December 31, 2008

lesser additions

If the "official" list (below this post) is too predictable, here are some others that I have yet to see appear with high praise - albums I've reviewed over the year that, in the end, turned out to be worth holding on to.

Karl Blau
Nature’s Got Away
(K Records)
Welcome to the land that production forgot. On Nature’s Got Away, his second release for K Records, the prolific Karl Blau uncovers a wilderness of odd delight and surprising tenderness. Along with contributions from members of LAKE and Sun O))), Blau allows his fuzzy folk songs to have a life of their own, as he navigates the peripheries of his studio space. Throughout Nature’s Got Away, lush backdrops and fertile guitar lines occasionally filter through Blau’s lo-fi aesthetic, whether he’s channeling the clumsy sweetness of Yo La Tengo on “2 Becomes 1,” or keeping things rudimentary on the hook-laden “Mocking Bird Diet.” True to its name, Nature’s Got Away will grow on you like a pesky fungus.
Blitzen Trapper
(Sub Pop)
Furr, Blitzen Trapper’s eclectic follow up to 2007’s self-released Wild Mountain Nation, is a high on energy and heavy on nostalgia. In other words, it's hard to talk about it without mentioning a slew of other artists. It’s the kind of dizzying swagger Americana band’s like Wilco and My Morning Jacket have occasionally stumbled into. If Black Mountain awoke the beast of 70s psychadelia, then Blitzen Trapper took the mutt for a walk and let it run loose in the wild. On “Black River Killer” and “Not Your Lover,” Earley catches you with a hook before reeling you in with endearing tales of murder and heartbreak, exhibiting a ease of songwriting reminiscent of Neil Young. Blitzen Trapper are nothing if not eclectic and parodic. And it suits them just fine.

I Heart Lung
(Asthmatic Kitty)
With Chris Schlarb and Tom Steck at the helm, I Heart Lung is a drum and guitar duo from Southern California interested in natural soundscapes and droning jazz. Interoceans is an ambient, open-ended experiment that toys with the conceptual possibilities of water in four mirrored movements: “Upwelling,” “Overturning,” “Undercurrent” and “Outspreading.” The album opens with a swell of distortion and acoustic percussion that eventually fades into the sound of breaking waves. Schlarb and Steck navigate between thin minimalism and overwhelming frenzies of strings, horns and percussion. Given time, Interoceans achieves an organic, almost seamless feel, with some surprising textures and playful detours. The spacious “Undercurrent” makes use of an ambient sitar that dances across vanishing bass lines and pedal steel guitar. Each track brings out something new, something sensory and elusive.

Grampall Jookabox
(Asthmatic Kitty)
After the seemingly spontaneous cancellation of a handful of shows, David Adamson (aka Grampall Jookabox) composed and recorded Ropechain, his second album, over just one week, essentially pulling semi-formed songs out of his ass and messing around with them. As you might expect, it’s a cluttered mess of ideas that don’t have much tying them together, besides the Adamson’s Beck-like knack for genre experimentation. But Ropechain is brimming with intelligence, attractive melodies and oddball humour. “Black Girls” and “The Girl Ain’t Preggers” blend choral layers with quick wordplay and grinding baselines, weaving together folk, hip-hop and electronica. What’s so refreshing about Adamson’s work is that he doesn’t temper his ideas, stylistically or otherwise. But it can also work against him. Ropechain reconciles the sacred and the profane with creativity and a schizophrenic impulse to hold nothing back.

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Sunday at Devil Dirt
(V2 Records)
While nearly every other relic from the grunge era is out embarrassing himself with half-assed reunion tours and Timbaland collaborations, Mark Lanegan (formerly of the Screaming Trees) has invested himself in stripped down solo projects and collaborations with Queens of the Stone Age and, more recently, Belle & Sebastian’s Isabel Campbell. Their unlikely pairing for 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas brought them critical acclaim and commercial success. And unsurprisingly, Sunday at Devil Dirt mines the same trampled paths for inspiration. But this time around, Campell is more present in her gritty production work and bluesy songwriting than in her actual vocals, while Lanegan, sounding battered and bruised beyond his years, does his best to channel Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. It’s a considerably darker record than the last. At times the angel/devil formula wears thin, but the slow burn of “Come On Over (Turn Me On)” and the spiritual sweetness of “Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart” are compelling enough sidestep the added novelty that collaborations like this often exploit.
Delta Spirit
Ode to Sunshine
Like all good rowdy folk albums, Delta Spirit’s Ode To Sunshine sounds like it was a lot of fun to record. Delta Spirit dive straight into an eclectic mixture of electric folk jams and well-worn Americana. How it’s been overlooked since its August release is a mystery to me. For the San Diego five-piece, group chants and hand-claps on songs like “People C’mon” aren’t simply frills thrown in for effect; they sound like a necessary moment at a party when everyone comes together for another round of drinks. The latter half of the album, particularly the sobering “Children,” suggests that a more mature, sonically sophisticated Delta Spirit lurks beneath all the fun. If there was any justice in popular music, “Trashcan” would be a staple on radio stations throughout the country. Lucky for us, it’s just one of the many fine songs that make up this compelling tribute to boozing and basking in the glow of neon lights.

Point Juncture, WA
Heart to Elk
(Mt. Fuji Records)
Technically, this album comes out in February 2009. Let's call it my "transition" album. The last thing the indie-pop landscape needs is another soft-rock collective, whose paint-by-numbers compositions revolve around teenage melodrama. It’s getting old –or maybe I am. Yeah, I think that's it. If you share in my cynicism, don’t let it stop you from dismissing Point Juncture, WA or their brilliant new release, Heart to Elk. This well-crafted collection has the power to reinvigorate the most jaded pop-music voyeurs. Point Juncture, WA’s matured arrangements blend shoegaze feedback, kraut-rock and an ambitious horn section that would make veterans like Broken Social Scene jealous. Amanda Spring (who also handles percussion) and Victor Nash (on keys) trade vocal duties seamlessly over dizzy guitars and vibrant horns that hardly remain in the background. This is the third self-release for a band that began by playing house parties and has slowly lodged itself into the hearts and minds of Portland, Oregon’s underground music scene. Heart to Elk is the sound of a band that loves what they’re doing, and it will charm your pants off. An early favourite for 2009.

December 30, 2008

a taste of indulgence to come

Either more inspired thanks to the usual flurry of year-end blog activity, or empowered by the presence of my top ten list in Stylus magazine's year end feature, I couldn't resist starting things off with the albums that have driven me into seclusion over the last 12 months. Why anyone cares at this point, I'd love to know.

1. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont
No album this year has absorbed me like Microcastle­, Deerhunter’s follow-up to the one-two punch of 2007’s Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey EP. Seamlessly paced, Microcastle is driven by a nostalgic love affair with feedback and melody. Beginning with the soothing “Cover Me (Slowly),” Deerhunter’s lazy euphoria finally stumbles into the broken chords of “Activa.” But just when they appear to lose his steam, Deerhunter launch into “Nothing Ever Happened,” an impossible epic that explodes into an all-out prog-jam. Once Microcastle draws you inside, there’s no getting out.
2. Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane
Chad VanGaalen sounds joyfully at ease on Soft Airplane, his third album since debuting in 2005 with Infiniheart, a wonderfully dysfunctional collection of self-produced experimental folk-rock. The Calgary native dipped into the same pool of material for his 2006 follow-up, the Polaris Prize nominated Skelliconnection. Soft Airplane marks a new stage in VanGaalen’s catalogue: it’s his first offering of newly written material, recorded with an album in mind, and it shows. Amidst the garage crunch of “Inside the Molecules,” VanGaalen sounds truly content, while the sublime catchiness of “City of Electric Light” and the ecstatic electro-pop of “TMNT Mask” display VanGaalen in top form. With lyrics that fascinate and puzzle, VanGaalen’s chilling voice is unmistakable; as with his other albums, the artwork, like the music, is all his own, always twisted but eerily familiar.

3. Portishead - Third
What more could be said about this chilling assualt on the senses? Everyone makes mention of the long gap between Third and its predecessor and the fact that it sounds nothing like the smooth trip-hop Portishead helped define in the late 90s. Still, I think we all underestimated them and their ability to evolve and adapt. There's word of a Fourth on the way. I can't wait to see what Portishead does next.

4. Constantines - Kensington Heights
One of the few popular Canadian bands that still wears its punk politics on its sleeve, Constantines didn't release their best album this year, but they managed to open up their sound with an added urgency and made some intriguing theological statements in the process. Springsteen eat your heart out.

5. Times New Viking - Rip It Off
Some can't get past the audible feedback "hiss" that carries each track, but this pastiche of 90s DIY indie-rock is an indispensible testament to the incestuous nature of popular music. Loaded with melody, this helps make up for years of disgraceful major-label "punk-pop" sludge.

6. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks - Real Emotional Trash
Post-Pavement (sigh), but engaging and surefooted - maybe a little too smooth. I don't care. Malkmus doesn't scare me off when he gets proggy and just having Janet Weiss pounding out beats is enough to make this a satisfying "prog rock" album, entact with Malkmus' usual drugged out self-reflexive jibberish - something I'll never get tired of.

7. NOMO - Ghost Rock
With their third album, NOMO had the sound I'd been waiting to hear all year. Always promised, never delivered. Ghost Rock had legs, a jazz record running through post-punk, treading lightly through the afrobeat revivalism that seemed to define this year's releases.

8. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
First of all, its a brilliant pop album that should be recognized as such -with one of the best female vocalists around. Second, its soaked in feedback and sustains the novelty (the irony?) straight through songs that treat sex and alcohol like sacramental fixations.

9. Wild Beasts - Limbo, Panto
Chris Talbot, possesses a tight falsetto that can soar like Morrissey and a cathartic growl that brings to mind Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes. Talbot croons overtop waltzing guitars and tribal drums that never cease to sound like a death-rattle on repeat. Exhibitionists to the bitter end, Wild Beasts have discovered a cabaret in a cemetery, or in the final words of “Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye,” they have created “a requiem in a circus tent.”

10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazuras, Dig!!!
Quite honestly, this is the first Nick Cave album I've really stuck with. It's worth its weight in critical acclaim, not least for the twisted nature of its concept, the gall of Cave's wordplay, or the uncanny work of the Bad Seeds.

11. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
12. Women - Women
13. The Walkmen - You & Me
14. TV on the Radio - Dear Science,
15. - Juana Molina - Un Dia