Dirty Three—‘Toward the Low Sun’ (Drag City)
As if it weren’t enough that the Dirty Three broke their seven year silence, they did so with this compact gem of a record—which is probably their best since 2000’s ‘Whatever you Love, you Are.’ These songs are passionate, intense and probably their most varied—the sonic palette is wide. The orchestral ‘Ashen Snow’ features piano and mellotron in addition to the standard Dirty Three base trio. More layers doesn’t mean that the songs lose their breathing room, either. The requisite yearning and intense emotion are all there in spades. Like many of this year’s great surprises it landed pretty much out of nowhere.
Moon Duo—‘Circles’ (Sacred Bones)
It’s interesting that Moon Duo’s full-lengths are proving to be the releases that they fill with their most compact songs. After the release of ‘Mazes’ last year I thought that that was just the direction they were headed in, but then after hearing the ‘Horror Tour’ EP and then, of course, the 21-minute track ‘High Over Blue’ I was proven incorrect. I can only conclude that their main concern with every release—whether it’s an EP, 7” or full-length—is how the entire experience is perceived as a whole and it’s clear that their full-lengths are imagined as varied, extended sonic journeys. This one reminded me of ‘Honey’s Dead’-era Jesus and Mary Chain and early Dandy Warhols at times. The crisp, clear production is a natural progression from ‘Mazes’ with a further emphasis on melody. You can even make out a lot of the lyrics. They continue to wring so much from what so many have been quick to dismiss as a narrow, one-dimensional sound.
Tame Impala—‘Lonerism’ (Modular)
I avoided this one for quite a while due to the overwhelming hype. Interestingly, once the hype began to backlash was when I searched it out. At first it didn’t seem like it was that special, but the album quickly became addictive. Now, I’ve still never heard Tame Impala’s debut ‘Innerspeak’ (which I’ve heard written-off as a Dungen soundalike), but what I liked the most about this album is the lightning-speed immediacy of it. The layers of synths and monumental mountains of effects piled onto pretty much everything on here works brilliantly where normally melodies and dynamics become suffocated under the weight. ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ is the rosetta stone of this album for me. It goes from driving and upbeat to dirgey and emotionally wrecked in its verse-chorus-verse structure. Despite the springy, sharp reverb and slapback of delay you can make out main man Kevin Parker’s lyrics pretty clearly throughout. The closing run starting with ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ is just perfect. They’ve also pulled off a remarkable feat in making a song in as odd of a time signature as ‘Elephant’ such an accessible and compact single. ‘Like an elephant shaking his big, grey trunk for the hell of it,’ actually does a lot to explain the appeal of this album—it seems effortlessly tossed-off and celebratory, but so beautifully and deliberately constructed.
Ty Segall—‘Slaughterhouse’/’Twins’ (In the Red/Drag City)
Ty Segall fulfilled nearly all of his promise in one blinding year—he released three records just as promised, each one better than the last leading up to ‘Twins,’ which is his strongest release to date and then giving his all on a multitude of high profile television appearances. Could he possibly break through into mainstream awareness? It didn’t seem that possible before, but it certainly does now. ‘Twins’ would certainly be a great platform to do so from. It’s like a more straight-ahead rocking version of last year’s good weird ‘Goodbye Bread.’ Every song could conceivably be a great single. He’s also toned the scuzz down just enough that it won’t be off-putting to listeners who crave fidelity, but it’s still there in all of its fuzzy glory. ‘Slaughterhouse’ gets a mention here because it’s his first record done entirely with his excellent live band. When you subtract the 10-minute feedback exercise closing track it’s really more of a mini-album, but it also features the gut-punching opening couplet of ‘Death’ and ‘I Bought my Eyes’ as well as ‘Wave Goodbye,’ possibly one of his best tracks ever, and the glorious crash-and-burn of ‘Diddy-Wah-Diddy.’ Oh yeah, and he also teamed up with White Fence’s Tim Pressley to collaborate on a record called ‘Hair’ that is entirely worth your time.
Grizzly Bear—‘Shields’ (WARP)
‘Veckatimest’ hasn’t aged so well for me. It shook off all the cobwebby weirdness of 2006’s ‘Yellow House’ in favor of a more accessible sound. While the songs on it were all pretty solid, that cobwebby weirdness is what made me love them so much in the first place. Here they’ve taken the weirdness and woven it back into a set of songs that leap off from the poppy accessibility of ‘Veckatimest’ and give them a substantial shot in the arm. These songs are pretty fierce, formidable and oddly constructed. Every song is a force to be reckoned with. While I still don’t think it’s better than ‘Yellow House’ it’s about as close as they’re likely to come as ‘Shields’ registers as a jumping-off point—a band with too many ideas to contain. These songs were the first where Grizzly Bear has written collaboratively and it shows in the joyfully schizophrenic structures. Keep it coming!
Wild Nothing—‘Nocturne’ (Captured Tracks)
I had high hopes for this record at the beginning of the year and it turned out to be one of the eagerly anticipated records that surpassed my expectations. It took some getting used to, but then so did 2010’s brilliant debut ‘Gemini.’ ‘Nocturne’ has grown on me in a similar way—initially I found the 80s angle a bit cumbersome, but soon the more subtle and dreamier aspects dripped into my ears as if through an IV. Songs I didn’t care much for became highlights depending on the day or the hour. As with ‘Gemini,’ Jack Tatum’s consistent care with his songs is what forms the heart of this album.
The Raveonettes—‘Observator’ (VICE)
It seems odd to think that in their 10+ years as a band that Raveonettes have never used a piano on any of their recordings and yet, when the instrument appears during the closing strains of lovely opening track ‘Young and Cold’ it’s one of those simple ideas that hits like a ton of bricks. So obvious, why hadn’t it happened before? There’s a lot about this newest Raveonettes album that carries similar weight. At first it doesn’t seem like there’s much to distinguish it from anything else they’ve done, but when paired up as a companion piece to last year’s chilly, synth-heavy ‘Raven in the Grave’ it seems like further evidence of 2007’s ‘Lust Lust Lust’ as a creative jumping-off point for the Danish duo (well, as long as you leave out the hiccups from 2009’s ‘In and Out of Control’). The Raveonettes have managed to create their own world while simultaneously being written off by so many as derivative. Perhaps the lack of respect has liberated them creatively—they do seem to release their best work when they aren’t trying to impress anybody. The double 7” release ‘Into Night’ is worth checking out as well.
Melody’s Echo Chamber—‘s/t’ (Fat Possum)
This one surprised me. Quite a bit. Just as Broadcast were always burdened with the inappropriate label of being Stereolab soundalikes, Melody’s Echo Chamber is so far being billed as Broadcast soundalikes. There is plenty of evidence to support such a label, but considering how distinctive Broadcast’s records were it seems pretty ridiculous to compare them to much of anyone. I’m inclined to think that the Broadcast comparisons stem from the creative spirit that Melody’s Echo Chamber show off on this self-titled debut (produced by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker). What made Broadcast so great was their ability to meld experimental and avant-garde sounds to pop melodies in addition to a complete lack of reserve as far as genre-mixing and sound/instrumental juxtaposition were concerned. Melody’s Echo Chamber seem to be taking that spirit on this record and using it as their foundation as they already seem to be jumping off into a different direction from the same point.
Sic Alps—‘s/t’ (Drag City)
Last year when writing about Sic Alps’ double LP ‘Napa Asylum’ I spent a little time moaning about a ‘lack of focus’ or some other nonsense in relation to the second half of it. I understand in retrospect that the supposed ‘lack of focus’ is actually one of their greatest goals as a band—they will go wherever their songs take them whether it’s readily accessible or incredibly tangential. I also mentioned how ‘Goodbye Bread’ sounded to me like what a more polished and reined-in version of Sic Alps might sound like. These sentiments mixed with the string of excellent 7” releases they’ve been churning out steadily since last summer caused me to wonder what Sic Alps would sound like in a more chiseled and focused form. This record arrived as my answer and what an answer it is. The last two tracks are probably my favourites of theirs. When I heard that the record incorporated the use of string arrangements I was confused as to how this could possibly work (I thought the exact same thing about Thee Oh Sees’ 2012 release ‘Putrifiers II’), but ‘Glyphs’ gets things rolling nicely and puts any doubts swiftly to bed. They manage to sound accessible without sacrificing any of their strengths. I’m not sure how they did it even while I listen to the album, but it’s one of those cases where by the time I flip the record over to side two I’ve already quit caring. Does it matter? Not really—this is their most focused and cohesive album with their most beautifully and perfectly rendered songs. ‘Rock Races’ is simply gorgeous. ‘Lazee Son’ is hilarious and addictive. If you crave weirdness there are plenty of places to look for it in their back catalog (the ‘Vedley’ 7” for instance). They continue to be a band that I truly have no clue what they could possibly do next.
Radar Eyes—‘s/t’ (Hozac)
Ending the string of self-titled albums by bands both old and new is the debut from Chicago locals Radar Eyes. This album couldn’t be more perfect if it tried—it’s a higher fidelity recording than much of the Hozac Records catalog, but it’s got just the right amount of scuzz, it effortlessly mixes psych and garage into a balanced stew, just the right amount of reverb, a nice amount of nicely woven analog keyboard lines amongst those beautifully realized interwoven guitar lines. The drums work that minimal, insistent beat and incorporate some nice percussive colours into the mix as well. While they’ve taken a lot of the same lift-off points as fellow locals Disappears (who also turned in the excellent ‘Pre Language’ this year) they really don’t sound like them at all. Some tracks are nicely extended to dazzling effect (‘Disconnection,’ ‘I am’) while others pack a quickly served wallop that’s usually more typical of punk rock (‘Summer Chills’). The closing track manages to sound like Joy Division without even meaning to. A lot of the new material that they’ve been playing live takes a much darker turn and bears very little resemblance to this formidable debut. How has the fertile psych/garage-melding scene in this fair city continued to elude national notice? At one point during Radar Eyes’ show-opening set at Lincoln Hall with the Fresh & Onlys there were more people gathering to hear them than had bothered to stick around for all of the headliners’ set.