Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top 40 of 2011 Part III

Here are the listings from #'s 20-11of my favorites of 2011:

20. Buffalo Tom
Getting older sucks. More and more, I’m finding I’m writing about bands in their 30-somethingth year of existence and in some cases wondering what happened to their initial fire and power. Buffalo Tom is a prime example. Their first three albums were Dinosaur Jr.-tinged, true American, college rock feasts of blasting guitars, tumultuous drums and achingly powerful songs that peaked with the stellar rollercoaster ride that is 1992’s Let Me Come Over. In 2007, they reunited after their initial 10 year run, with a so-so album (Three Easy Pieces) that made the purchase of Skins a bit of a risk, and much like the direction of their post 1992 career arc, the songs have mostly lost their edge and spunk. It’s not bad though. In 1995 I might’ve shelved this CD after one listen and written it off as old man rock – much like I did with 1993’s horribly produced Big Red Letter Day. Now that I am an old man, I see some value here. The opening “Arise, Watch” is a stunning piece of vocal interplay that traces new ground without losing attention. ‘Down” recalls some of their older work, as does the spunky “Guilty Girls.” Other standouts include the momentous “Here I Come,” “Lost Weekend,” and the closing “Out of the Dark.” Yet, when I hear the mandolin and acoustic plucks of the glossy duet with Tanya Donelly (ex-Throwing Muses, Breeders & Belly), I get sleepy and bored. There’s a bit too much of that here, but they are on an improving arc, and that is a good thing!

19. Ringo Deathstarr
Colour Trip
(Sonic Unyon)
Colour Trip is this Austin, Texas trio’s first official album and it is a welcome one. For those out there who love shoegaze with some bite, there is something of quality to be found here. Their sound goes back to the Jesus and Mary Chain – like many of the original shoegaze bands of the late-80s/early 90s – taking cues from the deep breathy vocals and machine-like pop precision of JAMC’s Honey’s Dead. Then, they infuse their sound with massive doses of My Bloody Valentine waves of guitar disorientation. In other words, this is pretty cool. I also appreciate the focus, as most of these songs clock in at fewer than 3 minutes. There isn’t a lot of groundbreaking here, but they have found a sound and they have breathed some life and passion into it and it shines through. Feel their force on the MBV ode “Imagine Hearts,” the Lush-like explosion of “So High,” and “Tambourine Girl.” The ultimate song – one of the best of the year – is the two minute “Kaleidoscope,” whose brevity and humming feedback atmosphere makes me want to hear it over and over again and yet again.

Sparkler, a compilation of their early EP and singles, was originally released in 2009, but I had not yet discovered these guys. Luckily, Sonic Unyon has made these songs readily available again. Here Ringo’s influences are even more clearly stated, but one can see their talent and ability in such songs as “Some Kind of Sad,” “Down on You,” and “Sweet Girl in Love.” Colour Trip is their better and more original work, but both are worth the price of admission.

18. For Against
Black Soap EP
Nebraska’s rock legends For Against have been creating amazing music for over 25 years and this EP collects three songs from their earliest recordings together in 1984 and allows them to see the light of day for the first time. It proves that they had a lot of talent to burn from the get go. “Black Soap,” their first ever recording, is a short and speedy post-punk landmark chock full of early Cure reverbed bass lines (think “Play for Today”), scratchy guitars and busy drumming and, of course, monotone dark lyrics (“your black soap won’t get me clean”). An amazing start! “Dark Good Friday” sounds a bit more like the direction For Against headed with their first two 80s albums with Harry Dingman’s stratospheric guitars chiming atop Jeffrey Runnings’ mid-range bass fills. Lastly, we find a different mix of their now famous (in my dream world that is) club epic “Amen Yves (White Circles),” which originally appeared on their unbelievably creative In the Marshes 10”, as part of Independent Project Records’ “Archive Series” in 1990 (my favorite of all their records). Crucial for fans.

17. Should
Like a Fire Without Sound
It’s been since 1998 since Should released Feed Like Fishes and to be honest I had kind of forgotten about them. In some ways, this doesn’t sound like the same band, since the fuzz and noise of their early records has been completely stripped away. What we’re left with without this added coating is a much more memorable bunch of songs. The nine songs here are very downbeat and precise and perfect for a nice lazy afternoon of daydreaming. Each little nuance and subtle addition to these fairly sparse songs conjure up very pleasing hummable moments. The delicate melodies that Marc Ostermeier and Tanya Maus create here on such standouts as “Turned Tables,” “Slumberland,” and “Just Not Today” all feel so familiar and comfortable that I cannot shake them from my consciousness. Plus, I cannot overlook the cool factor of their cover of Disco Inferno’s “Broken” (from their 1991 In Debt compilation LP!). Please check this out!

16. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
(Collective Sounds/ Slumberland)
This is a very nice second album. The Pains’ first had a decidedly small indie pop sound, which mirrored the early Slumberland artists from 89-92 in sound and vibe, has been transformed into a much bigger one with the addition of mega producer Flood (U2, Depeche Mode, etc) and a superb mix job by the remarkable Alan Moulder (Swervedriver, Ride, Lush, Curve, etc). These kids are clearly making a step forward and searching for a wider audience. Hot on the heels of last year’s two shining 7” singles, this album starts off with the heavy buzz and danceable jangle of the title track followed by the super poptastic classic “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and “Heart in Your Heartbreak (second of the 2010 singles – last year’s # 23 pick). These three songs show the promise that the Pains have! The remainder of the album is full of solid little songs, though it levels off a bit. Some other good high points include the teen anthem of “Even in Dreams,” the very Jesus and Mary Chain-ish “Girl of 1,000 Dreams” and the trance inducing closer “Strange.” I look forward to their next progression.

15. The Lonely Forest
Every once in a while, an album comes along where nothing really astounds me, yet I find myself listening to it all the time. This year’s candidate is from the, apparently third album by Anacortes, WA natives, The Lonely Forest. I say apparently, because I had never heard of them and am a bit saddened that I have let them slip through my fingers this long. Luckily, Death Cab’s Chris Walla snapped them out of obscurity and signed them to his own fledgling label imprint with Atlantic and produced them as well. In addition, they played some dates with the Joy Formidable around the time Arrows was released and I was able to see them play last spring. They are a straightforward good old fashioned college rock band that has a knack for writing some pretty catchy anthems. Most of these songs feel like they should be played at outdoor festivals. Their lyrics are very relatable and down to earth. In fact, they really should be much better known than they are! Maybe vocalist John Van Deusen’s mildly nasally voice may turn some people off, but it doesn’t bother me. Maybe I simply relate to their clear love of the Pacific Northwest’s access to oceans, harbors, rivers, lakes, lush forests and mountains that shines through their music (check out their love song to the NW: “I Don’t Want to Live There”) that I relate to. At any rate, the highlight here is “Turn Off This Song and Go Outside,” and very catchy pop tune that is telling us to do exactly what it says. The album is bookended by a couple of quiet ballads, but for the most part this collection rocks and finds some good hooks in songs like “Two Notes and a Beat,” “Coyote,” and the twin songs that examine the inside and outside of love “(I Am) The Love Skeptic” (“and the bullshit never ends”) and “(I Am) The Love Addict.” This is very entertaining.

14. Nature Set
Enough is Enough 7” EP
Oh boy! This is fantastic! “Enough is Enough” comes on fast and is as addictive as crack! I love it! This UK four-piece had me dancing around like the moron I am in seconds with "Enough is Enough," and the best part is that the other three songs herein are just as strong. I make it no secret, I am a sucker for catchy, energetic pop songs and it’s a bonus when they come packaged with female vocals with lots of background harmonies! “You or Nobody” slows things down a bit and at times sounds a bit like label-mates The School. Then they get their early Go-Go’s on with the B-side opener, “At Least Not Today,” while finally catching a psychedelic tinge with their darker closing track “The Engineer,” which reminds me of a song I know so well, but I cannot place it. Whatever the case, this is excellent and I am an instant convert. I cannot wait to hear more. They have just released a split cassette with the newly formed Former Lover, who is led by ex Long Blonde (a favorite in this house), Dorian Cox. I am filled with anticipation.

13. Standard Fare
“Suitcase” 7”
“Darth Vader” mp3
Standard Fare/One Happy Island
Split 7” EP
(Melodic/Thee Sheffield Phonographic Co)
Last year’s debut album from Standard Fare, The Noyelle Beat (#3 pick), was a refreshing and surprising blast of fun and lively songs that have continued to linger in my head for nearly two years now. I’m so glad that they’ve released a bit of new music this year while waiting with great anticipation for the January 2012 release of their sophomore effort, Out of Sight, Out of Town. The split single with Boston’s One Happy Island finds both bands covering each other’s songs, along with one original each. Standard Fare takes a crack at what turns out to be an incredible OHI song: “Kudzu Girlfriend.” The title alone tells us where this one is going, but Standard Fare turn this into their own with their brand of C86 jangly buzz and duel vocals. Their original contribution is another tight 2 minutes. One Happy Island takes on Standard Fare’s “Night with a Friend,” and similarly, they make this their own. One Happy Island reminds of a modern version of the low-fi Beat Happening sound, but with much better playing. Their music is charming with unusual instrumentation and it works perfectly with this great duet. Their original “China Fair” is another revelation and a good reason to seek this music out.

“Suitcase” is an incredible song that shows us that Standard Fare is ready to grow and expand, though they are also ready to abandon all of us for a bunker prepared for nuclear fallout. The B-side here, “Nine Days,” also shows another side of the band with a much more reserved feel.

This quieter sound continues on Standard Fare’s newest mp3 single “Darth Vader,” which finds them switching perspective from the exuberance and frailty of young love to a level of maturity mixed with resignation. The non-LP track that comes with the single download, “Argument,” is another short two minute worth the .99 cents, but clearly a B-side.

12. Wire
Red Barked Tree
(Pink Flag)
It’s hard to believe that the third version of Wire (second reformation – now as a trio) has lasted longer than either of the previous two. The most amazing part is that Red Barked Tree is their most live-sounding, and spontaneous album since maybe 1977’s Pink Flag! The best part for me is that this album seems to accumulate the sounds and styles that they have experimented with off and on for the last 35 years and smash them all together in a surprisingly cohesive 40 or so minute whole. Speaking of smashing, “Smash” here is one of their best true rock songs ever! But who cannot love the straight ahead punk burst of “Two Minutes” or the oddball (a word I used twice in a description for their 2008 # 7 pick Object 47) Graham Lewis sung “Bad Worn Thing”? And who would’ve ever thought we’d hear layers of acoustic guitars strumming along on the closing statement “Red Barked Trees”? This band continues to progress in unexpected, and more importantly, refreshing ways. Amazing.

11. Drugstore Anatomy
“Sweet Chili Girl” CDsingle
“Standing Still” CDsingle
(Rocket Girl)
Yet another band that we had lost in time has returned. This was once surprising, but nowadays, it has become commonplace and welcome. I don’t care what anyone says about selling out and all that. These artists deserve a second chance at attention. I hope they make it! At any rate, during the mid-to-late 90s Drugstore was a perennial favorite of mine. Their brand of catchy acoustic based tunes crooned by the Brazilian born bandleader Isabel Monteiro really found a home in my heart. This trio had an energetic spark, despite some fairly quiet numbers, which revealed itself on their fiery second album White Magic for Lovers (1998). However, ten years after their so-so third offering found them splintering and disappearing, Monteiro has come back with a new lineup and with renewed enthusiasm. These ten songs are subdued and quiet and really quite depressing (sample lyric: “I want salt in the wound/I want blood in the rain/everytime that I move/I want nothing but pain”), but also full of life and verve. Instead of coming off as woe is me, these songs of heartbreak feel more like an understanding old friend who has come to help us nurse our wounds. There are many references to things coming to an end: lights going out, falling rocks, etc, but it feels natural, like the end of a chapter and the start of something new. The tracks here are sparser than ever, with mostly a solo acoustic album feel, but are warmed by light touches of subtle instrumentation throughout. Most welcome is the heart-tugging strings of the closer “Clouds,” and the Spanish inflected duet “Aquamarine,” which reminds me of some of those beautiful cinematic songs by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra from the late 60s. This album seems to improve with each listen!

The singles are not essential here, especially, the “Sweet Chili Girl” 2 tracker, both songs bookend the album. The standout album track “Standing Still” offers two new songs, which are okay (“Don’t Throw Me In” and “Bring Me His Head”) in the same vein as the album, but not as revealing and exciting as some of the band’s past b-side material.

We're almost there!  Stayed tuned for the Top 10 next time.

Links: Top 40 #'s 40-31
                      #'s 30-21
                      #'s 10-1

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