Tuesday, December 23, 2008

regarding nostalgia.

-My grandmother died five years ago today. There are some things from high school I always carry with me, like my aversion to using the phrase "passed away" or my love for her. I like to think she's feeling whole and loved, wherever she is.

-New Found Glory has a new song, "Listen to Your Friends," from their upcoming full-length Not Without a Fight. It uh... sounds like standard New Found Glory, so take that as you will. You can only stream 30 seconds of it via iTunes; ya gotsta pay if you want to hear the whole dang thing.

-Thursday, on the other hand, is streaming their single, "Resuscitation of a Dead Man," from their forthcoming Epitaph debut Common Existence, on their MySpace. Of course, you could always buy that too... Not sure how I feel about this one. The vocals sound a lil too processed for my taste, and I secretly think the boys from New Jois are trying to do a Full Collapse retread, which is lame to me but good news for most folks, I guess.

-Anyone else think it's funny that both of the above bands are on Epitaph now? That label cranked out so many vital albums for so long, but they've been mostly bricking shits for the last like five years or so. Here's hoping these two records turn things around. Sure, The Weakerthans and The Bouncing Souls have done well on Epitaph, but Escape the Fate? I Am Ghost? The walking hate speech speak & spell that is Sage fucking Francis? Argh!

-Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil founder Black Shwarzenbach is finally starting to announce the shows for his new band, Thorns of Life. Of course, these shows are in fucking California... Apparently, dude and his crew played a secret show in Philadelphia at the end of November. Curses!

-Punknews still hasn't run their "best of '08" lists. The anxiety is disconcerting me. DISCONCERTING.

-UPDATE/SPOILER ALERT: So, I was looking up some information about Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, which was re-released this year, for my year-end list. Dennis, brother and band mate to Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson, put out this severely underrated beauty back in 1977, and Legacy Recordings was kind enough to remaster the album, as well as package it with Bambu, its unreleased follow-up. The result is 33 tracks of gorgeous, sunny pop in the vein, of well... Beach Boys, but with rawer, bluesier, and more emotional overtones.

Anyhoozle, turns out you can stream most of the album on Dennis Wilson's pseudo-official Web site (I say pseudo because he's been dead since 1983). And I strongly advise you to do so. If yer one of those hipster indie twee bucket motherfuckers, add this piece of butter to your precious white bread toast.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2007 - souped-up vinyl spinning round and round.

So here we are, my friend. Nearly at the end. This week’s list covers 2007, which, to be honest, isn’t that different from my original list. But if you think that’s anti-climactic, then you’d better gird your loins for my 2008 list, sucka-punk.

Not much else to say, really. 2007 was a good-but-not-great year for music, not that I’m complaining. I still spin the albums below on a fairly regular basis, although some of them (Planet of Ice, New Wave) are close to getting overplayed now.

In other news, I’ve been trying to come up with a retroactive name for these weekly installments:

  • Pop Life?
  • The 22-Year Run?
  • 22?
  • 22-10?
  • _____?

10. Nakatomi PlazaUnsettled

Lush post-hardcore abounds in Nakatomi Plaza’s third album, Unsettled. Easily the group’s best release to date, it boasts ridiculously jawesome guitar solos, socio-political commentary, and classy breakdowns. Co-vocalist and guitarist Oscar Rodriguez’s solos are probably my favorite part of this band; he shreds gloriously note-for-note live, and these studio recordings perfectly capture his effects pedal-laden riffage. Powerful yet graceful, it bums me out that these guys didn't get their due before breaking up. Recommended for fans of Thursday and Jawbox. Now if only I could convince the band to stay together…

9. The White Stripes – Icky Thump

After The Raconteurs’ collaborative approach, Jack White returned to his main squeeze The White Stripes with renewed purpose for Icky Thump. While I’ve come to appreciate the band’s back catalogue, I have to admit, this is actually my favorite Stripes record. There’s a fair amount of rocking tunes, especially the title track, but what really draws me to Jack is the way he sprinkles humor among his guitar licks. Cuts like “Conquest,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told),” and “Rag & Bone” are funny enough to stand out, yet seriously rocking enough to become more than just novelty tunes. Icky Thump has a classic rock flavor without all of the hedonism and self-importance.

8. Tegan and Sara – The Con

Filled with synth, folk-pop, and angst, The Con made me realize that there were so many more qualities to Tegan and Sara than lame haircuts and “Walking With a Ghost.” These sisters are a pretty smart pop duo, delivering raw numbers like “The Con” and “Nineteen” with utmost sincerity and cajones. The Con is all over the place, harkening back to the band’s folk-y early days on “Call It Off” while reaching into Cure-like levels on the title track and “Back In Your Head.” Their sorrow sounds ever so sweet, thanks to concise song structures and solid hooks. And hey, they roll with Hunter Burgan, Kaki King, and Matt Sharp on this record, so clearly they’re nice folks, right?

7. Minus the Bear – Planet of Ice

Listening to Minus the Bear’s Planet of Ice is like getting a foot rub from Jesus Christ reincarnated as a panda bear. It’s like experiencing the sunrise through rose tinted 4-D glasses. You know that subset of people who think doing drugs and listening to Pink Floyd or The Animal Collective is awesome? Those people are stupid. Listening to Planet of Ice is super fine without supplements.

I’d like to apologize for my hyperboles, but I simply cannot deny the mastery of this progressive dance surf synth rock album. It’s that fucking good. The band didn’t rewrite Highly Refined Pirates, and it’s for the best. Between Planet of Ice and the experimental remix album Interpretaciones del Oso, Minus the Bear has revealed a fearlessness in songwriting that is practically unparalleled. Well, Mew might be able to keep up. But surpass? Forget about it; Minus the Bear is your Technicolor panda bear savior.

6. PJ Harvey – White Chalk

Having temporarily exhausted her guitar, Harvey rebooted her songwriting by switching to a new instrument - piano, resulting in this minimalist, unforgettable gem. Harvey’s overall strength as a songwriter has always been her erratically explorative nature. She’s a wicked guitarist and a gripping lyricist, and her vocals range from rocking to haunting to soulful, but her one general constant has been an unwillingness to rehash her past work. Uh Huh Her, Harvey’s lone attempt to rekindle the guitar squall of older records Dry and Rid of Me in 2004, came across like a midlife crisis. It felt as if Harvey had done all she could do with her guitar, but retained the compulsion to write.

All of the songs on White Chalk are piano compositions. Harvey’s playing is basic, but in the most blessed of ways. Her songs are simple, free of excess, like a Beatles or Beach Boys tune, only much, much more depressed. From “The Devil” to “The Mountain,” White Chalk is the perfect autumnal comedown record. Harvey’s soprano vocals show extreme restraint, a perfect complement to her shimmering chords.

For the most part, White Chalk is a quiet success in the vein of Emily Haines, Nick Drake and The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely. Harvey’s restraint cracks here and there on tracks like “Silence" and "The Piano,” but it completely explodes on closing number “The Mountain,” when she finally lets loose a ghastly wail that rings like a death cry. But whether she’s quiet or loud, Harvey is still exploring new avenues as a songwriter, creating a catalogue of songs that are connected by degrees but stand by their loathsome selves as well.

5. Crime in Stereo – Is Dead

My favorite hardcore band of 2007, and they didn’t even make a hardcore record. Crime in Stereo is pushing its musical boundaries while still remaining within in the realm of “catchy.” After releasing one of the best political hardcore records of 2006 (The Troubled Stateside), Crime in Stereo could’ve rested on its bevy of juicy riffs and shredding vocals for a good long while. Instead, these Long Island duders chose the hard road, concocting a quick follow-up that inverts the band’s formula. Where The Troubled Stateside was a hardcore record that occasionally got melodic, Crime in Stereo is Dead is a melodic record that occasionally gets hardcore. The title is entirely appropriate, as this record is a drastic but rewarding change-up in the CiS canon.

This album bends the rules of its genre, pushing forth a new punk aesthetic that jams out without being ridiculous, and sacrifices none of its ferocity in exchange for a bit of grace. Few bands besides Thursday are trying to push forward such a powerful dynamic like Crime in Stereo, but here’s hoping …is Dead changes the way kids think about their music. Like the artwork says, long live Crime in Stereo.

4. Big D and The Kids Table – Strictly Rude

Like zombies, tax forms, and Jason from the Friday the 13th series, ska just won’t stay dead and gone. Luckily, this isn’t such a bad thing, thanks to Boston ska masters Big D and The Kids Table. The group has been turning out all types of ska/punk gems for over a decade now, and their fifth full length, Strictly Rude, shows no signs of wear. While slightly uneven, Strictly Rude is a great album, not just from Big D and The Kids Table, but for the ska genre in general. For the most part, the band has dropped its punk edge in order to create a purely ska record, a la The Specials or The Toasters.

Ska is often thought of today as a stagnant musical style. The third wave ska subgenre, otherwise known as “modern ska,” has existed for about 20 years or so with minimal improvement. But Big D and The Kids Table have plowed through mediocrity to craft a series of revolutionary and brilliant albums which single handedly reinvigorate the ska genre. Boston may be one heck of a ways away from Kingston, but Big D and The Kids Table have still mastered Jamaica’s eclectic musical style, as proven by Strictly Rude.

3. The Menzingers – A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology

Joyous folk/pop punk from my own home state of Pennsylvania, A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology was a Valentine’s Day surprise for me this year. The group played a VD show at Siren Records at Doylestown, opening for Smoke or Fire and Fake Problems. The group recalls elements of Against Me!, Anti-Flag, and The Clash (whom do they honor with a stunning cover of “Straight to Hell”). Their live show is just as strong as the album, full of piss and fervor. A Lesson… is crammed with anthemic throat-shredders, with an acoustic ditty or two for variety. It’s hard to choose a favorite among the flock; the title track stands out with its repeated line “I supply my own divide / morality.” But so do “Sir Yes Sir” and “Alpha Kappa Fall Off a Balcony.” And again, how sweet is that Clash cover? These passionate Pennsylvanian punks make me giddy, and not just ‘cause of the alliteration they let me slip in.

2. Against Me! – New Wave

There was a ton of hullabaloo about Against Me!’s major label debut. Sire, home to such not very punk acts as The Ramones, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and The Replacements, may have coughed up the corporate cash to pay for New Wave, but I don’t care. The intolerant punk stream pushed Tom Gabel out and he pushed back by making his band bigger and broader. I hope every close-minded crusty-ass motherfucker hears these tracks and realizes that their former favorite punk band isn't writing punk songs anymore and couldn't care less about it. The jammy tides of “Ocean,” the dramatic balladry of “Bourne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” the slow burn of “Thrash Unreal.” They’re all awesome.

Butch Vig lends a deft touch to these recordings, layering the fuck out of the vocals and guitars and making a remarkable, to-the-point modern rock record. For the band’s part, they’re still doing what they've always done – writing about politics and the music industry and drugs and girls. Life, basically.

Against Me! is my Clash, my righteous call to arms. Gabel is every bit as conflicted about going mainstream as Joe Strummer; whether or not he can reunite his personal beliefs with his business practices like Strummer did is yet to be determined. He's gotten a lot more isolated from his audience; his stage banter is nearly nonexistent when he plays Philadelphia now. In the meantime, I've got nine amazing, catchy rock tracks and one goofy-ass grinding one (“Animal?” Really? You couldn’t swap it with B-sides “Full Sesh” or “You Must Be Willing?”)

1. Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Nearly 20 years after he began Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor continues to find new things to itch his craw. On his new album, Year Zero, these things happen to be the United States government and RIAA. A concept album, Year Zero tells the (hypothetical) story of what will happen in the year 2022 if the U.S. government’s rampant religious zealotism is not checked (apparently, Reznor thinks this will bring about the apocalypse). Despite the dark subject matter, Year Zero is one of the strongest, sexiest NIN releases in quite some time, offering a bundle of danceable grooves. At the same time, though, it manages to also be Reznor’s most experimental release since his underappreciated 1999 album, The Fragile. Either way, it’s a huge step up from the good, but tame, NIN-by-numbers of the 2005 comeback album With Teeth.

In a way, Year Zero is the real NIN comeback album. With Teeth was good enough in that it offered a few catchy singles, but it’s Year Zero which finds Reznor exploring new territory, not only as a songwriter, but as an all around entertainer. Furthermore, while With Teeth had flourishes of political outrage, such as on lead single “The Hand That Feeds,” Year Zero is completely dedicated to sticking it to the man.

In addition to summing up my thoughts on the human race, this album was the soundtrack to much love and dancing between my girlfriend and me. It figures that a record about the apocalypse would bring us closer together. Combining chaffing rage with surprisingly danceable beats, the end never seemed so sexy on cuts like “Capital G” and “HYPERPOWER!.” Mixed among the throbbing beats, though, lurks a real power, found in the digitized breakdown of “The Great Destroyer” or in the gang vocal call-to-arms on “Survivalism.” Unlike most concept albums, Year Zero feels lean and unpretentious, and the accompanying online game was kind of nifty too. This album is so good I own it in four formats: CD, vinyl, CD remix and vinyl remix. It’s sad to see that, just one year later, Reznor is releasing just about any old fart of an idea he comes up with. But this 2007 release shows that late period come-backs do still happen, however brief they may be.

TOMORROW: Check out punknews.org for my top 20 albums of 2008.

COMING JANUARY 1: Best of ’08 director’s cut, with a top 25 and other bonus content.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

regarding 'the bloop'

My throat feels like it swallowed a burning coal right now... but my brain, it lives! Have you guys and/or gals read about "The Bloop?" It's this weird audio phenomenon that took place deep within the ocean depths back in 1997. Basically, nobody knows what animal could've been big enough to make this ridiculously epic noise that was heard from thousands of miles away.

ANSWER: It was Cthulhu.

Is this music-related? Well, that depends on how you categorize your sounds, I suppose.

Monday, December 15, 2008

2006 - the consummate revisionist.

Though I’d been making lists for a few years, 2006 is the first time I bothered to write and rank a list of my top 25 albums for the year. It’s been interesting to look back and see what I still listen to (The Mountain Goats, a-doy) and what’s more or less dropped off my radar (Regina Spektor, it was fun while it lasted). So here’s the breakdown on my current list:

  • 7 of these albums were on my original list, and are marked with asterisks.
  • 5 of those albums have changed positions
  • 2 stayed the same
  • 2 of them weren’t heard until 2007
  • 8 of these include text from assorted Collegian articles, ‘cause I’m feeling lazy.

2006 was a hard year to choose favorites for, both then and now. There’s a slew of records from my original top 25 that would sound just as good here, such as The Bouncing Souls’ The Gold Record or Latterman’s …We Are All Alive. Or, ya know… original entries like Armalite’s self-titled debut or The Falcon’s Unicornography. Ultimately, this top 10 consists of albums that I consistently pulled out this year. It's getting harder to qualify what makes these "the best," but I do know that when I'm in a jam, these albums are what get me through.

10. Crime in Stereo – The Troubled Stateside*

Having been introduced to Crime in Stereo via their live show, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the album they were touring on at the time, The Troubled Stateside. I always thought it was a solid melodic hardcore record, but it didn’t quite capture the group’s live energy. To that end, The Troubled Stateside didn’t even chart on my original top 25 for 2006, garnering a mere honorable mention.

But in the two years since its release, The Troubled Stateside has slowly taken root in my brain. Songs like “Bicycles for Afghanistan,” “The Impending Glory of American Adulthood,” and especially the closing track, “I, Stateside,” strike a fine balance between melody and dissonance. It’s Long Island hardcore that sidesteps cliché chestbeating and “NYC HXC”-ism. Given its trajectory, I could totally see this record hitting my top five in two years.

9. AFI – Decemberunderground*

You can play any two successive AFI albums back-to-back, and it sounds like the same band. But try going from, say, The Art of Drowning to Decemberunderground, and you’re gonna be blown the fuck away. I’m not even gonna try comparing the pure, precise punk of Answer That and Stay Fashionable against this album's gothic electronic-pop. But I do know this: it’s a fantastic record. Most of it is tuneful and dark, fitting snugly between Ladytron and The Cure’s “Dark Trilogy.” But there are also elements of glam rock, punk, and emo hanging out. Even a touch of hardcore and hip-hop come in the form of the opening tracks “Kill Caustic” and “Prelude 12/21,” respectively. Fucking brilliant!

8. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country

A Scottish indie pop band that’s been kicking out the (soft, orchestral) jams since 1996, Camera Obscura has drawn a heck of a lot of comparisons to other pop classicists like Belle and Sebastian or even The Smiths. But on Let’s Get Out of This Country, Camera Obscura sound only like themselves, having turned out 10 delicious pop tracks in under 40 minutes. The album is almost evenly divided between peppy ditties and slower, more intimate numbers. But regardless of the tempo, Camera Obscura delivered a great record. Lyricist Traceyanne Campbelle is a stellar composer, jotting down and singing out songs that are compactly catchy yet still deeply moving, not unlike The Beatles’ back catalog.

7. The Secret Machines – Ten Silver Drops*

The Secret Machines are easily one of the greatest live bands I have ever seen. Incorporating a brilliant light show that adds to the ethereal music, they can jam for as long as they want and it still won’t feel long enough to me. Given how integral their live show is to appreciating their music, though, it’s a wonder Ten Silver Drops holds up with only the audio aspect of the band’s style represented. Slightly tweaking the sound they showcased on Now Here is Nowhere, The Secret Machines turned in a lucid, drug-fueled work of heartache with Ten Silver Drops. Like a more emotive Pink Floyd, The Secret Machines are atmospheric and straight up hypnotic. Not just because of the playing, but also because of the sympathy/empathy involved. It’s essentially a break-up record… on acid. A heartbreaker like “Alone, Jealous and Stoned” kind of sums up my first half of 2006 (minus the part about being stoned. STRAIGHT EDGE! MY LIFE IS A WAR! [I’m leaving this in because I think it’s precious, albeit no longer true.]). Actually, it sums up my entire year. First it’s slow and sullen. Then it rocks the fuck out (just like during my seven months with Michelle).

6. Brand New – The Devil and God are Raging Inside of Me*

Bitter Long Island emo duder Jesse Lacey just keeps getting weirder. But his work on The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, with its swirling guitars and sullen lyrics, are proof that at least he can still rock out. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, in addition to having a silly title, is a difficult album. Clocking in at nearly an hour, its pseudo-prog rock moments may scare away some and irritate others. But those who dare to make it through the whole thing will be rewarded with one of the best Brand New songs ever – “The Archers Bows Have Broken.” Lacey spent too much time on Deja Entendu talking about how he could’ve been a great songwriter if he actually tried. But “The Archers Bows Have Broken,” with its quick pace and unyielding sense of U2-style bravado, is proof that he wasn’t bullshitting us the whole time.

5. The Lemonheads – The Lemonheads

Evan Dando spent a few years being the butt of jokes before he decided, “Hey, I shit my bed with great pop songs every night. What if I tried to write something good?” The result was this tight, infectious, country rock-tinged collaboration with The Descendents’ rhythm section. Rivaling even megahit It’s a Shame About Ray, The Lemonheads is just as effortless-sounding but still wicked fun. How else can you explain the opening track “Black Gown?” It rocks and rolls so dang hard, with a dash of feedback for indie cred, while discussing the fine points of werewolf removal. I kind of view this record as a cousin to Band of Horses’ Everything All the Time below. Both records take a country rock cue from Wilco and My Morning Jacket while adding their own spin. Everything All the Time is the haunting sunset to The Lemonheads’ joyful sunrise.

4. Band of Horses – Everything All the Time*

Beautiful and ethereal, Band of Horses are a solid indie band with some solid Southern hooks in their solid arsenal. Everything All the Time floats by quite easily; it’s hard to believe it’s only 36 minutes long. But then, that’s part of its easy-going nature. Singles “The Funeral” and “Great Salt Lake” both sum up the album perfectly – soft but forceful, elegant but rocking. And while follow-up Cease to Begin doesn’t tweak the sound much, there’s no need. These guys have found a nice a groove, and I fully intend to see how long they can keep it going.

3. Thursday – A City By the Light Divided*

Unlike their ‘90s forefathers, “emo” bands this year embraced pomp and melodrama like whoa. My Chemical Romance tried to be Queen and Panic! at the Disco tried to be… the emo Cirque de Soleil? I dunno. But not enough people gave props to Thursday for being the “emo U2” with this year’s A City By the Light Divided. Passionate and purposeful, this album is a huge, but logical, change away from War All the Time. This stuff is much more hopeful (a la The Joshua Tree, in spirit at least). Thursday always had a commanding presence, but this is the first time I’d call their songs “epic.” From the Full Collapse-referencing “The Other Side of the Crash” to the near-seven-minute closer “Autumn Leaves Revisited,” A City By the Light Divided is arguably the strongest Thursday release yet.

2. Silversun Pickups – Carnavas

Silversun Pickups’ 2006 release was arguably one of the greatest alt-rock sleeper hits of 2007, thanks to the atmospheric love song “Lazy Eye.” Music shorthand demands I compare this L.A. band to The Smashing Pumpkins, and admittedly, the two do share similarities: A rock band from the indie circuit with dreams of bigger, arena rock moments. Plus, they have the same initials. But while there are “big guitar” instances on tracks like “Well Thought-Out Twinkles” and “Future Foe Scenarios,” the record is more like a companion piece to The Smashing Pumpkins’ moody albums Adore and MACHINA than a tribute.

Musically, Carnavas is a record of convergence. You’re never totally sure what’s guitar and what’s keyboard. Or if those vocals are completely male or backed up by lady bassist Nikki Monninger. Sure, the lyrics don’t always quite make sense (there’s another similarity with Billy Corgan’s earliest and latest work!). But they do create vivid images. The little lover who’s so polite; the moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life but isn’t quite right; revolution, baby. Carnavas is a great record to feel. You can dance to it and rock to it and sleep to it and cuddle to it and maybe even eat a sandwich to it.

1. The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely*

Sometimes, you just gotta go with your gut. When initially planning this series, Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of This Country took my top spot for ’06. But, given time to rethink that decision, I find that it’s actually my original top pick, Get Lonely, which rules my heart most. Given that CO eventually ended up at #8, I think it’s clear how close all these rankings are to begin with. In a way, the numbers are superfluous; what matters is that these albums matter to me at all.

John Darnielle delivered another mellow folky soon-to-be-classic with Get Lonely. His previous effort, The Sunset Tree, dealt with Darnielle’s mixed feelings towards his abusive stepfather’s death. Get Lonely is that album’s companion piece, dealing with the aftermath. After his stepfather’s funeral, Darnielle struggles to move on over the course of 12 tracks. But amid the quiet introspection, The Mountain Goats provide anthems. Lines like “Half Dead”’s simple chorus of “Can’t get you out of my head / Lost without you / Half dead” is conveyed with such emotion, resignation, and at the same time determination, that it’s nearly impossible not to bond with this record. It’s sad bastard music, but it’s the most gloriously sad bastard music since Morrissey himself.

NEXT WEEK: did you happen to notice that the words just get in the way, there is an ocean in my soul, and other non-surprises, 2007.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ted Leo at The Barbary 12/14/08

Transportation troubles abounded for the Ted Leo/Cale Parks show at The Barbary Sun., Dec. 14. Parks, the Brooklyn-based electronics fan and pseudo-percussionist opener, lost some chunks of his rental car’s engine. On my end, my bus-riding, concert-going partner got lost somewhere on the outskirts of King of Prussia, wandering up and down the 202 highway on foot. A rescue mission was coordinated between his girlfriend and I. And as for headliner Ted Leo, well, the weariness of the road in general was tearing at him, as he amicably told the crowd through a series of anecdotes. In the last month or so, Leo’s gotten pulled over for speeding four times. He nearly died in a blizzard trying to get from Boston to Buffalo. But he did finally check out this one vegan restaurant somewhere in Pennsyltucky that he’s driven by dozens of times.

For all this hassle, thank goodness that show turned out so nicely.

Cale Parks specializes in sound collages and ambient vocals, which only synchs up with Ted Leo’s style if you count his experimental Tej Leo(?), RX / pharmacists album. All told, Parks was a decent, though somewhat lackluster, opener. He kept his set brief. He often avoided speaking directly into mic. Clearly owing a debt or two to Brian Eno, Parks’ music is ethereal yet dance-oriented. But it lacks a certain drive. With the exception of “Every Week Ends,” his live drumming never went beyond the simplest of notes. The preprogrammed beats weren’t that much more complex either. While minimalism can be a virtue, Parks’ compositions often seemed like the electronic equivalent of a grade school band recital. I kept waiting for “Hot Cross Buns,” to no avail.

Leo, however, was not lacking in energy or dexterity. He walked in through the front door, went to the stage, plugged in his electric guitar, and, after a few mock cock rock poses on the monitor, proceeded to tear through his set list. The first few songs went over well, with the highlight being a cover of “Nobody’s Driving” by Amebix. Later, Leo started cranking out older tunes like “The High Party” and “The Sword in the Stone,” to even greater applause. But while his originals are mighty fine, it was Leo’s covers and conversational skills that made the show truly great.

See, Ted Leo is the sort of the guy that, if you talk to him, he will talk back. The two of you will have a discussion. When he thanked the crowd for applauding after a song, one fan said, “You’re welcome.” This provoked a five minute dialogue about the performer/audience dynamic (and a running joke for the rest of the night). Another fan asked him about his Amebix cover. This later segued into a chat about Leo’s take on band reunions (Amebix good, The Specials bad, The Mescaleros… dubious), which in turn provoked a debate about whether or not Leo should cover “Johnny Appleseed” (Sadly, he didn’t). He told us about traveling versus “being on the road.” He talked about headlines that tickled his fancy.

The Barbary’s intimate settings allowed for a much more personal set than the one Leo gave at The Electric Factory with Against Me! a couple of months back. Surprises (The Misfits’ “Angelfuck?” Wha?) blended easily with more predictable choices like “Colleen.” Even without a band, tunes like “Little Dawn” and “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” sounded loud and raw and passionate. Leo’s guitar playing had a nervous energy to it, which got the better of him when he tried to mimic the tin whistle solo on “A Bottle of Buckie” and had to switch to whistling after two failed attempts. He played this double flub off quite charmingly, though.

After about 85 minutes of music and conversation (with a surprisingly tender take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” near the end), Leo bid the crowd adieu to hurry home to their Comcast digital cable. The night turned out great in the end, as Leo’s set felt less like a rock show and more like a conversation with a good friend. Overall, the strong set list and friendly atmosphere made for a good show. Afterward, I drove my buddy home, and he showed me how to get back to I-95.

Monday, December 8, 2008

2005 - can i tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?

Michelle and I often get into debates about where music is going lately, and she’s maintained for a couple of years now that music is dying. Now, I love my girlfriend. I’d take a bullet for her, I’m ready to move in with her, and in a few more years, I could even see myself having kids with her. But sometimes… she’s fucking wrong. Maybe it’s a youth thing, but I vehemently disagree with her negativity in this area. If pushed, I could expand the list for 2005 to a top 25 or higher. And indeed, starting with 2006, I can list top 25s on the spot, because I'm the sort of nerd that does that kind of thing.

I think that what is different about rock music now and, say, 15 years ago, is that I can’t look to the mainstream much any more. The only major label release on this list is Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans, but I bought that album because of the band’s previous work, not because of Atlantic Records’ advertising dollars. For me, finding good music is not a job for record labels or radio stations or television programs or the local family-owned Best Buy. It’s up to me. I alone have to work at it, because it’s out there, waiting. I believe that art is always alive. I believe it is a part of and apart from my blood. Whether or not I come find a specific band does not validate its existence, but it can validate my own. I always operate under the notion that good music is out there. Sometimes I just need to do the research, and that’s why I read music criticism. That’s why I talk to my friends about it. Hell, that’s why this blog exists. There are no bad years for music, but there are some that require a little more effort than others.

10. Latterman – No Matter Where We Go…!

No Matter Where We Go…! is unquestionably the best album I ever purchased based solely on its album cover (#2 being Ride’s Nowhere and #3 being mothafucking Master of Puppets!). I was hung up on a female lady chick woman girl, so I opted to stuff my sad-gills with records. I picked up this lil gem, and Black Flag’s My War on a separate trip, and the combo exorcised my sad sack ways. As you can see to the left, Latterman’s second album boats a mid-air high five on the cover.

That is cool.

The music is pretty great too. While the record is noticeably more stripped than both its predecessor and follow-up, No Matter Where We Go…! is a mainline of righteous posi-punk right to the heart. With song titles like “Yo, Get Into It” (“We gotta get out of these boxes!”) and “Video Games and Fantasy Novels are Fucking Awesome,” it’s easy to find the happiness in Latterman’s struggle for better days. The best track, though, is “Doom! Doom! Doom!”. Because of it’s needling guitar intro. Because of the way that intro segues into a steady rock drum beat. Because the first line is “Raise your hand.” Because it’s balls to the face punk rock in all its giddy glory.

9. The Blackout Pact – Hello Sailor

Thursday’s Geoff Rickley liked The Blackout Label enough to sign them to his fledgling label, Astro Magnetics, so you’d think that endorsement would’ve been enough to garner these Colaradan comrades a place in the emo/hardcore community. Sadly, not so much. The Blackout Pact broke up a year after releasing Hello Sailor, their sole album, although they recently announced a rarities comp. Still, though, while TBP left behind a mere 10 songs to be remembered by, there’s not a single dud among them. “We Drink So You Don’t Have To” opens the album, and it’s arguably the best track here. With throaty vocals, handclaps, and angular finger tappin’ a-plenty, “We Drink” is a perfect emotional hardcore track for fans of Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, and Thursday.

After such a strong opening, it’s a wonder the rest of the album even holds up. “Luxlo Flaming Deluxlo” continues the jawesome rockin’ vibes, split between emo self-pitying and hardcore defiance. The off-time “Do I Sound Like I’m on Old Time Radio?” adds some diversity, but overall the record goes for a consistently rocking sound. The exception to that is the last track, “Lapis Lazuli,” a soft Christian tune. Rickley shows up for the bridge on the mosh pit ode “You Punch Me, I Punch You,” and while his vocals are kinda buried, it’s still a cool meeting of minds. This album’s enthusiasm got me through some rough patches.

8. Sleater-Kinney – The Woods

I’ll always be bummed that I didn’t get to see Sleater-Kinney live, but at least they went out on their own terms and with their best album. The band doesn’t really have any clunkers in their discographies, but there’s something about The Woods that feels like a culmination of everything the band had worked towards. The recording often goes into the red (like Raw Power!), offering the raw edge of the band’s early work while incorporating their latter day sense of melodies. The album is surprisingly psychedelic (like Are You Experienced?!), adding atmosphere to the searing siren calls on tracks like “The Fox” and “Entertain.” The Woods has a delicious soft moment with “Modern Girl,” a feminist tune about relationships that manages to be satirical and endearing at the same time. Sleater-Kinney wasn’t all hooks here, though, as “Let’s Call It Love” is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, 11-minute dirge that wonks and squeals all over in the name of our savior rock and/or roll. Like I said, I’m bummed I never saw this band live, but I’m also glad they ended their run so remarkably.

7. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

Did you ever forget you like a band as much as you do? This happens to me all the time with Death Cab for Cutie, with Modest Mouse and Metric taking a distant second and/or third. As much as I love Transatlanticism and The Photo Album and the recent Narrow Stairs, they’re just not albums I instantly think to put on. But whenever I do put on a DCFC record, I fall in love all over again, if only for a little while. Like, right now I’m listening to Plans as I write this paragraph, and I still can’t believe how uncompromised the band’s sound is for this, their major label debut. Ben Gibbard is still a sentimental sap and the tunes are still gentle and calming yet mildly muscular. This record meant a lot to me in fall ’05. I was back at college and had fallen out with a lot of my high school chums. As always, I was existentially and romantically troubled. Plans centered me a bit and calmed me down (like a neck rub!).

6. The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike

While it was originally released in the UK in 2004, The Go! Team’s debut record Thunder, Lightning, Strike made it onto my 2005 list because A) that’s when it was released in the states/I’m a good American and B) the track listing got even better. The record was already a charming amalgamation of bubblegum pop, early hip-hop, techno, indie rock, schoolyard chants and harmonicas in ’04, but the addition of “Hold Yr Terror Close” and “We Just Won’t Be Defeated” was a nice touch. The whole dang album is an infectious party stomper, but it’s the final three tracks that flow best: “Hold Yr Terror Close” is a pretty lil piano number that’s stripped down and mellow compared to the rest of the album, which makes the shift back to high gear via “Huddle Formation” that much better.

Arguably the best track on the album, “Huddle Formation” is also the most joyous song on this whole dang list. I almost wish I could make out what the words were, but the record’s lo-fi fuzz suits the endearingly rickety music. And then there’s the banjo-lovin’ “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone,” a thoroughly romantic ditty despite having no words whatsoever. I listened to this album for the first time in a while about a month or two ago, and the angelic exaltation I used to feel from Thunder, Lightning, Strike washed over me anew.

5. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday

I just got into The Hold Steady this summer. Pissed off by the constant Bruce Springsteen comparisons, I ignored the band if only because they just weren’t E Street-like enough. But after a year of badgering by Nate Adams, I finally caved and bought his favorite THS album, Separation Sunday. If nothing else, I figured it would be a great way to judge Nate… judgmentally.

But, green eggs-like, I loved the damn record. I love the classic rock throwback guitars for their razor-edge riffs. These six-stringers sound like rock music incarnate. I love the piano interludes for the classical touch they bring (and because, yeah… they do kinda recall Born to Run). But mostly, I love the band for Craig Finn’s incredible lyrics. The topics are well-worn: Drinking, women, music, losers. But the internal rhymes Finn scatters sound so playful and effortless, even though there is no way someone could hammer out the words to a song like “Stevie Nix” in a few minutes. In this sense, The Hold Steady reminds me more of Joe Strummer, both with and without The Clash, than Springsteen, because Finn and Strummer both exhibit a sort of playfulness despite all the fury and bluster. I also love how even when Finn recycles lyrics, and he does, he is the first person to call it out in the song.

I bought Separation Sunday a few days before I started working temp jobs. I played this album in my car for two weeks straight, and the 11 tracks about tramps and bums and guys who just don’t quite fit in made the somewhat pathetic turn my life had taken (All those internships and English awards just so I could work phones?) slightly less depressing. “Lord, to be 33 forever…”

4. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm

To be lost in the forest
To be cut adrift
You've been trying to reach me
You bought me a book
To be lost in the forest
To be cut adrift
I've been paid
I've been paid

Don't get offended
If I seem absent minded
Just keep telling me facts
And keep making me smile
Don't get offended
If I seem absent minded
I get tongue-tied
Baby, you've got to be more discerning
I've never known what's good for me
Baby, you've got to be more demanding
I will be yours

I'll pay for you anytime

You told me you wanted to eat up my sadness
Well jump on, enjoy, you can gorge away
You told me you wanted to eat up my sadness
Jump right
Baby, you've got to be more discerning
I've never known what's good for me
Baby, you've got to be more demanding
Jump left

What are you holding out for?
What's always in the way?
Why so damn absent-minded?
Why so scared of romance?

This modern love breaks me
This modern love wastes me

Do you wanna come over and kill some time?
Tell me facts, tell me facts, tell me facts
Tell me facts
Throw your arms around me”

Everyone I meet influences my music taste, but no one has had a stronger pull than my special lady friend, Michelle. A few months into our dating experience, she started playing me “This Modern Love” by Bloc Party. A LOT. Like, every time we drove somewhere. Bit by bit, as I fell more and more in love with Michelle, the more I loved that song. In the event that we ever get married - we can't quite decide how best to give in to that old patriarchal form of oppression - this will probably be the song we dance to our (potential) wedding. Other contenders include "Sweet Avenue" by Jets to Brazil and "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" by Tracey Jordan.

My appreciation for the album as a whole soon followed, but it was “This Modern Love” that kindled that appreciation. Frontman Kele Okereke accurately covered all the highs and lows of two people trying to connect. He assures his lover not to get too offended if he seems absent-minded, that sometimes lapses are mere brain hiccups, not signs of a less than stellar love. And while I could be “so damn absent-minded,” and Michelle could at times be “so scared of romance,” we found a way to fill all the appropriate gaps, Tetris-like.

That the song is so dang catchy is a nice plus. Okereke’s voice is appropriately aching without sounding broken. He perfectly captures that fine line between agony and ecstasy that comes with a new love. Am I being cool enough? Am I too loud? Should I floss? Should I make sure this is OK and that is OK and this is…? It’s all there in his delivery. Drummer Matt Tong has long been known as the band’s secret weapon, so much so that remarking on his incredible beats and energy is almost a cliché. So I’ll keep it brief… Tong rocks this track. But it’s when the synth lines kick in at the end of the song that it really starts to jolt forth. The song is infectious throughout, but there’s a lot of restraint in the beginning. There’s a little guitar here, and Tong’s drum fills are quick flashes, spontaneous like conversations with your crush. If the music is to be symbolic for awkward flirting, and I really think it is, then the Moog explosion at the end is the first real passionate kiss. Not necessarily the first kiss, but definitely the first kiss after deciding, “Hey, this guy and/or gal is kinda neat. This could be more than one night. This could be more than one month. But I’m getting ahead of myself. SMOOCHES!”

3. Minus the Bear – Menos el Oso

Minus the Bear further explored electronic soundscapes on LP #2, Menos el Oso. While the record doesn’t quite feel like “an album” like Planet of Ice, it still stands as a great collection of potential dance singles. Chilly yet propulsive, Menos el Oso is pretty much great for any occasion: parties, the beach, burritos, driving, and maybe even snuggles. It’s hard to pick a stand-out, since the album is just so dang even, but for me it’s always been the traveling song “Pachuca Sunrise” that hits the hardest. Even when remixed for Interpretaciones del Oso, it’s still an amazing song. It’s a total ’80s tune, somewhere between new wave and shoegaze. Vocalist Jake Snider is so moved by one night at a Mediterranean beach while on tour that he wants to see if it’s “possible to put this night to tune and move it to you? / Don’t cry, I’ll bring this home to you / If I can make this night light enough to move.”

2. The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree

Would it surprise you to know that I was initially underwhelmed by The Sunset Tree? Or that when I wrote a list of my top five albums of 2005 at the end of that year, it only ranked fourth? I was originally let down by the sullen lyrical and music shift. I’ve always loved “This Year,” but as a whole the record lacked the raw energy of All Hail West Texas, or even We Shall All Be Healed. Now, of course, I listen to this album probably more often than any other Mountain Goats record, although Heretic Pride has been getting a lot of play.

The Sunset Tree opens with “You or Your Memory,” a slight, subtle hint at the depths yet to be spiraled into on follow-up Get Lonely. The records tell the story of John Darnielle’s strained relationship with his stepfather, in life and in death. And while Get Lonely rarely finds the strength to roar, The Sunset Tree finds plenty to feel alive about. While much of the record details the abuse Darnielle suffered, there’s a defiant jubilation buried underneath. “This Year” is about John’s teenage years – drinking, making out, playing video games, and, finally, fucking up his pop’s car. Everything feels more raw and intense when you’re a teen, and Darnielle captures that feeling perfectly in his descriptions of his relationship with a girl named Kathy. Hindsight lets us all know that they’re not together now, but she feels like his sole source of positivity, his whole world, when John recalls them “locking eyes / holding hands / twin high-maintenance machines.” For me, though, the line that’s stayed with me, and most of my friends, is the chorus, repeated over and over as a mantra: “I am going to make it through this year / if it kills me.”

Of course, John has another bright spot: dance music, described on… um… “Dance Music.” “So this is what the volume knob’s for,” Darnielle realizes as he buries himself in sonics to blot out his parents fighting. Musically, the record does dip into mellower fare, like on “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” or “Pale Green Things.” But it’s the stompers that keep us all going, like “Up the Wolves” and its discussion about the things you can’t let go about family members. It covers so many different angles – Darnielle promises listeners from abusive families that there’s hope, yet lines later he’s scoping out every way he can topple his own tormentor. “I’m going to get myself in fighting trim /scope out every angle of unfair advantage / I’m going to bribe the officials / I’m going to kill all the judges / It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.”

The Sunset Tree is a bonding experience. A story about pain. A message of hope. A catchy folk/rock album.

1. Against Me! – Searching for a Former Clarity

I’ll start by saying that this is my favorite Against Me! record. It’s a little more intricate and a lot more confessional. Sure, there are songs that take aim at politics (“From Her Lips To God's Ears (The Energizer),” “Justin”), but a good chunk of the album deals with AM!’s rising fame. Before they took shit for signing to a major, AM! took shit for signing to a better-than-average indie. It’s all in the past now, but the band was actually attacked for working with Fat Wreck Chords. Their tires were slashed at shows and zines even started running articles on how to sabotage the band’s shows. To that end, it’s no surprise that “From Her Lips To God's Ears (The Energizer)” brings the topic of DIY vs. careerism, in which frontman Tom Gabel breaks down what the band has to do to stay afloat, even going so far as to list where all the money Against Me! generates goes. The topic is further covered in “Even At Our Worst We're Still Better Than Most (The Roller).”

But the whole “Against Me! = selloutz?” topic is played out. There’s a certain point where I just stopped giving a shit and focused on got-damn much I love the songs. LP 2, Side B is one of my favorite suites of all time; it’s right up there with Born to Run’s B side in perfection. “Even at Our Worst…” is incredible with its jangled guitars. It marks a moment where Gabel finally collapses under the weight of punk rock elitism, telling any and all detractors that he’s done with the whole thing. “You know they’re waiting to tear us apart,” Gabel and co-vocalst/guitarist James Bowman shout to each other. After a kick-ass guitar solo, though, the band completely dissolves that tension and segues into “Problems,” which is about the lack thereof. Pushed to the breaking point, Gabel resolves that “here in the worst / I will become the best of them all.” As if to prove that point, the band then delivers a real honest to gosh pop song, “Don’t Lose Touch,” before closing out with the somber title track. So is Searching for a Former Clarity a concept album about integrity? I suppose so. Does that make the album a failure because of what happened next? Well, perhaps you should refer back to the start of this paragraph.

NEXT WEEK: where is there left for poor sinners to go, killer werewolf? We can stake it, like sugar in the sacrament, 2006.