Tag Archive for 'album review'

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #1. The National – High Violet

High Violet

yellow voices swallowing my soul

#1. The National – High Violet

The National’s High Violet works for a lot of reasons, but foremost as a demonstration of melody. Melody makes songs catchy, but catchy melodies can easily be annoying or too pop or cheesy. The National gets right in there and writes melodies that only make their songs more powerful. They wouldn’t work half as well if they were sung differently. The melodies sometimes build drama, sometimes jump out at you, and always add to the mood of what are already very moody songs.

But listening to these songs is to find them quickly engrained in your mind. There’s one moment in particular that I think is indicative, both of their use of melody, as well as their songwriting in general. On “Conversation 16, Matt Berninger (the singer/lyricist) goes through a verse/chorus, semi-speaking, semi-singing. The band is burning behind him, and they repeat a couple of times. He seems to be describing a somewhat-perfect, romantic siutation: it’s a “Hollywood summer,” dinner with friends, “we belong in a movie,” “we should swim in a fountain.” But then, then The National hits on a short bridge: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / ‘Cause I’m evil.” Now clearly, this isn’t a song about zombies. Nor is he actually evil. He is just worried, you’re not going to like me anymore, I’m going to ruin this soon. This line stands out, a bit of a shock, but once you find it and it works and makes sense to you… that’s when High Violet will start clicking. (There are many moments throughout which may trigger this, actually, but that’s my favorite.)

And once High Violet starts clicking, you find a pretty genius record. Throughout, it explores these kind of worries in various detail, via either wickedly funny or moody songs (often times, both). “Sorrow” rides along, finding him “living in a city sorrow built / it’s in my honey / it’s in my milk.” “Anyone’s Ghost” is about desolate isolation, having been left alone (“didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost”). He burns down blackberry fields, doesn’t think to make corrections, owes money to the money to the money he owes. His shortcomings are always right there, haunting and lurking under everything. The first song, the terrific “Terrible Love” is an analogy for life and all its worries: “it’s a terrible love / I’m walking with spiders / it’s quiet company.”

The way I decided which album was #1 was, in the end, pretty simple. I mean, really, there probably is not a lot of difference in quality between #1 and #3 or even #12. That is not what I am doing here, weighing this album versus that album versus all of recorded musical history. But looking back at 2010, what it came down to was that for about six months, I rarely stopped listening to High Violet. It never left the cd player in my car, and still remains right there ready to play. Many albums work as a full concept, others work as collections of individual songs… but the very best albums work as both. I can listen to High Violet straight through, or I can jump around, finding myself needing to hear a different song each different day. That’s what happened with High Violet. 2010 was the year The National drug their songs into my brain (because they’re evil).

The National “Conversation 16”

The National “Afraid Of Everyone”

The National “Terrible Love”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #2. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

Have One On Me

like a bump on a bump on a log, baby

#2. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

I realize that Joanna Newsom can be a somewhat polarizing figure. People either love her, or can’t stand her. I’ve gone through both, honestly. In the end, I’ve liked her first few records, but her sometimes-too-cutesy voice and sometimes-too-cutesy songs are just…too cute. I have grown to appreciate her wordplay, her sparkly harp, and her tense high voice. She is an acquired taste, that I did eventually acquire.

However, Have One On Me blew all that out of the water. All that cutesy stuff seems now like an entirely different artist, from long ago. This is a mammoth record, in size, scope, and skill. Sure, many of the songs are long, but with patience you start to notice that these are razor sharp. Every verse is important. Every harp strum, every waver in her voice, every orchestral flourish, every light drumbeat. There’s no ramble here, which is incredible because it’s 2 hours long, over 3 discs. Of course, all this technical goodness would be irrelevant if it weren’t a joy to listen to.

And it is. Newsom leads us into her magical world, with lullabies and fairy tales and stories and love and hope and loss and puns and who knows what else is in there? “Easy” starts things off, and it is a good example of her new laidback warmth. Like I said, in the past her voice could sound tense. Now, she calmly floats through the songs, dropping all tension. “Easy” has similarly warm keyboards, inviting, calling you in. By the end of this first song, you’ll want to pull the blanket over your head, and listen, with no distractions. Next Newsom drops a few harp songs to remind you: this is what I do better than anyone else in the world. The harp, as always, enhances her stories perfectly, adding just the right drama at just the right times. By the end of disc one, with the genius “Baby Birch,” you should be completely sucked in.

Disc two seems to be me to be the emotional heart of the record. “In California” and “Jackrabbits” are a powerful combo, full of nostalgia and longing and yellow hearts and dry rot and even a “poultice made of fig.” Who sings about poultices? Joanna Newsom does, and it’s awesome. Disc Three is delicate, as she continues, ending things with contemplatively. Could this have been 4 discs? 5? 23? The mastery makes it feel endless, even when you get to the end.

I mean, I won’t lie. This is a challenging record. It is hard to swallow whole, and even individual tracks are so rich and long, it’s impossible to gather all the subtleties. But at the same time, the songs are too fascinating and beautiful to just put on in the background. What would be the point in that? The first time I really connected to this album, I was listening on a sunny afternoon in the fall. I put it on, and basically lost all sense in time. I was reading the lyrics, listening, looked up, and thought, wait, why is the sun shining? What time is it? Where am I? Have One On Me is something to really experience–it can shake you, move you, make you daydream. It is one of the best musical experiences of 2010, if you let it be.

Joanna Newsom “Easy”

Joanna Newsom “Jackrabbits”

WordPress has a size limit on their mp3s, so even when I scaled the quality down, some of these songs were still too long to share. I really wanted to share “Baby Birch” so here’s a Youtube video of it:

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #3. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy

Here's To Taking It Easy

Hej, I am light

#3. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy

Phosphorescent (Matthew Houck) has made a number of albums, each one embracing lo-fi storytelling and recording. He could go from jaunty country, to Americana ambience, to covering The Beatles, Willie Nelson or Nick Cave. All this practice built up Houck’s skills, and leads directly to Here’s To Taking It Easy. This album approaches many of the same areas as his earlier works, but does so with a growing ease. Where some of his other albums and songs had a ramshackle fragility to them, Here’s To Taking It Easy is full-blooded and shimmering with confidence.

The songs here are quite often road-weary, with a lot of far-off cities, and wishing to be somewhere other than the place you are. Over upbeat soul horns, long slide guitar breaks, barroom piano, Houck sings of travelling, of everywhere starting to look the same, blurred together. “We’ll Be Here Soon” and “Heaven, Sittin’ Down” explore further the struggles of the road: “Oh I wish I was in heaven, sittin’ down / I wish the road we were taking / Wasn’t made for breaking down.”

Naturally, being on the road means leaving someone behind. In “Heaven, Sittin’ Down” he even tries to call her on an “old foreign telephone.” On “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly),” he is wistful: “Well I wake in the morning and I dress / I hang that charm of gold around my neck / And I haul to her window and I look / And I crawl on inside and wake her up / Singing love me foolishly / Love me foolish-like.” Clearly, a dream, a hopeful wish that carries him through. Will he ever get back to her? There’s lots of doubts about that. The brilliant “The Mermaid Parade” is a story of a man missing a flight to LA, where he could have met up with his love, Amanda. Instead, he’s left in New York, and their “two years of marriage in two short weeks” is but a memory, a gigantic loss over his head. When he ends the song, “God damn it, Amanda, oh God damn it all,” it explains everything.

Whether these subtle and simple stories, fun lyrics like “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing,” or tapping into gospel, country, or whatever is necessary for the song, Houck’s confidence has kicked Phosphorescent into another level entirely. After his last album, which was entirely covers of Willie Nelson songs–pleasant, but whatever–this turn is stunning. Maybe exploring Willie Nelson pulled something out of Houck, I don’t know. But whatever happened, Here’s To Taking It Easy is as perfect an album I have heard this year.

Phosphorescent “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing”

Phosphorescent “The Mermaid Parade”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #4. Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here

I'm New Here

the ghetto was a haven for the meanest preacher ever known

#4. Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here

When you think of the blues, there are generally not too many variations out there. You’ve got acoustic Delta blues with mysterious and spooky legends like Robert Johnson or Skip James. Or you might think of more electric bluesmen, bigger-than-life and creating rock and roll, like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. But the one thing that connects these bluesmen, and makes them eternal, is their wisdom. They all have lived–struggled, fought, lost, made it out alive. That’s the blues in a nutshell.

Gil Scott-Heron, by all accounts, has lived. He is becoming more and more recognized as a legend, one of the pioneers of hiphop, with his ’70s spoken-word jazz recordings. He might not have been the first rapper, but he was a leading black poet, focused on urban social issues. I’ll cut his bio short, but by the ’80s and ’90s, he had more or less quit recording, and the ’00s found him in prison for drug possession. This all leads to I’m New Here, Scott-Heron’s first album in 16 years (and only second since 1982).

The amazing thing about I’m New Here is the way it takes old parts, yet sounds so new, so modern. The slide guitar and handclaps of “New York Is Killing Me” are skeletal blues, but the production includes electronic buzzes which make it feel current. The ghostly ambience of “The Crutch,” the fluttery beat of “Your Soul And Mine”: they may be distantly related to Skip James but could only have been made in modern times. The opening track, “Me And The Devil Blues” reworks the old Robert Johnson song into something almost triphop. This makes I’m New Here a rarity, an actual twist on one of the oldest and most familiar genres.

But what makes that twist special is that Scott-Heron is old enough to know. Throughout the album, there are number of short snippets of him speaking, offering thoughts (“certain bad things that happen…make you realize you’ve been here a whole lot longer than people thought you would”). There are no dirt crossroads in Gil Scott-Heron’s blues, but it is clear he has met the devil a few times. But as he sings on the title track (ironically, a cover of a recent Smog song), “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around.” Gil Scott-Heron was pretty far gone, but I’m New Here hopefully is an announcement that’s he’s come back around. The world needs his voice.

Gil Scott-Heron “New York Is Killing Me”

Gil Scott-Heron “Me And The Devil”

and PS. check out this video for a remix of “New York Is Killing Me”… I think it gets to exactly what I wrote here earlier. It’s not the dirt road blues, it’s the subway blues. Watch him here.

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #5. The Dead Weather – Sea Of Cowards

Sea Of Cowards

I can smell the gasoline

#5. The Dead Weather – Sea Of Cowards

The Dead Weather were the best live band I saw this year. I saw them twice, and each time, one thought was left with me: damn, they are rock stars. Just bad-ass, don’t-mess-with-us rock stars, full of charisma and intensity. But this isn’t a countdown of who had the most killer stage presence of the year. I mention it because their new album, Sea Of Cowards, is a bad-ass, don’t-mess-with-us album, full of charisma and intensity.

Sea Of Cowards is relatively short, but the compactness does nothing but make The Dead Weather’s nasty streak nastier. The nastiness is relentless, breathless. All good rock stars take no prisoners, and that’s what they tap into. On “Blue Blood Blues,” Jack White starts the madness off (“All the neighbors get pissed when I come home / I make ’em nervous / All the white girls trip / When I sing at Sunday service”). From there, Alison Mosshart takes over. She’s an amazing singer, versatile, and always with intensity. The band follows her, basically. Jack Lawrence’s bass often kicks off the songs, his spazzy rhythms climbing out of the crashing embers of the prior song. (The album is more or less set up like a long medley of songs, loosely connected by theme.) The keyboard/guitar riffs by Dean Fertita (and White sometimes) are at times thrilling (“Gasoline,” “The Difference Between Us”).

I feel like I may be making this sound more extreme than it is. It is intense and relentless, but like good rock stars, The Dead Weather know how to make it listenable. That charisma is what makes them special, and what kicks their songs up another notch. Any one of these four could be stars of any band. Together, they are a real force. If you like your rock dirty and bluesy and not watered down, Sea Of Cowards is the first place to start.

The Dead Weather “Blue Blood Blues”

The Dead Weather “I’m Mad”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #6. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty

boi stop

I live for today, plan for the future, pack a lunch and haul ass

#6. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty

My countdown, I noticed today, is short on rap. I do listen to it a fair bit, but sometimes I find rap albums are all relatively formulaic. They all do the same things, and can be difficult to distinguish from each other. There are quite a few artists who come at it with intelligence (like, The Roots), skills (Wu-Tang), or creativity (Outkast), but even good albums can sound similar. Big Boi is of course part of Outkast, and yet another Artist Going Solo who made my countdown. What did he do on this album that other rappers could not?

It took me quite a lot of thinking to realize this album. I knew I liked it a lot, and what it came down to was simple. The beats are awesome. Roughly half the song are hot rap beats (like “Daddy Fat Sax”), but the other half display a crazy creativity that is rare in rap. I know that André 3000 gets the credit for a lot of creativity in Outkast, and I won’t deny that, but Big Boi has always been overlooked in this department. (Big Boi is the one trying to collaborate with Kate Bush, for instance.) (Please happen.) Big Boi brings his creativity to a fairly typical hiphop world, showing a mastery that very few have.

I’ll try to go into more detail. A few albums ago, I wrote about how Corinne Bailey Rae scaled back her voice, which ended up enhancing the emotion of her album. A lot of Big Boi’s beats here are skeletal, scaled back, which in the end makes them extremely funky. You don’t have to go big to be big. The music at times is claustrophobic and tight. “You Ain’t No DJ” is tense, riding a percussive electro beat, produced by André 3000. A few other tracks highlight Big Boi’s really fast flow above all (like “Night Night”). Big Boi could have easily put out an album full of great tracks like these.

But he didn’t stop there. He showed off his creativity with songs like “Turns Me On,” where a skittery scat vocal loop slowly develops into one of the lushest beats of the year. “General Patton” combines horns with an opera chorus. Opera! It took me awhile to get into “General Patton,” it’s the most aggressive song on here. But once you hear it, you cannot unhear it. The drama is undeniable, and that opera loop is wild. “Fo Yo Sorrows” has all sorts of stuff you don’t hear on usual rap tracks (and some you do, like George Clinton).

Sir Lucious went through years of label politics to get released. (That’s why the 3 songs with André 3000 rapping on it were left off; fortunately Big Boi leaked 2 of them to the web.) There are times Big Boi can be ridiculous, like the over-the-top title, or the not-funny raunchy skits between songs. But this album is an impressive work by one of the masters of the rap genre.

Big Boi – “General Patton”

Big Boi – “Be Still (feat. Janelle Monáe)”

Big Boi – “Fo Yo Sorrows (feat. George Clinton, Too Short & Sam Chris)”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #7. Jónsi – Go

Go

climb endless trees

#7. Jónsi – Go

Jónsi, of course, is the lead singer of Sigur Rós, and the mix of natural instruments with his other-worldly voice remains the key for the music on his new album, Go. Jónsi’s other side project, Riceboy Sleeps, basically makes ambient music. Go, however, is the polar opposite of ambient, where everything just sparkles and breathes. (Sigur Rós, I guess, mixes both aspects.)

Go begins with the glorious and triumphant “Go Do,” though it sometimes recalls a Nike commercial (could just be the title). “Animal Arithmetic” has a relentless pulse, from the opening junkyard percussion, to the upbeat vocals, to the swirling keyboards. Not a moment is wasted, not a moment drags. Glacial Sigur Rós movements are nowhere to be found here (well, maybe a tiny bit, the final track “Hengilás” is familiar). Despite the parts being the same (strings, Iceland, drama, that voice), and being just as uplifting, Jónsi is taking a different path from Sigur Rós. It remains stunning. Nobody makes music like this.

One difference is that, instead of Icelandic (or Hopelandic), Jónsi actually sings (most of) the lyrics in English. I was stunned to discover this. I didn’t realize it until months after I started listening to it! His voice does that to you, his unique phrasing and sound. And the lyrics are fascinating too. From the gorgeous “Sinking Friendships,” he writes “we’re swimming in the blue / nigh misfortune / unlively like glue / my eyes are soaked the way through / our sinking friendships / we drown them all.”

There is a lot of lines about growth and movement, which matches the music, and seems to be Jónsi’s theme (hence the album title). For instance, on “Around Us,” “I see a forest / a treasure chest full of labyrinth / I see a door, holes in the floor / We’ll break seeds, we’ll grow!” “Boy Lillikoi” seems to be about a boy, courageous and adventurous: “I want to be a lilikoi / Boy lillikoi / you grind your claws / you howl, you growl unafraid / you run, you’re free / you climb endless trees.” Jónsi’s song could not be more life-affirming, but never in a new agey sort of way.

Jónsi sings on “Animal Arithmetic,” “every time, everyone, everything’s full of life / every day, everywhere, people are so alive” and that’s a perfect description. Every moment of Go is full of life, no album from 2010 is more alive.

Jónsi “Animal Arithmetic”

Jónsi “Sinking Friendships”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #8. Goldfrapp – Head First

Goldfrapp - Head First

shiny and warm

#8. Goldfrapp – Head First

Head First is yet another addictive album from Goldfrapp. Their string of records is getting pretty impressive! I find that when I listen to them, I end up listening to them a ton. And sometimes when I do that with other artists, by the time I’m done, I’m thinking, “that’s enough, I’m sick of this artist now.” But with Goldfrapp, I get hooked, and keep wanting to listen to more. Head First is no exception!

While their last album, Seventh Tree, was pretty chill, and showed off the sometimes-strange creativity of their songs, Head First leans back to Black Cherry or Supernature. It is energetic and bubbly, but with their occasional slight touches of darkness or menace. That’s not to say they are repeating themselves. Most press about Head First notes the heavy ’80s influence of the album, mainly in the sound of the keyboards/synthesizers. That is true, but misses some of the subtlety of what they are doing. Jazzercising to it would hardly be out of place, though, that’s for sure.

On “Dreaming,” for example, all the sounds and layers of synthesizers are there to enhance the chorus. Everything is there for that moment: “I, I am only dreaming…” Similarly, “Alive” hangs there, revving up, until the chorus soars in, “feeling alive again!” This is what Goldfrapp does in all their best songs of the past (from “Strict Machine” to “Oh La La” to name two), dropping razor sharp choruses into a relentless groove. They continue to do that on Head First, continue to do that better than anyone.

One new angle on Head First is that Alison Goldfrapp is singing fairly straightforward love songs. In the past, she used a lot of sexy innuendo and surreal language; here, she is using her seductive voice to sing of clearer and more immediate feelings. For instance, on “Shiny And Warm,” she is anxious: “shiny and warm / head in a storm / I’m driving home to you.” She sounds pretty exhilarated, and it’s pretty clear what will happen when she gets home (“you’ll play with my cheek / whisper something in the dawn”). She recognizes sometimes that the feelings might be a dream or temporary. On the title track, she sings “I am your visitor / I’m on the other side of your world.” She’ll deal with that later, but for now she’s “head first in love.” This immediacy certainly makes Head First one of the more romantic albums of 2010.

Goldfrapp “Dreaming”

Goldfrapp “Head First”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #9. Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Yeasayer - Odd Blood

everybody clouds up in my head

#9. Yeasayer – Odd Blood

With their second album, Yeasayer started to turn their undeniable creativity into funky funky songs. I use “funky” twice, for both meanings of the word: the music has strong groovy beats, and is also slightly strange.

Odd Blood starts with the dark and swampy “The Children,” before kicking into some of the strongest cuts on the album, “Ambling Alp,” “Madder Red,” and “O.N.E.” These songs show off their style perfectly. All are filled with deep percussion, swirly guitars, catchy harmonies, and just a hint of a sensual groove. The long intro to “Love Me Girl” sounds like Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” except all warped. Heck, deep down, a lot of the beats sound like they could have been influenced by Timbaland. Needless to say, the production throughout this album is pretty amazing. Everything fits together, creating a unique musical space.

Turns out, Yeasayer uses a lot of experimentation in making their music, such as plugging samplers into a television to create a wall of sound, sampling found Moroccan music, or singing harmonies through a fan. Never has experimentation sounded so catchy! I say “turns out,” because I had no idea about these strange tricks until I read about it on Wikipedia. Listening to Odd Blood, and having seen them live (Coachella again), I had no idea. The tricks never sound avant-garde, never sound like prog rock. (Thankfully.)

So yea, I have no idea what to call Yeasayer’s music. They borrow from all over. The hiphop comparisons from earlier were subtle, because this is by no means an R&B album. Or is it?! I get the sense, and I really hope I’m not wrong, that Yeasayer is still figuring it out themselves. Like, hey, we can make great recordings and do this right! When bands come to that realization, they often return with an epic. (Radiohead, for example, did that after The Bends.) I fully expect an epic of a third album from Yeasayer. But for now, I’m digging on Odd Blood and it’s odd collection of songs.

Yeasayer – “O.N.E.”

Yeasayer – “I Remember”

- almostaghost

AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2010 – #10. M.I.A. – /\/\ /\ Y /\

MAYA

down like your internet connection

#10. M.I.A. – /\/\ /\ Y /\

Initially, I was confused by /\/\ /\ Y /\. My favorite aspects of M.I.A.’s earlier albums, Kala and Arular, seemed to have been stripped away: the international politics, the world music beats. Do I want to hear M.I.A. using Autotune? Singing about how much tequila she drinks? A song like “XXXO” sounded very much like pure pop music, and I could easily hear a Christina Aguilera or someone singing it. Is this what I really wanted from M.I.A.? But a funny thing happened, even with this initial hesitation. I couldn’t stop listening to it.

The hidden aspects of many of the songs began to reveal themselves. Take the aforementioned “XXXO” which is ostensibly about a hookup. The chorus begins with, “you want me / XXXO” but is followed with the real chorus, “you want me to be somebody who I’m really not.” It is not the mindless situation it may appear at first. Similarly, at first I found “Teqkilla” despicable. But once I got around the the pun-filled lyrics about alcohol, I found it blown to bits by an insanely wild electro-jam. The end of the song is totally drunk on sounds and beats, and is completely awesome. Once I started to get into this song, the whole album started to click. If you start looking into the hearts of the songs, M.I.A.’s intelligence, creativity and lo-fi experimentation are still at their prime. The utterly bizarre echo-y gospel beat of “Tell Me Why,” the rock guitar back-to-back of “Born Free” and “Meds And Feds,” the trippy groove on “Story To Be Told”–they all started to work as clever, catchy tracks. (I still don’t like the Autotune though.)

And while /\/\ /\ Y /\ isn’t as explicitly political as her other albums could be, it does reveal itself too with more familiarity. Many of the songs are about freedom, never being caught. Instead of world politics, M.I.A. is focused on the politics of being an artist. (But it works as an analogy to the world too.) On “Lovalot,” she starts, “I feel cooped up / I wanna bust free / Got nothin’ to lose if you get me.” Later on “Space,” she sings that “gravity is my enemy” as she’s flying around in space odyssey (“I’m ahead of time so you’ll never lose me”). Is she staying one step ahead of expectations? Of authority? She’s out “living on the edge,” which is where the fight is, where the freedom is. It’s a great place for an artist to be.

So in the end, I consider /\/\ /\ Y /\ a great album. It is not showing up on many end-of-the-year lists that I’ve seen, and I reckon in the future it will continue to be overlooked, forgotten. Heck, I’m probably underrating it myself, even at #10 on my list. It is something that I will keep listening to, more and more. It’s not Kala, but it’s not trying to be.

M.I.A. – “Story To Be Told”

M.I.A. – “Teqkilla”

and for fun, here’s a great song M.I.A. threw on the web, after she got in a little pseudo-controversy with a journalist who wrote a less-than-flattering profile about her.

M.I.A. – “Haters”

- almostaghost