Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #10 to #6

If you’ve stuck with me this long – CONGRATULATIONS! – you have reached the Top 10:


Blood Tears
(Mono Prism)

The last time I saw Sandra Vu was in early August of 2012 drumming for Dum Dum Girls.  The band was playing a one off fundraiser gig in Seattle for a venue.  Sandra was pounding along with the amazing tunes as perfectly as can be, but what struck me is how she looked like she was a vision direct from an 80s music video.  She was mostly cloaked in darkness at the back of the stage, but there was a little rectangle of light highlighting her eyes, as a fan blew a cool breeze from one side – blowing her flowing dark hair across her very serious face.  It was so damn cool!  What does this have to do with anything, you may be asking yourself?  Well, not much, except that Sandra Vu is the creative force behind this band – Sisu, which I’m told is Finnish for extreme perseverance.  Apparently, there have been previous EPs and singles over the last four years or so, but Blood Tears is the debut album and my introduction.  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but I am pleasantly happy to announce that this album is an absolute stunner!  While, like her visage on stage the prior summer, this album evokes a strong feel drawn from the world of 80s music, it still sounds new and fresh and not so easy to pigeon hole.  It’s really the disjointed bass lines and the chiming bells of the keyboards that set the stage for any retro references.  It’s not just any cheesy 80s though, let’s make that clear.  This is drawn from the kind of wonderfully creative and landmark recordings of early 80s 4AD Records filtered through the massive influence and creativity of Siouxsie and the Banshees.  This release would’ve fit neatly in amongst some of those legendary artists (Cocteau Twins, Colourbox, Dif Juz, The Wolfgang Press), while sounding nothing like them.  There are moments, such as the should-be-huge dance club hit “Cut Me Off,” that hint of the late great Heart Throbs.  What Sandra has done is make music that is really difficult to explain.  How does one explain the album’s first single “Harpoons” – which begins with softly pounded drums, computer noises and a spoken verse, before bursting into the bright colors of light that is the off-kilter repetitive chorus?  It doesn’t seem like it should be all that intriguing, yet it has been stuck in my head in a good way for weeks.  Another addictive song is the penultimate song “Sharp Teeth,” which includes a tumbling drum beat and disorienting noises, but still manages to be a purely golden pop nugget.  Speaking of pop nuggets, the early-Duran Duran fueled addiction that is “Return the Favor” is, once again, something that needs more exposure - its driving bass line and urgent keyboard washes are a perfect soundtrack for Vu’s amazing voice.  This album is mysterious and exciting.  It reveals new insights with each listen.  Let’s support Sandra’s extreme perseverance and buy her music!


Camera Obscura
Desire Lines
“Break it to You Gently”/”Do it Again” 2x7”

It’s hard for me to believe that this is only Camera Obscura’s fifth album.  It seems like they’ve been a comfortable old friend for decades.  I suppose it’s been twelve years since their first album and they have always been like an old friend who comes to visit every so often.  They’re one of those friends who don’t disrupt, but instead fits in seamlessly with whatever you already have going on with your daily life.  It’s what they’ve become so good at, isn’t it?  Writing songs about every day life?  They often sing about the stretches that fill the vast expanse of our lives, but the stuff that we rarely commit to memory or put any stock in.  It’s a neat little trick and not an easy one to pull off.  Desire Lines takes effort and patience.  It’s not as though Camera Obscura have been blazing a trail of rocking bombastic tunes over the years, but the live and highly orchestrated and busy songs of their last couple of albums (recorded in Sweden by Jari Haapalainen), has been streamlined into a beautifully and carefully crafted recording.  There are no major changes, but the vibe is cleaner and more stripped down and simplified and absolutely immaculately recorded.  What is lost is the pop music immediacy that can feel like a sudden crush, yet always offset by self-deprecation, like “French Navy,” “If Looks Could Kill” and “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” – though the lustful “Do It Again” comes close (despite the protagonist’s question “can you see tears on this clown?” while simultaneously urging the couple to “do it again.”).  Instead we’re forced to relax and listen and unveil the realities and subtleties that are found from a long term relationship – not the highs and lows of life.  With this patience comes the reward.  The perfectly arranged songs become more intriguing with each listen and Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics start to reveal backhanded struggles and small joys that dominate our days.  The opening song (after the brief string interlude of “Intro”) “This is Love (Feels Alright)” is exactly what the title suggests – an acceptance of love and, you know, it is okay.  The relationship is past that blind haze of infatuation and lust, but it still feels alright.  Like most of their work, the whole of this is melancholic and a little sad.  The catchy mid tempo single “Troublemaker” finds a couple turning off the TV at the end of another evening and there is an undercurrent of strife (“Feel the coolness of my gaze”), but nothing has come to the knife’s edge.  This is still a relationship in the in-between – still maintaining.  Elsewhere, in “Cri Du Coeur,” Tracyanne says “I know I’m a fuck up / I know, a real tragedy,” but she still thinks that she has more to offer than her competition.  “Fifth in Line to the Throne” finds more self-deprecation and an internal uncertainty: “Now that I am fifth in line to the throne / how am I going to tell my king that I don’t trust this throne anymore?”  “William’s Heart” is a descriptive of a lost soul.  “I Missed Your Party,” meanwhile, has Tracyanne expressing guilt and apologies for missing a friend’s party, while providing reasons: “I listen to Billy Joel / I watch Flashdance again / I’m going to get through Walt Whitman / I’m going to be in bed by ten.”  We’ve all been there.  Sometimes it’s just much better to stay home.  The beautiful and countrified closer, “Desire Lines,” finds our narrator travelling the world, escaping a “storm,” but ready and willing to return home and start anew (“Let me love you as I know how”).  Is it really that easy?  This song and album’s title refers to paths blazed off the set pathway to create a shortcut and it seems that we’re all always looking for shortcuts to happiness and those exhilarating moments in life.  Camera Obscura is here to remind us that there aren’t really any shortcuts in life.  That everything is not so simple, but there are always moments and that is what is most important.

The really cool gatefold double 7” single is a great find.  The two A-sides, “Break it to You Gently” and “Do it Again,” are both standout tracks on the album.  “Do it Again,” as mentioned above is the short and most upbeat pop number, with some manic percussion guiding it along.  “Break it to You Gently,” on the other hand, has easy glide of a song like “Let’s Get Out of This Country,” as Tracyanne tries to be careful with her fragile partner.  The two non-album songs are the upbeat and very catchy “Making Money,” which is about as excitable and lively sounding as their new material gets.  It feels more like an outtake from their third album (2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country).  The other B-side is the pedal steel steeped “Swallows” - another nice treat and worth checking out.


Lloyd Cole

Imagine my delight when I heard soon after I wrote a gushing flashback piece about Lloyd Cole’s 1990 solo debut (“Downtown” seen here), word was out that he was working with many of the same players with whom he worked on that incredible LP!  Some of these characters performed on his last album, 2010’s Broken Record, which was Cole’s return to working with a full band, including luminaries such as Blair Cowen, Matthew Sweet and Fred Maher, after several years of languishing in the true solo manner with home recordings with major folk leanings.  With this, Standards, he sounds refreshed and invigorated on a diet of pure rock-n-roll.  The album surprisingly opens with a cover of all things a late 60s folk song “California Earthquake.”  He turns this countrified John Hartford song (I was previously unfamiliar – apparently it was a hit for Mama Cass) into a mid tempo stomper complete with a strong repetitive riff and grinding guitars.  It’s a perfect statement to kick things off, as the song merges quickly into the mildly sardonic life lessons of “Women’s Studies,” and the addictively catchy “Period Piece” – giving this album a relentless punch.  Things turn a little at this point with the quiet Leonard Cohen / Bob Dylan poeticism of “Myrtle and Rose” and the Paul Simon-esque  “No Truck,” which would’ve both fit nicely on his last LP.  Meanwhile, the building ballad “Blue Like Mars,” with his echoed vocal, sounds like it was swiped directly from late era Commotions, the “X” album or side one of Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, as does the excellent closer “Diminished Ex,” whose bluesy feel hints at the stunning “Mercy Killing.”  The bass line and Maher’s distinctive drums of “Diminished Ex” alone make this song great, but its Cole’s looking back at a past failed relationship with the hindsight of age and experience that really shines here, as do the stellar guitar fills.  Cole’s lyrics and smooth delivery have always been what keeps his loyal fan base (me included!!) coming back and he is in top form here.  He’s once again bringing the late night cool and though I know he’s been around making good music the entire time, it’s good to have this version of him back for at least an album.  This is definitely up there with his best.


Just handshakes
Say It
(Bleeding Gold)

When approaching Just Handshakes debut album, one must be aware that it may take a bit of getting used to lead vocalists’ Clara Patrick’s voice.  It is sugary sweet and might not be accessible to everyone – at least upon first listen.  It reminds a bit of Amber Papini of NYC’s Hospitality and Karen Peris from the innocence mission.  Her vocals make sense, as they started 5 or so years ago as a twee pop outfit releasing hand numbered limited edition singles and cassettes, but now they’ve dropped the cutesy “We’re British” tag as part of their name and have hunkered down for a much darker and richer foray into the world of their first full length Say It.  The opening song, “London Bound,” is remarkably similar to New Order’s “Ceremony,” right down to Martin Hannett’s cold isolating production style, Peter Hook’s relentless repeated bass line, and Bernard Sumner’s scratchy guitars.  Yet, with the warmth and uniqueness of Patrick’s voice and the desire for closeness in the lyrics take this song in a completely different direction.  The similarities to Karen Paris go beyond simply vocals, because these two also share a sublime ability to write wistful lyrics about moments from the past, which offer up specific details, but are left open-ended enough to allow the listener to fill in their own experiences.  However, Patrick’s words often have a little edge to them – a little attitude, not too dissimilar to Harriet Wheeler’s work with the much missed Sundays.  There are a lot of references here, which seems unfair, because as a whole, this album sounds pretty unique and is a definite grower.  I like this album much more now than I did, when I first unsealed the wrapping, as its varied charms reveal themselves over time.  Another favorite song is the languid “Kiwi,” with its gritty bass line and mysterious guitar refrain and the beautiful chorus of “hey, are we okay?”  While the second half of the album starts off with two upbeat and catchy tracks with “Dead and Alive” and “Shadows.”  While “Cut and Run” provides a breezier tune until a buzz hits the chorus.  The album ends with a few short and slow numbers that add a depth to the collection as a whole.  “Stick Around” basically asks a significant other to quit their ridiculous drama and “stick around” (“you want someone to take your feet and lay you down in the darkest street / but it’s not as poetic as it sounds / your face pressed against the ground”).  While, the closer “Balmoral,” evokes Karen Peris’ style of flashing back to a welcome memory, but seemingly tinged with tragedy or loss, I’m not sure.  Wow, this is spectacular!  Too bad more bands don’t take their time before putting out their first grand statement, because Just Handshakes have allowed themselves to develop and grow and to impress.  Say It comes highly recommended.


New Model Army
Between Dog and Wolf
(Attack Attack/Eagle Rock)

New Model Army has never fit easily into any categories.  They’ve always written songs that absorb all kinds of musical influences and churn it all out with their unique vision.  Bandleader, songwriter, founder and leader Justin Sullivan has powered this band for 33 long years giving it his all.  There is no arguing this man’s commitment, desire, passion and sheer want.  He has written about revolution for the entirety of his career and continuously urged all of us to wake up, pull our collective heads out of our hind quarters and try to do what’s best for our children, our planet, and our souls.  Everything from him feels like it comes from another time and place, as he sings of horsemen and chases through nature scarred with the rusting carcasses of abandoned mills.  It’s this always-on-the-edge feeling of war and revolution that builds the tension in the music and reminds us that as humans we continually make the same mistakes over and over – never truly learning from our past as we are always in or on the brink of war.  On this, their twelfth amazing album, Between Dog and Wolf finds NMA possibly releasing their grandest statement yet, despite having to re-start from scratch after the passing of their long-time manager, the loss of their 22 year bassist Nelson, and losing their studio and instruments in a devastating fire.  It’s additionally interesting to find such majesty on such a grand scale (14 songs in over an hour) as Justin Sullivan for the first time ever seems to be showing some wear and tear.  There are signs that he is tired.  In the pastoral centerpiece “Lean Back and Fall” Sullivan recounts his travels and travails but concludes “now counting through these useless empty days / of standing up so tall against the world / and I’m lost, I am lost and I can’t trust myself.”  This song is followed by the ode to or portrait of Evel Knievel in “Knievel,” which also questions the futility via this man whose entire career was to either fly or fall – an all or nothing approach that Sullivan has often taken lyrically and philosophically with many of his messages.  Musically, this album rarely reaches any of their historical explosions, instead dwelling inside the constantly building tension with little or no chance of release.  It feels as if the dilemmas and questions regarding their own beliefs and systems have stuck them in some kind of confusing purgatory.  The most straight-ahead rocker “Stormclouds” continues Sullivan’s self doubts as he sings: “too quick to judge, too quick to act and forgive and forget / and always gone before the reckoning.”  He goes on to say “I never wanted to get anywhere / I never wanted to get anything / desire is the point of everything.”  There is a certain power in not letting oneself fall into complacency, but he is also finding that living too fast and always moving forward looking for the next tangle may not be the answer either.  This album is still filled with their huge hearts.  Everywhere we find tribal drums pounding their way like collective deep heartbeats of the masses all looking for answers – as in the song about the recent events of the so-called Arab Spring in “Qasr El Nil Bridge,” and the desperation in the powerful plea of “I Need More Time.”  This is not to be missed.  I recommend all of their albums, but if you’re unfamiliar, this is a great place to start and then you must work your way backwards through their amazing history.

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