Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 40 of 2012 Part III


Veronica Falls
“My Heart Beats” 7”

Veronica Falls’ debut album (my 2011 #9 pick seen here) was quite an eye opener. If the year had just lasted a bit longer, I would hazard a guess that it would’ve risen higher than my random and arbitrary #9 ranking. Their spell-binding vocal harmonies and precisely strummed dry guitars adorn some incredibly timeless pop songs on top of some very dark lyrics. That is definitely the place to begin, if you’re unfamiliar, but for those of us needing a fresh fix this post tour single is quite an appetizer. “My Heart Beats” is easily as good as anything from that album. The low end rumbles and shakes its way through a very simple but powerful tune. It may be because the vocals are more upfront in this one, or how the guitars jangle and howl alternately, but this is a great sign that they are here for the long haul. The quiet reflective organ driven “Killing Time” is a request to spend time with someone who may or may not concur. It’s simple, but eerily heartbreaking. They have recently released a preview to their early 2013 album named “Teenage,” and it is worth a look too. Bring on the new album!

Veronica Falls-My Heart Beats


Nature Set
If I Crawl, You Crawl EP

I was hoping for a full album from these gals and guy after their fun and exhilarating 7” EP on Elefant Records last year (my 2011 #14 pick seen here), but I will have to make due with this 5 songer for the time being. Three of these songs appeared late last year on a split cassette release (with Former Lover – a project started by former Long Blondes’ guitarist songwriter Dorian Cox. The Long Blondes’ former bassist Reenie Hollis is now in Nature Set.), but I am glad they have been rescued from that horrible format. I know cassettes are kind of hip these days, but for those of us who were around when that was the biggest selling music format – believe me when I say that there is a good reason they are now mostly gone. Anyway, this EP opens right where last year’s single left off with the super 60s garage rock inspired organ infused “Avalanche” and it is superb! “If You Lived Here You’d Be home By Now” continues the organ fueled sound, but increases the pace and throws in some nice handclaps and their oddly high pitched background harmonies (luckily they keep those things low in the mix – they are a bit worrisome). “Hands” feels more like the bulk of the 7” from last year, as it would fit right in on an old Go-Go’s album, while “Albatross” brings back that organ (is that a farfisa? I don’t know these things) and a commanding vocal. “I Am a Planet” finishes this off with a punky burst of fun. Another excellent EP! Will there be an album in store for 2013?

Nature Set-Avalanche


Rose Elinor Dougall
The Distractions EP
(download only)

Where might you have heard of Rose prior to this? She began her career as “Rosay,” one of the founders of the fantastic pop trio The Pipettes, 6 or 7 years ago. She was the bratty brunette with the rich voice. Now she’s out on her own and creating something very different from her old group. Early this year, Rose let slip a little three song download only EP titled The Distractions and it is definitely a step forward from her solid debut solo album – 2010’s Without Why. This set opens with the spectacular builder “The Night,” which opens with a twangy guitar line atop echoing layers of reverb and a slow groove from the rhythm section. It would fit right in with the best work on her debut – reminding a bit of the standout track “Find Me Out.” However, “The Night” is really a pairing of two different interpretations of the same set of lyrics, as about halfway through, the slow burn transitions into an upbeat head bobbing rocker crammed with stratospheric layers upon layers of high end guitars and a throbbing low end. The second song, “I’ve Always Known,” is the true single of the EP, as it’s bouncing beat and chiming guitars set the stage for a classic two timing lover story, where the narrator is simply resigned to let the cheater go. Finally, the final song is the choppy “Hanging Around” – my least favorite of the group, but one that has grown on me over time. The strong-handed electric strum drives this song right into a very strong chorus. Word has it that these songs were recorded shortly after Rose’s solo debut and is a stop gap release before her next album – but not a sign of things to come. I’m not sure what to make of this news, since the first two songs here would’ve been my favorites if they had made it onto Without Why and I so want to hear more like this! No matter the case, she has made a strong argument in favor of keeping an ear out for her future work. This is amazing.

Rose Elinor Dougall-The Night


Drakes Hotel
Logic Adopts Senses
(DH Music)

Okay, so this is the fourth album from the nomadic (I believe they are currently in Omaha, NE these days) married duo Drakes Hotel, but really this is their third offering, since their unknown debut is only a piece of ancient lore that is a closely guarded secret. Ever since their 2007 (sort of debut), Tell Me Everything (my #5 album of 2007), I have been hooked on their unique sound, which is somehow both a wall of noise and stripped down (I know – that makes no sense, but buy their music and do better, please!). Nothing on this reaches the urgent call to re-connect with reality as Tell Me Everything’s highpoint “Broadcast to the Addicted,” but “Kids R Chrome” is a close second as Amy Drake shouts at us to wake up to life over an electrifying guitar line before explaining the she thinks “the kids are sleeping” in the chorus – fantastic! The album is frontloaded with most of my favorites on the first half. The beautiful and mysterious sounding “Cillian” is a simmering song of full love, or is it obsession? You decide, as you soak in Chris Y’s creeping guitar work that reminds me of the experimental and otherworldly recordings from fellow Nebraskan’s For Against as found on their In the Marshes recordings. “From Over” and “Game Show Heart” should both be hit singles, as they are incredibly catchy and Drake’s vocals are, as always, intoxicating. Chris Y takes over the lead vocals on a pair of tough sounding songs “All My Days” (“Didn’t expect to kiss the bricks”) and “Told A Tale,” which adds to the incredible variety that these two conjure up with fairly simple recordings. That makes three great albums in a row.

Drakes Hotel-From Over


The Twilight Sad
No One Can Ever Know

What can one say about the Twilight Sad? They are pretty much one of those acquired taste bands. They are so dark, claustrophobic and sinister that it’s difficult to sell the idea of them to anyone, unless they are already bought in on that style of music. All three of their albums are steeped in singer James Graham’s vague but tragic via innuendo words. There always seems to be some undercurrent of something that has happened that is so dark and unforgivable in his stories that it’s incredibly intriguing and allows the listener’s mind to fill in the blanks and most likely make it even darker. Until this third album, Andy MacFarlane’s huge waves of guitars have always added to their overwhelming edge by punctuating the unnerving words with blasts of noise and crescendos at just the right moment. It makes for something that can be incredibly cathartic and almost primal when listened to at deafening volumes, but it is definitely mood music. It takes a rare bird who can listen to this kind of thing at any old time. With No One Can Ever Know, the Twilight Sad has brought in noted remixer Andrew Weatherall to produce (or “anti-produce”) this work. What that has done is change the sound by bringing in layers of keyboards and placing those up front. Normally such a statement sounds like the death knell for a band looking to change things up a bit, but in this case it opens the door for more opportunity for growth. The sounds explored on the first two albums seemed to have the potential of closing in on itself. Now they have retained their heart and soul and expanded their horizons. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve written some of their best songs here either. The opener “Alphabet” is an intense pounder with howls of off-putting strange sounding keyboards that sweep back and forth, as Graham’s powerful chorus gives us a glimpse that things are still confused and messed up (“So sick to death of the sight of you now / Safe to say I never wanted you more”). It is definitely one of the songs of the year for me. It’s clear from the get-go that Weatherall’s guidance hasn’t effected the band’s intense focus of guiding their fans through some serious shit, as they do on the epic “Dead City,” the post OK Computer Radiohead-ish “Sick” and the amazing closer “Kill it in the Morning.” This all could fit in with best post-punk of the early 80s, like the Cure’s similarly oppressive and chilling Pornography. Again, one probably has to buy into this to begin with to appreciate it, but if you do, it is spectacular and their best work yet.

The Twilight Sad-Dead City


Maximo Park
The National Health (2 CD)

When this came out, I kept reading about how this was a comeback album for Maximo Park, which makes no sense to me. Maybe there was near break up news that I missed out on. I know there was a solo album or two floated about since 2009’s Quicken the Heart, but it was only three years between albums. Maybe that comeback reference had to do with a creative comeback. Again, a little confused, since they only have a small selection of four albums in seven years, and none of the prior three were weak. Sure, they have not achieved the full on frantic spectacular energy and captivating tunes of their amazing 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, but each record has some very good songs. It could’ve been a reference to the breakneck preview single and title track “The National Health,” which rivals their early drive and passion and tosses in some timely words about today’s uncertain economy and a society that seems to be sinking into near total apathy and/or distraction. However, this album isn’t far removed from the more keyboard heavy third offering; Quicken the Heart, than anything from the first two. There’s nothing wrong with this though, because their nice guy heart on sleeve words suit the more lovelorn romanticisms and milder tempos of their more current material. In fact, a few of these songs delve into the realm of the gushing and breathy perfection of OMD’s 80’s classic “If You Leave.” “The Undercurrents” is so full of airy atmospherics, lush background vocals and Paul Smith’s striving melodramatic yearnings that it achieves the windswept heartbreak it wants. This is a compliment, by the way. They find other highs with similar songs on “Reluctant Love,” the regretful “This is What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (“The biggest mistake of all / I didn’t return your call / the biggest mistake of all / my explanation stall”), and the low bass murmuring acoustic ballad “Unfamiliar Places.” Instead of a comeback, this feels much more like a continuing slow evolution of a solid band.

The second CD is comprised of four acoustic versions of album tracks. It’s nice to hear especially, “Hips and Lips” in this setting, because it is quite different from the odd passive aggressive slow roar of the album version (“the way you stick out your lips / and keep your hands on your hips / and I’m supposed to know...what that means”). Not essential, but a nice addition.

Maximo Park-The Undercurrents


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
“Jeremy” 7”

This is such a great treat! The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have been a favorite around here for the last few years (their 2011 album Belong was my #16 pick seen here), but I think their strength is as a singles band. Their songs of youthful energy are ideal in short bursts of rejuvenation that beg to be listened to over and over, as opposed to stuck in the long playing format. This time this young and fun band shines their sunshine onto two songs from two of my old favorites from 20 years ago. “Jeremy” is a forgotten gem from the Magnetic Fields’ second album (Distant Plastic Trees from 1992) and where on Stephin Merritt’s version it has a toy like orchestral sound; here the Pains bring on their rush of fresh air and rock the shit out of it! This, not only reminded me of how much I love that old Magnetic Fields album, but gave me a new version to love! The B-side is not to be missed either. It’s from the lesser known F.M. Cornog’s East River Pipe and his 1992 single rare sort of upbeat (for him) a-side “My Life is Wrong.” Again the Pains instill this old classic with chiming and buzzing fire and turn it into a power pop burner! Maybe if I send them requests they can revive a bunch of other lost classics from my old collection! Well done kids!

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart-Jeremy


The Wedding Present

This is the third album (8th overall) for the Wedding Present, since David Gedge’s hiatus with Cinerama for 8 or 9 years, around the turn of the century. Gedge, the band’s leader and only original member, has not changed his tune that much over the years. He still sings about love and lust and awkwardness over the top of dry and cleanly strummed guitars. Yet, somehow it can always find a way to sound fresh, despite their old tag-line “every song sounds the same.” However, sometimes it sounds fresher than others. I welcomed their return with 2005’s Take Fountain and ‘08’s El Rey, but both of those albums had a short shelf life with me. Neither one urged repeated plays over time, but Valentina sounds revitalized and is my favorite of theirs since 1996’s Saturnalia. Maybe it’s because both of these albums share a little bit of experimentalism and messing about with the tried and true formula. While Saturnalia introduced some old fashioned keyboard layers into the mix (a retro vision of the future kind of sound), Valentina adds an odd minute long burst of noise at the end of the frantic “Back a Bit…Stop,” and then throws us some dual drums on “End Credits.” The focus and unity of this album is what strikes me, as well as the welcome addition of more female vocals (thanks to now former member Terry De Castro and newcomer bassist Pepe Le Moko) to fill out his little love adventures. The album makes complete sense from start to finish – giving it an added vibrancy. But who can deny the joy of hearing Gedge’s consistent and never ending run of short stories about running into his next crush and the trials and tribulations that stem from there on out? It could get old if he weren’t so good at making it so damn relatable and human and filled with self deprecation (“You’re really way out of my league” from the stomping “Meet Cute”). After nearly 30 years of doing this, Gedge has been taking his band out on tour and revisiting high points from the past by performing favorite albums as whole sets, which is both excellent (as a fan of the old material) and a shame, because this new material is one of those high points and shouldn’t get the short shrift. Just check out the uplifting happy ending in “Mystery Date” – “No one could’ve been more surprised than me/ when you wrote your number down and said ‘call me at the first opportunity’/ because this does not happen to me/ things like this do not happen to me.” So good.

The Wedding Present-You Jane


Young Galaxy
“Shoreless Kid” 7”
(Paper Bag)

Oh, this single is exactly what I needed to hear from Young Galaxy - a double A-sided good old fashioned vinyl single with two excellent brand new songs. Young Galaxy has released three albums beginning with 2007’s beautiful sweeping epic majesty of their self-titled debut (that year’s #12 pick for me) and, personally, as they’ve become more electronic with each successive release, my interest has dwindled. 2011’s almost entirely electronic Shapeshifting has a handful of excellent songs, but nothing as captivating as their first album, or the transition album Invisible Republic (2010’s #12 pick seen here). However, when YG get things right, they are so amazing that they will always find a loyalty well up inside of me. So, when this single emerged, I knew had to give them another chance. So glad I did, because the mostly electronic “Shoreless Kid” is a nice little 80s-ish dance number with a set of fantastic lyrics sung in unison by both lead vocalists - Stephen Ramsay and Catherine McCandless - telling the story of an empty life that is so identifiable, it’s a little eerie (“headed to your bedroom / to hear your favorite songs / and dream of the day / when you finally slip away”). I love this song now and I would’ve loved it in 1985/86 when I was a huge Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys fan. This is smart and touching. The other a-side, finds YG giving us another catchy song that holds truer to their earlier work, but more upbeat. “Youth is Wasted on the Young” is another ode to losing oneself (a lonely and angsty self) in music. It drives and grinds like an early Cure single and the chorus gives us an amazing line – one that I so wish I had come up with: “I wouldn’t mind dying at all / if it weren’t for the songs I’d miss.” Maybe now that they’ve solidified a new rhythm section, this is a sign of a promising balanced direction of things to come. They are supposed to be working on that fourth album now and I am really excited for this one, based on this sampling.

Young Galaxy-Shoreless Kid


The Raveonettes
Into the Night EP
(The Orchard/Vice)

Normally I feature full albums in my reviews when reviewing an artist’s output for a year – not singles and EPs. In this case, The Raveonettes Into the Night four song EP is the reason why it is where it is in this silly countdown, why I purchased Observator the day it was released, and the reason I went to see them play live late this Summer. I’m not 100% sure why I purchased this EP in the first place. I liked the little bit of the Raveonettes that I’d heard, especially songs like “Last Dance” and their faithful cover of old favorite “My Boyfriend’s Back” originally by girl group the Angels in 1963. Maybe it’s because songwriter Sune Rose Wagner and “My Boyfriend’s Back” co-writer Richard Gottehrer have done such wonders producing the last few Dum Dum Girls records that I’m so gung ho for, or because the EP was only $3 new in the local shop, or maybe I bought it unheard because Sharin Foo sits on the cover near a window with what seems to be the longest pair of arms in the world reaching down to touch her shoulders. Whatever the case may be, when I played this, I could not stop playing it. The 60s girl group heartbreak songs drenched in a huge wall of Specter-ish sound is always a winner with me, especially when that sound is draped in 80s post-punk band fuzz and dissonance. All of these songs are so such full of magic and spine-tingling moments and massive exaggerated drums solidifying the experience with a deep low heartbeat thud. “Into the Night” leads in with a harshly struck dry guitar notes before exploding into euphoric breathy vocals and inside that full on wall of noise. The lyrics are a simple framework of heartbreak and a need to be taken “into the night,” but it is the effect of the music that drives the message home and makes it so damn powerful. Similarly, the grinding “Night Comes Out” craves the facelessness of the night life and during the stellar buzzing chorus we learn that “when the sun goes down we have fun.” The up tempo “Too Close to Heartbreak” pounds through its 3 minutes in much the same way and will have you happily singing along with the chorus “do you care if I die?” Lastly, is the somewhat throwaway “Bad Ghosts.” It sounds amazing, until we reach the chorus, which is repetitive in all the wrong ways, but the guitar solo bridges and the two verses save the song. The whole experience of this EP is only a little over twelve minutes and it is so freaking perfect sounding! It cannot be cranked enough.

Meanwhile the album is my favorite so far of what I’ve heard from them, but it lacks the wallop and immediacy of the timeless sounding EP released five months prior. The ghostly piano strains throughout give this album cohesiveness that some of their prior work seems to lack for me. Plus it’s to the point. None of these songs over stay their welcome. Naturally two of my favorites are “Downtown” and “You Hit Me (I’m Down),” the two that come closest to the massive sounds of the EP that I am so in love with. But the acoustic country inflected starter “Young and Cold” sets a nice mood that continues in a reflective and simple Velvet Underground manner that continues throughout. This is really good work and after seeing them live, I think I need to take a closer listen to their prior material.

The Raveonettes-Into the Night

The remainder of 2012's Top 40 can be found via these links:

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