Chad VanGaalen should probably be one of the biggest indie music artists out there today. Over the past ten years he has released five solid albums of his signature psychedelic, folk-scapes. Van Gaalen isn’t some little artist hidden on an obscure record label; all of his work has been released by SubPop, the same label that carries indie heavyweights like Fleet Foxes, Beach House, and The Shins.
Yet when I bring his name up to other fans of underground music, it often results in quizzical looks. Yes, his songs are filled with grotesque imagery and off-kilter story-lines that may appall the masses, but that same recipe once gave Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel legendary status.
Not only do I love Chad VanGaalen’s “Peace On the Rise,” but the video has become a borderline obsession in recent weeks. I find myself thinking about the scenes from the video constantly, trying to figure out exactly what is going on.
Check it out below (I have more to say after your viewing as to avoid a spoiler alert):
Pretty trippy, right? But it’s not wacked-out in the same way as J. Mascis’s recent video for “Not Enough” which seemed more about just being zany than actually conveying a message. No, I can’t help but feel these two alien’s odyssey to another planet for magical seeds/eggs has a purpose beyond simply being bizarre. VanGaalen also does all the drawings for the video, so this wasn’t some artists creating an interpretation; this is his message in visuals. If you look at some of his other videos, the storyline is pretty straightforward. In the case of “Peace On the Rise,” not so much.
“Molten Light” for example is just two rapist/murderers getting haunted by their victim. Simple enough:
The video starts with two hippie/tribal/aliens preparing for a journey to another planet in search of what we later find out to be some type of seed/egg that a craw-dad looking bug secretes. This task does not seem to be for their tribe or as part of some job because their send-off consists of just the two of them in a modest little spaceship. As they lift-off, a wide shot of the landscape exposes a bumpy, red surface that almost resembles a brain.
The two arrive at their destination and sit around a fire, a commonplace act for weary travelers throughout time. But then, as they stare into the blue embers, one of the travelers suddenly slips into what could only be described as a trip. His eyes float out of his head and he soon transforms into a full on hallucination. This moment is punctuated by the lyrics “We can sit around this fire, and let our spirits ride on out.” We later see them smoking some form of cigarette but I’m not so sure they are druggies. Is this some type of spirit quest?
The travelers go on to seek out the bird that happens to feed on the bug in question. Upon finding one, they vacuum up the bugs Ghost Busters style. The next image is of the aliens next to a waterfall, with one rubbing a sonar device against the other’s head (this device is connected to their little vacuum box). In an instant, the one receiving the cat scan transforms into a giant version of the bug they sucked up. Did this guy want to be a bug? Or is his partner tricking him in order to feast on him or the GIANT eggs/seeds he creates? Are the seeds a form of drug and the other alien runs a drug cartel? Or is the alien like a transsexual, always feeling deep down that he was meant to be a giant bug? Have they simply gone crazy from the “interstellar space that got broken in” to their psyche? The lyrics speak of regret, so maybe becoming a giant bug is some type of sacrificial suicide?
Then, just as you’re trying to figure out why this guy wanted to be a giant bug, the screen jumps to 40 seconds of the trippiest cartoon imagery ever assembled: a melting tree, pyramids, smoking coffee mugs, faces coming out of faces. Has he died? Is this heaven? Hell? Or has becoming a giant bug led to the worlds greatest trip?
We’ll never know any of these answers, but I will take comfort that now you, the reader, will be haunted by “the same dream every night” the same way I have been since first viewing this video. Enjoy the torment!
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: