Musique in le 2010

What a year.

My apartment burned down, I got into a PhD program, I got engaged, I spent the summer sweltering in the Midwest, I got married, I drove across the entire country with my wife, and I just finished my first quarter as a doctoral candidate.

Did I listen to any music?  Let’s perform a simple diagnostic test that will tell us the answer.

Diagnostic Question: Was I alive at any point during 2010?

Answer: The aforementioned details of what went on would indicate yes.

Result of diagnostic analysis: I listened to music in 2010.  This is what I really got into.

LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening

Clean and long-form dance songs about how terrible and shallow people are in New York.  For some reason this really spoke to me this year.  There are also some meditations on commitment once and for all to yourself or another person, commitment to the wrong person, making the mindless sex with the funny people who have to drink and pretend they don’t want to make the sex before they make the sex, and sticking to your guns.  End of shipping manifest.

Wild Nothing: Gemini

This record transformed the stifling inland old-growth Southern Indiana/Moon of Endor jungle where I spent the summer sweating myself into a damp raisin into a hazy place of dreams and pining.  Wild Nothing is VA dude Jack Tatum, and what he achieved here made it safe for men to cry again, to cry little girlie tears of winsome loneliness into the 150% humidity of a million degree summer night.  Reverb washes from these songs across miles of imaginary sepia toned highways, while jangly faeries hold your sniveler’s hand and you weakly bop to the no-balls-at-all vocals and the distant drums, too limp-wristed to masturbate.  Seriously, this is a really good record.

Kurt Vile: Constant Hitmaker

For some reason this came out in 2008.  I didn’t know anything about this until my buddy DC and his crew at WWALT alerted me to the fact that I was already deeply in debt and I didn’t know it.  I was in debt and I needed to pay my respects to Mr. Kurt Vile.  I have done so, and I continue to do so with interest.

Though the tome of wisdom that is comprised of Vile’s work can be opened to any page for enlightenment, this is the album that does my soul the most good.  Every song takes you back into the womb of the blues, where mother earth’s arterial amplifier hum swishes all around your foreverdreaming ears and Momma never kicks you out of the house.

Squarepusher: Squarepusher Presents Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator

Tom Jenkinson, or Squarepusher, is the guy Radiohead looks up to as their Radiohead.  See the trailing bits of the below interview he gave to BBC2’s The Culture Show for Thom Yorke’s kudos if you want proof.  If you sit through the part of the piece intervening between the start and the finish of the interview, and I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to, you will gain a valuable insight as to why Jenkinson’s work always stands out as such an individualized oeuvre.  As he puts it, he tries to keep a “hermetic” approach to his work, to let what he is expressing develop with limited influence from or intertextuality with trends that sweep through music at any one time.  I listened to nothing but this record for several weeks straight as it deeply and tortuously carved from the inside of my head the high chambers of Squarepusher’s new cathedrals of tone.  Everything on this record, from art to composition to the engineering of the sound, is a high resolution postcard from a new world.  He has pulled in the reins and diverted from his last few performance jazz influenced records to revisit some earlier themes of otherworldly R&B and sharp synthesizer crunch, culminating in a record that could just as easily have been named “Oh my god” if the demonstrative appropriateness of the record’s title had been deemed important than being cryptic and awesome.

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

Sure, fine, I’ll reduce this record to an oft-reproduced blurb singer/songwriter/guitarist Bradford Cox posted on his Facebook page around about the time of this record’s release.  He said that the title is a reference to “a collection of fond memories and even invented ones…The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember and how that’s kind of sad.”

What is it really?  It’s a painful and ecstatic faceplant on the very edge of spiritual awakening, if you take the subject matter of “Don’t Cry” or “Revival” at face value.  I’m just one listener/fan/critic, but these sound like meditations on how a person at the end of their rope can turn toward faith instead of away from it when they’re at the very terminals of extremis.

The record’s a desire-gone-cold reflection on lost youth and gained cynicism, on life lived on the perimeter if you take “Desire Lines” (sung by guitarist and vocalist Lockett Pundt) at its word.  “Memory Boy” is a tribute to the departed Jay Reatard if I ever heard one.  The opening riff is pretty reminiscent of the former Deerhunter collaborator’s track “Before I was Caught” from his final album, Watch me Fall.

The limitless talent and the fearlessness with which Deerhunter put out their new music is incontrovertible, unassailable.  It is the only true mark of an artist.  At the end of the day or the end of a life, what does one have but one’s work?  The simple fact is that we, all of us, know that we have nothing if we have not remained true to our talents and our ideal selves, to THE IDEAL SELF locked like a minotaur inside the maze of mysteries or miseries he or she must decipher alone.  Deerhunter is a pack of monsters who live that human axiom to its rarely practiced extreme.  I unabashedly love this band with their shimmering atmospherics, their endless experimentation, and their personal lyrics.

Caribou: Swim

A weird trip through handcrafted techno.  This album which I thought completely programmed in a DAW is actually completely played live.  It’s cold-weather music for weird headspaces.

Lloyd Cole: Broken Record

My wife, she of the impeccable musical taste who is always teaching me something new, she introduced me to Mr. Lloyd Cole during our courtship.  Maybe first she slipped me “Like Lovers Do” during one of those stealthily competitive and eminently meaningful exchanges of single songs that takes the place of exchanging mix tapes in the digital era, and, when I was sufficiently whammied by that, by the depth and breadth of her musical knowledge and her acumen in discerning killer songwriting, she closed in for the kill with the masterful and timeless “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”  That could be how it came about that I became a fan of Lloyd Cole.

Then, there we were with a 3,000 mile road trip ahead of us.  Thank the songwriting gods with every pagan rite they demand that Lloyd Cole put together a top-notch country band to back up his melancholy musings and Westerbergian turns of phrase just in time for our departure.  It starts eloquent and sad, lamenting the pratfalls of self-involved lovers on the skids in tracks like “Like a Broken Record” and “Writers Retreat!”, and it ends elegant and glad with overtures like “Oh Genevieve” and “Double Happiness”.  On the way he manages to touch the fuck you kiss off base as well, with the resignedly exasperated- but not too hurt- “That’s Alright.”

Thanks, Lloyd.  Glad to see you weren’t afraid to be heartbroken again.

Matthew Dear: Black City

Black city is a wild meander through the secret ghettos of techno, where the locals will tell you there’s nothing to do, but from the windows waft strange vocal stylings and the streets throb with secrets.

Shy Child: Liquid Love

Have you ever been wrong, said something in foolish youthful bravura you wish you could take back?  I have.  I’m sorry, Shy Child, but I was wrong about your new record when I first heard it.  I thought that your last record, Noise Won’t Stop was the pinnacle of what your work was going to amount to.  All the staccato breaks, the overpowering, interweaving lead synth lines, the barely comprehensible shouting over all that musical intensity.  It was so tight and immediate.  How was I supposed to be prepared for this shift into measured genius, into subtle groove?  I wasn’t up to the task.

I’ve spent the year listening to the new record, Liquid Love, however, and I’ve changed my ways.

Have you ever come to the realization once you took inventory of how many of a certain group’s CDs you had or how many plays of an artist’s songs you’d racked up on your MP3 player, that you were a superfan of a band, or that that one record you’d been overlooking was, unbeknownst to you, in actuality your favorite?  That’s how the ballad of me and Shy Child would go.

Like LCD Soundsystem, Shy Child is a New York band that has learned how to put the space and pace back into dance music.  That’s where I’ll stop that comparison, though, because Shy Child is doing something else entirely in all other respects.  They’re a band that bites all the cheese of ’80s synthesizer decadence and cornball delivery, they steal riffs from Tango in the Night era Fleetwood Mac and vocal cadence from Hall and Oates, but they are still firmly entrenched in dance music.  Between albums they’ve learned to sing and not shout, and the deliberate delivery of their carefully designed synthesizer sounds is a testament to a commitment to musicianship that goes beyond the berserker bombast of their last album.  Arpeggios, sleazy slow disco-paced beats, throbbing basslines, and vocal harmony strung up over all the neon.  An almost total lack of that dilettante’s crutch, irony.  This is absolutely one of the best records of the year.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Brutalist Bricks

In the world according to Ted Leo, we are all terminal cases- unless we stand up, once and for all, and hear the tracks he’s laying down.

The hardest working man in Rock ‘n Roll is also the only actually earnest, tireless, unimpeachably incorruptible, driven, and humanist artist to aspire to the concert stage since the baby boomers popularized those tenets as a disguise for their avarice and consumerism in the ’60s.  He’s a real punk.

He and his Pharmacists put together a big, lush set for their Matador Records debut this year marked by a speed, vivacity, and urgent intensity that has only grown more remarkable over the course of an already long and wonderful career in music.

And this is the thing about Ted Leo.  He’s not cashing in, he’s not slowing down, he’s not mellowing out.  He believes in his art and he believes in his message, and he backed that up this year with some of the hardest-driving music he’s put out to date.

“Where Was my Brain?”, the song from which the album’s title was taken, has these quintessentially Ted Leo lines, lines that really, really spoke to me this year:

Well modern agriculture gave me my fill/until I saw the things it brutally killed/well modern architecture gave me a kick/until I lived among the brutalist bricks/where was my brain?/with me all the time/getting it wrong again.

Sporting influences from Squeeze to Thin Lizzy (and millions of local stops in between I am not even qualified to speak to), the man, the songwriter, the band continues to set the world on fire, bathing it in the light of warning flares and messianic abandon.

Sebastien Tellier: Sexuality Remix

How many times in a row have you felt compelled to play a remix album?  I didn’t think I could love the material on last year’s Sexuality by Sebastien Tellier any more.  It was verging on carnal.  Then this remix collection dropped.

Small Black: New Chain

This one has been growing on me, all new wave and echo.  The opening track sucks you in with a combination of The Cure’s “Pictures of You” and Psychedelic Furs’ Pretty in Pink, and then the record just takes off.

Sweet Lights: S/T

This Sweet Lights S/T is a great record for fans of Kurt Vile and the Beatles, a good slow-grow set that I can’t say I deliberately put on for straight-through listening, but that came on randomly often enough, always giving me pause to see who it was, that I came to love it front to back.  There was a reason this never came off my iPod all year.

Bear Claw: Refuse this Gift

Pure Chicago aggression, pure aggro intensity, pure obsessive method.  This is one of the most inventive, intense, aggressive, and sonically interesting recordings I’ve heard in a very long time.  No guitars, only basses.  There isn’t anyone else out there doing what Bear Claw is doing.  Small wonder Steve Albini listed them as one of his favorite bands.

Washed Out: Life of Leisure

Normally I revile music that trades in a false sense of nostalgia, but there is something really happening here.  Digital aliasing brought on by downsampling, fuzzy filtering, the trappings of overbearing tape compression, slow compressors that mean each instrument is pushing the other one out of the way in the mix- all these things are here along with a dreamy 1.5 times slower speed to the swing tempo that really makes you feel like you are somewhere better, in the sun and on drugs.

Against Me! White Crosses

The follow-up to 2007’s Sire debut New Wave, Tom Gabel’s Against Me! are riding the Butch Vig big drum express deeper into pop territory.  Good thing they are bringing all that ordnance.  Sentimentality, power pop, strong lyrics (as always) and slick production find  Against Me! still waving the punk flag.  After the anthem of New Wave‘s “Thrash Unreal”, I didn’t think it was possible for him to make another sad song such a Springsteen-y stadium rocker.  Yeah, he gets sadder on this one, and bigger.

Some Other Records I Liked in 2009 That Did Not Necessarily Come Out in 2009

Chrisma: Chinese Restaurant (1977)

I have to thank the proprietors of Zamboni Soundtracks for turning me on to a lot of really up-my-alley stuff this year.  This was one of those recordings the path towards the discovery of which Zamboni lit with their tireless, tasteful tune torch-bearing.  According to that blog, this husband and wife duo was signed to Polydor Italy by Vangelis’ elder brother and recorded in Vangelis’ home studio in 1977 while the big “V” (this is a play on the fact that Vangelis is a diminutive form of Evangelos!) was out of town with the aid of Vangelis’ equipment and his usual studio engineer.  Welcome to information.

Vangelis— he of Chariots of Fire and Bladerunner soundtracks fame— his last name is Papathanassiou.  What the fuck hath God wrought?

Synthy and rhythmic music recorded between 1970 and 1983 is my favorite.  Welcome to declarative statement.

I like Ms. Christina Moser’s cool assurances on track “Black Silk Stocking” that if you “Put your hand inside it she’ll show you where to find it,” and “When she is not talking be sure she wants some rocking.”  I like a lady who knows what she wants and doesn’t make it confusing for the vendor.  Those European girls.  They’re so ideal.

Dillinger Four: Civil War (2008)

How is it that I haven’t written anything about this at any point until now?  Ever since the first time I heard them— 1998’s Midwestern Songs of the Americas— Dillinger Four has always been my ideal image of what a punk band should be.  Poppy but with that galloping punk drumbeat, pedagogical in that Stiff Little Fingers vein of “You think it’s like this, but really it’s like this” with the alternately angry/sad subtext: someone’s a fuckhead and/or exasperatingly dumb and everyone is going to suffer for it.

The band has put out 5 records in 10 years, 1 a year from ’98 to 2000, one is ’02, and then this triumphant return to form after a 6-year break in 2008.  The songwriting and the music is possibly better than anything they have put out to date— the song structures are poppier and more complex than straight-ahead punk.  The “Get a fucking grip on yourselves before we’re all fucked” message is flavored with a carpe diem wistfulness.  As they beg the listener to learn the lessons life presents them, they return constantly to the theme of mortality- though they do not relent, there is the disappointed niggling suspicion that, as life stretches out further behind and the future is uncertain, nothing is getting any  better.

Don’t confuse this wizened punk attitude with the endlessly self-perpetuating Jesus Christ pose of the martyr, however.  As I have taken care to mention, they are unrelenting in the clarity of their message.  Relentlessness is the optimism that denatures any trace of martyrdom in hopelessness.  Relentlessness, not nihilism, is punk.

Midlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006)

These guys have a schtick and a repeated lexicon that revolves around an idealized golden colonial past.  They use words like “shelter” and “give thanks”, and “stonecutter”and praise a strong work ethos and a simple life of labor and benevolent patriarchy to the heavens.  They worry in song about bandits.  They thoughtfully soothe their “young bride”.  It’s funny, but the music, as much of a put-on as it is, is still somehow a convincing illusion in spite of itself, a very effective piece of faux ’70s nostalgia that transports even the most hardened cynic.  They’re also excellent musicians.

+/- Xs on Your Eyes (2008)

Quite the quiet tour de force.  This was one that emerged at the end of 2008, that I know I listened to extensively, but for some reason didn’t include on either my nearly-were or best-of 2008 list.  What kind of a jerk was I?  Did I think I was keeping them all for myself?  I saw them just this past year opening for the other act these Baluyut boys have been in since they were unplugged from the umbilical cord, Versus, and +/-  were head and shoulders better than the band that spawned them.  This album is some kind of apotheosis.  With acts like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart infatuating the kiddies just long enough for those hipsters’ brain cells that were taking note of the act to die in an avalanche of tight clothes and cocaine, these ’90s veterans came out with the best overwrought and jangly ’90s record ever written.  It was like an instructional seminar led by the hand of God, with the hand of God on drums, the hand of God on guitars, and the hand of God on vox.  Slow-burning and long-playing.  Kind of like the universe.

La Düsseldorf: Individuellos (1981)

Another gem from Zamboni Soundtracks.  The rock scene in Düsseldorf in the ’70s and early ’80s was a big influence on David Bowie and Brian Eno, who, I’m sure I read somewhere once, would meet now and again back in the ’70s and exchange records, let each other know what they thought was “hip,” cat.  (For some reason, my ideal imagining of these exchanges sees the two rock icons cast as beatniks.)  I haven’t been able to turn up that reference, though I can find a few places (here’s one) where Mr. Eno extols the virtues of communal rock drawn from a wellspring of European tradition and ideological foment.

In the interview linked to above, Eno mentions that Klaus Dinger, drummer for Neu!, had seized on the “krautrock” beat as the stripped down essence of the quintessential rock beat.  It doesn’t really change all that much from song to song, but it doesn’t need to.  After parting ways with Michael Rother at the end of the Neu! project, Dinger formed La Düsseldorf and put out three records between 1976 and 1983. They scored a hit in Germany with the single “Rheinita” off second album Viva!.  Find the record online and check out the cover art to see where Brian Eno cribbed the idea for Coldplay’s last album cover.

This 1981 release, with its loud keyboard lines, overt optimism, and its frequent reliance on pure atmospherics, is a departure from the first eponymous album and the second one, Viva!.  Of the two projects that emerged from the Neu! schism, I had always considered Michael Rother’s Harmonia to be the fork in the road that led toward virtue, with La Düsseldorf a great band that had ALL the percussion but lacked the soul and innovation Harmonia seemed to have taken with it.  The brightness and weirdness of Individuellos turns that map around, though.

Dinger passed away in September 2008, so we won’t have the anticipation of any rumored new Neu! revivals to sustain us on our bleak stretches, but we still have the seismic, hypnotic optimism of his catalog.  In this respect, one of the only, we can be grateful the Internet never forgets.

Pedro the Lion: Control (2002)

The year was 2002, the ’90s were well over, and Pedro the Lion were soon never to be heard from again under that name.  Louder, more distorted than Achilles Heel, here we have songs of disappointment and reward from a guy who can’t seem to be happy with anything.  The title of the record says it all- these are all little stories of the situations from which people suck their lives as pulp from a fruit, those situations that wouldn’t exist but for their absolute control of their destinies.

The American Analog Set: Hard to Find (2009)

I was lucky to catch this excellent band on their farewell tour in 2005.  The band had released 6 records between 1996 and 2005 after their formation in 1994, a ten year run of hypnotic and subtle rock often relating the travails and inner vicissitudes of youth and interpersonal relationships.  The pretty and brutal honesty of the title track of the record, “Hard to Find”, gives me pause to hold back tears every time I so much as think of it.  This is music moving in the steady time signature of life, not of the world-time productivity cyborgs we’ve all become.

We leave marks on each other.  We’re not interchangeable.  Stop.  Remember that.

The Go-Betweens: Spring Hill Fair (1984)

My friend Chifumi introduced me to the Go-Betweens sometime between 2000 and 2002.  I don’t know which record, I don’t remember which song.  The Go-Betweens have a wistfulness tempered by cleverness, a poppy tone tempered by impossible time signatures.  Theirs is the sound of a cleanly amplified guitar or an acoustic and a few real things to say.

I don’t have a lot to say about this record in particular.  I love the track sampled here.  I love “Love Goes On” from 16 Lovers Lane.  I really like the entirety of Send Me a Lullaby, their first album from ’81.  I like this record that I heard the first time this year by way of someone dear.

Part Chimp: I am Come (2005)

Loud.  Explodingly loud.  Thanks, Todd.

Sebastien Tellier: Sexuality (2008)

I went back and forth on this album, and then I couldn’t stop.  Right over the top.

How Dare You: Comfort Road (2008)

It was Sunday morning and I was at 1982, a bar in Gainesville, FL, for the final day of The Fest ’08, three days of punk and PBR marketing.  This band was a splash of Aqua Velva on my puffy skin, and it was good to revisit them again and again this past year.

The Loved Ones: Keep Your Heart (2005)

Power pop/pop punk done right.  All right, all right.