Sunday, September 30, 2012

Q3 2012: Music is my therapy...

Can I begin by stating that the summer of 2012 has been one of the rockiest of my life?  Finally coming out of tumultuous financial issues regarding the purchase of a new home and a move in early 2011, my wife and I were thrown a curveball in July when the owner of the business we both work for decided to close up shop. While the store has been in existence under their ownership for 27 years, we have been a significant part of it for the past 16, and are the only married couple still currently employed.  As it is a book-and-music-with-restaurant retailer, the book business is finally feeling what we in the music business have been experiencing for the past decade, now that Kindle sales have taken off.  Our story is a long one, which I will not get into detail about here (maybe I'll write a book about it one day-HA), but as it stands, this haven for independent lovers of physical books and music will eventually succumb to one of many fitness club chains springing up ad nauseum.  That being said, we have been in limbo for over two months now with no end date announcement and a Christmas season approaching.  Since music is what we know and love, we are pursuing our idea of rising from the ashes of this experience and opening our own music shop for people who do appreciate a physical buying experience.  We are excited about the prospects of the things this will allow us to do that we felt unable to do in the past, as our hands were tied with very strict guidelines from owners whose conservative attitudes in certain areas prohibited growth.  Keep your fingers crossed.

And so, while all of this has been happening, music has been my therapy and solace.  It is what keeps me going, and the excitement of hearing something new from an old favorite, or something totally unexpected that sweeps me into a new emotional world, is the most glorious of experiences.  While I always enjoy a good film or a book, the power of music continues to draw me back.  Sometimes it can be light and fluffy, almost a trifle, while other times quite serious or poignant.  It is a road map to my existence on this planet.  Now that I have given enormous weight to the subject, here's what most excited my ears these past 3 months:

1)  PET SHOP BOYS--Elysium

Alright, I know many will say this was a totally expected response, but actually, Elysium is the most unexpected and surprising album from this duo in a long time.  I guess the fact it was billed as their "California-album" made me think of the Beach Boys when it was actually a bit more Lana del Rey.  Using a lesser-known producer, Andrew Dawson, as they have has produced some of the most beautifully experimental and autumnal music in their long career.  I know they referenced his work with Kanye West as an inspiration, but West's general aesthetic is quite different than what we get here.  I would be remiss if I didn't note that the first track on this album, "Leaving", is one of their best singles EVER, and reminds me of much of their past work with Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr (even though he is not present this time).  The album is their most reflective work, and while some have blasted them for being self-absorbed and bitter, I believe they have missed the point that their lyrics have always been a mirror for their life experience, and bitterness is not on the agenda.  These are some of the most personal and beautiful songs they have ever created, and while some can be considered nearly-bland ("Winner", "Breathing Space", "Give It a Go"), there are actually quite a few allusions to reflection and love contained within.  "Hold On" even shows their West-End musical slant by using a bit of Handel and a chorus to flesh out a rather Disney-esque scene.  Closing with the most un-disco of disco songs, "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" is an homage to London's fashion movers and shakers of the 60's and 70's, a lofty topic for a pop song, no?  It may all be an aquired taste, as Neil has stated they are already working on a dancier followup.  While we wait, I shall bask in Elysium's lovely afterglow.  And really, how many albums about reflection and love are topping the pop charts these days?  Songs to hear:  Leaving, A Face Like That, Memory of the Future, Invisible

2)  ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS--Cut the World

Everybody who has done a retrospective orchestral album or wants to do one, take note:  This is how you do it.  Recorded live with string arrangements by Nico Muhly (among others), Cut the World is far above this genre mainly due to three things:  1) The lush arrangements that steer clear of typical styles, 2) The strength of material chosen for the project, and 3) The haunting power of Antony's voice.  That's not to say it isn't the sound of an acquired taste, but his ability to sing so softly and tender to full-blown wailing is breathtaking, especially in such generally high vocal ranges.  New song "Cut the World" had me near tears on first listen, and there are many more moments like that contained here.  A bold move was placing the spoken word "Future Feminism" as track #2, but it does a good job explaining more about the material and the artist (if you don't like it, skip it).  I have heard most of Antony's albums to this point, but this was the first where I really "got it", as these now sound like fully fleshed out versions of songs which were more 2D in past versions.  Alarmingly good.  Songs to hear:  Cut the World, Cripple and the Starfish, I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy

3)  DRAGONETTE--Bodyparts

Marina & co. really did it this time.  Bodyparts is a fizzy, funky pop record with a shiny metal heart at its core.  While it doesn't necessarily break new ground for the band, it does what every great third album should do, and that is solidify their style and place in the world of recorded music.  Every song glimmers with a high gloss sheen from an indie(!) band that have chosen their own path of promotion.  While it has, at times, been infuriatingly difficult being a Dragonette fan (what with the lack of physical products being available in certain countries, odd release schedules), the band is beginning to create an aura with their sound that makes you want to follow their every move.  It would have been unheard of a decade ago for a band this highly produced and polished not to have a major label record deal.  That's part of the equation that keeps them a little more hip and edgy than your average pop group.  This album bristles with intensity, from the pop overthrow of "Live in This City" and "Let it Go" to the disco-tastic masterpieces "My Legs", "Giddy Up", and "Riot".  There are lovely moments as well ("Untouchable", the closer "Ghost"), making Bodyparts their first fully satisfying effort from beginning to end.  Now bring on the sales!  Songs to hear:  Live In This City, My Legs, Riot

4)  NOISETTES--Contact

Speaking of infuriating, Noisettes have always had the problem of being one of those bands whose albums were released by a major label (ahem, Universal), only to be put aside and released a good 8 or 9 months later in the US.  Contact is their first to see a simultaneous release through their new indie label, but unfortunately there is no physical release scheduled stateside yet.  Doubly unfortunate that Contact is not selling as well as its predecessor in the UK, a real shame, as it is their most versatile and eclectic release yet.  Songs like opener "I Want You Back" have a similar feel to older Noisettes tracks, but "Final Call" and "Let the Music Play" are the kind of songs Girls Aloud would want for their reunion, while "Traveling Light", "That Girl", and "Ragtop Car" all sound like the product of three different bands.  Whether electro soul or retro R&B, bluegrass or showtune balladry, this is Noisettes most satisfying album yet.  Here's hoping for a physical US release soon!  Songs to hear:  Let the Music Play, That Girl, Never Enough

5)  NO DOUBT--Push & Shove

It's been 11 years since their last record, and although Gwen Stefani has released a couple solo albums in-between, No Doubt seem to have picked up right where they left off.  This is generally a good thing, as Rock Steady was a very pleasant album mixing reggae, new wave, R&B, and electro.  Push & Shove is very much cut from the same cloth, acting as both blessing and curse.  The band obviously are doing what they do best--writing catchy pop songs with a bit of edge, while also spinning their wheels somewhat.  I guess it would be too much to ask for them to have made some sort of great leap forward that all their fans would respond positively to, so I will just say Push & Shove is a highly enjoyable record that doesn't try to reinvent the wheel.  Songs to hear:  Settle Down, One More Summer, Dreaming the Same Dream

6)  PRESETS--Pacifica

An album sure to divide their fans, Pacifica is at once a return to darker experimentalism while also containing their most pop moments yet.  "Promises" and "Fall" are two of the most radio-friendly songs they've ever recorded, while "Ghosts" sounds like an electronic sea chantey and "A.O." is nearly scary in its single-mindedness.  It probably won't sell bucketloads, but do they even really care?  I can't wait to hear where they go next!  Songs to hear:  Promises, Fall, It's Cool

7)  DEAD CAN DANCE--Anastasis

Reuniting in a recording studio after 17 years, Dead Can Dance pull a No Doubt and sound like the pick up where they left off.  This has positive and negative consequences.  DCD are a band I always liked, and am quite happy to see them off and running again, and while their last effort, 1995's Spiritchaser, was my least favorite album of theirs, it's great to have them back doing the portentious type of goth records they always did so well, albeit a little more restrained and with less real instrumentation.  While there are some very good songs here, it is probably not going to win them new legions of fans.  Maybe a more stripped down acoustic approach would serve them even better next's hoping there's a next time!  Songs to hear:  Anabasis, Agape

8)  PASSION PIT--Gossamer

I'll be the first to admit that I hated Passion Pit.  Their last album Manners (2009) got on my nerves, generally due to the singer's voice and the clunky arrangements.  So who knew that Gossamer would be a technicolor explosion of sound and melody?  Some may claim a poppier Polyphonic Spree is at work here, but it seems as though PPit have found a way to blend melody with cut and paste electronica into a seamless blend of fun, even when the lyrics read as dour.  It's almost as if the Flaming Lips stopped trying so hard to be weird and just wrote good pop songs (oh wait, they already did was called the Soft Bulletin, then Yoshimi...)  Best feelgood pop record of the year next to Carly Rae Jepsen!  Songs to hear:  Carried Away, Cry Like a Ghost, Hideaway, It's Not My Fault I'm Happy

9)  WILD NOTHING--Nocturne

It's been a long time since I heard an album that didn't sound like an 80's pastiche, more like it CAME from the 80's.  This is it.  Virginia-based Wild Nothing come to the table with an album that includes textures from shoegaze in indie pop of the 80's, and mixes it up a little with great melodies.  There has even been talk that second half showstopper, "Paradise" was recorded using early Madonna records as inspiration (dig that Nile Rogers drum beat!).  Then the voice comes in, making it sound like Echo & the Bunnymen fronting Madonna.  Other songs veer more toward Smiths or Cocteau Twins textures, but overall, this is a big step forward from their debut record a couple years ago.  Songs to hear:  Nocturne, Only Heather, Paradise

10)  JENS LEKMAN--I Know What Love Isn't

A master of quirky heartbreak, Swede Lekman has made his first thematically unified album here, based on a broken heart.  What a sad but funny album it is.  Whether kicking things up or being kicked down, Lekman knows a good turn of phrase, in the upbeat "The End of the World is Bigger Than Love", or the zippy "Some  Dandruff On Your Shoulder" that recall the best of 80's indie pop.  Then songs like "Become Someone Else's" drip with regret and "Every Little Hair Knows Your Name" effectively acting as Lekman's "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want", sparse and simple in its own beauty.  Just imagine what a mix of songs it would be if he had mixed these songs with last year's great "An Argument With Myself" EP, featuring the great "Waiting for Kirsten", written about waiting for Ms. Dunst to finish filming scenes from last year's Melancholia so they could meet.  Songs to hear:  The End of the World is Bigger Than Love, Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder, I Know What Love Isn't

11)  TWIN SHADOW--Confess
Just missing the top 10, Confess was a massive improvement on Twin Shadow's debut, and wore its retro pop influences proudly.  Like Prince fronting the Cars.

12)  STARS--The North
Stars rebound with one of the best albums of their career.  More balanced and interesting than they've been, they really hit it out of the park with the New Order-y "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It".

13)  AIMEE MANN--Charmer
Charmer continues the string of Mann's first rate material.  One wishes she had found a little more musical side streets for experimentation, but there's always next time.

14)  RICHARD HAWLEY--Standing at the Sky's Edge
Definitely his most experimental album, Hawley goes out on a limb with proggier textures and some aggressive guitar work to show he isn't just reflecting the past.  Nice work.

15)  VAN SHE--Idea of Happiness
Finally this band gets some worldwide recognition.  Like a poppier version of Cut Copy, 80's electro-pop mixes with dance and tropical textures in a sound not far removed from Friendly Fires.  They could do with fewer instrumentals and more songs next time around.

16)  BILL FAY--Life is People
My one requisite fogey recording this time comes from Bill Fay, a little known musician whose last well-known(ish) album was released 40 years ago!  After spending years doing odd jobs like landscaping, Fay was lured back to the studio by Joshua Henry, a young producer from Nebraska.  Smart move!  Sounds like the story of a life.

17)  DIVINE FITS--A Thing Called Divine Fits
I've never been a big fan of Spoon, but Britt Daniel finds a new life and loose feel in this "side-project" featuring some great electronic rock textures.  Inspired.

18)  FRANK OCEAN--Channel Orange
Controversy aside, Frank Ocean created a R&B classic here with his official debut album.  Can't wait to see where he goes from here.

19)  GRIZZLY BEAR--Speak in Rounds
A band who consistently stretches themselves, this record features some of the best and most unique guitar playing of the year.  Radiohead should be very, very scared.

20)  BOB MOULD--Star Machine
Thanks to Bob Mould for rediscovering what people want to hear him doing.  His best album in years, and right down your line if you liked his band Sugar.

other recommended albums:
PLAN B--Ill Manors
Nothing like his last (great) album, Plan B is less like Amy Winehouse here and more like the Streets (but better).  If you like British rap, do not miss.  Can't wait to see the movie.
THE HEAVY--The Glorious Dead
Striking rock and funk textures from this great indie band that keeps pushing forward.  Like a rockier, bluesier, and less kooky Tom Waits.
JD MCPHERSON--Signs & Signifiers
If you like rockabilly, this is the ticket.  Best full on retro rock album of the year.
MARK EITZEL--Don't Be a Stranger
Dark, haunting, and stirring, especially after the recent death of American Music Club's drummer.
Former backup singer creates a great folk/soul album with Matt Hales of Aqualung producing.
MEN WITHOUT HATS--Love in the Age of War
Your Beautiful Heart is the best Pet Shop Boys song they never recorded.  The album's not bad either.
I know, but damn this album is catchy.  Just ditch the Bieber duet.  Yuck.
MUSE--2nd Law
Maybe I'll like this more later.  They really do like that kitchen sink.
THE KILLERS--Battle Born
Decent album but enough with the Springsteen references already.
Bad album title for decent album.  Other than that, I just wish they'd push themselves a little more.

Somewhat disappointing:
YEASAYER--Fragrant World--Where are the tunes?
ARIEL PINK'S HAUNTED GRAFFITTI--Mature Themes--Lyrics anyone?
MAXIMO PARK--National Health--Club of diminishing returns
BLOC PARTY--Four--They should have stopped with three.

And a rethink:
FIONA APPLE--The Idler Wheel...
It took about 300 plays and a drug arrest, but I've decided I actually really like this album!  Talk about the definition of a grower.  Now go out and buy a copy!  FREE FIONA!
What albums are you grooving to now?  (Sorry if I have offended your favorites)

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