Top albums of 2007

Well, here it is. I tried, throughout the course of the past few months, to review as many of the albums that I have heard this year that I could. This has been quite a year for new music, a year that caught me by surprise. I did not realize all of the great albums that came out until about mid November. Many of the albums that I heard I did not get until several months after they were released. These are the ones that got the most spins, and for good reason. Here they are in order, well reverse order, to heighten the suspense.

I had to go with 15 because I really couldn’t narrow it down any further. If there is a problem, please write your congressman.

Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam15.) Animal Collective -“Strawberry Jam”
This band out of Baltimore turned out a great electronic, rock, noise album this year in “Strawberry Jam”. The hooks are just as catchy and the vocals are at times soaring and hopeful and at others thoughtful or just plain surreal. It’s always interesting to see how a band operates outside of the “rock” idiom, and the Collective definitely make things interesting. It is unclear as to the instrumentation in each of the songs. Sound manipulation plays a more important role than that of a “drum part” a “guitar part” and verse-chorus-verse structure. Working in the experimental genre can be a tricky balancing act but the Animal Collective do it well. Just the right amount of reaching out and trying new things and straight up classic “good songwriting”.

14.) Marnie Stern – “In Advance of the Broken Arm”Marnie Stern - “In Advance of the Broken Arm”

For me this album came out of nowhere. Kirstie was shooting her for Venus and told me about this crazy two-hand tapping technique that Marnie used. My brother said it was like Maps and Atlases and I can see the connection with her densely contrapuntal and layered guitar sound and vocals that are alternately screamed and sung Marnie’s sound is quite unlike anything else that I have ever heard before. Her lyrics speak of self-confidence and metaphysics and everything in between. The album, however, does seem to weaken a bit towards the end and I think that is going to be quite a challenge to follow up an album like this with a set of songs that are equally intense and interesting without beating the style to death. The use of Hella’s Zach Hill on drums is the perfect choice, as his all out assault on the drums is the perfect match for Stern’s continuously moving and perfectly articulated guitar textures.

13.) Battles – “Mirrored”Battles - “Mirrored”
The clean and precise production on this album speaks of its straddling the line between prog-rock and jazz-fusion. Like Interpol, or Marnie Stern for that matter, the guitars of Battles create a very layered and contrapuntal sound that creates as much forward motion as to propel the listener through a 10 minute track without getting bored. Many of the tunes on this album don’t rely specifically on the talents of one member in particular but as the band truly working as a single unit. The track “Tonto” is a perfect example of this with it’s slow and controlled build up and the perfectly engineered dénouement that closes the track with a gradual slowing of the tempo until everything dies away the way that the track began. There is attention paid to the form of each piece on this album, as well as the form of the album as a whole, with opening and closing tracks working together to form perfect bookends. The album is quite demanding on the listener though, by the end I usually feel rather worn down. This is not quite mindless background music, it is pretty heady and well thought out music that may only appeal on certain levels to true music dorks.

12.) Liars – “Liars”Liars - “Liars”
The follow up to the sparse, hallucinogenic inspired tomes of “Drums Not Dead”, “Liars” finds these Australian crazies synthesizing all that they have accomplished to date. Tracks like “Freak Out” still feature out of tune guitars, but with a funky bass groove that would remind fans of early work such as “Mr. You’re on Fire Mr.”. Elements from their more far out and experimental albums is still present in some tracks like “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Dumb in the Rain” but for the most part, from what I can tell, this is just an album of great songs. There is no hint of a super-intellectual story-telling going on in this album, which is great. This album was the perfect decision for Liars to follow up an early-Sonic Youth-esque stage in their careers, get back on track with some really catchy, yet characteristic songs and probably continue to frighten audiences around the world with their astounding live performances. If you ever have the opportunity to catch this band live I would suggest it highly.

11.) Caribou – “Andorra” Caribou - “Andorra”
Simply put the songs on this album are great. I know that that is a cop-out, as, well, it is obvious that I find the songs great on this album, why else would I put it on my year end best-of list? But I find it to stand out particularly from this years other contenders partly because of it’s seeming stance to bring back the Motown production sound, mixed with a little bit of Phil Spector. The reverb used on this album, along with the sleighbells (particularly the ones heard on the opening track) make it sound like a forward thinking relic of an album. I can’t imagine that there was too much state of the art equipment used in the making of this album, though I could be very wrong. I just really like the authentic sound of this album. One could imagine that this would eventually happen with Caribou, as there are strands of this sound in development in “The Milk Of Human Kindness” though this album benefits from tighter songwriting and less tinkering in an instrumental abyss than past work. This album is a great step forward and according to people I know that have seen Caribous live since this album came out he is definitely an act worth catching.

10.) The Bad Plus – “Prog”The Bad Plus
Cracking my Top 10 is an album closer to the stylings of jazz than anything else. The performance ability of each of the three guys in The Bad Plus is absolutely amazing. They are all masters in their own right, working closely together as composers and performers. This album of covers (yes, it is that good, that I would even consider an album of mostly cover songs shows how great this album actually is) with a few original compositions mixed in for good measure is quite amazing. Covers of David Bowie, Rush and Tears for Fears mix seamlessly with original compositions. The covers are each treated to their own very unique process, parts are added and solos are taken to a whole new level of virtuosity. Though this album clearly stands squarely in the jazz idiom there is a rock sensibility that touches upon each song on the album. The precision, attention to detail and high standard for excellent performance stems from three well-trained jazz musicians but the reckless energy of rock stands behind everything.

9.) Thurston Moore – “Trees Outside the Academy”Thurston Moore - “Trees Outside the Academy”
The latest solo release from Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore is, obviously, quite similar in style to many of the songs that he recently penned for SY’s “Rather Ripped” but there is a more simple style at work when he is without his cohorts. Thurstons strips down the guitars a lot, and the result is a much more clear and relaxed album. The addition of violin is a nice touch, and actually is the element that truly sets the songs quite a far distance apart from anything Sonic Youth has done. This album also shows that Thurston has evolved quite a bit from the “Psychic Hearts” days, the songs here are more focused and calm, but his punk energy still shines through. He’s getting older but he’s always going to be the coolest guy on the planet.

8.) Field Music – “Tones of Town”Field Music - “Tones of Town”
Much like The Futureheads Field Music has a densely layered and contrapuntal sound that sounds like the next generation of 70’s prog rock. Obviously heavily influenced by Yes and other bands of that era these Brits manage to pack quite a lot of excitement and energy into a very diverse album of very catch tunes. This album, for me, was a late entry in my year end lineup and if I was given more time with it I’m sure it would be much higher up on my list. Each song is great in its own way, and it sounds wonderful too, great production quality. I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to their first album, as I didn’t know that they existed prior to November but I am definitely going to make it a point to look into this band further.

7.) Cuff the Duke – “Sidelines of the City”Cuff the Duke - “Sidelines of the City”
I truly think that Cuff the Duke can do no wrong. They are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. Every song that I have heard from them is great. They jump comfortably from genre to genre and sound great and confident no matter what they are doing. The lead singer has a unique, very instantly recognizable voice. The instruments change up a bit from time to time. This time out the opening track adds a single violin playing in a folk style, country inflicted (as many of their songs are) and truly sounding like an American folk-tune. This is an album that I never skip a track on, and I have listened to this album many many times in the past few months. I am already looking forward to their next effort. Unfortunately they aren’t too popular in the U.S. and seeing them any time soon would probably be a dream. To me seeing Cuff the Duke would be a legendary, unforgettable event, though to many Canadians I’m sure that it is just commonplace. Check out this band! You will not be disappointed.

6.) The Good, The Bad and The Queen – “The Good, The Bad and The Queen”The Good the Bad and the Queen - “The Good the Bad and the Queen”
An incredibly dark album about war, times of frustration, uncertainty and suffering. This is a great album, if it all is kind of the same sound over and over again. Each of the songs put you in a place that is dark with a sense of foreboding doom. I have never heard an album that sounds like this before and I am almost positive that this super group of sorts will not be putting out another album, or if they do it will not be anytime soon. I am quite jealous of Damon Albarn’s ability to crank out music all over the place with several different projects going at once it seems. Each of the tracks on this album feel monumental, noteworthy and legendary I would place it higher, but like I said, each of the songs sort of sound a bit the same, thankfully they are all excellent.

5 .) Menomena – “Friend and Foe”Menomena - “Friend and Foe”
Menomena is a great group of musicians, in case you didn’t know. Three guys, all great songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, sharing singing and songwriting duties. They are just as tight live as they are on record. Each of the guys has a distinctive songwriting voice and several instruments are used to create a lush sound. Tracks range from the tragic to the imploring, light and gentle to dark and unnerving. Whenever a band chooses to operate in this manner it can be just what is needed to propel an album through to the end, a distinct amount of variety. Their sound is distinct, to say the least, yet they don’t stray too far from tried and true forms and catchy hooks. What it really comes down to is that these guys are fantastic songwriters and great instrumentalists. This is another album that has been in heavy rotation on my itunes for months and months, and will continue in this manner for a long time to come I’m sure.

4.) Joel Plaskett Emergency – “Ashtray Rock”Joel Plaskett - “Ashtray Rock”
Another album from a fantastic songwriter and amazing guitarist. I don’t even care if he rips off Jimmy Page left and right, it’s fun and it sounds great and he does it well and that’s all I care about. Have you heard Jimmy Page lately, he sounds like shit, but I digress. Joel can write a song about anything, I’m convinced, after seeing him live twice and watching him rewrite lyrics on the spot. He has strung this album into a series of songs that tell a rather simple story, not sure if it’s a true story or not but that is nearly beside the point. The album is so well thought out and well put together and every song is catchy as hell and great (yes even Fashionable People, I happen to love that song). Plaskett blasts through each song with a mind boggling array of guitar sounds and at the same time jumping from inspiration to inspiration making the album truly sound like a recollection from his childhood. This album is also proof that if an album is made by someone that truly has fun while playing music the album will be fun to listen to and in general great, it’s contagious. I could go on for days about how great this album is and how much I love Joel, but I won’t, if you haven’t heard this album, go now and listen.

3.) Interpol – “Our Love to Admire”Interpol - “Our Love to Admire”
New York City neo-shoegaze turned gloomy math-rock band Interpol just keep getting better. Does it matter that it takes them 3 years to create an album? They hardly toured for the better part of 2 years, didn’t do any interviews, were not on TV and when they emerge Carlos D. has a creepy mustache and the guys have put together a truly mindblowing album of thoughtful and complex tunes with cryptic lyrics. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I listened to this album when it first came out. The album itself got into my bones like a virus, slowly working it’s way out from “The Heinrich Maneuver” and eventually spreading to the rest of the album. I couldn’t get enough and soon I was hooked, listening to it everywhere and several times a day. I would say more things about the album in detail, but I think I already did a pretty good job of that here.

2.) Radiohead – “In Rainbows”Radiohead - “In Rainbows”
Well if I had any indie cred I am apparently about to shoot it out the window. I don’t know why hating Radiohead seems to be the cool, hipster thing to do these days, but you can not deny that these Brits can write an absolutely phenomenal album, without a doubt. I, no exaggeration, listened to this album 10 times a day for at least 2 weeks immediately following its release. Not a bad second, no complaints, nothing that I could possibly imagine changing. The gentle lulling of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” featuring a great, closely voiced double guitar line is my favorite of the album. The closing track “Videotape” is reminiscent of other Radiohead closing tracks. This is a truly great album, it is an important album and if you are not listening to it because you think they are too popular or you want to be different and it seems that everyone loves Radiohead, well, pull your head out of your fucking ass, swallow your pride and listen to this album. It will blow your mind. It is legendary. No joke. Next.

1.) Spoon – “Ga ga ga ga ga”Spoon - “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”
The best album of the year happens to have the worst title of any album, ever. Whatever. I have already talked about this album here. This is a great improvement from their last album “Gimme Fiction” a truly overblown, overdone near piece of garbage. “Ga ga ga ga ga” is stripped down, intelligent and great from cover to cover. Nothing truly mindblowing here, just great rock tunes that position Spoon, I feel, much in the same place that Sonic Youth was upon the release of Daydream Nation. Spoon has become the indie band that any other smart indie band wants to be like. They have a large following, are writing great songs, have been at it a while and became the talk of the town after this album was released. I am hoping that the electricity that I felt when they were playing Saturday Night Live was not imagined. I want to believe that not only did they play perfectly but that they connected with the home audience and got some more, well deserved fans. This album sounds fantastic and I am still obsessed with it, and that will last a long long time I’m sure. I am probably the only one that has this at the top of their list, but as Brit says “you got no fear of the underdog, that’s why you will not survive”.

The Bad Plus – Prog

The Bad Plus

I love a group of musicians that can get together and just play. There may be an umbrella style that they fit under, but when it comes down to it there are all sorts of influences involved. Genre-bending, undefinable, whatever you want to call it. Animal Collective, Cuff the Duke, Of Montreal, Eighth Blackbird, Sonic Youth, Beck, Les Georges Leningrad and The Bad Plus are all bands that are impossible to solidly nail down to one particular genre. Sure Sonic Youth is “rock” but they sound nothing like the Flaming Lips, who could also be categorized in the same way. Speaking of which, how the hell would one categorize the Flaming Lips anyway….

That is neither here nor there. If you have not checked out the latest release from the super talented, jazz inflicted-rock inspired prodigious talents The Bad Plus, then you owe yourself. There are far too many things going on in this album to be able to point out in one blog-post, but leave it to me to try anyway.

Although I am never usually a fan of cover songs, I suppose that the exception to the rule would be when bands decide to try something totally new with their cover versions. The versions of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, which opens the album, “Life on Mars” and “Tom Sawyer” fit flawlessly amidst original tunes “Physical Cities” (more on this tune later…) “Thriftstore Jewelry” and “Mint”.

The album floats effortlessly by, without a hint of pretension. One can tell after listening to this album (and watching some footage of them on ye olde Youtube) that this is a group of 3 very talented individuals that simply has fun playing music. From my understanding they record their albums with a limited use of overdubs, putting this fairly close to a live-in-studio album (obvious overdub on “Life On Mars” but other than that I can’t spot any). Because of this the album is not flawless, it is real. This album is amazing because of this. It lacks the overproduced, overperfected and factory produced albums that are cranked out every day.

Pianist Ethan Iverson masterfully rips through a piano solo with as much excitement as anyone with an electric guitar has ever done. Taking a listen to “Tom Sawyer” you would think that Iverson has two brains, with brilliantly voiced right hand lines emerging over the top of an extremely busy yet acutely articulated left hand accompaniment. They imaginatively incorporate their own material into the song so flawlessly you would be led to believe that Geddy Lee and co. meant to do it in the first place over 25 years ago.

The Bad Plus“Life on Mars” builds to a fiery crescendo with grand octaves and the entire ensemble playing out as if they were trying to fill a stadium without the aid of amplification while drummer David King plays with pinpoint accuracy and mathematical complexity. “Mint” remains somewhat restrained, not coming off quite as dynamic as the rest of the album, but providing the listener with a well deserved break. Some light whimsy to help digest the monstrously progged out “Physical Cities”.

“Physical Cities” deserves a post to itself. This is a prog fans dream. The final three minutes of this track are among the most rhythmically intense and demanding I have ever heard. I realize that there is a pattern at work, there must be, and I think that I have found the beginning of it, but it is the longest most complex combination of syncopations and tuplets I have ever heard. When King lays down a solid drumbeat over top, alternating accents with the kick drum it is absolutely unbelievable. Musicianship to such a high caliber that everyone I have let listen to it says something to the effect of “how do they do that?” or simply “nooooo”. But believe it folks, there are still real live musicians out there that value true showmanship and virtuosity.

If you don’t believe that music can be serious and fun then you should check out closing track “1980 World Champion”, a fast paced, swinging jaunt that uncovers the answer to the question, “What would it sound like if Buddy Rich tried to write the theme to the olympics”. The song gets off to a rolling start, breaks down into bombast and then launches forward once again.

“Thriftstore Jewelry” is another lighter tune like “Mint” that sounds like something Page McConnell might try, though The Bad Plus are able to take their forms to new levels rather than simply wandering around in mundane cliches before cascading in a downward spiral towards boring repetitive stagnation. It is worth noting that I, personally, find it fun that the end of “This Guy’s in Love With You” features a recapitulation of the rhythmic material originally found in “Physical Cities”. These guys truly are having fun with their art.

An amazingly well formed album played extraordinarily well by a group of 3 phenomenal musicians.
Continue reading The Bad Plus – Prog

Listening to Jandek

A few weeks ago a friend gave me a recording of various albums by reclusive, outsider musician superstar Jandek. If you don’t know anything about Jandek, and you are interested, there is quite a back story involved. A good place to start is with the wikipedia article about him. Although I usually stay away from wikipedia for anything even quasi-“research” related, there is such scant information about the man anywhere that this is pretty much the authority, along with a very detailed fansite, done fastidiously by Seth Tisue (http://tisue.net/jandek/). Seth’s site includes vary detailed descriptions of many of the albums, ordering info and what not in case you are interested.

Basically the story is that there is a guy, living in Houston, Texas, nobody is 100% sure who he is (though his real name is most likely Sterling Richard Smith), and nobody is sure what he does for a living (possibly a machinist)…but basically somewhere along the line this man, whoever he is, began recording music, alone. He releases albums by himself through a label that represents nobody else called Corwood Industries. He has released 51 albums to date since 1978, and up until just recently (2004) NEVER appeared in public. He gave an interview that appeared in the first article of Spin, but other than that has been almost completely anonymous.

Somehow his music was discovered, through all of this. Somehow people became interested in this very strange music. Through the wikipedia article one can find out what they need to know about the mystery that is Jandek, that’s where I learned all that I know about him, and that is not what I would like to concentrate on in this post. What I would like to discuss is one of my favorite topics: “What is music?”

There are two camps of people basically, amongst those that even know about Jandek. The first feel that he is a genius like no other and that he is pretty damn near close to a god walking on this Earth. The other faction feels that what he creates is not music and he should not be held up on this pedestal that fans of outsider music have put him up on. I stand pretty much with the first group, though I often hesitate to throw out the “genius” qualifier.

It is true that this music is like no other, though that is not to say that it doesn’t have its influence from something. It is clear that the lyrics, their content, their form (where there is one) and the style of singing that is totally wrought with intense emotion are derived from the folk and more importantly the blues traditions of the south, namely his home of Texas. This is intense music. I will say that I disagree with the naysayers that feel that Jandek is just making noise, not music, and that he is talentless.

First of all what we need to discuss is not only what is music, but what does one expect from music? This, I feel, is a more important question than anything, it is THE question. Not just regarding music, this question should be asked of everything. What do you expect to take away from any experience that you percieve?

JandekListening to Jandek requires one to be an active participant. One can not just passively let the sound wash over them, it is not art that functions in that way. This is not the kind of music that one would put on in the background at a part. This is intensely heartfelt, soul wrenching and usually terrifying stuff. Although it is usually assumed that Jandek does not tune his guitar, if one listens closely it is possible to hear that the guitar is usually tuned to an open tuning of some sort or another, usually something bizarre, most likely of his own devising. The early albums consist completely of open strings on the guitar and a waling vocal. Later works may include other instruments, and violent and dramatic guitar butchering. His left hand attacks the fretboard while he screams out in pain.

There is no question as to whether or not this is art or not. The fact is, plain and simple, that it is art, an art that appeals to a certain group of open minded individuals. I will be bold enough to say that I am one such of the open minded individuals. One may ask, “where is the melody, where is the harmony, where is the rhythm, WHAT is the rhythm?”….all of the elements of music are in fact there though, I would argue.

The melody is, of course, in the vocal line. The harmony is in the guitar, the rhythm is in the combination of the two. This is where things get complicated: It is not that there is a lack of any of these elements, for there can’t be. You can not have sound, any sound at all without something that can be deemed melody, rhythm or harmony, you just need to redefine it for each instance. The melody is extremely hard to follow, does not repeat usually or regularly and can waver between only a few pitches. The harmony is not able to be defined by roman numeral analysis, such that music theorists may try, or by chord names or anything that has been previously thought of.

In order to appreciate this music on any level at all one must completely set aside everything that they think they already know about music. One has to listen with a fresh perspective, it’s going to ask you what you truly think and know about music, it is truly going to test your limits. I think that someone that comes to discover Jandek is most likely already pretty deep into music and will be willing to listen with an openness that someone who hears Jandek, say, through a friend, may not have.

Jandek is to pop/rock/folk/blues (whatever guitar driven music you can even think to classify it as) what John Cage was to concert music. He is more a philosopher than a musician. It is true that he is telling a story through his lyrics, he is creating a different world for us to visit while we listen and he is definitely amplifying the emotion and meaning of his thoughts through the medium of music. He chooses to do it in such a personal style that nobody could ever duplicate. If you think that his music is just aimless noise then by all means, try to mimic him. You will not be able to. The music is connected to Jandek alone.

Thoughts like this make me wish that I could start my musical training all over again. One of the hardestJandek album cover things to do is to find a voice and style of your own when you decide that you are going to create music. It is so easy to sound derivative, mimicking everything that you take in. Jandek apparently did not get this memo. Without going on for days and days repeating myself I could conclude by saying that everything that Jandek presents to us should shock us.

Another question that comes to mind is: How does music or art of this kind come to be discovered? It is my belief that something this truly originally, and this emotionally shocking will intrigue whoever decides to pay attention. Something of this nature says something about ourselves, not only is is challenging to ourselves, but it is shocking and frustrating because it is art that is telling us something about ourselves that either we did not know about ourselves, or we were repressing for a long time. How did Jandek know this about us? That is the frustrating and angering part, that there can be someone out there that is more in tune with how we feel and what it is to be human than ourselves. If you ever thought you knew yourself well enough, you may now discover that you were wrong. The scariest things sometimes come from within. Imagine carrying around with you something that you were not aware of and then one day someone reaches in and pulls out this shocking, revealing piece of your psyche. Of course you are going to be devastated. This is the music of Jandek.

He is making us question what we would define as music, and all the elements contained therein. He is also forcing us to think about how that would pertain to everything else in our lives. We should always be thinking about our motivations, our expectations and our thoughts about everything and there should never be a single thing that we let slip by unnoticed or unanalyzed. We should be active in our minds at all times, constantly questioning and requestioning everything that we think should be considered a “given”. Not a single thing in life should be taken for granted. Continue reading Listening to Jandek

Spoon – "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga"

My Interpol obsession has recently given way to one for Spoon.

Well that isn’t entirely true. Interpol went to Matt Good, which went to Of Montreal, and by the time I saw Of Montreal in Buffalo Radiohead had released their new album and I was obsessed with that for a few weeks, listening to it upwards of 10 times a day, THEN I went back to Spoon.

Several months ago, after seeing Spoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July of 2006 I began trying to get to know them in earnest. I knew one song when I saw them, “Small Stakes”, and they didn’t even play it. I stood there, far away from the stage haphazardly filming bits of their set not knowing what the hell was going on, but knowing in the back of my mind that Spoon is an important band that I should know. I soon began listening to as much of their stuff as I could get my hands on. I started with the early stuff, which was not a good idea, because that stuff just isn’t quite as strong as more recent material. Spoon, come to find out, grows significantly, noticeably, with each release.

They don’t really become a force to be reckoned with until “Girls Can Tell” in my opinion. There are always hints at what they would become in earlier releases, but it is not until that album that they actually find their voice. “Kill the Moonlight” is good too, the same can’t be said for “Gimme Fiction” but what can be said is that they are prolific. Spoon is one of those bands that just seems to always be writing, which is a good thing, even if they falter now and then.

They really hit the mark with their latest release, “Ga ga ga ga ga”. This album is instantly catchy rightSpoon - “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” from the first listen. Brit Daniel and company are focused on tight songwriting, and the sound, oh man the SOUND of this album is phenomenal. It’s not densely layered like an Interpol album in any sense. Everything is easily heard in the mix. Each of the instruments take up their own space, yet the band cranks away like a machine. The album doesn’t feel overproduced, but one can hear the painstaking detail that went into creating it. There are production values similar to Phil Spector on tracks like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and tracks that have a more live feel to them, like “The Underdog” where everything is up front more and dryer.

I really enjoy Spoon’s use of reverb throughout this album. It becomes an element unto itself on many of the songs, especially in “Eddies Ragga” where the main guitar line plays a single chord through most of the verse with the big room reverb being switched on and off to mark the phrasing. Very inventive. It really drives the song, grabs your ear and changes the feel of the song for that split second. I have never known a band to utilize changes in timbre as an element to their songwriting.

The addition of horns on a few tracks also adds a new element to Spoon’s sound. “The Underdog”, although it sounds very similar to Billy Joel, is one of the strongest tunes on the album. Strong singing with plenty of conviction, a detuned fuzzed out guitar, horns, syncopated handclaps and an acoustic guitar that is properly mic’d, so that one doesn’t just hear the pick smacking against the strings (one of my biggest pet peeves).

Throughout the album I am reminded of Frank Zappa’s “Absolutely Free”, excuse me The Mother’s of Invention….we all know it was all Zappa, anyway… throughout much of the album, in between songs and sometimes during, it is possible to hear Brit talking to the engineer, to the producer. One can also hear other band members talking, and other various studio goings on. This gives the album a feel of a quasi-themeatic venture. Sort of like a day in the life of Spoon. It appears as though they would like to project themselves as a studio band, based on what I see in the video for “The Underdog”, not to mention earlier videos for “Small Stakes” which also features Brit tinkering in the studio during what seems to be late nights.

This album is fairly solid all the way through. Not perfect, but still great. The best that Spoon has put out so far. They have definitely found their niche, and I hope that they will take more time exploring what they have found while making this album instead of veering off course to experiment. I think that an album like this has the potential to propel a band like Spoon into the realm of leaders of their scene. They are a band with a strong following, and a prolific songbook in the making. There was an excitement that I felt during their SNL performance that was not imagined, Pitchfork picked up on it and Youtube responded. Spoon could soon be heralded as the next saviors of rock (sorry Strokes, Rolling Stone needs to give it a break with you guys). This is a definite contender for album of the year.

Continue reading Spoon – "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga"

Classic albums

Today I was flipping through the channels, for the first time in a long time. When I am at school I don’t ever have a chance to watch television, and my apartment doesn’t have cable, so often times I’m out of the loop when it comes to current events. I just keep my nose to the grindstone and plow forward with my head down, ignoring pretty much all that is around me. This makes the passage of time seem to me very quick.

While I was flipping through the channels I came across one of the extended cable channels, MTV Hits. I don’t know what their normal programming is, but as long as it is nothing like Fuse (R.I.P. MuchMusic USA) or like any of the other MTV channels…..(remember when they promised MTV2 would ONLY show videos?) I’ll give it a shot. Today they were playing Nirvana unplugged. There was a scroll across the bottom of the screen stating that “Finally, nearly 14 years to the day after this session of unplugged, Nirvana Unplugged will be available on DVD“.

I thought to myself, 14 years? That can’t be right, it’s 2007, and this is from 1993, that’s only…..14 years! When did this happen? Where has the time gone.

I remember waiting to see Nirvana Unplugged, it was in this house actually, just over there. I remember afterwards, I think the next day, my brother hooked up our stereo to the VCR and we stripped the audio from our video tape and listened to it in our walkmans (cassette walkmans). We were so ahead of our time, but I digress.

So much has happened since then. I was in 7th grade, now I’m halfway through 2 master’s degrees. My brother was a Sophomore in high school and now he lives in Chicago with his wife and has a real actual career. Where has the time gone? I remember lots of things happening, but I can’t believe it has been 14 years. I guess it is just getting to the point in my life, and the lives of everyone I know where we are starting to realize that somewhere along the way our lives have begun without us knowing. I think we are all still trying to resist.

I get notifications on facebook or myspace about people getting engaged, or having kids and I usually just scoff like people that I graduated with shouldn’t be worrying about that stuff yet. But in all honesty, their timing is just about right. I’m the one that is in denial.

Somewhere along the way Nirvana’s entire career became legendary. This was already happening to some extent while they were still around and touring. It was solidified when Kurt died. Nirvana would be legendary, the gold standard for quality in music for years and years to come. They became our generations band, not only being our voice but our representative for our feelings, our politics and our middle finger to the establishment. Finally we had a band that our parents would never understand. While they cling to the Beatles we have Nirvana.

Nevermind was an important album, and stands up to the test of time, as does In Utero. The Unplugged performance is a wholly other thing, raw, emotional, honest, great. I guess part of my disbelief in that it occurred so long ago was that I can’t believe that I was lucky enough to have lived in the right time to have witnessed it all. Things going on in music now just aren’t as exciting.

We had Pearl Jam. Yes, they are still around today, but haven’t done anything worthwhile since No Code in my opinion. We had Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, and on and on.

Pearl Jam’s “Ten” I remember listening to until my tape wore out and I had to buy another. I couldn’t believe how awesome the guitar solo on “Alive” was. I still listen to that album on occasion and remember how I felt back in 199—-whatever staying over at friends houses and listening to it over and over again.

Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” is another one that got fairly constant rotation on my walkman. Also “Down on the Upside”, their brilliant swan song. These albums defined me as a teenager, wandering around the town I lived in wondering what the hell I was doing, what I was going to do and hating everyone and everything just like any good 14 year old should. Growing up and not wanting to, being too smart for my own good and having dreams that I could never achieve.

No album exemplified these feelings better than the Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream”. I remember stealing that tape from my brother and going on a camping trip with my friend Dave. We listened to that album probably 50 times in those 2 days. Sure the singles were great, “Today”, “Cherub Rock”, but we were always more interested in “Soma”, “Hummer”, and “Mayonnaise”. We formed a band. We were terrible, we tried to play those songs, it rarely, if ever worked, but it was fun.

These albums, with Sonic Youth’s “Dirty” and “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star” were all so important to me, and still are. There is no way that they ever won’t be. My life is forever defined by these albums, it is undeniable. The noise on “Dirty” was so unbelievable when I first heard it, and the sound, the rhythms, it was everything I ever wanted in an album. I remember thinking to myself when confused about something going on in “Dirty”, “Well it’s Sonic Youth, they can do whatever they want”. This seems just about right, yeah, but I had no frame of reference, that was the first SY album that I had heard. I just knew, you can just tell with some bands that they are worthy.

I spend countless hours downloading, or trying to download new music, fueling this need to hear what is going to be my next soundtrack. Very rarely does anything fill such an important spot. The most important and influential holes have already been plugged. Radiohead was in existence with my Smashing Pumpkins obsession, there was an overlap, but they never really reached the same status. Although Radiohead apparently has much more in terms of staying power with their phenomenal “In Rainbows” up against the forgettable “Zeitgeist” by the Pumpkins, my poor, poor fallen Smashing Pumpkins. They should have just stopped after Adore, that was their peak. I could slap Billy Corgan if I was given the chance.

There is nothing wrong with embracing these albums as generation defining. I will never listen to adult contemporary factory produced garbage. These albums are my life, Nirvana is my Beatles, and that is something to be proud of. Music evolves, defines us, takes a snapshot of society, and culture. We can hold on to our memories and our childhood while time forces us to become all the things we never wanted to become but are inevitable, and the music will help with that. Our music is honest to a fault and will never lie to us.

Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

This is my introduction to the music of Animal Collective. From what I understand they are a growing band with quite a large following, and from what I hear, this is for good reason.Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

Out of nowhere now I am putting this album in the running for my best of the year round-up that will be coming up shortly. I wish I had more time to review more albums. This album stands out as one of the more original releases that have passed through my ears in a long time. I’m glad that I didn’t waste my time pontificating over the greatness of the new Radiohead album, as everyone knows that that is a fantastic album, and a very important album….but I digress.

Everything about this Animal Collective album is highly original, everything from the sounds used, to the songforms and lyrics and effects used to process the instruments and voices. I would liken this album to the new release by Liars that came out earlier this year.

At once intense, dark, heavy and layered the unique sound of this band became something of an addiction to me. The psychedelic echoes and wandering falsetto melodies don’t leave me knowing exactly where their influences lay. It is great to be able to hear fresh sounds time and again, that aren’t derivative of something else that is already going on. Animal Collective are forging new territory.

Standout track “For Reverened Green” persists with a repeated, echoed yet staccato distorted guitar while sparse drums permeate the background. The vocals are sung with intensity, and screamed at the top of his lungs at the end of most of the phrases. This is grand music, larger than life. As each song progresses they get bigger and bigger.

There is plenty of push through this album, lots of energy as each track drives into the next one. Each song has a strong melody, as off-kilter as some of them may be. It sounds as if the band is shunning altoghether the traditional rock band set-up. The drums seem to take a back seat to overdubs of guitars, piano lines and various electronic sounds. To be honest, with as much stuff going on at once as there is in this album the drums are not missed to even the slightest degree. Not to say that drums aren’t present at all on the album, it’s just that they are not an interal part of the song, they are not consistently present or persistent in many of the songs. I guess it would be easiest to say that they serve their purpose.

It feels like this album was payed great attention to orchestration. Every song was started from scratch. There don’t seem to be any preconceived notions about what makes up a rock song. The band gets very creative in scoring and instrument choice. There are elements of minimalism throughout most of the album, with it’s repetitious patterns (see the track #1) and layering of material instead of altering the original line in any way.

Another track worthy of special recognition would be “Fireworks”, which begins with a driving (flanged) drumbeat. This would be a great single for radio play in a perfect world. The melody in the verses is just as strong as any I have heard anywhere else. Memorable, powerful and meaningful. A great combination.

I am still at the point where I am listening to this album all the time. There is so much to pick up on, so much to listen to each time. The first 10 listens are definitely exploratory.

As I write this the track “Fireworks” is building to a fiery conclusion, expanding register and dynamics for what seems like days. I don’t want to say that this is the album of the year for me, but I just wanted to take a minute and mention all the things that make this album great. The things that make it great are consequently the things that make all great albums great. Innovative, original, intelligent….etc.

Show Review – Joel Plaskett/The Tragically Hip, November 2, 2007

Traveled 2 hours East on I-90 to catch a great show in Rochester at the Auditorium Theater. The Joel Plaskett Emergency opened up for the Tragically Hip on Friday and it was a great show.

This is the first time I can ever remember being excited about the opening act just as much, or maybe even more, than the headliner. I admit that although I do love the Canadian indie-rock I am not a really hardcore Hip fan. There seems to be only one kind of Tragically Hip fan, and that is the insanely fanatical, which is good. I like bands that have intense cult followings. I have always known that Rochester was a Hip loving town.

Their latest release, “World Container” is a really solid album. There was a time where I was listening to it fairly regularly, but I guess I will have to admit that it never really caught on with me. “Yer not the Ocean” is a great opening track, and “The Lonely End of the Rink” is solid as well. They played both of those tracks at the show, and I was excited to hear them. Something familiar is always good to hear at a show is always a plus. They also played “Music at Work” which is another tune that I know. Other than that their set was pretty foreign to me. Not to say that their set was not good, it was very good. Energetic, spontaneous and long, the three most important things to any good rock show.

Gord Downie is certifiably a madman. His onstage antics were quite entertaining, flailing around a mic stand, wildly strumming an inaudible acoustic guitar and jumping around the stage like a lunatic and the like. His voice is pretty dead on, very passionate, and he is clearly frontman material, like a Freddie Mercury character, only I don’t think anyone was ever worried about Freddie having a breakdown on stage. It is certainly fun to watch the Hip if only to see what the hell Gord is going to do. It was easy to tell that he truly appreciates all his fans and that they are all having a great time up there.

The guitars were solid, rhythm section was tight and the form of their set was great. They moved from several energetic rockers in the beginning to some more subdued material towards the end. Every time they began a song a varying sized crowd would cheer wildly. Every song is a classic to crazed Hip fans, and that was good to see, I felt like I was missing out to a certain degree. I made a mental note to get to know more of their stuff.

Joel Plaskett I am much more familiar with. He opened with his power trio bringing down the house with the best opening act I have ever experienced. Song after song was a sing-along and Joel’s stage presence is something to be admired, he is quite charismatic on stage, and quite a great guitarist which was a nice surprise. Even missing some of the second guitar parts from the albums Joel managed to fill in the space nicely. I was trying to get a good view of the pedals he was using, especially the one large box that was in front of him that looked to have a large plunger on it, perhaps an old tape-delay or something. His band was tight and the solos were wild, as was Joel as he danced across the stage with the confident swagger of a headlining act. Maybe someday I’ll get to see a full set of his.

His newest effort, “Ashtray Rock” is one of the best albums released this year, and another solid classic rock theme album added to the Plaskett catalog. If you are interested in hearing more of his stuff I also highly suggest “Down at the Khyber”. It is fun to pick out the million ways that he is influenced (i.e. rips off) by Led Zeppelin, but the songs do stand on their own as well. I highly suggest.

For your viewing pleasure I recorded all but one song of the Plaskett set and put them on my youtube. They are here, below.

The concert on the whole was great. Sarah and I had great seats (yes, seats, always a plus) in the upper balcony that were cushy, and on my right side was a wall, which is perfect, seriously. During Plaskett we had a very clear view (hence the videos) of the stage, while during the Hip’s set we had a very clear view of the people in front of us, very drunk and dancing around and/or grinding up against the nearest female. Very entertaining all around. The sound of the venue was pretty good, very loud even though we were way in the back. I need to remember to bring my earlove to the Shellac shows in December.

Continue reading Show Review – Joel Plaskett/The Tragically Hip, November 2, 2007

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