Tag Archive for '2011'

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AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #11. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

In that dream I could hardly contain it / All my life I will wait to attain it

As I wrote about St. Vincent a few days ago, the songs on Helplessness Blues are extremely adaptable – everyone might get something different out of them. Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes’ songwriter) embraces this adaptability with such beauty and craft, yet also providing an intricate mystery, that you cannot help but be left wondering, what are these songs?

I do not necessarily have a concrete explanation to that question, but certain things are woven in, continually hinted at, embedded in the songs. As the title indicates, Helplessness Blues does explore the feeling of longing for something unattainable. On the title track, he explains: “If I know only one thing it’s that everything I see of the world is so inconceivable I barely can speak / I’ll come back to you someday soon myself.” That’s the helplessness part, the inconceivable. Yet from within it he find some hope to pull him out, to latch on to.

Simlarly, in “Bedouin Dress,” Pecknold longs “just to be at Innisfree again,” a simple dream of being elsewhere. This dream is symbolized later in the song, when “in the street one day I saw you among the crowd / In a geometric patterned dress / gleaming white just as I recall / Old as I get I will never forget it all.” Wherever he is, dreaming about Innisfree, he found this hopefulness in a crowd.

This all is just the grand view of helplessness. More intricately, Pecknold drops hints of being a soldier, nature, existentialism. He does not go deep into documenting the terrors of war, instead using it as a metaphor of the blues. “Montezuma” for instance is mostly existential wondering, but right that end he drops the reference: “Oh man what I used to be / Montezuma to Tripoli.” “Bedouin Dress” from its title only seems to indicate he is on some foreign shore, for some reason. Far away, longing to return. As you can see from these examples, the military stuff is very slight, and that’s what I mean by Pecknold writing so intricately. He drops just enough for things to perhaps be seen if you’re looking; and even if you don’t see it, it adds mystery and depths to the feelings.

The music is also intricate and beautiful. Perfect acoustic guitars roll into gorgeous and chilling vocal harmonies and melodies, in almost every song. “Sim Sala Bim” begins calmly, and slowly mutates into some intensity. “Battery Kinzie” has more rhythm, “Someone You’d Admire” is of that famous “Fourth Time Around”/”Norwegian Wood” tempo. While the songs share parts, they are diverse enough in sound so as not to get repetitive or desolate. Fleet Foxes have perfected their style so that it draws you in, so that you can’t help but want to explore the helplessness blues.

Fleet Foxes “Sim Sala Bim”

Fleet Foxes “Bedouin Dress”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #12. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

delirious gestures are so easily misread

I’ve written about Lykke Li a couple of times on here, and both times I hinted at the general over-produced nature of her albums. And while I still believe that to be true, every time I step back a bit and just listen and take a wide look at Wounded Rhymes, I really dig it. I love her songs and every time I listened, I liked it more, so the album just climbed up my rankings here.

Lykke Li herself calls the songs “hypnotic, psychotic and more primal” (according to Wikipedia), which is probably the best description of Wounded Rhymes ever. The music throughout the album is catchy pop songs, at its core. I dare you not to be left humming along to “I Follow Rivers,” “Rich Kids Blues,” “Jerome,” any of them really. But this pop nature is rarely pure. Everything has a slightly eccentric twist. The driving rhythms are tempered by quiet melodies, flashes of country and rock and dance and ambient flesh the pop songs out. Lykke Li, perhaps unexpectedly, can blend genres as easily as anyone.

As for the “psychotic and primal” part of these songs, much of that is in the lyrics. Each song is extremely direct. The songs are always very much in the now. “Once again it’s happening…” she starts on “Unrequited Love.” “I know places we can go, babe.” Later, she flat-up declares, “I’m your prostitute / you’re gonna get some.” Most of the songs are in the present tense, and come off quite urgent.

Along with this urgency, most of the songs are also entirely one-direction. That is, there is little indication that love is being returned (“Unrequited Love”), the rivers want to be followed (“I Follow Rivers”), Jerome won’t leave (“Jerome”), that she can actually get love out of lust (“Love Out Of Lust”). That’s what makes these songs so cool and unique, but perhaps also what is slightly off-putting about them as well. “I ranted / I pleaded / I begged you not to go,” and does that ever work? The pain and wounds she sings of — they’re real, but also in a way… not so much. “My wounded rhymes make silent cries tonight,” she melodramatically sings, “sadness is my boyfriend, oh sadness, I’m your girl.”

I also should note that I’m probably just barely scratching the surface here. A lot of the stuff she writes about has deeper levels, about selling out as a musician (“I’m your prostitute / you’re gonna get some”) and all this heartbreak may not necessarily even be relationship-based. As she explained the metaphor in this interview, “A lot of times, you’re breaking your own heart. For me, it was realizing that what I thought was love really isn’t love. It’s about that, the ghost of love.”

Those depths in the music and the feelings are what kept pulling me back into Wounded Rhymes, one of my favorite albums of the year.

Lykke Li “Sadness Is A Blessing”

Lykke Li “Youth Knows No Pain”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #13. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

a champagne year full of sober months

My favorite songwriters, if not clear from these reviews, are, above all, thoughtful. They think about life and society and love and people and whatever. They do not just write to write, but write to figure things out. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) is one of those songwriters and Strange Mercy showcases this. Her songs use abstract stories and various characters as a way to reflect. Because of this, different people may get different things out of it — it is that rare adaptable record, fitting each listener in their own way.

There are stories of an affair (“Chloe In The Afternoon”), a man in prison (“Strange Mercy”), successful businessperson (“Year Of The Tiger”), Marilyn Monroe (“Surgeon”). “Dilettante” sees her comparing someone to a “party I heard through a wall / I’m always watching you through the keyhole.” Of course she is, that’s how she writes about all these things — Clark is clearly watching the world.

“They could take you or leave you / So they took you and they left you / How could they be casually cruel?” Clark wonders on “Cruel.” This leads directly into “Cheerleader,” where she sings from the point-of-view of the cruel, “I’ve told whole lies with a half smile / I’ve thrown rocks then hid both my arms.” Clark takes all these different angles, and leave you feeling like you’ve just been told of her personal discoveries about life. “It’s not a perfect plan / but it’s the one we’ve got,” she sings on “Champagne Year.”

St. Vincent, however, goes in the opposite direction with her music. The unbridled and unrestrained music act as a counterpoint to the thoughtful stories. Clark has become a pretty great guitarist, and she drops guitar spasms all over “Chloe In The Afternoon” and “Cruel,” a bizarre little solo on “Surgeon,” a rapturous build on “Northern Lights.” The joy of her music is absolutely evident, and her breathless vocals bring even more passion.

Strange Mercy consistently fits these two sides — Apollonian reason and Dionysian instinct — together perfectly. It makes a huge impression, one of the best records of 2011.

St. Vincent “Northern Lights”

St. Vincent “Surgeon”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #14. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts

Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts

thunder demons swipe her halo then they run away / I know better than to let her go

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/zdzY49xlvdY" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]

1994: a surreal, but actually somewhat factual, interview between Thurston Moore and Beck, which ends with the greatest missed high-5 in the history of high-5’s.

1994-2010: not much

2011: Thurston Moore creates, with Beck’s help, a raw, but somewhat biographical, album of soul-bearing songs called Demolished Thoughts.

Demolished Thoughts very easily could have been Thurston Moore’s folk album, as he hypnotically strums his alternately-tuned acoustic guitars and sings his Beat-poet lyrics. Beck, as the producer, keeps that simple set-up, expanding it only with cello/harp and light rhythm sections.

I think a lot of this atmosphere comes from the space Beck gives each part. The cry of the cello on “Benediction,” the swirling harp on “Illuminine,” the flow of “In Silver Rain With Paper Key,” it never feels like too much. Even when some sounds come of as more experimental, like the end of “January,” it feels just right, and never strays from Moore’s core. The songs are allowed to be what they are, which is exactly what songs like this need. The frantic but quiet storm of “Circulation” or the mournful feel of “Blood Never Lies,” for example, develop so naturally that you cannot help but feel the songs. There is no artifice on this record.

I do not want to get into the biographical angle, as Moore keeps it all distant from his songs. If the news of his separation with Kim Gordon (and perhaps, Sonic Youth?) had not been made public, I doubt Demolished Thoughts would be looked at through such a lens. Thurston Moore has never been an explicit songwriter, and he does not start here. But the words do reflect a tumultuous world, an inner turmoil, that it is hard not to mention. “Where did you disappear today? / I turn the corner and I see you fade / In silver rain with a paper key / You lost your lover,” Moore sings on one song. “I know better than to let her go” ends “Benediction.” “It was only a matter of time / Before the space police discovered my crime,” he regrets on “Space,” “Hearts get broken every day / Your undying lover is here and gone.”

Moore’s songs explore turmoil and sadness, which in turn, Beck helped mirror in its music and sound. They make a particularly affecting album, difficult at times in its rawness, but still gorgeous in its own way. Like a missed high-5.

Thurston Moore “January”

Thurston Moore “Benediction”

Spotify playlist of my top-20 albums

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #15. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer

I won't fall apart on you tonight / But I don't know what tomorrow may bring

I am not sure what happened to Eleanor Friedberger last summer exactly, but it seems to have inspired an album full of nostalgic songs about getting lost and failed romance.

Friedberger’s considerable talent is in her observational and uniquely specific, semi-stream-of-conscious songwriting. Memories are like that though, right? You don’t just remember the car crash last year, you remember that “the ambulance was called by a guy and his friend called Guru / they were visiting from California / they saved my life.” She is not necessarily going for universal philosophical ideas (one way for a listener to connect to a song), but going in the opposite direction – zeroing in on whatever details are still there in her mind. This sort of specificity makes the songs feel more immediate, even more real. I’ve never been in a car crash, but hearing her sing of one (on “My Mistakes), I feel connected because of the detail, and sense the wonder it caused.

Similarly, “Inn Of The Seventh Ray” seems to specifically recall getting lost in Los Angeles on a date. Without explicitly bringing it up, it ends up as a look at broken promises of a broken relationship (“you promised to take me to the Inn Of The Seventh Ray / if you only knew the way”). In only writing about the trip to the restaurant, she ends writing about so much more. Again, the specifics bring you in. Friedberger even regularly drops “that’s crazy!” or “I liked that” impressions throughout her lyrics to bring them even closer to the listener. We are right there with her.

Most of the songs here do seem to be looking at a broken relationship. She remembers movies watched (The Girl Who Played With Fire in “Scenes From Bensonhurst” and Footloose in “Inn”), making necklaces from tin cans, getting lost in New York (on both “Owl’s Head Park” and “Roosevelt Island”), getting lost in Los Angeles (“Inn”), I could go on, listing all the moments. All these scenes tie all the songs together.

Musically, the songs have a calmness, especially compared to the intensity of Friedberger’s main band, Fiery Furnaces. There are less riffs, and she utilize mood over Furnaces’ experimentation. Some of the tracks perfectly embody the nostalgia, subtly dropping in some saxophone or a little harmonica or keyboards in just the right way. The music does form a string of moods through its different sections, which certainly matches the string of scenes she sings about.

In many ways, Last Summer is a loose concept album – maybe not in a specific sense, but in looking at some specific events of a time and trying to figure them out. Whether or not they really happened, or are fiction, I do not know. Friedberger does not write from within the memories, but almost always in looking back on them, trying to make sense of what happened. Is this not exactly what people do with their memories? “I thought I’d learn from my mistakes,” Friedberger sings on “My Mistakes,” “Why keep time-traveling if it doesn’t get better the second time around?”

Eleanor Friedberger “My Mistakes”

Eleanor Friedberger “One-Month Marathon”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #16. Cut Copy – Zonoscope

Cut Copy - Zonoscope

Neatly packaged, sleek design, glossy pamphlet, neon sign

Throughout the year, I said a few times that I was surprised at how much I was digging Zonoscope. Cut Copy does have a plastic ’80s synth pop sound at their core. I mean who doesn’t enjoy a little Toto every once in awhile, right? But a whole album? Cut Copy must be bringing something more to this somehow. I have been struggling to figure out and elucidate what that something is. So I am going to go at this in a different way: pretentiously live blog it as I listen, song-by-song.

1. “Need You Now” displays most of the aspects of Zonoscope that I like: swirling synthesizers, a throbbing pulse, the singer’s cool voice, a ton of sugary melodies, and lyrics that are either heartfelt love or deranged evil (“in the morning I come down / in the morning I break down / you’re never gonna get away / I need you now”).

2. “Take Me Over” feels more pop-oriented than “Need You Now,” simple and catchy. I like the simplicity. Cut Copy never feels like they over-do anything. It would be too easy to compare this to Duran Duran, with these synthesizers, the bongo-y rhythm, the almost-anthemic chorus (just the right sort of anthem).

3. “Where I’m Going” repeats the same theme as the first two songs. So far every song is directed at a savior of sorts, someone to show him the way (“I know we’re going crazy but I need you now” / “take me over, take me out to the jungle through the night” / “take my love if you know where I’m going”). Is that what a zonoscope does? Shows you the way? Rescues you? I have no idea if “zonoscope” is a real word.

4. “Pharaohs & Pyramids” builds up a bouncy synthesizer into a strange track. It’s strange in that it sounds like it should be dance-y, but takes awhile to get there. Walls and walls of synthesizers, despite the overdone ’80s referencing, when done right, is pretty cool. Maybe the ’80s were better than we think?

5. “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution,” like most songs on here, connects directly to the previous song through a little coda. Cut Copy took great care to blend everything, to make the album flow and feel a whole. Songs don’t exist on their own, they exist as part of Zonoscope. I love when albums do that. This song has a great bassline, though the idea of the song (dancing revolution) falls short for me. Still, Zonoscope is superb up to this point – nothing blindingly original, perhaps. But the familiar synth beats are twisted with something slightly psychedelic, which saves it greatly from being just a pure ’80s redux.

6. “Strange Nostalgia For The Future” is a trippy breather instrumental in the middle of the album.

7. After all the grooves up to this point, “This Is All We’ve Got” feels more tense, and a little darker, subtler. Not my favorite song on here, but nice to get that sort of contrast. Without it, I might start tiring of this album soon.

8. “Alisa” begins with a beat similar to “Blink,” but sped-up. Despite being so synth-heavy, songs like “Alisa” demonstrate that Cut Copy is not just some guy making songs on a computer (or, if they are, he does a good job infusing the feel of a live band into it).

9. “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat” introduces some seduction into the album. Like the rest of the second half of the album, it is a little darker. I think that gets down to why I like this album so much. Sure, there’s the bright catchy synths all over the record, which is something I especially enjoy, but they’re balanced with the shadowy songs like this.

10. “Corner Of The Sky” starts to border on prog rock, as I think there are lyrics about cauldrons and comets and whatnot. Maybe that’s where their next album will go?

11. “Sun God” is a fifteen-minute epic album-closer (and one of the best songs of the year by anyone). If you recall, my last album review (Disappears’ Closer) also closed on a fifteen-minute epic. And despite the two groups having almost nothing at all in common, they actually do accomplish similar things. I guess that’s why they’re placed together on my list. But in the same way I found Disappears’ garage krautrock addicting, so too am I hooked on Cut Copy’s trippy ’80s synth beats. Hypnotic repetition is a key to both styles, when Cut Copy is at their best, it’s finding a groove or two and fitting them together so you just can’t get enough.

Cut Copy “Pharaohs & Pyramids”

Cut Copy “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat”

As usual, you can listen to my top albums on this Spotify playlist. Sorry, did not realize that Disappears’ wasn’t available — it’s hard for me to tell since it is on my computer, so I can hear it regardless.

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #17. Disappears – Guider

Disappears - Guider

revisiting

I was noticing some recurring threads throughout my top-20 list, in anticipation of future reviews. One thing I liked this year seems to be energetic, one-dimensional rock bands, who perhaps have some hidden, deeper dimensions. Disappears is one of these bands.

But I should be upfront here: Guider is not a particularly popular record. A few sites I looked at had it rated pretty poor (though some do love it). And even I, with the album sitting strong at #17 on my list here, cannot imagine recommending Disappears to a whole lot of people. Whether those hidden dimensions reveal themselves probably depends a lot on each individual listener, and perhaps with a band like this, they can easily stay hidden.

First of all, the 30-minute album contains only five short songs, and a fifteen-minute one. The singer blurts or groans out near-indecipherable vocals, like they were an afterthought. The guitar tones never seem to change from song to song. Instead of solos, the guitarist just strangles chords for atmosphere. And the whole thing has a distant, muffled feel, like you’re listening to a garage band, but with the garage door closed in front of you. These are not criticisms. Guider is not as difficult as that sounds, but to show how Disappears totally deconstruct the normal rock music angles.

Further, and perhaps most of all, the relentless driving beat of every track, provided by their new drummer, Steve Shelley (from Sonic Youth) impresses me.* That high-tempo mechanical repetition, borrowed from krautrock, is one of my favorite things. I find it totally addicting! “Halo” has one of the more intense rhythm sections, and it is a good example here. No matter what kind of stuff is going on above it, that backbone is momentous.

But most of all, the album refuses to stray. Often I prefer an album that wanders and explores a bit, but Disappears stick close to their own method for the entire time. This is the right choice for a band like this; one misplaced ballad, rude synthesizer sound, or something out-of-place like that would probably ruin everything. Instead, little short bursts of songs keep showing you the template, repeating it, over and over (just like the krautrock beat, come to think of it). And so by the time Guider arrives at the 15-minute “Revisiting,” you know what to expect. Those hidden dimensions, the intense grooves and deconstructed rock and roll, have shown themselves, completely drawing me in, allowing “Revisiting” to be the perfect epic closer. And by the time “Revisiting” ends, you’re ready to go again.

*UPDATE A FEW DAYS LATER: I have since read that Shelley is not on this album, though he is in the band and will be on their upcoming 3rd album. The drumming here is still bad-ass.

Disappears “Halo”

Disappears “Guider”

Spotify playlist here!

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #18. Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation

Youth Lagoon - The Year Of Hibernation

the monsters in the room were dancing to the music around us

Youth Lagoon is a one-man project, by a 22-year-old from Boise, Idaho named Trevor Powers, who recorded The Year Of Hibernation, his debut album, in his room.* As is to be expected from a 22-year-old songwriter, the songs are sparse confrontations with himself. They are nostalgiac, as one tends to be at that age, and a little bit odd, full of worries and dreams.

Musically, Youth Lagoon’s songs all follow a similar pattern. The opening track, “Posters” provides a good template: a minimal/ambient intro leads to some distant echoed vocals, some bass gets added, then some drums, before a kick into a fuller more dynamic ending. The songs building in this way by accumulating moments give the album dynamics, as there are a lot of riffs and moments to eagerly await just around the corner.

This review sort of ended up short, a bunch of incoherent thoughts. Looking much closer at Powers’ words felt unnecessary. He’s hardly a Bob Dylan, and most of the words are semi-incomprehensible anyway. He sings of posters on walls (a youthful way of defining ones’ self), simple metaphors for worry (monsters and demons and snakes), and advice from his mother. It does build a mood, a pretty amazing one, but a turn of phrase isn’t his strongest skill.

Still, though, it feels to me like Youth Lagoon will get there. I find it remarkable that the sound of this album was created in a bedroom; it sounds full and complete, the only hint at its lo-fi nature is the occasional drum machine. In the end, some of these songs resonate, perhaps deeply, and that’s entirely a product of the consistent feel Powers established throughout. I really look forward to hearing where he goes from here; that promise is why it’s one of my top albums of the year.

*That’s all the facts I know about Youth Lagoon in one sentence.

Youth Lagoon “Posters”

Youth Lagoon “Cannons”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #19. Vetiver – The Errant Charm

Vetiver - The Errant Charm

all happiness is sad / I need you now

Choruses are a big part of songwriting. They don’t necessarily have to be big anthems, or easy to sing-along to, or anything like that. They come in all sorts of forms, providing familiarity to your ear, and something for the verses to build towards. It, then, takes quite a great deal of confidence to write an entire album with no discernible choruses, a tactic songwriter Andy Cabic has made a habit with all of Vetiver’s albums.

Their newest album, The Errant Charm continues this trend. His songs are the general down-on-your-luck folk meanderings that can sometimes feel commonplace, but done with a simple ease. Listening through some of Vetiver older songs, they are really good, but did not have the natural flow that rides through these new songs of The Errant Charm.

Belying this apparent songwriting confidence, though, is Cabic’s hushed, inward lead vocals (a strange but likable change over older Vetiver songs, where he often sang pretty clearly). “Can’t You Tell,” for instance, starts out with a throbbing bass beat, which gives way to Cabic singing something vague and unintelligible. All I can make out is a few words here and there, before he asks, “I’m good / can’t you tell?” More words than that are certainly unnecessary. “Fog Emotion” makes this fuzziness explicit, singing of foggy days when “my mind takes a turn back to you.” He’s haunted by a loss, confused and unclear and wondering what is happening. A lot of questions jump out — “when is this old world gonna treat me kind?” By the final song, “Soft Glass,” it feels like his vocals are disappearing entirely under the weight of emotion.

There is a couple of clunker songs on here; but for the most part everything blurs together beautifully: his whispers, shimmering slide guitar, crystal-clear acoustic guitar, slightly-odd rhythm, breezy organ, and, what surely can only be referred to as the accidental charm of these songs.

Vetiver “Can’t You Tell”

Vetiver “Wonder Why”

and again, if you want to hear all 20 of my favorite albums, I’m updating a Spotify playlist with them here

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #20. Björk – Biophilia

Bjork - Biophilia

heaven's bodies whirl around me and make me wonder

“Biophilia” means “the love of life” – not life in an existential sense, but life as in living systems and vitality. This is the concept of Björk’s Biophilia, a set of songs that take inspiration from nature and the universe. And like nature and the universe, the album varies wildly, from moments of beauty to creepiness to perplexing to exciting.

As to be expected from an artist like Björk, she takes this concept all the way. Her biophiliac ideas inform the music. For instance, the song “Moon” does not mention moons in its words, but the music is based on musical cycles (of harps), analogized to lunar cycles. “Thunderbolt” uses an electronic Tesla coil to somehow get a bassline, which creates an arpeggio — a musical form of intervals, in line with the space between thunder and lightning. I am no musician though, and a lot of this musicianship is over my head, but figured it was worth a mention. (You can read about the songs in more detail here if you’d like.)

As is normal for her, Björk writes about personal moments within big… no, HUGE, themes. (What’s bigger than the universe?) “Moon” looks at rejuvenation, which is probably the main thread through most of the songs: “Best way to start anew is to fail miserably / Fail at loving / Fail at giving / Fail at creating a flow / Then realign the whole / And kick into the starthole.” Moons start over every month, nature is always re-growing, and so can people: “the healthiest pastime is being in life-threatening circumstances and once again be reborn.” “Crystalline” and “Thunderbolt” also look at similar moments in life – “the sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety” and “may I / can I / or have I too often / craved miracles.” On “Cosmogony,” Björk sings of four different creationist stories (various myths and the Big Bang Theory). “Virus” looks at love through the lens of a virus and a cell (“perfect adversaries”).

As new age-y or gimmick-y as this may all sound, I assure you, it could not be less so. The end result is a sharp, mysterious album, mixing grand vocals with homemade electronics (Björk did much of it on an iPad apparently). Björk’s endlessly fascinating curiosity and musical exploration make Biophilia a vital piece of music.

Bjork “Moon”

Bjork “Hollow”

also you can listen to this on my Spotify playlist here

- almostaghost