Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It begins...

After the quick death of my website, I think it's time for me to start contributing to the World Wide Webernet again. I realized that when Casey Rea over at SolidState did his shout outs to his regular contributers that I was one of the few without a Blogspot link. So, as usual, I'm a little bit late jumping on to the bandwagon, but I'm glad to be here!

I was going to call this blog "Kitchen Sink" because I wanted it to be a bit ecclectic, but luckily that name was already taken (because it was pretty lame). So instead I decided to try to little Dada trick and I turned on the TV and wrote down the first line I heard. Thankfully, it was trashy morning television, so my blog will henceforth be known as Spitting Out Teeth. It also works well with my recurring nightmare of losing teeth...but that's for another post.

I figured since I've been bugging Casey about creating a "Top Ten" list of his favorite albums of 2006, I guess I should get the ball rolling myself. So here are my favorite (new & old) albums of 2006:


#10: Sparklehorse, "Dreamt For Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain"

This one is kind of bittersweet. I'd been eagerly awaiting a new Sparklehorse release for nearly four years, since Mark Linkous' masterpiece "It's A Wonderful Life" was released. Yet, while "Dreamt..." is not a bad album by any stretch of the word (the songs are meticulously crafted and delicately beautiful), it wasn't what I was expecting. Or maybe it was exactly what I was expecting, which is even worse. IAWL took the band in a completely different direction than previous releases like "Good Morning Spider" and "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot", with Mark opening the door of his little cave of introversion to let like-minded collaborators like Tom Waits and P.J. Harvey in (I'm still waiting for the inevitable Daniel Johnston duet). But "Dreamt..." just sounds to me like a pared-down version of IAWL at its' best and a mockery of itself at worst (the distorted mic vocals seeming a bit forced and unnecessary at times).

However, that said, it's still on my top ten for a reason. There are not too many musicians out there like Mark, with the ability to put a thrashy noise track and a gentle piano pop song back-to-back on an album and make it flow. His music is always so deeply textured, yet nothing ever seems superfluous and the melody always holds the forefront. The gentle electronica of "Getting It Wrong" is like a Thom Yorke wet dream; "Return To Me" has a Will Oldham meets Mick Jagger feel & "Knives of Summertime" is like the best Tom Petty song that Tom Petty never wrote or performed on. And if you need a nice 10-minute plus lullabye, the title track is perfect.

#9: Bishop Allen, "Charm School"

Ok, I'll admit it--I'm one of the many who are just getting into Bishop Allen this year due to Justin Rice's leading role in Andrew Bujalski's wonderful new film "Mutual Appreciation". But after seeing this movie in Chicago this past month, I couldn't get the song "Quarter to Three" out of my head and I had to buy this album.

While it's an imperfect album in many respects (whoever chose the tracklisting deserves to be shot), there are still a few very catchy jems on "Charm School" that you'll find yourself humming for weeks. "Quarter to Three" is definitely one of them, despite the version on the album unfortunately opting for twee artiness over the raw energy of the live version from the film.
"Little Black Ache" is a cute song with precious (in a good way) lyrical moments, such as " keys have found a way to lock me out again". It's also a great example of the masterful way this band can build a song, starting as simple indie drum/bass/vocals song, then morphing into a Byrds-style pop jangle, and then ending with Butterfield-esque guitar riffs that sound like a outtake from "Blonde on Blonde".

By far the standout track of the album is the very anthemic (again, in a good way) "Things Are What You Make Of Them", which had it been the title track probably would have gotten Bishop Allen some major radio airplay. Alas, it wasn't to be, but it's still a great song with an understated but perfectly appropriate slide guitar and an early Pavement-on-ecstacy kind of feel to it. I don't dance, but this song makes me want to shake my ass a little bit.

#8: Akron/Family, "Akron/Family"

I purchased this album on my first visit to the wonderful Reckless Records in Chicago this summer, and have since returned there many times. I absolutely adore this shop, and as much as I hate to criticize my beloved Pure Pop, they could learn a lot from Reckless. The staff is always incredibly helpful, friendly & never condescending and the owners of the store have the staff choose about 30-50 albums a month that they write reviews for, along with "if you're a fan of...." listings. The newest Akron/Family album, "Meek Warrior", was one of their monthly picks, but seeing as I wasn't acquainted with the band I decided to pick up the preceeding album, the self-titled "Akron/Family".

It's a brilliantly minimalistic and restrained album, reminding me a bit of Burlington's own "The Cancer Conspiracy" at times (at least in the instrumental sections). Then, at times, it gets into crazy little jam sessions that sound a little bit "Exile On Main Street" and a little bit Animal Collective. The track "Running, Returning" is a strange but engaging tune that combines a Radiohead-esque lead in, breaking out into a Joan of Arc style straining vocals over folksy guitars. "Shoes" sounds like a collaboration with The Books at the beginning and then takes multiple turns, such as vocal harmonies/clapping/stamping tangent that vaguely reminded me of "The White Album". Weird review, I know. It's a weird album. But a great "put-on-the-headphones-on-a-rainy-Sunday" listen.

#7: Pants Yell!, "Recent Drama"

2006 will forever go down in history (at least the history of my own mind) as "The Year Jay Learned To Love Twee". It was just one of the few musical styles that I could never really get into; it always just seemed so whiny and childish and pretentious. And I hate to say it, too effiminate for my tastes. I'm by no means into "cock rock", but I've always been more interested in strong, confident, defiant vocals backed up by adventurous instrumentals. Dylan, Yorke, Waits...these were my guys. Not some dork hipster in a cardigan vest playing jangle-pop.

Then I was introduced to Asaurus Records. Asaurus is a great independent twee label from Michigan (they distribute a lot of local-boy Colin Clary's stuff), and they have the truest representation of a D.I.Y. record company that I've ever seen. Most albums are about five bucks. The CD sleeve & artwork is all mediculously handmade. And to top it all off, they have gotten some of the most talented and innovative bands around to record with them.

Pants Yell! is one of these bands, and their latest release "Recent Drama" is one of my favorites. The songs are deceptively simple and well-crafted with very catchy melodies. They kind of remind me of a human version of Ben Folds Five, without the cockiness and lyrical self-importance. Just fun "bopping-your-head-around-with-a-cute-girl-in-dark-framed-glasses-and-a-thrift-store-dress" kind of music, but also enjoyable to have playing on a road trip.

The opening track, "Kids Are the Same" are a good example of the no-nonsense, get to business style of the band. It starts off like a shot & doesn't quit. "You Want Trouble" is a hilarious threat, coming from a band who, no matter who you are, you KNOW you could kick their ass. My favorite track on the album however is the second-to-last, "Your Feelings Don't Show" a Belle and Sebastian style ode to not being able to quit a girl (in a twee song? no way....). If you're looking for fun, goofy, nerdy music that will put a smile on your face, "Recent Drama" is a good pick.

#6: Bonnie Prince Billy, "The Letting Go"

I should have gotten into Will Oldham years ago, but as usual, it took me a while to catch on. I've been a long-time fan of independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and when he released a new film on his website, I had to pick it up. It was called "Tripping With Caveh" and was meant to be a series of short films (ala "Fishing With John") in which Caveh takes mushrooms with various celebrities. So far, the only person to take him up on the offer has been Oldham. It's a hillarious film, with Caveh in the depths of a bad trip, speaking in tongues and lying immobilized on the lawn while Oldham trips joyfully while jumping on a trampoline and riding around in go-carts.

Then out of nowhere, this crazy bald-headed hippie starts singing and playing the guitar and I was awestruck. I never imagined that such a voice could be attached to that body, that such wise lyrics could come from the mind of such a young goofball. But they did, and I've been listening to as much of Oldham's work as I can lately.

"The Letting Go" is the latest from one of Oldham's nom-de-plumes, Bonnie Prince Billy. The opening track, "Love Comes To Me", is spellbinding with its beautiful string-section playing off of Oldhams gentle acoustic strumming and the interminging vocals of Will and Dawn McCarthy (who reminds me a lot of Cat Power's Chan Marshall, and doesn't deserve the negative criticism she's been getting for her additions to this album). The beautiful and slightly off-kilter "Wai" is another standout, with the song seeming to fight Oldham's attempts to keep it simple and straightforward. And "Cursed Sleep" is one of the most perfect songs I've ever heard, with the best blending of strings & acousting guitar on the album and the evocative lyric "I dreamed of her inside of me". I really want to take this album on a camping trip; I can almost hear the music bouncing off the trees listening to it in my living room.

#5: Beirut, "Gulag Orkestar"

Do you ever have one of those albums that you've been waiting your entire life to hear, but you don't realize it until you actually hear it? Beirut's "Gulag Orkestar" was that album for me. A strange bastardization of Tom Waits' "The Black Rider", mixed with a bit of Kurt Weill & The White Stripes, it takes you back in time half a decade and then snaps you right back to present day in a matter of minutes.

Vaudeville music and culture are making a comeback recently, and I personally welcome it with open arms. I love the accordian and clarinet in popular music, whether it's a romantic French song, a Klesmer band or just strange German/Gypsy hybrids like this album. It's such a foreign, unbalanced sound and makes me feel like something magical and new is happening. The opening track, "The Gulag Orkestar", is a bold waltz that makes you feel like you're entering Calligari's cabinet. "Mount Wroclai" sounds like an outtake from the "Amelie" soundtrack that should have never been taken out.

By far, my favorite song on the album is the second track, "Prenzlauerberg", which is a strange oompa song that makes you feel like you should be holding hands and dancing in a circle in some beer hall in Romania, everything in black and white.

#4: Animal Collective, "Hollinndagain"

I've been a fan of Animal Collective for a while now, starting with their bizarre, sometimes painful noise compositions and learning to appreciate and love their forays into more "conventional" (as if AC could ever be conventional) popular music. Hollinndagain was one of the few albums by the band that I had never heard, mainly because the album was so rare and expensive.

However, the band decided it was time to finally release this popular live recording on CD this year and I'm glad they did. It took me back to the Animal Collective of old, the harsh and improvisational (but never chaotic or out-of-control) experiments with sound.

The opening track, "I See You Pan", is one of the most interesting ten minutes of music I've ever heard, evolving from what sounds like a cheap tape recorder white noise loop into a electric field of vocoded lightning zaps and distortion thunder. Suddenly, simple two note synthesizer comes across clearly and starts to grow into a simple, recognizable melody. Vocals build, and it begins to sound like a Radiohead b-side being played in between radio stations--a pretty song underneath layers of static. Then it deconstructs again into calm two note synth and a hissing back beat, while an intermittent mouth-clapping chant fades in and out. It's like the soundtrack that Stan Brakhage would never allow on one of his films.

#3: Tom Waits, "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawler & Bastards"

Tom Waits is the man. He's like some kind of relic from another time that we're blessed to have with us right now, a musical Bukowski of the 21st century. He has the voice of an eighty year old barfly with a trachiotomy, yet he uses it to portray rugged lyrical beauty in a way that no one since Louis Armstrong has been able to pull off. And to top it all off, he's the only musician I've ever known who has stuck a live Red Snapper down his pants for the purposes of cinematic art. Gotta love the guy.

While it would have been nice to have an album of new work, the "Orphans" box set was a very nice surprise. A collection of rowdy bar room songs (Brawlers), softer and more poetic ballads (Bawlers) and covers & everything in between (Bastards), this set goes through the Waits archives to make the most interesting collection of B-Sides since the release of the Bob Dylan "Bootleg Series Vol.1-3" set. And unlike most bootleg collections, I would have no problem recommending this set as a proper introduction to Waits' oeuvre.

Some highlights from the set--the raw, harmonica and banjo blues of "Ain't Goin' Down To The Well", the twisted Weimar circus ballad "Little Drop of Poison", and the most creative and re-invented cover from the recent "The Late Great Daniel Johnston" set, "King Kong".

#2: Thom Yorke, "The Eraser"

Radiohead is my favorite band. Hands down. I can remember the first time I ever listened to "OK Computer" on a set of headphones in my apartment freshman year. I was listening to nothing but Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Schubert at the time and had no interest at all in what was going on in modern popular music. And then I saw this strange album cover, all white paint & esperanto & airplane safety card graphics and was intrigued. So I bought it, took it home & it said all the things I wanted to say and made all of the sounds that I wanted to make. It was one of the few times I've ever had a spirtual experience with music.

Since that day, I've went on to purchase everything that the band has put out, from the jumbled pop/grunge mess of "Pablo Honey" to the album that changed the face of popular music, "Kid A". It was always obvious that the songs were in large part driven by the moods, interests and tastes of frontman Thom Yorke, and I figured it was only a matter of time before he released a solo album.

It took longer than I figured it would, with Yorke finally releasing his first solitary effort, "The Eraser", this year. When I first heard it, I hated it. All of the things that I loved about Radiohead were gone--the complex layering of sound, the beautiful otherworldly wails of Yorke on songs like "Creep" or "Paranoid Android"...what the hell is this? It just sounded like Yorke recorded some demos for new Radiohead songs in Garage Band and when the band didn't dig them, he figured "Eh, bollocks, I'll release them myself".

It literally took me dozens of listens to really get this album. And even then, I wasn't fully convinced until I saw Yorke perform the songs live on the Henry Rollins show. This isn't an album of half-assed electronica with some lyrics thrown on it--it's a thought out concept piece with some incredibly complex melodies, meticulously pared down so that only the bare bones shine through. It's Yorke finally having the confidence to not hide behind a perfect vocal range and Johnny Greenwood's layers of analog synths. They're deeply personal songs, probably more so than anything he's ever done with "the band".

Some of my favorites are "The Clock" (though you really have to see the live Rollins' Show version to truly appreciate the manic Shamanistic energy), the speed-rush of "And It Rained All Night" and the heartbreaking "Harrowdown Hill", which is about the tragic controversial suicide of UN whistleblower Dr. David Clark.

#1: Ponies In the Surf, "Ponies on Fire"

This album took me by the jugular and hasn't let go. Another album purchased due to the recommendation of a staff member at Reckless Records, this was the album that single-handedly made me rethink Twee as a serious musical genre and also introduced me to the Asaurus Records label. It's the best five bucks that I've ever spent in my life.

A true brother-sister act (unlike those White Stripes phonies), Camille and Alex McGregor have managed to reimagine their simple "classical-guitar-and-cute-little-girl-vocals" in the recording studio into one of the most ethereal and beautiful albums I have ever heard, "Ponies On Fire".

"Joe" is probably the closest to the PITS (uggh....bad acronym) live sound, but brought to life through some simple organ overlays and a heavily reverbed vocal effect. It sounds like a little girls' hidden private love song brought to life.

"Part One/Little Boy Lost" is the answer to that love song. The distant, in-limbo vocals and phased organ track help to bring autheticity to the lyrics of a scared little man/boy set adrift. It sounds like a psychedelic Jack-in-the-box hymnal, or something that you would rock yourself to sleep with after a bad day.

Following up that angst is "Too Many Birds". I take back what I said about Joe being the closest song on the album to the band's live sound--this IS the sound. The McGregor's were born in Columbia and the influence of the music of that reason is evident throughout this album, especially in this song. Very pretty, but not a standout for me.

"Fairy In My House" is one of my favorites though. The creepy Dick Dale-style lead guitar and bass really define the song, along with the jazzy chorus of jazz cymbals and the lyric "bite the fingernails down to the bone". I don't think I've ever really heard a song like this before; not too many artists are making music like this.

"Slow Down Sugar" is nearly a throw-away song, except for the interesting John Cage kiddie piano & buzzing synth interlude about a minute in. I wish the whole song could have just played off of that.

"New Century Program" is a tainty little pop tune, maybe a bit too cutesy but with some of the most interesting lyrics on the album ("It's the newest filthy habit/It's the new childhood dream/It's the latest contraceptive/It's the new discography/And at the party it always stands apart").

The next track, appropriately titled "Piano Intermission" is the only all-instrumental song I've ever heard by the band and makes me hungry for more. It's too easy to label this a cute twee pop band and ignore the ecclectic musical influences and clever lyrics that make this band such a standout. This track sounds like it is being recorded from an old saloon player piano or, even more appropriately, the piano player warming up the crowd at a turn-of-the-century bijou movie theater. Does anyone remember how they used to have a piano player at the Bijou theater in Morrisville when it was just a one-screen theater (or am I terribly dating myself....)?

"Mimi Come Home" is a cute song about a lost dog that sounds a bit like a White Stripes b-side. Beyond that, there's not much.

"Gov't Brand #2" is one of the stand out tracks on the album. A brilliant re-working of a formerly acoustic-and-vocals only version of the song released on the bands' "A Demonstration" EP, this new imagining adds perfectly understanded percussion, lead guitars and organ to turn this into the song that I found myself humming in the shower EVERY FRIGGIN' DAY for the past THREE MONTHS. As you can probably tell, it's a true love/hate relationship...and apparently it's not just me--director Wes Anderson ("Rushmore", "The Royal Tennenbaums") is reported to be using the song in his next film. And if the opening lyrics don't evoke the joie-de-vivre of going to hear your first concert ("There is an echo outside/Down by the loading docks/The kids have gone clapping/And it bounces back here where we hide"), I don't know what does.

"Sing My Lord" is a lovely little fingerpicked acoustic hymn. If they actually played songs like this at church, I might actually be tempted to re-think my status as an agnostic.

The last two songs on the album sound like long-lost outtakes from two classic albums--"Casey" having a definite "White Album" feel, with Alex's vocals sounding very Lennon-esque and Camille sounding like what you wish Yoko would have sounded like. The final song "Aviary" should appeal to the Beach Boys fans out there, which instantly makes me think of "Pet Sounds" or, maybe more appropriately "Smiley Smile". Great way to end out a great album.

I realize there are a lot of big-name comparisons here, but this album lives up to them. I'm really hoping "Ponies on Fire" starts getting the recognition it deserves, because it's one of the greatest contributions to popular music that I've heard in quite a while. If you want to listen to it yourself, I highly recommend going to the Asaurus Records website & picking up a copy right now for $5. And support your local boy Colin Clary and pick up one of his albums at the same time!

That's it for now; next time I'll be writing up a review of Andrew Bujalski's "Mutual Appreciation". Thanks for visiting my blog!


Anonymous said...

Hey Jay,

thanks for the clarification over at Casey's blog - also very nice list, I remember i saw Bishop Alan here, i think at Metronome, must be 2-3 years ago, and i bought Charm school, and after i read your review i went and dusted it off and popped it in, and yeah it's got some solid little pop songs on it.

My heart though, for the money is with Will Oldham, for my money it doesn't get any better, i was introduced to his music about 5 years ago by a waitress the tratoria Delia, (i was the dish washer.) At the time i was listening to alot of twee, belle and Seb, (K) records, you know the score... and this was completely out of left field. she gave me "I see a darkness" "Ease down the road" and "Master and everyone" i think i listened to I see a darkness, and may have turned it off... then i listened to master, and fell asleep... and i think it was when i was listening to Ease, that i hear a few lyrics that really grabbed me, i think they were the strange sexual references in a king at night, and rich wife full of happiness. I was like... ok, i think i need to start paying attention to his lyrics.

After that, i've pretty much become obsessed, his personality and lyrics so so obtuse, and oblique - they leave themselves open to so much debate and interpretation... yeah, ok, i'm gonna go make breakfast.

Keep up the blogging, i'll ad you to my blogroll.

Anonymous said...

so many spelling errors... i just woke up, i can assure you, english is infact my first language.

jay said...

Thanks Tanner! you're on the mark about Will Oldham; he's one of those musicians I'd heard/heard of in passing for several years, but it's easy to underestimate his skills (especially as a lyricist) until you really sit down and take some time with the music.

CaseytheContrarian said...

I'm gonna spend some time this afternoon checking out the stuff that I haven't yet heard...