Category Archives: Favorite Albums

Review: Lambchop – “Nixon” (2000)

“He’s not even a very good singer.”

It’s easy to forget about Lambchop. I seem to “re-discover” their discography every couple years, and each time I’m struck by how long it’s been since I last dove in. I don’t mean to suggest, by any means, that Lambchop is forgettable, only that there’s something in the low-key Nashville outfit’s sober, calculated methodology that readily lends itself to the background. There’s something about the dependable sturdiness of their catalogue, or maybe the authority of frontman Kurt Wagner’s hushed but confident boom-croon,  that makes its quiet excellence unsurprising.

Nixon always seems to be the record that pulls me back. It’s likely  some combination of the trippy gospel choruses, the dripping wet string arrangements, and the polite touches of Motown brass that color this tidy collection of great-on-their-own songs. Subtle electronic flourishes bubble up from the margins and evaporate through the house like a sweet steam, making room for Wagner’s singular vocals while the band demonstrates that all-too-rare and admirable ability of knowing when to scale back and when to tower over its own landscape.

If you’re looking for an example of a perfectly produced audio recording, this is it. There’s space for everything here. For a band whose shifting membership routinely tops double digits, Nixon never comes close to sounding crowded. This carries over thematically as well, with Wagner’s lyrics touting a breezy, observational quality while simultaneously embodying an unpretentious poetic wisdom. Lines like “The lights outside tonight are far from home / and I’m out drinking in the yard,” in the tradition of the great American domestic minimalists like John Cheever and Raymond Carver, communicate more than the sum of their parts, prompting the listener to color the negative space of its image and help push it toward profundity.

From the opening nostalgic wash of “The Old Gold Shoe,” through the near-neoclassical arrangements of “The Book I Haven’t Read,” one thing’s clear: Lambchop has “Americana” in its crosshairs. This isn’t to imply that the band has determined such an opaque idea as being in need of a good assassination — although it might be in our best cultural interest to retire the term from our musical lexicon entirely — but rather that they’ve determined the idea in desperate need of a thorough re-imagining. And that’s exactly what Nixon does so successfully: it explodes American roots music in the smallest terms possible. It tinkers, prods and pokes at the very idea of it, until the end result leaves us looking simultaneously back at our rich musical history — from R&B to country music, folk and even punk rock (see: “The Butcher Boy”) –while nodding forward at the possibilities of our inheritance.

Jezy

Favorite Albums of 2009 (Chase)

Right now, I feel like a lazy bastard. 2009 is passing by, and the most remarkable event of the year for me was seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in a Starbucks. However, all my inaction allowed for me to soak up all the music and beer that arose this year.

It’s hard for me to imagine a busier year in music. With a slew of long awaited follow-ups (Flaming Lips, Eminem, Sonic Youth), new side projects (Bad Lieutenant, Beak, Them Crooked Vultures) and music news in general ( Blur reuniting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, Oasis split, Michael Jackson’s death), 2009 really out did itself.

I’ve put my picks of the year, in no particular order, below.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2009

Dan Deacon “Bromst”

Coming strong of the ridiculous, and often too much to handle Spiderman of the Rings, Dan Deacon set off to blow minds. Well, that what Bromst did for me anyway. A musical venture to Toon Land that never seems to run out of energy.

Flaming Lips “Embryonic”

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my Flaming Lips to heavily doped out. For the past two records, it seemed the Lips had decided to leave the psycho-tropics out of the recording studio. We here at SiA are pleased to annouce that with Embryonic, drug-induced music made a come back, and the Lips revitalized themselves. Hurrah!

DOOM “Born Like This”

Since 2005, the Supervillain himself, MF DOOM, seemed to fall off the face of the earth. Earlier this year, he dropped the “MF” from his name and unleashed his best solo outing to date upon the world. Featuring some excellent J Dilla production and unprecedented DOOM flow, it was a most welcome return.

Animal Collective “Merriweather Post Pavilion”
Album after album, Animal Collective manage to hone their experimental music in to a finer degree. MWPP is an instant classic. It’s one of those career defining albums that will be a benchmark for the band’s potential. After this can only be mind shattering greatness, or disappointment.

Grizzly Bear “Veckatimest”

Before Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear proved that they were a great atmospheric band. But previous albums failed to make it past a 3 month rotation. This one, however, is different. GB forged together a great pop record, while maintaining that atmosphere the indie crowd tends to admire.

Raekwon “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2
Good hip-hop is hard to come by these days. I’ve had Ghostface Killah carrying the torch for the past few years, but his recent stumbles had me worried. Have no fear, Raekwon is here! The long awaited follow-up exceeds all expectations, and is one the best hip-hop records in the past 3 years.

Tom Waits “Glitter and Doom Live”
The Gravely One rarely tours, and his sold-out tour across America last year was not to be missed. Sadly, I did. Thankfully, snippets from the tour have been pieced together on this most excellent of live albums. His voice harsh as ever, his stage banter still supreme, and alternate versions of recent songs and classics make Glitter and Doom Live essential to fans of……well, music.
Dirty Projectors “Bitte Orca”
To say that the Dirty Projectors’ music is eccentric, is a bit of an understatement. Starts, stops, blips, beeps, and occasionally incomprehensible lyrics can scare some people off. Bitte Orca saw the group tighten things up a bit, and put out a stellar record worth hundreds of revisits. No wonder why David Byrne loves them so.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Animal Collective

No one really grabbed 2009 by the nuggets quite like Animal Collective did. They started off by releasing some of the best music of the year/their career in January with Merriweather Post Pavilion. Next, they supported that album with a great tour across the nation, with several major festival stops. They compiled an excellent box set of their work. And they finish the year strong with the 30+ minute Fall Be Kind EP, which shows that MWPP wasn’t their creative peak!

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR

Eminem’s Return To Music
I can admit, I’m not that big of an Eminem fan. His first few albums were juvenile, fun, somewhat creative and always interesting. His issues with self-image and drug abuse led him to rehab and a few years out of the limelight. 2009 was supposed to be his big comeback, but all we got was Relapse. A record with half-assed writing, mediocre beats and an Em seems to have lost all relevance to the music world. Sure it sold well, but ultimately the record was a creative failure. Maybe if I were 14 again I would have crowned him king, instead I’m just sharpening the guillotine.

-Chase

Favorites: The Comsat Angels “Sleep No More” (1981)

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The Comsat Angels are another example of a band who should’ve been U2-massive, but have instead been relegated to the footnotes of rock history.  Despite substantial critical acclaim, and even some record label finagling from unlikely supporter Robert Palmer, the band never had an album that broke into the UK chart’s top 50.  Their records have, with unfortunate consistency, gone out of print, making it even more challenging to achieve a reasonable level of posthumous success.

The Comsat Angels released their debut EP, “Red Planet”, in 1979, a record that culminated in a three-album contract with Polydor.  Joy Division was attracting quite a bit of attention at the time, and The Comsat Angels’ post-punk melancholia was clearly in the same sonic orbit.  Their debut LP, Waiting for a Miracle, was released in September of 1980 to trifling sales but near-unanimous critical plaudits.  It’s a fantastic debut that holds up very well against other classics released the same year (see: Joy Division’s Closer, The Sound’s Jeopardy, Magazine’s The Correct Use of Soap, and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles).

As good as that record is, it’s still a step behind the follow-up, Sleep No More.  The sophomore album was released almost exactly a year after Waiting for a Miracle, and was met with an even more enthusiastic critical reception.  The record quickly sold out its’ initial pressing, but Polydor’s lagging shipment of additional copies seemed to severely hamper the album’s momentum.

Sleep No More is one of the most consistent batch of songs released in the 1980s, and the album’s rich sonic pallette continues to be influential to this day.  The opening trio of tracks (“Eye Dance”, “Sleep No More”, and “Be Brave”) are absolutely flawless; they are ominous, imposing, and completely enveloping songs.  It would be hard for any band to follow up such a strong opening, but the album never lets up in terms of quality, even when treading in some rather bleak emotional territory.  It doesn’t take one long to understand why this album has had such an impact on the few people who have taken the time to live inside this music.

The Comsat Angels will be re-uniting to play the Sensoria Music Festival on April 26th.

Chris

Favorites: Souvlaki

*Note: Sorry that I have been absent the past few days.  I took a breather.  Thank you to Jezy for picking up the slack.

 

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I don’t need to draw a line in the sand between My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, delineating one as superior to the other.  My admiration for the two has comingled peacefully for years.  The reason I say this is that there seem to be distinct subsets of shoegazer fans: those convicted to follow the Ride religion, Crane cohorts, Catherine Wheel spinners, etc.  Even with all of this gerrymandering, to ignore “Loveless” is to blaspheme against the State, but where does that put “Souvlaki”? 

 

Slowdive is certainly no forgotten act, but their stature never rose to MBV levels of cosmic ebullition.  Perhaps a certain amount of this can be explained by the fact that Slowdive didn’t evaporate into quite the same cloud of “what ifs” as Kevin Shield’s project.  The band followed their masterpiece (“Souvlaki”) with another astounding, if less-often heard, effort (“Pygmalion”).  They broke up and leader Neil Halstead formed the equally dreamy, if earthier, Mojave 3.  And he just released a new solo album.  So, yeah, I guess there is less blurry mystique behind Slowdive, but that doesn’t decrease the bliss of “Souvlaki”, which is easily one of my ten favorite albums of the ‘90s. 

 

“When the Sun Hits”

 

 

“Allison”

 

Favorites: Fabulous Muscles

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The first time I saw Xiu Xiu was in a less than ideal setting: early afternoon at a summer music festival.  This is not music built for plus-100 degree heat with the sun melting your ass.  Though, for me at least and on this one day, the oppressive thickness of the Chicago air somehow met the pitch black hymns halfway.  Dancing to dehydration made sense when Out Hud was onstage, but to bake during Xiu Xiu is a bit much.  I just didn’t care.  This was my band.   

 

 

I managed to worm my way to the front of the crowd, within an arm’s reach of the steel barricade, where stood one of the sweatiest and dorkiest fans I had seen that day.  He shouted at Jamie Stewart, not to express affection, but to voice-crackle a “Hey Jamie!  Throw me one of those water bottles!”.  This is the point where I learned just how athletically inept most Xiu Xiu fans must be as I turned my head to watch Dungen (I think) wrap up their set on the other stage, idiotically placing faith in this guy’s anti-Jerry Riceness.  The water bottle crashed into my shoulder like a scud missile.  Or like a water bottle.  Or like a mixed metaphor. 

 

Fast forward a few months to another Xiu XIu show, this time in Fayetteville, which I was supposed to attend.  I was unable to make it, so Sarah explained my situation to J. Stewart himself, intoning that I was a super fan and devastated by my absence.  And that he once hit me with a water bottle.  He wrote a note apologizing for the incident, giving me permission to hurl a fire extinguisher at him the next time we met.  The next time I saw him was in Oklahoma City.  He passed in front of me, our eyes briefly locked, but even if I had my extinguisher with me, I’m pretty sure I would’ve declared a cease fire.  I hang on to that note to this day in the knowledge that it means as much to me as a John Lennon autograph would to most people.

 

I look forward to each Xiu Xiu split, each 7”, each album, with the same anticipation people look forward to a new season of “Lost”, even with the understanding that they may never top “Fabulous Muscles” in overall personal importance.  The catharsis of Jamie Stewart’s lyrics got me through some rough patches in college, and while I love all of Xiu Xiu’s albums (plus his pre-Xiu Xiu band Ten in the Swear Jar), this is the band’s most successful melding of Dennis Cooper/Harmony Korine/Todd Solondz-level shock horror to pure pop epiphany.  In 2004 I was well aware that I would never comprehend the American mainstream way of life, but I felt okay with that disconnect the first time I pulled through the Wal-Mart parking lot listening to “I Love the Valley OH!” with my windows down. 

 

“Clowne Towne”

 

 

“Crank Heart”

 

 

“Fabulous Muscles”

 

Favorites: Zen Arcade

zen

I knew of Husker Du long before I actually ever heard them. Before the days of high-speed internet, and culturally landlocked in a town where finding decent music to purchase was usually a non-starter, I was cut-off from hearing a lot of the things that I read about. So while I poured myself into the music of contemporaries The Replacements, Sonic Youth, and The Meat Puppets (albums of whom I felt especially lucky to acquire), I essentially settled for imagining what Husker Du’s albums sounded like.

Anyway, spurred on further by the work of writer Dennis Cooper, I finally got around to buying “New Day Rising”, which was a more concise statement than “Zen Arcade“, but it’s the sprawl and barbed wire thrash which makes the latter so enthralling. They were one of the first hardcore bands to expand beyond the tight restraints of that genre, and on this album they laced their loud sound with a psychedelic pop whir that would go on to inform an entire generation of alternative rock. While I certainly have an appreciation for the hardcore movement of the early ’80s (and I would never deny the greatness of Black Flag, D.O.A., Bad Brains, The Circle Jerks, The Germs, The Dead Kennedys, or Minor Threat), it was the groups who took the hardcore ethos and expanded its’ musical palate (The Minutemen, Husker Du, and The Replacements being perhaps the greatest) who I enjoy the most. While hardcore had started out as an exciting west coast intensification of the first wave of New York and London punk, it quickly became every bit as narrow-minded and conformist as the mainstream they were railing against (see: the backlash against Henry Rollins for growing his hair out and against Bad Brains for incorporating reggae into their sound), coupled with an increasingly homophobic, racist, and fascist fanbase. Fortunately, a few bands like Husker Du were able to rise above the meathead attitude of hardcore, taking its intensity but blending it with more interesting and wider-reaching craftsmanship.

Chris


Favorites: Heaven Up Here

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Like much of my early musical education, I discovered Echo and the Bunnymen while watching MTV’s “120 Minutes” and their silly band name and possibly sillier coifs stuck in my mind until I eventually purchased “Ocean Rain” at a Dallas record store during a family shopping trip; the same day I bought Sonic Youth’s “A Thousand Leaves” and Sugar’s “Copper Blue”.  I quickly became so obsessed with that album that I greedily snatched up anything else I could find by the band, and their first five albums are essential.  But “Heaven Up Here” is tops.

 

Ian McCullough’s vocals have often been compared to Jim Morrison’s, and considering that Ian Curtis was also a big fan, he seems a particularly strange touchstone for post-punk Ians.  But as this was a style of music that was theatrical, and at times skirting histrionic, it sort of makes some sense.  The post-punk bands seemed to take the tortured artist template to an extreme, possibly giving way to the misuse of form utilized by emo bands in much the same manner that Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder’s angsty howls were boringly homogenized by Scott Stapp and his minions.  Misappropriation shouldn’t devalue this music though. 

 

The opening three songs on this album rival in intensity anything released under the post-punk banner, with “Over the Wall” continuing to astound me everytime I listen to it.  Things turn exceptionally dark during the gothic center of the album, with the brief but wrenching “The Disease” followed by the epic “All My Colours”, the two songs which seem to encapsulate the feeling of the album artwork.  I’m a big fan of bands who maintain a consistent artwork aesthetic (The Smiths and Joy Division are two other prime examples), and few bands had artwork as evocative and successfully simple as Echo and the Bunnymen. 

 

Any cursory listen to an Echo and the Bunnymen live bootleg (or any of the live videos below) is proof that this was one of the most thrilling live acts of the ’80s and were actually more comfortable and adept in that setting than U2, despite all the empty poses Bono has made to the contrary.  Arena rock for people who don’t like people.