5. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
It is my considered opinion that 2009 will come to be known as a year that music progressed more than it did in other years, largely by virtue of the release of one or two paradigm-changing monoliths. Neither of those paradigm-changing monoliths are by the Pains of Being Pure At Heart.
I think when I first came across this album, it was as one of those anonymous downloads, a link someone had dumped in a chat window or a message or on a forum that I clicked without looking up any biography or even checking what it sounded like. For this reason, I presumed they were Scottish for at least two months. Call it musical profiling, but the hallmarks are all there. Reverb on everything. Jangly guitars. Dual gender unison harmonies on important lines. A certain, mostly affected naivety. This band should be from Glasgow, and they should be from the past.
They’re not, though. They’re from Brooklyn, they’re from now, and they’ve made an album that plays better start to finish than most 80s indie pop best-ofs. And it really does play like a singles compilation. Every song carries its weight. They’re not the kind of band who ever lay off the gas a little with slow songs or instrumentals and then bring it back up with a stormer. Every song could be the song that gets you into the POBPAH.
My favourite, the one that walked me from place to place the most this year, is Come Saturday. With a hook that’s 6.5 Abbas on the catchiness scale and enough energy to catapult a human to Mars, it’s easily one of the songs of the year. But it’s also (and get used to this sort of thing) about NOT going out. “Who cares if there’s a party somewhere? We’re gonna stay in!”. There’s something very appealing about this projection of being sad in the northeast Atlantic, anorak sense (rather than the universal, unhappy sense). POBPAH aren’t the first to do it, but they’re close to the best.
I’m sure for every Pains of Being Pure At Heart fan, there’s a different stand out song. The obligatory One With The Drumbeat From Just Like Honey, maybe. Or the weird one ostensibly about loving your sister. And I’d bet the strange teenage loyalty to that song is the same. POBPAH make you want to write their name on your pencil case. They make you want to buy pencils and a pencil case to hold them, just to write their name on it. They’re a pop band out of synch with their time, and all the more brilliant for it.
Hated critical hegemon site has you covered with content on this band, as usual.
In July I called You Look Cold “as frozen and synaesthetic as anything you’re likely to hear this year”, as if frigidity and synaesthesia were primary criteria in anyone’s taste checklist. Not that I want to retract or anything. It crunches underfoot as you listen to it, definitely, and it recalls maybe the smell of mouldy wallpaper or overheated chips from toyshop Casios. The delivery changes from song to song. Until I Get Paid is some exceptionally bizarre ghost doo-wop, where Wintertime’s Doll is a creaky, spacious dirge and Blue Eyes is threateningly sinister accelerando analogue electronica. But what binds them is the juxtaposition of metronome beats from evidently cheap instruments with lush, considered layers, icy futurism, dusty pastism and an ability to deliver a song without a blink. Genre-wise, you could throw prefixes (kraut-, freak-, prog-) or suffixes (-folk, -tronica) at this all you want and never end up within fifty miles of accuracy. This is a step forward.
With every physical copy of Hospice comes a small booklet, eight pages long. On the front is a stylised caduceus, symbol for medicine, in black on a plain white background. It’s perfect, far better than the cartoon hands on the actual album cover, because it’s so economical. There is mostly just white space, like the music. But in the centre is a symbol, a lead to something more. And it’s the caduceus which, long story short, is a symbol that has only come to represent medicine because of a continuous, historically cemented misuse. Which is really almost too perfect to be true for Hospice. Because it’s an album about a hospice, right? About a dying loved one, maybe a relative or a lover? It perfectly evokes the hopelessness and helplessness of those dying days, if you’ve ever experienced them, it goes through the gamut of guilt, anger, desperation, etc. That’s what the lyrics in the book are about, that’s what the spare, resonant music recalls. But scratch closer. Hospice isn’t about death. It’s about love, or the death of love. As a song-cycle, it’s a work of fiction up there with a well-wrought novel. At a casual listen, it’s just deeply moving music.
Totally Dublin interview I was late for with Mr. Peter Silbermann, or their MySpace where old EPs are free.
6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest [US]
Grizzly Bear is a band with talent, in the traditional, conventional sense. They can all sing pin-point harmonies, they have a knack for arrangement swinging from lush to austere, and above all, they know how to hit a high-point. If a lesser band were equipped with the tools Grizzly Bear have, Veckatimest would be nothing more than loud-quiet-loud with clarinets. But that’s not what it is. It’s sensitive, incredibly careful, constructed with considerable thought and artifice. With creaky attics drums and a reverberating guitar, they build a new, dusty house on the shore, like Yellow House before it. But they shine light in differently this time. At once using a wider lens and more detail, Veckatimest’s caution is what makes the peaks when they come. The human foil to 2009’s insinuated strangeness, Grizzly Bear are not mad experimenters, but carriers of song. So, when the truly transcendent moments do come – and they do, signalled for example by the oscillating organs at 1.45 in Ready, Able – a very specific picture locks in mind. Four men on the Atlantic coast trying to row a wooden row-boat to the cosmos.
10. Burywood – There Exists An Abstraction Ladder [US]
This album’s from nowhere, but it synthesises everything. Philip Woodbury is one guy, hype-free, from Austin, Texas, very clearly a fan of music, and of the ‘alt’-sphere in general. “One of us”, I really, really hesitate to say but will say anyway. One of us. So he absorbs it all, the iPod-enabled volumes of music. And he churns it out in new, various ways. Northward is an explosion of distorted drums, and Denton Desert Island is the opposite, reflective and soft, but the thoughts are clear in both. This is not obscure music. It’s serious, self-assured, shooting for a place in the tapestry that its provenance (home-recording, usual story) might not automatically allow it. The people it borrows from – the studied melancholy of Stephin Merritt, or the masterful instrumentation of Kevin Barnes – are the geniuses of the scene. Time might prove Philip Woodbury to be in that company, but whether it does or doesn’t, There Exists An Abstraction Ladder feels like an arrival of something serious.
Ian Thrill Pier is responsible for unearthing this, and here‘s where you can hear what it’s like.
9. Hunter-Gatherer – I Dreamed I Was A Footstep In The Trail Of A Murderer [IRL]
There is music that works on a literal level, that holds you by the shoulders and tells you to your face what it wants to say. After all, everyone relates to a human voice, whether they can understand the story being told or they just appreciate the passion and the melody.
But somewhere below that verbal, literal level, there is music that works in a different way. Music that doesn’t conjure up images of your last girlfriend so much as it reminds you of the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you broke up. It’s ambient music, music that says nothing but somehow means everything. That’s what Hunter-Gatherer does. He once claimed it to be his ultimate ambition “to make a piece of music that could make someone cry.”
That sounds likes a grisly aim for a musician, but it is the dark quality that makes it such a captivating album to listen to. “Left For Dead” sounds like a thunderstorm on a cheap conservatory roof, ominous and all too conscious of the futility of human artifice. “Memory Pillow” is zoned-out, anhedonic half-sleep. The highlight, “The Salivation Army” has the added benefit of being up-tempo enough to sustain some existential techno dancing, if you have imagination enough to consider what that would entail.
At fifteen songs, the album runs the risk of being too long to maintain attention, but the subtle changes in mood stave off any chance of the tracks blending into each other. The only danger, really, is that, listening late at night on headphones as the music nigh demands, you would fall asleep and suddenly find yourself seeing the nightmare tones come to life.
This review is verbatim from Issue 6, Trinity News, who nicely let me away with this sort of thing regularly. Hunter-Gatherer interview from here and one with Dan.
This guest post is by the elusive but brilliant Hardcore For Nerds. As well as his primary residence, he has a special year-end Tumblr, and a semi-defunct blogspot with some archives you can peruse. The post is an introduction to Hipster Runoff.
The indie fan is but one aspect of Hipster Runoff’s wider sociological universe, populated by ‘alts’ or ‘altbros’ (because for the most part this universe really is startlingly misogynistic, with only a peripheral role for ‘altbaguettes’) who view music in an extraordinarily influential, in marketing and ‘success’ terms, yet utterly shallow manner. Musical taste, and experience, is very important to constructing an ‘alt’ identity, but so is a myriad of other cultural signifiers. The change in their taste, that is to say in the criticism of music, is fickle and dominated by groupthink but at the same time not without its own set of rules and logic. Hipster Runoff, a ‘blog worth blogging about’, deconstructs that world of ‘indie’ music by isolating and working through the processes involved, while presenting this in the medium of a blog post. Every phrase (and frequently, components of phrases) with an actual or potential meaning to the topic involved is put in quotation marks, as if there is no part of the communication between blog author and reader – addressed at the end by a series of rhetorical questions – which is not connected to a highly contingent, circumscribed view of reality.
Hipster Runoff is satire of the highest order, because it is entirely wrapped up in the worldview which it is satirising, even to the extent that it shapes the ideas and structures which it in turn draws upon. Or, at least, so it appears to do for someone who enters from one side of the indie divide, experiences Carles’s deconstruction of the Animal Collective hype, and emerges on the other fully appreciating the deliciousness of the ‘alt’ meme that is AnCo without ever having liked the band. This is my own situation: as someone who mainly listens to what can be generally considered punk of the post-hardcore variety, but who eventually got into to indie rock so as to have somewhere to go of a Saturday night, gig-wise.
Which brings me to the central point I wish to make about Hipster Runoff on this blog (that could be characterised as being indie/’alt’ of a personal critical variety). HRO has been an education about indie in a way that Pitchfork – itself a protean version of Hipster Runoff in some critical aspects – couldn’t be. Even though ‘Animal Collective is a band created by/for/on the internet’ might be considered more serious in its content than some of Pitchfork’s most ironic reviews, a certain evidence of blurring of lines. Some bands I know more about through the jokes on HRO than their music; some bands, like AnCo, probably a fifty-fifty split; some bands/artists I genuinely like (e.g. Dan Deacon, Papercuts) get the odd mention from Carles or, in the case of the Dirty Projectors, the complete works (via deconstruction):
“I feel like the people who select the Dirt Projjies as #1 probably ‘believe in their decision’ the most. They think that there is a ‘right answer’ to “Who is the Best _____ of 2k9?” and they are the only bros to truly understand the criteria and have the critical thinking skills to come to this decision. But it seems like it is ‘easier to enjoy’ AnCo than it is to enjoy the Dirt Projjies, so you don’t want people 2 h8 ur alt website/magazine if they buy the album, and it is just these people ‘wailing’ over complex guitar stuff. It still seems plausible to describe/pan the DirProjjies as ‘a Jack Johnson-sounding bro with broads wailing in the background.”
(via Which indie artists will be selected as ‘The Best _____ of the Year’?)
The other key thing about Hipster Runoff is that it’s made up of layers of irony; perhaps like an onion that you have to peel back the outer skin, but there’s no guarantee of truth in the lower layers. Instead, I prefer an analogy of the sea (via chillwave), with deeper and deeper layers spread out over a profound abyss of cultural vacuity, from whence a too rapid ascent might cause the bends (via Radiohead), yet it also contains shallows against a rising shore of the reality that exists outside of, and surrounding, our ocean of pop culture. In fact, the first HRO article that I read wasn’t about music at all, but on ‘Generation Y and the Mainstream Workplace’, a subtitle for ‘My job/career does not align with my true personal brand’. HRO is about identity, and interrogating the expectations, (mis)understanding, and sense of entitlement that make up the idea of the modern ‘hipster’, but more generally the 21st century, privileged, educated, internet-enhanced youth. The post-materialist (to borrow a phrase from late 20th century political science) materialists. These contradictions are so profound that the satire is infuriating in its hipster-ness, but at the same time so pervasive that we can’t afford to ignore it.
On a certain level, Hipster Runoff can be explained as someone with an applied knowledge of some critical discipline (probably a marketing degree) turned loose on the profoundly uncritical aspects of blog culture, hyped-up music, etc. However, it’s not a commentary on but rather within that world, and for people like me at a halfway point where they can’t fully commit to the world of indie music but can’t, or won’t, exist outside it, HRO is perfect. We are all of us ‘alts’, because however much we can take the objective view from outside, we still to whatever degree enjoy the artistry and the memes inside. 2k9 marks a new high point in ironic appreciation, because there’s plenty to be genuinely appreciated in music (as ever) and, for all the bullshit surrounding it, myriad new ways of making fun of it (via internet).
15. Times New Viking – Born Again Revisited [US]
So fucked it feels like it’s hurting your brain and damaging your speakers even when it’s down low. It’s Times New Viking, what do you expect? Received wisdom still maintains that Times New Viking are Yo La Tengo shooting their own tapes with nail guns from behind a particularly fuzzy curtain. But (as I’ve moaned before) the world’s postmodern now and there’s nothing external to a piece of art, so forget all about squeejeeing away the fuzz to get to the songs and simply embrace the abrasive, anarchistic catchiness of it. Even if it literally hurts to do so. City On Drugs, for example, is excellent, though fairly strictly to Rip It Off’s formula. Move To California, though is a darker, more serious Times New Viking channelling emo when it was the same thing as college rock. The sad fate of succeeding a classic album casts a shadow on Born Again Revisited, but not one it can’t at least answer to in its own right.
Further thought on fuzz-as-sauce vs. fuzz-as-intrinsic last year, and a live video from Whelans.
14. Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard – Em Are I [US]
If self-consciousness was music, it would be Jeffrey Lewis. Not quite as dark as neurosis and more constantly present than embarrassment. It’s in the shuffling, fuzzy acoustic arrangements, it’s in the nerdy comic-book cover art, but more than anything else, obviously, it’s in the lyrics. The motto inscribed on the theoretical title page of the multi-volume autobiography that is Lewis’ work is the unfunny punchline of the opening track slogans: “And I kept repeating it to myself to convince myself it was true – that everyone you meet is not better than you.” Not to say that there’s nothing more to Jeffrey Lewis than self-pity, because anyone familiar with anti-folk’s centre-pole will know that there’s nothing he says that isn’t simultaneously funny, sad and tuneful in a slipshod way. He has carved a singular career out for himself, and this could be the highlight. You’d think he’d be a little more cocksure, but then “going bald is the most manly thing I’m ever gonna do”. So maybe not.
13. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career [SCO]
Camera Obscura exist in a universe that somehow approximates what would happen if one was to superimpose the stylistic elements of the kitchen sink British 60s onto the modern day. In charity shop vintage, they present a honey-sweetened indie-pop sadness, filmed on grainy Super 8. These are not, as some have said, child-like love songs. They’re love songs that swapped cassettes and dog-eared books when they were younger and can’t rid themselves of dreams of tandem bicycle picnics. If an album that begins with the declaration “Spent a week in a dusty library!” is just to twee for you, that’s fine. But for some, the pillowy, melancholy sweetness will trigger a certain familiar strand of nostalgia for awkward moments and love that didn’t happen.
12. HEALTH – Get Color [US]
Progressive is fine. Experimental is fine. Go that route if you like, but if you do it right, even the most close-minded club attendee is going to be sucked magnetically from wall-propping position to the middle of the dancefloor. That’s what Get Color means, then. Get Color in the sense of hewing pop music from slabs of noise, but also Get Color in the sense of bringing a whole new palette into play, of bringing innovation to people whether they want it or not. You won’t hear many albums as simultaneously abrasive and immediately appealing as this, so my advice is to put it on in the dark, as loud as it deserves, and get a little colour yourself.
11. Christmas Island – Blackout Summer [US]
2009 witnessed the rise of lo-fi, and its fall. Things move quickly now, probably too quickly, and that unfortunately means that if Christmas Island melt down in the Catalan sun, they’ll only have themselves to apologise to. Not that it really matters. Blackout Summer is the best sort of apathetic guitar pop, the kind where songs are literally called things like I Don’t Care and Weird You Out. With a sense of humour and a preference for reverb over distortion making this closer to So Cow than to Wavves, the eleven song set scans like a greatest hits compilation for an insidiously catchy garage band who never got past passing out tapes. Its twin highlights are Black Cloud – a proto-anthem about paranoia – and Dinosaurs – a lament for the passing of the dinosaurs. Without a raised eyebrow in sight.
This is a lo-fi article. It’s written in non-joined handwriting on toilet paper stolen from The Joinery with a pen once used by Nathan Williams. Well, not really. It’s typed on a family computer in the suburbs, but that’s probably just as lo-fi, if not more so (Nathan has nothing on my dreadful Sanyo microphone). The reason I’m writing this article is to explore a few ideas about lo-fi and bedroom music culture, which seems to have become a very prominent style/ethos in the music of 2009 and the years preceding it.
So Cow – Halcyon Days
The past year has been quite significant for a number of Irish lo-fi acts. You needn’t look further than Tuam for one particularly great conquest. I’m of course speaking of So Cow, who after years of making music in his shed, received a well deserved good review for his Tic Tac Totally LP from hipster media giants Pitchfork. I’m sure you all know about how great So Cow is from this here blog, so I won’t bother you with my fanboy banter (but zomg I totally have this rare So Cow bootleg tee hee, cough, anyway). It doesn’t stop there though. The sudden news that Conor O’Brien’s (initially) bedroom-based project Villagers had been signed to none other than Domino Records (Pavement, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors) was a great surprise to many, and an inspiring thought for bedroom dwellers and all Irish musicians. These two particular artists did it their own way, with nothing more than miniscule equipment and talent.
R. Stevie Moore – Why Can’t I Write A Hit?
The idea of lo-fi music is nothing new (people like Daniel Johnston, and before him R. Stevie Moore have been making music at home for years that we have luckily gotten the chance to hear), but in this age of high speed internet, it is quite easy to see how lo-fi music is now so greatly heard. Anyone with a computer can quite easily record an album and have it online as a download the very next day. This makes me think a bit. It seems as if the perceived natural progression from making music in your bedroom and uploading it, is to get noticed/signed and record in a studio. But is this in fact a progression? Does the quality of sound recording actually influence music for the better? Does it retract from the honesty of the music? I suppose that it depends on the artist, and the style that suits them, but on a spiritual level, I’d assume something recorded alone by the person who wrote the songs would be more honest, and free from outside influence. Let’s put it this way, there is often amateur pornography with people who love each other, and there is often professional pornography with people who don’t love each other. The amateur pornography mightn’t be as high a standard as far as angles and lighting go, but you can tell they love each other, and that’s what matters. I could probably run in circles all day thinking about honesty in music, the complications of defining it and its importance (and sound like a pretentious moron in the process), so I think I’ll stop.
The Meanest Boys – We Are Devoted
In 2009, it is impossible to ignore this lo-fi/bedroom culture. Their friend requests are in your inbox. Their songs are on your hard drive. Their studio is the place you used to go as a child to play lego and drink apple juice before your mother collected you at around 5pm in her Volkswagen. Everyone has a project, and I think that’s truly a wonderful thing. It’s refreshing to know that this music is being made everyday behind closed doors; this beautiful music which would have been lost had it been written 15 years ago (although I have to mention the tragic musical geniuses who could quite easily be incredibly famous if they were only a bit luckier [The Meanest Boys for example]). Mine the internet for all the music it has. The website might go down tomorrow. The artist might never re-upload that one specific split EP they did with that one specific friend of theirs which is the greatest thing ever recorded. The internet works in wonderful ways; that one teenager with the dodgy myspace layout might be the best thing you hear all year.
20. Port O’Brien – Threadbare [US]
In 2008, Port O’Brien made an album that started with a thunderous, celebratory rumpus. This one starts with solemn humming. Why? Well, if you need some biography to help your music go down, it’s because Cambria Goodwin’s younger brother died in the interim. The album is indelibly imprinted with the mark of that death, devoid of the joie de vivre of All We Could Do Was Sing, but full of frail vulnerability. It meanders along, like a solitary walk on a funeral weekend, flitting in and out of immediate consciousness. Hard to see how they will follow this, but it’s a captivating document.
Interviewed Cambria Goodwin and Van Pierszalowski in Analogue in 2008.
19. BATS – Red In Tooth and Claw [IRL]
Eventually, in music, technology gets subsumed into the general pool of things you can sing about. While we may still be disappointingly waiting for a body of work about loitering on Facebook 14 hours a day, we have reached the point where the Large Hadron Collider has entered currency. So we get BATS, writing precision post-hardcore about girls looking beautiful in the “ray light”, and having to meet and greet to get further funding for research projects. Maybe you’d prefer not to invite them to dinner parties, then, but this is progressive, danceable in a Blood Brothers kind of way, and unfailingly novel.
18. Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall [US]
You have to presume that Jay Reatard probably just knocks out short, melodic punk songs without regard for reception or legacy. If not, then this is the successor to Blood Visions, an all-time great, and should be judged as such. The best fast songs (e.g. It Ain’t Gonna Save Me) would easily stand up on the predecessor, but as a whole, Watch Me Fall follows on from the 2008 Matador singles, with keyboards, acoustic guitars and non-breakneck tempos setting up permanent camp. If “I’m watching you and all the things you do” is Jay’s idea of slowing it down, however, there’s no need to worry about him going soft.
Jay with his old, fatter band that left him, and his Twitter, the first stop for keeping up with who he’s feuding with.
17. The XX – xx [ENG]
Not so much a tundra as a frosty cityscape. While it’s sometimes hard to tell how even members of the XX know which song they’re playing at a given time, the overall effect of the album’s whispered minimality means that it doesn’t matter. This is an album for being melancholy to. Not drenched in reverb, a la J+MC, but iced in it, this is what you resort to when you couldn’t walk it off, and you couldn’t pretend like you didn’t care. It also boasts probably the best song called “Intro” since people began thinking structurally about albums. Teenage simplicity is sometimes required to express things that are teenage in their simplicity.
Totally Dublin interviewed the XX at Electric Picnic, but more importantly Carles thinks they are chill.
16. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another [WAL]
Hey, guess what? It’s Falco, so it’s fucking loud and uniquely sardonic. With energy and aggression at levels that Fight Like Apes would probably sacrifice their parents to be able to mine, Future of the Left carry on the Mclusky legacy of cruiseship-sized guitars playing furious, melodic punk while Andy Falkous bemoans and/or satirises a wide variety topics. Like what? Well, “if we arm Eritrea, then we wouldn’t have to pay her, and everyone can go home”, on the geopolitical protest level. Or, on a more zoomed-in scale, “hidden in the mess of letters lies the awful truth, that Emma’s mom and dad use plastic forks”. A pressure-cooker of self-aware ire at the state of the species.
I'm Karl. I write this blog and write for Totally Dublin. In a past life I got way too personal with my criticism of Sean McTiernan's predilection for Kendrick Lamar and dulcimer music made by psychotic men in forests on the legendary Them's The Vagaries podcast. Available to sell out in almost any way for money.
m c d o n a k j @ t c d . i e is my e-mail address. I don't really attempt to break new music here or anything, but every few months when I'm bored I pick random shit out of my inbox and free associate with it, so send me your Bjork remix or whatever.