Archive for December, 2009

gettin’ to be that time…

Posted in emo with tags on December 27, 2009 by darryl zero

I’m feeling pretty well right now, relaxed and with my belly full, knowing full well what I’ve been doing this week has been a complete waste of my time and wanting to change it. I shouldn’t be going out tonight, but I can’t help myself. None of this is worth it, and I really need to center back on what is.

I need only collect my will.

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albums of the year.

Posted in music, nerdiness with tags , on December 23, 2009 by darryl zero

Top 10 12 Albums Of 2009
Don’t let my inability to narrow it down to ten albums fool you; I actually thought this was a very weak year for music, at least from an album perspective. Despite some excellent returns-to-form from some unexpected sources (who knew Sepultura had an album like A-Lex in them?), it seems the music industry has finally succumbed to the inevitable. The future belongs to downloaders, it seems–and while I’m never going to be one to deny how awesome the information age has been in terms of creating access to music, it disappoints me that people’s avoidance of record stores or purchasing things directly from the artist has resulted in what can only be called the “End of the Album.” Subsequently, I’ll have a “Top 20 Songs” list sometime soon.

Anyway…

Honorable Mention:
Alice In Chains – Black Gives Way To Blue
The Veils – Sun Gangs
Sunn O)) – Monoliths and Dimensions
Slayer – World Painted Blood
Pelican – What We All Come To Need
Tinted Windows – Tinted Windows
The Mountain Goats & John Vanderslice – Moon Colony Bloodbath

I normally don’t like devoting too much time to the Honorable Mentions, but I wanted to point out that each of these six albums were, at the very least, just as enjoyable as the 11 albums that follow. The Tinted Windows album was especially-pleasant; for those of you that haven’t picked it up, it’s Taylor Hanson (yes, the “Mmmbop” kid) with Adam from Fountains of Wayne, James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins, and Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick. The Alice In Chains album was also pleasant, and a considerable relief, as I was expecting a pandering to the audience they may have alienated by replacing Layne Staley with a better (black) singer.

12) Vieux Farka Touré – Fondo
Second-generation Malian guitar god (dad Ali Farka Touré was once described by Martin Scorcese as “constituting the DNA of the blues”) steps out from a considerably-immense shadow with his second proper album. West African music (particularly from Mali) has been inching its way into the popular limelight due in no small part to the likes of Vieux and his countrypeople Amadou & Mariam; here (as in the latter couple’s Welcome to Mali, which failed to make this list only due to it having been released worldwide in 2008), we see why, as fans of Reggae, Rock, & R&B all have something to like. Fondo‘s vocal melodies often take a backseat to Vieux’s guitar heroics, but rather than excessive wankery, he captures the soul of his rhythms and uses the spotlight to propel the songs along.

11) Wizard Smoke – Live Rock In Hell
Stoner Metal cannot be listened to without any semblance of a sense of humor: it is, in essence, the metal that cannot be taken too seriously lest it become embarrassing. Georgia’s Wizard Smoke is as stoner-y as stoner gets, marrying Black Sabbath-esque fuzz and doominess with Bongzilla’s unabashedly southern twang (and Goblin Cock and Tenacious D’s hilarious fascination with all things hyperbolically ‘heavy metal’ in image) to create an album that is simultaneously hilarious and catchy. If album opener “II”‘s retelling of a vaguely arcane ritual (involving “reading of runes” and sheep sacrifice) doesn’t give you an idea of how clever these guys are, then perhaps album closer “IVIIIIIII,” a twenty-eight minute medley of highlights from the previous five songs–backmasked–ought to. However, unlike their more famous contemporaries, Wizard Smoke keeps the music more subtle–you really have to pay attention to see these guys are, in fact, kidding. In fact, it’s a lot easier to get caught up in the band’s spectacular guitar work than their over-the-top image.

10) The Mercury Program – Chez Viking
Six years after The Mercury Program’s last release (the Confines Of Heat split with Maserati) and even longer since their last full-length (2002’s somewhat-underwhelming A Data Learn the Language), most considered the Gainesville, Florida quartet to be kaput. Their members had moved on to other projects; guitarist Tom Reno played with alt-folkers Holopaw, while virtuosic drummer Dave LeBleu’s IDM-ish Textual project kept both him and bassist Sander Travisano busy. Chez Viking is a labor love, for the band (who took four years to complete it) and fans, whose only real outlet for ascertaining the album’s progress was the band’s rarely-updated Myspace page. Once the album finally appeared in late 2009, however, the wait proved to be well worth it, finding the band taking a step away from A Data‘s often-emasculating slickness, re-elevating Reno’s subtle guitar work to something other than an afterthought indistinguishable from Whit Travisano’s keyboards and showing the band has finally remembered they have the best drummer in rock sitting behind the kit. No one really knows if this will be the last anyone hears from the band, but if Chez Viking is the end of an artistic vision, it’s a more-than-suitable farewell.

9) Fitz & The Tantrums – Songs For A Break Up Volume 1 EP
The band pushed the living daylights of the admittedly-amazing single “Breakin’ the Chains Of Love,” parlaying the acclaim it received into opening slots for Flogging Molly and, of all bands, Maroon 5. While the band’s retro sound obviously harkens back to 60’s pop and R&B, their straightforward approach–songs about lost love and heartache over organ-driven, AM radio-friendly grooves straight from the Burt Bacharach cookbook (complete with requisite “soul sister” on vocals, here replacing Dionne Warwick with damn-well-better-be future superstar Noelle Scaggs) is completely unpretentious. And it works perfectly, particularly on the aforementioned first single and its follow-up and especially on second single “Winds Of Change.” The band seems to be gearing up for a 2010 full-length, which hopefully should build on the promise of this excellent debut.

8) A Place To Bury Strangers – Exploding Head
APTBS is to My Bloody Valentine what Interpol is to Joy Division and Bauhaus– undeniably derivative, but in such a way that it makes you appreciate their unabashed demonstration of their influences. While the band’s 2007 self-titled album didn’t quite push the group out of the realm of shameless imitators, Exploding Head has that special added something that gives the guitars a little extra oomph, the vocals a little more spacey weirdness, and their songs a tighter, more coherent propulsion. Standout track (and forthcoming single) “Keep Slipping Away” bounces along with a near-disco beat, equal parts Manchester gloom, Brooklyn art-punk and Seattle guitar snarl, while album closer “I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart” brings the whole experience to a buzzing, roaring, punky climax. While I will admit this band has just as much potential to be a one-album marvel as it does to be a lasting powerhouse, this album gives me enough hope for the former.

7) Converge – Axe To Fall
Converge spent the years since 2001’s paradigm-shifting Jane Doe exploring the artier elements of their musical palette, and while no one can deny the crushingly-awesome impact of 2004’s You Fail Me and 2006’s No Heroes, no one could have expected Converge’s next creative evolution to occur through what was, in essence, a step backward. Axe To Fall finds the band re-visiting the “metal” side of metalcore, with guitarist Kurt Ballou’s horse-whinny shred-solos reflecting the Slayer influence the band proudly cites as a primary influence, and less jarring time-fuckery. The end result is a slightly more headbanger-friendly Converge, but just as powerful, largely due to Ballou’s precision and Jakob Bannon’s nails-in-a-blender scream. The formula comes to a head in the album’s title track, with Bannon roaring over Ballou’s Buckethead-esque chaotic ascending and descending scales until a breakdown that is as sludgy as it is intense. Critics have accurately pegged Axe To Fall as the “accessible” Converge album, but it’s a treat to hear the band accentuating their musical proficiency through something other than spazz-art jazz wankery.

6) Tyondai Braxton – Central Market
Prior to his work in Battles, Tyondai Braxton was largely known for his avant-garde jazzy guitar-and-wordless-vocal work (he signed to Warp Records as a solo artist shortly after Battles was signed as a group). While his solo music could be called anything but simple, part of what made it so interesting was the fact that Braxton constantly seemed to be making so much out of so little–a looped guitar, a looped distorted vocal, one or two drummers playing over loops which eventually swelled and ballooned into something grand and sweeping. Having carved a niche as both an individual minimalist and the closest thing to a rock star he could ever be, Braxton decided to take his meticulously-detailed compositions and, in essence, make so much out of so much. For his orchestral arrangements, the New York-based Wordless Music Orchestra appears (and, in pieces like the centerpiece “Platinum Rows,” serves as the featured performers), but the driving force of the album is indisputably Braxton’s twisted imagination filtered through his flawless musicianship. From the hiccuping, piano-driven opener “Opening Bell” to the droning, electronic-saturated mindwarping closer “Dead Strings,” Central Market is a perpetual head-scratcher, as unpredictable as it is clever and ambitious.

5) John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
In my completely useless opinion, the only things keeping Vanderslice from being as globally huge as some of his contemporaries (Britt Daniel, Ben Gibbard, and Colin Meloy being but three examples) are his quirky artistic vision, which is as determined and focused as it is at times difficult to decode, and his relentless humility, which provokes him to do things like give away a lion’s share of his music for free or constantly defer to the talent of comrades. While such an approach is frustrating when one sees Spoon, Death Cab For Cutie, and the Decemberists topping end-of-year lists in big-name hipster magazines, it does make for some fantastic albums (if you can find a copy of Vanderslice’s collaborative EP with the Mountain Goats, acquire it). Romanian Names, yet another collaboration with producer Scott Solter, features Vanderslice expanding on the singer-songwriter-y adventures previously explored on the underrated Emerald City, but establishing an emotional distance not heard since his standout album Cellar Door. If my review of it seems vague and undefined, it’s probably because so much of a Vanderslice album cannot be captured in words; it usually needs to be simply heard, especially on tracks like the album opener “Tremble and Tear,” which features the best Vanderslice vocals ever committed to tape, while “D.I.A.L.O.” and “Oblivion” stray sonically into experimental Eno-esques, brilliantly. But it’s the title track, consisting entirely of sparse acoustic guitar and Vanderslice’s voice front-and-center, that makes Romanian Names such an amazing album: it shows the man as himself, freed from Solter’s (and his own, to be fair) studio wizardry and showcasing himself as an incredibly compelling performer. It’s an approach Vanderslice uses with restraint (with the exception of 2005’s solo performance of Pixel Revolt, released as Suddenly It All Went Dark), but here it works perfectly.

4) Dälek – Gutter Tactics
Following the departure of scratch-master DJ Still, New Jersey hip-hop crew Dälek seemed to step away from the explosive, noisy approach of which Still was such an important (if not essential) part. The end result, 2007’s Abandoned Language, featured such prestigious collaborators as DJ Rob Swift, but was a bit slick and less-dynamic when placed against its cacophonous predecessor (2005’s career-defining Absence). As a fan of the group since 2001, I listened to Language once, said “where’d the noise go?” and, well, abandoned it. Still Still-less, I looked at Gutter Tactics with a sense of trepidation when it came out back in January. I shouldn’t have. The album starts with a sampled sermon from legendarily inflammatory preacher Jeremiah Wright. The sample itself is a reminder of the U.S.’s own history of terrorist activity, but the overall impact of using an icon of a controversial, if historic, presidential race summarizes the album’s message: that, despite how things may superficially change, it is up to us to make sure the substance does not remain the same. To call Gutter Tactics Dälek’s return to form would be something of a misnomer because, although the album sounds more like their earlier work than Abandoned Language (especially on tracks like “No Question” or the stellar title track), the substance of the group’s approach–misanthropic, yet socially insightful raps over dark, murky beats–has remained consistent throughout. Nonetheless, the album does accomplish what Language couldn’t–it no longer makes you long for the band’s erstwhile afroed noise-maker.

3) BLK JKS – After Robots
Über-producer Diplo (you know him from his work with Major Lazer, M.I.A. or Santigold) is chiefly responsible for these guys being known anywhere outside their native South Africa, and exclusively responsible for them getting the ambivalently positive press they’ve received in the indie-rock circles of this part of the world. While I’ve got to give Diplo credit for getting these guys some press outside of the motherland, I had to grit my teeth when reading his labeling these guys “The African TV On The Radio.” Aside from the fact that BLK JKS (put an “a” in front of each “k” before saying it aloud) share approximate skin tones with 4/5ths of TVOTR and approach melodies with a similar sort of flexibility most people of African descent culturally (if not genetically) understand, the band couldn’t be more different. After one go-round through After Robots, anyone who’s been listening to rock made by Black folks since we invented the genre can easily draw closer comparisons to Truth And Soul/The Reality Of My Surroundings-era Fishbone, or lesser-known bands like Follow For Now. The band has apparently been around for nine years, but didn’t reach its creative maturity until founding members/guitarists Lindani Buthelezi and Mpumi Mcata added bassist Molefi Makananise and drummer Tshepang Ramoba. Buthelezi’s and Mcata’s creative history is largely what makes After Robots as strong as it is; tracks like “Taxidermy” and “Molalatladi” propel themselves along with the duo’s dancing electric guitar (evidence: Buthelezi’s Eddie Hazel-esque freak-out in the middle of the latter track) But the rhythm section isn’t anything to shake a stick at, particularly Ramoba, who out-octopus’s Don Caballero’s Damon Che at times (evidence: the louder portions of “Kwa Nqingetje”). While the album isn’t perfect (it lapses into excessive sonic experimentation at times, but never to an indulgent, Mars Volta-esque degree, and album closer “Tselane” has some questionable vocal performances), it’s far, far more solid that reviewers expecting an “African TV on the Radio” suggest. In fact, dare I say, the band surpasses their better-known unintentional counterparts in that they a) write honest-to-god, un-hyphenated ROCK music and b) actually manage to do so for an entire album without deliberately obfuscating their ideas with art-rock self-righteousness. While the two following albums were constructively qualitatively better than After Robots, this was easily my favorite album of the year, putting them in the same sentence with Helms Alee when I talk about “best bands in rock.”

2) Sepultura – A-Lex
Drummer Igor Cavalera is gone, leaving bassist Paolo Jr. as the only remaining original member of Brazilian thrash/death/groove/fucking metal titans Sepultura. Without the brothers Cavalera (original frontman Max left 13 years ago), the obvious question…um, arises: can there even be a Sepultura anymore? Recent releases (including Roorback the high-concept Dante XXI) hadn’t reached the artistic or critical peaks of their earlier work. Interestingly it seems as if the departure of Igor–and, with him, the stigma associated with the Cavalera name–seems to have re-energized the band, because A-Lex is easily the best Sepultura release since Arise and Chaos A.D.. Conceptually structured around the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, the album features the band at peak form; new drummer Jean Dolabella capably fills the void left by Igor, while Andreas Kisser (who, while not a founding member, had been the band’s lead guitarist since 1987) turns out his best guitar work in years. Derrick Green, the band’s American-born, woefully underrated and under-appreciated frontman since Max’s departure, is also at his best, particularly on mid-album highlight “Sadistic Values” (the second half of which, ironically, harkens back to the band’s early days predating Dolabella, Green, and Kisser) and “What I Do!,” which ought to be ranked as one of the band’s best songs in any incarnation. The band’s future is, at best, in doubt, but A-Lex is some of the best Sepultura anyone could ask for, an incredibly creative release that hopefully signals the continuation of the band’s 25-year-old legacy.

1) Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night Of The Soul
I’d like to go on record as saying I’ve been pretty sick of Danger Mouse’s ubiquity for quite a while, now. I thought The Grey Album was pretty cool, and I’ve been overtly honest about my appreciation for a few Gnarls Barkley songs (even if they were equally overtly biting Funkadelic’s early work). But Demon Days was nothing close to the Dan The Automator-produced Gorillaz, and even though it had a couple awesome songs, The Good, the Bad & The Queen album was pretty uninteresting from a production standpoint. For me, Danger Mouse peaked with Ghetto Pop Life, his awesome collaboration with MC Jemini, and that was way back in 2003.
For that matter, although I’d always liked his work, Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse was more something I was kind of into that I allowed to be played in my presence when some indie-rock girl was engaging in the kind of eclecticity pissing contest which I only really let someone else win as their taking off my pants in her bedroom. Sure, I liked It’s a Wonderful Life, but that’s hardly conclusive; hell, I liked Limp Bizkit’s first album (and still do, for that matter).
So, you can imagine my surprise when Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, two musical acts for which I possessed a lukewarm (at best) appreciation for, released Dark Night Of The Soul, a fantastically evocative journey through what I can only assume is Linkous’s damaged soul. Despite featuring a myriad of lead singers (all of whom apparently had some input as to the creative process) and being subject to the whim of Danger Mouse’s own mosaic of production influences, the album somehow emerges from this vortex of collaboration as one of the most coherent works of the past few years. And, despite the overall morose tone of the album, the listener can’t help but emerge from it feeling…well, happy. Cuts like “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)” and “The Man Who Played God” serve as album highlights, but that’s only because those happen to be the first two songs from it that played as I write this (to be fair, “God” is a stand-out track featuring Suzanne Vega in one of her most compelling vocal turns in years). Shins frontman James Mercer and the whole Flaming Lips posse also show up (Mercer’s turn on “Insane Lullaby” is especially great), and even underwhelming guest appearances by Iggy Pop, Frank Black and Julian Casablancas are still pretty damn good.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that this album technically HASN’T EVEN BEEN RELEASED. Record company mononlith EMI has decided that something about the album renders it in violation of some copyright agreement (Danger Mouse and EMI are both mum on the particulars), thus placing the official status of the project in some kind of limbo. The project’s official website, however, is selling a hundred-plus-page book of photographs by film legend David Lynch (who also appears on the album’s two tracks) included with a blank CD. Regardless of whether or not you acquire the entire sight-and-sound project, Dark Night Of the Soul is still an amazing idea, brought to delightful reality.