long overdue update
Still catching up on 2006:
Peter Bjorn & John, Writer's Block -Because I am extremely suspicious of any band that's basically obscure (or was previously, and hence new to me) and not personally recommended, I ignored this album for ages until I was having lunch in quite possibly the most hipster-friendly Mexican restaurant in all the world (or at least Williamsburg) and "Young Folks" came on the ridiculously on-the-curve mixes that were playing. It's the rare song as irresistible as the hype claims, a cute hook that plays out as a mating call for hipsters, framed as it is as a whistle duet (!) floating over judicious bongos. It's not too cute, and the rest of it is a calling card of pop sub-genres: these are exactly the kind of all-round dork-hipsters who don't just think it's fun to give shout-outs to New Zealand pop bands beloved only by music critics (naming a song after "The Chills") but name their closing song ("Poor Cow") after a Ken Loach song. Woah. Super-solid stuff, and it's not even necessarily true that "Young Folks," while the most immediately catchy of the bunch, is the best track: that might be "Amsterdam," a bizarro deep-voice excursion with whistles over way deep bass drums, or more straightforward Phoenix-esque exercises like "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off."
Brakes, The Beatific Visions - This is a relatively disappointing follow-up to Brakes' galvanizing debut Give Blood. On that album, 30-second snarky rave-ups only stopped for even better country covers (their version of "Jackson" tops Johnny Cash in my opinion), and the slow songs were tense and odd rather than soothing. The Beatific Visions is more of a traditional album - possibly because Brakes is no longer a one-off side project that blows of steam for a few of the band members, who've made it their musical day job - and that means some songs that don't go straight for the jugular. It's not that "Mobile Communication," for example, is a bad song - it's actually pretty good - but it doesn't take a band like Brakes to make it. Then there's semi-rote sort-of-country-ish songs like "Spring Chicken," which may be a fun challenge for a British band but has nothing to offer American listeners, and the acoustic fragment (it's too sketchy to be a ballad) "Isabel" is pretty useless. I feel weird saying this, but being a semi-novelty band suited Brakes; it gave them a freshness missing here in large part, though present in a song like "Porcupine or Pineapple," which barely cracks a minute while yelling the title over and over. It's also the only song which really counts as a must, though the album is perfectly pleasant. Go back to not caring guys.
and now on to 2007:
The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen - Huge Blur fan, never listened to Gorillaz; I didn't actually think "Feel Good Inc." was catchy until about the 10th time I'd heard it, so I didn't bother. The songs here also aren't actually catchy until the third time, but I guess the difference is...ah fuck it, I'm just a lazy snob who prefers the unpopular. Anyway, with those caveats, this is my favorite Damon Albarn product since the last Blur album: conceptually, Albarn's made it easy by calling it his follow-up to Parklife, substituting a variety of upbeat, showily artificial pop songs for a mood exercise. The Good, The Bad & The Queen ebbs and flow, but it doesn't actually rock in any meaningful sense until the closing title track which, at an even 7 minutes, is amazingly perhaps the best track. It's an album that sounds dull and hermetic at first listen, then worms its way under your skin; perhaps my favorite kind. The 5th Beatle is definitely Danger Mouse in the producer's booth, who works all kinds of subtle trickery that doesn't immediately become obvious; at one point, Albarn is double-tracked, with one vocal several registers higher. It's either pitch-shifted or he had Albarn sing really slow and then sped it up, I don't know enough about studio trickery to say which; regardless, tricks like that are the icing on these brilliantly simple songs.
Air, Pocket Symphony -Occasionally Pitchfork gets it exactly right: "Air can very capably write terrifically catchy songs when so inclined; here, they'd rather create finely-wrought furniture music." Pocket Symphony is Air's first truly ambient record: for all their instrumentals, Moon Safari and even Premiers Symptomes deliver the hooks eventually. Pocket Symphony finds Air's natural technical fixation combined with Nigel Godrich's obsessive studio cleanliness, and while it's easy to appreciate things like the unique roundedness of their percussion sounds, subtle, atmospheric strange arrangements and delicate-sounding acoustic guitars, the songs themselves rarely stick in the memory, making for the first major yet non-essential Air album. (That Baricco collaboration was an oddity I've never heard.) They make with the exquisite sporadically: "Photograph" has a brilliant fake-out minor-key intro that makes the sweet actual song even better, and "Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping" benefits from Neil Hannon guesting on vocals. I've always had the vague feeling that Moon Safari and Talkie Walkie were Air's concessions to a world that wanted something pretty and accessible (including, admittedly me): left to their own devices, every other album comes out weird. And this is no exception, but their restlessness is definitely admirable; it's my fault I'm not as disciplined a listener as they sometimes require.
Baby Teeth, The Simp - Baby Teeth combine hard-rockin' '70s rock with guitars swiped from Queen and strings from ELO. This is better than it sounds. Baby Teeth don't seem to have an ironic bone in their bodies: the music might be at home on classic rock stations, but the lyrics steer clear of rote Let's Rock tropes. "Swim Team" is the stand-out both musically and lyrically: I have no idea what the song is actually about, but it sort of seems like an 8th-grader throwing a temper tantrum because the girl he's crushing on is ignoring him for another guy, and uses the excuse of her neglecting swim team to yell. Seriously: lyrics include "When someone comes to lunch you think that's hot/It's only twice a week, well that's a lot/You're either on the swim team or you're not," all yelled at top volume. Baby Teeth can also do rootsy stuff without getting boring ("Looking For A Road," whose title should clue you in to exactly what it sounds like), and they're all-round top-notch synthesists of their influences. 1 dud track: "God Girlfriend" ditches the guitars for rote laptop pop and comes out empty at 5 minutes. Highly recommended, and inexplicably slept on so far
Deerhunter, Cryptograms - I don't have a whole lot to say about this album, mostly because I don't generally listen to albums like this. Deerhunter come from a freaky world where 3-minute pop songs are anathema and Sonic Youth is presumably as mainstream as it gets; if you've read this blog at all, you know I don't have the right background for this. Only a personal recommendation sent this over my way, and I'm kind of glad it broke through. I can't really claim to "get" first-half interstitial tracks like "White Ink" or "Providence" - loops! reverb! fuzz! - but they sound nice enough when bridging stiff little rockers. I'm not particularly crazy about the vocals - the kind of spoken, would-be tense distorted stuff that's supposed to be dangerous, I guess - but I'm uncharacteristically unenthused by the wordless, nearly 8-minute "Octet," a tense little series of fluid bass riffs that get faster and faster and faster. As widely noted, the album's much-poppier back half gets into shoegaze territory, which basically means that "Strange Lights" sounds like 3rd-rank Britpop - hardly unpleasant, hardly exceptional. I would recommend this album to the kind of person who would be unlikely to read this blog in my opinion. (Noted: the Fluorescent Grey EP is the same shit in my opinion, except without "Octet." Oh well.)
Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha -Not as unvaryingly sublime as The Mysterious Production Of Eggs (what is?), and therefore disappointing in a relative kind of way. That album opened warmly and invitingly with the slow string intro of "/ = /" and lullaby of "Sovay." Armchair begins with the Wilco-esque "Fiery Crash," whose smeary keyboard strings and punchy chorus invite comparisons to Summerteeth and suspicions that this album goes pop. Suspicions may be confirmed by the next track, "Imitosis" - a reworking of "L" from 2003's Weather Systems which ratchets up the tempo and adds friendly guitars to a previously semi-austere song. Armchair, though, is a considerably darker and less self-consciously pretty album than its predecessor. Bird creates songs whose choruses are less obvious and whose structures are more meandering; the whistle hooks keep coming, but they're the only overtly catchy thing at times. After 5 or 6 lukewarm listens, I put the album out of mind for 2 weeks and came back to find it better than I remembered, more of an atmospheric soak than what came before but still every bit as thoughtful in its arrangements and structures. First impressions do prove correct on one front though: the best song really is "Scythian Empire," completely of a piece with previous peaks like the entirety of Eggs and the gorgeous "Action/Adventure." Vivaldi-esque pizzicato strings call up memories of "The 4 Seasons" while the whistle hook and tamped-down keyboards play around with subtle electronic beats. And since it is the best song on an Andrew Bird album, it is therefore the best song of the year thus far.
Blonde Redhead, 23 -The logical, slightly punchier follow-up to Misery Is A Butterfly can basically be described as "Knives Out" 10 times in a row. Unlike Misery, which is basically a gorgeous mood piece, it's slightly easier to tell the songs apart, but if you don't like baroque chord changes, extremely treated drums (including a nod to '80s kits on "Silently"), lots of strings and brass arrangements, and general pussy-ness of all kinds, you're not going to like this. Naturally, I love it. And that's about it, really.
Dosh, The Lost Take
Adem, Love & Other Planets
Midlake, The Trials Of Van Occupanther
AFX, Chosen Lords
The Pipettes, We Are The Pipettes
Justin Timberlake, Future Sex/Love Sounds
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Broom
The Shins, Wincing The Night Away
The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Fountains Of Wayne, Traffic And Weather
Sally Shapiro, Disco Romance
The Field, From Here We Go Sublime
Menomena, Friend And Foe
v/a, Do You Trust Your Friends?
Travis, The Boy With No Name
The National, Boxer
Klaxons, Myths Of The Near Future
Rufus Wainwright, Release The Stars