Here you go. The albums which helped this year.
This is a no-nonsense album, so I’ll give it a no-nonsense write-up. This album is ten tracks long. Eight of those tracks are as great as you might’ve hoped, were someone to say Helium and Sleater Kinney (and, fine, the Minders, but I’ve never met anyone not from Portland who listened to the Minders) and ROCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCK. These songs will get you drunk and jumpy, they will make you dance or imagine yourself punching stupid marble busts of old businessmen and having them disintegrate into a cloud of middling dust. There are eight sensational tracks on this album. Two of the songs on this album, are, to my ears terrible. “Electric Band” stirs up thoughts of Jefferson Starship (no, not airplane, starship.) and “Glass Tambourine” of the Doors. Skip over them and you’ve got something potent and rigorous. Which is a pretty excellent start.
There are two dueling trains of thought on Constant Future. One is reflected by the album’s title, easily read as a condemnation of a flaky, irrelevant arts community, as well as in lyrics like album-closer “Never Changer’s” depressing, defeatist coda, “Another century is over/Another generation like the one before.” This, it should be noted, is Parts & Labor’s last album. The group broke up this fall, after a few less than 10 years together as one of the most vital bands. Period. So that’s argument one- we tried, we gave it all we could, we evolved and never compromised, and after all is said and done, nothing changed, not many cared. Argument two is the opposite. It’s the hope of album opener “Fake Names,” where BJ Warshaw barks “If we leave today, no vacant age will follow.” The argument finds it root in the music of Constant Future, where Parts & Labor further refine what they do with noise, how to make noise into the kind of paper you reserve for prayer books (“Rest”), how to turn noise into a grimy calcite (“skin and bones”) or how to let noise chase you like a dog you’re not sure whether to be scared of or not (“Fake Name”). I don’t think Parts & Labor were ever about giving you a definite answer, despite all their shouting. For me, though, I’d have fallen into the former camp if they had half-assed this album even a little bit. I just can’t believe a group that would put this much into saying goodbye has lost hope.
Maybe it’s an obvious connection to most people, but listening to Take Care, Take Care, Take Care one final time before I wrote up this review, I realized that the reference point one needs to use for Explosions in the Sky is not other post-rock bands; it’s classical music. While I’ll readily admit to having almost no understanding or knowledge of classical music, Explosions in the Sky use the ingredients of rock songs, that is guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, to create music which is much closer to classical traditions. The songs on Take Care (X3) do not present a pop-music structure, one that gives the listener clues- here’s the chorus, here’s what we’re going for here, here’s how to feel. Instead, they blossom or burst into noise or shrink back into silence, and then move on. There are two minutes of near-silence in “Human Qualities” and, to these ears, they feel entirely appropriate. Classical music has movements; thats one of a few things I can say for sure about it. Movement is what makes Take Care, Take Care, Take Care.
There’s a make-or-break moment on “Never Heal Myself,” a song on Cults’ self titled album. Halfway through, right after the chorus, the drums drop out and this dutifully-strummed guitar carries the song for a moment- just a guitar and that wingwalker voice. It’s such a cliché, and I’m sure it’s one you’ve heard before. It’s the band saying, “here’s the moment where we need you close. Here’s the first time we’ve told the truth! Hey guys! It’s right here!” It’s not an original gesture, but it’s one that I love and treasure deeply. On first glance, there’s nothing at all original about Cults, fancy haircuts, Brooklyn, music that’d sound great in ads for top-shelf rum, art school background, and a cool-factor upped by a quite-boring “mysteriousness” about the band members themselves and their obsession with the Jonestown Massacre. But here’s the thing- they pull off the drums-falling-off moment, they do it really, really well, and then they do the same with the rest of the album. What seems to be both an exploitative and nonsense notion which guides this album- that falling in love is similar to surrendering yourself to a cult, is treated with utmost seriousness and, despite the description above, austerity. Cults succeed because they repeat a line like “He broke my heart because I really loved him/He took it all away and left me to bleed out, bleed out” and make listeners focus on the dissonance of the first line rather than the gushing of the second line. But even that second line, that ultimate cliché on an album largely built upon cliches buttoned together tight, the way Madeline Follin sings it, you’ll believe that, too.
Here’s what the Dodos didn’t want- to rock. When I saw them live, their drummer, half of the band, beat the shit out of a trash can. That was most of his drum kit. That was where half the band’s sound came from. They were loud, they had a current, but they did not want to be a band on an afternoon playlist of a classic rock radio station twenty years in the future. They were scared of being Chicago, Boston, Soul Asylum, Bon Jovi. So they ran so far in the other direction that their songs fell into ditches of artsyness. Here’s what the Dodos have allowed themselves to do here- rock. They took everything that made them an exceptional group in the first place and made those things walk, not run, walk their way through a labyrinth. The Dodos put walls on their songs here. Nothing neutered, nothing hushed or streamlined, just songs with walls. They sound so much better for it.
There’s a much more important shift happening on Let England Shake than reviewers oft-mentioned change of PJ Harvey’s subject matter. It’s the shift which makes this album extraordinary, even within the catalog an already extraordinary artist. This is the first time that Polly Jean Harvey has written songs outside of herself and then sung them as if she cared. What was so rare about PJ Harvey was how explicitly she sang about herself, her body, her love and hatred. She was good enough at it that people could take the songs as their own. But here, Harvey’s writing does not start with an “I,” normally the source of her creativity and passion. In fact, quite the opposite, the songs on Let England Shake are based around something arguably quite esoteric- war and death. But the album never falters, never, to these ears, feel overwrought. And this is because PJ Harvey will always be PJ Harvey, a songwriter who chooses the fewest and most precise words she can for every line, who sings in a voice emphatic and rooted. Let England Shake is both a radically different album than Harvey has previously released, and also a churning reminder of the characteristics which make PJ Harvey so compelling.
Bill Callahan has a cold. It makes sense that it would take him this many years, with output from the sweet but never tooth-rotting New Pornographers, the Judy-Jetson-Nightmare-Coma of Swan Lake, and of course scarf-wearing, microphone-seducing, Christine-bemoaning, Derrida-intoning music he’s recorded under Destroyer for him to admit as much. Callahan, up until now has kept his guard up; his previous band Smog had all the ingredients for music that pierced needle-thick, but that never happened. It could have been because of his deadpan delivery, or the layers of artifice he put between his lyrics and the way the listener was delivered those lyrics, but Bejar always held us at five or six arms length- we could see the plastic shopping bags under his eyes, and the beard we both know he should have shaved, but we were never close enough to whisper “is everything OK?” Well, Apocalypse brings us closer than ever before; “Riding for the Feeling” shows us the process, which is in itself a joy- about three quarters of the way through, Callahan sings “I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels/Or riding for the feeling.” And so then he tells us “Riding for the feeling/Is the fastest way to reach the shore.” From someone as esoteric as Dan Bejar, lines like the frankness of “Poor in Love’s” self criticism, “All you’ve got is style/I can see it from a mile away” are a revaluation and a revelation, especially when coupled with the titular chorus- I Was Poor in Love. The self reflection on this record, the exhaustion present when Callahan can think no way to end his album except by mumbling the Drag City catalog number. It’s almost as if Bejar just couldn’t maintain the distance any more, and so all that was left is what you see on the album cover- him sitting alone on a curb. It’s the first time he’s ever appeared in his album artwork, and for all the exclusivity and academic discourse and key bumps that his previous albums suggested, this is all it left him, mustered posture and a view he doesn’t want to look at.
Merrill Garbus’ first album as tUnE YaRdS, Bird Brains, was a heart composed out of kitsch. Drum loops that were tossed in the a dumpster behind studios recording late 90s hip hop albums, uninteresting audio recordings of a young boy’s childhood, a bunch of hastily stitched lines about love. She built something out of that. Her new album tears it apart. This is an ugly album, filled with pasted-together ideas we don’t want to talk about because the conversations get quiet really quick. These are the kinds of things smart, liberal people don’t want to talk about because they spend more time than they’d admit banging their heads against a wall trying to get these things out- the reality of gentrification, positions of privilege, the idea of patriotism, of America, of gender roles when you are convinced the last thing you want to talk about is gender roles. This is a messy album, but god, I give Garbus credit for shouting everything. She gets it wrong (“Doorstep” is the worst offender), but she probably knows that, and she does it because, just as these songs, her thoughts are still evolving, adding on noise, taking out the center. And, much much more than she gets it wrong, she gets it right. And even if she doesn’t, at least you’ll have something to say about it. W H O K I L L is an argumentative album- You cannot just listen to it, there is a demand for you to think about it, too.
Who says prosthetics never fail? That because a hero (or not) had a leg ripped from their life, that the replacement will hold? Who says hibernating bears don’t starve, that they’ve planned far enough ahead and they’ll be ok. Who say’s that the time is right? Maybe you just look at the clock twice a day at 8:12, earlier than you’d like to be dressed and heading out the door, and then at 8:12, later than you’d like to be moving dishes from a gunky drying rack to a dusty cabinet. Who says that smoke detectors know every kind of smoke, that you can sleep beneath one and not worry? Who says that time’s so straight? If that’s so, why don’t we make our clocks long lines which spread across every door, every inch of our oft-abused mattress, every hundredth of a mile on the odometer? Who say’s that real love lasts?
This is an album summarized by a moment. The penultimate track on Civilian is called “We Were Wealth.” It starts off, like about half the other songs on this album, as a dirge- slow, syrupy and arid. But something happens at 2:43. The song awakens, it realizes a purpose. It gets louder, more sudden, and promises less and less and less. You’re left wondering how long Wye Oak can or will keep it going, what singer is Jenn Wasner saying, why this happened? The first time you listen to it, it is a startling moment. And this is an album I can not make broad comments about, except to say that there are dozens of such moments, where you think you know where a song is going, how a line is going to finish, and then it doesn’t and you’re left gaping. The two members of Wye Oak have crafted brilliant songs in the past, but Civilian is something different. It is unsettling throughout, it is an ambush at first, and, by its end, it is heartbreaking. Before I say the best description I can think up for Civilian, I want you to focus on Merriam Webster’s definition for the word- a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement. Don’t think I’m tossing around the word lightly. Civilian is a masterpiece.
Happy 2012, y’all. See you in a bit.
I’m going to try to do this in as straightforward a way as I can. Although, honestly, when somebody needs to begin that way, it will never be as straightforward as it could be.
This morning, Punknews, a website I check more regularly than someone in my age bracket should readily admit to, posted a stream of a new album by a band from Michigan, Flint more specifically, named Empty Orchestra. I’m a sucker for melodramatic band names and things from the midwest (especially Michigan), and so I listened to it all the way through.
The thing about art is (ok. I’m sorry. But still. The thing about art is) that there are two extremes one can take it to, and then an infinite number of permutations within the spectrum. But people who look at, create, think about art tend to be pretty emotional people, the type, in general for grand gestures, bold statements. So a lot of them would make one of two arguments.
Art is there as an answer; songs get closer to expressing things that speech cannot, and even the most straightforward-seeming picture is saying something more than just, “here’s a barn.” Art uses a vocabulary we understand. Even abstract art is still trying to give us something to latch onto. Even the dadaists, who thought that art had no meaning, honestly, that nothing had meaning, ended up falling into a historical context which helped people look at and understand and put themselves into their creations. Art is there to help, this argument says. In many ways, art is your friend.
Art is not beholden to you in any way. If you’re making art for people to latch onto, then you’re making shit, you’re wasting your time, you’re doing the work of the machine which paints pictures of barns which hang on the walls of Comfort Inns off every exit of I-80. Art should ask questions, it should push us, it should spit in the face of understanding, structure, or ease. Art is not your friend; art is complicated. Art is a teacher you hate to the core while you’re taking his or her course, but whose lessons you will think back to for the rest of your life.
I like the new PJ Harvey album because it is the latter. With rare exceptions (the airless and ardent “The Last Living Rose”), it is an incredibly different listen, even more so than her louder, more abrasive, earlier albums. It is so difficult and simultaneously so rewarding because it has an anger which refuses to give you an origin. Its songs exist not because of momentum, melody, lyrics, or, for what I would argue is the first time in her career, Harvey’s beautiful voice. They exist because, and for the purpose of getting at a mood. It’s the latter group to the core; while the album title, song titles, and advanced press would have you believe the album is PJ Harvey grappling with the legacy of her home country, it really isn’t that, outside of the surface level stuff like song titles. It’s a complex album, not at all easy to listen to, but one which rewards those who come back again and again to it. If you listen to Let England Shake once, you will probably not like it. If you think the purpose of art is not to give you an easy answer or provide a soundtrack to life, you will probably love it.
Getting back to the argument about art, I think my favorite artists in any medium are those that work with the concept of the latter (art is complex) within the architecture of the former (art can help you) One example of many- Kazuo Ishiguro’s books have an easily identifiable eeriness, and they make readers wrestle with issues of cultural identity and colonialism, and refuse to allow any easy conclusions. But the books do that without screaming at the top of their lungs THE NOVEL IS DEAD, NARRATIVES MUST BE FRACTURED IN ORDER TO TELL A TRUTH, THAT LAST STATEMENT IS A LIE BECAUSE THERE IS NO TRUTH, THAT LAST STATEMET IS ALSO A LIE BECAUSE WITHOUT TRUTH THERE CAN BE NO LIES@#!@#!@#!@#. They make their points within the framework of a detective story, science fiction, faux-memoir. So there are things that can split the difference, which is my favorite way of doing things, but is by no means “better” than either of the extremes I talk about, just the one I gravitate towards.
Put another way; art that does nothing but challenge someone who comes upon it will certainly provoke thought, but it will not necessarily be easy to enjoy. I could probably write an essay about the most recent Brian Eno album, but the truth is, in the almost-12 months i’ve owned it, I’ve only listened to the thing twice, and don’t plan on adding to that total at any point soon.
Getting back to what I was talking about before the argument about art, there’s this band from Flint, Michigan called Empty Orchestra. They are, to put it in the worst, most offensively generic terms that I can, a band who work with varying elements of country, punk, and folk music in their songs. I have listened to their album three times through since downloading it this morning. What I want to do now is tell you that you’ve probably heard an album similar to this, then tell you that just because an album isn’t breaking boundaries doesn’t mean it’s not also very, very good, then tell you that “One More Time, All Together Now,” the new album by Empty Orchestra, is familiar down to its both wonderful and also wince-worthy title, and that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, or any less of a cohesive, compelling album.
Except, of course, when I’m dead wrong. Empty Orchestra are smarter and deeper than the blanket label of “accessibility” gives them credit for. I’ll give two examples. “No Such Place” is about as good a summation of the current predicament of the Midwest, specifically Michigan, as I’ve ever heard. It is a song of push and pull; the enemy of this song is leaving. Leaving Michigan, in the case of this song, means giving up, abandonment. It does not mean progress nor does it mean “moving on.” Yet there is so much understanding and sympathy in “No Such Place” for those who leave. It’s a song which starts out of anger and self righteousness and ends just sad. It’s a song that looks around as it sings and gets emptier and emptier as it sees more driveways clearing out for good. It ends with just that drumbeat. Mid tempo. Still going, until it cannot.
“Echo’s Bones” is a song which doesn’t just let its pretty words sit there.”We view history/We view history/Like an endless stream of tiny Christmas lights.” OK. Fine. that’s a hook. It’s an image you can picture. It could be a poem, and a fine one. But I love how the song continues-
They provide no hope for illumination,
They don’t do anything to hold back the night
They’re really more for decoration
‘Cause we’re alone in this life.
They put the words there for a reason. Even if you don’t agree, you have to at least admit they’ve, in a poignant way, made an argument. They’re saying something. They’re not accoutrements. I’ll end this with one more set of lyrics from “Black and Blue”
There’s no need to shout.
We know the danger’s all around us.
We are safe as houses,
which aren’t really that safe;
It turns out locks can fail
And the place can burn down.
But, hey, will still need a place to stay.
Here’s the kicker- at least for now, they’re giving away their album. Absolutely free. You can download it here. At some point it will have a physical release on Paper and Plastik, who, if they keep up signings like this are looking to occupy a role as good as Thick Records, Revelation, or Jade Tree did in the late 90s, early 2000s.
EDIT- OK, so you can’t get their album for free any more, but you can (and should) buy it here.
Also, if you’re in chicago and want to see good music,