Tuesday, December 17, 2013

best of 2013: part two of four

Honorable Mentions

Veronica Falls—‘Waiting for Something to Happen’ (Slumberland)

If only more bands going for a bright, jangly pop sound would make records like this. My favourite thing about Veronica Falls has always been the minimal but chunky sound that they are able to get with so little. This is the perfect example of a group of ordinary people making great music together. What causes this record to best the band’s considerably brilliant self-titled debut is the fact that they’ve traded in the winking melodrama for heart-felt wistfulness. They were able to do this both in the music and the lyrics without sacrificing their gift for bright texture and effortless hooks. I’m kicking myself that I wasn’t able to secure a copy of their forthcoming double A-side single because I’m dying to hear what they’re going to unveil next.

Neko Case—‘The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love you’ (Anti-)

When this record finally arrived I’d managed to convince myself that I was over Neko Case. ‘Man’ was an odd choice for a preview track since nothing else on the record is like it at all. It wasn’t until I heard ‘Night Still Comes’ that I thought it would be worth checking out. It had been a long four years since ‘Middle Cyclone,’ after all. There were a few previews and streams listened to but it wasn’t until I was riding around commuting and listening to the album on headphones after a long day that it started to get into my bones like all of her best records do. The moments she is able to grab and stretch into songs continue to get smaller and smaller but expand wider and wider, which I find might be what I’ve always loved about her songs. ‘Calling Cards’ is the only song I’ve ever heard where someone can sing ‘blah blah blah’ after a few heartfelt, bittersweet lines and manage to enhance the gobs of wistfulness and lonely disconnect. ‘Ragtime’ might be my favourite closing track on any of her albums and it’s a bright, optimistic closer that was definitely earned. For a woman who made the dark, twisted, noirish sounds of ‘Blacklisted’ something palatable this record has some really dark and intense moments.

Bardo Pond—‘Peace on Venus’ (Fire)

Not sure what to say about this one. It’s like their excellent self-titled record from 2011—all of the noisy, fury, beauty and trance-like repetition but condensed to fit neatly onto a single LP. Where the self-titled album had the beautiful and expansive ‘Await the Star,’ ‘Peace on Venus’ has the thunderous opener ‘Kali Yuga Blues’ which manages to steamroll you with it’s layers of warm fuzz, add in some hypnotic and mournful flute only to somehow pile on a mind-bending guitar line that has no equal in their discography. Then there’s ‘Taste’ which does what ‘Just Once’ did a few minutes quicker. ‘Peace on Venus’ reaches back to pick up where the band’s earliest fuzzed-out records left off—where the self-titled record seemed to incorporate elements of ‘Amanita’ and the acoustic-based ‘Dilate’ this one seemed to incorporate the darker elements of ‘Ticket Crystals’ and ‘Lapsed.’

White Fence—‘Cyclops Reap’ (Castleface)

Tim Presley has turned in another solid set of self-recorded weirdness with ‘Cyclops Reap.’ It’s hard to tell where this one fits in the overall context of White Fence since it can’t help but be measured in the considerable shadow of the ambitious double record set ‘Family Perfume.’ Like ‘Family Perfume’ it’s easy to spot the standouts. I’ve come to think of ‘The Only Man Alive’ as somewhat of a Rosetta stone for Presley’s songs—it’s an abstraction based in a simple, emotionally resonant premise with a few joking lines thrown in for good measure (‘go to a snake funeral’ anyone?). Musically it’s acoustic-based but arrangement-wise it’s throwing ideas at you faster than you can absorb while new ones are still being thrown into the mix every few seconds. Sometimes I think that I might agree with the idea that Presley’s recordings as White Fence could benefit from time in a real studio, but then I listen to something like ‘Make Them Dinner At Our Shoes’ or ‘To the Boy I Jumped in the Hemlock Alley’ and realize that his complete unwillingness to reign his ideas in is more than half of what makes White Fence so entrancing and unique. Plus, overall, the fidelity of these recordings is more consistent and of higher quality than ‘Family Perfume’ or any of the other White Fence records. I also used to wonder what it would be like if he were to record with his highly capable live band, but then ‘Live in San Francisco’ arrived on Castleface last month and, again, such a wish seemed superfluous. I guess that’s what makes Presley such a great artist to begin with—he allows his songs to exist in whatever context they are in in whatever moment, no matter how strange or seemingly ill-advised.

Jacco Gardner—‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ (Trouble in Mind)

I bought this record on a whim based on a youtube video or two. Dutch multi-instrumentalist Jacco Gardner wrote all the songs, played all the parts and recorded these songs himself. In the process he has made a refreshingly atypical neo-psychedelic record—one filled with paranoia, disquieting turns and alternately lulling and menacing dynamics. His instrumental choices are often baroque and his chord progressions seem to be tailor made to create an uneasiness that’s difficult to pinpoint or describe.

Low—‘The Invisible Way’ (Sub Pop)

I was wondering what Low would do with ‘The Invisible Way.’ It was the follow-up to their best record in ten years (2011’s ‘C’mon’) and produced by Jeff Tweedy. All I remember hearing about it is that there would be a lot of piano on it. On their live EP ‘Plays Nice Places’ there was the new track ‘Waiting.’ When I listened to it I occasionally had trouble feeling sure that it was new and not just some long forgotten gem hidden somewhere in their huge back catalog. That might be the perfect analogy for ‘The Invisible Way’—it somehow finds a way to take Low’s tried-and-true aesthetic and make it sound fresh and new. Where ‘C’mon’ was larger in scope and bigger in size ‘The Invisible Way’ is almost completely acoustic and self-contained. There’s a curious lack of acoustic-based success in much of Low’s past music, which I’ve always found odd considering their emphasis on slow-burning quiet but here they are finally able to nail that sound. It’s the type of sound that they should’ve pulled off ages ago but had somehow never tried.

Implodes—‘Recurring Dream’ (Kranky)

It’s been a bit frustrating waiting to hear the recorded versions of these songs since I heard Implodes play them during a set opening for Disappears early last year. There’s also a live video of ‘Bottom of a Well’ floating around that I must’ve watched a million times. What I found so interesting about ‘Black Earth’ was how the parts of each song were mixed to form a whole giving the music this distance that worked to enhance the dark mood of the songs. It was the type of music where it was difficult to figure out how people were creating those sounds. ‘Recurring Dream’ makes this mystery a bit clearer—there are more identifiable tones and instrumental lines to be sure. What ends up happening is that the melodic makeup of the songs themselves is what becomes so unsettling rather than the overall ambience. Where ‘Black Earth’ was menacing from a distance ‘Recurring Dream’ is menacing from every angle and it’s surrounding you. The band use this emphasis on clarity to work on more diverse dynamics and variation between songs.

Superchunk—‘I Hate Music’ (Merge)

It would be too easy to lump this album into the ‘90s nostalgia’ category, which is a shame as it deserves more consideration than that. When ‘Majesty Shredding’ was released in 2010 it was very much a new beginning for the band—it revisited their classic sound and infused it with a world-weariness that wasn’t there before. ‘I Hate Music’ feels almost like a sophomore album in this context—which is an odd position for a band over 20 years into their career to be in. Superchunk have always been comfortable being in a unique position among their peers, though, and this album is no exception—the songs seem nostalgic on the surface, but there’s so much more to them than that. The world-weariness that the band was kind of poking fun at on ‘Majesty Shredding’ resonates deeply and beautifully here, somehow incredibly at ease and at home amongst the bouncing palm-muted old school indie rock spirit and drive. ‘Staying Home’ has more punky attitude than any pop punk band making mall-friendly music these days to be sure. It’s the depth of the imagery of songs like ‘Trees of Barcelona’ that really draw you in—such attention to detail, such context that’s come with hard-earned and hard-won experience. This is what makes Superchunk the perfect band to root for—they’ve always been the ones to put in the hard work, the time, the effort and the boundless enthusiasm and come out with energy to burn. They’ve seen it all and while that’s been a lot it’s never been anything they can’t handle. What I also love about this record is that it has the fire and energy of a band who thinks this might be their only chance—for Superchunk it seems that they are making every record as if it could be their last these days. That is a feeling on record that few other bands will ever be able to capture as well as Superchunk will simply because with them there’s no room for doubt that the feeling is real.

The Fauns—‘Lights’ (Invada)

This is one that I’ve been awaiting eagerly since I heard that the band were recording it way back in the earlier half of the year. I discovered their self-titled debut last year and its been slowly working its way into my regular rotation since. I shelled out a ridiculous amount of money to get their Record Store Day release—the Clint Mansell rework of their beautiful track ‘Fragile’—but it was worth every penny. What they’ve managed to do on ‘Lights’ is take nearly every familiar facet of shoegaze and dream pop and blend it together seamlessly into a mix that’s all their own. There are remarkably subtle electronic touches here and there and the tracks float with Alison Garner’s husky vocals in a thick dreaminess that often gives way to layers of vivid distortion and fuzz without falling victim to the usual traps that such dynamics often fall to. A lot of these songs are too hard-hitting to work as fluffy dream pop, but they have such an irresistible sweetness to them that they can’t help but lure you in.

Bare Mutants—‘The Affliction’ (In the Red)

I never cared much for the Ponys. I don’t know why—I saw them open for Dinosaur Jr. back in 2005 and I saw them play an amazing triple bill in late 2004 in Portland that was rounded out with the Hunches and the Gris-Gris, but I just never got what the fuss was about. Since living in Chicago I’ve seen a lot of Jered Gummere’s other projects but none of them have hit me quite as hard as Bare Mutants. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this record since seeing them open for Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees at Logan Square Auditorium last year. This is another one of those records that’s come along at exactly the right time. ‘I Suck at Life’ is a sentiment I’d been tossing around in my head for years before I heard the song—now it’s a shorthand for when I’m having a really shitty day. The caustic and grim lyrics work so well too—they really appeal to my eternally melodramatic sad bastard sensibility in a way that I don’t get from a lot of the music I listen to. But then there are also songs on it like ‘Devotion’ that burst into transcendent, distorted glory that are all the more special for their context. It’s like the soundtrack for my ‘what the fuck am I doing with my life?’ moments that grow ever more present as I get deeper into my 30s.

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