The Noiseboy's Top 30 of 2004
That said, there are some parameters for the albums that made my list. For starters, they had to be released between December 2003 and December 2004. I include records from December of last year because they were likely out of mind (or not yet released) when I did my list last year. I believe only one album that I considered for this list is from last year: M83's Dead Cities..., which was released on December 30, 2003. (And it didn't even make the cut.) I also do not include reissued albums, soundtracks, or compilation albums of a greatest hits variety (albums compiling unreleased and obscure songs do warrant consideration, however). Basically, I’m looking at music that was recently recorded with the intent of being released in the year 2004.
I really wish I had the capabilities to post MP3s for each album, but I unfortunately do not. However, if you click to each artist's web site, you can often find goodies there.
So, here we go. Enjoy.
Just missed the cut:
Tom Waits: Real Gone (Anti)
Xiu Xiu: Fabulous Muscles (5 Rue Christine)
M83: Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts (Gooom Disques)
Moonbabies: The Orange Billboard (Hidden Agenda)
TV on the Radio: Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch & Go)
Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
The Magnetic Fields
There might be a bigger fan of The Magnetic Fields in this world, but I’ve never met him or her. I’m not saying that I own every compilation track known to man or that I’ve taken a month off of work to follow Merritt across the country on one of his patented 12-date tours. But, I have spent a great deal of time waxing endlessly to those who would listen on why Stephin Merritt is the most exceptional songwriter of the past decade—maybe two. I’ve made believers out of doubters, and fools out of plenty. And along the way, of course, Stephin Merritt has always had my back. Until now. i, his seventh proper full-length as the Fields, loosely continues the thematic approach of its predecessor, 69 Love Songs. It’s unfortunate that i has to follow the greatest pop album of the past decade, cause it’s really set up to fail. And, it does just that. While it’s not without its moments, it ultimately misses the mark more often than not. See “I Don’t Believe You,” which is actually a re-recorded version of a previously released single. This tame version is lame compared to the schizophrenic, synth-happy original. But Merritt on an off-day is still better than 99.9% of the rest. And so we’re treated to lovely songs like the country-AOR of “If There’s Such a Thing as Love,” the Harry Nilsson-influenced wedding song “It’s Only Time,” the chamber-rock of “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore,” and the mopey-eyed ukelele ballad “I Looked All Over Town,” which is Merritt’s best of this bunch. Merritt makes a point to not include synthesizers on this release, and the stylistic alteration gives the affair a more sophisticated feel. That’s fine and dandy, but truth be told, Stephin Merritt needs a little down and dirty to keep his listeners honest. And damn, if that isn’t missing from this collection of songs. Possibly, his next album will be all the better off for following this release, but I can’t help but be disappointed in i.
Ted Leo + The Pharmacists
Shake the Streets
I don’t think Ted Leo will ever record an album as incredibly good and thoroughly consistent as Tyranny of Distance, released in 2001. But, I don’t want to hold previous career milestone’s against him, especially when his new album at times comes incredibly close to prior perfection. “Me and Mia” is a spectacular song, the kind that gives me chills even though I'm on my 100th listen. It walks the walk of an eternally hopeful realist. “What’s eating you alive might help you to survive,” Ted tells us on “Mia”. “Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it.” Shake the Streets is Leo’s political statement, his attempt to mobilize the youth of America. As far as political pop-punk statements in the year 2004 are concerned, this album blows the doors off Green Day’s American Idiot. Yet, despite that triumph, at times the music on Shake the Streets feels a bit forced, relying too heavily on tempo and rhythm while losing focus of the melodies that Leo is so capable of sticking in your skull. Which is to say, the music here is more direct than on Hearts of Oak. That works occasionally against Leo’s strengths as a songwriter capable of truly complex guitar work and super-sticky vocal melodies. (See, for example, the title cut, which ultimately bombs despite its best intentions and some nifty lead guitar work.) Having seen Leo live this year for the first time, my mental image of him as a modern day Paul Weller was cemented. There is hardly a more compelling or energetic frontman in the world of pop-punk; no one matches Leo’s wit and street smarts. Shake the Streets is certain proof.
Albums borne out of a cathartic need to create can either be stimulating or suffocating for the listener. In this case, Jarid del Deo—songwriter and main cog in Unbunny—has struck a tiny nerve that’s inside us all. It's one that we prefer to pretend is nonexistent but can’t help but agitate from time to time when we revisit photos tucked away in shoe boxes and mix tapes long since forgotten. He makes toying with that nerve a point of curiosity that doesn’t quite kill the kitten. And with that success, Snow Tires picks up where Elliott Smith left off. Unbunny is the equivalent of Pedro the Lion gone acoustic, or of an easygoing, ‘70s-era Neil Young as covered by Neutral Milk Hotel. His music is familiar without sounding cliched, and on this release—his seventh—he has kept his pop songs on the straight and narrow. A wise choice when the songs are this good. Gentle embellishments range from piano and warm bass to electronic atmospherics, but del Deo mostly prefers stripping his songs to their core. You get nothing fancy, but you’ll ask for nothing more. Unbunny excels at making the bitter break-up pill an easy one to swallow. So while del Deo may prefer to never revisit these themes again, the listener will surely beg to differ. Snow Tires is one of 2004's most compelling singer-songwriter albums.
The Slow Wonder
I interviewed Carl (A.C.) Newman in 2002, when his band, The New Pornographers, was touring the States for their debut release, Mass Romantic. At the time, Newman claimed, “We never anticipated anyone would like or buy our record.” Well, times have certainly changed. Thanks in part to his band’s success, Newman released a solo record this year to go along with fellow Pornographers’ Neko Case and Dan “Destroyer” Bejar’s solo efforts. Newman also told me in that interview that the Pornographers had set out to make an intelligent party record. So, one might expect on his solo effort to find Newman a bit more introspective and mellow. True to suspicion, Newman does indeed slow it down from time to time, allowing The Slow Wonder a bit of time to wander around and stare at the scenery. But, this record really isn’t a vacation for Newman, and it’s also not a startling departure from Electric Version, the Pornographers’ 2003 release. But, in some ways it’s an improvement. Mostly absent from this album are the synthesizers that busied up Electric Version, replaced instead by rollicking piano. Also missing is a good deal of the kitschy, heavy-handed power-pop that has become the Pornographers’ trademark. (Except on the exceptionally catchy single, “Miracle Drug,” which is one of the year’s best.) Plenty of this album reminds me more of The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow than either of the Pornographers’ prior records. Which is just another way of saying that Newman is striving for something a little more Sgt. Peppers-ish here. Overall, there’s some misses among the hits, but the hits are hard to miss.
Toronto’s The Sadies reach for the same plateau as Gram Parsons’ The International Submarine Band or The Flying Burrito Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, and later-period Byrds on this, their fifth full-length. And, often enough, they reach those lofty heights. Striving for that early outlaw-country flavor (jangly, twangy guitars and a healthy dose of rock and soul) can be a risky business. But, on this release The Sadies join contemporaries like the Volebeats and Calexico as one of the few modern bands pushing the alt-country movement further into its roots and deeper in debt. But, that's a catch-22, and my one complaint about these guys: at times they wear their influences on their sleeves a bit too proudly, attempting to work off credit that’s borrowed instead of earned. But, when they hit their stride, as on the Ennio Morricone-inspired spaghetti western “The Curdled Journey” and the gentle, psychedelic pop of “The Iceberg”—both instrumentals—they really settle into a nice groove that finds them absorbed by a glowing ambience. The fact that they can tack on a nice, traditional downtempo country ditty like “A Good Flying Day” that resembles the great Gene Clark is but an added bonus. For those among us that really dug Yo La Tengo’s collection of classic covers, Fakebook, there’s plenty more where that came from in these originals. Plus, Robyn Hitchcock makes a guest appearance on a song he co-wrote!
The Dirty South
While The Dirty South is definitely weaker than its predecessors, Decoration Day and Southern Rock Opera, it’s still among the better rock and roll releases of the year. The thematic focus of this record—again focusing on life in rural, southern America—is beginning to wear out its welcome. It’s not so much that the band’s lyrics at times border on cliche (after all, we can certainly admit that life is often quite a cliche), it’s that the group isn’t doing enough to differentiate themes from album to album. And that’s really a shame, considering Drive-By Truckers boasts three superb songwriters in Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell. The Alabama boys have no shortage of anthemic rockers in their catalog, and The Dirty South—which was recorded in one of the few remaining Muscle Shoals studios—adds a couple more to the mix in “The Day John Henry Died” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac.” Nobody in the circuit does Southern Rock better than these guys, who have even upstaged Neil Young in his old age. Once again, I lobby for more Jason Isbell, who in my opinion has the band's best penmanship. His songs add a real texture and depth to Drive-By Truckers’ sound. He’s responsible for the brightest on this record, including the aforementioned “John Henry” and the closer, a downtrodden ballad titled “Goddamn Lonely Love.” The Smiling Johns could’ve done good by Red State standards to digest a little Drive-By Truckers and take a tour of The Dirty South.
Sufjan Stevens took awhile to grow on me, which is odd because his music is actually fairly rudimentary and down-to-earth. I suppose I had read enough hype for his music that I expected to be blown away, and when I wasn’t—at least immediately—I had to wonder why. Well, he’s a lot like a valuable sixth man on a basketball team. He doesn’t do anything particularly well—or at least not well enough to break into the starting five. He’s not flashy, boasting a 44-inch vertical leap or a jaw-dropping wingspan. But, he’s fundamentally skilled and features a well-rounded game. He’s versatile enough to be able to fill in at multiple positions. Basically, he’s one of those guys you absolutely want to have on your team, even if his solid contributions don’t make their case on the stat sheet. Stevens is like Iron and Wine Lite. On this release, he favors acoustic instruments—guitars and the occasional banjo—to a full band. And the context proves just right for his songs, which are exceptionally well-written and can stand on their own two feet without a rhythm section to prop them up. “To Be Alone with You” is possibly the love song of the year, and “He Woke Me Up Again” is an interesting take on the notion of gospel music. Stevens' isn't explicit in delivery his message, nor would I call his music "religious," but even if Stevens’ spiritual side doesn’t suit you well, there’s still plenty of good times here to be rejoice about.
Blue Gold (EP)
(Flora & Fauna)
I know next-to-nothing about these guys, other than their origin lies in Sweden and their music is highly enjoyable. The title cut from this three-song debut (available through Parasol) is an oddball pop song that recalls the gentle approach and exceptional songcrafting of Odessey & Oracle-era Zombies as well as the early efforts of The Clientele. This cut will be featured on the group’s forthcoming 2005 full-length, which has already moved near the top of my most anticipated albums list. “Dear Dad” reminds me of The Coral in all kinds of good ways. While The Chrysler do not rock-out like The Coral, the two do share a subtle psychedelia, an enthusiasm for well-arranged horns, and a steadfast appreciation for the late-‘60s aesthetic that spawned genre androgyny. Good stuff!
Through the Sun Door (EP)
White Magic is part of the upstart American indie folk revival, and an integral part of the revamped Drag City roster that also features Joanna Newsom, Weird War, Plush, Six Organs of Admittance and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. White Magic’s brand of folk is a snug fit for Drag City, as the group blends acoustic, askew folk music with dreary atmospherics, grand piano and at-times aggressive percussion. Throughout the course of the six-song EP, White Magic reminded me specifically of other Drag City residents like Movietone, Mayo Thompson and especially Edith Frost. Singer Mira Billotte (of Quix*o*tic fame) has a striking, distinct voice that’s not going to befriend everyone. Her pipes are equal part Karen Dalton, Edith Frost, and wandering gypsy. And her band’s music, which bleeds ‘60s British folk revival and sweats acid folk-rock, weaves a delusory spell. Of special note here is the group’s cover of “Plain Gold Ring,” which was first put to wax by Nina Simone and later Nick Cave. Billotte’s haunting voice is given boundaries to play within; but by limiting her reach, she presents an open window that any folk fan would be foolish not to peer through.
Animal Collective are weird. That may not be the most specific of descriptors, but nonetheless it’s the one that is most fitting. Every description I’ve read of them has inevitably included two words: “acid” and “folk”. Which is a bit misleading. There’s nothing traditional about their brand of folk; really, they are more what I would call “anti-folk.” They serve to destruct folk music, interjecting it with modern noise and plenty of nonsense. Case in point, the minute-long “College,” which is essentially a poppy a capella tune that has been attacked by inchworms. Or, the African-sounding, tribal-inspired “We Tigers,” with its “whoop whoop” background vocals, snaking, ridiculous counter vocal melodies, and incessant, pounding percussion. Even when Animal Collective wade into more John Fahey-like guitar arrangements, they still tend to interlace their pieces with random noise—some “natural” and others surreal. Matter of fact, if you’ve heard some of Fahey’s more abstract sound collages from the late-‘60s, that’s a pretty good reference for what Animal Collective attempts to create on Sung Tongs. Or, for a more modern reference, see The Microphones at their most demanding. Much like electronic saboteurs Aphex Twin, Animal Collective will either come off as bizarrely entertaining or bizarrely annoying. There’s not much room for middle ground. I tend to find them on the entertaining side of things more often than not, which marks a significant improvement over their debut album from last year. I’m not sure if acid needs to be involved whatsoever to enjoy creating or listening to music of this ilk, but I am sure that this is not your parent’s folk.
Dan Bejar—who is the man behind the curtain for Destroyer—is a pop genius. He’s capable of producing an excess of hooks like a one-man Brill Building. His 2000 release, Thief, is one of the brightest moments in the last decade of off-kilter pop-rock. So, it was of specific note to me that Bejar—who has also been a flakey (i.e. non-touring) member of The New Pornographers—decided to largely recreate himself on this, his fourth album in the past five years. Scrapping the more traditional rock band trappings for a whole lotta synthesizer was a bold move. Bejar incorporates strings, piano, drums, percussion, and horns—all synthetic—into his own little Philharmonic symphony. Surprisingly, this serves Bejar’s grandiose vocal gestures quite well, playing up the playful, ‘70s-styled melodrama that has always been Destroyer’s calling card. There are several standout songs to be had here, including “Don’t Become the Thing You Hated,” an orchestrated acoustic ditty that is one of my favorite Destroyer songs to date. If you’ve always wondered what David Bowie might sound like if his body was inhabited by Jacques Brel, well, wonder no more.
Entrance is Guy Blakeslee, a skinny, young, white kid from Baltimore who was weaned on indie rock in the band The Convocation Of. Entrance is Guy Blakeslee, a skinny, young, white kid from Baltimore who plays an approximation of vintage, rural American folk music: in other words, the blues, Delta style. The fact that this skinny, young, white kid succeeds more often than he fails is a testament to his vision, his determination, and his willingness to give himself over to the music. He isn’t kidding when he sings “I hear there’s sweet honey in the rock—taste and see.” If he was, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because Entrance would be a joke, too. I’m fascinated by this kid who chose a path less traveled to reach his own musical nirvana. I’m also interested to hear what label mates like R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford think of this skinny, young, white kid from Baltimore who’s capable of producing a folk-blues hybrid that’s so surreal and affecting, so tailored yet authentic. While his previous release strained at times to merge psychedelia and experimental elements into his traditional blues sound, Wandering Stranger sticks to the basics more often and comes out the clear winner for it, sounding far less forced. Entrance treats us to a wonderful cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues,” remade with rolling barroom piano and fiddle, as well as entertaining, straightforward interpretations of three traditionals. His originals are worth noting, though, too. “Lonesome Road” is a stirring psychedelic blues marathon that features fiddler Paz Lenchantin (of Zwan and A Perfect Circle). Her melancholy melody is buried beneath a heaping dose of picked electric guitar and Blakeslee’s wailing vocals and eerie falsetto. His vocals are of continual interest on this album; unlike past efforts, Blakeslee allows his voice to walk on its own two good legs, pushing it to front and center. “Please Be Careful in New Orleans” revolves around a disturbing guitar passage that sounds more inner-Earth than Delta blues and really ups the primal energy a few notches. “Happy Trails” (no, not that “Happy Trails”) closes the album with more nervous energy, as guitars ring and fingers pluck until the listener is enwrapped in a fuzzy, electric mess. Seeing as Blakeslee enjoys lathering his blues compositions with a tasteful layer of distortion and destruction, his appeal to blues traditionalists will probably be limited. But, even they can’t deny that Entrance has stumbled upon something unique here.
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn has been a staple in the K Records stable over the past few years, and for whatever reason I've just ignored her existence. This is the first Mirah album that I’ve purchased, and the first that I’ve spent much time listening to. Judging by this record, I’ve probably been missing out. Mirah reminds me a lot of Cat Power on a good deal of C’mon Miracle. She does the bare-bones folk song quite well, embellishing her plucked guitar with strings, organ and percussion performed by friends including The Microphones’ Phil Elvrum. But, Mirah also knows when to layer on the distortion to toughen her sound, and in that way she at times reminds me of older P.J. Harvey. She has a definite pop sensibility about her; Mirah would rather attract you with her fragrances than make you feel unwelcome. Matter of fact, it's her intimacy that's most striking on C'mon Miracle. Both Elvrum and Calvin Johnson lent a hand in recoding this album, and the former’s sonic fingerprint is all over this release. (In fact, with The Microphones more or less taking the year off in 2004, this album served quite well to carry the weight in their absence.) C’mon Miracle is a focused, thoughtful, and confident album that definitely snuck up on me.
The Soft Pink Truth
Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth?
There’s absolutely nothing novel about an album of covers, except for the fact that the year is 2004 and not 1964. And while punk covers are all too common, even in 2004, it’s not that often that an experimental electronic artist who shares more in common with Aphex Twin than Fatboy Slim ventures into the realm of Punk Planet. But, there’s never been anything usual about Drew Daniel, who is one-half of Matmos and the ringleader of The Soft Pink Truth. Just how fucking odd is this project? Well, maybe not quite as odd as the other 2004 release that has Daniel’s name attached to it—Matmos’ Rat Relocation Program (just read about it already, it’s too bizarre to explain). But, it’s still pretty fucking weird. Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth?, which borrows inspiration for its name from a Minutemen song, is a collection of punk tunes revisioned as suitable music to pump through the loudspeakers in a sleazy S&M bar. I don’t think this is quite what Minor Threat had in mind when they recorded “Out of Step"; nonetheless, you can now dance to it. Well, sort of. The Soft Pink Truth have brutalized some known and unknown (by me, at least) punk tunes with a mighty techno bitchslap. As with any good cover, hearing The Soft Pink Truth’s version of a few of these entices me to want to check out the original. (I really wanna hear L. Voag’s version of "Kitchen." Interesting side note: Voag was one of the founding fathers of The Homosexuals.) That side note actually brings up the other point of interest with this album, which is that the covers selected (especially “Homo-Sexual” by The Angry Samoans and “Confession” by Nervous Gender) do, to some degree, play up Daniels own sense of sexual politics. And considering the times we find ourselves in (fuck bible-banging Bush; viva Canada!), I can’t think of a better year to make a statement like this: "Jesus was a cock-sucking Jew from Galilee. Jesus was just like me: a homosexual nymphomaniac." Anyway, this is not the type of album that I’ll choose to listen to on a regular basis, in no small part because I prefer guitars to samplers. But, this is an interesting record regardless, and I’d recommend checking it out if you’re feeling adventurous.
Maple Leaves (EP)
Maple Leaves offers four exclusive songs and is the best of Lekman’s three EPs released in 2004 prior to his full-length. We start with the title track, constructed with a flowery orchestral arrangement and rolling toms that give way to a sleigh bell-driven chorus. Somewhere, Scott Walker is shedding a tear. It’s a brilliantly catchy slice of airy chamber pop that—unlike many of Lekman’s other songs—takes emphasis away from his vocals by assembling a busy template. “Sky Phenomenon,” a piano ballad touching on the loss of a lover who’s flown off into the horizon, is a dead ringer for the somber, touching tones of The Cat’s Miaow. Lyrically, Lekman hits a homerun, tugging on heartstrings with one-liners like, “You and I are not the same; we’re divided by the smoke of an aeroplane.” Luckily for the listener, vulnerability is never an issue with Lekman. “Black Cab” picks up the pace by combining a bright, clean, electric guitar melody with playful harpsichord to form a convincing number that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside any of the fine songs on The Magnetic Fields’ Distant Plastic Trees. And the EP closes with a Television Personalities cover. This is an essential companion to Lekman’s full-length, When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog.
Shout Out Louds
Oh, Sweetheart (EP)
(Bud Fox Recordings)
This one was a pleasant surprise that I found while window shopping at Parasol. I had read something of this Swedish band in passing, so their name was in my head. And when I stumbled upon the release sitting in the new releases bin, Ms. Angie Heaton was kind enough to offer up a topnotch recommendation. We threw it on the Parasol sound system and sure enough, it just sounded right. But, what does “right” sound like? Well, on this particular blustery cold December evening, “right” reminded me of the love of my life. Or more specific, of the instance that I first realized that I really was head over heels in love with M...when I felt all loopy and lightheaded and elated. And, oddly enough, that’s exactly what the Shout Out Louds set out to accomplish, to be “a soundtrack to the state of being in love.” Well done, I say. They do wear their influences—playful, Kiss Me x3-era Cure, recent American indie pop like Elf Power and Beulah, and the Stone Roses—on their sleeve. But in the case of this band, they are too absolutely adorable to hold them accountable for their actions. “Oh, Sweetheart” combines a catchy-as-hell Aislers Set lead guitar lick over the verse with a sweeping, string-drenched chorus that melts as easily as Velveeta cheese. “A Track and a Train” sounds like Grandaddy remixed by The Cure remixed by Rocketship and is just as infectious as the opener. And the closer, “Seagull,” takes things in a different direction, bringing the late-‘80s British pop infatuation to the fore. All three are exceptional songs, which places this release right up there with the Suburban Kids for the title of “Best Swedish EP” of 2004. It’s hard to justify space on a list like this for an EP, but not when it’s as instantly satisfying as this one. Seek this out, and be sure to keep a lookout for their 2005 full-length, which will be released domestically.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Sings Greatest Palace Music
A lot of people hated this album, and I understand why. But as I said here previously, I found Oldham’s odd choice to re-record his “greatest hits” with a slick Nashville backing band to be a bold—and also typical, for him—decision. Oldham has always taken pleasure in defying his critics and fans alike, whether it was through switching monikers on every release or constantly redefining his “sound.” (Look no further than the transformation in sound as he progressed from the bleak acoustic blues of Days in the Wake to the rocking, twangy country of Viva Last Blues to the beat-box driven Arise, Therefore.) He’s a lot like Neil Young or Bob Dylan in his unwillingness to defer to popular opinion when it comes to steering his ship. He does what he wants, with no warning, even if it means leaving his fans scratching their heads. Anyway, all this aside, I thought Sings Greatest Palace Music was a great record. How can you go wrong with these songs? Are you going to tell me that all of a sudden “Ohio River Boat Song” and “Agnes, Queen of Sorrow” and “Horses” are not exceptional songs? Sure, they sound closer to contemporary country on this release, but really only in terms of production values, the occasional female background vocalist, and some newfound textures. And, I like country music to begin with; I’m guessing some of his recent detractors truly do not. Fuck, I wish more contemporary country sounded this damn good.
Suburban Kids with Biblical Names
What better way is there to divert your attention from Karl Rove and the rearmed Bush regime than by enjoying some fine Swedish indie pop? I don’t think it gets much more un-Evangelical, non-Red State, and immorally seductive than two pale-skinned Viking lads named Johan and Peter who want to turn all dance floors into a burning inferno of “Ba-ba-ba.” Am I right or am I right? Despite their moniker, there is nothing about these Kids with should give you pause, other than their sugary sweet melodies and their childish infatuation with Calvin Johnson. These suburban kids—nay, Knights of the Fey Table!—come galloping in on a horse-hoof driven drumbeat in “Trumpets and Violins.” Acoustic guitars collide with pianos and tambourines as the kids declare: “I want the trumpets and violins to play. I want revolvers and adrenaline today. I want solutions and kingdoms of love. Don’t want confusion and these black walls.” Hallelujah! If that isn’t worth crusading for then I’m not half the naïve twit I claim to be. The vocalist—he has not yet revealed his true identity to us in the liner notes, only adding to the group’s Biblical mystique—sings in a slightly off-key baritone that reminds this scribe of Sir Calvin Johnson and Sir Stephin Merritt stripped of their rich timbre. He sings of faraway lands and the rented wrecks that will carry him there, with vitality coursing through his bulging blue veins. He sings of ripped-up letters of rejection from women who dare to listen to Joy Division, with the resigned supposition that “love will bring us down.” He sings in “do-doos” and “ba-baas” just like his proud European forefathers, the Stereolabs and Komedas. But what separates the Suburban Kids from those artsy-fartsy rock and rollers is the group’s lo-fi charm, which sides the band with twee-poppers like Papas Fritas, Spare Snare, The Pastels, and, yes, Beat Happening. In fact, these Kids got some attitude, dude. I half expect them to burst into an impromptu interpretation of Beat Happening’s “Bad Seeds” at any given moment. Get your copy now or die of thirst tryin’. Full length due out in ‘05.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
I don’t think Nick Cave has ever or will ever record an album better than this two-for-one, so you better enjoy it. Recorded in a total of 16 days, these 17 songs extend Cave’s vision and represent a certain newfound confidence in songwriting. Backed by members of the London Community Gospel Choir and the Bad Seeds (minus Blixa Bargeld), Cave is full of fire and strangeness and eloquence in creating an album that sounds remarkably mature (even compared to his mid-‘90s material) yet refreshingly classic. “Get Ready for Love” kicks off album one, Abattoir Blues, with screaming gospel-like intensity that really one-ups Spiritualized. It sets the tone for what will be a wild romp through disc one. “Hiding All Away” is quite Tom Waits-ian, but hits harder than anything Waits accomplished on his much-heralded Real Gone. But, the real stunner on disc one is “There She Goes, My Beautiful World.” It summarizes Cave’s ongoing obsession with the death of the artist—both literal and figurative—to perfection. The song’s power supply surges to circuit-popping proportions thanks to what seems like a thousand voices and a cacophony of whirling rhythm and blues noise provided by a rabid Bad Seeds. (Appropriate, considering the song references Johnny Thunders and Dylan Thomas.) While some of his ballads from the past decade were real yawners despite their sophisticated nature, Cave has taken sophistication to a new level on this release—and the results are hardly boring. Never has Cave’s slinky, sleazy, bluesy ballads sounded better than here, in part because the addition of a female chorus really adds an eerie backdrop for Cave’s rich voice. Disc two, The Lyre of Orpheus, features one of the best ballads of this bunch, “Babe, You Turn Me On.” An odd ode to a lover—sort of a “let’s fuck during the apocalypse” love song—Cave’s pen finds its way to a memorable phrase or two on this number. “Now, the nightingale sings to you, and raises up the ante,” he sings. “I put one hand on your round ripe heart and the other down your panties.” Cave ditches the piano to better-than-fair results on the acoustic guitar ditty “Breathless,” which is lyrically about as close to a proper love song as Cave is going to get. That sense of near-perfection—that Cave is on the cusp of greatness—envelops this album. The songs are memorable, the performance is spectacular, and the subject matter is classic Cave. I don’t see how he tops this.
Comets on Fire
While Blue Cathedral might show Comets on Fire mellowing some as they age (introducing a more prevalent role for analog keyboardist and effects-savant Noel Harmonson), there’s certainly no shortage of hell to pay on the group’s third release. They still love that vintage stoner rock. But in addition to the maelstrom that is the Comets dual six-string attack, a stronger textural dexterity emerges on Cathedral that sometimes keeps the focus off the fire and brimstone and on rock and roll’s introverted self. Introducing a more prevalent role for organ and expanding the group’s sonic horizons in a direction that’s more seductive and less harsh, has paid dividends for the band on this release. A perfect example is “Whiskey River” (most definitely not a cover of the country song that Willie Nelson popularized in the ‘70s). In the space of eight minutes, the listener is splattered with all the blood, guts and gore in the Comets on Fire arsenal. We begin with the kind of muscular riff that one expects from a group of guys whose sole purpose is imposing tonal carnage on weaklings. Masquerading as howling celestial voices over the top of the chaos is Harmonson’s echoplex, which resembles the sound of a theremin in producing otherworldly noises. But, getting back to that softer side of the Comets, “Whiskey River” harnesses its frenzied tendencies at the midway point to strip the song down to its Stonesy riff while introducing an acoustic guitar, which for a while allows the song’s skeleton to really breathe. But the break eventually builds scorching steam, reaching climax with the echoplex bleeping over the top of a frenetic electric guitar solo and Tim Daly’s tenor sax. Fans of Mudhoney’s recent foray into the world of Blue Cheer-meets-Stooges blooze, Since We’ve Become Translucent, will totally dig this shit. Blue Cathedral breaks new ground for this fearsome fivesome, and in doing so stakes Comets on Fire’s claim as a band with as much mind as muscle. For fans of rock’s rough, psychedelic fringes, that’s a very good thing.
When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog
Sweden’s Jens Lekman is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. He’s an awkward crooner, sort of a mixture between Stephin Merritt and Morrissey. Oddly enough, his lyrics are reminiscent of both as well. Obsessed with women (in his case) and his ultimate failure to understand them, Lekman’s songs are witty serenades encased in white soul, piano ballads, rootsy Americana, pseudo world music, and traditional ‘80s-inspired British indie pop. (In that way, again, his songwriting is similar to the diversity displayed by The Magnetic Fields.) His music has recently been climbing the Swedish charts to the tune of a No. 2 radio single. In the States, where he’s distributed by Bloomington, Indiana label Secretly Canadian, he's hoping to cash in at a favorable exchange rate. Yet his music sounds distinctly un-American, both in terms of nuance and melodrama. Lekman shifts from heart-on-the-sleeve to stake-in-his-heart with such ease. Case in point: “Do You Remember the Riots?”. Essentially an a cappella tune, “Riots” is a snapshot of a couple breaking up at a riot—of all places. “Your hand slipped out of mine. I couldn’t see no love in your eye. I knew what I had to do—burn the avenue. I’m not a political fighter. And I don’t even have a cigarette lighter. But I wanna see that fire.” Contrast that imagery with the album's closer, “A Higher Power.” Welding blurry string arrangements together, he delivers yet another tale of young love—except this one ends on a promising note. Lekman sings: “She said let’s put a plastic bag over our heads and then kiss and stuff until we get dizzy and fall on the bed.” At this point, Lekman, who’s in his early 20s, needs only to further differentiate himself from his contemporaries. Even if he fails in that regard, he’s still someone to get excited about. After all, knowing that there are two Stephin Merritts running around the globe can’t be a bad thing.
I've already told you about how Arcade Fire put on what was most definitely the “show of the year” in November. Listening to Funeral after seeing them live puts a slight damper on the album. They’re even better live, which is not to say that this album is anything short of a spectacular debut. (In fact, see my unbiased pre-concert review of the album here.) But, in person they couple a hyperactive core with a charismatic exterior that’s simply astounding, and they can’t quite pull that off on disc. I want to hold them to a higher standard and dock them a couple points. Maybe that’s unfair, as there are definitely moments in this album where the group’s infectious energy boils over the rim. But, it’s a good problem for a band to have: "How do we take our incredible live energy and successfully transfer that to 0s and 1s on disc?" Many bands would kill to have that problem. “Wake Up” is still one of my favorite songs of the year, and seeing it live—with the slung over-the-shoulder marching drum, the entire band singing background vocals, and the dense lushness of the strings—was one of the best concert memories I have to date. I’d place it right up there with the night that Mudhoney blew out the drum in my right ear, the only time I saw Neutral Milk Hotel, and my screening of Liars pre their new lineup. In other words, I was blown away with the sheer intensity of Arcade Fire’s performance—their earnest love for the music and the obvious pleasure they derived from being on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Wow. It’s easy to see why these guys got signed on the strength of their live show. Believe the hype and buy the record already.
Devendra Banhart: wandering minstrel, Texas-born neo-hippie, man of international mystery, and downright odd-looking fellow named after an Indian mystic his parents adored. The dude who pulled the lo-fi rug right out from under Lou Barlow. You could also toss in there “not your average 23 year-old,” but I suppose that goes without saying. Love him or hate him...you gotta have an opinion of him by now. If not, form one already! His music is too controversial—some will argue vital, others nonsensical—to go unheard by you. The splash he’s made on the scene this year is possibly of the most interest in the neo-folk singer-songwriter camp since fellow beardsman Will Oldham broke through over a decade ago. I don’t know how one reasonably determines much difference between Banhart’s two releases from this year: Rejoicing in the Hands, which was released in April, and this, which came out in September. They’re both exceptional, containing charming, eclectic folk songs sung in Banhart’s distinctive tongue. Nino Rojo is a bit more poppy, which might make it the (slightly) more accessible of the pair. For example, “We All Know,” a blues-folk number that gently strolls along, possesses an irresistible hook and showcases Banhart’s ability to channel the unique vocal stylings of Marc Bolan. “Little Yellow Spider” features Banhart’s playful poetics wrapped up in a pretty little ditty. (Not to mention some silly lyrics: “I came upon a dancing crab and I stopped to watch it shake. I said dance for me just one more time before you hibernate, and come out a crab cake.”) And “At the Hop” is a quirky love song that fans of Iron & Wine will adore. Still, Nino Rojo is not without its challenging spots, either. “HorseheadedfleshWizard” finds Banhart back on a mystical, almost-spiritual plane, as does the Nick Drake-inspired “A Ribbon,” which showcases just how far Banhart’s finger-picked guitar playing has progressed since his 2002 debut. But the album’s real keeper is the full-band blues stomp of “Be Kind,” probably the closest Banhart has come thus far to writing what we may identify as a rock song. The addition of bass, piano, mouth harp and percussion fleshes out Banhart’s typical bare-bones approach to great results, allowing him a bit more muscle than usual and suggesting a possible new direction for the singer-songwriter on future releases. If I have to pick one of Banhart’s 2004 releases to take to the desert island with me, I’m giving the nod to Rejoicing. But, as the high rating for this album can attest, it’s really a close call.
The Gris Gris
The Gris Gris
Better late than never; this one has to be in my Top 10—even if it means being sandwiched between two other releases. I suppose you could say that the new car smell hasn’t worn off of this record since I cracked the seal on it two days before Xmas. But, you could also say that the record hasn’t left my stereo since then. These San Francisco-via-Texas psych rockers put forth the kind of damaged rock ‘n’ roll that gets me off. Touches of Syd Barrett, The 13th Floor Elevators, Beck, Os Mutantes, The Velvets, Chuck Berry-cum-White Stripes, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and Can are shaken violently, beaten with baseball bats, and then whisked into a creamy solution that tastes like a strawberry milkshake made with sour milk. Greg Ashley’s songs are polarizing yet seductive, the sort of oddities that I could imagine making a fine soundtrack to an Andy Warhol film. At his most plainsong, as on the exceptional, stripped-down “Mary #38,” Ashley sounds like Jack White itching his Joe Meek scratch. Meanwhile, on the brilliant “Necessary Separation,” The Gris Gris treat us to a rockin’ rhythm and blues number with a savory lead guitar solo that sounds a helluva lot like The Makers humping The Gories. Not to mention, it’s a nice anti-government ditty, too. Juxtaposed with these more traditional offerings is the skewed psych-folk of “Winter Weather”—which really sounds like an outtake of Beck’s One Foot in the Grave—and the sultry island-folk of “Me queda um bejou”—which reminds me of Billy Corgan-gone-Latin...if he had talent, vision and soul. (Okay, so maybe that actually disqualifies the Billy Corgan reference altogether cause that’s never gonna happen.) Overall, this is another sterling debut for the year 2004 that comes highly recommended.
Living in Blue
I’ve written about these guys so fucking much this year that I can’t really string together any additional coherent words. See the winter issue of Skyscraper (due out in February) for my long feature article on the band. In August they won Little Stevie’s Battle of the Garage Bands and got to play on the same bill as Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls, The Electric Prunes, The Pretty Things, The Creation, Nancy Sinatra and The Strokes. A lot of bands would probably call it quits right there—what do you do for an encore? I suppose if you’re The Blackouts, you hit the road hard in 2005 and attempt to follow up a stellar sophomore album. I’ve probably listened to this record 75 times over the course of the past year, which is a lot especially after you take into consideration that I’ve also seen them live around 15 times, too. Having seen them in concert so much, I’m sick of this album now. Even though it still sounds so good—the band’s tense rhythm and blooze backbone coupled with the way Joe chokes the life from his fretboard is just dynamite—I’ve now digested so much of their newer, unreleased songs that my focus has shifted. And man, let me tell you that their new stuff is even better. More psychedelic, more wicked, more profound, more strange. They’ll have another record ready to drop in the spring on Minty Fresh Records. Make damn sure you buy that album, folks. It’s going to be among next year’s greats, just as Living in Blue was one of this year’s brightest. And I really hope you get the opportunity to catch them live in 2005, cause there is likely no better live rock and roll band on the planet right now. P.S. If you're looking for this release, good luck. Their current label has the worst distribution this side of the old Soviet Bloc. The album will be re-released around February, though, so ask your friendly record store clerk to order you a copy then.
Iron & Wine
Our Endless Numbered Days
Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam gets my nod for songwriter of the year. His subtle, effortless, down-to-earth acoustic songs blend the best of rural American folk music with a modern, stark, artistic sensibility that’s incredibly refreshing. Like a nineteenth-century clapboard home that’s seen its hardwood floors refinished, its rooms livened up with a fresh coat of colorful paint, and the hinges of its wooden shutters tightened, Beam’s songs utilize something instinctively old to create something distinctly new. The first few times I listened to Our Endless Numbered Days, I didn’t find it to be quite of the same quality as its predecessor, The Creek Drank the Cradle. My opinion had nothing to do with the fact that the new album was recorded in a proper studio, whereas the first album was recorded mostly at Beam’s South Florida home. (In honesty, with these kinds of folksier albums I do prefer more of the stripped down, simplistic approach, as in the difference between Nick Drake’s first two albums and the bleaker, more haunting Pink Moon.) The difference in recording technique between Beam’s first and second records simply isn’t discernable enough. The instrumentation and approach is quite similar, although on the new album Beam does employ a full band on occasion. And it’s not as if Creek was an album that suffered from it’s “lo-fi” trappings. Nor does Days suffer from its improved sonic qualities. So, why wasn’t I as blown away the first few times I heard this album? I’ll be damned if I know. Maybe it was the fact that the first time I listened to the album I was at work (huge mistake!). In retrospect, I was a fucking fool, though. This album is amazing, and seeing Beam perform it live at the Abbey Pub in Chicago was a real treat. Iron & Wine gives me the same sense of spiritual connection to the music that I received from Neutral Milk Hotel. While the two artists have their differences, they do both share a fascination with cryptic tales, soulful endeavors and romantic notions that seem to be at the heart of this thing we call life. Beam might be more straightforward with his language and his imagery, but he’s aiming for the same target as Jeff Mangum. And like Mangum, he’s a marksman of unmatched ability. He scores bulls-eyes on every song.
Van Lear Rose
I don’t think anyone saw this coming: that at the age of 69, the Coal Miner’s Daughter from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, would reinvent herself a la Johnny Cash and release a stunning collection of originals. Lynn took the entire decade of the ‘90s off to spend time with her ailing husband. She released her first album in eleven years in 2000, but that was a non-heralded collection of typical country fare penned by others. So, it was easy to assume at that point that her career was all but over. She would be resigned to release a few unglamourous “essential” “greatest hits” albums, or maybe a box set that drudged up unreleased recordings from 1965. The fact that her collaboration with Jack White stirred up this kind of a passionate result is simply shocking. This recording sounds so confident yet completely relaxed, as if Lynn has been performing alongside White for decades. (It’s worth noting that the band White put together for this release, the “Do Whaters,” as Lynn lovingly referred to her backing band of garage rockers, also features members of The Greenhornes.) The exceptional songs are penned by Lynn, the performance by both Lynn and even moreso the band is inspired, and the more rocking style fits Loretta to a T. Her duet with White, “Portland, Oregon,” is far and away one of the year’s best singles, opening with the memorable line “Well Portland, Oregon and sloe gin fizz—if that ain’t love then tell me what is.” Much of the subject matter is not new to Lynn’s songs, but the fresh context makes for a compelling revisit. Hopefully, Lynn has another album or two left in her. And hopefully, she’ll bring the Do Whaters along for the ride.
Bows + Arrows
My early-on favorite for album of the year fell just short by year’s end. I really didn't think anything could top this sucker, but I guess that's why we play all nine innings instead of stopping at the seventh inning stretch. There’s no other band on earth that sounds like these guys. I’m bound to fail in expressing to you just what it is that makes The Walkmen tick. We can discuss how each band member approaches his instrument in a philosophical sense, unaccepting of conventional wisdom about how guitars and drums are supposed to be properly played in a rock and roll band. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how Hamilton Leithauser could beat to death a legion of Eddie Vedder wannabes with a single passionate, throaty yelp. We can wonder aloud why no other modern band has ever been capable of producing such gorgeous, esoteric sounds from vintage equipment. Or, we could speak in tongues about their jaw-dropping live show. It all adds up to the same conclusion: I’m not sure how they do it, but The Walkmen are the most intriguing band in rock n’ roll right now. Bows + Arrows announces that they have arrived, fashionably late and dressed to the nines. By now you’ve heard their single, on which Leithauser demands some respect: “Can’t you see me? I’m pounding on your door.” Hopefully, you’ve answered that call by now.
Rejoicing in the Hands
Sneaking two records into my Top 10 is no easy task. But, like many other music scribes this year, I can’t deny Devendra Banhart any love. Nor can I expend much energy differentiating between his two releases this year. After all, they’re both cut from the same cloth. He recorded both albums at a home resting on the ‘Bama-Georgia border. He simply set up camp in engineer Lynn Bridges’ living room. From there, the tape rolled for ten days straight, twelve hours a day. 32 songs later, Banhart had himself two new albums. Rejoicing in the Hands was the first batch released, and is slightly more mystical and obscure, the insightful uncle to Nino Rojo’s naive nephew. What makes Banhart’s music so inspiring is not its eccentric nature or Banhart’s unique voice; rather it’s the live emotional core at the heart of his songs. Much like fellow neo-folk pioneer Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart’s songs like to fuck with the listener’s psyche. Just try getting his strangeness out of your head. It’s hopeless. See “This Beard Is for Siobhan,” which serves as a fine example. A typical, finger-picked blues ditty that wouldn’t sound out of place being performed by a street musician gets the Banhart treatment when it comes to the lyrics. “Now because my lips have split, all the little children hide in front, in the middle and in the behind. And because my nose has froze but I can keep on smellin’, I could smell my little day away. Now because my teeth don’t bite, I could take them out dancing. I could take my little teeth out and show them a real good time.” At which point the piano, bass, tambourine and—yes!—kazoo kick in to finish the song out with a lovely little blues stomp. Banhart may not take himself too seriously all of the time, but some of the time he seems dead serious. On “A Sight to Behold” Banhart sets a darker tone, adding a melancholic violin over the top of his rapidly-plucked guitar. It’s this sort of haunting, trembling, gutty blues that Banhart pulls off effortlessly. His emotional reservoir proves murky, restless and deep, but a gentle fog rolls over its surface like the calm touch of a mother’s steady hand. Whether he opts for brightened folk or dusty dirges, his instinctual music proves affecting and provocative. Either record should be welcomed into your home, as they both make for interesting house guests.
Ta Det Lugnt
Dungen—aka multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes—doesn’t sing in English. He sings in his native Swedish tongue. And because of that, I doubt the American press will waste much ink on him, which really is a shame as Dungen’s Ta Det Lugnt is the most fascinating psychedelic rock album of the year. (I should be a bit broader, in fairness, and say it's the best rock album of the year. After all, I did rank it No. 2.)
The album opens with a loose drum fill that would sound comfortable on a Dizzy Gillespie album. A hyper bass line joins under a ragged guitar riff. And 30 seconds later the entire bottom drops out as the verse begins. A mellow guitar passage drowns itself in reverb as layered, harmonized vocals wash over the top. Dare I say just a minute into the album Dungen has already managed to sound like Neu and Cream, with Keith Moon on drums? Fuck, this is good stuff. Song two, “Gjort bort sig” features bright, classic rock guitar hollering over Ejstes, who on this song has taken a liking to Ray Davies. Masterful guitar noodling embellishes the song throughout, lending it a trippy feel that’s similar yet more ethereal than fellow countrymen The Soundtrack of Our Lives. Several songs on this album bare comparison to TSOOL, except that Dungen’s songs are way more mindfuck psychedelic, like an untamed Iron Butterfly rockin’ a house party hosted by The Electric Prunes. Song three, “Festival,” is an upbeat, acoustic folk-rock song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Zeppelin III. Ejstes’ vocals are finally pushed all the way to the forefront, forcing the listener to grapple with whether they care about his non-English lyrics. I sure don’t. The music and singing are both more than capable of holding down my interest. (And singing in a foreign language actually adds to the mystique.) The song eventually turns on its ear as a piano is pounded into submission and smothered in reverb. Like a fresh, still-life watercolor being hosed down, the instrumental bridge completely reinvents the song.
And reinvention is a theme that Dungen favors. A melancholy string arrangement performed by Ejstes, who as I said earlier is a multi-instrumentalist, suggests that a transitional song is in the workings on song four. However, the strings soon fade away, and we’re left with a song within a song—another acoustic folk song built with sturdy strumming, handclaps, and layered vocals. Ejstes reintroduces the string theme before flirting with a warped flute passage. The style of this song—which creeps back and forth throughout the album—is reminiscent of Brazil’s Os Mutantes. At this rate, I have to expect Dungen to break into Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” anytime soon. Then, the song within a song bends around a curve and becomes…a song within a song within a song? Seriously, we’re only six minutes into this tune and now guitarist Reine Fiske is wailing away on his electric a la Hendrix while the backing band makes a raucous—or at least as much noise as they could muster with a cowbell, an acoustic guitar, drums and bass. The jam disintegrates to leave us with the guitar solo, which at this point sounds as if it’s being attacked by a sonic machine gun. The song closes with a weary guitar droning to its defeat. All this in a shade over eight minutes!
As the album progresses—splashing hints of avant-garde jazz, Left Banke-inspired pop, Vampyros Lesbos, Bjorn Olsson-like ambient and Krautrock into the sonic landscape like acid rain—it becomes clear that Dungen is accomplished both in terms of musicianship and songwriting. It’s also clear that Ejstes' schizophrenic tendencies are to be encouraged. Ravaging several moods within a five-minute song, Ejstes and company find success where several others dare to go. Much like Olivia Tremor Control—known for their own ambling neo-psych-pop masterpiece …Dusk at Cubist Castle—Ejstes rarely conforms to traditional sense when it comes to constructing a rock song. That Dungen’s ambition does not slay the song is a testament to how fucking wonderful of a record Ta Det Lugnt is. This is the closest we’re likely to come in modern times to re-envisioning the radical sense of freedom the rock and roll community experienced as the ‘60s bled into the ‘70s and one drug gave way to another. That a 20-something kid from Sweden has tapped into this kind of emotion and captured it in a recording that sounds of that time is…frighteningly genius.
I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that I take greater satisfaction in listening to records that prove difficult to discover, or headstrong on first listen. Plenty of other scribes can wax endlessly on the chic cool of Paul Banks. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes agree with them; I’d just rather make use of my thesaurus in describing bands buoyed a bit further out to sea. Or, in the case of Dungen, across the ocean in Sweden.
I could go on, but words can only stretch so far, and I already feel like I’ve lost a battle in trying to describe this record to you. I guess I’ve won the war, however, if you choose to buy it.
The Milk-Eyed Mender
I’ve resisted the urge to write about Joanna Newsom so far this year, in part because it’s no easy task and I really don’t want to muck it up. I want you to “get it” as I do. To further complicate matters, plenty of my friends just don’t get Joanna Newsom. They’re turned off by her bizarre voice, which at times can resemble a 12 year-old with a stuffy nose and at other times a ninety year-old woman confined to her rocking chair. (Oh, but despite her voice’s uniqueness, she does sing well! Keep reading...) Or, they just don’t get my fascination with the harp, which she plays on nearly every song on The Milk-Eyed Mender. Some of those people—just like me—have seen her live, too. And even then, they weren’t blown away by her like I was. Maybe Joanna Newsom is just the perfect example of different strokes for different folks. But I haven’t been affected by another album on such a profound level in recent memory. It’s not only that The Milk-Eyed Mender sounds like no other offering from this year, it’s that to me it’s a piece of gorgeous, timeless art. But, before I over-indulge in too many adjectives, allow me to digress.
I first heard Joanna Newsom earlier this year on WFMU. I was listening to Brian Turner's Tuesday afternoon show while at work, and when Joanna Newsom came on, I had to stop what I was doing just to e-mail him and find out what he played. I still have a copy of that e-mail (along with about 2,300 others) in my “sent” folder. Let me post it for you:
“What in the world was that artist you just played? The song featured a happily hyperactive harpsichord and what sounded like a chorus of small Norwegian children. That was pretty cool.”
You know the reply. At that point, I didn’t know whether I really liked Joanna Newsom. She’s so weird at times—especially so on this song, “Peach, Plum, Pear”—that she comes across as slightly confrontational. But, I was intrigued. And so I went to her web site, and then to Drag City’s site, where I watched a video for another song on her album which sounded nothing like the song on WFMU. I discovered that she primarily plays the harp, and that kicked up my interest level a couple notches. So, I ordered her record, which happens to be her debut, from Parasol. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
Newsom does play the harp, and quite well. But, she doesn’t play the harp as a traditional, classically-trained harpist might...despite the fact that she is a classically-trained harpist. By her own admission, her playing is influenced by the harp traditions found in West African, Venezuelan and Celtic music. Ms. Newsom is of a different school of musical thought, and so is her playing.
“First of all, the harp has this bad reputation,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “It's been used for easy schmaltzy crap. Much of the stuff that I do has been influenced by studying African harp, from Senegal to Mali. It's much more compressive and not always pretty. It's rattling, strange, small and complicated, rather than these huge muddy gestures. The harp is capable of much more expressiveness. It doesn't have to be this sloppy, over the top, dramatic instrument. It can be really delicate and yet abrasive at the right time. I am producing sounds that people are not used to hearing from the harp.”
But, despite her worldly influences, Newsom’s interest lies in following the songwriting traditions of her American ancestors. Bluegrass has had a large influence on her development as a musician. And probably less telling is the fact that her family—all of which are musically inclined—reside next door to avant-garde composer Terry Riley, whom Newsom knows quite well.
“I like American music. I like Appalachian Music and old Blues. I like all the stuff the Lomax Brothers did,” she said in the same interview. “I am inspired to try to do something that I consider working in those perimeters somehow. I want to make music that somehow connects to the things that I love in American music.”
Okay, so what does this actually translate to on wax? Good question. Like I said it’s not easy to describe mostly because there is nothing modern (that I know of) to accurately compare her music to. I suppose there is a certain feel of old-time Americana present in her music. The harp, by nature, sounds very earthen. However, Newsom’s songs are also infused with a strangeness that leads to curious unfamiliarity. So, in a sense, her music is like an old family quilt that’s been passed down by generations. Except, the family is not your own. You purchased the quilt at a thrift store. Point being, you can feel the warmth, the depth, the sincerity and the texture of her music, and it feels like something you know quite well. But, on the surface, it’s a complete stranger to you. Joanna Newsom possesses something intrinsic to all of us, yet we wouldn’t know exactly what it is if it walked up and smacked us on the ass.
Maybe it’s the truth, since Newsom’s stunning music is also utterly far-fetched and open-minded. What I find lovely about Newsom’s honesty, others might find disturbing or annoying. She simply opens her mouth, and whatever comes out—whether it’s the sounds from her throat or the vocabulary itself—is given free reign. While her voice is expressive in its freedom—occasionally she recalls a younger Bjork in style—her songs are like novellas penned for inquisitive children that prefer to live in La-La land. Part Doctor Doolittle, part JR Tolkien, part Isabelle Allende, Newsom’s lyrics cast literary spells that match her musical magic. Some might call it poetry, and while I’m no judge, I’ll offer up a sample:
“Sadie, white coat,
carry me home.
Bury this bone,
take this pinecone.
Bury this bone
to gnaw on it later; gnaw on the telephone.
'Till then, we pray & suspend
the notion that these lives do never end.
And all day long we talk about mercy:
lead me to water Lord, I sure am thirsty.
Down in the ditch where I nearly served you,
up in the clouds where he almost heard you.
And all that we built,
and all that we breathed,
and all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds
is piled up in back;
it burns irrevocably.
(We spoke up in turns,
'till the silence crept over me.)
and I deeply do.
No longer resolute
and I call to you
But the water go so cold,
and you do lose
what you don't hold.
This is an old song,
these are old blues.
This is not my tune,
but it's mine to use.
And the seabirds
where the fear once grew
will flock with a fury.
And they will bury what'd come for you.
Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender,
you and I, and a love so tender,
is stretched on the hoop where I stitch this adage:
‘Bless this house and its heart so savage.’
And all that I want, and all that I need
and all that I've got is scattered like seed.
And all that I knew is moving away from me.
(And all that I know is blowing
And the mealy worms
in the brine will burn
in a salty pyre,
among the fauns and ferns.
And the love we hold,
and the love we spurn,
will never grow cold—
And I'll tell you tomorrow.
Sadie, go on home now.
Bless those who've sickened below;
bless us who've chosen so.
And all that I've got
and all that I need,
I tie in a knot
that I lay at your feet.
I have not forgot,
but a silence crept over me.
(So dig up your bone,
exhume your pinecone, Sadie.)”
Not typical by anyone’s standards. I suppose some would find a similarity between Newsom’s style of wordsmith and that of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum. Both favor ambiguity, salty language, an old world charm, and otherworldly imagery in penning their meandering tales of yearning. The two should date, or better yet record an album together (that is, if Ms. Newsom could locate the reclusive Mr. Mangum).
I believe the biggest reason that I fell in love with Joanna Newsom this year is that her personality is so compelling, her world so not-of-this-world, and her allure so without equal. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. But, when I search for a record to knock me head over heels and change the way I think about music—of not only what is acceptable, but what is possible—I look for something exactly like The Milk-Eyed Mender. I hope for an artist that does not simply exceed my expectations. I hope for an artist that expands my expectations. I’d feel sorry if you missed out on this album. So, don’t.
Finally! Some 11,000+ words later, I'm done. My Top 30 albums of 2004. Please post your lists in the comments section. I'm anxious to see what you dug this year.
Nice list, what no Fiery Furnaces?
Anyway, my "top ten" for the spooky tunes I spin can be found on my radio show website.
I also had much love for Bjork, The Faint, The Organ and the Low box set.
I actually was quite troubled by the Fiery Furnances record. I found it to be as frustrating as it was satisfying. I guess I just liked their first record a lot more.
Arcade Fire (I'm so mad I missed them live)
Fiery Furnaces (I just let go of the parts that bothered me)
Kayne West (chicago!)
Modest Mouse (very surprised, and very happy)
TV on The Radio (I'm curious as to how this will age)
Walkmen (though prefer previous album and JFE)
Wilco (kind of expecting it though)
The Streets* (what is everyone hearing? It's like a bad BBC pilot)
still haven't heard yet, but excited to:
would like to hear your thoughts on the artists marked * - have a good holidays!
By 3:13 PM, at