Sunday, November 28, 2010

46. Let It Come Down

46. Let It Come Down, Spiritualized (Arista, 2001)

Spiritualized, formed by members of Spacemen 3 after that group’s dissolution and led by Jason “Spaceman” Pierce, spent most of the Aughts in the shadow of their third album and masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (’97).  A natural progression from the opiated space-rock of the group Pierce led with Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember from ’82-’89, Spiritualized evolved beyond the majestically blunted grasps for sun-kissed ecstasy of its first two LPs for the sprawling sonic palette filtered through American blues and jazz forms of the monolithic Ladies and Gentlemen.  While Lay Back in the Sun from second album Pure Phase (’95) serves as the definitive exaltation of hedonism, Ladies and Gentlemen lyrically focuses on heartbreak and how to numb its pain—one of hedonism’s darkest sides.  The inclusion of horns, strings, and a choir sublimely embolden the effects-heavy arrangements.  The album received a deluxe reissue in ’09, the only Spiritualized release to earn such a treatment in the Aughts.  With the attention lavished on Ladies and Gentlemen between its release and reissue, it was easy to overlook the three studio albums released by Spiritualized during the decade.

Pierce fired several members after the release of Ladies and Gentlemen; by the time of Let It Come Down four years later, the group had been almost entirely rebuilt to include two former players from Julian Cope’s backing band.  Though his band now barely resembled its first incarnation, Pierce’s lyrical themes of freedom, catharsis, and ascension remained present.  Let It Come Down nakedly examines the dichotomy between flesh and salvation.  It opens with a ragtime piano frill and Pierce singing, “Let’s see how high we can fly/Before the sun melts the wax in our wings”; this icarian dare, repeated elsewhere, is an apt metaphor for the wantonness examined therein.  Though the habits outlined are excessive, they accompany idleness: “I’m planning on sleeping my life away” (Do It All Over Again); “I like to sit around/I’m just contemplating/sittin’ round” (Don’t Just Do Something); in The Twelve Steps, steps nine to eleven are simply staying in bed.  Excess is celebrated most explicitly in this last song—a frantic rock blast startlingly different than the album’s several purely orchestral arrangements—which states bluntly, “The only time I’m drink and drug free/Is when I don’t have to pay for what I need.”  The album’s side breaks emphasize the pattern of repeated abuse: side one, ambivalent laziness, likely hungover; a return to excess on side two; side three, its impact on loved ones; side four, Pierce’s pleas to God for salvation.  The yearning for religious epiphany is mocked (“I don’t think I’m gonna find Jesus Christ/So I’d rather spend my cash on vice,” The Twelve Steps), wistfully discarded (“If Jesus is the straight path that saves/Then I’m content to live my whole life on the curb,” The Straight and the Narrow), and, on the final two songs, desperately begged for.  Pierce originally performed the closing track, Lord Can You Hear Me, on the ’89 Spacemen 3 album Playing With Fire; here it is slower and bolstered by a gospel choir; Pierce’s repeated plea of “Lord can you hear me/Hear me at all?” makes for a compelling case that, despite earlier glibness, his pain is real and his torment about spirituality is no metaphor.  When he sings “The devil makes good use of these hands of mine” on The Straight and the Narrow, he sounds helpless yet resigned to his choices.  Let It Come Down suffered from the pressure of being the follow-up to a masterpiece, and is a denser, less immediate album, but perseverance reveals strengths that, in exposition and emotional impact, make it no less a stunning achievement.

Highlights: Do It All Over Again, The Straight and the Narrow, The Twelve Steps, Stop Your Crying

Sublime bit: The final two minutes of Lord Can You Hear Me, its arrangement swelling as Pierce and the choir plead for redemption.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

47. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

47. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Of Montreal (Polyvinyl, 2007)

A person discovering Of Montreal via their breakthrough eighth LP Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? might not believe that they began as a lo-fi acoustic venture long on tedium and short on hooks.  Led by sole constant member Kevin Barnes, the Athens, Georgia-based group made five albums with ever-expanding lineups—’99’s The Gay Parade lists six full-time members and twelve contributors—before Barnes retreated to record two albums almost entirely by himself.  Satanic Panic in the Attic (’04) and The Sunlandic Twins (’05; see #68) were his strongest works to date, expanding on the earlier material’s fanciful concepts yet drab execution to produce a new sound flaunting complex, multi-tracked arrangements and borrowing heavily from ’60s-era psychedelic pop.  Though the albums became increasingly solo productions, the stage show evolved into a theatrical extravaganza with a dozen or more people on stage, usually in costume.  They managed to keep the spectacle from overpowering the music, and Barnes’s increasingly impressive songwriting and the band’s high-spirited performances made Of Montreal one of the most interesting working units of the late Aughts.

More compelling than the live show, though, is the density of Hissing Fauna’s songs in execution and lyrical content.  The quixotic, elaborate style of its two predecessors remains; but, the manic bubblegum of songs like Suffer for Fashion and Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse are complemented by prominent servings of modern electro-funk.  Gronlandic Edit is built on a light, pulsing bass groove, and Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider has a slithering, smoky vibe; far beyond these dance-minded subtleties, though, is the flamboyance of Faberge Falls for Shuggie and Labyrinthian Pomp, both sung in an exaggerated, Prince-like falsetto that Barnes attributes to his alter ego Georgie Fruit, “a black man who has been through multiple sex changes.”*  While this persona affords Barnes’s lyrics a new aspect of sexuality, he uses no such guise to address the album’s most difficult material.  Much of Hissing Fauna is deeply personal, examining Barnes’s separation from his wife, a self-imposed temporary isolation in Norway, and reliance on antidepressants.  The album’s centerpiece is the twelve-minute The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, detailing the couple’s first meeting, courtship, and Barnes’s struggles with insecurity, progressing—all the while carried by a hypnotic, claustrophobic groove—to their tumultuous breakup; by its climax, Barnes is yelling “Let’s tear the fucking house apart/Let’s tear our fucking bodies apart!”  It is a chillingly naked dissection of private matters, intensified by the fact that the two reconciled and his wife plays on the album.  For all the costumes, playful gender experimentation, pop bliss, and jovial stage shows, the album often dares to forego metaphor to present some of the boldest self-analysis of the decade.  Barnes’s later attempts to outdo its ostentation and complexity resulted in a return to the muddled confusion of his earliest releases.  A dizzying album, at times even bipolar, Hissing Fauna is his high-water mark.

* See the November 2007 Barnes interview at

Highlights: The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse, She’s a Rejecter, Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

Sublime bit: The “ooo-ooo-oooh” backing vocal that enters at 4:19 of The Past Is a Grotesque Animal and repeats for the next six minutes.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

48. Living With War

48. Living With War, Neil Young (Reprise, 2006)

It was easy during the Aughts for even dedicated Neil Young fans to lose interest.  After his strong ’00 folk-rock outing Silver & Gold (see #75), Young released a stretch of work more ignominious than his much-maligned ’80s output.  The live Road Rock Vol. 1: Friends & Relatives (’00) was his fourth concert set in ten years, its arguable redundancy made worse by middling performances.  His long-awaited studio debut with Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Are You Passionate? (’02), was a passionless assortment of half-baked blues and painfully weak vocals; next came Greendale, a tedious 78-minute concept album short on melody that Young nonetheless felt warranted two separate editions.  During this parade of lackluster new material, Young waffled to the point of absurdity on his plans to release his long-promised Archives box set.  By the time the inoffensive but forgettable country-rock outing Prairie Wind arrived in ’05, NOYOUCMON had decided to retire from buying Neil Young albums.  Young’s next project proved so provocative, however, that even the most jaded fan was hard pressed to ignore it.  Angry to the point of despair about the seeming futility of the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, Young found inspiration in a newspaper article about in-flight surgery on military aircraft.  Within a matter of days, he’d written an album’s worth of material whose immediacy—in both speed of recording and in tone—made Living With War the most galvanizing example of music as news since Young recorded the song Ohio with Crosby, Stills & Nash not three weeks after the Kent State shootings in 1970.

The material’s sound hinges on aggressive, metallic guitar, making for Young’s most raucous LP since Mirror Ball, his ’95 collaboration with Pearl Jam.  Only bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Chad Cromwell accompany Young’s guitar on the core tracks (trumpeter Tommy Bray joins on two songs).  A week after recording, Young overdubbed a 100-voice choir on each song, amplifying the united-we-stand communal sentiment of the lyrical themes.  (Young released a separate edition of the album featuring the original unmixed tracks without the choir, titled Living With War—“In the Beginning.”)  The album is an unapologetic vivisection of the Bush administration and the mid-Aughts home-front climate; as shown in the ’08 tour film CSNY/Déjà Vu, its politics drove conservative fans to wish physical violence against Young.  The songs explicitly address the War on Terror, most famously in jaunty singalong Let’s Impeach the President with its strategic juxtaposing of self-contradictory soundbites from Bush speeches.  More than one song addresses Bush’s disingenuous ’03 “mission accomplished” speech.  Lookin’ for a Leader examines the possibilities for Bush’s replacement, presciently mentioning Obama nearly a year prior to his campaign announcement.  Angriest is The Restless Consumer, a gush of emotions from frustration with advertising fatigue and American ostentation versus Mideast poverty to post-9/11 fear and anxiety (“Don’t want no damned jihad/Blowin’ themselves away in my hood”) while suggesting that not all wartime problems are the enemy’s fault (“But we don’t talk to them/And we don’t learn from them”); each verse ends with a repeated chorus of “Don’t need no more lies.”  Those believing the album is anti-American need look no further than Families; its final chorus of “I just can’t wait to see you again in the USA” (recalling his ’80 song Hawks & Doves) is a declaration of the proud patriotism that Young, a longtime Canadian expatriate, feels for his adopted country.  While its subject matter ensures that many will never accept it as a valid artistic statement, Living With War was, after over five years of dwindling returns, much-desired testimony that Young’s creative well had not run dry.

Highlights: Families, The Restless Consumer, Lookin’ for a Leader, Let’s Impeach the President

Sublime bit: Young’s breathless indictment of pharmaceutical ads, jihadists, and flag-draped coffins in The Restless Consumer.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

49. OOOH! (Out of Our Heads)

49. OOOH! (Out of Our Heads), Mekons (Quarterstick, 2002)

Formed as a punk trio at the University of Leeds in ’77 before a reinvention in the mid-’80s as a more nuanced, expanded unit exploring British folk and American country music through a lens of sardonic and literary commentary, the Mekons have recorded regularly since their inception, with only the Fall matching their continuity and longevity.  Much like the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, the Mekons have demonstrated an acute if sometimes ambiguous socio-political consciousness; for the Mekons, this often operates out of time.  Anyone expecting their fifteenth LP, OOOH!, to be a direct analysis of the new post-9/11 world, then, may be confused to instead find a set of songs that opaquely invoke ritual, myth, and dissent from present-day England to the pagan sects of the pre-Saxon wilds.  OOOH! began as an art show of the same name—the bulk of Mekons are also visual artists—revolving around, well, heads. History and mythology contain a slew of famous heads: the decapitated ones of Anne Boleyn, John the Baptist, and Jayne Mansfield; the allegedly frozen one of Walt Disney; the beguilingly poisonous one of Medusa; and a garden variety of various types of heads—shrunken, floating, missing; decorative heads placed on buildings as sentinels or superstition; the mo’ai stone heads of Easter Island. The songs of OOOH! use these stories as inspiration.

Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem opens the album with a ghostly intonation of its title’s acronym that sounds like a wolf’s howl.  Clattering percussion strikes up and Jon Langford directs a call-and-response group vocal.  “The sword is sharp/the arrow swift/the witnesses all seeing,” he sings, the rough-hewn arrangement suggesting a band of battle-worn troubadours heading for their final confrontation.  The possibility of death is clear, of it resulting in “two brass farthings on my eyelids,” as sung in This Way Through the Fire, but as members of the Commonwealth-era radical groups listed in Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem would tell you, such is the risk of fighting for one’s cause.  Much of the album addresses the solitude and introspection possible in the midst of such communal activity.  In Bob Hope & Charity, the ragged-band sing-along continues although the story is of a flagging comrade hoping for telepathic connections with his mates.  Tom Greenhalgh sings a version of traditional folk song Lone Pilgrim, about a private epiphany about redemption of the righteous.  Susie Honeyman’s sad violin accompanies Sally Timms as she admits on the album’s quietest track, Hate Is the New Love, “how we still love the war” and “When we say we’ve had enough/We know we really want more.”  Winter, with a largely acoustic but boisterous and ramshackle arrangement featuring harmonica, fiddle, Turkish saz, and prominent tambourine, shows optimism for calmer times after a pagan winter spent naked and drunk “in the belly of the beast.”  The first verse of the Greenhalgh-led Only You and Your Ghost Will Know addresses a lonely traveler whose friends have died; in the second verse, he himself has frozen to death on the road.  The album’s downbeat denouement, Stonehead, closes the proceedings with a reminder that one day, like the frozen traveler, “our memory will vanish from the memory of the world.”  Its concepts may be less immediate than those of other Aughts-model Mekons albums (see #83 and #104), but the rewards of OOOH! are lasting and it is the always engaging group’s strongest album of the decade.

Highlights: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Only You and Your Ghost Will Know, Winter, Bob Hope & Charity

Sublime bit: When the title chorus of Ghost kicks in after the group vocal of “First the chill and then the stupor/Then the letting go.”

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

50. A Star for Bram

50. A Star for Bram, Robyn Hitchcock (Editions PAF!, 2000)

The Aughts began slowly for veteran British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.  His Warner Bros. contract ended after three albums (including Mossy Liquor, the vinyl-only companion piece to his Moss Elixir album, both ’96), leaving him without major-label support for the first time since ’86.  Between ’00 and ’03 he quietly issued three albums on his own Editions PAF! label.  This trio included Robyn Sings, a live double album composed entirely of Bob Dylan covers, much of which had previously appeared as an extended appendix to the Warner-issued, promo-only ’97 single for his song Beautiful Queen.  The recycling of promo-only B-sides following the loss of a contract might seem an inauspicious move, were the performances not strong, sought-after material likely rejected for full release by Warner.  Two years before Robyn Sings, though, slipped another unusual album, A Star for Bram.  Released “under special license from Warner,” it arrived with the feel of a fan-club album and cover art almost replicating that of Jewels for Sophia (’99), his final Warners album.  Often diminished as a mere collection of Sophia outtakes, Bram indeed includes two songs that appeared on the Warner-issued, Sophia-supporting promotional EP entitled Rare Jewels.  While the Aughts would be Hitchcock’s most prolific decade, A Star for Bram was just one of a string of albums from the decade comprising outtakes, old material, or other oddities while masquerading as new releases.  A Star for Bram is unique among its colleagues, however, as it is arguably stronger than any of the four “real” new LPs that Hitchcock issued in the Aughts.

Bram is a tempered, darker sibling to Jewels for Sophia.  The Warner album is bright, often raucous, and comical; one can almost imagine a Warner executive opting against Bram’s less immediate songs and saying, “We want the funny songs, the ones where you talk about vegetables a lot.”  While the two albums’ most haunting song (No, I Don’t Remember Guildford) does appear on Sophia and Bram is not devoid of levity, Bram is the more subdued record.  It opens with two understated acoustic numbers; the second, the gently shimmering I Saw Nick Drake, is like a transcription of a dream, with Hitchcock meeting the long-dead British folksinger, doing chores together, and interacting in the surreal ways that only the subconscious can manifest; it is built on a transfixing repeated guitar figure and joined by Hitchcock’s highly reverbed wordless humming between the verses.  Judas Sings (Jesus and Me) and I Used to Love You are both stripped-down ballads, the latter using only voice and piano.  Bram’s electric numbers outnumber the unplugged entries, but these, too, are largely subdued.  A minimal, sax-tinted groove supports the skeletal boogie of Adoration of the City; the mild skiffle of The Philosopher’s Stone features just Jon Brion and Hitchcock, the latter adding melodic accents with a “harmony machine.”  The record’s two expository highlights are Nietzsche’s Way, its title punning on Spirit’s 1970 song Nature’s Way, and a new studio recording of Hitchcock’s nostalgic travelogue 1974, which previously appeared on the ’98 in-studio live soundtrack Storefront Hitchcock.  A final thread connecting the album to Jewels for Sophia is a dub version of that album’s Antwoman that gives the lilting original an ominous tint.  Hitchcock’s departure from the major-label system may have resulted in a circuitous new pattern of record-making, but as long as his catalog continues to generate albums as reliable as A Star for Bram it will be worth following.

Highlights: 1974, Daisy Bomb, Nietzsche’s Way, I Saw Nick Drake

Sublime bit: Those spectral, wordless choruses of I Saw Nick Drake.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

51. Just Beyond the River

51. Just Beyond the River, James Yorkston and the Athletes (Domino, 2004)

James Yorkston hails from Fife, Scotland, also home to Fence, a musicians’ collective and label borne of Kenny Anderson’s bankrupt record shop.  Anderson has recorded over two dozen albums as King Creosote; but, of Fence artists in the Aughts, it was Yorkston who held the highest profile.  His demo, recorded after a spell with various rock groups, attracted influential DJ John Peel and resulted in a ’01 solo 7” on the Bad Jazz label.  Entitled Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel and credited, for reasons unforthcoming, to “J. Wright Presents,” it is a soulful, sleepy shuffle that he reworked for his ’02 debut LP Moving Up Country.  After one more split single and a compilation appearance, Yorkston signed to Domino and issued a bevy of singles and EPs with them before his first full-length.  Yorkston remained part of the Fence community even after signing to a larger label, working with its artists including The Pictish Trail (aka Johnny Lynch, Fence co-director) and UNPOC.  Yorkston’s own work descends from Scottish and Irish folk music, guitar-based but with traditional instruments—whistle, pipes, accordion, fiddle, bouzouki.  His folk-based songs are often slow and deliberate, his voice rarely straying from a narrow range; the result is far from the celebratory jigs and reels associated with the traditional music of Yorkston’s homeland. 

Yorkston’s second full-length, Just Beyond the River, again recorded with a loose association of musicians dubbed the Athletes, utilizes stronger compositions and more focused playing for a sound more starkly emotional than his previous works.  On his debut LP Yorkston employed former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde as producer; for River, he uses Kieran Hebden, who records electronic music under the moniker Four Tet.  Hebden’s own work incorporates guitar, piano, and other acoustic instruments, and he leaves no trace of synthetics on Yorkston’s album; as with Raymonde the collaboration appears incongruous, but Hebden conjures a haunting, sometimes hypnotic aspect setting River apart from Yorkston’s other Aughts works.  Several songs are skeletal, quiet affairs (We Flew Blind, Hermitage, This Time Tomorrow), and are countered by the swirling, push-and-pull, full-band arrangements of other numbers whose simple details—like the brushed drums in Heron—create both tension and resolution.  Shipwreckers builds to a swell, just as the storm that drives it subjects to shelter near a warm hearth, before flickering out like faded embers at sunrise.  In Banjo #1, Yorkston’s vocal melds with the banjo’s cyclical churn, matching the lyrical tension of a man apologizing to a leery prospective lover for his “need for clamour/my clumsy touch/and Catholic roving eye.”  Two of the album’s highlights are its sole traditional numbers: a variation of the ancient European murder ballad Edward is the album’s most chilling song, the desolate arrangement and Yorkston’s triplicate repetition of the final word of every line creating an unnerving effect; closing song The Snow It Melts the Soonest has a firmer arrangement yet, like Banjo #1, mesmerically blends Yorkston’s vocals with the instrumentation.  Yorkston recorded prolifically throughout the Aughts, and after this second full-length issued three more LPs and a host of singles, EPs, and limited-edition items.  Just Beyond the River and its quietly gripping, tempered undertow is a close contender for the finest among these many releases.

Highlights: Shipwreckers, Banjo #1, Edward, The Snow It Melts the Soonest

Sublime bit: The fleeting, tense half-steps of the violin that press through the between-verse instrumental passages of Shipwreckers.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

52. Monsoon

52. Monsoon, Preston School of Industry (Matador, 2004)

Scott Kannberg, AKA Spiral Stairs, co-founder and guitarist of Stockton, California-based erudite slacker kings Pavement, owned a sizeable batch of unfinished material after the band’s embittered ’99 dissolution.  Author and singer of fewer than a dozen of the group’s nearly two hundred songs, Kannberg brought a more linear lyrical style to Pavement that countered frontman Stephen Malkmus’s penchant for stream-of-consciousness wordplay.  Freed of the limitations of his former group, Kannberg was the only member aside from Malkmus to release solo material in the Aughts (bassist Mark Ibold worked with Free Kitten and Sonic Youth, but issued no material of his own).  In ’01, Kannberg released the EP Goodbye to the Edge City on his own Amazing Grease label; rather than use either his given or stage name, he named his new project Preston School of Industry after a notorious boys’ reform school near his hometown of Stockton.  Edge City is an engaging set of five songs ranging from the good-natured acoustic shuffle of Somethings Happen Always, with a horn part and, on the coda, a children’s chorus; to the muted introspection of How to Impress the Goddess Pt. 2; to the pop rave-up The Spaces in Between, the most ebullient track to come out of the Pavement organization thus far.  Kannberg would expand on these forms with the first PSOI full-length, All This Sounds Gas (also ’01).  The most striking aspect of Kannberg’s new music was its apparent sincerity, devoid of the sarcasm and brattiness that lent Pavement an aggravating charm yet ensured their sizeable catalog would be short on guilelessness.

The second PSOI album, Monsoon, is an even more affable outing than its predecessor.  A shorter, breezier affair, Monsoon is built on the twangy acoustic-guitar jangle seen on parts of Edge City.  Opening cut The Furnace Sun and mid-album highlight Her Estuary Twang are bright pop blasts with cheerful wordless choruses and bountiful hooks; the charming Walk of a Gurl ambles more slowly than its poppier cousins and includes a whimsical harmonica accompaniment.  So Many Ways is almost a country ballad, its gentle pedal-steel drift giving the album its most peaceful moment.  Line it Up most directly recalls Kannberg’s Pavement work (specifically his Hit the Plane Down from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain), with its slanted, cyclical riff and hectoring vocal.  Guests on Monsoon include Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, who plays mandolin on two tracks, and four members of A Ghost Is Born-era Wilco on the track Get Your Crayons Out!  Monsoon would be the final recording of the Aughts to bear the Preston School of Industry name.  In ’09, Kannberg reclaimed his Pavement-era stage name Spiral Stairs when he issued the LP The Real Feel.  Promotional activities for the album, a glossier and mildly bluesy effort than the loose grooves of PSOI, were interrupted by the unlikely—and wildly popular—reunion of Pavement.  While Kannberg’s solo efforts have been largely overshadowed by Malkmus’s, all have merits; Monsoon is the most pleasing of his three solo full-lengths and one of the most agreeable works in the Pavement family tree.  (The Australian Monsoon on Trifekta Records came with a second disc titled Live in Chicago 2002 Bootleg from a tour supporting Wilco.  This audience-quality recording is now more widely available via download, and is frequently mislabeled as coming from a 2003 concert.)

Highlights: Her Estuary Twang, The Furnace Sun, Caught in the Rain, If the Straits of Magellan Should Ever Run Dry

Sublime bit: The blissful exclamations of “ba-da-ba” on the choruses of Her Estuary Twang.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

53. From Here We Go Sublime

53. From Here We Go Sublime, The Field (Kompakt Germany, 2007)

The Field is Stockholm’s Axel Willner, whose instrumental pieces merge moody, ambient atmospherics with the sparse, rhythmic repetition of minimal techno and trance.  His pieces inhabit narrow ranges of tempo and modulation with a focus on cyclic grooves that do not always achieve resolution, sometimes simply fading out after a period of time.  Willner occasionally employs glitch techniques, rhythmically utilizing sonic aberrations that resemble equipment malfunctions; but, his compositions are primarily smooth, hypnotic exercises with a moderately high beat-per-minute ratio.  The mix of ambient soundscapes and upbeat dance-floor vibrations creates a dreamlike effect.  Key to Willner’s music is his use of extremely brief samples—sometimes under a second long—that he manipulates and loops, creating new melodies that frequently become foundations of the tracks.  He often samples other artists’ singing, perhaps only a single syllable or vocal sound.  One of the earliest Field tracks, Action (from his label’s ’05 Kompakt 6 compilation), is built on a sliver of the flute introduction to Reach Out I’ll Be There by the Four Tops.  While it is possible to hear the song as an original techno track and not recognize that it contains a sample, its use of a well-known sound lends it an extra subconscious resonance that can be haunting.  After his first recording, an ’05 remix of Norwegian electro singer Annie, Willner released his first 12” as the Field, Things Keep Falling Down, and the aforementioned Action.  Even before this, he had begun work on the tracks of his debut album; there would be another 12” and two more label samplers, however, before From Here We Go Sublime.

Over the Ice opens the LP with a minimal disco pulse that is not fleshed out until nearly its fifth minute.  A manipulation of a vocal sample provides the song’s melody; it is looped in such a manner that, until an undeniably electronic pitch shift occurs, it sounds like a woman singing wordlessly.  One may listen for years, as was true for this writer, before recognizing it as a syllable taken from a Kate Bush record.  A Paw in My Face begins with a similarly throbbing beat and a synth hi-hat cymbal before the percussion is emboldened and a feather-light guitar accent begins to repeat.  In one of only two explicit revelations here, Willner lets the guitar sample play out as the song fades, showing it to be from Lionel Richie’s ’83 hit Hello.  This is devoid of irony or humor, and the original loop provides one of Sublime’s most genuinely appealing hooks.  The samples do not overwhelm the songs; The Little Heart Beats So Fast, one of the album’s most playful arrangements, is propelled by an infinitesimal snatch of sound that sounds like a woman gasping “ahh,” but could easily just be synthesized percussion.  In Everday [sic], a vocal sample begins at 4:45 that runs at a slightly different tempo than the rhythm, creating an entrancing warp of sound as the song builds and the two parts go, almost imperceptibly, in and out of sync with one another.  The album’s most astonishing moment comes with the glitch-heavy, closing title track.  Composed almost entirely of a ghostly set of samples, it sputters and reverberates for over two minutes before Willner undoes the straps to reveal a reverb-laden passage from the Flamingos’ 1959 doo-wop classic I Only Have Eyes for You.  While Kate Bush and even Lionel Richie are easily understandable touchstones for an Aughts-era indie musician, the revelation of this relatively ancient source material is an astonishing way to close the album.  After this debut LP, Willner remixed over a dozen other artists, and in ’09 issued a second album, Yesterday and Today, incorporating other musicians and full vocal tracks. Any of Willner’s works is worth attention, though Sublime remains his strongest to date and one of the finest techno albums of the decade.

Highlights: A Paw in My Face, Everday, Silent, The Little Heart Beats So Fast

Sublime bit: The Flamingos’ haunted doo-wop is mind-blowing in this context; but, the silvery guitar wisps of A Paw in My Face are truly sublime.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

54. Dark Days/Light Years

54. Dark Days/Light Years, Super Furry Animals (Rough Trade, 2009)

The eighth album by Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals, Hey Venus! (’07; see #65), was the psych-pop group’s first on the Rough Trade label.  Its streamlined blast of uptempo glam and the odd lovely ballad came at the new label’s behest, hoping for a return to the efficient vibe of the group’s ’90s work.*  The tour that followed the album’s release was another stripped-down affair, the band cutting back on the props and stage dressing that made previous jaunts quasi-theatrical affairs.  The willingness to tailor an LP to a record company’s desires might have been an ominous sign had the result not been one of the group’s most enjoyable records to date.  Following Hey Venus!, drummer Daf Ieuan released his first album with side project the Peth and frontman Gruff Rhys issued Stainless Style, a collaboration with producer/programmer Boom Bip, credited to Neon Neon and ostensibly a concept record about eccentric automotive engineer John DeLorean.  These solo detours, both on other labels, were evidence that Rough Trade would not strong-arm the band or its members into a specific vision.  When the Super Furries regrouped to record their ninth LP, the sessions would culminate in their most stretched-out, challenging vision yet.

At just over an hour, Dark Days/Light Years is practically twice as long as Hey Venus! and the longest SFA album to date; on vinyl, it is a double LP (though running at 45 RPM) whose garish artwork—a collaboration of the group’s two previous art designers, Keichi Tanaami and Pete Fowler—sprawls across both sides of its gatefold jacket and a two-sided 24x24 poster.  While its predecessor opened with a rollicking 43-second introductory theme, Dark Days slowly gurgles its way to the surface.  Opening cut Crazy Naked Girls begins with 51 seconds of muffled speech, the sounds of tuning up, and a false start before an overdriven drum beat kicks in, followed by a clipped, nearly falsetto Rhys vocal recalling Prince before abruptly changing at midpoint into an acid-rock blues jam that churns like an extended outro for the remainder of its six minutes.  Once through this virtual decoy the album returns to more conventional songwriting, soon making it clear that Dark Days is a groove-heavy affair. Several songs (most notably Moped Eyes and the nuttily titled The Very Best of Neil Diamond) are propelled by slinking arrangements worthy of the dance floor, even if the tempos remain at a low simmer.  The eight-minute Cardiff in the Sun is the album’s centerpiece, its Kosmische chillout groove giving way to blissful choruses consisting of its repeated title.  The album’s extended runtime means there is enough room for a handful of pop tunes, the best among them the pulsing jack-in-the-box rhythm of Inaugural Trams whose middle eight consists of a rap, in German, by Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand.  Against all odds, it is one of the album’s best moments.  Another key pop track finds guitarist Huw Bunford taking lead vocals, the hideously titled yet wonderfully catchy White Socks/Flip Flops.  The record ends as oddly as it began, though, with the ten-minute Pric, a throbbing rock groove that trails off at roughly six minutes for an extended ambient coda.  A daunting listen on first blush, the album contains all the hallmarks that make Super Furry Animals one of the most inventive and charming pop groups of their time.  While not as immediate as their previous works, Dark Days/Light Years sustains repeated plays better than most of the band’s catalog once its rhythmic secrets are unlocked.

*For just one account of the Rough Trade request, see this Gruff Rhys interview:

Highlights: Inaugural Trams, Inconvenience, The Very Best of Neil Diamond, Moped Eyes

Sublime bit: When Inaugural Trams slams back into its peppy groove after Nick McCarthy’s spoken guest vocal ends at 3:24.

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Saturday, July 31, 2010

55. Trouble in Dreams

55. Trouble in Dreams, Destroyer (Merge, 2008)

By the time of his final full-length album of the decade, Vancouver singer-songwriter and Destroyer bandleader Dan Bejar had come a long way from the four-track adventuring of his ’90s work.  The Aughts saw Bejar release six Destroyer full-lengths and a pair of EPs, as well as four albums as a member of the New Pornographers and two with Swan Lake (see #91).  Even just since his previous Destroyer album, the ’06 breakthrough LP Destroyer’s Rubies, Bejar made substantial contributions to four different groups’ records, including performing the bulk of instrumentation on girlfriend Sydney Vermont’s ’08 album (credited to Hello, Blue Roses) The Portrait Is Finished and I Have Failed to Capture Your Beauty.  If one looks only at the Destroyer material produced in the Aughts, the catalog reveals a series of ambitious and complex works: from his first masterwork Streethawk: A Seduction (’01, see #66) to the bold musical theater of the synth-heavy ’04 Your Blues and beyond, Bejar has repeatedly shown himself to be one of the decade’s strongest and most literate songwriters.  His prolificacy and willingness to work as a secondary on other people’s albums have afforded him an ongoing opportunity to hone his writing and performance, and a sequential examination of his Aughts output also shows one of the decade’s most significant progressions in pop craftsmanship.

Trouble in Dreams came after a sequence of Destroyer albums sprawling in construction or thematic in execution; while its running time almost matches the nearly hour-long Rubies, Bejar’s ’08 effort feels like the first streamlined collection of Destroyer songs since Thief in 2000.  While Bejar and Destroyer may seem synonymous, the project has been a group effort since ’98; its lineup has shifted progressively, though, and Trouble marks the first time in six years that Destroyer’s roster survived nearly intact from its previous record.  Only longtime drummer Scott Morgan is missing, replaced here by Fisher Rose (who played vibes and trumpet on Rubies).  As with most of Destroyer’s albums, Trouble was recorded at Vancouver’s JC/DC Studio with David Carswell and Paul Collins co-producing with the band, the latter one of Bejar’s New Pornographers bandmates.  The album’s production is warmer than any of its predecessors, a departure from the ragged live feel of Rubies; most of its songs are slow-burning, sometimes almost sensuous ballads.  The subjects often seem burdened by fatigue, concession, and a wish to get things over with; the album’s opening line is “Okay, fine,” the narrator of Blue Flower/Blue Flame concluding “A gray ashen sadness rises like the sun, oh well.”  My Favorite Year recalls halcyon days before a blunt reminder that “now it’s gone.”  The protagonist of Shooting Rockets, the album’s eight-minute centerpiece, whose “soul pukes,” finds lightness only in dreams because he has “street despair carved in my heart.”  These songs are cloaked in bewitching arrangements that temper the gritty accountings of the lyrics.  The State and Plaza Trinidad provide noisy interludes, delivering percussive crescendoes that provide sonic reminders of the characters’ emotional stress.  Only on My Favorite Year and Dark Leaves Form a Thread does the mood approach ebullience; even then, though, the narrator is ambivalent: “No, it’s cool, you go, I’ll stay,” Bejar sings on the latter, “perfectly at home with this dread.”  On its lyrical surface a potential gloom trip, Trouble in Dreams is Destroyer’s most sonically beautiful album and another gem in the catalog.

Highlights: My Favorite Year, Dark Leaves Form a Thread, Rivers, Introducing Angels

Sublime bit: Introducing Angels: its lush arrangement, Bejar’s hushed intonation of its title, and the silvery guitar riff slipping through its choruses.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

56. Gold Brick

56. Gold Brick, Jon Langford (ROIR, 2006)

Chicago-dwelling Welsh expatriate Jon Langford is one of rock’s most prolific artists.  While perhaps best known as a member of the Mekons from the Leeds punk class of ’77, Langford has made nearly three dozen albums with his other groups the Three Johns (’82-’90), traditional country collective the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and cowpunk sextet Waco Brothers, as well as a multitude of collaborations with other songwriters.  Along with his tireless musical schedule, Langford is an accomplished visual artist; his paintings often depict other musicians, particularly the country and western acts who have inspired his own music since the Mekons shifted away from punk in the late ’70s.  Not until ’95 did Langford get around to issuing an LP under his own name; Misery Loves Company—credited to “Jonboy” Langford, along with the Cosmonauts—is a ramshackle but loving set of Johnny Cash covers (like his painting, Langford’s music often celebrates country artists).  With ’98’s Skull Orchard, a pop-tinged set of songs in honor of his Welsh homeland, Langford delivered his first true “solo” album, not hinging on collaboration or homage.  He would issue three more in the Aughts; works like Mayors of the Moon (’02, backed by Canadian alt-country group the Sadies) and All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (’04) are serviceable roots-rock albums melding cuttingly literate writing, amiable humor, and a keen insight to America’s cultural landscape. Langford’s next solo work, though, would take a confident and ambitious stride forward.

For Gold Brick, Langford took temporary leave of his usual solo label Bloodshot for NYC imprint ROIR, which had previously released Mekons and Three Johns one-offs. Subtitled Lies of the Great Explorers, or Columbus at Guantanamo Bay, it is an examination of post-9/11 American malaise and the impacts and shifting priorities of globalization.  Its first half focuses on individuals: the subjects of Little Bit of Help are “programmed for survival”; Workingman’s Palace chronicles the pressing need for escape, usually “where the Old Style light still shines”; Invisible Man illustrates regular folks’ 21st-century uncertainty, overlooked “like a pin in a map or dust on the screen.”  The title track addresses modernity’s solitude (“You leave home but you never leave home/Drive for miles in a car on your own”) and bland conformity (“The boring and phony/Are rocks for the lonely/To climb up on.”).  The second half dissects the U.S. mise en scène: Gorilla and the Maiden depicts Cold War Chicago’s incongruities of strip joints, Nazi marches, and investors who “paw at a city served up in chains”; Tall Ships imagines the vessels that carried many to the New World, now simply “carrying cargo/that nobody needs.”  An orchestrated cover of Procol Harum’s ’69 tune Salty Dog bridges the halves, in this context another depiction of immigration.  The finest piece is closing track Lost in America.  Composed for National Public Radio’s show of the same name and, in best Langford populist fashion, performed with musicians he found in the classifieds, it charts a course from pre-Colonial days to an imagined present where Columbus is detained by security and left to watch daytime TV, his mind reeling from the soulless progression of cartoons, game shows, and news-magazine exposés.  An astounding expository achievement, it should reassure anyone mistaking Gold Brick for a mere indictment of America: “We’ll turn the planes around today/And make them fly the other way/’Cos we know we’re all here to stay/And you know where you are/When you’re lost in America.”  Gold Brick examines a nation of proud individuals who may be a little worse for wear but who still believe in an American dream. It is Langford’s finest solo album to date and among the best work of his entire career.

Highlights: Lost in America, Gold Brick, All Roads Lead Back to Me, Invisible Man

Sublime bit: The beautiful arrangement of the title track, particularly Pat Brennan’s piano and Jean Cook’s violin lines.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

57. Truelove's Gutter

57. Truelove's Gutter, Richard Hawley (Mute, 2009)

Sheffield songwriter Richard Hawley—former Longpigs guitarist and Pulp sideman—is one of those trusty musicians whose excellence comes from finding a suitable niche and treading that same ground over a span of albums, each of which has its strengths yet may seem interchageable to the casual listener.  His solo material focuses on sentimental lyrics set to lush, old-fashioned pop arrangements that suggest a common ground between Buddy Holly’s orchestral work; the early rock material on Sun Records of the Elvis, Scotty & Bill trio; and jazz-pop singers like Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Hartman.  After a mini-album and four full-lengths, including the Mercury Prize nominee Coles Corner (’06; see #84), Hawley adjusted his formula to produce his most masterful work of the decade.

The follow-up to Hawley’s poppiest album to date, Lady’s Bridge (’07), Truelove’s Gutter is a departure from the post-war dance-band crooner material that made helped to make his previous two albums so enjoyable.  Here, Hawley does not abandon his proven form so much as he dials it down and stretches it out; this results in some of the most intimate, quiet material of his catalog as well as its most epic numbers.  Hawley had done quiet material before—the bulk of ’02’s Late Night Final and the final third of Coles Corner focus on hushed, sparse compositions—yet on Truelove’s Gutter the calmness takes the form of meditations.  Expanding on Hawley’s usual beat-combo instrumentation, the songs are accented by a bevy of unusual, sometimes arcane devices: a singing saw, the cristal bachet, a glass harmonica, the waterphone, Tibetan singing bowls, the Ondes martenot (the sole electric instrument of that lot, an early keyboard producing theremin-like vibrations).  This non-traditional accompaniment lends a unique sonic undercurrent to the record; when the opening cut As the Dawn Breaks slowly builds from a swelling ambient hum, to name one instance, the organic instruments can easily be mistaken for modern electronics.  Many songs on the album have extended run times, the average going over six minutes.  Two pieces, Remorse Code and Don’t You Cry, are ten minutes long.  Remorse Code is the album’s centerpiece; a ruminative, opaque depiction of drug addiction, it caresses a single, gentle riff for its duration.  “The ship is wrecked/With all hands/Look to the reef/False lights from the land,” Hawley sings; the capsizing metaphor ends bluntly with a haunting chorus of “Those white lines/made your eyes wide.”  No mere indictment of another person’s follies, its lyric concludes with “I was likewise/In those white lines.”  Don’t Get Hung Up in Your Soul is the most desolate number, Hawley accompanied by an almost inaudible guitar and bass with the singing saw adding a far-off and lonesome tone.  The album’s general quietude emphasizes the power of its occasional crescendo: the blazing orchestral swell that erupts in the fourth minute of the otherwise quiet Soldier On, for example, is the album’s most stunning moment in part because it happens only once.  The songs of Truelove’s Gutter strip the bulk of filigrees from Hawley’s proven approach to pop songwriting, leaving its compositions laid bare.  Sometimes almost painfully frank yet thoroughly compelling precisely because of its intimacy, this fifth full-length album of Hawley’s is a striking achievement that will long resonate as a peak of his career.

Highlights: Remorse Code, Open Up Your Door, Soldier On, For Your Lover Give Some Time

Sublime bit: Those knowing refrains of Remorse Code and the mournful guitar solos surrounding them, especially the one from 5:34 to 7:33.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

58. Carbon Glacier

58. Carbon Glacier, Laura Veirs (Nonesuch, 2004)

At the end of the Aughts, Pacific Northwest singer-songwriter Laura Veirs had made a sparkling pair of pop-rock albums with her group (known first as the Tortured Souls and then renamed Saltbreakers for her sixth LP of the same name), but she began the decade as a folk-based artist fresh off her rough-hewn debut album (Laura Veirs, ’99).  Her first Aughts LP, The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae (’01), is a country-tinged acoustic song cycle about a woman journeying through the Western U.S.; its ’03 follow-up Troubled by the Fire is a largely gentle roots album, marking Veirs’s first prominent use of a full band and, though sparingly, a foray into the rock forms she would embrace more vigorously on later works Year of Meteors (’05, see #62) and Saltbreakers (’07).  Each of her Aughts LPs—all produced by drummer/programmer Tucker Martine—evidences considerable stylistic development, yet the most arresting of her first six albums is her ’04 major-label debut Carbon Glacier.

The album possesses a chilly ambience, many of its songs creating stark and haunting moods suggestive of its cover art’s frozen vista.  While Troubled by the Fire revealed Veirs’s interest in more aggressive arrangements, Carbon Glacier is a hushed affair, emphasizing her strengths as a folk singer yet adorning the acoustic material in a web of minimal electronics that sound more progressive than any of its predecessor’s revved-up efforts.  Veirs’s singing voice, like her composition and production, has developed over time; on Carbon Glacier, though, its idiosyncrasies—recalling the thin-ice overreaching of Guyville-era Liz Phair—add further to the distinctive sonics.  Though a wintry atmosphere runs through the album, it is not a purely bleak one; instead, the arrangements often conjure the crisp, quiet beauty of a moonlit blanket of snow.  This is best evident in the opening song, Ether Sings.  Veirs’s introductory midtempo guitar figure lasts only four measures before it is joined by an eerie, airy synth line, sounding almost like a theremin, that drifts away as quickly as it appeared; “Come with me and we’ll head up north/Where the rivers run icy and strong,” Veirs sings.  After a pair of verses, the song returns to the original guitar and synth melody, joined by a muted viola pattern and a ghostly and beautiful falsetto of “aah-ha, aah-ha” that repeats for the final ninety seconds.  Perhaps even starker is Icebound Stream, whose attractively lurching, repetitive melody sounds as if born of a hurdy gurdy whose batteries are running low.  Veirs’s voice is high in the mix; the lyric, sung in a similarly mechanical rhythm, is a fever dream of anthropomorphized lightning that makes flowers bloom in reverse and photographs fade to white.  The contemplative ballad Rapture marvels at the way humans capture art in permanence, “with photographs and magnetic tape,” and wonders if “love of color, sound and words/is it a blessing or a curse,” citing Kurt Cobain and “young Virginia Woolf/Death came and hung her coat.”  Shadow Blues depicts a lover frightened by her own feelings: “I’ve learned that love is scared of light,” Veirs sings, describing a “blackened kiss” and a protagonist who admits “I am dark about the whys of wanting” before vowing to “dig a coal mine, climb down deep inside/where my shadow’s got one place to go.”  The sonic tension is lifted only on The Cloud Room, an upbeat pop number with a near-funk drumbeat, presaging her later Aughts work.  Carbon Glacier is an album keenly aware of the dangers of nature, the unrest that can lie just behind beauty, and the loneliness of time.  From its vulnerable atmospheres comes the best work of Veirs’s first ten years of recording.

Highlights: Icebound Stream, Ether Sings, Snow Camping, The Cloud Room

Sublime bit: That wordless vocal coda from 2:13 to 3:30 of Ether Sings.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

59. I Am a Bird Now

59. I Am a Bird Now, Antony and the Johnsons (Secretly Canadian, 2005)

Antony Hegarty, an England-born, longtime US resident, toiled for years in the experimental theatres and cabarets of New York City before an arts grant in ’96 enabled him to record professionally with other musicians.  Hegarty named his nascent group after late transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, and constructed a sparse, piano-based sound featuring his theatrical, almost operatic singing voice.  Their increasingly frequent late-Nineties live gigs got the attention of experimental artist-musician David Tibet, who had worked with Psychic TV and Nurse With Wound while leading his own group, Current 93, and operating the small UK label Durtro.  Tibet offered Hegarty an album release, resulting in an eponymous ’98 LP.  Hegarty’s talent arrived fully formed on Antony and the Johnsons, no surprise after eight years of live performance.  A relatively straightforward set of piano ballads whose lyrics address difficult topics from romantic catharsis to psychosexuality, it is good in its own right but the least compelling of his three studio albums to date.  It would be seven years before his next album; the group’s only new releases until then were the ’00 three-song Durtro EP I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy, two-thirds of which consisted of covers, and two minor split releases with Tibet’s Current 93 (half of a live EP and one studio outtake on a 7”).  While Hegarty lacked in prolificacy, his connections in the NYC art world secured him numerous collaborations and film appearances; most notably, he sang lead vocals for two songs on Lou Reed’s ’04 live LP Animal Serenade. These guest spots were no preparation for the creative leap of his next studio album.

I Am a Bird Now is a stark, soulful set of songs addressing gender identity, dysphoria, and psychic ascension from traditional concepts of sexual classification.  Twenty musicians and vocalists are credited, almost twice as on his debut LP, and only drummer Todd Cohen is retained.  The accompaniment includes strings and horns, used judiciously with minimal arrangements reminiscent of a chamber ensemble.  While Hegarty’s voice is the focal point, several other singers appear; Lou Reed contributes a spoken introduction to Fistful of Love, Devendra Banhart sings a brief aria on Spiralling, and Rufus Wainwright sings an entire song, the excellent What Can I Do?  The finest guest vocal comes when Hegarty duets with Boy George on the emotional You Are My Sister; the performance illustrates the power of George’s voice, a reminder that his Aughts activity transcended his tabloid-level mayhem.  “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me/When I die, when I go,” Hegarty sings on the opening cut, presaging the ruminations on death and transition he would examine closely on his next album, The Crying Light (’09; see #93); death is a theme on Bird as well, though here it is often followed by a second birth—that of the soul and sexual spirit. This is most pronounced in For Today I Am a Boy and, in the triumphant album closer, Bird Gehrl: “I’m gonna be born/Into, soon, the sky/’Cause I’m a bird girl/And the bird girls go to heaven/I’m a bird girl/And the bird girls can fly.”  Hegarty’s compositions on I Am a Bird Now speak to the ecstatic truths of individual identity, with a command seen in few other singers of the time.  His creative growth in the seven years since his first album represents one of the most startling progressions in Aughts pop music.  Bird controversially won the UK Mercury Prize (not for subject matter, but for disputes over Hegarty's residency; the prize is intended for British recordings), and remains NOYOUCMON’s pick for best album of 2005.

Highlights: Bird Gerhl, Fistful of Love, You Are My Sister, Hope There’s Someone

Sublime bit: One comes along about every three minutes on this album, but the sheer emotion of his vocal on Bird Gehrl encapsulates them all.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

60. Sweet Warrior

60. Sweet Warrior, Richard Thompson (Shout! Factory, 2007)

Richard Thompson is, it can be argued, a contender for greatest living guitarist.  His knack for avoiding the limelight and his unique playing style that abstains from typical guitar-god blues hokum means that your average Crossroads Festival attendee might not think so, but an examination of Thompson’s work reveals an astonishing breadth, color, and agility seen in few other masters of the instrument.  His first recorded work came as a member of English folk-rockers Fairport Convention, resulting in five studio albums from 1967 to his ’71 departure to pursue a solo career, and while the group continues to this day their most cherished material comes from the relatively brief Thompson era.  Prior to his ’72 solo debut Henry the Human Fly, Thompson also served as a session man for a variety of artists that included Nick Drake.  Following Fly, Thompson embarked on a joint career with one of that album’s backing vocalists, Linda Peters, who became his wife; they recorded six albums together before divorcing in ’82.  While operating in traditional folk and folk-rock milieu on his own albums, Thompson has collaborated with a wide array of artists, including David Thomas, frontman of visionary rock provocateurs Pere Ubu; experimental guitarists Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith; Captain Beefheart drummer John French; and, in perhaps his strongest guest appearances, with Anton Fier’s avant-rock project the Golden Palominos.  Thompson’s playing has figured heavily in a handful of films, most notably Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (’05).  Were Thompson merely a brilliant guitarist, his nearly two-dozen post-Fairport studio albums would be a shallower pool; his exceptional talent as a singer-songwriter makes his albums rare demonstrations of first-class instrumental and rhetorical prowess coming from a single source.

Thompson recorded three studio albums in the Aughts, alongside a wealth of live albums (mostly fan-club releases) and the Grizzly Man soundtrack.  Of the trio of studio efforts from the decade, Sweet Warrior (’07) is the last and finest, a return to electric work after the largely acoustic ’05 Front Parlour Ballads.  Having left the major label system after '99's strong Mock Tudor, Thompson made Warrior on his own dime and shopped it to indie labels after its completion.  A balance of pop tunes (Mr. Stupid, Needle and Thread, and the sax-driven jaunt Bad Monkey the best among them) and thoughtful ballads, the album embodies its title by examining the battles of romance.   Elsewhere, though, the warrior concept is addressed in regard to the futile sides of war and military life (the concepts are mingled in an inner-sleeve photo of a flummoxed Thompson in military uniform and camouflage facepaint, flanked by beautiful women kissing his cheeks).  Dad’s Gonna Kill Me refers not to fears of an angry father; the title instead invokes Baghdad and the fears of a deployed soldier in the face of unarmored Humvees, conservative home-front propaganda, and the specter of death.  Even better is Guns Are the Tongues, the album’s climax and one of Thompson’s strongest pieces of writing.  It is a ballad of a seducer and her line of soldier lovers, each of whom is enlisted to avenge her family’s history: “Guns are the tongues, Little Joe/The only words we know/The only sound that’ll reach their ears.”  For every agonizing ballad there is a pair of upbeat, ebullient bursts of rootsy pop, balancing the album between confounding matters of the heart and weary stories of battle.  If the album has a fault, it’s length—at 66 minutes, Sweet Warrior is a heavy listening commitment; yet, it is one with many rewards.  At age 57 and in his fourth decade of recording, Thompson made one of his best albums.

Highlights: Guns Are the Tongues, Take Care the Road You Choose, Johnny’s Far Away, Too Late to Come Fishing

Sublime bit: The end chorus of Guns Are the Tongues and his soaring vocal on the last plea of “Dry the old eyes of my mother, Little Joe” at 6:02.

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

61. Olé! Tarantula

61. Olé! Tarantula, Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 (Yep Roc, 2006)

London-born songwriter Robyn Hitchcock has maintained a prolific solo career since leaving new-wave psych-poppers the Soft Boys in 1980.  Issuing some three dozen albums, half of those being studio efforts and the rest comprising outtakes, radio sessions, live gigs, and revisitings of old work, Hitchcock has developed a devoted following while consistently delivering engaging new material.  A certified English eccentric, Hitchcock built a reputation for unorthodox lyrics about vegetables, insects, and other such matter, though it is unfair to categorize him as a strict humorist or capable only of idiosyncratic composition.  His quick-witted, picturesque writing makes him a natural descendant of influences Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and he has a knack for fragile beauty as much as for spirited, assertive pop music.  While he began the Aughts with a dismissal from Warner Bros., leaving him without a major-label deal for the first time since the late Eighties, it would be his most prolific decade, producing six studio albums, another six of live material and/or outtakes, two comprehensive box sets of his ’80s solo work, as well as a Soft Boys reunion album, accompanying EP, and an exhaustive reissue of their ’80 LP Underwater Moonlight.

Hitchcock’s ’06 studio album Olé! Tarantula, his sixteenth not counting Soft Boys material, finds him recording with a dedicated group for the first time since the ’93 disbanding of his backing group the Egyptians.*  The Venus 3 features several well-known Seattle-based musicians: longtime collaborator Peter Buck on guitar, R.E.M. touring drummer Bill Rieflin (also late of numerous industrial groups including Ministry, KMFDM, and Pigface), and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5 (the latter of which has also included Rieflin).  The album also features among its numerous guest spots contributions from former Soft Boys Kimberley Rew and Morris Windsor.  Most of Hitchcock’s previous Aughts work is reserved, acoustic music; stripped-down records like Luxor (’03) and Spooked (’04, his first on now-longtime label Yep Roc) are enjoyable, but are not among his most memorable efforts.  Olé! Tarantula is, conversely, his most electrified album since his work with the Egyptians.  It opens with two numbers that recall the finest of his ’80s pop heyday.  The hard-edged Adventure Rocket Ship juxtaposes a yearning lover with cosmic detritus like “skeletons of spacemen” and time-warp romance (“I kiss you in the past”); next is Underground Sun, a summery pop blast whose sound masks its lyric about a deceased friend (“You lie so lonely/Listening to the silence of the graves/You don’t belong there/You belong down south among the waves”).  A third pop blowout comes with ’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram), written with reclusive XTC frontman Andy Partridge yet unfortunately not boasting a guest appearance from its co-author.  Reprised from the Japan-only ’05 odds-and-ends LP Obliteration Pie is (A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs; despite a new arrangement with an incongruous synth line, the Tarantula version remains an album highlight.  The album’s closing song is its most haunting; N.Y. Doll is a moving account of the troubled last years of New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane.  Olé! Tarantula is a contender for Hitchcock’s best work of the decade; those craving more should seek out its companion EP Sex, Food, Death...and Tarantulas, which features live versions of Briggs and five other tunes from Hitchcock’s deep catalog.

* Or fifteenth, to those who insist on categorizing his 2000 LP A Star for Bram as a mere set of outtakes from the '99 Jewels for Sophia album.  I maintain otherwise.

NOTE: As a proponent of wax, it pains me when I cannot recommend a vinyl pressing of an album; however, the vinyl pressings produced by Yep Roc are routinely substandard.  Overzealous bass response, muddy mastering, and general poor fidelity render this label's releases best purchased on the compact disc format.  I've heard both versions of Olé! Tarantula, and the CD trounces the vinyl version.  If you do not care about fidelity, purchase a download of this album.  The vinyl receives a NOYOUCMON "do not buy" warning.

Highlights: Underground Sun, Adventure Rocket Ship, N.Y. Doll, (A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs

Sublime bit: Underground Sun’s pulsing bridge (“One for the girl who went away/Two for the girl that went astray/Three is in between you”).
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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

62. Year of Meteors

62. Year of Meteors, Laura Veirs (CD version) (Nonesuch, 2005)

Colorado-born Laura Veirs, a self-confessed latecomer even to listening to music, fooled around in a college punk band before turning to songwriting as a distraction during an unhappy geology expedition to China.  This composition foray resulted in a pair of self-released albums, beginning with a ’99 eponymous LP after a relocation to Seattle.  Veirs’s music is rooted in folk stylings, with the occasional western twang; her coarse first record features just vocals and acoustic guitar.  Her singing voice has an unvarnished quality much like the naïf sing-speak of Liz Phair’s early work yet with the timbre of Suzanne Vega.  Also like Vega, who grew from straight folk to the complex electronic tapestry of the ’92 LP 99.9F°, Veirs expanded her sonic palette over successive albums.  The instrumentation is augmented with each outing, first with double-tracked vocals, banjo, and mild effects; for ’03 third album Troubled by the Fire, a full band is added, with electric guitar, horns and woodwinds, keys, and strings; eventually, electronics would become a prominent part of her sound.  Veirs’s early work earned considerable attention, resulting in a guest spot on three Troubled tunes by veteran guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, who also grew up in Colorado.  By her fourth LP, Veirs would have a major contract, becoming label mates with Frisell on the Warner-distributed Nonesuch Records.  Carbon Glacier (’04), her first Nonesuch effort, is sparse and ghostly, its aura matching the dark, wintry landscape of the etchings on its jacket.  The folk tunes therein are accented with spectral, minimal electronics.  The backing band, dubbed the Tortured Souls and featuring drummer, accomplished producer, and future Veirs husband Tucker Martine, would serve on the remainder of Veirs’s Aughts catalog.

Fifth album Year of Meteors is populated by confident, hard-edged pop arrangements, a departure from Veirs’s previous folk-heavy releases.  Opening cut Fire Snakes begins with a gentle acoustic guitar pattern, Veirs eventually joined by simmering electro percussion, atmospheric guitar overdubs, and reverb-laden viola, creating an understated, glimmering vibe.  Galaxies features a downbeat rock arrangement with a playful, oscillating synth line running throughout.  Secret Someones is the most brisk number, its verses and choruses propelled by an insistent drumbeat and pulsing, double-tracked Veirs backing lines accompanying her main vocal.  Like the ’06 Sonic Youth song Or (see #74), it climaxes with an excitable music fan’s series of questions: “Tell me/Did you make it to the show?/Tell me/What did you make of the drummer’s hair?/Tell me/About the atmosphere/Tell me/About the faces that greeted you there.”  Parisian Dream is carried by a powerful drumbeat and vibrant viola figure; like the more delicate Spelunking, it uses a lighted lamp as a metaphor for a lover’s warmth.  Though Veirs’s arrangements have become more complex, the album has its share of acoustic ballads; the finest, and the album’s most entrancing song, is Where Gravity Is Dead.  To a stark accompaniment, Veirs sings of a willfully isolated figure who perplexes the narrator: “Don’t you wish for someone/To pull you on a string/Down from atmospheres/Down into a clearing/To kiss and box your ears?”  Saltbreakers (’07), her next and final Aughts album, lacks the allure of her other two Nonesuch releases; Year of Meteors, though, is an often enchanting career highlight and captivating expansion of Veirs’s sound.

NOTE: I prefer the CD version over the vinyl version issued by Kill Rock Stars, as the latter includes a different version of Galaxies that features a guest verse by Seattle rapper Specs One (the pseudonym-happy gent doing business here as "Kotos the Rock Thrower"), which Nonesuch declined to include on their version.  I hate to side with a major label when it comes to an artist's vision, but even the mellow groove laid down by Specs One—whose flow is, frankly, not the smoothest—is too much of an obtrusion for me when it comes to Laura Veirs music.  Take your pick of formats, but know what you're getting.

Highlights: Where Gravity Is Dead, Secret Someones, Parisian Dream, Rialto

Sublime bit: Those pulsating choruses of Secret Someones and Veirs’s murmured backing chant of “Hey/Hey/Hey/Hey” throughout the bridge.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

63. Bright Yellow Bright Orange

63. Bright Yellow Bright Orange, The Go-Betweens (Jetset, 2003)

Brisbane songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan produced six studio albums from 1978-88 with their co-ed group the Go-Betweens, earning wide critical acclaim and an adoring fan base in Australia and the UK.  The group possessed a sparkling, jangling pop sound; more notable, though, was the two leaders’ songwriting and its uncanny ability to depict the mundane and invigorating aspects of romance, friendship, and everyday life and retain a masculine perspective without avoiding sensitive or feminine qualities.  The continual lack of commercial success proving frustrating, the band parted ways in ’89 and its two leaders went on to separate careers while remaining close friends.  Both delivered a handful of strong solo records in the ’90s.  They occasionally performed their group’s songs together as a duo, until deciding to fully revive the brand with a new Go-Betweens album in 2000.  For that effort, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Forster and McLennan created a new roster including Sydney bassist Adele Pickvance (with whom they had both worked) and, on drums, Janet Weiss of US indie group Sleater-Kinney (the other members of Sleater-Kinney guested, as did Sam Coombes from Weiss’s side project Quasi).  The album was a striking return to form and on par with their best work, revealing the Aughts-model Go-Betweens to be a vibrant concern.

Bright Yellow Bright Orange is the second of three Aughts Go-Betweens LPs, and the eighth overall.  The Sleater-Kinney contingent no longer present, Forster and McLennan are accompanied here by Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson (who played on Forster’s ’93 solo LP Calling From a Country Phone).  The songs have a less explicitly acoustic feel than those of its predecessor, though the albums do feel of one piece.  Bright Yellow opens with a pair of crisp rockers; Forster’s Caroline and I imagines the parallels between two unrelated people with the same birth year, in this case himself and Princess Caroline of Monaco (“It gave me something small I could feel/That maybe as you grew you knew how I’d feel”).  McLennan’s Poison in the Walls follows, and could almost be interpreted as an oblique nod to the Go-Betweens’ prior run (“There’s nothing more that’s new/And where’s that brilliant juice/The flame that fired your heart/That made you want to start.”)  In Her Diary recalls Forster’s previous quotidian character examinations like The Clarke Sisters (’87); the subject’s diligent record-keeping leaves her disconnected from her own memories, with nothing other than “Some kind of thing/That reminds her of a photograph/Of some people she’s known.”  In Mrs. Morgan, McLennan reprises a character from the song Trapeze Boy on his ’91 Jack Frost LP (a collaboration with Steve Kilbey of the Church).  Bright Yellow closes with two sparse ballads, first Forster's Something for Myself; “Trapped within an image/Unable to move,” its protagonist vows to “get a new strength” and move beyond his own hangups.  McLennan’s Unfinished Business closes the album with a tender, quiet gesture to an exhausted friend: “Are you gonna make it?”  Like all Go-Betweens albums, Bright Yellow Bright Orange is just a simple collection of outstanding yet unassuming rock-influenced pop songwriting; Forster and McLennan’s ability to produce such winning material nearly thirty years after their first single—while sounding as fresh as their younger contemporaries—illustrates their standing as one of the great songwriting teams of the Aughts.

Highlights: Caroline and I, Poison in the Walls, Old Mexico, Something for Myself

Sublime bit: Old Mexico’s choruses: “You were so excited/But you weren’t invited,” with shimmering acoustic guitar and Pickvance harmonies.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

64. Two Against Nature

64. Two Against Nature, Steely Dan (Giant/Reprise, 2000)

It seemed nutty enough when, following some production collaborations, jazz-rock studio mavens Steely Dan regrouped for a ’93 concert tour to support frontman Donald Fagen’s then-current second solo LP Kamakiriad, playing their first shows since ’74 and making first use of the Dan name since their final (and weakest) album, the ’80 Gaucho.  The group, swollen with session players and dubbed “The Steely Dan Orchestra,” opened shows with a Muzak-style medley of Dan hits before easing into a set including tunes from Fagen’s and guitarist Walter Becker’s solo work.  This occasionally went beyond the sound of the group’s pristine, painstaking ’70s albums and into dullness, captured on the aseptic tour souvenir Alive in America (’95).*  Kamakiriad was a pale shadow of Fagen’s first solo effort, the excellent ’82 The Nightfly; and Becker’s debut solo turn, 11 Tracks of Whack (’94), is the abomination of the Dan cosmology.  Considering these inauspicious resurfacings, the notion of strong new Steely Dan product in the Aughts would have been a fool’s wager.  It would have been no stretch to imagine the routinely out-of-touch Grammys bestowing an award on the reunited pair, out of simple familiarity; it was one of the most shocking music-biz turns of the decade, then, when their 2000 reunion album Two Against Nature beat out hot items Eminem and Radiohead’s Kid A to win Album of the Year (and three other awards)—and actually deserve it.  For those who hadn’t heard the album, it was easy to presume this a Grammy blooper on the level of Jethro Tull’s notorious ’89 defeat of Metallica in the Hard Rock/Metal category; the reality, though, is that Two Against Nature is the best work from the Fagen/Becker camp since The Nightfly and the finest Steely Dan album since the 1977 classic Aja.

The reunion album’s main strength is its compositions.  Kamakiriad and Gaucho are both too heavy on forgettable numbers short on hooks, and their flawless studio craftsmanship and light-jazz habits push the lesser material into elevator-music territory.  Two Against Nature is impeccably played, courtesy of nearly thirty session musicians, yet its delivery is never dull.  The planning of a high-level prank in Gaslighting Abbie, the syncopated funk of the title track’s voodoo exorcism, and the exhilaration of an undoubtedly inappropriate romance in Almost Gothic provide compelling narratives.  Almost Gothic lends its enthralled narrator additional zing by giving each chorus a different lyric about the antagonist ingénue and an upward key change with each cycle.  The grind of everyday life punctuated by long-anticipated romantic moments dominates: What a Shame About Me finds an unfulfilled bookstore employee accidentally reconnecting with an old flame; in West of Hollywood the suburban narrator, whose regular life finds him “way deep into nothing special,” recalls “She reached out for my hand/While I watched myself lurch across the room.”  The naughty but good-natured romp Cousin Dupree scored its own Grammy songwriting award, though it does pale alongside its more nuanced companions here.  Steely Dan released only one more Aughts album, Everything Must Go (’03), yet toured for much of the decade focusing mainly on the classic ’70s material; two more solo LPs followed (Fagen’s ’06 Morph the Cat and Becker’s ’08 Circus Money, both improvements on their respective predecessors).  Each of these albums is adequate and will attract diehard fans; it is Two Against Nature, though, issued just two months into the decade, that holds up the best and delivers the finest material of the unexpected second incarnation of Steely Dan.

* I saw the group's Chicago-area gig in August 1993 and found it a largely soulless display of Dan-by-numbers.  Fagen explained in an interview at the time, when asked if playing his old songs stirred up any feelings, that he preferred to operate detachedly and with no emotional investment during the reunion gigs—if memory serves, he described his method as "laser thinking," though I can't track down the specific interview (which I recall as being in Musician magazine).  Steely Dan's press kits are awash with pranks and piss-takes, but even if this was another instance of intentional silliness it seemed to ring true during their initial comeback.

Highlights: Almost Gothic, Janie Runaway, Gaslighting Abbie, Two Against Nature

Sublime bit: Fagen’s delivery of Almost Gothic’s three different chorus lyrics, peaking at 3:15 with “First she’s all buzz/Then she’s noise-free.”
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Thursday, June 17, 2010

65. Hey Venus!

65. Hey Venus!, Super Furry Animals (Rough Trade, 2007)

Welsh psych-poppers Super Furry Animals began the Aughts in transition.  Their label, Creation, closed in ’99 shortly after declining to release their fourth LP Mwng.  The band had sung in English since their second release, the ’95 EP Moog Droog, in an effort to expand their audience; after three well-received albums that flirted with Britpop, allowing them a few chart successes, the Super Furries opted for a stripped-down, self-made LP in their native tongue.  Released in ’00 on their own Placid Casual imprint, Mwng achieved unexpected chart success and a Parliamentary recognition for perpetuating the Welsh language.  This linguistic tribute to the homeland would be short lived.  The group soon gained major distribution through Sony, and Mwng’s follow-up, Rings Around the World (’01), was back to English; it boasted an increased budget, a guest spot from Paul McCartney on nearly inaudible sound effects (the group had worked with him the year before on the experimental Liverpool Sound Collage album), and the flair of being the first album simultaneously released as a long-form video on DVD.  The band’s ’90s work is energetic and sprightly, inspired by ’60s psychedelic pop yet retaining a nervy edge, the affinity for impish wordplay and translingual puns intact since the days of the all-Welsh group Ffa Coffi Pawb from which Super Furry Animals emerged.  The slightly mellower pace that began with Mwng continued through most of the group’s Aughts work, often serenely soulful though still possessing electronic-filled, wall-of-sound production tricks and spirited, fluent genre-hopping that ensure each album has its share of inventive and exciting tunes.

Just as Creation’s dissolution sparked a shift in band dynamics, the conclusion of their Sony contract resulted in a new approach.  Signing to Rough Trade for their eighth LP, Hey Venus!, the band shifted strategy in several areas: production (replacing the previous two albums’ Mario Caldato, Jr., with David Newfeld); cover art (the first time since their ’96 debut LP that Pete Fowler didn’t handle the design); and, most importantly, a shift back to the high-spirited pop antics of their early days.  Hey Venus! opens with the 43-second The Gateway Song, a barreling little ditty announcing itself to be “a numero uno singalong” that “brings us up nicely to the harder stuff,” before crashing into the breakup song Run-Away, a sonic update of boom-sha-la ’60s girl-group sounds with frontman Gruff Rhys opening with the recitation “This song is based on a true story, which would be fine if it wasn’t autobiographical” before a grieving session including the crooned lament “I still recall your banking details.”  This frivolity continues on song like Neo Consumer, a wild glam stomper punctuated by a whooping refrain; it concludes, “I believe in death after life/Switch off the light/Bye! Bye!”  Baby Ate My Eightball employs an absurd lyric about an infant who swallows someone’s drug stash, and while the topic is grimly unsavory the funky, near-disco arrangement makes it the album’s resident dance blast.  The album offers more than just nutty romps; a handful of songs, most notably The Gift That Keeps Giving and the closing number Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon, are lovely down-tempo excursions. The band’s shortest LP by far at a breezy 36 minutes, Hey Venus! is also their most fun and a highlight of the Super Furry Animals’ Aughts catalog.

Highlights: Neo Consumer, Run-Away, Show Your Hand, Baby Ate My Eightball

Sublime bit: When Rhys shifts tempo ever so briefly during the closing chorus of bubbly pop-ballad showcase Show Your Hand, at 2:26.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

66. Streethawk: A Seduction

66. Streethawk: A Seduction, Destroyer (Misra, 2001)

Much transpired between Vancouver singer/songwriter Dan Bejar’s ’95 demo tape submission to the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s experimental Brave New Waves radio show under the nom de plume Destroyer and the 2001 release of his fifth full-length collection, Streethawk: A SeductionBejar began with his earliest work to formulate the literary approach that would make him one of the decade’s most celebrated indie songwriters, yet efforts like We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge (’96) and the cassette-only Ideas for Songs (’97) are middling juvenalia—fittingly issued on a vanity imprint dubbed Tinker—whose songs often sound less like compositions than the unplanned byproducts of learning how to use recording equipment.  After City of Daughters (’98), his first release to benefit from the help of other musicians, a professional studio, obviously deliberate craftsmanship throughout, and a modicum of distribution, Bejar branched out, collaborating with two other groups.  In 2000, he released albums with ex-Kreviss singer Sara Lapsley’s ebullient pop outfit Vancouver Nights (as guitarist) and ex-Zumpano frontman Carl Newman’s new group the New Pornographers (as songwriter and occasional lead vocalist).  These efforts redoubled the strength of Bejar’s primary project; while City of Daughters is a dramatic improvement over previous Destroyer works, it still contains a fair amount of tentative writing and has as many brief musical sketches as full-fledged songs.  Its follow-up, Thief, released the same autumn as the long-gestating New Pornographers’ debut, is a confident stride forward and the first exceptional Destroyer record.

As much of an improvement as Thief was, its ’01 follow-up Streethawk: A Seduction is an almost startling progression.  Recorded with the same five-man lineup as Thief and with bassist John Collins producing his third consecutive Destroyer album, Streethawk bests its predecessors in production, performance, and composition.  The labyrinthine, hyper-erudite lyrical style for which Bejar would become well known is in full flight here, each song a dense expository exercise.  Many of the arrangements are propelled by piano; along with Bejar’s emotive, high-pitched nasal croon, this lends the jauntier portions of the album a Tin Pan Alley feel.  Much of the album appears to address the music business.  “Express your bloated self/Willful and indignant/In the face of somebody’s lord,” he sings on the refrains of The Sublimation Hour, an abstruse depiction of relations with a label boss; English Music addresses the futility of a budding songwriter (“Write your English music/Though you know it will come to no good”).  A handful of the songs are primarily acoustic, especially on side two, but the album’s most sparkling moments come with the full band arrangements.  Bejar often peppers his lyrics with cultural references, frequently recontextualized so that they barely register as such; this is more prominent than ever on Streethawk.  A variety of bands, films, and other artists’ songs are addressed; the most dramatic instance comes in the extended coda of the seven-minute The Bad Arts with the repeated line “You got the spirit/Don’t lose the feeling,” paraphrasing the climax of Joy Division’s ’79 song Disorder.  A full analysis of the album’s allusions would require an essay of its own.  His final album before signing to Merge, the label that would remain his home into the Teens, Streethawk: A Seduction is an early Destroyer classic that established Bejar as a serious contender for indie rock’s songwriting crown.  Remastered and reissued by Merge in ’10 after a gap in availability, it is Bejar’s first essential work.

Highlights: The Sublimation Hour, Beggars Might Ride, The Crossover, Streethawk I

Sublime bit: When the guitar solo kicks in at 3:29 of The Bad Arts, presaging the vocal melody of the song’s Joy Division-quoting coda.

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