January 4, 2009

2008 in Things That DIDN'T Suck, Parte Uno

Let the retrospect begin!

As the tardy member of the SDS brain trust with my year-end best-of last year, I feel compelled to kick off the new year with a punctual wrap-up to a year that I don't think anyone will be saddened to see pass. Hey, SOMETHING must've gone right... right? Well, uh --

Albums of the Year:

*Honorable Mentions

Elvis Costello and the Impostors - Momofuku

In his most immediate and well-realized work this decade, the one-time Angry Young Man managed to find recording time somewhere in his busy schedule that included hosting a variety show on Bravo, releasing a signature model Jazzmaster through Fender, getting eaten by a bear for laughs opposite Stephen Colbert, and guesting on Jenny Lewis' newest solo effort [let's not talk about Fall Out Boy, for Elvis' sake]. Veering away from the conceptual overkill and stodginess that have characterized his recent output - including 2006's well-received The Delivery Man - Costello and his band knocked 12 taut, succinct, and mostly winning tunes in Elvis' downtime(!) from the Acid Tongue sessions opposite Ms. Lewis. The results fit neatly between Blood and Chocolate and Brutal Youth in terms of latter-day Costello -- insistent but not rocking self-consciously; mature but neither cranky nor overly moony. From stomping opener "No Hiding Place" to "Long Honeymoon"-doppelganger "Harry Worth" and through closer "Go Away," Costello is in fine lyrical form and The Impostors prove that decades of playing with E.C. have done nothing to dull the edge of one of music's best band dynamics. Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas continue to service the songs as inventively and tastefully as in their days in The Attractions, and Davey Faragher continues to prove himself a capable successor to excommunicated Attraction Bruce Thomas on bass. Thirty years removed from My Aim is True and This Year's Model (and pushing twenty-nine on Armed Forces), Elvis displays he has plenty left in the tank when he doesn't think a good song to death and simply lets his better nature take control.

Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster / We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

The restless, precocious Welsh septet unwittingly split their vote by releasing a sprightly debut in spring and then unleashing their follow-up a scant nine months afterward (a set of Welsh "Irish twins") to equal critical acclaim. The melodic abundance and sheer energy of the first finds a welcome companion in the slightly more meditative second; both come well-stuffed with apt, cutting, and often hilarious blog-on-the-sleeve lyricism via singer Gareth Campesinos' sharp eye for detail. Per example: "I cherish with fondness / the day before I met you" from HON,Y kiss-off "My Year in Lists", and "We kid ourselves there's future in the fucking / But there is no fucking future" from the title track of WAB, WAD. In their manic music and depressing misanthropy, Los Campesinos! reveal sophistication both beyond their early-20's years and their "Spanish redneck" namesakes. Hopefully burning the candle at both ends of the calendar year will do nothing to hold [back] these youngsters in the near [fucking] future.

The Watson Twins - Fire Songs

After breaking into the indie public consciousness with their name-making turn backing Jenny Lewis on her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, Chandra and Leigh Watson turn loose a set of loosely swinging, sensual, and smoothly arranged folk-pop that may rank among the decade's best-realized debut LP's. Bouncy opener "How Am I to Be?" gives way to the gently country-inflected "Lady Love Me" and sends the album up like a softly-spiralling rocket making a skyward climb in its own loose-limbed way. The relaxed, confident mood conveyed by both the Twins' gorgeous harmonies and their backing band's tasteful flourishes calls back to both Dusty in Memphis and the countrypolitan grace of Lynn Anderson and Emmylou Harris throughout Fire Songs' course without sounding overly-manicured or edging into genre exercise. "Dig a Little Deeper" and "Only You" keep the album balanced with great tunes after a spectacular opening half, but the standout cover of "Just Like Heaven" - track four, as it were - may rank with the great makeout songs of all time. Don't say I didn't warn you: put this album on in the right moment and you, too, will be playing with fire.

The Top Five

Vampire Weekend - s/t

Well, okay. Critics and bloggers have made the case. This is a band of bright, literate Columbia University hipster boys melding Afrobeat and baroque pop like it's chocolate and peanut butter. They have lyrics that pepper the minutiae of coming-of-age with details from The Falklands Islands War and British imperialism in Afghanistan and, by god, THE OXFORD COMMA. But those aren't the reasons this album won me over. Vampire Weekend somehow overcame my innate suspicion of the unanimously-hyped by writing an entire debut album of incredibly strong melodies with great energy and not a weak track throughout. Comparisons of the band's explosion on the scene to The Strokes in 2001 may hold in terms of its rapidity and reach, but nothing on Vampire Weekend sounds flukey and tied to a production aesthetic in the ways that set Casablancas and Co. up for a fall after Is This It. Bandleader Ezra Koenig has the songwriting aptitude and pop chops to sustain his band's momentum, while multi-instrumentalist Rotsam Batmanglij [whose name anagrams into Major Batman List, G!] contributes imaginative and multi-cultural lines to every song with equal facility and the impeccable rhythm section of Chris Thomson (drums) and Chris Baio (bass) keep everything moving expertly. The band's claim that "the kids don't stand a chance" in the album's closing track might as well be self-directed. They don't, not against tunes like these.

The Week That Was - s/t

Not to color myself a Brewis Brothers fanboy, but after lauding Field Music's The Tones of Town in my year-end best-of last year, I have no qualms placing Peter Brewis' side project debut - while Field Music is on hiatus and David Brewis unveiled his School of Language this year as well - in the top four of this year's albums. The songs on The Week That Was are at once dense and catchy, holding together the same insistent feel and freedom of spirit that make Field Music so worthy of repeat listens. Yet in many ways The Week That Was one-ups Peter's old day job, with layered harmonies and sweeping strings holding open pockets of silence and propping up dissonant yet hooky keyboard lines. With non-traditional drumming in the vein of Peter Gabriel's early solo work moving the rhythm while challenging the ear, and such flourishes as marimba and layered synthesizers interjecting discrete lines into Brewis' glowing vocal melodies, The Week That Was sounds like the whirling gears of a giant watch at times, while lyrics observing the mechanization of routine and modern alienation compliment the music to a tee. "The Airport Line" would be my Single of the Year were it not for the near flawless (spoiler alert) track by The Long Blondes that edges it, though "The Good Life" and "Scratch the Surface" might could have edged the pack as well. The Week That Was sounds at once intensely industrial and post-modernist, laying bare the malaise of a decaying modern age searching for meaning among the automated detritus of its once-promising past. It truly owns its retrospective-sounding moniker while neither confirming nor denying history as a source of greatness. Perhaps Field Music can just stay on hiatus, if this is the outcome.

3. Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

John Darnielle released two full, autobiographical sets in 2005's The Sunset Tree and 06's Get Lonely that respectively trafficked in harrowing tales of childhood abuse and heart-rending breakup, so it might surprise some that his writer's voice is so ebullient from the outset of this year's offering. Yet it is, and from the energetic opening strains of "Sax Rohmer #1," in which Darnielle joyfully yelps "I'm coming home to you / if it's the last thing that I do," Heretic Pride sounds like the type of album made by a grinning sinner in repose. The sweet pizzicato countermelody of "San Bernardino" and sneering electric guitar of "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" are but two highlights of an album as diverse as any Darnielle has released. Backed by the versatile accompaniment of drummer Peter Hughes and bassist Franklin Bruno, and featuring performances from Superchunk's Jon Wurster and Annie Clark - alias St. Vincent - among others, Heretic Pride resumes Darnielle's old habit of writing vignettes from multiple perspectives not fully his own: the neurotic romantic failure of "Autoclave" sounds like recent Mountain Goats' self-examination, but the cultist of "New Zion," the shut-in World War I veteran of "In the Craters on the Moon," and the terrorist hostage of "Sept. 15, 1983" all receive Darnielle's generous observational characterization in their individual portraits. If "write what you know" is the first rule in creative endeavors, John Darnielle may actually know everything.

Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line

You have to give it up to a band who just buried a beloved founding member and then take to the studio to record a set of songs co-written by him that include titles such as "Ghosts Under Rocks" and "Dying is Fine". Despite mourning the tragic and mysterious 2007 death of drummer John Pike, Ra Ra Riot unveil an album bursting with life and immense, effortless beauty. Sounding at times like a gentler Les Savy Fav filtered through Big Star's "Stroke it, Noel," the Riot crew deftly incorporate the strings of Alexandra Lawn and Rebecca Zeller into their jumpy, hook-filled oeurve. Wes Miles' golden voice lifts songs like "Can You Tell" into stratospheres exceeding the verite of their lyrics, which themselves impress equally with their innocent honesty and impeccable phrasing. "Each Year" would have no trouble finding its way onto any radio playlist predating the Clear Channel / Citadel stranglehold on programming, and yet may not even be the catchiest song on the album. On second read, six of the nine albums in this year-ender are debut LP's... and on that note, the future of music is looking damn outstanding for the end of the Oh-Ohs and the beginning of the Tweens-and-Teens.

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

The second sterling full-length in as many years from Okkervil River, The Stand Ins tacks away from last year's The Stage Names as Will Sheff backs off the microphone in order to let his band's lush, intelligent arrangements build and play off each other. Yet Sheff's present challenge to the crown of Rock and Roll Scrabble Champion remains as witty and vital as on the oft-lyric clogged effort preceding The Stand Ins. The horn flourishes on "Lost Coastlines" and "Starry Stairs" add a heady R&B influence to the already potent rock/folk/alt-country kitchen sink approach of the band's writing style, and Sheff tugs at the heartstrings with aplomb on ballads "Blue Tulip" and "On Tour With Zykos". Okkervil River hits marks both profound and danceable with tunes like "Pop Lie" and "Calling and Not Calling My Ex," the latter being one of the best, most maudlin, wistful, and beautiful satellite radio singles to hit the spacewaves in some time. This may be a subjective measure at its heart, but the best music can either freeze you or move you; in the case of my first listen to The Stand Ins, I got goosebumps and shed tears. In listening to this album again to review it, the same thing happened. Time's not gonna dull this one.

Single of the Year

The Long Blondes - "Guilt"

The sheer perfection in the lyric, with all its honest, self-accusing, hesitation-fueled stonewalling in the face of Bachelor #2 and Kate Jackson's breathy delivery should seal the deal. Dorian Cox's randy disco riffing should seal the deal. The airtight, stuttering rhythm and background triangle details should seal the deal. The loungey electric piano in the bridge should seal the deal. But nothing seals the deal. You see, the deal isn't meant to be sealed. It is wrong to seal the deal. Yet it's uncomfortably close to sealed the whole time. And then it fades into the reverb-drenched intro vocal, with a dry four-four hi-hat by Screech Louder and that four-note bass synth hook, and, boom, final beat, IT GETS SEALED. Couples was a maddeningly uneven sophomore release by the British quintet that so effortlessly blended Pretenders-style badass chick posturing and snarky modernism on their debut, but this song highlights all the things the group did right. It is seamless concept, slick execution, and has just enough hairs out of place to look like it was coming out of the wrong bedroom at 2am with... no... good... excuse.

Unfortunately, The Long Blondes were felled this year by a stroke guitarist/songwriter Cox suffered shortly after Couples' release. But in terms of a last single to put out, this is a tape-measure home run. And easily my favorite self-contained song of the year that used to be.

Happy 2009, Friends. Don't Fake the Funk on a Nasty Dunk.

-Cameron "Furge" Ferguson