You don’t even have to listen to Four Tet’s music to see how far removed it is from a sense of emotional immediacy. Just visit the Four Tet website. Look at the way Kieran Hebden announces his new album. Other minimalist techno artist resort to crazy marketing gimmicks to release their music. Hebden doesn’t even admit to being excited about having a new album coming out! He doesn’t admit to anything, besides the fact that some dude named Jason did the photography for that album!
The fact that Hebden announces album releases like other people announce a chance of light rain doesn’t mean he could care less about music. I think he just cares a lot less about releasing music than he does about making it. I don’t think I’m overreaching to say as much; Hebden works and releases at a Henry Ford pace.
If he doesn’t have a Four Tet album coming out (and he often does), he’s producing or recording something for his label, Text Records, collaborating with Radiohead, jazz drummer Steve Reid, or Burial, or playing all night sets in Brixton. I wrote the same thing a while back about Yo La Tengo, and I think it’s true of Kieran Hebden- he would be making music regardless of whether anyone bought a copy. He makes it for the sake of making it- he gets joy from the making.
This focus follows through into much of Hebden’s music – there is precision and lightness, a studiousness that ensures the process stays as important as the result. You can hear it in Four Tet songs, which crescendo and then do not over stretched, epic minutes. Though one can assume they are not products of improvisation, Hebden’s songs replicate the process of their creation; they are built, element by element over their length. By doing so, the songs challenge listeners- is a song more “complete” once all the elements are there (beat, melody, hook, etc.), as opposed to when those elements are building up? Are you as a listener OK with 15 seconds of climax in an 8 minute song? Are you here for instant gratification or can you hold on just a minute?
The whole thing (the lack of excitement in releasing music, the slow, deliberate pace of songs, the challenge to an audience) reminds me of Sol LeWitt and the instructions he provided for recreating his artwork. LeWitt was reluctant to speak about the motivation behind any of his work, but the idea that anyone could make a LeWitt, and that, perhaps the act of making such a drawing was powerful in itself, seems to mirror the emphasis on creative process you witness Hebden’s songs.
I’ve been listening to Fridge, Hebden’s band with his high school friends Adem Ihan and Sam Jeffers a lot recently. The band’s most recent album, The Sun, is across the board excellent. Similar to Four Tet, Fridge songs aren’t about a payoff; they’re about the build. The payoff sometimes doesn’t even arrive. Though it almost certainly falls into the genre of post-rock, Explosions in the Sky, this ain’t.
The most interesting moment on The Sun is when things appear the most human, the least purely instrumental. Listeners can surmise that “Lost Time” is different from other songs on the album because, from the start, there are real live human voices. This is rare not only because the rest of the album is entirely instrumental, but because, before they start singing, the voices on “Lost Time” seem to be planning out the song, talking about who will come in where in hushed quickspeak. Listeners are privy to a group huddle from a band that seems so precise, so meticulous and idea-driven. And then the group start singing, layering one voice over the next, and a real shift begins.
None of the voices on “Lost Time” voices are especially good at signing. They drop the melody, sing too high, chip their own keys and flatten themselves into muggy fuzz. That’s not to say they’re terrible, just that they’re pretty average- the way you or I might sing if we were asked to. But, as those pretty standard voices rise with the guitar, the impact they have grows as well. Compared to the stellar musicianship and feeling of composure in most Four Tet and Fridge songs, the track feels looser and maybe even a bit sentimental. While “Lost Time” is different from Hebden’s other work what it stands as is the proof that, even though Fridge might be doing it for themselves, there are doing it for themselves with delight.
“Angel’s (Four Tet Remix)” is an unreleased remix of an XX song.
Also, I know you do not need to be told to get pumped for the new Neko Case album, but all the same, this will get you pumped for the new Neko Case album.
Also, I know there is a slight chance you might need to get pumped for the new Califone album because it’s been a few years since their last one, this will nurture a heart-first crush on the new Califone album.
Note: Discerning readers will notice I skipped “Part 2” of my best of the year extravaganza. The reason for this is because I wanted to get my best of done in time to submit it to the Hype Machine list feature. The reason I do this site is because I love the music I’m writing about, and if, by submitting my list, I happened to allow a few more people to listen to and perhaps purchase the music that moved me this year, that’d just be swell.
Verbatim from last year: 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.
It’s hard to add an exclamation point to “malaise,” but I’m starting to think there’s little Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down can’t add her clanky rhythms and smokey voice (a vertiable exclamation point) to. While her first album tackled the blunt stuff: heartbreak, joy, childhood, Know Better Learn Faster is a little more complex. Its topics are listed, on an old boring magnet on your half broken fridge: having responsibilities, slowly growing out of love, the terrible aftertaste and terrible view from the top of a one night stand. The music, likewise, isn’t sugar coated. It satisfies like bakers chocolate- the longer it sits and the more time you spend the sweeter it gets. This is the group’s second album in 2 years and their second time appearing on my best of list. I can see no reason that either of these things should stop at any point soon.
“Know Better Learn Faster” and “But What of the Strangers” are from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s album Know Better Learn Faster.
I don’t care about what the cool kids did or did not say in this case. My real question: why weren’t Florence and the Machine all over Z100 this year? In a year when pop got weird, I’m shocked there wasn’t room at our country’s microphone for Florence Welch, whose voice is a drink, not even a cheap drink or a first drink, thrown across the room in one of those slow motion Matrix sequences, and the Machine, who back Miss Welch with all the abandon of a careening Kia with occupied baby seat in the back. This is passion somehow being wrapped up by composure. This album is built upon a synthetic approximation of a beating heart. (I’m writing about the EP because I don’t have the full length. I can only assume it’s as good as this EP.)
“Dog Days are Over” and “You’ve Got The Love” are from Florence and the Machine’s EP A Lot of Love, A Lot of Blood.
Consider Kurt Vonnegut and Berkley Breathed. Two people who saw the world and thought to hold up a mirror to it. We were shocked and thought, “they must be using one of those carnival fun house mirrors” and laughed and said “Oh, I read there stuff when i was in high school.” Years of being trivialized or ignored took their tolls on the beautifully surreal visions of these two men, causing both to become cranky, topical, and, worst of all, irrelevant. Consider Robyn Hitchcock, whose been holding up that very same mirror for years, and has never faltered, watered down or compromised. He’s asked us in once again for tea to have a look at it. It would do us a lot of good to listen to him.
Scientists can (and, if there are any who read this site, will) prove me wrong about this one, but over the lifespan of our human lives, the mountains we see will not change. They will simply amass all the combined footwork that walks across their paths and look majestic for photos for calendars put up in office break rooms to remind employees on their worst days that, even if god’s not in the picture, there is something bigger, much bigger than us. And, because mountains will not change, there are plenty of people who feel they don’t need to visit a mountain twice. These people think that they’ve seen it once already, and there are roller coasters they haven’t been strapped into yet. But here’s the thing about unchanging beauty; if you give it a second or third visit, use it’s postcards as bookmarks and stare at a different part every time, new things will emerge A mountain is too big to give it all away at first, and you are too small to catalog everything at first. This is my argument: Let us revisit our mountains.
“OK. well, obviously there are mutes and people who disprove what I’m about to say, but in general, the voice is how we communicate things. The way we speak, the way vowels come out differently, it’s just as much a part of who we are as, I don’t know, our eyebrows or our temper. Sometimes our voices matter just as much as what they’re saying.”
“My opponent argues that there is truth in the voice; that despite not being able to speak a common language, speech binds us altogether. I won’t disagree with that, but I think it binds us all together in failure. There’s such a limit to what the voice can express, and I think my opponent inherently denies the perversion that occurs when we put thoughts into language. The amount of stuff that’s lost is a pretty big roadblock to any true understanding of what anyone’s talking about ever.”
“Well, I think I pretty well understand what you’re saying when you say that, but I think that in itself proves my point. You said something, you used your voice, and I understood it.”
“I don’t think you got the half of it.”
“Philip, Philbert, come over hear. Your mother and I have been talking…Philbert, stop cleaning the window….I don’t care if the queen herself was looking at it, I’m trying to speak to you…Phillip, take your finger out of your ear…both of you, just sit down and listen. Now perhaps your mother and I bare some of the blame for the way you turned out; it probably wasn’t a great idea to name identical twins Philip and Philbert, and we probably should have realized it wasn’t a good idea to dress you two the same until you were seven, but god, to think you would turn out to be such polar opposites, we couldn’t have possible known that. Now tomorrow is your first day of high school, and you’re both enrolled in the same classes, so I wanted to give you the best advice iI could think of. Philbert, you’re three minutes older so you first.
Ok, put away the Purell. Now I appreciate how clean and organized you are, but you’ve. Well, son, some people would say you’re no fun. An example? Well, how long did you spend parting your hair today? Ok, well a lot of kids your age could have spent those 45 minutes playing guitar or playing catch with their old man…No, it looks very nice. I’m sure it is even. I’m not doubting you. I’m just saying, as much as you can, try to loosen up. Maybe you could take up the trumpet, or take up smoking, or think up a cool nickname for yourself like “the razzmaster.” It was just a suggestion.
Philip, my advice to you…are you wearing a potato sack? There are better places to put your lunch than…ok, just listen to me for a minute or two. Your mother are concerned that you’re having a bit too much fun. Remember when you rode the neighbor’s Saint Bernard to Dairy Queen last summer? Well, yes, no one is doubting that it could support your weight. The problem is the fleas. No, they’re not your friends. No, they’re not. Philip, my advice to you is to clean up a bit, maybe have just one or two shirts without lucky food stains on them.
I’m not saying both of you should lose who you are. That’s what makes you special. But if both of you, just a bit, tried to even out, find an in-between I think it might be interesting to see what might happen.”
Charlie Dreams of Colors
Sinning. Yellow drips its way
into someone’s bloodstream and makes them
rip up their child’s artwork and Yellow makes them
go into their child’s room and Yellow makes them
tell them their pictures are terrible, that they can’t draw life, still
or otherwise. Blue pushes a bottle off the shelf
into waiting hands, while red locks the door. Purple
cut the phone lines and closed the curtains. White
took out the sky and Black pinched up all the water.
Greens the one who has to explain everything to the passersby
Charlie looks at Green in horror and pain,
but Gray’s beat him to the punch,
stole all the words.
(a brief moment of levity: The shift in tone, style, production, in general the sheer amount of progress Scott Bondy made between last year’s American Hearts and this album knocks the blood out of my head. It took him a year to produce this. I have no concept of where he will go from here, but I’m excited to find out.)
I think I got it right the first time with this one. “Anni Rossi’s new album Rockwell teeters. It’s an egg teetering on the point of a sharpened pencil. It’s a word left teetering on our spit covered larynx at the end of the evening. It teeters. The interesting and arresting thing about her Viola playing is how often it sounds like she’s messing up, hiting wrong notes momentarily, and how well these “mistakes” blend into and increase the fragility and lighter-flame-thin tension that these songs posses. Her lyrics are unusual, in a good way, but she sings them as though they will break your heart.”
“Machine” and “Glaciers” are from Anni Rossi’s album Rockwell.
Sometimes you worry a little bit after the debut. A band or an artists releases an overwhelming, emotionally saturated album, and you think, “how can they top this?” The problem is exacerbated if there’s a back story tied to the initial album, a story of life that pointedly provoked the album you’re listening to. So maybe it makes sense that on his second album, Elvis Perkins retreats away from his spotlight, sharing the billing with his band In Dearland. That’s not to say Perkins’ urgent, precise voice and nonlinear, poetic lyrics aren’t still present on his album. It’s just to say he’s got bassist and a guitarist and, man, what a drummer, who’s sometimes just playing one of those big drums your marching band plays. Rather than having everything fall on a concept or a story or emotional barbells, Elvis Perkins’ second album, and the debut by Elvis Perkins in Dearland stands high as a basketfull of creative, intelligent, folk and rock songs. Some of these songs sit fall alseep on the back row of the bus, some of which run 10 blocks in wooden clogs to catch that very same bus, and, even then, when it won’t stop, they just grab hold to a piece of jutting metal on the door and go flying.
“Hey” and “1 2 3 Goodbye” are from Elvis Perkins in Dearland’s self titled album.
Hearing the first version of “Learned To Surf” made me feel like my life was a hit movie, a movie some critics would call saccharine, but which, those critics would acknowledge, was based on a true story. Hearing the second version of “Learned To Surf” made me feel 5 years old again- sing me a song and then I promise I’ll go to bed. I promise. Everything in between covers the space between those two things.
Want to know what’s infuriating to me? If The Reigning Sound’s last album hadn’t been the volcanic Too Much Guitar, this might have very well been my favorite album of the year. That album sweated and screamed and stuck its junk right in your face, and you liked it. Love and Curses, the band’s new album still rocks, it screams sometimes, but it doesn’t jump off the stage in a flying karate kick. But that’s the last time I’ll make that comparison, because Love and Curses is still my favorite rock and roll album from this year. Greg Cartwright and company are clearly having fun doing something they’re very good at, and the results sound confident, brash, lovelorn, and, at times, fucking loud. “Dangerous Game” forces the listener to play follow the melody for all minute thirty six of its length. “Break it” and “Debris” are wounded as much as they are taut. While the title of the album hint’s at its disposition and its conclusion, the groups loss and frustration and hindsight get all revved up in the music. Somehow this group manages to make resignation sound like proud defiance.
The worst thing about Neko Case up until Middle Cyclone was that the best of her songs were some of the best, deepest, most stirring songs. Period, no qualifier needed after the word “songs.” “Star Witness,” five minutes and 17 seconds long from her last album, has inspired well thought out academic papers, for example, and could inspire full length films, paintings, novels, or bloodshot drives towards a compas point. She wrote some of the finest songs, but couldn’t write an album of them. The best thing about Middle Cyclone is that she actually did it with no qualifiers, ifs, ands or buts. Thematically unified, Middle Cyclone is the most consistent, accessible, fierce, evocative album Case has created so far in her career. This album feels gigantic. Case’s voice has never sounded better, and her songwriting has never been stronger. “It’s a dirty fallow feeling to be the dangling ceiling from when the roof came crashing down” Case sings on one song. “Can’t scrape together quite enough to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” She sings on another. These are the lines of a wordsmith, and Case stretches her voice around them wholly. This is an epic, beautiful, sometimes terrifying, always engaging album. Just spectacular.
“Middle Cyclone” and “Red Tide” are from Neko Case’s album Middle Cyclone.
At the beginning of one of my favorite books, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, there’s an introduction which describes a cranky, lonely old author who is looking for someone to talk to, and a carpenter who builds the writer a bed. As the carpenter builds, the writer tells him his thoughts on life. He believes that, at one point, there were truths in the world, the truth of beauty, the truth of honesty, the truth of forgiveness, but that people took up these truths like they were animals to be domesticated, and as people claimed these truths as their own, they became grotesques. Anderson remarks, of the writer, “it was the young thing inside him which saved him” from becoming a grotesque himself.
At the beginning of Comet Gain’s new album, Broken Records Prayers, they tell you, “We have torn ideals. Comet Gain have torn ideals.” That’s what they tell you on track one. I cannot think of one other rock band who would claim to have ideals, much less the beauty of realizing how torn those ideals must be. Not a single other band.
I’d say there’s a fourty percent chance that Catfish isn’t alive today.
Nearly a year ago to the day, I was on an Amtrak heading down to New Orleans to visit some friends and get away from the life-shaped straight jacket that I woke up in most every single day in Michigan. It was a wonderful, memoried trip, but New Year’s Eve sticks out and almost feels separate from the whole experience. The friends I was visiting and I walked from the bywater, (where they were renting a small house as they waited for other plans to ring the doorbell or arrive via airmail), to downtown where we watched whatever object it is that the people of New Orleans watch drop from a tall building. The crowd mulled and danced afterward, and two of my friends got handed a dimebag by a guy who called himself Catfish. We were drunk, all of us, and so following Catfish around New Orleans for hours to bars and liquor stores and through streets that grew increasingly less crowded as the hours mounted seemed good and it seemed right. At one point, when we must have been halfway across the city and halfway towards sobriety, Catfish said to us “I’ll take you to where I live,” which only seemed only half right and half good, but we went anyway. Ended up back at the big park right downtown, right by the Mississippi, where we had started. sitting there, now almost too exhausted to be angry or scared or happy, Catfish said at one point “I had a gun this morning. I was going to kill myself today, but then I met you guys.” Soon after that, we started walking home. The next day was quiet, we went to a dog park and ate once or twice, but mostly it was quiet.
I tell the story because Hurray for the Riff Raff are from New Orleans, I found out about them from some over-inked music zine they give out in coffee shops down there, but also because the wonder and sadness of the story is what the band specialize. The wonder of pure human connection and the sadness of the static that interrupts those connections are the songs on It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You, Hurray For the Riff Raff’s first albums. Oftentimes there’s overlap; “Baby Blue” starts off like a spool of wire unwinding in the dark, and builds to two people so close they can’t even see each other clearly, before it breaks apart again. “Amelia’s Song,” likewise is made of words celebratory and mournful “you’re not made of stone, you’re made of honey. and you can’t be consumed by my life.” The honesty in that letting go is heart-rending.
The songs tell stories, but the music makes those stories vivid, and I can’t think of an album that is better composed, played, produced, mixed, or mastered (i can never really tell you the difference between those last three) this year. Everything is where it should be here, sounding crisp but also casual. There are no flourishes because nothing on this album happens suddenly. Things ebb in and temper out like it’s the most natural thing in the world. If it wasn’t such a weighty album I’d say it sounds like it was recorded live on a porch in back of an engagement party.
I can’t think back to Catfish too much at this point or I go too deep in and want to buy a plane ticket back down to Nola and find him to make sure he never followed through with his new years eve plan. I hope that, at some point this year, he heard this album playing out a window or from an open car door or an overhead speaker somewhere. I think it might touch him, too.
“Fly Away” and “Bricks” are from Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You.
Two totally unrelated things: Neko Case is an animal, De La Soul are guilty bystanders.
Neko Case is an animal. Perhaps that’s a bit obvious, but to describe her any further muddles things, and to leave it at that is more revealing than you’d think. Case is a writer, but has not published any books, stories, articles, poems, or, as far as I know, a single word outside of her lyrics sheets. She is a singer as well, singing country music which sounds nothing like country music. But describing her voice beyond saying that she’s singing, not speaking or coughing, gets tough in itself. Mostly, she does not belt out the lines of her songs. She is not coy in her delivery; not angry nor thrilled, but also not disaffected. It is easier to leave it as Neko Case as an animal, because that allows and in fact encourages the same mystery of Great Blue Whale or Arctic Terns.
There is something you will not grasp about Case’s songs. It’s something you’ll grasp at as lyrics slip out of your cupped hands, and music stretches out farther than your eye can see. Neko Case is an animal and she tells you as much on her song “I’m An Animal,” from her extraordinary new album Middle Cyclone. But that’s one of the few discernible facts you’ll get from the song. The only concrete image of the brief song is one of Heaven as a place with that sickening smell of a midnight airport, sweat and scuff covered with antiseptic powerscrubbing. The image is just one of a brief list of things Case is sure of, the other things on the list being “I love you this hour. this hour today,” and “I’m an animal. You’re an animal too.”
The song ends too soon; Miss Case could’ve made it six minutes long and it wouldn’t have gotten sour, boring, or redundant, but I think that’s part of the package. Listening to Neko Case is like having a conversation with someone on top of a mountain, where every third sentence gets lost to the wind. You could either get frustrated about what’s being lost, or you can appreciate every single word you catch.
Neko Case plays the Beacon Theater tomorrow night with John and Joey from Calexico. If you’re not working a job that pays as poorly as mine, you have no excuse not to be there.
One of the things that kinda fell outta hip hop pretty early on was the narrative. With the exception of torchbearers like Jay-Z, Kanye West (who seems exempt from most hip hop rules), or out-there groups like Subtle, it seems like no one in hip hop wants to tell us a story. Back in the day (Read: when I was five and still listening to Beatles 45s in nap time in kindergarten), Rap music was a storyteller’s paradise. And perhaps one of the most unsettling and successful examples of a story told comes from De La Soul’s furious, reactionary, brilliant second album, De La Soul Is Dead. The album was a pendulum swing back from the upbeat, witty, positive hip hop of the band’s debut 3 Feet High and Rising, and its centerpiece is a song called “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.”
The plot is fairly simple: an abused daughter takes revenge on her molester-father, but it’s the way Posdnous and Dave position themselves in the story that given the song its tragedy. The Two MCs clearly take sides in the story: According to them, Dillon is a social worker who volunteers as Santa Clause at Macy’s, and Millie, his daughter, is a teenager, reactionary and a little bit crazy. Pos and Dave work with Dillon, and he taken them to his house to watch sports and shoot the shit. He’s a good guy, popular, funny, and caring. He’s got an hot daughter who starts to say that her father is touching her.
In small ways that the guilt of the storytellers manifests itself throughout the song. There are breaks in the chronology that hint at the Pos and Dave’s desire to change the way they acted, to revise the history as they recount it. In the songs second verse, Pos raps “Yo Dillon man, Millie’s been out of school for a week, man, what’s the deal?/I guess he was givin’ Millie’s bruises time to heal/Of course he told us she was sick and we believed him.” The lines show regret of the the blind eye they turned towards Milly. Looking back, of course they should’ve done something. This song happened because they didn’t.
Pos’s last verse, where Millie’s revenge is enacted and the title of the song comes into play reveals more of those feelings of remorse on the part of Pos and Dave. Pos is waiting at Macy’s and Millie walks in. The way he describes it, that she “floats in like a zombie,” hints at an understanding of the trauma that she’s coping with, and the way Pos recounts Dillon’s last words, that “he didn’t mean to/do all the things that her mind could do nothing but cling to.” further the impact of what has occured. Even though the story is (probably) fictional, there’s some serious projection going on here. Noone would be that articulate or that emotionally acute with a gun to their head. The lines are just as much about Pos and Dave wishing they had done something as they are about Dillion wishing he hadn’t.
The surreal situation we’re given, someone trying to kill a department store santa, is cut open by the seriousness of these lines. It’s an terribly sad, terribly good song.
Funny story: In freshman year of college I made a mix of Christmas music for a few close friends and put the De La Soul song on there. A few weeks later I saw one of the friends I had given a copy to at a party, and he came up to me and said, “That was the most fucking depressing Christmas mix I’ve ever heard. Makes sense though: you’re Jewish.”