more belated capsules: Camera Obscura, M. Ward, Man Man
Camera Obscura, Let's Get Out Of This Country - Camera Obscura live in some kind of pop culture vidiot universe where it is OK to have virtually damn near every song start from a reference point and build to an actual emotion: the opener "Lloyd I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" is a shoutout to Lloyd Cole's "Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?", followed by the punning "Tears For Affairs" and two tracks later by a heartfelt tribute to the obscurely remembered "Dory Previn."
It's all misleading frippery though: Camera Obscura aren't smart-ass formalists reshuffling modes, nor do they really mine reference points for all their worth, never truly recontextualizing them. (It's the musical equivalent of hanging obscure film poster in the background of scenes — where no one but other cultists will recognize them — for no real reason other than to score geek reference points.) They write pretty songs, but the album is challenging, densely laced with distant-sounding drums and wavery organs that sound slightly out-of-tune. Camera Obscura take long (minute+) instrumental breaks, spaces which seem empty at first but expand with repeated listens; there are few more gorgeous moments in pop music this year than the extended trumpet solo over quiet drums and interlaced rhythm guitars that open "Razzle Dazzle Rose." It all sounds like vinyl, slightly warped on the turntable.
Frequent comparisons to Belle & Sebastian are dead wrong. B&S is a more complex, ironic band; Tracyanne Campbell is self-consciously morose (check out her deadpan in the video for "Lloyd," which is one of the best of the year) as opposed to Stuart Murdoch's perpetual feyness (and recently assumed ebullience), and her brand of romantic depression is less unisex than the horny boys and girls B&S chronicle. She's definitely female in her songwriting voice ("Razzle Dazzle Rose" is the color she'll choose for courage; somehow I don't relate), which is kind of refreshing. Overall, a super-strong album.
M. Ward, Post-War - Not as strong as last year's transcendent Transistor Radio, Post-War is more organized, which is kind of a drag: I prefer M. Ward in ADD mode. (He also works better with a conceptual hook: Post-War's arc and sequencing are harder to follow.) The songs sound better out of context, but, of course, they're all pretty uniformly strong. Highlights include a storming Daniel Johnston cover ("To Go Home") and the smart-ass singalong of "Magic Trick," the best track of the include-a-sarcastic-cheering-audience genre since the Eels' "Going Fetal." A compelling album, but not a very warm one.
Man Man, Six Demon Bag - I hear this works better live. Regardless: starts off nicely enough with the gloomy "Feathers," all C-minor piano chords with a bunch of what sounds like drunk morose sailors sea-chanteying in unison. But then "Engwish Bwudd" kicks in with the same idiots yelling how all they want is to be a "shovelly-bobbly-gobbledy-boo," which is exactly as cutesy and annoying as it sounds. It almost never lets up from that point, a hyperactive cabaret of drunk, precious art school students muttering to themselves and trying hard to let loose. Maybe they really are madmen live, but this shit is just like a spazzy 5-year-old: you kinda want to smack them and tell them to relax. Gogol Bordello serves all my drunk cabaret needs, thanks. (When they push the sloppiness to extremes, as on "Push The Eagle's Stomach," they end up sounding like a peculiarly emasculated Blood Brothers, which doesn't help any.) Exception: "Van Helsing Boombox," which is lovely, contemplative, mournful and deserves your immediate attention. But it's an anomaly.