Beer and Pavement

Making Lists

Posted in Records by SM on November 30, 2010

When a blogger is struggling for material[1], his best friend is the list. Just come up with a list of best/worst of or whatever, and you’re bound to produce a coherent message and definitive opinion surely to strike up a conversation[2]. When they’re good, the comments fill, Facebook notes are written in response, and traffic numbers spike. Even when the list is dumb or lame, there is sure to be no less than five comments[3].

The list is my slump-buster[4] as it were. I haven’t posted in over two weeks for various reasons. Someone contacted me and asked me to post a top-ten records of the year. So, I’m working on that. When we’re all done, a bunch of us will post it on Tumblr or something. In the meantime, I have a list to create.

Making a fine, thought-provoking list requires several things. First, there’s the preliminary list off the top of your head. If you can just think up items to include on a list without any reference, said items probably deserve at least some consideration. Of course, something will be left off and it behooves the list-maker to search out some forgotten gems before submitting the final draft.

As mentioned above, I’m sorting out my list of top ten albums of the year[5]. In the past, I’ve asked others to make my lists or have written lists for the number of days in December and beyond. Sticking to ten requires commitment and no fudging. I will pick ten, no more or no less. It will be ten definitive albums for 2010. Of course, one will have to take this list into context. I am a working stiff in his mid-thirties with a two-year-old[6]. So, my scope is a bit limited despite my credit card debt and hours logged at P4k this year. That said, here’s the preliminary list with which I’m working, eventually to chisel down to ten. Let me know where I’m going wrong and what’s missing[7].

The Walkmen’s Lisbon was not an obvious choice on first listen, but it has grown on me. No other band sounds like mid-August quite like the Walkmen do on their last two albums. Hazy evenings. Crickets. Drinks on the deck. I am a bit biased when it comes to this band[8], but they are incapable of making a bad record.

Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest has honestly not received the attention it probably deserves, so this one is still under review. However, knowing Bradford Cox’s typical output, I will find something that will sneak Halcyon Digest into the top-ten.

Pavement didn’t release a proper album of new tracks this year. What they did do is answer my prayers with a reunion tour and released maybe the single greatest best-of album I’ve ever heard[9]. Besides, how could I leave my favorite band off the list, especially with them in the name of this blog?

Arcade Fire’s Suburbs is the safe call, but is it too safe? This album is solid from front to back and possibly the group’s most complete effort thus far. Sure, it doesn’t have the hits like on Funeral or the complimentary pieces of Neon Bible, but it is something neither of those albums could be. Sometimes, the most obvious pick for a top-10 list is the best one.

Let’s Wrestle snuck into my consciousness through a compilation created by my sister for my daughter[10]. That and their name comes from a Joan of Arc line I can’t believe I haven’t tattooed on my arm yet[11] makes them all the more enticing. In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s is maybe my surprise hit of the year as I had discarded any pop-punk from my collection long ago. It’s juvenile and poppy, but I love it. It’s easily my sing-along album of the year.

The Tallest Man on Earth just sounds like Dylan if he were still around[12]. The Wild Hunt is something fresh, something new in a very familiar package of rhyme, grainy vocals, and acoustic gee-tar. That’s hard to do and should be appreciated whenever we hear it.

Liars’ Sisterworld is dark and brooding and somehow punk. I can only listen to this record once in a while, because it angers me so. It’s good to reserve a place at the table for such a record.

Broken Social Scene disappointed some with Forgiveness Rock Record. For me, the band has taken on a new persona after seeing them a couple of times in the past couple of years. Before that, they were always a studio band for me. Then, once I put a face to the group, I began to hear them more sonically. This is the record that brings the live show to fruition. It’s their Wilco album[13].

Real Estate’s self-titled debut sat on my shelf for a bit, but then I heard the band live and gave them another chance. It’s a nice gem among the P4k’d crap. I don’t know that it will make the final 10, but it deserves a mention. Update – I just realized Real Estate was released last year. So, I only have to eliminate nine records.

Wolf Parade’s Expo 86 is another one of those albums that disappoints, but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s more complete, coherent than previous releases and therefore is often seen as boring or conventional. I don’t know how long it will stand the test of time, but it’s here, on this list for a good reason.

Best Coast gets ripped daily on Hipster Runoff. So, I was ready to write them off before even listening to a single track. Then, I caught them live. This is a nice record that fits well between my stacks of mid-nineties indie rock[14].

Beach House lost me with their first two records and I didn’t want to bother with this one, but that was my problem. Again, seeing the band live helped me get them and for that I’m thankful. There’s not a bad track on this record. That’s just not done anymore.

Here We Go Magic was suggested to me and I listened. I listened a lot, but then I became busy with other records. So, before this one makes the list or doesn’t, I will have to listen to it again[15].

Los Campesinos!’s Romance Is Boring is pretty fun and probably deserves a spot next to Let’s Wrestle. It’s good that the Brits[16] are listening to our indie rock and doing all they can to replicate it. This has worked out well for them (the British) in the past (see The Beatles, Rolling Stones).

The Soft Pack used to be Muslims before converting[17]. The result was a pretty angry record with intense focus and drive. The anger is felt and the focus and drive carry the record from start to finish. I don’t know that it will make the final ten, but it’s good enough to be considered.

The National’s High Violet is either the year’s best record or the best Coldplay record. I can’t decide.

Quasi is the Rodney Dangerfield of indie bands, make that indie super bands. American Gong will make no one’s best of list and that’s a shame. For that reason, it may have to make mine.

Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz is all I listen to at the moment. For that reason, it deserves consideration. Also for that reason, I need to step away to see if I’ll feel that way forever.

Spoon’s Transference is not the greatest Spoon record ever. Of course, 99% of the bands out there would love to make an album this good. I will have to think long and hard about this one[18]. I may leave it off, because, well, I have to leave something out.

Corin Tucker Band is a bit of a surprise in several ways. First, I never thought Tucker would do a solo project outside of parenting and whatever she currently does for a living[19]. Second, this record is so not a Sleater-Kinney-light record. Third, Corin Tucker can write a good song. I don’t know why all this surprised me. I think I just saw Tucker as a piece in Sleater-Kinney, something that was greater than its parts. I need to listen some more, but this album is streaking down the stretch.

A conversation on Facebook has me considering The Badus Band, Disappears, Weekend, Scarecrow Frequency, Jim O’Rourke, Born Ruffians, Tame Impala, Screaming Females, and Double Dagger. However, I doubt I will have time nor money to listen to all of those releases before my final list “goes to press”. So, in the meantime, comment on what you see here. Am I missing something? Am I way off on something? What should my final ten look like?

As always, comments are welcome and the footnotes explain so much more about my thinking.

1Which for me is a lot. I haven’t finished a post here in over two weeks. And often when I do publish a post, it’s unfinished.
2However, I recognize how superficial a list can be. I hate that Rolling Stone just does lists now, lists that they often re-remember by conveniently forgetting that they panned Smells Like Teen Spirit or whatever. The list lacks depth, but it opens the door for more interesting discussion. Hell, I’m writing a list that will lead to another list.
3Even if a third of the comments are mine and another third happen on Facebook or Twitter. I suspect three of you (or hopefully more) will comment here; I’ll respond twice; and one or two of my FB friends who hate to comment on this blog will comment there.
4Typically, the term “slump-buster” is reserved for that one-night stand that ends a long slump without getting any action. Since I blog and am happily married, this is my slump-buster. I wonder how many hits I’ll get for using the term “slump-buster”?
5There will be a beer angle as well, just not a separate best of 2010 beer list. It feels forced to do both. Besides, I have a great idea for working in some great beers to this list.
6Oddly, she used to sleep a lot more and I had more time for blogging. Now, night time is a full-on major undertaking and I’m too exhausted to write.
7However, as will be explained later in this post (above the footnotes), I don’t have time nor money to listen to all of your suggestions. So, it may be best to just comment on what’s here and not much that isn’t.
8To some, this will sound blasphemous, but The Walkmen are my new Pavement. I haven’t worked out exactly why, but they do for me what Pavement once did and I suspect they will have the same staying power when I’m old and gray. This is surely a post to come.
9I’ve noticed that seeing a band live and in support of a current release often elevates said release in my estimation of its greatness. Half of these records would never be on my radar without seeing the bands live. Something can be said for that. I guess I just did.
10Who has impeccable taste for a two-year-old.
11First, I said “yet”. Second, that would have been cool/sexy when I was a skinny college kid with an indie addiction. Now, it’s probably just creepy.
12Such a lazy comparison, but every time I put this record on, someone inevitably makes the Dylan comparison. It’s more in the aesthetic than in the message, but it’s apt.
13Which means that everything they release from here on out will suck in that sort of benign way and invite douche-bags in hats and granolas to dance drunkenly in endless circles in whichever arena they choose to play next.
14This has been an interesting time to listen to all these “new” bands that just sound like the bands I saw in clubs 15 or so years ago. It’s been nice to hear a familiar aesthetic in new music.
15And after working on all these stupid footnotes, I have had a chance to listen again. It really is a good, varied record. Considering it for the list as I type this.
16I think they’re actually Welsh, so “Brits” is not meant as an insult if it is an insult.
17It was just a name change.
18Someone described it as “Pop songs stripped to the core and made weird.” This simple phrase paints Transference in a new light for me. There is much about which to think.
19Because there is no way she’s living off Sleater-Kinney royalties, unless they made a shit-ton of money opening for Pearl Jam a few years back.

The Six Degrees of Thurston Moore

Posted in Six Degrees of Thurston Moore by SM on October 8, 2010

So, I got to thinking about the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and whether there was an indie rock version. I don’t know that anyone has created one, but I thought I’d like to try. Would I use David Bowie? What about Mike Watt? Nope. The man I believe I can connect to every indie rock artist (maybe even several non-indie rockers) is Thruston Moore.

Why Thurston Moore? Besides being the frontman of the seminal and legendary Sonic Youth, Thurston also has a long history of mentoring young bands. He buys every 7″. There is a connection between Thurston Moore and every band I’ve ever loved. I’m sure of it.

What defines a connection?

Well, with the Kevin Bacon game, people are connected via films and TV shows in which they’ve appeared. So, albums would be the logical place to go with music. However, that is only a part of the equation in defining how artists are connected in this industry. There are tours, video appearances, collaborations, shared producers, etc. So, I’ve attempted to rank the sort of connections one could have that would lead them to Thurston Moore in six steps or less.

  1. Recorded an album together as a band member, producer, recording engineer, etc. is the most direct connection.
  2. Collaborated on or curated a project together might include an ATP event or a special one-time performance as a tribute.
  3. Toured together, especially in a package deal is a bit difficult to pin down as often bands play gigs together without really have much to do with one another. Plus, it’s sometimes difficult to find these connections. However, if the musicians in question played a seminal show together, it should definitely count.
  4. Friends of friends is even a shakier place to find connections, but indie rock is more of a community than anything. Also at this level, I’d consider labelmates as some bands on labels practically live in incest while other hate each others’ guts.
  5. Even sketchier is if the musicians are simply lumped together in a scene or genre. I will avoid using these connections, but I reserve my right to use the weakest of connections to prove my theory.

Those are the connections. I feel I can trace any indie rock hero to Thurston Moore in six steps or less. I will first demonstrate below and then open a challenge to you in the comments. If my first tries seem too obvious, that was not done purposely as I really believe this will be easy with any indie rocker. Also, if you think you can connect them in less steps, that’s fine as well. The real goal is to connect Thurston Moore to anyone in indie or alt circles in six steps or less.

First up: Ani DeFranco – Part-time lesbian and independent label owner who beats the hell out of a guitar and growls all feministy at ya.

  1. Ani Difranco runs Righteous Babe Records whose lineup included Andrew Bird.
  2. Andrew Bird appeared on Thao with the Get Down Stay Down’s Know Better Learn Faster.
  3. Know Better Learn Faster was released by Kill Rock Stars.
  4. Kill Rock Stars’ lineup famously included Bikini Kill who was fronted by Katleen Hanna.
  5. Kathleen Hanna appeared in Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather” video.

OK. That was easier than I thought. Let’s try another.

Up next: Deerhunter – The sonically lofi P4k darlings fronted by the remarkable Bradford Cox sounds like Sonic Youth, but are they too young to be connected to Thurston Moore? Let’s find out.

  1. Deerhunter’s latest LP was released on 4AD.
  2. 4AD was the former home of the Breeders, featuring Kim Deal.
  3. Kim Deal was not only Kim Gordon and Thruston Moore’s babysitter whenever they passed through Ohio, but she also appeared on Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” off Washing Machine.

That was even easier. I realized it as soon as I moved to 4AD. Maybe I should move outside indie rock to see if my theory can hold up outside of Thurston Moore’s circle of influence.

Super Bonus Challenge: Justin Bieber – Yes, the “musician” with a lesbian haircut and hordes of adoring female fans couldn’t possibly connect to Thurston Moore in six steps. Or could he?

  1. Justin Bieber signed with Usher’s management group.
  2. Usher was part-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers whose marquee player before this summer was LeBron James.
  3. LeBron James is close friends with Jay-Z.
  4. Jay-Z’s video for “99 Problems” featured Vincent Gallo.
  5. Vincent Gallo played bass for Jim O’Rourke.
  6. Jim O’Rourke not only produced albums for Sonic Youth, but he was considered the fifth member for quite some time.

That last one was iffy, but it works. I could have probably connected Usher to someone different or used Rick Rubin, but I successfully connected Thurston Moore within six steps.

Now it’s your turn to come up with musicians that may or may not connect to Thurston Moore in six or less steps. The only rule is that the musician or band in question has to be famous enough that their name appears somewhere on Wikipedia. I can take it from there.

Three Records Reviewed

Posted in Records by SM on October 7, 2010

The Thermals recorded a record about relationships. There. I said it. And you know what? This record isn’t as bad as that might sound.

Personal Life is a record that lies closer to Guided By Voices[1]
and Weezer than it is to Billy Bragg or Fugazi. Sure, there’s politic in the personal, but this record deals with relationships in a real way, a way we can all relate. Melodrama is left behind as real emotion comes through in what must be the most mid-tempo record The Thermals have ever set to tape. It’s not completely poppy, but it’s approaching a pop sensibility not normally associated with a KRS act. Still, I like it. It’s relationship music at its finest. I’m a sucker for this and The Thermals did it right.

The biggest difference in this album and previous Thermals records is the aesthetic. Nothing creates more criticism or praise for an album than aesthetic. Which is too bad as the songwriting and musicianship usually remains relatively the same or improves over time. In The Thermals’ case, it’s a cleaner, ready-for-radio sound that mirrors a Weezer or a Ocasek-era GBV[2]. Still, Kathy Foster’s heavy bass lines are more in-front than I’ve ever noticed. All this is good in a lofi era that prefers more bedroom and less digital. The key is that The Thermals did not tweak their aesthetic too much. Personal Life is still unmistakably a Thermals’record. The production and new themes demonstrate a band who knows what they are and are simply growing. I mean, you can’t play punk rock forever, can you Billie Joe[3]?

In much the same way The Thermals have slightly altered their aesthetic, The Walkmen continue to play with their own aesthetic that won them a Saturn commercial and our collective indie rock hearts so long ago. Lisbon is yet another boozy, late-summer gem[4] that not only furthers The Walkmen mystique but also plays with the formula a bit.

I’m a huge fan of The Walkmen. I’ve made no secret of this fact. They play a post-punk soul like no one since The Afghan Whigs fucked it up back in the mid-nineties[5]. The Walkmen have a recipe that works. They look good. They keep it simple. And they just put out good records.

Lisbon starts off a bit slow, but upon repeated listen, opening track “Juveniles” grows on the listener with nuance and feeling. This is how the rest of the record rolls. The band knows how to use their retro sound and sparse production to create one of the most engaging and sonic aesthetics in music. No one makes records like these. Soul, punk, sonics, feedback, nods to the past, booze, soft-loud dynamics, etc. This just works every time.

Most interesting in the transformation of The Walkmen sound is Hamilton Leithauser’s voice. It’s actually improved. I’m sure it’s from tour after tour of screaming himself hoarse every night or not. And the development feels authentic. This is not a classically trained singer by any means. I always appreciated his imperfections, but the steady improvement of his vocals are noticeable and welcomed.

This post is heavy on aesthetic. All three albums I’m reviewing here represent my tastes as far as aesthetics are concerned[6]. The Thermals represent a youthful punk exuberance. The Walkmen channel ghosts of rock n roll past as played over a sonic wall few can achieve. All three take advantage of some level of lofi, feedback heavy aesthetic, but Deerhunter comes to this most purposefully. Few bands represent the current trend in indie aesthetic more than Deerhunter. This is not to downgrade their material, it’s just how they represent on a superficial level. Of course, their music is anything but superficial or merely for aesthetics alone. This is just how they sound on first listen, without much investigation.

First, Halcyon Digest will never be confused for Microcastle. Or any other heavy-handed previous Deerhunter release[7]. Still, somehow, the band maintains its aesthetic of guitar jangle, muffled bedroom vocals, noise, malleable lyrics, etc. Aesthetic preserved.

Halcyon Digest is not at all what I expected, but it works for the most part. It’s loopy, laid back, and sloppy. There’s plenty of angst in the lyrics. It’s compact and whatever the opposite of sprawling is. It’s a ghost of an album and sometimes that’s all you need. The quieter moments in this record are the strongest and most satisfying for sure[8].

That said, I am having trouble finding some cohesion[9] in this record. At times, it challenges, then it invites air time on your favorite Clear Channel alt radio station. It lulls you to sleep and jerks you awake. I’d say the sequence is uneven, but I can’t figure out where…

OK. I’m nit-picking. There isn’t much wrong with Halcyon Digest, but I am having trouble grasping its brilliance and its folly. The trouble with this indecision is that I don’t think it’s a grower. Some albums tell you that over the course of the first three or so listens. This one doesn’t indicate to me that it will grow on me, but I don’t know that it’s supposed to.

Whatever. Deerhunter still records a better record than 99.9% of the bands earning 9+ on P4k. That should be worth something, maybe a little faith in their recipe. Like I said, at least the aesthetics are there[10].

So, there’s the three record reviews promised in the title. It’s as schizophrenic a post as I’ve done in a while, but the important thing to remember is that aesthetic tells us as much about the music we love as almost anything else. All three records present a different aesthetic, but all are worth your time and hard-earned dollars.

Please comment and make sense of what I just told you.

1More Tobin Sprout than Bob Pollard.
2Blinkerton Weezer. Also, Ocasek-era GBV is not the best era and did not involve Tobin Sprout. Yes, I contradict myself.
3Seriously, Billie Joe, hang it up.
4Although Lisbon and You & Me are the only two that have actually been released at the end of the summer, all their records sound that way.
5Seriously. The Afghan Whigs had something going with Gentlemen and even Black Love (to a lesser extent) until they sort of forgot what they were doing. Kids today don’t realize how good that band was.
6This post also represents my tendency to being repetitive. Repeatedly. Again.
7Honestly, I’m not that familiar with Deerhunter’s discography. I’m going by what I’ve heard and read.
8The sonic levels reached are quite enjoyable as well, but they don’t reach as high as the last time out.
9This is the point where this post loses its own cohesion.
10What a copout.