Beer and Pavement

Just Outside the Top 10 of 2011 (Albums)

Posted in Records by SM on December 13, 2011

Coming up with one’s ten best albums of the year is tough. I’ve done more than that, but narrowing a list to ten is a much more difficult task than simply naming all the albums you bought in a year. Also, I have the terrible habit of proclaiming albums to be the year’s best long before I should. Then, there are all the albums that simply have not been given the time they deserve.

That said, I have narrowed my list to nine. All I need is one more, but the list that follows is what I have left to consider. Sure, I might miss a few when it’s all said and done, but these are albums I’m still considering for one spot. Feel free to comment on what’s here and what isn’t. Keep in mind that I already chose nine to make the final cut. I just need one more…

The Albums I Haven’t Listened to Enough Even Though I’ve Had Them for Awhile: So, I’ve had some of these records almost since they were first released this year, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t had time to give them a proper listen. All of the albums in this group deserve serious consideration as I’ve spent some time over the past couple of weeks trying to get reacquainted.

Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
As I was considering my favorite tracks of the year, I rediscovered “Wake and Be Fine” on another list of top songs. It made me want to rediscover this album just to make sure I didn’t overlook it. I had. While the narratives and poetic flourishes Will Sheff normally demonstrates in his songwriting is somewhat subdued in order to make room for more hooks, the production and instrumental dynamics more than make up for it.

Joan of Arc – Life Like
Honestly, I could write something up that just tells you all I know and/or think about previous JoA records prior to this one and it might be somehow accurate in describing this record. However, I won’t tell you anything. Just know that it’s long overdue a sit-and-git. Maybe I’ll pour a beer also deserving my attention. Either way, I remember loving portions of it, but I never listened to it and it landed on the island of forgotten LP’s.

BOAT – Dress Like Your Idols
The poor man’s Yuck, possibly, deserves more listens. I’ve actually been playing the shit out of it lately, giving it a hard look for the final slot in my list. It’s loaded with all kinds of nods to my heroes and theirs (apparently). The aesthetic reminds me tons of the sort of nineties retro indie that The Soft Pack and Surfer Blood play. It’s good stuff but nothing earth-shattering.

Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
What a massively great album this is. Why isn’t it in my top-10 already? I really haven’t listened to it enough to make that decision. Maybe I’d hear that one bit that put it over the edge or make it unworthy of top-10 status. I don’t know. I blame the fact that Sub Pop’s digital download system didn’t work and I never bothered to follow up.

Low – C’mon
I loved this album a lot from the beginning, but I worried that I wasn’t giving it enough distance. Then, I gave it too much distance and nearly forgot. It seemed too perfect of an album to be Low’s and maybe I was missing something. That’s not saying Low doesn’t make great albums. I’m just surprised a Low album could contain so many memorable songs. Albums are their thing, not singles.

The Albums that I, for Whatever Reason, Did Not Purchase This Year: I know these bands are good. I’ve read and heard enough to know that these albums should be considered. Why I still haven’t purchased them is unknown to me. Luckily, there’s Spotify. I’ve been trying to catch up on some material I missed over the year. More than likely, I will own all of these albums by February. Still, they sit collectively just outside my top-10.

War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
I don’t know how one determines Spotify statistics, but I’m sure I’ve played this album more than all others over the past month while at my computer. For whatever reason, I didn’t buy this album, nor did I go see them when they came to town. It makes no sense and this record is pretty good.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
See above, aside from the not seeing him even though he was in town, because he was not in town this year. I loved his set at Pitchfork last year and loved whichever record I do own. The crime of not owning this record will be rectified soon enough.

Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
I own the other two Moore solo efforts plus a handful of weird records he’s done over the years. I have been loving anything Beck produces as of late – maybe my producer of the year. I am a Sonic Youth fan of like 20 years. So, why don’t I own this record? I have no idea. Now, I’m seeing it pop up on lists and I’m wondering what I’ve missed. Better give it another listen on Spotify.

I Saw These Guys and Was Impressed, So Their Albums Deserve Another Look: The following two acts were among those I saw play live. Somehow, I don’t own either album they were supporting. Upon considering the shows I’ve seen this year, that was an egregious oversight on my part. I’ll rectify it at least by giving them props where props is due.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
I made sure to see Callahan while in DC earlier this year, but I didn’t buy the record. Even his track “America” made my top tracks list. It’s a crime that I don’t yet own this record.

Jay-Z/Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Going to see Jay-Z and Kanye West forced me to play this album a ton on Spotify as a way to prep myself. Typically, I don’t like hip-hop records because they are single-heavy and loaded with filler. This album was different as it was complete from beginning to end. So, it deserves some consideration.

The Bands I’m Just Not Sure About at this Juncture: For various reasons, a few bands fell into this category. Some I loved right away, but I don’t know that it’s a long-lasting love, like for life kind of love. These albums still deserve some consideration, though.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
At one point, I was ready to name this “album of the year”, but something made me reconsider. It may have been seeing so many bros in the Fleet Foxes camp or my general distaste for hippies. I don’t know. It’s still very, very good. I’m just not ready to commit to including it in the top-10, yet.

Beirut – The Rip Tide
This might be the most complete and realized album of Beirut’s string of excellent albums, but I don’t know that it qualifies this year. In year’s past when I’ve had a hard time thinking of ten albums I like, it would have held down a seven spot. However, I have found an embarrassment of riches in this year’s crop. Beirut’s record is good, but it might not be top-10 good.

Destroyer – Kaputt
This was another album I was ready to crown early in the year, but it seems its eighties aesthetic finally rubbed me the wrong way. Bejar writes a pretty awesome song and somehow harnessed bad Casios to sound cool and even contemporary, but I lost my patience for this record over time. Then, I saw it make a few lists of people I respect, causing me to pause for a moment. Should I reconsider Kaputt?

WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
This album popped up on my radar since its June release or sometime shortly before that thanks in large part to their underground marketing schemes online. It’s big, epic, and incoherent in ways I’ve never heard before. That usually means that it goes directly to my top-10 list, but this year’s list is loaded and I only just laid my hands on this record, maybe six months after its release. So, it may still take time to decide on this one.

Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
Bright Eyes has gone down hill, but this album grew on me for a while, especially after seeing the band on its final trip across the country. Also, it’s been receiving some recognition, making me think that I need to revisit. Of all these records, it may have the longest shot, but it’s still a worthwhile album.

Albums by Locals That Were Really Good and Maybe Could Use a Bump from the Coalition: I don’t often hear local releases that

Ptarmigan – The Forest Darling
I said it back in May and I’ll say it again, Ptarmigan put out a great record that stands out locally or beyond. Read what I thought here and I’ll let that stand on its own.

Dubb Nubb – Sunrise Sleepeyed
It’s hard to believe sometimes that Dubb Nubb are so young as their songs demonstrate a wisdom well beyond their years. On top of that, they have an infectious sound that’s hard not to notice. I’m looking forward to seeing them play again at True/False in 2012.

Jerusalem & the Starbaskets – Dost
Dost is getting some good press and deservedly so. Lo-fi and blues revivalism with a touch of country seem to be coming along at just the right time. The band is touring extensively, but I have to believe that their one big opening gig from breaking. People eat this shit up. I do.

That’s not even the final list. As mentioned before, I have nine other albums I love more than these, but I felt they all deserved some mention and the benefit of 100 page views. Which one would you pick to add to my top-10? Did any of these make your list? Comment freely. My top-10 will hit eventually. There will probably be something similar for beer as well.

Why not Joan of Arc?

Posted in Live by SM on November 5, 2010

I saw Joan of Arc[1] play a club this week. Virtually no one was there.

What did they miss?

I only have one other JoA show from which to compare, but I know their extensive catalog well. Tim Kinsella put together a super tight four-piece that played an impeccable set of songs from various points in the band’s history. They rawked and played flawlessly. The guitar work in a JoA song is unmistakable and eternally compelling. It was just a great show.

So, why didn’t anyone go?

I will never understand why there aren’t as many people ape-shit over Joan of Arc as there are dolts like myself willing to fork over $35 to see Pavement do the ironic Eagles reunion deal[2]. And I love Pavement, but why doesn’t Joan of Arc get the same amount of love?

I guess whatever it is that JoA does, it’s difficult. I used to say that JoA songs were thirty or so seconds of brilliant pop structures and intellectually challenging lyrics with two minutes of noise and nonsense. It was worth it to patiently listen through automated birds chirping or chants or all kinds of percussion just to get to that diamond in the rough.

Then, they “broke up” and reunited as Owls. For my money, that Owls record is maybe the most complete Joan of Arc record ever. Then there were the years when they fucked around from album to album, challenging the listener every step of the way. There were the incredibly political releases in the Bush years all before what seems to be the band’s perpetual identity as a side-project for a guy who only does side-projects[3].

Whatever. Joan of Arc is not for the casual music listener. They are difficult. They demand your time and attention. I wish I had a beer analogy for you all, but there aren’t a lot of beers that challenge me the way a Joan of Arc record does. Sours used to do that[4]. Now, I just see them as a nice diversion from hops. The point is that there is really no way to explain Joan of Arc and maybe that’s the problem.

Either way, Joan of Arc is easily a top-10 band for me. No other band has as varied and as challenging a catalog as Tim Kinsella’s primary side-project does.

1Interesting that I wrote this short post on this topic on the heels of my last post on the Lost Abbey label. You know, burning women on the stake. Joan of Arc.
2Because, let’s face it, that’s what they did. I’m not criticizing the reunion. I’d do the same thing in a heartbeat. My point is that we are dummies for falling for this reunion and re-issue bull shit. I might be the guiltiest of all.
3This includes Cap’n Jazz, The Sky Corvair, Joan of Arc, Owls, Friend/Enemy, Everyoned, and Make Believe. None of these bands seem permanent and they exclude Kinsella’s solo work as well as various projects with which he’s been a part.
4Although, sours by Cantillon and Russian River challenge me a ton. However, I have very little access to these beers. So, maybe that’s why I don’t normally think of them as challenging in the way I do JoA material.

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Emo is dead.

Posted in Records by SM on January 30, 2010

OK. So, I’m like eight or so years behind on this declaration, but at least I’m right.

Emo was actually pretty dead before it even started for me1. I came of age in the nineties when we had one, maybe two labels for what we listened to2. I blame electronica and the internets for the proliferation of unneeded and, frankly, unwanted music genres. I heard the term “emo” for the first time in the late nineties to describe anything from Modest Mouse to Jawbreaker to Sunny Day Real Estate3. I really didn’t care for the term as it simply divided up my record collection even more. Emo meant very little to me.

It meant even less when it hit MTV. Every other band was labeled as “emo” whether they were or not, sort of like what they did to grunge or hardcore back in the day4. I watched and cringed as it spiraled from a somewhat annoying musical aesthetic to a downright obnoxious fashion trend found on the racks at Hot Topic.

Anyway, one of the originators from the emo scene was Chicagoan post-rock outfit Joan of Arc5. They were as emo-tional as the next band, but they were way more arty and esoteric than those emos with stars in their eyes. They screamed and whispered, freaked out and quietly minimalized the effect, but somehow they pulled together coherent albums from bits and pieces of indie rock genius. Their songs may not have been complete, but their albums felt as album-like as anything anyone else has released in the last 15 years.

That said, Joan of Arc Presents: Don’t Mind Control is a cacophony of an album not likely to help you understand the conundrum that is Joan of Arc or the idea of emo any more than when you started reading this post. The brothers Kinsella enlisted the help of like 1036 Chicago musicians who have previously played in JoA to help them fill two pieces of circular vinyl with whatever they had lying around to make one of the more interesting compilations I’ve heard in a while7. The difference here is that it’s a select group of bands connected to one band, none of them very well-known outside of this circle.

Thankfully, this is not an emo record. If this is what emo could have become, I would like emo. Of course, this is not emo, so I still don’t like that. The album is good though. It’s as pleasant a surprise as the engrossing JoA project Presents Guitar Duets. Kinsellas hang with some cool and very talented musicians for reals. The gambit of possibilities are all here as folks play some garage rock, ambient, math rock, white boy soul, etc.

New8 kids on the dead emo block are Los Campesinos! with their scream/sing-songy, boy/girl, pop manifestos of sexuality and longing for some American rock ‘n roll. At first listen, one might not hear the emo on their sleeves, but as the record plays, you pick up on sudden start/stop action and some pretty gut-wrenching vocal performances. The largest difference between Los Campesinos! and most traditional emo bands is that they have a girl. That and one can tell by their lyrics that they may very well have had sex with one or more girls9. To boot, the instrumentation is large, varied, and intense.

This music is what emo would sound like with horns, a sense of humor, and some pop sensibilities. Emo could have evolved into Los Campesinos!, but it didn’t. They are certainly no emo band, but you can hear the connection. Either way, their latest LP Romance Is Boring is a fantastically big record, worthy of the path blazed by labelmates Broken Social Scene and Stars.

When a traditional band of a genre and youngin of similar ilk release records on the same day that do nothing but obliterate said genre, that genre is dead. Emo is dead. I don’t care how late I am with this declaration, but it’s dead as dead. No more wisps of jet-black hair over a distraught teenager’s right eye will be tolerated. No more screams over guitar anthems about the girl who left you at the mall. Nope. It’s time to move on. Joan of Arc and Los Campesinos! have. Won’t you join them?

1OK. Really, emo was never a viable genre and certainly hasn’t been around for a long, long time. I’m using it as my only way to connect these two seemingly different albums for a review. I realize that this is lame, but I wanted to write a blog post about the records that came in the mail and this is all I could think of.
2Alternative was the label for the early 90’s, but that became rather lame pretty quick. “Alternative to what?” The other label is the one I use today: indie. It’s maybe worse than alternative, but it has always sounded cooler and less corporate than alternative. I also realize that this also fails to mention math rock, post rock,, lo-fi, etc., etc. Just let me make my point.
3The funny thing is that Sunny Day Real Estate is generally considered the godfather of emo…That is until emo became not-cool. Since emo’s demise, no one ever mentions Sunny Day Real Estate as an emo band, but that’s what they were. There were probably the emo band.
4Sonic Youth is a perfect illustration of both of these misnomers. In the eighties, they were called a hardcore band. When grunge rolled around, they were lumped in with that lot due to their connections to Nirvana and Mudhoney. Sonic Youth is as much a hardcore or grunge band as they are an emo band.
5Actually, Joan of Arc rose from the ashes of emo-originators Cap’n Jazz. The other band that developed from Cap’n Jazz was The Promise Ring, an emo-trailblazer for sure.
6The number listed on the album’s packaging claims 41. They also included a poster of all the players. I didn’t count them, but I bet it’s closer to 41 than 103.
7Well, since last year’s brilliant Dark Was the Night was released. That was a great record.
8Not really that new.
9This is not to say that virginity means that they are not manly enough for more aggressive forms of music or that not having girlfriend makes them a lesser life form. What I’m getting at here is that emo lyrics often address the absence of a girl in the singer’s life. Just sayin’.


Posted in Manifesto, Pop by SM on January 24, 2010

I watched the last couple of episodes of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien this past week. I hadn’t watched one episode of the late night talk show since O’Brien took over, but I always knew that I preferred O’Brien over his predecessor Jay Leno from watching Late Night for years. (That and his years with The Simpsons were easily the best in that show’s history.) He is a vastly superior comic who doesn’t have to depend on clichés and newspaper clippings sent in by his viewers to write a joke.

His last few shows included a gag where he pieced together the most expensive comedy bits ever in order to run up NBC’s bill. One night, he dresses up the world’s most expensive car as a mouse whose theme song is the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and the next he “buys” a former Kentucky Derby winner dressed in a mink Snuggie™ watching restricted NFL footage. O’Brien outdid that with a giant sloth skeleton “purchased” from the Smithsonian, spraying an “original” Picasso with beluga caviar.

These bits were a stroke of genius as he appeared to be really sticking it to NBC by running up the bill for the show. It’s like that guy in the office who’s about to be laid off, so he gathers as many office supplies as he can fit into his car before leaving. The sketches were so convincing that it prompted outrage from viewers over wasted spending. This is the type of comedy that gets beyond those “wacky politicians in Washington” and men are from Venus” triviality. This is the same “outside-the-box” comedy that doomed shows like Arrested Development or…um…that’s pretty much the list.

Amidst all the comedy, in one truly sincere moment, O’Brien had this to say:

All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.

While positive and gracious in his exit, O’Brien left me feeling a bit…well…cynical about the whole thing. His message was true and from the heart. He’s probably right in that cynicism doesn’t lead to many good things. Of course how can he feel cynical with that $40 million buyout from NBC…

Sorry. Cynicism just took over.

I don’t blame O’Brien for taking the money. I think it was shitty how NBC treated him. I’m with Coco on this one.

His cynicism comment got me thinking about the fine line between cynicism and critique. It’s hard in these days of post-Bushian patriotism and post-Obama Hope™ and Change® to critique anything without running the risk of the “cynic” tag. A cynic looks at an occurrence with skepticism and questions motives or perceived viability – or at least that’s how I take it. Why shouldn’t we closely examine every situation for inaccuracies, inconsistencies, or dishonesty? Should we just accept everything at face value? Is everything as wonderful and altruistic as others would like us to believe?

Because we question one’s motivation or analyze the unseen effects of an event does not mean we are adding nothing to the conversation as the term “cynic” implies, especially in O’Brien’s use of the word.

Is the age of cynicism dead? Did it get thrown out with irony? It sure seems that way sometimes.

Take the Pavement reunion. No one, including myself, thought this gig would happen once much less a full-blown world tour that includes every summer festival on the circuit. It seemed as if front man Stephen Malkmus was tired of working with suspect musicians and the rest of the band was tired of his ego. A reunion seemed out of the question.

Why are they getting back together? It has to be the money. Look at the killing Pixies made. Dinosaur Jr is more popular than ever. Even a band like Cap’n Jazz reunited for one night not just to relive old times and to give their fans another taste of what they miss, but it also happened to coincide with C’nJ off-shoot Joan of Arc’s album release and tour. These bands all wanted to make some cash off their legacies while they still could.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of this. It’s great that Conan O’Brien was at least able to walk away with millions (sadly sans the masturbating bear). I love that my favorite band Pavement will make a ton of money this summer. They should. I won’t begrudge them that. If pointing out monetary benefits as motivation or somewhat justifiable consolation makes me a cynic, then so be it.

Cynicism is not dead (nor irony). Sure, it’s critique’s older, uglier step-brother, but it’s necessary. It shouldn’t paralyze us with apathy. However, it also won’t keep us from smashing those rose-colored glasses of ignorance. I’m okay with tempered cynicism. It has it’s place no matter what Conan O’Brien or anyone else has to say about it.

Of course, as I write this, I’m wondering if I just wanted to up my visitor count by mentioning “Conan O’Brien” and “Pavement reunion” all over this post. Maybe I am, but it doesn’t mean that this post holds any less truth.

Oh, and cynicism is welcome in the comments. See, there is a place for cynicism in this world.