Tuesday, December 23, 2014

best of 2014: part three of four

10) Angel Olsen—‘Burn Your Fire for no Witness’ (Jagjaguwar)

Again, this one was a grower and a complete curveball. Even having heard preview tracks ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ and ‘Hi-Five’ it turned out that my expectations were useless when first listening to this album. In terms of strength of individual songs the breadth of styles Olsen explores with her backing band on this album have definitely helped her songs grow in strength and confidence. While 2012’s ‘Half Way Home’ was a strong listen as a whole, there wasn’t a lot of musical or textural diversity present and mood-wise it tended to hover in the ‘brooding’ neighborhood. The times it would really spring to life would be on the occasional upbeat song—I’d secretly hoped that songs like ‘The Waiting’ were pointing the way to Olsen’s future. I was half-right in a way. The other half I hadn’t even imagined, which was great news. It’ll be interesting to see what Olsen does next as it’s taking her audience a considerable amount of time to get used to her making a bigger noise. When I saw her at Lincoln Hall back in May the audience was the opposite of every rock show I’ve ever seen—chatty and ‘let’s go get a beer during this one,’ during the louder songs and sitting at rapt attention during the quieter moments. I’m hoping she’ll immerse herself in the dreamlike vastness of a song like ‘Windows’ (which worked beautifully at that show, as did her band’s interpretation of ‘Half Way Home’s opening track ‘Acrobat’). Since she’s released the deluxe version of ‘Burn Your Fire…’ there are a handful of outtakes from those sessions with her band that point in that direction as well.

9) The War on Drugs—‘Lost in the Dream’ (Secretly Canadian)

This album is an interesting case. This year could easily be described as ‘the Year of the Grower’—this album and the Warpaint record would be the perfect examples. After numerous listens that have gradually built in enjoyment since the album’s release in March it seems obvious that a record so overflowing with lush, sonic detail would take a little longer than normal to fully absorb. I’m particularly fond of the extended instrumental section of ‘Disappearing,’ which sounds like it nails the sound that Wild Nothing have been chasing for years now. The boldness of opener ‘Under the Pressure’ is the perfect litmus test for the album—if you’re able to let go enough to let the tracks stretch out and enjoy the ride you’ll find the album a very rewarding experience. If you just find it boring and overlong then you’re not going to enjoy it much, which is a shame. It’s nice to see a band whose star is rising take the chance to rely on the patience of their audience. After all, ‘patience’ isn’t a word you see in print much any more.

8) Hookworms—‘The Hum’ (Domino)

Hookworms have done a good job of polishing the grimy edges off of their sound for ‘The Hum.’ It’s given them a Stereolab-like metronomic groove that builds on the squalling psych and drone storm that was last year’s ‘Pearl Mystic.’ While I’m not as impressed with ‘The Hum’ as the previous album, ‘Pearl Mystic’ was a real barn-burner—the type of record you put on the turntable and you can practically see the smoke rising from the grooves as it plays, ‘The Hum’ continues to push their sound into new and formidable territory. The way it’s laid out and flows nods to ‘Pearl Mystic’ by picking up the numbered order of the between song drones (i.e. ‘iv,’ ‘v’ and ‘vi’) but the individual songs themselves are highlighted far more and for good reason—there’s a lot more diversity making up these songs which points towards a promising future for them. I’m still holding out hope that they’ll eventually do a full-blown American tour since they’re on Domino now, but I’m sure it’ll happen when the time is right for them. If nothing else they’re a band who can be depended upon not to rush things.

7) A Winged Victory for the Sullen—‘Atomos’ (Kranky)

This is quite a departure from AWVFTS’s self-titled 2011 debut. They apparently only had four months to get the whole thing together—quite a feat for someone like Adam Wiltzie who moves at a slower and slower pace with every release. One of the highlights of last year was seeing Wiltzie’s other, longer-running and more drone-based duo Stars of the Lid at Lincoln Hall. During that show they played some new SOTL material as there is another album in the works for them as well. Then the ‘Atomos’ album was announced and delivered very quickly. In a lot of ways the immediacy seems evident on a lot of these tracks, but then there are examples of tracks where there isn’t much discernable difference sonically between them and tracks that Wiltzie and partner Dustin O’Halloran have spent years laboring over each tiny detail. The results make for an incredibly engaging hour-long listen. It’s not quite ambient music, but it’s not quite neo-classical either. The most important aspect seems to be that this is some jaw-droppingly beautiful and magical music. Now, hopefully that new SOTL album will come out in the next few years…

6) White Fence—‘For the Recently Found Innocent’ (Drag City)

Speaking of Ty Segall, Tim Presley’s latest White Fence was recorded in Segall’s home studio. Presley’s recordings as White Fence have always been done on his own exclusively on 4-track, but this time out he hit a wall developing these songs that way. ‘For the Recently Found Innocent’ sees him taking a far more direct approach, which serves these songs beautifully. It’s like a less insular version of last year’s excellent ‘Cyclops Reap.’ The songs are quick and immediate and it sounds like the record was cranked out in a very quick, inspired session. It’s tough to pick highlights because there seems to be one around every corner, but my go-to tracks for the moment are the first two scene-setting songs, ‘Hard Water,’ ‘Wolf Gets Red-faced,’ ‘Raven on White Cadillac’ and the jangly, bright lead single ‘Like That.’

5) Ty Segall—‘Manipulator’ (Drag City)

Ty Segall is still riding the same golden run that he’s been on since about 2010’s ‘Melted.’ ‘Manipulator’ is his first double LP and features his cleanest production to date which only shows that no one knows what needs to be polished and what needs to stay skuzzy better than Segall. Bright acoustics collide with grungey distortion as well as some crisp drum sounds and bright strings. None of it should work, but all of it does and effortlessly so. His songwriting continues to develop at a rapid pace as well. ‘The Singer’ is something anthemic and powerful that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on last year’s acoustic ‘Sleeper,’ but here sounds heavenly with Segall’s falsetto, strings and a lush arrangement. ‘Tall Man and the Skinny Lady’ is danceable and could appeal easily to a giant, massive audience without ceding any shred of Segall’s unique touch and personality. This record is a joy to listen to from beginning to end and the perfect soundtrack to Segall’s ever-ascending star. I hope he’s able to sell out stadiums in a few years at this rate—he certainly deserves it!

4) Grouper—‘Ruins’ (Kranky)

Liz Harris somehow manages to make an incredibly dreamy and ambient record using little more than a piano, her own voice and some textural background noise of frogs chirping and a few rainstorms. ‘Ruins’ is the follow-up to last year’s ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ and 2011’s keyboard-driven double album ‘A I A’ all rolled into one. It’s fascinating to hear music this stark and unadorned sound so mysterious and dreamlike without the aid of practically any effects (the only exception being the 11-minute misty ‘Made of Air’).

3) The Swans—‘To Be Kind’ (Young God)

‘To Be Kind’ is punishing, but not quite in the way that its predecessor ‘The Seer’ was. There’s a lot of dynamic schizophrenia at play which makes for some nice tension. ‘Kirsten Supine’ is almost anxiety-inducing in the underlying menace of the beauty of its opening section. The only track that’s all-out abandon is the nine-minute scree of ‘Oxygen.’ ‘Just a Little Boy’ is the one that really does it for me—12 minutes of slow-burning tension that explodes in small, unexpected bursts right at the end.

2) Warpaint—s/t (Rough Trade)

This one’s a grower. If you’re a doubter, I’m sorry but you’ll just have to put the time into this one. It doesn’t reveal its charms very quickly. It was months before I really loved it, but as a record I think it’s far superior to their debut ‘The Fool.’ It’s one of those records that sounds minimal and unadorned but filled with lush, intricate tiny details filling in almost every second of space. I remember reading Pitchfork’s review and them knocking how the bass and the drums were too prominently featured in the mix and relied upon too heavily to add form and melody to the songs and it occurred to me that this was not a bad thing. It’s the fact that Jennifer Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa have always been such a strong rhythm section that it seems like a no-brainer to mix them prominently on songs with drifting, stark melodic guitars, voices and synths. The band has also not been shy about talking about how it’s okay to find these songs sexy and they are definitely that. The best thing about this record’s particular brand of sexiness is that it’s one that’s mysterious, a little dangerous but also beautiful and poignant. It’s the type of record that makes people use the word ‘sensual’ and ‘slinky’ a bunch. I sometimes think that it’s the female version of ‘smooth operator’ music. Not much of a surprise that it’s more subtle, truthful and appealing.

1) Wye Oak—‘Shriek’ (Merge)

This position is almost always chosen for me. There’s always one record every year that I play over and over to death for myself and everyone around me until they want to kill me. This year it’s ‘Shriek.’ For a good month or two this record was all I listened to. I can’t quite put my finger on what I love so much about it—I never listened to the band before this record (in fact I think someone recommended I listen to ‘Civilian’ back in 2011 and I hated it), but these songs all jumped out at me they were so unique. It’s one of those records that does almost everything—the lyrics are great and engaging, the singing is fantastic, the sounds run the gamut from breathtakingly beautiful to hypnotically odd, it has a cohesive overall sound that is explored from a diverse number of angles during its running time. It’s just a fantastic record—I find myself struggling to describe what I like about it so much and the only parallel I can draw is ‘Hounds of Love’ by Kate Bush. I get into a similar state of having so many great things to say about it that I get completely tongue-tied when talking about that record.

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