Beer and Pavement

Best Records of 2012

Posted in Records, Review by SM on December 30, 2012

Here are ten of the best records I heard this year, in no particular order[1]

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Man, I loved last year’s Wye Oak album and needed more this year. Luckily, Sharon Van Etten came through this year. Similarly to Wye Oak, Van Etten seemed to come from nowhere[2] to unleash a haunting rock record that grips you from start to finish. It didn’t hurt that half of Brooklyn collaborated it behind the scenes or in the margins to help Van Etten deliver a punch to the gut. Still, it’s defining moment for a musician I hope to hear more from in the coming years.

The Walkmen – Heaven
Nothing new here. The Walkmen release a record and I love it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their records are always this good. Somehow a band known for songs about going out and drinking have eventually written one of the best albums about adulthood, having children and all that. There’s a simplicity to The Walkmen formula that allows them to adjust to their current living conditions. These are just working stiffs trying to put some food on the table and clothes on the backs of their children. I can get behind that.

Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I’m not gonna lie. I really didn’t care for this record upon the first listen. I was having buyer’s remorse as I listened to it stream on Spotify, knowing that the new local record shop was holding a copy for me. Then, I gave it another try as the record popped up on several year-end lists. It’s really a fantastic record as Titus Andronicus does what every New Jersey band does eventually: they all turn into Bruce Springsteen. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. It’s just a fact.

Cat Power – Sun
Yes, this has been a shitty year for Chan Marshall. However, that may mean she’ll have to put out more records and tour whenever she can scrounge up the dough and good health to hit the road. Cat Power has evolved from record to record. Now, after some faux-bravado, one gets the sense that Marshall is becoming comfortable with her station in life, embracing her demons, health issues, and apparent financial stresses in making what is maybe her most honest record in years[3].

Believers – Believers EP
Someone will surely give me a hard time for praising Believers again, but the praise is legit. Although this EP feels somewhat incomplete[4], it brings with it the promise of great things to come. I fully suspect several of these tracks will reappear – possibly re-recorded/remastered – on an LP via some high-profile indie label.

Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Honestly, this would be my record of the year. It’s a bit more uneven than 2009’s Post-Nothing but it still contains that raw energy that only Japandroids can bring without an ounce of irony. This band makes me want to hit the bars and dance all night before the reality of my middle-class-mortgaged-parenthood comes crashing down on my fantasies. Still, it’s nice to dream/reminisce once in a while.

Best Coast – The Only Place
On one hand, I don’t know why I like this band. On the other, I don’t know why I ask the first question. Like Japandroids, Best Coast has found a recipe that works. Unlike the “live like there’s no tomorrow” message in a Japandroids’ song, Best Coast wears their California lovin’ on their collective sleeves. I appreciate this love for one’s home state. Like Jenny Lewis and The Eagles, Best Coast won’t let you forget where they’re from and they’ll make you want to live there as well.

Dinosaur Jr – I Bet on Sky
How is it that Dinosaur Jr. is writing and recording better music after they’ve reunited? Maybe it’s that Lou Barlow has been allowed to come into his own. Maybe it’s because J Mascis has mellowed his ego. Whatever it is, I hope they never stop making loud records.

Hospitality – Hospitality
Last year, it was Eleanor Friedberger. This year, it’s Hospitality. Last year’s Friedberger joint Last Summer had me longing for some straight girl pop rock from the City. Hospitality filled that void admirably. And when you close your eyes, you think it’s Belle and Sebastian.

Dirty Projectors –Swing Lo Magellan
I really expected a letdown from Dirty Projectors, but this record – more straightforward than previous efforts – did not disappoint. I knew this as soon as I dropped the needle to reveal the opening track.

Discovered too late to form a proper assessment, but they’re pretty great: Tame Impala, Diiv, Grizzly Bear, Metz

Overall, this year wasn’t nearly as inspiring as last year’s onslaught of great records. However, most of these would rank among last year’s best. So, take that for what it’s worth, which is basically nothing.

1Ranking art just seems to be so archaic, so overdone. So, I will refrain from it this year. Instead, I’ll just tell you about ten records I liked.
2Meaning that, like Wye Oak, she hadn’t released anything of note until this latest album which is great.
3In Cat Power years, that’s maybe two records a decade.
4Let’s face it, every EP feels imcomplete. They are akin to the 20-minute set. You get a taste of the very best, maybe with one stinker. Just when you’re into it, it’s over.

CoMusic Filler: The Walkmen & The New Pornographers

Posted in Live by SM on May 2, 2011

I apologize for posting so late. Last night’s big news and a nasty cold I’ve been fighting was keeping me from being productive. Plus, I had blog posts that were due for two different blogs higher on my priority list. The post below was for the Collective. I have more to say and could possibly add footnotes later, but for now, this is what I saw/heard.

How many New Pornographers does it take to change a lightbulb?

As previously mentioned here, The Walkmen and The New Pornographers both graced the stage at The Blue Note Friday evening. As a Walkmen fan, I worried that the crummy turnout at the last two shows they played here would happen again Friday. Luckily, it did not. People turned out, but I don’t know how much they actually enjoyed themselves.

Let me be clear. Both bands put on excellent sets.

The Walkmen put on their typically solid set of songs, mostly from the last two records, but some old favorites were mixed in as well as some new, yet-to-be-heard songs. They were business like to match their business casual attire. Despite doing their job, the set moved efficiently and had energy. Highlights included a strangely tuned piano on “We’ve Been Had,” the previously mentioned new songs, and “The Rat” actually wasn’t the last song of the set.

The New Pornographers contrast The Walkmen in every possible way, but they balanced the night out with a good set of their own. Sadly missing was Dan Bejar, the best songwriter of the group, but we can’t get everything. Neko Case was there, pleasing many young men (and women) in the audience, garnering at least three offers of marriage. I had previously seen the band at the much larger Pageant in St. Louis where their set felt artificial, staged. Squeeze the Canadian supergroup onto the Blue Note’s tiny stage helped create a much more intimate setting, actually adding to the band’s pop-heavy energy. The New Pornos are a sharp group that put on a good show.

One thing both bands have in common is an unassuming, yet undisputed rock star leading the way. The Walkmen have Hamilton Leithauser, the tall, lanky, raspy-throated frontman who provided the prerequisite witty banter between songs. For the Pornos, they technically have three or so leaders. However, Dan Bejar, as mentioned above, was not there and Carl Newman just doesn’t seem to want that role. Neko Case was the rock star on hand Friday night. She held down her spot in front of the mic with tambourine in-hand. Sadly, the poor acoustics of the Blue Note did her voice no justice, but that’s another complaint for another post.

Despite all this alt-star power in the building, the Blue Note crowd was fairly apathetic. I can’t really figure out why the Note lacked energy. Two of the better touring acts come to our little college town on the same night, put on great sets, and it was a Friday nights should have meant an electric atmosphere. Sadly, that was not the case as many stood with arms folded. It could have been the questionable sound, the warm temperatures (I sweat in the Blue Note from April to October), or I completely misread both bands’ sets. Either way, let’s hope the CoMO crowd wakes up the next time two bands of this caliber play our favorite venue.

CoMusic Twitterview: The Walkmen

Posted in Live by SM on April 26, 2011

This past weekend, this post published over at The Collective. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek as whoever runs The Walkmen’s Twitter account was not ammused by the questions I sent them. Of course, if you read this blog regularly, you know how much I love The Walkmen. This semi-fake interview was not meant as a way to make fun of them. Instead, I want people to come out for once to see The Walkmen. The two times I’ve seen them here, barely anyone showed. I want people to check them out. I want New Pornographer fans to show up early enough to catch both bands. Whatever. Here’s the somewhat fake Twitterview. I have a real interview with a real-life band in a few weeks. Until then, enjoy…

As a citizen journalist trying to get a blog off the ground, I’ll take an interview anyway I can get it. With The Walkmen set to play The Blue Note this Friday alongside New Pornographers, I approached the band with an idea for a Twitterview. They allowed me five questions. The conversation is below…

This seems on par for The Walkmen. They have never shied away from diverse influences. It helps one understand their sound which harkens back to some truly classic rock ‘n roll (Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino), a little doo-wop (Dion), the alt canon (Ramones, Morrisey), and a little something from this decade to hold your interest (Cass McCombs). These selections should tell you all you need to know about the band’s sound.

Lisbon is a pretty great record. It made several best-of lists, including mine. Reports showed that 17 tracks were left off the final version. The Tweet above tells you all you need to know beyond that.

This is where the interview stalled. Only being allowed five questions at 140 characters a piece didn’t make it easy to come up with good interview questions. Apparently, my other questions were too lame with which to bother or were somehow offensive. I guess I’ll never know.

I did try to Twitterview The New Pornographers, but they never responded.

So, in the interest of telling you all you need to know about the show at the Blue Note, I’ll piece together a proper Twitterview using The Walkmen’s Twitter feed. Here goes nothing…

For the musicians out there, @orangebuffalo asked the following question and received the following response…

The sound is pretty unique and will definitely grab your attention. The band does some subtle things with their sonis to create an aesthetic that is rather pleasing to the ear.

I had considered to ask questions about the set lists for the tour, but couldn’t fit it in the five questions the band was allowing me. Luckily, @whiteskittLs took care of it for me…

So, expect a lot of Lisbon Friday night.

What’s in store for The Walkmen after this tour? Well…

If we’re lucky, we might get to hear these new tracks on which the band is working. And next time, I’ll just interview a band like a normal journalist/blogger.

The Walkmen play the Blue Note with The New Pornographers this Friday, April 29. Doors open at 8:00. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Illustration by Justin Nardy. His Tumblr is here and Etsy shops here and here.

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.

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.