The tenth of ten favorite 2011 albums — VNV Nation, ‘Automatic’

VNV Nation, Automatic

Because it made me cry.

First off, here’s the thing — the only order I’ve been sorting this list into was alphabetical. This list is also my Pazz and Jop ballot and the separate introductory post before I started it will serve as the comments I submitted for it so there ya go on that front, and all ten albums each received 10 points because even if I have a list I’m not interested in assigning those kinds of values to it anymore. (Trust me, I only do that on the AMG and Pitchfork and other similar pieces simply because it’s required.) So VNV Nation being at the end of the list isn’t some sort of sign that it’s therefore the least.

However, strictly speaking this list isn’t alphabetical in that V is before W, and When Saints Go Machine was yesterday. I switched it up a bit because I really did want my final entry and final words on the year in albums from my own whatever-it-might-be perspective to be about this one. It wasn’t like I was taken by surprise by Automatic because I had been very, very patiently waiting for it and knowing it was en route. But did I expect it to hit me as hard as it did? Thank heavens for pleasant surprises.

Perhaps, in some strange way, Automatic actually sums up my year because how parallels can be drawn between it and some of the other albums on my list. Vague perhaps, but I’m thinking about how Ronan Harris has been at this as long as the Mountain Goats and PJ Harvey and Radiohead have, how electronics is the core as it is for Planningtorock and When Saints Go Machine and Active Child, how even though there’s no guitars on the album it rocks as ridiculously well as the Joy Formidable does, how it focuses on the personal and questions of the self as much as Me of a Kind does.

And Lady Gaga? I said this earlier on a private board this year: “It just struck me that the nearest equivalent to Automatic might be Born This Way — trance used and transformed to particular purposes, building off of opposition (societal, personal, whatever) to celebrate surviving and winning, an open acknowledgement of darker impulses, a desire to reach out and beyond into some place in the future that’s better. It’s not that VNV and Gaga are the only ones doing that or that they’re really connected, but there’s a resonance in each that works beautifully, and has really done so for me this year.”

The power of VNV Nation and Harris is something I’ve talked about before here and there so like a number of my favorite albums this was a question of a pleasure of expectation as noted, something I was primed to be blown away by instead of being taken by surprise — the problem with that level of expectation is that one can almost be set in one’s ways. But I only came to VNV Nation a few years ago so this isn’t a long arc for me but a series of sudden shocks, now something of a culmination. Of Faith, Power and Glory was the first VNV Nation album I was waiting for instead of rapidly discovering in retrospect, but Automatic is another next level effort in that path. Like the Mountain Goats, like PJ Harvey, I get the feeling that the best work isn’t past, but present-and-what’s-to-come. Why rest on a laurel wreath when you don’t have to? Why should you?

Now in terms of face value it could be argued — easily — that what’s happening here on Automatic is more of an extension than anything else. Certainly it’s not radical reinvention. But I’ve thought and tried to say before, maybe unsuccessfully, that in VNV what I hear is something that parallels Harris’s use of trance for ulterior purposes — taking all the perceived darkness of the musical background he came from, that whole world of EBM that a whole clutch of us obsessing over groups like DAF and Front 242 and more all found ourselves in twenty plus years back, and turning it into sparkling, relentless light and energy. Inspiration that doesn’t feel like moralization and dullardry precisely because it grows out of something that, at its hoped-for best, distrusted that — in combination with massive baselines and beats.

I don’t argue for Harris — and of course Mark Jackson, his longtime band partner and percussionist — as being out to extend the possibilities of technological production and rhythmic innovation and so forth. And I’m not damning them with faint praise either; rather I’m simply saying the obvious, that that’s not all that needed to succeed, and I hope various earlier entries in this year’s list of mine have underscored that. Instead VNV makes things just fresh and different enough each time, finding something new, something different and distinct each time as the elements are recombined and worked. It could be in Harris’s singing, it could be in the use of melodic element, it could be as something simple as, yes, a bass wobble in “Control.” It’s not dubstep but it’s not meant to be, instead feeling like another instance of keeping your ears open to what can be done as befits one’s tastes.

And so I could go on about “Space and Time” and “Resolution” and “Gratitude” and their anthemic beauty, and I could talk about the melancholia of short instrumentals like “On-Air” and “Goodbye 20th Century,” and I could try and convey about how when the band finally gets to play an LA area show again in March that I’m very much looking forward to “Control” kicking my head in again, just as much as I am seeing if “Nova” is as heartrendingly moving live as it apparently is, according to friends of mine able to have caught them doing that during the recent tours. One thing’s for sure, Harris, with that somehow perfect rasp of his, knows just how to make some killer ballads.

Then there’s “Radio.” It wasn’t the first time I heard it but I was sitting here at my same home computer as I’m typing this now, a few months back, relistening to the album and building up once more to the album’s final song, and those first tones kicked in. I don’t know why it was that time in particular, but part way through it my girlfriend walked into the office and I looked up, a little startled, and we both realized I was tearing up. I did my best to explain why it was that way, thinking that somehow it was, appropriately enough, as if that same spirit of need for connection had transferred from Joy Division’s “Transmission” to this song, only now done as simple but lovely metaphor about communication, about community.

Something about it was pitched just, just right. If I needed confirmation I still am moved by new music, there it was.

Roll on next year.

Purchase Automatic from iTunes or Amazon.

The ninth of ten favorite 2011 albums — When Saints Go Machine, ‘Konkylie’

When Saints Go Machine, Konkylie

And yes, I admit I keep thinking of a certain Australian singer given the album name, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

I think my reaction to Konkylie, based on the self-titled opening song, was probably a little bemusement. Male vocals as strange, swooping sing-song isn’t completely out of my experience, after all, but it almost seemed a bit quirkily clownish on first blush — or it probably was until I took in the impact of the depth and echo on the one hand and the addition of backing counterpoint singing, more cleanly falsetto and suddenly thrilling. When something starts pushing those buttons in my brain like Active Child did this year, or Radiohead continued to do, then I’m pretty well already sold.

What are those buttons, in the end? I’ve mentioned the Associates before, a-ha, Arthur Russell is perhaps another inevitable example — maybe I just like acts that start with a. (You could definitely count A R Kane in there as well.) So when the album ‘normalizes’ with “Church and Law” it does so in an area I’m intensely comfortable in, because it’s so thrilling still, just a little sense of something exaltant, exultant and yet a tiny bit wrong, like the angelic is ruined or promising something a bit more, something less heaven-sent. This might be a big reason I like Jimmy Scott, for example, though I do have to thank David Lynch for that in part as well.

Anyway, digressions and all — When Saints Go Machine also filled a spot for me that came not out of the sense of an established place, but an unfamiliar one. Bands and musicians MUST surprise the active and engaged listener if one values that, after all — if it is one’s bread and butter, or even a side dish, then nothing everything can be the expectation of the familiar. In the case of When Saints Go Machine, though they’d released something beforehand, I’d never heard of them before Konkylie, and when I did hear it I was knocked sideways. The previous year We Love had had that impact in me in the summer — it always seems to be summer — so I was a little primed for something that would come at me sideways, just enough. Turned out to be a bunch of Danes, who knew.

I invoke We Love specifically because the kind of album in this example is important — it always seems to be electronic. The promise of electronic musical construction seems to me still to always be something just futuristic enough, not futurist per se but futuristic. Increasing amounts of people have grown up with that as a baseline, a true roots music, no matter the fleeing to acoustic purity some still demand of themselves if not others, and the sheer amount of invention within the field constantly amazes. When Saints Go Machine are much more formal than most, certainly, a progression from a dreamland of the 1980s experiments and pop moves in a 2011 context, taking in both vocal and technological possibilities as they go. But how amazing the results, on songs like “Chestnut” and “On the Move,” how wideopen and windswept if one is inclined to the feeling.

The breakdowns and shifts on “The Same Scissors” are an illustrative instance for me, the way that cries emerge at one point, how everything strips back to a sudden descending string synth part, metallic clashes and low rumbles while a distant keyboard figure plays, a kaleidoscopic shifting within a formula, like something continuously reassembles itself in different forms each time you look, each time you even blink. The feeling is one of refreshment, a sense that there’s just that much promise there, something to luxuriate in and wonder what might be next. Genteel on the one hand, revelatory on the other, having its cake and eating it too.

A lot of these words could perhaps be used for someone else who got a lot of attention this year — electronics, falsetto, genteel, etc. So I mention Bon Iver to ignore him. I don’t feel railroaded into liking or hating anyone, so I hope, and if some choices are consensus, they’re consensus. My larger point is that from where I’m sitting, as yet that other fellow has not written a song with as sweet a kick and groove and feeling as, say, “Kelly.” Because “Beth/Rest” certainly isn’t it (and isn’t trying to be it, obviously, but even so).

Yet perhaps some things are in the air. “Kelly”‘s sax stabs deserve a bit of note given how said instrument cropped up here and there in other contexts during the year — not as much as whistling, as Al Shipley noted, but noticeable enough. When Saints Go Machine are a bit of me having my own cake and eating it too in turn, an indulgence that feels more private even as I want it to be more public, and as other people turn to particular lodestones. Is it a question of wanting to be part of the larger public conversation or just wanting to impose my own thoughts on that conversation? The eternal struggle of anyone who goes “Well, yeah, everyone’s going on about that but there is too! Over…here? Anyone?”

But life in the modern discursive hothouse, all of us firing off our feelings in our own self-selected circles, is that way. A random Twitter post will provoke a whole conversation, a crafted and pithy blog post or article nothing but a shrug and silence, and if you’ve done anything like this for any length of time you have to get used to that. If anything, my final entry tomorrow causes me more of a feeling of banging my head against the wall to gain something greater notice beyond what it already has, but it’s not like I can do anything on my own besides cross my fingers and hope.

Yet as the vocals go on the final song, “Add Ends,” “Everything looks brighter now.” Something like this is the quiet inspiration, not the trumpeted-to-the-heights masterwork (and I’ve loved those things plenty of times, whatever they might be). That Konkylie settles in as the shared pleasure among a few friends than a universe makes it no less a pleasure, an obvious point but one that remains potent in this world we’re in. That the album spins out and away on a swirl of plucked strings and singing seems only right, it’s not so much a dance on the edge as a dance for its own enjoyable sake. Those kinds of pleasures will always thrive, and I hope to always find a few more as I go.

Purchase Konkylie via iTunes or Amazon.

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The eighth of ten favorite 2011 albums — Radiohead, ‘The King of Limbs’

Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Well, yeah.

Which isn’t much of a justification. But some things are obvious with me. Some things are obvious with any listener, writer or fan, that one will have one’s hobby-horses, positive and negative. It need not always be so clear — so, for instance, I don’t think I could have specifically predicted my fellow WordPress denizen Alfred’s number one album of the year offhand, but I am not at all surprised by the choice and his rationale for it. (Good album too, what I’ve heard of it.) So it’s not a case of exact one to one — and I would never want to be able to predict all my friends’ choices if they have a choice, or my friends who are also writers and so forth.

The flipside to this being, of course, that some things ARE utterly predictable. So, for instance, am I excited about The Hobbit movie trailer that debuted yesterday? Yes indeed. Are a lot of my friends surprised I am? Hardly. If this means I’m more of a creature of habit than most then I’m at the least aware I am, which I’ll take over pretending otherwise, or that certain things won’t appeal to me when in fact they do, on a near lizard brain level. That’s an excuse for habit, saying that, but it’s also kinda true, or more accurately, that many of those judgments shaped when young are ultimately pretty hard to break later on. The kid who devoured the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit at six years old is still a Tolkien freak now. The guy who first heard “Creep” in early 1993 is still enthralled to Radiohead. Who I also saw that year opening for PJ Harvey, so it’s not like Radiohead are the only obvious choices in this list of mine.

If you want the full history of Me and Radiohead (because of course it’s about me, I’m selfish and this is my blog and ME ME ME and so forth), I’ve already said quite a bit, investigate at your leisure — scroll down a bit and read from the earliest entry or so. So this is a bit of a continuation of that, a few years along, in slightly similar circumstances — a Radiohead album is suddenly announced and gets released a few days later and seemingly everyone goes HOLY WTF or alternately NOT THEM AGAIN. Or so it seemed. As Eric Harvey noted today in an entry in the SOTC round table I talked about briefly yesterday:

I know that my online immersion has at times altered my perception of greater musical time—hype cycles, release dates, the speed of acquisition—but I wonder if any of you have stepped back and wondered how much your perception of music is affected by your continuous virtual proximity to other obsessives?

To say Radiohead is popular — and just as equally loathed — online in the circles I find myself in rather…understates. It’s not that they’re inescapable, except they are, except they’re inescapable only in the sense that I don’t mind them being inescapable, because I like them a hell of a lot. A HELL of a lot. So my tolerance level is a little higher than some.

None of which, so far, has been much about the music of The King of Limbs. Consensus seems to be “More of the same, I guess it’s pleasant, we’re not talking about it a lot, are we?” I can understand that, then again I was listening to it on a regular basis for about three months there so it’s not like I wasn’t talking about it given how much time I spent thinking about it. Then again, I wasn’t thinking about it so much as happily absorbing it, taking it in, getting familiar with all its details and contours. Aural furniture, sonic painting, use whatever metaphor works best. I would have called it a headphone album if I listened to it that way but I didn’t. It’s Radiohead and, well, yeah.

Seems to me that justifying something at a certain point is less about making the case as acknowledging your comfort level. I’ve said before these kinds of lists ultimately irritate me because of their skewed sense of what one was actually listening to and engaging with throughout the year, or where one found the greatest importance in things. I’ve said in general this year that the most important thing that happened was me moving in with the love of my life, music’s somewhere back there in the list. Still important, though, certainly, and part of that importance can sometimes be as simple as knowing there’ll be something that I will unreservedly love straight out of the gate, and to have your hunch fully justified. One year it might have been the Cure. This upcoming year I already know it’ll be Windy and Carl. This year it happened to be Radiohead. Done, dusted.

But I guess I should say something. Still, what is there to add? Radiohead for a while there weren’t resetting the bounds of music — they never have, let’s make that clear — but they were slowly mutating album per album, playing off hunches and decisions self-conscious or not. Hell of a string of releases they did, and it may continue, but I don’t think it’ll be quite that kind of change any more — they’ve found a lovely niche for what I can tell and might well stay there forever more. (I haven’t heard the new songs that debuted today yet but I can’t but guess they’ll sound like the outtakes from this album that they apparently are.)

So if I’m fond of focused, nervous electronic rhythm/drum arrangements and fluttering tones and minimal falsettos on the one hand and slow, stately rock-band melancholia on the other and in both cases am thanking Christ that it’s not the wall of warm Jello that is inevitably Coldplay — oh, so easy to hate still, no matter how much of a self-deprecating BS artist Chris Martin is — and if I can happily laugh along with all the complaints and GIFs based on Thom Yorke’s approach to dancing and curious hairstyles and if I’m just content to go “Works for me!” then I am. It’s comfort food with some extra seasonings, I guess, a cliche that might as well work because I’m describing a cliched situation. I like this album a lot! I like this band a lot! I’m not looking every time for some sort of sudden change or breakthrough! I’m not trying to pretend one’s here when one isn’t!

Dancing!

Whatever’s next with them is next. If I’m lucky enough to catch their next American tour, hurrah — I sure hope so, it’s been nine years since I’ve seen them and they are just fantastic live, absolutely compelling — then I’m lucky, and if not, I’ve got the album. And I’m ready to play the next one into the ground.

So, yeah.

Purchase The King of Limbs via the dedicated album site

The seventh of ten favorite 2011 albums — Planningtorock’s ‘W’

Planningtorock, W

You wait five years and then you flinch. Just the thrill, just at the right time.

Planningtorock – Doorway from DFA Records on Vimeo.

A thing about Janine Rostron, aka Planningtorock, is that even just reading an interview with her is a kind of thrill. Consider this one, or this one. It’s always gratifying to find someone able to engage in discussion of their work where you get a sense that they’re driving the conversation as much as the interviewer, and are able to elaborate further on their art that gives the feeling of a personal, very smart study of what’s going on. Not every artist need be so lucky in that regard, but the ones who are are often some of the most involving when it comes to what they do.

Which might sound like a strange thing to judge an album by, after all — what matters what its creator or creators say when it comes down to what they do? But I’d seen these interviews after I’d heard the newest album and if anything they extended the pleasurable shock of W itself, a sense that there was something fierce and focused behind it all, extremely self-possessed while at the same time desiring to find what connection can mean in an uneasy, fragmented and predominantly electronic state of society and self. The gift of W is that this kind of turn of thought emerges so naturally out of so many excellent songs and performances, something of its moment and defiantly, almost bloody-mindedly apart from it.

Not that Planningtorock came out of nowhere; Rostron’s elaborate debut Have It All meant that it seemed like her second release would be more in the vein of extreme art/pop/metal/opera/whathaveyou — the album’s title alone suggests the sense of claiming whatever is desired, up to and including everything. But her collaboration with the Knife reshaped perceptions a touch and with the release of W and its associated artwork and imagery. Rostron’s decidedly non-human prosthetic, vocals in all pitches and ranges now unfolding over arrangements that felt starkly hollowed out, low woodwinds and strings on “Going Wrong,” or, when lusher, as with the building swirl of a melody on the instrumental “Black Thumber,” seemed to be poised on the edge of sliding into a deep depth, like there was nowhere to go in the end but down, as that latter song’s conclusion inevitably suggests.

Planningtorock is, for what its worth, the last of the albums on this list made by female artists or lead figures, a fact only worth noting in its, I hope, increasing non-remarkability. That there’s been much more variety and willingness to explore various conceptions of sound and sonic approach — not to mention lyrical — via a vast number of female performers in all fields is precisely what grants a performer like Planningtorock even more status in my eyes because so much of W is an extension of an exploration beyond both gender and, arguably, humanity. A bit of a reach, perhaps, but if the term posthuman is the type of thing that lends itself too readily to long-unread theses in the humanities, it’s still affecting. In a world where 2NE1’s hyperpop suggests the human animal can thrive happily, Planningtorock is the ghost of cyberpunk past and 21st century dystopic futures reincorporated, hoping to not simply be reanimation of the flesh but feeling like little else.

“You know I am your man” begins one song, a trill in her voice sounding like the ghost of Marc Bolan as much as anything else, a quick pitter patter of beats and almost mocking “wah wah wah” backing vocals rubbing up against a squirrelly keyboard burst that stops and starts in equal measure. It’s not 2011 as such, it feels extracted from various pasts and then reassembled for the future and then broken down again. You could even call it classic soul in its lyrics and delivery, or maybe the kind of robot soul that Annie Lennox was supposed to have achieved for a couple of seconds before becoming fully freeze-dried, where here it’s all supposed to sound distressed and questioning, not something that trips easily out of the speakers or smoothly in any context. When she appears to sing to or about herself on “Janine,” it’s almost as if the creation of Planningtorock is trying to reach out to its creator in desperate hope, a brief stab before the album’s end at returning to where whatever it all was began in the first place.

Living It Out / Planningtorock from DFA Records on Vimeo.

Smooth moments do nonetheless occur, at least implicitly. If the pulse of “Living It Out” is Moroder-backing-Summer, it’s to back an aerobic exercise of nervousness, almost as if the future is trying to be reinforced through hopeful repetition instead of comfort. W is not comfort listening, though — it’s listening that acknowledges the basics of pop form in a certain sense, ignores it in another, prefers the apparent cul-de-sac instead of open dialogue with the moment, observes from a distance that’s not as far as might be imagined. The clatter of “Jam” is something equally conversant with percussion-led destabilization of past models on the mainstream pop front and the kind of happily insular worlds that someone like PJ Harvey, to note the previous entry in this list, is well familiar with.

The most bravura moment comes with “The Breaks,” the album’s second single and the closest to a formal anthem that W has, something where Rostron’s sense of commanding presence feels like a formal pronouncement, even while invoking collapse and confusion. When she sings “We break too easily,” she stretches out ‘break’ for just long enough, a descending sob that’s not a formal cry or weeping,… When she shifts to a calmer voice on — appropriately — the break, a new backing tone swells up, an ominous darkening, the feeling that there’s no escape and that there’s maybe still a human at the heart of it all, maybe even a woman rather than just a human. The fact that there’s an allowing for misinterpreting or unsureness helps drive the album as a whole, there’s strange rough edges and gleaming moments in the rigor. Rostron is still, after all, an actual person in this world, not a construct, but doesn’t the construct matter most in how it’s encountered by the listener? Then why worry, when the suggestion of what it might be in imagination can be so much more powerful.

Purchase W via iTunes or Amazon.

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The sixth of ten favorite 2011 albums — P J Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

Context, context, context — if you really wanted it.

It helps, massively, that over at the Sound of the City Roundtable that’s just fired up this week the ever-sharp Tom Ewing has just addressed something core about this album and how it’s been received and interpreted. Much more effectively and to the point than I could have done so rather than building up to an equivalent of it, I’ll just use his words as a launching point:

The riots are still being picked and wrangled over by Britain’s political classes, and this isn’t the place to analyse them. But in pop terms there were two immediate impacts. The first was a boost for 2011’s most exhausting critical meme — where oh where are the protest songs? The second was to make it even more certain that PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake would sweep the UK’s end of year polls. If I didn’t love the record, I’d be boiling with resentment now as critic after critic fell into line. But it’s my favourite album this year too, as much for its command of mood as for its lyrics — the horrible placidness and resignation of “Hanging In The Wire,” or the title track’s haunted music hall strut. In a year where “atmosphere” was a euphemism for cocooning oneself in production….Harvey’s greatest achievement may have been to summon up the dislocating and uncanny with not much more than an autoharp, a skiffle beat and a handful of samples.

Polly Harvey’s songs, of course, weren’t anti-war, simply about war—or that was the theory, since her collage of voices built up into an indictment anyway. But whatever resonance they had with the year’s events was mostly coincidental. The gravity of protest is, I suspect, felt less by musicians than by critics, who are keen to legitimise the artform by fitting it into wider narrative and letting it stand comparison with history.

Tom’s spot on as ever as far as I can tell, so I don’t want to gild the lily too much when it comes to what’s supposed to be a quick series of reflections here instead of engaging in full. Instead I’d like to talk about the other context that was initially acknowledged on release but is now slightly obscured by events, that of PJ Harvey’s own background rather than her country’s. It’s been a long ride now, after all.

Harvey’s like John Darnielle, and like others I’ll name later in this list, when it comes to how long they’ve been around recording and releasing music, hitting twenty years still in full flow, far from being someone new and notable, now comfortably settled into a niche. Except, of course, they’re not, and that’s one big reason why I’m interested. Unlike the Mountain Goats I was pretty much in with Harvey from the get-go thanks to early Melody Maker coverage and the like, and from the first notes of “O My Lover” on Dry I was sold further and everything’s followed from there. But the last time I listened to those recordings was a long time ago, similarly with, say, Is This Desire? or Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea or even White Chalk. This isn’t a complaint, this is massive, massive praise, and I equate it with the Mountain Goats again — I appreciate but ultimately don’t want the past redone again from those artists I most respect, I want the NOW.

Sensing Harvey’s progressions and interpretations and changes over the years by means of memory is crucial here — I never really thought of, say, Bowie in comparison to her before this year, or Joni Mitchell if you like or maybe you’d prefer Kate Bush (hell, maybe Prince?). Or of course Captain Beefheart, which she’d appreciate in particular. I’ve definitely thought of Mark E. Smith before, thanks to her brilliant performance of, appropriately enough, very recent Fall song at the last time I saw her in concert in LA, a tribute to John Peel after his death earlier in the day. These are all slightly burdened by the sense of canon that has settled over their various efforts but there’s that sense of a throughline of variety within their spheres, however individual their own paths and however you measure success.

In that regard, it’s almost too easy — at least it seemed to me — to realize how much Harvey had been hiding in plain sight all these years now, how each album or collaboration, counting her two albums with John Parish, resists the previous one or reacts to it, finds a new elaboration or path, avoids trapping her in amber. The sheer breadth of that last LA show I mentioned caught my breath; add in the more recent material and it gets even more astonishing. Let England Shake is creative confidence in full flight at its best, and its best is pretty much song for song. It’s a considering of what is expected with a sharp laugh and shrug at conventions.

So much for context — the album itself? A key thing should be noted: it’s an album that can and does put a smile on one’s face, one of sonic satisfaction, of tactile moments throughout, the refracted slow 60s frug crunch of “In the Dark Places,” the fox hunt sample on “The Glorious Land.” Whether it was the autoharp or the church recording or all that or more, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her more…shoegazey, dare I say, when it comes to sounds that are powerful, serene and yet utterly melancholic at the same time. But there’s joy here, which is what makes the black sentiments and bleak humor and feeling of the album so incredibly affecting in turn. “On Battleship Hill” almost starts off like something that could be from a 1930s that wasn’t, it makes me think of a tourist Hawaii of the time, something lacking steel guitars but still shimmering and hazy. Then her voice steps into a near silence, high and clean, with the music then rising back along with a male vocal at points, a soft piano descent here and there too. The joy gets lost as the song goes but never quite goes nonetheless, there’s a sense of pleasure reached for even as the words “Cruel nature has won again!” are repeated.

That’s one example to pick out when Let England Shake overflows with them, a sense of engagement that’s not simply moving out of comfort zones but creating new ones, of beds that you can’t quite be comfortable in but are still beds, in their own way. Harvey has never not steered away from the idea that music can grip and engage the whole of the self, body, soul, spirit, use the metaphor or concept you prefer. All the talk and all the praise that Let England Shake now receives in particular wouldn’t be there, as Tom rightly noted, if there wasn’t a reason to feel obsessed by its textures, its melodies, its depths. At this time of the year, “Hanging in the Wire” feels like a carol somehow, singing along when all the lights are gone forever. Even so, the singing continues.

Purchase Let England Shake via iTunes or Amazon.

The fifth of ten favorite 2011 albums — The Mountain Goats’ ‘All Eternals Deck’

The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck

And yes, for all my love of sonic overload and obscurity, a dude with an acoustic guitar who’s known for his lyrics sure can work for me. Brilliantly.

It’s kinda funny, I don’t remember exactly how I learned about the Mountain Goats almost twenty years back but when I came to UC Irvine in the fall of 1992 it was almost as if I had stumbled into an outlier of Shrimper and the Inland Empire without really putting the pieces together. Franklin Bruno’s Nothing Painted Blue released “Swivelchair” around that time, Peter Hughes had been doing a radio show at KUCI up until fairly recently, I saw the two of them play at the campus pub at separate occasions, then there was the Big Breakfast though I can’t remember if that was a bit later…there was all this stuff going on, while I was scrounging more shoegazey stuff and techno and wondering what exactly Suede sounded like. Then my friend Eric J. Lawrence’s band Peoplemover covered “Sendero Cuminoso Verdado” in concert and gave me a tape and I was all “Wait, who is this guy again? And why do I keep hearing about him?”

So twenty years on and there’s Peter Hughes on Letterman, Jon Wurster on drums and John Darnielle himself singing about heat lamps and snakes and a hundred thousand cuckoo clocks earlier this year and I’m all smiling at how great it sounds, how warm and immediate, actually anthemic without being an overblown anthem or feeling skullcrushingly stupid. And over all that reach of time I’ve slowly but surely gone “Yeah, this guy’s got something here,” and seen him for the first time at the Terrastock 2 festival in San Francisco in 1998, just himself and his guitar and a packed crowd, and I end up reviewing the rarities compilations for the All Music Guide and and and. I could go on, I’ll spare you. Those who know, know (and I’m not even a hyperfan compared to some, it’s more like when I first read his Last Plane to Jakarta work when it was still a fanzine and thought, “Good god, and the guy can not only write lyrics but brilliant criticism too!”).

I acknowledge backstory to dispose of it — one reason why I like the Mountain Goats and certain other bands are how they make their most recent work the thing I actually want to hear the most. Sure, there’s beloved older releases and all — I still can’t get over the fact that Tallahassee is on the verge of being ten years old, for instance — but this is about 2011, it’s about what was released now, and if an artist is releasing something now that you’re loving and playing into the ground as opposed to releasing something that you play once or twice and then go back to the older stuff, that right there is a sign.

It’s a little hard to try and talk about something by someone who is very articulate and clear about things in general, you feel like you can’t measure up to his or her own words about anything else. Pretty glad I never did an actual review of this album anywhere, that would have sucked. (I did do this brief interview, though, and that show they did was great.) What’s lovely about this album in particular is partially explained by that interview, the fact that something done via a variety of short sessions feels fresh and immediate as a result, that it also is sequenced like a motherfucker. Seriously, this is RIDICULOUSLY well-sequenced. He’s always had a good knack for that but I don’t know, maybe switching to Merge upped things a notch.

The attraction in the album’s sound lies in the illusion of unity, not merely in terms of order, but how everything appears to have only been that way. An excellent song or performance appears to have ‘always’ been that way, it can’t be any other way, say. For some people the Mountain Goats were always a boombox, an acoustic guitar and a singer first and foremost, maybe only. I understand that sentiment well enough, sure, and the fact that there was a limited edition cassette release that featured John D.’s demos for the album recorded just that way helped provide a compare/contrast moment and all. But you know, the ‘real’ version of the album isn’t that one to me, how could it be? More to the point, how could anyone not want that end result?

An excellent album leaves you almost forgetting what’s next because the song you’ve just finished hearing is so good you’re still riding it a bit and then the next one starts and you smack your head and go “Damn and how did I forget about this one?” Like the way that “The Autopsy Garland” and its sense of calm warning ends and then you slip into the groove of “Beautiful Gas Mask” and it’s like the best late seventies Dire Straits and Steely Dan recording quality and sense of performance transmogrified into John D.’s approach and I’m all “Well yeah, duh, of course.”

Snippets of lyrics slip through my brain as much as the music, constantly reinforcing each other or stepping forward then back. Backing male chorused vocals on “High Hawk Season,” elegant and strong, shivering strings on “Age of Kings” during the break, the brawling rush of “Estate Sale Sign,” memories and snapshot moments, singing in the concluding “Liza Forever Minelli” about how whoever mentions “Hotel California” next dies before the first line clears his lips, piano and strings on “Outer Scorpion Squadron” as the lyrics detail how to conjure up a ghost and it all becomes this cascade of a lot of moments that you either know you’ve been through or think you might have done or will do or might react the same way to but not with the quite rush of words. Then you find yourself embarassed that you would presume that kind of connection but everything about the album, like so many moments of the Mountain Goats beforehand, can’t help draw you, not in per se, but close. A voice in your ear, a feeling in your heart, a melody in your head.

All this and a song that turns Charles Bronson’s work ethic into a model for life, not everyone’s maybe, but that makes all those Chuck Norris jokes seem like the hollow humor it is. That and a keyboard part that completely lifts the song just perfectly, right at the moment it appears. Why explain further?

Purchase
All Eternals Deck via Merge Records.

The fourth of ten favorite 2011 albums — Me of a Kind’s ‘You Are Here’

Me of a Kind, You are Here

What are friends for, after all?

Which sounds nepotistic, but let’s talk about that a little, as well as talking about being honest with friends, being lucky to have talented friends, the fine line that can exist when one talks about friends’ creative work in the capacity of a critic and so forth. Imagine if I were also a musician too, then it might be worse (or is that better?).

I met Jen Schwartz, the person behind pretty much every note and every recording step on the album aside from a couple of extra violin parts from a cousin of hers, earlier this year at the EMP Pop Conference at UCLA, courtesy of mutual friends, and we hit it off pretty quickly. We’re Cure and Smiths and especially Siouxsie obsessives, why wouldn’t we hit it off? I learned about how she’d drummed in Tribe 8 for many years and how she was working on a solo debut, which caught my attention by default. (I’m sometimes terrible at following up on news of people who work in bands — I almost don’t want to look at my Notes app in the iPhone — so I’m glad I did in this case. Didn’t hurt that we ended up in each other’s networks on Facebook and Twitter and so forth.)

While I’ve talked about this album in those locations and in discussion with friends and so forth, I’ve refrained from reviewing it formally anywhere out of conflict of interest, you could say. It’s because she was kind enough to ask for my help in PR for the release, which I gladly gave — on the flip side, it was a little hard for me to therefore pretend to be a removed critical voice when talking about it. By default I rather liked it, so there you go.

If you end up doing the work I do to any degree, at a certain point people — at least some of them — stop being abstract figures or people you can project your own thoughts on and become people just like you. It’s a demystification that’s always crucial to go through, otherwise you’ll never get out of that first rush phase from whenever you got into music — or any form of creative work or talent — when everything is a little heroic, a little alien, a little ‘could I ever be like that?’ And in the case of Me of a Kind, I knew the person first before I knew the work, so that made it even less of a mystery.

What makes You are Here compelling listening to my ears isn’t just that kind of personal connection, obviously, so let me delve into why I like the album on its own merits, as if I didn’t know Jen S. at all. Being the relative ages we are, I can’t say I’m surprised to find that her work mirrors a lot of my own musical reference points, besides the previously mentioned bands. PJ Harvey, for instance? Oh heck yes (and in fact, you should check out the just released cover of “This Mess We’re In” that Jen did with Bowie vet Earl Slick). So sure, to an extent — only an extent, but not ignorable — this is a kind of comfort listening, not upending the past and crackling in the present, more extending and refining the past into the present one wants it to be, whatever approach that might be.

But on a larger level, there’s also an attractive balance here, between sometimes intense, angry edge and reflective serenity, both musically and, importantly, lyrically. Here’s where the personal connection helps again — we spent almost two hours listening through the finished album as I interviewed her about each track, what went into it, her thoughts on the final results. So songs like “Forgive Me” and “I’m Not Going Home” have a little more grounding in my ears than they might otherwise if I didn’t know all that, but still work nonetheless on that level (after all, I heard the album a few times first before talking with her about it).

Combined with Jen S.’s elegant abilities on every instrument and clear grasp of how to record well and so forth, it’s not, I suppose, what one would expect of a drummer from Tribe 8 on the one hand, but then again, what is to be expected of any musician, or artist? If you let yourself be defined by one repeated note then one repeated note is all that anyone will see. I’ll have more to say about the joys of finding yourself in a different place than you were when you started elsewhere in this list but that can wait, just take it from me that the slow burn of drumming and strings and atmospheres on “The Rain” really could be a track from, say, Tinderbox or Peepshow era Banshees, and good thing too. Then there’s “Winter” and the combination of piano and singing and suffice to say that this is not a Tori Amos cover.

Turning back to the issue of friends and creativity, though — another friend, who’s been in a two person band for many years that’s gained some attention (I’ll spare her blushes) once asked me flat out, “Ned, why don’t you record anything yourself? Why aren’t you a musician?” As I answered her, it’s pretty easy: I’m impatient and lazy. Where I do take the time, or so I hope, to practice things like my writing and my cooking and even, on a more casual level, my photography, with music if I can’t get it to sound like the inspiring things I’ve heard over the years right away, or the music in my head in general, then I end up frustrated. And like I said, I’m lazy and impatient, and I am content to hear the work of others.

But understanding those pressures, just a little, of what musicians can and do go through — especially these days, where DIY is easier than ever but getting attention is even harder, and where theoretically anyone can record anything but only those with dedication will work to do something exactly right with the tools to hand — is relevant. Music doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and it’s one thing if Jen S. had her thoughts and visions to hand in her head and another to find the time and space to work them out and yet another again to create something that can resonate. The voice of Me of a Kind, if not something one to one in my own experience on many levels, is nonetheless the voice of reflection, consideration, determination and ultimately some level of comfort with one’s own person — self-acceptance if you like — that’s resonant to me. And it does so without sounding like, say, just another dude on an acoustic guitar doing dull frickin’ warbling. And THAT is crucial.

I would add more videos if there were more out there. Be nice if she got well known enough to warrant it, I’d say.

Purchase You Are Here via iTunes and CDBaby.

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