According to a quick check, this column has now been up 22 times since October 2007, which indicates that the month-long gaps between installments are no longer the anomalies I was hoping they would turn out to be and pretty much have become the norm. This means we’re into February and I’m now, at this very second, wrapping up 2008, by which I mean I’ve given up on my completist efforts. Below you’ll find a fairly anal-retentive collection of odds-and-sods from the year, mostly for my future benefit more than any kind of relevance. (I ran out of steam entirely on this house-cleaning effort—sorry anyone who badly wanted to know what I thought of Van She—so there’s also a “Regrettably unremarked upon” list below all that [hat-tip for the phrase to Noel Murray’s most awesome “Popless” project].) Normal service will resume shortly.
Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping: Skeletal Lamping:2008 music :: Synecdoche New York:2008 film? Kevin Barnes’ follow-up to the surprisingly accessible Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is a monolithic, near-hour slab of disconnected ideas within a conceptual framework probably only Barnes fully comprehends. Forget segueing one element into another: Barnes doesn’t mind juxtaposing Bernard Herrmann synth-strings against faux funk with minimal turnaround time. Discrete pieces of hookiness vie against lyrically-centered dirges (and dirges are what they are, regardless of how upbeat they are); much of it is no fun, and what fun there is is subsumed in the overall narrative slog. Barnes is so unyielding the single comes last on the album. For all this we apparently have Georgie Fruit to thank, Fruit being Barnes’ new alter-ago (“a black man who has been through multiple sex changes. He’s been a man and a woman, and then back to a man. He’s been to prison a couple of times. In the 70s he was in a band called Arousal, a funk rock band sort of like the Ohio Players.”). We also have Fruit to thank for Barnes’ newfound fascination with blunt sexuality, all in the name of shaking up staid ol’ indie rock. (You may also like to know that Barnes is a self-acknowledged Bataille fan.) “I wanna turn you on / I wanna make you cum 200 times a day” blurts the aptly named “Gallery Piece” (maybe Barnes is slyly acknowledging that his “confrontational sexuality” is as hackneyed as a stale conceptual art piece, but somehow I doubt it). There’s dozens of such moments on the album; trouble is, I can’t tell how different that is from an undersexed 13-year-old’s musings (or an oversexed grad student’s), or what I’m supposed to learn from it. (Barnes is still funny: a throw-away I enjoy is “You’re the only one I would roleplay Oedipus Rex with” on “Plastis Wafers.” But he follows that up with “I want to know what it feels like to be inside you.” Oh, I get it now! It’s about sex!) I took up and sort of encourage the Synecdoche challenge; this I’ll have to pass on though. The work to make it all fit together just isn’t worth it for me. Grad literature majors with an emphasis on challenging heteronormative sexuality (or just excited to hear songs that use “phallocentric”) should have a blast though.
Portishead, Third: Hm. #2 album of the year, huh? Certainly Portishead deserve some form of gold star for staging a much-delayed comeback as worthy of respect as any serious album by a fresh new band, and god knows they’ve shown considerably more staying power than, say, The Prodigy (or Massive Attack, for that matter). Even at their bleakest, Portishead always retain a sense of the hypnotic, which is true here as well no matter how minimal they go: “Silence” cuts itself off at a moment when things threaten to get lush, but they’ve already proven in the past they can take things back to pretty if they feel like it. “Nylon Smile” ends with Beth Gibbons singing “I never had the chance to explain exactly what I meant.” So then: deliberate incompletion is our main thematic register, if not exclusively so. “We Carry On” lives up to its title for 6:26, though it peaks with a gorgeously intense acceleration about 2:30 minutes in. It ends, like many of the tracks, playing out a fierce rhythmic groove to its logical conclusion. Early reviews played up how “scary” the album is, which is all relative: compared to Dummy, sure, but we’re still not talking late-period Scott Walker here. I’m limited to abstract comments because this is mostly a very intelligent album that’s very absorbing but kind of leaves me cold. Someone made a decision to let Gibbons’ voice get more curdled and less cooing-centric, which is a brave choice but has the side effect of highlighting the dourly simplistic lyrics, which is frankly a bad idea. Best track: “The Rip,” featuring a bravura, minute-plus extension of one held vocal note without any change in volume or pauses for breath, which is obviously impossible, thereby undercutting the up-to-then airy feel.
Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak: The curious Mr. West’s folie de grandeur didn’t, as initially widely predicted, blow up in his face. If anything, it blew up in Axl’s: in the final indignity of Chinese Democracy’s lengthy saga, Axl’s endless labor of love (metal’s very own Smile!) was handily outsold (in its initial week by a ratio of roughly 2:1) by an album recorded in under two weeks, give or take however long it took West to mess around with additional elements and mixing afterwards. For once the stories surrounding the album might be almost as interesting as the finished product (normally not the case with West), and there seems to be no end to the bizarro shit connected with it: people complained about Kanye’s apparently godawful, un-AutoTuned performances on SNL, but even his Letterman “Love Lockdown” performance featured him contorting in skinny jeans in bizarre and frequently painful-looking directions, appearing for all the world like some kind of emo James Brown, or a less spastic Thom Yorke.
I could talk about this stuff all day, but that’s persiflage. West got away with the arrogance of a quick album entirely in the mode of the widely-hated (though not by me) AutoTune about his break-up and mom dying (in other words, things of interest to roughly no one besides himself) because—despite the fact that he keeps reminding people of it—he’s a staggeringly talented musician whose fundamental instinct for instantly catchy and lush melodies never deserts him. 808s & Heartbreak is, at the very least, slightly better than Celebration: for all its feel-bad vibes, it’s not as self-consciously light (Celebration was fun, but it had the least replay value of any West album—there just wasn’t much there there) and it’s, somehow, more fun. It’s a little drawn-out towards the end—I enjoy the endless, three-minute ominous outro of opening “Say You Will,” which somehow leads into “Welcome To Heartbreak”’s ominous synth intro, which by that point is freakier than, say, any Tangerine Dream ’80s score (note: this is an entirely specious comparison.)—but the vamping at the end of “Bad News” is pretty dull and Lil’ Wayne’s continuing verbal scat fetish almost sinks “See You In My Knightmares.” But most of it is surprisingly good fun, and “Street Lights” is a strong contender for best Sappy Ballad That Works of the year. My only real complaint is that this is the first time I’ve completely tuned out what West is saying: these are some of the dullest, least insightful or clever things he’s ever come up with. Good thing the tunes are so strong.
Truckasaurus, Tea Parties, Guns & Valor: How to describe this? Truckasaurus are a collective from Seattle who build electronica out of antiquated video game systems and other musty gear. They use monster-truck imagery and wrestling footage in their videos. Their last.fm (presumably ripped straight from some press kit or other) says that “fishing vests, trucker hats emblazoned with bald eagles, and American flags-as-capes are the fashion de rigueur for this crew.” They’re not, in short, my usual listening fare. I can’t really claim, after three listens, that I can really tell the tracks apart—all I know is that “Super Copter” samples the sounds of (presumably) a TV show I’ve never heard of called Airwolf and then covers the theme song, which comes out sounding like the funnest cheesy ’80s TV theme ever—but it’s a warm and pleasant album nonetheless, albeit without any particular highlights, which always makes it difficult for me to evaluate things. Pretty much half of the “album” is actually remixes, so if you want a brief primer on what’s happening electronically in the NW (a very specialized interest, to be sure) this is probably a decent place to start. “Knuckle Buckemruff (Basic Remix)” proves Aphex Twin is alive and well and chopping up ambient strings in the NW; etc. etc. This has been my annual underqualified excursion into contemporary electronica.
Bonnie ’Prince’ Billy, Lie Down In The Light: BpB is generally pretty hit-and-miss for me album-wise, so I’m not terribly surprised or bothered by the fact that he followed the sporadically transcendent The Letting Go (and excellent covers EP Ask Forgiveness, plus at least two demo/live things I haven’t bothered to keep up with) with the mostly unengaging Lie Down In The Light, though I’m surprised it was generally received as one of the best things he’s done in years. I listened to this two or three times without it making a real impression, so I played it again while reading the Pitchfork review, which seems more like some kind of detailed instruction manual on which instrumentation to listen for in each song than anything. It didn’t really help: it’s factually correct that a clarinet comes in during “For Every Field There’s A Mole” or woodwinds en masse on “(Keep Eye on) Other’s Gain,” but it doesn’t really help push the songs out of sunburned stasis. The general feeling is of an album that doesn’t want to do the hard work of tension-building before offering relief and hope at the end, so it just goes slack and uninflected from the beginning. But I’d like to say sincerely nice things about the first two songs: “Easy Does It,” the right kind of ramshackle, pseudo-spontaneous fiddle-inflected trot, and the grinding duet “You Remind Me Of Something (The Glory Goes),” which benefits much from a continuously expanding arrangement that starts just with guitar and vocals and manages to make the addition of percussion and two violins midway in count for as much as possible. It got stuck in my head a week after I’d listened to it for only the second time, so I’m not real inclined to question it. Next time, Mr. Oldham.
Department of Eagles, In Ear Park: I flubbed this one initially, writing it off as Grizzly Bear-lite when it’s really a sneaky, infiltrate-your-brain grower nearly on par with The National. DoE is partially masterminded by Grizzly Bear member Dan Rossen, which explains the similarities, which are deceptively close at first. What they share is a firm allergy to full-on traditional everyone-at-once assault: you’ll never hear a one-two drum beat, two guitars and a bass all working in concert in service of a hook. (Also, tremulous vocals I can take or leave.) Grizzly Bear, though, likes to digress and amble before building to moments of unexpected intensity: it takes a bit of work to get used to, but they use song structure as so much connective tissue to make highlights even more intense. Department of Eagles feels similarly about the instrumentation thing, but they still adhere to fairly compact structural forms, which means they’re a bit more fun to listen to and definitely a little less work. They have a song called “Classical Records” where they ask “Do you listen to your classical records any more?” I suspect the answer, for them, is no but they used to be quite familiar with them. At least I don’t know how else to explain “Teenagers,” which is all gauzy in-studio band except for an exceptionally clear piano on the chorus, which plays two chords each ascending three octaves, clearly mic’d and overall sonically and melodically suggestive of a piano concerto, possibly by Tchaikovsky. (The chord changes on “Herring Bone” are freakily close to a romantic lieder too.) DoE take this potentially messy fusion of intelligences and make it not just admirable but fun, which means I like them more than TV On the Radio.
Fujiya & Miyagi, Lightbulbs: I’m probably more entertained by the Krautrock-for-dummies stylings of Fujiya & Miyagi than I should be. Though Lightbulbs isn’t as strong as Transparent Things (the monotony of cranking out 11 songs in the same mode—the closer is the opener, chord-wise, just sans vocals, which inadvertently sums it up), it has its moments: opener “Knickerbocker” is as propulsive and whisper-centric as anything they’ve done (I applaud the band’s continuing commitment to deliberately obfuscatory stream-of-consciousness tangents, which creates its own delirious kind of logic: “Vanilla strawberry cherry knickerbocker / I saw the ghost of Lena Zavaroni.” When I looked her up, I got a valuable historical lesson. Also: “We’ve got no room for Technicolor / Emeric Pressburger said to Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Ha etc.), and downbeat “Dishwasher,” with its stand-up bass opener and unexpectedly slack rhythms, suggests a way out and direction to head next. Even if they become one of those bands good for only two songs per album—and those two songs sound like everything else they’ve previously succeeded at—I’ll always be happy to hear from them.
Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life: As far as things I don’t really care about but which I don’t really mind either, hardcore is a prime example. Fucked Up’s break-out disk has been compared repeatedly and inaccurately to Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come; it’s missing both the strident anarchist lyrics and the sense of musical play Refused indulged in. (That’s one of the few truly loud albums I adore.) Fucked Up alternate pummeling passages with flute solos, drone-y interludes (“Golden Seal”) and other self-consciously diverse frippery that never coheres convincingly for me. I can totally understand and sympathize with someone’s urge to get pumped up by singing along to growly loud music, but it’s just not my thing (aside from “Twice Born,” which screams “Hand up if you think you’re the only one”; what follows is irrelevant, but it’s a nice dose of FUCK YOU I WON’T BE EXCLUDED that I guess is hardcore’s original purpose). I say this, however, a bit sheepishly, given that Fucked Up give entertaining interviews and also don’t seem to take it personally if you dislike them, and have a pretty big tent for collaboration; witness this frankly adorable clip of Fucked Up rocking out with Ezra from Vampire Weekend (!). Godspeed merry gentlemen.
The Bridges, Limits of the Sky: The Bridges are a family band, four of whom are named Byrd, which is just about a perfect coincidence. They’re Christians making secular pop music, and they’re really into Fleetwood Mac. Lead song “All The Words” is mostly perfect, four minutes of shamelessly over-the-top three part harmony and soft-rock piano; this works. The rest of the album isn’t really my thing; Matthew Sweet may be a power-pop god to many, but he’s always been a little same-y for my taste, and as producer he drags The Bridges through the same idiom over and over again, and it’s one (’70s-influenced rockin’) I prefer to dip into sporadically rather than sit down with over the course of a whole album. (You know what this actually sounds like to me? The last two depressive Cardigans albums.) But hey, if this sounds like your kind of thing, dig in; it’s well-tuned all the way through. Should they last, they’ll always be a singles band to me. Probably.
Parenthetical Girls, Entanglements: Apparently one day Zac Pennington discovered sex and found out that sometimes people have sex and then feel guilty and lustful and hysterical, so he formed a band so he could sing in a quavery voice about creased sheets etc. Like Rivers Cuomo’s Pinkerton-era angst, I can’t really claim to be on the same wavelength. Talented guy, lots of neato arrangements—he sure knows what to do with a string quartet and doesn’t just use it for generic prettiness—but the only song I can really get behind is his cover of “Windmills of Your Mind,” because it’s the only song with an excellent arrangement (it turns into a tango grind) yet without lyrical hysteria. Grow up and report back IMO.
Rivers Cuomo, Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo: I interviewed Mr. Cuomo a while back, and for prep, I blasted through his two much-acclaimed volumes of miscellania, and they’re indeed pretty excellent; II trumps the first volume handily. I’ve never been anything more than a casual Weezer fan; they have some really fantastic songs and a lot of mediocre and clunky ones, but I can’t deny that for people my age, Weezer seem to be the fucking Rolling Stones. (I.e., they won’t go away even though they probably should at this point, they have a successful touring fanbase, and pretty much everyone 30 and under seems to know “Buddy Holly” et al. by heart.) Alone II begins with the goofy brass serenade “Victory On The Hill” and segues into a lot of mostly really fun, power-chord heavy angsty: “I Want To Take You Home Tonight” is exactly what you think it is (“I probably won’t see you no more” etc.). I’ve always felt mixed about Cuomo’s lyrics—sincere, sure, copping his lyrical moves after Brian Wilson’s model, but sometimes stupidly so (there’s a confessional song called “I Was Scared”)—but Alone II is mostly pretty tasty rocking-out regardless, mixed with sporadic weirdness (excerpts from the legendary lost Songs From The Black Hole space opera, which I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing it never happened; the excerpts here sound remarkably like Alex Chilton’s experiments in arranging 17th-century arias for full band, and that’s not a good thing) that keeps things lively just by breaking up the monolithic sound approach. Highlights: a cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” that sounds exactly like what you’d imagine and “Can’t Stop Partying,” which is obviously the songwriting collaboration of the year. Jermaine Dupri, master of perfectly crafted R&B vapidity, handed off some typical in-da-club-with-Patron-and-babes lyrics to Rivers, who undercuts the whole thing by turning it into a minor-key dirge, complete with ominous VU organ hum. We’re dangerously close to Dynamite Hack “Boyz N Tha Hood” territory here, but this is no joke: Cuomo uses Dupri’s perfectly catchy words to propel his moody song forward. It’s not subversion, it’s synthesis. Well done Mr. Cuomo.
Empire of the Sun, Walking on a Dream: Sometimes you should just cut your losses and listen to the singles. Empire Of The Sun is a collaboration between two pop-inclined Australians: one is Nick Littlemore of Pnau (no clue), and the other is Luke Steele, a sort of Aussie Anton Newcombe. At least 10 people have come and gone through The Sleepy Jackson, including Steele’s own brother (!); for what, exactly? One excellent guilty pleasure of an album (2003’s Lovers, which is all derivative hooks that stick) and one overblown mess (Personality, which had none). Steele believes he’s some kind of god on earth, when he’s really just a very talented pop scholar. Empire Of The Sun have a full-length album, sure, but I’ve gone through it a few times and it all tends to melt into sludge. Stick with much-feted single “Walking On A Dream” and “We Are The People,” two neo-disco affairs that will never leave your head until you get sick of them. By the time his career is over, Steele will at the very least have a killer best-of compilation somewhere in him.
Vivian Girls, Vivian Girls: A certain kind of music critic has a drooling Pavlovian reflex to girl groups (there’s no other way to explain the Pipettes, frankly), Jesus And Mary Chain-fuzz, self-consciously crude garage rock, low-fi mock-four-track recording, anything that flaunts its brevity, and/or any combination of the above. Hence, Vivian Girls; they’re certainly not bad, but I don’t really have a reflexive response to any of those elements. Vivian Girls pretty much do what they promise to do, which is give you 10 songs in 21 minutes, fuzz it out and sound vaguely snotty/sweet at the same time. I’ll never understand why some people go crazy for this stuff, and I’m sure they’ll never understand why overorchestrated bombast holds a special place in my heart. Really, you don’t even have to listen to the album to predict how you’ll feel about it.
Giant Sand, *ProVISIONS*: By all reliable accounts, Howe Gelb’s been mining his own distinctive brand of spaghetti western-damaged country-rock with remarkable consistency since 1982. In between, he does minor little miracles like providing backing for the lovely Ms. Neko Case (his 2006 solo album ’Sno Angel Like You has the excellent “Howlin’ A Gale,” which is my only other real context for him). This is the first time I’ve engaged with his real claim to fame, and I’m certainly duly amused. “Ready to roll,” growls Gelb Johnny Cash-style to kick off “Can Do,” a dark sort of country rumble, then navigates the lonely ballad “Out There” with equal aplomb. I can’t quite put my finger on Gelb’s vocal style—it’s somewhere between conspicuously-accented baritone crooning and zonked-out carny barker—or the micro-genre shifts he makes from song to song; it’s all one idiom, broadly, but distinguished by little touches from one song to another. (One alarming stand-out: the skronking brass breakdown on “World’s End State Park,” which isn’t that far from free jazz.) I need some more time with Giant Sand’s back catalogue, but I’m duly bemused.
Dominique Leone, Dominique Leone: My official submission for Most Overlooked, 2008. Leone is a former Pitchfork writer, which presumably is at least part of the reason this was barely reviewed; Pitchfork themselves did, and noted that “the majority of Dominique Leone is sunny pop, and as such suffers a bit from over-consistency.” In whatever universe they live in this may be true, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people would find this completely unbearable, which is pretty much the opposite of pop. (It also contains a 13-minute suite not for the faint of heart.) Leone sings in a constant falsetto over skittery keyboards and prefers atonal hooks to simple melodies; at best, he’s appealingly chromatic. XTC has to be cited, but invoking Prokofiev will give you a better idea of what’s actually going on here. Maybe. I find all this immensely appealing, but, as my friend said “Great. Just what we need. XTC with more pretensions.” This is definitely music-critic music—hermetic influences, visceral kick predicated upon your fondness for what it’s constructed out of, and it would annoy hypothetical listeners at least as much as The Fiery Furnaces. Approach with caution.
Listened to, regrettably unremarked upon: Boduf Songs, Danny!, Wale, Monkey, Times New Viking, Cut Copy, Giant Sand, Jeremy Jay, Max Tundra, Van She, Sebastien Tellier, Amadou & Mariam, Deerhunter, Dj/Rupture, Air France, Carrie, Johnny Flynn, Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, PAS/CAL, Quiet Village, Van She, The Last Shadow Puppets, Hercules And Love Affair, The Rosebuds, Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire, Guillemots, Shearwater.