In the past few months, I have had the chance to see music from Australia, France, and Canada, in addition to the Texas, New York, and LA-based acts that typically come through. That’s been nice.
Gojira were very polite, which stood in contrast to their precise and pulverizing metal. Their French accents were cute. I don’t know if Courtney Barnett spoke or sang or mumbled or what, but whatever it was I couldn’t understand it but totally loved it (as always). Crystal Castles were Canadian, and I also saw Phantogram. Both were about as antiseptic as expected.
Along with Barnett, the Sound on Sound Fest one-day pass also provided close access to a rock legend (Bob Mould) and a local legend (Explosions in the Sky). The latter was the clear highlight of the fall for live music. These guys’ near-telepathic chemistry and their mastery of dynamics was put over the top by the coolest light show I have ever seen (thanks, weather).
Personally, it has been a crushing few months, but discovering new music and seeing old favorites is a helpful tonic. Listen to some of what I have been listening to, if you d/care.
The first week of 2014 has me writing about music for the first time in my adult life. It’s fitting. I listen to a lot of it, and usually there is an accompanying narrative ongoing in my brain-space. I think of how I’d review this new album, how I’d convince an unabashed metal-hater that heavy music reaches the highest heights, how I’d like to share a favorite song with some long-ago or distant friend. For years these musings have stayed within, but going forward I’m putting them out.
I saw 2013 as an all-or-nothing year in music. There was a lot of crap out there this year, and a lot of terrific, daring, refreshing stuff, too. In some cases, the year was about disappointment – some old favorites came through with less-than-stellar comebacks and/or follow-ups. Others cemented their legacies as legends. You can read below on where I stand, and get a little bit of a feel for where my tastes lie (although don’t be surprised when I bring out some experimental jazz or instrumental metal next time).
I have to give on amazing shout-out first: 2013 saw the birth of KUTX, 98.9 FM, Austin’s first (and only) public, music-only radio station. It’s not always great, but it’s always playing music, and that is just super rad. I’m thankful for them, and can’t recommend ’em enough (www.kutx.org).
Here we go:
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Night Still Comes
I first heard of Ms. Case around the time 2006’s “Fox Confessor” came out — this was also shortly after the time The New Pornographers’ “Twin Cinema” was released. Since those two albums made their way into my music rotation, the voice of Neko Case has been a constant in my ear-holes. I’ve delved into the back catalogues of both her early, more traditional alt-country albums (with Her Boyfriends) and the New Porno’s early stuff. She’s never felt as assured and completely in control of her songwriting and delivery as on 2013’s “The Worse Things Get…” Almost every track on the album reveals some slow-burning surprise — whether it’s rousing brass or a well-placed profanity. Her lyrics are obtuse enough to leave me guessing, while personal enough to draw me in. And her voice. just. is. There’s no artifice there. It is brass, and balls, and vulnerability, and coolness, and cunning.
Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
The Desert Babbler
Sam Beam is somewhat of a personal hero. He lives in Austin, but he’s not from here. He’s a family man, with something like a dozen daughters. His beard is majestic and potent. He sings with an effortlessness that belies the depth of his lyrics. He writes often of his relationship to his wife and children, in ways that make me proud to be a father and husband, while yearning for the freedom of my youth. Over the years, his work as Iron & Wine has transformed, evolving from whispered hush-folk to ornate, jazz-inspired, white-boy R&B. I can’t get enough, and if Ghost on Ghost is any indication, the exploration won’t stop, but the bedrock of lyrical wonder and vocal prowess will remain.
The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
When compared to their breakout album from 2011, “The Big Roar,” “Wolf’s Law” is at first listen a bit of a disappointment. That’s because most of “The Big Roar” were songs the Welsh band had been jamming and honing for years, touring the UK in support of their first few indie EPs and albums. What “Wolf’s Law” offers is the next step forward for the band, and it’s a promising advance. The guitar work remains relentless – I haven’t had this much fun listening to simple power chord riffing since Siamese Dream, probably. What this new album does is showcase more of Ritzy’s Bryan’s vocals, bringing her voice higher in the mix, and adding some layers and harmonies. In addition, the band continues its habit of odd song structures and minimalist progression, but does so in a more concise, punchier package. It’s heavy music with a brightness and urgency that continues to reveal more and more nuance with every listen.
Black Angels – Indigo Meadow
The Black Angels have put out somewhere around four full-length albums since 2006, and 2013’s “Evil Things” is the first that sees the Austin psych-rock outfit begin to transcend their genre into a truly great rock band. The new album features production from the prolific and talented John Congleton, and the result is the band’s most focused, accessible, complex work to date. “Don’t Play With Guns,” the album’s third track, was a mainstay of local radio, and each time it came on, my hand reached for the volume knob. I may have to finally attend the annual Psych Fest this year, just to see this band in person.
Typhoon – White Lighter
I’m cheating a little on this one. I’ve heard this band’s song Young Fathers on the radio for a while now, enjoying it each time. But I didn’t look up the full album and begin listening to it until yesterday. So technically, it’s not really a 2013 favorite. But I listened to it three times, back-to-back yesterday, and I just can’t get enough. There’s enough for dozens of repeat listens. Each song is teeming with intriguing lyrics, odd but compelling time signature changes, wonderful harmonies and vocal refrains, great and varied percussive work… I can’t say enough. I plan to make Typhoon a regular contributor to my 2014 playlists, and you should, too.
The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanny Valley
Turns out some things do not age well at all. Turns out frenetic, stream-of-consciousness “singing” and danceable punk-rock rhythms are not so easy after you’ve taken more than a decade off from playing music. Really, the music remains engaging, but Travis Morrison’s vocals and lyrics are just unlistenable now. It’s a true disappointment, as “Change” and “Emergency & I” remain two of my favorite albums of the late-90s/early-00s. But judging from the sound of “Uncanny Valley” this Plan should be aborted. Too bad.
Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
“The ArchAndroid” was a truly remarkable, genre-defying, groundbreaking full-length debut from one of the best pure singers I’ve heard in a long time. Unfortunately, the continued saga of Cindi Mayweather, everyone’s favorite dancing robot, just doesn’t hold up in “The Electric Lady.” There are certainly some fun moments, especially with Badu’s guest appearance on Q.U.E.E.N. and Esperanza Spalding’s turn on Dorothy Dandridge Eyes. The guitar work is also quite good. But when the strongest moments on your album are due to your guest artists and your guitar player, it’s a lackluster effort. Here’s hoping to a triumphant return from Janelle in the future.
Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Anyone who knows me knows I love me some Pearl Jam. But it’s getting harder and harder to continue professing said love when the band insists on releasing bland, boring butt-rock. I’m sorry, there’s just no denying it anymore. Eddie, Stone, Jeff, Mike, and Matt haven’t put a good album out since 2000 (!) 2009’s “Backspacer” was just OK, but it’s now been sandwiched by half a dozen truly awful records. They seem to have washed their hands of the experimentation and loose exploration that made “No Code,” “Yield,” and “Binaural” such wonderful rock albums. Maybe it’s time for a new drummer (no offense to Matt Cameron, who’s been great for years).
Toad the Wet Sprocket – New Constellation
Toad received a fair amount of press this year, making news through the use of Kickstarter to finance their come-back album. I wonder if they should see how many of their old fans would pay for them to take it back. I loved all of their 90s albums, and a couple of Glen Phillips’ solo albums from the 00s were quite accomplished in a Santa Barbara-country sort of way. But the new songs on “Constellation” are thoroughly forgettable, the production is weirdly disjointed, and even Phillips’ normally reliable vocals seem shoddy and uninspired. To help wash the palate, I’ll share one of the great tunes from Phillips’ “Abulum” while thinking of what could have been.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
This is mainly because of their SNL appearance. I actually like the title track, and to be honest I’ve never cared much for much of their other work. But I can never un-see whatever travesty that was on SNL. I remember seeing an Austin City Limits episode where I found them annoying and a little pretentious, but what they unleashed on that Saturday night in September was pure nightmare fuel. They almost made up for it by participating in the hilarious “New Cast Member or Arcade Fire” skit, but it’ll take more than one self-deprecating fake game show to wash that terrifying stage act from my subconscious mind.
Happy New Year… here’s a little taste of what’s to come in 2013. Purple is a peek into Day Joy’s upcoming debut LP, Go To Sleep, Mess, due out Feb. 13th and available via Small Plate Records. It’s a subdued yet captivating track that draws you in from the get-go with rich instrumentation and reflective vocals that lay themselves out as the song progresses. Cheers and enjoy.
Earlier this week, the wife and I attended a show at the 9:30 Club – both of our favorite music venue (at least I think I’m pretty sure it’s hers too). We received the tickets as part of our wedding gift from two good friends. That’s what a good friend who stands up for you at your wedding does – gets you a personal gift that reflects something that made you great friends in the first place – the gift of live music.
Anyways, the show included three acts – Matthew Ryan, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, and the Gaslight Anthem.
Five observations from the show:
Matthew Ryan is incredibly underrated. With a career spanning the better part of two decades and over a dozen albums, Ryan is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our generation, yet can barely draw 200 people when performing as the opening act for a sold-out show. This is unfortunate.
I am getting too old for a mosh pit. I think my neck and back agree.
Laura Stevenson and the Cans are not terribly appealing. Despite only 2 EPs and 2 LPs, limited-to-no commercial success, and a real lack of originality, they had an unsettling an aura of pretentiousness about them on stage. Not my favorite.
However, fun fact about Laura Stevenson – her grandfather composed ”The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
The Gaslight Anthem really has something going. They’ve been able to tap into a variety of musical genres and appeal to a wide array of social subcultures – rockabillies, hipsters, punks, jocks, etc. I even saw a few card-carrying members of the AARP in attendance. A style this transformative is a recipe for both critical acclaim and commercial success.
Vocalist Greg Walters and Cason Kelly of Tiny Victories emit a concussion of synth magic in their five-track EP. Those Of Us Still Alive, which debuted on Feb. 28, brings massive beats, intense vocals, and a certain vibe that’s best defined as ‘the intro to Miami Vice‘. In fact, I can almost hear a sample of it on Get Lost. Mashup anyone?
This 24 minute session with Bon Iver is recorded at AIR Studio’s Lyndurst Hall and serves up some paired back interpretations of several songs off of Blood Bank EP and a cover of I can’t make you love me. Check it out here.