James’ favorites of 2011! 11½ albums, several honorable mentions, and a list of shows I enjoyed

January 1st, 2012 · 2 Comments · By

Happy New Year, Nailgun Readers!

As in past years, I thought I’d turn our attention away from the Charlottesville community for a minute to address the contemporary music world at large, as we participate in the silly-but-fun tradition whereby I enumerate my favorite releases of the year.

No matter whether these artists are all familiar names to you, or if 99% of the references I make below sound like alphabet-soup music-terminology-bingo; either way, I give these albums my highest recommendation and I assure any adventurous and open-minded listener that they will find plenty to enjoy in the records listed here.

Incidentally, I’ll be playing a few tracks from each of these albums on my radio show late tonight; if you’re up late you can tune in to 91.1FM (or listen online from out of town) from 1-3am tonight, if you’d like to hear a sample of these releases… or if you’re not the type to stay up late, you can always stream the show from the website later on (the archive will be up through the 16th, I believe — click on the Jan. 2nd edition of “the Madame Psychosis Hour”)

Anyhow, here’s the list.

Mist – “House” (Spectrum Spools)

I’ve written in the past about the greatness of the Cleveland-based retro-synth trio Emeralds, and their most recent full-length made it onto my top-5 last year; in the time since, they’ve only gained notoriety and exposure — although they’ve yet to release a full-length follow-up, they’ve seemingly expanded in all directions all of the past year, with literally dozens of solo records, side-projects, and re-issues of past installments of the same.

So people are really liking and paying attention to Emeralds right now; in particular, a wide cross-section of folks really seem to be going crazy over the solo work of Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire… and while his stuff is very lovely (don’t get me wrong, I’ve been rocking Young Person’s Guide all fall!), some of his stuff can get too “pretty” for me, sort of lapsing into the that late-period Popol Vuh type of unconvincing sentimentality. If you ask me, right now the smart money’s on John Elliott, the more prolific of Emeralds’ two synthesizer-wielders.

Mist is the duo of John Elliott and Sam Goldberg (operator of the Pizza Night label), and “House” is their third full-length in as many years. The same key elements that make Emeralds great are here in abundance, but also both simplified and expanded into a fuller, more lush and inviting record. The bulk of the alvum consists of cold, arpeggiated analog-synthesizer bloops that run full speed ahead into lush, pleasant fields of warm droning electronic sound — the same strategy that Tangerine Dream both pioneered and popularized decades ago, but stripped down and robbed of any embarrassingly dated hippie/new-age signifiers, and also layered more heavily to achieve a dreaminess that is comparable to what the shoegazer movement did with guitars.

The result is both dorky and totally bad-ass, both coldly alienating and charmingly lovely all at the same time.  Some solo-synthesizer records are clearly preaching to the choir, seemingly made to be heard only by the other folks who are collecting the same analog synths and putting out similar records. But Mist are clearly aiming for the stadium seats here, aesthetically; they’re not afraid to pull off big show-y movements or changes — and what’s more, they always make them work! The opener “Twin Lanes” has a great wall-of-sound moment at 30 seconds in that is unavoidably attention-getting; “Daydream” is a deliberately Eno-ish oasis of calm, the classic mid-album calm-down interlude; and “Dead Occasion” provides a buzzing wall of several minutes worth of what can only be described as “8-bit drone” before giving way dramatically to the dramatic left-field intrusion of the opening riff of “Ovary Stunts.” These guys aren’t afraid of working hard to get your attention, but because everything is just built from more and more layers of analog-synth-sound, the resulting album is still a totally perfect and cohesive whole, never pandering or mixing in any of the obvious crowd-pleasing elements (there is not a single dance beat on this entire record, although it’s often extremely rhythmic and energetic); essentially, they’re not afraid of using big dramatic movements borrowed from Rock to make non-Rock&Roll music, as groups like Mogwai and Fuck Buttons have done in years past.

Anyhow, for underground culture-watchers the retro-synth movement as a whole seems to be gaining momentum and prominence, with seemingly every noise artist who moved from harsh to ambient sounds two years ago now jumping on the kosmische/Berlin-school bandwagon (not that you’ll hear any complaining from me! I love this shit.)  John Carpenter and the “Terminator” soundtrack are getting name-checked left-and-right, and this groundswell arguably even broke into the mainstream with the retro-cool of the “Drive” soundtrack (which was a lovely surprise, although perhaps a little too electroclash-y for my ears). Whether you’re already knee-deep in this type of material, or if you’re curious for a good entry point into what this whole thing is about, I highly recommend you check out “House” by Mist. It’s the past, present, and future of electronic music all at the same time.

the Psychic Paramount – “II” (No Quarter)

This used to be a 90’s group called Laddio Bolocko; at some point they ditched a saxophone player, changed their name to the Psychic Paramount, and in the past 10 years have put out only two albums, 2005’s “Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural” and this one. I’d never heard of them until we got sent a copy of the new release at the radio station earlier this year, but I’m now on the lookout for all of their older material because this record is awesome.

They basically make exactly one kind of clangy, energetic instrumental art-rock, and they do it loudly and at length for all of the albums 8 tracks.  It sounds a lot like the noisier, heavier, groovier parts of This Heat (think “SPQR” or “Health and Efficiency”) but stretched out to cover a 45-minute full-length. There’s a constant, chiming guitar chug that is both unsettling and invigorating, while the beat is always driving forward but is also weird and totally badass and somehow unexpectedly slipping away from a normal type of groove, a lot like Jaki Liebezeit’s legendary work with Can. The bass is just repetitive fuzzy tones holding everything together, and the guitar “solo”ing is basically just more clanging, heavier and higher, making things seem unexpectedly transcendent and dreamy while the rest of the band is still pushing full-speed-ahead. I’m tempted to compare it to math-rock, but it’s a little too repetitive for that. It’s obviously very inspired by Krautrock, but no Krautrock band was ever this aggressive. It shares the same intensity as a lot of the smarter contemporary metal stuff, but with absolutely none of the same signifiers. This is dark, satisfying, loud, thoughtful music, and once you’re hooked it’s difficult to find time to listen to anything else.

This is one of those really well-crafted albums on which every track shares a singular attitude and aesthetic, so that every single minute of it is immensely satisfying, but the players are constantly changing the exact arrangement in a way that keeps you on your toes so that it never feels repetitive or in any way boring. Occasionally they’ll drone out and allow things to fall apart for a few measures at a time, but only to bring things back together with another groove and another riff, sometimes with the instruments almost tripping over each other, fighting for prominence … but they’re able to sustain this off-kilter energy and build on it, sometimes for 10 to 15 minutes without pause.

There’s not much more to say about this one; you kind of just need to hear it. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Don Cabellero, Circle, or the aforementioned This Heat.

Ducktails – “III: Arcade Dynamics” (Woodsist) / “Screen Scene”  (No Fun Productions)

The New Jersey group Real Estate were seemingly everywhere this fall, releasing a widely acclaimed second record, gaining a greater crowd of fans, and garnering well-earned comparisons to early-80’s college-radio jangle-rock classics like REM and the Feelies. I loved their record too, but the one that really hit home with me was a solo record that guitarist Matt Monadile put out under his prolific Ducktails pseudonym earlier in the spring.

Sure, the sound is a little more low-fi and chintzy than the comparatively lush production of the Real Estate full-length, but the results are somehow more satisfying. The elements here are pretty simple, just drum machine or a drum loop, layered guitars with with reverb and/or flanger on them, and sometimes gently coo-ed / whispered pop-vocals that sound like they were recorded on a dictaphone. It’s pretty simple, but that adds to the charm; dude’s got a formula, it sounds damn-near-perfect, and for 11 tracks he’s more or less sticking to it.

In keeping with the overall Real Estate house aesthetic, the few songs that do have lyrics are understated and low-key; “Killin’ the Vibe” sounds like the Beach Boys robbed of all their ambition but none of their charm, and the closest thing to an anthem here (and the high point of the record), “Don’t Make Plans” is a proud and charming ode to youthful aimlessness, eschewing careerism and heedless ambition, instead extolling the virtues of spending your summer days getting drunk and hanging out with girls. It definitely doesn’t hurt that it’s all done with a self-knowing wink — at one point Monadile’s lyrics reject both the suggestion of going outside and the proposal to say indoors.

So this album feels unavoidably home-grown and hand-made, which is kind of strange in an era when technology has advanced to the point where anyone can produce a professional-sounding dance-pop single in their own bedroom; but what Ducktails (and plenty of others, it should be noted) are doing is deliberately imitating and evoking the audio aesthetic and attitude from an era when independent musicians recorded albums cheaply and poorly in their bedrooms because it was the best option available to them at the time; or basically, acknowledging that the poor sound quality of those old Sebadoh or Beat Happening albums was often just as much of the appeal as the lyrics or the musicianship.

Not that it sounds bad, though — not at all. It just feels unmistakeably self-made and small in a way that’s really charming. I could never imagine this music filling a stadium, and that’s part of why I like it; it’s the perfect antidote to U2-style world-conquering bombast. It’s an album that both implicitly and explicitly about the small pleasures in life, and it keeps that promise to the listener as well; it’s not the sort of album people make when they’re trying to end up on end-of-the-year lists, which is precisely why it’s included on mine.

And it’d be foolish for me not to mention “Screen Scene,” Ducktails’ half of a split 12″ release (with Dracula Lewis on the other side), released by No Fun Productions at some point last year. It’s a single 13-minute instrumental tracking, a clicking compressed drum machine chugging along irregularly under waves and waves of repetitive keyboard-drone motifs.

It has all of the same hand-made/DIY aesthetic as the full-length album, but something else as well; another intruding aesthetic that is charmingly dated, but which manages to evoke an autumnal melancholy that feels eternally timeless. It’s overwhelmingly hypnotic, and — in it’s own small way — kind of irrepressibly groovy; it’s the kind of 13-minute song that’s over before you know it and begs to be listened to again immediately.

Plenty of electronic music pioneers in the 1970’s attempted to summon the entirety of the cosmos through the equipment in their studios; “Screen Scene” is what happens when you attempt the same thing on a bedroom four-track, and somehow succeed.

Dum Dum Girls – “He Gets Me High”  EP (Sub Pop) / “Only in Dreams” (Sub Pop)

The Dum Dum Girls were one of a dozen bands that sprung up in the past few years combining fuzzy J&MC-inspired garage-rock and catchy girl-group pop-songwriting; originally the solo project of a girl named Dee Dee, but eventually expanding into a full band. On their initial releases (an EP and an album, both on Sub Pop last year) there wasn’t much that made them stand out, to my ears; the production was slightly more emphatic and drum-machine-reliant (more “Automatic” than “Psychocandy,” basically), and my favorite ballad on the record turned out to be a Sonny & Cher cover. Apart from that, I just filed them in with my other stack of neo-garage, neo-girl-groupy stuff I enjoyed, and kind of forgot about them.

The EP they put out this March, though, totally blew me away. “He Gets Me High” is almost perfect; only four songs in 13 minutes, and each one is a goddamned home-run. Clearly, the early material was just a warm-up; this girl has some serious songwriting chops and is pretty ambitious about getting them across. I heard this one via the radio station shortly before beginning a week-long road trip this spring, and had to stop at the first record store I found on the road so I could pick up a copy and play it on repeat for the entirety of the following afternoon.  It’s fucking awesome.

“Wrong Feels Right” begins abruptly, with a thundering “Wipeout”-desktop beat and lyrics that seem like we’re already in the bridge of a Kate Bush song or something, but it quickly ramps up the energy even further and builds into super-catchy over-the-top chorus; it’s like the Shoegazer and Paisley Underground scenes of the mid-80’s somehow came together in the same song.  “He Gets Me High” is more straightforward; driving drums, heavily-phasered guitars, reverb on absolutely everything, and a chorus that explodes ecstatically before you’re ready for it.

“Take Care of My Baby” is not only the high point of the EP but also the single best ballad I’ve heard in years; painfully slow chimes and tambourines, a dreamy sea of guitar strumming, and heartbreakingly good lyrics about forlorn longing for a failed, fucked-up relationship; “Take care of my baby / I don’t think he can do it himself” is such a perfect pop sentiment I’m kind of amazed no-one’s come up with that one already. This one’s an all-time classic; it’s both the perfect make-out song and a sad tale wrapped in nostalgia and regret.

… and then they wrap up the EP with a cover of the Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”  It’s one of those covers that sounds both exactly like the original and exactly like the band covering it; nothing groundbreaking, but it’s an entirely appropriate and well-earned victory lap.  I promise you’re gonna wanna listen to this EP on repeat, too.

So, all of that had me highly anxious with anticipation for the full-length that was supposedly due later in the year; but when “Only in Dreams” finally arrived in late September it kind of caught me off-guard, initially. I’m not sure why; the Dum Dum Girls’ trajectory has been heading towards clean and brightly-produced pop-rock since the beginning, but I guess I just wasn’t quite ready for an album produced by the guy who wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy,” and also produced the debut albums by Blondie and the Go-Go’s. The heavy, dreamy guitars and stomping beats are still there, but the whole thing feels way more polished and ambitious; it doesn’t feel like a sell-out move at all, because absolutely nothing popular in the last 15 years has sounded like this, but it’s still a little disconcerting to hear a contemporary garage-pop sound like they’re trying to score radio hits in the early MTV era. Songs like “Caught in One” and “Heartbeat,” in particular, sound alarmingly identical the Pretenders.

But after spending some time with the album, I got over my initial hang-ups and soon recognized that it’s actually got the strongest songwriting of Dee Dee’s short career. Eventually I got used to the twangy rockabilly guitar and shout-along back-up vocals of  the opening track “Always Looking,” and will confess to having sung along to the “Never felt / the beat of my heart / ’til you / made it start” chorus alone in my car. “Bedroom Eyes” is a straightforward, simple, A-B-C pop-rock song that just totally works. “In My Head” has a chorus that would make it just as great a ballad as “Take Care of My Baby,” except that it’s another fast, energetic song, and has a bridge that’s even more exuberant and glorious. “Coming Down” is one of only two slow track here, but it anchors the album with six-and-a-half minutes of catchy, heavy dreaminess.

Most of the songs are reportedly about either the recent death of Dee Dee’s mother, or the time spent away from her husband, who’s also a touring musician; what’s kind of great, is that it’s not always initially obvious which one she’s singing about, and a lot of the lyrics could actually apply to either situation (or, if you’re not familiar with the press-release-back-story, you can just assume they’re about drug use and failed relationships like all other garage rock songs). Although there’s a weak track or two (“Just a Creep” is the one I always skip over), the whole thing feels like a really coherent and consistent album, clocking in at the respectable standard of 10 tracks.

So while the EP is the one I’d take to a desert island (despite it’s brevity), the full-length is totally worth your attention too. It may be pretty anachronistic, but I think it’s kind of awesome that Dum Dum Girls aren’t content to remain some anonymous home-recorded rockers who are kinda inspired by bands like the Pretenders and the Go-Gos, but have stepped forward and actually made an album that can hold its’ own alongside anything by either of those bands. And since, with a few arguable exceptions, there’s been a conspicuous lack of high-quality popular pop-rock bands in the post-grunge-era, I’m glad to have the Dum Dum Girls out there doing what they do.

Alvarius B. – “Baroque Primativa” (Poon Village / Abduction)

This one takes a little bit of explaining: Alvarius B. is Alan Bishop, whom you may recognize as a former Sun City Girl (along with his brother Sir Richard Bishop) as well as being the guy who runs the Sublime Frequencies label.  It’s apparently the latest in a long run of Alan’s solo records, though it’s the first one I’ve ever been aware of; it was originally released in an extremely limited vinyl edition early this year, which is now completely out-of-print, but the CD reissue can still be found for a reasonable price.

The album is 11 tracks, 6 of them are re-working of Ennio Morricone compositions, 3 are originals, and there’s two other weirdo curveball covers thrown in for good measure. The most basic elements are acoustic guitar and Bishop’s voice (sounding eerily similar to Red Hunter from Peter and the Wolf, actually), although there’s also little extra touches everywhere like organ, a basic rhythm section, or an electric piano (many of those supplied by Eyvind Kang, an experimental violinist who’s played with John Zorn and Sunn O))) and various other people like that).

Sometimes the record is lush and lovely, like the opening “Dinner Party” (sung in Italian, but somehow channeling both the flamenco and tropicalia traditions). Sometimes it’s oblique and weird, like the most overtly rockin’ track, “Humor Police,” which any Sun City fan will appreciate (example lyrics: “caller ID got ahold of me, sawed off my index finger / now I dial the telephone with the tip of my tongue / and jam my thumb up their ass, let them know that I’m number one”). At it’s best, the album it’s delicate and lovely, like on the reworking of “Come un Madrigal,” a Morricone soundtrack piece from Argento’s “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” (here retitled “Like That Madri Gal” — all of the covers have pun-obscured titles); eerie, wordless vocals float in an empty space punctuated by gentle strums and chimes … it’s just overwhelmingly beautiful in a mysterious and understated way that keeps drawing me back to it again and again.

But the immediately obvious high points of the record might actually be the two other covers: “You Only Live Twice” (originally sung by Nancy Sinatra for the soundtrack of the 1967 Bond movie of the same name) is an exuberant joy, somehow finding sly wisdom in a song that had previously seemed insubstantial and insincere. The fact that it sounds like it was recorded on a children’s cassette-deck while on tour somewhere does absolutely nothing to diminish its’ appeal; separated from the originals’ bombastic production, Bishop has to hit the same heights with his performance alone, and it works beautifully.

The album closer is nearly as great, and just as surprising a choice of source material; an iconic Beach Boys song (here retitled “God Only Be Without You”) gets a similar treatment, but then somehow disintegrates and crumbles beautifully, as it’s few musical elements become disconnected and the titular vocal fragment repeats irregularly. It’s hard not to imagine Bishop in possession of a beloved childhood copy which skipped in it’s final grooves, and deciding to give that error a faithful re-interpretation.

Ryan Garbes – “Sweet Hassle” (Woodsist / Hello Sunshine)

I’ve been on the lookout for any material by Ryan Garbes ever since I picked up the 7″ of “Real Sugar” / “the Light” last year (in fact, that single made it onto last years’ top-10 — although not my top 5 — despite the fact that for the first few months I’m pretty sure I was playing it at the wrong speed.) After months of thinking I was the only one who had heard of this guy, I eventually realized he was also a member of those bands Wet Hair and Racoo-oo-oon that I kept hearing about.

Those bands are good, from what I’ve heard, but it seems his solo stuff is still where it’s really at; it’s all sloppy, mid-tempo garage stuff, with a dreamy haze of thick keyboards drunkenly chiming away all over the songs, and so many different effects on each of the different multi-tracked elements that it sounds like the songs are disintegrating and slowly wandering away from themselves. This stuff sounds just as damaged and drugged-up and wonderfully sloppy as the earliest, wasted-est Velvet Underground material (if not more so), but with all of that grouchy nihilism replaced by sunshine-y charm (though there’s still lots of incoherent shouting and dangerous weirdness.)

A few of the tracks, like “Slowing Down,” or the opener “Relay,” drift more toward Gary Numan-esque synthesizer instrumentals, but even those are so fuzzy and warbly, with the corresponding parts veering in and out of the correct time signatures, that they fit the albums’ overall wasted aesthetic. But most of the time, those same chiming Casio presets plink and plunk over warbly, jangly, mid-tempo garage-rock numbers, where the vocals are never remotely decipherable. A few songs, most notably the instrumental “Why,” even manage to Rock Out a little — although here the aggression comes as much from the poor sound quality as it does from the performance. The B-side has some mellower numbers, like “Dream” or “5D,” which come close(r) to being comprehensible, but also serve to underline how gloriously stupid and effortlessly charming the whole thing is.

I have only one minor complaint; Garbes is an excellent graphic designer and illustrator, and the prospect of him having a whole 12″ sleeve to work with (this release is LP-only) is mouth-watering, but sadly he just chose to blow up a faded old Polaroid for the cover. It kind of works, in a Jandek-ian fashion, but I also see it as a lost opportunity for more of Garbes’ excellent visual skills.

Thee Oh Sees – “Castlemania” (In the Red)

So Thee Oh Sees, or OCS, or whatever, have like a million releases, and I’ll admit to not being the most knowledgeable about their career or their back catalog etc (in fact they’ve already put out another album since I added this to my best-of list!). And I’m sure a lot of you punks and garage-rockers out there know far more about this band than I do, since I’ve only heard a handful of their songs outside of this album. BUT.  I think this album is seriously great, and I keep getting drawn back to it, and it’s going on my list for sure.

This one’s just the main dude from OCS multi-tracking himself doing solo stuff, rather than the full band. And the first thing you should know is that the vocals on this album are ridiculous; like, literally totally ridiculous; on almost every track he’s singing in a fake British accent or a silly monster-voice, and what’s kind of awesome is that he keeps it up for the entire record with a totally straight face, and it actually somehow works. He sounds like a gross, mutated version of Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clarke Five or something, which is a preposterous thing to do, and an even more preposterous thing to pull of successfully.

The music follows suit, too — relentlessly clanging, chipper cheerful guitars banging away at jaunty, would-be sea-shanties that have somehow gone perversely wrong; there’s also constant tambourines, chimes, bells, electric organs, and a reverb-y flute solo on literally almost every other song.  Imagine if the Stones had gotten way TOO into it while making “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” and somehow wrapped all the way around the psychedelic globe and found a way back to their bluesy roots on the other side.

In fact, the whole thing reeks of that sort of late-60’s, post-British Invasion fancifulness, but filtered through a juvenile, scatalogical, reckless American impulse. It’s also relentlessly uptempto and psuedo-cheerful, which is definitely at odds with the baffling and often unsettling song ideas like “I Need Seed” or “Coprophagist.” It’s almost like those post-Cramps/Misfits “psychobilly” acts applied the same methods to totally different source material, like instead of old Rockabilly records, they did fucked-up/gross-out horror versions of, like The Kinks and Donovan and Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd.  I can safely say those are certainly two aesthetics I had never heard combined before, and I would never have imagined they could be combined as effortlessly as they are here.

So while clearly I need to check out the rest of Thee Oh Sees material, this one’s definitely got my attention for now; I even splurged on the double-LP edition, lured by what’s obviously the best album cover of the year (if not the decade thus far), and for my troubles I was rewarded with a transparent-orange 45rpm 12″ that makes it completely impossible to cue any of these 120-second songs for DJ or Radio play, plus an extra one-sided disc containing three classic garage covers I don’t recognize. Good shit.

David Lynch – “Crazy Clown Time” (PIAS / Sunday Best)

OK, so I’m definitely a die-hard, long-time David Lynch enthusiast and fan, but does that really justify putting him on my “best of the year” list just because he decided to get around to releasing his “debut” solo full-length album this year?  Well, after listening to it repeatedly for a few weeks, I can assure it’s inclusion here is well-earned.

First, some caveats:  the album title is silly, the cover art looks somehow even more terrible than the last few minutes of “Inland Empire,” and the very first song on the album has Karen O, whose music I do not enjoy, singing on it. Once you get past that, though, tracks #2-14 are pure gold; baffling, confusing, and unexpectedly satisfying gold.

Despite being a film director (and painter) most of the time, David Lynch is of course no stranger to the world of music — he helped engineer the harsh, industrial hums and droning sounds on much of his early work (the sound is what goes a long way towards making “Eraserhead” eerily hypnotic and perfect); he was also the co-writer, producer, and lyricist for most of the “Twin Peaks” material, along with Angelo Badalamenti; furthermore, he produced two full-lengths for Twin Peaks’ Julee Cruise in the early 90’s, has long had a reputation for drawing on the Rockabilly aesthetic in his work, and of course several generations of avant-garde musicians have been influenced by his overall aesthetic. Plus, strangely, he was on that DangerMouse-and-Sparklehorse-collaborate-with-everyone-album a few years ago, and oddly enough his two contributions were the only tracks on there that actually worked, for me.

Anyhow, this is the first thing that could be properly called a “David Lynch Album,” and it sounds both exactly like you would expect and is also totally surprising and strange. For one thing, the second song (and advance single) is a straight-up dance track, with clipped mid-tempo house beat, insistent humming synth lines, and Lynch singing through Auto-Tune. “David Lynch does chillwave” sounds like a recipe for embarrassment of everyone’s behalf, but the result is actually kind of great, not least because it remains both catchy and totally understated, and also because after ~35 years of making sound, Lynch does have a pretty good producer’s ear, after all. By the time the lyrics get interrupted by weird, clipped samples of machine-gun fire, you’ll already be hooked.

Much of the rest of the record sounds a bit closer to what you’d expect; slow, pseudo-jazzy atmosphere, open guitar chords with a lot of reverb — we’re in familiar Badalamenti-esque territory here, minus a drum machine or two. If you’re a listener of Lynch-influenced musicians like Bohren und der Club of Gore (whose 1994 album “Gore Motel” I wholeheartedly recommend), it’s nice to know that Lynch himself can keep up. Sometimes it even strays into that weird type of southwestern-industrial-country that characterized those weird 90’s Leonard Cohen records.

But what makes the album both unsettling and great (instead of merely familiar and nice) are the vocals. Lynch doesn’t really have the greatest traditional singing voice — if you can remember his cameo as the near-deaf FBI administrator barking nasally and enthusiastically at Special Agent Dale Cooper, that’s a pretty close approximation of what he’s capable of, as a vocalist — but thankfully he’s taken the opportunity to address his role as a performer using all of the talents he possesses as a writer and a director.

Lynch’s lyrics are deceptively simple, as anyone who remembers the Cruise albums can testify, but he’s extremely adept at picking out memorable details, knowing when to balance generic platitudes with the unsettling specifics or contradictory delivery. “A table… painted Red.” is precisely the kind of extraordinarily mundane detail that can seem incredibly weighty and important in his films, and the same is often true here. When he whispers “I know a song we can sing / on this dark night … it’s the song of love” on the third track, what should be a reassuring sentiment is actually made incredibly unsettling and creepy. Thankfully it’s not just merely juxtaposing reassuring elements with spooky ones, or this would turn into a dopey high-school goth project real fast. Rest assured, Lynch definitely knows what he’s doing here, even if he never quite lets you in on it; that’s part of what makes it worth revisiting.

And despite his lack of range as a vocalist, he’s really giving it all he’s got here, often pushing things way past the normal range of what might be considered professionally acceptable. The aforementioned “Noah’s Ark” is entirely whispered, and sometimes the vocals loop. On “Football Game,” in which he (presumably) impersonates a midwestern knucklehead berating an unfaithful spouse, he sounds like he’s singing with a mouthful of strange dental implements (which, actually, is entirely possible.)  “Strange and Unproductive Thinking” brings the vocoder back for over seven minutes of text read aloud; “Crazy Clown Time” is sung entirely in a hysterical, high-pitched child’s voice.  This is the rare debut album by a non-musician celebrity which not only doesn’t try to flatter your impression of the singer, but which actually goes out of it’s way to make you question the validity and sanity of the project as a whole.

I think he pulls it off, though — there’s a clear devotion to the ideas at work here, even if more often than not they remain puzzling or outright oblique. Actually, I was surprised by how much the album reminded me of Jandek; it’s not an obvious comparison, but they have similar writing styles, and a similar devotion to their most bizarre or inscrutable impulses.  This is the album Jandek might have made if he’d ever tried to go professional (and missed by a mile.)

And Lynch knows exactly when to play with your expectations, too — since he’s a famous (and eccentric) celebrity but not a well-known musician, you’re inevitably going to constantly be asking yourself how sincere he’s being on each track, whether he’s singing as “himself” or “in character” — and he knows that, and is already one step ahead of you.

Despite the dumb title, the albums’ title track is actually one of the strongest; over a slow jazzy beat, backwards-guitar sounds, and a few errant sexual moans, Lynch hysterically whines (in a voice even higher than his normal one): “Paulie had a red shirt … Susie ripped her shirt off completely … Danny poured beer all over Sally … Buddy screamed so loud he spit! … Petey lit his hair on fire … We all ran around the backyard … it was Crazy Clown Time … it was real fun!”  It’s exactly like one of the most debauched scenes from his films — the terrifying, nightmarish parties from “Blue Velvet” or “Fire Walk With Me,” but in musical form.

It’s followed by “These Are My Friends,” seemingly a tender ballad about life’s simple pleasures. “I’ve got a truck” he begins abruptly (at his most Jandekian), ” and a single bed … got some beer, and a BBQ / got two good ears, and my eye on you.” It’s remarkably sweet (and the way Lynch over-enunciates “B-B-Q” is priceless), even as it’s somewhat childish; “Sally’s got a bluebird /  Petey has got a dog,” although he also makes reference to anti-depressants. It may be a simple sentiment, but it’s also the one moment on the album where we imagine we might be hearing from the “real” David Lynch, the one who was a Boy Scout and likes carpentry and buttons his shirts all the way up and says things like “Golly!” and thinks transcendental meditation is the way to world peace. It’s actually kind of touching and lovely.

… and then the very next song is about stalking and murdering someone.

So, there you go. David Lynch made an album, and it is every bit as fascinating and weird and unsettling and beautiful and unforgettable as his films, if you give it time (and skip the first track.)

Radiohead – “the King of Limbs” (self-released)

There’s a problem with trying to talk about Radiohead, which Nitsuh Ababe actually outlined very well in a column for Pitchfork early this year. His basic point is that Radiohead are so widely visible, and have such a large fanbase, that they’re necessarily going to mean many different things to many different people.  People who listen to pop music view them as outsiders or weirdos, glum sadsacks and fussy artistes who insist on not following the rules. For indie-rock fans they’re almost gods, the guys who bravely forged a trail ahead of the pack while the music industry was feeding everyone bullshit for a few years in those troubled late-90’s, making room for later off-beat successes like Wilco or the Flaming Lips. For those whose tastes run deeper or weirder, devotees of various undergrounds, Radiohead are often seen as something of a curiosity; one of the few groups playing experimenting with interesting styles and ideas in a mainstream context.

So, where your attitudes fall on that spectrum probably has a lot to do with what you thought of the most recent Radiohead album. I know a lot the folks from the “why can’t they just do something nice for once” camp hated it, but those people are honestly going to happier listening to Coldplay anyway. But I was also surprised by how many people from the middle ground declared it a disappointment; maybe it’s because it’s been a long time (since “Kid A”) that I actually personally felt like the quality and/or style of the newest Radiohead album was a matter of great cultural importance, but I thought this was a really excellent little album, and I’d have been proud to put it on my top 10 no matter who made it.

And it is, really, quite excellent. It also does almost none of the things that anyone might expect from a popular Rock band. The jittery, jerky rhythms are foregrounded, and the guitars mostly serve as textural flourish; they’re never the focal point of the song. Usually that’s the vocals, but the vocals are also mysterious and ethereal, and as achingly pretty and obliquely unintelligible as ever.

The bulk of the short albums’ 8 songs are tracks like “Morning Mr Magpie,” “Feral,” and “Lotus Flower,” in which IDM-ish chopped-pasted beats shuffle along (thank god they didn’t try to “go dubstep”), with snipped vocal fragments, chugging understated basslines, and smooth, gliding guitar parts weaving in and out, constantly shifting your focus, while the vocals and some keyboard parts float elegantly overtop. It’s a good formula, an extension of what they’ve done before on tracks like “Idioteque,” “I Might Be Wrong” and “Where I End and You Begin,” but here it sounds more comfortable, more easily integrated into their overall sound, so that a comparatively straightforward, lush guitar-groove number like “Little By Little” still feels like it’s cut from the same cloth. The whole sound is cool but also anxious, unpredictable and also satisfying.

There is one actually piano ballad (“Codex”) and one relatively clear acoustic-guitar number (“Give Up the Ghost”), but they’re far from the strongest spots on the record, and are more impressive for how they offer relief from the jittery, groovy anxiety that came beforehand; you wouldn’t really want to hold either one up as a potential single, though (they’ve tried that tact in the past, and it’s never quite worked; Radiohead’s best songs are always the outliers, never the ones that play it safe.) The strongest track here is probably “Lotus Flower,” which is almost catchy but not quite; it’s an unstable, anxious dream that feels like it’s lacking an obvious center, and is awkward shuffling around trying to balance things out anyway. It’s also really beautiful and totally bad-ass at the same time. Radiohead are doing a dozen things at once here, and all of them are successful, and none of them feel the slightest bit forced.

It’s really refreshing and great to hear a band that I’ve loved for a long time make a record that seems so simultaneously inspired and so casual and comfortable; for the first time since their first record, Radiohead sound like they’re actually totally ignorant of any expectations or outside desires that might be placed on them; it’s neither a grand statement nor a cheeky, deliberate side-stepping of expectations; it feels like it was made in ignorance of the rules, rather than in opposition to them. At the end of the day (year), it’s just a really, really good album. Isn’t that all we ever really wanted in the first place?

TwinSisterMoon – “Then Fell the Ashes…” / Natural Snow Buildings – Waves of the Random Sea” (Blackest Rainbow)

I’ve written a LOT about Natural Snow Buildings / Isengrind / TwinSisterMoon / Snowbringer Cult in the past, so I won’t bore you by repeating myself too much, but I’ll just say that they’re still out there cranking out lovely, lengthy, difficult-to-obtain albums at an alarming rate, and I still really like everything they do.

The TwinSisterMoon LP is the mellower of the two, with most of the A-side focused on Mehdi Ameziane’s gentle, surprisingly girlish vocals, occasionally accompanied or superceded by softly strummed or plucked acoustic guitars and various other chimes, drones, and field recordings; the production is, as always, both brittle and also stellar; it’s the only home-recorded material I’ve heard that sounds like the singers live on top of an ancient Antarctic glacier, instead of in a small apartment in Paris.  It’s some of their quieter, prettier material, but it’s balanced out by drones, chimes, spooky texture and reverb, and an epic, noisy instrumental of intense beauty and sadness that takes up the entire 24-minute B-side of the album (although the vocals do return for a nice coda, which just sounds absolutely lovely and perfect after that exhaustive wall of sadness, chimes, and drone.

On Natural Snow Buildings he’s joined by his partner Solange Goularte for a gigantic double-LP of more of the heavier, denser material, although it’s no less lovely. Here things get spookier and heavier, and even a song based around guitar-and-gently-cooed vocals (“Through Branches in the Layer of Fog”) gets stretched out for an 18-minute binge of slowness and chiming, sound not unlike a much more romantic and cheerful version of early Current 93. This is the stuff where it gets REALLY epic, evoking ancient disasters and vast wastelands and the movements of distant planetary bodies, although there’s still always a gentle, lovely handmade element to ground the whole thing.

So, I said it three years ago, and now I’m saying it again: check out any and everything you can find bearing the names Isingrind, TwinSisterMoon, or Natural Snow Buildings. The Snowbringer Cult are some of the best artists working today, and at least their the obscurity of their catalog is somewhat complemented by their vast wealth of high-quality material. I picked these two because they were the two most recent ones I could find, but really every single thing I’ve heard by them is wonderful and worth your time.

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Favorite Single:

C S Yeh – “In the Blink of an Eye” (De Stijl)

This is Spencer from Burning Star Core — who’s made his name over the past half-decade by seemingly mastering every sub-genre of contemporary underground sound — taking pretty much everyone by surprise by issuing a catchy single in the current indie-rock/dance-pop mould. What’s not surprising is that he’s applied the same high talent and attention-to-detail to a dance single that he ordinarily devotes to screeching violin-drone or improvisational mouth-noises. This one’s got a funky dance-punk bassline, thwacking 4-4 beats, clanging rhythmic guitars, and he sings catchy-yet-oblique woe-is-me lyrics like “Another day / A stupid Saturday / If you dare, you can find me laughing / chase me through the snow … the mistakes that you made / are smeared across your face.” He basically sounds like the dude from Orange Juice with laryngitis.  It’s one of those killer songs that just builds perfectly instead of busting out with a catchy chorus, which means it’s a grower that proves infinitely relistenable. The B-side’s good, too.

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Favorite Re-issue:

Harald Großkopf – “Synthesist” (Sky Records)

It’s a German release from ’79 or ’80 (sources are unclear), I think he was a studio assistant to Klaus Schulze and/or Manuel Göttsching from Ash Ra who decided to make a solo record. It’s got killer drumming, wonderfully chunky synths, and sounds excellently futuristic and cool. Plus there’s a really funny photo of this totally mellow german dork painted silver (glasses included) on the cover.  Comes with a bonus CD of remixes by contemporary followers like Oneohtrix and James Ferraro, which is nice too.

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Favorite Fake Re-issue:


Jürgen Müller – “Science of the Sea” (Digitalis)

Nice try, guys, but there’s absolutely no way any vintage LP of library music would have all the tracks flow together seamlessly; those records were made specifically to be cued-up individually!  Anyhow, someone (Brad Rose? John Twells?) has taken that old dead-beaten-horse trope of the “soundtrack to an imaginary film” to the next level and actually produced an album that does sound an awful lot like it could have been the score for an early-80’s German-television Cousteau-esque documentary about sea life, and then actually presented it as a long-long re-issue fitting that description. As a guy who actually does own a lot of LPs and re-issues of dorky old soundtrack-cues from yesteryear, I find they’ve done a fine job of imitating that style, and I like this one, too. Recommended for Boards of Canada fans.

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Best Album(s) that I’m Still Trying to Actually Find:

Grouper – “A I A Dream Loss” / “Alien Observer” (Yellow Electric)

What the fuck, world.  These 12″s were available for literally, like, a week before they disappeared. They even got reissued… but by the time word of that reached my in-box, those were sold out too. I know the idea of doing everything by hand and staying small is an appealing one, but this is how you get trainspotter dickheads charging each other $100 per LP on eBay.  Anyhow, I really love Grouper, I love what I’ve heard of these, and I’m dying to actually get my hands on a physical copy.

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Favorite Guilty Pleasure:

Tennis – “Cape Dory” (Fat Possum)

This adorable musical couple play catchy, polished, exuberant jangle-rock about true-life stories of being married and living together on a yacht. Absolutely nothing surprising or thought-provoking here, but it sure does sound exceptionally nice. It’s kind of like last years’ Best Coast record, but minus any self-conscious aspects and for an audience about 10 years older. Pay no attention to the inexplicably dopey cover-art which makes the whole thing seem jokingly post-modern; this music is completely sincere and straightforward, and all the better for it.

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Best Box Set:

the Beach Boys – “the Smile Sessions” (Capitol)

Does the world really need to hear every single scrap of material the Beach Boys recorded during their tortuous, failed, unfinished attempt to make the greatest pop masterpiece of the 60’s?  Well, speak for yourself, but I know I certainly do. Really, the majority of it is pretty brilliant and great, even given the ramshackle nature of all the unfinished bits&pieces presented here. As one of Brian’s befuddled brothers noted during the recording process, it was almost more like shooting a film than recording a record; doing different takes of all the little bits and pieces without a clear indication of where or how it was all going to fit. Some speculate that 1967-era recording technology wasn’t even yet at the point where they could have finished the record the way Brian imagined, given that they were doing all the edits with razorblades and magnetic tape. But boy, they sure were trying for something, and whatever they got was pretty great too. My favorite part might be during the 9 minutes worth of outtakes of their attempt to record the Lords’ Prayer as an acapella doo-wop number, when Brian quietly asks, “do you guys feel any of that Acid yet?” One of them, I assume Dennis, answers “Yeah, I feel great” and then they do another 15 or 20 takes. Sorry John Fahey, this is the best and most essential Box Set I’ve heard in quite some time.

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So; what did y’all like this year? Feel free to leave your own lists, suggestions, and petty differences in the comments below; I’d love to hear some good recommendations from our readers!

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Oh yeah, and I was trying to come up with a list of my favorite shows, but I had trouble narrowing it down or selecting one over the other, so here’s a list of some of the memorable concerts from the past year:

January 14th – Cat Sex, Andrew Bernstein, Owen Gardner, Hume, Buildings, Amil Byleckie Band, Andrew Cedermark at Magnolia
March 6th – Heavy Cream, La Sera at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
March 8th – DrumsLikeMachineGuns, Cat Sex, Matt Northrup, Andrew Weathers, Krull, Gull at Magnolia
March 30th – DBB Plays Cups, the Fire Tapes, Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard at Magnolia
April 3rd – Miami Nights, Cathy Monnes, Golden Glasses, Catastrophysics, Great Dads, Jason Robinson, Gull, Islero at The Bridge PAI
April 27th – Andrew Cedermark and Articulate Chewbacca, Michael Chapman, Kohoutek at Dust
April 22nd – the Fire Tapes at the Pigeon Hole
June 24 – No Brainer, Heavy Cream at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
July 1st – Diamond Center, White Laces, Invisible Hand at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
July 31st – CSC Funk Band, Colin Langenous Orchestra, Grits & Gravy at al-Hamraa
August 3rd – Fossil Eyes, WhateverBrains, Invisible Hand at al-Hamraa
August 6th – Jason Ajemian at JohnSarahJohn
August 13th – Girl Choir, the Sloppy Heads, Dump at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
August 17th – Mss., Donovan Quinn, Six Organs of Admittance at the Southern
August 21st – Myceum, Grand Banks, Zomes, Daniel Higgs at al-Hamraa
September 7th – Woodsman, Dustin Wong at al-Hamraa
September 13th – Erich the Red, Frank Fairfield at the Garage and the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
September 29th – Cave at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
September 30th – Errantry, Rugby, Great Dads, Nurse Beach at the Pigeon Hole
November 12 – Articulate Chewbacca at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
December 1st – the Music Tapes at a House Party

Tags: endorsements · feature · rants & rambles

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