Music/Popular Culture

Dr. Sammy's Best CDs of 2011, pt 2: the Gold LPs

I mentioned that 2011 was a great year for music in part 1, right? Well, the sheer number of Gold LPs (awarded for outstanding merit) should serve to illustrate the point a bit. So let’s get to it.

First, let me disqualify a CD.

Paul Lewis: Bag Of Rain
If my objectivity is clouded by close personal relationships, it’s absolutely obliterated by great self-interest. And since I was fortunate enough to contribute lyrics for two of the tracks on Bag of Rain, I’m not even going to pretend that I’m being critical. I can say, however, that Paul is an outstanding tunesmith and an even better singer – I’ve been saying he has one of the best voices in the business since the first time I saw him perform in the late 1980s. These qualities have only improved with time. “Platform of Our Lives,” for instance, displays a rare emotional vulnerability, and Paul the singer understands when to coat a tune in velvet and when to stomp the accelerator.

Fans of his past work will note that he’s exploring stylistically a little, even beyond the jazzy moments we’ve come to expect (the ones that provide such a nice showcase for those golden pipes).

Paul’s talent deserves a much larger stage, and here’s hoping Bag of Rain breaks him through to some new audiences. And I don’t say that just because I’m hoping for massive royalty checks. Not that this would be a bad thing…

And now, in no particular order:

Dotsun Moon: 4am
The good folks in The Lost Patrol turned me on to Dotsun Moon, a Buffalo band they’d gigged with, a few months ago. And wow, thanks guys. Here’s what I wrote back in March:

I’ve always been a sucker for bands descended from the Portishead side of the trip-hop family tree (oddly, I like many of these artists more than Portishead themselves), and Mary Ognibene’s understated, sultry delivery hits me right between the, ummm, well, let’s just say eyes here to avoid any trouble with the broadcast standards department, shall we?Musically, Rich Flierl (keys, guitars, and the primary songwriter) conjures a smoky, minimalist economy of sound that feels quite polished despite its sparseness.

Who do they remind me of (because since you haven’t heard them, we have to triangulate via bands you may know, right)? Well, I mentioned Portishead, and Flierl admits to a fondness for Massive Attack and Jah Wobble. “Who Do You Love?” suggests that he’s heard a bit of Love & Rockets, as well. There are places where Ognibene reminds me a lot of Girl Next Door’s Kat Green and the CD’s more animated numbers put me in mind of a sort of noir version of Supreme Beings of Leisure. Other places I swear I hear bits and pieces of The Church, U2, maybe a little Echo. Or maybe I’m projecting – hard to say. Sounds and influences sneak into a mix from all over the place.

S&R readers seem to agree with me, as their support propelled the band into the semi-finals of our recent Tournament of Rock 3. All in a all, a great year ad I’m already wondering when the next CD is due.

REM.: Collapse Into Now
There’s a great argument to be made that REM is the greatest American band in history. Yeah, we can debate, but if you’re having the argument and REM isn’t in the discussion your credibility is automatically suspect. This is significant, because Collapse proved to be the band’s swan song.

A lot of people thought the previous disc, Accelerate, was the best thing they’d done since Automatic for the People, but I felt like their decision on CIN to revisit the haunted Southern goth atmospherics that defined their greatest moments from the ’80s and early ’90s was inspired. It had a warm, broken-in quality that I found comforting and appropriate for a farewell. In my book, REM’s final effort was even better than Accelerate, and while I know we all wish they could have recaptured the vital relevance they represented once upon a time, this was a far better way to exit than what we get from so many bands.

Best of luck, guys, and thanks for the memories.

Rose Hill Drive: Americana
Hmmm. Fun-loving, no-frills, pass me another beer party stoner rock. From … this can’t be right … Boulder?

I played the hell out of this disc last year and I actually want to say a word of thanks to the band. In a lot of ways 2011 really, really sucked. But Americana never once failed to pick me up. Rock has always thrived on the ability to immerse itself in sublime moments of hedonism – think about the cover of It’s Only Rock & Roll, for instance. Or anything Electric Six ever recorded. Even when they’re making an interesting point (“Psychoanalyst” comes to mind) they’re doing so in a way so throbbing with positive energy that you can’t believe you’re actually learning something.

When it stops being fun, it stops being rock, right? And folks, this was the most fun CD I heard all year.

Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys
I never quite know what to say about a Death Cab CD. I mean, Ben Gibbard is one of those guys who has sort of ascended – even his least interesting work is better than most artists’ best. He’s in this category of automatics for me: Eels, Peter Gabriel, World Party, Graham Parker – if they release something I buy it without bothering to sample.

All that said, Codes and Keys doesn’t grab me as hard as the previous two discs. I wonder if it has something to do with Gibbard’s personal life. While he was making this he was married to Zooey Deschanel, and I can’t help thinking that would make you happy. And maybe happiness wasn’t as compelling a muse? In any case, they’re now divorcing, so I expect the next one to be one for the ages. I mean, if Zooey left me, we’d have to rent out a stadium to handle all the muses who’d show up to wallow in my misery….

Army Navy: The Last Place
I have to be honest – I was just stunned to see this amount of attention showered on a Power Pop group (even one where the front guy used to be in a band with Ben Gibbard). There are seemingly thousands of PPop Underground bands, all immersed in the legacy of The Beatles, Badfinger, The Raspberries and Big Star, jacking out tons of hook-infested guitar pop every year and most of it goes unnoticed outside of the community, which is passionate to the point of obsession but too small to sustain much of a market. Witness the recent demise of Bruce Brodeen’s Not Lame label: it was regarded with nothing short of reverence, but in the end it just didn’t pay the bills, so Bruce had to move on.

Anyway, as guitar-driven ear candy goes, this is indeed a great disc, and part of that I think owes to its unifying theme. Instead of a collection of neat songs, The Last Place revolves around lead singer Justin Kennedy’s ill-fated affair with a woman who was apparently a very prominent Hollywood starlet. And also very prominently married. (I still have no idea who she was, despite a bit of frenzied Googling.) The emotional tragedy that unfolded seems to have grounded the CD, affording it a depth that a lot of Power Pop never quite musters.

Oh, yeah, love the video.

Washed Out: Within and Without
As a term with the ability to signify goes, “chillwave” is damned near useless. It encompasses bands that we’ll charitably call “experimental” as well as this kid in Georgia who, says Tom Breihan of Pitchfork, “makes bedroom synthpop that sounds blurred and woozily evocative, like someone smeared Vaseline all over an early OMD demo tape, then stayed up all night trying to recreate what they heard.”

I can’t top that line. I can tell you that I love music that can weave an unobtrusive ambient tapestry around me when I’m trying to work but that also rewards close attention. Within and Without is a gorgeous, lush aural experience that makes me think “washed out” less than it does “washed over,” as in being washed over by waves of pure color on a tropical beach at sunset. With a beautiful woman and maybe a Mai Tai.

Queen Electric: Queen Electric
First with Wanderlust and then performing solo and as Bachelor Number One, Scot Sax has been quietly jacking out melodic, infectious guitar pop since the mid-1990s. Of course, I don’t think the “quietly” part has been by design. Sax just has the misfortune to be brilliant at a genre deemed unfashionable. Maybe this new project will generate a little more buzz for him. Queen Electric is the most muscular Sax project to date, with an extra dose of “power” in the Power Pop. Unlike past efforts, this crisp seven-track EP takes its cues more from the Rock side of things, very adeptly echoing everything from ’70s-era Elton John to ELO to Todd Rundgren to early-’90s U2 (note the guitars on the lead track).

With luck, QE is but a tasty 20-minute amuse oreille preparing us for something more substantial in the coming months.

Allen Stone: Allen Stone
2011 was a fun year in the world of neo-Soul, and Allen Stone was a big, blue-eyed part of it. I discovered this disc when my friend Carole McNall forwarded me the link to an NPR feature on Stone, The Alabama Shakes and Mayer Hawthorne. At the time I was playing Fitz & the Tantrums to death, so I was looking for more artists up that general alley.

It’s always seemed that this genre comprises a spectrum, with Soul on one end and Pop/R&B on the other. Abstracted, you have James Brown vs. Dusty Springfield, and in the neo- context this adds up to Sharon Jones vs., say, Lucky Soul. Stone lies somewhere to the James Brown side of center, and his best moments serve up a smooth, muscular white-boy sound that reminds me a lot of Ryan Shaw. And that’s a compliment, trust me.

Ida Long: In Dark Woods EP
Ida is the singer for Baron Bane, who you’ll be hearing more about in an upcoming post. So I won’t spend too much time here, save to say rumor has it that this EP is a precursor to a 2012 solo effort. Such a thing is to be much hoped for. Fans of Tears for Fears are especially going to want to hear the cover of “Mad World,” which she did for Mad Men. Gorgeous stuff, and in places a tad more experimental and quirky than the Baron Bane disc…

Able Archer: The Way Machines See Us
Matt Huseman was the front man for The Greenberry Woods and Splitsville, two fantastic Power Pop quartets. For a few moments once upon a time, The Greenberry Woods seemed poised for something big, but labels can’t seem to stop being labels and so the story went. Splitsville, meanwhile, jacked out one of the best guitar pop/rock CDs I own, Incorporated.

Now Huseman lives in Denver where he has hooked up with some new bandmates descended from very different musical pedigrees. When I first found myself thinking “this is kinda like Radiohead and Coldplay informed by a vague Power Pop sensibility” I realized that it really, really shouldn’t work (especially since I’m not a huge Radiohead fan and have no regard whatsoever for Coldplay). But somehow it does, and I think it’s because the band doesn’t try to be a fusion of contrasts. They give the guitars their heads and Huseman’s vocal presence sort of integrates the rest organically.

The result is alternately aggressive and reflective, melodic and dissonant, and it’s ambitious and complex from one end to the other. Truly deserving of a wide audience….

The Horrors: Skying
It isn’t hard to find bands influenced by Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Bauhaus these days. The danger, of course, is coming off as overly derivative. The last thing any of us needs is a generation of Joy Division cover bands terrorizing the Holiday Inn lounges of America.

The Horrors certainly do swirly, swimmingly dark neo-Post Punk, but they also import a dissonance that suggests the presence of a My Bloody Valentine CD or two in their collection (and maybe even a copy of Verve’s essential Storm in Heaven). It’s that shoegazer element that sets them apart and makes this CD so genuinely interesting to listen to.

She Wants Revenge: Valleyheart
I loved SWR’s 2006 debut. Yeah, it was making no attempt at all to distance itself from the influence of Joy Division, but it was absolutely seething with modern-day LA excess that, in its finest moments, cut like a designer boot full of straight razors. The 2007 follow-up? Not so much. I still don’t quite know what went wrong there, but the inattention to songcraft didn’t help.

At that point I wrote them off. Hey, we had some fun but let’s not spoil it, okay? Then my buddy Mike Pecaut sends me the Spotify link to Valleyheart and, well, it was one of the most pleasantly surprising moments of the year. Heather Phares at AMG says:

…Valleyheart injects the band’s sound with some much-needed ambition and eclecticism. A concept album about the San Fernando Valley and the turbulent relationships of its denizens, this set of songs proves once and for all that while She Wants Revenge’s influences may be from New York and England, they’re undeniably a product of Los Angeles.

You had me at “concept album about the San Fernando Valley.”

The Cars: Move Like This
I imagine a lot of us received news that the surviving members of The Cars were reuniting for a new CD with a degree of trepidation. How will they be able to translate that decade-defining sound from a generation ago into a 21st century indie context that’s extraordinarily suspicious of anything that smacks of slickness?

The answer? Well, it’s like they never broke up. Move Like This is unmistakably a Cars album, but the production and arrangements are contemporary enough that it doesn’t really sound out of place here in the third millennium. In the final analysis the new disc isn’t as groundbreaking as the debut or as absolutely iconic as Heartbeat City, but it’s better than Door to Door and on a par with Panorama or Shake It Up. Not bad at all.

The Outfield: Replay
I was always a huge fan of The Outfield, which never got much love after the explosive success of its debut. But their two follow-ups, Bangin’ and Voices of Babylon (especially the latter) suffered not because of a lack of ambition or quality, but simply as a result of changing musical fashions.

Turns out the guys are still together and recording, and if you liked them in the ’80s you’re probably going to like Replay. I might have counseled then to pick a name for the disc that connotes something a little less “hey, you’ve heard this before!” Still, that may be just as well: there’s no real effort to innovate here. No, it’s just a disc chocked full of really catchy guitar pop that sounds exactly like, well, an Outfield record. And I’m fine with that.

Wire: Red Barked Tree
What the hell. The Cars, The Outfield, and now Wire? Talk about your year for dinosaur comebacks.

[ahem] If you didn’t know, Wire was one of the most influential bands of the ’70s and ’80s, evolving from a Punk standard bearer into an important figure in the development of post-Punk. Very few bands have exerted this kind of influence, and just about none of them are still at it 30-35 years later.

Red-Barked Tree isn’t changing the landscape again, but it’s a most worthy effort that reminds us what made the band great in the first place. Minimalist, with nods to accessibility, uncompromising and intelligent, this CD should serve as an inspiration to younger bands thinking about how to matter to decades instead of weeks.

The Sounds: Something to Die For
My friend John (hi, John!) hates this CD. Seriously loathes it. And I sympathize with him – he’d like the band to be mining the same vein that made 2003’s Living in America so damned great. Loud, smart, melodic, strutting, all up in your grille. I know not all critics agree with me but I thought it was a superb record. But now our Swedish friends have decided they want to be a dance band, and Something to Die For has massive club play as its driving motivation.

My take is that people like to dance and when I was DJing I was always looking for tuneage that didn’t suck the IQ out of my head while I was partying. I see Something to Die For as analogous to their earlier work: as Living in America was to garagy Punk/Pop, so Something to Die For is to club. I wish it had been released when I was behind the turntables.

IAMX: Volatile Times
Honestly, no release conflicted me more this year. I’m a massive IAMX fan and the previous couple of discs I think are among the best of the past decade. So my expectations were sky-high for Volatile Times. Perhaps that’s the problem. By any fair measure this is an intelligent – extremely intelligent – work that continues Chris Corner’s insanely inventive dark electro-pop cabaret sound. Had I never heard any of his other work I might well be blown away by VT.

However, it seems a slight regression from The Alternative (2006) and The Kingdom of Welcome Addiction, which was a super-platinum honoree in my 2009 list. I just don’t know if what I’m thinking is a result of what the disc merits or simply the result of trying to match ridiculous expectations.

In any case, Volatile Times is recommended. If you don’t know IAMX, hopefully it will inspire you to investigate the rest of the catalogue.

Ladytron: Gravity The Seducer
Ladytron has always worked to conjure an aura of the mysterious, and 2011’s Gravity the Seducer offers up a chilly, atmospheric wash that always seems to imply slightly more than it’s saying. A number of tracks wold lend themselves nicely to the dance floor (“Ritual,” “Ace of “Hz”), but there are more ambient swaths of the disc which seem intended for the lounge (or opium den). In an alternate, and exceptionally cool universe, this is what ABBA sounded like, and “White Gold” reminds me of Switchblade Symphony’s final CD, so I suppose I should find a way to work “trip-hop inflected goth/darkwave” in here somewhere, shouldn’t I?

Cults: Cults
It took me forever to figure out what I was hearing with Cults, and I’m still not sure I fully get it. But the other night I was playing the CD again, and when I got about halfway through “Most Wanted” I said hey, wait – this is like a neo-girl group track with a Chillwave overlay. That may be wildly misleading, but you have to admit that it’s an interesting idea.

AMG confirms a bit of this, saying:

Cults’ twinkling experimental pop arrived in a shroud of mystery early in 2010, when the group posted three songs on their Bandcamp page. One of those songs was “Go Outside,” which mixed dream pop haze with girl group harmonies (and, fittingly, samples of Jonestown leader Jim Jones) and earned the band acclaim from publications including Pitchfork and NME.

I don’t quite hear Jesus & Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine here, although the Phil Spector mention on the AMG overview page makes perfect sense. In any case, Cults is a CD that I admit, without reservation, that I did not care for on first listen. After about five spins, though, it started to take root and it keeps getting better and better.

Telekinesis: 12 Desperate Straight Lines
On first listen, 12 Desperate Straight Lines reminds me a lot of Death Cab for Cutie, only brighter and happier. Upon repeated listens, though, it … well, it reminds me a lot of Death Cab for Cutie, only brighter and happier. This is not a bad thing at all. Michael Benjamin Lerner has a finely honed knack for writing a song that’s upbeat and engaging without being off-puttingly bubblegum. I hear that complaint about a lot of Power Pop bands, and while I don’t think it’s always valid, I do understand the nut of the sentiment. Here, the production is beautifully aligned with the earnestness of the songs, providing plenty of professionalism without burying the songs beneath too many layers of polish.

Galaxie: Tigre et Diesel
My French was never great to start with and I haven’t used it since college, so I can’t really connect lyrically with this Montreal Francophone Garage outfit. Boy, I love the songs, though. The raw, distorted guitars remind me a bit of last year’s outstanding Tame Impala disc, and there’s more than a little T. Rexy stomp going on with the keys.

I wonder if they’re saying anything interesting?

Cheerleader: Vegas or Bust I can’t remember who turned me on to Cheerleader, but I was listening along thinking how unfashionable they were. The CD reminded me of hook-heavy pop-rock form the late 1980s, maybe a tad of hair metal and an echo of The Outfield here and there. Just damn, great songs that had been born 25 years too late. Really, they were almost like one of those great Swedish revivalist acts that don’t give a damn if you think they’re derivative or not. Like The Hellacopters, whose stance is along the lines of “you worry about what’s stylish, and we’ll be over here rocking the fuck out of it.” So I hit the Googles and did some snooping. Ah, of course. Cheerleader is from Stockholm. Let it fly, boys.

Ron Hawkins: Straitjacket Love Chemical Sounds was one of my best of 2008, but I totally didn’t see this coming. Former Lowest of the Low front man doing a stripped down disc? Raw and elemental, there’s simply nothing about the production that gets between the listener and the soul of one of Canada’s most under-appreciated treasures (south of the border, anyway). Wildy’s World has this to say:

Ron Hawkins continues to dig closer and closer to his own personal truths on Straightjacket Love, striving like a miner to find what’s real in the structure of song. On what is perhaps his most personal and compelling work to date, Hawkins delivers an entertaining blend of celebration, rumination and remorse from the building blocks of country, rock, folk and blues.

The Catch Fire: Rumormill I first heard this band on Art Jipson’s Tuesday afternoon WUDR show, as I recall. I liked what I heard so I bopped over to Spotify and liked the rest of the disc. Rumormill isn’t complicated – it’s your basic really great Power Pop Underground disc, laden with irresistible hooks, silky vocals and guitars that remind you of a time when guitar pop was a shared cultural value. I did a little research on the band and realized that, aha, that’s why I like what I’m hearing so much. One of the main guys is Mike Mitschele, who used to be in Jolene. And they’re from Charlotte in my native state, so props for that.

Nicole Atkins: Mondo Amore I loved 2007’s Neptune City. Atkins was not only doing a bang-up number on the emerging world of neo-Soul/R&B, she was doing so with the most dynamic set of pipes in the genre (and I say that with all due respect to Sharon Jones). I was expecting more of the same, perhaps, and was thus taken a little off-guard by Mondo Amore, which has left the ingenue act behind in favor of a persona that’s more worldly and occasionally just a little pissed off. She’s still mining sounds from decades past, but is doing so in ways that are more muscular, even bluesy in spots. The songwriting is seductive as ever, and her ability to preserve the legacy of the artists she clearly adores (Roy Orbison’s name keeps coming up, for some reason) while growing visibly is great news. Neo-Soul is a fun moment, but any artist who gets too mired in it is going to be left behind when the audience moves on in a couple of years.

Up next: the Platinum LPs, to be followed by the CD of the Year….

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