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.