Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bills Music Roundup: 2009 (Part Two)

  • 5. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer - The Boeckner/Krug songwriting team of Wolf Parade--think Lennon and McCartney but with less friction and tighter pants--spent most of 2009 splitting the difference with side projects, and Krug's dubiously named Sunset Rubdown can claim the cup (albeit only slightly--that Boeckner's Handsome Furs disc is a lot of fun, too). Sunset Rubdown is technically a fully functioning band but Dragonslayer is very much a Spencer Krug affair, overflowing with elegant melodies, abstract lyrics, and angular song structures that spin off unexpectedly in unusual directions that make perfect sense upon hindsight. There's a restless creativity at work here, a refusal to sit back and say "yeah, that'll do." Krug's quirky, affected voice can be something of a love it or hate it affair, true, but I fall firmly in the former, and frankly he could possess the pipes of Marge Simpson as long as he kept yelping out lyrical gems like "I hope that you die in a decent pair of shoes, you got a lot more walking to do where you re going to." Dragonslayer not only provides the perfect showcase for Krug's brilliance as a songwriter but also promotes Sunset Rubdown from Wolf Parade offshoot to confident equal. Sample: "Nightingale/December Song"
  • 4. HEALTH, Get Color - HEALTH's eponymous debut was a disruptive and screeching ride that, while rewarding, didn't really have a base of appeal beyond a couple kids and that v-necked hipster sneering at you from behind the American Apparel counter. On their second proper album, HEALTH take a massive step towards, well, songs, and the results is a bit like witnessing an amphibian climbing on land for the first time. Lead single "Die Slow" is actually catchy enough for your girlfriend, and even more abrasive numbers tend to be softened with an expanded sense of melody. "Before Tigers," for example, sounds like great sheets of noise careening across a metal plain, and yet the androgynous vocals soar over the battlefield with pensive beauty. This softer, rounder sense of songwriting also provides greater contrast with the noise, as when the album escalates into the nightmarish "Eat Flesh," you really feel it ("Death+" doesn't exactly play nice, either). Get Color is a riotous journey that pulls between melody and cacophony and eventually pushes directly against you--hard--until expansive closer "In Violet" grants release. It isn't quite the best album of the year, but it was my personal soundtrack to 2009. Sample: "Die Slow"
  • 3. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic - Embryonic's dizzying strengths don't exactly require context to be appreciated--for many the album will even serve as a point of entry into the weird world of the Lips--but its place in their discography is what rendered it such a surprise. 2006's At War with the Mystics was a tired, underwritten mess from a band that had made a career out of consistent, loopy brilliance. The Lips seemed more dedicated to their (admittedly great) carnival of a live show than to, you know, actually making music. As such, the fact that Embryonic is an unapologetically surreal and confrontational volley of weird with nary an uplifting crowdpleaser in sight is a shock that would border on career suicide were the album not so ridiculously good. Much has been made of the spastic freak-out jams that stretch across the double album (that still comes packaged as a single album--what?), but beneath it all is a center that holds it all together--you're never too far from a compelling melody, or a moment where the Lips' pop sensibilities squeak through. The album could be trimmed a bit, true, but its sprawling excess is part of its charm--this isn't a collection of songs so much as a hallucinatory experience. Even if you leave out all the accompanying visuals currently accompanying this album--that guy hitting the everloving shit out of the gong on their live shows, the fully naked people sliding out of a giant, spherical vagina in the video for "Watching the Planets"--the Flaming Lips have solved running out of gas by bolting a jet engine to the car's frame. The Lips are back and weirder than ever. Sample: "Watching the Planets (warning: very, very NSFW!)"
  • 2. The Antlers, Hospice - "I wish that I had known in that first minute we met/ the unpayable debt that I owed you." And so begins 2009's most gorgeous yet unsettling album, which technically isn't the Antlers' debut but might as well be. Hospice is a story on two fronts, the story of its inception--it was more or less written in extreme isolation over the course of a year--and the story of the album's narrative itself, which is either an explicit first-person account of a cancer ward care provider falling in love with a terminal patient or a metaphorical examination of a claustrophobic and destructive relationship. Heavy stuff, sure, but even heavier than you think--generally speaking, if you're finding the going too easy then you probably aren't following along close enough. The lyrics are perhaps this year's best, unfolding and connected upon previous points with successive listens, sweeping yet compact with resonating truths (personal oh-shit-I've-been-there moment: "You say that, 'No one's gonna listen, and no one understands,' so there's no open doors and there's no way to get through, there's no other witnesses, just us two"). The generally gorgeous music doesn't really break any new ground--Arcade Fire and Sigur Ros are definitely taught this younger brother how to shave--but it locks in with the raw lyrics to produce a punch to the gut that lingers uneasily after the final notes, like the album's epilogue that explores the ghosts of traumatic relationships that haunt long after any attempts at a happy ending. The most visceral and emotional listening experience of the year. Sample: "Two"
  • 1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion - For awhile Hospice was going to get the top honors, but I couldn't do it. As great as that album is, I have to hand 2009 over to joy. To sheer celebration. To dancing with your loved one in a moment so private that the world outside swirls forgotten. To solving insomnia by holding hands and running through the streets in the middle of a hot summer night. To honoring the life of a deceased family member by cherishing and supporting those closest to you now. To the magic of shared moments of intimacy that belong solely to you and the one you love. To life and its habit of being horrible and then incredible and the fact that you need to deal with the former by embracing the latter. And, on a personal level, to the album that has been my constant companion throughout the many highlights of an incredible 2009. Here's to life, joy, love, and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Sample: "My Girls"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bills Music Roundup: 2009 (Part One)

Back by no demand, it's time for my annual ridiculous musical best-of list. I may be just another self-important opinion howling on the internet, but this is my corner of the internet and howl I will.

I've gone into a bit more detail with each album to (in part) make up for the fact that I've been remiss in my music blogging this past year, and to better handle this increased word count I've decided to things up over multiple posts. As such, I've only got entries 6-10 of my top ten for now, with more to come soon.

And so, without further ado:

Bill's Top Ten for 2009
  • 10. The Mars Volta, Octahedron - I'm not sure you'll find many Mars Volta fans that weren't hanging on for dear life by their last album, the exhausting and busy Bedlam in Goliath which marked the near-unlistenable end point of five years of sonic experimentation. Surprisingly, the Mars Volta have now returned from the unforgiving prog wilds to deliver music that actually has appeal beyond amateur musicians practicing their mixolydian scales at the Guitar Center nearest you. Not only is Octahedron remarkably tasteful by Mars Volta standards--more good ideas survive the production than not--but the songs themselves are the most solid batch these guys have managed since their debut, with gorgeous melodies and hooks that are given enough breathing room to thrive. Not quite as ambitious as their past work, yes, but a much-needed palate cleanser before the Mars Volta head off into digital bagpipe arpeggios, or whatever the hell it is they decide to do next. Sample: "Since We've Been Wrong"
  • 9. The xx, X - Making music that sounds like the way night feels is more difficult than it sounds. You have to capture the shadows, for one, and the dark areas they swallow between sparsely-places lights. And then there's the sensation of a landscape in transition, a hushed tone as the cheerful clamor of day closes shop and activity retreats inside. And, of course, lots not forget the possibility of sex, or of being alone, or of sex that turns against itself and leaves one alone. Effectively capturing all this on song isn't exactly new, of course, but what is stunning is that The xx, a group of four nondescript kids barely out of their teens, could rise out of nowhere to nail it with such deliberate perfection on the first try. Sad and sexy, X provides the surprise essential soundtrack for anyone who gets a second wind as dusk descends. Sample: "Crystalised"
  • 8. Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport - Fuck Buttons always had two strikes against them in my book: the wall of gibbering vocals they employed to disruptive effect and, well, that name. They're still called Fuck Buttons, true, but they've ditched the meth-addict-behind-the-Shop-n-Go rants on their sophomore effort. What's more important, however, is that Fuck Buttons have expanded upon the strengths hinted on last year's debut and bolted for the horizon, creating an album of noise that twists upon itself to then explode into cathartic melody. Tarot Sport shrugs off unnecessary limitations--genre restrictions, who needs 'em?--and the results, from the wet, electronic pulse of "Rough Steez" to the shimmering, synth-drenched "Space Mountain," is an instrumental masterpiece with surprisingly broad appeal, band-name-being-"Fuck Buttons" notwithstanding. Sample: "Space Mountain"
  • 7. Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another - Even the most patient of us have our breaking point--maybe it's trying to debate the moon landing with a conspiracy theorist, maybe it's discussing the tax-exempt status of churches, or maybe it's just when that meathead your friend is dating queues up Creed on the jukebox--but at a certain point social niceties collapse and you want to make it crystal clear exactly how much less you think of the intelligence and taste of the individual in question. Future of the Left make punishing music out of that disdain, that fury at the idiocy of others, but imbue it with a sharp and hilarious wit that renders it approachable, if not exactly good-natured. Smart-assed and sarcastic but never preachy, Travels with Myself and Another turns its guns from one target to another, regardless of politics (overly-sensitive earth hippies receive perhaps the most brutal takedown), and the result is a compact thirty minutes of pointy, pissed off rock for smart asses everywhere--well, smart asses who are cool enough to remain on the right side of Future of the Left's arsenal, which, honestly, probably excludes you. Sample (with goofy fan-made video): "Arming Eritrea"
  • 6. The Lonely Island, Incredibad - Comedy albums are a tricky prospect, as songs that hinge on humor are typically worth only two listens at most--one for you and one for a friend, the end. The Lonely Island's brand of humor avoids this pitfall by typically involving a humorous concept that escalates via repetition until its inevitable horrible conclusion, each song a humorous micro-journey into the absurd that actually gets funnier with each subsequent listen. More importantly, though, The Lonely Island actually brought (and bought) the musical chops to represent on the music, with songs so pop perfect that the line between parody and mainstream radio is rendered meaningless. The opening volley of incredible tracks stack up to the giddy heights of an alternate universe greatest hits collection, and even gimmick tracks like "Sax Man" manage to understay their welcome and operate as breathers before the next onslaught of twisted top 40. Of course, it isn't all perfect--the skits are generally terrible and a few joke genre exercises like "Ras Trent" fall flat--but overall Incredibad managed to not only stand up to repeat listens but somehow become the album I've listened to the most all year. Sample: "I'm On a Boat"
TO BE CONTINUED (suspense!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

*KSHHHT*--Re-engaging Transmission

Christ, where did all this now come from? One minute I'm writing about exploding rubber chickens and looming Summer and suddenly I'm up to my armpits in Winter, how exactly did this happen?

At any rate, it's time to kick the dust off this thing for some year end activity. I'm working on my best albums of 2009 list, which is horribly self indulgent and ridiculous and perfectly at home at Dogs On Houses.

In the meantime, however, I do have a little something-something for those in the Christmas spirit. Two years ago I assembled 20 track one hour mix CD of "cool" Christmas music that I distributed to friends and family. I wanted something a little off kilter that still stuck close enough to the spirit of the season, a collection appropriate for the whole family that also didn't make you want to die. There's some indie rock bands (Raveonettes, Eels, Bright Eyes) and some classics (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior), but also a few curve balls (Run DMC, etc.) I tied it all together with samples from Gremlins, the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and snippets of 80's holiday commercials.

I've recently made it available for download, albeit as one hour long MP3 to make it, well, less illegal. Tracks are mixed into each other and I can't really imagine it all being of interest to anyone wanting to steal individual songs, but I do want to minimize the chance that this will put me on the wrong side of the powers that be.

Send your e-mail address to* if you're interested and I'll reply with a download link and an exact tracklisting. I'd post the link here directly but I do want to have some sort of screening process that will keep me clear of any trouble.

A frequent question I get is whether or not a sequel is in the works, and after barely missing the cutoff for this holiday season I believe I can go on record and say that next year it's going to happen. I've got most of the songs collected but I just need a bit more time.

At any rate, enjoy the 2007 mix and I hope you and your family find happiness, health, and no herpes this holiday season.

*minus the "nospamthanks" bit, of course.