It was sorely tempting to let this blog just sort of fade out, since Raina and I have largely moved operations to the low-maintenance, quick-update-friendly Tumblr. Since it’s getting to the end of 2010, however, and I’m about to start another (and, with any luck, better fated) annual music marathon, I thought I might as well tie up loose ends on last year’s, which was sacrificed for the sake of last-semester-of-grad-school sanity. Here are the albums I didn’t write up (but did listen to in the marathon):
Tegan & Sara – Sainthood
Key songs: “Hell,” “On Directing”
How it stacks up in November 2010: Good, frivolous guitar-pop, but it’s not one that I dig out a lot, aside from “Hell,” which I put on my year-end mix.
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Key songs: “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” “Moment of Surrender,” “Unknown Caller”
Requisite Post-Achtung Baby Stinker Single Award (past winners: “Lemon,” “Discoteque,” “Elevation,” “Vertigo”): “Get On Your Boots”
How it stacks up in November 2010: Not so great. I was pretty happy about No Line… when it came out. In its more atmospheric moments, like “Unknown Caller,” it had superficial similarities to the best of U2’s late 80s material, particularly The Unforgettable Fire. “I’ll Go Crazy…” takes the stiff white boy funk that they’ve been doing so long that it’s gone from irritating to sort of charmingly misguided and affixes it to a positivity-spouting chorus, that despite a clunker of a title phrase, is on a par with their best pseudo-spiritual pop songs. But. Despite the band’s attempt to inject their new songs with the kind of grandiosity they haven’t attempted in years, the songs themselves are just a little too thin, Bono’s lyrics too hit-and-miss. It had a shelf life of about a month for me.
John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
Key songs: “Fetal Horses,” “Too Much Time,” “D.I.A.L.O.”
How it stacks up in November 2010: Not bad, but for Vanderslice, “not bad”‘s not all that good. Romanian Names is easily his slightest effort since Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (way back in 2000), but this seems to be by design. As far as I can tell, it’s not a concept album, and Vanderslice seems to have finally gotten 9/11 and Iraq out of his system. Unfortunately, Vanderslice is at his best when he has a solid through-line (or a set of serious topics, as he did on Pixel Revolt, one of the decade’s largely unheralded best) and, along with a less meticulous approach to production and arrangement, Romanian Names just doesn’t carry the weight his best work does. Still a pleasant listen, though, and it’s not that out of step with his other albums.
Visqueen – Message to Garcia
Key songs: “Hand Me Down,” “Jimmy Vs. James”
How it stacks up in November 2010: Eh. Visqueen has their sound, which is sort of a supercharged poppy punk thing, but the major appeal has always been Rachel Flotard’s vocals. Message to Garcia is mostly more of the same (and not as spirited as their previous releases), although the band sounds the best when they step out of their comfort zones, like Flotard showing off some newfound Neko Case-style phrasing on “Hand Me Down” (Flotard has toured as a backup singer for Case), and the band rocking a shuffle on “Jimmy Vs. James.”
Volcano Choir – Unmap
Key songs: “Island, IS,” “Still” (a dense, double-stuffed version of Bon Iver’s “Woods” from the Blood Bank EP)
How it holds up in November 2010: Really, really well. Anyone who was knocked out by the vibe on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, would have been wise to pick this up last year, as it takes that wintry color scheme and paints it out on a bigger and weirder palette (as for those knocked out more by the folky songwriting on For Emma, I guess mileage may vary). This isn’t to sell short the contributions of Collections of Colonies of Bees, full collaborators with Justin Vernon on this. These songs take serious chops to play; it’s to their credit that you barely notice this if you’re not paying attention.
M. Ward – Hold Time
Key songs: I don’t know – that one tune from the beer ad?
How does it hold up in November 2010: It sounds as much like an M. Ward album now as it did last year. Which means I barely ever listen to it.
Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Key songs: Maybe “Bull Black Nova”?
How does it hold up in November 2010: I don’t know. I don’t want to listen to it again because it disappointed me so much last year.
The XX – XX
Key songs: They all sound pretty much the same.
How does it hold up in November 2010: It’s okay for background music, but nothing I need on the regular.
So that’s it for last year’s music marathon (and possibly this blog, at least for a while). To be continued over here.
The semester’s started, so I’m squeezing these in where I can…
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
If there’s an ongoing motif of post-2000 Sonic Youth album reviews, it’s the preoccupation with their ever-impending return to form. By “return to form,” reviewers and fans tend to be pretty unanimous in their meaning – we want another album like Daydream Nation. Sure, we music fan types tend to flit around the subject for fear of coming off as nostalgists or being against a band’s artistic growth. But let’s be frank here… Sonic Youth has had at least 15 years of moving away from that style in an attempt at growth, and they’ve kind of blown it. So starting with Murray Street, SY fans were all so taken with the idea of the band backing off on the soundscapes and making with the “Teenage Riot”s that they took any bit of propulsion as a good sign. This kept up through Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped, but in each instance, the performances were too relaxed, the guitars too clean, the vocals melodies harnessed too tightly to the riffs. Read the rest of this entry »
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – s/t
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart may not be much more than a predictable sum of influences, but “Belle & Sebastian meets Jesus & Mary Chain” is far from the worst thing you can write about a band. Occasionally, the J&MC distortion can get in the way of the gentle B&S melodies and (especially) lyrics, but the band fares far better overall than Magnetic Fields, who tried coating their understated pop in the same guitar buzz on Distortion in 2008. At their best, TPoBPaH manage to make you overlook the fact that most of the songs rely on the same sonic tricks. “Young Adult Friction,” for instance, touts a melody that no amount of guitar noise can disguise. (And I’m reasonably sure that the librarian and aspiring librarian in the house haven’t simply been suckered in by lyrics about getting it on in a library – “You put your back to the spines,” indeed.) Read the rest of this entry »
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – s/t
And here’s the final Drive-By Truckers entry this year (and that’s not even counting the decent-sounding Booker T. collaboration they released, that I listened to and never got around to picking up, and Live from Austin, TX, which I haven’t heard yet). One of my chief complaints about ex-DBT singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, is that the backing sounded a little tentative and under-rehearsed in the same way that the backing sounds tentative and under-rehearsed on Patterson Hood’s solo album this year. The good news: Isbell now has a road-tested band of able musicians backing him up. The bad: the songs still aren’t anywhere near as good as his DBT contributions. Read the rest of this entry »
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
After two albums that left me completely bored, I finally came around on Grizzly Bear this year, initially on the basis of a tight, rhythmic performance of “Cheerleader” on Jimmy Fallon show. It took me by surprise, since I’d previously associated Grizzly Bear with a lethargic gauziness that spread out over all of their material, obscuring the songs that everyone else seemed to rave about. But that live version of “Cheerleader” popped in the right places, the harmonies were in the service of a nicely formed song, and Ed Droste’s voice finally made an impression (both primary singers for Grizzly Bear always sounded relatively anonymous and flavorless to me – one guy sounded a little more like Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam than the other, and that was about as far as I could go to discerning their character). Read the rest of this entry »
Drive-By Truckers – The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008)
I go back and forth on whether rarities/b-sides collections should be included in the marathon, since they function somewhat like greatest hits albums, stretching across multiple years and even styles – but since the contents tend to be new to most of us, their inclusion is basically in the spirit of the thing. In this case, I have fewer qualms, since The Fine Print is a pretty solid set complete with a few DBT essentials – plus the band did a little extra studio work on some of these songs to polish them up for official release. Read the rest of this entry »
Various Artists – Dark Was the Night: A Red Hot Compilation
Charity compilation albums seldom yield much of longstanding worth. They can be well-meaning, a boon (or burden) to completists, and fun, but it’s quite unusual that any offer an artist’s best work, usually relying on b-sides, leftovers, poorly conceived covers, and live versions of previously released material. Red Hot’s No Alternative was something of an oddity in the early 90s, offering what seemed to be otherwise unavailable essential tracks at the time, like Bob Mould’s “Can’t Fight It,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Glynis,” Pavement’s “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” and, perhaps most of all (to some folks, at least), Nirvana’s “Verse Chorus Verse.” In retrospect, it’s a bit more of a mix – it still has those throwaway live versions (delivered by the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and the Breeders), quirky covers (Soul Asylum does Marvin Gaye, Goo Goo Dolls do the Stones, Uncle Tupelo does CCR – okay, that last one’s pretty essential), and b-side level stuff (hi, Soundgarden). Read the rest of this entry »