Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 40 of 2012 Part II

Nada Surf
The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy

Nada Surf’s sixth album (not counting 2010’s covers LP If I Had a Hi-Fi), comes along after four years away and has them sounding refreshed. 2008’s Lucky was a decent album, but a little stiff, and it turns out, not that memorable, which is a let down after their two best albums (2002’s Let Go and 2005’s The Weight is a Gift). Maybe doing the all-covers record gave them a little kick in the pants, because The Stars feels and sounds a lot more alive and loose and vibrant. Maybe it could also be the addition of a second guitarist in the valuable Doug Gillard (Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, Guided by Voices, etc.) who adds a lot of depth and energy to this recording. When the opening “Clear Eye Clouded Mind” jump starts things, we are immediately welcomed to an added urgency with the extra guitar coloring. The production of the album is mixed with blurred edges in the same way that John Agnello’s work with Dinosaur Jr. does, which gives this a live feel. This works well and is a welcome sign after the hyper meticulous feel of their last album. The highlight here for me, personally, is the reflective “When I Was Young,” which works as a thesis for the bulk of the record overall. Here we find Matthew Caws thinking about his childhood in a dead moment of a late summer afternoon and how his life measures up to his old dreams of the future (“When I was young / I didn’t know if I was better off asleep or up / Now I’ve grown up / I wonder what was that world I was dreaming of”). We find references to lost youth everywhere and a strong desire to recapture the passion of it. “The Moon is Calling,” “No Snow on the Mountain” and “The Future” are all favorites on a consistently enjoyable record. Nada Surf’s sweet melodies will always be welcome.
Nada Surf-When I Was Young


Black Tambourine
OneTwoThreeFour 2x7” EP

What a huge surprise! I never ever thought we’d hear actual new Black Tambourine recordings ever again after they re-released their Complete Recordings a couple of years ago – which cleaned out the vaults! Yet, here we get a double 7” release with four brand new recordings, but not four brand new songs, because oddly enough, these are all covers of old Ramones songs. This is a band that never recorded an album – all of their songs appeared on vinyl singles and label compilations and there weren’t very many of them to begin with. Word has it that this recording was done for the 20th anniversary of the Chickfactor fanzine that vocalist Pam Berry helped create twenty some years ago. Anyway, the music is great! These are all inspired choices (i.e.: old Ramones song that I approve of) that fit right in the what Black Tambourine were best at – dreamy, buzzy, sometimes soft, but usually abrasive, short pop songs - in other words, a perfect setting for Ramones songs. This set opens with the “Rock-n-Roll High School” single “I Want You Around,” which along with “Do You Remember Rock-n-Roll Radio” was the first song I ever heard from that legendary band. Such good memories. Here, BT takes the acoustic strum of the original and stamps it with their own fuzzy atmospherics. The next two songs are culled from the Ramones’ second LP Leave Home with the dreamy “What’s Your Game,” and a cranked up version of “I Remember You.” Finally, Side D finds us touching on the most well known song of the bunch: “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” from 1976’s debut album. Here it sounds like a completely different song – a song that could’ve been found on BT’s By Tomorrow 7” EP back in 1991. This is a nice treat.

Black Tambourine-What's Your Game?


“This Summer” 7”

This is really cool: a couple of songs released right at the outset of summer by a fantastic rocking singles band! Superchunk’s adrenaline fueled bouncing songs are perfect for this and I’m so glad they’ve taken time out of their busy schedules to grace us with this gift. Mac McCaughan’s high pitched voice opens this sugary sing-along with the perfect line: “This summer / we won’t regret what we cannot know,” inviting us along on their freewheeling road trip in the sun. It is both nostalgic for youth and a call to make the fun happen now. I love it. The b-side is a fun frantic cover of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” which may be cliché, but I never get tired of the original, so this is welcome any time! The download card that comes with the 7” also includes a nice acoustic version of the a-side.

Superchunk-This Summer


Midway Still
Always Ends
(Bitter & Twisted)

Sometimes we all need a good old solid rock band to guide us through the days. Might I recommend the endlessly catchy and straight-ahead band Midway Still? They have been at this off and on for a long long time and have graced us with their 4th long-player. After returning from the obscurity of the early 90s haze of punk and rock out of the blue in 2010 with their 3rd, Note to Self (my 2010 #11 pick – seen here), I kind of figured that they’d disappear back into the ether again, while affirming that they’ve always been criminally overlooked. Yet, here they are with their seemingly effortless ability to write a narcotic laced chorus that leads to addictive repeated listens. This second “comeback” album has the sound of a band refreshed and inspired. Midway Still’s heavy power chords and pounding rhythm section drive us through a batch of angst ridden upbeat numbers that feel comfortingly familiar and fun. How can anyone deny the joys of hearing the big open hooks of songs like “This is How it Ends” – with its huge bring-it-on-home finale, or the frantic punk of “Miss You”? There’s also much to find from the stumbling forward press of “No Guarantees,” and the identifiable and angry “Seeing Red.” I love to simply crank these songs and rock out like a teenager again. The secret weapons on this one though are the mid tempo numbers “Left Behind” and “It’s Easy,” both of which beg to be massive summer time hits that blast from car stereos all over the globe in my strange imaginary world (apparently). The album closes with a cover of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” which continues Midway Still’s run of choice cover songs, and shows us that they are truly back, enjoying themselves and hopefully to stay for a little while this time! They’ve set up their own label and have already started reissuing some of their amazing back catalogue and some other bands as well! Check it out.
Midway Still-This Time


Eux Autres
Sun is Sunk EP
“Tilt the Crown” 7”
(Where it’s at is Where You Are)

It’s hard to believe that Eux Autres’ last album was in 2010 (my #19 pick for that year – seen here). It seems like I just took that CD off of my heavy rotation. Of course, that pretty much is true. Their succinct 60’s style pop is quite intoxicating and seems to get better over time. Sun is Sunk, their EP from early this year, picks up exactly where their third LP, Broken Bow, left off. Their sound is fuller now that brother and sister, Nicholas and Heather Larimer, have been joined by drummer Yoshi Nakamoto. This has opened up the songbook a bit. The low-fi two-piece days are past, allowing them to develop their old style classic pop sound. They manage to capture a similar reflective vibe that Amy Linton did with the Aisler’s Set (Yoshi’s former group) with the added bonus of two vocalists. All six songs here are strong with the best being “Right Again,” “Broken Record,” the closing “Ring Out” and the restless “Home Tonight.”

The year ended with a very limited edition single courtesy of the seven sevens singles released by WIAIWYA records this year (see Standard Fare review as well). This three song 7” was a very nice surprise and continues these kids’ winning streak of catchy tunes. “Tilt the Crown” is a jaunty ray of November sunshine with its handclaps, tambourines and delightful chorus, while “Smollis Theme” is a short instrumental. “What it is” closes out this slab of colored vinyl with some interesting old organ sounds and soulful falsettos atop of a timeless piece of pop. This is a band that needs much more attention to their consistently great music. Check it out!
Eux Autres-Home Tonight


School of Seven Bells
“Kiss Them for Me” 7”
(Ghostly International/Vagrant)

It was about 5:30 am, on this past Valentine’s Day, and I was driving a big rig on the Interstate taking supplies out to a rainy parking lot for a big work fundraiser and I had on the local “alternative” radio station KNRK. Surprisingly, they broke free of their weird post grunge, hard rock, nearly unchanged “alternative” playlist from their mid-90s creation to play an as of yet unreleased song by New York’s School of Seven Bells. I had only ever heard of them up to that point, but turned up the volume in that rare chance of hearing good new music on the radio. The song was the lead off from the third album, “The Night,” and it immediately got under my skin – in all the best of ways. The chiming guitars, grinding bass and ethereal vocals reminded me of the first time I had heard the Cocteau Twins as a middle schooler in the mid 80s. I loved it and had it stuck in my head for several weeks until it was finally released to the public. Despite the warmth in my heart for the pre-LP single, it took me a little longer to absorb the more electronic aspects of the full album. It’s not that I’m against keyboard driven songs and drum machines; it’s just that over time, I have found the more “human” instruments to provide a generally longer lasting shelf-life. Having said that, the clinical approach to many of these songs, began to reveal a nice fuzzy melodic center that melted its way into my psyche for many repeated listens. These songs are somehow danceable and dream-like while mostly firmly based in strong pop song structures. It is a pleasant noise that the beautiful Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis make that at times can hint at a less gritty and angry Curve. It still think they’ve found their best moments in the more straight-forward tunes like “The Night,” “Lafaye,” and the fun upbeat drive of “Scavenger,” as opposed to the cold computerized vocals of “Low Times” and “White Wind.” The album closes with the dreamy epic “When You Sing,” which amazingly swipes the dance beat from My Bloody Valentine’s groundbreaking “Soon” and provides a satisfying flourishing finale.

The Record Store Day limited 45 from these guys revealed a very nice cover version and live staple of Siouxsie and the Banshees, apparently underrated 1991 “hit,” “Kiss Them for Me.” I say underrated, because when Siouxsie released that song, I felt it was a devastating garish sellout from one of the most respectable women from the original punk/postpunk days I have always been so fixated on. But, at SVIIB’s show and with this single, this song sounds fantastic. I love the looping dual beats and am incredibly happy to have it. The B-side “When She Was Me” employs a more repetitive straight ahead dance beat similar to that of the Pet Shop Boys with their Introspective LP (think “I Want a Dog”) and it is catchy as hell. Why didn’t this make the album? I’m so happy I decided to turn up the radio that cold, dark, rainy holiday morning instead of switching it off.

School of Seven Bells-Lafaye


“The Drift” 7”

What a pleasant little debut! This is a sophisticated cosmopolitan sort of album that harkens towards big city lifestyles and crafty day jobs. Amber Papini fronts this New York trio (now a quartet) and her cutesy affected style of singing adds a fun whimsy and dreamlike quality to this collection. This all reminds me a little of the long lost and missed Suddenly, Tammy! from the mid 90s, if Beth Sorrentino played guitar instead of piano, while a couple of favorite tracks, like “Betty Wang” and the perfect “Liberal Arts” evoke a little bit of the baroque pop of Ivy. The album is brilliantly produced as all of the varied instruments (guitar, bass, drums, saxophones, strings, piano, keyboards, etc.) really pop. As a listener, it sounds like you’re completely surrounded and immersed by the dry and live sounding instruments. This is a promising and exciting debut.

Meanwhile, their much more recent recordings, released as a double A-side 45, find Hospitality hitting a looser rock-n-roll vibe and it brings an exciting edge. “The Drift” has Amber Papini taking on a kind of shouting faux British accent sing-speak style that feels like something from the early 80s British invasion, before the song drifts into a dreamy quiet middle and the finally closes with an instrumental jam session! Wow! Fantastic! The other A-side is a song written by producer and multi-instrumentalist Nathan Michel and it too is upbeat and alive with energy. With this new single the anticipation for new material only grows.
(mergerecords.com/artists/hospitality or facebook.com/hospitalitylives)

Hospitality-Friends of Friends


The Frank and Walters
Greenwich Mean Time

I was first drawn to Irish band the Frank and Walters back in 1991 when they drew comparisons to first LP A House (whose singer, Dave Couse, also produced some of their work) with their early EPs on the fledgling Irish record label Setanta. I stayed when their punchy pop songs really caught me. I loved their energy and their somewhat sarcastic way with words. Now after so many years and a lot of albums, they have become pretty obscure on these shores. They disappeared in 2000, with the release of their fourth album Glass, an experiment with electronics that I stayed clear of. They’ve now put out two albums in the last twelve years and after the last, the strong record A Renewed Interest in Happiness, I thought they were finally gone for good. So, here we are, Greenwich Mean Time, is their sixth, and I have to say it is one of their best! To me their peak was with 1997’s The Grand Parade (and the shimmering “Indian Ocean” EP) and the heavy and emotional Beauty Becomes More Than Life (1999), after they dropped the sardonic fun and started making more heartfelt worldly music. This new one finds them recapturing their light-handed seemingly effortless melody stuffed guitar work. Their strength, as always, is the ability to craft hummable tunes and, of course, the good guy vocals of Paul Linehan who has an amazing way of expressing a wide emotional range. Many of these songs rival the best of their work from the late 90s, while the most upbeat songs, like the opener “Indie Love Song,” “20 Years,” and “The Clock,” all remind of their more light-hearted early years. This is a fine and welcome return from these veterans.

The Frank & Walters-Indie Love Song


Dinosaur Jr.
I Bet on Sky

I’m not sure what brought J Mascis and Lou Barlow back together, but it’s been quite a ride since they reformed the original line-up of Dinosaur (with drummer Murph) back in 2005. It didn’t seem possible due to the public animosity on display, especially from Barlow throughout his various touring indie incarnations. However, here we are with three strong albums in, several tours crisscrossing the globe and no sign of an end in sight. With I Bet On Sky, their tenth album overall, we find Dinosaur Jr. discovering some new territory to cover, which is a pleasant surprise. Check out the opening “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” and the subtle introduction of momentum keyboards underneath the strumming guitars (they still crunch heavy in the chorus), while the end of the song brings in a soft piano melody paired with Mascis’ feed backing guitar. It’s excellent. There are new touches of this expansion throughout. “Almost Fare” is driven by acoustics and a peaceful trance-inducing minor chord, while “I Know It All So Well,” finds some serious wah-wah guitar work and busy and loose drumming that feels brand new. Don’t be scared by these changes though, because this is still Dinosaur Jr. through and through and maybe their best album since the essentially Mascis solo outing Green Mind (check out the rocking “Pierce the Morning Rain” reminding a little of the sweeping power of “The Wagon”). Lou Barlow’s usual two song additions here for the first time don’t feel like he’s holding back, as they have in the past. “Rude” is a propulsive heartfelt driver that rivals some of his best early Sebadoh work, while “Recognition” truly feels like he’s working with the entire band, with the viciously tight bridge, wild drums and an epic Mascis guitar solo. I’d love to see them continue this upward trajectory.

Dinosaur Jr.-Watch the Corners


The North
(Soft Revolution/ATO)

What a relief this album is. After Stars’ last album, 2010’s The Five Ghosts, I was worried that they were running out of inspiration. Aside from a few songs, it never gelled with me. It also ways felt forced and lacking their trademark all in aspirations. They had been building and steadily improving with each album, from the Pet Shop Boys via The Smiths two piece debut Nightsongs in 2001 to the bigger pastures of 2003’s Heart and then peaking with 2004’s epic and orchestral Set Yourself on Fire. Ever since, the arc has been mildly downward, but hopefully, they bottomed out with The Five Ghosts. This 6th album feels refreshed and reinvigorated. Maybe that’s why The North simply appeared in stores with very little promotion or press, so they could re-introduce themselves to the world and begin again. Musically, they have always taken cues from various 80s pop and indie acts, but their stamp has always been the overwrought melodrama of singer Torquil Campbell and the cool and calming Amy Millan. They are both at their best when they sing together to create romantic narratives – generally of the longing or crumbling kind, as in the closer highpoint of “Walls,” or the outrageously cheesy and fun “Do You Want to Die Together?” The North is not anywhere near their pinnacle, but it reveals itself in a easy and relaxed manner, which is best represented in the oddly mixed together middle section of the album with the aforementioned “Do You Want to Die Together?,” the teenage slow dance “Light Changing Colour,” and electronic atmospheric “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” – which act as a strange medley. This album for me, however, is front-loaded. My favorite tracks are the first five. The mid-tempo Human League-ish “The Theory of Relativity” kicks things off nicely with a narrative about growing up, while “Backlines” is a stuttering short pop song that explodes into a dreamy atmospheric chorus. That dreamy aspect is revisited on another Millan fronted “Through the Mines,” which is as close as they’ve come to hinting at the so-called shoegaze influence of bands like Lush since her “Ageless Beauty” in 2004. The title track acts as an ad hoc ode to their native Canada and its long winters, as does the piano ballad love song “The 400,” which is a dream song for a stage actor to over sing on Broadway! A song that should really be a hit though is their uplifting song “Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It.” It’s catchy as hell and has that magnificent New Order bass line at each bridge. So glad to have my Stars back.

Stars-The Theory of Relativity

You can find the remainder of the Top 40 of 2012 via the following links:

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