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2016 End of Year Abums List

December 20, 2016

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It’s almost Christmas and what better way to cap off the dumpster fire known by the name 2016 as with another end of year music list?

Sub-objectivity

soak-2015-coverI didn’t do a 2015 list. Not terribly surprising, since I didn’t post a single thing to this blog in 2015. Regardless of that fact, on Facebook I vaguely remember I stating that the only release I’d put on a 2015 end-of-year list was by Before We Forgot How To Dream by the overly punctuated Soak.. It’s still an album I listen to regularly and, as I said at the time, was the first album in years to truly remind me of why I ever liked music in the first place. It takes me back to the head-space the records of my youth were able to, seemingly without effort: a place where everything makes sense and all internalized cacophony melts away for 40 or so minutes. I mention this because there wasn’t an album in 2016 to really make me feel that way.

Which isn’t any way to measure the quality of records released in 2016 or last year’s Soak. record or even any of my beloved records of yesteryear. I’m simply at an age where new records, without the benefit of deep nostalgic ties, don’t reach me in the same profound way—even when I truly enjoy them. As a result, I’ve come to question whether I’m able to evaluate records objectively, or even subjectively. I’ve come to question whether anyone can, or ever could.

But why let that stop us voicing an opinion?

Part One: Shoegaze / Grunge /Post-punk / etc. revival

mindfullness_web_cover-1440pxFlyying Colours — Mindfullness

For pure ’90s shoegaze revivial, Flyying Colours and Cheatahs are probably neck-and-neck in terms of genre perfection. They both ride a bloody slowdive to the chapterhouse fanclub, if you take my meaning. Being derivative is nothing unique in a genre based on being derivative, but both bands don’t just get the patterns and textures dead solid perfect, they also write great songs to hang them on. Probably the most derivative bricks at the top of a derivative pyramid, but also the most truly satisfying to listen to. It’s hard to pick a favourite but Flyying Colours edge out Cheatahs for the 2016 shoegaze world cup by virtue of simply releasing an album this year.

Purling Hiss — High Bias

Most new releases I buy these days are solidly rooted in sounds of the past. Especially when they’re by new bands. Usually they fall into one of three general categories: Grunge, shoegaze/dreampop and post-punk. Purling Hiss are in the fourth category—they do all three. Influenced either by the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” or influenced by bands who were influenced by VU, it’s a post-modern clearing house of fuzzed-out two chord jams. Probably Brian Jonestown Massacre made a fair impression on them and that means the influence gene-pool is so watered down they almost sound original. But the white noise guitars are too familiar and comforting to be lumbered with the burden of originality. To be honest, I prefer their previous two records. High Bias is a little less grunge and a little more next generation shitgaze, but less unique sounding (for better or worse) than most shitgaze albums were. At times it’s a little like early Teenage Fanclub, but also a little Warsaw era Joy Division. Comfort food for aging indie dudes.

Beach Slang — Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

As with Purling Hiss, I prefer Beach Slang’s previous album to this one. But, like with Purling Hiss, I hadn’t actually heard either of these bands before their 2016 albums came out and inspired me to dig into their fledgling back-catalogues. If I had, I may have been moved to actually write a 2015 list. The emerging theme of this list is “catching up with last year.” Anyway, Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings is the third offering in Beach Slang’s post-hardcore take on being a Replacements tribute band. Completely up my alley.

Happy Diving — Electric Soul Unity

A sludgy AF take on pop-punk. Almost exactly like Superfuzz-era Mudhoney or Bleach-era Nirvana doing early Weezer. It is what it is and what it is is a slice of ’90s heaven.

Pitty Sex — White Hot Moon

Nails the swirly (pun intended) US shoegaze sound. Trips like Eric at times. Throws the odd muse or two. 500 revs of mercury in a galaxy of lilys something something… Pretty fantastic all-in-all, one or two clunkers.

Pill — Convenience

As the post-punk revival played out, it was fated there’d be a no-wave revival. Before the inevitable break-up due to economic realities and the strain of constant touring, Pill will probably solidify a legacy as a seminal act in the no-wave revival scene and be considered partly responsible for so many lame copy-cats bands. A glorious racket with saxophone.

Naked Lights — On Nature

Before breaking-up due to economic realities and the strain of touring, Naked Lights will probably solidify a legacy as a seminal act in the no-wave revival scene and be considered partly responsible for so many lame copy-cats bands. A glorious racket without saxophone.

Exploded View — Exploded View

Exploded View make records that sound like what I think Vivien Goldman’s records sound like, but don’t really. Sort of like Grace Jones backed by PiL or Nico fronting Can. So this record fills a gap in my brain, but despite being satisfying it’s also not quite as sustaining as something by Goldman, Grace Jones, Nico or PiL. I mean, it’s A+ dubby post-punk but somehow a minor letdown after their debut 7″ which felt like a revelation.

Jay Som — Turn Into

Mid-fi bedroom indie-pop. Turn Into would sound absolutely authentically ’90s if it had been recorded on a cassette 4-track, but it’s for the best it wasn’t. What matters is the song-writing captures all the indie/dreampop/shoegaze tropes perfectly but without being too by-the-numbers. Put it this way, the paint is all within the lines, but they’re not quite the colours the numbers are telling Jay Som to use. At times it hints at what The Breeders might’ve sounded like if Tanya Donelly hadn’t left. I’ve only acquired this one recently but I suspect it’s going to have a long life on my phone.

Field Mouse — Episodic

Field Mouse are sort of the Bangles of the dreampop revival scene. By that I mean the singer is strikingly cute in a similar way to Susanna Hoffs and maybe that elevates their edging-on-mediocre indie-rock/shoegaze a little. My cynical take on the aesthetics of pop musicians as as selling point aside, Episodic isn’t actually mediocre. The songs have decent, if subtle, hooks but they do play it a little safe with the guitar tones and blend a touch of pop-punk bravado in with the dreamy lilt. At times I’m vaguely reminded of Matthew Sweet’s Big Star worshiping thrift-shop staple 100% Fun, which is another sideways Susanna Hoffs connection. Actually when you look at Field Mouse and Hoffs/Sweet promo pictures side-by-side, it’s a tad uncomfortable. It makes me wonder if Episodic is the kind of record The Bangles could’ve made in the grunge era if the music industry hadn’t shunted them into a glossy pop pigeonhole with their hugely successful, but break-up inducing, 1988 album, Everything. Now I’d kind of like to hear Field Mouse do a version of “September Gurls” or “Hazy Shade of Winter”.

Field Mouse vs Hoffs

Stargazer Lilies — Door to the Sun

It seems like an absurd hair to split to say that Stargazer Lilies are a touch more psychedelic than other shoegaze/dream-pop bands. Unlike the rest of the pack, their retro leanings lean past 1991 and dig as far back as the ’60s. The absurdity is the class of 1991 were digging back to the ’60s already, so what am I getting at? Something nuanced. Nuanced like the complex weft in Stargazer Lilies’ warm blanket of sonic love.

Pinkshinyultrablast — Grandfeathered

If Stargazer Lilies are a warm blanket, Pinkshinyultrablast are a duvet made out of Brillo pads.  That’s not a criticism. Shoegaze guitar tones can offer you many things. Some of them are comfortable, fuzzy earmuffs and some are wasps nests duct-taped to your head. This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of pleasant, gentle sounds on Grandfeathered, but whenever you most expect it, here come the icy jets. If there’s one critique of the album is that it plays a bit too close to the shoegaze template—though at the same time that’s also a strength as far as enjoyable listening goes.

Savages — Adore Life

Somehow more brutal and more subtly textured and more excellent than their excellent debut. Transcends all the post-punk touchstones of Silence Yourself and cements Savages as artists in their own right.

Fear of Men — Fall Forever

Fear of Men have been been writing some of the catchiest post-punky indie-rocky tunes of the last five years. 2016’s Fall Forever is more abstract than the previous LP Loom and the singles collection Early Fragments, but the hooks are still intact if you know where to find them. Where they used to be dangled under your nose, now they’re swathed in a slightly Cocteau Twins-recalling reverb and glistening guitars, with perhaps the specter of Eno looming in the shadows. More than merely following the dream-pop revival template, Fear of Men actually experiment with textures and are rewarded with a captivating record.

Brian Jonestown Massacre — Third World Pyramid

In a way, Anton Newcombe is a bit like Mark E. Smith. He’s put out a shit-tonne of albums and they’re odds-defyingly consistent. Casual listeners might point out this could just maybe be because they all sound pretty much exactly the same. The casual listener wouldn’t be wrong, but for the deeper fan each album has its own specific flavour and blend of spices. Sometimes Brian Jonestown Massacre is a little more curry, sometimes a little more bangers and mash, but always a grand tour of British psychedelia. The spice one might’ve expected to hear on Third World Pyramid, based purely on the cover, is a Spacemen 3 melange as the artwork echoes that band’s logo. Other than the two bands sitting together nicely on a mixtape, and sharing The Velvet Underground as an obvious root influence, the connection seems to end there. This is purely BJM music—or purely Anton’s vision of his heroes’ music—and that’s probably for the best. The slighly drony ’60s indebted pop-rock psychedelia of Third World Pyramid doesn’t break any BJM molds, but it also doesn’t break any BJM molds.

Part Two: Album Rock / Indie-Rock

ch132-goon-sax-rgbGoon Sax — Up To Anything

This is the only album that made me feel close to what the Soak. album did last year. That is to say, what The Smiths made me feel during the dwindling twilight of the second decade of my adolescence.  Up To Anything is a little rougher around the edges though, it’s a bit more like Violent Femmes doing Morrissey than Kirsty MacColl doing Billy Bragg songs. Being teenagers, like Soak. (and Morrissey or Gordon Gano on their first albums), Goon Sax deftly capture the folly of youth with insight and mature observations of their own lack of maturity. “I go to the barber / To get shorn / And I leave feeling empty and forlorn / I show them a picture of Roger McGuinn / Edwyn Collins John Lennon David Byrne it seems I just can’t win / Home haircuts /
Do they ever go right?” No, nothing ever goes right.

Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

I think this record is quite lovely. There are as many people who’ll agree with me as disagree. A record which has, by no fault/merit of the music itself, such clout as A Moon Shaped Pool somewhat defies analysis or critique. It’s a bit like Sgt. Pepper’s—you like it or you don’t and if you do or don’t that makes no difference to its legacy. It’s in a similar boat to Bowie’s Blackstar, an album I won’t bother to comment on. I think objectively most listeners can agree the songs are more accessible than on the previous Radiohead outing, King of Limbs. That record I find frustratingly impenetrable despite how lovely it sounds. A Moon Shaped Pool is lovely and penetrable. It practically begs you to penetrate it and, perhaps, that’s what people don’t like about it. “By the book Radiohead” is a critique I saw thrown at it a fair bit. I understand that assessment, but I disagree. Though the melodic and modal motifs are recognizably Radioheadesque, A Moon Shaped Pool really is unique in Radiohead’s discography and, I think, unique to every other artist’s too. If there’s a through-line to this blog post it’s the unoriginality that blankets (for better or worse) all of these releases. The fact that there’s a rock band that manages to put out a record that is unmistakably it’s own, that no one else is emulating, counts for something in 2016. It counts for a lot.

Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker

Since his 1992 album, The Future, Cohen’s studio albums have suffered from some pretty corn-dog AOR production. People often see this trend as beginning with the 80’s Various Positions and I’m Your Man, but while those two albums retain a sort of Casio presets charm, the early-aughts’, Ten New Songs and Dear Heather are nearly charmless. For years I’ve harboured a secret hope that posthumously someone like Dan Auerbach, Jack White or Rick Rubin will be allowed to remix the albums from that period with rougher, less polished arrangements. It probably shouldn’t be allowed to happen as Cohen’s decades-long dedication to the AM gold schmaltz sound indicates it’s exactly what he wanted. This is evidenced by even his live band sounding like a perfectly quantized midi-production. Why he wasn’t pictured sitting on a yacht off the coast of Greece, sipping retsina as the sun sets, on the covers of any of these albums seems a missed opportunity. The songs are always good though, and You Want It Darker does what it says on the tin. It’s darker in production, closer to what many fans have been asking for and more befitting of his wry and sardonic tone. Not a perfect album (he cynically evokes the chord progression to “Hallelujah” on one track), but this is his best since The Future and a satisfying final chapter.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree

Contains, perhaps, the one Nick Cave song in his entire discography I absolutely cannot stomach: the abominable “I Need You.” The whole album pushes and pulls the listener with beguiling and revolting textures, but for the most part the balance works to good effect. In terms of sonic palette, Skeleton Tree is a clear descendant of the enthralling Push The Sky Away, though somewhat less satisfyingly executed. But if Push was a soft reboot of the Bad Seeds brand, Skeleton Tree completes the task, washing away the very last of the Mick Harvey / Blixa Bargeld residue and further solidifying Cave’s partnership with Warren Ellis as an artistic helmsmen.  So much has been made of Skeleton Tree being recorded in the wake of the death of Cave’s son that it practically defies you to find the album anything but exquisite and unassailable. The thing is, my first child was born about the time Skeleton Tree was released and I actually expect more from in regarding the theme of processing the loss of a child. Six months ago I was merely empathetic to Cave’s loss and now that I’m the father of a three-month old, I can fathom the devastation Cave must have felt. I don’t get that from the album at all. My suspicion is the album has very, very little to do with loss and the claims that it is can be dismissed as opportunistic PR claptrap from the Mute Records PR department. Well, perhaps it’s not merely PR claptrap, but in a way it’s irrelevant information when marketing a Cave release as the themes of death, loss and religious searching are nothing remotely new to his work. Listen to any Bad Seeds album through the filter of the death of a child and the effect is pretty much the same. Boatman’s Call is, actually, perhaps a little more fitting. And also more enjoyable to listen to.

Woods — City Sun Eater in the River of Light

The quality of Woods’ last few records have been on an unsustainable upwards trajectory in terms of songwriting and execution, so it’s not surprising this set of tunes isn’t quite as strong as previous efforts. This inevitability also doesn’t seem to have surprised Woods either as they’ve branched out from their CSNYish folk-rock to some afro-funkier, more globe-trotting sounds. That description should rightly set off some alarm bells, but Woods’ achievement here is they very much pull it off. The new (retro) sonic textures don’t come off as pretentious or self-indulgent and are done rather tastefully (another alarm bell word), with a natural, offhanded ease.

The Fall — Wise Ol’ Man

With so many celebrities dying in 2016, I’ve seen some people speculating online that Mark E. Smith is going to kick the bucket in 2017. Others retort that he’ll outlive Keith Richards and the cockroaches. One thing can be counted on, live or die there’ll be at least two dozen releases from The Fall in 2017 and they’ll all sound like pretty much every other release by The Fall—that is to say, awesome. As is the case with the systematically excellent Wise Ol’ Man. D’uh. I mean, do you even like The Fall or don’t you?

 

Part Three: Pop / Electronic

superPet Shop Boys — Super

Having been a Pethead since 1985, I’m naturally inclined to forgive whatever pop music sins Pet Shop Boys may commit, but simultaneously hold them to an unreasonable standard. With Electric and now Super, PSB have been edging closer to creating my ideal PSB record. If the trend continues, the third in the alleged trilogy will be an unapologetic set of melancholy pop-house they perfected in the ’90s then backed away from. I know this won’t happen and the next album will probably turn another corner. If my dream album was going to appear, all indications say it would’ve been Super. And in some ways it is. It’s the closest they’ve come to their ’90s golden era in some time, yet is also smattered a few sore thumbs. “The Dictator Decides” is the sort of theatrical number which used to be relegated to b-sides (excellent b-sides, but b-sides nonetheless) and is about as close to Scar’s big number in Disney’s The Lion King as anything they’ve written—that includes songs from their literal musical. The high-concept, slam-on-the-tempo-brakes, “Sad Robot World” is another hiccup in the otherwise party-ready set. Though, of course, it’d have to be a bit of a maudlin party to begin with. What’s improved is that all their albums since 2001’s Release have had the whiff of chasing trends and, thankfully, Super seems to have abandoned that. PSB sound happy to just be themselves again so there’s no guest rappers crashing into the middle eight of an otherwise perfect song here.

Jimmy Somerville and John Winfield — Present… Lovers Unlimited

More from the deep well of disco Somerville drank mightily from on his excellent 2015 Homage album. On this EP/mini-album he takes a back-seat as vocalist (though his distinctive falsetto is still unmistakably present) and, though I hate to say so, it maybe works better. The songs are perhaps a little more fun too.  Perfect slice of disco-revival.

Anohni — Hopelessness

There’s moments where Anohni’s Hopelessness is so bluntly unpoetic it dips a toe into self-parody. The sort of thing that might be used for (somewhat trans-phobic) comic effect in a movie about an artsy lounge singer doing a one transwoman show. A touch too earnest while also being a touch too camp. On the other hand, Hopelessness is starkly honest and captivating enough to forgive the occasional ham and cheese. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the album it a synthy neutron bomb of protest songs for today’s fucked up world. Mostly I’m delighted to hear Anohni’s voice in a more disco setting again as that’s where I first fell in love with it on the Hercules & Love Affair album. In the years since, I had to make do with the cabaret-noir of Antony and The Johnsons (which is honestly not too much of a chore).

Die Antwoord — Mount Ninji And Da Nice Time Kid

Die Antwoord manage to pull-off an odd trick. They’re simultaneously an albums band and a band best experienced through their singles—or more accurately, their videos. Each of their four albums has that one or two signature songs (“I Fink U Freeky”, “Pitbull Terrier”, “Cookie Thumper”, “Gucci Coochie”, etc.) and when they issue a greatest hits collection, it’ll inevitably be hailed as their best disc. Supposedly the project is going to end after the fifth album (or might not depending on which press release you read), so a best-of might appear sooner than later. Yet, despite being filler-heavy, the albums are hot conceptual messes worthy of a listen in their own right. In fact, the four albums even manage to work together as single artistic statement of neon strobe lights, transgressive sexuality and spewed blood. This is at least partially due to the subject matter and aural palette changing very little since 2012’s Ten$ion.  That is to say Mount Ninji And Da Nice Time Kid is more of the same and if you liked them before, there’s little to complain about here.

Youth Code — Commitment to Complications

Youth Code’s debut was such a refreshing blast of hardwired true EBM, that it was sadly almost inevitable some more sophisticated flourishes would seep into the follow-up. The Reznorian textures don’t ruin Commitment to Complications, but they don’t help and it would’ve been preferable to see Youth Code go more Skinny Puppy or Front 242 than NIN and Ministry. I suppose it’s good they didn’t Ctrl-C the last album, but I’d rather they Ctrl-C’d the last album.

Odonis Odonis — Post Plague 

2016 saw albums by two rock bands I’ve been following for the past few years take on a sort of more apocalyptic industrial synthy sound. Paradise by Pop. 1280 and Post Plague by Odonis Odonis. The latter does it successfully, the Pop. 1280 sounds a bit like the bad half of 1994 industrial rock. The Ecconoline Crush half of the genre. The best moments sound a but like a grungier The Faint, and about as dated as all that implies. Since in 2016 all music seems to be about borrowing from the past, Post Plague could also be accused of sounding dated in parts. But its ominous synth arpeggios and post-punk noise guitars fall on the cool retro side of dated, not the stale, played-out side.

Kristin Kontrol — X-Communicate

Dee Dee form Dum Dum Girls abandons the polished-up shitgaze take on The Raveonettes’ sound and goes full Madonna. I read a quote from Kristin Welchez a while back that said something to the effect that there were elements of her in Dee Dee but Kristin Kontrol is fully herself. In that case, it’s a little odd she’s pulled anther Bowie and adopted a new persona (with a strangely electro-clash evoking moniker). So, like Dum Dum Girls, it still feels a bit like an art project though she’s much better at this sort of Robyn-ish slightly alternative dance-pop. She even successfully adopts a convincing Lisa Stansfield early ’90s chic on the sleeve. Though, like Madonna, Welchez doesn’t have Stansfield’s deep soulfulness and sense of authenticity nor does she have Robyn’s winking playfulness. Luckily, the majority of the songs on X-Communicate are legitimately quite good—probably a better killer:filler ratio than the average Madonna album, ackshewally.

Jagwar Ma — Every Now & Then

An emerging category of new bands that sound like old bands I’m into is bands that sound like Happy Mondays or Screamadelica era Primal Scream. Jagwar Ma’s previous album hit that nail’s head pretty hard. Every Now & Then is a little more in the vein of early ’90s New Order trying reacting to EMF and scrambling to stay relevant. At times it’s a little less of a throwback and throws in some modern pop sounds and motifs. Those times are its weakest moments (“OB1” is horrific). When they go for a full-on The Beloved tribute on tracks like “Give Me a Reason” or channel Underworld’s strong mid-period in “Colours of Paradise” they shine (much brighter than Underworld’s own dim attempt at reinvention, Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future).

Part Four: Deeper listening

starcoreMarielle V Jacobson — Star Core

I’ve been following Jacobson’s career for several years now, from lo-fi releases on various CD-r labels (disclosure: my own included) through to landing on the esteemed Thrill Jockey label with both Date Palms and her new solo record of ecstatically spiraling cosmic drones. Along with a steadily upward career trajectory, there’s also been an artistic trajectory. Star Core is one of those records where it feels like this is the one where it’s finally all come together in a single glorious statement. Listening to it for the first time I felt like how I imagine Chicago Cubs fans felt like when they finally won whatever that baseball cup thingy they won is.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — Ears

Single-handedly re-popularizing the Buchla synthesizer in 2016 (just in time for Don Buchla’s death), Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s aptly titled Ears seemingly broke the glass ceiling of the brone scene (bearded modular synth dudes, every city is lousy with them). It’s no mystery why Smith’s music has radiated into the sub-mainstream, unlike the usual modular bleeps and splizleblatts of so-called “experimental” artists, it’s entirely accessible and has more in common with easy-on-the-ears classic synthos like Klaus Schulze or the Tangerines than harsh-tinted contemporary brones such as Lichens, Alessandro Cortini or their messiah Aphex Twin. A comparison made more often might be that Smith is a slightly more accessible Suzanne Ciani, with whom she recorded the Sunergy double-Buchla improvisation. Or is this the easy comparison made by the music press simply because they’re both Buchla-playing women? Probably. I also like to think that if Smith wasn’t such an attractive young woman, that she and her music would still be getting the exposure they absolutely deserve. But I don’t have enough faith in humanity to believe that in 2016 she’d have gotten the same PR push if she looked like Pauline Oliveros. Nor would Oliveros herself if she had been starting out (and not passing away) in 2016. How many brilliant female modular players are out there going ignored because they don’t take a clickable photo while any homely dude with a beard can release half-assed analog squiggles and be hailed as a god?

John Carpenter — Lost Themes II

One of the things that always dated John Carpenter’s films and made them nearly unwatchable in the 1990s and early 2000s was the hokey theme music. So it’s interesting that his aural aesthetic has become in vogue in the past few years. Good lord, need I mention Stranger Things? There was a time when disco, ’70s jazz-funk or smooth yacht rock sounds were considered verboten as well and now those textures are just part of a musical lexicon. We’re living in a post-cheese age where nothing that came before is uncool and if it was popular then, then it must be good. I haven’t been able to decide if John Carpenter’s two recent albums are any good at all. But they really capture that Carpenter aesthetic!

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith — A Cosmic Rhythm With Every Stroke

In historic jazz terms, the piano / trumpet explorations of A Cosmic Rhythm With Every Stroke nestles in between Miles’ smooth mod period and Pharoah’s freak-outs. Not free jazz, but not shackled either. Mellow moods, but challenging enough to keep you gripped.

Mats Eilertsen  — Rubicon

I picked this up purely on the strength of saxophonist Trygve Seim getting top billing on the personnel listing. I only got into Seim last year when I discovered he was the Scandinavian jazzbo I’d been searching for all my life. Or 20-25 years of it, anyway. I’ve always been drawn the bleak and frosty ECM aesthetic and snippets of Jan Garbarek records would grab me, but ultimately leave me (pun intended) in the cold. I figured Scandinavian jazz was something I only liked in theory. Seim, however, just hits me in the solar plexus and the mystical minimalism of Rubicon is an excellent framework for the structured melancholy of his phrasing. Sometimes Seim leads me astray though and Seim’s own 2016 album, Rumi Songs, is unlistenable with it’s brand of self-consciously playful European whimsy. As a fan you win some, you lose some. Rubicon is a solid winner.

Part Five: Band Kampf

I debated whether to separate music I acquired through (or discovered on) Bandcamp into its own section. All these releases could fit under one of the other headings and in the post-record industry music biz, it’s an arbitrary delineation at best. But in the interest of thinning out the other sections into more manageable portions, I went for it.

a2536181642_10Various Artists — Girls Rock Camp Toronto 2016

I love these Girls Rock Camp compilations and the Toronto contributions are always excellent. It may seem pithy to say “Hey hipster, any one of these bands are better than your band” but it’s also true. Your band thinks too hard about being cool. Your band doesn’t play with earnest, unabashed enthusiasm. Your band can’t pull off self-effacement. Your band doesn’t allow happy accidents to happen, but tries to engineer them. Your band is already jaded about being a band. These bands make mistakes and sound right doing things wrong in the same way punk, post-punk and no-wave un-musicians did in the ’70s. The difference between them and your average hipster band is your hipster band is trying to emulate that magic naivete but you can’t steal fire when you own a box of matches.

Lantern — Black Highways And Green Garden Roads

Latern are from Philly, apparently,  though as with most releases in this section I definitely found this tape on Weird Canada—so raised eyebrow emoji goes here. I’ll admit to being a bit surprised I was drawn to this tape since I’m usually not a huge fan of the 1966 psych-pop/garage rock revival type stuff and I’m specifically not big on the British Invasion sound. I prefer the ’68-’72 period for classic psych-rock and as far as imitators go, the near-parody of Brian Jonestown Massacre generally fills the ’65-’67 psychedelic mod tube for me. Lantern, however, take all the tropes I like from America’s counter-attack to the British Invasion and jettison the era’s penchant for bubblegum whimsy. That is to say they mostly borrow from Syd Barret era Floyd with touches of the Byrds, Dylan, and CCR.

Cosmic Letdown — In The Caves

Beatles-esque sitar drones and krauty guitar meanderings. Deep psyche grooves from Cheboksary, Russia that sound enough like a newly discovered Guru Guru / Agitation Free jam to get lost deep inside.

Night School — Blush 

Fuzz pedal girl group power pop. Remember when I was calling Field Mouse the dreampop revival Bangles? Well, Night School sound a lot more like an imaginary grunge-era Bangles. California melodies and harmonies, with distortion. If JAMC we emulating The Shangri-Las, this is like The Shangri-Las doing JAMC. Nothing remotely revolutionary, but a really well done example of the form nonetheless.

Crack Cloud — Crack Cloud

On the no-wave/noise end of the post-punk funk spectrum. Again, a band reinventing wheels and stealing fire with a box of matches, but doing it superbly. Overall one of my favourite releases of the year.

Rooms — it takes a lot to show up

By some confluence of musical influences, Rooms end up in more or less the same place as Cub in 1993. Cuddlecore for millennials? Perhaps, except I have no doubt Cub’s generation X audience would’ve been just as into this sound. As would the CBGBs crowd, or Warhol scenesters, or Ed Sullivan’s viewers or any twenty-somethings since time began. Every time I read something about the traits millennials supposedly possess, they seem to me an awful lot like the same traits attributed to the beat, hippies or generation-xers. It’s almost like people under 30 have always been idealistic and self-absorbed and people over 50 have always been jaded and selfish. But what do I know? I’m long over 30 and not to be trusted.

Kye Plant — Sober & Alone

With his slacker-strummed acoustic guitar and baritone croon, Kye Plant can’t help but bring to mind Bill Callahan or a more sincere, less hidden behind ironic couplets, Stephin Merritt. Lyrically Plant veers more into the neighborhood of Morrissey’s wry social reportage. All pretty high pillars to live up to as a songwriter but damn if Plant isn’t doing a pretty convincing job.

 

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End of 2014 Albums List: The good, the bad and the others

December 9, 2014

It seems I didn’t buy as many “new releases” in 2014 as previous years. So instead of picking my top ten or so 2014 discs, I’m pretty much going to talk about everything I picked up (that I can remember) except for the “super-deluxe edition” reissues and all the cassette or vinyl-only releases I bought this year—most of which are still sitting in stacks waiting to be listened to properly.

2014

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence. Over a beer my friend James asked me what I was listening to lately. That’s what we do when we grab a beer. Gossip about records. Anyway, I said, “The new Lana Del Rey.” He looked at me with a look. I said, “Fuck the haters.” I stand by that statement but I also feel it’s a little telling (about the state of pop music and myself) that I think Ultravoilence is probably the best all-round album released in 2014, from the standpoint of songwriting, production, performance and sheer theatricality. Haters gonna hate? Fuck ’em.

Cheatahs – Cheatahs. Probably my favourite shoegaze/90’s alt-revival album of the last few years. They’ve recreated the sound down to the finest detail and, more importantly, didn’t forget to write some pretty catchy hooks. It really sounds like it could’ve been released in 1993—mostly because the songs are genuinely that much better than most revival bands tend to write these days.

Nothing – Guilty Of Everything. Much hyped shoegazers. Wouldn’t necessarily say “don’t believe the hype” but take it with a grain of salt. The songs aren’t as good as Cheatahs‘ and they don’t play with as much subtlety as, say, Whirr.

Whirr – Sway. Much hyped shoegazers. Wouldn’t necessarily say “don’t believe the hype” but take it with a grain of salt. The songs aren’t as good as Cheatahs‘ and they don’t play with as much unbridled, brutalist passion as, say, Nothing.

Tennis System – Technicolour Blind. Much under-rated shoegazers, situated stylistically somewhere between Nothing and Whirr with songs approaching the quality of Cheatahs.

We Need Secrets – Melancholy & The Archive. Canadian shoegaze.

Hobbes Fanclub – Up at Lagrange. Not so much shoegaze as, maybe, Spacemen 3-gaze.

Alvvays – Alvvays. I hate their name with a (misplaced) passion, but they won me over when they appeared on Q and mocked a pre-scandal Jian by telling him their moms were all excited they were appearing on the show. It helps they sound like an authentic bona fide Halifax pop explosion band from 1993 as well.

Bleeding Rainbow – Instinct. I liked their previous album a lot. In the same way I like Alvvays and Cheatahs. This one’s more of the same. But less. Didn’t stay on my phone a super long time.

Fear of Men – Loom. Sometimes a song will come on my phone and I’ll think, “Oh, this is good. Is this Alvvays?” But it always turns out to be Fear of Men.

Ashrae Fax – Never Really Been Into It. Very Cocteausian dream-pop. I never really got into it.

A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Sea When Absent. They’ve started getting some contemporary pop peanut butter on their retro Cocteausian dream-pop chocolate. I hate Reese’s peanut butter cups. Take from that what you will.

Snowbird – Moon. Literal Coctaeusian dream-pop from the Cocteau Twins bass player. Perhaps closer in tone and approach to that band’s Harold Budd collaboration, The Moon and the Melodies. Arguably better executed and more engaging than Robin Guthrie‘s recent solo albums, but also not a lot to hold on to. Even when the album comes with two versions of the whole thing. I thought the second, remixed, disc played a little better. File under too easy listening.

Cherry Neneh – Blank Project. I wanted to like this more than I did. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t stomp on her Rip, Rig + Panic legacy, but there’s a few cloying, irritating bits and a few cringingly cheesy lines that make it less satisfying than her album with The Thing.

Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love. Paolo’s previous disc, Sunny Side Up was a fantastic piece of song-writing, soulful vocal performance and earthy, organic production. The cover was abysmal though—a pencil crayon sketch that made the album look like a collection of reggae versions of children’s songs. Terrible. Anyway, the hit Caustic Love somewhat reverses that quality of cover art vs. quality of music formula.

FKA Twigs – LP1. First few spins I thought it was pretty fantastic. Like record of the year fantastic. It hit me like a weirder, more interesting Lorde or forward-thinking R’n’B that’s compelling in the way Banks is really, really boring. LP1 didn’t have a lot of staying power for me though as repeated listens started draining the shallows instead of exposing hidden depths and the beautiful ambient vocal songs began to sound a lot more like schmaltzy Enya Christmas music than otherworldly This Mortal Coil hymns.

Lykke Li – I Never Learn. The title nicely sums up how I’m beginning to feel about buying Lykke Li records.

Coil/NIN – Recoiled. Really only interesting as a lost Coil record that’s unfortunately an album of Downward Spiral remixes. Nice to hear Jhonn and Sleazy messing with NIN tracks posthumously, but too much of Trent Reznor‘s voice is still audible to be truly enjoyable from a Coil fan standpoint.

Cocksure – TVMALSV. The proper follow-up to Revolting CocksBeers, Steers + Queers. All it took was twenty-four years and not letting Al Jourgensen be involved in any way.

Holly Johnson – Europa. Like all Holly Johnson albums (including the seminal Welcome To The Pleasuredome), Europa is 50% over-the-top brilliant disco and 50% limp-ass crap.

Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once. It’s a Kylie album, much like the last few Kylie albums that aren’t quite as good as Fever. All you need to do is ask yourself, “Do I like Kylie albums?”

Lost in the Trees – Past Life. Not quite the powerhouse suite of songs their previous album was, but it’s full of creepy, dreamy atmosphere. Like a Lynchian Sufjan Stevens or something.

COOL – Paint/Best New Music/I Can Handle That 12″. The post-punk funk revivalist band Cool (previously Apollo Ghosts) just kept releasing winners all year. First an album came seemingly out of nowhere followed by an EP and a 12″ of pitch-perfect “A Certain Pig Gang of Tom Tom Bag” thumpers, it seems like a project that couldn’t be sustainable. Even if Adrian and Amanda pack this one in too, at least we’re left with some of the best Canadian pop music ever made.

Jon Porras – Light Divide. The not-Evan Caminiti half of Barn Owl. Like his bandmate’s solo albums, Porras‘ latest is a little more ambient and droney than his main band’s ambient and droney records. It’s good. I mean, this kind of thing isn’t exactly rocket science and for these guys it’s like hitting a dart board with a bazooka. I guess I’m saying I’m not hearing a lot of growth or anything like a sense of exploration on Light Divide. In some ways, it’s just yet another remake of Fripp & Eno‘s 1975 album Evening Star. If you’re going to reinvent a wheel, it’s a good wheel to reinvent. I love that wheel. But let’s be honest about what’s going on in the drone scene these days (decades?)—very pleasant, cozy stagnancy.

Woods – With Light & With Love. Last year I was worried the inevitable polishing of their sound would ruin Woods. Wasn’t the case. They continue to, if not push their songwriting to new heights, at least maintain their hooky, young-Neil Young, status quo.

Magic Touch – Palermo House Gang. House music.

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems. Best album since Ten New Songs. How’s that for damning with faint praise? He got away with the cheap and cheesy synth production on Various Positions and I’m Your Man because every song (or at least 8 out of 10) was a classic. His 2000’s albums haven’t had that advantage and, let’s just say it, are all kind of terrible schmaltz. I’ve suggested to friends you could probably scrape together a solid single album from Ten New Songs, Dear Heather, Old Ideas and this one (which does contain a little of the dirt and bile found on The Future), but I haven’t created the playlist to confirm nor deny this assertion.

Tanya Tagaq – Animism. Tagaq‘s vocal performances are truly fantastic and definitely worthy of all the praise that’s been heaped on Animism since before the album won the Polaris Prize. But I gotta say, the production is just terrible. The drum sound especially comes off like Trans Siberian Orchestra or something from a mid-90’s Broadway cast-recording. Actually, the whole band sounds like over-schooled hired guns who’ve added a little too much sanitized funk-fusion in a misguided attempt to “spice things up.” Every time Tagaq a builds a magical mood, it’s utterly destroyed by the hamfisted “rock” production.

Raveonettes – Pe’Ahi. I can’t tell you a thing about this album. That’s not quite true. It’s on my phone. The cover is sort of a aqua-teal colour. Songs pop up on shuffle now and then. They must not be terrible because if they were I’d remember them better. I feel like the production or songwriting style is oddly “contemporary pop” for them.

Brian Jonestown Massacre – Revelation. Another album by a favourite band I can’t tell you anything about. I remember it sounding cool. And the songs aren’t bad, really. Just not as good as other songs in the BJM catalogue and not as memorable. No revelations.

La Hell Gang – Thru Me Again. Really understated stoner rock. Kind of like more recent Psychic Ills, maybe a bit heavier. Really good, completely ignorable mood music. Fantastic for listening to on the subway when you’re reading and don’t want to be distracted.

Verma – Sunrunner. Pretty good stoner space rock. Kind of a like a more motivated-sounding Bardo Pond. Not essential, but solid.

Eraas – Initiation. That first Eraas album was some pretty great Thom Yorke-core that creeped into you with it’s enchanting ambient funk and ritualistic falsetto vocals. They’ve taken a turn away from the Eno and towards the emo here. A little more rock and a lot more boredom.

The Acid – Liminal. Pretty good Yorke-core. Mopey and abstract, vaguely good songs.

The Notwist – Close To The Glass. I don’t know if you can you call The Notwist Yorke-core since they might actually pre-date Radiohead. Mid-nineties contemporaries, at the very least. Also, they do have their own very Notwisty style. If you’re familiar with their fragmented, maudlin indie-pop, Close is more of the same. Maybe not nearly up to their usual standard of infectious earworms (though “Casino” is very much up to snuff), but as nice an album as you’d want from them.

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Speaking of Yorke-core, Thom has a new album out. You’ve probably heard about it since he released it through BitTorrent and that meant everyone paid attention to it at a time when maybe people are starting to really not care about Radiohead anymore. Anyway, to my ears, it’s better than Atoms For Peace and King of Limbs, but it’s still not quite as sublime as The Eraser.

Jungle – Jungle. House music.

The Drums – Encyclopedia. Nearly plagiarist in their homages to UK ’80s indie from OMD to Pet Shop Boys to The Smiths, The Drums actually succeed in creating an Encyclopedia of miserablism. I feel like they pretty much recorded this record specifically for me. Thanks guys, you did me a solid.

Dream Police – Hypnotized. I gave up on The Men last year, previously one of my favourite Sacred Bones bands, finally admitting they’d become purveyors of kind of shitty dad rock. Their side-project Dream Police is also dad rock, but dads of a different nature. Sort of cooler, more stoned, slacker dads. Definitely rawer and less polished than the The Men‘s sanitized and utterly tuneless Tomorrow’s Hits, Hypnotized unfortunately comes off not so much as “unpolished gems” but “unfinished demos”. The “kinda shitty” pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

OOIOO – Gamel. Very listenable Afro-gamelan-fusion. There’s lots of records from the ’70s that sound pretty similar and are just as good or better, but of course this is a lot easier to get your hands on.

Medicine – Home Everywhere. Thankfully fewer Beatles/Beach Boys references than the previous album and maybe a little more of the old noise has been brought back. A good example of a ’90s band retaining their original style/sound but moving it forward in a way that sounds natural. Still, I can’t imagine this being super compelling if you’re not already a fan.

The Budos Band – Burnt Offering. Not as bad-ass as the stoned wizard on the cover suggests. It’s bad-ass, like all Budos albums, just not stoned wizard bad-ass. Which is a pretty high bad-ass bar to set for yourself. Needs more fuzz and wah-wah.

Einsturzende Neubauten – Lament. It pains me to say it, but Neubauten kind of put the “lame” in Lament here. Found myself cringing during about half the album (probably not a coincidence it’s the English language half). It reminded me of Pet Shop Boys’ multi-media tribute to Alan Turing from earlier this year. The soundtrack is somewhat unlistenable without the benefit of being able to witness what’s going on upon the stage. I suspect Lament was similarly a lot more compelling live and the cheesy-as-limburger spoken word narrations about WWI worked better in a visual performance setting. Also, WTF is with the needless and grating autotune on “The Willy-Nicky Telegrams“? Why in the actual fuck did they think that was necessary?

Rhyton – Kykeon. The only Eastern-tinged psychedelic jam band album you’ll ever need. It’s pretty right on, man.

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Mysterons Invade the Jackin’ Zone: Chicago Acid and Experimental House 1986-93

April 10, 2014

acidwashed

The most ponderously titled acid house compilation I own has to be Soul Jazz Records presents ACID: Mysterons Invade the Jackin’ Zone: Chicago Acid and Experimental House 1986-93. No less than two subtitles denote the sounds you will find inside where “Chicago Acid and Experimental House Vol. 2” would have sufficed (“Vol 1” was the equally ponderously titled, Soul Jazz Records presents ACID: Can You Jack?: Chicago Acid and Experimental House 1985-95). Well, top-marks for creativity.

JackinZone

And creative the 2-disc cardboard clam-shell box certainly is. Not only is the set accompanied by three “collectible” postcards, it includes a somewhat impenetrable graphic novel depicting what appears to be a sci-fi reimagining of the history of Chicago house and the eventual worldwide acid house phenomenon. Unfortunately,  the limp narrative is oddly confusing and a straight, factual history of house would have been more enjoyable than the ambiguous goals of the alien sound lords. I’m not sure if they’re meant to be villains or saviors, but it seems like house music something to be… feared?

Ultimately, what all the ephemera adds up to is polishing a turd. Spread across the two CDs are nearly enough solid tracks to populate a decent single-disc compilation. Points could be given to the compilers for including some obscure, deep cuts but many of these are substandard even by the low bar set for acid house compilations.

As happens with any pop-culture fad, between 1988 and 1990 there were a myriad of acid house comps rushed to market hoping to cash-in on the craze. For the most part, you can excuse the filler on those as they are at least artifacts of the time and possess an inherent charm. They somehow drip with nostalgia and any holes in the track listings can be put down to the fact some of the genre’s top jams hadn’t even been released yet. Having the benefit of historic perspective, recent acid house compilations tend to do a better job cherry-picking tracks. True, some err on the side of “hits”, but they generally lack filler.

Seeing as some obvious care and passion went into the presentation of this package—the love for the music is truly palpable—it’s surprising how many lackluster tracks make up the compilation. More surprising is how Disc One is top-loaded with these sub-par sonics. Again, kudos to the compilers for breaking with tradition and making Disc Two the stronger program. An argument could be made for the inclusion of Acid Wash‘s annoyingly skittery “Hallucinate” as it highlights the trademark squelchy acid bass in the extreme—and demonstrates how not all house has a straight four-on-the-floor beat—but it’s a baffling choice for an opening salvo. Furthermore, there is no excuse for including “I Believe” by A Blackman, A Blackman and Another Blackman (track 4) as it’s perhaps, hands down, the genre low-water mark. I’ve logged three attempts over two days and I have yet to listen to the track all the way through. It’s cringe-worthy to the point of causing me mild anxiety and slight nausea.

Once you get over those humps, the ride is smooth enough. Almost too smooth. The majority of the tracks pleasantly wash over you without leaving so much as a soapy film behind. There’s a reason most of these tracks haven’t ended up on collections with words like Classics or Essential in the titles. These are deep cuts for serious fan who has the essential trophies and seeks to fill their bag with some more elusive quarry.

And by that yardstick, it’s perfectly acceptable.

  • Year released: 2013
  • General Music Rating: ***
  • Hits Rating: *
  • Deep Cuts Rating: *****
  • Packaging/Artwork: **** (based on the graphic novel/postcards, not the boxy mess of the cover layout)
  • Liner notes: *

 

 

 

 

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ROLLING BONE’S 2013 BEST-OF LIST

December 11, 2013

This year I did something I’m totally not doing next year. I wrote about every damn new release (compact disc) I purchased. You can read all the reviews in full here or (in a less edited spew) here. Since these are CD reviews (plus a vinyl or two), there’s a trove of truly excellent releases missing from the following lists. Mostly stuff released on cassette, often by Canadians. In the new year I’m launching a new series called Kassetten which will eventually cover some of these 2013 tape releases. Otherwise, between Weird Canada and Tabs Out, they’ve been covered already and you should be hitting those sites up anyway. I know I also missed most of the vinyl releases I picked up. When did those Fresh Snow and Young Mother LPs come out?  Anyway, great records I never got around to reviewing. Also Salted, Zacht Automaat… the list could go on. Plus there’s a few albums I haven’t gotten around to checking out in any format yet (White Poppy, Booka Shade) which I expect to enjoy. Well, you’re familiar with the limitations of year-end lists. Anyhooo…

THE GOD DAMN RECORD OF THE YEAR

YOUTH CODE RECORD ART

Youth Code: Youth Code 

I originally gave this EBM pummeller a 4.875 (out of 5) rating, but I’m bumping it up to  a solid 5. “…jackhammer, chest compressing, beat and that mechanical bass sound peppered with guttural screams and old movie samples….” is how I described it, suggesting they were only missing the hooks their forefathers Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy boasted (I know, bands you totally associate with hummable ditties). Well, fuck that. The hooks are there, buried just beneath the surface, waiting to reward grave robbers who listen to this record on their iPhone everyday while they give their fellow subway patrons the evil eye.

Perhaps my love for Youth Code is a barely disguised form of mid-life crisis. A return to those halcyon days of listening to my Too Dark Park cassette on a Sony Walkman, hating everyone in the hallway of my high school and feeling strangely good about it. It’s the kind of record that makes you feel completely vindicated being a misanthropic loner. I feel like music these days isn’t anti-social enough. It’s all about community building and, ew, togetherness. As if other people can be trusted. The state of the world is proof they can’t. You really want to build a community with those assholes?

Anyway, there aren’t enough records like this. Sweet, sweet social oblivion. 

Just in time for Christmas, Dias Records has just released another run of the vinyl.

13 ULTRA-BESTIES OF 2013

Most of these I gave less than a 5/5 rating at the time, but they’re all 5/5 (or damn close) in my eyes now.

Valerie June: Pushin’ Against a Stone

I might simply live under some kind of counter-culture rock, unaware what the “mainstream” is listening to other than MumfordMiley and Drake, but it’s unfathomable to me how Valerie June‘s record isn’t more widely known. Obviously not in a Yeezus way (it’s not a record for thirteen year-olds and hipsters suffering from willful infantilism), but at least in a Neko Case kind of way. It’s exactly the kind of record you’d expect to see on the Rolling Stone year-end list. It’s a warm, smart, genre-bending, deeply emotional record, epic in scope but full of those intimate moments the mainstream MOR public is supposed to fawn over. Of course, Pushin’ Against a Stone does appear on that list but buried somewhere around 46, where a decade or two ago I feel like it’d have been in the top 5.

If people thought Paul Simon co-opting South African music was ground-breaking, what June does combining Afro-beat and bluegrass should have them completely losing their shit. But that was then and this is now, and for whatever reason (theories abound) no one cares about anything anymore. Information fatigue has caused the culture machine to stall, but no one’s really noticed because we’re still coasting downhill.

Anyway, on the bright side, people like Valerie June are still producing artful folk/rock/country/soul records with (what should be) a wide-appeal.

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King Krule: 6 Feet Beneath The Moon

I gave Archy Marshall‘s debut full-lenth a 5/5 rating originally which was probably a tad generous in hindsight. But there aren’t too many artists coming out today who are this unique, who have his weird sort of charismatic, otherworldly presence—as if he’s less a real live boy and more of a character in a film. Which is, ultimately, what we want from our pop stars. More David Bowie, less David Robert Jones. I described him on 6 Feet Beneath The Moon as a “jazzy Mark E. Smith meets art-damaged Billy Bragg meets punk-thug Morrissey” and time will tell if he and his career lives up to those references. But for now this record does. Though how much I see him as an “exotic other” through a slight anglophile lens is hard to tell. Maybe to the Brits he’s just your average, unremarkable bloke? Probably.

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The Stooges: Fun House (2CD expanded edition)

December 2, 2013

the_stooges_-_fun_house_-_front

Roll: 6-3-11
Album: The Stooges, Fun House (2CD expanded edition)

A lot of people cite The Stooges‘ self-titled, proto-punk/garage rock debut as their best. For others it’s the glam-rock third album, Raw Power, a platter I have never been able to understand the appeal of. I’ve always fallen into the equally vocal third camp—those who understand Fun House (1970) is probably not only their best offering, but is possibly the best album from an era chock-a-block with seminal titles.

Placed against it’s contemporaries, Fun House sounds conspicuously timeless. Great as they might be, albums such as Led Zeppelin III, CCR‘s Cosmo’s Factory, Velvet Underground‘s Loaded, and Curtis by Mr. Mayfield all sound cemented to the knees in their own era. Not only do both albums issued by Sabbath that year sound positively dated in comparison, Fun House makes MC5‘s Back In The USA sound like The Bay City Rollers

Let me say that again. This album makes the god-damned MC5 sound like The Bay City Rollers.

But that’s not the only sacred ground this juggernaut tramples over. The free-jazz freak-out that closes the album, “L.A. Blues“, utterly destroys the idea Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders were fearless cosmic travelers and reveals the borders they stepped back from. It’s simultaneously a sneering condemnation of jazz expressionism being placed on a pedestal and supposed “rock’n’roll” music being made palatable for suburban living room stereos. It’s like The Stooges understood that The Who were best while destroying their instruments for shock value and all they needed was a saxophonist having a seizure to make it art. They also clued-in that Coltrane just needed a blown-out Marshall stack to make Ascension punk rock.

Not that Fun House doesn’t have it’s share of late-60’s psychedelic trappings—wah-wah abounds in a way that, until recently, would have been seen as a trifle old fashioned. Perhaps that’s what makes the album feel so fresh. When today’s young psychedelic rockers look to the past, they’re not looking to Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Floyd (and certainly not Hendrix or The Doors), they’re looking to tunes like “T.V. Eye” and VU’s “Sister Ray“—equally as psychedelic as “Dazed and Confused” but with a stripped-down, stream-lined, modern approach that time rolls off of like water on the proverbial duck’s back.

If these tunes sound dated at all, it’s how they sound like Mudhoney or early Nirvana could have recorded them twenty years later. Or Human Eye and Destruction Unit a full 43 years later.

The second disc of this expanded re-issue  doesn’t offer up any surprises, or previously unheard compositions, but it does toss in some nice treats such as a nearly 12-minute version of the title track in among a plethora of alternative takes of every song except, unfortunately, “L.A. Blues”. These alternates range from trashy to messy, but are all of surprisingly decent quality, even when they shudder to a halt. Like many reissues, the essentiality of the second disc comes down to weather or not if you always felt the original album was far too short at 36 minutes and change in length. An unquestionable high-water mark for punk, psychedelia and just plain rock’n’roll in general, you can decide if you require another 70 minutes of material after you listen below…

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Recent Releases Rounded-up: Black Hearted Brother, The Stargazer Lilies, Youth Code, Wooden Shjips, Sean Proper, more

November 21, 2013

2013MINIBANNER
More recent release reviews at THIS PAGE.

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Black Hearted Brother: Stars Are Our Home

As if knowing the debut album by alumni of Slowdive (!) and Seefeel (!) could hardly live up to expectations, Black Hearted Brother decided to far surpass them. Quite simply, this might be the best shoegaze album I’ve heard all year. It very well might even be the best indie/rock album I’ve heard in the last ten, but that would risk committing some pretty bold hyperbole. So let’s leave it at the best 2013 has to offer.

Drawing from krautrock, shoegaze, space-rock and 60 years of pop music traditions, soaring melodies glide over expansive sonic landscapes that somehow manage to be evocative of the past without being derivative (though “If I Was Here To Change Your Mind” definitely takes a page from the Spiritualized songbook). Ironically, this might be the only shoegaze record in the last few years that doesn’t bear almost too-strong a Slowdive influence. At times the album toes the stadium rock line (Verve and Suede are hinted at), but the mood is kept intimate and sincere.

Bands like Arcade FireColdplay or Muse could take a lesson here on how to paint with broad, epic strokes without coming off as brash poseurs and do gentle without seeming like ineffectual drips—but I doubt they’d have much interest in doing so. Anyway, Stars are our Home is a ball hit way out of the park.

5 Space pop masterpieces out of 5 Master shoegazers back at work

The Stargazer Lilies: We Are The Dreamers

If you were, say, a shoegaze stormtrooper, We Are The Dreamers is the shoegaze you’re looking for. Don’t let any strange old dream-pop Jedi hermits tell you otherwise. Do these ex-Soundpool members lay it on thick as honey? Sure, they do. They may as well have named the band The Shoegazer Lilies. But thank god. Melodies! Washes of filtered reverb! Sweet as nectar vocals! It’s everything great about nu-gaze front-runners Soundpool (and Slowdive and Cocteau Twins, naturally), but refined and distilled into a tonic to rival the best releases on 4AD and Creation in their heyday. If not for Black Hearted Brother, this would be the shoegaze record of the year.

4.85 Languid psychedelic waterbeds out of 5 Dream ships aloft on solar winds

Youth Code: Youth Code

This could very well be my new favourite record of the year. The year in question being 1987. Though in that case it has some stiff competition with Front 242‘s Official Version and Nitzer Ebb‘s That Total Age. Not to mention Skinny Puppy‘s Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate. These are all artists referenced by the brilliant EBM revivalists Youth Code who take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the genre. Gloriously regressive and devolutionary. True, there’s nothing quite as immediately catchy as “Headhunter” or “Violent Playground” on the LP (though “Let The Sky Burn” is pretty damn close), but it’s not entirely necessary to have earworm hooks in EBM—just that jackhammer, chest compressing, beat and that mechanical bass sound peppered with guttural screams and old movie samples. Plus, it gives the duo somewhere to grow on the next album which I’m already salivating for.

4.875 Cyberpunk jackhammers out of 5 Howling emaciated Belgian canines

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Jesus and Mary Chain: Darklands (1987)

October 11, 2013

darklands

Roll: 3-9-16
Album: Jesus and Mary Chain, Darklands — 2011 2CD/1DVD reissue

Until Stoned and Dethroned (1994) came out, Darklands (1987) was always my least favourite Jesus and Mary Chain record. It didn’t deliver what I wanted from JAMC. Sure, “Happy When It Rains“, boasts the mechanical post-modern rock’n’roll sound I loved on Automatic (1989), but not to the same extent; like it was a demo for that later album’s whole sound. But more importantly, and more detrimentally, Darkands famously abandons the “savage noise-pop” of Psychocandy (1985). To me Darklands was always a sort of nebulous, half-formed, netherworld of an album. So, in a way, one of their most aptly titled collections.

Over the years I’ve remained eternally hopeful and every time I listen to Darklands I expect to hear something in it I’d previously missed. Some hint of the magic and brilliance that’s been ascribed to it by music journalists, fans and bloggers in the years since it’s release. And though I’ll admit it never sounds as bad as I remember, I’ve never been able to hear it as other than a lethargic, boring mid-tempo folk-rock record marred by some pretty glaringly cheesy ’80s production.

I’ve never been sure if it’s just the song arrangements that never worked for me, but the John Hughes-style drum machines really don’t help matters. And I normally love me some grandiose ’80s drum machines, yet somehow I’ve always felt they sound entirely out of place on Darklands. To my ears, the album begs for an organic Sam Phillips/Sun Studio-style production. The songs are essentially a post-punk take on The Everly Brothers and deserve a more human touch.

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