Like July and August, December’s a rough month for music releases. Unless you’re looking for Celine Dion’s new Christmas album (I don’t know… I’m sure she has one), you’re going to have a tough time finding new records to buy. And so, naturally, the music press is going to have a hard time finding records to write about. That’s why you end up with all those silly year-end lists. Before we get to those, though (and we will, in the next issue), we thought we’d take a look back and chime in on some ’05 releases we ignored upon their release.
We’re Already There
Philadelphia’s music scene has been far better than ours for a good five years. And now, thanks to a series of embarrassing NY Times articles stating just that, people are finally starting to take note. Mazarin’s Quentin Stoltzfus is one of the city’s most colorful personalities and arguably it’s most impressive musician. On the band’s third full-length, We’re Already There, Stoltzfus’ ear for soothing pop melodies and airy yet complex arrangements is on full display. It’s a shame all these Times stories didn’t come out before that doofus had to pick the music for Garden State. Or is it?
Because I’m not a complete asshole, I almost never use the word lovely. I have to apologize, though, because I cannot think of a single word that better describes the Clientele’s Strange Geometry. Each song is so meticulously put-together, so obscenely tasteful and focused that it’s easy to get lost in the record’s overall vibe. Pay closer attention, though, and you’ll notice the lyrics, which document singer Alasdair Maclean’s rocky relationship with his native London.
My Morning Jacket
When My Morning Jacket released Z earlier this year, I ignored it for two reasons. First, thanks to some fancy copy-protection bullshit, I couldn’t put it on my iPod, which is obviously retarded. Second, David Fricke said something about it being MMJ’s OK Computer, which is opening a can of worms I couldn’t possibly care less about. As it turns out, I have absolutely no idea what the fuck he’s talking about, but the record’s mostly enjoyable. They’ve strayed pretty far from the southern-rock stylings of their earlier material, and they’re implementing more keyboards than usual, which they’ve used as a centerpiece for a new, more textured and varied sound, most evident on the record’s standout track, ‘Gideon.’ I bet it sounds even better on headphones.
You Could Have It So Much Better
When Franz Ferdinand appeared from out of nowhere a couple years ago, they managed to get the kids dancing again, which is probably a good thing. It’s also safe to assume they convinced a few Pavement fans to update their sad, sad wardrobes, which is definitely a good thing. They accomplished all this by releasing a record that was merely decent, though, and that’s a surefire recipe for backlash. But before you start your bitching, take heed: they got their shit together for their sophomore effort, focusing more on interesting song structures and relying less on mailed in dance-rock hooks. You Could Have It might lack the obvious hits of its predecessor, but taken as a whole, it’s a huge step forward.
During my first listen to Apollo Sunshine, I distinctly remember thinking, “What the fuck is this?” and literally having to open iTunes to see what I was listening to. Obviously, this could be a good thing or a bad thing as the Boston band dabbles in all sorts of retro-pop subgenres. The more frightening and kind of annoying moments (‘Lord’) see the band unleash a barrage of extended garagey instrumental passages, while the more enjoyable moments display and almost Ringoian knack for catchy, offbeat melodies.
Is Neil Young’s eight billionth record a worthy addition to his catalog? Sure it is. (And so is Trans, by the way.) The final installment in his LOTR-biting ‘Harvest Trilogy,’ Prairie Wind sees Uncle Neil going back to the Nashville rock sound he embraces approximately once a decade. The record’s opener, ‘The Painter,’ is a classic acoustic number, and its closer, ‘When God Made Me,’ is a nice stab at sparse organ-infused gospel. There are a few bluesy, Stax-styled tracks that call to mind 2002’s unimpressive Are You Passionate?, but on the whole Prairie Wind is a much stronger record and hopefully a hint towards the return of some of Young’s other tried and true styles. Here’s hoping we get some Crazy Horse in ’06.
The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw
Imagine if you will: you wake up disoriented, but calm. Acoustic guitars swirl quietly, subtly, like relaxing dreams in a foreign language… then someone smashes your brain with a cinder block. Such is the nature of Pelican’s crushing sophomore effort, a juggernaut of sonic grandeur that only pauses long enough for you to clean the wounds. Forsaking their more straightforward metal past, the Chicago quartet has crafted an honest-to-god epic. With hints of Hum, Maserati, and Mono, Pelican fuse waves of white noise with fuzzy melodies that will likely blow out your speakers and your mind.
The Mouse and the Mask
The Mouse and the Mask, a cross-marketing effort between Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Danger Mouse and MF Doom, contains one of the all-time great hip-hop lyrics: “My money’s green like my nickname’s celery.” In addition to that gem by guest star Ghostface Killah, the record is rife with MF Doom’s comedic genius, and it might be his wackiest flow to date. Liberated from commercial constraints, here one can experience guest spots from Adult Swim crew, cartoon string sections, cockamamie time signatures, and the abnormal, blunted samples fans of Doom and Dangermouse have come to expect. This disc is perfect for a bleary-eyed-cloudy-head Saturday morning spent with a box of bran flakes.
The Forgotten Arm
Ah, the concept album. Usually a death knell for anyone who dares attempt it. (Although I’m sure Styx thought Kilroy Was Here was a good idea at the time.) Thankfully, aside from its packaging — designed to look like a 1940s pulp novel, down to lyrics in chapter form — you wouldn’t necessarily realize that The Forgotten Arm is a concept album. The songs chronicle the strained relationship between two small-town sad sacks, but with a tenderness absent from Mann’s last few albums. The only problem? Mann can’t dumb down her trademark clever lyrics to suit her simple-minded protagonists. But I guess that’s not a bad thing.
Cass McCombs is all over the place. His songs have the feverish urgency of a drunken tryst and he always sounds somewhat off-key. He’s also literally scattered — the only bit of biographical information he lets slip is that he’s lived in cities all across America. From track to track, PREfection reflects his schizo-nomadic history. ‘Subtraction’ has a jittery Motown feel, ‘Bury Mary’ is a frenetic, southern dirge and ‘Sacred Heart’ would be at home on any Smiths album. Even on missteps like the droning ‘Multiple Suns,’ McCombs’ creates a remarkably tangible, welcoming atmosphere — like a home away from home.
Who’s Your New Professor?
While most solo efforts are misguided attempts at “experimentation” by perfectly competent musicians who are better with a band to rein them in, Sam Prekop’s two albums only offer more of what he does best. Fortunately, what Prekop does best is write vaguely jazzy pop tunes that are almost as sedative as his breathy voice. Who’s Your New Professor? features several members of Prekop’s regular band, the Sea & Cake, which comes as no surprise: the album mostly sounds like a slowed-down Sea & Cake record with a few more trumpet parts added. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty great formula for an album.
There’s only so much Pavement fans can do in years like this one, what with random comeback teases, a massive reissue of Wowee Zowee conspicuously absent from shelves, and Preston School of Industry continuing to be really terrible. Fortunately, this year saw both a fantastic Stephen Malkmus record and the best album David Berman’s Silver Jews have ever released. Malkmus does appear on Tanglewood Numbers alongside a couple dozen other folks, but more than ever before, Berman is front and center. The sound is cleaner and more direct than on past Jews records, but the same lyrical brilliance and folk-y sensibility Berman’s fans have come to expect is at its peak.
Sons and Daughters
The Repulsion Box
Sometimes all the indie-rock world offers is the meandering of fragile souls behind moody guitars. But The Repulsion Box, the debut album by Glasgow’s Sons and Daughters, has all the urgency of a time bomb. Vocalist Adele Bethel’s Scottish howl provokes the forceful percussion of David Gow (both formerly of Arab Strap). If you were to strip down Gow’s aggressive dance beats, the album’s heavy bass and guitars, and the garage rock sensibilities, you’d be left with a collection of raucous country tunes. The Repulsion Box is an irresistible dark cabaret with compelling pop songs.
Boards of Canada
The Campfire Headphase
The reclusive Scottish duo Boards of Canada are the quiet geniuses of electronic music. Their two previous albums, Music Has the Right to Children and Geogaddi, burrow into your brain until you can’t remember what your life was like pre-BOC. I’ve spent countless hours trying to deconstruct their brilliance, but ultimately I’m just grateful the music exists, in all its womblike, structurally intricate, lost-art beauty. After anticipating the release of The Campfire Headphase for months, listening to it was a bittersweet pleasure. Good as the music is, it’s a simulacrum of the old work, and proof that BOC are their own toughest competition.
This Halloween at SOB’s, Sharon Jones — petite, pushing 50, and sporting a snappy coiffed fro — took the stage in a canary yellow cheerleader outfit and started to warm up her mic. Thirty seconds and a few crooning, playful phrases later, she owned the crowd. Soul is a music of survival — I ’ve known sorrow but I’m still alive, thank the lord — and Sharon Jones pushes that attitude to the nth degree. Her heart may be broken, but she’s still got great legs, a killer voice, and enough moxie in her pinky finger to crush anyone who tries to keep her down.
Antony & the Johnsons
I Am a Bird Now
It’s easy to dismiss Antony as just the latest over-hyped outsider artist. Between the high-profile guests on Bird, the UK Mercury Prize for album of the year and the recent celebrity-packed concert at Carnegie Hall, it’s all become a bit much. Still, you just can’t disregard his voice. Like the gender-ambiguous spawn of Nina Simone and a theramin, it gives each of his gospel-infused songs a despairing, childlike quality. His tenderhearted wailing won’t appeal to everyone, but at least it’s unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Before the Poison
With all the hard drugs, disastrous love, and the wreckage of stardom, it’s no secret that the rock’n’roll lifestyle is a tough one. Marianne Faithfull fits the bill of rock survivor like a black leather glove, and her newest proves her stronger and darker in the aftermath. Collaborations with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Jon Brion help showcase Marianne’s new-found mastery over the wizened, barren sound of having seen too much. Solid production rounds it off as her best album in decades.