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"

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