Monday, December 9, 2013

best of 2013: part one of four

Biggest Disappointments

The Black Angels—‘Indigo Meadow’

Alright. I came around to ‘Phosphene Dream.’ It had good songs despite the record label weirdness that came with its release. As long as I skipped the pandering ‘Telephone’ I found it to be a good record—the songwriting was more varied than it had been before. I still think it was unsatisfying as an album—would it’ve killed them to put one or two more songs on it?! But ‘Indigo Meadow’ is the embodiment of everything I have grown to hate about the new psychedelic movement. I was hoping they’d make good on the promise of ‘Phosphene Dream’ and continue to develop, but this whole record feels phoned-in and half-assed. ‘Evil Things’ made me incredibly excited to hear this record with its Dead Meadow fuzzed-out droniness, but as it turns out nothing else on the record even comes close. As it turns out ‘Don’t Play With Guns’ was the preview track that was most indicative of things to come—flimsy, heavy-handed, trite, ham-fisted lyrics over by-the-numbers pop psych. Hey, it’s gotten them into bigger venues and they played at the Vic this year like BRMC. The difference between the two? BRMC still have a long history of strong songs to draw from and released their best album in years this year and the Black Angels have this half-baked album that took three years to arrive. Meanwhile the Warlocks play an amazing comeback set (their first in four years) to around 50 people at Subterranean. It’s almost enough to make you think that the dream is dead.


If you can’t admit that this is the weakest record Deerhunter have put out you are in denial. It’s not helped by Bradford Cox’s contrived over-the-top persona that he’s adopted to promote it. I know that the general musical landscape is lacking in dangerous devil-may-care types, but the way that Cox is trying to fill this void is coming off as incredibly pretentious. What’s more he was already a distinct character before adopting this punk-obsessed persona. It’d be like if Robin Williams suddenly started acting like Joaquin Phoenix during his post ‘I Walk the Line’ talk show appearances. To be honest I don’t think ‘Monomania’ is a terrible record, it’s just that it’s the only Deerhunter or Atlas Sound record that has ever felt forced. The contrived nature of the attention-grabbing publicity push surrounding the record is reflected a bit in the music and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who finds it a bit unsettling. It has some lovely moments, though. Why couldn’t he have emphasized the self-deprecating nature of the closing track—it’s a lot more relatable and honest. It’s definitely a feeling I’m familiar with—I think I might’ve thought I was cool for about five total minutes in my entire life. I guess I’m just stuck in the 90s mentality where I expect everything to be heartfelt and genuine and not so calculated.


I can’t help but feel like I’m listening to white boy jam band funk when I start listening to opening track ‘Sweaty Fingers.’ Where ‘Neverendless’ and every other Cave release feature some mind-bending trippiness mixed with repetitious motorik rhythms ‘Threace’ seems incredibly middle-of-the-road. ‘Neverendless’ piled on the drone nice and thick and it made for a mesmerizing combination. I knew something was up when my excitement at watching the ‘Shikaakwa’ video melted away as I heard a saxophone embedded in the restrained white boy funk grooves. Has guitarist Cooper Crane just spent all of his dazzling trippy powers in Bitchin’ Bajas? It certainly doesn’t seem like he’s having the best time confined to just his guitar duties. One of the best elements of ‘Neverendless’ was his droney and sometimes driving organ playing which is almost nowhere to be found here—when it does appear it’s usually confined to the background which is not where it belongs.

Best New Discoveries

Talk Talk—‘Spirit of Eden’

Not sure how this band has managed to escape my notice for so long, but they definitely have. I’m surprised that I didn’t become obsessed with this album when I was listening to tons of Cocteau Twins, Mogwai, Echo & the Bunnymen and Slint in the late 90s. Seems like it would’ve fit in nicely with everything else I was listening to, but it was not to be. Instead my interest in this album was piqued by some discussion on the Spiritualized forum and hearing the ‘I Believe in You’ B-side ‘John Cope’ and promptly tracking a copy of the 45 down followed soon by the ‘Spirit of Eden’ album itself. Now that single edit of ‘I Believe in You’ sounds almost criminal to me. So listen to me my fellow ignorant Americans—Talk Talk were one of the originators of the post-rock style. If you disagree just listen to this album once. As a bonus this one works well for my pre-dawn commutes. It’s mellow but it has a lot of nice, unexpected dynamic shifts and explosions to keep me on my toes. Highly recommended.


I still haven’t checked out Slug Guts even though this album is pretty great. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all—based on the name and the description I was expecting something more sighing and softly noisy. This record tore through me in a way I wasn’t expecting. A lot of people talk about the first time they heard ‘Loveless,’but this record reminded me of the first time I heard ‘Isn’t Anything.’ That closing track is truly to die for—it has an exuberance and desperation paired with a youthful noisy abandon that’s usually wasted on the young. The rest of the record is solid as well. Apparently my vinyl copy is one of only 100. Last I heard they still had copies at Permanent Records.


There’ll be more about Grouper later on in the list, but I can’t think of an artist who I’ve listened to more overall this year. To be fair I had a lot of catching up to do—something like eight records? I still can’t find a copy of that first self-titled CDr, but tracking down every release by Liz Harris I could find on vinyl has been a pleasure. I can’t remember the last time that an artist’s music has found me at exactly the right point in my life, but my discovery of Grouper this year definitely fits the bill. If you care to read a thousand more words, there’s more on this here. Since I’m so new to Harris’ body of work you’d think I’d have an easy time picking a favourite, but that is simply not the case. The truth is that there’s a Grouper record for every different type of loneliness and alienation that I feel. Yes, there are different types of loneliness and isolation. Check these records out.

Lost Gems of 2012


I’m truly embarrassed that this record wasn’t in my list last year. I’m even more embarrassed about how long I’ve known about Swans and haven’t gotten into them. It’s not okay. I remember talking about Swans to a waitress at an IHOP when I was 19. She had been admiring a my bloody valentine t-shirt I was wearing and when I described what I liked about them so much she nodded and said, ‘You should really check out Swans. I think you’d love them.’ If you care to read more about this embarrassing oversight, please read more here.

Jessica Pratt—‘JP’

I get very few musical recommendations from Pitchfork any more. My feelings on their reviews are well-documented on this blog, so I’ll go no further. The first track from this record that I heard was on Pitchfork, though. I clicked through the purchase links there as well in order to snag a copy of this record on Tim Presley of White Fence’s Birth Records imprint. Similar to how I love most of what John Dwyer talks about enthusiastically, I take Tim Presley’s gushing endorsements very seriously because there are so few of them. On the surface this is just another folky female singer-songwriter with an earnest and quavering voice. This sort of thing normally sends me running for the hills, but these songs are all incredibly beautiful and filled with impressively unexpected lyrical turns, unshakable melodies and vivid emotion. It’s the type of music that fits nearly any season or setting and considering it’s mainly just Pratt's eerie voice and guitar picking that is no small feat. I really wanted to put this in my 2012 list, but it just barely didn’t make the cut. I wanted it in the list so badly that it was one of the LPs that I put in a pile and took pictures of for the banner.

Angel Olsen—‘Halfway Home’

While I might like ‘Strange Cacti’ a bit more for its raw material and how much stronger the songs are overall, this record would’ve made it into my list last year had I heard it in time. Somehow I just never got to this record even though I’d been hearing about it all over the place. A friend who I used to work with used to room with Angel Olsen in Humboldt Park and played her set of Dolly Parton covers for me fairly often. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more than a few of her out-of-print cassette releases. I even knew about ‘Strange Cacti’ when Olsen was selling her self-released vinyl copies early on but still didn’t jump on it. WHY?! This record is a good example of when the singer-songwriter does a good job of following up that raw first release with more fully fleshed-out arrangements of their songs (the best parallel that springs to mind is Jolie Holland's 'Catalpa' followed by 'Escondida'). These arrangements are so light that they seem barely there at times. That said my favourite songs on it are ‘Free’ and ‘The Waiting’ which are the two most lushly arranged songs. They succeed in pointing out that Olsen could become the new Patsy Cline if she wanted to. I’m interested to hear her Jagjaguwar debut in the New Year mainly because I want to see if she can pull off what Sharon Van Etten did with ‘Tramp’ last year (which continues to be one of my favourite records of 2012).

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