Music/Popular Culture

Dr. Sammy's Best CDs of 2011, pt 3: the Platinum LPs

Previously: the 2011 Gold LPs and the Honorable Mentions.

The Platinum LPs, awarded for exceptional artistic merit, are always the point where this process begins to wear on me. I want to make sure I have included all the worthy bands and that my words do those acknowledged justice. I never feel like I have succeeded on either count, and this year seems even worse than usual. So my apologies to the artists here: my remarks are in no way up to the standards of the music you produced last year.

[sigh] So here we go.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong
It seems like each year there’s that one band, sort of an accessible, trendy indie outfit that pegs everybody’s hip meters and makes it okay to like intelligent guitar pop. A couple years ago it was unquestionably Phoenix. Last year I argued that it was Two Door Cinema Club. This year I think it was supposed to be Army Navy. As much as I liked the Army Navy disc, though, Belong is the cool-to-be-melodic standard bearer for 2011.

The band’s previous work had been on the twee side. The songwriting was been engaging, but there wasn’t a muscle in sight. This album, though, begins by jacking up those fuzzy guitars and delivering a sugar-coated boot to the teeth at precisely the 15-second mark. Perhaps working with the likes of Flood and Alan Moulder helped the band grow into something more substantial. Whatever, the signal-to-noise ratio is a tad higher on Belong, and the result is 100% joyride.

Snake Rattle Rattle Snake: Sineater
For awhile there 2011 was starting to feel like the year of dark, female-fronted bands who remind me of The Airplane. Esben & the Witch got all the hype but Denver’s Snake Rattle Rattle Snake turned out to be the real deal.

My entreé to the band was my discovery that the drummer was Kit Peltzel, formerly of Space Team Electra. (Kit has since departed.) In an odd way, SRRS puts me in mind of STE – this might be what an updated, more dance-minded Space Team might sound like. Hayley Helmericks exhibits an intensely literate command of the microphone, and every note emerging from the simmering murk behind her seems calculated to maximize her impact on the listener’s consciousness.

I know that the old triangulation technique rarely communicates the truth about a band’s sound, but I can’t resist suggesting that SRRS is kinda like if Grace Slick and Siouxie got together and formed a shoegazer band.

Yeah, I know. Just go listen to it.

Baron Bane: LPTO
My senior year in high school we read Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and it proved to be a defining moment in the formation of my artistic aesthetic. It was the first time I had encountered such a close juxtaposition between darkness and beauty, and I’ve never quite gotten over it. Which brings us to one of my very favorite CDs of 2011.

Dark, haunted, intimating a hidden beauty just beyond the reach of the headlights…I played LPTO to death last year and every spin rewarded that thing in me that seeks loveliness within the deep of night. Baron Bane hails from Sweden, and as it turns out Swedes are used to long dark periods with no sunshine (especially this time of year). The songs on this disc, though, articulate the tension between light and dark, with moody minor chord structures and performances shot through with the radiance of Ida Long’s vocals.

I’ve described them to friends as being a bit like Kate Bush. The differences matter, though. Whereas Kate leans heavily into the avant, BB is more committed to accessible pop song structures. Also, where Bush’s voice is wispy and etherial, BB singer Ida Long brings considerable dynamic range to the proceedings.

Major to thanks to my friend Anders Thyr for introducing me to them (they apparently hail from the same neck of the woods). I owe you one.

The Raveonettes: Raven In The Grave
While we’re talking about Northern European bands (in this case, Denmark), another of my favorites is back with a bit of a change-up. I love how Tim Sendra sums up The Raveonettes’ past as “noisy girl group and razorblades wall of sound” before characterizing Raven as building

a lingering mood of melancholy and sadness that pervades the entire album. It’s not a forbidding or cold sound since the duo still has melodies so hooky that even a blanket of gray mist can’t cover them up. The arrangements are more enveloping than usual, with the fuzzy walls of guitars replaced by waves of synths on most of the songs.

I agree with this largely, although (perhaps in keeping with my “Eve of St. Agnes” fetish from above) I do feel a coldness and darkness about this disc. The difference is, perhaps, that I find comfort in the cold. For instance, listen to the guitars throughout (although what I’m describing is instantly evident on the lead track): that beautiful dissonance sounds less like guitar strings being played than hammered. The iciness of this effect is enveloped by sweeping keys that will remind you of every electropop hit you loved in ’80s (without actually sounding like any one you can recall in particular). The total effect is like being inside a warm fleece blanket on a frigid day.

In other words, plenty of melancholy. But it’s a comforting sort of melancholy that reminds us: some gray afternoons are prettier than others.

The Blueflowers: In Line With The Broken-Hearted
No surprises here – I’ve been raving about this CD ever since The Lost Patrol’s manager, Ed Colavito, introduced me to it several months ago. Then, in December, they capped a big year by winning S&R’s Tournament of Rock 3 (ironically enough, nipping their good friends TLP in the final).

Along the way, I pondered the challenge of describing their sound to my friends. In marketing themselves they made use of “Americana,” but that wasn’t quite right. “Americana-noir” gets us closer to the longing affect of Kate Hinote’s aching, retro-ingenue vocal style and Tony Hamera’s wide-screen, surf-inflected guitars. (And if you think you’ve heard me use the term “wide-screen” before, you probably have – in so many ways, Hamera and Lost Patrol guitarist Stephen Masucci are mining the same rich vein; you’d never mistake them for one another, but you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were friends who respected each other’s work, either.)

If I’d been spinning vinyl on my old turntable I’d have worn through In Line With The Broken-Hearted this year. I honestly have no idea how many times I played it from one end to the other. Several dozen, anyway. And I’m nowhere close to tired of it. It’s just one of those albums with a sonic, intuitive depth that seems to reveal some new nuance with every pass.

Brilliant, brilliant stuff. I hope I don’t have to wait long for the follow-up.

Back in the day hype tended to be married to merit. These days hype and merit are completely, utterly and tragically divorced from merit. So anything generating as much media heat as 21 is probably to be avoided. But damn, every once in awhile an artist comes along who deserves that kind of critical and commercial acclaim. This CD is on a lot of best of 2011 lists and for good reason – for awhile there I thought it might even be my CD of the Year.

Nobody who’s only 21 ought to sound this way. Adele’s voice is a thing of wonder – rich, resonant, mature and big as the sky. Much has been made of the pain of the breakup behind this song cycle, but the truth is more than a woman in pain – this is the sound of a strong woman in pain. A woman who’s hurting, but who is going to be okay. It’s sort of the inverse of that first Fiona Apple album: all the depth and gravity, minus the fear that she might come after you with a knife.

Probably the best part is this: Adele is such a powerful talent that she’s going to be plenty viable long after the neo-Soul movement has faded away.

Foo Fighters: Wasting Light
I’ve always liked Foo Fighters, although I can’t say I’ve followed them rabidly. It’s impossible not respect a band whose sound emerged out of the 1990s Grunge movement but still managed to evolve and mature in ways that always sound fresh and forward looking.

The consensus seems to be that Wasting Light is the best FF effort since The Color and the Shape, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s take at AMG borders on suggesting that it’s their best ever. He accurately notes the album’s ferocity, attributing it to the latent influence of Dave Grohl’s old bandmate, QotSA’s Josh Homme. Whether that’s the inspiration or not, Wasting Light takes no prisoners and the result is pure freakin’ adrenaline.

Also, I don’t know how much extra you have to pay to get Lemmy as your limo driver, but I bet it’s worth every penny.

Mayer Hawthorne: How Do You Do
I was in the midst of grooving hard on Fitz & the Tantrums when my friend and former colleague Carole McNall passed along a link to something she thought I’d enjoy. Because she knows I dig me some neo-Soul. That link turned out to include Mayer Hawthorne and the world was never the same again.

Okay, well, that may be overstating the case a tad, but as fun, can’t-get-that-song-out-of-my-ears ’60s and ’70s-influenced R&B goes, it’s hard to beat How Do You Do. (BTW, for those of you back in the Carolinas, this is the best Beach Music CD you’ve heard in years, except maybe for Dixon’s 2010 release.) There’s never a false referent and every track takes you somewhere you haven’t been in years, but wow, it’s great to revisit the place. Granted, The Temptations never had the potty mouth that MH does, but you got to roll with the times.

This isn’t the only best-of list Hawthorne is on, and good for him. Some might snipe a little that he’s working CeeLo Green’s turf, but I can’t imagine Green having any complaints at all about How Do You Do except maybe “turn it up.”

Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams
If Dum Dum Girls remind you a little of a slightly garage-y/noise-gazey Chrissie Hynde, join the club. Except that, as much as I respected Chrissie, I just never dug her music. “Chain Gang” is the only thing she ever wrote that I liked at all. Songs aren’t a problem with Dum Dum Girls, though.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this disc because I’d been hearing about the band for some time (okay, mainly it’s just one woman), but the tracks I had been able to get my hands on underwhelmed me. They lacked polish and focus (I mean polish in the professional sense, not the overworked-in-the-studio sense). Mainly the sound came off like a kid in her basement who didn’t really understand how the equipment worked. You could tell there was potential there, but just not quite realized.

For Only in Dreams, though, Dee Dee hooked up with some real producers (including Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes) and all of a sudden all that potential is up front and sparkling. She’s a fabulous songwriter, in this case working around various personal hurdles (including the death of her mother), and the lingering effect in my case is that something this raw, inexperienced and low-fi should be barely noticeable, let alone this damned noteworthy.

I absolutely love pleasant surprises. Only in Dreams is one of the most relentlessly enjoyable CDs of 2011 and I can’t wait for what comes next. Want to hear some swirling ear candy that will be following you around the rest of the day? Click play.

The Lost Patrol: Rocket Surgery
I don’t really know what to say here. TLP has been one of my favorite bands for several years now and after a painful personnel shakeup a few years ago they have continued to improve as a unit. On her first outing with the band, singer Mollie Israel did a nice job but the overall effect was a bit disjointed. She’s good, the guitars are good, the songs are good. All good, but not all fully integrated. It was like with a basketball team that had never played together. Great individual talents, but not yet a team.

Boy, has that changed.  Israel has more than grown into her spot at the microphone – she has become the sort of dynamic face and voice that can take a band to the proverbial next level. And maybe the level after that. Meanwhile, Stephen and Michael have allowed plenty of creative space for her to grow into. It’s clear that they weren’t interested in just finding a new singer. They wanted a new, fully invested, completely equal partner. And that’s where the phrase “more than the sum of the parts” comes from.

I’ve gone back and forth on Rocket Surgery ever since its release. It’s a fantastic piece of work that displays all the trademark elements the band’s fans have come to love. It also exhibits both a lyrical and aural expansion (note the instrumentation and arrangement of “Sweet Ophelia,” for instance) that signals an intent to evolve. This is very good news. As much as I have loved Stephen Masucci’s signature cinematic surf-twang guitar sound, I also value a drive toward creative growth in an artist.

On the other hand … dammit, I just loved 2010’s Dark Matter so much. I always want each CD to be better than the last one, but I’m not sure I can make a call between the two. So there it is. My big criticism: Rocket Surgery might not be better than Dark Matter.

Looking ahead, 2012 feels like a big, big year for TLP. They were featured on an episode of Gossip Girl last night and are queued up for a couple of significant movie soundtracks in the coming months, including the Amy Heckerling vampire comedy Vamps. There can be no question that Rocket Surgery affords the band an exceptional springboard to that next level mentioned above.

John Hiatt: Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns
The critics don’t seem to regard this as one of Hiatt’s best (although not much that anybody does measures up to that standard). Still, even if it’s a bit more polished than his recent work DJ&MH plays as something very elemental. Perhaps this is due to the world-gone-to-hell tone of the songs, beginning with the opener, “Damn This Town.” As the economy has cracked and the attendant political machinery has demonstrated that it really doesn’t much care, millions of American lives have gotten worse, in some cases tragically so.

Hiatt’s voice, crusty and raw as ever, could make “It’s a Small World After All” into a blues dirge, so when he turns his attentions to the plight of American decline (in all its macro and micro iterations) we can hardly help feeling the bitterness, and perhaps the vague numbness that sets in as hope fades.

M83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
I wrestled with Hurry Up We’re Dreaming more than any other release this year. I had anticipated it eagerly and when it dropped the critics went nuts. Considered objectively, I understand why. Still, I guess I had been hoping for a few more “Kim & Jessie” moments. I do love “Midnight City” (and not just because of the Victoria’s Secret commercial), and I admit that it has grown on me.

The CD is expansive and ambitious, almost as if Anthony Gonzales had set out to score an epic film set in the ’80s but made in the ’00s. Such a thing would need to capture the essence of the time, but it would also need to be contemporary. And it would need to exhibit an expansive emotional range in order to underscore the power of the narrative.

In the end, I feel like my early disappointment with the disc is a reflection on me, and not a good one. Some part of me wanted more bite-sized ear candy and M83 is to be applauded for ignoring me.

Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes
There’s nobody quite like FoW anywhere in the indie world. You have two exceptional storytellers, and over time they’ve so honed their lyrical skills that even the cleverest moments play casually and conversationally.

All FoW albums concern themselves with the foibles of regular folks, and most particularly they enjoy having at regular folks who lack self-awareness. In the past they’ve produced these character sketches with a certain edge – maybe a bit of smirk and snark, some subtle mockery. You might say that their songs come in two varieties: laughing with and laughing at. Here, though, the attitude has mellowed a bit. The lights are still on the ne’er-do-wells (“Richie and Reuben / don’t know what they’re doing / they’re both a little out of their minds”) but there’s more empathy than I’m perhaps used to.

We also get the usual array of place and lifestyle songs (where we went, what happened, what we did) that FoW fans have come to expect. Again, though, there’s not as much of the decadent train wreck as in the past – instead, there’s the genuinely nostalgic “Dip in the Ocean.”

In many respects, SFoH is precisely what we’ve come to associate with Fountains of Wayne: insanely memorable tunes, insightful storytelling, a lingering sense of place and time and the people who were there. Some listeners might think less bite is a bad thing, but others might find the affair to be more adult, more seasoned in ways that suggest a willingness on the band’s part to evolve organically, in harmony with the tides of age and maturity.

DocoStereo Chemistry I always have a hard time where Doco is concerned, for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t spend much time in their genre so I always feel inadequately informed. Second, who am I kidding? I’ve known Joh and Trev Booth since day one, just about literally, as their father is one of my best friends. So no, I’m not 100% objective.

But certain things we can say with great clarity, and those things are obvious when you listen to the band. Put simply, they can fucking play, and they’re working a musical culture where that is essential (unlike, say, Punk, where you can be successful even though you think a G-string is something you stuff dollar bills in). Trevor is one of the best guitarists at his age I have ever seen and Josh is arguably as good on bass, or better. Dave Burkart seems to intuitively understand the role of a drummer in this kind of power trio dynamic, and while he doesn’t bother with flashy, he is unquestionably the rock upon which the tent is pitched.

Not only that, Doco has continued to improve in one area that I have always held sacred: songcraft. They funk about a great deal, but they also demonstrate a great fluency with more accessible structures, and their lyrics are simply way too intelligent for popular music. Seriously, Josh and Trev (who both write) can go seriously deep on you, as in English professor deep. Spend a moment with “Experimental Railroad,” if you will.

I don’t know what else to tell you. Doco is incredibly talented and this is their best CD to date. If you think I’m biased, fine – go give it a listen and tell me what you think.

So, there are your 2011 Platinum LPs. You probably won’t agree with me on all of them, but I’ve got money that says there’s something in here who’s going to be your new favorite band. Feel free to let us know what you liked.

Now, let’s have Doco play us out. This is from their appearance last year on Eleven O’Clock Rock. Happy TunesDay, folks.

Next: the CD of the Year

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