I dig 2 for the same reason Smoke Ring for My Halo sat atop my favorite albums list last year. Besides Mac DeMarco's sharing in Kurt Vile's apparent love for smoking (see "Ode to Viceroy"), he also writes these yeah-whatever shuffles with just a touch more verve than Vile and a slight tinge of Ariel Pink's weirdness. I don't know how much longer these blase twenty-something songs can feel like anthems for me, or even if I really want them to, but they sure sound good. I've spent the last decade or so pretty much living out the Sonic Youth line, "It takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now." It's nice not having to do things like face the possibility of failure. DeMarco would probably agree. It's attractive, but not ideal. In a couple decades, he'll probably write an album of Stephen Malkmus-like songs about being all growed-up and wondering how exactly that came to pass. I'll listen then, too. But I kind of hope I stay awake for my ride.
Sunny psychedelia with an underlying sense of uneasiness is apparently not an art monopolized by Animal Collective. The quartet from Brooklyn (where else?) known as Conveyor capture the quirky freak-folk sound of their obvious influence's earlier work, as well as shades of Ra Ra Riot and recent Maps and Atlases. There's a lot of pep in their step, but also a subtle but unshakable bad-trip paranoia. There's a lot happening on Conveyor, and like its cover, it sometimes feels like a mishmash of half-realized ideas cobbled together. But it's more than worthwhile as a first look at a very promising, if a little too splifficated, band whose frequent flashes of brilliance outweigh their occasional lack of focus.
Our Nature finds Brooklyn's Savoir Adore seeking to claim the effervescent synth-pop duo of the hour throne left vacant by MGMT. Dierdre Muro and Paul Hammer invade your consciousness with the insanely catchy opener "Dreamers", which blends '80s pop and chill modern vibes in a Friendly Fires sort of way, and pretty much never let up for the ensuing fifty minutes. The female-led songs remind me a little of Metric, and melodically, they are reminiscent of an electronic-infused Gold Motel (see especially "Sparrow"). With its propulsive rhythms, bright keys, swaths of reverb and easy hooks, it's the kind of record that can shift to fit your mood, inducing toe-tapping, sing-alongs or just daydreaming depending on what the moment calls for.
Letting Up Despite Great Faults Untogether
New Words, 2012
Chilled-out synth-pop records come a dime a dozen these days, but I've never been one to let details like that stop me from enjoying yet another one all the same. Untogether, from LA's cumbersomely named Letting Up Despite Great Faults reminds me a lot of the dreamier side of M83. There's a mild pulse driving these songs, but the main focus is on the shimmering warmth of the synth tones and the Michael Lee's diaphanous vocals, which often sound so light, you can almost hear them float away. As awkward as their moniker is, it's sort of fitting. It suggests a sense of passivity, amiability and forgiveness, and indeed, their music is of the welcoming and friendly sort that you can cozy right on up to.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
There's a weird sort of wish fulfillment that comes with Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, the first new music from Godspeed You! Black Emperor in a decade. When I read something like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, it makes me long to live in a world where Fugazi and Big Black are bands that actually exist rather than entities that are spoken of as gods who walked the earth in a time long ago. Even though it's only twelve years old, Godspeed's magnum opus Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven sounds almost like a lost artifact, which is probably the main reason why their stature has grown to legendary over the passing years. Even though I was technically around for its release, it wasn't a part of my world at the time, so I sort of feel like I've only really experienced it second-hand. Which I guess partially explains why, despite how revered that record is, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! hits me in an even more profound way. It's certainly worthy of every one of its exclamation points.
There's something very alien about Godspeed's music, and this album, too, seems unconstrained by any sort of conventions of post-rock, drone, or whatever classifications you'd use to describe music like this. Even when their furious climaxes hit on "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire", you never find yourself thinking, "This reminds me of Explosions in the Sky." And even at their Kranky-est, as on "Their Helicopters Sing" and "Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable", they're so much more maximalist and forceful than, say, Loscil or Stars of the Lid. That's because, even though they perform in a style where form, beauty and composition are typically of the essence, there's something much more primal to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They have this remarkable ability to dig down to the core of dread, triumph and the whole spectrum of human emotion, and translate it to pitch, timbre and volume with near perfect clarity.
Pinback Information Retreived
Temporary Residence, 2012
Just about a year ago, I was reveling in Lenses Alien, the sophomore album from Cymbals Eat Guitars. Something about those knotty, moody guitars seemed to fit so well as the days grew shorter and grayer. Information Received, the first Pinback album in five years is similarly just what I needed to hear right now. It's not a major departure in sound from their earlier work despite the layoff. Their guitar work recalls early Death Cab for Cutie and the vocals frequently invoke the ghost of Elliott Smith. That haunting combination of intricate riffs and smooth melodies penetrates the skin in a striking way that reminds me quite a bit of the aforementioned Lenses Alien. I'm a big proponent of bands who follow in the traditions of the hallmarks of "indie rock," the type of sounds pioneered by bands like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, and Information Retrieved is certainly part of that lineage, and a worthy one at that.
Three Mile Pilot Maps EP
Temporary Residence, 2012
As if to answer the question of what Modest Mouse would sound like if they had listened to more Rush and Pink Floyd, Three Mile Pilot deliver the five-track Maps, their second release since their 2010 return after an absence of over a decade. Their trademark noodly guitars, which suggest a love affair with the great Slint, are present in principle, but the grit and brooding are mostly gone in favor of a surprisingly bright production polish. For many who, like me, find The Chief Assassin to the Sinister to be a landmark release in both post-hardcore and math rock, this sonic shake-up might make the whole reconvene seem rather pointless. Fortunately, I dig moody, circular riffs, and 3MP sure know how to pile 'em on, slightly shinier aesthetic notwithstanding. Strangely, "This Escape" and the shockingly keyboard-heavy "Birdy" are the EP's most uncharacteristically square songs, and yet, thanks to their persistent, if repetitive, rhythms, they end up being its most memorable.
No matter how hard they try, Air Traffic Controller can't quite sell lyrics like "I'm so miserable," but that doesn't stop Dave Munro from repeating them enough times on "Pick Me Up" that maybe we just might believe it. No, Nordo is quite the lighthearted jaunt, and perhaps the perfect tonic for anyone feeling a little unsatisfied by the new Matt and Kim album. The simple, easygoing hooks, which are ever-present, remind me at times of Tiny Animals, The Submarines and Tokyo Police Club. When working in the realm of catchy, electro-infused pop songs, there's a high risk of winding up with either humdrum blandness or annoyingly obnoxious earworms, but Air Traffic Controller walk that fine line with ease. And sure, there are some cutesy moments, especially "Any Way", but the driving, baseball movie-referencing "If You Build It" is more than enough to make up for them.
Thanks to the presence of producer Nigel Godrich, Ultraísta will get comparisons to Radiohead even when such comparisons aren't really apt. And despite some surface similarities, like the complex rhythms, particularly the prominent bass, and the digital flourishes that are superficially along the lines of The King of Limbs, Ultraísta have a sound all their own. It's hard not to think a little of artists like Massive Attack, as the dreamy soundscapes and Laura Bettinson's vocal stylings recall many of the notable '90s trip-hop practitioners. A more accurate representation might be Bat for Lashes or a less pop-oriented Phantogram. Regardless of whom you compare them to, Ultraísta create a dark but intimate atmosphere that never fails to compel.
Preachers is eclectic and shapeshifting, but rather than coming off as unfocused, it sounds like a distillation of some American rock's more engaging artists of the last few decades. "Born in the Belly" and "Death Valley" infuse the sinister grit of Nick Cave with the mass appeal and bluster of Kings of Leon. My Jerusalem leader Jeff Klein even has a howl like Caleb Followill's at times. The opening title track is a vintage piece of gothic Americana in the vein of Murder by Death and O'Death. The slow post-punk boil of "Devoe" suggests it's what The Airborne Toxic Event might write, if just once they could show some National-like restraint. The darkness does occasionally get peeled away, most notably on the rollicking, Tom Waits lite gem "This Time". It seems fitting that one of the album's biggest highlights is the penultimate cut, a gorgeous, barebones ballad entitled "Chameleon".
I somehow slept on this one when it came out back in February, probably because it was a Rise release and didn't arrive with enough fanfare to overcome that handicap. I'm in the early ages of playing end-of-the-year catch-up on everything that's slid under my radar thus far, and this bad boy got a spin this morning. As a child of the '90s, I was thoroughly impressed by Cheap Girls' earnest, no-frills power-pop. Their uptempo offerings remind me of college-rock hook machine Matthew Sweet topped with with the punk-ish influence of Hot Rod Circuit. They also nail the stripped-down heartbreak ballad, as the brilliant "Cored to Empty" compares very favorably with the work of Lawrence Arms side project Sundowner. Giant Orange is full of power chords and catchy sing-alongs, and it's proof-positive you can still go a long way on the strength of simple rock-and-roll songs.
I'm about ready for campaign season to be over. Regardless of whom you pledge support to, there are only so many empty platitudes you can take before breaking. Outside of sporting events, I rarely turn on the television, and I live in a reliably Democratic district in a reliably Democratic state. I can only imagine how the red-blooded American TV-watchers in Ohio feel. Seeing the teabaggers getting all excited over cries of "taking America back!" and the old bread and butter, "Freedom!" would be humorous if it weren't so disheartening. While the President will get my vote again, it's more a lesser of two evils thing, as I recognize that no meaningful change can take place as long as corporate overlords and special interests own our elected officials.
Though I'm bewildered that people get enthused over the same stale, meaningless bumper-sticker-ready lines election cycle after election cycle, I'm going to reveal myself as a hypocrite of sorts. I'm going to speak favorably of Heavy Mood, an album Tilly and the Wall lifers will hate because it sounds more like Grouplove than old Tilly albums. All the rah-rah exuberance suggests that this is what those carefree young adults in the American Eagle Live Your Life ads are probably listening to. Do we really need another album to tell us to enjoy every minute while we can? Well, yeah, I think we do. Last weekend, I saw a Ben and Jerry's sticker on a van with the phrase "If it's not fun, why do it?" We're saturated with these messages, and yet I look around and feel like we don't live by them as often as we should. We get so caught up in these little minutiae of our lives that we can't have too many reminders of our misplaced focus.
Lonerism rules hard, but I hope too much isn't made of its title. Its tracks, with names like "Why Won't They Talk to Me?" and "She Just Won't Believe Me" don't do it any favors. And it doesn't help that it's a headtrip that sounds lovely on a iPod, which you can pretend to manipulate so as to avoid eye contact with the person walking the opposite direction in the hallway. But like the decades-old psychedelia it faithfully recreates, it's an expansive sonic experience that deserves better than to be seen as an affirmation of our insular lifestyles. To me, the thought of thousands of lonely listeners holed up in their rooms to the sounds of "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" feels kind of wrong. When I hear "Music to Walk Home By", I think not of agoraphobia but a huge outdoor stage production. In short, these songs need the full-blown Flaming Lips treatment, replete with stunning visuals, lasers and clouds of smoke, from the effects crew and from the illicit substances being enjoyed by the fans in attendance. Regardless of what their tunes might say outwardly, Tame Impala make music that, like that of their idols in the late '60s, has boundless power to bring people together. Judging from the major-league sound of Lonerism, they're keenly aware of this, too.
Shout Out Out Out Out Spanish Moss and Total Loss
Quite Scientific, 2012
Saying that a band is descendant from Kraftwerk because they use synthesizers is sort of like saying Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is descendant from Shakespeare because it's a play. Their aesthetic is most often seen today merely as a vehicle to create pop singles. And that's no slight against those artists who have appropriated the style and applied it to their hook-heavy jams. Hot Chip's In Our Heads is one of my five favorite albums of 2012. But it's rare that I get a legitimate Kraftwerk vibe from a new record, but Shout Out Out Out Out's Spanish Moss and Total Loss has got it, and it runs deeper than the steely, robotic vocals. The Canadian sextet's third album is elegant, hypnotic and more concerned with ambience than instant gratification. All nine tracks are around the six-minute mark, and that's a scope that works well for them, as the tracks build, evolve, grow to fill their space, but leave before they wear out their welcome. The blueprint for this sort of music has been laid out for nearly forty years now, but Shout Out Out Out Out's ability to revisit the sound and spirit of those early days and execute it with this level of confidence without sounding campy is remarkable.
Django Django sounds like an old, dusty Southern blues record as reimagined by Yeasayer. By a band from London? Such a weird venture could have turned messy, but each of the album's thirteen surreal soundscapes is rarely anything but completely fun. For evidence, look no further than one of the year's catchiest singles, the sci-fi Eagles of Death Metal stomp "Default". Their schtick sounds like something of a novelty, but Django Django display enough stylistic range and songwriting ability to suggest that their oddball aesthetic might have some legs. The mid-album trifecta of "Love's Dart", a clip-clopping electro beat with a sleepy flower-power melody, "WOR", a driving, retro-fied take on surf-rock revivalism, and "Storm", a minimalist indie-pop gem, establish Django Django as one of the more inspired and well-executed debuts to see daylight recently.