Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fall Musical Madhouse - Don't They Know It's a Recession?

Y'know, even in the early part of 2011, it would have been difficult to compile a best-of list for the year, what with important works from Decemberists, Civil Wars, The Joy Formidable, Mogwai, Wye Oak, etc. coming out. During the summer, we saw ambitious works from artists as diverse as Smoke Fairies, Brian Eno, and the Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration. Then, in mid-September, the floodgates opened. Didn't anyone tell these musicians and labels that the UBS collapse makes it certain we're diving into a double-dip recession? Who needs art when we have to buy groceries?

Some short-sighted reviewers automatically called the Sept. 13 release of "Father, Son, Holy Ghost" by Girls the album of the year, and I have my own reasons for thinking that's wrong, as explained below. Keep in mind, as you peruse this list, that we still have fall releases from Wilco, Kate Bush, Florence and the Machine, Bjork, Real Estate, Coldplay, and Tom Waits yet to land. Here's my take on most recent, but the year end will be a tough call for 2011.

Tori Amos - Night of Hunters - Writing lyrics for modern classical composers, with her daugher and niece helping her sing? Too haughty for words, right? Wrong. This album is layered and strange and beyond description, might have to be deciphered over several hours. Orchestration only rarely goes over the top, and usually brings in the strings in a spare, strident, and minimalist way. And Tori's daughter sounds like CocoRosie.

Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing -- Whod've guessed? This is Blitzen Trapper's Lynyrd Skynyrd album, the band has decided to cut a perfect Southern-rock-genre album. Fact is, they do it with a lot of talent, and the result may be less confusing for many folks than the Rundgren-like spastic hop between Dylan and MMJ sounds that characterized Blitzen Trapper's Destroyer of the Void. The problem is, is it better do one style really well, or to try and offer up A Wizard, A True Star style of gumbo? Probably depends on if you like a reincarnated Lynyrd Skynyrd or not.

Bev Barnett & Greg Newlon - Love Can Change the World - Folk duos used to playing the house concert and coffee house circuit always take a risk when expanding studio sounds to include layered percussion, woodwind, and the like. Some might begrudge the Zen references to Thich Nhat Hanh styles of teaching (I'm not one of them), but the power in songs like 'There's a Light' makes it obvious they're steering in the right direction. Inspired move to include two versions of Greg's 'What Makes a Man', too.

Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost -- This is a very ambitious, varied, and accomplished album with lots of stylistic references from the 50s to the 90s. I'm sure to have it in my Top Ten, but I'm getting a little perturbed with everyone from LA Times to Pitchfork to Pop Matters chomping at the bit to declare this the instant Album of the Year, and anoint Girls as the saviors of rock. Why do I have problems with this album? Because the styles from other decades they choose to borrow are the swooshy, long-chord arena-rock styles that often put one to sleep. Case in point: the NPR reviewer (again, worshiping Girls) pointed out that the song 'Vomit' sounded like parts of Dark Side of the Moon. To me, that's not good, and not just in being too derivative. To me, Pink Floyd hit their stride with Ummagumma and Obscured by Clouds, and had already gotten middle-class and predictable by the time Dark Side and Wish You Were Here were released. Same with U2 - Boy and War were the exciting albums, less so Joshua Tree. But Girls has chosen for the band's riffing points the broad arena sound of crowd-pleasers that may be the most popular way of presenting a song, but at the same time can lead to finger-drumming tedium. And believe me, there are a couple definite clunkers on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Still worth hearing, though.

Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know - Very aptly named album, because this is very different from her first two, to the point where her voice is close to unrecognizable on some tracks. She gives us old-timey hillbilly on 'The Muse', 1930s Norah-Jones-style crooning on 'I Was Just a Card', Neil Young and Crazy Horse-style buzz guitar on 'The Beast', and she pulls this all off with some excellent arrangements and playing. Laura Marling has moved from being a capable bluesy-folky indie rock artist to being an amazing chameleon.

Mogwai - Earth Division EP - In the tradition of the magnificent Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, maybe a trifle more acoustic, and if you like the majestic end of 'Music for a Forgotten Future' from the two-disc version of Hardcore, you will love the way this EP ends with 'Does This Always Happen?'

Barn Owl - Lost in the Glare - I listed this one after Mogwai, because Barn Owl is sort of morphing into Mogwai. Since they signed with Thrill Jockey, they've tried to get a more accessible instrumental sound than the days when they played with Charalambides and My Cat Is An Alien. It's still droney, but it's a richer melodic sound that builds from quiet intensity to a Mogwai-like crash and boom. Nice instrumental work.

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy - I thought the 'Cruel' video was a bit too pretentious, and I was almost afraid to try this album, figuring Annie was turning herself into the ice queen. But she has pulled it off, with a whole bunch of very interesting and odd songs. Even more so than Actor, St. Vincent is beginning to sound like Frank Zappa directing a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical. And that's a good thing. Good and weird.

Wild Flag (s/t) - It's great to get Carrie Brownstein out of Portlandia, Janet Weiss out of The Jicks, and Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole out of whatever self-imposed exile they've been in, putting them all together in one rockin' band. The grand dames of riot grrrls can show others how it's done, and they do so aptly, but remember - there are newcomers like Le Butcherettes and Shilpa Ray and the Happy Hookers who will be challenging you out there on the road, and that's what good slash and bash music is all about.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

I don't have much in the way of musical chops, but I will definitely check out Blitzen Trapper after falling for their strange story-lyrics and catchy rhythms and tunes a couple of years ago.

Thanks for putting your expertise into prose and for the recs. I'll set them before me as "music to try" in the days ahead.

Don't you just love when art proliferates in spite of everything? Well, we English majors say music, art and literature is what you need when things get really bad (at least that's what this English major says).