Archive for December, 2008

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2. Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

December 31, 2008
Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Portland Oregon’s Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, has moved toward a more melodic sound with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. She has transformed from a studio hermit who crafts ambient slowcore to a troubador who crafts folk music, and the cloud of ambiance that she created to hang over her head has simply followed her. Her earliest albums, Way Their Crept and Wide, were notable ambient experiments and hinted at real melodic talent, but Dead Deer fleshes out these promises. The listener watches from a box seat in an otherwise empty theater as Harris weaves an intricate story through music. The result is an album that is at once haunting and beautiful, answers questions that her earlier albums posed, and raises even more. The first of which will undoubtedly be, “what is she saying?” The lyrics on Dead Deer are nearly unintelligible, but here they break through the fog more often than on previous works. The music mostly consists of simple guitar and vocal melodies, produced in a very full way. This formula, without much change, should have made for an extremely boring album, and at first that was what it seemed like to me. But I came back to this album, and not because anyone told me to. It has an eerie gravity due in part to it’s obscurity. Dead Deer is structured as a musical narrative that we want to materialize into something we can fully understand, but it always floats just out of reach. The understandable lyrical content in conjunction with the song titles can be vaguely but not completely understood; the narrator has a fascination with water, sleep, and dissociation from reality. The mood is melancholy throughout, but Harris’ melodic talent as well as careful attention to dynamics and slight variations make for utterly gripping pieces that demand further attention. After repeated listens, each song becomes individual and creates its own world. Songs match their titles. The album’s two instrumentals (although they do have bits of vocal ambiance in them), Wind and Snow and Tidal Wave, replicate desolate loneliness and a swirling wall of sound respectively. The longest song on the album, Stuck, flounders hopelessly like a fish out of water and can’t seem to find a chorus, verse, or bridge. Invisible sounds like a children’s song with a dark, unidentifiable twist. And I’m Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which acts as the centerpiece of the album, creates an aural representation of what dragging said deer (be it literal or metaphorical) up a hill would feel like. The emotional experience is very double edged, and thus that much more intriguing. It is both comforting and haunting, and it traces a path that seems to be close to the human condition. Liz Harris has tapped into something mysterious with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and I wonder if she knows exactly what it is. Regardless of whether she does, Dead Deer is a masterwork that is a result of astounding musicianship, and a sign of more great things to come.

Grouper

Grouper

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3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

December 30, 2008
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

There is an almost inordinate amount of controversy over Vampire Weekend, a band that deserves zero controversy whatsoever. My theory is that they embody the spirit of current “indie rock” so well that it hit a little too close to home when everybody realized they like them. I hate the word “indie.” It is useless and tells me nothing. And yet people seem to think “indie” is a genre of music, when really what they are referring to is more of a process. Recipe for success in the independent music industry: put two cool sounding words together for your band name, dress up in ways that no one else does (ironically, not too many other people in the industry, if any, wear polo shirts), record your album in your garage, throw in some stylistic eccentricities (yeah, they listened to a couple afro-pop records, but really it’s just cheap advertisement), and watch the cash roll in as you get discovered. I think the fact that Vampire Weekend did all of these things and succeeded with flying colors was what erked the hipsters – it’s so hip that it’s unhip. Then they got blasted for not being dangerous enough – “Innocu-rock” as Gym Class Heroes frontman Travis McCoy calls them. And yet VW frontman Ezra Koenig rocked out onstage with Fucked Up, one of the most dangerous bands in the business, during their now legendary twelve hour show at the Rogan Store in New York City. Through all this meticulous dissection and criticism, they seem to smile through it and have a great time. In their live shows, their easygoing nature is contagious. And yet the only reason they have garnered so much attention in the first place is because they made a chamber pop album that really works and that everyone seems to enjoy. The thing seems to be injected with morphine; whatever whatever pains or anxieties that might be lyrically present are glossed over by cheap, catchy melodies. And it may be a cheap, catchy melodicism, but it’s intelligent and consistent, without a bad song (yes, even the somewhat debated Blakes Got A New Face, which I, for one, love). I didn’t even know what a Mansard Roof was until I started working at a roofing company office over the Summer (where I listened to this album all the time), and I’ll bet most listeners initially scratched their heads at the punctuation jokes Oxford Comma. You don’t have to be Columbia educated to appreciate this one, though. It’s loaded with memorable Mothersbaugh-esque pop music made by people who probably weren’t planning on selling lots of records despite the fact that they did, and it makes all the controversy that much funnier. The truth is that the “indie culture” is afraid of these guys and finds them completely dangerous because they made a great pop album while being themselves.

Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend

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4. Beach House – Devotion

December 29, 2008

Beach House - Devotion

On the shortest song Beach House have yet released, the tiny “Some Things Last A Long Time,” Victoria Legrand slowly sings “Your picture is still on my wall/The colors are bright, bright as ever”. The soft pitter patter of rain can be heard outside. Although storms seem to pass over the Beach House, what is inside is protected. Baltimore based Beach House have not changed much since their 2006 self titled debut. The core of the group is still Legrand with her vintage twinkling organ and her breathy vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Alex Scalley puts the icing on the cake with guitars and other instruments. The final product is bittersweet. The band’s songs sound like they were made forty years ago, but in the best possible way without feeling outdated, treated with a timeless classicism. Devotion sounds much more asserted than its predecessor, and thus that much more affecting. Beach House’s melodies change frequently, segueing from one pastoral arrangement to another with ease, but frequently surprising with shreds of melancholy. Songs therefore seem to sputter with emotion, flickering lights through windows drenched in rain. At some points, the pieces are hushed tropical lullabies, and at the next moment booming, painful dirges. Some lean more in one direction – You Came to Me and Holy Dances evoke a heartwarming mysticism while others such as Gila and Heart of Chambers woefully lament. But the ultimate spirit is that of genuine, mature romance, which Legrand articulates so delicately in every song. She sings of love managing to overcome time and space as if reading from a book of hymns with ultimate faith, and she preaches a word we can’t help but hold onto and believe unconditionally. The Beach House has become a home.

Also of note is Beach House’s non-album single, Used To Be, also released this year. The song is a tear-jerker of a new style, one that would not have gelled with the songs on Devotion, but it is quite an accomplishment on its own and anyone who enjoys either of Beach House’s albums should definitely check it out.

Beach House

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5. Deerhunter – Microcastle / Weird Era Cont.

December 28, 2008

Microcastle

Deerhunter - Microcastle

Weird Era Cont.

Deerhunter - Weird Era Cont.

I’ve given up on trying to categorize Deerhunter. Every time I try to pin them, they maneuver out of it and regain total control. They are “garage rock” only so much in the sense that their rhythms are booming and steady. They don’t conform to any of the norms of “shoegaze,” although their reverb soaked sonic experiments cover more ground than My Bloody Valentine ever did and make a comparable racket. But “noise rock” would underplay their gentle atmospherics. There are hints of “ambient and “post-rock” – oh fuck it. These guys are a whole new breed. They seem to span genres ad infinitum without losing their distinctive sound or letting that sound weigh down their tight and inspired songwriting. Microcastle / Weird Era Cont. is a beast of an album, two separate, distinct albums that are, interestingly enough, completely essential to one another, like binary planets swirling near a colorful nebula. Microcastle is destined to be Deerhunter’s legendary album, loaded with catchy hits (Agoraphobia, Never Stops, Nothing Ever Happened) and addictive textural experiments (Little Kids, Green Jacket). Weird Era Cont. tears through its set with fast, muscular rockers (Backspace Century, Operation, VHS Dream) but it’s gemlike sonic experiments (Weird Era, Cicadas) also demand attention. It’s hard to believe, but every song here is classic Deerhunter: the singles, Cavalry Scars, Microcastle, Dot Gain, and Vox Humana are just a few highlights from a long list. Lyrically, Bradford Cox is at his most emotive and revealing, and it is a primary contributor to the songs’ substance. The momentum here is startling, and one can’t help but listen to the entire thing in one sitting while uncovering its individual accomplishments. I feel bad that I can’t think of a more clever way to sum up the accomplishments of this album, but I think listening to the album speaks for itself. It is a masterpiece and one of very few double albums with no wasted space.

Deerhunter

Deerhunter

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6. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

December 25, 2008

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

When I was thinking about what I could send my aunt in Kansas from college, I immediately thought of the Fleet Foxes album. There was something so utterly appropriate about the idea. I thought of visiting my aunt in Kansas, the gardens, plains, the ocean of trees, the wedding, the bag of helicopter maple seeds that she said was the grooviest gift my uncle had ever given to her, the abandoned watertower from which they were let loose, my uncle’s armory (yes, he makes armor), and times when distance between us was not so great. Fleet Foxes seemed to encompass all of this perfectly. So I walked out of my room, down the stairs, out the front door of my dorm, and twenty feet to the Starbucks across the street. I’ll admit, a transnational corporation with as much power and reach as Starbucks contrasts with the quaint, homely sounds of Fleet Foxes, but at the very least they are both “syrupy,” and they were selling hard copies of the album at the register. I have heard the entire album played all the way through several times while studying in Starbucks. My Starbucks is nice. It is the highest grossing Starbucks on the East coast, and yet it somehow manages to be the warmest and comfiest Starbucks I have been in. I study there often. My aunt, who is going to college in Kansas to become a teacher, is also a coffee house studier. Granted, hers sounds much cooler, but I feel like when I’m sitting in that Starbucks, studying and listening to Fleet Foxes, I am suddenly much closer to her. Listening to these songs is like taking a time machine to a simpler time and place. The past, present and future seem to be in harmony with one another. Fleet Foxes are quite a young band with much promise, and listening to their individual breed of ancient sounding sunny folk music is like watching a seed bud and grow into the oldest in the land in the span of one album. These songs seem to speak of legends passed through generations, the details of which have been shaped over time. Vocalist Robin Pecknold seems to need to repeat his words in each song, to sort through everything that has happened with as many smiles as tears. When I listen to this album in Starbucks, which happens frequently, I am keenly aware of the seasons outside and how my aunt in Kansas is going through the same changes and has been in the same place as I was at some point, and will be again soon enough. It’s not that I feel as if I am somewhere else, and I’m sure she still feels like she is in Kansas when she listens to it, but I feel at ease with where I am, which is an emotion far too many people, including myself, have forgotten.

Fleet Foxes

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7. Gregor Samsa – Rest

December 19, 2008

Rest

Gregor Samsa - Rest

The second studio album by post rock band Gregor Samsa states its condition with its front cover. Rest sounds like it is created by a single person who has been traveling for a long time in this landscape and as the sun goes down, stops in a single place (a place like, say, Ain Leuh, Morocco) for the night. While most all movement is stopped, what compels the traveler is still a concern. Their mind races, questions, laments, and seems ready to cave in on itself, and by midway through the album, we question the reality of this “rest,” as it seems as if the introverted narrator will never truly find it. They seems to grieve over their self as much as their condition, although it is perhaps not quite as unmanageable as Franz Kafka’s lifesize cockroach traveling salesman from which the band draws its name. Male and female vocalists sing lightly “it seems the devil’s got a grip on me” in the lengthy, segmented Jeroen Van Aken, named after the birthname of the fifteenth century Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. As we can see, Gregor Samsa seem to be a culturally literate band, but their knowledge isn’t restricted to a couple artistic references. Gregor Samsa craft this album as carefully planned art. If anything, it resembles ancient art of the far east: it is minimalistic, acute, and utilizes the void in much the same way a wood block might, in that empty space seems to jut off forever outside of the music’s boundaries. The melodies are simple but quite memorable, and are more concerned with substance over style, but are not without their creative flourishes. What ultimately makes Rest such a successful venture is that it instead of forcing the listener in a particular direction as most post-rock seems to, Gregor Samsa makes the direction a gentle, irresistible suggestion, and for that reason we do not have a hard time becoming the traveller ourselves.

Gregor Samsa

Gregor Samsa

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8. Mudhoney – The Lucky Ones

December 17, 2008

Mudhoney - The Lucky Ones

After their brief stint with politically charged protest punk, grunge pioneers Mudhoney returned to not giving a shit with this punk gem. The Lucky Ones may not be the most original punk album in the world – it takes many cues from The Stooges’ punk masterpiece Fun House – but really, Mudhoney aren’t the kind of band to care about who they borrow ideas from, and luckily their fanbase doesn’t care either, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, The Stooges would be pretty flattered by this one. Twenty years after their loud beginnings, Mudhoney are riffing and rocking better than ever, and it is arguable that they are truly the only grunge band that has not lost their luster. Granted, they might not be utilizing any shock tactics from their early days or eclectic sounds from their mid-career, but these guys still sound like the garage band down the street who rocked the whole neighborhood whether they liked it or not, and actually ended up hitting it big. The album’s high points are blisteringly loud and fast, namely The Open Mind, the funkier title track, and Tales of Terror. While Soundgarden, Nirvana and the rest of the grunge giants made intellectual advances and intelligent record progressions that landed them all in different places and earned them critical praise, Mudhoney never changed much nor got much radio play, which is good, because no one really wanted them to. Although they seem to think different – Vocalist Mark Arm screams with the same power he had twenty years ago on the aforementioned title track, “The lucky ones are lucky they’re not around!” It’s almost as if they are punk vampires that have been trying to kill themselves for two decades by snorting bad crack and jumping off of roofs, but they just can’t seem to hurt themselves bad enough to find reason enough to stop making these awesome punk records.

Mudhoney