Friday, December 7, 2012

best of 2012: part one of four

Best New Discoveries

The Heads—‘Relaxing with…’ (1996), ‘Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere’ (2000)

I took the plunge and bought the vinyl reissue of the Heads’ debut album ‘Relaxing with…’ when it came out this year even though I realized it would likely lead to years of hopeless chases, maxed out credit cards from ebay and discogs purchases and a heaping helping of vinyl-addict self-loathing. Based in Bristol the Heads have been fighting the good fight harder and longer than any other psych band of the last 20 years and with less recognition. Even Anton Newcombe has managed to reach the level of reverence that he has always deserved. With the Heads, this doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to happen and they couldn't possibly care less. They mix sludgy Mudhoney-esque fuzz with mind-melting psychedelic tangents, Spacemen 3-esque repetitious drones and throw in a great deal of their own unique weirdness in spades. They’re coming from a similar place to Bardo Pond—pure volume as altered state. Where Bardo Pond are often languid and slow-burning, the Heads are known to subject their listeners to lengthy pile-driving arrangements. Their debut led me to their second record ‘Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere,’ which was released four years after their debut failed to catapult them into the popular music stratosphere. It raises the bar on the level of sonic pummeling set on their formidable debut and expands a lot on the atmospheric scope. I’m not sure where to go next with them as ‘Everybody Knows…’ is painfully difficult to find on vinyl and everything they appear to have released since runs the gamut from singles/live sessions compilations to extended jam sessions that were recorded in their practice space (a new slab of which will be shipping to me from the UK in a week or so). Many were released in microscopic runs on CD-R only. The Heads have proven to be well worth the heartbreak thus far, though.

The Fauns—‘s/t’ (2009)

Another band from Bristol, the Fauns released this excellent debut in 2009. I happened upon them through twitter—they were one of the first followers of shalloboi on there. This beautifully-crafted debut forgoes a lot of the overwhelming fuzz that they seem to favor in a live setting (at least judging from the youtube videos of their performances that I’ve seen—the Fauns have yet to tour the states). Even sections that are wrapped in distortion highlight the radiant grace that these tracks are blessed with. They make great use of synth sounds as well on this record, blending them with layers of billowy guitars and this record has a ‘less is more’ kind of feel, which is atypical of most dream-pop/shoegaze/gauzy music (or whatever you want to call it). They also wisely left vocalist Alison Garner’s vocals free of effects (save a bit of effective doubling).

Biggest Disappointments

Sun Araw—‘The Inner Treaty’

As any fan and follower of psychedelic music will tell you the best music is often the most ‘out-there’ stuff—music that has the power to put you into an altered state just by listening to it. It is transformative and transporting. This is a delicate line to walk, however, which is what makes it so entrancing when it works. Most of the bands I listen to are great at walking this line, so much so that I often find myself asking ‘If this works how far is too far out?’ Well, here’s my answer. Sorry Mr. Stallones, but you’re desperately needed back here on earth. Where Cameron Stallones’ work as Sun Araw has always thrived on minimalism and stretched repetition, last year‘s ‘Ancient Romans’ seemed to finally over-reach the boundaries that Sun Araw had always managed better than anyone on ‘Beach Head,’ ‘On Patrol’ and ‘Heavy Deeds.’ Perhaps it was the silly synth sounds that I found so distracting, but then the FRKWYS collaboration with M. Geddes Gengras and the Congos came along. It seemed to be pointing in a positive direction back to the focus that even Stallones‘ most stretched-out early work presented so effectively. Plus the production was immaculate and the tracks were incredibly beautiful and other-wordly. When a new Sun Araw record was announced I was excited to see if this trend would be expanded upon and, as it turns out, it was pushed even further in the opposite direction. While listening to ‘Like Wine’ my heart sank—it seemed like the completely incoherent work of someone who was totally fargone. Despite that initial reaction I did still manage to check out the rest of the album. It took me three tries before I could even make it through the first track without turning it off. It’s a shame mainly because it was the death of a titan who’s diverse output I looked forward to with every subsequent release. The only good thing that can be said is that sometimes it’s good to find the line by crossing over it. That way you can at least know how far is too far.

The Fresh & Onlys—‘Long Slow Dance’

I was looking forward to this release when it was announced as it had been among my highest hopes for this year. With the announcement of every Fresh & Onlys offshoot (guitarist Wymond Miles released an EP and an LP this year, for instance) it seemed like we wouldn’t get a follow-up to 2010’s highlight ‘Play it Strange.’ I was hoping they’d marry ‘Play it Strange’ with 2011’s ‘Secret Walls’ EP and instead they released this curve-ball of an album. There are a handful of tracks on this album that I love, but for the most part it seemed like it featured some of the most awkward lyrics since their debut. It’s never a good sign when the bonus 7” you receive with your pre-order features your favourite track on the b-side. I admire them for attempting to write more accessible material, not to mention write such lovelorn and romantic songs (which at least yielded the absolutely perfect title track) but it just seems forced here at times. When I saw them at Lincoln Hall last month they admirably stuck behind these songs and some of them were enriched by being played passionately live, but there were still several that I just couldn’t get into. The perfect case in point would be ‘Foolish Person’—I would say that it’s the dividing line between the songs that I think work and don’t on this record. Sometimes I listen to it and like it and other times I hate it. I’m sure that they’ll bounce back as they don’t seem to be a band that has any problem coming up with new ideas. One of the most admirable aspects of their show at Lincoln Hall was how they tore into their songs with a fierce conviction despite a dwindling crowd—it shows a true passion that is immune to missteps.

The Chromatics—‘Kill for Love’

Just go read this.

Lost Gems of 2011

Mikal Cronin—‘s/t’

With the crush of great albums that overwhelmed me last year several serious contenders simply got left in the dust. This self-titled debut from Ty Segall’s bassist Mikal Cronin was set to be in the list for much of the year. If it hadn’t been for the one-two punch of Disappears’ album ‘Guider’ and ‘Live from Echo Canyon’ EP this would’ve been on the list. Cronin shows a diversity that’s rare on a debut. He could spin off in any direction that he wants after this—heck, it was a strong enough album that it caught the attention of Merge—which is incredibly exciting since this is the first case of a resident of the fertile crescent of garage rock (aka San Francisco) getting picked up by a label that has the potential to draw mainstream attention. There are some biting, fuzzed-out rockers (‘Green and Blue‘), some wistful crooners (‘Slow Down,‘‘Hold on me‘) and one of the most charming and fun closing tracks I’ve heard in ages. Try not to smile like an idiot while listening to ‘The Way Things Go‘ fall to pieces in its extended closing section.

Ty Segall—‘Goodbye Bread’

I was never even able to pick this one up in 2011—it was sold out nearly everywhere until the year was over. Despite Ty’s trio of great albums released this year, this is the one of his that I am continually coming back to. It was billed as an acoustic, classic-sounding album, ignored and dismissed by critics for being derivative (seriously, though, WHAT?!) and difficult to get ahold of despite being Segall’s first release on Drag City. My interpretation is that it was such an interesting mish-mash of influences and angles that no one knew what to think of it. ‘I Can’t Feel it’ is among the most accessible of the tracks on here. ‘This is going to be weird,’ Segall announces at the beginning of the track. He isn’t wrong, but this is definitely the good kind of weird. What a lot of these songs ended up reminding me of was what a more consistently focused Sic Alps might sound like. I wasn't far-off judging by their self-titled release from this year.

Veronica Falls—‘s/t’

This was one of those cases where the hype machine got a slower start and didn’t really get rolling until the year was pretty much over. If a hype machine must exist it would be nice if it functioned in this manner all the time as Veronica Falls are riding a smooth wave upwards and onwards. I’m glad a band has challenged the notion of twee at last—while these are dark songs delivered in the form of a sugary pill they’ve wisely left in a healthy air of menace. There’s also a very ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ aesthetic on here that reads as mildly confrontational and passionate. Pair that with the fact that they achieve a muscular sound with a bare-bones setup without having to resort to piling on the fuzz or reverb and it becomes difficult to deny the quality of these songs. If they went the way that most bands go with songs like this they’d sound like nothing more than a cheap Jesus & Mary Chain imitation. Instead they have a sort of 60s aesthetic filtered through the cynicism of the 90s and have thrown in some Velvet Undergound-influenced minimalism and just a dash of 80s Sonic Youth ferocity via pure attack.

The Raveonettes—‘ Raven in the Grave’

Like Mikal Cronin’s album, I died a little inside when this one got edged out of the list (the last minute Kate Bush and Tom Waits releases bumped everything down two spots). ‘Raven in the Grave’ was exactly the type of album I’d hoped they would follow 2007’s ‘Lust Lust Lust’ with. It seems to pick up the creative momentum that the Raveonettes seemed to pick up with the release of ‘Lust Lust Lust’ and its dual companion digital-only EPs. If you subtract the more contrived parts of 2009’s ‘In and Out of Control’ there’s quite the continuum of brilliant and diverse songs with a very natural flow leading up to this year’s lean and excellent ‘Observator’ and EP ‘Into the Night.’ Whatever they’re doing appears to be working wonders as well—they’re selling more records and attracting more attention while signed to VICE records than they did during their major label days. Their laid-back headlining set at this year’s Green Music Festival was quite the live highlight for me—I showed up, paid $5, they were onstage within a half-hour and they played two of my favourites of theirs that I never thought I’d get to hear (‘Blush’ and ‘Love Can Destroy Everything’) in addition to offering a sneak peak of a few of ‘Observator’s best tracks. ‘Raven in the Grave’ is one of the records I’ve bought on vinyl new that didn’t come with a download code, but I’ve found the vinyl rip I listen to through my headphones couldn’t possibly suit it better—it’s fuzzy and warm with some beautifully melancholic synths and keyboards woven into the songs so beautifully. In addition to some of their gloomiest material there are lush, lovelorn, romantic tracks like ‘Summer Moon’ and ‘My Time’s Up’ that melt my heart every time.

The War on Drugs—‘Slave Ambient’

This record has now slipped through the cracks twice. Last year I didn’t get ahold of it until November and it became a victim of ear-fatigue. This one needs time to be appreciated. Once I gave it a few more listens after the dust had settled it was a nice and clear facepalm kind of moment. How in the hell had this record’s beauty and brilliance eluded me?! It was an album that somehow managed to be beautiful and ambient while also rocking. It took some nicely woven layers of electronics and digital manipulations into a warm foundation with tube-rich electric guitars and crisp, clear acoustics. A stadium-ready cymbal-light drum sound doesn’t hurt either. It’s also the first great case I’ve seen of an argument for the merits of digital recording. At first I think I just heard it as a Kurt Vile-soundalike record, but I love it more and more with each listen. There is a nice emotional core resonating from the heart of these songs (which are all very solid in their own way). A friend recommended I catch them during their stop at Lincoln Hall last year and I didn’t for some doubtlessly silly reason (probably work-related). If only I’d gone I think that the brilliance of this record would’ve been obvious from the first listen. Here’s hoping they get a great follow-up out next year.

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