Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #5 to #1



Another great year of music comes to a close.  There are many exciting releases on the near horizon to begin 2014, so much to look forward to.  But it’s not nice to take stock and remember what made this past year so tolerable.  I've said plenty (too much) here, so now I would love to hear what kinds of music got everyone else going this past year.  Please feel free to share your picks and stories. 


5.


Kitchens of Distinction
Folly
(3 Loop)

Well, this is awkward.  One of my favorite bands from twenty plus years ago has reformed and they have left me speechless!  I now realize that I never tried to write about them back when they existed from the late 80s till about 1996.  They never easily fit with everyone they were lumped in with, even though in my world they were essentially the epitome of what I was looking for.  Patrick Fitzgerald’s lyrics were always poetic, incredibly honest, dramatic, filled with vivid imagery and layers of interpretation, and often times political – plus he was a great bass player, along the lines of New Order’s Peter Hook and especially, Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie.  Julian Swales’ guitar work was always up there with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields as far as pure creativity and the ability to twist his strings into soaring layers of sounds that one would not generally associate with the electric guitar.  And then there’s drummer Dan Goodwin, whose unusual style was just as much of a trademark as Swales’ guitar.  His playing was always big, but also very intuitive.  It often felt as though his tempos would adjust as the intensity of their frequent song ending floods of sound would increase.  So, now, they’re back.  They’re not touring, which may be good for me, since when I saw them perform in the fall of 1992, they melted the plugs inside my ears.  The album seems to be named Folly on a lark, because none of them seem to fully realize how this has happened.  Whatever the case, this album is so damn good and so damn them, but it’s not exactly as they were.  This sounds like a fairly natural progression from their 1994 fourth album Cowboys and Aliens, as they began to slow down their gusto a bit and write a wider variety of song styles.  This album is complex.  These songs don’t have the huge hooks of some of their past songs, but they reveal themselves with repeated listens and it’s very exciting to have them back.  “Oak Tree” opens the collection with a finger picked acoustic guitar, as Fitzgerald tells us the story of two lovers growing from the first blossoms of their relationship through sickness and until death, as they music builds a backdrop that feels increasingly menacing as it progresses.  They aren’t fooling around.  Meanwhile, the drama of Swales’ guitar layers that rival a huge orchestral arrangement, act as a perfect soundtrack for Fitzgerald’s rumbling mid range bass lines and his British Romanticist poetry.  Piano opens up the tragic story that is “Photographing Rain,” which details the hanging of two gay Iranian men via a crane.  The darkness continues on “Wolves/Crows” whose rolling chain gang style beat rumbles underneath Swales’ chaotic guitar squall, as Fitzgerald sing/speaks his unleashing of bitterness and inner poison on an unsuspecting tree (“poor tree, its sap thick with my dull life’s sicknesses”).    It’s a fitting and powerful metaphor for humanity’s raping of nature, but personally it also feels like a cautionary tale to not allow anger and hatred and frustration to poison one’s own soul.  On a lighter note, the first single, “Japan to Jupiter,” finds Fitzgerald lost in nostalgia as he regales us with tales from discovering music and clubs and the promise of youth and a limitless future to a fantastic soundtrack.  The other immediately catchy song, “I Wish It Would Snow,” is a simple tale of wanting to stay at home all day and not face the daily grind – something we have all wished for since childhood all the way into the high pressure of the work life.  This beauty opens with a chiming, catchy guitar line and a lackadaisical bass crawl and a sweeping chorus that climaxes with a perfectly placed tambourine shake.  This is exactly the kind of song that has been missing for too long.  Welcome back guys.


4.


Veronica Falls
Waiting for Something to Happen
Five Covers Volume 2 EP
“Teenage” 7”
“Waiting for Something to Happen” 7”
“Broken Toy” 7”
(Bella Union/Slumberland)

There’s something so comforting to me about the Veronica Falls sound.  Their dry, tightly strummed guitar interplay, the ceaselessly rolling and relentless drums remind me of those great New Zealand and Aussie bands of the late 80s and into the 90s like the Bats and the Cannanes, who could write the same song over and over again, but it was such a damn good song and so well done, that it never really dawned on me.  What the Veronica Falls have that those bands didn’t (or don’t) have is vocal harmonies to die for.  These songs are so well sung and so perfectly put together that the melodies dance in your thoughts for days after each listen.  Their self-titled debut album from 2011 (my #9 pick seen here) was an invitation into their dark world of disappointment and death that somehow felt so welcome and comforting.  That album’s “Bad Feeling” (“I’ve got a bad feeling and it’s not going away”) is my daily anthem as I head into work each day, because, unfortunately, it is so fitting.  If you liked that fantastic debut, you will love this album as well.  Nothing has changed in their sound, except that have tightened some of their loose ends and found a clearer bolder production for this recording (thanks Rory Atwell!).  The result is that the rhythm section of drummer Patrick Doyle and bassist Marion Herbain are now a force to be reckoned with and lead singer,  Roxanne Clifford’s vocals, are more out front and even easier to enjoy, especially when fellow guitarist James Hoare comes in with his deep baritone.  It is stunning to think that they can just keep cranking out such beauties and there is never a dud.  Though they haven’t supplanted “Bad Feeling” with a new dread inducing work anthem, they have offered up something awfully close with “Bury Me.”  It’s not so much a suicide song, but one that identifies those feelings of reaching the point of wanting to give up and let go.  It’s been a source of understanding during a difficult year filled with health uncertainties, discouragement and feeling “adrift.”  There’s nothing more powerful than the comfort of being understood.  Similarly, “Broken Toy” strikes a chord in those us who have never felt at ease with oneself and/or have struggled or helped someone struggle closely with really challenging times.  It’s that understanding and their warm music that makes such bleak subjects so healing.  It doesn’t end with these, because these thirteen songs, starting with the sublime momentum building “Tell Me” through to the set closing goodbye note “Last Conversation,” are new classics that have me delightfully singing along with their hard lessons and rainy day misery.  The amazing 2012 pre-LP single “My Heart Beats” still hasn’t outlasted its welcome with its three minutes of tumbling perfection.  “Teenage,” likewise, gives us a tale of the breezy exuberance of young love from the fuzzy Vaseline adjusted perspective of adulthood.  Each song is an exquisite few minutes of longingly resonant music and heartfelt words sung to us in the most elegant possible harmonies.  Here’s hoping they please keep this up for as long as I continue to struggle through a never ending adolescence.

If you were lucky enough to score one of their limited edition covers EPs from a tour stop or through pre-ordering their album, then you’re in on the treat.  I missed out on the first Five Covers EP and it has become the stuff of legend.  This volume 2 is pretty good with a couple of punk rock covers (Homeblitz and the Rats), some Bob Dylan (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) and the amazing and fitting “Bury Me Happy” originally by the Moles and The La’s truly “Timeless Melody,” whose Lee Mavers’ would most assuredly approve (or not, since he seemed an angry man) of their lo-fi approach.  These songs were all recorded in live to tape in a flat in one take, with the vocals done in the bathroom.  There is an unlisted cover of Ween’s “What Deaner Was Talking About,” which is also surprisingly heartfelt considering the source.  A nice treat if you can find it.

The “Teenage” 7” arrived around the same time as the LP, but had been previewed late in 2012 and it is a perfect teaser for the album and one of the finest songs of the year with its gorgeous harmonies and agonizingly pitch perfect capture of lost adolescence and the reassuring conclusion that “everything’s alright.”  The b-side is a simple two minutes of acoustic based balladry with a zinger aimed at narcissism.  This is a song that, much like all of their others, is no throwaway b-side.  Its melody stays with you.  I find myself singing its chorus quite often out of the blue.  Or is it a reminder to not be so selfish.  “Is it true / nothing better to do / than talk about you?”

Meanwhile, the “Waiting for Something to Happen” 7” highlights the title track’s call to action.  It’s hard to deny such a compelling question: “What’s your excuse baby - standing in the middle waiting for something to happen?”  I like it when bands record and release songs as they go.  This B-side, “Perpetual Motion” was recorded during their US tour and finds them using some backwards loops to adorn a super short experiment.  It took me a while to have this one grow on me, but James Hoare’s bass back up vocal that sets the stage for the brief chorus is magical.

Finally, the “Broken Toy” is completely non-essential.  Yes, the A-side is excellent, so for those of you only looking for this song, it’s a place to go.  The B-side, however, is simply a demo for the great album track “If You Still Want Me,” which is okay, but nearly as impactful or very much different than the LP version.

They have a new single out digitally now, but I will address this closer once the vinyl is distributed in early 2014.


3.


Underground Lovers
Weekend
(Rubber)

When I first heard the Underground Lovers’ “Promenade” off of their landmark 1992 sophomore album Leaves Me Blind, I instantly fell in love.  They somehow captured the energy and vibe and, mildly, the sound that New Order perfected on side one of their 1986 Brotherhood, and then took it to a whole other level with a Wedding Present style jam session at the end that just keeps getting louder and louder as it builds and builds and doesn’t let go until the listener has been pummeled by the onslaught.  It left me breathless and exhilarated and I was hooked.  I’ve found myself searching high and low for their albums ever since – sometimes putting together incredibly expensive mail orders direct from Australia via international money order and a sinking feeling that nothing would ever arrive, but those CDs always did and never failed to impress.  Still the remoteness and difficulty of finding their music locally has always made me dream of the brief period in 1994 when their one US distributed release Dream It Down CD (which was sandwiched by a bunch of Leaves Me Blind songs) was available everywhere and usually for super cheap!   But it had been a long time since their last album, 1999’s well titled dark and epic Cold Feeling, which saw them pretty much embracing an all electronic album (albeit in a way that 17 Seconds era Cure might have made had they gone a similar direction), and with all of their side projects like Glenn Bennie’s consistently solid GB3 project and with vocalist Vincent Giarrusso making a movie (2000’s Mallboy), I assumed the band was done.  So, not only are they back, but back with the original line-up fully intact for their seventh long-player!  This is monumental.  It’s as if no time has passed.  This is as excellent, fresh and vital as they ever were.  Many of these songs could fit easily into different eras of the band, but none of it sounds like they’re retreating to past glories and it’s simply so welcoming to hear their somehow wholly unique guitar jangle – something that I might possibly be able to describe if I were a musician, but somehow their guitar phrasing is unlike anyone else’s.   It’s also good to hear Phillipa Nihill’s vocals back into the mix for the first time since 1996’s straight forward Rushall Station, so it is perfect that she takes the lead vocal on the soft and meditative opener “Spaces.”  In fact, Nihill sings up front in three of the quieter moments.  The nicely atmospheric love song “Dream to Me,” hints at Leaves Me Blind’s wonderfully bouncy “Holiday,” while the penultimate “In Silhouette’s” mostly guitar and voice balladry finds her cutting straight past the high of a new love and realizing that she’s “gonna tear your heart out” in the end, while reminding just a little of one of my old favorites “Ways t’Burn.”  There are also some seriously loud moments here as well.  “Can for Now” opens with that bare signature guitar riff before cruising into a nice shuffle beat and a song that builds momentum and noise as it progresses (along with the handclaps and woops and hollers), while the early single “Au Pair” begins with a classy bass plucking before exploding into a straight ahead rocker.  The propulsive closing epic “The Lie That Sets You Free” with it’s backwards effected vocals comes off a little bit like a lost gem from the self titled Stone Roses album.  It’s always been the Underground Lovers’ ability to blend their “live” instruments with dance beats and technology so seamlessly that is their true signature.  The room shaking beat of “Signs of Weakness” rattles its way into one’s consciousness as its keyboard atmospherics merge with a Peter Hook-esque bass line for a trance inducing finale.  Elsewhere, we find them paying tribute to the Aussie legends The Go-Betweens on “Riding” by stealing their “Cattle and Cane” riff and referencing them at a party (“We were at a party / Rob and Grant were there / Lindy in an afro / we was dancing on the stairs”) from the old days at the “Cattle and Cane Disco.”   However, it’s while listening to “St. Germain,” that it all finally sunk in that this remarkable band is back!  This song would’ve been a favorite of mine and fit seamlessly onto almost any of their albums, and yet, here it is, over 20 years after I first fell for them, a trademark single.  This is all without mentioning my favorite song on the album, the stunning and sweeping “Haunted (Acedia),” which may simply be one of their best songs period - right up there with the bitter “Beautiful World” from 1994’s Dream It Down.  What an amazing return!  Now, if only to get them back over to the states for a tour!


2.


The History of Apple Pie
Out of View
“Don’t You Wanna Be Mine?” 7”
(Marshall Teller)

Sometimes I find myself starting to get wrapped up in some kind of phony critic mind set when it comes to music.  I start thinking about music that I hear with the bent ear of why something might be important in some sort of fantastical big picture, or why something might be more important than another.  It’s all pretty ridiculous.  I am a music fan and the only reason I write these silly little pieces is because I am so excited about the things I like that I want to share them with whomever may be willing to listen.  It’s true that the lyrics to the debut album from this UK quintet are not overly profound, nor is their sound extremely original, but by damn, I love this album!  It doesn’t hurt that their influences seem to be drawn from my favorite era of music – the UK/US indie scene from the late 80s to the early 90s, or more specifically the less than flatteringly coined “shoegaze” scene, nor does it hurt that they’re so freaking good at it.  This is an aggressively uplifting album.  From the opening “Tug,” which feels ready to fly off the rails at any moment – barely kept grounded by a massive low end, to the stomping beat and squalling skyward approach of the closing “Before You Reach the End,” this album is pure joy to listen to.  In many ways, it reminds me of the fresh and energetic shock to the system I received from Popsicle’s Lacquer oh so many years ago (see story here).  The twin guitar assault between Jerome Watson and Aslam Ghauri here is gritty, intuitive and unhinged – not schooled and calculated (just check out the fills during the verses of the stumbling forward momentum of the standout “Glitch”).  Jerome Watson’s solos throughout sound like he’s strumming his effected guitar with as much force and speed as possible to see who can squeeze out the most sparks and break the most strings.  Meanwhile the sweet vocals of Stephanie Min provide the dreamy elegance to counteract the stratospheric aim of the music.  The highlight songs, however, are the ones that showcase the vocal interplay between Min and bassist Kelly Lee Owens – reminding strongly of the much missed Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson from Lush.  The poptastic “See You” can only smack a huge smile across my face as those two trade ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘la la las’ atop a Watson’s aggressive string shredding strums.  Each song melts into the next rarely providing a breath, as the closing feedback of “See You” immediately kicks starts the buzzing and bouncing “Mallory,” which is yet another candy coated piece of pure gold.  Perhaps the sweetest moment is for the simple comforting love song that is “You’re So Cool,” or for me, a kind comforting reminder that life is not all bad.  There indeed are occasional quiet moments of love and contentment and they should be treated with respect and given the same weight as those dark times and struggles that seem to dominate memories.  Of course, the very next song on the album, the huge and majestic “I Want More,” explores the struggle to keep it all together and to keep dreams alive.  During this year of personal struggle, this album has never failed to put a smile on my face and fill me with at least a touch of energy.  What more can someone ask from music?

The band also released a 7” single for a new song late this year, “Don’t You Wanna Be Mine?”  It’s a solid song with some nice organ pumping before the usual flood of guitars carries the song to a thrilling close.  The B-side, however, is just a remix of the A, which is a disappointment.  Word has it that they’re working on the second album already, which is fitting of their clear enthusiasm.  Can’t wait!


1.


Lanterns on the Lake
Until the Colours Run
(Bella Union)

Lanterns on the Lake’s debut, Gracious Tide, Take Me Home (my 2011 #3 pick), was a misty melancholic epic.  The entire album evoked images of dreary grey skies and the cold dampness of coastal harbors.  Having grown up in such an environment, it recalled the comforts of home and the longing of escape and the need for warmth and brightness.  Much like their three early self-released EPs, Gracious Tide wormed its way into my heart and found itself to be one of my favorites of the last several years.  I listen to it over and over when the mood strikes and lose myself in its beautiful landscape.  Having said this, their follow-up has a lot to live up to.  Word has it that the recording of Until the Colours Run was not such an easy process either.  The band lost two founding members as well as struggling through a financial crisis.  Apparently, there was doubt that they would continue.  Well, I for one am thanking them personally for sticking it out, because this second album is an astonishing triumph.    The pre-LP single “Another Tale from Another English Town” immediately threw down then gauntlet that they are truly a force to be reckoned with, as its one of the best songs to come out this year.  They don’t lose their cinematic windswept beauty, they enhance it with more of a focused energy, a little added edge to the layers of instrumentation and to the lyrics, as singer Hazel Wilde sings of frustration with the direction of society, perhaps stemming from the band’s own struggles or simply witnessing the drastic cutbacks to important programs governments are making in the name of austerity: “it’s getting hard to breathe round here, to think round here / and we’ve been sold a thousand lies this year / we just wanted the  quiet life, the quiet life / but they won’t stop till they see us in the ground, till they see us in the ground.”  It’s this soft-spoken protest plainly sung inside the sweeping dynamics of the music that drives the message home that much harder.  It’s difficult not to feel the sadness and anger building inside.  Additionally, the album’s opener “Elodie” seethes on to the scene with buzzing feedback before exploding into a breathtaking dramatic wall of urgent beautiful noise.  Each verse is a quiet piano led interlude with Wilde’s plaintive vocals – though there is a restless percussive that flutters around her voice, as if the band is itching to get back to that noise.  Then the song shifts tempos about two thirds of the way in and they crank out a striking guitar solo, before things simmer down to a hush as the song concludes.  “The Buffalo Days” keeps this more direct direction upfront, as the violins build tension that only partially gets relieved in the crashing cymbals of the chorus, and then the entire song pushes itself into a massive climax that rivals some of the most dramatic moments of the much missed Delgados.  On that line of thought, “The Ghost That Sleeps in Me,” also hints at the power and variety of that band, as Wilde almost sounds like Emma Pollock as she whispers atop slow piano stammers, cellos and crackling static, but then the song shifts into a symphonic epic held together by deep pounding drums.  Meanwhile, the heart wrenching piano ballad, “Green & Gold” sticks to its simple direct unadorned approach and teaches us the “fear is just a fleeting thing,” while “love is not a fleeting thing” – reminding us that we can overcome our fears easier than we can overcome heartbreak.  When I first heard Lanterns of the Lake, after mail ordering their 2008 debut Starlight EP, I immediately liked them, but I never saw this kind of grandeur coming from those days of humble CDr’s and handwritten sleeves.  This is purely a magnificent album that grows and reveals its power and subtleties with each listen.  I urge you, if you haven’t heard them previously, to give them a chance to astound you.


see the rest of the best here:



Top 40 of 2013 - #10 to #6



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


10.


Sisu
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!


9.


Camera Obscura
Desire Lines
“Break it to You Gently”/”Do it Again” 2x7”
(4AD)

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.


8.


Lloyd Cole
Standards
(Tapete)

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.


7.


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.


6.


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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Top 40 of 2013 - #15 to #11



The countdown continues…


15.


Drakes Hotel
Love’s Not Lazy EP
(DH Music)

Drakes Hotel is on a hot streak!  This five tracker, their first EP, comes a little over a year after their last full length, Logic Adopts Senses, which is ahead of their release every 2-3 years track record.  They must be feeling inspired, because this EP includes some of their best work yet and word has it that they will be releasing a series of EPs in the near future, as well as doing some touring in the new year.  The EP starts off with the extended melancholic “The Night Train Home,” where Amy Drake’s unique, strong and stellar vocals are placed fully out in front of the mysterious and haunting soundscape underneath.  This song would make a perfect soundtrack for a night time train ride - lost in thought, because it absolutely evokes that feeling of reflection and decompression.  The upbeat “Young Taste” is up next and finds DH getting right to the point with a fairly straightforward rock song that screams single!  The lyrics are thought provoking.  It seems to be spelling out some relationship troubles within each verse, while the chorus (which includes near power chords!) stretches the theme to a potentially more universal problem with relationships in general in a world of social media and over sharing.  The centerpiece, “Leave It Dark,” includes everything there has ever been to love about this duo.  The sing-a-long chorus is not only full of wisdom, but is catchy as hell, while the simple repeated piano refrain creates a solid tuneful base for Chris Y’s stellar guitar work that reaches for the stratosphere throughout – reminding of the graceful striving cascades that the House of Love created with “Love in a Car’ oh, so many years ago.  It’s amazing how much variety Drakes Hotel achieves with their modest recording tools, but “Sense Non Sense” is a huge sounding song that is full of open space and an atmospheric keyboard line that instills a sense of intrigue that is so attractive about their music.  Maybe this song would be better served as the hit single with its huge musical climax and its tale of a dying relationship, which is succinctly and memorably told (“We had a lack of progress / on a bed of promise / all we used to be got all fucked up”).  Finally, the EP closes with the dramatic and hopeful sounding “Sick Apart,” which again addresses relationship issues and miscommunication or lack of within, but seems to find that there can still be a strong enough core to survive and even thrive.  When Amy sings near the end “Keep holding me…I’ve wanted you for so long,” it feels as though everything will be alright.  Please do yourself a favor and track down this music (their last three albums can be found at CDBaby.com).  It is a journey well worth the price of admission.


14.


Northern Portrait
Pretty Decent Swimmers 10” EP
(Matinee)

Was it really 2010 when Danish band Northern Portrait released their debut album Criminal Art Lovers?  How can it have been that long?  Time goes by way too fast, but at least they are back and they started out 2013 with this beautiful ‘swimming pool blue’ colored 10” vinyl EP – ensuring that no matter what, this year would be a good year for music.  No, Northern Portrait has not lost their similarities to the Smiths, but you know what?  I’m glad.  I miss that energetic effortless sound they created, and NP come as close as one can get to such excellence!  They also bring to mind the pop explosion in Sweden from the early 90s from bands like Popsicle, Wannadies This Perfect Day, Happydeadmen and Easy, with their seeming limitless tunefulness.  These guys are so good at writing catchy tunes with lighter than air guitar intricacies and downtrodden lyrics that still exhibit a sense of flair and wit.  “Happy Nice Day” opens the EP perfectly with what sounds at first glance like an honest to God ode to the beginning of a happy nice day until we hear vocalist Stefan Larsen ask “Is that a possibility?” all while listing off a literal travelogue worth of lonely lost moments around the globe (“I lost my heart in Hamburg and then my breath in Nice”).  It’s a fantastic piece of pure pop filled with “oohs and aahs” and “la la la las” that cannot avoid improving my day.  The travels continue with “Greetings from Paris,” which weaves a fascinating snapshot story of lost souls trying to find meaning from dashed dreams.  The opening refrain “Delayed by an opportunity to cause a firm and effective mess” gives a hint at the quality storytelling within.  “Bon Voyage!” kicks off side two with a dancey shuffle beat and some sharp guitar strums atop some tasteful organ and occasional piano interludes and another travel tale (“destination: good time”).  Finally (and sadly it has to end), the EP closes with “I Feel Even Better,” which absolutely glides with a sparkling and yet somehow purely melancholic sound.  This one seeks solace in escape instead of familiarity (nice play off of the old Cheers TV theme: “Sometimes I want to go where nobody knows my name and they couldn’t care less if I came”) and I’m not so sure any hope is found by the end (“I’m so tired of this uninspiring life”).  It is damn refreshing to hear this band’s music and to be allowed to wallow in the superbly told stories of real sadness and disappointment.

Matinee recently released a new collection that compiles all of Northern Portrait’s EPs, B-sides and compilation tracks – entitled Ta! – which includes this 10” EP.  Great stuff!


13.

The Ocean Blue
Ultramarine
(Korda)

The Ocean Blue has always held a special place in my heart.  They came along with 1989’s debut as a rare American installment in the 80s UK raincoat rock I loved so much.  They fit nicely with the Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and so many more.  David Schelzel had a knack for writing deeply affecting guitar leads and the band could always provide a stellar landscape.  They never had the huge ego or edge to their music, which always felt like it kept them from attaining a bigger profile, but it was when they focused on their nice guy reflective songs that they were always at their best.  For me, their 1991 second LP Cerulean was their high water mark.  Gone was the gauzy rainy haze of the debut, instead they focused their attention to details and provided us with a sublime and immaculately crafted album full of sad and reflective songs and crystalline melodies.  It was an album that captured my imagination and comforted me through a rough and terrible year.  Well, four albums and 22 years later, they are back with another blue themed album, and though, not quite as perfect, this is a hugely welcome return to the fold (their previous release being 2004’s very solid Waterworks EP – whose opening instrumental, “Fast Forward Reverse,” has been expanded and improved and included here).  I hate to say it, but this is the Ocean Blue that I liked so much originally.  Their 1999, 60s pop influenced Davy Jones’ Locker, was okay, but not full of the big pristine sound that they always excelled.  Aside from the fine sounding filler that is “A Rose is a Rose,” every song here is strong.  The opening “Give it a Try,” has a huge low end and may be the most roughshod this band ever gets (which isn’t a lot) and about as political as well.  “Sad Night, Where is Morning?” and “Ground Gives Way” are both songs that could easily have supplanted a couple of the good ones from the masterful Cerulean, and not surprisingly both have been selected as singles to promote the album.  “New York 6AM” and “Sunset-Moonrise” are also standouts with their lush warmth and beauty, while the acoustic strumming of “Blow My Mind” and “If You Don’t Know Why” remind more of their exciting debut album.  Again, it pains me to say this, but their ability to recapture some of these old glories that has me buzzing.  I should be embracing their growth and continued change, and though I have stayed with them through thick and thin, it has always been their first three albums that shone the brightest, so this return to form – so to speak – feels so damn right.  Here’s hoping that this band thing becomes a more full time entity once again, so we don’t have to wait so long between releases.


12.


The Chambermaids
Whatever Happened Tomorrow
(Old Blackberry Way/Guilt Ridden Pop)

After offering up two free downloads peeks at their new material early in 2012, Minneapolis’s The Chambermaids finally released their third album (mini album?) with this remarkable Whatever Happened Tomorrow.  I first learned of this band with their second collection, 2009’s Down in the Berries, whose seven songs fly by with a serious urgency and discordance that hinted at early Poster Children crossed with the dreamy dual vocals (provided by siblings Neil and Martha Weir) and atmospherics of Slowdive.  But it was those two songs last year, “Whirlpool” and “China Blue,” – both included here - that hinted at new possibilities and a big step forward.  “Whirlpool” opens this nine song album with its disjointed beat and simultaneously edgy and atmospheric guitar layers and spikes, while “China Blue” crashes in at the end of side one with its massive onrush of noise and a menacing low end bass rumble.  There’s no doubt that they’ve taken huge inspiration from the tremolo bending exploits of My Bloody Valentine, but they’ve retained their Midwestern sensibilities throughout – making this sound fresh and different somehow.  The acoustic strum that opens the powerful “I Wonder Why” leads to a verse that fights not to be overwhelmed by the beautiful haze of feedback that swirls in from all sides.  Similarly, the Martha fronted “Scraped Away” is steeped in buzzing noise, but hints melodically like the 60s influenced Primitives.  Meanwhile, “Electric Sky” has the rough hewn forward motion of Kiwi bands like the early Verlaines or more accurately, the Straightjacket Fits, or the UK’s late great whatever-happened-to Venus Beads, all the while concluding with an addictive cooing repetitive lyrical harmony that is guaranteed to stick in your craw forever.  The penultimate track, the ebbing and flowing” “Flight of Cranes” is another ground shaker.  It’s filled with splashing cymbals, a lazy low end bass crawl and walls of guitars that bring a striking interlude between the moody instrumentals that close the album.  Somehow I think this band has absorbed everything I’ve liked musically over the last 25 years and crammed at least a little bit of it all into a brief 25 minutes.  This is a must have and it’s inexpensive in any format!


11.


Cheatahs
Extended Plays
“Cut the Grass” 7”
(Wichita Recordings)

This year has had me all in a flux with music.  I’m confused.  I have always prided myself in not allowing myself to get stuck in a time period musically.  I always bristle inside when I hear someone say, “They don’t make music like they used to,” because generally in my age bracket that’s coming from someone who stopped paying attention to new music after the Outfield broke up.  I’ve always believed that every year is crammed with fantastic music, no matter what, it may take more effort to track down sometimes, but it’s out there.  But more and more, I’m starting to wonder if I truly am stuck in a time long gone, just in a different way.  Am I simply listening to new music by the same old bands (see Kitchens of Distinction, Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine, The Ocean Blue, and many more – see elsewhere on this list!!)?  Or am I listening to only newer bands that remind me of times gone by (The History of Apple Pie, Chambermaids, Just Handshakes, Ex Cops, and many more – see elsewhere on this damn list!!)?  It’s starting to seem clear to me that I am stuck in a rut, or is it simply because there’s really nothing new anymore to begin with?  When I first heard Extended Plays by Cheatahs (a compilation of their two four song EP releases during 2012), I was stunned and still am how perfect of a melding their sound is of Ride and Swerverdriver.  There’s no way around it.  It’s almost as if Swervedriver stepped in to perform Ride’s Smile compilation (their US debut was similarly a grouping of their first two EPs).  It is that exacting.  They have the big pounding rawk and blistering feedback of Swervedriver and the more tuneful and melodic touches of Ride and the abandon of both.  The songs are all generally about escape or desire to escape, sometimes with a loved one, sometimes without.    So, how do I judge this?  Well, I’m trying to take off my “Oh my God I’m getting old!!” hat and just enjoy it all for what it is.  And damn, I enjoy this!  I have listened to the teeth rattling riff of “The Swan,” the teetering on the edge of control “Fountain Park,” the tight and endlessly addictive guitar hook of “Flake,” the two minute bursting at the seams “Ripper,” and the music collector nerd junkie escape fun of “Jacobi” (“Do you wanna ride tonight?  Do you wanna go inside?  I got loads of 45s?”) over and over again and it gets my pulse pounding and makes me bounce my head around and wish I could still grow the mop of hair I used to have back in the day.  When it all comes down to it, these eight songs are fun to listen to, and isn’t that what it’s all about? 

The double A-sided single released toward the end of this year features a snapshot of what we might expect from Cheatahs debut album due out in February.  “Cut the Grass” continues their thread of upbeat buzzing fire, but this time with a kind of spooky keyboard line that floats around the intro and the conclusion.  This sudden fade out of the song is a bit of a disappointment, but another great song nonetheless.  Meanwhile, “Kenworth” is a full on blaster of guitars and dreamy vocals that simultaneously floats and feels unleashed and chaotic.  Wow.  Not as immediately catchy as their other material, but maybe more of this is to come.  Looking forward to the debut, whether or not my mind will ever wrap around the idea of how old this stuff sometimes makes me feel, despite reigniting my old energy and fire for this music. 


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