Rock's Backpages Writers' Blogs » Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com Rock reviews, rock articles & rock interviews from the Ultimate Rock'n'Roll Library Sun, 19 May 2013 03:11:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A THING ABOUT DIVINE FITS http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/a-thing-about-divine-fits/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/a-thing-about-divine-fits/#comments Fri, 07 Sep 2012 18:27:51 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/a-thing-about-divine-fits/

The recently formed Divine Fitshas been widely touted as an “indie supergroup” because of the pedigrees of its members: Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Dan Boeckner (formerly of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs) and drummer Sam Brown (the New Bomb Turks). There’s a powerful kick to Divine Fits’ dynamic, which pits Daniel’s dry, cerebral, hyper-rhythmic aesthetic against Boeckner’s open-hearted, overheated character (see Handsome Furs’ libidinal video for “What About Us” and this sexually charged press photo). And while A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge) barely sold more than 7k in its debut week, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the band’s prospective fans figure out who—and how good—they are.

The critics have certainly taken notice. The N.Y. TimesBen Ratliffdescribes the LP as “taut and right. It’s concentrated on the thing itself: a collection of shared songs, not the pile of individual wills. You can tell that what’s been taken out is as important as what stayed in… Having two singers doesn’t split the record in half; there seems to be an almost brotherly relationship here… Each can sound like a modified version of the other. Somehow, on deeper levels, they overlap.” The L.A. TimesRandall Roberts found one of the band’s recent run of L.A. performances “thrilling,” as he pointed out how “three men with recognizable gifts and a keen sense of song can build mesmerizing musical structures.” And in my review of the album in the upcoming issue of Uncut, I write that A Thing Called Divine Fits is the most infectiously tricked-out rock LP since El Camino. And seeing them tear it up last month at Hotel Cafe, playing like they’d been together for a decade rather than a few month, made it that much more obvious that Divine Fits is a major new band.

Here’s my recent conversation with Daniel, punctuated with shards of deadpan wit.

With Spoon very much a going concern, what motivated you to form another band?
I had known Dan for four years or so. I met him at a Handsome Furs show in Portland. When Spoon played at Radio City Music Hall, we invited him to come out and do one of his songs, and he played with us on one of our songs. I’d always felt that he was the real deal – loved his voice, loved his songs. So when he told me in February of last year that Wolf Parade was winding down, I immediately said, “We’ve gotta start a band then,” and he went for it.

Did you have a mission statement going in about what sort of a band it would be?
We didn’t. In fact, we talked about not having any kind of mission. When you’ve been in a band for a while, you start feeling a little bit boxed in in terms of what you can and can’t do, even if it’s not very conscious. And we talked about how great it was that we could do this, we could do that; we could use this instrument or that instrument; we could do this cover or that cover. “Let’s not say we can’t do anything.”

I think that comes across in the attitude of the album as well as the band onstage. I don’t know that I’d describe it as a carefree quality, but there’s less of the torment I expect from you on Spoon records. “Would That Not Be Nice,” for example, seems like a series of non sequiturs rather than any kind of heartfelt lyric expression.
That one came about from something I wrote in a letter to a friend. His band was on tour in Minneapolis and I was stuck at home feeling the pressure to write a lot of songs very quickly and not able to go out and do anything fun. The fun part of being in a band is when you’re on tour – and also the moment when you’re writing and something really great happens. So I was writing the letter about how I wished I was in Minneapolis and all the things I would do in Minneapolis. But that was the genesis of the song. And I don’t know, I guess I hadn’t gone through a breakup when we were making this record [near-laugh]; maybe that’s what you’re picking up on.

Did you each bring your own material to the band or did you collaborate?
A little of both. With “When I Get You Alone,” I wrote the music and I sent it to Dan and he sang on top of it. We wrote “Would That Not Be Nice” as a jam and I sang on top of that one. There were a lot of songs where I would bring something in, he would bring something in and we’d take what was there and reconstruct it or turn it around a little bit. And that was great to do because I’d never been in a band with a guy who was a songwriter first and foremost. He would come in with a song that was done in one way and I’d say, “Well, maybe we should make it half as many syllables.” Things like that.

The electronic aspect of the band is relatively new to you, although Dan has done a lot of it with Handsome Furs. How did that element come into play?¶When Dan was writing these songs, he was staying in this room upstairs in my house and he would go up there and work things. He’d do that all day and we’d listen to them at night. He had a keyboard and a drum machine up there, and so that shaped the way the songs turned out. He had just gotten the drum machine, and it had a really cool synth bass to it, so he was using that for the bass for all the songs he wrote, and because it affected how the songs progressed it made sense to keep it on there.

The drums seem to be a combination of Sam’s playing and quantized beats.
Most of them are played by Sam except for “My Love Is Real.” But you really get a sense of what a great drummer Sam is when you see him live—he’s just insane.

What caused you to bring in Nick Launay to produce the record with you?
Win Butler suggested Nick Launay to Dan. They’re buddies, and Dan used to be in an early version of Arcade Fire; I didn’t know that until recently. Win seemed real excited about this project, and he said, “You’ve gotta check out this guy Nick Launay,” who he had worked with on Neon Bible and The Suburbs. We looked at his discography, and he’d been working on records going back to 1980 when he produced a Public Image record. He’s done a lot of Nick Cave stuff, Grinderman, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

What did he bring to the party?
An ’80s sensibility [another near-laugh]. He has a good sense of how to get good performances quickly. He’s been doing this a long time and he’s good at it.

Is Divine Fits an ongoing entity?
Yeah, it’s definitely an ongoing thing. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s a really different experience for me, because I’m not the primary focus. I do get to write songs and sing, but I don’t have to be the guy that does it all the time. I like backing people up that I believe in.

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A SUBJECTIVE SOUNDTRACK TO THE LAST SIX MONTHS http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/07/a-subjective-soundtrack-to-the-last-six-months/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/07/a-subjective-soundtrack-to-the-last-six-months/#comments Thu, 12 Jul 2012 23:46:13 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/07/a-subjective-soundtrack-to-the-last-six-months/ Continue reading ]]>
HAPPY PILLS: A 2012 MIDYEAR PLAYLIST
You’ve gotta admit, a playlist that begins with a song titled “I’m Shakin’” and ends with one called “Just Breathe” is fitting for the present Age of Anxiety, just as Happy Pills serves nicely as a heading for the whole thing. I’ve got a bunch of either/or choices in the 25-track playlist immediately below, but most of them are from albums so loaded that you could pick any of five or six tracks as the standout—starting with The Shins and Jack White, as well as total pros Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, and a couple of bands I’d never heard before this year: Here We Go Magic and Hospitality. Along with the music listed below, I’ve spent a big portion of 2012 listening to tracks that either came out later in 2011 or took me awhile to actually listen to. In the former group are Radiohead’s “The Daily Mail”/”Staircase” single, a double-shot of late-year brilliance, and of course, The Black Keys’ irresistible, hook-loaded El Camino, an album I haven’t stopped playing since it came out in December. (Current fave: “Little Black Submarine,”with that fist-pumping Led Zep-inspired eruption in mid-song.) The ones I could’ve kicked myself for not picking up on sooner are Destroyer’s avant-garde/soft-rock hybrid Kaputt—especially the droll, delectable “Savage Night at the Opera”—and The War on Drugs’ churning, Springsteen-like Slave Ambient. My Top 12 albums at midyear follow the playlist. The links on the song titles are either YouTube clips of official videos, personally vetted live performances or, in the case of the several less celebrated tunes, lyric videos. Or you can go straight to the Spotifyplaylist here, containing my 25 selections plus 15 other tracks referenced in the copy.

Jack White, “I’m Shakin’”: I was torn between the totally kickass “Sixteen Saltines” and this scintillating cover of a Rudy Toombs tune originally cut in 1960 by Little Willie John (check out his version here) and revived by the Blasters in 1981, but I went with “I’m Shakin’” because White has never grooved any more bodaciously than he does here, and because I’ve discovered the track is a can’t-miss party starter. So let’s get this party started…

Here We Go Magic, “Make Up Your Mind”: Nigel Godrich knows a thing or two about rhythm from working with Radiohead and Beck, and the producer has helped Luke Temple and his bandmates get their groove on here and elsewhere on A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian). Temple’s specialty is filtering conventional song structures and standard rock instrumentation through loops, pedals and ambient sounds, and the LP sounds like a radio transmission from a distant station, where an all-night DJ spins what sounds like a low-down, souped-up J.J. Cale on the hyper-infectious “Make Up Your Mind” and the Everly Brothers on the similarly percolating “How Do I Know.” I can also hear hints of Nick Lowe (“Hard to Be Close”) and Paul Simon (“I Believe in Action”) on an album that’s fuzzy, fractured and slightly out of focus, which makes it all the more mesmerizing.

Beach House, “Myth”: With Bloom, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have crafted an album that feels very much like the score for an imaginary film—an avant-garde French film, to be precise, an extended nocturne encompassing romance and its aftermath, the inexorable passage of time and the preciousness of the fleeting moment. This shimmering aural dreamscape comes off like a modern variation on ’60s girl-group pop, specifically suggesting Phil Spector’s wall of sound in its stacked, heavily echoed instrumentation. But Beach House’s wall of sound feels liquid in its density, like a tsunami in slo-mo.

The Shins
, “Simple Song”: Perhaps the ultimate example of James Mercer’s dizzying aerial ballet. I’ve played this track more than any other during the last six months, and it still gives me goosebumps—plus, I keep discovering additional nuances lurking in the cumulus clouds of Mercer and Greg Kurstin’s breathtaking arrangement. That’s true of pretty much every track on Port of Morrow, an album as compulsively listenable as it is musically and vocally ambitious. It’s my #1 album of 2012 so far—something I can, and do, listen to from start to finish, a rarity these days.

Hospitality, “Eighth Avenue”: The Brooklyn band’s full-length debut thrums with the street-level energy of New York City, which provides the backdrop for several of gamine-like frontwoman Amber Papini’s songs and the deft playing of multi-instrumentalist (and former bedroom savant) Nate Michel. The high-IQ torque of early Talking Heads powers “Friends of Friends,” while the elliptical character sketch “Betty Wang” is packed with as much detail as something from Fountains of Wayne. But “Eighth Avenue,” with its parade of embedded hooks, along with a vocal from Papini poised between girlish fragility and womanly self-possession, is this engaging young band’s definitive track.

The Ting Tings, “Give It Back”: The closest thing to a straightforward rocker on either of the duo’s albums, “Give It Back” shares a rapid-fire groove and sidelong aggressiveness with Spoon’s “Got Nuffin.” But the most infectious track on Sounds From Nowheresville, a terrific album that has been strangely overlooked following their worldwide hit debut, 2008’s We Started Nothing, is “Soul Killing,” with a pogoing groove from Jules DiMartino and Katie White’s skittering, playfully soulful (and vice versa) vocal. And by the way, that’s a snippet of “Hit Me Down Sonny” from the latest LP in the current Acura ILS spot.

Delta Spirit, “California”: The San Diego band’s smarts and muscle come together with a resounding whomp on their self-titled third LP. Matt Vasquez’s glorious celebration of his home state gallops along behind force-of-nature drummer Brandon Young’s snare-and-kick assaults alternating with a motorik drum-machine beat under a galaxy of shimmering harmonies. It’s one of three memorable songs on the subject to appear in this half year, along with Best Coast’s “No Other Place” and, unexpectedly, the next track on this playlist…

John Mayer, “Queen of California”: Mayer clearly signals his intentions on the opener of the Don Was-produced Born and Raised, name-checking Harvest and Joni Mitchell in opener “Queen of California,” while gracing the song’s Laurel Canyon lilt with his own high, lonesome harmonies. Here and elsewhere on the LP, the guitar hero does something unprecedented in his career, ceding the instrumental foreground to SoCal pedal steel master Greg Leisz, who serves as both guide and talisman in Mayer’s attempt to sublimely evocative tones. Note: The radio edit cuts off the rhapsodic instrumental interplay that takes the performance to a rarefied level.

Beachwood Sparks
, “Sparks Fly Again”: Back on Sub Pop after a decade of silence, the L.A. retro-rockers sound tighter and more mature throughout The Tarnished Gold, which finds the band embracing high fidelity for the first time, to their benefit. This buoyant track from Farmer Dave Scher reminds me of the Byrds“Wasn’t Born to Follow,” one of two Goffin-King covers on Notorious Byrd Brothers. “I wrote the chords and ideas to actually reference a bunch of the things we did way back in the roaring ’90s,” Scher told me. “I really tried to make chord changes that took elements of different songs that we had done before; I tried to write in our vocabulary, our idiom. And with the lyrics, I thought it would be fun to make it a description of what was actually happening, to do a full send-up of the kind of structures we used to really be into at the start, when we were our own strange little mini-culture. It was my way of saying, ‘Let’s light this baby up again.’”

Robert Francis, “Perfectly Yours”: Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard), the 24-year-old artist’s third album, is suffused with the atmosphere of the young artist’s native Los Angeles, from its cinematically vivid imagery to the intricate latticework of fingerpicked guitars and airborne harmonies that form its default setting. The turbulent theme of this brutally inverted love song is belied by its silky sound, as multi-instrumentalist Francis and his bandmates deftly juxtapose light and shadow. The track’s lush climax, topped by Francis’ yearning “I don’t want to lose this feeling” vocal payoff, sounds uncannily like Paul Buchanan and The Blue Nile—a band Robert told me he’d never heard. Another highlight is the thrilling closer “Dangerous Neighborhood” on which Francis embraces his rich musical heritage with a parade of crystalline Laurel Canyon harmonies, while he engages in an animated left-right guitar conversation with Ry Cooder.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, “Never Go Back”: The Lion The Beast The Beat (Hollywood), Potter and company’s fourth and best album, crisply produced by Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco), contains three tracks they cooked up in collaboration with The Black Keys Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio. Auerbach loaned Potter his Mellotron and laid down the chugging Casio drum loop here on the lead single, with its insinuating “Oh no/oh no/I’ll never go back there no more” chorus hook. Catchy as all get-out.

Tennis, “My Better Self”: Give the drummer some. The Keys’ Patrick Carney produced Young & Old (Fat Possum), the sophomore LP from this male-female duo, which contains this summery cut, setting off Alaina Moore’s ingenuous, girl-group-style vocal against the crushing drums of touring member James Barone, whose muscular snare hits sound a lot like those of basher Carney himself. But there’s a hint of something darker below the surface that’s brought forward in the bizarrely choreographed video, with its “Twin Peaks roadhouse vibe,” as Stereogum put it.

Nada Surf, “Jules and Jim”: Gotta have some 12-string jangle, and this Truffaut- and McGuinn-referencing track from the reliable Matthew Caws and his mates, now including lead guitarist Doug Gillard, fills the bill. It also reminds me of Matthew Sweet’s “She Walks the Night” from last year’s Modern Art. But the centerpiece of The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk) is “When I Was Young,” which starts like a muted ballad from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends before erupting into a widescreen anthem.

JD McPherson, “Signs and Signifiers”: McPherson is a ’50s rock & roll revivalist, but he’s no purist. Signs & Signifiers, the Oklahoma native’s debut album, delivers retro music laced with a rich payload of postmodern nuance—what McPherson describes, only half-facetiously, as “an art project disguised as an R&B record.” The title track is a perfect example of this perfectly poised duality—it’s a mesmerizing churner powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr’s part on The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.” I could’ve easily gone with the quintessential JD tune, “North Side Gal,” a two-and-a-half-minute slab of smoked brisket that slaps together Carl Perkins and Jackie Wilson—with a stunning self-directed video to boot.

The Walkmen
, “We Can’t Be Beat”: This full-throated, unselfconscious, nearly a cappella sing-out from the Brooklyn band—a ballsy choice for Heaven’s leadoff cut—gives the Fleet Foxes a run for their money…but then, they did get Robin Pecknold to sing on it.

Fiona Apple
, “Every Single Night”: A sense of foreboding lurks beneath the lilting surface of The Idler Wheel (etc.)’s first single and opening track, before giving way to hemorrhaging anxiety on the anti-diva’s bravest, most uncompromising work—and that’s saying something.

Norah Jones, “Happy Pills”: Happily, Jones’ contributions to Danger Mouse’s Rome last year led the two to make an album together, and the astute producer, musician and songwriter brings out both a dark undercurrent and a previously untapped effervescence in Norah, busting her out of the easy-listening ghetto. I haven’t spent enough time with …Little Broken Hearts as a whole to put it alongside my faves of the half-year, but the first single hooks me from the moment that chunky groove and treated nah-nah-nahs strut out of the speakers.

The Shins
, “40 Mark Strasse”: Mercer’s gorgeous tribute to Todd Rundgren in his Philly soul mode, as well as Todd’s homies Hall & Oates. This is familiar territory for producer Kurstin, who did a 2010 album of H&O classics as half of The Bird and the Bee with Inara George.

Bonnie Raitt, “Million Miles”: The 62-year-old artist is not only one of the best song interpreters on the planet (along with Willie Nelson; see below), she’s also carrying on the legacy of Little Feat auteur Lowell George with her powerful slide guitar playing. Slipstream, Raitt’s first LP in seven years (just like Fiona Apple—but that’s where the comparison ends), contains eight groove-focused tracks she recorded with her excellent longtime band—and four deep, dark performances with producer Joe Henry and his go-to guys. I could’ve gone either way in picking one song—like Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World” from the self-produced batch—but I keep coming back to her unhurried but intense Henry-produced performance of this bitter existential ballad from Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the tracks from the Henry sessions.

Beck, “Looking for a Sign”: This one-off from the soundtrack to the 2011 indie film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is Sea Change revisited, and that’s more than OK with me.

Kathleen Edwards, “Change the Sheets”: On her fourth album, the Canadian writer/artist dramatically breaks out of the alt-country cul-de-sac, armed with a brace of intensely personal songs crammed with guided-missile hooks. As Edwards and Bon Iver auteur Justin Vernon co-produced the record, they were falling in love, which no doubt accounts for the ecstatic vocal and instrumental performances throughout. The songs bear the wounds of Edwards’ breakup and divorce, and Vernon’s gorgeous arrangements enwrap her vulnerable vocals like a down comforter. The lacerating yet life-embracing “Change the Sheets” is the most captivating track on an album loaded with them.

Paul McCartney, “Too Many People”: From Ram, the year’s most ear-opening reissue. The critics turned up their noses at McCartney’s second album—following the homemade “bowl of cherries” debut, which was widely regarded as a charming curio—partly because he wasn’t John Lennon, but mostly because Ram wasn’t The Beatles. That’s why listening to it now in reissue form is such a kick in the pants, starting with the opening track, which picks up where Side Two of Abbey Road left off, while foreshadowing the similarly variegated “Band on the Run.”

Jack White, “Take Me With You When You Go”: During a the course of a track with a mid-song transition as radical as The Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine,” Jack summons up practically every mode he’s leaned on over the years, from the pastoral to the epic.

M. Ward, “The First Time I Ran Away”: This sublime work-up from A Wasteland Companion has a similar Zen-like quality to Ward’s way-deep “Chinese Translation,” right down to the earlier song’s haunting animated video. The two clips are both the work of Joel Trussell.

Willie Nelson, “Just Breathe”: This Pearl Jam cover featuring son Lukas and Willie’s take on Coldplay’s “The Scientist” are both excellent examples of the ol’ coot’s uncanny ability to inhabit a song. “Just Breathe” could’ve been written for him. It begins, “Yes I understand that every life must end/As we sit alone, I know someday we must go,” and ends, “Hold me till I die/Meet you on the other side.” Willie claims both songs for himself, as he’s done so often during the last half century.

ALBUMS: A MIDYEAR TOP 15
The Shins
, Port of Morrow (Columbia)
Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian)

Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop)
Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream (Redwing/RED)
The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia)
Willie Nelson
, Heroes (Legacy)
Hospitality, Hospitality (Merge)
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, The Lion The Beast The Beat (Hollywood)
Delta Spirit, Delta Spirit (Rounder)

Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)
Robert Francis, Strangers in the First Place (Vanguard)
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder)
Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk)
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Clean Slate/Epic)

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2011 FAVES: OPTIONS, ANGLES & PUMPED-UP KICKS http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2011/12/2011-faves-options-angles-pumped-up-kicks/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2011/12/2011-faves-options-angles-pumped-up-kicks/#comments Tue, 20 Dec 2011 16:31:52 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2011/12/2011-faves-options-angles-pumped-up-kicks/

A year ago this week,as I was finishing up my list of 2010 favorite albums, I finally got around todigging into the Black KeysBrothers,and—after kicking myself for having underestimated the band for so long—addedthe record to my Top 10 at the very last minute. Now, I’m making similaradjustments in order to accommodate the Keys’ new El Camino, an instant grabber, and wondering where it’ll wind upamong my ’11 faves once the novelty has worn off. Don’t know yet how this yearstacks up against other recent years in terms of quality, but with the additionof El Camino, I’ve got a rock-solid Top10—and I have yet to uncork Tom WaitsBad as Me.

While I was falling under the spell of Brothersa year ago, I was also getting hooked on a trio of lead singles from albumsthat were scheduled to hit in early 2011: the Decemberists’ jangle-fest“Down by the Water,” Paul Simon’s wicked-clever “Getting Ready forChristmas Day” and Adele’s kick drum-driven churner “Rolling in theDeep.” I had no idea, of course, that I’d be hearing “Rolling” throughout thenext 12 months, more than any other song, except, perhaps, for “Pumped UpKicks” from rookies Foster the People—and though I left both off my 2011playlist due to their sheer ubiquity, I admire them as performances andproductions as much as any recordings this year.

As I put my 2011 picks to bed, I’m listening obsessively to tracks from acouple of albums coming in January: When I Was Young” from Nada Surf’s The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk), and “Change the Sheets” from Kathleen EdwardsVoyageur (Zoe/Rounder), which she co-producedwith her significant other, Bon Iver’sJustin Vernon. Both tracks areanthems of a decidedly personal nature, and both albums capture their authorsin the very act of self-discovery. I’ll be surprised if Edwards and Nada Surfaren’t represented in my best of 2012 lists a year from now.

The non-musical works that captivated me this year were Jonathan Franzen’s Freedomand Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (fiction); Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, BennettMiller’s Moneyball and Mike MillsThe Beginners (films); Showtime’senthralling Homeland and tragicomedy Enlightened, AMC’s unbearably intense TheKilling and ABC’szeitgeist-capturing sitcom The Middle(TV series).

Here’s a 25-song year-end playlist (which you can listen to on my Spotify page), followed by my Top 30 2012 albums, quick takes on a bunch of them and in-depth critiques of my big three.

2011 YEAR-END PLAYLIST: OPTIONS

1 The Black Keys, “Sister”: It was the single “Lonely Boy” that first had me in its thrall, but this springy groove may stand as Pat Carney’s coolest rhythmic pattern on a record that’s all about the big beat.

2 Foster the People, “Warrant”: Year’s best LCD Soundsystem tribute on the year’s hookiest album—with the possible exception of El Camino.

3 Gomez, “Options”: My wife Peggy fell in love with this highway cruiser last summer when Sirius Spectrum started banging it, and Esquire has endorsed as one of the top 10 2011 songs you need to hear. The groove, the horns and the premise combine to make this souped-up shuffle the veteran band’s most irresistible cut ever.

4 Ryan Adams, “Lucky Now”: Austere, silken perfection, resolving into not one but two giant hooks.

5 Feist, “The Bad in Each Other”: So sonically tactile that you feel it more than you hear it, this enthralling track showcases Feist’s urgent, Neil Young-like guitar playing, as she gets to the heart of a tumultuous romantic relationship.

6 The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow”: What gets me about this rootsy hybrid is the duo’s ability to capture the ghostly vibe of ancient Appalachian ballads inside a meaty primal groove. I’ve heard this track a ton, but it still seems fresh.

7 Brett Dennen, “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)”: On this Van Morrison-style hookfest, Brett expresses the extent of his devotion as he comes to the aid of a damsel in distress. “Straight from the airport,” he promises, “right to the courthouse, Sydney, I will testify,” as the handclap-punctuated groove trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible sing-along fashion.

8 The Decemberists, “Calamity Song”: Amid the masterful early R.E.M. and Harvest appropriations of The King Is Dead sits this shimmering nugget of harmony-rich folk rock. The goosebump moment occurs when the hyper-verbal song, riding its galloping Murmur-like groove, explodes into joyous falsetto ahh-oohs.

9 Radiohead, “Morning Mr. Magpie”: Can’t wait to hear the band tear into this scorcher on their 2012 tour.

10 Wilco, “Art of Almost”: During its seven-minute course, this mind-blowing track builds from a careening off-kilter groove to a hyper-skronk climax of almost unbearable intensity.

11 My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”: Another seven-minute widescreen extravaganza, as uplifting as the Wilco track is lacerating.

12 Bon Iver, “Holocene”: The biggest surprise of this year’s Grammy nominations is one of the most exquisite soundscapes on an album you can get lost in.

13 Paul Simon, “The Afterlife”: This whimsical first-person account of a soul taking his place in a queue forming at the pearly gates is the centerpiece of an album filled with insanely catchy songs about extremely heavy themes, as Simon proves there’s no reason to hang up his dancing shoes at age of 70.

14 The Cars, “Sad Song”: Catchy and clever enough to fit seamlessly on the Cars’ brilliant 1978 debut album.

15 Lindsey Buckingham, “When She Comes Down”: Sounds like a just-discovered outtake from Tusk.

16 The Belle Brigade, “Where Not to Look for Freedom”: Sounds like a just-discovered outtake from Rumours.

17 Amos Lee, “Windows Are Rolled Down”: While this balmy, cruiser may be closer to del amitri than to “Thunder Road,” it’s so evocative that you can practically feel the breeze whipping through your hair.

18 Fountains of Wayne, “A Dip in the Ocean”: Here, these brainy masters of specificity recount a dysfunctional couple’s drive up the coast on a weekend getaway in 1998, delivering the misadventure in a rollicking power-pop performance.

19 Dawes, “Time Spent in Los Angeles”: The year’s best love-hate song to L.A. from the Jackson Browne- and Robbie Robertson-endorsed native neoclassicists.

20 Robbie Robertson, “He Don’t Live Here No More”: The punchiest cut Robbie has fashioned during his spotty solo career.

21 Daryl Hall, “Eyes for You”: The ardent flipside of H&O’s blow-off classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” but just as slinky and sexy.

22 Beck: “Stormbringer”: If you loved Sea Change, this track from the John Martyn tribute Johnny Boy Would Love This will have you in the fetal position before the Beckster even opens his mouth. Gorgeous in its cloud-filled melancholy.

23 Fleet Foxes, “Lorelei”: Don’t think the old-school harmony specialists’ second full-length, Helplessness Blues, hits the Bon Iver level of continuous gorgeousness, but there’s a real natural beauty on this soaring performance.

24 Nick Lowe, “I Read a Lot”: A palpable sense of loss and loneliness leads to intimations of mortality on this modern-day standard.

25 Death Cab for Cutie, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”: “You Are a Tourist” is the hookiest cut on Codes and Keys, and “Doors Unlocked and Open,” with its high-revving motorik groove, is one of the year’s quintessential driving songs, but this string-laden sleeper finds Ben Gibbard at his most compassionate and life-embracing.

 

FAVORITE 2011 ALBUMS

1 Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

2 Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope)

3 Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)

4 The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)

5 Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax AM/Capitol)

6 Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music/Concord)

7 The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)

8 Foster the People, Torches (Columbia)

9 My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO)

10 Radiohead, The King of Limbs (TBD)

11 The Cars, Move Like This (Hear Music/Concord)

12 Brett Dennen, Loverboy (Dualtone)

13 The Belle Brigade, The Bell Brigade (Reprise

14 Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow (Mind Kit)

15 Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Lolina Green/Missing Piece)

16 Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong (ATO)

17 Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes

18 Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

19 Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog)

20 Daryl Hall, Laughing Down Crying (Verve Forecast)

21 Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant (Macro-biotic/429)

22 Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, Rome (Capitol)

23 The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (sensibility)

24 Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (Universal Republic)

25 Adele, 21 (XL/Columbia)

26 Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway)

27 The Strokes, Angles (RCA)

28 The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time (Rounder)

29 Bright Eyes, The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)

30 Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues (Rounder)

 

QUICK TAKES
The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch), Foster the People, Torches (Columbia):
The year’s two best rock albums are polar opposites. FTP’s streamlined, state-of-the-digital-art debut is a purring, crisply contoured high-end Audi to the Keys’ vintage muscle car, but they’re both brilliantly conceived and executed longplayers crammed with phat grooves and gigantic hooks—all killer, no filler. Torches comes off like a greatest-hits collection, striking proof of Mark Foster’s conjoined gifts for heady songcraft and dynamic production, while the Dan Auerbach/Pat Carney/Danger Mouse triumvirate is a marriage made in rock & roll heaven. Together, these two records make it absolutely clear that rock remains a vital form in the second decade of the 21st century. Put El Camino and Torches on shuffle and you have all you need for a rockin’ New Year’s Eve party, but I strongly suspect I’ll be blasting these two albums on any given Saturday night from here on out.

Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax AM/Capitol): The latest set from the hyper-prolific Adams hearkens back to the golden age of SoCal rock in the early ’70s—intimate, reflective, close-miked and melodically gorgeous. Ashes & Fire is the result of a close collaboration between Adams and legendary English engineer/producer Glyn Johns, whose body of work includes the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Eagles first three albums—a pertinent reference point for this LP’s peaceful, easy flow. Adams’ sensitive, introspective side is on full display throughout this poetic, bittersweet meditation on the nature of love and the passage of time. “Dirty Rain” contains the most soulful vocal Adams has ever put down on tape, the wood-grained title track evokes The Band in its prime, “Invisible Riverside” radiates with the burnished Laurel Canyon glow, the timeless “Lucky Now” is an instant classic complete with a rhapsodic chorus hook, and the culminating “I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say” is almost unbearably emotional, with its poignant payoff, “I promise you/ I will keep you safe from harm.” Forget those comparisons to his 2000 debut Heartbreaker that every subsequent Adams LP has inevitably elicited; the austere, heartfelt Ashes & Fire sets a new standard for this restless, hyper-prolific artist.

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol): A radical departure from 2009’s The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists’ compact sixth album was recorded in a barn on Pendarvis Farm, outside the band’s Portland, Oregon, home base, and it sounds authentically homemade. Whereas the previous undertaking was a wildly ambitious reimagining of British traditional music and myth, the new album’s touchstones are Neil Young’s Harvest, which band leader Colin Meloy refers to as “the quintessential barn record,” SoCal country rock in general and R.E.M.’s pastoral jangle-fest Reckoning. Gillian Welch appears on seven tracks, updating the roles of Nicolette Larson on Young’s Comes a Time and Emmylou Harris on Gram Parsons’ solo albums, while the R.E.M. homage is made literal by the presence of Peter Buck, who plays electric guitar on two tracks and mandolin on another. But more than a knowing tribute to the past, the LP gives the five band members a chance to step out of Meloy’s lavish facades and show what they can do playing it straight. Turns out that they’re one of America’s very best bands.

My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO: Here’s co-producer Tucker Martine recalling the band’s reaction when listening back to the keeper take of this epic moments after recording it live off the floor in a Louisville church gymnasium: “That was a really special moment. They were all dancing around the room and bobbing their heads with their eyes closed, and then, when the song was over, they were hugging and high-fiving each other. It was so inspiring to see veteran musicians who were still able to get that much joy out of making music together. It was like we were all going on an expedition together to find something magical, and there it was. We found it, and no one was afraid to have unbridled joy about it. That’s how it should be.” It’s performances like this one—inspired, synchronous and clutch, like a veteran basketball team kicking it into high gear at crunch time in a tight playoff game—that make Circuital such a thrilling, even ecstatic, listening experience.

The Cars, Move Like This (Hear Music/Concord): A huge influence on countless contemporary bands, the Cars made a debut album so striking and hooky that nobody could equal it—not even the Cars themselves. But 33 years later, auteur Ric Ocasek and the three other surviving members have come remarkably close to achieving the contoured crispness and in-your-face immediacy of their greatest achievement. Their potent chemistry is undeniably present in super-sticky instant classics like “Sad Song” and “Keep on Knocking”: the taut interaction of guitarist Elliott Easton and synth player Greg Hawkes, the howitzer snare hits of David Robinson, Ocasek’s wry, terse vocal persona. That these long-separated musicians were able to make a quintessential Cars LP in 2011 constitutes a small miracle.

Brett Dennen, Loverboy (Dualtone): The most engaging tracks on the androgynous-voiced iconoclast’s third album deftly blend nimble grooves, creamy choruses and vocal performances of immediacy and genuine feeling, attaining a sort of carefree soulfulness that recalls Van Morrison circa “Brown Eyed Girl” (the seeming blueprint for the ecstatic “Cosmic Girl”) and Silk Degrees-era Boz Scaggs. The record’s a cavalcade of sprung rhythms resolving into cascading chorus payoffs, starting with the first three tracks: A pugilistically punchy groove and a guileless “nah-nah-nah” chorus provide “Comeback Kid” with its yin and yang; the balmy, string-laden “Frozen in Slow Motion” evokes the late-morning sun breaking through the marine layer at Paradise Cove; and the handclap-powered falsetto chorus of “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible fashion. Toward the end of the LP, the band stretches out languorously on “Queen of the Westside,” its sleepy-eyed rhythm not that far removed from the narcoticized reggae bump of the Stones’ “Hey Negrita.”

Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Lolina Green/Missing Piece): Defiantly unorthodox, but often playfully so, Modern Art is a stealth album, embedded with half-hidden hooks lurking in its recesses, just out of focus, waiting to be discovered. Nope, this is not a one-listen album, but a progressive deepening has always characterizes the most memorable longplayers, whose authors rarely put all their cards on the table right away. Not that there aren’t some instant grabbers here: “She Walks the Night” captures the Byrds of “Eight Miles High,” while “Ladyfingers” stomps along with the authority of T.Rex, and the tortured “My Ass Is Grass” could serve as the belated follow-up to “Sick of Myself,” the hit single from Sweet’s 1995 LP 100% Fun. At the other extreme are provocative, soul-deep, virtually unprecedented tracks like “Oh, Oldendaze!,” “Late Nights With the Power Pop” and the title song.

Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog): The twelfth studio album from the southern Ohio-based husband-and-wife team of pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist is something rare—an intimate epic. “Sharpest Blade,” which the couple wrote with Joe Henry, who produced, sounds like some just-unearthed Billie Holiday torch song. Bergquist and Lucinda Williams trade off lines on the hushed ballad “Undamned,” which evokes a campfire gathering under a canopy of stars in a John Ford western. The smoldering “The King Knows How” is a sort of secular hymn, while the climactic “All My Favorite People” glows like embers in the hearth at the end of an evening of wine and conversation. Even more than OTR’s earlier records, The Long Surrender seamlessly interweaves the disparate idiosyncratic strains that form the many-colored crazy quilt of American music.

Daryl Hall, Laughing Down Crying (Verve Forecast): Just as Hall & Oates’ body of work is being rediscovered, the duo’s lead voice delivers his strongest solo effort since the first, 1980’s Robert Fripp-produced cult classic Sacred Songs. On these 10 beautifully crafted and arranged songs, Hall masterfully revisits his various modes: silky Philly soul (“Eyes For You,” “Lifetime of Love”), H&O’s edgy late-’70s rock phase (“Wrong Side of History,” “Talking to Myself”) and their folk-pop origins (the title track), throwing in a sultry take on Memphis R&B for good measure (“Message to Ya”). The LP strikingly captures one of the great singers of the last four decades (no racial or stylistic modifiers needed) in peak form.

Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (Universal Republic): Get To Know You”, the first track on the Detroit-born blue-eyed soul singer’s sophomore album, begins with a Barry White-style spoken-word boudoir call, which may lead you to figure the whole thing’s a put-on. But the ecstatic old-school falsetto chorus that follows makes it clear that Hawthorne is totally for real. There’s nary a false note on these dozen richly detailed pieces on which the singer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist recaptures the heart as well as the techniques of vintage Motown and Philly soul. The only liberty he takes is the R-rated lyric of “The Walk”, which is otherwise note-perfect—just like everything else on an LP that’s as deeply felt as it is technically adept.

The Strokes, Angles (RCA): Appropriating classic grooves is nothing new for the Strokes, dating back to their archetypal 2001 single “Last Nite,” which borrowed the high-revving power plant of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.” Here on Angles, they lift blatantly and gleefully—the faux-reggae rhythm of Men at Work’s “Down Under,” of all things, on opener “Machu Picchu,” Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” on “Gratisfaction,” the Cars on the chromed-out, high-revving “Two Kinds of Happiness” and the rock nocturne “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” and practically the entirety of early-’80s synthpop on the new wave homage “Games.” There aren’t many instantly identifiable bands that can mess with the familiar recipe while somehow also honoring it, but that’s precisely what the Strokes have achieved on Angles, an album as warm as it is cool.

R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) Capitol/I.R.S.: While not as celebrated as other R.E.M. albums, Lifes Rich Pageant holds an important place in the canon. Not only was it the band’s first LP to go gold, it’s the record on which they morphed from floating like a butterfly to stinging like a bee. Recorded at John Mellencamp’s Indiana studio by his longtime engineer/producer, Don Gehman, Pageant delivers one knockout punch after another, from the jangle-on-steroids opener “Begin the Begin” to the aggro-majestic finale “I Am Superman.” Second disc on the expanded reissue contains 19 demos, a bunch of them similarly explosive, none of them essential.

Talihina Sky: The Story Of Kings of Leon (RCA): In this feature-length rock doc subsidized by KOL’s label, Stephen C. Mitchell throws together vivid archival footage, revealing band member interviews and bizarre character studies of local yokels, with surprisingly cogent results. The chronology-be-damned approach, revolving around the Followill family’s annual gathering in the backwoods Oklahoma town referenced in the title, moves along at a headlong pace, juxtaposing spirituality and debauchery, sibling love and loathing. Rarely has an authorized documentary been so brutally honest in portraying its subjects.

THE BIG THREE
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar):
Adopting the nom de plume Bon Iver, Justin Vernon made the leap from unknown to major artist in the few seconds between the strummed acoustic opening and the first chorus of “Flume,” the first track of his unforgettable debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. The transformation occurred at the precise moment when his double-tracked falsetto voice abruptly multiplied into a celestial choir, rising to an even higher register to deliver the gut punch, “Only love is all maroon/Gluey feathers on a flume/Sky is womb and she’s the moon.” In that moment, Vernon touched a nerve, and many of those who discovered his album responded to its choral richness and psychological authenticity in an uncommonly deep way. Beguiled by its author’s Walden-like backstory, they were sucked in by his every wistful sigh, every cathartic outpouring, making the connection between this stunningly personal work and their own inner lives.

For Bon Iver’s full-length follow-up, Vernon no longer had the element of surprise going for him. On the contrary, confronting him were staggering expectations and the assumption that whatever he attempted next would inevitably fall short of the first album’s magical cosmology, its cavalcade of handmade hooks. As John Mulvey aptly put it in his five-star Uncut review, “For Emma, Forever Ago is such a hermetically sealed, complete and satisfying album, the prospect of a follow-up—of a life for Vernon beyond the wilderness, even—seems merely extraneous.”

Could Vernon come in from the cold of that isolated Wisconsin cabin with his artistry intact? As it turns out, he could, and he has. He spent nearly three years gestating the new record in a studio he’d built in Eau Claire, while also taking the time to stretch himself via outside undertakings with Gayngs, the Volcano Choir, St. Vincent and Kanye West. All this networking is telling because, unlike the first album, Bon Iver is a collective effort resulting from ongoing interaction with 10 other musicians, including pedal steel master Greg Leisz, three horn players, a string arranger and two Volcano Choir mates who provided “processing.” The full-bodied ensemble work results in an album with pace, scale and stylistic variety, but all of this sound and rhythm feels purposeful. Essentially, it exists to support the quintessential aspects of Vernon’s aesthetic: the soaring melodic progressions; multitracked vocals that take on the sonic dimension of instruments; the overtly poetic lyrics, whose elusive meanings are far less important than the sounds of the words, tactile with the textures of natural things.

The array of reference points Vernon hints at on these tracks is dizzying, and spotting them as they pop out of the fabric is part of the fun. The skewed orchestral tableaus of the sonically connected “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI,” which open the record in widescreen yet elliptical fashion, recall Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise, while Vernon seems to encapsulate the whole of early-’70s Cali country rock (i.e., Fleet Foxes) on “Towers.” He adopts the minor-key art-folk of Simon & Garfunkel on “Michigant” before shape-shifting into the mid-’60s Beach Boys on “Hinnon, TX,” playing up the radical contrast between his airy, Carl Wilson-like falsetto and an earthy lower register that improbably recalls Mike Love. Then, on “Wash.,” Vernon breaks out his Marvin Gaye-style purring soul man as he sings a love song to a woman named Claire—or is the object of his affections his hometown of Eau Claire?

But there’s no obvious precedent save Bon Iver itself for the three peaks of this spellbinding album. Muted at first, “Holocene” almost imperceptibly blossoms into glorious life, intimating the first breath of spring after the long, hard winter. “Calgary” mates a soaring melody that embeds itself in the consciousness with a percolating groove. And the widescreen closer “Beth/Rest” has the satisfying resolution of the end title theme of a classic western film, employing the entire ensemble and interweaving the album’s accumulated thematic and tonal elements in a majestic payoff.

Fully realized in its ambition, Bon Iver possesses all of the austere beauty and understated emotiveness of its predecessor. Nestled within these panoramic soundscapes is the affecting intimacy the first album’s fans fervently hoped Vernon would recapture, as this single-minded artist somehow manages to have it both ways. And so does the listener.

Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope): Leslie Feist’s career path has been a zigzag. The Nova Scotia-born, Toronto-based artist played guitar with rapper Peaches (who nicknamed her Bitch Lap Lap) and Canadian indie rockers By Divine Right, releasing a DIY debut album, Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head), in 1999, before joining the Broken Social Scene collective in 2002. Then came 2004’s Let It Die, which contained witty covers of songs from the Bee Gees and Ron Sexsmith, as well as the wicked-clever original “Mushaboom.” She laid low for three years before making a dramatic return with The Reminder and its insidiously catchy hit single, “1234,” which broke her in the States when Apple picked it up for an iPod nano TV campaign. After an even longer respite, she’s returned with her boldest, most idiosyncratic album yet in Metals.

A location junkie, Feist cut The Reminder in a 19th-century French manor house, and for the follow-up she brought her longtime collaborators Chilly Gonzalez and Dominic “Mocky” Salole, along with a fresh batch of material, to a converted barn sitting between the rocky cliffs and lush forests of Big Sur on the California coast. Working with a handpicked crew that included keyboardist Brian LeBarton (Beck) and co-producer Valgeir Siggurdsson (Björk), she knocked off the album in two and a half weeks in this breathtakingly picturesque locale. The resulting LP, throbbing with rugged beauty and exhilarating natural energy, cinematically evokes the environment in which it was created.

Feist possesses the sensibility of a painter—she has a rarefied sense of composition and detail—and a tart, elastic alto made for sharing confidences and intimacies. She’s the antithesis of the demure female singer/songwriter; throughout Metals, she delights in rubbing together raw and refined elements, making for a friction that keeps the soundscapes energized and ever-changing, as giant pop hooks erupt at unexpected moments in a thrilling marriage of solipsistic risk-taking and in-your-face accessibility. There’s enough shape-shifting within these performances to keep the listener in a hallucinatory state throughout the 50-minute running time, as Feist absorbs and assimilates musical and environmental inspirations like a sponge on steroids. From moment to moment, her singing suggests P.J. Harvey, Björk, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple and Suzanne Vega, while the quicksilver backdrops recall Sufjan Stephens, Fleet Foxes, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach.

The first three tracks hauntingly set the scene. “The Bad in Each Other” opens with a brutally pounded kick drum, with Feist playing rings around it on scrappy electric guitar, the arrangement expanding with strings and subtle horns that sound almost impromptu in their air-moving, real-time immediacy. The muted “Graveyard,” with its “Bring ’em all back to life” refrain, and “Caught a Long Wind,” as subliminal as wind chimes on a lazy afternoon, are palpably atmospheric, the result of a naturalistic recording approach that drops the listener into the space in which the performances went down. There’s as much air here as sound, and that is the source of the record’s palpable presence.

The tone turns sultry with the sublimely infectious “How Come You Never Go There,” interspersing a wistful wordless chorale, her gnarly Neil Young-style electric guitar and burnished horns. It’s the first of four tracks of stunning inventiveness. The ragingly intense rocker “A Commotion” bristles with an Arcade Fire-like repetitive grandeur. The mutated nocturne “Anti-Pioneer” featuring queasy guitar licks, a masterfully torchy vocal and a shuddering drone occupying the lower register, is Big Sur noir, moving with the primal rhythm of waves crashing against cliffs. And “Undiscovered First” juxtaposes instrumental dissonance and a schoolgirl chorale. Here, she purrs, with dominatrix authority, “You can’t unthink a thought/Either it’s there or it’s not.”

These powerful pieces are interspersed with quieter songs of dreamlike purity, including “Bittersweet Melodies,” in which cello-powered strings pass over the track like fast-moving storm clouds, leaving hazy sunlight in its wake; “Comfort Me,” which turns on the killer couplet, “When you comfort me/It doesn’t bring me comfort, actually”; and the closing “Get It Wrong, Get It Right,” which places her hushed voice amid the ghostly chinking of chains and a gong-like cymbal.

Feist’s fiercely uncompromising nature is exemplified by her decision to remove “Woe Be,” which had been singled out by Spin in an album preview as the obvious follow-up to “1,2,3,4,” from the tracklist. It’s this insistence on resolutely following her instincts that makes this record so lustily appealing from top to bottom.

Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm):
Wilco fans are as polarized as the US congress. Some revel in the band’s eardrum-pulverizing forays into the sonic unknown, introduced on 2000’s art-damaged Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and refined on 2004’s brutally beautiful A Ghost Is Born. The rest are entranced by what Jeff Tweedy describes as “cinematic-sounding country music…you know, folk music,” represented by 2007’s glorious Sky Blue Sky and ’09’s intermittently captivating Wilco (The Album). There’s little argument that the latest version of Wilco, which contains only two original members in Tweedy and bassist John Stirrat, is the not only the most stable unit Tweedy has assembled in the band’s 17-year history but also the most skillful. The irony of the situation is that the band’s current lineup, completed with the additions of avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone prior to the recording of the 2005 live album Kicking Television, is far more suited to experimentation than any previous iteration. Given the radical extremes in Wilco’s body of work, and the band’s acute awareness of the fans’ conflicting expectations, it’s tempting to view The Whole Love as a dialectical conversation between Wilco and the passionately partisan camps of its constituency; the resulting back-and-forth is tantalizing at first, but Tweedy and company firmly establish the record’s operative mode immediately thereafter.

Throughout Wilco’s eighth studio LP, the versatile, virtuosic current lineup juxtaposes introspective understatement and experimental edginess. They set up the contrast dramatically on the wonderfully titled seven-minute opener “Art of Almost,” powered by a customized motorik groove somewhere between Ghost…’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and Wilco standout “Bull Black Nova.” The groove appears out of the crackle of static and takes on percolating cross-rhythms behind Glenn Kotche’s marvelous drumming, the sonics gradually morphing from Mellotron-washed gorgeousness to a savage intensity, as avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline whips himself into a head-exploding frenzy. After such a beginning, the hard-core have to be hopeful that the wait is finally over. But that’s pretty much it for shrieking over-the-top-ness. What we get instead in the body of The Whole Love is an alternating mix of trademark rockers and ballads, bonded by Tweedy’s central presence, shifting between scarred and elated, and the arrangements, which play off the bandleader’s range of moods. While the album is packed with inventive, envelope-pushing moments, there’s no more lacerating skronk, for a very good reason: the emotions the band is mirroring don’t call for it.

On “I Might,” the first of the upbeat tracks, the band bangs out a clattering, garage-y groove in the spirit of Elvis Costello and the AttractionsGet Happy, with Mikael Jorgensen making like Steve Nieve on the Farfisa. Here, Tweedy rolls with his signature blend of puppy dog earnestness and relatable real-life agitation (sample lyric: “You won’t set the kids on fire/Oh but I might”), but the prevailing emotion is his sheer joy at being part of this killer band in full-on rave-up mode. “Born Alone” chugs along with country-rock amiability, Tweedy’s hayseed vocal set off by Cline’s trumpeting lines as the other players rise up to make ecstatic noise alongside him, a la Sky Blue Sky’s sublime “Impossible Germany.” Half musical snapshot, half long-distance love note, “Capitol City” visits the antique Americana of Randy Newman, Cline impersonating a Dixieland clarinet with his slide lines. “Standing O” picks up where “I Might” left off, sounding like some newly discovered outtake from the Stiff Records catalog. The title song is the album’s warmest, most relaxed and poppiest track, Tweedy going for some falsetto lines amid the band’s merry bounce.

Of the reflective songs, “Sunloathe” settles into a “Strawberry Fields Forever”-like pastoral eeriness, “Black Moon” is as noir-ish as the title suggests, “Open Mind” hints at the psychological devastation of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night and “Rising Red Lung” finds Tweedy singing in a near-whisper over a fingerpicked acoustic while the band floats sunset clouds overhead. On the 12-minute-plus closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” the band essentially inverts the buildup of “Art of Almost,” moving with dexterous subtlety from anguish to acceptance, as Tweedy’s describes the emotional wounds inflicted by a father who takes his deep disappointment in his son to his grave, the band tracing the course of the narrator’s struggle and ultimate release with subtle intensity.

Three albums in, Wilco’s latter-day character is now readily apparent. No longer the American Radiohead, as the true believers proclaimed a decade ago, this incarnation of Wilco is closer to a postmillennial Buffalo Springfield—especially when Cline, Tweedy and Sansone’s electric guitars blazing away in tandem. And if Jeff Tweedy is no longer the tortured soul who ripped …Foxtrot and Ghost… out of the recesses of his ravaged psyche, that is something worth celebrating. The Whole Love is what redemption sounds like.

 

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2010 ROCK: THE SUBURBS AT SUNDOWN http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/12/2010-rock-the-suburbs-at-sundown/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/12/2010-rock-the-suburbs-at-sundown/#comments Tue, 21 Dec 2010 19:52:43 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/12/2010-rock-the-suburbs-at-sundown/ Continue reading ]]>

For me, this was the best year for music since 2007, thanks in part to several of the same bands and individuals who came up big three years ago. And though the follow-up to Radiohead’s In Rainbows failed to appear, Arcade Fire made up for the absence of another game-changer from the Kings of Art Rock with one of their own. Ditto for Kings of Leon, who made their second great album, following ’07’s Because of the Night. And so, for that matter, did Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, though they cut their monumental work 33 years ago. The bands I’ve come to count on in recent years— Spoon, Kings of Leon, Los Lobos and Guster—came through yet again, as did some other standbys in new combinations and settings: Danger Mouse working with The ShinsJames Mercer, while his Gnarls Barkley partner Cee Lo managed just fine with a revolving cast of producers; Robert Plant forging onward without T Bone Burnett; Neil Young finding a viable collaborator in Daniel Lanois. It was a year when a number of artists who emerged back in the 1960s further burnished their legacies four decades later; concurrently, the best young bands and artists continued to make music that honored their forebears while also advancing their own identities. Members of both generational extremes convincingly demonstrated both the durability and the seemingly unlimited thematic elasticity of the rock medium. It was also gratifying to belatedly make the connection with some bands I’d heard a lot about but hadn’t much listened to before, resulting in some new faves—Band of Horses, Beach House and the Black Keys—my killer Bs of 2010. Finally, I feel fortunate to have stumbled across a pair of captivating songs from Delta Spirit and Shawn Mullins that seemingly nobody else noticed, reminding me that there’s no kick like turning people on to something new and different and watching them fall in love with it too.

TOP 20 ALBUMS IN CONTEXT
TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge):
A sprawling, thematically rich opus that’s also jam-packed with unforgettable, hook-laden stand-alone songs like “We Used to Wait,” “Ready to Start,” “The Suburbs,” “Sprawl II,””Wasted Hours” and the two killer cuts in my 2010 ultimate playlist below. I expect to be listening to this masterpiece for the rest of my life.

Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown (RCA): Can’t understand why the Followills’ fifth album isn’t getting the same degree of critical love as The Suburbs. It’s every bit as ambitious and inventive, though KOL’s emphasis is on the ecstatic, hyper-rhythmic performances, every one of them scintillating. Each track has its own vibe, from “Mary,”an astounding melange of doo-wop, Sun-era rock & roll and early Beatles that may be the album’s most bizarro and thrilling piece of work, to the closing vignette “Pickup Truck,” in which Caleb’s now-familiar blue-collar dude gets choked up trying to get the girl of his dreams to forgive him, or just give him the time of day, in a shimmering slice of down-home magical realism. But no matter whether they’re capturing the zeitgeist on “No Money” or dropping by Big Pink in “Mi Amigo,” their unique character always shines through.

CONSISTENCY AWARD
Spoon, Transference (Merge): “I wanted it to be a more angular, new wave, weirder record,” Britt Daniel told me about his fully realized intentions for Spoon’s seventh longplayer. Daniel and partner/drummer Jim Eno worked without a producer for the first time in search of what Britt referred to as “pure Spoon,” and this is the challenging, take-no-prisoners result, an audacious fusion of the reliable and the experimental—a record that got the new decade off to an audacious start in January.

BEST ONE-OFF SUPERGROUP
Broken Bells, Broken Bells (Columbia):
Wildly original merger of two distinctive sensibilities, as the acrobatic tenor of The ShinsJames Mercer swoops and soars over Danger Mouse’s intricate architectural arrangements.

BEST NEW OLD ALBUM
: This is a musical time capsule sealed in 1978 and ripped open in 2010, revealing a lost masterpiece. The Promise would have fit perfectly between Born To Run and Darkness, as Bruce points out. Had it come out then, it surely would have been regarded not just as a classic, but one that provides a fully realized bridge between the two landmark albums that sandwich it. At long last seeing the light of day 32 years hence, The Promise improbably yet emphatically enriches the history of a supreme artist and a storied era.

The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street rarities (UMe): One of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made just got even greater, thanks to a sorely needed remastering job and 10 additional tracks that are far more listenable than the bonus tracks on most reissues.

BEST “OLD” NEW ALBUM
Band of Horses, Infinite Arms (Fat Possum/Columbia): From the very first notes of their primarily self-produced third album, it’s dramatically apparent that Ben Bridwell and company have upped the ante big time, creating a musical statement that manages to consistently hit and frequently surpass the peak moments on their previous recordings. Having relocated from Seattle to his native South Carolina, Bridwell has surrounded himself with four talented and like-minded players in drummer Creighton Barrett, keyboard player Ryan Monroe, lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. The stabilization of BOH’s long-shifting lineup is one of the reasons the new album is so cohesive, so accomplished and so timeless.

Guster, Easy Wonderful (Aware/Universal Republic): Like fellow formalists Fountains of Wayne and Nada Surf, Guster has s pent the last decade and a half crafting pure pop for those relatively few “now people” who respond to the pleasures of layer-cake harmonies, Beatlesque guitars and cascading hooks. Multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia, who joined the Boston band for 2006’s delectable Ganging Up on the Sun, yielding the modern-day pop classic “Satellite,” produced much of Easy Wonderful, which is distinguished by impeccably crafted contours, sharp lyrics, buoyant grooves and swelling choruses. These punched-up classic moves enliven big-hearted, irony-free anthems like “Do You Love Me”, “Bad Bad World”, “On the Ocean” and “Architects and Engineers”, bringing a hi-def freshness to ’70s-style power pop.

Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer (Elektra): While the audacious “Fuck You,” on which Bruno MarsSmeezingtons production team balanced one fat hook on top of another, received all the attention, the third solo album from the Atlanta throwback soulman is crammed with impeccably crafted retro R&B gems, over which Cee Lo unleashes his revved-up vocals, a potent blend of grit and velvet. Dude can croon too—check out the elegant, uptown “Old Fashioned,” which sounds like some lost classic from the Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellingon songbook.

Bryan Ferry, Olympia (Astralwerks): Sleek, atmospheric and erotic, Ferry’s most satisfying album in decades coulda been titled Avalon II. A sort of Roxy Music reunion-plus, with virtuosos from David Gilmour to Jonny Greenwood contributing alongside erstwhile Ferry bandmates Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno, Olympia’s myriad pleasures range from the sophisto-funk of “Alphaville” and “BF Bass” to a Homeric rendition of Tim Buckley’s “Song for the Siren” (which, of course, also references Roxy’s fifth album).

The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch): The mic used for Dan Auerbach’s vocals sounds like it was salvaged from a junkyard, the trashed, rusted-out sonics a perfect fit for the defiantly vintage songs and performances on the year’s most improbable rock hit.

BEST ALBUM BY A BAND TOGETHER AT LEAST 30 YEARS
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mojo (Reprise):
Undeniably a late-career classic for this Great American Band, with Petty writing specifically for the occasion and the rest of the crew taking it from there.

Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory): The Heartbreakers’ crosstown rivals have been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that they’ve achieved their own hard-earned status as a Great American Band. Tin Can Trust can be viewed as a companion piece to Mojo: both are essentially blues-based, both draw authoritatively on American roots styles and both feature a remarkably fluent guitarist—Mike Campbell on Mojo and the humbly hell-raising David Hidalgo on Tin Can Trust.

BEST ALBUM BY AN ARTIST ELIGIBLE FOR SOCIAL SECURITY
Neil Young, Le Noise (Reprise):
What we have here is the result of Young’s most intensive collaboration since the death of his longtime producer David Briggs shortly after the completion of 1994’s Sleeps With Angels. This new partnership has resulted in a sonic breakthrough for Young, who broke out his iconic Gretsch White Falcon guitar for the occasion. I’ve made a lot of records, and this is one of the records that will stand up over time as a unique piece of work,” Young told me during a September interview for Uncut. The last thing my old producer, David, told me, ‘If you can just reduce everything to just you, that’s how people would like to hear you: they want to hear you.’ So that’s what this is. It just turned out that not only is it a solo record, but it’s a solo record where pieces of me have been reconstituted, remanufactured, kind of restructured and tossed back into the mix. It’s like something moving through space and shit’s falling off of it, but it’s being gathered up and placed back on as it goes along. It’s very interesting. Sonically, it’s a big explosion.

Robert Plant, Band of Joy (Rounder): Advancing the captivating vibe of Raising Sand rather than trying to repeat it, the canny old-timer (once again mining the soulful core of his vocal persona) locates another pair of musical soulmates in Nashville-based producer/guitarist Buddy Miller and singing partner Patti Griffin, and continues his journey into mystic Americana. Among the surprises: a pair of haunted songs from Minnesota slocore purveyors Low—“Silver Rider” and “Monkey”—that could’ve been written specifically for this captivating record.

Tom Jones, Praise & Blame (Lost Highway): In which the brilliant and defiantly analog producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne) finds the sweet spot of the Welsh belter in gospel songs and Sun Records-style arrangements. This album has been criminally overlooked; if T Bone Burnett or Rick Rubin had done something as unexpected and satisfying, I suspect we would’ve heard about it.

Elton John and Leon Russell, The Union (Decca): A number of the freshly minted tunes on John’s heartfelt, T Bone Burnett-curated attempt to give his acknowledged primary inspiration his due would have fit comfortably onto Tumbleweed Connection or Russell’s self-titled 1971 debut album, while the culminating “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” and “The Hand of Angels” reflect back on those days with a mix of “been there, done that” satisfaction and valedictory nostalgia. More often than not, The Union sounds like an Elton John album, thanks to his signature melodies enwrapping Bernie Taupin’s image-filled lyrics, his still-powerful voice and undiminished presence. Only through repeated listenings does Russell’s Hoagy Carmichael-like lazy drawl assert itself, as he sings with disarming poignancy and tenderness, his always-grainy voice now as rutted as a dirt road.

BEST COVERS ALBUM
The Bird & the Bee, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (Blue Note):
When you hear that Inara George and Greg Kirsten cut an entire album of Hall & Oates covers, you’d be excused for going, “What?!” But when you hear what they do with the likes of “Kiss on My List,” “Sara Smile” and “One on One,” you go “Wow.” George’s gorgeous alto nestles into the intricate folds of Kirsten’s arrangements, which honor the stylishness of the originals while somehow sounding fresh and new.

Nada Surf, If I Had a Hi-Fi (Mardev): On this unorthodox, inventive covers collection, the veteran New York trio draws from synth-pop (Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence”), pomp rock (the Moody Blues’ “Question”), college rock (Bill Fox’s “Electrocution”), indie rock (Spoon’s “The Agony Of Laffitte”) and more. And yet, the band somehow turns the wildly disparate source material into a sonically coherent album that doubles as a tribute to their own roots in the Byrds and Big Star circa #1 Record. This flavor comes through loud and clear on choices as obvious as Dwight Twilley’s “You Were So Warm” and as unlikely as Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger”, transforming the latter into a shimmering display of pealing guitars and regal harmonies.

MOODS FOR MODERNS
Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop):
Emphasis on Dream—languorous, intimate and gently enveloping. Works beautifully in tandem with a roaring fireplace.

PRODUCER OF THE YEAR
Danger Mouse
Jacquire King
T Bone Burnett

LABEL OF THE YEAR
Merge
Columbia

ANGEL DANCE, A 2010 PLAYLIST
Since I assembled a midyear 40-track playlist for the Fourth of July weekend, which you can access here, I don’t want to repeat myself any more than is necessary for this ultimate year-end batch, but there are some tracks I couldn’t possibly leave off. I’m not saying these are the best 30 tracks of 2010—just that I can’t get enough of them. Here’s my personal soundtrack to the year:

1. “Month of May,” Arcade Fire: This is a zero-to-60-in-five-seconds blast of adrenalized rock & roll—a Funeral-style explosive climax stretched over the track’s entire four-minute length. It’s like T-Rex on speed and steroids.

2. “Birthday,” Kings of Leon”: A reggae-fied groove from Nathan and Jared and sparkling guitar arpeggios from cousin Matthew swirl around Caleb, who’s at his tough-and-tender best both vocally and lyrically, as he expresses his ardor for his girl in a series of vivid and oddly moving details: “It’s in the way she always calls me out/It’s in the cut of your pretty gown/Your come-on legs and your panty hose/You look so precious in your bloody nose.” The track hardly registered at first, but lately it’s been grabbing me a little bit more every time I play it.

3. “White Table,” Delta Spirit: My sleeper of the year comes from a Long Beach band whose rootsy, acoustic-based material gets force-of-nature forward momentum from monster drummer Brandon Young—and this track is his showcase. Delta Spirit’s secret weapon, Young supercharges the largely acoustic arrangements with his ferociously propulsive stick work, bringing assertiveness and uplift everywhere.

4. “I Saw the Light,” Spoon: If “I Turn My Camera On” from the modern-day landmark Gimme Fiction was Britt Daniel and Jim Eno’s “Emotional Rescue,” this one’s their “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” The track opens as a jacked-up, White Album-style shuffle with a lemon-tart melodic progression, but at the midway point, everything suddenly falls away as a robot drum stomp takes over, signaling the transition into a mesmerizing extended instrumental section, as a buoyant piano vamp gives way a sheet-metal guitar solo hammering away on a single chord. Awesome spinning song—but that’s generally the case with Spoon.

5. “Howlin’ for You,” The Black Keys: The most rousing stadium stomper since “Seven Nation Army,” with the caveat that Patrick Carney swiped the brutally concussive drum pattern from the ultimate stadium rouser, Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll.”

6. “California,” Shawn Mullins: Returning to the setting of his 1998 hit “Lullaby,” the Atlanta-based writer/artist tells the story of a country boy from Mississippi and a hippie chick from the Pacific Northwest who first catch sight of each other in a SoCal freeway traffic jam. “Her stereo was blaring Dylan/The Bootleg Sessions/And ‘Oh the Times They Are A-Changin’’/Made a pretty good impression/She looked over and caught him smiling/Under the California setting sun/They fell in love on the 101.” From there, the lyric follows the descent of the young lovers into the dark underside of what began as their shared California idyll in what amounts to a contemporary fable about the soul-killing temptations of the material world. A real find, “California” instantly takes its place alongside such Cali classics as Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and David & David’s “Welcome to the Boomtown.”

7. “Do You Love Me,” Guster: Ryan Miller is a true romantic, and this unabashed expression of belief in the power of love is a worthy sequel to the mesmerizing “Satellite” from 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun. The song’s life-embracing message is driven home by the cantilevered hooks, piled on top of each other like the gang tackling in an SEC game, Miller’s vocal lifting off to power full-voiced through the title refrain, as if to say that only wimps slide into falsetto.

8. “Laredo,” Band of Horses: A midtempo anthem as gorgeous as a sunrise over Ben Bridwell’s beloved Outer Banks, “Laredo” may be the most full-bodied appropriation of the Byrds sound since “The Ugly Truth” from Matthew Sweet’s milestone 1993 LP Altered Beast.

9. “Pyro,” Kings of Leon: On this anthem, the other side of the emotional coin from “Use Somebody,” Caleb elbows his way through the hammering dual-guitar riffage to bray out a righteously old-school Stax-style vocal under clouds of dirty-faced choirboy harmonies, in an inversion of the Exile female-gospel template. Sports the year’s most gut-wrenching bridge, on which Caleb stakes his claim for being rock & roll’s most wildly original young voice.

10. “Gotta Get the Feeling,” Bruce Springsteen: A kitchen-sink opus that seems to contain the entire contents of a mid-’60s jukebox, from Ben E. King to Jay & the Americans, in its 3:20 duration. The track has everything: hyperactive drum rolls, gleaming Latin horns, greasy sax solo, call-and-response backing vocals, all of it topped off by a breathtaking modulation into the final chorus.

11. “Burn It Down,” Los Lobos: The performance here is pushed along by the thick plunks of Conrad Lozano’s fingers on a stand-up bass (he’s the American equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s rock-steady John McVie), and culminates with the assaultive skronk of David Hidalgo’s guitar fireworks.

12. “Angel Dance,” Robert Plant: Here, with the impeccable taste he’s been exhibiting since this teabag revealed his deep affinity for relocated his spirit in mythopoetic America—“ some deep, dark place in the mud,” as T Bone Burnett put it—Plant dusts off a virtually undiscovered gem from Dave Hidalgo and Louie Perez from Lobos’ 1990 album The Neighborhood (the one before Kiko) and locates its electrifying essence.

13. “You Can Dance,” Bryan Ferry: The first sound we hear on Olympia’s opener is Phil Manzanera quoting his indelible foghorn guitar riff from the title track of Avalon—and when the groove kicks in, the song becomes the haute cuisine equivalent of comfort food. Elegant, elegiac and lascivious, all at once.

14. “The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells: Here, James Mercer communes with his inner falsetto soul man over Danger Mouse’s lustrous groove as the duo treads on Gnarls Barkley turf.

15. “Crystalised,” The xx: What’s cool and unusual about this song from XX is the way these soulful kids pump the groove into the spaces between the notes—the arrangement is so spare that silence could be seen as the lead instrument on the track.

16. “Zebra,” Beach House: Victoria LeGrand’s voice, somewhere between an alto and a baritone, sounds like that of a disembodied spirit one moment, Mother Earth the next, in this extraordinary soundscape, as it wraps areound partner Alex Scally’s opulent soundscape like the tendrils of a vine, arching heavenward in the metaphysical B-section.

17. “Kandi,” One eskimO: Young English group makes brilliant use of a sample from a vintage single from soul singer Candi Staton, audaciously employing it the setup for a sexy call-and-response chorus hook with frontman Kristian Leontiou.

18. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” The Bird and the Bee: What a wonderfully nuanced vocal from Inara George—her dad Lowell, the Little Feat auteur, would be proud. Which reminds me—why isn’t Little Feat in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Don’t get me started…

19. “Round and Round,” Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Can’t say I expected the shambolic Silver Lake iconoclast to come up with the most engaging evocation of Todd Rundgren’s pop/soul recipe circa A Wizard, a True Star since New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” back in 1998.

20. “Wildflower,” Cee Lo Green: Wonderfully recaptured, deeply felt evocation of the ’70s Philly Soul of Gamble & Huff and Gene Page, right down to the springy groove, burnished strings and regal piano.

21. “The Mystery Zone,” Spoon: The title song of my early-2010 playlist, this one’s a tension builder with a springy groove and lysergic, “Eleanor Rigby”-quoting string-synth billows. It follows the band’s leitmotif on Transference, its ending sheared off like a Marine recruit’s hair.

22. “Agony of Laffitte,” Nada Surf: In which one stellar smart-pop band not only covers another one but also brings something of its own stylishness to the party—check out the gorgeous contrapuntal harmonies, which serve to illuminate the beauty of Britt Daniel’s melody. Interestingly, Nada’s elegant treatment takes the song from acid putdown to fluttering rhapsody.

23. “Dilly,” Band of Horses: Here’s vivid proof that Band of Horses are no longer just a front for Ben Bridwell—this infectious power-pop song is one of lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey’s strong contributions, as he puts himself into a featured role alongside the frontman.

24. “Modern Man,” Arcade Fire: As with “Dilly,” this wicked-cool cut is streamlined and syncopated in the manner of the Cars sublime debut album. The track’s cruising momentum is offset by an oddball rhythmic pattern—completely throwing off crowds that try to clap along with it during the band’s live performances. Here’s a musical explanation from veteran bass player Dennis Parker: “The intro and the verses each have a 5/4 bar that turns around the placement of the snare hits. it’s not really that difficult—just one extra beat for every line of lyric.” And there you have it.

25. “Back Down South,” Kings of Leon: Here, Caleb breaks out his most corn-pone drawl and Matthew plays a Marshall Tucker-like fiddle jig on a slide guitar, in tandem with an actual fiddle, while the DNA-powered rhythm section of Jared and oldest brother Nathan, who’s a monster drummer, bang out a vintage Allmans groove. Here, finally, is a cut that can be readily embraced by rednecks and Boomers alike without alienating KOL’s younger base.

26. “Down by the Water,” The Decemberists: Offered up as a freebie on the band’s site, the first taste of the The King Is Dead (hitting in January) confirms and engagingly animates Colin Meloy’s description of the album as an double-barreled homage to Neil Young and R.E.M. Gillian Welch handles Nicolette Larson’s duet-partner role on Comes a Time, while the role of Peter Buck is played by Peter Buck, though here he’s on mandolin (the R.E.M. guitarist breaks out his signature 12-string jangle on his other two album appearances). As sturdy, straightforward and wood-grained as the Oregon barn in which the album was recorded.

27. “Neil Young,” Love and War: One of two acoustic numbers on Le Noize, this captivating contemplation crams ol’ Neil’s entire career into a tidy (for him, anyway) 5:37. This is as good as he gets, and so’s the LP’s other acoustic epic, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.”

28. “Holiday,” Vampire Weekend: A burst of sheer ebullience, this cut from the wicked-clever Contra assumes its rightful status as a modern-day seasonal standard through its constant hammering in the year-end TV campaigns of both Honda and Tommy Hilfinger, further fattening the wallets of Ezra Koenig and his cerebral, well-heeled bandmates.

29. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” Paul Simon: This persuasive preview of So Beautiful or So What, the master’s first LP for Concord, juxtaposes seasonal jollity with sobering reality, accurately capturing the mood of Christmas 2010. A belated (by 45 years) but fitting bookend to “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

30. “When the Sun Breaks,” The Mommyheads: This smart, musically sophisticated indie band that generated a modest but fervent cult following in the ’90s has just reappeared, featured in a ubiquitous spot for Time Warner Cable and self-releasing the career retrospective Finest Specimens (Dromedary). This lovely, newly recorded piece, barely over two minutes in length, contains little more than a crystalline piano and glee club harmonies, echoing as if recorded in a cathedral, sublimely capturing the mood suggested by the title. Can’t think of a better coda for this playlist.

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2010 ROCK: THE SUBURBS AT SUNDOWN

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GOOD OLD BOYS http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/10/good-old-boys/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/10/good-old-boys/#comments Wed, 20 Oct 2010 23:13:19 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/10/good-old-boys/ Continue reading ]]>

KINGS OF LEON
Come Around Sundown
RCA

When the Followill brothers and their cousin Matthew first busted out of Tennessee in 2003 with the colorfully titled EP Holy Roller Novocaine, they were as green as a sapling—especially kid brother Jared, who’d been handed a bass only months previously by band mentor Angelo Petraglia and told to learn by playing along with Led Zeppelin CDs. But even then, it was obvious that these kids had something special. Still, who knows whether Kings of Leon would have survived, let alone prospered, had they not been readily embraced in the UK, perhaps as much for their floppy coifs, skin-tight trousers and amusing accents as for their rough-and-tumble sound. That the four fledgling musicians turned out to such be improbably quick studies can now be seen as one of the most significant phenomena to pop up in recent rock history.

If the debut LP Youth & Young Manhood (2003) was viewed as disarmingly quirky by some reviewers (though dismissed by doubters as a premeditated case of image over substance), the follow-up Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005), revealed a scrappy young band already confident enough in their individual and collective abilities to take risks. Indeed, the Kings of Leon sound is fundamentally built on audacity: Caleb’s preternatural yelp, at once wounded and defiant, was as far from rock indie-rock cool as one could get; oldest brother Nathan attacked his drum kit with the brutal aggressiveness of an extreme fighter; Jared’s basslines were so hyperactive you’d have thought he needed a Ritalin prescription; and Matthew squeezed as much tonal variety out of the effects pedals at his feet as Jonny Greenwood. Caleb’s songs weren’t like anything else out there either; what the hell did he mean by “He’s so the purity, a shaven and a mourning/and standing on a pigeon toe, in his disarray” in “King of the Rodeo,” or “18, balding, star, Golden, fallen, heart” in “The Bucket”?

In 2007, just after the band made another exponential leap with one of the last decade’s most invigorating albums in Because of the Times, English producer Ethan Johns, who’d helmed all their records to that point, went out on a limb. “This is gonna sound a little absurd,” he told me, “but I do think that they’re the best rock & roll band playing at the moment. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that holds a torch to these guys. They’re gonna be around for a long time, those boys. There’s no doubt.” And on the eve of the release of their worldwide breakthrough Only by the Night in 2008, Caleb didn’t hesitate in answering my question about what current band impressed him the most: “Definitely Radiohead,” he said. “They get it right every time. That’s something we’ve always tried to do—mix things up a little bit.”

Two years (and nearly 7 million albums) later, those words speak volumes, because, with Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon have made a musical statement whose boldness rivals that of the envelope-pushing Kings of Art Rock—though it also manages to come off as companionably down-to-earth. Despite its success, Only by the Night was the work of a band still growing into their hard-earned status as arena headliners—while also adapting to a radically different studio dynamic resulting from their decision not to continue working with the strong-willed Johns. The new album, by contrast, finds these chronically restless and supremely self-assured musicians applying their rarefied skills to a super-tasty recipe in which familiar sounds and motifs—their own and those of their ever-expanding source material—are treated in unexpected and frequently unprecedented ways.

What enables the new record to stand apart from its predecessors is that it brings the soulful swagger of 2007’s Because of the Times and the arena-rock scale of Only by the Night to bear on classic rock styles in a dramatic display of how much these eager youngsters have absorbed from their continuing studies in rock history, and how boldly they’ve integrated classic moves into their own singular style. Now, finally, we can hear KOL’s link to the great southern bands that came before them.

Nathan and Jared share a rhythmic pulse that emanates from their DNA, and they form an absolute monster rhythm section. The grooves they churn out are so sturdy and springy that Caleb and Matthew are free to launch into whatever melodic and textural acrobatics they can imagine. Pushed to the max by engineer/co-producer Jacquire King, the earth-shaking bottom and the fireworks on top come together to form such immense soundscapes that my computer speakers could hardly handle them (and make no mistake, reviews of high-profile releases these days are often written in response to streams of middling bit rates played through desktop speakers).

The album unfolds like a parade of anthems out of some parallel universe. It starts, interestingly, where Because of the Night left off, with “The End,” a majestic piece featuring orchestral flourishes from Matthew’s overbubbed, reverb-drenched guitars, echoing the panoramic third-album closer “Arizona.” Following this widescreen scene-setter, they dive into their takes on the sounds of old records as if they’d just discovered the motherlode, which indeed they have. “Radioactive,” the first single, is transitional by design. It’s a thrusting horizontal rocker, a la “Sex on Fire,” on which drums, bass and guitar engage in a breathless sprint from end to end, but in the final choruses, gospel voices rise up behind Caleb’s lead vocal, signaling what’s to come. On “Pyro,” Caleb elbows his way through the hammering dual-guitar riffage to bray out a righteously old-school Stax-style vocal under clouds of dirty-faced choirboy harmonies, in an inversion of the Exile female-gospel template.

Nathan and Caleb plausibly claim their Pentecostal upbringing prevented them from hearing much popular music until Petraglia took them under his wing, and as a result, they dive into their takes on the sounds of old records as if they were brand new. This child-like sense of novelty permeates “Mary,” an astounding melange of doo-wop, Sun-era rock & roll and early Beatles that may be the album’s most bizarro and thrilling piece of work. Their mutated interpretation of the early days continues with “The Face,” with its echo-chamber melodrama—it’s like a Roy Orbison ballad on steroids. The band keeps the pedal to the metal with “The Immortals,” a massive slab of steaming rock with a funky groove in the transitions leading into a stately cadence under the mushroom-cloud choruses, Caleb quaking with hellfire like some demented, Elmer Gantry-style evangelist.

By the time it hits its midpoint, the album has become almost unbearably intense, which no doubt explains the placement right here of the Allmans-meet-The Band stomper “Back Down South,” on which Caleb breaks out his most corn-pone drawl while Matthew plays a fiddle jig on a slide guitar, in tandem with an actual fiddle. The relative calm extends into the following “Beach Side,” a summery but propulsive track in which Matthew’s left hand keeps threatening to slide into dissonance, a la Beach House’s “Norway,” on the way to a “My Sweet Lord”-like payoff. The fusillade resumes with the raging “No Money,” which reintroduces the rebel protagonist of Because of the Night’s epic “Knocked Up,” before easing into a relatively mellowed-out final third.

The cowbell-accented “Pony Up,” another twist on early rock & roll, with a sparkling guitar riff right out of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” boogaloos into “Birthday,” with its souped-up, reggae-fied bass groove, sparkling guitar arpeggios and vivid imagery, Caleb sounding like a snockered stranger perched on the next barstool sharing a story over beers and chasers. True to its title, “Mi Amigo” cruises south of the border on a swaying tempo, fingerpicked guitar embroidery and faux-mariachi horns. Come Around Sundown ends with the blue-collar rhapsody “Pickup Truck,” in which Caleb’s now-familiar desperate dude gets choked up trying to get the girl of his dreams to forgive him, or just give him the time of day, in a shimmering slice of down-home magical realism. Somewhere, Gram Parsons is smiling.

This time out, KoL want you to have an experience, and that’s what you get, on a record that’s over the top, wildly inventive and satisfying in the ever-deepening way of landmark longplayers from the last century, as they honor their elders while remaining utterly true to themselves. Come Around Sundown is that magical.

(This is the long-form version of a review that appears in the November issue of Uncut.)

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GOOD OLD BOYS

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SCOPPA’S 2010 MIDYEAR PLAYLIST http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/07/scoppa%e2%80%99s-2010-midyear-playlist/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/07/scoppa%e2%80%99s-2010-midyear-playlist/#comments Thu, 08 Jul 2010 00:47:24 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/07/scoppa%e2%80%99s-2010-midyear-playlist/ Continue reading ]]>

The first half of 2010 has brought with it a boatload of memorable music, thanks to an tsunami of killer cuts from the usual suspects and recently overlooked veterans, as well as definitive tracks from a healthy number of rookies and formerly below-the-radar (my radar, at least) bands and artists. On top of that, several albums that work from start to finish have come along, demonstrating the continuing viability of the extended listening experience in an era ruled by the single and perpetuated by the public’s ever-shortening attention span. I’m referring to the instant classic Broken Bells, Spoon’s latest triumph Transference, Band of Horses’ coming-of-age opus Infinite Arms and, coming up strong on the outside, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ authoritative roots romp Mojo. There were also not one but three irresistible covers albums in Nada Surf’s If I Had a Hi-Fi, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back and The Bird and the Bee’s love letter to Hall and Oates, Guiltless Pleasures, Vol. 1. This, I think, is a promising trend.

Before I get down to the track-by-track rollout, let me also put in a good word for some of the other gripping experiences of the year so far: the intense drama and black comedy of Nurse Jackie, the impossibly dense 30 Rock, the sensory overload of Treme, the unbearable tension of the NBA Finals, Thom Yorke and Flea’s riff on So You Think You Can Dance on stage at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, and the characteristically offbeat final act of Alex Chilton.

On this playlist, I’ve rounded up and sequenced 40 tracks, a handful of which I stumbled upon in just the last few d ays and threw in because they struck me as promising and suitably summery—this is, after all, the Fourth of July weekend. Overall, I think this batch suggests that the first year of the decade could be one to remember—and we have yet to hear Kings of Leon, Fleet Foxes or most of Arcade Fire.

OCEAN / MIDYEAR 2010 PLAYLIST

1. “Vaporize,” Broken Bells: Nobody’s made a better longplayer so far in 2010 than the perfectly matched team of James Mercer and Danger Mouse, and the latter’s arrangement on this cut, climaxing with a trumpet solo right out of the Tijuana Brass, is sublime in its detail and subtle wit, balancing the innate emotiveness of Mercer’s melodically untethered voice. Bravo, boys.

2. “I Saw the Light,” Spoon: If “I Turn My Camera On” was the Daniel and Eno’s “Emotional Rescue,” this one’s their “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” Here’s my pick for the coolest groove of the half-year…if not the two coolest grooves. The track opens as a jacked-up, White Album-style shuffle with a lemon-tart melodic progression, but at the midway point, everything suddenly falls away as a robot drum stomp takes over, signaling the transition into a mesmerizing extended instrumental section, as a buoyant piano vamp gives way a sheet-metal guitar solo hammering away on a single chord. Awesome spinning song—but that’s generally the case with Spoon.

3. “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren),” The Rolling Stones: Speaking of the Stones, a number of reviewers (including our own Roy Trakin) have speculated that the Exile Rarities disc is the geezers’ best chance to place an album in the year end critics’ Top 10 since, oh, 1981 or so, thanks to killer cuts like this one, with its fat-bottomed bump (sounds like Bill Wyman to me), Keith’s woozy riffage and Mick’s pimpin’ harp solo, ornamented by horn riffs that would morph into the bleats you hear on the official “Soul Survivor” (a wonderfully wobbly Keith-sung version of that one can be found here as well).

4. “Laredo,” Band of Horses: This one’s totally up my Byrds/Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Big Star alley—meaning, I suppose, that it’s essentially boy music. On this shimmering folk rock anthem, the band deftly fuses the buoyancy of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” with the jutting-jawed physicality of “Cinnamon Girl” around a twisting riff from lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey right out of Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend.” A midtempo anthem as gorgeous as a sunrise over Ben Bridwell’s beloved Outer Banks, “Laredo” may be the most masterful appropriation of the Byrds sound since “The Ugly Truth” from Matthew Sweet’s milestone 1993 LP Altered Beast—although it has some competition from…

5. “Electrocution,” Nada Surf: …the overdriven jangle of these skillful veterans’ take on an obscure 1998 song from cult artist Bill Fox. It’s one of three tracks on the band’s engaging covers album, If I Had a Hi-Fi, that vividly reflects their roots in the chiming guitars and soaring harmonies of 1960s folk-rock; the others are Nada’s glorious re-creation of the Dwight Twilley Band’s “You Were So Warm,” cleverly suggested to them by Hits’ Karen Glauber, and, less obviously, Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger,” which they transform into a shimmering aerial ballet of pealing guitars and regal harmonies.

6. “Ocean,” The 22-20s: This track from the previously blues-rocking English trio is here because (A) it carries along the Byrds-y vibe of the two preceding tracks and (B) it provides both a title and a theme for this midyear playlist. The early-summer compilation is a decades-old tradition for me, starting in 1980 with a cassette comp (also quaintly known as a “mixtape” here in the Digital Age) I made for a Catalina vacation titled Where’s My Sandy Beach after a line in the Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement.” I still have that tape…

7. “Candy,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Still digesting this 15-track, 65-minute record, but I can say right now with complete confidence that it’s undeniably a late-career classic for this Great American Band, with Petty writing specifically for the occasion and the rest of the crew taking it from there. For proof, check out their recent performance on SNL. This below-the-belt blues-rocker isn’t one of the two songs they played on the show, but the playfulness of its formal perfection makes me laugh every time Petty sings the opening stanza: “I sure like dat candy/I don’t go for dem turnip greens.” One obvious reference point is the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” but there’s a ton more.

8. “Burn It Down,” Los Lobos: Like the Heartbreakers’ crosstown rivals have been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that they’ve achieved the hard-earned status of Great American Band, right alongside Petty, Campbell and company. Lobos’ upcoming Tin Can Trust can be viewed as a companion piece to Mojo: both are essentially blues-based, both draw authoritatively on American roots styles and both feature a remarkably fluent guitarist—Mike Campbell on Mojo and the humbly hell-raising David Hidalgo on Tin Can Trust. The performance here is pushed along by the thick plunks of Conrad Lozano’s fingers on a stand-up bass (he’s the American equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s rock-steady John McVie), and culminates with the assaultive skronk of Hidalgo’s guitar fireworks.

9. “White Table,” Delta Spirit: My sleeper of the half year comes from a Long Beach band whose rootsy, acoustic-based material gets force-of-nature forward momentum from monster drummer Brandon Young—and this track is his showcase. Delta Spirit’s secret weapon, Young supercharges the largely acoustic arrangements with his ferociously propulsive stick work, bringing assertiveness and uplift everywhere. Everyone I’ve turned on to “White Table” has instantly fallen in love with it, much like two years ago when I introduced friends to Luke Reynolds’ criminally obscure Pictures and Sound…

10. “Floating in Space,” Luke Reynolds: On his eight-song mini-album Maps, Reynolds uses the same awesome rhythm section that enlivened Pictures and Sound cuts like “100 Directions” and “the Last Ocean,” but on this outing the trio is in a mellower mood, set here by the buoyant, life-embracing opener, which conveys both his depth and his disarming dudeness.

11. “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire: Woke up this morning with the hook of this tease from The Suburbs circulating though my subconscious, which leads me to believe it could be a radio single. One of Win Butler’s more understated, lower-register vocals, which mysteriously makes the emotionality of the performance seem that much more intense, amid the pummeling drums and skyrocket sequencer oscillations.

12. “Crystalised,” The xx: What’s cool and unusual about this song from XX, the half year’s second best debut album next to Broken Bells, is the way these soulful kids pump the groove into the spaces between the notes—the arrangement is so spare that silence could be seen as the lead instrument on the track.

13. “Saturday Sun,” Crowded House: The first sound you hear on the reformed band’s brand new Intriguer is the syncopated thunder of L.A. native Matt Sherrod’s drums, the earth to Neil Finn’s air as he gives flight to another elegant melody—further proof that Finn and Nick Seymour picked the right guy to fill the empty drum stool left by their fallen comrade Paul Hester. With guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart completing the lineup, Crowded House Mk. 2 is a formidable unit, especially on stage, where they take off on extended forays behind Finn’s guitar explorations. But after this bracing start, you’ll need to have patience, because it takes several spins for the songs to sink in—which is what I’m in the middle of right now…

14. “Why Does the Wind,” Tracey Thorne: Like Intriguer, the Everything but the Girl singer’s Love and Its Opposite is an emotionally taut but musically restrained set out of which pops one dynamic exception—in this case a sensuous, Sade-style groove over which Thorn’s emphatic, no-nonsense voice glides with its trademark effortlessness—she’s a modern-day cross between Julie London and Peggy Lee. Deepening our theme, the track sounds just like a seaside summer sunset looks.

15. “Kandi,” One eskimO: Young English group makes brilliant use of a sample from a vintage single from soul singer Candi Staton, audaciously employing it the setup for a sexy call-and-response chorus hook with frontman Kristian Leontiou.

16. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” The Bird and the Bee: When you hear that Inara George and Greg Kirsten cut an entire album of Hall & Oates covers, you’d be excused for going, “What?!” But as soon as you hear the first song, you go “Wow.” Love Hall & Oates, btw. What a wonderfully nuanced vocal from Inara—her dad would be proud.

17. “That’s Not My Name,” The Ting Tings: Yup, this track is from 2008’s We Started Nothing, but it deserves the ecstatic response male/female duo Sleigh Bells are getting right now, and it makes the playlist because Katie White and Jules De Martino absolutely killed it on SNL back in January. This’ll hold me till the follow-up—reportedly titled Massage Kunst—hits later this summer.

18. “Looking East,” Jackson Browne and David Lindley: Their memorable shared history makes the former collaborators’ reunion on a 2006 tour of Spain auspicious, casual as the presentation may have been. What’s more, most of the songs Browne chose for the first disc of this two-CD set are from records on which Lindley didn’t appear, enabling the erstwhile partners to see what they could do with the material in an only slightly expanded configuration from their two-man shows in the ’70s. On the double album’s most audacious performance, Lindley picks up and pummels an oud, providing a Kaleidoscope-like exotic spin on the still timely 1996 message song.

19. “Taxi Cab,” Vampire Weekend: The brainy band’s sophomore album is so of a piece that it demands being heard as a whole—with the exception of this understated gem, which rolls along as weightlessly as a fogbank.

20. “Pow Pow,” LCD Soundsystem: Dunno what I was expecting from James Murphy after the 2007 landmark Sound of Silver, and I’m still trying to figure out what’s ticking behind This Is Happening, right down to settling on a particular cut to pull from it. For now I’m going with this homage to the Talking Heads’ Eno period, which sound intoxicating the first time I heard it, driving through Santa Barbara under starry skies after Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace show at the Bowl.

21. “Take It In,” Hot Chip: My fondness for their fanboy groove-a-rama increases with each album, and although the latest, One Life Stand, went for consistency over a roller-coaster ride, it did yield some progressively involving winners, including this poppy set piece, which they chose to use for the closer.

22. “Flume,” Peter Gabriel: Another striking covers album yielded this hushed, gorgeous ballad from Bon Iver’s 2008 stunner For Emma, Forever Ago, as Gabriel hits that oosebump-inducing leap into the first chorus without the celestial stacked harmonies of Justin Vernon’s original.

23. “Goodbye Girl,” The Shins: Mercer’s crew (whoever they are these days) covering Squeeze—how perfect is that? A wistful yet propulsive reimagining, the track is just one of several winners from the freebie online grab bag Levi’s Pioneer Sessions. While you’re on the site, you’ll also wanna download She & Him covering Rick Nelson’s “Fools Rush In,” Raphael Saadiq doing the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame” and Jason Mraz power-chording through Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”

24. “Shot of Love,” Robert Randolph & the Family Band: T Bone Burnett combines his deep understanding of American roots music with Randolph’s grounding in gospel on the sacred steel virtuoso’s third studio album, resulting in a set of fervently funky performances steeped in authenticity and powered (like all of the producer’s sonically detailed recordings) by grooves as deep as trenches. Randolph and his rock-steady crew share space with some well chosen Burnett ringers; this song from Bob Dylan’s foray into Christianity Slow Train Comin’ gets the devil beat out of it the great by Jim Keltner, while Randolph’s buddy Ben Harper handles the lead vocal.

25. “How Do You Like Me Now,” The Heavy: This 2009 horn-powered neo-soul workout thrust its way onto the playlist after its appearance on the Kia spot that debuted during the Super Bowl. Wilson Pickett would surely approve.

26. “Heart of Steel,” Galactic featuring Irma Thomas: Gives me a chance to plug the offbeat and mesmerizing HBO series Treme, which just concluded its delectable first season, with Irma reprising her original version of “Time Is on My Side,” soon thereafter made famous by the Stones.

27. “Medicine,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals: I’ve been friends with Grace since writing her first Hollywood Records bio back in 2005, and I’m impressed not just by her own growth but by that of her band, featuring the terrific lead guitarist Scott Tournet. Here, they crank out a steaming slab of riff rock that sounds to like the belated sequel to Heart’s “Barracuda.”

28. “Month of May,” Arcade Fire: This is a zero-to-60-in-five-seconds blast of adrenalized rock & roll—a Funeral-style explosive climax stretched over the track’s entire four-minute length. It’s like T-Rex on speed and steroids.

29. “On Main Street,” Los Lobos: As I played this cut last night, Peggy riffed on two points of reference for David Hidalgo’s vocal, both right on the money—Richard Manuel and Stevie Winwood. Think of this as Lobos’ own “Summer in the City.” And check out my review of Tin Can Trust in the upcoming Uncut.

30. “Free Love,” Cornershop: When Nick Lowe went country (so to speak) back in the ’90s, he left the job of purveying pure pop for now people in the capable hands of Tjinder Singh, who proceeded to stake his claim with the classic “Brimful of Asha,” and has subsequently spun out some of the wittiest rock & roll of the last two decades. Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, Singh and partner Ben Ayres seem (among other things) to be riffing on the Beatles’ fascination with Indian music, breaking out the sitars and tablas and mixing them in with their standard Western instruments…or have they come up with their own twisted version of A.R. Rahmann’s Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack? Quite possibly both. But I can state with confidence that this mesmerizing soundscape is Judy’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It came on as four of us were pulling into the driveway after dinner at Ammo, and none of us got out of the car until it was over.

31. “Running Man’s Bible,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: The groove reminds me of “Breakdown”; Petty’s lyric reminds me of all the years that have passed since then. And the band plays on…

32. “The Mystery Zone,” Spoon: The title song of my early-2010 playlist, this one’s a tension builder with a springy groove and Revolver­-like lysergic string-synth billows. It follow’ the band’s leitmotif on Transference, it’s ending sheared off like a Marine recruit’s hair.

33. “Agony of Laffitte,” Nada Surf: In which one stellar smart-pop band not only covers another one but also brings something of its own stylishness to the party—check out the gorgeous contrapuntal harmonies, which serve to illuminate the beauty of Britt Daniel’s melody. Interestingly, Nada’s elegant treatment takes the song from acid putdown to fluttering rhapsody.

34. “The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells: Here, Mercer communes with his inner falsetto soul man over DM’s lustrous groove as the duo treads on Gnarls Barkley turf.

35. “Dilly,” Band of Horses: Here’s vivid proof that Band of Horses are no longer just a front for Ben Bridwell—this infectious power-pop song is one of lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey’s strong contributions, as he puts himself into a featured role alongside the frontman.

36. “The River,” Audra Mae: The lyrical precision of Leonard Cohen converges with the dangerous undertow of Amy Winehouse on this dreamscape, awash in water symbolism.

37. “The Shores,” The Sea of Cortez: I was initially trying to keep the playlist to 25, then 30—but when I grabbed this download of a brand new song because of the band name and title, I figured, what the heck, it’s a holiday. It turns out to be an indie-rock update of one of those Beach Boys coastal panoramas from early ’70s LPs like Sunflower and Holland—meaning it’ll fit right in alongside Fleet Foxes when their much-anticipate follow-up hits.

38. “Waves,” Holly Miranda: Extending the aural sea foam is this enigmatic indie singer/songwriter (if Kristen Stewart hasn’t heard her yet, it’s essentially that she do so immediately), who doesn’t forget about putting a groove underneath her mood, which was the most important lesson of Portishead’s now-iconic Dummy.

39. “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire: I promised myself I wouldn’t throw in three tracks from any one act, but c’mon, this new Arcade Fire stuff is epic. People who have grabbed the blithely floated links to four tracks are mostly gaga over “Ready to Start,” myself included, but don’t overlook this one—widescreen, poignant and seductively detailed, like a Todd Haynes movie.

40. “Heaven and Earth,” Blitzen Trapper: If John Ford were still around, he’d use this band for the score of his next western. Cue the orchestra…

Taken from this post:
SCOPPA’S 2010 MIDYEAR PLAYLIST

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FIRST DRAFT: BAND OF HORSES’ INFINITE ARMS http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/06/first-draft-band-of-horses-infinite-arms/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/06/first-draft-band-of-horses-infinite-arms/#comments Fri, 11 Jun 2010 23:14:48 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/06/first-draft-band-of-horses-infinite-arms/ Continue reading ]]>


A revised version of the following review appears in the June issue of
Uncut.

BAND OF HORSES

Infinite Arms

Fat Possum/Columbia

Five stars

Ben Bridwell’s promise is fulfilled, as the budding auteur and his handpicked band fashion a thrilling artistic breakthrough

After living with the lush melodies, breathtaking harmonies and taut instrumental performances that distinguish Infinite Arms, I no longer think of Band of Horses as another promising Amerindie band. From the very first notes of their primarily self-produced third album, it’s dramatically apparent that Ben Bridwell and company have upped the ante big time, creating a musical statement that manages to consistently hit and frequently surpass the peak moments on their previous recordings. Having relocated from Seattle to his native South Carolina, Bridwell has surrounded himself with four talented and like-minded players in drummer Creighton Barrett, keyboard player Ryan Monroe, lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. The stabilization of BOH’s long-shifting lineup is one of the reasons the new album is so cohesive, so accomplished and so timeless.

On the stunning “Laredo,” the band deftly fuses the buoyancy of the Byrds “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” with the jutting-jawed physicality of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Cinnamon Girl” around a twisting riff from Ramsey right out of Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend.” First single “Compliments” features the harmonies of Ramsey and Monroe over a “London Calling” strut, and their three-part blend with Bridwell recalls the Jayhawks of Hollywood Town Hall. These rich group harmonies make several memorable reappearances, turning up in close-miked intimacy on Ramsey’s candlelit ballad “Evening Kitchen” accompanied by just a single acoustic, and in full-throated splendor on the Morgan-penned, pedal-steel-adorned country-rocker “Older.” All of the above tracks were cut live off the floor, lending them a glorious immediacy. They co-exist with shimmering monuments of aural architecture, painstakingly assembled, their intricacies illuminated by Dave Sardy’s 3-D mix.

There’s an intriguing further development in Bridwell’s songwriting approach, as he interweaves the elliptical verbiage of his past records with concrete detail of an intensely visual nature, these observations of everyday life hinting at storylines whose specifics are left to the listener to piece together. First track “Factory” opens in a hotel lobby, leading to brief eye contact with a stranger in the elevator, a stop at the snack machine and other mundane details that take on an air of mystery through the musical context, conjuring up the sort of hyper-reality found in William Eggleston’s photographs. The pumping strings and horns riding atop the band’s massive slow-motion groove bring an overlay of grandeur to the implied narrative – the pomp-plus-push of the arrangement redolent of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” while Bridwell’s layered vocals pause to inhale before delivering the astral lift of Bon Iver’s “Flume.” These musical and visual juxtapositions permeate the album, taking centerstage on “Northwest Apartment,” a nostalgic, atypically straightforward series of aural snapshots picturing various places where Bridwell crashed while living in Seattle and touring the region; they’re paired with pile-driving drums and bludgeoning guitars, ending with the hum of an amp hanging in the air like a receding memory.

One of the album’s defining aspects is its vivid sense of the American expanse, from the close quarters of city life to the wide-open spaces. With its Pet Sounds-like contrapuntal harmonies and reverb-drenched sonics, “On My Way Home” resonates with SoCal buoyancy even as it yearns for Dixie. It segues into the title track, a dreamscape that inhabits the woodsy Northwestern terrain of Fleet Foxes, with Bridwell’s stacked harmonies stretching heavenward through the orchestral bowers of a Memotron (a digitized version of the Mellotron). The tender “For Annabelle,” written in Minnesota just before the birth of Bridwell’s daughter, poetically suggests a sun-dappled spring day in the upper Midwest. The high, lonesome group harmonies that open the culminating, thematically unifying “Neighbor” are a dead ringer for the Eagles of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” but at the 3:30 mark the track erupts like Mt. St. Helen’s, ending the record on a note of flat-out majesty.

Infinite Arms feels like it has two halves, the first six songs serving to expand the panoramic sound and style Bridwell introduced on songs like “The Great Salt Lake” from BOH’s 2006 debut, Everything All the Time, the second half-dozen, led off by the aerodynamic power pop of Ramsey and Bridwell’s “Dilly,” is laden with wholly and co-written songs from the other players, reinforcing the sense that this is a fully interactive band. But its symmetry is just one of the reasons you’ll want to get this neoclassic landmark on vinyl. Another is that it begs to be flipped over and played again.

Q&A: Ben Bridwell

You’ve said that in many ways this is the first Band of Horses album. How so?

It’s the first time the lineup hasn’t been this revolving door. I feel like the band has really solidified itself for the first time. When I started the band and Matt [Brooke] was in it, I had some songwriting input from him. With this record it’s like a real band, no one’s goin’ anywhere and everyone’s contributing to the songwriting process. This is a band that I’m a part of now and not just leading, and this is our coming-out party to show people everybody in the band, not just my sad songs.

Your harmonies with Tyler and Ryan are really classic.
There are times when you can hear that maybe it’s not perfect, and because we were doing it live and didn’t really have anyone to judge us, I tended to feel like that was its strength and not try to make it perfect like we’ve done in the past. Like maybe those little frailties are actually the strength of the record, where it sounds like people are actually singing around a microphone.

What inspired the orchestrations of “Factory”?
I was listening to a lot of Nick Drake, for the first time really got Nick Drake. I had to hear every song, watch every bit of footage. There are such dramatic string arrangements in those songs. But I’ve also been a huge fan of Spiritualized, and I did want to go for that kind of dramatic effect in “Bittersweet Symphony.” It was very intentional, most because I was thinkin’ this might be one that people in the U.K. could latch onto.

Your lyrics this time are loaded with everyday detail.

In the past my lyrics were more abstract. I didn’t mean to be more to the point in these songs; they just kinda came out that way. I guess the song was askin’ for it, and that’s what I had and could speak from those experiences, so I didn’t shy away from it. But I don’t write lyrics deliberately, ever – they just kinda come. And usually I’ll edit them to death so that people have absolutely no idea what I’m talkin’ about. Maybe I decided to unmask them a little bit more.

This feels very much like an old-fashioned two-sided record.

When I approved the vinyl master the other day, I got to hear it, finally, as a piece of music, and it flows so much better as two sides. There really are two phases of the record, and the second side really does showcase the rest of the band. You get Tyler’s songs and Ryan’s song in there – it’s almost like a hint of the future of what we might be able to accomplish.

Taken from this post:
FIRST DRAFT: BAND OF HORSES’ INFINITE ARMS

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THOM YORKE’S RHAPSODY IN RHYTHM http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/04/thom-yorke%e2%80%99s-rhapsody-in-rhythm/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/04/thom-yorke%e2%80%99s-rhapsody-in-rhythm/#comments Sat, 24 Apr 2010 18:10:40 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/04/thom-yorke%e2%80%99s-rhapsody-in-rhythm/ Continue reading ]]> Although nobody thinks of Radiohead as a dance band, Thom Yorke and his mates have spent the last decade developing an intoxicating rhythmic feel. Unveiled spectacularly on 200’s Kid A, the group’s embrace of the groove in all its heady and visceral nuances reached a sublime level of refinement on the tracks “15 Step,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “The Reckoner” and “Jigsaw Falling Into place” from the 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows. And those grooves have been physically manifested onstage by Yorke’s spastic bobblehead moves at the mic, along with the pugilistic body language of Colin Greenwood as he relentlessly stalks the groove, putting his full weight behind each punching bassline.

In general, latter-day Radiohead’s infectious rhythms pose a life-embracing counterpoint to its zeitgeist-capturing themes of anxiety, alienation and information overload. These seductive rhythmic foundations, combined with the melodic aeronautics carried by Yorke’s fallen angel’s voice, render even the darkest of the band’s songs—which might be unbearably oppressive otherwise—deeply spiritual and downright inspiring.

The Eraser
, Yorke’s 2006 boy-with-his-laptop album, served to isolate his innate feel for rhythm, subtly but emphatically revealing the source of Radiohead’s unique rhythmic character. Little did we—or he—know that four years later, these intensely solitary tracks would serve as the blueprint for a “jungle dance party,” as Live Music Blog’s Justin wrote of the April 16 Oakland performance on Atoms for Peace’s eight-date mini-tour, culminating in a Sunday night set at Coachella. The performances were fueled by high-octane rhythms that “didn’t pound so much as undulate, complementing Yorke’s airy vocal melodies,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, getting to the jist of the experience. That he put together a carefully selected crew of players to explore this set of songs, as well as some new material and a handful of Radiohead staples, turns out to have been yet another stroke of genius on the part of the cerebral frontman.

I caught Saturday night’s show, which went down in the sylvan hillside setting of the Santa Barbara County Bowl, a venue that seems to bring out the best in the acts that play there. It was Yorke’s third experience at the Bowl, following 2001 and 2008 Radiohead shows, and I strongly suspect he purposely chose it, having experienced its unmatched vibe potential.

On the drive up the 101 from L.A., I played The Eraser from start to finish, and, moody as it may be, my wife Peggy found the music “comforting”—but she’s a huge fan. We’re both quite familiar with “Black Swan,” “Clocks” and the extended version of “Harrowdown Hill,” having pedaled along to these pulsing beauties in countless spinning sessions at the gym, and hearing them again ramped up our anticipation.

We were not disappointed. The band—with Flea acting as co-frontman, while producer Nigel Godrich provided the color on electronic keys and guitar, on top of the primally sophisticated percussion laid down by Beck drummer (and son of Lenny) Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark—was on fire from the first notes of “The Eraser,” as Yorke revisited the nine-track album in sequence. But what cinched the deal for us was the dancing of Yorke, as the grooves he’d dreamed up got him moving in controlled abandon, transforming him into the alt-rock equivalent of Michael Jackson, while on the other side of the stage, Flea jerked around as if being jolted by a syncopated series of electric shocks. Both were dancing machines—we couldn’t take our eyes off of them.

The first half of the set reached its delirious climax with “Harrowdown Hill,” punctuated by its delectable bassline, played with calibrated ferocity by Flea, while Yorke swayed along, singing the irresistible chorus, which Peggy and I have come to think of as an expression of a romantic oneness, despite the sobering premise of the lyric: “I’m coming home/I’m coming home/to make it all right/so dry your eyes/We think the same things at the same time/We just can’t do anything about it.”

The solo section that followed, which changed from night to night, began with the gorgeous new ballad “Give Up the Ghost,” nicely described by : “He tapped the microphone to create a steady beat, looped it, added vocal parts and looped that, then played a melancholic riff with a Neil Young twang. “I’ve had my fill, in your arms, in your arms,” he sang in a quiet, almost spooked state.” Yorke then slid behind the upright piano at stage left for a dusky take on In Rainbows closer “Videotape,” followed by a haunting performance of Kid A’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” its crystalline beauty italicized by the intimate purity of the presentation.

It was during this mini-set that Yorke’s vocal brilliance was showcased, but it was dramatically evident throughout the night. As the San Jose Mercury News’ Jim Harrington insightfully noted in his review of the previous night’s Oakland show, “He focused on delivering moods, not messages, and mumbled through his lyrics in a fashion that made his voice translate like another instrument onstage. His understanding of rhythm and cadence challenged that of a veteran jazz scat singer.”

The band returned to blissfully wrap up the evening with the eerie Hail to the Thief B-side “Paperbag Writer,” bleeding into the intense new song “Judge, Jury & Executioner.” The 90-minute show came to a close with “The Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” both of which left a far deeper impression in the masterful hands of the band than they did in their original versions, released as two sides of a single last fall, inspiring a shimmying, limbs-akimbo freakout from Yorke.

As we walked down the hill, Peggy gave a spot-on assessment of the performance. “You know that I get bored easily at shows, but I wasn’t bored for one second tonight. They were just incredible.”

Great minds think alike.


Taken from this post:
THOM YORKE’S RHAPSODY IN RHYTHM

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THOM YORKE’S RHAPSODY IN RHYTHM http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/04/thom-yorkes-rhapsody-in-rhythm/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/04/thom-yorkes-rhapsody-in-rhythm/#comments Wed, 21 Apr 2010 00:32:55 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/04/thom-yorke%e2%80%99s-rhapsody-in-rhythm/ Continue reading ]]> Although nobody thinks of Radiohead as a dance band, Thom Yorke and his mates have spent the last decade developing an intoxicating rhythmic feel. Unveiled spectacularly on 200’s Kid A, the group’s embrace of the groove in all its heady and visceral nuances reached a sublime level of refinement on the tracks “15 Step,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “The Reckoner” and “Jigsaw Falling Into place” from the 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows. And those grooves have been physically manifested onstage by Yorke’s spastic bobblehead moves at the mic, along with the pugilistic body language of Colin Greenwood as he relentlessly stalks the groove, putting his full weight behind each punching bassline.

In general, latter-day Radiohead’s infectious rhythms pose a life-embracing counterpoint to its zeitgeist-capturing themes of anxiety, alienation and information overload. These seductive rhythmic foundations, combined with the melodic aeronautics carried by Yorke’s fallen angel’s voice, render even the darkest of the band’s songs—which might be unbearably oppressive otherwise—deeply spiritual and downright inspiring.

The Eraser
, Yorke’s 2006 boy-with-his-laptop album, served to isolate his innate feel for rhythm, subtly but emphatically revealing the source of Radiohead’s unique rhythmic character. Little did we—or he—know that four years later, these intensely solitary tracks would serve as the blueprint for a “jungle dance party,” as Live Music Blog’s Justin wrote of the April 16 Oakland performance on Atoms for Peace’s eight-date mini-tour, culminating in a Sunday night set at Coachella. The performances were fueled by high-octane rhythms that “didn’t pound so much as undulate, complementing Yorke’s airy vocal melodies,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, getting to the jist of the experience. That he put together a carefully selected crew of players to explore this set of songs, as well as some new material and a handful of Radiohead staples, turns out to have been yet another stroke of genius on the part of the cerebral frontman.

I caught Saturday night’s show, which went down in the sylvan hillside setting of the Santa Barbara County Bowl, a venue that seems to bring out the best in the acts that play there. It was Yorke’s third experience at the Bowl, following 2001 and 2008 Radiohead shows, and I strongly suspect he purposely chose it, having experienced its unmatched vibe potential.

On the drive up the 101 from L.A., I played The Eraser from start to finish, and, moody as it may be, my wife Peggy found the music “comforting”—but she’s a huge fan. We’re both quite familiar with “Black Swan,” “Clocks” and the extended version of “Harrowdown Hill,” having pedaled along to these pulsing beauties in countless spinning sessions at the gym, and hearing them again ramped up our anticipation.

We were not disappointed. The band—with Flea acting as co-frontman, while producer Nigel Godrich provided the color on electronic keys and guitar, on top of the primally sophisticated percussion laid down by Beck drummer (and son of Lenny) Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark—was on fire from the first notes of “The Eraser,” as Yorke revisited the nine-track album in sequence. But what cinched the deal for us was the dancing of Yorke, as the grooves he’d dreamed up got him moving in controlled abandon, transforming him into the alt-rock equivalent of Michael Jackson, while on the other side of the stage, Flea jerked around as if being jolted by a syncopated series of electric shocks. Both were dancing machines—we couldn’t take our eyes off of them.

The first half of the set reached its delirious climax with “Harrowdown Hill,” punctuated by its delectable bassline, played with calibrated ferocity by Flea, while Yorke swayed along, singing the irresistible chorus, which Peggy and I have come to think of as an expression of a romantic oneness, despite the sobering premise of the lyric: “I’m coming home/I’m coming home/to make it all right/so dry your eyes/We think the same things at the same time/We just can’t do anything about it.”

The solo section that followed, which changed from night to night, began with the gorgeous new ballad “Give Up the Ghost,” nicely described by : “He tapped the microphone to create a steady beat, looped it, added vocal parts and looped that, then played a melancholic riff with a Neil Young twang. “I’ve had my fill, in your arms, in your arms,” he sang in a quiet, almost spooked state.” Yorke then slid behind the upright piano at stage left for a dusky take on In Rainbows closer “Videotape,” followed by a haunting performance of Kid A’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” its crystalline beauty italicized by the intimate purity of the presentation.

It was during this mini-set that Yorke’s vocal brilliance was showcased, but it was dramatically evident throughout the night. As the San Jose Mercury News’ Jim Harrington insightfully noted in his review of the previous night’s Oakland show, “He focused on delivering moods, not messages, and mumbled through his lyrics in a fashion that made his voice translate like another instrument onstage. His understanding of rhythm and cadence challenged that of a veteran jazz scat singer.”

The band returned to blissfully wrap up the evening with the eerie Hail to the Thief B-side “Paperbag Writer,” bleeding into the intense new song “Judge, Jury & Executioner.” The 90-minute show came to a close with “The Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” both of which left a far deeper impression in the masterful hands of the band than they did in their original versions, released as two sides of a single last fall, inspiring a shimmying, limbs-akimbo freakout from Yorke.

As we walked down the hill, Peggy gave a spot-on assessment of the performance. “You know that I get bored easily at shows, but I wasn’t bored for one second tonight. They were just incredible.”

Great minds think alike.

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THOM YORKE’S RHAPSODY IN RHYTHM

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ROUGH DRAFT: SPOON’S TRANSFERENCE http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/02/rough-draft-spoons-transference/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/02/rough-draft-spoons-transference/#comments Fri, 19 Feb 2010 00:39:06 +0000 Bud Scoppa http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2010/02/rough-draft-spoon%e2%80%99s-transference/ Continue reading ]]>
When I was doing A&R late in the previous century, a musician in one of my bands—it might have been Jolene guitarist Dave Burris—expressed a then-popular theory about when to stop working on a piece. There’s an inherent danger in the act of refining a track, he asserted, because its initial vitality is frequently lost in the quest for perfection. The same danger exists in critical writing, he added; we were talking about a review I was working on at the time. I’ve thought of this notion often over the ensuing years while polishing reviews and features, especially when pruning copy to get it down to the called-for word count.

I was most recently reminded of it just the other day while rereading my 650-word Uncut review of Spoon’s latest LP after playing the record more obsessively than anything I’ve fallen in love with since Radiohead’s In Rainbows, an album that I kept unpeeling like an onion, just as I’m doing now with Transference. And watching footage on YouTube of Spoon’s withering KCRW mini-set has only served to deepen the feeling that there was so much more I could’ve said about the band and the record. Then I remembered that I had said quite a bit more in the first draft of the review, which was roughly twice the length of the published version. Reading over the first draft just minutes ago, I was gratified to find I’d nailed what now seems to me to be special about the album during my initial listening experience back in early November – despite the fact that all I had to go on was a 128 kbps stream. Which goes to show you that a great record is gonna sound great no matter the degree of accuracy in which it’s delivered or what kind of speakers you’re hearing it through. So here’s the undoctored draft. It seems fitting that I put it out there in this non-tweaked form considering so much of Transference is built on Britt’s original demos.

Spoon
Transference

(Merge U.S., Anti- U.K.)

“This one is pure Spoon,” offered Britt Daniel, auteur of the veteran indie band, describing his seventh album on spoontheband.com. “For better and worse and all of it.” Taking Daniel at his word, we have no choice but to examine Transference, while comparing the LP to its predecessors, in order to locate its quintessential Spoon-ness.

Temple, Texas, native Daniel formed the band in Austin with drummer Jim Eno in 1994, scuffling along for six years and releasing a pair of unexceptional albums before the partners hit upon the sound that would carry them through the decade, generating one of the noughties’ most distinctive bodies of work, while drawing a loyal constituency as ready for anything as Wilco’s.

“The only epiphany I ever had was between A Series of Sneaks and Girls Can Tell,” Daniel told me during a 2005 interview for a Paste feature. “I realized there were no rules that I should play by. I felt like we no longer had to limit ourselves to being guitar, bass and drums kind of band. I started thinking to myself, ‘Do my favorite records play by those rules? Does What’s Going On play by those rules? There are all these great styles of music that I appreciate, and I don’t feel like I’m really taking advantage of everything I could—every instrument or arrangement idea—by sticking to just guitar/bass/drums rock songs.’ That opened the door to a lot of things.”

The eureka moment occurred on “Everything Hits At Once,” the opening track of 2000’s Girls Can Tell, instantly drawing up the blueprint for the mature Spoon sound: spare, propulsive, brainy, obsessively detailed, self-effacing and progressively insinuating. They eliminated anything not essential to the movement and character of a track, doing so with a conceptual purposefulness as rigorous as Radiohead’s. Daniel and Eno perfected that sound two years later on the masterfully distilled Kill the Moonlight, with its stripped-down, amped-up Beatle-isms, following it in 2005 with the more expansive Gimme Fiction, paced by the Prince-meets-“Emotional Rescue” refracted soul of “I Turn My Camera On” and the intimated grandeur of “My Mathematical Mind.” Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band’s U.S. commercial breakthrough, was Spoon’s most unremittingly infectious set, powered by three of the band’s most immediately accessible tunes: the Jon Brion-produced single “The Underdog,” the hooky “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” and the finger-snapping “Don’t You Evah.”

The basis of Spoon’s blueprint is the groove, set down by Eno’s massive, Bonham-like snare hits and Charlie Watts-style behind-the-beat momentum, the feel ineffably human yet so utterly precise that you’d think it must be machine-made. It isn’t just the drums—there’s no part on any Spoon record without some essential rhythmic component, notably, Daniel’s staccato guitar riffage, percussive piano runs and in-your-face tambourine and handclap accents. On top of all this bounce, Daniel unreels lyrics littered with Dylanesque non-sequiturs and sly humor, delivered with a deadpan offhandedness punctuated by bursts of overt emotion, as he speaks for the fucked-over in life and in love, the disenfranchised, the underdogs.

Spartan in its sparseness, impeccably crafted, monochromatic, desert-dry in both tone and attitude, Transference eschews conventional verse/chorus/bridge song structure altogether; instead, the band establishes a musical premise and rides it for all it’s worth, like a souped-up roadster racing along an arrow-straight ribbon of highway toward the horizon. The songs seem to blaze past, like the two-minute eruptions of Please Please Me, but only two of the 11 tracks are under three minutes, though only one exceeds five. There’s not a wasted note anywhere—something the band’s rabid fans have some to expect as a given—as Spoon spits out analog sonics with binary efficiency.

True to form, the opening “Before Destruction” functions as both a palate cleanser and a preview of what is about to transpire. It seems as if we’re eavesdropping on Daniel, sitting alone in a room, singing as if to himself and strumming an acoustic, but the arrangement soon turns exotic as a chorale of overdubbed and treated voices floats in, with an ambient electronic drone lurking in the background. “Is Love Forever?,” which follows, turns on Spoon’s signature rhythmic starkness, the spaces between sounds as palpable as the sounds themselves, but here the drums are chopped and channeled. Spoon’s go-to percussion instrument, the tambourine, enters, but only for a few bars. From there it’s just a naked chord progression with another electric keyboard barely there, as Daniel asks, perched uncertainly between guilelessness and cynicism, “Is love forever?/Are you quite certain, love?”

The textural and thematic building blocks having been laid out, the band begins to stack them up with “The Mystery Zone,” a tension builder with Revolver­-like lysergic keyboard/string accents and a percolating beat. Now, this is quintessential Spoon: Beatles + Prince. The eerie “Who Makes Your Money” features burbling keyboard chords over a drum loop; hooking you when it kicks into double time in mid-song behind a staccato rhythm guitar run through Euro-synth bleats. That sets up “Written in Reverse,” the band’s biggest-scaled track since “My Mathematical Mind,” as a brief lounge piano intro opens into squalling guitar, tinkling piano, cable-thick bassline and the anxious repeated line, “It’s all I know/it’s all I know.” The track ratchets up to unbearable intensity behind a ferocious one-note solo that recalls Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson. They keep things heated up with the epic “I Saw the Light,” an epic with a lemon-tart melodic progression. An abrupt shift into a robot drum stomp signals the transition into a lengthy instrumental section that is one of the album’s most captivating segments, as a gorgeous piano passage is assaulted by a sheet-metal guitar solo, only to drop away into what sounds like a cue from a French movie score.

The album’s fiercely sustained tension, a relentless push/pull between Eno’s pummeling back-beats and Daniel’s forward-leaning guitar lines and vocal spurts, suddenly dissipates two-thirds of the way through, as the clatter of “Trouble Comes Running,” boasting trash-can cymbals and guitar overtones that will slice the top of your head off, cedes the foreground to the drum-less, muted piano ballad “Goodnight Laura,” its apparent antecedent “I’m in Love With a Girl” from Big Star’s Radio City. Here, without warning, Daniel turns unexpectedly unguarded, nary a trace of irony or distance in his vocal—it’s the biggest surprise on the record. The sense of tenderness continues with “Out Go the Lights,” its tone ghostly and panoramic, like Captain Beefheart’s “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” Daniel’s voice Lennon-esque in its clutched understatement, achieving a lump-in-the-throat poignancy without descending into mere sentiment.

The dry heat returns with “Got Nuffin,” a dusky, percussive rocker about darkness and shadows with a trampolining Leslie guitar riff nagged by the incessant plink-plink of a piano. If U2 did something like this, they’d restore their cred in the space of four minutes. Finally, on the closing “Nobody Gets Me but You,” super-compressed drums reference “I Turn My Camera On,” while Daniel bites off a lyric that could serve as a love letter to the band’s fans. “Nobody gets me but you,” he sings in that unmistakable rasp, “No one gets what I’m doin’.” Over string-like accents, the tone turns urgent, and Daniel lands a few well-timed jabs before the groove takes over, as they end the album perched between 1966 and 2012.

Daniel and Eno worked without a producer for the first time in search of the aforementioned “pure Spoon,” and this is the challenging, take-no-prisoners result, an audacious fusion of the reliable and the experimental – a record that gets the new decade off to an audacious start.


Q&A: Britt Daniel

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was loaded with relatively conventional, overtly hooky pop songs, whereas this album is stripped to the bone.

With each record you react to the one before, and the songs on this record are constructed in a different way. For instance, “The Underdog” has a zillion chords and a ton of different parts; same thing for “Don’t Make Me a Target.” A lot of songs on this record ended up having very few chords; it was more about setting something up, getting in a mood and sticking with it. There’s something real hardcore about playing one chord or one riff for four minutes. It’s just a different kind of good, and I wanted to see if we could do that kind of good.

But why mess with a winning formula?
More than anything, I just wanted to push myself. This is our seventh record, and at some point you’ve gotta stop thinking about topping yourself and go in a different direction. If you keep trying to make the same record and topping yourself, you’ll lose your mind. That kind of thinking is why Brian Wilson lost his mind.

In that sense, was the idea of you and Jim working without a producer another way of reshuffling the cards?
It was also a way of staying absolutely hardcore to what feels right first to us. Good things come from working with a producer too, because you’ve got two different aesthetics that you’re trying to please, and when you’re both happy, that’s what ends up being on the record. That’s a great way to work, but I wanted to try it where we’re pleasing only ourselves, not having to think about anybody else in considering the fidelity, structure, production style, what kind of instruments are used. Just hardcore what we want – hardcore Spoon.

You’ve gone away from the piano, which has been big part of your sound since Kill the Moonlight. This album is full of angular, Wire-y guitar. What was behind that?
I wanted it to be a more angular, new wave, weirder record.

Taken from this post:
ROUGH DRAFT: SPOON’S TRANSFERENCE

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