Album Reviews

We’re busy working on our Best Albums of 2011 lists, and as a preview of sorts, I thought I’d share my favorite songs of the year. Notice I didn’t say “best songs” and in some cases, these bands aren’t even close to being on my top album list. But, these are my poppy, hook-laden favorites (in no particular order)…

 

The neo-retro AM-pop-sincere-yet-tongue-in-cheek duo of She & Him have put out out a Christmas record and that makes perfect sense. Especially when the album sounds like it was transported from the late 60’s/early 70’s sonic landscape where Doris Day or Jim Neighbors would feel right at home. The songs of She & Him are not just wry retro-updates though, they bring a modern sensibility that keeps the songs grounded in the twenty-tens (the future!). And on their new album, A Very She & Him Christmas the songs work much the same way.

The lackadaisical vocal delivery of Zooey Deschanel works nicely on many songs, like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but album opener, The Christmas Waltz sounds almost like an outtake from “Elf”, especially with the minimal instrumentation. Things finally start to roll when M. Ward takes over the lead vocals with Deschanel on harmony on Christmas Wish. The song sounds more complete and satisfying, heck it even has bass and drums!

The whole affair is pleasant enough–you almost get the feeling that you’re at an intimate Hollywood party, where Deschanel (the real movie and TV actress) is cajoled into singing around the fire, and “hey look, Ward brought his guitar!” Sleigh Ride and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree even manage to sound peppy as the party moves on into the night. Then, Silver Bells brings the affair back down again with echo-laden vocals accompanied by a ukelele. I have many versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside, and this one fares fairly well with the classics. The duo even manages to make it their own, but any sexual innuendo from earlier versions is stripped away, leaving a jaunty, whistling sing-along. But, I’ll take the Dean Martin version, thank you. Elvis’ Blue Christmas is tough to top, but She & Him do their best, and the intimacy really works here. You can almost imagine you’re at that Hollywood Holiday party … “No more egg nog–I’ll simply burst!”

Little Saint Nick is harmless fun, and they close with the Christmas Song which really brings me back to the classic Holiday Records. So, how does this album work in the Holiday playlist? At our house we mostly listen to holiday tunes on shuffle, mixing genres and time-periods at random, so I think this record will fit in just nicely.

There’s maybe no other musician that can match Tom Waits’ unparalleled track record. Album by album, and yes, track by track he’s been one of the most consistent artists over the last 30+ years. So, it’s easy to take each new recording for granted – when you first put a new Waits’ album on you just know it’s going to be good. But, damn if his recent records don’t keep getting better and better as he refines his sound and craft.

Strange or maybe not so strange, Tom Waits has seldom had any “hits”. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past Spring, he dead-panned, “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with … like it’s a bad thing.” Records by Waits are best experienced as a whole, where you can be transported to a place out of time, neither really old or very new – a landscape of dreams. Sad dreams, yes and many nightmares, but overall a world completely and uniquely his own.

So how does he keep making such great, timeless records? It helps to surround yourself with incredible musicians. Tom Waits has a knack for putting together stellar bands to play on his albums, and Bad As Me, his first record of new songs in six years is no exception. Keith Richards plays for the first time since 199X’s Bone Machine (Richards also played on Rain Dogs) along with long-time Wait’s collaborator Mark Ribot, Los Lobos’ David Hildago, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Augie Meyers (the organist from the Sir Douglas Quintet!). All of these players have learned how to work with space and casually (seemingly sloppily) play in-and-around each other without knocking anyone else out of the way. Keith Richards even adds ragged backing vocals to Last Leaf on the Tree, a slow and delicate ballad of regret and resiliency.

When you’re creating classic albums, it also helps to have a great songwriter to work with, and Waits has once again written the songs with his long-time foil and partner, Kathleen Brennan. The yin and yang of the two have, I think, elevated Waits’ songs to a higher ground, resulting in more timeless, grounded and artful albums as a whole. Not many people can work this closely with their spouses or partners, but in this case, the results are magical.

Not every song works for me, especially “Hell Broke Luce” which while an interesting song, feels a little gimmicky and breaks the mood of an otherwise stellar album.

Not everyone “gets” Tom Waits, dismissing his music as too noisy and gruff or maybe too traditional sounding. If the naysayer can get past their initial biases, they’ll be rewarded with an almost cinematic album of dense, complex songs and dream-like stories.

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Wye Oak’s latest, Civilian, a full and dynamic record

Though they slipped a bit beneath my radar, the band Wye Oak’s 2011 album – Civilian– has recently experienced a resurgence in this writer’s circles, as friends and I have been drawn in by the sound created by lead singer/guitarist Jenny Wasner, and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack. They inhabit a similar caucophonous pop region to their Baltimore counterparts, Beach House (also a duo); however, their album is frequently propelled more by the percussion (on songs like the My Bloody Valentine-esque “Holy Holy  “ and “Hot as Day” ). Wasner’s vocals, haunting in their own right, can remind of Cat Power – but with a more expressive and dynamic range.

I’d usually provide a “heads-up” regarding live performance, except that the band (as openers for The National) grabbed two cups of Starbucks, rather than some Stumptown – doing two shows in Seattle, nothing in Portland. My buddy Jake, after having seen them last Spring at Mississippi Studios, felt that their studio output was far stronger than their live show – so maybe they’re just practicing before they return.

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The Whole Love from Wilco starts promising and ends OK.

The first song on Wilco’s latest is called Art of Almost and it begins with noisy grinding electronic noise that sounds more like Radiohead than Chicago’s favorite “Americana” band. At just over seven minutes the song sets the stage for more musical exploration, but then I Might comes bouncing in with 60s’ era perky pop – all bap-bap-bap drums, farfisa organ and even a doo-doo-doo-doo chorus. The album proceeds to move around between genres and whilst almost all of the songs are better than good, the sum total experience didn’t really stay with me long. I didn’t want to play it again right away like previous Wilco albums. Rather I felt obligated to listen again to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

Dawned On Me is a nice “Wilco” chugger that will offend no one, but it won’t be a hit either. Black Moon is soft, sad and pretty and puts their distinctive and reserved slide guitar to good use. Born Alone, Open Mind are earnest but non-essential Wilco songs. And then, Capitol City pops on and sounds immediately like the title track to the latest Pixar movie. I actually had to look at the song title and think back to recent animated movies to see if this was indeed from a kids’ movie soundtrack (it’s that corny). Standing O gets loud with a big 70s guitar riff, but doesn’t get much farther than that, and Jeff Tweedy’s voice sounds strained and submerged in the mix of hand-claps, and big lead guitars. The remainder of the songs are ones my Dad would certainly enjoy – they’re all likable, but not really lovable. Album closer One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) is a bit of standout mostly for the laid back delivery and playing, and the picked guitar refrain that repeats throughout. But dang if that piano couldn’t be found on Bruce Hornsby album.

As a whole The Whole Love takes its cue from the opening song as is ultimately the Art of Almost.

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Parish helps UK band Peggy Sue create moody gem

Acrobats, the second album from unapologetic PJ Harvey devotees Peggy Sue, has the trio abandoning their folkier past…plugging in, grabbing producer John Parish, and doing their best impression of their muse’s early recordings. And while there are plenty of sonic parallels, the record’s poppier qualities give Acrobats (for better or worse) a much easier entry point than just about any of Polly Jean’s recordings. There also seems to be a nod towards Sonic Youth’s sound, as well.

The album is currently streaming on the band’s website.

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Atlas Sound’s prolific Cox adds hooks to spacy beauty

With apologies to the memory of James Brown, Bradford Cox might be the hardest working man in showbiz (well, at least the indie music scene). Between his band Deerhunter, other side projects, and Atlas Sound, there’s never a shortage of his material to access. But the adage “quantity doesn’t equal equality” can frequently be applied. Though Cox can never be accused of putting out garbage, the sheer volume sometimes begs for some editing and consolidation.

So it is nice to see that Parallax, his latest Atlas Sound long player, seems to have been reigned in a bit – and has been invested with some solid melodic hooks. Where Parallax still has the bedroom-pop noodlings consistently found in Cox’s work, songs like “Shakes”, “Mona Lisa”, “Praying Man” (with a little harmonica) and “My Angel is Broken” all hint at Cox’s appreciation of 60’s girl group pop, and its inherent catchiness. There are still plenty of quieter moments, like the gorgeous (and appropriately titled) piano-meditation “Doldrums”, and the gentle guitar of “Terra Icognita”.

(ps: If you like to hear what may have influenced this, check out the recently released “The Smile Sessions” by The Beach Boys. Quite excellent)

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Real Estate’s new album continues to channel waves via NYC

Days, the newest album by Brooklyn (via New Jersey) band Real Estate, sounds like an album by a band envisioning the experience of the surf from Tony Soprano’s hunting ground; it’s got the haze, the dreaminess – but still has the angsty feel of someone being prevented from “hanging ten” because of the loading docks and litter-strewn beaches. Much like their self-titled debut, the vocals are buried – intentionally it seems – allowing vocalist Alex Bleeker to be enveloped by foggy, Dick Dale-referencing guitars and some dreamy percussion. The melodies, and song writing, is stronger then their already solid first album. The band inhabits similar ground to potentially “herbally inspired” brethren Band of Horses.

Real Estate is currently touring in support of the record (at the Doug Fir Lounge November 6th)

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Strange Mercy, the latest effort from St. Vincent (ne, Annie Clark) is the payoff for years of hinting at a record like this. Her vocals – precious in the past -now reveal an artist who has literally and figuratively found her voice. The musicianship (her guitar work on “Cheerleader”) and compositions – once complex bordering on pretense – now nuanced and beautifully, sophisticatedly layered (the fantastic “Surgeon” a prime example).

Lastly, her lyrics – once clever-bordering-on-contrived, seem to reveal a poetic maturation. Great music from beginning to end; this album is an early frontrunner for record of the year.

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Upon repeated listenings to Hysterical, the latest from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I’ve come to realize how much I enjoy the album, and once again, the band. They seem to have melded the celebratory sound captured by their debut, while more successfully exploring the soaring sounds of their sophomore effort, Some Loud Thunder.

I was initially taken aback by the less than enthusiastic review provided them by Pitchfork – the site that was pretty over-the-top in their praise when this “cool new Brooklyn band” started, but which was now dismissing them. The review felt like reading the posting of a 17-year-old boy trashing the girlfriend that just dumped him on the internet….understood the sentiment, didn’t share the experience.

Catch them live if you can, as they are touring to support Hysterical, playing some smaller venues (including Portland’s tiny Hawthorne Theater, November 7th).

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