Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top 40 of 2011 Part II

In an effort to keep things in more of a bite sized format, I have broken the Top 40 into 4 parts. These are the reviews for 2011 from pick #'s 30-21.

Here we go:

30. The Primitives
Never Kill A Secret 7” EP
(Fortuna Pop!)
The first time I heard the Primitives brand of speedy, buzzing, 2 minute pop songs in the late 80s, I was completely sold. Hearing the famous “Crash” single for the first time was a breath of fresh air that blew off the dormancy of my childhood love of the early 60s do-wop girl groups like the Shangri-La’s, The Supremes and The Ronettes, except now these catchy tunes came with the heaping portion of fuzzed out guitars a la Jesus and Mary Chain, with the adrenaline rush of the Buzzcocks thrown into the mix. “Thru the Flowers,” “Way Behind Me,” “Out of Reach,” and especially “Spacehead” were instantaneous blasts of energy that I feasted on over and over again. I think hearing Tracy Tracy’s semi detached vocals atop that buzz (on their appropriately titled debut Lovely) changed my music tastes forever. Up to that point, most of my music loves of the time were leaning towards the male dominated US indie bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Lemonheads, Husker Du/Bob Mould, Pixies, etc, but now I had fallen in love with the female fronted bands. The love didn’t last long though, as their second album Pure, though it had some nice moments, didn’t contain that same immediacy that was their early hallmark, while their final album came and went without me noticing it. So, their return after 17-18 years of dormancy was one I approached cautiously. These four songs are quite a revelation! They may have more in common with the slower more 60s Nuggets garage style of rock, like Pure, my tastes have expanded as well, finding me in love with these songs. “Rattle My Cage” is a classic sex tune that needs Go-Go dancers in cages and a constantly panning camera for a video. Tracy Tracy’s cool has not diminished in the slightest and the band sounds invigorated to be back at it. “Never Kill A secret” is a nice acoustic strummer, while the closer, “Breakaway” definitely sounds like some lost early 60s pop number. Also, included is a very nice cover of the great Lee Hazlewood’s “Need All the Help I Can Get.” Welcome back! Now I’m ready for a new album.

29. Low
(Sub Pop)
This is Low’s 9th album and they have not made a misstep along the way. Their only downfall is maybe diminishing returns over the years, as their cryptic crawling songs can weigh a bit heavy over time. Then again, their last two were their loudest and most upbeat records to date, ending with 2007’s Drums and Guns (Really? Has it been that long?). This new material definitely includes some of their fuller arrangements that they’ve been slowly (sorry) adding on over time, but this overall harkens back to their 2002 classic Trust. Like that album, this is one is recorded in a church and has a big open-ended sound that does wonder for their sound. This album is a bit of a mixed bag as compared to some of their seamless past work. Maybe they’re trying to find new directions and haven’t landed on exactly which way to turn yet. My favorites on this include what may be one of their best singles to date in the album opener “Try to Sleep,” and the banjo infused stomper “Witches.” Some other highlights are two of the longer tracks that remind of their earliest days with evil sounding organ led “Especially Me” and the hypnotic “Nothing but Heart.” It’s good to have Low around, like it’s good to have at least an occasional snowfall in the winter. They remind us to ease off the gas a bit and reflect.
( or PO Box 600 Duluth, MN 55801)

28. Maritime Human Hearts
This band will always be compared to the great 90s act The Promise Ring, because of Davey von Bohlen’s distinctive voice. This is both a good and bad thing. Those who appreciated that band’s work should be alerted that a couple of these guys are still at it (Maritime also includes the complex drummer Dan Didier from the Promise Ring) and on their fourth album since 2004. On the other hand, some might be disappointed with the mildly new direction and I’m sure the band itself grew tired of past band references years ago. What sets this band apart from their predecessor is the basic simplicity of their songs. They are built on top of a very rock solid rhythm section and guitarists von Bohlen and Dan Hinz color in the remainder with nice high end post-punk fills. What we’re left with are a bunch of really nice hummable pop songs that will stick in your head after a few listens and keep you coming back for more. Several of these songs would make great hit singles: “Paraphermalia,” “Air Arizona,” and the teen angst anthem “Annihilation Eyes,” but “Peopling of London” and “Faint of Hearts” are the big standouts for me with their deep bass walk and gradual build. Check these guys out.

27. Still Corners
Creatures of an Hour
(Sub Pop)
This debut album from Still Corners is an interesting work. I’m not sure what to make of it. Apparently, they released an EP in 2007, but I didn’t hear of them until last year’s really strong “Don’t Fall in Love” 7”. This collection does not contain any songs that quite live up to that single, but overall, it is a dreamy mood piece that will transport the listener into another world. I’m just not certain what kind of world that is. Many of the songs here are infused with some creepy sounding organ which gives it a circus crossed with 60s acid drench psychedelic feel, which is an odd juxtaposition considering that Tessa Murray’s breathy barely there vocals sugarcoat a pretty mellow and relaxing, if not a bit unsettling collection. The best songs here include the opening “Cuckoo,” the misplaced instrumental “Circulars,” which should be later in the tracklisting, the shuffling “Into the Trees,” and the goth-tinged “I Wrote in Blood.” I’m sure this is all very confusing to read, so just check them out and see for yourself.

26. Big Troubles
Romantic Comedy
This is the second long player from Big Troubles, but the first for me. It makes sense why Slumberland picked these guys up, because they have a knack for very catchy pop numbers, one of which approaches a lost Pains of Being Pure at Heart track (“Minor Keys”). By all accounts, their debut is a super low-fi fuzzy nugget, but I hear no evidence of such on this follow-up. In fact, they’ve brought in Mitch Easter (Let’s Active and, most famously, early R.E.M.) to put his producer’s touch on this and from what I can ascertain it would be a similar makeover that the UK’s Moose made when Easter produced their first LP back in the early 90s. That transformation found Moose suddenly going from shoegaze noise makers to whistling acoustic pop purveyors. That’s what this album sounds like, even though the lyrics defy the title and spell out bad luck with love, the music is mostly pretty splashy and full of sunshine. It’s an enjoyable listen that reminds a bit of Velvet Crush’s debut In the Presence of Greatness. There’s no big statement here, but a whole big of hooky songs to enjoy like “She Smiles for Pictures,” “Misery,” the melancholic “Engine,” and my favorites “Make it Worse” and the closing “Never Mine.”

25. Astrid Williamson
(Incarnation/One Little Indian)
This is easily Astrid Williamson’s worst album in her career. It lacks the highly flying breezy intensity of her solo debut in 1998, or the strong singer-songwriter back to basics of her second self-titled album and 2006’s Day of the Lone Wolf. And though this album seems like an old relic from the world of 80s overproduction and prodigious use of senseless sound effects, it lacks the 80s new romantic spark of her 2009 LP Here Come the Vikings. And don’t get me started on how far removed this is in quality to the epic shoegazing classic she led her original band Goya Dress through. The blame seems to lie with her collaboration with Leo Abrahams who has apparently worked extensively with famed ambient lord Brian Eno. He has crushed the drive of much of this album with bleeps, bloops and frustratingly distracting effects. Having said all of this though, Williamson is an accomplished songwriter whose deft touch with lyrics and beautiful piano flourishes saves this album. For every weighted down mess such as the drudgingly dull “Underwater” and “Husk,” we find a back to basics straight-forward “Miracle” and a winning “Pulse.” The best songs feature mostly (aside from some unnecessary flourishes) just Astrid and her piano as on the timeless “Connected” and achingly beautiful “Paperbacks.” This isn’t a bad album, it simply has a few missteps, but I will continue to sing the praises of this way too overlooked artist.

24. Sons and Daughters
Mirror Mirror
"Breaking Fun” 7”
This is this Scottish quartet’s third long player, and after the in-the-red forcefulness of their last LP, 2008’s This Gift (my #1 pick of that year), they have brought the tempos down a lot. Instead of the straight-ahead guitar assault of the last one, or the foot stomping traditional Scottish tones, crossed with punk styling’s of their debut and near perfect EP, 2004’s Love the Cup, Sons and Daughters go all gothic post-punk on us. What has remained is their love of murderous and menacing lyrics, as evidenced in the back to back songs about a serial killer (“Rose Red” and the famous Black Dahlia murder “Axed Actress”). This fits in well with their new style. The scratchy guitars and empty echo chamber effects of the drums make this feel like a lost Bauhaus album with some female vocals added in. Unfortunately, this is not what I signed up for with this band. It has taken me some serious listening to find a way into this heavy somewhat burdensome album. Once inside, there are moments of light that remind why this band has always been so appealing to me. That reason: catchy songs! Though, they are clearly going for atmosphere here over pop singles, there are some sparkling sing-along choruses that have wrapped themselves into my psyche, such the declarative passage in “Orion” and the upbeat downshift chorus of “Don’t Look Now.” The clear standout here though, is “Rose Red,” which finds the band hitting their strengths and sounding like they’re having a good time re-telling the bloody story and even jumping into a first person mindset. This album at first was a bit shocking. My distaste for it as a whole was palpable. It has won me over a bit since the summertime, but I am hoping that this turns out to be an experiment only and that they angle for something different next time. I recommend this, only to the hardcore fans. To anyone wanting to try them out for the first time: start with Love the Cup and then jump full bore into This Gift!

The single “Breaking Fun” is an odd choice. It has no real hook and though the lyrics are quite thought-provoking, it hides this band’s true talents of writing really catchy tunes. Kind of a dud. Better is the short b-side “Giallo,” but definitely not worth seeking out.

23. Idaho
You Were A Dick
(Idaho Music)
Idaho has returned after a 6 year a hiatus with their 8th long player. It’s hard to believe really. I skipped the last LP, 2005’s The Lone Gunman, as it was really more of a movie soundtrack then a proper LP. So instead for me it’s been 10 years since Jeff Martin’s musical vehicle has crossed my path with his first truly solo work, 2001’s Levitate. To be honest, I barely remember that album. All of the past trademarks return on Dick: Martin’s quiet, croaky voice, mostly down-tempo and atmospheric, short songs dominate. As with all of his work, my favorites tend toward the edgier, louder numbers such as “The Space Between” and “Up the Hill.” The excellent title track starts things off on a telling path with its story of personal disappearance, as the narrator observes an old acquaintance over what sounds like a social media site. Has he really moved on with his life, or simply changed locations (“is it that you were a dick to me in high school?”)? It sets a thought-provoking tone. Like much of Martin’s work, the songs can be a bit hit and miss and can be difficult to dig into. However, it is worth the effort, as repeated listens provide increased intimacy into what he’s trying to achieve. This doesn’t achieve the heights of Idaho’s best work, 1997’s The Forbidden EP, nor 1998’s most cohesive work, Alas (which Martin reissued on his own imprint a few years back as a combo pack), but it has it’s moments and is a welcome return. If you seek this out from his website, you will also receive a bonus DVD with a bunch of extra songs! While you’re there, pick up the reissue I just mentioned; along with Idaho’s fantastic debut 7” single “Skyscraper” from 1992, which sold me on them from the beginning and their ’93 debut Year After Year!

22. Social Distortion
Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Six plus years since their last LP has passed in a flash and Social Distortion return like an old friend. After about 33 years or so, this is only their seventh actual album, yet they have chiseled a permanent mark in rock-n-roll history. Who would’ve thought that Mike Ness – a skinny little punk rocker – would become a source of some of the most authentic old fashioned classic rock-n-roll? Yet, we’ve witnessed the evolution with each spread out entry from the snotty punk of their early singles and 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster to the Stones by way of Ness’ heroes: Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. blend of today. In many ways, this LP feels like what Ness has been striving for since 1988’s Prison Bound, with its tough guy ballads and tales of bad luck, fugitives on the run, and surviving through and despite it all. Though I personally prefer the shredding and angry side of Social D that rears its ferocious head on a few songs each album and throughout the entirety of 1996’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash, I cannot deny that this may be their ultimate complete statement with such cracking numbers as the opening instrumental thesis statement “Road Zombie,” to the closing favorite “Still Alive,” and all the dusty sidetracks in between. Thanks for stopping by on your travels, old friend.

21. British Sea Power
Valhalla Dancehall
(Rough Trade)
I’ve always liked British Sea Power, but I have also always held them away at a suspicious distance. They have a remarkable ability to write huge hooks for massive sounding anthemic songs, but they also have the tendency to bury them in obscurities, needless complexities and what seems like inside jokes. They also like to clutter much of their collections with needlessly long songs. Aside from their most focused work yet, 2005’s Open Season, their other three albums though grandiose and innovative, also drag on too long and wear out the audience. As always, there is much to recommend here. The opening “Who’s in Control?” is like a soccer chant filled with angry lyrics that gets the adrenaline going. “We are Sound” is an even better offering, but then the mixed bag starts to set in. “Georgie Ray” is a slow burner that has a nice hook, but is a bit of a momentum killer so early in the album. “Mongk II” is a personal favorite, with its buzzing and endlessly open ended sound working its way to an obscure but catchy refrain, while “Observe the Skies” also gets me singing along at every turn ("Let's watch the nebulae explode"). “Luna” is a solid mid-tempo song, as is the first single “Living is so Easy” and the closing “Heavy Water.” On the other hand, these 13 songs are hampered by the heavy handed and odd “Baby,” and the unbelievably endless “Cleaning Out the Rooms” and “Once More Now” (over 11 minutes!!). These epics aren’t bad songs; they’re simply a bit much. The good greatly outweighs the bad, so I definitely will keep an ear out for their future material, but will continue to hope for a tighter album that focuses on their strengths.

That's it for this installment!  We're halfway there, so please stayed tuned for the Top 20.

links: Top 40 #40-31
                     # 10-1

1 comment:

  1. as always, there's just more i need to check out now. i'm particularly interested in astrid williamson now, given your description!