Friday, February 26, 2010

99. For Emma, Forever Ago

99. For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver (self-released, 2007; Jagjaguwar, 2008)

For Emma, Forever Ago is an album borne of circumstance rather than intention, a personal document whose primal expression and slow-burning catharsis allow it to resonate emotionally with listeners despite an impressionist approach that, like its cover image of an iced-over window masking the trees outside, offers beauty while rendering much of the content inscrutable.

In late ’06, following the breakup of his marginally successful group DeYarmond Edison, Justin Vernon decamped from the band’s adopted base of Raleigh, North Carolina, to his birthplace in Northwestern Wisconsin to spend the winter alone gathering his thoughts at his family’s cabin. He did not plan on a cohesive project; nonetheless, he fiddled about on instruments and recording equipment he’d brought along to pass the time between cutting firewood. Over the ’06-’07 holiday season, Vernon’s noodlings took shape and resulted in a new solo project he dubbed Bon Iver, a malapropism for a greeting meaning “good winter” that he picked up from watching Northern Exposure DVDs. Vernon issued the songs, originally intended as demos, in a small ’07 vanity pressing that caught the ear of Bloomington, Indiana, label Jagjaguwar, who issued the work nationally the following year. Vernon had recorded three previous solo albums and five more with groups, yet it was the unintentional cabin demos that brought him acknowledgment.

At its core a folk record, For Emma, Forever Ago features Vernon on acoustic guitar, makeshift uses of a drum set’s components, and a soulful falsetto recalling Lindsey Buckingham. Vernon’s adept engineering, use of effects, and layering of overdubs gives the album a dense, warm atmosphere belying its solitary origins. It is an album heavy on feelings--while the songs generally seem to deal with alienation from and within relationships, Vernon’s vocals are opaque and more is communicated through inflection, tone, and dynamics than by language. Frankly, Vernon is not a dazzling lyricist, and more enjoyment may be had if one avoids the provided lyric sheet that reveals the songs to be packed with free-association tangents. What is most striking about the record, then, are its moods and the strength with which his abstruse inner journeys can speak to the listener regardless of clarity. Snatches of language, allegories for Vernon’s personal explorations, slip through. Repeated like mantras, phrases such as “So ready for us/so ready for us” (Creature Fear), “What might have been lost” (The Wolves) or “Would you really rush out/for me now?” (Blindsided) produce an aura of ennui, reflection, and the confusion that follows a relationship’s end. The album’s most lucid piece, Skinny Love, finds Vernon abandoning his falsetto to sing, full-throated, a list of reminders to a flame who claims her “love was wasted”: “I told you to be patient/I told you to be fine/I told you to be balanced/I told you to be kind”; not so much angry as lamenting, it is the LP’s most gripping song. As he does with romance, he seeks equilibrium within himself; Lump Sum concludes, “Balance we won’t know/We will see when it gets warm.” Vernon followed For Emma with an EP of new songs, Blood Bank, its title track a straightforward composition; its remainder, though, consists with varying success of mood pieces like those of the album, an approach he continued on an ’09 collaborative LP with the band Collections of Colonies of Bees. Those efforts feel more contrived than the raw emotion of For Emma, though, and its cabin demos are his first timeless work.

Highlights: Skinny Love, Creature Fear, Lump Sum, Blindsided

Sublime bit: Vernon’s between-verse wails of “My my my/My my my/My my” in Skinny Love.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

100. Nocturama

100. Nocturama, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Anti-/Mute, 2003)

After the ’96 throat-clearing of the grimly themed Murder Ballads, Nick Cave produced two successive albums of somber, mournful songs departing steeply from the frenetic rock arrangements enlivening his earlier work with the Bad Seeds and the sonic terrorism of his previous group the Birthday Party. Cave famously opens ’97’s The Boatman’s Call by intoning “I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” and its ’01 follow-up No More Shall We Part is only marginally more dynamic than Boatman’s melancholy explorations. The albums provide some of the most beautiful songs in Cave’s catalog; but, they are lengthy and proceed at a funereal pace and make for draining listening experiences.

On his twelfth studio LP with the Bad Seeds, Cave adjusted the formula. Nocturama retains the slow, earnest piano ballads but juxtaposes them with raucous, full-tilt rock numbers. This can be jarring, especially if not listening on vinyl; it is an unusual Aughts album in that its sequencing seems to have considered the side breaks of a phonograph record. Side one begins with three pieces reminiscent of No More Shall We Part. He Wants You is an aching account of a man who “is straight and he is true”; making it more aching is the benighted male certainty that his love alone is enough to sustain it for two. Right Out of Your Hand contains some of the album’s most vivid imagery (“airborne starlings circle/over the frozen fields”) and a protagonist as misguided as his predecessor; “Give a sucker an even break/he’ll lose it all every time,” Cave sings, before admitting that “you’ve got me eating/right out of your hand.” Bring It On follows, a duet with Chris Bailey of fellow Australian punk veterans the Saints that blossoms slowly into an impassioned arrangement unlike any that Cave attempted since the mid-’90s. Like much of Nocturama, it is emboldened by the fiery violin work of Warren Ellis. Even after flipping the record, side two’s opening cut Dead Man in My Bed is like a finger in a socket after the gentle evolution of side one. Its frantic, clattering sound sits awkwardly before the rest of side two, which is a mirror image of side one and whose highlight is another ballad of romantic loyalty, Rock of Gibraltar. The original double vinyl had a blank fourth side; side three is consumed by the 15-minute Babe, I’m on Fire, a breathless, demented rant echoing the fever pitch of Dead Man in My Bed yet three times as long. Boasting an outrageous 38 verses, it is a litany of bizarre characters from “the backyard abortionist” to “my mate Bill Gates,” all of whom exist only to concur with Cave’s crazed testimony of “babe, I’m on fire.” It is a novelty whose relegation to the vinyl’s side three makes it a de facto bonus track, but it is an exhilarating novelty that foreshadows the frenzied tone of Cave’s later Aughts work with the Bad Seeds and his side project Grinderman. Nocturama’s schizophrenic nature raised some hackles among Cave fans (perhaps including longtime Bad Seed guitarist Blixa Bargeld, who resigned after recording) and while it does scan less evenly than its two predecessors it is a more enjoyable listen.
Highlights: Right Out of Your Hand, He Wants You, Rock of Gibraltar, Bring It On
Sublime bit: 3:30-4:15 of Right Out of Your Hand, as Cave’s voice entwines with the Bad Seeds’ backing harmonies, his voice pitching up at 4:09.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bubbling Under Wrap-Up

With the revelation of album number 101 the "Bubbling Under," or honorable mention, section comes to a close and we prepare ourselves for the proper Top 100 Albums of the Aughts.  It should be noted here, once again, that the list is one of favorites and not of critical analysis; and, as with any list of this type, the "final" rankings really capture a moment in time--in this case, the literal end of the decade that the list represents--and not a definitive statement.  Some of these albums will fall out of favor with me.  Others will grow in stature so that they would rank higher if I rewrote the list in a few years. 

I've spent the past seven weeks listening again to the 25 albums that compose Bubbling Under.  So far, the list contains no embarrassments or albums I wish I hadn't included.  As I know from my 1999-2000 examination of the Nineties, which I've revisited multiple times since then, opinions can change radically over time.  I will continue to buy Aughts releases that I had no chance to evaluate during the decade of their original issue, and may like them more than Aughts albums I bought upon initial release.  Also, placements on a list of this nature can represent ephemeral, whimsical feelings; undoubtedly, I could shuffle the 25 albums of Bubbling Under around in dozens of permutations.


Today, a wealth of possibilities exists for a music fan to track his or her listening habits.  iTunes, playlists, and online services can maintain a count of the songs a person plays, and these kinds of statistics capture trends and cycles in a way that memory cannot.  If a person keeps no track of what is listened to over the course of a year, much of which was heard will be forgotten. 

About twenty years ago someone asked me if I tended to listen to certain records at certain times of the year: were my habits seasonal, nostalgic, or cyclical?  I didn't know.  I decided in 1992 to keep track of everything I listened to.  This would include only music that I played intentionally--no radio play, chance listening in public spaces, or concert attendance would count toward what I came to call "the Log."  In 1992, there was no iTunes program to do it for me; so, I did it all by hand.  I abandoned my efforts after a couple of months, but the thought remained compelling and in 1993 I relaunched the Log and have kept it ever since.  A stack of notebooks became computer files somewhere in the Aughts and now I do it on a spreadsheet that allows me to shuffle the data at will and get a snapshot of the year--or, if desired, of years at a time.  It took me a while to develop a reliable methodology, so the figures for 1993 followed a weak measurement protocol and can't be compared to those of 1994 to the present.  In 1994, my brother joined me in keeping the Log, giving me someone with whom to compare my endless listening statistics.  At the beginning of that year, we introduced a point system in which one play of an album is worth 10 points and one play of an E.P. is worth 4 points.  So, if an album has 129 points it's been played approximately 12.9 times.  This requires me to keep diligent track of what I listen to, and it's gotten increasingly difficult to perform accurate measurements as reissues with bonus tracks and discs have proliferated.  At any rate, what is supposed to be fun sounds merely clinical in these terms, so let's just move on...

Does a person listen the most to his or her favorite music?  For casual listeners, perhaps.  For record collectors, I argue that it is far from true.  I don't buy as much music as some, it is true, but I buy music at an alarming rate compared to most people.  My collection includes plenty of comfort listening; but, I also tend to buy in a wide variety of genres and movements with which I do not have a familiarity or comfort.  I prefer my listening to be challenging and, at times, scholarly.  To illustrate how I don't listen to my favorite music most often, let's take a look at what the Bubbling Under list would look like if arranged by frequency of play.

The first number in parentheses is the album's placement on the Aughts Bubbling Under list; the second number in parentheses is the number of points the album received in the Aughts; the next figure represents the album's ranking in my overall list of albums played in the Aughts/Since 1994. 

So, the first album here was the most-played Bubbling Under album of the Aughts; on my list of Aughts favorites, in came in at 108; it got 196 points in the Aughts; it was the 13th most-played album of the decade; and, finally, is the 48th most-played album since I started keeping track in 1994.  And so on.  Tiebreakers are determined by what album was played most recently.

1. (108) Gimme Fiction, Spoon (196) 13/48
2. (125) Behind the Music, The Soundtrack of Our Lives (157) 46/113
3. (115) Before the Poison, Marianne Faithfull (140) 65/159
4. (104) Journey to the End of the Night, Mekons (137) 74/175
5. (120) Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp (125) 99/222
6. (105) Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey (124) 102/225
7. (124) Deep Cuts, The Knife (122) 106/233
8. (122) Pocket Symphony, Air (115) 125/273
9. (118) Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, Luke Haines (104) 160/343
10. (121) Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn (103) 165/352
11. (111) Before the Dawn Heals Us, M83 (103) 167/354
12. (106) Velocifero, Ladytron (101) 176/372
13. (109) Cripple Crow, Devendra Banhart (93) 202/426
14. (107) The Silence of Love, Headless Heroes (92) 208/436
15. (117) At My Age, Nick Lowe (90) 217/453
16. (123) That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson (88) 228/473
17. (101) Christie Malry's Own Double Entry OST, Luke Haines (83) 256/527
18. (110) Lullaby for Liquid Pig, Lisa Germano (83) 257/528
19. (103) The Convincer, Nick Lowe (78) 288/591
20. (113) Black Sheep, Julian Cope (78) 290/593
21. (114) Imperial Wax Solvent, The Fall (78) 291/594
22. (116) Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case (77) 296/600
23. (119) Charlie Louvin (77) 297/601
24. (102) Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Bill Callahan (71) 344/682
25. (112) Oh, My Girl, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter (64) 427/790

Based on these figures, the only Bubbling Under albums whose favoritism literally equal their exposure are Mekons' Journey to the End of the Night and M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us; statistically, this is a fluke. 

You may wonder, for example, how one could possibly be familiar with an album he's played fewer than seven times (Jesse Sykes's Oh, My Girl), let alone qualify it as a favorite.  This may be an artifact of the massive volume of listening that I do; in the Aughts, I listened to over 3,600 different albums and EPs.  Adding up the points for all that listening comes to 115,642 points--the equivalent of eleven thousand albums.  When a person has eleven thousand albums to listen to, he or she may be lucky to hear something twice, let alone seven times.  Taking a look at the figures above, I was surprised by the top result.  While it is one of my favorites from the decade, I would've said you were nuts if you'd told me that Gimme Fiction was my 13th most-played album of the decade and 48th most-played album in the first seventeen years of the Log era.  This is how the Log can reveal truths that memory never could.  The truth about favoritism and exposure emerges most bluntly when I look at Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, which was played a little more than seven times in the Aughts and at the close of that decade ranked 682nd overall: I am far more intimately familiar with Callahan's album than I am with the Spoon LP.  I could hum most of the Callahan album from memory, can anticipate every nuance when I listen to it, and simply like it more.  Spoon's nineteen plays, then, in some ways mean far less than Callahan's seven plays.

While it may not be interesting to float around in one man's listening arcana, you may extrapolate from these figures things about your own habits.  If you really want to find out what your own habits are, though, I urge you to develop a point system and keep track yourself rather than relying on computer programs.  iTunes play counts and the like are far less accurate and leave less room for the inevitable grey areas that surround any auditory experience.  Keeping a Log can enable you instant access to all kinds of wild info--the fifty most-played albums of your twenties, the fifty most-played records of the Clinton administration, and so on.  Like hardcore record collecting, keeping track of your listening is a trainspotter's pursuit.  The real trends don't reveal themselves until you've done it for a while.  2010 marks the eighteenth year of the Log, and I plan to keep doing it as long as I am able. 


My list will appear pedestrian to some folks; partly unfamiliar to others; and, to the most sheltered listeners, willfully obfuscatory.  Out of curiosity, I've compared my Bubbling Under list to the scores received by the same albums on the critical analysis Web site Metacritic.  Metacritic collects reviews from a variety of sources--Web sites, newspapers, blogs, and so forth--and analyzes them to produce an aggregate score that represents the critical consensus on a particular album.  The categories below are those used by Metacritic; the number in parentheses is the album's "Metascore."  All information is current as of this writing, February 21, 2010.

Metacritic: Universal Acclaim
Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn (97)
The Convincer, Nick Lowe (86)
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case (84)
Gimme Fiction, Spoon (84)
At My Age, Nick Lowe (82)
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Bill Callahan (82)
Imperial Wax Solvent, The Fall (81)

Metacritic: Generally Favorable Reviews
Cripple Crow, Devendra Banhart (79)
Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey (79)
Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp (78)
Before the Dawn Heals Us, M83 (76)
Before the Poison, Marianne Faithfull (76)
Lullaby for Liquid Pig, Lisa Germano (76)
Velocifero, Ladytron (73)
That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson (70)
Pocket Symphony, Air (63)

Not Covered By Metacritic
Behind the Music, The Soundtrack of Our Lives
Black Sheep, Julian Cope
Charlie Louvin
Christie Malry's Own Double Entry, Luke Haines
Deep Cuts, The Knife
Journey to the End of the Night, Mekons
Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, Luke Haines
Oh, My Girl, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter
The Silence of Love, Headless Heroes

The critical rankings of any writer will be open to argument and dissatisfaction; Metacritic is a little less culpable because it represents the positions of many critics.  Still, I personally find Van Lear Rose to be wildly overrated despite it ranking as one of my Aughts favorites--as of this writing, it is Metacritic's second-highest rated studio album "of all time" (i.e. since the site's inception in 2000).  I would've lost any bet that told me Imperial Wax Solvent would earn "universal acclaim" from anyone; it also surprises me a fair amount that both Nick Lowe albums from my Bubbling Under list earned that same accolade.


Next on NOYOUCMON is the proper Top 100 of the Aughts.  We'll forget the statistical analysis for now, and focus on what's really important--the music.  The essays will be longer, the selection of tracks I identify as album highlights will increase from three to four, and I'll even treat you to the impossibly subjective and ephemeral delight of each album's "most sublime moment."  As with Bubbling Under, new essays will be unveiled every few days and counting down to #1 before New Year's Day, 2011.  [UPDATE: As with any passion-run blog, life sometimes gets in the way of publication plans; as of New Year's Day, 2011, I was only up to #45.  The list carries on, to be finished when the time is right.]  And on to #100...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bubbling Under #101. Christie Malry's Own Double Entry OST

101. Christie Malry's Own Double Entry OST, Luke Haines (Hut/Virgin UK, 2001)

By 2000, Luke Haines’s cantankerous Britpop counteragents the Auteurs appeared all but defunct. Their ’99 LP How I Learned to Love the Bootboys and its self-referential, career-assessing lyrics was preceded by the ’98 debut of Black Box Recorder, a group fronted by Sarah Nixey but featuring Haines as musical director. It was confirmed with his first two solo works in the summer of ’01--the Christie Malry soundtrack and, one month later, the regular studio outing The Oliver Twist Manifesto--and the Auteurs name would surface again only on compilations. Working on someone else’s vision would seem anathema to Haines, but the plot of Christie Malry--based on a ’73 B. S. Johnson novel about a man who vengefully applies bookkeeping protocols of credit and debit to his life, resulting in anarchy and terrorism--is ripe material for the spleenful Haines. Like many soundtracks, Malry contains numerous instrumental passages; a sultry, pulsing, seven-minute version of Nick Lowe’s I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass is Haines’s first cover*; closing track Essexmania is, even if only out of sarcasm, a thumping club raver. Discomania, a slashing, oblique overview of Malry (“I’m anti-everything,” “I like people when they keep their mouths shut”) trounces the version that appears on Oliver Twist; in fact, Malry bests its follow-up altogether and, despite its incidental filler and appeal likely restricted to Haines followers, is a rare soundtrack that bears repeated listening. It is easy even for fans to dismiss an artist’s soundtrack work, but Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry includes material essential to the Haines/Auteurs cosmology.

*Prior to the recording of I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, on the '98 album England Made Me, Haines's group Black Box Recorder did record a cover of Althea & Donna's 1977 song and 1978 UK hit Uptown Top Ranking.  Haines plays on the recording; however, as it is sung by Sarah Nixey and not Haines I do not consider it to predate I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass as his first cover version.

Highlights: Discomaniax, Discomania, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Bubbling Under #102. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

102. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Bill Callahan (Drag City, 2009)

Bill Callahan spent fifteen years making esoteric, folk-derived music under the name Smog, issuing eleven LPs and seven EPs. The early works are nearly outsider music--willfully lo-fi, avoiding typical song structure, recorded alone under wildly deficient conditions. Smog grew to be more professional, collaborative, and dynamic; a scan of the catalog, though, finds many deadpan, dirge-like meditations sung in a jarring baritone and not lacking in humor but emphasizing the desolate. With Woke on a Whaleheart, (’07), Callahan began using his own name. The LP continues with the fuller instrumentation, but also the occasional tunelessness and meandering. With the follow-up, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Callahan evinced a remarkable leap forward, creating an engaging, warm set of songs surely among his best works. Recorded with a full band and adorned with subtle strings, French horn, and drums where Smog may have ambled percussionless, it is earthy yet elegant, recalling the soulful country of Nashville group Lambchop. The sonic warmth betrays the lyrical ruminations: “I am a child of linger on,” he sings in The Wind and the Dove; “Show me the way/To shake a memory,” begs the narrator of the comical Eid Ma Clack Shaw. Nature is prominent; birds, wind, and trees populate the songs. The album’s closing track is the ten-minute Faith/Void, a contemplation of gnosticism in which Callahan presents his proposal and conclusion at once: “It’s time to put God away/I put God away,” repeats the verses. It is a striking way to end an album filled with temporal concerns. Smog is dead; long live Callahan.

Highlights: Too Many Birds, Jim Cain, Faith/Void

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bubbling Under #103. The Convincer

103. The Convincer, Nick Lowe (Yep Roc, 2001)

The birth of Nick Lowe’s third career phase is well documented. Lowe’s first Aughts release, The Convincer, was his first for indie home for the aged Yep Roc and the third in what he would later dub the Brentford Trilogy, along with The Impossible Bird (’94) and Dig My Mood (’98). With these albums, he abandoned frantic rock and roll and repositioned himself as a gentlemanly balladeer. On Mood, he began shifting his focus from roots music to genteel crooning reminiscent of Sam Cooke; this new style dominates The Convincer. Slinking opening cut Homewrecker sets a misty, rhythm-and-blues tone; its sparse arrangement emphasizes Lowe’s voice, placed high in the mix. The subject matter familiarly relies on gently self-deprecating and optimistic stories of moral failures and deficiencies in love. The man in I’m a Mess believes he will one day “quit this blue address,” but abandoned by friends and lovers he’s not sure when. Between Dark and Dawn advises another jilted soul to “Wait ’til the sun comes out/You’re gonna wonder what the fuss was about.” The bachelor of Lately I’ve Let Things Slide admits, “Smoking I once quit/Now I’ve got one lit/I just fell back into it.” The finest song, Cupid Must Be Angry, has a lush arrangement with a double-tracked Lowe vocal and dazzling treated trumpet solo by Wayne Jackson.  Casual listeners will likely find Lowe’s post-’94 work a blur of the same stylistic ground. Each album is worth closer examination, but The Convincer is the finest; and, as fun as his ’80s work may have been, Lowe’s modern style will undoubtedly have a longer shelf life.

Highlights: Cupid Must Be Angry, Lately I’ve Let Things Slide, Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Bubbling Under #104. Journey to the End of the Night

104. Journey to the End of the Night, Mekons (Quarterstick, 2000)

It is pushing it to call Mekons a punk band thirty years after their birth at a Leeds art school. Their ’04 album Punk Rock featured reworkings of their ’70s material, a nostalgic lark alongside their later work that has long taken influence from American country music, English folk, and Jamaican rhythms. Mekons began the Aughts with 14th LP Journey to the End of the Night, its nocturnal themes of paranoia, dread, and lucklessness miles away from the ribald studies of sexuality on their prior record, Me (’98). Journey brims with anxiety: in Neglect, the narrator stands before a mirror, nauseated, practicing asking for £10,000.  In Last Weeks of the War, Jon Langford sings “I wipe the tapes but they keep playing/They haunt me another day.” The song title Tina refers to no woman but to an acronym for “there is no alternative.” Phone numbers are lost during fights, people appall themselves with impulsive confessions, and life flashes before the eyes “in the most unsatisfactory way.” Love is mentioned only as furtive or a source of agony. The band plays in hushed tones, not entirely acoustic but capturing the wee-hour loneliness of the cover image. Sally Timms practically whispers her lead vocals. For all the gloom, the music is not without joy; the closing tune, Last Night on Earth, boasts the album’s most jubilant arrangement while lyrically alluding to suicide. No mere retort to their live reputation as a reckless troop of jesters, the melancholy world of Journey gives voice to Mekons’ inward travels and sleepless dawns.

Highlights: Tina, Neglect, Powers & Horror

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bubbling Under #105. Uh Huh Her

105. Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey (Island, 2004)

The dissonant, tarpit-slow riff that opens PJ Harvey’s sixth* studio album Uh Huh Her sounds like the dragging knuckles of a dimwitted proto-man; the LP’s title, like something he might mutter. The cover picture is an intentionally unflattering snapshot of Harvey sitting in someone’s car, as if about to drive off somewhere unsavory. The twilit beauty of her previous album, ’00’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, departed strikingly from her typically raw approach; in return, Uh Huh Her is her most fractious, confrontational album of new work since ’93’s Rid of Me. The gentler moments’ explorations of insular, uncomfortable emotions are as unnerving as its bellicose, hard-featured aspects. Produced and performed by Harvey alone (less the drums and some backing vox), the album is less a confessional than a glimpse of secret thoughts. The lyrics deal more frequently than usual with the specter of lovers, summarized well by the title of The Desperate Kingdom of Love. In The Letter she pictures a lover closely examining a handwritten note, admiring “In my handwriting/the curve of my ‘g’,” and imagining, erotically, him licking the envelope when sending his reply. Conversely, Cat on the Wall finds its narrator compulsively and anxiously replaying a saved voicemail when she hears “our song on the radio”; the angst peaks with the angry threats of Who the Fuck? The closing number The Darker Days of Me & Him summarizes manhood with a shortlist of neurosis, psychosis, psychoanalysis, and sadness. Uh Huh Her is Stories From the City off its meds, contemplative, and ashamed yet determined. The two disparate albums constitute her finest work of the decade.

*If you don't count '93's 4-Track Demos, which I don't because 60% of it is songs from Rid of Me; seventh, if you count her first album-length collaboration with John Parish, '96's Dance Hall at Louse Point.

Highlights: The Letter, The Life & Death of Mr. Badmouth, Shame
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bubbling Under #106. Velocifero

106. Velocifero, Ladytron (Nettwerk, 2008)

UK electropop quartet Ladytron recorded their first four LPs in the Aughts, ’08’s Velocifero the last and best. Fronted in tandem by Helen Marnie and Bulgarian-Israeli Mira Aroyo, Ladytron possesses a cold, shimmering exterior indebted to ’80s new wave dance music, krautrock, and Kraftwerk. The two singers rarely stray from a threadlike range, their voices entwining in detached, near-monotone harmonies that create an icy tautness. After the anemic ’01 debut LP 604 and ’02’s improved yet meandering Light & Magic, Ladytron refocused. They leapt forward in ’05 with the stunning Witching Hour, whose more sophisticated lyrics and arrangements (including, for the first time, prominent guitar) made it the band’s first essential work. With the streamlined Velocifero (pidgin Italian for “bringer of speed”; also, a brand of motorized scooter), the evolution is even more dramatic. Gone are the short, ponderous instrumentals, and every song feels essential to the album’s narrative arc; the arrangements more often escape their sonic comfort zone (especially on the closing cut Versus, a duet between Marnie and guitarist/programmer Daniel Hunt). Aroyo sings two tracks in Bulgarian, including the ominous opener Black Cat and a cover of the ’96 tune Kletva by the country’s top rock band, Shturtzite ("Crickets"). Ladytron remains most effective on the dancefloor, but Velocifero’s excursions elsewhere show the tremendous growth since the fledgling attempts of their earliest work.

Highlights: Ghosts, I’m Not Scared, Tomorrow

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bubbling Under #107. The Silence of Love

107. The Silence of Love, Headless Heroes (Names UK 2008; Headless Heroes/World's Fair US 2009)

The 1983-91 work of 4AD Records’ studio project This Mortal Coil presented haunting, gothic vistas filled with arcane covers performed by a revolving cast from the label roster. Its coda was a ’98 LP credited to the Hope Blister, using the original pattern but with a static lineup. Those wanting more of this can take solace in their spiritual descendants, Headless Heroes. Organized by NYC A&R man Eddie Bezalel, the project finds a group of session pros (including guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and drummer Joey Waronker) tackling obscure folk nuggets by artists like Jackson C. Frank, Vashti Bunyan, and Linda Perhacs, and a few better-known tunes such as the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey and Nick Cave’s Nobody’s Baby Now. The A&R origins and players’ slick pedigrees betray the warm beauty brought to the project by its lead vocalist, Alela Diane. Chosen by Bezalel and producer Hugo Nicolson after lining up the material and musicians, she had made only one LP of her own, the ’06 The Pirate’s Gospel, a collection of lush yet tentative country-tinged folk. As with the Hope Blister and Louise Rutkowski, The Silence of Love is Alela Diane’s hour. While it deviates stylistically from her solo work, she handles the songs as if they were written for her. The sumptuous arrangements are seasoned with strings, trumpet, lap steel, and organ, rendered to most spectacular effect on the Philamore Lincoln song The North Wind Blew South. Alela Diane would go on to higher glories with her next solo album; one hopes, though, that on occasion she returns to Headless Heroes for rest and relaxation from the rigors of composition.

Highlights: The North Wind Blew South, Blues Run the Game, To You

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bubbling Under #108. Gimme Fiction

108. Gimme Fiction, Spoon (Merge, 2005)

Austin, Texas, songwriter Britt Daniel and his band Spoon are the sophisticated workmen of indie rock. They create a sound that manages to be simultaneously luxe and taut, avoiding gimmickry and adding only the occasional tasteful ornamentation such as piano or effects. On Gimme Fiction, Spoon’s fifth album and third of the Aughts, five songs were recorded solely by Daniel and longtime drummer Jim Eno; former bassist Josh Zarbo returns for one song and the rest is handled by session players. Spoon, regardless of roster, evokes classical influences like late-'70s Elvis Costello, solo-era John Lennon (see the piano-led opening cut The Beast and Dragon, Adored) and the Rolling Stones without betraying their own modernism or devolving into pastiche. Daniel’s voice has a narrow range that he escapes only with the odd falsetto, and while each Spoon album has its general stylistic differences they are, arguably, largely interchangeable exercises in cleverly written, sharply arranged millenial-era rock for post-graduates. So why Gimme Fiction? For one, its arrangements are more interesting and diverse than its predecessors, with plenty of piano, resulting in the band’s least monochromatic album to date; for every archetypical Spoon pattern, there is a departure like the prickly disco minimalism of I Turn My Camera On, the nearly sunny pop of Sister Jack, or the opaque almost-dub of Was It You?  Picking a favorite Spoon LP may come down to personal whim, but one could do worse than Gimme Fiction.

Highlights: Sister Jack; The Beast and Dragon, Adored; My Mathematical Mind

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bubbling Under #109. Cripple Crow

109. Cripple Crow, Devendra Banhart (XL, 2005)

Influential ’04 compilation LP The Golden Apples of the Sun chronicled the decade’s psychedelic-informed acoustic, or “freak folk,” scene, its half-Texan, half-Venezuelan compiler Devendra Banhart serving as the subgenre’s unofficial leader. Banhart’s ’02 debut* Oh Me Oh My is certainly freaky--its brief voice-and-guitar numbers are bizarre and spooky; on songs like Nice People, the 21-year-old Banhart sounds downright unhinged. Alongside Apples, he released two solo albums in ’04; glossier than his debut yet still simple guitar-and-voice affairs, they remain relatively eccentric yet show him to be more than a willfully bizarre outsider. His fourth LP, Cripple Crow, includes his first full-band recordings. Nearly two dozen musicians contribute, and the result is the most welcoming and enjoyable of Banhart’s six Aughts LPs. At 74 minutes and 22 songs (and another eight on its vinyl version), Crow can be a trying exercise. The sprawling work comprises Spanish-sung folk (Santa Maria da Feira, Quedateluna), ’50s doo-wop (Little Boys), fuzzed-out psych funk (Long Haired Child), groovy singalongs (Chinese Children, I Feel Just Like a Child) and plenty of oddball sketches (The Beatles, Dragonflys); less novel yet perhaps more gripping, though, are the aching ballads (Korean Dogwood; the title cut) that provide breathing room from the album's nuttier moments. A glance at the song titles show a preoccupation with childhood, and Banhart’s lyrics make frequent literal reference to the womb. Detractors complain understandably that Banhart needs an editor; but, on Cripple Crow he is at his most playful, sincere, and free, creating the perfect distillation of his personal aesthetic and his musical community.

* Banhart did record an album prior to Oh Me Oh My; 2002's The Charles C. Leary, on the Hinah label, had extremely limited availability and is long out of print.  As such, the Young God-released Oh Me Oh My, which benefited from national distribution, is generally regarded as his debut.

Highlights: Korean Dogwood, Long Haired Child, Cripple Crow

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bubbling Under #110. Lullaby for Liquid Pig

110. Lullaby for Liquid Pig, Lisa Germano (Ineffable/iMusic, 2003; Young God, 2007)

The five ’90s solo LPs by former John Mellencamp violinist Lisa Germano include some of that decade’s most startling music. Her elegant, atmospheric sound masks her confessional, self-deprecating lyrical explorations of grim human conditions, frequently addressed nakedly and devoid of metaphor. Germano continued to write after retiring from the business in ’98; five years later she released Lullaby for Liquid Pig, the first and finest of the three albums she’d record in the Aughts. All of them are hauntingly sparse, her breathy vocals wending through the gauzy, electronics-laden and often percussionless arrangements almost with the feel of tone poems. Pig explores a handful of topics: shame; loneliness; submission; and, most notably, alcoholism. Four songs explicitly discuss alcohol dependency. When she sings “Hate will grow with your alcohol glow/You get used to the show” on Pearls, it is as if from experience. Guest appearances by Johnny Marr, Wendy Melvoin, and Neil Finn slip by unnoticed, blending seamlessly into Germano’s dreamlike soundscape. The album, reissued by Michael Gira on his private label after the original issue quickly fell out of print, is a difficult listen; still, the unshakable melodies that drift through the album’s glaze of beautiful regret rival anything Germano has done.

Highlights: Paper Doll, Candy, It’s Party Time

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