My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Five

Standard

#10:  Swans – To Be Kind

80s No Wave heroes Swans have been reunited for three albums now and remain the best reason for old bands to get back together.  Each reunion album has been an exercise in brilliance and this third album tops them all.  Running well over two hours, it is a collection of intense moments and whispering interludes that redefines the term “heavy”.  It’s a work of musical minimalism, but you don’t realize it at first because the instrumental tones and the noise work are denser than lead.  This is music that crushes you, and not in a nice way.  It’s suffocating, oppressive construction, an orchestra of doom bent on eradicating all light from the universe.  The usual Michael Gira guideposts aid in this:  the ultra-repetitive rhythms, found sound, concrete tones.  It’s deliberately made to invoke the idea that the world has fallen and it’s not going to get back up again.  In this it succeeds without question.  For those listeners that want music to be the light, frothy soundtrack to their consumerist-driven lives, the playlists at Old Navy will get you going.  For those who want their music to reflect the dark truths lurking in the human soul – look no further.

#09:  The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

So it’s beer commercial lead guitar rock.  Who cares, Kozelek, you cranky old fuck?  The War On Drugs pull it off with such style you’d think they had been doing it since birth.  Before Lost In The Dream the Philadelphia band was best known as being Kurt Vile’s old band, the one he’d played guitar in before he went solo and became a critical darling.  With this album the band came into its own, mixing together working class classic rock with haunted, reverb-laden indie noise.  A lot of big names get thrown around with regards to the album – Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan – and while these are all quite apt, the band that I find closest to the sort of sound found here is Red Rider.  It’s blue-collar AOR filtered through a loving layer of Sonic Youth and the Cure, the perfect marriage of Boomers and their early Xer children.

#08:  St. Vincent – St. Vincent

To get an understanding as to how Annie Clark’s 2014 went, just look at the cover of her self-titled fifth album.  She sits upon a throne, her expression haughty and noble, the very picture of supreme confidence in herself and her rule.  At this very moment she is the Queen of the Indie World, and it’s because of the polish and poise she brings to St. Vincent.  She’s always been half art-rock, half pop, but her recent collaboration with Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne seems to have accentuated both sides of the equation.  These are pop songs delivered with skewed aplomb, studded with venom and anchored by Ms. Clark’s bold guitar work.  Everything she touches turns to gold here:  her rock songs conquer everything in their path (especially the singles, “Digital Witness” and “Birth In Reverse”) and her ballads both reach quivering emotional resonation (“Prince Johnny”) and crawling discomfort (“Severed Crossed Fingers”).  She was also responsible for my absolute favourite moment on television in 2014 – her appearance on SNL.  It was all robotic movements, strobe lights, and confidently smooth guitar, and it drove the mouthbreathers nuts.

#07:  Milo – A Toothpaste Suburb

Milo has pumped out a great deal of material, both on his own and with his Hellfyre Club collective, but A Toothpaste Suburb is his first proper album and it lands with amazing force.  His beats have always been choppy and a bit off-kilter – he once sliced up Baths’ Cerulean for beats, after all – but here his work manages to be both glitchy and head-nodding, a combination that maybe shouldn’t work but somehow does.  It’s the perfect frame for his surreal lyricism, a heady mixture of nerd-culture references and real-world emotional toil, like if my friend Steve was a rapper from Wisconsin.  He may in fact be a “rap messiah agitator / chronic bathroom masturbator” but it’s really only half the story.  Sure there’s toilet humour and goofy moments, but the album abounds with references to great literature, meta-poet wordplay, and Milo’s friend Rob, who died too soon and left Milo thinking about death more than might be healthy.  It’s a stellar debut and one that points the way forward for his Hellfyre mates.

#06:  How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”

There’s no easy way to say this:  Tom Krell can sing like a motherfucker.  He’s also a PhD candidate in philosophy, and it’s the contrast between these two parts of his life that bring to life his How To Dress Well project.  His music has always been artsier than your average R&B setup – Pitchfork compared his 2010 debut, Love Remains, to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops – and it’s been concerned with getting into your soul on its own terms.  This is pop without concern for popularity, glacial R&B songs that ooze emotion without resorting to the typical hip-hop-lite that the genre reaches for when it wants to his the Billboard charts.  These are tense, brittle, often pitch-shifted tracks that sound as though they are matted with tears.  Heartbreak, misery.  Soaring vocal work and a need to reaffirm a childhood faith in love.  This is R&B for hipsters, true, but it has a universalist sense of love and loss that reaches out to everyone, beard and PBR or not.

#05:  Sun Kil Moon – Benji

On one hand, long-time folk-rocker Mark Kozelek had a banner musical year in 2014.  After reaching the peak of his Neil Young meets Andre Segovia powers with Admiral Fell Promises, he went in the opposite direction, toning down the guitar work and opening up his oblique lyrics into much more personal, confessional songs.  Benji is the height of this movement; these are less songs than they are conversations had by candlelight over the low rumble of fingerpicked guitars.  It’s never been clearer that Kozelek is getting older, based on these songs.  In the very first song his cousin dies after an aerosol can explodes in the garbage – a freak accident that is echoed later in the album when he explains how his uncle died in the exact same way.  He uses this as an opportunity to ruminate on seeing family and noting how time marches on even when you don’t see people every day.  It sets a pattern that defines the album as an examination of mortality and the way time keeps going, asleep and awake.  After all of that, though, it ends on a wistful note, with a story that’s essentially about how he’s friends with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie/The Postal Service.  It’s a triumph for a man whose discography is littered with quiet, under-the-radar triumphs.

On the other hand, of course, 2014 also revealed Kozelek as a boor and a bully, a cantankerous old jackass who can’t let a perceived slight go and who thinks that telling another band (The War On Drugs) to “suck my cock” in song form is a great way of conveying your annoyance.  This was less of a triumph, to be polite.

#04:  Aphex Twin – Syro

2014 was in a way a year of long-buried artists coming roaring back with very little warning.  It started on the deepweb.  An album cover and tracklisting were uncovered for what appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a new Aphex Twin album – stunning, considering the man had largely dropped off of the face of the earth following 2001’s Drukqs.  Then the same information appeared on the Warp Records page, and it was on.  With shocking suddenness the album arrived, and it sounded as though the thirteen years between Drukqs and Syro didn’t happen.  Syro is unmistakably an Aphex Twin album.  Every sound layered on here springs naturally from the sort of things we’ve come to expect from Richard D James over the course of his career – every drum line, every synth run, every twist of the knob sounds logically consistent with his musical M.O.  There is nothing that comes out of left-field here, and there is nothing quite as crossover-pop as “Windowlicker” or “Girl/Boy Song”.  Instead, it’s a beginning to end statement of purpose, a reminder of everything that made his work in “home listening techno” great.  He promises that he hasn’t been slacking for his thirteen mostly-missing years – he has scads of recorded material, and will be releasing another 17 tracks quite shortly.

#03:  Liars – Mess

Liars came into the world as dance-punk anarcho-artists, a trio of transplanted L.A. art students who fell into the New York post-punk revival with deep comfort.  After, they blew through witch-haunted noise concepts, bunker-recorded drum music, straightforward rock revival, and edgy industrial noise-pop without even breaking a sweat.  They are famous for not putting out the same kind of album twice, but in many ways Mess feels like the band has finally come full circle.  This is, at its heart, a punky dance pop album, a mix of industrial soundscapes over club-worthy beats and topped off with a vocal sensibility that would not honestly sound out of place on a classic Marilyn Manson album.  It’s fun, confident, and cathartic, pretty much the opposite of their previous album WIXIW.  Where WIXIW seemed like bedroom pop done by a laptop producer (Dntel, let’s say), Mess sounds like arena EDM, big gestures from big producers meant to make the crowd go wild.  That said, it’s arena EDM done by Liars, which means its subversive, dark, twisted, and faintly perverted.  They’re songs that could be slipped into a DJ set, but they would make the crowd pause in the midst of their MDMA-fuelled flailings.

#02:  Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else

Cleveland punk rocker Dylan Baldi has kept very busy over the last several years trying to erase the pop part of his pop-punk past.  Even his last album, 2012’s Attack On Memory, turned out in the end to be too pop, despite the presence of Steve Albini as the producer.  Anyone who listened to Attack On Memory – and there were lots – would say that, for the most part, it was scorched-earth firebreathing punk rock that leapt out of the speakers and grabbed you by the collar.  Yet, looking back on it, there are poppy moments aplenty on it:  the screamed refrain of “Wasted Days”, the assured hook of “Stay Useless”, the nearly radio-ready bounce of “Fall In”.  Here And Nowhere Else scours most of these pop influences off of the tracks, leaving churning punk songs that hit with heavy fists.  Yet Baldi can’t help but craft a great melody, despite trying to bury them in layers of grime.  “I’m Not Part Of Me”, the last and best song on the album, is the biggest earworm Baldi has been able to come up with yet, and coming as it does at the end of seven other nearly-buried moments of melodic genius gives it all the more impact.  It ups the ante on Attack On Memory exponentially, managing to carve up chaotic incendiary punk rock into chunks that are easy to swallow without losing any of their spicy edge.

#01:  D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah

I don’t normally wait this long to put together my list of favourites for a given year.  Usually I stop gathering new music in during the first week of December, because in the past I’ve found that no one released anything worthwhile over the holiday season.  You would think that after 2013 found Beyonce dropping a stellar album with no warning at the end of December I would have learned my lesson, but I nearly stopped again for 2014.  As it turned out, history repeated itself, only in a much greater fashion.

The last time anyone heard from D’Angelo in full album form was 2001, and it was the R&B classic VoodooVoodoo was a funk-soul masterpiece, the highwater mark of modern R&B.  After, however, he largely dropped off the earth.  He was uncomfortable with his status as a sex symbol overshadowing his music, a close friend committed suicide, and he developed a growing problem with alcohol.  For a while, it seemed apparent that, aside from the odd guest appearance, his career had been derailed for good.  Then the rumours began.  D’Angelo was back in the studio.  He’d been rumoured to be in the studio since around 2007, but by 2011 people in the know were saying that the album was nearly done.  By 2012 he was back on stage.  Then, on December 15th, Black Messiah arrived.  Like Beyonce’s album, there was no fanfare, no press releases, no warning that this was coming.

Originally it was slated to have been released in 2015.  It was pushed up, though, because the vibe on the album is, as the title suggests, one of race, revolution, and spirituality.  After Ferguson, and the Eric Garner decision, the album’s release was sped up.  Normally this would signal problems with the album, but Black Messiah is very much a finished album.  It’s as far removed from Voodoo, however, as you can imagine.  Voodoo was marked by minimalist production designed to put the focus on D’Angelo’s voice.  Black Messiah, on the other hand, is experimental retro-soul, as much a product of his backing band The Vanguard as it is of D’Angelo.  The two albums that are close guideposts for Black Messiah are Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.  Both albums harken back to an era of revolutionary civil unrest in the black community as well as being pillars of pre-digital black music.  Both aspects are present on Black Messiah.  Musically it’s jazz-funk wrapped up in soul, old-style R&B, and the rock music of the end of the Vietnam War.  It’s played with deliberate imperfection, faithfully reproducing the feeling of the era with all of its pops and snarls.  At the same time it articulates a response to the upswing in racial violence in America over the past few years, especially with regards to the killing of unarmed black men by the police for crimes that would get white men in the same situation a living arrest.  It makes numerous references to Ferguson, and to Occupy Wall Street – race and class are bound together in modern America, and Black Messiah acknowledges it as such.

When it takes fourteen years to follow up an album, that album is rarely as good as the original.  Look at Chinese Democracy, or even last years My Bloody Valentine album.  Black Messiah is a rarity in this regards.  It’s a follow-up album that took nearly forever to create that exceeds the standards wrought by the original.  It’s not just a worthy sequel to Voodoo – it’s an album that reestablishes the legend of D’Angelo in its own right.

My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Four

Standard

#20:  Caribou – Our Love

Dan Snaith’s been doing this a long time, stretching back to when he used to call himself Manitoba.  His two previous albums, 2007’s Andorra and 2010’s Swim, were big successes, introducing the EDM world to his particular brand of psychedelic electronic pop grooves and getting award nominations left right and center, especially at home in Canada.  Our Love tops even those albums, being at once his most dance-oriented album and his most sonically experimental, mixing foggy vocals, strings, 808-sounding drums, and a whole host of studio effects.  Even with all of the genre-bending sound work, he keeps it accessible, crafting wicked-edged pop hooks that keep things bouncing from beginning to end.  Snaith himself referred to it as “mind-numbingly simple”, but this has to be kept in context with the fact that his pre-music background is in deep tech research and that simple to Snaith is more complicated than pretty much anything else.

#19:  White Lung – Deep Fantasy

Vancouver’s White Lung trades in blistering punk rock that brings back the feel of Dischord Records, Sleater-Kinney, and early Hole.  Deep Fantasy is a mile-a-minute collection of abrasive rock and roll that flies by so quickly that you might miss the more off-the-wall moments, mostly courtesy of guitarist Kenneth William’s love of weird patterns and oddball chord changes.  Some of this stems from a metal influence – black metal rhythms and hair metal swagger.  Singer Mish Way rides this hybrid wave of blackened thrasher punk with songs that focus on depression, body image, power structure, and rape.  She also has a number of essays online that expound upon these themes, because academic punk rock is and should continue to be a thing.  White Lung are ultimately a very subtle band, which sounds strange when you consider Deep Fantasy as an abrasive punk rock record that comes and goes in less than twenty minutes.

#18:  Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Southern rock is hard to come by these days.  The late 1970s were a long time ago now, and bands like Marshall Tucker, 38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are now relegated to State Fair nostalgia tour circuits.  Don’t tell that to Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, though; they’re banking on the fact that southern rock is a viable artform, and they’re proving themselves correct with every album they put out.  While their previous albums skewed towards the country side of the country-and-rock combo, English Oceans buckles down onto the soulful rock and roll side and the result is electrifying.  As always, however, the real strength of the album lies in the songs themselves.  Character sketches abound on here, and English Oceans is a litany of disappointment, shady nights out, marital problems, family disagreements, and an undertow of low seething rage.  They’re brilliant stories that get into your head, and suggest that maybe southern rock isn’t the ball of deep fried cheese that the beer-bellied greybeards lounging near the rickety stage near the edge of town might have you believe.

#17:  Ex Hex – Rips

Mary Timony has cycled through Helium, Wild Flag, and Autoclave before putting together Ex Hex, a new band that takes its name from a solo album Timony once put out.  Ex Hex is a band based around the ideal of guitar heroics, rooted deeply in 70s power pop and shot through with glittering guitar solos.  It’s part Go Gos and part Sleater-Kinney, a hurtling, snarling album that manages to glam up the proceedings to great effect.  Each riff lands with a punch, and then walks it along with a swagger befitting a Great Rock And Roll Band.  “New Kid” is the track that proves this – it’s literally impossible to avoid breaking out into air guitar right from the beginning.  She may have played second fiddle to two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney in Wild Flag, but in Ex Hex Timony answers to no one, and her strengths are on full display.

#16:  Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

It was kinda sorta released in 2013, sure, but that was in Australia, and I refuse to recognize the existence of Australia.  2014 saw her twin EP set released in North America and found a whole slew of new fans suddenly enamoured with her casual conversation style of songwriting.  Her life is a string of mundane disappointments, at least according to her, but she relates them in such a way as to make them the most fascinating things anyone could say.  Case in point:  “Avant Gardener”, a five minute tale of going out to fix up the front gardens (because the neighbours must think she runs a meth lab), getting overwhelmed by the heat, having a panic attack, and having the ambulance called.  She screws up her oxygen mask (she was never that good at smoking bongs) and feels uncomfortable with the EMS worker thinking she’s cool just because she plays guitar.  This double EP is stuffed full of these kind of stories, welded to psychedelic slacker music that is threaded through with tinges of old style country wistfulness.  Rumour has it she’s releasing a proper debut LP in 2015, darker than Split Peas but along the same lines.  Put it at the top of the highly anticipated pile.

#15:  Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below

Detroit’s Black Milk is one of the most underappreciated figures in the rap game, a consistently good MC and producer who’s been bringing it for twelve years now with no real breakthrough.  If There’s A Hell Below is an excellent summation of everything that he’s about:  loop-driven production strongly reminiscent of J. Dilla, Detroit techno bangers, thick gospel samples, and lyrics that come off as a little sketchy on paper but come alive when he puts them into the beat.  The lyrics here on If There’s A Hell Below focus on his upbringing in the hard parts of Detroit, learning about rap and losing his innocence beat by beat.  What sets it apart from his previous albums is the sheer attention to detail here.  Even 2013’s No Poison No Paradise pales in comparison to this album, with its meticulously constructed beat scapes that bleed with every bit of the influences he’s been building on since 2003.  If it happens to be the height of his powers, it’s a hell of a peak to crest on.

#14:  Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE

At first glance the music of Cymbals Eat Guitars is pure 90s indie rock revival, a crunchy mix of bands revolving around a Built To Spill worship.  What keeps it from being a mere early treble charger exercise in counterfeit sounds is the lyrical work of Joseph D’Agostino, who crafts literary narratives that pulse with the seriousness of modern poetry but also show a real willingness to get playful with the English language.  Like the title implies, these are poem-songs about loss – the emotional and physical toll taken upon people (New Jersey residents, mainly) who experience loss in one form or another.  The heart of it, though, stems from the death of D’Agostino’s best friend Benjamin High in 2007.  There were hints at mourning him throughout the band’s first two albums (the magical Why There Are Mountains and the great-but-commercially-toxic Lenses Alien) but on LOSE he opens the floodgates and lets it all out.  These songs soar and crash, allowing D’Agostino to craft big rock and roll gestures that double as outpourings of grief and healing.  It’s a big album that draws both from the aforementioned 90s indie rock and from the earlier tradition of massive arena rock, and it feels all the more cathartic for it.

#13:  Single Mothers – Negative Qualities

Single Mothers broke up in 2009 and have been touring ever since.  So says their Bandcamp page and there’s a history behind it, of course.  It revolves around frontman Drew Thomson, a scrappy Ontario kid posessed of a busted-ass smile and a heart of blackly hilarious observations.  Before he devoted himself full-time to the band (before ’09) he was a full-time gold prospecter in the wilds of eastern Ontario.  The call of punk rock was too strong to ignore, though, and thank the lord for it.  Thomson is the perfect punk frontman, perfectly suited to spewing bile but able to convey that bitterness in a way that comes across as wildly intelligent.  There’s a strong streak of Craig Finn in his songs:  the boozy nights out, the kids blowing off steam from their studies at the University of Western Ontario by getting blackout wasted, the strange allure of Dundas Street, straddling between bachelor’s degrees and cocaine deals.  If the Hold Steady are the bards of 1990s Minneapolis, Single Mothers are the poet laureates of London, Ontario circa pretty much forever.  The only thing that would make the album better would be the inclusion of their 2012 self-titled EP, which is comprised of 4 perfect songs that sum up living and dying in Ontario.

#12:  Spoon – They Want My Soul

Four years after the somewhat difficult Transference, and a sidetrack into a supergroup (Divine Fits) Spoon returned and reconquered the world.  The thing about Spoon is that they spent fifteen years putting out albums that were consistently great, peaking with 2007’s perfect Ga Ga Ga Ga GaTransference seemed weary and torn, but They Want My Soul is as fresh as if the band just woke up from a nap.  Lead single “Rent I Pay” conjured up the laid-back groove of classic Rolling Stones, “Do You” brought back the classic vibe of 2007, “Knock Knock Knock” gets in that pocket and never leaves.  “New York Kiss” sounds like it came straight out of Britt Daniels’ work in Divine Fits, and “Let Me Be Mine” affirms that Transference was, in fact, a great album given time to consider it.  From the moment the album begins it feels as though the band never left, and in the end it’s yet another superb entry in a catalogue that is wall to wall superb entries.

#11:  Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal

Sophomore slumps be damned:  Parquet Courts are out to show that there’s no such thing.  The band’s second album picks up where Light Up Gold left off, stuffing fun wordplay into songs that either race by or slouch by, slacker-style.  It’s a little angrier than their debut, a little more deliberate and seething, but the rampant hyperactive energy that marked them out as a band to watch is still very much present.  It’s still that heady mixture of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Wire, and the Fall, but it buckles down with greater intent this time out.  The title track is the perfect example of their newish tone:  it darts out of the gate, grabs ahold of you, and shakes you until every bone in your body is broken, then drops you and lets the slower tracks soothe you back to health.  Amongst the slower tracks this time there are some real moments of classic rock homage, especially on “Raw Milk”, “Instant Disassembly”, and “Always Back In Town”.  They add some weight to the faster-than-light tracks and make Sunbathing Animal into a work of actual substance.

Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Three

Standard

#30:  BADBADNOTGOOD – III

Toronto jazz trio and sometime Frank Ocean backing band BADBADNOTGOOD released their first album of original material this year and it ended up being just as good as the cover work they made their bones on.  Having covered the likes of Odd Future and MF Doom in jazz form in the past, it came as no surprise that the trio continued to filter their jazz roots through hip hop, conjuring up the feel of classic instrumental hip hop a la DJ Shadow.  Interestingly enough they eschew the swinging feel that most mainstream jazz falls into in favour of replicating the mechanical on-the-beat tone of hip hop, with a bit of the dance-around in-the-pocket groove of lumbering funk.  The biggest delight on the album, though, is the way each track flows into each other, like molten steel filling every nook and cranny and allowing for some very meticulous meta-arrangements.

#29:  Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata

It’s no secret that urban America is decaying.  The poster child for this problem is, of course, Detroit, but lots of former industrial centers are now broken wastelands.  One particularly bad one is Gary, Indiana, home of Freddie Gibbs.  Freddie Gibbs breathes the busted streets of the ghost of US Steel, coming on like a gruff 2Pac with a subwoofer-rattling voice.  He keeps it strictly thuggin’ but gets a lot of love from the indie crowd, mostly due to the fact that his thug life gets downright poetic at times.  The beats on Pinata are handled by Madlib, who is equal parts the dusty, shadowy street work of RZA and the more soulful side of J. Dilla.  It gives a mythical feel to Freddie Gibbs’ street tales, and elevates it beyond mere thug replication to the sort of grimey poetry that the Wu once dealt in.  The guest lineup isn’t half-bad either – Danny Brown, Raekwon, Scarface, and the formidable combination of Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt add colour to an album that is still undeniably carried by Gibbs himself.

#28:  Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit

So, rap-punk is a thing now, thank you Death Grips.  There are a lot of people marrying strident, barking rap to industrial-edged hip hop beats, but most of them are striving to run parallel with the edgy imagery and brink-of-mental-illness vibe of MC Ride.  Sleaford Mods, though, are blue collar lads with a vicious contempt of all of the stupidity that they see in their daily lives – politicians, local culture, other musicians.  Jason Williamson is a crude son of a bitch but he puts you right in the thick of things, spinning scenes that are at once visceral, disgusting, and hilarious.  Some of his images are a little too British for mass global consumption, but the seething working class frustration comes across just fine for all of that.  Unlike a lot of their contemporaries, Sleaford Mods manage to be both nasty and relatable.

#27:  Ought – More Than Any Other Day

Constellation Records used to be stridently anti-commercial.  They once refused Alternative Press a review copy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O. on the basis that the magazine was “too glossy”.  This vaguely pretentious tone has softened in recent years (I mean, have you heard Thee Silver Mt. Zion lately?) and Ought is another symptom of this.  “Symptom” is a bit of a harsh word, of course, especially considering that, while the Montreal band’s hyper-caffeinated post-punk brings to mind the best of the Feelies, Cap’n Jazz, and Talking Heads, they also spike these palatable moments with drones, churning rhythm changes, and anarchic experimentation.  The frenetic energy that flows through the album lends itself to the sort of mid-00s dance-punk that used to be on every hipster’s playlist, but at the same time it’s rabidly political, like DIY punk rock played by people who really like to spend their off-hours pounding down MDMA and dancing until dawn.

#26:  Thee Oh Sees – Drop

Thee Oh Sees – the main vehicle for garage rock auteur John Dwyer – started off life as a freakish San Francisco outfit dedicated to exploding everywhere at once.  As the years have rolled on, the more out-there parts of their sound have slowly withered away, leaving a hard-edged core that feels more and more in line with shockingly regular hard rock.  “Regular” is a relative term, of course, since there’s enough psychedelic noise work in these 32 minutes to kick the band into the stratosphere, but when compared to an album like Castlemania it’s a bit more, uh, normal.  Drop brings out the melody that has always been embedded in Dwyer’s songs, and wraps them in fuzzed-out guitar tones.  The acid-tinged guitar fireworks are missed, but the in-and-out nature of the bouncing songcraft means that it isn’t missed too much.  It’s a Thee Oh Sees album you can bring home to your parents.

#25:  Behemoth – The Satanist

Polish death metal titans Behemoth have been around for a very long time – ten albums now – and after their frontman Nergal was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 it would have been natural enough for the band to slowly drop off the face of the earth.  Instead, Nergal underwent treatment, rested for months to recover, and the band worked with him to slowly put together work for what would eventually be The Satanist.  A lesser band would have put out a middling album and then retired, but Behemoth has never been a middling sort of band.  The Satanist turned out to be the band’s best album yet, and one of the best death metal albums to arrive on American shores in years.  The extreme metal community responded whole-heartedly, putting the band in the U.S. Top 40 for the first time.  It’s a massive sledgehammer kind of album, a mix of pummeling blastbeats and crushing doom riffs that leave the listener a crumpled mess in the corner.  The very best metal blows the listener across the room and leaves them unable to think about their problems, and The Satanist is amongst the very best metal.

#24:  Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Burn Your Fire For No Witness is an astonishing breakthrough album.  Part crunchy indie rock and part slow-burn confessional folk, it flows together without a hitch.  The former backup singer for Bonnie “Prince” Billy has tightened up the production from her early lo-fi days, and at the same time has loosened up the space around her instruments.  Her early work tends to skew more towards the claustrophobic, and now that there is some light allowed into her arrangments the effect is galvanizing.  Her communication with her band is flawless, with each instrument playing off each other like they’ve been doing this all their lives.  The highlight of the album is the torchlight Leonard Cohen-esque number “White Fire”, whose lyrics the album draws its name from.  Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a heavy album, rich with sorrow and quiet hurt.  It’s an album that will amplify your own hidden dreads – listen with care.

#23:  Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything

“We live on the island of Montreal and we make a lot of noise because we love each other”.  Thus begins the Constellation Records flagship band’s latest album, and it’s the best raison d’etre for it.  Having begun life as Efrim Menuck’s side band, an outlet for his experimentation with loose atmospheric ambient post-rock, the tale of Silver Mt Zion is as convoluted as the history of their name changes.  By the time they expanded to Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band, they were a force in their own right, a replacement of sorts for the then-abandoned Godspeed You! Black Emperor project.  Paring the band down to just Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra changed the band into a heavy guitar-oriented post-rock outfit, the sound of which reaches its peak on Fuck Off Get Free.  Unlike the somewhat shaky lyrical work that marred 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, Efrim keeps things political but vague, adopting a strident tone that strives to evoke post-2008 anti-austerity feelings but doesn’t get bogged down in the details.  Musically its an orgy of disparate genres held together by sheer tenacity:  modern crescendocore post-rock, black metal drums, long-range drone waves, European string arrangements, acoustic dread.  As far as the Silver Mt Zion project goes, Fuck Off Get Free is the peak to date.

#22:  Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons

22 years after 36 Chambers‘ opening salvo, the best MC to come out of the Wu Tang Clan continues to surprise with the consistent level of quality he puts out.  There are some inarguable stumbles in his catalogue: Bulletproof Wallets was so-so, Apollo Kids felt like old man nostalgia, and the less said about Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry the better.  They’re outweighed by the absolute triumphs he puts out with regularity, though.  Last year found him returning to the concept album strucutre that won him accolades when he did Fishscale; Twelve Reasons To Die, an adaptation of mafioso giallo stories, was a hard-hitting, gritty affair that played into GFK’s strengths.  36 Seasons continues in this trend, picking up his Tony Stark character after nine years (36 seasons) away from Staten Island.  The streets have changed, his friends have become murky, his girl is in play; Tony hits the island with force, dodging betrayals and making things as right as he can by the gun.  It hits like a brick, albeit a brick in a Blaxploitation film, and it’s funk underpinnings move you even while you lie bleeding in the street.

#21:  Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

Deerhoof turned twenty this year, which seems bizarre when you consider how fresh and new the band sounds with each album they put out.  La Isla Bonita shifts the whimsical, electro-pop nature of 2012’s Breakup Song towards a more garage-oriented sound, filtering their core tone through a thick layer of newfound respect for the Ramones.  The guitars come to the forefront more than they did on previous albums, maybe more than they have since 2005’s The Runners Four.  Worked in and around the Ramones worship is some serious groove work, taut funk rhythms that bring to mind the best of 1970s disco 45s.  The result is an end-to-end delight, a heady, fuzzy, dancing affair that sounds as though it could have come out of a new band ready to take on the world.  That it comes from a band tumbling headalong into middle age makes it all the sweeter.

 

 

My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part Two

Standard

#40:  YG – My Krazy Life

It’s something that seems so normal in the post-Kanye era, but it has to be said:  mainstream rap hasn’t been very gangsta for a while.  Ever since Graduation cleaned 50 Cent’s clock, rappers have been finding inspiration from regular life, relationships, and inner turmoil – or, as the kids like to call it, Drake.  The biggest thing to come out of Compton since The Game fumbled the ball back in the mid-00s has been Kendrick Lamar, and his world-conquering good kid m.A.A.d. city album shone a light on the dark side of cross-generational gangbanging and street life.  The celebratory party-gangsta album – a mainstay of West Coast rap in the 1990s – has been largely absent.  Gangsta life has been relegated to the over-the-top absurdity of Gucci Mane and Rick Ross, or to the grimy, nihilist underworld of Chief Keef and Chicago’s drill scene.  Enter YG, who wants to take it back to the days of Snoop, Dre, and Ice Cube.  My Krazy Life, which comes across almost like the gritty, in-the-shit companion album to good kid, thumps with that West Coast bottom end and grooves with the same sort of Parliament/Funkadelic inspired sampling that drove Dre’s “G Funk” movement.  It’s basically Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ Redux, with more palm trees and more bottom end ass shaking.

#39:  Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

Killer Mike and EL-P have ridden the hype train since this sequel was announced and only the fuccbois were going to say otherwise.  RTJ2 is actually slightly weaker than the original, but this is like saying a cluster bomb doesn’t kill as many as a nuclear explosion.  Killer Mike centers himself in violent, paranoid intensity, spouting rapid-fire ticker-tape verses like the proverbial banana clip from the original Run The Jewels.  EL-P allows his production to explode outward; the beats slam into the listener with bruising force and explode outward.  On their own, they’re each primal forces in the rap game, but together, they’re nearly unstoppable.  As an added bonus, killer lead single “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” features a rare, incendiary  verse from Zach De La Rocha,  which can hopefully only mean good things for future appearances from him.

#38:  Iceage – Plowing Into The Field Of Love

New Brigade was a brash young album from a brash young punk band, combining searing new noise with edgy, controversial imagery (including Danish neo-fascist symbols).  You’re Nothing doubled down on the noise, devolving now and again into chaos before snapping back into razor-sharp songcraft.  Plowing Into The Field Of Love, however, takes a sudden right turn into tuneful songcraft, balancing the sort of harrowing on-the-cliffs-edge sonic disturbance with moments of melody and beauty.  “The Lord’s Favourite” is a track that sums up this new tightrope act the best:  it stumbles along and nearly crashes on several occasions, but it holds its own internal logic together with spit and shoestrings and delivers a hook that drives right into your living room and takes up residence there.  It’s not a knockout album per se, but it sets the band up perfectly to deliver a knockout album next time around.

#37:  Black Lips – Underneath The Rainbow

Underneath The Rainbow was produced by Pat Carney and it’s immediately better than the album his own band churned out earlier this year.  Black Lips have become extremely adept at this kind of rock and roll:  dishevled, slinky garage rock that falls apart into aesthetically pleasing shapes.  It’s really not all that much different from what came before but it doesn’t need to be.  There’s a thick layer of grime on every track that bleeds debauched authenticity and a scuzzy guitar tone that dials up several decades at once while being beholden to none of them.  It’s rock music for people who miss the inebriated swagger the Stones used to bring in their golden days.

#36:  Damaged Bug – Hubba Bubba

John Dwyer – the prolific garage-revival madman behind Thee Oh Sees – cannot be contained by just one act.  In addition to his Coachwhips work, 2014 adds a new side with Damaged Bug.  Hubba Bubba is, at its heart, a love letter to analog synthesizers. Dwyer ditches the guitar in favour of cobbled-together synths whose vintage dates back to the 80s, the wavery sounds of which he marries to staggering beats to create a stoned, pyschadelic electronic pop album.  Seemingly not well-received by anyone besides me, it was wilful and deliberately noisy in the sort of way that always seems to appeal to me.

#35:  Grouper – Ruins

Liz Harris has this ambient soundscape thing down pat, so it was somewhat surprising that she chose to follow the gorgeous, flowing The Man Who Died In His Boat with something that can be properly described as “stripped down”.  Where her previous releases were progressions in processing atmospherics for fun and profit, Ruins relies more on the natural echoes of her piano and recording spaces, as well as judicious use of the analog sustain pedal of that piano.  In addition to the reverb of the drums and piano, she works in frogs, birds, and, on “Holding”, the sound of a breaking thunderstorm.  Recorded mostly in southern Portugal, Ruins is a hushed, intimate ambient album, the opposite of a Tim Hecker effort in that it gently swells to fill the space rather than brashly occupying all that space at once.

#34:  Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Azaelia Banks is one of two albums released in 2014 that followed Beyonce’s lead.  Having been screwed around by her label for nearly two years, she ditched Polydor/Interscope and released the album herself, dropping it with no press release and no promo work (a la Beyonce’s last album, released in the last days of 2013).  A lot of these tracks (“Yung Rapunxel”, “212”) were released as singles during the major label runaround process, but the tracks that weren’t are just as strong and fill out Ms. Banks’ sound to devastating effect.  This is hip hop with a relentlessly old-school vibe, a clattering kitchen-sink affair of pulsing rhythms, fly girl rhyming, and instrumentation that straddles the line between retro and cutting-edge.  She also refuses to keep her opinions quiet on Twitter, starting fights with pretty much everyone (including one particularly sharp call-out of Black Culture Appropriation Poster Child Iggy Azalea) and, on Boxing Day, stating that the descendants of prominent slave traders should have their houses burned and their finances seized.  She’s a heavily talented ball of controversy and as such she’ll be around for quite a while.

#33:  Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

John and Alice Coltrane’s grandnephew dug deeper into his jazz roots on his fifth album.  He’s famous for forward-thinking melds of hip hop and electronic sounds that pushes into solidly psychedelic territory, especially on 2010’s breakthrough CosmogrammaYou’re Dead! takes the progressive vibe of those albums and marries them to a shredded vision of hard bop.  The album has a flow that works in an even more cohesive manner than his previous work; most of the 19 tracks average under two minutes and only make complete sense when listened to in order.  The jazzed-out instrumentals are held together by the longer moments that feature a rich panapoly of guest moments:  Kendrick Lamar on “Never Catch Me”, Snoop Dogg on “Dead Man’s Tetris”, Angel Deradoorian on “Siren Song”, and Kimbra on “The Protest”.  You’re Dead! is one of the most inventive mainstream takes on the legacy of American jazz in the 21st Century, and the strongest effort yet for Flying Lotus.

#32:  FKA Twigs – LP1

LP1 is a minimalist dream, an album that rewrites the idea of “spare” and finds a flourishing, soaring sound within the borders of barely sketched-in bass and snare.  Tahliah Barnett, former music video dancer, proves her skills as a euphoric singer whose style evokes both the trip-hop glory days and the best moments of R&B.  She spins webs of power and sexual frustration, exuding confidence and vulnerability in equal measures.  The album is a balancing act between overt sexual desire and the poetic sentimentality that often sugarcoats that desire, delivered in extremely subtle turns and songs that slowly coalesce into singalong moments.  There’s more than a bit of the ghost of Aaliyah on these tracks, and it’s been long enough since her untimely death that that’s perfectly okay.

#31:  Ty Segall – Manipulator

Ty Segall – lord and master of the neo-garage rawk movement – has been one thing over the course of his six years of recording history, and that is insanely prolific.  While not perhaps at the level of Robert Pollard, he made his name churning out singles and albums not only under his own name (eight in six years) but also under the names of seven other bands.  It stands to reason, then, that when it was revealed that it took him fourteen months to write and record Manipulator it was an indication that something special.  The result was that the album came across as meticulously crafted, the effect of Segall slowing down and concentrating on the details of each individual song.  The sound is nothing different in terms of what he’s done before – last year’s Sleeper was a much bigger deviation in terms of pure sonics – but there’s more to chew on this time around.  It’s his longest album to date and his most lush, combining the forceful guitar riffs of 70s vintage with rich psychedelic tones.  The decades may go on and it may in fact be the 50th anniversary of an album like The Who Sing My Generation this year, but Manipulator is proof that even though ‘classic rock’ is largely unfashionable, there will always be someone willing to come along and mine it for inspiration.
http://grooveshark.com/album/Manipulator/9859731

My Favourite 50 of 2014, Part One

Standard

#50:  Parkay Quarts – Content Nausea

The prolific Parquet Courts released two LPs in 2014, the second of which was released under their other other name.  Content Nausea adds a spiky post-punk vibe to their usual overcaffeinated blend of pop punk, Pavement, and Guided By Voices.  There’s a bit of Pere Ubu here, some uncomfortable odes to Gang of Four, and it melds smoothly into their existing sound.  In addition there is a cover, the first such the band has committed to permanence – a disarmingly straightforward take on Lee Hazlewood’s “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'” whose sole nod to original sound is the swath of feedback that wraps around the horn section.  It’s an interesting sonic detour for a band with a prolific sense of its own self.

 

#49:  King Tuff – Black Moon Spell

Kyle Thomas makes the kind of instantly kick-ass, fist-in-the-air type of album that would have been a stone classic thirty-five years ago.  Nowadays, of course, decades after the advent of Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick, it fills the same sort of nostalgia niche as the Darkness once did.  Unlike the Darkness, however, Black Moon Spell is not lazily reaching for a derivative pop-Iron Maiden type of sound; rather, it hits the same filthy back-alley sounds that the first Cheap Trick album once did, twining fuzz guitar around the kind of melodies that countless Sunset Strip bands spent the 1980s mining.  As it stands it fits in well with the fuzzed-out garage revivalism spearheaded by acts like Ty Segall and Bass Drum of Death – Master Segall actually guests on the title track.  The album’s highlight is without a doubt “Eyes of the Muse”, which I honestly thought was a cover the first time I heard it.  It has a guitar vibe that touches on Marc Bolan, Pete Townsehend, and Eric Clapton without being slavishly devoted to any of them.  Great for people who slag on modern music and miss “real rock”.

#48:  Ben Frost – A U R O R A

Aurora is the sound of the 21st Century barrelling down on us:  the paranoia, the rebirth of nuclear tensions, the sense that it might already be too late to fix the problems we face on this fragile little planet of ours.  Avant-garde composer Ben Frost channels these rather frightening ideas through waves of glacial synths, creeping loops, withering soundscapes, and metallic samples.  What percussion is on this record acts to punctuate the sound and bring the piece in question to another level of dread.  It was mainly written beneath an active volcano in the DR of Congo and sound uncommonly like if Tim Hecker were to be covered by an even more nihilistically focused Swans – an interesting analogy given Frost’s production of albums for both artists.

#47:  The Notwist – Close To The Glass

The venerable also-ran of indie rock released an album this year that comes very close to achieving the heights of their 2002 masterpiece Neon Golden.  Close To The Glass displays all of the best facets of the German band’s style:  the pop sensibilities, the tight arrangements, and of course the spiky electronic textures that are their stock-in-trade.  There were bands melding ambient electronic sounds with indie rock before the Notwist but there were none that influenced the bands that came after quite like they did.  Close To The Glass is an excellent after-the-fact explanation of why.

#46:  Marissa Nadler – July

2014 brought dream-folk singer Marissa Nadler to the white-hot Sacred Bones label, and with it came a newfound sense of personal confession.  Nadler’s earlier work was often metaphorical in nature, but July brings her songwriting perspective into the first person.  As usual, a broken heart is the culprit:  the song-cycle on display here is strewn with the debris of a dead relationship and the haunted emotions that accompany it. Despite its fiercely personal nature there is a sweeping universality inherent in it; anyone who’s ever suffered through a hellish breakup will know exactly what July is saying.

#45:  Foxes In Fiction – Ontario Gothic

Warren Hildebrand’s younger brother died in 2008 and he’s been mourning him ever since.  I first caught on to his Foxes in Fiction moniker through “Flashing Lights Have Ended Now”, a deeply sad ambient piece that /mu/ was into (largely, I think, because Hildebrand was one of us and sometimes did Q and A sessions for the hell of it).  His debut, 2010’s Swung From The Branches, was *okay*, but it felt too loose and surreal to really fit the devastating nature of either “Flashing Lights” or another perennial favourite of mine, “Bathurst”.  Ontario Gothic is a much tighter album, anchored by synth arpeggios and the sort of reverb-soaked, ethereal vocals that thousands of chillwave artists can only dream of.  Owen Pallett does string arrangements throughout as well, making for pop music that reaches the next spiritual plane of existence more often than not.  This is “healing pop” – Hildebrand’s own words – and it’s hard not to listen to it and feel cleaner having come out the other side.

#44:  Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Jenny Lewis was every Nintendo nerd’s red-headed crush in 1989’s Fred Savage vehicle/Power Glove advertisement The Wizard.  Then, by the early 2000s, she was the critical darling of Los Angeles’ typically backwater indie scene, bringing California folk-rock and Fleetwood Mac up to date with Rilo Kiley.  Immediately following her band’s demise she went solo and has been channeling a modern day version of Emmylou Harris ever since.  The Voyager is her strongest effort to date, a collection of L.A. sounds that range from opulent yacht-pop to the folky parts of the Canyon that Joni Mitchell once haunted.  It’s big, and it’s confident, but it’s also vulnerable under the surface; there’s heartache here, and disappointment, and the mismatch of wistful nostalgia with the dreary truth of the present.  It’s a midlife crisis wrapped in gilded paper, like if Beth Cosentino grew up and still wrote songs for men who weren’t sure if they wanted to commit to her yet.

#43:  Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again

Never Hungover Again comes and goes in less than twenty minutes, but in that slight frame of time it packs enough shorthand and ideas for an album twice its size.  Joyce Manor spent their previous two albums banging out a lo-fi revival of the days when emo didn’t mean faux-goth kids wearing Hot Topic specials and thinking Black Veil Brides were cool.  Never Hungover Again continues in the tradition of riot booooy albums but their new deal with the venerable Epitaph Records gives them a bigger budget that they use to full effect.  There’s absolutely nothing here that says they’ve sold out, the key thing here is that the band sounds immensely huge, bigger than they’ve ever sounded before.  The touches from the emo forebears are all there – here’s some Weezer, here’s some Jawbreaker, here’s some Jimmy Eat World before they started to suck – but it’s all integrated flawlessly and played with an honest, earnest passion.  It’s an album for those who came of age just before and just after 9/11.


#42:  tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack

Nikki-Nack builds on the previous W H O K I L L album through the simple expedient of being bigger.  Ditching the loops in favour of live drumming, Nikki-Nack is so different than what came before that one can only imagine where Merrill Garbus will take her act next.  The lack of tape loops and lo-fi field recordings points towards a long series of sessions in a professional studio, although the breathless energy of the tracks still has its roots in 80s R&B and schoolyard skipping-rope chants.  Subtle when it needs to be, Nikki-Nack  balances dark thoughts with caffeine-fuelled movement such that it keeps the listener from leaving with a first impression of moodiness.  While it largely lacks the singular anthems that W H O K I L L brought to the table (aside from “Water Fountain”, of course), it’s a much more fulfilling album, one that should leave the the listener breathless, satisfied, and wondering where the hell it’s going to go after.

#41:  Fucked Up – Glass Boys

Glass Boys is the band’s shortest album, and after the exhausting conceptual monolith of David Comes To Life, it’s refreshing.  Musically it builds on their previous work, layering anthemic guitar work over rock-solid progressive rhythm work and letting Pink Eyes stab his signature growl through everything.  Here and there are more classic rock nods, another progression from the sprawling previous album.  Fuzzy, icepick guitar solos, organ flourishes, lumbering Black Sabbath riffs –  this is not the hardcore of Minor Threat or 7 Seconds.  Maybe it is “popcore”, as Emily Haines snarkily tweeted the night The Chemistry of Common Life won Canada’s Polaris Prize, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable in a way that classic hardcore just isn’t.

Consumer Guide: Cloud Nothings et al.

Standard

Playing catch-up with the reviews, Consumer Guide style.  Here’s everything I’ve listened to in 2014 thus far.  As is my usual style, this list will likely expand quite a bit by the time mid-November rolls around.  A couple of them (Here And Nowhere Else and St. Vincent) probably deserve the usual individual reviews but such is life.

Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else   

The Cleveland band’s fourth album finds them scrubbing away a lot of the pop elements that Steve Albini had left on them during the process of their 2012 breakthrough Attack On Memory.  It’s a triumph of 21st Century punk rock, eschewing the sunny California-inspired pop stuff that has mired the form for most of the last decade in favour of a hard-scoured feel-bad attack.  The album also has the cojones to use the lead single/best song the band has recorded as the final track.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA-Fz7Zd39k]

 

Wild Beasts – Present Tense  

I still don’t get what people find so amazing about this album.  I’ve enjoyed the Eighties retread/re-exploration we’ve been on since 2008/2009 as much as the next person but this isn’t doing anything radically different than the next band.  I’ve heard better synth drones, I’ve heard craftier melodies, and the vocals remind me in a vague way of Xiu Xiu, and not in a good way.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IIbbFIQTKI]

 

Tacocat – NVM   

Candy-coated riot grrl punk, like Sleater-Kinney-Lite, or maybe an alternate-history Josie and the Pussycats that has a bit of actual substance.  Musically inoffensive and lyrically righteous, not a great album but certainly a good one.  Nothing original but you can sing along.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXt5n9Ni5p0]

 

The Notwist – Close To The Glass   

The German band had a breakthrough back in the long-gone year of 2002 with Neon Golden and have consistently flown just under the radar with every subsequent release.  Close To The Glass is not likely to change this particular fate but it, like the other albums, is a solid record of warm experimental pop music that balances melody with a mix of textures that change from song to song.  Deserves more than it will end up getting.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUpktwg7O4M]

 

Julie Byrne – Rooms With Walls And Windows   

Glacial, whispered art-folk, highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.  Beautiful like a foggy frosty morning sigh.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3DjMKLiFDE]

When We Hit The Twin Cities: A Guide To The Hold Steady

Standard

There’s this band, you know?  They play downtown alot, and maybe they’ll change your life.  But you’ll only be into them for a little while before the scene will start getting dark, and druggy.  Kids will get stabbed at townie parties, those guys with the same tattoos as Gideon will start hanging around, and that guy who always shows up in sweatpants starts packing hard powders for the people that are looking for it.  This is pretty much the core tenet of Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady, a hard-drinking band of classic-rock afficionados who just recently passed the ten-year mark.  Anchored around Minneapolis transplant and former Lifter Puller leader Craig Finn’s densely woven tales of teenage sinning and repentance, the band embraces the power and theatricality of working class youth.  Kitchen work, hard drugs, nights at the bar that go on too long, Catholic confessions of love and lust:  these are the milieu that the songs operate in.  In the early days, their MySpace slogan was “For people who thought that New Wave was pretty lame, then and now”, which should of course be tempered by the fact of Lifter Puller’s existence.  The band came about from an idea that Finn and Lifter Puller / Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler had while watching The Last Waltz – an idea of a lost art of rock ‘n’ roll that would be blended with the searing punk rock that Finn and Kubler grew up on, like fellow Minnesota natives Husker Du.  Their work has classic touchstones (Zeppelin, the Stones, Seventies pop like Cheap Trick and ELO) and Kubler consistently proves himself to be one of the better guitarists of his generation (especially on jaw-dropping moments like Stay Positive‘s “Lord I’m Discouraged”) but they never stoop to slavish imitation of the past.  Instead, the Hold Steady uses them as a reference point to anchor much more recent memories of debauchery. Ten years on they’ve become a band that deals in mythology: the massive nights, the doomed affairs, the booze and the hangover. The bands and the scene.  Hold steady.

Teeth Dreams, the sixth album by the Hold Steady, will be out March 25th on Washington Square.

Almost Killed Me (2003)

The album kicks off by telling us the backstory: we went from the Crash and the Depression to the Second World War, and from there into a glittering atomic future that got ugly and druggy by the time the Seventies were closing out and then the Eighties almost killed us, let’s not remember them quite so fondly. The resulting guitar pyrotechnics following the implosion of the dot-com bubble scrub away any trace of hip irony or awkwardly angular New-Wave possibilities, and leave the remaining nine tracks to carve out a peculiar sort of Midwest mythology. On “The Swish” Finn sings that “it was a bloodsucking summer, I spent half the time trying to get paid for my saviour” and throughout the album you can never quite tell if he’s talking about Jesus or Charlemagne the drug dealer. It’s an album of drunken swagger, a loud recollection of all the parties you got way too drunk or far too high at. You get blackout drunk and wake up with a straightedge band in Ybor City, FL. The ending track (the first in a series of epic closers the band would do) remains the greatest “last- song-of-the-festival-show” song you’ll ever here: it rides in on a bassline that pairs well with the setting sun, and reminisces about the good times that were had while simultaneously admitting that at one point you almost died and found out that maybe it wasn’t worth all the good times after all.

– “Positive Jam”

If you want to figure out where you are, the first thing you have to understand is where you come from. “The Eighties almost killed me, let’s not remember them quite so fondly”

– “The Swish”

“It was a bloodsucking summer, I spent half the time trying to get paid for my saviour. Swishin’ through the city centre, I did a couple favours for these guys that looked like Tusken raiders”

– “Most People Are DJs”

Hold steady Ybor City, you’re up to your neck in the sweat and wet confetti. Take off your beret, everyone’s a critic and most people are DJs. It’s a song that excellently conveys how tiring – and pretty sweet – the constant party scene can be.

– “Certain Songs”

I guess you’re old enough to know. Kids out on the west coast are taking off their clothes, screwing in the surf, and going out to shows. The confident piano chords here (courtesy of keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay) conjure up an idea of Billy Joel, but a Billy Joel where the kitchen workers and the bartenders are doing cocaine out of sight of the patrons and every night is redeemed by those certain songs – you know the ones. The ones that have been scratched into your soul.

– “Killer Parties”

The first place you’ll hear the line “if they ask about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague”, a topic that is revisited on the next album. The bassline rolls into this song like far off thunder and the feedback-guitar echoes like distant heat lightning. The entire album is summed up in one line here: “Ybor City is tres speedy but they throw such killer parties. Killer parties almost killed me.”

Separation Sunday (2005)

A concept album, of sorts, the band’s best album follows four main characters: The Narrator, Charlemagne the dealer, Holly / Halleluiah the scenester/addict/party girl (and – spoiler – a hoodrat), and Gideon, a tattooed skinhead. They kick around the party cities of the United States and use the backstreets of Minneapolis as a home base of sorts. Holly admits at the very beginning of the album that “there’s going to come a time when I’m going to have to go with whoever’s going to get me the highest”, leaving the door open for drugs or religion. It is an album that is primarily concerned with the loss of innocence and the idea of repentance; Holly gets druggy, gets born again at a revival camp on the Mississippi River,
gets druggy again, wakes up in a confession booth, and asks the priest if she can tell his congregation how a resurrection really feels. Charlemagne does a brisk business but ends up getting high too often on his own supply: “He asked what happened to Charlemagne. She just smiled all polite-like and said something vague. She said Charlemagne got caught up in some complicated things. She wiped at her nose and she winked.” There is a rough yearning implicit in the hard-scrabble tales of adolescent fuckery contained on Separation Sunday, a nostalgia for a bad time that didn’t seem so bad when you were in the midst of it. Holly finds religion in the end but you know it isn’t going to stick around long enough to make a difference, and this is fundamentally where Finn differs from Bruce Springsteen, another songwriter obsessed with youth and the possibility of salvation. Finn makes it clear that salvation, even when found, is never a permanent thing. Salvation is found in drugs, in friends, in music, and in God, and none of them will last forever.

– “Hornets! Hornets!”

“She said always remember never to trust me. She said that the first night that she met me. She said there’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest” – this lone voice is how the album starts, and it sets the scene for every bloody moment that is to come.

– “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”

The band’s “breakthrough single”, so to speak, is a deceptively straight-ahead palm-muted power chord song that hits like a switchblade in the ribs up in Penetration Park. “I hate all the things that she sticks into her skin, like ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings. She says it hurts but it’s worth it.”

– “Stevie Nix”

An exuberant riff-riot of late nights, and about how sometimes the ER seems like an after-bar. It’s also a treasure trove of some of Finn’s best lines. “When we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it. I knew Mary Tyler Moore, and I knew Profane Existence.” “You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young: you got passion and you think that you’re sexy, and all the punks think that you’re dumb.” Plus midway through is another one of those gorgeous, thrilling Franz Nicolay piano sections that seem to sum up all of the yearning emotions that run through Craig Finn’s songs. Lord, to be 17 forever.

– “Multitude of Casualties”

“She drove it like she stole it. She stole it fast, and with a multitude of casualties.” Also, “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.”

– “Don’t Let Me Explode”

Here’s where it all falls apart: Holly and the Narrator come back from their trip through America, wasted and exhausted. Charlemagne is gone, a victim of the habits he was peddling. “We didn’t go to Dallas because Jackie Onassis said it wasn’t safe for Catholics yet. Think about Kennedy, and then think about his security, and then think about what they might try to pull on you and me.”

– “How A Resurrection Really Feels”

Separation Sunday‘s Big Closing Moment is a swooning, staggering number where Holly wakes up in a confession booth after a bloody, druggy, ugly party. She’s wearing broken heels and a crown of broken glass. Is Holly a stand-in for Jesus? At the very least, she’s the titular hoodrat from earlier in the album. The coda is gorgeous, a mixture of guitar, horns, and that piano, and it carries the album off into its own uncertain future.

Boys And Girls In America (2006)

It’s not a concept album like Separation Sunday, but it may as well be. Holly says that “words alone could never save us” on “First Night” and it’s practically the theme; the album kicks off with doomed poet John Berryman diving into the river after realizing this very thing. It also starts off by admitting that Sal Paradise was probably right: boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Throughout the rest of the album the band outlines exactly what they mean by this appropriation of Kerouac: the hookups, the drinking and drugs, the parties, the manipulations, the loneliness. The gang from Separation Sunday appear again in places, mostly on “Same Kooks” and “First Night”, but the stage is given mostly to
others. “Stuck Between Stations” gives us Kerouac and Berryman; “Chips Ahoy” features a psychic girl with a few problems of her own; “Party Pit” and “You Can Make Them Like You” posit the loneliness that lies at the heart of the party scene. “Chillout Tent” is perhaps the most ambitious of all of these remarkably ambitious numbers; we’re told of a rock festival in western MA and of two people who have bad trips on drugs and hook up in the chillout tent afterwards, amongst the OD’d and the medics. The album is immediately more massive-sounding than either of its predecessors; the guitars surge, the pianos soar, and every song sounds like the soundtrack to an epic night out that resulted in some uncomfortable tragedy. If Separation Sunday felt like Craig Finn’s novel about a little scene and its central characters, Boys And Girls In America feels like his Great American Novel about ALL of the little scenes and the wild characters contained within them. That the album ends on “Southtown Girls”, a song about finding salvation in loyalty instead of flash, is indicative of the
idea that the only way out is to settle down; the party pit may be lonely in the end, but you don’t have to be lonely forever.

– “Stuck Between Stations”

The piano that runs through this song really drives its power home. “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t really wasn’t that great of a girlfriend.”

– “Hot Soft Light”

It started off recreational, and it ended in a hospital. Finn claims to never be at the incident, on the advice of his attorney. “The band played Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, you said it was stormy and adorable.”

– “First Night”

An aching ballad about looking back and realizing that you can never get that high again. Features the return of Charlemagne, Gideon, and a hospitalized, newly religious Holly. Features the greatest lead-up and coda the band will likely every record.

– “You Can Make Him Like You”

A song about using people to get along in life. “You don’t have to deal with the dealers, let your boyfriend deal with the dealers. It only gets inconvenient when you want to get high alone.” It’s always on the boys, and you can make them like you.

– “Citrus”

A rare acoustic track. “Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other.” “I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.”

– “Chillout Tent”

A soaring number about finding love in the medic’s tent at a big festival. “It’s sexy…but kinda creepy,” Finn sings, probably while winking.

– “Southtown Girls”

The Epic Closer, a song about settling for loyalty and comfort. Features some soaring guitar work that carries the album off into the horizon and a vibe that approaches southern rock in its genial embrace of the interplay between guitars and padded keyboards.

Stay Positive (2008)

Stay Positive found the band stepping even further into an embrace of an imagined limelight, building songs that sound gigantic and taking risks with added instrumentation – the harpsichord on “One For The Cutters”, the (gasp!) New-Waveish synth on “Navy Sheets”, the banjo that legendary indie rocker J. Mascis is plucking on “Both Crosses”. The band claimed, then and now, that the album is about “ageing gracefully” although the songs themselves don’t quite bear this out. The album is about ageing, certainly, but it never seems very graceful. The opening track, a slash-and-burn Husker Du-referencing number, is about waking up no longer young in a dead-end town and trying to make something of it before it’s too late. “Joke About Jamaica” is about a bar girl who wakes up one day to find that the “bands are getting louder” and she’s getting older and no one wants to take her home anymore. “Lord I’m Discouraged” revolves around a woman the narrator loves that has fallen into deep addiction with no real hope of ever getting out (it also features Tad Kubler’s best guitar work and indeed the best guitar solo of the entire 2000s.) Elsewhere there is a sort of a theme running through the songs – not to the extent of something like Separation Sunday, but close. “One For The Cutters” sketches the story of a college girl who gets bored of her freshman boyfriends and starts partying with townies instead. She has a better time with them right up until the point where one of the townie kids stabs another townie kid. Several other songs make reference to the incident, either overtly or using the metaphor of a crucifixion. Stay Positive is more subtle in some ways than earlier Hold Steady albums; there is more loving interplay between instruments, and Finn’s lyrics get to stretch out a bit and revel in the detail more than previously. Franz Nicolay claimed it as his favourite Hold Steady album and left in 2010, stating that he’d achieved everything he wanted to achieve with the band.

– “Constructive Summer”

The band always has stellar opening tracks but this might just be the best. “Let’s raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher”

– “Sequestered In Memphis”

Angry and scared, the narrator recounts to the police everything he knows about a girl he met at a bar. Rocks and swings like a vintage E-Street Band number

– “One For The Cutters”

A heavy story about druggy times – like most Hold Steady songs, but this time with more overt murder and cover-up.

– “Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Like “First Night” it’s a ballad, but it’s much heavier and hopeless, except of course for the pyrotechnics that result mid-way through when Kubler conjures up the ghost of Slash’s career.

– “Stay Positive”

A retrospective and a fan thank-you, of sorts. “The kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own, and the sing along songs will be their scriptures”.

– “Joke About Jamaica”

A song about growing older and no longer fitting into the scene you once did. “They used to laugh when she said ‘dyer maker’, all the boys knew it was a joke about Jamaica”.

– “Slapped Actress”

Man, we make our own movies.

Heaven Is Whenever (2010)

Heaven Is Whenever is a complicated sort of record. On one hand it’s very easy to hear the absence of departed keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay; there is very little piano on this album, and the atmospheric flourishes that he brought to tracks like “Stuck Between Stations” or “Stevie Nix” are sorely missing. On the other hand, Kubler steps in to fill the void admirably, largely by virtue of knowing when not to fill in the void. A lesser band would have attempted to fill the holes with noise, cramming riffs into every nook and cranny in the songs. Kubler shows restraint instead, choosing to forge ahead with a more straight-forward guitar-rock cribbed directly from the Boss and Thin Lizzy. Most of the songs are built
around bouncy riff figures that breathe rather than oppress; a track like “Rock Problems” seems exuberant despite its troubled protagonists and his tasteful ghost-notes in the background of “We Can Get Together” add a sort of the atmosphere that Nicolay would typically have brought. Lyrically the album still deals with late-period American observations of wasted youth although there is a sweetness present, a hope that the doomed characters of previous albums never really had. Interviews for the upcoming album (Teeth Dreams, out March 25th) indicate that the album was rushed (which they were trying to avoid this time around) in order to provide an excuse to go back on tour; this likely explains the similar sheen surrounding several of the tracks and the simpler, more straightforward nature of Finn’s lyrics.

– “The Sweet Part Of The City”

The album’s lead-track strikes a deceptively laid-back Stones-esque country-rock vibe.

– “Soft In The Center”

You can’t get every girl – you’ll get the one you love the best. You’ll love the one you get the best.

– “Rock Problems”

A bouncy little number about first world problems of the young and drunk.

– “We Can Get Together”

A sweat-drenched ballad with a lot of musical touchstone. “Utopia is a band, they sang “Love Is The Answer”, and I think they’re probably right”

– “A Slight Discomfort”

Featuring some epic drumming and crashing guitar-and -keyboard to bring the whole thing home.

The Gloaming – “The Gloaming”

Standard

The Gloaming is the sound of traditional Irish folk music being brought into the 21st Century. Part soaring adult contemporary album, part fiddle-soaked jig and reel, *The Gloaming* deals in atmosphere to a major extent. There is a sparseness, an understatement, to these pieces that is the most compelling thing about them; they refuse to wallow in the obvious modern signifiers of their heritage, eschewing the showboat tradition of the Irish revivalism that comes around every ten years or so (Riverdance comes to mind). Instead these tracks build from subtle clues: piano figures, fiddle sighs, weighty vocals. Throughout, these simple beginnings burst open into full celebrations (“Opening Set”, “The Girl Who Broke My Heart”) or soaring near-pop songcraft (“Freedom/Saoirse”). While it’s not modern music in the slightest, it feels modern through cutting-edge production. It’s not your mother’s one Irish CD that she pulls out for St. Paddy’s Day; it’s an album of subtle longing emotion, played out in an ancient tradition by honest lovers of the form.

Grade:  B+

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBkeDCCcPww]

 

Blank Realm – “Grassed Inn”

Standard

“Who’s falling down the stairs tonight?”

Australia’s Blank Realm used to be a lot noisier four years ago, and even two years ago they drowned songcraft in dissonant Sonic Youth-esque noise.  *Grassed Inn* finds them in a much more accessible mood, although it’s not completely certain if that’s really for the best.  The band combines the expansive mood-building of the Stone Roses and Spiritualized with the single-minded drone work of the Velvet Underground (there’s a touch of Lou Reed to Daniel Spencer’s vocals as well) and the amphetamine beat of 1970s Krautrock.  They reach out to make new-world indie anthems but the songs often stick around for a bit too long to make them completely memorable.  Even the key track here, “Falling Down The Stairs”, is guilty of this particular crime; by the time the song ends, I’ve lost interest in who is actually going to be falling down the stairs tonight.   Six of the eight tracks here exeed the five minute mark and I’m not convinced that any of them need to; “Bulldozer Love” manages to make the strongest case but even it peters out at nearly nine minutes.  Blank Realm could use an editor; there’s potential for a great pop band in here, but their kitchen-sink tendencies overshadow that throughout the entire album.

Grade:  B

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BdVJ0dC3IE]

 

East India Youth – “Total Strife Forever”

Standard

“No, no, NOT the Foals album…”

William Doyle can sing, and this sets the English producer apart from many of his contemporaries and idols. The parts of Total Strife Forever where he opens his mouth are the most sublime moments on the album, and at the end of the album I’m left wanting more of those moments, especially when they’re considered against the total. The actual production on the album seems lacking at the best of times and godawfully boring at the worst. I know that it’s okay to use canned sounds in new ways now (thanks Oneohtrix Point Never) but the point is to use them in new ways. The album opens with a long, synth-driven drone; normally this is something I would be okay with, but I want drones to sound textured. The first 10-15 minutes of the album sounds like Doyle pressed a preset, held a key down, and built some other half-baked ideas around it. Regardless of how he actually arrived at it, this is how it comes off, and the album only gets marginally better from there. Scattered moments of decent Detroit techno play around the interminable preset-drone-wash; here and there, Doyle’s voice pops up and we’re treated to some pretty good electro-pop stylings.

I don’t know, maybe I’m spoiled by having come into electronic music all these years ago through Aphex Twin, Prefuse 73, and the rest of the Warp catalogue, but nothing here seems all that particularly special. It’s inoffensive, and uninteresting; Doyle should open up his lips more, because 11 tracks of his rather beautiful voice over this production would be far more palatable.

Grade:  C+

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wL_JE_ksh8] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeMmpfZhNoc]