1. I got knocked out, down, and around, all in the safety of my chair, and more than ever before, by the vocal from The Four Tops’ “Ask the Lonely,” and was wondering what my all-time favorite vocal performances have in common. The two others that come most immediately to mind are Michael Stipe’s voice-cracking giddiness on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and Andy McCluskey’s deep croon turned heartache crescendo on OMD’s “International.” The verdict: amount of singing is certainly a common thread, but that’s the musical equivalent of Oscar-bait, so I’ll say instead… I love vocals that exist moment to moment, keying us into the singer’s every feeling through every turn of phrase, while still making a coherent emotional statement by song’s end. No surprise that The Four Tops would make my list, given the soul-boiling exuberance in all their songs. They have the added benefit of having recorded in the 60s, their voices too large to be contained by the fidelity of the LP, so that everything bleeds together in a joyous mush.
2. Can man-made things take on a reality of their own? Kelefa Sanneh, in the bright spot of a recent brain-hurting article about whiteness, says it’s important we remember the way forgeries can become genuine, the way categories people make cannot simply be unmade. Does this mean that the thing we call the 1980s is in a sense “real,” and has a sound? Because I don’t know how else to explain the way The Replacements’ “Answering Machine” sounds, except that some physical manifestation of time itself—the year “1984,” as we’ve defined it—left its ghostly vapor all over the recording apparatus. There are textures in that song way beyond Paul’s anguish… so spooky.
3. Wye Oak’s The Knot is an album I’ll always regret not top-tenning, but I also find myself making minor cosmetic changes to it whenever I listen. The gently shuffling rhythm of “I Want For Nothing,” for example, could be celebrated for its amorphousness, I suppose, but every time it gets to the chorus I get a bit worried. There’s a beat missing or a splice somewhere before the word “want,” and while the song retains its gentle vibe through this weird moment, there’s nothing gentle about the effect it has on me. But this is a minor complaint; the song and album are tops.
4. When I make definitive statements about things I don’t much care for, I think I owe you all occasional updates whenever I reform my feelings. So today I have to give Animal Collective credit for “Bluish,” a magnificent song that ideally would have provided Merriweather Post Pavilion with a stronger guiding force and a better title. Elsewhere on the album, the vocals are all about what modern progressive males want and need—to be out in the flowers, not material things, to walk around with you, to do just what my body wants to. “Bluish,” by not straining to make a statement, by being just a beautiful moment suspended in time—the mundane made underwater fantasy—says everything that the album’s more brazen anthems fail to say, no matter how loud they shout it. To wit: We live inside our brains, and with drugs or open eyes can make the world as beautiful or ugly as we choose. The album as a whole tries to enact this “way of seeing” life’s minor moments, but too often turns to rallying cries when it should turn inward. “Bluish” trusts you to get it, and doesn’t tell you you have to.
5. Courtney Love only says the word “feminist” once on Live Through This, but is the album the definitive feminist text of the 1990s? I think so. I’ve never heard an album in such furious pursuit of a theme. Now with Ms. Love’s comeback, everyone seems to remember that she was an important figure because of her “rebel attitude,” but really she was great because of the things she wrote. Like: They say I’m plump, but I throw up all the time. She never made any of this sound pleasant.
I've racked up some more albums. A lot of them are great.
[a] Surfer Blood, Astro Coast : Timeless as the riffage is, this is an album that couldn’t have existed any time other than the present. I don’t remember singers having voices like this in the pre-Panda Bear era, although it hardly seems like an affectation. Anyway, I once claimed I didn’t want to hear this band until they found a way to make their name irrelevant like The Beach Boys did. But then I remembered The Beach Boys’ greatness was always at least partly defined by their name. And then I heard this album, which is pretty groovy. This is legitimate surfer music, though it doesn’t sound composed under a wave so much as in a cabin on the beach, bonfires outside the window in the dark surf night. That’s “Harmonix” anyway, the Breeders-imbibing best song here.
[b] Owen Pallett, Heartland : Hear this one with a lover of classical music. You will hear it more fully. Most of my music listening is done alone, so I sometimes forget how a song can really open up when you’re wondering what someone else is thinking about it. This is a lovely album any way you hear it, but also a fairly difficult one. Like Patrick Wolf, Owen Pallett makes no concessions to his listeners, and may seem all the more impenetrable because he never sings about his own situation, instead builds weird architectures of meta-biography around himself. I’m still enchanted by the music and haven’t yet taken a look at the lyrics, but even so you can get an instant fix by hearing the words out of context. Pallett’s escalation of I’m never gonna give it to you’s is the sexiest thing I’ve heard all year, even if it’s not supposed to function as a throwaway hook.
[c] jj, no 3 : Some have been comparing this to Enya as a shorthand way of saying the album’s no good. Little do these critics know that I grew up listening to Enya; even if the comparison wasn’t bogus, which it is, shouldn’t there be a further explanation of why jj’s proximity to Enya degrades the experience of listening to their music? Because I fail to see it, and instead see another critic’s failure to engage with an artist’s music by way of a tired assumption of a New Age star’s inherent crappiness. Let’s also leave out the seasons in our discussion of jj, as everyone seems to have their seasons all mixed up in regard to this band. If no 3 isn’t summer as experienced from beneath a musty quilt, I don’t know what is. But before I risk becoming an entirely reactionary music writer, let me say something positive/positivist. I predict that jj will grow increasingly minimal from here, that their many influences will register in only the smallest ways: the rhythms of an a cappella vocal, an old rhyme laid bare. Opener “My Life” is this group’s raison d’etre, highlighting our chanteuse’s ability to just sing, and not tell you she’s doing homage.
[d] The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night : I think the Lakes have set before themselves the challenge of perfection this time around, and have come pretty close to the mark. This is not one of those albums that arrive at perfection through some accident of disorganized inspiration, but one that must get there through diligence and obsession over every detail. So while you can tell the effort that went into these songs, every drum fill calculated for maximum momentum (I now count Kevin Laing as one of my favorite drummers), they also never feel stifled. Indeed, “Chicago Train” and “Albatross” are supremely lifting, tossing your body aloft with all the abandon you would expect from a band that can turn the rockin’ into the reverential.
[e] Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me : This contains some of the best music of the year, and none of the worst. Newsom famously doesn’t listen to other people’s music when she’s working on a project, and it shows, but by shutting out the culture machine has she created a greater articulation of what it’s like to live in the world in 2010? I think she has, even if she only uses that fullness of experience to imagine the past from the present, which she does charmingly, hauntingly, in “’81,” a transportive, enchanted vision of olde times that puts her in the company of Vashti Bunyan. Elsewhere she channels early Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, so her bearings are straight even if she’s following her own muse.
[f] Beach House, Teen Dream : The music world of today is chock full of teen dreams, but Beach House’s aptly titled new disc presents something of a reversal. This is not the sound of adults pining for lost youth and old sounds, but the sound of youth dreaming toward adulthood, learning the emotions and wisdom that can sometimes be hidden inside music. This young dreamer I’ve conjured is not in the music, of course, but that’s one way it might be heard. Did you ever have an album in your collection that was a sort of challenge, that you weren’t immediately ready for, but when you were it made you wiser even as it baffled? Was the album Sister Lovers, or London Calling? Teen Dream could be that album for someone today. This is the “album of the year” so far, which is more a statement of fact than opinion. I would venture that
[g] The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme : But here’s my “favorite” of the year at the moment. The title may be descriptive, but I’m fairly new to The Dept, and I don’t think any artist ought to be faulted for a relentless pursuit of his obsessions, unless the returns start to diminish, which they don’t, here. There are a number of contexts in which this album can be enjoyed, none of them incorrect (I suspect one involves Owl City, so it goes). The most interesting angle I’ve found is to imagine that the magic spirit of ’89—the one that gave us De La Soul, Paul’s Boutique, and Keith Haring—migrated to Sweden sometime in the past 20 years and has found perfect expression on Clinging To A Scheme. Perhaps that ignores how insular these songs really are, but oh my, those
[h] Broken Bells, Broken Bells : This may privilege atmosphere over songwriting, as some have argued, but it still strikes me as a pretty thorough blending of two distinct sensibilities. The seams never show, which makes me think that this was a match made in heaven, or that James Mercer and Danger Mouse are both just really good at self-effacement. As a result, these songs are tame almost to a fault. I never doubt their intentions, but still, shouldn’t artists who are so capable of making exciting music want to be making something a bit more… exciting?
Now I will rank them.
a→i, b→o, c→l, d→m, e→k, f→r, g→p, h→n
[I will put something here about the television show 24, once I have time to get it right.]
The stories in Low Moon represent Jason at his best. His genius can be summed up in one word, pacing, which I don’t think is a simplification but proof that one small idea can be plenty inspiration for a life’s work. The two best stories in the collection are the ones that play on this strength. “&” alternates page-by-page between two different stories, laying bare his process as they progress in startling and contrasting ways; “You Are Here” takes place across a span of decades, giving abstracts like ellipsis and pattern their proper tragic dimensions.
I’ve worked up a list of books for spring/early summer reading:
Black Cherries by the notable Montanan Grace Stone Coates.
Scorsese by Ebert.
Herr Bognanni’s House of Tomor-Row.
Cold Water Flat’s Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Tinkers.
The Film Writing of James Agee.
Colson Whitehead’s Intuitionist.
The Habit of Being Flannery O’Connor (Letters).
What should I expedite to the top? (Hint: I won’t get around to any of this unless I quit my job(s).)
This was supposed to go in my homecoming post two posts ago, but I forgot. My last night in St. Paul, I had a dream in which I had gotten off the bus in Helena and was walking along Euclid Avenue at the beginning of summer. Euclid is an ugly street in reality, but as I was walking, the sidewalk was lined with trees in bloom, so overwhelmingly vivid that I laughed and cried the whole way. I don’t know if I’ve experienced the loveliness of summer more fully than I did in that dream, and while it all seems a bit less magical now that springtime has truly arrived, I still think about how my vision of a stroll bodes well for everything.