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.
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.
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.
Also, have you heard of Young Fathers? I will write more about them soon, but for now, listen to Young Fathers.
Verbatim from the last two years: Everyone can do year end blurbs. Blurbs are, frankly, dime a dozen, and quite honestly, who needs ‘em- you can listen to the songs and get all the stuff. Here’s some writing about some music that I loved this year.
Tyvek- Nothing Fits
Tyvek’s first album cover features Play Doh-cast versions of the band members. If they had followed along with the motif, this album would have them made of Lincoln Logs. Lincoln Logs, impractical and monochromatic, were about as basic as toys got. Theoretically, if you have a pocket knife a free afternoon, you could make a dozen for your fancy. And Nothing Fits its about as basic as rock and roll get. It is shouted vocals, two guitar tracks (the word “interplay” is for suckers like Dream Theater. Don’t think of “guitar interplay.”) drum beats that do absolutely nothing but occasionally keep time, and, probably, some bass you could make out if you tried, etched onto plastic tape and then transferred to CD. So here’s how to judge this one: After you’ve heard the two below songs, you’ve heard the entirety of Nothing Fits. Interested?
Shrag- Life! Death! Prizes!
MiniBoone- Big Changes
You can play it two ways:
You can play it cool. Knot the double windsor on a dress shirt that cost so much money, it must be a costume. Find a rooftop bar, say to those around you “I’ve never seen the city from this angle” (though the people you say it to will think you are being sarcastic, you do not have to give any further indication that you are not.). Shower the night before, so your hair looks mussed. Own some things that are stainless steel or reclaimed wood. Dance a lot, and say you just quit, but thanks. Spend a lot of the night quietly thinking up the most clever, cutting, stupendous thing to say, and say it just as you’re putting your coat on, and know that everyone in the room will remember your name. It’s a good way to do it; you’re having fun, for real.
You can not. You can spit cliches like they were mucus and wear the mittens that a girlfriend knitted for your first midwestern winter at your liberal arts college. (She tried to spell out your whole name, but only got as far as “Br”). You can love as full and as raw as a small mammal shaking its life out on frozen concrete. You can own up to bad poetry, send gobs of text messages, write letters because you love the feeling of physical contact. You can wear your grandfather’s army jacket over your sister’s girl scout vest, and you can spend all day under the blanket sometimes if the weather seems to heavy. It’s a good way to do it, too.
Coltrane Motion- Hello Ambition!
In contrast to the new Four Tet album, Hello Ambition! is based squarely in our lives of no money, no job, some hope. These are songs for long-fought-for Friday nights and Sunday mornings where we try to put blinders on and forget what’s next. These are dance songs that are aggravated and wistful in equal doses. These songs emanate youth, with all of it melodrama and fierce love, both in the expertly crafted lyrics and the fuzz-bound music which splits the difference between bombastic beats and guitar that wraps around the sinews. I don’t think the group would mind me tossing out a cliché to describe Hello Ambition!, especially because it is, at a base level, incredibly accurate: Are you between 21 and 26, living in a city, scraping by for now, waiting and maybe in the back of your throat a bit worried? This is the soundtrack of your life.
Four Tet- There Is Love In You
What’s unbelievable to me is that There Is Love In You was played at some of the biggest clubs in London. Four Tet has always electronic music for people who press their earbuds tight against their inner ear and walk around empty city neighborhoods, not for people pressed against one another at a crowded club. And, to me, remarkably enough for an album which most critics, and even it’s creator seems to see as “Dance Music,” I hear almost the oipposite: something really spiritual. Tracks like “Circling” and “Angel Echo” do not build to dance hall peaks. They hover just above a listeners ears, the way light sometimes plays tricks on you. There Is Love In You does not have more than two or three discernible words on it, and the album feels cyclical- it’s first and last tracks begin with the same lonely, muffled kick drum. There are times when I found myself lost in this album, unsure when tracks ended or began, unsure of whether I had heard that melody before or not. That ethereal trance is what makes There Is Love in You such a compelling album, whether you can dance to it or not.
Josh Ritter- So Runs The World Away
This is not how the singer songwriter story goes. The singer songwriter strums and writes love songs and one political song per album, which is actually just a love song from a soldier to a guy (or girl) back home. The singer songwriter is supposed to be thankful for every moment they still have their record deal and not mind too much if you don’t remember their name or confuse them with Josh Rouse. The singer songwriter is not supposed to write transcendental, near 8-minute epics about arctic exploration, nor are their love songs supposed to be written from the POV of a reanimated mummy or a celestial body in an irregular orbit. The singer-songwriter is supposed to be derivative, but he is not supposed to be reverent and revisionary of the cannon, bring Stagger Lee and Louis Collins out of the textbooks and have them run around the street as though it hadn’t been 90 years since they last got to do that. The singer songwriter is supposed to be subtle and guitar based, not pounding, not sly, not loud. The singer songwriter could learn an awful lot from Josh Ritter. If he keeps making ’em as good as So Runs The World Away, he’ll keep that terrible label as far away as he likes.
Miles Kurosky- The Desert of Shallow Effects
The worst part of finger painting for young Miles Kurosky was waiting for the paint to dry. He was never the most patient painter as he distributed his colors on his nature scenes, and so the blue eyes of the rabbit on top of the yellow starlight on top of the greasy-gray grass came out the same way that the red of the Robin layered on the taupe of the dust road did: as brown. The whole thing was brown smudges next to brown streaks next to brown dots. Sure, there were hints of the fuchsia and egg-shell and flag-blue, but mostly it was brown. His teacher that year was almost old enough to fit into the schoolmarm image, but had smoked for too long to have the voice down. The one thing Miles remembers is her chair-scrape of a voice telling him “let the colors sit, let them take their place before you put the next one on.” The Desert of Shallow Effects is the sound of Miles Kurosky taking his teacher’s advice.
Wye Oak- My Neighbor/My Creator
Janelle Monae- The ArchAndroid
There is something to be said for hugging close to brevity like a safety blanket. My Neighbor/My Creator tunnels beneath oceans and traverses 20,000 foot peaks. It loves you enough to whisk you away from a world whose unfamiliarity is killing you, and it hates you enough to force one of the slowest, most calculated tell offs down your throat. It is fast and slow and everywhere in between. It is rushing and also solemn and then giddy, and then utterly lost. And, as far as I can discern from the lyrics, it is a complete retelling of the Garden of Eden story. It is the most miraculous piece of music this year, and it is 5 tracks- 17 minutes total.
There is also something to be said for shredding brevity like private documents and never looking at it again. The ArchAndroid is eighteen tracks, two interludes, two songs that sound like they were recorded in a gilded dance hall in the fifties, one that sounds like, if released in the late eighties might’ve single-handedly killed the careers of Cyndie Lauper and Madonna, because this and only this, is how the synthy-slow ballad should be done. There’s a bad trip stuck in there, and another one that manages to make you ignore how terrible and irritating Of Montreal are, despite their attempt to steal the show from Monae. There’s something here built for an opera hall. There’s a few made to echo off of dance floors, and a few built for hospital ERs. This in an album made from two complete suites, overtures and all. This is 70 minutes of sprinting. No one is supposed to be able to make it that far. Monae does.
The New Pornographers- Together
Oh New Pornographers, I had given up hope. I was lukewarm about Twin Cinema and didn’t even bother with Challengers. Your live performances were among the worst of any band I had ever seen, including having the gall at pitchfork a few years back to cover “We Will Rock You,” mid-way through your crappy set. Lest to say, you did not rock me. I bought Together because I had extra downloads left on emusic, I will confess. And then, holy shit, you release your catchiest, spunkiest, most fun, and best album yet. I won’t pretend to know what process makes a track like “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” coalesce: the perfect meeting of Neko Case’s immediate, 5th gear vocals, about eighty pounds of hands clapping hands, and a melody that bounces and pogos like the punk song it isn’t. Together feels joyous, and, as its title suggests, more collaborative than past releases. An album this delightful only comes along rarely, yet it seems like this was the one a group like The New Pornographers were always meant to make.
Superchunk- Majesty Shredding
People like to think that there is joy in going home after time away and seeing nothing has changed. These people have never actually done this. There is something desperate-seeming about things, people, places who seem identical after years have gone by. The cries that Majesty Shredding picks up just where Superchunk left off with their last full length, Here’s To Shutting Up, released nine years ago, worried me. But Majesty Shredding is not just a continuation of the Superchunk we knew and loved from the past. There are similarities between this album and the group’s past work, Mac’s summer southern vocals, Jon Wurster’s drip-drop-pounding drums, choruses as big as state fairs. But there are very important differences from old Superchunk. On Majesty Shredding the band sounds better than ever, both in terms of skills and production, and just as evidently, they also sound older. They’re writing just as much in the second person as the first now, as if they only know how to write about a few life lessons, but they’re smart enough to realize that the kids need them more than they do. The tenderness that holds these songs together does not diminish their giddy energy. This is eleven firecrackers packaged together in a shoebox wrapped carefully with a handmade bow.
Field Music- Field Music (Measure)
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists- The Brutalist Bricks
Well, maybe Marx is right. By all capitalist logic, my two favorite albums of the year should not exist. Neither Field Music nor Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are, financially, successful groups. Leo has, on his own website, talked candidly about declining album sales, and how hard it is to keep up the momentum he has maintained for 20 years at this point when he’s barely breaking even. Field Music, once a buzz band in the UK, broke up two years ago, seemingly to let that same buzz fade away, and returned this year with an album they had to have known was not going to sell well, a sprawling double-LP. And yet. And yet. Both of these albums do exist, and, at least to this music listener, provide a perfect rejoinder to all those tired arguments about art versus commerce. The Brutalist Bricks and Field Music (Measure) were not made to make money; they were made because they are great pieces of art. Outside of this, the albums could not be more different however.
I’ve already discussed how much hope and persistence there is on The Brutalist Bricks, but I want to say it again, with a bit more context. Ted Leo had always been an anomaly to me; a sonic experimenter who knew the value of an immediate pop structure; a political songwriter whose lyrics wouldn’t give you a clue as to who he voted for in the last election. He knew the value of drums and bass, of drinking guiness at fake irish pubs in Jersey Suburbs, of sitting in an attic with an unplugged electric guitar, singing to dust-blanketed boxes. He release a whole series of albums which continually made me smile. And then, in 2007, he released one which did not. Leo’s previous album, Living With The Living, was a total letdown for me. Its politics were too blunt and one sided, its slow rock felt exhausted. I listened to it through probably two or three times, and haven’t picked it up after that. I skipped seeing him in concert, for fear he would play “A Bottle of Buckie” or “The World Stops Turning” and I would crush my own heart.
I somehow ended up getting The Brutalist Bricks on the day it came out, and, the more I listen to the album, the more I am happy that I did. This is exactly the kind of album one runs home from a record store clutching and almost scratches the record or skips the CD as they excitedly put it on. The energy that begin on phenomenal opener “The Might Sparrow” does not let up until equally phenomenal closer “Last Days.” The Pharmacists, Leo’s backing band, have the same kinetic energy as The Attractions, Elvis Costello’s backing band to who they are rightfully compared. Just as importantly, Leo’s lyrical mastery is on full marque view on every song on The Brutalist Bricks. Really, the best compliment I can pay the album is to that that The Brutalist Bricks is an album which will make listeners want to do good.
I fell in love with Field Music’s latest album in the opposite manner. I downloaded it on the day it came out, listened to the first few tracks, and gave up, for months. I even blogged, guilt-ridden and worried that I still hadn’t listened to all twenty of the album’s tracks long after it had been released. This was not the album I would have initially hoped that Field Music would make. The band’s first two full lengths were poppy and sharp, the sound of valedictorians who stuck around their hometown’s gymnasium putting together songs piece by piece. The drummer would come in last, after working the afternoon shift at a bookstore/bar and add his two cents and his two sticks. They were wonderful, self-contained, simultaneously small and epic.
Well, after two years apart, the band’s most recently album gets rid of the small. This is EPIC, big, difficult, challenging, gratifying, growing, screwing, stacking, tumbling music. And the craziest thing? It’s a concept album about how difficult it was for the band to record a new album. Just to give you a peek into what I mean:
The positively melancholy first track, “In The Mirror,” has one of the Brewis brothers (Peter or David, the core of the group, and I’m never quite sure who is providing lead vocals on which song) singing “I wish I could and make new rules/and love myself better.” before lamenting “we are hopeless and lost,” almost losing hope altogether as he sings “We’re close enough to stop.” The song chronicles the band’s hiatus- the time in between, stuck wondering if it all was even worth it, and the music is all howling guitars and ghoulish oohs and aahs.
The listener is immediately rocketed into “Them That Do Nothing,” an anthem for moving forward. Here, the rhythm skips ahead and the melody opens and closes like a revolving door. The song’s central tenet is “Them that do nothing/Make no mistakes.” This is a band who are willing to have the blemishes, as long they’re new blemishes.
After that, the listener is treated to the gloriously lackadaisical, rock-as-fuck, “Each Time Is A New Time.” As close to classic rock as the band has ever tried, this is their first new statement of this release: The old game wasn’t working; here’s something new. And the album proceeds through 17 more beautiful songs from there, each as unique as a key cut for a new lock.
I won’t tell you that Field Music (Measure) is a bowl of ice cream. It isn’t a Smirnoff Ice, or a 0-120 roller coaster. It is not an easy, front-loaded straightforward listen. But it is supremely rewarding. A band like field music have recreated their sounds and their basic aims in making music with every album. It is thrilling to see them change in such thoughtful, iconoclastic ways. I’m not hedging my bets on where they’ll go next.
Thanks for reading. More regular updates will return in 2011.
Another three things. Seriously, I’m going to try to update this site more than twice a month from now on. Sorry, dudes.
Oneida. They weren’t on my “concert’s I’d like to see” list, or the much more exclusive “concerts I’d drive all the way to Chicago to see, if need be” list. They were on the things I want to experience before I die list, somewhere in between catching, killing, ripping open, cooking, and eating a fish (bonus points if it happened to be mako shark), getting a letter published in The Times (my brother’s already go this one covered, so if die without having done it, i’ll just take his and replace the first name), and waking up on my roof to the sunrise slowly catching the skyline.
I’ve raved about Oneida before, and have hopefully gotten across how they manage to tear the roof off rock and roll museums and let all that air and birdshit and plane noise inside, that they’re one of the few groups who are a wildcard (such a wildcard that most people don’t know what to do, discard them from the deck and go back to playing solitaire- predictable cards, predictable results), who could and will do anything and I won’t be surprised, only, at the same time I will. They’re a group who make experimentation feel personal and inviting, and they bring enough self-effacing humor to their music that it never feels like their egos took over. They’re willing to push people to an extreme, but Oneida know that people have limits, and they’ll only rarely push past them without knowing a way back.
I got to cross that one off my list on Friday. My first trip to the newly relocated Knitting Factory (Verdict: Great bar out front, nice wall decorations, good sound, perfect stage placement, but not nearly, nowhere close to, not even holding a candle to how endearing they were on Leonard Street) was an Oneida concert, and it was as uplifting as I would have hoped. I’m not going to describe it any more than to say that NYCtaper (god bless your heart) captured the audio, and you can download it here. It won’t be the same, but it will give you the right vocabulary.
Also, there’s a new Hurray For The Riff Raff album out. It’s called Young Blood Blues, and it’s exactly what you’d expect from a second album. This one paces the hall, sleeps (or, tries to) to a plink, plink of water coming through the threshold. It’s a dinner party you probably should have canceled because there’s just been a death in the family, not someone you were close to, but a person whose name you knew, so it would give you a good excuse to cancel the whole evening. You could lie around in convoluted positions on the couch, putting seran wrap on more food every time you get up. But you don’t cancel and the whole evening feels like an overworked lightbulb or a rubber band stretched across a city block. What’ve you got here is restlessness and dark skies, new instruments and a whole lot less bluegrass.
I listened to the band’s first album, It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You, so goddamn much last year, and it got me through so much that I thought I would crumple when I heard the drumkit on “Is That You” or the guitar on album closer, “Sali’s Song.” The bands first album had little outside of a banjo that seemed to be 700 years old, a violin tuned to the birds, and the accordion from Accordian Crimes.
Turns out, Alynda Lee, vocalist and songwriter for the group, has a voice that could hold together a sandcastle in a hurricane, and the album overall works quite well. For me, Young Blood Blues is not as good an album as It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You, but the letdown was smaller than you’d think. Some of it’s experiments fail, and there isn’t that slow burn early morning feel on this release which made the first album so transcendent, but the songwriting remains strong throughout. What Young Blood Blues does do is heartening and promising: as opposed to Hurray For the Riff Raff being a mystery with one great album, the new release sets up the band as a mutable entity, a band who probably have a whole lot of great songs left in them, and probably more changes left to come.
There’s an old Jam album which came out in the laste 90s which collected all of the band’s BBC sessions. I wish someone with more time than me would give this band their due; they are probably one of my favorites of all the British punk bands. I was listening to these the other day walking around Inwood Hill Park, and they just felt appropriate for that natural amphitheater in northern Manhattan. These two are steel girders.
(embarrassing side note: one of my rock star dreams involved, on an off night from a world tour somewhere, showing up very drunk to a small club with my bandmates and playing a set as Boys About Town-The Premier Jam Cover Band)
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.