Deerhunter - Microcastle (Kranky, 2008)I can understand how Deerhunter aren't the easiest band to like. Their albums are cumbersome and at times sound half-baked: you usually have to wade through several tracks of disconnected noise before getting to something really exciting. Fair enough.
Microcastle was my favourite album of last year. In my mind, nothing came close to the ambition and execution of Deerhunter's second album of shoegazey guitar rock. It's a beautiful and engrossing listen start to finish; the soundscapes are perfect for a walk in the snow. This album came out in the fall of last year and it was my album of choice for those long walks to work, snow crunching underfoot, flakes falling from the sky. It reminded me a lot of early Smashing Pumpkins (moments on Gish, but particulalry Pisces Iscariot), so of course I was immediately obsessed.
It isn't enough to say that Microcastle rewards dedicated listening. It's a sprawling piece of guitar rock revelation, where everything seems to fit together. 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 Bradford Cox appears to lose his steam, Deerhunter launch into "Nothing Ever Happened," an impossible epic about drugs that explodes into an all-out prog-jam.
Another thing I appreciate about Deerhunter is that they always leave enough room on their albums for the "come down;" although their biggest moments are inspiring, it's the way they handle the aftermath that's a real testament to their artistry. Following the massive climax of "Nothing Ever Happened," the psych throwbacks "Saved By Old Times" and "These Hands" are comfy matresses on which to land: the first is an ode to the past, while the latter describes the dangers of inaction, on growing old and becoming ineffective. Deerhunter offer a world of to get lost in. Yeah there's drugs, but one thing is certain: once Microcastle draws you inside, there’s no getting out.
Menomena - Friend and Foe (Barsuk, 2007)Friend and Foe is a deceptive straighforward album; at first, it sounds like inventive indie-rock, but sooner or later one begins to notice the careful composition, the openings for new sounds and rhythms, the way each song flows into the next, the thoughtful lyrics, the confusion of sacred and profane and the quality of production. Destined to be overlooked, this was an album that kept revealing something new with each listen. I love bands that use the saxophone well (see TV on the Radio) and are this conscious of different rythmic sounds and patterns; I love Menomena.
The brilliant "Rotten Hell" has become a darkly satisfying sing along for my friends and I, while a song like "The Pelican," which again brings to mind TV on the Radio for its carefully exposed aggression (the wild vocals), and the way it nearly spins out of control, has only become more interesting because I've recently learned that the pelican is part of a symbolic tradition in Christian art. It's meant to represent Christ's sacrifice: there is a myth that, in order to feed its young, the mother bird turns her head inward to pierce her own breast; the blood spills and the young are fed. I'm pretty sure, this isn't what the songs supposed to be about, but with that explanation in mind, that screamed line, which recurrs through out the song ("Take it!") seems strangely appropriate.
The songs on Friend and Foe seem divinely inspired and then beautfully and blasphemously deconstructed. It's only three guys! How do they do it?
Grizzly Bear - Yellow House (Warp, 2006)Unlike this year's Veckatimest (see my "Top 20 Albums of 2009"), Yellow House isn't really a pop album. It has moments, sure, but the songs that do emerge from these folkey soundscapes have more in common with prog-rock than pop music. I'm probably overstating the case. Yellow House is, like all their work, full of choirboy vocals, instrumental sophistication and haunting atmospheres. Their sound is all that unique anymore, but no one does it better than Grizzly Bear and I, for one, am glad they're finally getting the attention they deserve, whether it comes from some anonymous blogger or from Jay-Z.
I first encountered Grizzly Bear through a mix my sister sent me while I was out treeplanting in B.C. "On a Neck, On a Spit" was the song she included and it blew me away: epic and uplifting, it finally erupts into a tight acoustic love song ("each day spend it with you, all my time spend it with you..."). From that moment on I held a lot of anticipation for the release of their second album, Yellow House, scheduled to arrive that autumn. On first listen, I was a bit let down; this wasn't like the song I'd spent my summer listening to: it was slow, brooding, eerie and depressing (see the mid-album waltz "Maria," which seems like it was meant for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie). Suffice it to say, it wasn't long till I had completely immersed myself in songs like "Colorado" (another waltz built around a grand piano) and "Lullaby."
Seeing them open for TV on the Radio in Fargo, ND solidified my love for this band. Not only were they studio wizards, they know their instruments like experts and sing together like intimates. Veckatimest may have been overhyped but it continues their winning streak. It's still safe to say, "No One Does it Better."