Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Year. 4. Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart.

4. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Merge

There is a certain religiosity about listening to Neon Bible. It could just be the word “bible” in the title making me think that, but I’m not so sure. It could also be something that only develops after seeing The Best Live Band in the world play. It could be the organs, it could be the lyrical references. It could be just the general mood. No matter what it is, it’s there. This is not background music. Every rumble, every sweep demands complete attention, complete devotion to the communal cause. At some point (possibly between the click of the light and the start of the dream? No?) there was a broad realisation that we were no longer dealing with an ordinary band. It’s the kind of thing that fills Mojo or Uncut. Talking about albums from thirty years ago with borrowed nostalgia, projected reverence. But it’s now. Neon Bible will be on a pedestal in fifty years, like no other album released this year (even In Rainbows) ever could be.

It’s a set-piece really. Ominous horns and a skeleton key piano part open Black Mirror, letting you know that Neon Bible is not going to be like Funeral. It’s going to out-morose an album named because of family deaths. That sort of vein continues with varying levels of obviousness throughout the album – vaguely gothic in a Helena Bonham Carter sort of way. More apocalyptic though. It’s sort of exhilarating to listen to. There are ghosts everywhere, in Regine’s vocals, and the organs, strings and rumbles. Before seeing the songs live, darkness was what I picked up from Neon Bible. A sort of black and white, Dickensian London meets Bush’s America trip through the downside of being human, and doing it in the world right now.

If you were ever going to write a “things to do before I die” list, and you haven’t seen Arcade Fire, you need to see to that. Without seeing them, the songs are dark, they’re negative through the neo-baroque arrangements. Live, they’re life-affirming. Like the Evangelist preachers (with whose imagery Win likes to play) ushering on the end of the world with joy every Sunday, coming together with a few thousand to see Neon Bible live is like being lifted up out of reality through music, and community. I’m not really able to express this without sounding like an absolute spanner. But it’s not gloomy music, I suppose, was the point. It’s an escape. Take My Body Is A Cage. Possibly the most depressing lyrics Win has ever written. And set to plodding, funereal music. But I defy you to listen to that song through and try to deny that it scratches heaven. That is what this album does consistently throughout. Out of darkness comes light.
Arcade Fire’s website and them with Bowie at the Grammy’s. Not on the album, but as the description says: If you don´t cry watching this, you are dead inside.

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The Year. 5. If I were man, and you a dog.

5. Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity
Kill Rock Stars

The closer to the end of this list I get, the harder I find it to find good adjectives to use, and also to express how fucking excellent the music in question is. Coincidentally, the closer to the end of this list I get, the more I also regret writing giant tracts about twenty-five albums instead of studying or writing music or something more productive. But that’s not Deerhoof’s fault. Friend Opportunity came out at the start of the year, so, in the worst crime against art since Elgin prised the friezes off the Parthenon, nobody put it on their lists. These lists are of course about two months old by now. But fuck it.

There are two sides to this album. On the one hand is the usual Deerhoof. Riffs that sound like those pictures where flights of stairs run into each other and defy perspective. Incredible infectiousness. Quirky, perceptive and confusing lyrics that sound like either a child or a woman with less English than Satomi Matsuzaki (or Greg Saunier) wrote them. Everything you loved about The Runners Four, Apple O’ or Milk Man is distilled here, perfected. The Perfect Me and +81 are two songs that I would have in an all-time indie pop single compilation, and the spiritual successor of Dog On The Sidewalk, Kidz Are So Small makes little or no sense, in the best way possible.

But then there’s also some sort of nameless melancholy that creeps in. Maybe it’s Greg’s voice. Maybe it’s the gaps between wall-shaking riffage. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there on Cast Off Crown, and even, despite the apparent nominal evidence to the contrary, on Choco Fight. Ignorance of Friend Opportunity should be punishable by death. A venerable band to be cherished and held aloft, with psycho-sugar meat-riff cutesie songs. Testing the boundaries of fun for the good of all mankind.
Their KRS page has a very good Things section with interviews and videos, and Bren has Greg in the first issue of Analogue, which pretty much inspired me to try to get involved in the first place.

The Year. 10-6 (getting there)

10. Battles – Mirrored
Warp

If Battles are math rock, then they’re bringing more emotion to the subject than my (thankfully over) sixteen years of immersion in the subject led me to believe it was capable of. Plus, only some of their songs have ridiculous time signatures. So let’s dispense with that. Mirrored is probably the closest thing to progressive music I’ve ever actually enjoyed and it is all pinned around a rock solid core of instrumental virtuosity. Seeing it live at Lowlands opened my eyes properly to Battles, because I could see these four guys standing on the huge stage with instruments in hands, playing really complex and impassioned music at a rate of about 400 notes a second – and staying completely within the lines, so to speak. Tightest band I’ve ever seen. The album drips of that tightness, the live interplay of these four virtuosos. But it is catchy as all fuck too. From Race In to Leyendecker (Side A, in the words of our ancestors), there isn’t a song that doesn’t lodge itself somewhere in the brain. And it will sound original for about 50 years. I guarantee it.
An interview in which Battles describe their music better than anyone else, and their vowelless website which is secretly just a link to their MySpace.

9. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Anti

Sounding like The Beatles has been a successful and sometimes musically worthwhile endeavour for countless bands from the 1960s onwards. When I first heard Spoon, around the time of Kill The Moonlight (two albums ago) when they were supporting Interpol at the Olympia, I thought they were taking it a little bit too far. Time, though, has revealed their subtleties to me. Britt Daniel has been doing what he does for a long time now without any spectacular innovation, but the songs seem to get slightly better every album, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is their best so far. They’re pretty big in America but I’m not sure how far they’ve pervaded into the indie consciousness around here. It doesn’t really matter. The songs all sound like singles, without exception, and far from being The Texas Beatles, Spoon have pretty much eked out a space for themselves completely outside what other people are doing. It’s hard to pick highlights, but You Got Yr Cherry Bomb was #16 in the American Hot Press’ top 100 songs of the year. High praise for independent band.
Many songs on MySpace (though not the one I just let Rolling Stone recommend) and PopMatters gives a comprehensive (i.e. long) review.

8. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha
Fargo

My fourteen year-old brother asked me today if “these bands just make up a load of words and then put music to them”. Ignoring the fact that this is at least the second most common way of writing music in Western culture, I answered “no”. But I understand what he meant. I was listening to Armchair Apocrypha, The whole album, more than any of Bird’s previous stuff, is a testament to how well read he is, how naturally lyrical he is and most of all the sense he has for finding songs in unusual places. Some of the rhymes on Imitosis are more complex than incredibly rich rap stars, and Scythian Empire deserves some sort of prize for best song based on a Pontic tribe ever written. In fact, there should be a Grammy for that category. In seriousness though, Armchair Apocrypha is musically and lyrically complex while staying accessible at all times, and it is a beautifully noble-sounding listen. Perhaps the only album of 2008 that makes you feel like your IQ is higher every time you finish it.
Read up on the actual Scythian Empire on Wikipedia and then fly to Andrew’s website for a well-stocked A/V section.

7. Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Paw Tracks

Pure as the driven snow. I read somewhere (everywhere) that Panda Bear sounds like Brian Wilson on LSD. Am I the only person in the world that was under the impression that Brian Wilson was on LSD? Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was just crazy. Panda Bear’s not crazy though, and he’s also not on LSD. Through sampling, but mostly through his super-soaked vocal layers, he presents the melodies children sing to themselves in playgrounds, the purest, most beautiful music. Animal Collective is Avey Tare’s band, but Person Pitch proves that Panda Bear has his own completely distinct picture to present to the world. It doesn’t sound like Animal Collective in a specific sense, even if they’d be stocked in the same section of a very sub-genred record store. It’s angelic stuff, and it kept me dry and happy on many wet and depressing winter mornings going to college. I have regular revelations listening to this, and it would be higher if not for the slight repetitiveness late on and the quality of some other albums released this year.
MySpace about Panda Bear, and a website about panda bears

6. Liars – Liars
Mute

(I’m going to do this one Said The Gramophone style). A Sunday afternoon , waking up hungover, you walk down the stairs, pour a glass of milk and make for your couch. The sun’s shining in the window, so your sore limbs and pinched forehead don’t bother you so much. You lie down and drink your milk. Finishing up, you look for the remote. It’s beside the television. What is the point of a remote control if it’s left beside the TV anyway. Your body has just adjusted to the couch and is refusing to get up, so you sit there quietly. There’s no-one around. Everyone in the house has gone out. The radio is seeping in vaguely from upstairs somewhere. The sunlight is still beaming in at first, but time passes quickly and the short winter afternoon starts to grey. It gets darker and darker, but you stay sitting on your couch, staring at the blank TV. The curtains are open, but you can’t see anything from where you’re lying. It’s raining, probably. That is what this album sounds like.
The video for the tour-de-force first track on YouTube and the website.

The Year. 15-11

15. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Living With The Living
Touch & Go

Ted Leo can sometimes come off as very slick and I will admit that the only reasons I stuck with this album is because of Clell Tickle, but it was worth it. There’s a really patent bluntness and lack of pretence about Living With The Living that is sometimes hard to come across in indie music. Of course, Ted Leo’s not really an indie musician, so that’s not really surprising. I think some of the reason why I grew to like this album so much is the punk approach, the sort of punk aesthetic. There are loud guitars on every single song, and there is no question of holding off on certain topics in the lyrics for fear of sounding pretentious or ill-informed. Possibly the majority of the album is about bombings, the CIA, the Army and the whole climate in America at the moment. It’s as potent as anything The Clash made about Thatcher’s England, and about ten times as literate. Bomb.Repeat.Bomb is breakneck stuff, and I think I found a Sopranos reference in A Bottle of Buckie. Twenty points for anyone who gets it too. The Unwanted Things is my favourite, even though it doesn’t have loud guitars and it’s not about geopolitics. It’s dub reggae in falsetto. Fantastic.
A couple of good songs on MySpace, and a website with a news section that is actually just a blog. Ted Leo’s a funny guy.

14. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala
Secretly Canadian

Jens Lekman uses samples he must have found on the same 70s compilation CDs my mother listens to, but he comes out with something a lot more impressive than the poor plundered original artists. Every song is in the first person, every song is a story in the history of Jens Lekman. Some of them are so left-field it’s hard not to laugh when you reach that breakthrough moment of actually hearing the words and not just their sounds. Pretending to be your lesbian friend’s boyfriend to her Catholic father, but screwing up. Some are just everyday life though. Equally good. Sound-wise, there are guitars, glockenspiels, strings, percussion sitting on those samples, and the general mood is a sort of cruise band that doesn’t make a lot of money. The combination is world-beating however. Some songs on Night Falls… are almost too perfect. The Opposite of Hallelujah, for example, is tearfully pretty. So is Shirin. So is A Postcard To Nina. You get the point.
Brookyn Vegan chat with Jens, and he blogs on his website.

13. Beirut – The Flying Club Cup
4AD

Zach Condon is only about a year older than I am, and he has released three excellent records of memorable songs with ambitious arrangements. One is an EP, one is very nice to listen to and one is nothing short of genius. Unfortunately for Zach’s place is this list, Gulag Orkestar is the work of genius, but that doesn’t detract from the charms of The Flying Club Cup. Transporting Beirut wholesale from Romania to France could have sounded a little contrived, and Beirut do sound a little contrived, but these are beautiful songs sung effortlessly over noble and considered music. Nantes is a particular stand-out for me, but there aren’t weak songs and as a whole the record laughs to scorn the shadow of the difficult second album.
MySpace replete with incorrectly spelled name, and the real city, twinned with no less than four places in France. Coincidence?

The Apples In Stereo – New Magnetic Wonder
Yep Roc

In stark contrast to Zach Condon who is only a year older than me, Robert Schneider could easily be my father, or more likely, my cool uncle. My first impressions of New Magnetic Wonder left me dismissing it as a sort of simplistic pop-rock album, but that idea faded quickly away. Lo-fi has been abandoned altogether, but there are some songs on this album that hit the same nerves and emotions as the most earnest bedroom tapes. Sun Is Out celebrates the sun, appeals to my heliophile tendencies, Open Eyes is shoegaze guitars introduced to Elephant 6 and the various Non-Pythagorean Compositions are… nerdy. What I like most of all about the Apples In Stereo isn’t something that I can use to back up a placement on this list though. When I hear it I’ll think of 2007. I don’t know why. The start of this year, no specific moment, just that sort of stage in my life. That will guarantee it more return airplay than a lot of the other albums, I think.
Some album tracks and a nice sell-out to Target on MySpace and an AV Club interview.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
DFA

It’s easy to talk of LCD Soundsystem in terms of the bands and sounds they reference, but there’s no point to that really. Sound of Silver takes it even further than the first album, and even seems to reference some of the tracks on the debut, but nobody listens to an album to trainspot the influences, so I won’t talk about them. The semi-existentialist dance music is still present on Sound of Silver, but it occasionally transcends that. All My Friends sits on a piano loop and a Peter Hook-esque bassline (sorry! comparison!), and tells a quite poignant story. James Murphy said he was disappointed with the debut album because he held back and did things safely. If he’s fixed that on this album it’s because of the lyrics. Where other “ageing” musicians tend to recede into cliches and self-parody, James Murphy seems more like a novelist. The same, but wiser. On top of that, Someone Great is probably the best song released in 2008 and the best song about death ever written. No lyricist evokes like that. The rest of the album is good, but if you do nothing else because of this blog, get that song.
Website and MySpace.