[Author's Note: This is Part I in a 3-part series of updates for the year. I will try harder in the future.]
Andrew Bird, Noble Beast: I've always been a trifle suspicious of my love for Andrew Bird, because the pleasure he delivers seems a little too easy. He's got seemingly no problem coming up with dozens of easy-going, hooky but laid-back tunes that please without asking much in the way of your active attention or repeated listens to ingratiate themselves. But I get pleasure out of his work nonetheless, and Noble Beast is an improvement on Armchair Apocrypha and a fine introduction in its own right if you're uninitiated. The closest Bird gets to remotely being stand-offish is the opening minute-plus of "Masterswarm," which sounds kind of like a stripped-down run at Simon & Garfunkel's "Canticle" before slipping into, of all things, a bossa nova groove. See? Easy!
It's strange that it's taken me so long to figure out that Bird's primary lyrical obsession for quite a while has been mortality and obsolescence. I guess "Fiery Crash"'s plane-crash scenario (which gets stuck in my head every time I fly—I'm sure the passengers next to me don't appreciate hearing me mutter "You know you've got to envision/The fiery crash now") should've tipped me off. There's the "homeless sociopaths" of opener "Oh No," "they took me to the hospital/they put my body through a scan" on "Masterswarm," the "wolf with a lung disease" on the (freakin' title!) "Natural Disaster"—it goes on and on. That said, Bird's lyrics would be in self-parody territory if the songs weren't so strong: lots and lots of Latin animal classifications, "calcify" and variations thereon, meaningless puns ("I see a sea anemone, the enemy"), juxtapositions of the banal and the alarming ("arm in arm with all the homeless sociopaths" indeed). It's getting old, although I'm sure he's a whiz at solving crossword puzzles.
The best song is "Not A Robot, But A Ghost." According to a mildly engaging New York Times profile, it's a break-up song, but that's not terribly important. (I actually can't help but think about Alan Turing while listening to this, and the good—deranged and obsessive, but good—people on songmeanings.net seem to get it too. "I crack the codes, you end the war.") The song is built on driving loops that bottom out when a devastating bass-end piano kicks in for the chorus. Then Bird starts howling "How's my living" and, for the first time in ages, his voice leaves its initially-distracting resemblance to Rufus Wainwright way behind and enters disquieting Thom Yorke territory. Calling this song "aggressive" would be misleading—rock it ain't—but it's aggressive for Bird, and the first time in a while he's sounded overtly ambitious. But fine, so I'm vanilla in my taste. It's worth noting that another tension in Bird's work is between the urge for pop compactness—what he does in the studio—and to stretch out and indulge himself as an instrumentalist—what he does live. If Armchair Apocrypha veered too far at times into an indulgent live direction—what Bird himself dubs "erratic and ecstatic" in the above profile—Noble Beast is firmly on the side of the compact, which means a lot of people are finding this record underwhelming and too restrained/bland. Their loss.
Bishop Allen, Grrr...: Bishop Allen have gone from cult favorites to the great arch-Satan of Brooklyn indie rock without ever achieving wide success first, for a lot of reasons that are ridiculously unfair and snobbish. In 2003, they self-released Charm School, which is one of the sharpest, leanest and wittiest pop records of its kind this decade. Justin Rice starred in Mutual Appreciation and played a few Bishop Allen songs in it, which inevitably meant the band would be despised once the mumblecore backlash started. Then Bishop Allen appeared in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, which obviously meant they were sellout whores peddling bland, watered-down version of THE REAL THING, maaaaaaaan. (If you thinking I'm making this ridiculous reasoning up, look around Brooklyn Vegan for a while.)
There's no denying that Bishop Allen have lost a little of their luster since they started; it took me a while to cozy up to Grrr..., and it's still mostly no good. There are some developments that were in evidence at the tail-end of 2006's super-ambitious EP project (a new 4-track EP every month, from which you could cull enough gems to make a perfect hour-long album) and on 2007's The Broken String (which was mostly just re-recordings of EP songs; BA chose some of their worst songs, proving they don't know their own strengths), which I initially wrote off as the side effect of burn-out but turns out to be an unpleasant permanent metamorphosis. Rice used to sing in a uninflected, straight-ahead style that was really appealing; now there's almost always a little quaver in his voice that's unbecoming. BA was always sharp lyrically, but lately they seem very interested in a kind of lukewarm short-story approach I find pretty unsatisfying in the way it aims for profundity but hits banality; cf. a song title like "The Ancient Commonsense Of Things." (Gives me shuddering nightmares back to A.M. Homes' The Safety of Objects, or at least the hideous movie version of same.)
But this album grew on me, partly anyway. Opener "Dimmer" has Rice repeating "Olly olly oxen free," which is undeniably kind of precious for my taste, but the song sticks, cleverly built with guitar and pizzicato violin circling each other. "The Lion & The Teacup" has an even more intricate pas de deux between xylophone and guitar. Some songs are a little shapeless for my taste; if you don't care for the lyrics (and, these days, I sadly don't), there's not much in the way of songwriting there. The songs on which it comes together—the opening duo above, closer "Tiger, Tiger," even that unfortunate Homes title—are catchy, albeit against my will. I really, really hate to say this or be that guy in any way, but...yeah, their earlier, funnier stuff was better.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart: The Pains Of Being The Field Mice, more like. A few months ago, I finally started listening to and fell instantly in love with the godfathers of twee, and now here we have some more well-scrubbed Brooklyn kids with a hot new retro sound: Field Mice, louder amps, more distortion. They're not even bothering to hide it: their response to "This Love Is Not Wrong" is "This Love Is Fucking Right." Despite their stupid emo name, they're good fun, even if they're not nearly as good yet as they want to be. The best song—the only one whose hooks and structure remain clear in my head when I'm not actually listening to it—is "Stay Alive," but the rest is a pleasant blur. Mostly what's curious to me is exactly what is up with the indie music zeitgeist. Last year about this time I was supposed to muster up enthusiasm for Deerhunter and Times New Viking (I tried, I really did). Now we're all into Sarah Records, presumably because it's not as twee if the guitars are louder? Whatever. I can totally roll with the cool kids this year!
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion: Speaking of the cool kids...I used to really despise Animal Collective, but now I'm not so sure. I'd really only heard sporadic bits and pieces of their catalogue, and it sounded messy and inchoate in the kind of deliberate way that really pisses me off. Merriweather Post Pavillion is nowhere close to being one of the finest albums of the year, as people seem to think, but it has three excellent songs regardless, which is more than they've done for me before. The widely-acclaimed "My Girls" has an exuberant chorus as explosive as it's intent on being, and they somehow get away with chanting "Whoooo!' without sounding like douchebags. "Bluish" sounds Brian Wilson-damaged to me, though some people seem not to hear it; regardless, it earns the overused adjective "ethereal." "Brother Sport" has an awesome chorus, which makes it all the more annoying that the lyrical hook is "Keep it real, keep it real, shout out," which reminds me of the word "alt-bro," which I wish I'd never learned. Still, I have to note that while the choruses are really good, all of those songs make you wait for it: it takes three minutes for "My Girls" to hit the chorus, and the other two are similarly bratty about delaying gratification. Much of the rest of Merriweather leaves me indifferent: honestly, all the passages of ascending/descending vocals and rhythmic looping seems like so much droning hippie bullshit to me. It doesn't bother me, just leaves me indifferent and tuning out, which isn't a reaction I generally pursue. As above with Pains, if this is the new more accessible AC—complete with a few songs I genuinely love—this year is much more zeitgeist-friendly for me than it's been in a while.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, among others.