James’s 9½ favorite albums of 2009

January 23rd, 2010 · 6 Comments · By

Well, here it is at last. {Inspired by last year‘s write-up, I thought: why not review my favorite albums of 2009?  But then of course I had too much to say about all of them, so I thought about making a single blog post for each record… but inevitably I ran out of time at the end of the year, and ended up saving all this info from week-to-week and trying to find time to add to it… now it’s finally done, and  here it is all in one disgustingly lengthy post for you to enjoy / skim over / completely ignore because you’re probably just here to see what shows are going on tonight. Nevertheless, if anyone actually does read even part of this embarrassing beast of a year-end summary, you can feel free to leave your dissenting opinions, approvals, smart remarks, or you own lists in the comments section. If you just want to read the list of my favored albums, with one simple sentence written about each… that should be appearing on the WTJU site some time last week.} So! Without further ado:

Grouper – “Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill” (Type)

Grouper is a solo artist from Portland, who has previously collaborated at length with Xiu Xiu and toured with Animal Collective. Her first three-or-so albums each contained a pleasantly murky sludge of gentle instruments and vocals peddled through so much reverb, echo, and room tone that they emerged a nearly unintelligible (yet lovely) mess once they crawled out the other side of the gentleness-swamp. Nice stuff.

I had read a press release or review or something which advertised that her new album was much more straightforward and traditional, but I was pretty skeptical. Mostly, I was worried that the sound I liked so much would be replaced by something commonplace or embarrassing. But a few weeks later, a promo of the new Grouper CD arrived at WTJU and I was more or less hooked.

It’s true that the murky analog fog has mostly lifted, but underneath that sound is an unexpectedly gorgeous songsmith. There’s still enough hum and mysterious audio warmth to keep things super-gentle, but now the acoustic guitar strums and hummed vocals are clearly audible, and also unforgettably lovely. There’s a lot of the late-/post-shoegazer prettiness that characterizes stuff like Slowdive or Mazzy Star, but without the forced dramatic / traditional rock moves that make those records burdonesome after a handful of listens. This is more like the less-droney parts of Jessica Bailiff, or the folky interludes from Snowbringer Cult.

Despite the fact that this quiet, gentle music is suitable for reading, napping, and late nights, I’ve come to realize that this record is best played LOUD. There’s enough depth and texture and overwhelming loveliness in there that it’s best just to drown everything else out and allow yourself to drift into the deep end.

This record actually came out in the early autumn of 2008; yet innumerable repeated listens during the winter/spring/summer/fall of this year mean that it is somehow topping the list of my favorite releases of 2009, despite its supposed sell-by date.  Some records just take a few months to totally absorb, and this is one of them. Unreservedly recommended for pretty much everyone I know. I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t love this if they gave it the time.

the Flower-Corsano Duo “the Radiant Mirror” (Textile)

Michael Flower was one of the primary/founding members of Vibracathedral Orchestra, that recently-dissolved avant-garde/drone ensemble of talented folksters from the UK. {If you haven’t heard them, imagine a woozier, gentler version of Skullflower, or a more chiming, hectic cousin of Pelt. VCO’s 2007 album “Wisdom Thunderbolt” is highly recommended, as is 1999’s “Versatile Arab Chord Chart,” both on VHF, I believe.}  So Mick Flower’s pedigree for mind-melting abstract pseudo-easternisms is pretty impeccable.

Chris Corsano is a slightly younger, yet no less accomplished, avant-garde journeyman drummer, who’s played basically played with everyone and their sister: from free-jazz relic Paul Flaherty to Spencer from Burning Star Core to Six Organs and MV/EE to the dudes from Sonic Youth to Björk.

Now that their credentials are established, here’s why you should care: this record — a 37-min three-track live-in-the-studio collaboration between the two of them — is one of the most triumphantly involving and transcendent pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Mick Flower vomits a gorgeous rainbow of electrified chiming sounds (on something called a “Japan Banjo,” apparently some sort of keyed electrified dulcimer-type instrument) that lift your brain directly out of your skull and gently deposit it in aesthetically foreign territory, while Corsano lays done an impeccably perfect layer of percussion to keep your feet firmly planted on the earth.

While the heights reached by Flower’s searing post-Hendrix chime-drone will surely appeal to any fan of Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Robbie Basho, or Sunroof! (albeit with far less coherent structure), the real secret weapon here is Corsano’s restless improvisational brilliance. Never one to lay down a simple beat or groove, Corsano coaxes a remarkably array of complementary tones and half-rhythms out of his drum-kit. This is some serious Max Roach-level shit getting layed down here, and his loose style is what keeps your ear focused during the relentlessly pretty sonic onslaught of soloing conjured around it.

This CD provides over a half-hour of raw, unfiltered musical bliss. Though it was apparently released in France in 2007 (and the liner notes reveal a recording date of January 2006), I get the idea not many Americans heard it until a handful of reliable distros picked it up in the Spring of this year. Regardless of all this, it’s a record I often listened to 4 or 5 times in a row during 2009, so it’s tied for the top of my year-end-list either way.

Wavves “Wavvves” (Woodsist)

This is one of the few items on my list that’s also receiving plenty of national attention elsewhere — we all agree it’s a charmingly awesome rock record. For the uninitiated, Wavves is two kids from San Diego (basically a frontman and a drummer) who put out two back-to-back, confusingly nearly-identically titled-and-covered albums in late 2008 and early 2009 (the self-titled “Wavves” and its follow-up “Wavvves,” respectively), quickly gained the attention of hot-music-bloggers and Pitchfork types everywhere, and did a US tour or two before a potentially-career-ending onstage drug-feuled psychotic breakdown in Barcelona last summer.

All of that will make for a good back-story 20 years from now, I guess, but that’s not really what matters. The important part is that this album is thrillingly charming, hilariously stupid, breathtakingly abrasive, intriguingly incomprehensible, and embarrassingly catchy.

I kind of see it as the logical endpoint of dumb teenage rock — the lyrics and subject matter are a charmingly asinine cataloging of teenage woes, in the great Beach Boys / Ramones tradition (“Got no car / got no money … got no friends / got no girlfriend” etc.), and almost every song has insanely catchy and loveable whoo-hoo-whoo backing vocals. Every instance of both guitars and vocals have the gain cranked up past 11, resulting in a deliciously fuzzy, feedbacky soup of art-pop wonderfulness over a simple, hard-driving rock-drummer 101 beats. And it’s mastered LOUD — this might actually be one of the loudest CDs I own, volume-wise.

Very few songs crack the 3-minute mark, and the catchy potential-singles are interchangeable in the best way; various refrains include “Going Nowhere, Going Nowhere,” “I’m So Bored / I’m So Bored” and “I Don’t Care, I Don’t Care / Oh No, No No No,” all of which basically beg to sung along with (again, the constant barrage of fuzzy “whoo-whoo”s helps immeasurably). These songs pass that great litmus test in which: every song is similar enough that if you like one, you’ll like them all, yet they’re all distinct enough that you can listen endlessly.

Evenly interspersed with these pop gems are a fair number of bloopy, pedal-FXed incoherent interludes that are for the most part just as worthwhile as the songs –it helps that they share the same sonic space, especially late in the album as the songs slow down and the muddled maze of mess starts to seep in around the edges of the ballads, on tracks like “Goth Girls” and “Beach Goth” … there’s even a lovely ballad entitled “Weed Demon.” And have I mentioned how peculiar and dumb the song titles are? Over the two records, no fewer than eight song titles contain the word “Goth” attached to some randomized California-specific modifier; other song titles include “Boys Will Love Us” and “Teenage Super Party.” It’s as if these songs were all variations on the same incomprehensible, yet somehow weirdly personal 11th-grade code doodled on the inside cover of a secondhand math textbook. All of which goes to say, the non-“song” tracks aren’t just interludes or filler, they contribute significantly to the “meat” of the record, and the whole thing just ties together perfectly into this awesome aesthetic package that is the perfect mixture of much-loved familiarity and fascinating surprise.

What I really find remarkable here is the absolute irrelevance of the boundaries beteween Irony and Sincerity, the incomprehensibly blurred border between a feigned put-on of dumb teenagerhood and a splendorous artifact of the real thing. Many of my favorite younger-ish California bands (Totally Radd!! is a great example) have this really inspiring thing going on where they’re just young enough to be not even remotely beholden to all the post-modern “Gen X” self-consciousness that posited itself as the endpoint of culture; there’s a similar desire to plunder the aesthetic signposts of previous generations, but instead of moping over issues of irony and credibility, these guys are just like, “everyone loves dumb noisy pop-culture teenage rock&roll bullshit, so let’s throw a fucking party.” Those intentions don’t always work out, but on this album they’re as close to perfect as I’ve ever heard.

Sanhedrin  “Sun Head Ring” (Breathing Bass)

At least I think this album is called “Sun Head Ring” … that’s what the internet says (although some sources list it as just “Sun Head”), but the actual CD reads “さあ 真ん中だ どんな感じ” so your guess is as good as mine (or much better, if you read Japanese.)

So basically, Sanhedrin is an awesome power trio of stalwart Japanese noise-rock veterans who have all been around since the 80’s; the legendary noise icon Keiji Haino plays guitar and makes garbled yelling noises, the always-amazing Tatsuyo Yoshida of Ruins lays down some seriously unstoppable mayhem on the drums, and the bassist  Mitsuro Nasuno — I’m less familiar with his work, but apparently he was in High Rise, and judging by this recording, he’s a pretty fucking great bass player.

The album is 8 lengthy tracks of improvisational free-rock mayhem, and what’s awesome about it is that they maintain some really awesome forward momentum throughout. It’s not just a blurry mess of sound, though; it’s really cleanly recorded, and these three have some seriously incredible chops on display.

Keiji Haino’s material is often overwhelmingly bleak, austere, and minimal, but there’s enough moments scattered among his dozens of albums where he lets go with a caterwauling ruckus of abrupt guitar noise, so it’s not like this material is a big stretch for him. Still, it’s great to hear him just completely cut loose for an hour; there’s some high-speed, high-end distorted riffing, but plenty of moments where he pauses for a twangy, thoughtful interlude while the rhythm section barrels forward at a breakneck pace and keeps things heavy and fast. So fairly often there’s that Melt-Banana / Phantomsmasher kind of dynamic where the bass is actually providing the majority of the melody while the guitarwork is all buzzy, floaty texture, but there’s also a lot of awesome moments where you almost don’t even notice them switch places, and suddenly the bass is sparse and intermediate while the guitar lays down a fat riff.

And the drumming is just fucking unbelievable; Yoshida basically alternates between groovy double-time beats and insanely energetic blast-beat fills, but there’s enough moments where he’ll just lay back into a simple beat to let everyone else go, or play a simple, giant cymbal crash that sounds like the end of a solo, before unexpectedly turning right back around with another super-fast beat. It’s some serious stop-on-a-dime shit, and it basically works excellently to both keep you on your toes constantly and to maintain a ridiculous level of energy throughout the entire record.

Thank god these guys never gets anywhere near that horribly complacent jazz-fusion territory; it’s just way too fucking heavy and hard for that. You know how even sometimes the “hard rock” end of the John Zorn catalog can stay in this sort of “dry” thoughtful area where you get what they’re going for, and you can appreciate it, but you’re not really feeling it? (Actually Zorn’s recent “Moonchild” material isn’t a bad point of comparison here, BUT) this stuff is all the way at the other end of that spectrum. Totally appropriate for the end of a drunk night with your stoner metalhead friends, where you can crank this shit all the way up and just completely ROCK OUT. It’s a lot like Acid Mother’s Temple excellent “Starless and the Bible Black Sabbath” in that regard, but with a lot less groovy jamming, and with much more insane, hyperactive skronk.

And again, while each song is cut from the same cloth (likely in the same afternoon), the variation here is key, and that’s what makes this a great album instead of just a collection of impressive playing. Track 3 is the most abrupt and discordant, while Track 5 is the most linear, starting off with a straightforward, over-the-speed-limit riff before letting everything completely fall apart (while maintaining the same general tempo) for over 9 minutes. The albums’ final suite of songs is both the most transcendent and also the heaviest; Keiji finally achieves the euphoric guitar-plane that you realize he’s only been hinting at all along, while the other two lay down the heaviest molten riffs thus far; then in part 2, the ridiculous vocal jabbering and complete structural incoherence set the stage for a Rallizes-esque fuzz-out set-ender. {Oh shit, I just got to the end of the CD and heard some faint, distant audience-applause … so I guess this is a live recording? It sounds excellent and clear enough that I was assuming it was live-in-the-studio, but knowing that it was all done in one take makes it doubly impressive.}

If the above description basically made no sense to you, then don’t worry about it. Just know that if you enjoy insanely heavy, super-complicated, hard fast noise rock, you will not be disappointed by this powerhouse behemoth of awesomeness from these exceptionally talented elder-statesmen.

Caboladies “Body Tides” (Mountaain)

Yet another one that’s actually from late 2007, but didn’t really seem to appear on most folks’ radar — if at all — until this year (or that’s how it seemed from my perspective, anyway). But one of the things that was absolutely huge this year, at least for a fairly miniscule subculture of underground music enthusiasts on the drone / noise / experimental -axes, was the sudden groundswell of minimalist synthesizer-drone albums from the US Midwest. Cleveland, OH’s Emeralds being the most obvious example here, although Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project also fits the bill. Anyway, there’s suddenly a ton of dudes from middle America generating a veritable flood of warm, melodic, and intensely retro “side-length”  synthesizer pieces on a wide variety of small-run, obsure-format DIY labels, which is both bizarre and surprising and kind of inspiring and awesome.

Lots of it pretty clearly looks back towards the whole “Berlin school” aesthetic of the 70’s (think: Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, etc) but it’s also clearly by-and-of the American Underground Noise tradition that brought you the past 10 years of weird, lo-fi drone-y noise shit; all of which goes to say that in a sub-sub-genre full of dudes like Yellow Swans, Burning Star Core, Hair Police, Wolf Eyes, etc. it’s quite nice to suddenly find a lot of dudes going all the way to the opposite end of that spectrum, and replacing grittiness with warmth, and harshness with simplicity, and instead of the usual cathartic transgression, we instead get a mildly puzzling, super-dorky love for the blurry analog wooziness of obscure relics from the new-age-bullshit aesthetic one generation prior. To be honest, despite the “underground pedigree,” a huge amount of this stuff (Lopatin’s work in particular) certainly wouldn’t seem out of place on the soundtrack to a VHS tape of slow-fades between tropical creekbeds designed to induce a meditative state in a certain bullshit-new-ager type c. 1987. Like, remember a super-cheesy love-theme interludes from one of those semi-forgotten Schwarzneggar opuses? It’s like that, but dubbed onto your little brother’s Teddy Ruxpin cassette deck and left to gather crumbs under the couch for a few years. Say what you will, but it’s not really a thing anybody was expecting to become (sub-)popular two decades into this century, you know? I’m only just starting to warm up to a lot of this stuff (Oneohtrix in particular, whose first few exposures left me scratching my head), but on the whole I’m immensely glad something as puzzling and as bizarre as this is going on.

In the midst of all that, this obscure trio from Lexington, KY managed to top all other competitors for the dubious honor of the retro synth-drone album of the year (again, despite the clear “2007” date on the back of the CD-case, and the fact that I picked this up in early 2008 — like I say, sometimes it takes things a while to truly sink in). It’s post-shoegazery mess of warm drone-pleasantry, gentle chirps etc. Diametrically opposed to OPN’s retro coldness, Caboladies actually have a great deal of subtlety and texture and analog gentleness going on; I always remember liking this album a great deal, but it’s not until I put the CD on again that I can actually recall the specific layers and details of each song; it’s sort of infinitely re-listenable in that regard, you can always hear something new.

The first track starts with a gentle hum that gradually transforms into a gloriously buzzing wall of warmth, before further chugging layers add tension and depth, and the whole thing gradually disappates into deep-sea echo worthy of Windy&Carl. The second song (there are no track-names) has a layer of field-recording scrape under a harmonic choral sound that sounds like a gentle afternoon at the lake, and grows in intensity until the clouds part and there’s a loose, wandering patch of burbling pedal/mouth-sounds left underneath; it’s not unlike something you’d hear at the start of an Animal Collective song, except it can be appreciated on it’s own and lasts throughout the entire second half of the ten-minute song. Track #3 (the album’s high point) continues that comparison even further, with a shimmering springtime warmth recalling AC at their most pastoral and abstract (think of “Visiting Friends,” or Panda Bear’s JANE side-project), while also adding the album’s most concrete set of un-diffused synthesizer beeps, and a Stars of the Lid-esque stretched out guitar tone. Track #4 is where they finally duck under the waterfall to find a darker, colder, thicker set of tones, before finally surfacing again with a set of blooping bubblings sounds by moonlight.

To re-state what should be obvious by now: this is an immensely pleasurable, hugely welcoming, infinitely replayable, 40-minute set of abstract excellence.  Do yourself a favor and track down a copy of this CD; I promise you’ll love it.

Everyday Loneliness “Appropriation” (Callow God)

So the other thing that was really big this year, at least in the very small niche market of abstract underground noise/ drone stuff, was the re-emergence of tape labels. Yes, audio-cassette releases, long viewed as among the worst of all audio formats (just above the 8-track), and now largely seen as irrelevant in the age of the (post-)CD-R, are apparently now the best way to unleash a massive volume of nearly-indistinguishable releases that even your most dedicated followers have a hard time keeping up with.

Actually, I’m fully in favor of the cassette revival. I’ve long been a dedicated mix-tape maker, and there’s a lot of ways in which the cassette makes a good format for this kind of music. For one thing, it’s accessible and simple, and taps directly into the DIY aspect that I appreciate about a lot of noise music. As a reaction to the rise of the mp3 format, I think it’s a valid means of providing a cultural alternative.

In an age where information has become separated from physical objects, it sometimes seems as if mp3 are these fully formed, ethereal message being dictated from above; there’s a sense that we’re all tapping into the same signal from some all-knowing data stream. Cassettes, conversely, have an intimacy to them, and any of us between the ages of 20 and 40 have some pretty ingrained cultural memories of tapes as cultural artifacts and physical objects. The idea of being able to record something yourself; recording self-penned audio dramas with your little brother, or taping your favorite song off the radio; things like that. The tape exists in our minds, on some level, as a thing we ourselves could have created — we understand how to make them (even those who don’t understand the technology still understand the process), and even this simple fact makes them more immediately tactile and relateable than, for example, the process of burning a CD.

With a tape, music is a physical object, a tangible thing which can be held, traded, treasured, destroyed, etc. This actually ties pretty well into something I was reading yesterday: Thurston Moore’s liner notes for a Christian Marclay CD, in which he discussed how Marclay’s early release “Record without a Cover,” in which the sleeveless 12″ was meant, in the Dadaist / Fluxus tradition, to get gradually marked up, degraded, and damaged, so that each copy would eventually become an object unique to the history of it’s owner; in a lot of ways, tapes work the same way. Not only are they crummy enough that they get mangled & distorted, but also their nature as malleable objects mean that we’ve all formed relationships with very specific, individualized copies of the same ostensibly fixed cultural products. (VHS tapes work this way too; every time I watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” there are these moments where my brain expects to see a commercial break, because I’m so used to the taped-off-TV copy that I grew up with; sometimes I even know which mid-80’s shaving cream commercial used to come next.)

The process of listening and collecting them is different, too — in some ways the cassette release also goes against the notion of the music-fan as the great archivist, constantly seeking a pristine or ideal version of the listening experience (something which is ingrained pretty deeply into my listening habits) … cassettes are too impermanent and too blurry-sounding to really fill this need, and the fact that one needs to listen straight through (or actively take the time to rewind/ff) makes for a less short attention span-based means of music enjoyment; furthermore, the fact that a lot of these noise-label tapes are basically just side-long blurts of fuzzy droning sounds suggests an experience in which music exists to provide texture or context for our daily lives, rather than functioning as a information-base for our obsessive-compulsive music-appreciator tendencies. These are little 20-minute, $6 treats that you can buy and dub for your friends have in your room and enjoy interchangeably without expecting them to last forever, and the obscure/msyterious nature of a lot of the artists and musical contents is, I think, encouraging and inspiring rather than limiting or restrictive. Every time I hear one of these, I think: “I could do this too. Why haven’t I?” Which is not to say that quality isn’t an issue here; I merely mean to suggest that making 100 copies of a mysterious artifact can be interpreted as an invitation rather than an exclusion.

OK, so now that we’re all agreed that tape releases are the ideal objects for an iconoclastic cultural movement which seeks to transgressively destroy barriers and reclaim the sheer glory of chaotic sound for the purposes of inspiring inclusive change in the lives of everyday music listeners; now that that’s settled, how about this actual release?

Well, there’s a lot of tapes I bought this year that I really liked. There were several good sides by an artist named Earn, some worthwhile stuff by Emeralds, an excellent release by Joseph Raglani, a pair of awesome tapes credited to Exercise and Faceworker, and plenty of other cool things from the Arbor, Hanson, and Monorail Trespassing labels. Why did I pick “Appropriation” by Everyday Loneliness as one of my top releases of the year?

Well, for one thing, I think this is the release that most embodies the things I was trying to articulate above. Apparently “Everyday Loneliness” is a side-project of the guy from Emaciator, a noise artist whom I’m not terribly familiar with (although I do recognize the name). “Appropriation” is a double-cassette release (it even comes in a sweet little 2xcassette brick case, like those double-wide jewel cases), with four eight-minute sides of gentle, mournful, warbling, grainy loops of sound. There are slow guitar lines, quiet piano tones, barely audible fragments of static and voices, and various other unidentifiable tones and textures. (the liner notes helpfully read: “tape manipulation only. no effects. recommended late and secluded.”) The pseudonym here is absolutely perfect, suggesting both the means of production — music as a personal vision / gradual domestic project — as well as the ideal means of consumption: it’s the perfect tape for a quiet, rainy, weekday evening at home.  There’s a huge amount of both sorrow and gentleness here, and while there are other cassette releases this year that I may have enjoyed more, so many things this one just seems so powerfully suggestive and appropriate.


Hell-Kite “You Make the Blood” (self-released)

So do y’all remember that thing last spring where three awesome touring musicians came through Charlottesville for a show, but we convinced them to stay for three days and play three shows? And how they liked Cville so much they came back a month later and did the same thing all over again? You may have seen some of their shows or at least heard Jacob and Michael and I write about it in these pages. Regardless, I thought that was one of the coolest things that happened last year. Not only did it re-affirm for me personally the validity of the whole tradition of DIY underground musicians touring the US, the practice of booking last-minute shows with near-total strangers and just assuming that things will work out, and the ever-present potential of making new friends and having awesome experiences unexpectedly — but also it was just really awesome to hang out with three really amazing people and to get to hear them play awesome music.

Anyhow, it was a really excellent way to spend a chunk of the spring, and I have a small pile of media accumulated from that adventure, including some professonally made CDs, hand-made CDRs, 7-inch singles, some comics books, a few great polaroids, a lot of stories, and a handful of hangovers. So it seems weird to take that whole experience and single out this one 5-track EP as somehow representing it or summarizing it — not to mention sort of unintentionally, backhandedly rude not to include Stephen “French Quarter” Steinbrink’s incredibly gentle, moving and sensitive ballads, or James “Glochids” Roehmer’s mind-opening handmade nature-junk musique-concrete radicalness — BUT if we’re going to be totally honest here about the things that I listened to the most in 2009, this one CD is the one that hooked into my brain and ended up on repeat in my car for about five weeks afterwards. So that’s the one I’ll write about here.

Ann-Marie “Hell-Kite” Phillip is a young musician based in Arizona, and from hanging out with her and knowing that she’s a hilarious and kick-ass person, it’s then really sudden and abrupt to hear her sing, because she suddenly manages to channel this really intense and personal aesthetic thing that’s just unbelievably well-developed and solid. The five tracks on this CD are all just guitar and voice, but they somehow manage to be simultaneously intimate and alienating, gentle and harsh, lovely and scary.

“Cabin” is the obtuse, Jandekian non-introduction, while “I Don’t Care” is the stand-out, memorably catchy song; it has the record’s best hook (“I let my body fall in the river / I let the hot wind make me shiver”), but it’s also the shortest, at just over two minutes; one of those perfect little songs that ends after just one verse, at its most inviting moment. “Veins” is the track that took a while to grow on me, but it really is the centerpiece of record — the slowest, and most gently plodding and ponderous; it also provides the EP’s title (“You Make the Blood / Run So Fast”). The sheer amount of texture and variation, within a very specific aesthetic range (both vocally and w/ the gtr) is what makes this near-indefinitely relistenable.

“Boy” is the track where things start to get heavy and weird; during the extended intro the simple guitar line picks up the tempo again, with a slight twang that grabs your attention. Once the vocals arrive, they’re both mournful and forceful; they’re high and flat, and her voice has the kind of texture and tone that makes it comparable to Cat Power (especially the early stuff; remember “What Would the Community Think?” or that song “Back of Your Head”), but there’s also a strange quality that makes it both intriguing and unsettling — it’s a voice that’s simultaneously fragile and incredibly strong, and there’s a more than a few moments where she does that Xiu Xiu-esque thing where the vocals crack and just sound conventionally wrong, as if they’re unexpectedly or inappropriately intense, but (as with Jaime Stewart) the conviction behind it completely carries it through. It’s a small transgression, but an enormously effective one; there’s another gentle reprieve, before the song takes a weird left turn into a faster, stranger, and more melodic direction. These are very small changes, but with such sparse music the details become really noticeable and significant. (Her later EP, “Unfold,” takes this technique even further.)

“Golden Spoon” is the record’s closer, beginning with a seasick circus melody that keeps being interrupted; there’s even some heavy fret-thwacking, combined with an unsettling howl, that makes it pretty easy to imagine this material might imagine with heavier/more metal-flavored arrangement; as it is, it fits in with the mini-albums minimal aesthetic perfectly. It ends abruptly as well, and it’s hard not to be hungry for more of that same sound; hence the aforementioned infinite-repeats in my car all last June and July.

Well, anyway it seems there’s a wealth of valuable and widely varied stuff coming out of those three folks from Arizona, and we were lucky enough to befriend them and have a great time with them and their excellent music.  This happened be the CD I wrote about because it’s the one that I latched on to personally, but don’t let that discourage you from checking out anything else that any of them have done. Stephen has already been back in town since then (opening for Mt Eerie at the Chapel), let’s hope it’s not the last we hear from those excellent individuals.

the Invisible Hand spring 2009 tour demo (self-released)

Adam Smith has been calling his various solo material stuff “The Invisible Hand” for years (how could he not?) — but at this point, they are, irrevocably, a solid 4-piece band, with equally valid contributions from all four members (if you’re still catching up, that includes Jon Bray from Truman Sparks on guitar, Thomas Dean from Order on bass, and Adam Brock from the Nice Jenkins on drums, as well as obviously Adam Smith on vocals and guitar.)

The first time I saw the Hand with this lineup (mid-2008, I think?), it was a curiosity; one more line-up in an ever-shifting rotation of musicians (heck, I was even in that band for a show one time, and I can’t even play any instruments.) But the second they all played together, it seemed like they were growing into a really good combo. The third time, I noticed that I suddenly started liking all of these songs that I been kind of indifferent to in the past. The fourth time, it was just an incredibly solid and fun show. By the tenth, fifteenth, and 20th times, I was wholeheartedly on board, drunkenly shouting along with every song, rocking out in the front row at every gig, and telling any and everyone who would listen that “These guys are the best band in Charlottesville!” And it’s true.

What’s really awesome is how these songs have grown over the past two years; they’ve sprouted from Adam’s demos into full-fledged, fully-fleshed out arrangements, and the band has gotten talented and tight enough that they can basically knock it out of the park every time. And this EP, an incredibly solid quartet of songs, manages to distill their kick-ass live show pretty effectively. (I’ve never been especially good at playing the Indie-Rock “Guess Who?” matching game, but I’ll say that I hear a lot of Wire, a fair amount of the Zombies, maybe some Pavement.) “Four Seasons” is the rock-solid, pistol-shot out of the gate first track, which jumps directly from the verse into the chorus into the bridge (completely with fuzzily-recorded, woo-hoo vocal harmonies), chugging along with kick-ass interlocking guitar parts the whole time. It’s a hugely awesome, nearly-perfect moment of indie-rock awesomeness. “Aubade” is slower, steadier, and catchier; it begins with a solid surf-rock beat, and reverbed-out guitars (I still insist it needs some seagull sound-effects, guys… or maybe they’re already implied?), before the sudden, triumphant climax of the chorus; later in the song we hear the whole thing come apart and reform, and it’s pretty spectacular. “Once the Salad Gets You” is comparably schizphrenic, and has an even better breakdown (although I’m still puzzled about why Adam has written so many songs about salad and vegetables; he has at least 3, by my count). The EP’s closer, “Black Tie Formal,” is another super-solid umptempo rocker, complete with sing-along-ready, still sorta-unintelligible chorus, and it bookends the EP perfectly.

So if these guys are in fact the best band in Charlottesville — then so what? Why should anyone care, and why does that mean they get to be on my Top 10 list with 8 other acts who are not from Charlottesville?  Quite frankly, it’s because I’m sick of the way a lot of people talk about and think about local music, both here and elsewhere.

Going to see a fun band from your hometown in an audience full of old and new friends is not “scenester-ism”, it’s not a bullshit time-filler for the increasingly ill-defined category of “hipsters,” and I hate it when people talk about it that way. What it IS, is a fucking awesome way to spend your time, and a totally valid and worthwhile thing to do, and it’s something that’s worth putting time and effort and sweat into, and it’s something that’s worth caring about and fighting for and supporting. Art is about human interaction and togetherness and communities and interaction — even when that Art is about provoking or upsetting people, or about being alone — and it’s always worth anyone’s time to be a active part of their community and support the things that they like, and to have their own corresponding ideas and start their own things instead and find a forum for those instead of just giving up and only swallowing all the ubiquitous cultural blandness that mass media outlets have congratulated themselves into thinking is somehow relevant or important or universally applicable. I’m not saying nothing popular is ever good — what I am saying is that it’s important to find and support all the things that exist outside of that, because that where the shit that really matters happens.

(Which is not to say that other towns don’t produce equally excellent bands; so many of the shows that I’ve loved over the years have been acts of smaller or comparable size, who are clearly just some other town’s equivalent of the “best band in town” … see my ramble above for examples of the awesomeness of touring, sharing small music on a small scale around the globe, etc etc.)

But when small localized cultures produce a band that as awesomely kick-ass as the Invisible Hand, that should not be condescendingly belittled as a mere stepping stone on the way to potentially “greater” fame and success, that will come in the form of international recognition and some sort of larger platform for acceptance and approval. I think a lot of people (especially local musicians) misunderstand me when I say this, and I would hate for anyone to think that I don’t want my friends’ bands to be successful; obviously they view it from a different perspective than I do, and they’re quite understandably trying to be more successful at it in terms of their careers as musicians, and that is all fine and good. (and obviously there’s never anything wrong with more people listening to more good music.)

BUT what I really resent is the implication that the music or the experience of seeing/hearing it is in need of external validation, and is somehow lacking until that validation has been bestowed. The idea that a band isn’t a “real band” until they sign a contract with a major label, or get reviewed on Pitchfork, or put out a CD that wasn’t hand-made in someone’s living room, or when they become a band that is making money rather than spending it, or whatever bar you want to set for that validation to occur. I know that’s easier for me to say as a listener who is not a musician, but to me a great concert at a house party with your friends can be equal or greater to big show in a fancy venue with all of the inherent trappings therein.

My point is this: when I’m at an Invisible Hand show and I’m jumping and dancing in a crowd and sweating and spilling beer on my friends, etc., I’m not thinking “Wow, these guys could really make it big some day!” …as if an Angelic A&R would come down from the heavens and spread their rock gospel around the world and I’d be able to say I knew them back when etc etc. No, what I’m thinking is: “This is it! We (band+audience) did it! Right now, this music is already fulfilling every single aspect and experience that I could ever expect of it! We already won!”

So that’s why the most consistently kick-ass band in Charlottesville, the band with whom I cumulatively shared many of the most awesome moments of 2009, is going on this list. It would be completely insane not to include them. These guys are a fucking awesome band, and I’m glad to have them here in town.

DBB Plays Cups self-titled / Sequel to Cups (not even really released, I don’t think.)

So after all that… I’m now going to, oddly, praise a local band whose shows in 2009 I didn’t even really like. The dramatically inconsistent and wildly murcurial nature of DBB Plays Cups has already been chronicled extensively in these pages, but I want to take a moment to talk about the awesomeness of DBB’s recorded material. Actually, I mostly want to talk about how awesome David’s songwriting is, but the sound of these records is also so peculiar and bizarre that it will inevitably be discussed as well.

As I’ve said before, I think David Baker Benson is an alarmingly brilliant songwriter, and one whose songs I continue to appreciate even as I hear them mangled by a deliberately chaotic succession of well-meaning, half-rehearsed chums. And one of my favorite things about his songs are the fact that they’re distinctly post-modern and self-aware, but are also able to address a variety of topics (seeking the universal through the obscure) with total sincerity, while simultaneously being sort of inscrutable and puzzling.

As in: his songs are hugely “ironic,” but not in the way that other people’s music is ironic; there’s very little sarcasm, and absolutely no cheap nostalgia or silliness, and when he writes a song about a topic like Deciding Not to Move to Lynchburg, laughter may be an appropriate reaction (and I’m sure one that David would welcome), but it’s in no way a “joke” song — it’s a completely sincere, slow song about addressing one’s personal history and decisions, even while it has a cheap casio keyboard melody plinking away in the background, over a warm bed of corny synth washes and drum-machine presets.

And truly, these record do have a weird, and strangely retro sound; everything is thin, clean high-end, with lots of simple guitar lines, beeping Casio melodies, and cheap drum-machine sounds; the self-titled “Cups” begins every single song with the same jingle-bell preset beat (albeit at varying tempos), which reminds me of Wesley Willis every time I hear it; “Sequel to Cups” is likewise slathered wall-to-wall in grocery-store-flavored Saxophone solos (apparently the record’s producer, aka Nailgun Media tech wizard Tom Benner, played the Sax in High School). It’s slightly reminiscent of similarly retro acts like Ariel Pink (whom I’ve discussed with David on many occasions, although I’m sure the similarity is mostly due to drawing from similar sources), but the lyrical stuff here is much more akin to the Silver Jews, especially with lines like:  “Shot for Measles, shot for Mumps / for every shot heard ’round the world, there is a slump / I’ve been shot down, but I shot back up / Do I still have a shot?”

Both these short albums also remind me a lot of the early Magnetic Fields material, especially in the way that David’s low, reverbed voice is held above the thin, pleasant, deliberately artificial production. When asked about this extremely particular sound, I believe David responded with something along the lines of: “It’s not like I feel that those recordings are the definitive versions of any of those songs. It’s more like, we were putting it together, and we saw the opportunity to take things in that direction, so we just went for it.” But the sound doesn’t reduce the records to cheap joke or whatever; if anything, it actually kind of grows on you the more you listen. It’s definitely a very deliberate and self-aware thing, but I don’t think that it necessarily diminishes the credibility of the material. There’s a temptation to classify this “outsider” music, but that would imply some sort of idiot-savant scenario which is clearly not the case; nonetheless, I assure you that the idiosyncrasies on display here are genuine.

I think it has a lot to do with David’s character; he’s a very serious, approachable, and straightforward guy, while also being extremely clever, self-aware, and also intensely culturally aware; I’m not sure how well these qualities would translate through his music to a person who doesn’t know him personally, but I think it makes for some remarkable and notable songs either way.  I mean, any careful listener can tell that there’s some worthwhile stuff going on here, but I think a really important quality is the fact that — even to a person who’s a friend of his and his heard his songs many times — they often have this weird quality where it’s still impossible to tell if the song is being completely straightforward, or whether it’s asking you to step back and analyze that set of statements and make judgements about them. I’m increasingly inclined to think David likes to have it both ways.

For instance, the lyrics to “Geordie” consist almost entirely of praise for the title character, who has evidently overcome obstacles and succeeded despite everyone’s expectations; “Geordie, they said you were a flash in the pan / but you turned around and had them drinking out of your hand / Though you were always above trying to play tough, you could have mopped the floor with anyone who called your bluff / they asked you, could you hold a candle, or your own in a fight / but did they ever let you in the ring, or give you a light? / but still, you waited to fire until you could see the whites / you could have taken anyone you wanted home that night.” I think this song is amazing, and I’ve listened to it dozens of times (the super-catchy interplay between gtr and sax helps), and I still have absolutely no clue whether these lyrics are meant to express sincere admiration, or whether there’s a huge undercurrent of sarcastic scorn. The delivery is always totally straightforward, but lines like “You were born to make a splash / though they did all they could / to keep you from getting your feet wet” imply a cruel mockery of someone else’s (possibly unearned) self-confidence.

Songs like “Knight of the Garter” and “That’s No Way to Treat a Lady” are relatively simple to unpack; they are, respectively, about being romantically rejected, and about a touring musician who’s acting like a jerk, and they’re fairly straightforward in that regard (despite the tri-lingual interludes in the first number); but their critical nature (“Is that the same mouth / you kiss your mother with?”) help provide a key for deciphering the denser songs.

“Champagne Advertisement” takes things a step further; it’s the song that made me first realize that David is an incredible songwriter. If you will permit me to quote the lyrics at length: “Despite your humble origins / Oh, you rose to prominence on the overnight success / of a champagne advertisement / you were discovered eating an apple under under a tree / one afternoon in Central Park, by the head of an international agency / Oh, he made you an offer immediately / to be the star of an ad for champagne that would be seen globally / Yeah, both domestically and overseas / Whoa, you surprised everyone in your home town […] But that Ad was just a springboard / soon you would be laughing at those hayseeds from the silver screen / of the old local cinema.” There’s a humor in the way the words are crowded in to fit the lines, and the way in which your desire for a punchline is constantly subverted; but in addition to the basic critique of commercial culture, but I think there’s also level on which David just wants the listener to consider the whole cultural concept of ‘making it big in the city.’

“Coffee, Cold” mines similar territory; the lyrics reference being “wrapped up in a patchwork quilt of the flyover states,” and “the High School football coach who took you out on your first date,” before the curious refrain of: “Whoo, born and raised on the prairie / the sound of the wind through the cornfield at night / was the only ocean you ever knew.” Incidentally, David once introduced this song in a crowded bar by saying: “This song is for anyone from the midwest … who is 20 years old … today. If you were born on today’s date … in ’88 … in the midwest, then this song is for you!”

His best song, of course, is the second album’s last track (and almost always DBB’s set-closer): “Go Out on a High Note.” It basically ties together everything I’ve outlined above; it’s a corny, Prince-like slow-building ballad about feeling awkward at the end of a party. Knowing that David is both a former roommate to several semi-legendary noise-musicians from SF and also currently a Kindergarten teacher in Charlottesville helps to lend context to the opening lines: “Letting the blindfold slip on purpose / during a round of Blind-Man’s-Bluff / Were the barnyard noises other players made for you to follow / less than enough?” — but any way you look at, this is an absolute knock-out of a song. As with “Geordie,” the lyrics are all statements intended to bolster the confidence of the recipient, but it’s left deliberately unclear whether David is speaking directly to the audience, whether the song the song is meant to represent a specific fictional character’s inner monologue, or if it’s just meant to be a universally applicable acknowledgment of self-consciousness.

As the music builds to a slow climax, the song’s narrator repeats the mantra “Help yourself get one last leg up on the night” before explaining “You’d do wisely to be wary / of hanging around ’til this party dies / so you say you have to turn in soon-ish, so you can be up by sunrise / can be it that your greatest fear is losing the power to surprise?” It’s an incredibly smart, precise, and devastating line, but it’s delivered just as the saxophone and organ have built up to the song’s inevitable climax, and the whole thing turns into this weirdly beautiful self-fulfilling prophecy as the song crescendos with a simultaneously gorgeous and harsh chorus of “Remember to blow that one last kiss with your eyes / and when you go out … go out on a high note.” It’s a fucking brilliant song, and in the right live-performance context, I’ve seen it unite an inebriated crowd while simultaneously causing each careful listener to intensely doubt their own motivations.

Anyway, I’ve always found David’s songs both inscrutable and infectious, and in the spirit of closing each “top 10” with a weird, semi-confrontational left-field choice, I will hereby conclude my overly involved summary of the “best 9½ of 2009.”

So, uh… what albums did y’all like?

Tags: charlottesville · feature · playlist · rants & rambles · review

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 gary // Jan 23, 2010 at 4:45 am

    well-said words about sequel, especially relating to go out on a high note. there’s something special about that song that i will never understand.

    as for myself, i’ll probably still be talking about bill callahan’s ‘sometimes i wish we were an eagle’ when im 30.

  • 2 coleman // Jan 23, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    I’ll throw in my 2 cents for what it is worth-

    DBB Plays Cups – “Sequel to Cups” (Self Released)
    So, yeah. DBB Plays Cups. “Sequel” is probably the single album I have listened to the most since I discovered “American Water” (5 years late in 2003 or so). Being a Silver Jews fan is a good entree to DBB, if you dig the Joos, you’ll probably “get” DBB I want to call David’s songwriting clever (which it is) but that doesn’t really do it justice. I’d dare say that DBB Plays Cups is important music, and I hope that this album gets some kind of proper release so that more people can hear it. This album will stand alone as the soundtrack of my 25th year.

    Crom – “Cocaine Wars 1974-1989” (Pessimiser)
    This album was released in ’01 and re-released on vinyl in’07 (limited to 300 copies), but it wasn’t until last October that I finally found a copy. They get labeled as grindcore, but that’s not really an apt description. It’s metal and spazzy, but this record has such a great sense of humor, and plenty of 30 sec. hooks. I’ve heard it described as Man Is the Bastard with a sense of humor, and that is a pretty apt analogy.

    Wildildlife – “Peaz Feast” (Crucial Blast)
    I don’t really know how to describe this sound. Garage-Metal? Its like an Arab on Radar 45rpm played on 33rpm in a rusty tin-can, while some teenager plays Sonics licks in the next room? Either way this is one of my favorite bands of the last few years, and while this 4 song (extended) EP pales in comparison to their previous full length, “Six” (also on Crucial Blast, which puts out consistently great heavy music) it’s still a rocking album. The second track “Violent” is as good as any of their previous work: droning drop D guitar tones, echoed vocals and crushing coda. As they always do the crunch and stoner-sludge is broken up with a catchy neer-pop gem in “Shining Son.”

    Bong- “Bethmoora” (Infinite Exchange)
    Fucking awesome! Or more like, “ffffffuuuuuucccckkkkiiiiinnnngggg aaaaaaaaawwwweeeeessssoooooooooooooommmmmeeeeeeee!” For fans of Earth or Sleep. Excellent drone/doom metal from the U.K. Slow entrancing meditative single riffs over a bed of fuzz and sitar (?). The complete second disc is a doomed and downed out cover of Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun.” Best slow metal album of the year.

    Barn Owl – “From Our Mouths a Perpetual Light” (Digitalis)
    Originally released as a super limited record in ’08, but re-released on CD in ’09. As good as drone gets in my opinion. Think where Growing was headed with “His Return” before going in a sunnier direction. This is the sound of the universe. Beautiful and crushing. The sound is elegiacal, but there is an edge, a little bite. Droning to the point of near crescendo, but never quite making it there. There are so many textures in these tunes. Repeated listening reveals new patterns and rhythms underneath the overriding drone.

    Jay Reatard – “Watch Me Fall” (Matador)
    I include this because the man is no longer with us. “Blood Visions” was my favorite album of ’07, and while “Watch Me Fall” doesn’t rise up to the vigor and violence of that album it marked the beginning of a change and progressions in Jay’s music, that unfortunately we wont get to see play out. The single, “It Aint Gonna Save Me” kept the urgency of his past work and added an cleanness and abject poppiness that seemed a logical place for his music to head. If Reatard could have had 5 more years he probably would have really made it into the mainstream. It’s a shame, oh, such a shame.

    2009 also saw the break up of my favorite band of all time, The Silver Jews. I’m really glad I got to see them on their last tour. As sad as it makes me that I can’t anticipate a new Jews release, this was probably the right time to call it. “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea” was by far their weakest album (especially lyrically for Mr. Berman). And while a bad Silver Jews album is still a pretty damn good album, I just couldn’t see them getting back to the form found on “American Water” or “The Natural Bridge.” A time and a place, I suppose.

    2009 also had these musical revelations for me: I finally came around to Bill Callahan/Smog. The Lemonheads are great (especially “Drug Buddy” off of “Shame about Ray”). Neil Young continues to be God, evidenced by the continuing epicness of his live releases (the first side of Zuma is as good as a record gets). Sanford Clark singing Lee Hazelwood is a good thing. Tibeten Quaaludes off of Earth’s second album, “Phase 3” is a great fucking song. Also if anyone gets a chance to visit Portland, OR. Mississippi Records is the best record store ever and all of their compilations (on tape or vinyl) are worth picking up.

    It was so refreshing to move to C-ville and see how thriving and supportive the music scene is here. Drunk Tigers, Invisible Hand, DBB Plays Cups, Great Dads, Rhythm Bandit, etc. always a pleasure to see y’all play.

    That’s it.

  • 3 James // Jan 23, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    thanks for chiming in, dudes.

    Coleman, I’m definitely gonna have to check some of those out. (especially Barn Owl … I kept hearing the name, but assuming they were some kind of pop-rock band or something. all it takes is a defensible Growing comparison to get my attention…)

    also, how come all those mid-90’s Earth records always get overlooked? all anyone ever talks about is “Earth 2” and their new shit, but “Thrones and Dominions” is easily my favorite record of theirs… “Harvey” is a fucking awesome jam. The one after that, their fourth album (isn’t the first one just called Earth? I think it was vinyl only…) anway, “Pentastar: In the Style of Demons” is totally solid as well.

    can’t say I’m really “feeling” (ha ha) the Lemonheads, but I’ve gotta admit their cover of Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum” is a nice little guilty pleasure, in an early-90’s Sonic Youth kinda way.

  • 4 James // Jan 23, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    some other shit that didn’t make it onto my list:

    If we go the re-issues route, the 4xCD Government Alpha box set on Pica Disk, “Resolution of Remembrance” is pretty unimpeachable. Four affordably priced, immensely satisfying CDs of cathartically harsh japanese noise music from the 90’s… I also picked up a 2xCD thing on Banned Production called “Ne” which is a collection of a lot of tape-releases from the late-80’s / early-90’s … stuff by Merzbow, Hanatarash, Masonna, CCCC, MSBR, Incapacitants, the dude from Ruins, and a band memorably entitled the Rape Presidents… those two releases pretty much singlehandedly restored my faith in the awesomeness of classic Japanese Noise over the past few months.

    there’s also a ton of stuff from the TwinSisterMoon / Natural Snow Buildings / Isengrind / Snowbringer Cult duo, both new releases and reissues (all frustratingly near-impossible to find) … I wrote a lot about these folks in last year’s best-of, but their material continues to really impress me.

    I also really liked the Yo La Tengo album (duh), and Animal Collective’s “Merriwether” definitely had it’s moments, although Avey Tare’s singing continues to get on my nerves on occasion. Still, I’d argue for “Brother Sport” for the best “single” of the year. I also liked the Desolation Wilderness album a lot, as well as a pair of 7″s I picked up when they played at the Tea House …

    also picked up Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Rifts” 2xCD at the end of the year, I’m finally coming around to really liking his stuff. also got a new Flower-Corsano thing which came out right at the end of December, after I had already written about their older stuff…

    oh, and I should mention an excellently confusing compilation I got called “Resonant Hole, vol 1” … it was like $7 or something, 20+ tracks of awesomely baffling sound-wackery, with only a handful of recognizable names, and a lot of crazy pseudonyms presumably made up for the occasion (unless there’s somebody out there actually operating under the pseudonym of “Jeanne Vomit-Terror” … anyway, the verdict’s still out on whether it would have made by “Best” list, but it’s definitely worth hearing, especially for the the whimsically over-the-top cover of Sonic Youth’s “Confusion is Sex” … apparently it’s the work of some folk from Warmer Milks, whose name I kept hearing back in the Tea House days. I picked up a CD of his on Mountaain for further investigation, but that one hasn’t quite done much for me (yet)…

  • 5 blair // Jan 25, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    i really want to hear this “sequel to cups” —are there any more left? how can i get one?

    some of my favorites from this past year:

    woods – songs of shame
    dirty projectors – bitte orca
    king khan & bbq show – invisible girl
    dutchess & the duke – sunset/sunrise
    grizzly bear – veckatimest

    and that harlem record – free drugs has been winning me over a lot recently (and heavy deeds by sun araw – you know that one james? seems like it would be up your alley )

    anyways let me know about dbb plays cups (only ever seen them live but never heard the recorded songs)

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