Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Sunday, January 31, 2010
Pointless Lists Week.
#3 Eight Amazing Songs by The Embarrassment.
1.After the Disco
(“I heard a noise coming from next door... made me jump around real funny..”)
2.Dino in the Congo
(“DAMN the driver of our truck, but we were in a hurry!”)
3.Celebrity Art Party
(“...there goes Art Carney again..”)
(“Austere Buster preached, and fit the world he preached..”)
(“You were my favourite mon chere, my one and only lawn chair..”)
(“There’s been sex twice / one child, one price..”)
7.Woods of Love
(“Well that’s what I think..”)
8.Two Week Vacation
(“Who knows what the next life brings / I’m a person, I know things!”)
The Embarrassment double CD retrospective “Heyday: 1979-83” holds 44 such songs. SOMEONE REISSUE IT NOW!
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Pointless Lists Week.
#2: Six movie soundtracks, beyond the obvious ones, that you should, like, totally check out:
1. Danger: Diabolik! (Ennio Morricone)
2. The Shuttered Room (Basil Kirchen)
3. A Lift To The Scaffold (Miles Davis)
4. The Holy Mountain (Don Cherry, et al.)
5. Il Grande Silenzio (Ennio Morricone)
6. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Nora Orlandi)
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
THE FIFTY BEST RECORDS OF 2009: Part #10
5. Smith Westerns - s/t(Hozac)
Smith Westerns’ debut album is a work of over-energised, over-ambitious, overblown teen genius that I appreciate more each time I spin it – an instant refutation of anyone who’d seek to dismiss the new crop of American punk/garage/whatever bands as shiftless, couldn’t-give-a-shit posers. Initially coming to my attention via “Be My Girl”, a cosmically gorgeous, instant-hit evocation of the glories of T Rex, Smith Westerns’ keep the quality running high at all times, breathlessly cramming so much STUFF into their four-track level recordings that on occasions the whole thing just collapses under it’s own weight, leaving a sparkling, blown out pile of murk, as if the tape just plain melted in the face of such sonic maximalism. Defying the back-to-basics garage set-up of most of their peers, Smith Westerns build each of these songs up from a base of crashing, reverbed drums that sound like the rhythm tracks from an old Spector single being played by a rock drummer on a full kit, and proceed to throw in keyboards, glockenspiels, bells, TONS of guitars, outboard effects, kazoo, strings – yes, I swear there are fucking STRINGS on some of these songs – all vying with each other to see who can get closet to the front of the mix, and, fuck man, looks like we’d better EQ the hell out of all the vocals just so we can hear ‘em! Incredible stuff.
Initially, I assumed Smith Westerns must be slightly older guys – like, late-20s or something at least. Y’know, old enough to have been round the block a few times and done their homework re: understanding the history and kitsch-potential of the framework of garage and ‘60s pop and glam stomp within which they are working here. So, without wishing to sound * too * vampiric and creepy, it plain BLEW MY MIND to read that they’re all currently aged between 15 and 19, or something. I mean, when 27 year old guys write songs called “Girl In Love” and “Glam Goddess”, and lock straight into ’72 Bowie to sing “c’mon, you DIAMOND! BOYS!”, it’s good fun, but it’s box-ticking. When kids still in high school are blasting it out as if this stuff’s just sprung naturally from their mad, hormone-ravaged bones, it’s… I dunno man, genuine fucking teenage rock n’ roll nirvana…? And these guys just have such an inbuilt understanding of timeless, starry-eyed, romantic rock n’ roll vision, it’s incredible - holy, bombastic, breathless odes to girls and dreams and heaven, straight from the source. I mean, they’ve still got one foot in lo-fi garage-fuzz trash, and that’s great, but man, their song on the split 7” with the band Dead Ghosts sounds more like Mott The Hoople broadcasting rabble-rousing polemics over a post-apocalyptic emergency broadcast system! It’s sad that Greg Shaw isn’t still with us to hear this band – he’d be so psyched his head would fall off. And Kim Fowley WISHES he could have bottled something this good. Smith Westerns = the sound of teenage punks tearing up all the most powerful elements of their (grand)parents pop and looking on in wonder as the scraps rain down like confetti.
4. Condo Fucks - Fuckbook(Matador)
Whichever way you look at it, this album is pure self-indulgence. I mean, let’s face it, if any other three people in the world had made a one mic rehearsal tape of themselves bashing out a bunch of punk and British Invasion covers, complete with false starts and inaudible vocals, the result probably wouldn’t be getting a big-time release on Matador records. And if any other three people had made said tape, would I still have played it something like 56 times over the past nine months, grinning like a happy idiot…? Well… yes, I probably would have done, to be honest. I LOVE this crap, and I hope I always will. A friend of mine recently made a good point regarding the work of Quentin Tarantino, observing that, rather than *self* indulgent, his films are merely indulgent – eg, they indulge the audience just as much as the creator. And that’s the kind of logic that I’d like to apply in making the case for Condo Fucks as some of the most soundly unpretentious music of the modern era, because this is precisely the kind of honest, joyous, deafening, chaotic rock n’ roll that hits all my pleasure centres at once, with no unnecessary messing about to weaken the brew.
Of course, the personalities of our participants to come into play to a certain extent, and perhaps the key to the album’s success lies in the way they apply their characteristic spirit of modesty and inclusively to musical forms more frequently despoiled by glowering Rolling Stones wannabes – cutting out the dull aesthetic pretence, whilst still bringing enough wild, overdriven abandon to send said wannabes to their graves. And it helps too that our heroes are consummate record nerds, their choice of material flawless as you’d expect. Oh, what a thrill for us cult-rock bores to hear our guys launching into the Electric Eels ‘Accident’, or to hear Georgia taking the lead on heart-shivering renditions of ‘This Is Where I Belong’ (The Kinks) and ‘With A Girl Like You’ (The Troggs), the ghost of her vocal often sinking under all the magical amp blare, but that’s ok cos we can all sing along. Absolutely beautiful. Better still is when they turn their talents to realising the perfect version of ‘Kid With The Replaceable Head’ that Richard Hell never got around to recording, with Ira – sorry, ‘Kid Condo’ – taking his best shot at trying to the out-Robert Quinn Robert Quinn, and succeeding. Listening to ‘Fuckbook’ is a bit like going to see a big, headlining band and discovering that they’ve ditched their regular set-list and are just gonna play their unexpected-cover-version-that-we-worked-out-on-the-bus-for-the-encore *all night long*. Party on!
Maybe in a better world, the Condo Fucks experiment could provide a whole new way forward for struggling major-indie record labels. Got some big-name bands, cruising on their reputation, breaking up for ‘hiatuses’ or spending months in the studio making tepid, over-polite double LPs? Well fuck that noise – why not just get a few affable souls like, I dunno, say Thurston Moore, Guy Picciotto and Janet Weiss, stick ‘em in whichever local practice room does the best deal for four hours, keep the beer flowing, get ‘em talking about how great the Small Faces were, and let nature take it’s course? And if the results if even a fraction as much fun as this record, you’ll still be giving the record-buying public more bang for their buck than, ooh I dunno, the last three Yo La Tengo albums.
Mp3> With A Girl Like You
3. Nodzzz - s/t(What's Yr Rupture?)
What more to say about Nodzzz at this late stage? More than any other new band this year, their songs have been bouncing around my head pretty much endlessly and aren’t showing any sign of ceasing to do so in the new year. Great band, great guys, great sound, great songs – they’re top of the class, reducing me to clichés once again.
Here’s an edit of some stuff what I said about them back in March:
“Every song on Nodzzz self-titled 12” is a veritable education in the possibilities of Nerd-Bounce, each track throwing down in a uniquely enjoyable, off-kilter manner that fully delivers on the promise of “(I Don’t Wanna) Smoke Marijuana”.
Oft times, Nodzzz fleetingly remind me of my other “Revenge of the Nerds” heroes, The Embarrassment – one of the greatest, most frequently overlooked bands of all time, whom I’ve been meaning to write a proper post about for ages. Despite a raft of superficial similarities though, Nodzzz and The Embarrassment never manage to see eye to eye for more than a few moments. Whereas The Embarrassment always sounded as if they were being driven forward by a writhing mass of vengeful sexual frustration, even when singing about space travel or hunting dinosaurs, Nodzzz are, if not exactly *contented*, certainly a lot more…. easy-going… in their concerns. These are good natured fellas for sure, coming on witty like vintage Woody Allen, but with none of the neuroses in evidence.
In fact, Nodzzz very rarely sing about girls. You’d assume “Is She There?” might be about a girl, but the lyrics seem to be more about getting interrogated by the army. “Losing My Accent” wistfully relates how said loss took place whilst in bed with a girl “in the North-West”, but mainly it’s just sad about the accent. Nobly pencilling in the vast gulf left in pop songwriting once such concerns are removed, Nodzzz instead sing variously about their fears about moving to the city, their transport problems, getting old, being too young, and having to attend awkward social events on the great “Controlled Karaoke” (“it’s a party if you know what that means / no one wants to go and no one wants to leave”). I guess all of those themes sound like things one might moan about, and indeed Nodzzz probably ARE moaning, but you’d never know it unless you stopped to pay close attention, so darn irrepressibly upbeat and FUN do their songs seem on first exposure.
Musically, they’re absolutely spot-on too, hitting just the right balance between competence and spontaneity, just as lesser bands proceed to pointlessly tear chunks out of each other in the reviews sections in an unspoken war between over-cooked and under-cooked indie-rock records that are pretty dull in either direction. Listen to the two vocalists trying not to burst into giggles as the guitarist fluffs up just before they hit the second chorus of “I Can't Wait”, and the wonky, wood-block assisted riff-fest that follows and you’ll hear the ‘first take / best take’ philosophy of Swell Maps and the makeshift sonic anarchy of early Sun sessions at their finest. Listen elsewhere though – to the slashing, fast-strumming guitarwork on “Highway Memorial Shrine”, the intricate surfy-jangle lead lines and handbrake turn drumming – and you can (kinda, sorta) hear the spirit of The Minutemen rising in the distance, a spirit of carefully pre-studio prep work, obsessive practice and the desire to give the audience it’s musical money’s-worth that seems almost alien after extensive exposure to the trashed aesthetics that predominate amongst the rest of the currently resurgent lo-fi scene. Short, sharp, instantly likeable and packed with awesome, I hereby declare Nodzzz debut my the first out and out winner of 2009, or the last one of 2008, or whatever.”
Mp3> Highway Memorial Shrine
2. Future Of The Left - Travels With Myself And Another(4AD)
I may have somehow managed to go the whole year without publicly mentioning it to anyone, but as far as I’m concerned Future Of The Left have made the best rock album of the year. Which is a welcome surprise really, because, I’ll admit, the band’s first album, “Curses”, left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed. At the time, it seemed as if Andy Falkous just… wasn’t quite so angry anymore, and that the vicious, absurdist fury that fuelled his work with Mclusky was being diluted into a somewhat more resigned bag of quirkery, injokes and tepid man-rock jams under the FOTL banner. Well, rest assured, ‘Travels..’ sees Falco getting his rage back and then some, as he finally cashes in the ‘genius’ ticket he took out way back on ‘Mclusky Do Dallas’ and presents us with an album so flattening in it’s brutalist, bullseye-wrecking mastery, it’s hard to believe it won’t come to be seen as his all-time masterpiece, assuming there’s anyone left in future generations to care about such things.
I always find it hard to put the unique appeal of Mclusky/FOTL into words, but let’s just say that when they’re on form, Falkous and his comrades consistently give voice to, and rail against, the senseless minor frustrations and painful stupidities of trying to live a decent life in the British Isles in the 21st century with more passion and venom and wit and disgust than any other currently active musical unit. Veering closer to kind of cultural assault favoured by figures like Luke Haines or Chris Morris than to any of their contemporaries in the sphere of noisy heavy/art rock, I’m sure that Future Of The Left would rather spit teeth than align themselves with any direct political cause, but nonetheless, the seething fury and hilarious social insight of their songs serve as a more compelling argument for the existence of politicised rock music than anyone else since… well, ever, really.
Song titles like ‘Throwing Bricks At Trains’, ‘Chin Music’ and ‘The Hope That House Built’ may have tipped us off in advance that we’re dealing with a newly re-infuriated Future Of The Left here, and indeed, that proves to be the case. Over fiendishly orchestrated blasts of power trio lurch-metal, Falco proceeds to set out his current grievances and verbally beat the shit out of them, laying into everything from unscrupulous chain music venues (“without the young and the desperate / they won’t have anyone left”) to organised religion (“a justice of sorts if you listen to fools who dressed in the dark for a bet”). There’s more to Falkous though than just the rabid polemicist, and a songs like ‘Yin / Post Yin’ adopts a more oblique strategy, contrasting odd verses about dinosaurs going back to college with a baleful, rising chorus that seems to take umbrage with all the squandered potential of modernity, posing questions like “how far can you rise, on borrowed sellotape?”, with all the weight of a crushing Black Sabbath sermon. ‘You Need Satan More Than He Needs You’ meanwhile provides a grisly exclamation point mid-album, like an attempt by the band to separate the wheat from the chaff within their audience by pushing the boundaries of indie-rock good taste about as far as they can, as Kelson Mathias’ bull-seal distorted bass throbs with Melvins menace and Falkous explores the practical difficulties faced by the modern day Satanist – “what kind of orgy leaves, a sense of deeper love?” As searching, reflective and exasperated as it is plain angry/funny, ‘Travels With Myself And Another’ stands out as the work of songwriters unique in their field, and of the pre-eminent modern rock band who are capable of confronting the brain-aching failings of the contemporary world head on, rather than retreating back toward a weird dream of 1964 with added feedback.
Mp3> Arming Eritrea
1. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - 'Em Are I
The more I think about it, the more it seems that Jeffrey Lewis has been one of the few constants in my-individual-world-of-music over the past decade. Others have come and gone and fallen by the proverbial wayside, but, from 2001 when he was strumming through “East River” on the John Peel show, through to the present day, which sees him dealing with an annual touring schedule that would send Motorhead to their graves and the same kind of heartbreak and disillusionment that caused Alex Chilton to throw his toys out of the pram forever, and delivering the best album of his career thus far in the process. Yes, he’s a guy you can rely on alright – you’ve just got to have some trust.
From its odd name and cover art on down, ‘Em Are I’ is an album that initially seemed to be setting fans and casual observers up for a fall. Lacking the broad humour of Jeff’s previous records, and without an obvious OMFG-that’s-amazing Youtube-worthy hit to file alongside “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” or “Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song”, it leaves us lost for a moment, wondering how best to approach a consistent, ‘serious’ and fully realised Jeffrey Lewis record from start to finish. Of course, like all great humourists, the point of Lewis’ work is that it’s ALWAYS been completely serious, with even his most goofy songs rising from a well of confusion and anxiety, the depths of which are plainly acknowledged and explored throughout. What’s REALLY disorientating about ‘Em Are I’ is the extent to which it transcends its creator’s self-doubt by succeeding at every turn, ditching the apologetic lo-fi shambling that’s become Jeff’s calling card and allowing him and his band of collaborators to truly command the various styles they’re boldly marching into here with a justified degree of confidence – no self-deprecation or sideways glance injokes either required or delivered.
Opener “Slogans” is a great literate punk rock song that Richard Hell or The Clash might have recognised as a goer, although I doubt they could have made me grin like Jeff’s observations about “shoguns and Hulk Hogans / and cavemen shouting slogans / back and forth around the fire / now connected by a fire”. In fact, if there’s one thread connecting these disparate songs, it’s Jeffrey’s rambling, ingenious wordplay – always his strong suit, but here it frequently ventures beyond the realms of narrative storytelling into lengthy metaphysical digressions and philosophical conundrums. Shaky ground for any songwriter, but Jeff’s been working this shit out in front of audiences for so long, he’s able to tilt at the windmills of his thought processes with a showmanship that helps him sidestep the potential descent into navel-gazing wank, and instead to craft his own compelling and entertaining internal dramas, leading to conclusions that sound less like teeth-grinding hippie platitudes and more like, well… yeah man, I see where yr going with that one – that’s a real good way of looking at things – thanks dude!
Now if only his contention that “it’s hard to get too bored / when you pick the right two chords” could prove true of more finger-picking open mic botherers. It helps of course that Jeffrey’s acoustic numbers are now fleshed out into gorgeous psychedelic fantasias full of drifting textures, gambolling strings and singing saws, his two chords just sitting at the centre of what’s a real old-fashioned great sounding record. It’s also no secret that Jeffrey was going through a pretty unhappy time in his personal life when this album was being written/recorded, and, given the constant temptation to lapse into ugly self-pity that presents itself when grievances are aired in public in pop/folk songwriting, it is brave and commendable that he manages to entirely avoid the diary entry narcissism of some of his peers, instead channelling his misfortunes into terrific songs like “It’s Not Impossible” (“..as long as failure’s only 99%..”) and the self-explanatory “Broken, Broken Heart”, giving voice to his feelings with a rare good grace and sense of universal relevance that any number of male guitar-jockeys could stand to learn from.
My favourite song though, and perhaps the album’s real breakthrough, is “The Upside Down Cross”, which sounds so unlike anything you’d expect to hear on a Jeffrey Lewis album, and yet succeeds so completely, it is a beautiful and righteous thing indeed. Herein, Jack Lewis’ strange tale of a radical couple trying to rekindle their relationship through engagement in revolutionary struggles is spun out into a brooding, nine minute psyche-jazz epic, full of muted trumpet, fiery noise guitar, free-form piano and lock-step octopus drumming, like Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Theme De YoYo’ reinvented by a bunch of crazy Lower East Side beatniks – the kind of thing that shouldn’t work in a million years in other words, and yet it’s a fucking triumph. (In fact, I think I’ll make a point of shouting for it the next time I see them live. After all, Jeff must get sick of running through all those intricate solo acoustic songs night after night, and I’m sure they’d all enjoy an excuse to wig out on this one.) Similarly successful is the awkwardly titled closer “Mini Suite: Moocher From The Future”, which refashions Cab Calloway’s titular heroine into a time-travelling robot queen dispensing psychedelic wisdom and… well, you see what I mean: who the hell else is out there coming up with ideas for songs like that and actually making them really good, rather than just getting ignored or routinely punched?
And I think that’s where the joy of “Em Are I” lies really; almost every song here must have looked like a really bad idea on paper, rendered risky either by weird/icky/over-personal subject matter or by unlikely leaps of musical faith. But every single time, Jeff and his band-mates manage to take the risk, leap the chasm, save the day and keep the engine running, emerging with what’s simply an album of superb, uncategorisable, weird and moving songs, each capable of surprising and entertaining on each listen, of communicating handy truths and enriching the lives of listeners in some small but tangible fashion. A masterpiece, I guess you’d call it.
Mp3> The Upside Down Cross
(Phew, I don't know about you, but I'm bloody exhausted! Do you know I've published over 19,000 words on here in the past six (ok, seven) weeks? Sorry it took so long... I think I'm gonna take a week off.)
Monday, January 11, 2010
THE FIFTY BEST RECORDS OF 2009: Part #9
10. Vivian Girls - Everything Goes Wrong (In The Red)
From my review a couple of months back:
“The idea of self-defined, punk-birthed musicians paying tribute to the mechanised emotion of girl group pop is a fascinating one, and it won’t have escaped your notice that it’s become a pretty ubiquitous notion in pop culture over the past few years. Which is no bad thing, obviously – it’s easy and fun to tip a wink to the classics and vamp on some Spector-isms. But what sets the Vivian Girls apart, particularly on this LP, is that they approach this terrain with the spirit of total, deadly seriousness that’s necessary to give such angst-driven material life, recognising the Spector/Morton canon for the bloody heart of darkness it is, and responding in kind with an album that’s dead-eyed, blank-faced, introverted and drained of all the usual affectations and signifiers. It’s got its fingers in its ears, and it’s not listening, especially not to YOU. Tantrum music.
Like the classic NY girl group productions, ‘Everything Goes Wrong’ strikes me as an urban record – a barrier to block out the noise of the city, to create a safe space for internalised melodrama to thrive. This album is the sound of The Shangri-Las out on their own, beaten, rejected and building a wall; a wall the like of which those fucking producers couldn’t even imagine. Not an exotic, enticing wall to trap the listeners inside, but a razor-wire topped prison wall of senseless repetition and tinnitus-inducing distortion, compressed to fuck to keep the hurt inside and keep EVERYONE. ELSE. OUT. Just like some pissed off hardcore kid jamming a tape in his walkman circa 1985.”
Mp3> Can't Get Over You
9. Let's Wrestle - In The Court Of The Wrestling Let's (Stolen)
Opening track: “My friends are in prison / and that’s where I want to be / cos I hate everywhere / They said if you want to help / just kill yourself / but I won’t / I won’t do that”.
On this debut full length, the very real angst and depression that has always lurked at the heart of Let’s Wrestle, barely concealed beneath the scrappy, self-deprecating humour of their terrific series of singles and EPs, finally breaks out and makes itself known. Initially, that may seem an unsavoury development, for the scrappy, self-depreciating stuff was an absolute blast that left us with a handful of absolute classics of DIY pop carnage, whereas there’s certainly no shortage of white guitar bands moaning tiresomely about the sad state of their affairs. But thankfully, Let’s Wrestle’s process of development here is somewhat akin to when The Television Personalities moved beyond singing ‘Part-Time Punks’ and ‘Where’s Bill Grundy Now?’ and presumably surprised everyone still paying attention by knocking out the flat-out best run of masterpiece albums of the 1980s. Ok, so Let’s Wrestle haven’t got that far quite yet, but with Wesley Patrick Gonzalez’ substantial song-writing talent, his ability to put across a loveable, sympathetic loser persona to accompany his tales of woe, and the band’s ragged power trio drive and smirking underdog jollity, they’ve certainly thrown together a fucking brilliant record, one that speaks of the travails of going to the job centre, watching TV, getting dumped, buying a new mattress and, above all, not having a girlfriend, and leaves you feeling that you’ve just spent forty minutes in the company of some wise, witty and noble adventurers, rather than just three suburban misfits with self-esteem issues who like to shoplift lager from Sainsburys and daydream about one day being Dinosaur Jr. Musically, they’re bursting with ideas and ability, but one gets the feeling that, like Dan Treacy or the Swell Maps before them, they’re never going to sound *quite right*, no matter how much they work at it. They’re never going to qualify for whatever race it is guys in rock bands are supposed to be running. Awkwardness hangs over them like a weird cloud, and, to a substantial extent, that’s what makes me love them, what makes me recognise them as MY PEOPLE, pulling out all the negative and pathetic aspects of my own character and parading them around in front of me in the form of goofy, hilarious rock songs that would probably still sound like they were held together with sellotape and twigs if Sony signed ‘em and let ‘em have a year of studio time. And amen to that – I hope they keep doing it forever.
Mp3> It's Not Going To Happen
8. The Cave Weddings - EP (self-released)
So regular readers will have got that I love The Cave Weddings by now. For those who haven’t, here’s some blather to prove it:
“Boy do I love The Cave Weddings! They really are just awesome piled upon awesome. Since these songs have been in my possession, I’ve listened to nothing else. I suppose grumblers and those of an anxious disposition may be apt to claim that bands like The Cave Weddings sound contrived and generic, that they’re just writing catchy pop songs to a formula, reducing lyrical/emotional signposts of unrequited (boo!) vs requited (yay!) love to a near abstract gesture. Well claim away dudes; that’s what Buddy Holly and The Ramones were doing, and when the formula is turning out a 100% hit rate to rival Buddy Holly and The Ramones, criticism is futile. These songs are SO GOOD.
How do they get it so right? Just a gallophing great rhythm guitar, a twangy, catchy lead line, some simple, enthusiastic drumming, a real likable wasn’t-made-for-singing voice straining to hit the right notes, some ba-ba-bas, tried & tested melodies of elephant-killing power…. it ain’t rocket science. But when all the elements are in alignment, when the band sound so damn happy to be here… you can’t beat it.”
If you can accept that rock n’ roll doesn’t always have to be about noise and terror and teenage frustration, but can just be happy and cool, then these five songs are perfect rock n’ roll.
Mp3> Let's Drive
7. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - s/t (Fortuna Pop)
I first heard this one in, like, December ’08, but it was officially released in Feb ’09, and I got far too excited about it in May ’09:
“Needless to say, it was during one of my periodic retreats to the Welsh hills that the tables turned, when I downloaded a leak of The Pains album on a whim and stuck in my earphones to go for a nice long walk. BOY, is it an album. Outside the city, far from any music scene backbiting, my above reservations started to seem like the petty, snidey, insular bitching they undoubtedly are. Fuck ‘indie-pop’; what I was listening to as I barrelled down Welsh country lanes was rock n’ roll the way the Velvets rewired it forty years ago: the drummer plays simple stuff real enthusiastic, the organist holds down big, single chords and lets them ring, the bass doubles back on itself in sweet melodic patterns, and the guitars go FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF, covering everything like a happy rainstorm. The recording is huge, with everything amped up, filed down and maximised to digital-age, killer proportions, the chord changes are lovely, the songs are heartfelt and the lyrics are memorable and smart. What’s not to love?
My friend and I spoke briefly to the guy from The Pains at one of their gigs, and he seems like a really sweet, modest sort of fellow. I’m sure his band didn’t MEAN to make a Battle-Album. I think they’re just careful, ambitious, and very good at what they do. But nonetheless, they have made a Battle-Album. In one fell swoop, they manage to out-twee the neo-indiepoppers, to out-Superchunk the neo-indie rockers, and even to out-‘Gaze the neo-shoegazers on the longer tracks, with their motorik rhythmic drive and luxurious layered distortion. Within their designated sphere, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are kings of the castle. If you’re into any of this kinda stuff, they are henceforth the band to beat.”
Mp3> Come Saturday
6. The Mountain Goats - The Life Of The World To Come (4AD)
Trying to find a concise quote from my review of this album was hard work – it’s a pretty…um… ‘one paragraph following directly into the next one’ type piece full of digressional pontification, although it’s probably one of the better things I’ve written this year. And I know I’m always a dreadful bore on the subject of The Mountain Goats, but I really think this is one of the most beautiful collections of songs released in recent years, regardless of your thoughts on their previous work. It’s also one of, I think, only three introspective, acoustic songwriter type records in this top 50. Maybe I’m cheering up in my old age. Anyway, here are a few bits from the review that kinda get to the heart of the matter:
“The album’s true heart lays somewhere else entirely, in the sparse, ringing piano chords that underscore John’s voice on ‘Genesis 30:3’, one of the simplest and most beautiful devotional songs Darnielle has ever written. When I say ‘devotional’, I’m not sure whether the song expresses devotion to a lover or to a God, but to be honest it scarcely matters. As with several of the best songs on the record, Darnielle intentionally blurs the distinction between earthy and metaphysical faith, and in the process succeeds wonderfully in rising above the knuckleheaded bickering and terminal point-missing that blights 99% of contemporary discourse on religion, instead cutting straight to essential core of belief. In these songs, he speaks of the reality of feeling something within you that stretches beyond yourself, of the overriding sense of faith in the beauty of the world, and of a sense of purpose and an unwavering certainty that can be clung to throughout the very worst of times, whether it manifests itself as devotion to a church, as a gnostic ‘spark of the divine’, or simply as time spent in the arms of your beloved, or with an equally beloved family – for what, after all, is the difference?
Darnielle’s success here comes in the way he approaches his subject matter not as a dogmatic Xtian, but as the kind of flawed, spiritually bereft post-industrial human that modernist novels always used to warn us about, picking up the lessons of the scriptures for the first time and finding them more relevant to his own being than he ever suspected. As the chaotic, self-doubting protagonist of ‘Romans 10:9’ confirms for us in a rousing chorus adapted straight from the text:
‘If you can believe in your heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be
Saved one day’
And if we can put aside our kneejerk secular distaste for such phraseology and take that at face value, is it not a pretty fucking righteous note on which to start the day?”
Mp3> Genesis 30:3
Thursday, January 07, 2010
THE FIFTY BEST RECORDS OF 2009: Part #8
(Well so much for the Jan 4th deadline - sorry folks!)
15. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post-Pavilion (Domino)
Well, you knew it was coming at some point, right? Sigh away. Funny, I remember listening to ‘Merriweather’ for the first time almost exactly a year ago, and not being overly impressed. I guess the thing was, every previous Animal Collective album hit like a wonderful slap in the face, a completely unexpected handbrake turn that took the band to the – ahem - ‘next level’ via a path nobody could have anticipated, from the naïve stumble-folk of ‘Sung Tongs’ to the bizarro world psychedelic rock of ‘Feels’ to the sickly, ultra-condensed pop smash-up of ‘Strawberry Jam’. ‘Merriweather’ by contrast offered no sudden surprises – it sounded more than anything like Animal Collective’s first ever collection of generic, Animal Collective-type music, and as such it was a bit disappointing. I was also annoyed that everyone on the interweb seemed to be immediately hailing it as thee greatest triumph since ever, and writing stuff like “after the disjointed mess of ‘Strawberry Jam’…” – hang about, I thought last year you were saying ‘Strawberry Jam’ was thee greatest triumph since yadda yadda? – I still think that album’s great, and I smell a rat. Anyway, having got all that out of my system, I preceded to give ‘Merriweather..’ a bit more time, listening to it blaring on headphones in the winter air rather than at polite volume on my computer speakers, and yes, all those interweb voices were right = it’s pretty bloody fantastic. One of my defining memories of 2009 was walking in circles around the gleaming, hyperreal departure lounge at Heathrow airport at 8am, listening to ‘In The Flowers’ and ‘My Girls’ and ‘Summertime Clothes’ over and over again, and then getting off the plane in Venice a few hours later, and doing the same. I highly recommend making a brief, drunken visit to a beautiful European city halfway through January by the way – it’s a fantastic and slightly surreal way to fight back against the onset of several months of uninterrupted real-fucking-world horror that the new year inevitably brings, and I wish I was doing it again this year. But, er, anyway, yeah – Animal Collective. Boy, they really pulled their finger out songwriting-wise on this one, huh? In addition to the aforementioned future sounds-of-the-‘00s staples, which you probably don’t need to be told about again, ‘Bluish’ and ‘Guy’s Eyes’ are two of the most world-collapsingly beautiful, unconventional love songs I’ve heard this year – a perfect sublimation of everything Animal Collective do at their best, using new techniques and technology to create a whole new kind of psychedelia, so overpoweringly blissful it (temporarily at least) knocks all my coveted guitar FX mangling sludge outta the water. Really something else. On the down-side, this album (like this paragraph) is unavoidably cursed by being TOO LONG. At the risk of sounding like a big-dumb-head philistine, most of the songs here go on a for a good minute or two longer than they need to, and personally I coulda done without ‘Brothersport’ and ‘Lion In A Coma’ entirely – both of them I find kinda irritating (a frequent AC pitfall), and they seem to push the group uncomfortably close to faux-world music jammin’ hippie self-parody, which is bad for them and bad for us. So despite containing and soundtracking some of the awesomest moments of the year, ready to knock our children’s socks off when they rediscover the Greatest Hits, I’m afraid it’s number 15 for you boyo.
14. Nothing People – Late Night (S-S)
Appropriately enough perhaps, I know nothing about Nothing People – who they are, where they come from, what they’re about – and I’ve never even thought to do a web search on ‘em until now, looking for a scan of the artwork. But I do know the sound of this LP has won me over, leading to many, many, many repeat spins that have served to give a whole new, more enjoyable atmosphere to things as I doss about my room after work or prepare to go to bed. Nothing People are very much a psychedelic rock band, but one that exists outside of any of the musical conventions or clichés such a label would seem to imply, drawing more from the rustbelt other-ness of Midwestern home recorders like Jim Shepard and Mike Rep, and the sinister, druggy bedtime rock that used to exist around the less comfortable peripheries of what ended up being stamped forever as ‘shoegaze’ in the early ‘90s. Nothing People’s songs move slow and simple, like a motorik juggernaut reduced to ‘stalking speed’, and they convey an appreciation of soothing, subterranean rock repetition that few since Spacemen 3 have been able to put into action. These songs seem to seethe their way into existence like the hiss from a leaking gas main, earthed upon grinding, phoneline fuzz and punched into the foreground by crisp, heavy tremolo and repeat echo, left swaying in the gaping void between beats. Somewhere, someone is filming a scene for a Gregg Araki rip-off movie in which two emaciated, greasy-haired teens feed each other tabs of acid and crawl all over each other in a gauze-heavy, regally furnished slacker pad bedroom…. and it will go on and on, and this album is the soundtrack. The scene will have no particular point or artistic merit, but it will be AWESOME, and critics will be leaving the screening preparing to slate it, but still secretly groovin’ on that never-ending guitar hook from ‘It’s Not Your Speakers’ and wishing they were in it.
Mp3> It's Not Your Speakers
13. Dum Dum Girls –12” EP (Captured Tracks)
It may have been a hipster-bait 7”s worth of material needlessly bumped up to 12” to clean up on the collector’s market, and still sounding like a shit pressing, but my copy of the Dum Dum Girls EP will still be one I’ll be waving around in years to come, pathetically proclaiming “I was there!” when the subject of this era’s music comes up. Guess I took the bait. If anything, the four songs herein have grown to sound even BETTER than they did when Dum Dum Girls first entered my consciousness circa March ’09. ‘Catholicked’ and ‘Yours Alone’ are strong enough songs to withstand any whirligigs of hype and backlash and hypelash and pick up bands and record deals and world tours, and god, how I love the roar of those over-saturated garageband guitars when you turn them up loud enough to hurt. But it’s ‘Hey Sis’ that really cements DeeDee Dum Dum Girl as a truly inspired assembler of sound, single-handedly rehabilitating the drum machine as an aide to chaos, and those great, interlocking sheets of pure distortion, and that brilliant shift in melody on the chorus – as perfect a marriage of pop and noise as I’ve ever heard. I’m looking forward to the album and seeing Dum Dum Girls (now with genuine plural) play live this year more than is probably healthy, but whatever happens next, I think I could happily keep on listening to this EP forever. For the moment though, back to searching Hype Machine for a rip of that brilliant cover of ‘Play With Fire’ she put up on Myspace…
Mp3> Hey Sis
12. Gris Gris – Live at the Creamery (Birdman)
Things seem to work strangely in the world of Greg Ashley. This album, recorded in California in 2008, was supposed to commemorate the last ever show from his band The Gris Gris, although it seems they’ve quietly been back in action in ‘09, even if new material or a new Ashley solo record is apparently not forthcoming. Anyway, looking at the line-up for this one – just Greg on vocals and guitar backed up by organ, bass and drums – I figured it might be a rather sedate affair. Those familiar with Gris Gris’ killer rep as a fearsome live act will have known better of course, and verily, this live album is an absolute monster. On stage it turns out, Gris Gris are a flailing beast full of derelict, unwholesome chaos, sounding rather like that perfect Syd-era Pink Floyd bootleg that you’ve always dreamt about hearing, only with all the Brit-psyche tweeness thrown out in favour of a brooding, baroque death-rock ambience more becoming to the deep south feel of the band’s name and background. On their studio albums, things are rather more mannered - in a cool, multi-layered epic psych kinda way - but here we get to listen to the four piece band doing their best to recreate this studio sprawl on the fly, with restraint taking a backseat, as already pretty unnerving, funeral marches of songs like “Skin Mass Cat” and “Big Engine Nazi Kid Daydream” spin themselves out into startling passages of unhinged improv, with shrieking feedback and lunatic shred-guitar crescendos crashing to their doom amid dissonant, stabbing organ notes, while the bassist starts blurting on a clarinet and the drummer pounds out the marching step of an invading army. Holy Shit. Then Ashley is back at the mic, declaiming in ‘Satanic preacher’ mode through some kind of phoneline distortion, his voice sounding rougher and more accusatory than ever; “save your kids / cut their wrists / before they die inside machines”. Set the controls for the heart of the swamp, anyone?
Mp3> Ecks Em Eye
11. Mika Miko – We Be XUXA (Post Present Medium)
MIKA MIKO ARE FUCKING RAD – that’s the truth of the matter, and what future custodians of truth will have to say on the subject of what constitutes ‘rad’. Or rather, “Mika Miko were fucking rad”, for unfortunately it seems they’ve disbanded in the past few months, which is a drag and a half. I’m glad that I finally got to see them play earlier in ’09 though, when they were still very much concerned with being fucking rad in the present tense and turned in perhaps the most exhilarating and fucking raddest set I saw all year. I sorta wish I could’ve seen ‘em with a more comfortable audience of small town punks rather than obnoxious urban trendies, so I could’ve done some jumping up and down, but then if that was my concern I shouldn’t bloody live in London should I? Anyway, ‘We Be XUXA’ is their second full length, and for my money the best thing they’ve ever done. You can probably guess my two word summation already, so let’s get a bit more detailed. ‘XUXA’ sees MM moving away from the post-punk skeleton of their previous work, restricting the syncopated dancefloor stuff to a couple of choice cuts and instead moving into the arena of fantastic, full bore punk rock, taking their early LA hardcore template (think Plugz, Dils, Urinals etc) and stripping it of all the bilious masculinity and grunt, instead aiming at the feet and trying to get the party started, with supremely righteous results – music for striding down the street, feeling like you’re full of energy and on your way to do something really cool. Unfortunately, Mika Miko’s love of ‘80s punk seems to have extended to giving ‘XUXA’ a really muddy, undifferentiated mix that may have harmed the album’s chances in some people’s end-of-year polls, but man, forget that – we’ve got mp3 players and things now precisely so we can turn a record like this up loud and appreciate the many, many things that are to be loved within it. Michelle Suarez’ no-bullshit guitar is a joy throughout, the rhythms are fierce, and Jenna Thornhill and Jennifer Clavins’ vocal tag team in rare form, with loads of great, funny lyrics being thrown back and forth – plus the cemetery photo shoot artwork looks absolutely beautiful on my vinyl copy, probably one my fave covers of the year, and oh, the giant fold-out insert is a joy too! I even enjoyed the totally gratuitous ‘Turkey Sandwich’ remix that closes the album. I seem to recall most reviewers singled out ‘Turkey Sandwich’ as being entirely concerned with turkey sandwiches, but in retrospect the song seems to signal the band’s demise about as clearly as it possibly could; “Jenna I’ll miss you when you go / but don’t think that I don’t know / we’re going in different directions” – such a sentiment could easily get lost in the music’s contagious enthusiasm, but nonetheless: sadface.
Mp3> Blues Not Speed
Monday, January 04, 2010
Rowland S. Howard, 1959-2009
It sure is sad that Roland S. Howard didn’t make it through to the new decade, and it sure is sad that I’ve had to interrupt my chart run-down for a second time to bid farewell to an innovative guitarist.
This will be a short and somewhat disingenuous eulogy, simply because to be honest I’ve never found the time to check out any of the stuff Howard has done since his Birthday Party days, excepting some tracks with Lydia Lunch and a pretty good collaboration with Nikki Sudden. Damn, it’s depressing that they’re both dead now (Rowland and Nikki I mean, not Lydia). I mean, they looked dead when they were making the album, but that was just their style, I don’t think they meant it.
Anyway – The Birthday Party – briefly and frenziedly adopted as my favourite ever band aged nineteen-ish, and Rowland with his mentalist feedback, pre-stabbing alley creep and literal guitar-bludgeoning was always my favourite within their ranks – the key fright-wrangler in this all-time scariest of scary rock n’ roll bands.
Why I never followed him through to Crime & The City Solution I’ll never know – for a while in the pre-internet era I was avidly seeking their records without much luck, but then I just kinda lost interest I guess. Maybe I should make amends and give ‘em a whirl, sometime later when it seems less ghoulish.
I suppose it could equally have been the lurching, unheimlich rhythms or Cave’s slobbering histrionics that did it, but I’d like to think it was Rowland’s destructive racket that caused by brother to knock on my bedroom door and ask me to turn off ‘Hamlet Pow Pow Pow’ because it was upsetting him – a singular achievement. Also, check out earlier track ‘The Friend Catcher’ for a definitive demonstration of Evil Guitar, ripped to perfection, sounding like a spirit rising from the grave.
The Birthday Party – Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow)
The Birthday Party – The Friend Catcher
Saturday, January 02, 2010
THE FIFTY BEST RECORDS OF 2009: Part #7
20. Blues Control - Local Flavor(Siltbreeze)
Somehow, I’ve managed to miss all of Blues Control’s previous work, but I’ll certainly be making an effort to catch up, because ‘Local Flavor’ is an admirable piece of work. Like most of the other albums in this run-down that are of the vague psyche/drone/space-rock variety, Blues Control benefit hugely here from taking musical forms that are usually experienced as huge, meandering splurges of sound and crafting them from the bottom up into far more concise, deliberate statements that cram maximum inspiration and effect into a thirty-five minute LP, leaving us wanting more. ‘Local Flavor’ begins precisely as you WOULDN’T expect a record like this to begin, with a crashing kick drum and a monumental stoner-metal guitar riff, pounding itself into the ground until the rock pleasure principle subsides and you start to realise that the track has been overlaid with several layers of crackling piano improvisation that sound like they’ve been pulled off an old 78, underlining the essentially droning, repetitive qualities of the rock thud to extremely pleasing effect… and then the trumpets come in – splendid. Each subsequent track lands us somewhere completely different, but the quality is consistent throughout. It should be noted that the trendy appropriations of world music ‘ambience’ that both the album’s cover art and title may lead you to expect are reassuringly absent from the music. Instead, both of ‘Local Flavor’s longer tracks choose to tip their hat toward the much-rumoured but rarely realised drone-psych / dance-disco crossover; ‘Tangier’ adds a throbbing pulse that sounds like it was sampled from directly outside a nightclub to a beautiful, Steve Reich-esque cut-up of vocal sounds overlaid with house-style synths and percussion overdubs, recalling one of those mammoth Arthur Russell disco jams in the best possible way. ‘On Through the Night’, the album’s longest and darkest track, meanwhile builds itself up from an ambient first half into a frenzy of dense, tar pit funk, with crisp electric organ finding itself subsumed into a slow-building cloud of degraded, primeval skree, ghostly bamboo echos and Carpenter-core electronics. In short, an utterly beguiling world of self-contained sound, building on the ruins of its avant garde and avant pop influences to create a real winner.
Mp3> Good Morning
19. Felix – You Are The One I Pick(Kranky)
Another record that I love, but that is proving hard to write about. So let’s take a deep breath and get on with it: Felix is Lucinda Chua writing and singing and playing piano and cello, and Chris Summerlin pitching in with guitar and arrangements and so forth. The songs here are both abstract and imagistic and deeply personal, each one bleeding seamlessly into the next, and comprised of odd, off-kilter combinations of musical refrains, the logic of which is apparent to Chua alone, generally set to sweet, slow, lurching accompaniment that evokes the feeling of dancing drunk on a freezing, rocky beach at night as surely as any medley from the Dirty Three back catalogue. Chau’s lyrics mix dream logic animal imagery (dragons, ponies, weasels all make an appearance) with vicious glimpses of everyday 21st century minutiae and industrial strength discontent, rapture and uncertainty… and the result is pretty stunning – pure musical poetry, like that girl from Life Without Buildings sitting down alone at the piano and letting it all hang out… but no, that’s a shit comparison, fuck it. You know those albums or books you get sometimes that seem just so idiosyncratic and personal that they’re like a guided tour of the inside of the author’s head at the point of composition, yet rendered with such skill that the result isn’t so much creepy or self-indulgent as it is just plain moving and intoxicating? – this album is a bit like one of those, let’s leave it at that.
Mp3> Waltzing For Weasels
18. Favours For Sailors – Furious Sons(Tough Love)
Like some weird, preppy indie-rock butterfly, Favours For Sailors seemed to crash fully formed into the world toward the end of last year, shone with a very particular kind of brilliance and apparently played their final gig a couple of months back, leaving just these six songs, each of them such a tour de force of perfection within their chosen genre, you wonder why Pavement or Superchunk would even bother reforming when instead they could just hire a hall, play these songs on repeat and hang their heads, admitting there is no more work for them to do on this earth. Ok, maybe I exaggerate… but nonetheless, a couple of these songs are so damn spectacular that their very existence seems arrogant – musical to-do lists with every single item happily crossed out. What was it I said about ‘em way back when? Oh yeah:
‘‘Furious Sons’ is a brief set of songs custom built to remind us that a good band who know how to play their guitar/guitar/bass/drums, who have big, bright, clean production, vaguely literate/ambiguous lyrics and fully developed multi-part songs that venture beyond the four minute mark, can still be SO MUCH FUN when they hit the bullseye and do all that stuff RIGHT for once, with energy and humour and the kind of off-the-cuff musical prowess that makes crappy wouldbe musicians like myself curse their sorry lot in life. “Erode My Empire” makes for a great opening track – I love the way the lead guitar hooks splurge all over the melodica-assisted verse-chug, and it’s hard not to crack a smile at the lyrical conceit; “empires erode / from the coastline in / soon I’ll be stuck in a square metre in the middle / probably in Nottingham”. […]The best song though is track # 4, “I Dreamt That You Loved Me In Your Dreams”. It’s STUNNING. An indie-rock ‘Citizen Kane’ in three minutes fifty-nine seconds. And, like ‘Kane’, it both demands a blow by blow written account and supersedes the need for one in its clarity of its intention and expression. It builds moment of awesomeness upon moment of awesomeness like a big, top heavy layer cake for anyone who’s ever enjoyed lively, smart sad-boy indie rock, until it collapses in on itself at just the right moment – instant classic.”
I’ll stand by that.
Mp3> I Dreamt That You Loved Me In Your Dreams
17. The Bats – The Guilty Office(Hidden Agenda)
It’s no secret that I’ve been all about The Bats ever since I saw them play over the summer, doing a set that drew heavily from this album – perhaps that’s got something to do with why I like it just as much if not more than any of the older stuff I’ve got by them – they’re a band who started off strong in the ‘80s and have subsequently just taken it steadily, slowly maturing to a state of ninja-like mastery in the field of low-key, melodic guitar pop. It’s strange that I’ve always sorta clung to the belief that great rock n’ roll is on some level a desperate, unnatural sound – not just electrified and distorted, but a sound that is pushing against something – the sound of people striving to bring it into being in the face of insurmountable personal/technological/physical/social obstacles. Well, The Bats help chuck that theory out the window by vestige of sounding so completely organic, so inevitable and RIGHT that when Robert Scott and Kaye Woodward’s voices meld together on the chorus of opener ‘Countersign’, it sounds like music that could have risen straight from the earth itself, and it continues to drift over the fields at night and off into the starry sky over the course of these twelve tunes, never hitting a bum note, an awkward lyric, a strumming pattern or rhythm or melody that’s anything less than totally, lazily, wonderfully harmonious, to the extent that it’s difficult to believe they ever pick up their respective instruments and DON’T sound like this – an impression that’s only heightened by the welcome return of Alastair Galbraith’s violin on a few of these songs. I guess they’re too modest to make an issue of it, but while other bands have been busy crashing and burning and getting famous and getting fucked up, The Bats have been busy just quietly being one of the best guitar bands in the world, period.
16. Dinosaur Jr - Farm(Fat Possum)
It is a truth widely acknowledged that the only good things to have come out of the recent mania for nostalgia-fed band reformations are a reinvigorated Mission of Burma, and the totally unforeseen rebirth of Dinosaur Jr as a creative force. And just when folks were getting ready to write their first comeback off as a fluke, they’re off again, thundering onto the track with a monster-truck of an album that’s probably, like, the second or third best one they’ve ever done, once again amping up their time-honoured classic rock + angst + noise formula to deafening perfection. As they get older, there seems to be more Crazy Horse gnarl than ever in the mix, and ‘Plans’ rips off the intro to ‘Cortez The Killer’ so flagrantly, it’s a wonder Neil Young hasn’t been in touch to do whatever it is he likes to do to copyright violators to teach them the error of their ways (he probably makes them do a really hard crossword or something). Or maybe he let them off, just cos the track’s freakin’ great. It’s funny: Murph’s drumming is as functional as ever and you’d be hard-pressed to pick out Lou’s bass line beneath Mascis’s peanut brittle of multi-layered fuzz on most of these songs, so one is forced to ask: what is it about these three guys playing together that gets J writing songs and playing guitar with a desperate, youthful spirit he’s been missing for nigh on twenty years? Is he just knocking out Dinosaur-type material to order, or does he still feel the adolescent loneliness and frustration of these songs as keenly as his yearning yowls and impassioned, stumble-fingered soloing would tend to suggest? Really though, does it matter, when what results is such an overpowering vision of heroic, big budget modern rock, the way it could and should be, if only all those other festival headlining clowns would cut out all the bullshit, up the intensity and actually mic those giant show-off amp stacks up properly for once? Play loud.
Mp3 > Pieces
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