When we set out to gather highlights from some of the best releases from the summer of 2011, we asked for recommendations from the most hype-resistant breed of all: other musicians. Read on for their personal nominations.
The summer of 2011 was a hazy one as far as music production is concerned. Many of the notable releases between June 21st and September 21st have been marked by a thick, viscous, sometimes heavy-handed sonic approach, culminating near the end of the season with a pair of high-profile releases from Texan producer John Congleton.
If you keep even a casual eye out for new releases, chances are you’ve heard of the Congleton-produced Strange Mercy (by St. Vincent, out on 4AD September 12th) and Hysterical (by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Self-released September 13th).
But as with all things, the real story is just under the surface. Our four musician-panelists have identified the albums that still resonate with them as they pack up their beach umbrellas and leave behind Summer’s cycle of hype and doldrums. But first, we’ll take a look at two of the best-publicized indie releases that closed out the summer.
How the entire internet got the story of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah backwards.
When it was released a couple weeks ago, CYHSY’s Hysterical received mixed reviews. Pitchork and Spin, suffering from an overhype-hangover after their bout of effusive praise for the band’s 2005 debut, have doubled-back, effectively panning the new release.
More steady and measured outlets like All Music, NPR and NME however, eventually weighed in and got the story closer to the mark: CYSHY’s latest album is mature effort, filled with what may be their best songs to date, and presented with a rich and compelling production aesthetic.
I was never much of a fan of this group before. Maybe that’s because musicians are widely known as some of the most hype-averse people on the planet. But with the band’s latest effort, gone are the most grating elements of their early releases: the affected and self-conscious vocals, the over-excited and derivative arrangements.
With Hysterical, singer Alec Ounsworth no longer sounds like he’s stuck somewhere between an overwrought impression of David Byrne and an ineffective attempt at Thom Yorke. Although his influences are still strong, he’s finally found his own voice. And, with the help of John Congleton, the sound of the album is memorable and atmospheric, even if that means this record has less potential as a Friday-night favorite for the most easily-influenced college students.
As someone who went out of his way to ignore this band’s earlier albums, I was surprised to be taken in by this one. Despite the judgments of a few fickle and fashion-focused reviewers, it’s pretty clear that Hysterical is this band’s best album yet. To some listeners, it may even sound like their first good one.
St. Vincent – “Just act like you’ve already heard of her.”
You may not have known about them until recently, but Annie Erin Clark (who performs as St. Vincent) has already released two albums: Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009).
Her latest, Strange Mercy, is probably better than either of them. With this album, St. Vincent provides additional evidence of a rule that CYHSY has just proven: The majority of musicians – for the first decade of their careers, at least – tend to get better the more they play.
But unlike say, Feist, whose entire discography is a throwaway up until The Reminder (her 2004 tour de force of riveting minimalist pop), St. Vincent’s early releases offer a pretty admirable legacy to build on. Strange Mercy isn’t a skyrocketing departure, but a well-realized, occasionally moving extension of what she already does. Namely, that’s delivering masterfully unusual guitar lines, lush productions of songs that are unconventional in their form, and abstract lyrics that are sometimes labored, and frequently set against wet, crunchy, tweaked-out background vocals.
To recap this season, we selected a small panel of music-makers who are becoming known for their appreciation of unusual textures and uncommonly good songwriting. Now, let’s turn to our four musician-panelists and find out what albums got them excited over the summer.
Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island (Sub Pop)
Review by Blake Madden
On his fourth album, Diaper Island, Canadian singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chad VanGaalen manages to do what few artists attempt and even fewer achieve: He creates an album of songs that are untethered from genre or expectation, but still cohesive and pleasing to the ear.
Albums that feature ‘a little something for everybody’ often end up appealing to nobody, but VanGaalen pulls it off without a hint of pretension, inviting you to walk the streets of a lo-fi and picturesque small town where every shop and service is run by him.
He constructs the album (and many of the songs on it) in a way that never misses an opportunity to zig when you think it will zag. The earnest march of opener “Do Not Fear” suggests a K Records offering, before giving way to the standout “Peace On The Rise”, filled with gentle guitar interplay that owes a debt to Washing Machine-era Sonic Youth. The up-tempo no-wave pop of “Burning Photographs” then collapses into the lush folk of “Heavy Stones” and “Sara”; but it’s a short-lived respite, as “Replace Me” delivers angular, gritty guitar tones over an ass-shaking dance groove.
If you’re starting to give up on guessing where this is going, then you’re starting to get it. You’ll be rewarded accordingly with the psych-garage slobber of “Blonde Hash”, followed by “Freedom for a Policeman” – which begins like an early DEVO basement rehearsal – and then the Deerhoof-esque “Can You Believe It?”.
What sets VanGaalen apart – and unifies his output – is his especially keen ability to create the kinds of thick vocal harmonies the counterculture has fallen back in love with since bands like Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear started getting national attention. His vocal range is especially on display in softer songs like “Wandering Spirits” and “No Panic/ No Heat” (as well as the aforementioned “Sara”), and throughout the album, this quality is always hinted at, regardless of the level of noise underneath.
It’s perhaps more impressive due to the fact that it’s all VanGaalen by himself; a bizarro version of Prince holed up in the studio. But just in case you were finally ready to form a strict opinion of Diaper Island and the man behind it, the backwoods ballad album closer “Shave My Pussy” will leave you with more food for thought.
If you come to Diaper Island wanting it to be any one thing, you will be mostly frustrated and disappointed. Perhaps the album is best interpreted as a Zen koan instead. Question: “What is the unifying sound of an album where no songs sound alike?” Answer: “The sound of the person who made it.”
Blake Madden is musician who leads the band Hotels and composes cinematic music. He is also the author of a novel, The List Maker, and wrote the TMImaS profile of Joy Division producer Martin Hannett.
Editor’s note: VanGaalen is also a skilled animator who makes his own music videos. His animations for “Peace On The Rise” can be seen here:
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Fat Possum Records)
Review by Matthew Filler
Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) is the auditory conception of Ruban Nielson, a New Zealand native transplanted to Portland, Oregon.
I first heard “Thought Ballune” from UMO’s self-titled debut LP, while watching the surf film Lost Atlas. The track’s production was immediately intoxicating – the song floated under a haze of 60’s psychedelia while retaining confident melodies and insistent rhythms reminiscent of Sly Stone and T-Rex alike. As soon as I purchased the full-length, it became clear that there was a lot more to this band than ear-catching production and a penchant for the occasional cool melody.
The LP is a coalescing of gritty break-beats and masterful bass-lines that exhibit subtle rhythmic displacements and evoke something near disorientation. It offers brilliant guitar playing lathered in equal parts vintage soul and modern garage rock, with a distinct vocal that glides through a stony haze, often floating in union with the lead guitar melodies.
In essence, Nielson is an intensely sophisticated songwriter with a big old soulful record collection and a fantastic understanding of how to put it all together under a hazy cloud of psychedelia.
Matthew Filler is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter for Brooklyn psych-pop band Mansions and Junipers.
The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
Review by Allen Farmello
Take the great American singing and songwriting of Guthrie, Dylan, Young, Springsteen and Tweedy, set it to the insistent rhythms of Johnny Cash’s band, and then smother it all with the dreamy, glistening ambience of Sigur Ros and you’ve got a lonesome, chugging steam-train that travels in the Aurora Borealis. Lace that Aurora Borealis between the tall buildings of downtown Philadelphia and set the train in motion and you’ve got The War on Drugs’ Slave Ambient.
Forget Eno, because this is a songwriter’s ambient done USA-style. This is lonesome train-whistle ambient; haunted downtown ambient; torn up jeans and sneakers ambient.
What does unite Eno and Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs is that they both had to get their ambient worlds to transmit through a pair of speakers, and neither is an engineer. Where Eno enlisted Daniel Lanois, Granduciel has brought on Jeff Zeigler, a Philadelphia-based recording wizard. As a team, Zeigler and Granduciel have done one of the hardest things record-makers can do (and something Lanois and Eno often accomplished), they’ve emphasized what’s unique, even strange, about the music while achieving high-fidelity and broad appeal.
As Ziegler told me: “In the past people have tended to try to bury the drone and dreaminess and really focus on the ‘man with an acoustic guitar’ aspects of Adam’s music…but that contrast between the supposed lack of expressiveness in synthesizers and drum machines rubbing against the human core of what he does creates a pretty singular vibe, and is what really makes you able to get lost in it.”
“It’s great to work with someone who’s got these really strong songs that totally stand on their own, but is willing to, say, process the guitar tracks through an analog synth and some elaborate signal chain and create additional textures. In some cases that could be used as a smokescreen for mediocre songwriting, but in this case [these sounds] are another level of texture and vibe that enhance the song.”
I’d say ‘enhance’ is Ziegler being modest. Intellectually, we understand that there are great songs underlying these recordings, but the production pulls us up into the urban Aurora Borealis and onto that chugging train with Ganduciel so that we, too, can look down onto the streets where these stories take place. When sounds that are commonly just production accessories pull us deeper into the mind of the singer instead, we’re talking about absolutely brilliant record making.
Allen Farmelo is a producer, a recording engineer, and regular contributor to Tape Op Magazine. Most recently, he has worked with Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco on a new album for his side project, Pronto.
Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps (Sub Pop)
Review by LG
I’m not one to go shifting through stacks of CD’s or paging through blogs looking for my next favorite release. I’ve never had the patience for it, trusting that if a piece of music wants to make itself known, it will find a way to get in front of me.
Greg Dulli is one of those musicians who has long been at the forefront of my attention, starting when I was a teenager. Initially, I saw him as an annoyance, and then later — once I began to recognizing my own maturing feelings of lust, desire, and privation — as a revelation. The newest album from his band Twilight Singers may have been released earlier this year, but it still easily became my favorite of the season; even though my bias may have led me in that direction before I even heard the material.
It can’t recreate the perfect arc of their prior record Powder Burns or touch the electronic/soul hybrid of their debut, but Dynamite Steps retains everything visceral that each of his records contain. Dulli maintains a gravitas and pietas to basic human needs that people from all walks of life can relate too. Even the fabulously rich can peer through their brumous veil and relate with the destructive side of human nature. To quote one track, “ Some speak of a light, control of the game / But I leave the past alone.”
While my choice this time is to latch onto music that is familiar, that doesn’t weaken the impact that Dulli’s material can have on new ears.
LG is a writer, and musician who leads the band Dead Leaf Echo. Their first full-length is currently being mixed by John Fryer (Cocteau Twins, NIN, Depeche Mode), and is slated for release in early 2012.