And then there were 20. For those that have followed BDWPS.com all year (all two of you), you may see some entries on albums that look very familiar. Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, I decided to save myself time by simply copy and pasting my thoughts on the album from months past. I hope this isn’t disappointing, but I am only one man and this hobby of mine can be a lot of work. Whatever way I can cut corners I will.
If you’ve had trouble playing the audio to the first 30 tracks posted, hopefully they will be more accessible now that I’ve updated the format of my blogs. Yes, I’m an idiot and just realized you can post excerpts leading to a page that is devoted solely to the one blog entry. I think you’ll find some pretty amazing songs in my top 30, and my hope is that someone out there discovers a song that will have the same affect on them that they’ve had on me. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays! (Top 40 Albums coming next week…)
Truman Capote once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness approach saying, “It isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.” I suppose he would have the same response to Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse.” I say this because of the album’s rambling lyrics that wander about like a Bedouin in the desert. Prior to “Apocalypse,” Callahan used themes as a scaffold to his stories; on “Apocalypse” his stories wander in search of a theme, sometimes never arriving at their destination. This experience is often close to the heart with Callahan singing about his own confusions or channeling those emotions through his characters.
Callahan has never been one to follow songwriting norms, and on “Apocalypse” he has stretched his terrain to the unexplored. His songs are sparser, more personal, and more perplexing than anything he’s done since his days with Smog. He rarely aims to give us answers but puts us in his mind’s eye, giving us the task of trying to answer them ourselves. Whether its his personal story of seclusion as a musician on “Riding For the Feeling,” or his tale of a lonely cowboy on “Drover,” this is an album about the “Apocalypse” within; the endless, draining apocalypse of our heart and soul and how “ this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ Breaks a strong, strong mind.” If that’s not songwriting, I don’t know what is, Mr. Capote.
“Riding For the Feeling” tells of Callahan’s disconnect from both his fans and himself:
9. TV Ghost
[In The Red; 2011]
Last weekend, while visiting my friend PthestudP in Omaha, I played TV Ghost’s “Mass Dream” for him, knowing he’d like its chaotic take on post-punk. Within the first 40 seconds of “Wired Trap” I could see his eyes light up with excitement. Half way through the song though his take on the album had been altered, “I really like this, but I don’t know if I can handle it right now.” I wasn’t offended; I knew exactly what he was talking about. He was feeling that same combination of excitement and fear that I’d felt upon my first listen. Plus, sitting in a car and listening to “Mass Dream” is like drinking a 5-Hour Energy and watching “Antique Road Show.” You can not sit still and listen to this album, and if you do, seizures are probably in your future.
Just when it seemed the post-punk rebirth had run its course, TV Ghost’s take on the genre has tossed expectations for a loop, the church organ moaning behind the shrieking, surf guitar riffs, and the ballyhooing of singer Tim Gick. His voice, a combination of David Byrne’s nervous, jerky shouts and David Yow’s tortured, muffled howls, provides the mad scientist to this seance of terror and trepidation. You cannot resist the supernatural powers of “Mass Dream,” so just let the music grasp your soul and shake it.
As frenzied as “Wired Trap” starts out, the organ riff that surfaces at the 2-minute mark calms your nerves, if not for only a moment:
8. J. Mascis
“Several Shades of Why”
When I first got J. Mascis’s “Several Shades of Why” I didn’t expect much. Mr. Mascis without his trusty Jazzmaster and his wall of Marshall amps is like Samson without his locks. Or at least I thought as much. With all the distortion and guitar soloing gone, Mascis’s true strength is finally revealed: his songwriting. Neil Young has said that all great songs should sound just as good without effects and Mascis proves this sentiment with 10 delicate songs of love and loss that are warm and welcoming.
With effects all but gone, a vocalist’s strengths or weaknesses are put right out there for all to hear. But as we’ve learned over the years, Mascis’s distinct croaking vocal style is strangely an asset. On “Seven Shades of Why” this is especially true with it being backed by the pairing of an acoustic guitar and strings (I can’t help but wonder if Mascis’s friend Thurston Moore had a hand or at least an influence on this album). Don’t worry, Mascis guitar prowess is still on display, in this case, finger picking his way through one bittersweet ode after another. Then again, one of my favorite moments on “Seven Shades of Why” is when Mascis’s guitar returns to the stomp box for a quick Dinosaur Jr guitar solo at the end of “Where Are You,” just a quick reminder that he still has plenty of Guitar God power in his back pocket if his long silver locks ever do get cut off.
I’ve been trying to post only audio clips as not to slow down my page, but I couldn’t resist displaying Mascis’s trippy video for “Not Enough”:
7. Fucked Up
“David Comes To Life”
I have to confess that Fucked Up’s “David Comes To Life” shouldn’t be on this list. While coming up with it, I made the rule that all albums had to be released before June 1st in order to be considered, just to make life easier. “David Comes To Life” came out on June 7th of course, so what gives? For one, I’ve actually been listening to several of the tracks off the new album plus a handful of other rarities for a couple of months now. The Montreal-based band is so fan friendly that they gave free downloads of rare material for those that pre-ordered the album. But that’s still no excuse. I guess it boils down to this: with something this great, I couldn’t just sit on my hands until December. That would be, dare I say, fucked up.
Now that I have the entire album, my adoration for this hardcore-rock-opera has only grown more. In 2008 I placed the band’s “The Chemistry of Common People” in my top 10, saying that it saved hardcore. The band is back to their savioring ways, this time resurrecting rock n’ roll. The riffs on “David Comes To Life” tear out the speakers with sharp edges that cut their way into your brain. This is the type of riffage you’d find on a Bon Scott era AC/DC album, and the wall of guitar carnage is comparable to the multi-layered assault of Queen’s Brian May. Unlike May, who sat in a studio for weeks at a time recording a guitar over a guitar over a guitar, Fucked Up utilize three guitarists, often recording all together in one take. It’s truly teamwork at its finest with each guitar not simply backing the other up, but providing flourishes to fill the entire canvas.
Pink Eye’s vocals are the one piece in the band maintaining that hardcore sensibility, barking out one anger-laced tale of heartbreak after another. Unlike “The Chemistry of Common People,” this album never rests to take a breath. It is one backbreaking anthem after another for 80 minutes straight. As you’d expect, this can be a bit daunting, yet it’s totally fulfilling (if you can survive the Armageddon). Any other band would have cut out songs or saved half of them for the next album, but Fucked Up aren’t like any other band.
“The Other Shoe” will have you nodding your head and pumping your fist as you sing along to the chorus of “Dying on the inside!”:
6. Death Grips
[Third Worlds; 2011]
Not only is “Exmilitary Mixtape” the best rap album of 2011 so far, it might be the most unique rap album of the past 10 years. Death Grips is the side-project of Hella drummer Zach Hill, and his mastery of the “unpredictable” surprisingly translates well to hip-hop with 48-minutes of nightmarish madness. The beats are glitchy and jittery, the bass lines booming and foreboding, and the screaming vocals violent and cannibalistic: basically, it’s an Aphex Twins album for the world of hip-hop.
The entire album plays like a mix-tape (because it is I suppose) with each song blending into another vicious attack, resulting in a nonstop assault on the listener. Hill’s love of music is apparent with samples from all ends of the spectrum: Pet Shop Boys, Link Wray’s “The Rumble,” Black Flag, and even audio of Charles Manson. The use of the Manson audio to open the album is no mistake. “Exmillitary Mixtape” resembles what is probably going through Manson’s head at this very moment.
This past week I watched the entire first season of “Game of Thrones” and as I revisited “Exmilitary Mixtape” for this list, I couldn’t help but thinking of Khal Drogo: savage, fiery, and sadistic. Stretching boundaries like Tribe Called Quest did in the 90s, Death Grips could easily be called Tribe Called Dothraki.
I’m not quite sure what a “Death Yon” is but I’m definitely feeling it:
[Dot Dash; 2011]
When I finally figured out this mid-year list, I was a bit shocked that Snowman’s “Absence” ended up being this low due to how often I’ve listened to it over the past few months. Although the albums ranked above it are masterpieces, “Absence” is no slouch. It’s depressing to think that this is their last album, breaking up before it was even released.
A month ago I wrote of “Absence”: “An easy approach to reviewing an album is comparing it to what has come before. Whether it sounds like Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” or Ziggy Stardust, the use of compare and contrast helps guide the reader toward what they are in for with a certain album. With ‘Absence,’ my guiding light is, well, absent. It is both brooding and sinister like Earth and Pyramids, but you’d be hard-pressed trying to find any distortion here. It’s filled with harmonizing, ghostly vocals, but it is far and away from anything resembling Bon Iver or Panda Bear. It has the synthy pulse of Four Tet and Flying Lotus, but the drumbeats take more from tribal territories than dance clubs. There is no need to pigeonhole it: this is Snowman; this is ‘Absence’.
The atmosphere of Snowman will have your mind reeling with visions, your heart beating with anticipation. I realize that the word ‘atmosphere’ gets thrown a lot in music reviews (it’s become somewhat of a crutch for me) but in this case, it truly transports you to a temple of both solitude and mystery. It somehow calms the soul, yet builds a tension within.”
“A” will catch you off-guard, so prepare yourself:
Last year on his EP “Archer of the Beach,” Dan Bejar included the song “Grief Point,” an eight-minute ramble about his confusion on the role of music in his life and the lives of his listeners. Fortunately he had one more album for us all to enjoy, and he’s made sure not to follow expectations.
While many artists draw their musical inspiration from 80s sounds such as new wave and post-punk, Destroyer borrows from the most unpopular of 80s music forms – smooth jazz. Yes, smooth jazz: electronic piano plinks, cheesy saxophone solos a la Kenny G, echoed trumpets, and new agey synth walls fit for a massage parlor. Rather than going with lo-fi which he perfected decades before it was cool, the songs on “Kaputt” are done in the most produced of all musical forms.
He’s not using the form ironically like Beck used funk for “Midnight Vultures.” Bejar’s said in interviews that this album is about America, and if so, the smooth jazz form conjures up the 80s, a time of superficiality and indulgence, both prominent attributes of “Kaputt.” Despite these two unsavory elements, Bejar has created one of the most honest albums of 2011 via one of the most superficial genres. He sings with confidence on songs that will make you feel like you’re alone, roaming city streets in the fog at night in search of something: a taxi, another drink, or a long lost love. When he sings that “we built this city on ruins,” he’s not only playing off the Jefferson Starship song, but he’s also making a statement about the state of our nation today. As expected, Bejar is still writing tongue in cheek lyrics that are both amusing and insightful. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last we get from one of America’s finest songwriters.
“Song For America” would probably be Patrick Bateman’s favorite song:
3. Fleet Foxes
The first time I heard the opening line to “Helplessness Blues” first track “Montezuma,” I couldn’t help but have an emotional reactio: “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” A few weeks back a friend of mine on Facebook posted the exact same lyrics, and I wondered how many other aging drifters out there connected to Robin Peckfold’s tender lyrics.
I think that’s what makes “Helplessness Blues” such an incredible album. I’m not sure if it’s the lyrics, the guitar arrangements, or Pecknold’s soft voice, but I listen to this album and feel like it is a private, personal experience. The fact that thousands across the world are having that similar encounter tells me that this is more than a simple folk album. It somehow creates community through intimacy, if that makes any sense.
I often listen to music too much with my ear, analyzing them more than necessary, but with Fleet Foxes, I listen with my heart. I can’t necessarily break down what they do that is so great; okay, I could (harmonizing, break-downs, etc) but I don’t want to. The songs stir up the nostalgia and regret felt with old age, yet for some reason I don’t find it to be a total bummer of an album. Despite song after song of depressing tales, I sense in Pecknold’s voice a grain of hope. By the time the final track arrives, “Grown Ocean,” the narrator has realized that he can’t change his mistakes, so he continues on as the wide-eyed walker introduced on “Battery Kinzie,” always moving forward toward an unknown horizon.
On “Lorelai” he compares old age to being trash on the sidewalk, yet the guitars, melody, and mandolin only cause one to smile:
2. PJ Harvey
“Let England Shake”
[Vagrant/Island Def Jam; 2011]
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t pay attention in history class during high school. I could blame my lack of historical knowledge on my mediocre teachers, but it is entirely my fault for being too preoccupied with girls, sports, and rock and roll. Now, when in a discussion with others that pertains to anything in history (American or world) I find that I know almost nothing.
This lack of knowledge becomes even more frustrating when listening to “Let England Shake,” PJ Harvey’s intricate collection of songs about England’s history. The songs focus primarily on WWI, although the remnants of this war have apparently cast a shadow on modern Britain (this is an assumption based on PJ’s lyrics; not on anything I learned in history class). I find myself listening to “Let England Shake” again and again due to its collection of memorable songs, each distinct in its own way. And although I don’t know anything about the Gallipoli campaign, the Anzac trench, or Battleship Hill, PJ provides enough hints for even a dolt like myself to grasp the message within her imagery of “a pile of bones,” “Deformed children,” and soldiers that “fall like lumps of meat.” The lyrics read like a book of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. Harvey creates a unique dichotomy by pairing her gruesome descriptions of war within high-spirited songs that range from reggae, pop, and folk. As a result, the ugliness of war is anesthetized and treated in the same way it is in a textbook, revealing the facts in a way that is disconnected from those that lost their life. In the end, that’s the message of the album; all the soldiers died so that the ideal Britain could live on, when ironically that British ideal is now dead itself. I guess I learned something after all.
The lyrics to “All and Everyone” had to be taken from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” I swear it!:
1. Kurt Vile
“Smoke Ring For My Halo”
Was there any doubt who would be at #1? Anyone who follows my blog knows how much I adore Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring For My Halo.” I over-killed this album so severely that I hadn’t listened to it for three months in fear of ruining my enjoyment forever. Yet, for this list, I knew I had to revisit it in order to see where it placed. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed and found the feelings associated with this album quickly resurfacing.
Here’s what I wrote of the album back in March: “On the surface, Vile’s album doesn’t seem like much more than a collection of slow strum-bling and mumblings of a sarcastic, disaffected youth. But this isn’t just some jangly, patch-work of songs; a closer analysis and you’ll quickly see that every song is intricately constructed within a lush, cave-like environ that only magnifies the creaks and buzzing of Vile’s acoustic. While he seems all alone with only the ghosts of his band the Violators hiding in the background, the production hugs his vocals and creates an ambiance that is one part groove, and one part melancholy. Much like Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ each song on ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ is distinctly different, yet they all feel to be a part of the same world. It never feels like Vile is giving much effort, but don’t be fooled. This man is wearing his heart on each note captured on this album.
Vile’s lyrics also portray this feeling of indifference, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is a lot of pain being masked behind his nonchalance. For example, on ‘Ghost Town’ he mumbles: ‘Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / but I don’t pay ‘em any mind. / Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.’ Instead of a message facing adversity with ‘I will survive,’ Vile’s lyrics convey a feeling of simply giving up and continuing his journey of ‘Sleep walking through a ghost town.’ These white flag mantras are throughout the album, whether it be giving up on religion, society, love, or life.’
I’ve read several articles that compare Kurt Vile to Tom Petty, and although I don’t totally see it, “In My Time” is pretty damn Petty:
Around this time last year I posted the “Top 20 Summer Albums of 2010.” I understand this may sound like an awkward, convoluted list, but it essentially consisted of 20 albums that had been released to that point in the year, all featuring upbeat, summer-y songs. Readers generally enjoyed the list, and now in 2011, I feel I should follow it up with a sophomore effort. Yet I can’t.
At this point last year, dozens of upbeat albums filled my shelves (Vampire Weekend, Fang Island, Surfer Blood, etc). I had so many “summer albums” to list that several great releases didn’t even make the cut. But this year? Nothing. Setting out to write the summer list, I struggled to even make a top 10 list, let alone a top 20. For those that care, here’s what it would have looked like:
1. Toro Y Moi “Underneath the Pine”2. Beastie Boys “Hot Sauce Committee Part II3. Go! Team “Rolling Blackouts”4. Ponytail “Do Whatever You Want All the Time”5. Akron/Family “The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT”6. Dirty Beaches “Badlands”7. Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”8. Danielson “Best of Gloucester County”9. Davila 666 “Tan Bajo”10. Cloud Nothings “S/T”
Even though I’m able to come up with this list, writing it would probably be painful simply because few of the albums are as near and dear to me as the ones that made up my list last year (although two of the albums above did make the list that I’m about to unleash on you…).
Don’t worry though. My love for great albums hasn’t waned. There are many albums that have already hit a chord with me, so much so that I feel I must write about them so that others can share in my joy. I’ve come up with a much more logical mid-year list: “The Top Albums of 2011 (So Far…)”. This will not only serve as a mid-term report on the year’s best, but it will also bring forward some great albums that probably won’t make the final cut on my year-end list (it pains me to leave wonderful albums out every December).
The rankings for this list are not to be treated as the end-all-be-all (I just don’t want to be held accountable if an album is 17th on this list and ends up in the top five at the end of the year). As you know, our experience with an album ebbs and flows; sometimes our adoration grows with time while in other cases, the thrill is gone after a month. Enough of this babbling. Time to get down to business.
“Dress Like Your Idols”
[Magic Marker; 2011]
The cover to “Dress Like Your Idols” says it all: a collection of album cover parodies, mostly focused on albums of the 90s. Yes, there is an homage to the Ramones and Velvet Underground, but you don’t have to go beyond the 90s to find BOAT’s biggest influences. A quick listen to BOAT’s music and the first band to come to mind for most is Pavement due to Crane’s everyday lyrics and straight-forward, disaffected vocal approach. If he needs to pay his electricity bill, he sings about it. If he is walking past a convenience store, he sings about it. If he’s listening to his walkman, he sings about it. But within these tales of commonplace, everyday occurrences, he weaves in heartfelt themes of isolation, helplessness, and loneliness. Instead of going full-emo, Crane uses humor to defuse the sadness of his stories, in turn, creating intelligent power pop that is immediate and reassuring.
There are other 90s elements at play here, whether it be the guitar squeals of Built to Spill or the quaint jangle of Folk Implosion, but I can’t simply tag BOAT as a 90s rehash. A band like Yuck! would better fit that category (as much as I love their music, their borrowing from Dinosaur Jr and Superchunk borders on criminal). BOAT on the other hand have learned from the music of their youth, and taken it into the 21st century, bringing their own fresh, slacker take on the new millennium.
“Landlocked,” just one of many slacker tales of seclusion:
19. Twilight Singers
The Twilight Singers frontman Gregg Dulli is the epitome of the anti-auto-tune. No, his voice is not always perfectly on key, it is prone to crack, and at times he strains for notes that are just out of reach. Despite these deficiencies, he remains one of the best vocalists of the past 20 years due to his soulful approach, his shouts and howls that resound with anger, pain, and bitterness. His mistakes always further the vulnerability of his narrative, adding the forlorn character found within the tattered, frail city of “Dynamite Steps.”
While other voices of the 90s have faded, Dulli’s has only strengthened over the years. He has been keeping busy since the break-up of Afghan Whigs with the Twilight Singers, his solo work, and his collaboration with Mark Lanegan, the Gutter Twins. Despite this mass of music production, “Dynamite Steps” is the closest Dulli’s dipped back into the world of the Afghan Whigs in a while, more specifically, “Black Love” and “1965” era Whigs. These songs are just as funky, emotional, and dark as Afghan classics. Even the story on “Dynamite Steps,” lovers held back by the confines of their decrepit city, is eerily similar to the one found in “Black Love.” The only difference is that their answer isn’t to burn it all down as Dulli once suggested on “Going To Town”; instead, from what I can gather, he kills his lover so he can see her in his dreams where everything is beautiful again. So yeah, I guess you could say Dulli has matured.
Singing off-key has never sounded better than on “Last Night In Town”:
18. Times New Viking
I’ve been saying it for years now, “If only Times New Viking would clean up their production value…” Well, with the slow move away from the lo-fi movement, TNV finally granted my wish with “Dancer Equired.” Not to say that the production value is pristine, but the band has wiped away a bit of the fuzz to allow the listener a step closer into their pop palace.
TNV has always written infectious pop melodies, and finally they allowed the songs to be the centerpiece of an album. No longer is it about how bad we can make a great song sound, rather “Here’s a great song. Take it as you will.” One may suggest that the band has sold out by moving away from lo-fi, but they still keep their cred with most of “Dancer Equired” sounding like it was all recorded in one day. And really, that’s what makes TNV so great. In the past TNV’s songs were in your face: either the hook caught you or you got lost in the noise. On “Dancer Equired,” with much of the lo-fi trappings gone, the band takes time to unreel songs that aren’t as instantaneous. Instead, they allow their organ riffs and energetic shouts grow on you with each listen. I never want to hear a polished TNV album, but “Dancer Equired” has just enough shimmer to allow the melodies to shine their brightest.
This song is called “Fuck Her Tears”; I don’t think we need to worry about TNV selling out:
17. Panda Bear
For those that have followed my blog over the years, seeing a Panda Bear album this low on a best of list (let alone a mid-year list) is probably a bit alarming. “Person Pitch” is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I’ve conveyed my admiration of both Panda Bear and Animal Collective fervently over the years. So “Tomboy” at #17 might be a strange site on BDWPS, but then again, “Tomboy” is a pretty strange album. The first half is filled with the types of Beach Boy style melodies we’ve grown to love, all filtered through Panda Bears arsenal of squeaks and echos. Songs like “You Can Count On Me” and “Slow Motion” are just as enjoyable listens as anything on “Person Pitch.” I could listen to side A of “Tomboy” again and again (and I have).
Then there is side two. It’s far from bad, but the album definitely takes a peculiar turn. To this day I can’t comprehend exactly what is happening on side two, and part of me really likes that about this album. The alien approach makes it a challenge to figure out exactly what Panda Bear was trying to accomplish. It’s ominous, desolate, and almost frozen melodically. With each listen, I feel myself slowly cracking the surface of what Panda Bear is doing, and this slow and steady process of discovery is the reason “Tomboy” snuck onto this list. If all of “Tomboy” were like the first half, you’d probably find this album in the top 10, if not at number one, but as of now, I’m still familiarizing myself with the unexplainable hum of side two, with its obtuse offerings like “Scheherazade,” “Friendship Bracelet,” and “Afterburner.” Who knows, by year-end I might be singing a different tune (or chanting it like a Panda Bear monk).
“You Can Count On Me” is familiar territory from side one:
16. Thurston Moore
Kim Gordan is one lucky gal. Seriously, she’s married to Thurston Moore. How cool is that? Sure, she’s an indie goddess in her own right, but Thurston Moore! Thirst N’ More!!! Not only are his contributions to the indie scene immensely significant, but based off the songs on his solo album “Demolished Thoughts,” he makes a pretty loving husband. With exposed lyrics like “whisper I love you my darling” and “you stole his heart away,” Thurston holds back nothing when it comes to his gal Kim. I personally hate love songs, but with something this honest and forthcoming, I can’t help but feel an admiration for what this power indie couple has held together all these years (what is it now, 25 years?!).
While “Demolished Thoughts” sounds very similar to Thurston’s last solo album “Trees Outside the Academy,” both featuring an enchanting combination of acoustic guitar and strings, “Demolished Thoughts” has a production value that is far beyond his prior effort. Beck produced this album, and it is easy to figure out that he took his prowess from “Sea Changes” and implemented it here. The back-and-forth of the guitar and strings harken back to the sweet sounds of Nick Drake. But Drake’s guitars never sounded this clear, this personal, this serene. You won’t hear a better sounding acoustic guitar in 2011, and I doubt you will hear a more honest, charming album of love songs.
Just one listen to the guitars on “Benediction” and you’ll fall in love too:
15. Six Organs of Admittance
“Asleep On the Floodplain”
[Drag City; 2011]
A few years back, my friend SongsSuck burnt me a book full of CDs, mostly bands I’d never heard before. When presented with 200 new albums, it can be a bit daunting to trek your way through them. One of the albums in the multitude of CD-Rs was Six Organs of Admittance’s “Dark Noontide,” and although I enjoyed it, the album got lost in the mix over time. Upon seeing Six Organs had a new album this year, I jumped at the chance to revisit the band long forgotten. The problem is I didn’t recall what they sounded like, and for some reason, I got them confused with Godspeed You! Black Emperor (probably the long names caused my mistake). You can imagine my surprise when Organs experimental folk ramblings sounded nothing like GY!BE’s hypnotic chamber rock. As much as I enjoy GYBE, my rediscovery of Six Organs was a stirring experience.
On the droning, 12-minute “S/Word Leviathan” Six Organs could have been confused with GY!BE, but the rest of the album is folk meandering at its finest. You never know where Ben Chasny’s guitar will take you, but you know it is a warm and inviting place. While some might describe Six Organs as psychedelic folk, I feel it is the style of folk that John Fahey finger-picked long ago. This is an ancient journey, roaming about the fret board while staying grounded in Americana. Songs stop and start without warning, but the voyage never really ends. And when Chasny decides to offer up a traditional folk song with verses and a chorus, he shows that he could settle down if he wanted to. He just doesn’t want to (and that’s a good thing).
An acoustic guitar has never sounded as unpredictable as it does on “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen”:
14. Dirty Beaches
Have you ever noticed how every Michael Moore film starts the same: the 1950s and 60s, American Dream, cheap health care, zero violence or poverty, and a booming auto industry? I enjoy Moore’s films as much as the next tree-hugger, but it does seem to be both an overused motif and an inaccurate portrayal of the time. Anyone who has watched “Mad Men” or read On the Road knows that life wasn’t necessarily all picket fences and apple pie back then (although Sal Paradise does intake massive amounts of apple pie en route to Denver). The Dirty Beaches “Badlands” is just another artistic take on how the innocent 50s is all a sham.
“Badlands” is all about its lo-fi production – unassuming drum, and mechanical bass lines that all fit within the 1950s musical mold. If you were to play a song off this album to someone and said it was a “golden oldie” they would undoubtedly believe you. But Dirty Beaches aren’t simply a warm nostalgia trip down better times lane. These songs feature a darker tone than those that they are borrowing from. The vocals are cloaked in reverb, yet you can still discern the baritone croon that will make you wonder if Nick Cave found a time machine. These are not songs of love and joy; they are songs of lust and despair. By the time the final two tracks arrive, “Black Nylon” and “Hotel,” there is little doubt that a film noir murder has taken place, although I doubt even Detective Samuel Spade could handle the dark depths of “Badlands” homicide scene.
“Horses” reminds me of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing”, except Isaak wasn’t nearly as convincingly sinister:
[Sub Pop; 2011]
Fans of old school Low might not like “C’Mon.” Not that it doesn’t resemble Low, but much of what made albums like “Long Division” and “I Could Live In Hope” popular are all but gone. The haunting spaces have been filled with sound, the instruments are no longer hiding in the shadows, and the self-loathing has turned slightly toward optimism. But the biggest difference are the vocals. In the past, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were ghostly figures, a part of the atmosphere,. On “C’Mon” their voices are up front and center thanks in part to the lush production of Matt Beckley. Not until first hearing this album did I realize what incredible vocalists the duo are. Sparhawk’s baritone is thick and hearty, and Mimi puts forth the best female singing I’ve heard this year with her dark lullabies that somehow lull the listener into a comforting dream.
Low still ventures into the dark tones of the past, but it all seems more dramatic, more ambitious and persistent. I’m not dogging on that slow core sound that the band mastered decades ago; I’m just celebrating a band who has found a way to continue thriving, evolving all the while.
Although it contradicts my portrayal of the album as a positive venture, “Majesty/Magic” is one of the most incredible tracks of the year thus far. Try not to get chills:
12. True Widow
“As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth”
Don’t worry about slow core dying with Low my friends; others are now carrying the torch. On first listen, the trio of True Widow may not resemble Low and others of the slow core variety, but upon closer look you’ll find the same wall of ethereal droning as the back-bone of True Widow’s sound. True Widow refer to themselves as a “stonegaze” band, yet the approach is the same. Like a slow, dismal march through a storm, “As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth” trounces from track to track at a steady pace, always teetering on the verge of a distorted explosion that never comes. This is what makes this album so great; it works like a Henry Ford era machine, constantly turning and grinding away with Nikki Estill’s angelic voice countering the crunching sludge of Dan Phillip’s guitar work. The combination is both terrifying and rousing, causing one to feel both depressed and inspired at the same moment.
Last year I couldn’t get enough of Quest For Fire’s “Lights From Paradise,” and in 2011 True Widow have continued this obsession with this plodding sound. Maybe I’m just going through a stone-gaze-phase and this album isn’t nearly as incredible as I find it, but I doubt it.
“Skull Eyes”- always on the verge of an eruption that never comes:
11. Colin Stetson
“New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”
The fact that I loved “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” before even seeing Colin Stetson’s incredible live show assures me that my judgment wasn’t blinded by the experience. Probably because “New History” contains some pretty magical, innovative stuff. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like what Stetson does here. I don’t even need to focus on the difficulty found in his abilities to play a saxophone riff endlessly without taking a proper breath AND singing with his howling vocal chords at the same time. Impressive, yes, but Stetson also writes some brilliant songs, both mystifying and enlightening.
The album was recorded with dozens of microphones, located in various parts of the room and on different parts of his sax (including the innards). As a result, you are brought into an atmosphere never explored in music (to my knowledge): the belly of the beast; the heart of the saxophone. The bass saxophone echoes and squeaks from within as the pads pound out a slurpy beat (spit valves are for wimps) while Colin’s constant circular breathing blows through the cavern like a chilling wind. This is an album for any kid in beginner band who ever wondered what it sounds like inside their instrument. The answer? Remarkable.
“Clothed In the Skin of the Dead” is just a taste of life inside a saxophone:
It’s Colorado rocky mountain high I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high Rocky mountain high
“Rocky Mountain High” John Denver
The next morning all of us were hurting. We didn’t start dragging around the motel room until 10 a.m, which gave us about an hour to shower and pack up. My prospects of getting in the shower were slim, so I pulled on my swim trunks and stumbled out into the morning glare. After exploring the motel, I found the quaint little 10 x 10 swimming pool. Without hesitation I tossed my dirty shirt onto the fence and dove in. Instantly the hangover washed away as the chilling water rushed over my achy body. As a lifeguard (many, many years ago) I learned the power a morning swim can have over a drink related headache. Not only did I eliminate my weary head, but I got a quick chlorine bath in the process (my friend Tony takes these exclusively).
Tony preparing for his morning bath.
I swam a couple mini-laps, kick-starting the blood flow in my sore muscles and joints. Refreshed and rejuvenated, I jumped out and let the air dry me as I walked back to the room. On the way I passed a gorgeous woman with jet black hair hanging down to her curvy waist. Her dark almond shaped eyes glanced at me, a dripping mess clomping down the sidewalk. Once I reached our room, I glanced back to her pushing a cart filled with towels – she was the cleaning lady.
“Hey guys, the cleaning lady is hot!” I announced upon entering the room. They chuckled and casually returned to their packing. In fear of irritating the rapidly approaching hot cleaning lady, I tried hurrying up the process making comments like “We’d better get going” and “They might charge us extra if we aren’t out by eleven.” When we finally straggled out, she rolled up to our door, looking annoyed. I gave her a big dimply smile, but she didn’t share the sentiment.
Probably the most American picture ever taken.
John and Tif decided to follow us up the scenic route to Long’s Peak (the mountain Paul and I would be climbing that afternoon). They contemplated pushing back their biker road trip a few days to hike with us, but based on the look of the hung-over couple, I doubted they’d be joining us.
When we reached Lyons, we stopped at a coffee shop to get breakfast and of course feed my desperate thirst for coffee. Armed with a Grande Americano, I noticed an internet ready computer in the back corner. I realized I hadn’t been on the internet for over a week, a fact that would usually drive the web junky in me insane. But lost in the joy of the wild, I completely lost track of my life in the digital world. This of course didn’t keep me from getting online for a few minutes; I hadn’t completely weaned myself from web’s teat.
With tummies full and caffeine rushing through my veins we set out for Long’s Peak, traveling up the winding road lined with signs marking it as Roosevelt National Forest. I wondered if my old fave FDR was responsible for the grandeur or if my new hero Teddy had anything to do with it.
WE pulled into the Long’s Peak entry and soon after discovered a parking lot filled to the brim with Outback station wagons and Land Rovers. Earlier in the morning Paul expressed his concern about the amount of people out on the weekend, and he had been correct. Our hiking experience wouldn’t be as intimate as the Sphinx.
We began filling our packs once again and made sure to include the Cliff Bars we bought at Target. Paul insisted we buy the high priced granola bars that I’d never tasted before. Paul promised they’d be worth every penny. Plus, in a recent SPIN article, Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes said he wouldn’t sell any of their music for commercial use, unless it was for Cliff Bar.
While stuffing my pillow into the pack, Jon Jon approached nervously.
“Hey Andy,” he whispered. “I’ve got something for you.” He stuck out his hand and dropped a little self-rolled cigarette into my palm. “Since I’m not climbing, smoke that for me when you reach the top.” Smoking amidst the thin air of a mountain top didn’t sound very enticing, but I nodded and held the wad of paper awkwardly in my hand.
“Put it somewhere safe.” Having little experience with a hand-made cigarette, I put it into my pants pocket. Upon seeing this Jon gave me a nudge and yelled in a low voice, “I said put it somewhere safe! Here, I’ll give it to Paul.” I handed it back over to him like a scolded child and watched him give it to Paul, who placed it into an Advil bottle, then into his pack. This surprised me. To my knowledge, Paul hadn’t smoked since high school, so I figured he’d turn down the offer. My experiences were also few and far between.
Once we had all our gear packed, we said our goodbyes to Jon and Tif, then wished them good luck on their bike trip north. With memories of Montana still fresh in my mind, part of me wished were joining them. Around 2:30 they rumbled off into the distance and we began our climb. As we made the ascension, we found ourselves surrounded by other hikers: healthy old people, hippie youth, and even church-going families. Everyone was cordial and friendly, but our climb felt far removed from the journey into nature I anticipated. The peak was obviously a big draw for the area with fences alongside the path, stone stairs on steep inclines, and sitting areas every few minutes. Even when I did see beautiful waterfalls and rock formations, it seemed like the fake scenery you’d see at an amusement park.
After reaching the top of the tree line, the path split into three options. We decided to set up camp quick, and then explore one of the paths. We walked back into the woods and found a nice flat space to throw up the tent. We had it assembled in minutes and rushed back to the path. The far left path was the only one Paul had never been on, so we decided to give it a try.
The walk wasn’t very exciting, although I did enjoy the constant appearance of animals. Chipmunks and marmots skittered across the path every couple minutes and they didn’t seem scared in the least of our approach. An hour into our hike, we began to realize the path didn’t lead to much and headed back to camp before sun down.
At camp, we both grabbed our books, him Harry Potter, me Kerouac (you decide who is the douche). We headed into different directions, finding our own personal reading solitude. I made my first venture into The Dharma Bums and quickly found myself once again engrossed in Kerouac’s words. (I still prefer the depressed, self deprecating Jack of On the Road over the happy-Buddhist-Zen-mad-man of Dharma Bums).
With our reading light setting behind the mountains, we began to gather firewood and lit the kindling. Paul soon had the fire raging, so I put a couple soup cans into the red coals, letting the flames lick the edges of the Chunky soup, performing cunnalingus on Donavan McNabb’s smiling mother.
"Keep toking that fire boys!"
Paul broke me from my soup can fantasy, asking, “Soooo, you want to smoke Jon’s little gift?” It felt like we were teenagers trying beer for the first time, a combination of curiosity and guilt mixing in our jerky filled stomachs. I thought it over for a while, and finally came to the realization: why not? How many times in my life would I be sitting on a mountainside with Paul and a little jay of joy.
With only matches to light the cig, Paul unsuccessfully lit it several times before finally succeeding. Sitting next to the fire, we began trading drags from the little roach. When there no longer remained paper to hold onto, Paul threw the remainder into the fire and awaited the affects of Jon’s little gift. The few times I’ve smoked I’ve had the opposite affect from the lethargic, slothful interpretation you see in the movies. Instead, I become overtly energetic, bouncing off the walls and spouting random, moronic thoughts.
I grabbed the soup from the fire with my BloodRayne beanie/oven mitt and handed one to Paul and then grab one for myself. I sprawled back onto a rock and stared into the night sky. The glistening lights above seemed to be smiling down upon us. I sat up for a moment and opened up my can of soup to enjoy the medley of steak and potatoes. Out of no where, Paul broke the silence muttering, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if Bono suddenly floated down from above, singing ‘In the Name of Love’?”
“What?” I asked. This surprised me. Paul despises U2. He had to be in another state of mind to be dreaming of Bono.
“Yeah, like Bono just floats down, and then Edge emerges from the trees playing guitar.” I giggled at his idea, and added, “Yeah, and then the bears and marmots come out of the trees singing along to the chorus.” Caught up in our imaginings, I stood up and yodeled into the night sky, “In the name of love, what more in the name of love!” We both chuckled at the echo of my howling voice.
I then had a sudden flashback to childhood, remembering when The Muppets performed Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. “Dude, dude! I’ve got it! What if Bono and Edge were on the Muppets, and it was like a bunch of puppet bears singing along.”
Paul looked confused (in hindsight, he might have just been stuck in a stupor). “And then like Fozzie bear comes in and ruins everything yelling ‘Wok ka Wok ka? Eh? Paul?” He stared at me glossy eyed. I lost him with my random Muppet reference, but didn’t care, thinking back to the classic Muppet scene, hunters and all. I began pacing around the fire, continuing my random ramblings while Paul just kind of lifelessly laid there, much like the rock beneath his head. I looked down at him and asked, “Are you feeling it already?”
“Yeh,” he mumbled. “Aren’t you?”
Feeling chock full energy, I should have known the affects had taken over, but for some reason I was convinced I remained unaffected. “No dude, this sucks.” I then continued rambling – talking about what a strange word “pertinent” is, questioning where soup was invented, and spouting off a jumbled mess of ideas for the upcoming Repeater and the Wolf album. Paul finally broke my stream of consciousness, asking, “Aren’t you tired?”
“No!” I responded.
“Well, I’m ready to crash,” he said, closing his eyes.
“Um…okay.” I looked at the time on my i-Pod, and realized it had already reached midnight. The night had flown by us, lost in our fire side reverie. I crawled into the tent and laid back, trying to find the calming solace Paul was feeling. Unfortunately, my crazy legs continued kicking and my brain couldn’t stop wondering where marmots sleep at night.
To help ease my mile-a-minute mind, I put on my ear buds and began listening to some Opie and Anthony, letting their conversation occupy my brain. I don’t remember much of the show I listened to, but O and A have never seemed quite as funny as they did that night on top of Long’s Peak. I’m not sure what time I finally went to bed, but the next morning Paul complained that he could hear my maniacal giggling into the early hours of the morning.
"To answer your question, marmots sleep where ever the hell they want. Now go to sleep before I eat your toes you giggle-y fuck."
“It is very easy to be underrated, because all you need to do is nothing. Everyone wants to be underrated. It’s harder to become overrated, because that means people had to think you were awesome before they thought you sucked. Nobody wants to be overrated, except for people who like to live in big houses.”
Chuck Klosterman, Klosterman: IV
Now we had a new problem before us – finding a place to camp for the night. Before leaving Crow’s Peak and saying goodbye to our new drinking buddies, we asked where we could set up our tent without having to pay. They told us we could probably park on Tinton Road without being hassled by cops or land-owners. They also recommended we check out Spearfish Canyon before leaving the next morning. We thanked them for their advice and company, then took to the darkened hills of Spearfish in search of Tentin Road.
We drove around for quite a while before accidentally finding Tentin, a winding gravel road leading into darkness. There weren’t many houses along the drive, so it seemed like a pretty safe area to set up shop for the night without getting disturbed. Once again I had a scare when we almost hit another animal, this time a cow running across the road and into the woods.
“Was that a wild cow?” I asked.
“Wild cow?! You’re a dumbass,” Paul answered. It just seemed strange to see a cow running all willy nilly up into the wilderness of South Dakota. We found a gravel inlet and decided to park. As a precaution, I parked the Element amidst some bushes. We scarfed down some crackers and hummus, and commenced setting up the tent Paul borrowed from a friend by flashlight. Once inside, it quickly became apparent that the cramped 6 x 5 floor plan wasn’t going to work very well for the two of us. Paul fell asleep instantly, and I was left, tossing and turning, trying to find comfort. As a sleeper I’m a sprawler, letting my limbs stretch out full length. This didn’t bode well with my 6’4 frame trying to stretch within the 6 ft length. To add to the discomfort, Paul began snoring and gradually overtook the already cramped space, pushing me to the edge of the canvas floor.
After about two hours of restlessness, I found a nice fetal position. Just as I was slipping into sleep, I heard screaming in the woods. Not human screams – the screams of some type of creature. High pitched and shrill, the shrieks echoed in the night air, moving me away from any semblance of drowsiness. What could it be? Bats? Raccoons? Or could it be the dreaded wild cow I’d seen earlier? Soon the cackling was coupled with other strange warbles and grunts. I couldn’t fathom what kind of creature could make such a plethora of obnoxious noises.
By three in the morning, laying in a huddled, shivering ball, exhaustion finally overpowered the fear, and I fell asleep. Even in a state of R.E.M, I dreamt about not being able to sleep; talk about a nightmare.
Around five in the morning, I awoke to a rustling noise outside our tent. I nudged Paul.
“Paul…Paul….you hear that?” I whispered. No movement. He wasn’t waking.
“MOOOO!” I sat up and looked out our screen window to see a black and white cow, five feet away from our tent, staring at me with big glossy eyes. Behind her were four other cows, all roaming around my car.
I would have been scared if it weren't for her pretty eye-lashes that reminded me of The Cown-tess on "Pee Wee's Playhouse".
“Paul, wake up! There are cows all over outside!” Paul opened his crust covered eyes slowly and glared at me. “They are surrounding my vehicle dude!”
Visually annoyed, he grumbled,” You woke me up because of cows?” He rolled back over. I was on my own. I cautiously unzipped the door, and stepped out into the dewy grass. The cows didn’t flinch. As I stood up, more and more cow faces appeared from behind the trees, reminiscent of when all the sasquatch appear at the end of “Harry and the Hendersons”. I looked down toward the road and found a herd of orange and white cows moseying up the hill. Did we park in someone’s ranch? Seeing that I didn’t want to sit around and find out (the arrival of a rancher with a shotgun is never a welcome sight) I again told Paul that we’d better get going. He reluctantly got up and helped me take down the tent as our audience of cows looked on. I thought cows were scared of humans, but this cattle just watched us with annoyance. By the time we packed everything in the car and ate breakfast, the cows were mostly gone; they were all following in the direction of the others on the road, like some type of cow cult marching to their mass suicide.
On the road we could see Heifer's Gate, walking like lemmings to their death.
With our path finally clear of cattle, we began heading back down the hill. As we came to the end of Tinton Road, I noticed a couple peacocks in the ditch. Where the hell were we? Wild cows, mystery creatures that scream and grunt through the night, and now peacocks running rampant in the ditches? I decided that the peacock must be the pheasant of the Dakotas. This belief disappeared quickly when we saw the sign in front of the next driveway: Animal Farm. The sign’s images of monkeys and donkeys explained the strange noises that kept me awake the night before.
We rolled into downtown Spearfish around 6 a.m. Thanks to my cow encounter, we were way ahead of schedule, so we decided to take the advice from the night before and go check out Spearfish Canyon. As we rolled up the hill and around the curvy path, we quickly understood why the insisted we check it out: splendor spread from one rocky wall to the next. The grey rock ledges went straight up like walls enclosing us. Trees, defying the laws of nature, were growing right out of the cliffside. With the sun peaking from over the top of the wall, I decided the perfect music was Fleet Foxes with their calming My Morning Jacket meets CSNY sound, fitting perfectly alongside the stunning landscape. We stopped several times to look at waterfalls, cascading down the canyon wall.
"Days are just drops in a river to be lost always-" Fleet Foxes
After stopping and starting the car for the 20th time, we decided to escape the confines of the Element to go explore the magical canyon. We found a pull-off when hiking trails and decided to try one out. After walking down a path for a while, Paul decided to go on a morning jog, which was fine with me. I was so overcome by nature’s dazzling display. The intimacy of being alone heightened the experience. Ducks swam by in the pond, hawks circled above, and deer trotted alongside me in the trees: it was like something out of a Disney movie. I wouldn’t have been shocked if two cartoon birds had sat on my shoulders and sang to me.
The only things missing were Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus.
When the sun finally exposed its self to the majestic scene, spot-lighting the glory of the land, I stopped, sat on a boulder thinking, “This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” I must have sat there for 15 minutes, just basking in nature at its finest. As weird as it may sound, I felt like I was meant to be there, on that stone, at that moment, like God or Mother Nature, or whatever is in charge of this world had created this painting, set this scene, put on this performance, all just for me.
When I finally decided I’d better go find Paul, I began to wonder how I’d never heard of Spearfish Canyon. Why hadn’t we seen tourists running amuck? At a rest area in Eastern South Dakota, Paul grabbed a ton of brochures on the Black Hills, but I didn’t remember seeing anything about the canyon. What is wrong with this state? There were at least 500 signs for Wall Drug and not even a mention of this glorious retreat? The more I walked, surrounded by waterfalls and remarkable rock formations, the more irritated I became. Who cares about a bunch of man made faces in the side of a cliff when you’ve got more beautiful sculptures formed by the hands of nature?
The path ended at one final waterfall, more spectacular than any I’d seen all day. The crystal water poured over the ledge like something out of the blue lagoon and formed smaller falls at its foot. When I reached the top of the spouting waterfall, I could see Paul waiting for me. We exchanged looks, no words were necessary for what we had both witnessed on this glorious morning.
As we looked down from the top I noticed a cave-like inlet beneath the showering water. When I pointed this out to Paul, he began grinning. “I’ll be right back.” Before I could respond he was jumping over the edge of the platform and working his way through broken branches toward the water’s edge. When he disappeared from sight, I looked back over the edge of the platform to see Paul tip-toeing through the water toward the giant falls.
He cautiously approached the splashing liquid and then in one quick movement, he stuck his head under the frigid dowfall, instantly jerking back. “Whooooooooo Hooo!” he howled, echoing through the canyon. He dashed under the falls and into the inlet, out of sight. I had the sudden urge to join him as the cascading water taunted me. I hopped over the platform and followed the path Paul had already created.
Once on the shore, I stepped into the chilly water and began walking carefully on the slippery rocks. When I reached the falls, hypnotized by its beauty, I walked right under its path without hesitation. I stood there for a moment, like a coach relishing the Gatorade raining over his head. After a moment, I stepped forward into the inlet where Paul was smiling at the magnificence around us. The inlet didn’t go in very far, but that didn’t matter. We were in a place far from the trappings of the modern world, a secret sanctuary hidden amongst the tourist traps of the Black Hills.
When Paul finally left the inlet, the freezing water once again shocked his body. “WhoooHoooo!” he howled. He turned back toward the falls and shouted joyously,” Hey Andy, that’s what it feels like to have the Pixies injected into your bloodstream!” . I stood in the cave for a moment, giggling at Paul’s comment and realizing that this canyon really was like the Pixies in many ways. Grand and inspiring, both were underappreciated by the masses. While over-weight tourists roam around Wall Drug and listen to the likes of Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney, the real gems go unnoticed by the masses, only to be discovered by those willing to search out something not plastered on billboards and played incessantly on the radio. In both, we had found something beautiful, original, and untouched by commercialism; havens providing escape for those seeking shelter from a bloated society.
Yes, the Pixies are an underrated band. And I’d like to keep it that way.