Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #25 to #21

The countdown continues…


Mazzy Star
Seasons of Your Day
(Rhymes of an Hour)

It actually took me about six listens to this album before I made it through to the end.  Generally about three songs in, I’d fall asleep.  This may sound like a slight, but it’s actually quite a compliment.  I struggle to sleep – often due to a restless and disruptive mind, so having music that is so comforting and perfectly performed and recorded is a very good thing.  David Roback’s guitars are so well played and the notes always seem to hit exactly as they should, while Hope Sandoval’s beautiful Patsy Cline inflected voice simply drifts me into a dreamy world, where maybe not everything is hunky dory, but for this moment in time, everything happens to be okay.  When I ran across Mazzy Star’s “Common Burn” 7” early in 2012, at first, I actually thought it was two songs from their early 90s days unearthed for the first time, since the sounds were exactly as I had always remembered them.  Surprisingly, this was brand new material after being away for 16 years and this album is the result of this reformation.  What can I say about it?  If you enjoyed any of their original three albums, then you will like this.  It will act as an old lost friend who has come back into your life.  It will remind you of whatever you were doing at the time that this band first struck a chord inside of you.  If this is a new introduction, then you are in for a treat.  Mazzy Star formed long after the L.A. “paisley underground” had dissipated as a scene, but they drew from the best of those bands by inflecting their soft mood music with blues, country western, touches of psychedelics, folk and a remarkable melancholia all filtered through a gothic mysticism.  They capture a certain mood that is uniquely them and very easy to like. 


Still Corners
Strange Pleasures
(Sub Pop)

Strange Pleasures is the second full length from Still Corners and it is a remarkably different direction, yet a comfortable turn.  While 2011’s Creatures of an Hour was an interesting take on 70s horror movie soundtracks, with Tessa Murray’s haunting vocals and Greg Hughes’ scary creep-tactic organs and loops, this new offering contains more gorgeously lush dance numbers.  There is still a bit of a mysterious edge to their sound, but these songs are much more welcoming.  This collection reminds a bit of the retro 80s electro pop of bands like M83, Washed Out, and even at times, Chairlift, but none of them have the wonderful touch of Greg Hughes’ sterling guitar work, like that which appears on the epic opener “The Trip.”  There is a definite mood going on here and “The Trip” sets it perfectly, as these songs are made for driving or riding down an open road late at night completely lost in the slow glide of the rhythm of the wheels turning.  “Midnight Drive,” which should’ve been the album’s closer, continues this theme to perfection and needs to be added to anyone’s vehicle’s music machine.  The title track, “Beat City” and especially “Berlin Lovers,” have a definite Kraftwerk vibe underneath, the kind that played its hand in Depeche Mode’s early 80s work (especially 82’s A Broken Frame and 83s Construction Time Again), while the acoustic “Going Back to Strange” could be a Lanterns on the Lake number, and who can forget 2012’s 7” headliner, the breathtaking rumbling and breathy “Fireflies”?  In other words, Still Corners have actually been on the move and have broadened their horizons without changing their special touch that separates them from the rest.  This comes highly recommended as company for those lonely reflective nights on the road, or if you want to find yourself in that frame of mind, this will transport you there.


Midway Still
The Desert
(Bitter and Twisted)

Midway Still have always been a well-too-kept secret.  It is so great to have them back and active again, after such a brief two album stint in the early 90s.  Their last two albums, 2010s Note to Self  and 2012’s Always Ends, were remarkable reminders that their run was far from over.  No matter how old I get, or lost in fluffy winsome and atmospheric music, I still need shots of rock-n-roll adrenaline and Midway Still always provide with a plethora of solid sing-a-long anthems.  This eight song third album came as a big surprise.  Apparently, Paul Thomson and company recorded this lost album in 1993 and for whatever reason; it never saw the light of day until now.  Thankfully it has, if only in limited form – directly through the band’s website (it still shows up on their website, but I’m not sure if it’s still available.  Maybe some sweet talking will be needed to secure a copy).  It is a bit of a departure, but never shies away from their knack for melody and huge sounding choruses.  The songs here are longer, more stretched out and crammed with multiple tempo changes, instead of their reliable three minute torchers – although “Too Far Near” and “Hyperglide” would be at home with any of their other work.  “Pool of Fire” and “Face It” gives us a down tempo side and the angry “To Hate, Every Day” fuels this collection with a metallic edge and an incredible drum-fueled chorus (“and my revulsion gives me reason to hate every day”).  It is the massive sounding opener that really kicks my ass though.  “When You’re Wrong” is one of their best songs ever and its just now seeing the light of day after 20 years!!  Thomson’s guitar work here is absolutely shredding and phenomenal and the song is always on the verge of careening out of control.  I see on their website that they’ve also re-released an expanded edition of their stellar debut album Dial Square – re-titled Redial, so if you’re trying to track this CD down, you may as well order that one up as well.  Thanks for this.


Elizabeth Morris
Optimism EP (download)

Elizabeth Morris fronts the indie band Allo Darlin,’ whose whirlwind and overwhelmingly touching second album, Europe, was my #2 pick from 2012.  She has released, through Bandcamp, a bare bones four track digital EP as a stopover before the next highly anticipated album.  With “Tallulah” from Europe, she proved that she can not only carry the sparest of arrangements, but thrive in them.  Her voice is so rich and lovely that it’s comforting simply to hear her sing.  This EP is made up of two solo piano songs and two acoustic guitar songs and is jammed with her amazing storytelling, which mildly evokes the early 70s solo Paul Simon, whom she name checks on the title track (“I had a bad dream last night / that Paul Simon died / and when I woke up in the morning / I wanted to call you up and cry”).  It is in this environment that her stories pack the most emotional punch.  The opening “Young Republic” envisions a world where “guilt and fear and loss and shame” are outlawed allowing her to lay herself bare and express her strong feelings for someone, but she fully realizes that she cannot overcome the reality of how scary it is to actually open oneself up to such a potential hurt from being completely open (“and I realize that I’m playing the fool”).  The aforementioned “Optimism” is similarly heartbreaking, as she sings of feeling reluctant to express her feelings for another during a chance encounter (“then I wrote your name in my notebook / I had to check you were not looking / the most impressive person I’ve ever met”).  She sings of longing for this person and needing to lean on them after her emotional dream, but cannot confront them with her feelings in person (“I don’t know what to do when you look at me straight in the eye”).  It seems as though the chorus is a message directed inward and comes off as both a mild pep talk and defeatist (“And I said you’re too young / to give up on optimism”).  The first of the solo guitar songs has a similar tone to her “Tallulah” with serious long distance pining.  In this case, she doubts that she’ll ever be able to get beyond the idea of not ever seeing them again.  The heartbreak is palpable as she sings of growing old and never recovering.  The final song is a cover of a Wave Pictures song, with whom her band toured extensively.  The song fits her style beautifully, as she strips the original’s country flair to its base and sings with that amazing voice which is occasionally tinged by that emotional quiver that is so effectively touching.  This is a nice surprise to enjoy while we patiently await the next Allo Darlin’ album.


The Secret History
Americans Singing in the Dark

When I first fell for the Secret History, with 2008’s Desolation Town EP, I felt I had stumbled upon the next great thing.  When their debut LP came out in 2010, The World That Never Was, evidence was piling up that this band, led by former My Favorite indie stalwart Michael Grace Jr., was something pretty special.  Their blend of modern indie, 80s new wave, 70s glam, three main vocalists, and a whole lot of Catholicism made for an exciting mix harrowing tales and a nice wide variety of musical arrangements.  Now that they’ve released a second album, I feel that they have perfected their exciting little niche.  This is good stuff.  What also strikes me, and I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed this before, is that this music is ripe for a stage musical or even a cinematic one.  Depending on your take of such things, this could be a massive compliment or a huge slap in the face.  I am not generally a fan of musicals of any kind, but the internal short stories and sheer drama that Grace’s lyrics provide so spectacularly, make the idea of streaming them into a narrative an intriguing idea.  Anyway, that’s just an observation.  As an album, this is really fun to listen to.  It reminds me of going to concerts in the mid 80s, when it seemed (at least here in Portland) that so many barriers between cliques were non-existent.  We could go to a show by a minor one hit wonder and find ourselves mingling with CHR hit radio junkies, Goths, punks, the older crowd, and of course the new wavers smoking cloves.  This kind of music breaks those barriers, which may be stronger than ever in some ways with the ability of people to shut out anything they don’t like or don’t want to give a chance, and could, unite us all.  Okay, that’s a pipe dream, but not a bad one to have and it feels like the Secret History have that kind of ambition.  Every song is titled in some fashion after a name, so we get short stories about different characters as told by Grace, Lisa Ronson, and Jaime Babic.  “Sergio” was the first single from the album and acts as a perfect introduction with its insistent bass-line, and Ronson’s plaintive vocal, as she begins to question what her and this Sergio have been up to.  She’s no longer sure that living on the edge is something that she wants to be involved with anymore (“We stole the future…your dogs are fed but we are not”).  “Age of Victoria” comes on with a shaking and stuttering beat and a fun groovy bass-line, but continues this theme of growing up and realizing that there’s a point where youthful fun and abandon needs to turn into responsibility, whether we like it or not.  “Eleanor (The City & Sea)” is as catchy as this band can be with its spectacular chorus and unusual instrumental twists and turns.  The song is propulsive and exciting and tells a tale of resolute independence, with the underpinnings of self-doubt as the protagonists are on the run from what they’ve always known.  “Age of Marianna” is a beautiful piano ballad about loss and regret that is a nice musical break and a chance to take a breath, despite the heavy subject matter.  Meanwhile, “Anthony!” is a flashback of going dancing, carousing and having fun, that has the same fun remembrances and airy vitality of the Kinks 80s hit “Come Dancing.”  It will be interesting to see what this band decides to do next, but I will definitely be on the lookout.

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