Top 10 Albums of 2011

Because, why not?

#10. Girls, "Father, Son, Holy Ghost" Something about the pastiche-nature of Girls' songwriting approach lets me down a bit, but this is a still a very enjoyable pop excursion.

#9 Grooms, "Prom" An album that works so well as an album it's sometimes hard for me to differentiate individual tracks--that said, "Expression Of" is an excellent distillation of what is powerful about Grooms, namely the dynamic tension between the pent vocals and the taut, interlocking guitar lines.

#8 Extra Life, "Ripped Heart EP" Another engagingly ill outing for Extra Life, one of the most sonically masterful yet strangely unacknowledged acts going in music today. "Strong Brother, Weak Brother" is a forceful yet recondite endeavor, dialoguing with pop music while at the same time not setting aside the group's consistent insistence towards vital self-exploration.

#7 Parenthetical Girls, "Privilege IV" The entire Privilege sequence of EPs has been among my favorite as they have rolled out, but this entry, in particular the "title track" "The Privilege," strikes me as a true leap forward for P Girls. It's one of those songs that is so good upon hearing it once you feel as if you've been preparing to hum it to yourself your whole life.

#6 Nat Baldwin, "People Changes" Baldwin's songs on this record, both his originals and the two excellent covers of Arthur Russell and Kurt Weisman, testify to the power that is earned through solitary devotion to one's craft--charting Nat Baldwin's development is not a matter of the linear--it is a matter of sounding ever deepening reaches.

#5 PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake" Strangely, I've never previously been a fan of PJ Harvey. This album changed that. The recording is a masterpiece--the dynamics here are astonishing--and the songwriting and singing is incomparably strong. This is truly a dimensional record--it gives one a full feeling of space.

#4 Wye Oak, "Civilian" Not even really sure what to say about this record aside from that a) it's awesome and b) I wish I could write songs like these. It took me a while to get fully inside these songs but then I found, to my delight, they were fully inside me and I've been vibing deep ever since.

#3 Delicate Steve, "Wondervisions" Few records I've ever heard have brought me so much manifest joy. Feeling down? Put on Wondervisions. Feeling confused? Put on Wondervisions. It works. This is music that lifts the soul.

#2 Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" I saw them live not long after the record came out and it was astonishing. I've turned to this record a lot this year--the mood, the music, the lyrics--they all kind of suit me.

#1 Sam Mickens, "Slay & Slake" What, you expected an "objective" list? Sure, I'm biased, but I really find Sam's to be amongst the most iconoclastic voices presently going--who cares less for sacred cows, for the dogmas of the desperate, for the faith in selling-out that is so many artists' creed? Also: the music is genius, challenging, and extremely gratifying in a life affirming way.

Okay! Happy New Year!


To John Bolton

Thank you so very very much.

I have no words. You have made my life better by just arguing for what was obviously correct in terms of our constitution, but because of who you are and what you are associated with, your support has meant so much more.

Thank you.

You give me hope that Kant was not completely wrong.


Record Review: Marilyn Roxie, New Limerent Object

Record Review: New Limerent Object by Marilyn Roxie

Here we have a fascinating acoustic/electronic instrumental offering from Marilyn Roxie, a young California recording artist with an impressive array of influences and sounds. Her work recalls at moments the minimalism of Philip Glass as well as the diverse, sample-based textures of Grouper and Animal Collective.

The opening song 'Idea Leuconoe" is a solo piano piece built around a sequence of cascading arpeggios; though brief, it manages to evoke the solemnity of such contemporary composers as Steve Reich.

The second number is an impressive grower dubbed "Drift Along/Distortion"; as the title hints, it is a segmented piece, with the first half building in intensity as a sequenced figure is colored by string-synth sounds. At points the first half is reminiscent of the ambient work of Brian Eno, but the energetic synths that mark the beginning of the "Distortion" portion of the song point more in the direction of late 80's shoegaze and noise pop. Despite its title, what marks this section is not so much distortion as an ethereal haziness shot through with a grinding intensity.

"Snowtape" is an exquisite enterprise in layering, a disconcerting rubric of false resolutions with a guileful melody vainly attempting to assert itself amidst the din--albeit a melody composed almost entirely of harmonics and other 'incidental' sounds. This layering recalls, at points, some of the early tape experiments done by pre-Sung Tongs Animal Collective.

"And There I Was" opens with a ringing, echoed-out tone which is then swallowed by the swell of what sounds like a distorted piano. With this record each song is like a separate room in a varied but coherent mansion; each has its distinctive shape and evokes a particular environment. This music is a kind of imaginary architecture--it marks out space.

"Indigo" returns us to the solo piano of the opening track. The minimalism of Erik Satie is an influence, and the passage that comes in around 2:30 is particularly affecting.

"Nearer" contains hints of the synth structures of Gary Numan in its tone. Marked as an "interlude" the song offers a slightly different mood than the preceding; the elastic rhythm lends the tune a post-punk edge.

"The Shores" is reminiscent of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II. The song feels almost like a description of water.

"HMS" is again built on layered arpeggios, here awash in a sea of fuzz. The tempo of the song slows down as it progresses, which lends an extremely disconcerting feeling to the piece, as if one is being somehow pulled back as the music moves forward. There is an almost 8-bit quality to the starts and stops, as if they were in concert with some unseen video game.

"Seagull Room" has frantic, 2001-esque noisiness to it that is accented by a repeated, muffled drum part pounding against the oscillations of the surface. This is a particular favorite, again recalling the ambient Aphex Twin.

"Take It" (the second announced "interlude") continues in the vein of the previous piece, only this timing employing a more acoustic instrumental palette, mixing piano with drones. The percussive effect of the piano in the early half of the piece propels the song forward.

"Den of Stars" may be the standout track of the album. Its brief excursion through Asian pentatonicity is a beautiful break in the sea of noise and space that dominates the rest of the disc. The following track continues in a similar, if less effective, mode.

'Electronic Angel" is another noteworthy piece, combining a dynamically evolving synthesized lead with staccato rhythmic elements. At this point in the record, however, one begins to wonder about length. At 47 minutes, it is a dense affair, certainly worthwhile to the keen appreciator, but perhaps too much for the casual listener to absorb all at once.

That said, the record is oceanic in nature, as varied as a fluctuating sea surface, and so "The Cove" is aptly named. The melodic lead piano segments here are some of the strongest on the record.

Orderly to end where it begun, the solo piano, again reminiscent of Satie, Reich, and Philip Glass, returns for the album's closing number, "Complete Thought." The piano pieces have a delicacy that is at odds with some of the rough edges to be heard in the electronic oriented pieces. One wonders if they were separated from each other on different releases if they might not sound differently.

Overall the record is impressive in its diversity of sonic elements and architectural rumination, but one feels it is still the work of an artist testing her limits. It has the verve of promise still tethered, however, to the experimentalism of development. And this is no criticism, merely an observation made after having absorbed this record over several listenings.

New Limerent Object is a promising release from a young artist who is obviously developing her particular aesthetic as she goes. If these diverse soundscapes could coalesce into a magnetic whole, perhaps augmented by a few of the trappings of traditional songwriting and vocals (think of Grouper's latest album, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill), Marilyn Roxie could truly surprise people. She is a serious artist well worth keeping an eye on.



Radiohead--Hail to the Thief: A Reconsideration

With new Radiohead songs popping up seemingly by the day, and a new EP maybe on the horizon, it seems an appropriate time to take a look back at the band's least-well-regarded album since Pablo Honey, namely 2003's Hail to the Thief.

What follows is a track by track, live-blog style listen through of the record. Hopefully at the end we will be closer to understanding where this record fits in with the general movements of pop in the last decade or so...

1. Appropriately subtitled, "The Lukewarm," one can understand how this opener would leave die-hards dry. It has an almost punk frenzy to it that was perhaps only present on much earlier songs like "Just" and the one misfire on OK Computer, "Electioneering." People had hoped for a return to the band's earlier, 'Alternative' sound, but I don't feel like this kind of ranting intensity was what anyone had in mind. Despite that, the guitar tone, particularly on the interlude that comes in around 2:30 is great, as is the Beatlesy bridge Thom sings over that figure that actually leads directly to the song's resolution.

2. "Sit Down Stand Up" opens with the sequenced beat familiar from Amnesiac and in some ways it has similarities with that album's version of "Morning Bell"... However, the driving, dark central section, along with Thom's lyrics about "the jaws of hell" lend the track an eerie, dark core absent from even the most despairing moments on Amnesiac. The more punishing beat that comes in around 3:10 combined with Thom's repetitive vocals confirm us in our belief in the song's dark progress--there is something bleak, hopeless about this frantic repetition.

3. "Sail to the Moon" Here we are back in 'Pyramid Song' territory, the slow melancholic piano ballad; here Thom's keys are augmented by some lovely guitar work, but despite the set-up and dynamic integration of the band as the song evolves, we are still hovering in a universe of irresolution. The tension continues to mount.

4. "Backdrifts" begins with samples almost reminiscent of the noisy "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" from Amnesiac, but Thom's hooky vocals make it clear this track is moving more in the direction of dub music, in an extremely oblique, British way prefiguring some of Animal Collective's material.

5. "Go to Sleep" has a guitar centric opening, with a characteristically progressive, moving bass line provided by Colin Greenwood (along with U2's Adam Clayton one of the most underrated bass players in rock). There is something of the guitar centric movement one associates with The Bends on the middle section of the tune, and one is almost ready for an explosion in the mold of "Just," but the lead figures Johnny eventually overlays are not nearly so discordant nor lead-like as those on the earlier song, and surprisingly, as we are expecting some kind of climax, the track fades out... It's almost like the band is toying with us...

6. "Where I End and You Begin" Bass-heavy intro with ethereal analog synth waves cloaking us, we enter into a driving fog, a movement towards we know not what. Thom's vocals again provide the illusion of direction, but the overall mood is still one of profound discontent. I'm beating a dead horse, I know, but the reason people are down on this record is because it's, well, dark as hell!

7. "We Suck Young Blood" Predictably no break from the unrelenting misery here. The interlude vocals are beautifully interwoven, and the hand-claps are an unexpected touch for Radiohead, but overall this track is Thom at his most discordant. This track is why people hate Thom Yorke. The piano drone riff that kicks off around 3:00 briefly gives us a hint of progress, but in a matter of seconds we are back to dreary dissolution. Hints of Thom's future Twilight involvement in the theme here?

8. "The Gloaming" is eltronica central, for this record, and it may as well be called the "glooming" because it is about as dank and fog-ridden as you can get with a staticy electronic beat backing you. The interplay of beats is an advance on the brilliant "Idioteque" in some senses, but here there is something missing... Perhaps it is a melody that resolves in a satisfying way?

9. With "There There" we finally reach a moment of release. And what release. This is among my favorite songs by the band. The booming tom toms combined with the electric introductory guitar riff set the stage perfectly. Thom then comes in singing a resolution-laden melody! When he gets to the 'chorus' the crunch of Ed and Johnny's guitars is positively divine, and the second chorus, where Thom resolves up instead of down on the second "just cause you feel it/doesn't mean it's there" is simply sublime. The transition that follows, while looking back to other segmented compositions such as "Paranoid Android" also looks forward to the progressive structures to be found on such In Rainbows gems as "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." The second half of the song returns us to the loud, clangy noise (influenced by Sonic Youth as much as Zeppelin) we associate with a younger version of the band ("My Iron Lung," "Paranoid Android," etc.). This song ultimately plays a role similar to that played by "Optimistic" on Kid A; it is in keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, but it also hearkens back to an older, more familiar sound. I consider this to be the album's peak.

10. "I Will" (the same title as a brief The Beatles cut by Paul McCartney) brings us back to the limited pallet introduced earlier. The harmony singing here is both impressive and effective, and there is something simply appealing about the composition of the song, something almost Spanish or Classical in its structure...

11. "A Punchup at a Wedding" More hints of direction here, with an almost Madman Across the Water-era Elton John opening over a funky electronic beat. Thom's vocals immediately dispel any further comparisons to Mr. Dwight, and the progressive guitar riff that comes in suggests we are again in the land of resolution... The chorus, which comes in around the 1:50 mark, is heartbreaking, if possibly cloying to some ears (not these, I'm just guessing...)... This, like "There There" has the feeling and structure we more commonly associate with a 'song'... The rest of the album seems interested in testing this boundary, seeing how completely feigned structures can stand in for the real thing... Or something. I like this one. The sample that comes in around 4:00 is great and adds a layer of continuity with some of the earlier songs, in that it offers a cold counterpoint.

12. "Myxomatosis" heavy, odd time-signature guitar figure opens here with a crushing synth bass doubling. Despite this daunting opening, the interplay between the synth and Thom's voice works well, particularly given the contrast created when the synths drop out. Synths that drop in around 1:40 are amazing texturally. No chorus in sight. This is an impressive track, despite its bending back to the mean in some senses, definitely worth re-hearing if it's been a while.

13. "Scatterbrain" Perhaps the first overt jabs at pure beauty, 54 minutes into the album? Okay. Live, touchable guitar figure opens this piece. Can the delicate warmth last? Yes! We have a very melodic Thom here, singing over some well modulated changes. Dissonance undergirds, as ever, but the separation of the melodic and the discordant is finally at peace, the two halves having reached some accord over the song's first minute. The promise is fulfilled, a great number.

14. "A Wolf at the Door" Back to the dissonance, punky delivery of the first song, mixed with the processional grandeur of "Life in a Glass House"... We're getting close to the end. What's that? A great chorus? Awesome! Didn't see that one coming guys, nice work. Great song. Great way to end an extremely challenging album.

Final verdict? As I say just above, a challenging record, and one in its way as dark as Closer or In Utero. Happily this album did not precede a suicide but was instead a stop along the way to the glorious In Rainbows and the interesting new tracks emerging now... Were this produced by any other band it would be hailed as a masterpiece. It has a bleakness of its own. It makes me understand new aspects of depression, of obsession, of the desperation inherent in trying to be. I think it's a great album.


Animal Collective Grateful Dead Reconsidered

In January I saw Animal Collective and wrote a few posts about what I perceived to be the merging of the 'jam band' and the 'indie rock' scenes.

On Saturday I saw the second of the group's Prospect Park Shows. It was a large, very young crowd, and by the time the band went on around nine there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. The set was a mixture of material from across the band's catalog, with a focus on standouts from Merriweather Post Pavilion:

(via the above linked Brooklyn Vegan post's comments, original album in parentheses)

Summertime Clothes (MPP)
Leaf House (Sung Tongs)
Guys Eyes (MPP)
Slippi (Here Comes the Indian)
#1 (Strawberry Jam)
Also Frightened (MPP)
What Would I Want Sky (new song)
My Girls (MPP)
Fireworks (Strawberry Jam)
Brother Sport (MPP)


In The Flowers (MPP)
Comfy In Nautica/Bleed (rework from Panda's Person Pitch)
Lion in a Coma (MPP)

The crowd seemed excited for the older songs ('Leaf House' is a favorite with old-timers) but predictably went most nuts for 'My Girls' and 'Brothersport.' As has now become traditional, the band used long segues between songs, occasionally dropping teasing hints of other material before switching into something else entirely. 'Fireworks' was almost 20 minutes long, by my reckoning, and featured an extremely extended jam sequence.

As I have pointed out before, these 'jams' are not what one would experience at a Dead show. There is none of the noodling, none of the epic crest and wave. Instead there is the sample-based repetition that is the staple of all of their recent material. The closest thing you get to a solo is Geologist playing a series of arpeggios over a simple, two chord harmonic backdrop. And that harmonic simplicity is another link between the two groups, though again the improvised elements in AnCo's sets are about interlocking layers of essentially rhythmic musical expressions, whereas the Dead achieve, at least at their peak, an oceanic blending of rhodes/bass/guitar/two drums that is closer to the blues than anything in Animal Collective's oeuvre. The pulse of Lesh is essentially different from the riveting crunch of Geologist's samples.

It was an uplifting concert for me personally, but as I was walking away from the show I found myself reconsidering everything. Is the Grateful Dead/AnCo question primarily sociological or musical? AnCo claim the Dead as a musical influence and recently licensed the first official Dead sample for their song 'What Would I want Sky.' The crowd was young, and many a spliff was ignited throughout the night (though Frank Rich helpfully reminds us "Only pot remains eternal" and thus is no longer an effective dividing line between hippies and anybody else), but it was a Brooklyn crowd, and there was almost no overlap to my eyes with the Phishy-elements I detected at the show in January.

That show was in Manhattan, this one in Brooklyn, which perhaps is some factor, but I don't think so. I now think at the first show I was something of a hammer seeing only nails. More soon.