Usually, you listen to music for the same kind of reason. And what I love about Lower Dens is that, oftentimes, nothing does. Lower Dens aren’t in it to sucker you.  The band sets up the most beautiful way that nothing could happen and then make nothing happen over that. Hunter’s bent voice, the light rain of those guitars, and those steady, lightly hammered drums cradle the nothing of these songs. Nothing happens in “Blue and Silver” and nothing happens in “Hospice Gates” but the songs are so beautiful, you won’t mind. Twin Hand Movement is subterranean currents that lead nowhere, a five hour hike with no magical vista at the top, inky splotches that never coalesce.  Here, that is absolutely perfect.

Blue and Silver” and “Hospice Gates” are from Lower Dens’ album Twin-Hand Movement.

Cast Spells- Bright Works and Baton EP/
Maps and Atlases- Perch Patchwork

Something surprising happened when I played “Solid Ground” from Maps and Atlases second album for a friend.  A friend who knows a lot about music. He asked me, point blank, is this Nina Simone? And, you know what, if you listen to the first twelve or so seconds of the song, it’s actually not the most absurd comparison. Something surprising happens when you listen closely to “Potted Plant” from the Cast Spells EP Bright Works and Baton. In the song’s last four seconds as it is fading out, a glockenspiel chimes out the song’s melody one final time, and is buttressed by a weary sounding violin. The crazy thing is, as far as I can hear, that is the only appearance of the violin in the entire song.  There are probably two audible measures of violin in the whole song, and those as the producer pulls everything down on the mixing board. But it was important enough that the moment stayed in the song. Dave Davison, singer, songwriter, creator for both bands, makes music which manages to surprise you. Also, there’s this.

Solid Ground” is from Maps and Atlases’ album Perch Patchwork.

Potted Plant” is from the Cast Spells EP Bright Works and Baton.

Owen Pallet- A Swedish Love Song EP

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Owen Pallett- Vengeance! Through orchestral pop songs!

The thing about Heartland, Owen Pallett’s last full length, is that is was explosive, but in a phony, overwrought way. Whereas the first two full lentghs Pallet recorded under the Final Fantasy name could have been The Hollow Men and The Wasteland (the feeling, when listening to both, was what IS this?), Heartland felt like Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and, even worse, the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation. It wasn’t just the bigger instrumentation of Homeland, but how impersonal and divested the album felt. It was a concept album about sexuality, violence and mental illness in America, and it fell flat for me because it didn’t seem like Pallett actually cared at all what he was singing out. Which is different than Owen Pallet at his best where he clearly does care what he’s singing about, but shrouds it half-successfully in a disaffected guise. Old Final Fantasy songs were someone trying to play it cool, which is sometimes more appealing and endearing than someone trying to amuse you or trying to spill their guts. What all this is building to is that the four-tracks on A Swedish Love Story EP harken back to the catty, awkward, forlorn Owen Pallett I know and loved. He taunts listeners with the sneery title of “Honour the Dead, or Else” and pegs us, half-lovingly and half-dismissively, as morose Cure fans who can’t get over ourselves. “Don’t Stop”’s title might suggest a love song, a passionate declaration. It isn’t, but I don’t even want to ruin the amazing lyrical turn the title takes. With a simple shifted phrase, Owen Pallett is able to turn a song from mild and bemused to caustic, wounded and moving. Nice to have you back, Owen.

Don’t Stop” is from the Owen Pallet EP A Swedish Love Story.

1990s- Cookies

I mean, I don’t know what to say.  This album is basically a hot pink 1993 Chevrolet Camaro that smells like a panoply of air fresheners, or its a summer camp contest where you have to eat ten DQ Dilly bars in twenty minutes, or its someone not pulling their lips away until you feel like you’re about to need a fainting couch. Cookies is too much. Melodies that scream catchy, a nerdy indie guy who kinda-raps on some of these songs, mom disses, bragging about taking so many drugs. There’s so much that should make this album TERRIBLE, but, you know what, it’s also a complete joy if you go with it.  I used to feel like a crank when a friend of mine would put on Lady Gaga and I would hate it.  She would say you have to enjoy it, in all its ridiculous cheesiness. She was right. I get it now. Either you are 100 percent in the mood for this kind of fun or it will make exactly zero percent sense to you.  Here’s hoping you’re in the former.

You Made Me Like It” and “Arcade Precinct” are from 1990s’ album Cookies.

Next up, my favorite album of 2012!

I’m betting on the appendix (Gabe talks about what music he loved this year, part 1)

So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. I don’t like shit-talking on this blog; don’t really see the point of it.  So I’m not going to talk about albums I didn’t like that I wasn’t expecting to like.  These are the albums I bought excitedly and listened to for a fifth time even though the previous four had been total washes, thinking “no, it has to get better.”  Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t.  Ladies and Gents, the most disappointing album of 2012.

Laetitia Sadier-  Silencio

What was so amazing about The Trip, Laetitia Sadier’s first post-Stereolab album, was how confident and non-pulsed it was.  Stereolab were one of the most consistently excellent and idiosyncratic indie bands of the 90s and early 00s, but The Trip, a highly personal album about the death of Sadier’s sister, would have been a successful first record, sophomore release, reunion album.  It’s a great album entirely divorced of any context. The Trip is an album where Sadier works through death, oscillates through memories, distracts herself with fantasies about her sister going on a space voyage (really!) and on the album’s sparse, brief final track, “Summertime” ultimately is able to the exact thing mourning forbids- say goodbye.  Stereolab could have never existed and The Trip would be a powerful album.  Silencio, on the other hand, sounds stilted and hesitant.  It feels like the album that cynics would have expected Sadier to make after Stereolab’s dissolution. It tries its hand at politics, but Sadier’s choppy english leads to stumbles like “There’s a Price to Pay for Freedom (And it isn’t Security)”  and, when she’s not failing at political righteousness, she’s failing to say anything over music which fails to distract you from her lack of message (“Lightning Thunderbolt.”)  Laetitia Sadier is a genius.  Sometimes genius drops the ball.

There’s a Price to Pay for Freedom (And it isn’t Security)” is from Laetitia Sadier’s album Silencio.

The Gaslight Anthem- Handwritten

So here’s what I’ve realized after teaching undergraduate poetry workshops for all of 3 months;  you’ve got to strike a balance between sympathy and drill-instructor discipline.  Some students came to the class having written poetry all their life, while others just needed to fulfill a gen ed requirement and have never written a poem before.  What I tried to discern in every assignment was if the student had tried. If they clearly put in effort, that was enough for me.  I would challenge or push them, but a poem I didn’t like, full of inane ideas or obvious rhymes could still get an “A” if it showed that amorphous quality I qualified as “efffort” or “heart” or “a valliant attempt”  or something like that.

Which is why I am so torn about including Handwritten on my most disappointing albums list.  More than most album I listened to this year, hell, more than some of the albums that will end up on my best of this year, it is clear The Gaslight Anthem put everything they had into this album.  It is an album which was clearly made under considerable pressure  (first major label album, last album was only so-so), and I don’t think anyone will say the band isn’t trying new things here. Unfortunately, almost none of the new things work, and almost all of the old things sounds pretty stale. Frontman Brian Fallon sounds like Meatloaf in “Too Much Blood”, the whole band sounds like (early 2000s) The Heartbreakers in the terribly cliche “Mullholland Drive”, and the vibe of “Biloxi Parish” is one part Bon Jovi to two parts Axe Body Spray commercial.  The rigid gender roles which made me queasy years ago when I talked about the band’s far superior album The ’59 Sound, have only solidified and gotten more boring, typical, and harder to justify.  “Desire” begins asking “What makes a man do the things that a man does?” And, yeah, the man does manly things to woo the woman he desires (really stretched themselves with that song title)  and the woman sits there, voiceless, an object to be won.  The album is supposed to be uplifting, I can tell, but it really just bums me out.

The Gaslight Anthem are trying so hard here, and they are so close to failing entirely (“Mae” is a downbeat, subtle song, which, in spite of the band’s continued fetishism of 50s pop culture, is actually quite stirring). Handwritten is the law of diminishing returns. What is ok for sophomore students in a poetry class isn’t true for popular rock bands from New Jersey.  You’ve got to do more than just show me you tried.

Too Much Blood” and “Mae” are from The Gaslight Anthem’s album Handwritten.

Why?-  Mumps, etc.  

The last time I may have driven over the legal limit was when something terrible happened and I got in a car and drove I-94 5 hours east to Southeast Michigan to be around people I needed to be around at that moment.  I mention this story because I listened to Alopecia and Eskimo Snow on repeat for the entire drive, but also because, prior to now, this is exactly the kind of wrenching, embarrassing, destructive, stupid, possibly deadly thing which filled your average Why? song.  Why? songs had stalkers, vomit, people snorting crushed bones, syphilis, stillborn pennies, jacking off ’till your dick hurts, and at least one of the most unhinged, honest meltdowns ever released on a purchasable album.  Why? albums were a fucking mess, but they were messy entirely because group mastermind Yoni Wolf wanted them that way.  Despite their surreality and drool and portraits of love ones made out of semen, there was something honestly very likeable about Why? songs.  They were extreme, but never repellant.

Mumps, etc. is so boring, hazy, and half baked that it is repellant.  That title is entirely telling- Wolf would have never stopped at “etc”  before now.  He would have told you it all. This album is not shocking, nor interesting. It is thin sounding, melodically flat, lyrically tame, and emotionally removed.  Wolf recycles images left and right (seriously, you now have two songs that reference Whole Foods?), and one of the closest things to a musically interesting track, “Strawberries”  is ruined by the obvious and obvious and self-deflating chorus “No, I am not OK, boys.”  “Kevin’s Cancer” feels, I’m sorry, exploitative- a song about a kid with cancer, stock images of hair falling out and questioning faith.  And Yoni’s limits as a rapper have never been more obvious, maybe because his backing track consists of boring beats and piano lines that sounds sampled out of hip hop songs which sampled them out of trip hop songs which sampled them out of warped records. There’s nothing holding this album together except the track listing on the back.

Strawberries” is from the Why?  album Mumps, Etc.

Japandroids-  Celebration Rock

BLERHNGHG?AREYOUREADYTOROCK?ONETWOTHREEANDHERE’STHEPART

WESTOLEFROMYOURFAVORITEPUNKBAND

(WOA-OH-OH!)

ANDHERE’STHECLICHEYOUWROTEONYOURHIGHSCHOOLENGLISHASSIGNMENTFOLDERHAVEWEMENTIONED

“HIGHWAYS”AND”HEARTS”AND”YOUTH”WELOVEYOUTHANDARESOYOUNGANDAUTHENTIC

ANDHAVEOURHEARTSONOURSLEVESBETYOU’VENEVERHEARDTHATBEFOREITHINKWEMADEITUP.GUITARSOLO.AGAIN.AGAIN.AGAIN.

WOA-OH-OH)

If this is what passes for sincere, earnest rock music, then sincerity has gotten mean and cynical and very scared of deviating from the script.  If this is what passes for life-affirming, then there will be a hell of a lot more indie-kid suicides next year. Excuse me while I go wash the chemical scum out of my ears.

Evil’s Sway”  (no, I’m not joking. They wrote a song called “Evil’s Sway”.  There’s another called “Fire’s Highway”) is from the Japandroids album Celebration Rock.  Nope.

Next up, best musical discoveries of 2012 and then, hopefully before the descending object descends on NYE, my favorite albums of this year.