Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Swan Song

TIME TO MOVE ON: For over four years I've made this my soapbox for musical matters, and you've graciously let me prattle on. It started as a place to post lists, but it became something more. At its best, it facilitated conversation; at its worst, it became a chore. But it was mine, and you shared it with me, and I've enjoyed that. I hope you have, too.

But it has begun to feel a bit shabby, a tad cramped, and like it just doesn't quite suit anymore. So after a bit of searching, a lot of consideration, and some negotiation, I've found a new place, and I hope you'll join me there.

The new address is THISISOURMUSIC.CA . Come on over, the party is already well underway.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

#s 5-1 (at long last)

How has a simple 30-point list become a grueling month-long odyssey? That's what happens when you're motivated by warring impulses, namely "Give the people what they want!" and "Always leave them wanting more!" It's complicated.

But it all comes to a head today, crowned by what my wife considers a very specious choice (did i just undersell the whole thing?). But if she has problems with it, she's welcome to start her own music blog, as are you all.


5. Spoon, Transference

A grower. No secret that Spoon are one of the most dependable bands around. They got relatively accessible on Gimme Fiction, then got a bit more spiky on Ga Ga Ga Ga. Now they're riding a groove. This album is very good on listens one through five, fantastic on listens six through ten, and thereafter it becomes one of the best things the band have ever done. Time-released greatness.

4. Warpaint, The Fool

Art-rock that tastes like a careful blend of Jefferson Airplane and moodier Sonic Youth circa Experimental Jet Set Trash & No Star. No? Grab your "Bull in the Heather" cassingle and throw it into a bruised and damaged tape deck, then see if it doesn't sound a bit like the first side of this album. I speak in terms of "sides" because the scuttlebutt on this long player is that it drops in quality on the second half. So say the blogs, anyway. But I'm not really feeling that. I think side one sets a tone and side two rides it.

The women of Warpaint have locked onto a sound -- Mazzy Star with the training wheels removed -- that works to their strengths. The space between the spongey bass and the workaday drums forms an echo chamber into which they may drop their ethereal vocals (not like Enya ethereal, but ethereal nonetheless). Elsewhere the guitar skitters around, looking for a wormhole to wriggle through. All in all, a lovely set of warm, trippy dirges, lysergics not included.

3. Walkmen, Lisbon

I'm buying whatever these guys are selling at this point, frankly. I know there's nothing more sad than when a guy claims to understand a band, or that they're speaking directly to him, or soundtracking his life, or whatever, so I'll spare you all that, and in so doing avoid comparison to, say, that woman who comes into my store every so often wearing a black fedora and one white sequined glove, asking if MJ's estate has issued anything new. Sad, right?

But you get to a point where you think you've found life's sweet spot, the meaty middle where the things that interest you would've bored the younger you to death. Where things are painful and complicated, but all so very real that you're never once tempted to turn your head and look away. The point when your days seem like service to some debt you can't quite quantify, and yet there's a vague sense of satisfaction in all of it, like you're at work on a very complex project, the fruit of which you can't yet envision but which nonetheless tantalizes.

And the Walkmen? They seem to get that. All that. Every bit of frustration and each small payoff. It's all there in Hamilton Leithauser's voice, in the organ and the guitar and the bass, in the lyrical drums, and it runs through the lyrics, too. The small hits of bouyant joy ("Juveniles") are counterpoint to pretty much all of 2008's You + Me, and they feel like those oasis-like moments in the middle of your day when you forget everything else to focus on a shaft of sunlight.

Lisbon is another entry into a beautiful and ragged catalog that I'll probably be thumbing for years to come (you've been forewarned). It, like everything this band has done thus far, came along at the right time in my life, and thank God for it.

2. Dave Douglas, Spark of Being: Expand

Might be that Dave Douglas and Joe Pernice are fighting it out for the title of most TiOM list appearances (might be -- I'm too lazy to actually tally the figures). The man's a perennial lock, it seems, because he keeps churning out more and more legacy-securing discs like this one. They always sound like "What Miles and his band would've sounded like if..." but that tag is getting worn, so I won't apply it. This time around Douglas leads his Keystone band into experiments based on music they'd earlier produced that served as soundtrack to a film called Spark of Being, which in turn drew its themes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. You with me? What results is much the same as what Keystone has produced in the past, namely warm, hard-chugging and perfectly airtight neo-fusion. What's remarkable this time is the lyricism that pours from Douglas' trumpet; he sounds more delicate and pretty than he has since his Tiny Bell Trio and Charms of the Night Sky days. The animating theme here is the connection between science and humanity, and the conclusion seems to be the inescapable nature of our vulnerability; we are fragile packages, redeemed by beauty, humanity, delicacy. That sentiment seeps from every note of this wondrous recording.

1. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding

Superchunk were already mid-career when, on Halloween, 1999, my wife (then girlfriend) and I traveled to Montreal to see them play at a venue I can't now recall. How long ago was that? Well, they were costumed, and drummer Jon Wurster was done up like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit infamy (backwards red Yankees cap, a t-shirt that read FUKIN GONUTS and a red puffy jacket), and it counted as a current reference. Do you remember a time when anyone cared who Fred Durst was?

Anyway, Superchunk were touring in support of Come Pick Me Up, a mid-career record if ever there was one. In fact, it sounded almost late-career back then, the band having already secured elder-statesman status in the indie rock world. It was a record characterized by more intricate production, hushed vocals and varied instrumentation -- all pretty heady stuff for a band that made their name shouting "Slack Motherfucker!" into the faces of Chapel Hill punks. It was a good album, but a bit of me worried, on the drive from Ottawa to Montreal, how it would play live. They opened with "Hello Hawk" off that record, and my doubts were laid to rest. Where the album version was a bit restrained, live it was a squawky shout-along. There was a kid in the front row wearing a stuffed hawk on his head, and he was pumped, man.

The show was amazing (even though the girl at the merch table thought I said EXTRA large, so the t-shirt I went home with ended up being my GF's nightshirt), and the sounds and images of that night were what I called upon to make sense of 2001's Here's to Shutting Up, which continued down the path started by '97's Indoor Living and the aforementioned Come Pick Me Up. They'd get ultra-bored, I reasoned, making the same old records, even if the same old shows are just as cathartic and exciting as ever. Then they went on hiatus. Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance were busy running their label, Merge, supplying the world with the millions upon millions of Arcade Fire CDs we all needed to make sense of our post-9/11 lives. Drummer Wurster filled time making comedy records, and bassist Jim Wilbur, who is the quintessential rock bassist in that he looks like a math teacher, did I don't know what.

But now here is Majesty Shredding, nine years after the last full length, and about a half a world away. This is a band in late career sounding like a version of themselves from twenty years ago. Not sounding like they're trying to sound like their younger selves, mind you. Note the distinction. This is a convincing evocation of those early records, a return to early-mid-'90s form. The vocals are shouted, the two guitars snake about one another, the drums are bashed, and the hooks are catchy. These songs would, for the most part, fit right in on vintage Superchunk albums No Pocky for Kitty or On the Mouth.

So why bother? Well, good question, but probably a moot one. Music like this exists solely for its own sake; nobody's trying to force it down your throat, or onto playlists, into heavy rotation, or turn it in to ringtones. You like it or you don't. The obvious selling point is that the band themselves are clearly enjoying the act of making it, to a ridiculously infectious degree, but they're not trying to change the world with these songs.

Nope, fact is the world doesn't really need more plain old indie rock like the kind Superchunk once made and are making again. But I sure as hell do.

Monday, January 3, 2011

#s 10-6

Top ten! Truthfully, I long ago dismissed as fantasy any notion of having this all done by January 1st. It just wasn't going to happen. Having embraced this realpolitik, I found I actually slept more soundly, enjoyed food more, and treasured human connections to an even greater degree. It was liberating. That said, maybe we can wrap this up by week's end? No promises, of course. Onward...

10. Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks

The endless cavalcade of priceless Scottish pop continues unabated. The title alone makes this one worthy of mention. The band have tightened up their sound since their last (TiOM-listed) effort, which has them sounding like... what? I'm looking for one of those handy comparisons I'm so fond of employing. How about: Aztec Camera by way of Orange Juice?

9. Vampire Weekend, Contra

Remember when the debut dropped, and these popped-collar prep boys seemed bent on proving themselves the coolest of all the '80s-quoting hipsters? Ha, turns out we had them wrong! Instead of wanting to be the coolest, they were actually pretty serious about being the best. There was a mini-boom in world music-aping indie pop a few years back, but realistically VW are the only band we'll remember from that micro-movement. Justifiably so. The vocal refrain on "White Sky" is a trick that Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo would have killed to have dreamt up first. World/indie/whatever -- this is pop, and it is good.

8. Exploding Star Orchestra, Stars Have Shapes

Sun Ra is dead. Long live Rob Mazurek! Without him we might no longer have avant-big band music with a disdain for boundaries and an equal love for both melody and squall. This continues the streak of records that makes me think that Mazurek will one day be the subject of one doozie of a Mosaic box set.

7. Bruce Springsteen, The Promise

Because this is my list, and because I make the rules, newly-released troves of decades-old material count. Read about Bruuuce's triumph right here.

6. The National, High Violet

During lost weekends and holiday family barbeques I can often be heard to remark, loud, proud and sloppy, that the National employ a secret weapon which contributes to their awesomery. "Matt Berninger's voice" some yob invariably calls. "Nah," I belch, "it's the drums, man. The drums!" By that I mean Bryan Devendorf's shifting-sand percussion work, which can make a double-time high hat sound like the softest brush, and vice versa. The man is a machine. Of course, without all the rest of it -- that voice, the lyrics, the knotty guitar, the feeling that you're listening to rock music that doesn't take you for an idiot and your wife/girlfriend/sister for a faceless pair of breasts -- it wouldn't much matter. But put it all together, and High Violet bellies up to the bar alongside both Boxer and Alligator as essential slices of post-millennial life.

Friday, December 31, 2010

#s 15-11

While you're all donning the proverbial lampshade headgear in anticipation of the ball dropping at midnight, I'm hard at work bringing y'all the next five entries. Devotion! Save a glass and a kiss for me, won't you?

15. Chicago Underground Duo, Boca Negro

Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek -- both busy guys, the latter hard at work with a group to appear further on up this list -- regroup as one iteration of the Chicago Underground improvising collective (they've been a trio, quartet, quintet and orchestra, too) to record ten complex, delicate and intriguing tracks. Traditional instruments (cornet, drums, vibes, mbira) are washed over and beneath by electronics, treated and tweaked, modulated and augmented, but the humanity underlying it all is never once compromised. Beautiful, strange, natural and touching.

14. David S. Ware, Onecept

Ware's sound is scraped down to the bone, extraneous layers sloughed off, sinew and bone exposed. He has been to hell and back, and he squeezes all of that through the mouthpiece of his horn. This is completely improvised. Tape rolls, ideas flow. That deviates from Ware's usual work pattern, and the results are harrowing. Warren Smith (d) and William Parker (b) are along for the ride. No slouches, either of them, but this is Ware's statement. Music as both test and testimony.

13. Tu Fawning, Hearts on Hold

Tu Fawning's not-so-secret weapon is Corrina Repp, who possesses a voice as big as Florence's, but a much smaller profile, at least so far. Quite a year for Flo and her Machine; might 2011 see Repp and her bandmates soundtracking a million mocha latte afternoons, too? The differences are more numerous than the similarities, but the voices beg comparison. I owe PF a case of thanks for introducing me to this band's debut EP; it had me fairly giddy for the full length. I take it the band went from duo to quartet in that time, and the sound also got bigger. Dramatic, grand and brash, but nuanced, subtle and delicate, too. Hearts on Hold is one of those records that's as much about feel as it is sound. Records like that are the ones you remember.

12. Surfer Blood, Astro Coast

Something in the water has surf/surfer/surfing featuring prominently in the cultural conversation circa now, more as notion than activity: surf music, "Angela Surf City," "Learned to Surf," and this band from Florida, where such a thing is at least plausible. What gives? Who's to say. Or care. Probably just a coincidence, but worth mentioning, anyway. Maybe. Astro Coast is a heavily reverbed storm front of pop-punk harmony meeting a low pressure zone of shoegazey noise. The breakers are huge! Wax down and paddle out, and catch a wave, or whatever!

11. The Black Keys, Brothers

Dan Auerbach's voice is a mournful instrument, a bluesy wail, a creaky gearbox, a sonic seducer; it is a thing kicked loose from time to wander the ether and the spiritual midspace between Memphis, Muscle Shoals and, er, Akron. The Black Keys' bluesrock is a delicate balance -- when you choose such as your arena, you risk falling into parody or slavish retread. But these two keep on the right side of that hashed line; they're neither too Zeppelin nor too... what? Raging Slab? Save your White Stripes comparisons as they're baseless and ill-informed. Might as well lump the Porsche and the Grand Caravan together (four wheels and an internal combustion? Check!). Brothers finds a helluva band in full stride, their footing sure, their direction unquestioned. And that voice!

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

#s 20-16

Still with me? Another nibble now from the big list before we break for the holidays. More to follow in the week in between...

20. Aram Shelton Quartet, These Times

I detailed my Shelton fixation back in August. Let me only add that, after spending the last few weeks mildly obsessed with Lee Konitz At Storyville -- featuring another altoist captured at a fairly early point in his career, and with a new-ish band -- how wonderful it has been, over the last several years, to have a prejudice of mine dismantled brick by brick. For years I couldn't hear an alto playing modern jazz without comparing it to Parker's -- and judging it lacking. Same sort of thing occured with Coltrane, of course, before I fought my way out of that. But Shelton's playing has been refreshing for me in this way -- it sounds not like a pale imitation of anything, but like a single sincere, probing voice. Konitz, of course, is/was a different voice, too, and while listening the other night it occured to me that I was finally hearing these guys as players first, altos only secondarily. Might not sound like much, but it feels like a big deal to me.

19. Male Bonding, Nothing Hurts

An album that probably won't stand the test of time, quite honestly, but damn fun just the same, with crunch and harmonies sufficient to remind one of an old warhorse that will appear way, way up this list, just you wait.

18. Wolf Parade, Expo 86

Maybe the indie band of these times -- remember when we thought that'd be Modest Mouse? -- has a third album worth considering in terms of its place in the discography. When I guess at what bands I'll still be listening to in 10 years I feel pretty certain these guys will be one of the few. What the mid-40s me will hear when he listens back will be a dialing back of the prog tendencies that surfaced on At Mount Zoomer, and a move to a more free range rock. Bigger drums, keys more in service of the tunes than vice versa, and something I can't quite place that has me feeling more Bowie than Springsteen (the latter having felt like a major touchstone for the first record). This is a damn good record, even if there won't be as many songs plucked to populate mixes (or playlists?) in the years that follow its release.

17. Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up, Actionspeak

Inside-out postbop from drummer Fujiwara and his band, with much of the out provided by guitarist Mary Halvorson, who's no stranger to this blog (her quartet's Saturn Sings was in fact a near-miss for this year's list). I'm a sucker for stuff that sounds like mid-'60s Blue Note avant-bop (think along the Bobby Hutcherson - Andrew Hill - Jackie McLean axis). This approaches that, but for Halvorson's appealingly unique lines, which veer toward off-kilter, but never topple into the realm of queer-for-queer's sake. Bracing, engaging stuff.

16. Pernice Brothers, Goodbye, Killer

"Ah, there he is," the reader is saying, "Pernice had to show up sometime." Because yes, okay, if Joe Pernice slaps his name on just about anything in a calendar year, he can be certain of at least one thing: it will show up on TiOM's list at year's end. I'm reliable like that. But so is Pernice reliable: you can count on his records featuring sharp songwriting, beautiful pop arrangements, and that gorgeous voice. On Goodbye, Killer, the arrangements are a smidge less baroque, a bit more pared back, a bit more... rock than on some of his more recent outings. But in the end, there he is, good old Pernice. Come to think of it, in his steadiness and reliability he is very much like that other hero of mine.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

#s 25-21

25. Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Michael Gira dusts off Swans to remind the Mile End anarchists who did what first. This actually sent me on a listening expedition the other night, into the remote wilds of '90s "post-rock," instrumental scores to the films in doom-minded musicians' heads, soundtracks to movies never made, funeral dirges for the still dying. Think Godspeed, Rachel's, the Boxhead Ensemble. What amazed me was how much it all sounded like outtakes from Nick Cave's and Warren Ellis's score for The Road. The second surprise was how much more affecting I found it, how difficult were the images of "mothers clutching babies, pick[ing] through the rubble and pull[ing] out their hair" -- it hurts more when you have more to lose, I suppose.

But Gira, and by extension Swans, have more bile than that other gang, more bite, as well as more room for redemption, it would seem. That last bit wouldn't have been true in the past, but perhaps the man has mellowed in his own peculiar way. His own young daughter duets with Devendra Banhart on "You Fucking People Make Me Sick." Classic!

That he cuts songs with vocals is something of a red herring; the assortment of noises and pummelling crescendos that dot his songs mark Gira as the first post-rocker, or perhaps more accurately the first post-apocalypse-rocker, since this (like every Swans record) sounds like the noise that greets the first day after the end of the world.

24. Gaslight Anthem, American Slang

I don't know about these guys. They've turned Boss-aping pop-punk into a cottage industry, earned Bruuuuce's approval, and spread their sound over three full-lengths, all with a bit of a tenuous grasp on the real nature of Springsteenian songcraft. They repeat the tropes, but lack the depth. And yet they do it all with such gusto, and make it catchy enough that you're moved to overlook their shortcomings, pogo along, and hope they'll one day turn out that breakneck cover of "Spirit in the Night" they seem destined to make.

23. Marc Ribot, Silent Movies

The swoon and clang of Marc Ribot's guitar is a sound both velvety and metallic. His solo guitar work, now documented on several albums (2001's Saints being an earlier highlight), is always engaging. Silent Movies consists of 13 pieces that serve as accompaniment to silent films both real and imagined, fragmentary explorations of image and mood that have the ability to lull, please and intrigue. Ribot is one of my longtime favourite musicians (and he's appeared on lists past), a key piece of a number of seminal recordings (Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, the Lounge Lizards' Voice of Chunk, to name two), but the material he's turned out for the Pi label since 2005 might be his most important work yet.

22. Best Coast, Crazy for You

Hands down the micro-trend of 2010: lo-fi girl group pop with a side of surf rock. Seriously. The best of the bunch is Best Coast's debut, a hazy, reverb-laden ode to weed, laziness and young love.

21. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Okay, alright, yes, it is good. Despite my misgivings over Win Butler's single-source theory of modern anomie, the fact that Arcade Fire (the U2 of the '10s) have birthed their most accessible record to date musn't be overlooked. A few lyrical duds ("Business men drink my blood / like the kids in high school said they would") are forgiven in light of the music that backs them. Overall AF have matured, and in doing so they've cemented their place in the vanguard of contemporary avant pop, and confirmed that they'll be with us for a long while yet.