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Come Away in the Dark December 23, 2010

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And now, #5 in my grab-bag of Favorite 2010 Albums:

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies

Although in the past I’ve obsessively ranked and ordered my year-end lists, part of me has always resisted it.  It seems somehow silly to objectively rank something as subjective as one’s response to art, whether it be books, movies, or music.  That’s one reason why A) I’m presenting this year-end collection of music in no particular order, and B) I’ve purposely named it “Favorite” music, as opposed to “Best.”  I currently own 444 full-length albums released in 2010.  To think I could even hope to name one as “Best” is, well, stupid.

That’s just a long way of getting to Phantogram’s unbelievable debut, Eyelid Movies. Because if I were ranking my favorite albums (and I’m not), this one would be settled firmly at #2, right behind The National’s High Violet. It’s rare that an album that hews pretty closely to the electronic genre finds its way to the top of my list, but Phantogram sidesteps the boring ol’ thud-thud-thud-squeak school of dance music to make something that, to my unschooled ears at least, sounds pretty unique.

A duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, Phantogram makes something that sort of sounds like Portishead crossed with My Bloody Valentine (which, yeah, are sort of lazy reference points, but there you have it), but way funkier than either of them.  And it’s appropriate that the album be titled Eyelid Movies, because each of the 11 songs here sounds like it could soundtrack the coolest Steven Soderbergh movie ever.  And maybe that’s a better reference point for those who would get it.  Some of the songs here – “Running from the Cops,” with its propulsive beat, garbled spoken-word vocals, and angelic hook and “You Are the Ocean’s” chiming guitars and downbeat electronic melody, especially – remind me a lot of David Holmes’ unsung 2000 dynamo, Bow Down to the Exit Sign. Their music is gritty and moody, but there are also moments of transcendent beauty, such as in the skyscraping chorus of “You Are the Ocean.”

And, like Holmes’ work, Phantogram’s music defies easy categorization. Barthel’s vocals are by turns delicate and dominating, and her keyboards and Carter’s guitars mesh in unexpected and surprising ways.  It’s dance music for people who like guitars, Low-Life-era New Order, and psychedelia. And, although this strays somewhat from the spirit of choosing favorite albums, the band is ferocious in a live setting.  I saw them a couple months ago in Atlanta, and it was easily one of my favorite shows of the year (and Sarah and Josh were kind enough to sign for me the last copy of vinyl they had at the merch table).  There’s just not a weak spot on the album, and if someone forced me to choose my favorite song of the year, “Mouthful of Diamonds” would get the nod.  This is a remarkable album by any standard, but it’s even more impressive to remember that Eyelid Movies is their debut. Seriously great things await this band.

I know I’ve posted at least one of these songs elsewhere on the site, but these are two of my favorite songs from the album (although I literally could have chosen any of them).  The first is the video for the aforementioned “Mouthful of Diamonds,” the second is a live version of “Running from the Cops” (which just gave me goosebumps as I watched it.  Ridiculous).

*****

Current listening:

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – History of Modern (2010)

Dreaming of Another World December 21, 2010

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Herein lies entry #4 in my random list of Favorite Albums of 2010.

Cloud Cult – Light Chasers

Strip away Arcade Fire’s bombast, self-importance, and the calculated “anarchy” of their live shows, add in a palpable feeling of optimism and euphoria (even when their lyrics are dealing with melancholy and loss), and you’ve got Cloud Cult.  A true indie band – singer/guitarist Craig Minowa started his own label in rural Minnesota in order to release their music in an environmentally-friendly way – Cloud Cult continues to hover just on the cusp of greatness with this, their seventh album.

Light Chasers is their most ambitious work yet, a song cycle purportedly about “an astronaut’s journey from liftoff to landing” (or so says AllMusic Guide).  Cloud Cult’s own website describes it as an album about the search for answers, so, yes, there’s definitely a whiff of pretension hovering over the proceedings.  But here’s the thing: their melodies are so fucking beautiful and uplifting that it’s one of those rare albums where you come away feeling like you just experienced something important.

Across 16 songs (some fully formed, the others shorter sketches), the band does what it does best, mixing guitars, strings, brass, and electronics with Minowa’s delicate tenor to create songs that are both ornate and majestic. One of the most entertaining things about the band is how they make this particular quality work within the strictures of conventional rock music (in the “Unexplainable Stories” clip, watch how the song kicks into high gear at 3:25).  It’s fun, inspiring stuff, and it’s driving me bonkers that the closest they’re coming to my neck of the woods in support of this album is freaking Memphis. Disappointing, Cloud Cult.

Here are two songs from the album, recorded live at Seattle’s KEXP.  The first is “Unexplainable Stories,” the second is the gorgeous “There’s So Much Energy in Us.”

*****

Current listening:

Lilys – Precollection (2003)

Paint Out the Light December 17, 2010

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I hadn’t intended to take quite this much time off, but I’m busy here in the frozen Midwest, visiting family, opening presents, and eating way too much. Also, I accidentally asked a recovering alcoholic if he’d ever tried Four Loko, so there’s that.

Regular programming will resume on Sunday.

In the meantime, here’s #3 in my 100% arbitrary list of Favorite 2010 Albums (but it bears mentioning that if these weren’t completely arbitrary and I were ranking them in order of preference, today’s entry would be my unequivocal #1 choice):

The National  – High Violet

I’m an unapologetic fan of melancholy.  Much of my favorite music over the years (or at least, much of my favorite music since I started listening to the stuff I currently listen to) has sported a rich vein of the stuff.  The Smiths, Joy Division, Nick Cave, Elbow, Elvis Costello, Tindersticks – for me, there’s always been a strange sense of comfort in listening to music that, to other people, often comes off like a huge bummer.

And that’s why, right now, The National is my favorite band in the universe (next to Elbow, which will undoubtedly be an entry in my 2011 Favorite Albums list).  As someone who was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor with this band, it’s been fun to listen to them mature over the course of their five albums, becoming more confident and sophisticated with each release.

For fans of the band, High Violet is an extremely satisfying collection of songs that also provides a useful entry point for newcomers.  While its stock in trade are the slow-burn numbers that make up a bulk of the album (like opener “Terrible Love,” which escalates from funereal to ferocious in the space of four-and-a-half minutes and the gorgeously bittersweet “Runaway”), High Violet is peppered with the stripped-down rockers that have arguably been the high point of previous albums.  “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is propulsive, euphoric, and one of the best things they’ve ever written.

Some have criticized the band for treading water on this album (I guess they wish there was more superfluous bleeping and blooping like the new Sufjan Stevens album, or maybe a cameo by T.I.), but to me it sounds like a sophisticated and triumphant culmination of the sound they’ve been developing over their last four albums.

Here are two songs from the album.  The first is their video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the second is “Terrible Love,” taken from their amazing show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  You have to watch them on YouTube – which is sort of stupid – so click Play, then click one more link to get to the song.  The extra click is worth it.

*****

Current listening:

Rollerskate Skinny – Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)

Walk Towards the Light December 14, 2010

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#2 in the totally not-at-all sequential list of my favorite albums of 2010:

Thrushes – Night Falls

If an album review even mentions the term shoegaze – or any of the familiar catchphrases often used to describe bands of this genre, such as sonic cathedrals or waves of distortion or shimmery guitars – there’s a 100% chance I’ll track the album down, and about a 98% chance I’ll like it (sorry, The Domino State).  I don’t know what it is about this style of music that always grabs me, but I never tire of it, even though it seems as though its practitioners have run out of new things to do with it.

Night Falls, the second album by Thrushes, does bring some new-old things to the table: the waves of distortion are there, as are the ominous basslines and propulsive drums that often keep songs such as these from completely drifting away into the ether.  But where traditional shoegaze often relies on murky, barely distinguishable vocals, Thrushes put singer Anna Conner’s voice right up front, and she drives the songs with some seriously powerful pipes.  In this way their music has more in common with Lush or Velocity Girl than Ride or My Bloody Valentine, and the trick is just unusual enough to seem revolutionary.

Here’s their song “Crystals” (which, besides being a killer song, has a pretty great video, too):

*****

Current listening:

The National – High Violet (2010)

Living With Ghosts December 12, 2010

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Time was, I’d compile my list of favorite albums toward the end of November and then spend the next month obsessively pruning and refining that list for mass consumption.  But now?  Fuck it.  I’m 37 and I have better things to do with my time.  For instance, as soon as I’m done with this, a bottle of pinot noir is waiting for me, along with the 1988 remake of The Blob on Netflix Instant.  Still, as important as music is to me, it’d be an oversight not to spend at least a little time recapping the year that was.  So, for the remainder of the month I’ll be sporadically naming some of my favorite albums of 2010, and then I’ll list them all in a big stinking pile of awesomeness at the very tail end of the year.  Without further ado, here’s Entry #1:

The Barlights – You Cannot Choose the Roads That Take You Home

I wanted to start with something completely out of left field, because, yeah yeah yeah, we all know that Arcade Fire and Kanye West and Deerhunter released great albums, so spending time telling you what every other music publication will tell you is sort of a waste of time.  But make no mistake: the Barlights’ album is fantastic.  It’s kinda jangly, kinda anthemic, kinda folksy, kinda soaring, and all kindsa great.  I don’t know much about the band except that they’re from Norwich, England, it looks like there are four members, and the music just sort of hits that sweet spot for me.  You ever have one of those bands that you love, but when it comes time to explain to someone else why their music means so much to you, you just kind of go, “Gah…”?  That’s what The Barlights are to me.  I’ve listened to this album a lot, but as I sit here trying to articulate why it strikes such a chord with me, all I can do is go, “Gah…,” which is no help at all.  Instead, here’s one of the songs from the album.  It’s called “Love, and Love Only.”  Enjoy.

*****

Current listening:

The Lightning Seeds – Jollification (1994)

Last movie seen:

The Ghost Writer (2010; Roman Polanski, dir.)