Thursday, December 31, 2009

the year in music: BiRd BrAiNs

tUnE-yArDs BiRd-BrAiNs

Unfortunate spelling aside, this little lo-fi gem really surprised me early this year. Constructed from over two years of sound captured on a little handheld voice recorder, Merrill Garbus’ BiRd-BrAiNs is an amazingly catchy and truly odd pop record of African-inflected beats and off-kilter ukelele, dripping with sound clipping and tape hiss. While the cut-and-paste charm of the album is an asset, it never becomes a crutch to buoy itself—Garbus’ songwriting chops hold their own, a feat unmatched by most of her lo-fi contemporaries. In fact, it came almost as a harbinger of kindred spirits Dirty Projectors and their pop-infused Bitte Orca, sounding something like Timbaland stranded with a four-track recorder in an alternate universe.

Garbus’ voice is especially something to behold. It is idiosyncratic without ever turning twee, often with violent intensity, often laced with sweetness, and sometimes both at the same time. Garbus, not only as a singer, but as a songwriter, as a producer, as an artist, (and especially as a performer, as I learned firsthand last month,) creates from an entirely free and open place. And BiRd-BrAiNs is a testament to that—lucky us.

the year in music: Actor

St. Vincent Actor

I have been a fan of Annie Clark’s since I accidentally discovered her debut album, Marry Me, in June 2006, the week it came out. I was instantly enamored with her oddly wonderful mixture of sweetness and guitar-shredding chaos. Marry Me was one of my favorite albums of that year, and unlike many of my other favorites from that year, it actually got better over time.

On Actor, Annie has transposed some of the wicked guitar arrangements from Marry Me to a full-bodied orchestral freakout. Many of its tracks began as musical scores for some of my favorite movies, and while the title may mislead one to feel it is a bombastic, cinematic album, it is actually quite the opposite—Clark has written an album of intimate domesticity, embodying female characters who find themselves bound by the tethers of their own femininity, merely acting out their assumed gender roles while constantly seeking their own forms of independence (with varying degrees of success).

The biggest “actor” on Actor is Clark herself, who, through clever and often heartbreaking lyrics, finds the humanity of her characters, and represents their struggle in her patented sound—a shaky balance of honey-voiced vocals and swirling Disney woodwinds with some truly disgusting sounding fuzz. Beneath all the sweetness of Clark’s feminine characters lies darkness, violence, deep sadness that endangers (and often engulfs) their saccharine put-ons.

Clark is quickly becoming one of the most inventive pop songwriters of our time, making music that is at once challenging, intelligent, and extremely melodic. And though I have dedicated more Facebook status updates to her than I care to admit, (did I mention that she’s absolutely beautiful and I’m totally in love with her? I’m not sure if I did…) my awkward obsession with her stems solely from a deep respect and love for the work she creates, for the intense feelings it evokes within me. And I don’t think I’m alone.

the year in music: jj n° 2

jj jj n° 2

"Where did this band come from, and why is there a pot leaf on the cover?"

At only twenty-seven minutes long, this debut full-length from mysterious Swedish group, jj, was not only the perfect combination of many of my favorite sounds, but, like Atlas Sound's Logos, became a source of comfort in time of need. When my grandmother passed away, the uplifting one-two-punch of "Things Will Never Be The Same Again" and "From Africa to Malaga" kept me moving, the two things that allowed me to seek solace in the seeming senselessness of everything. "Ecstacy" was just a fucking jam, a tongue-in-cheek jam that samples Lil Wayne, only to quote Will Smith's "Miami". When some heart-pangs set in after the whirlwind of past few months, "Are You Still in Vallda?", a stunning ballad about the transience of summer love, sailed through to make it all better.

Sure, the record is shimmery and melodic, a seamless patchwork of sounds, cultures and textures. That goes without saying. What sets jj apart from all the other globally-minded, drug-hazy electronic-pop acts out there is real heart. Fewalbums resonated with me more this year, or any year, to force me out the shuffle-friendly mindset of the times and just sit down and listen.

In many ways, it felt as if the record had listened to me too.

the year in music: Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear Veckatimest

I remember driving with my dad through the countryside, a place that has not been annexed by any of the surrounding towns. These odd, amber fields in July were the long way to a park we were headed towards, a park along the Tualatin River, whose name I cannot recall. We planned on canoeing the river, but not today. Today was not a good day, there was not enough time.

There were people in the park, an assemblage of a hundred family barbeques. It was summer. There were pretty girls playing volleyball. We escaped the people. We walked along the river, finding secret pathways in the forest. We hiked through roughly hewn logs and makeshift trails, pointing out the foliage and looking out at beautiful views of the river. My dad longed after a few of the boats that rode past, once again commenting how cool it would be to have a boat of his own. I remember the sun, as I often do, glistening off the water, and that my father’s socks had fallen down.

All throughout the drive, he complained about the bass of Veckatimest, saying it sounded weird, like it was underwater (his ear was full of some fluid that whole week). By “While You Wait For The Others”, he cautiously admitted, “Yeah, okay. This song is really good.” It was the golden hour, in a field of wheat, and I was with my father.

the year in music: Bitte Orca

Dirty Projectors Bitte Orca

It was my first night in Georgia. I remember the moon, it was full. I remember holding her hand as we drove from the little house she grew up in. I remember little things, like the way I freaked out when “Temecula Sunrise” first exploded from the speakers, or soft smiles exchanged hearing “Two Doves” for the first time. Or the way she sung along to the eerily appropriate metaphysical love song “Stillness is the Move”. Or the shivers when Amber and Angel’s voices soar at the climax of “Useful Chamber”. Or the swooning romance of “Fluorescent Half Dome”.

She put this album on, and we sat in near-silence throughout its forty-one minute duration on the midnight drive back to Macon. The street lamps were melting. Flares and glare bent on the foggy windows. All this surreal light at night. I was in a hazy dream of being out of my world, out of myself it seemed.

There are dozens of moments like this. I could write endlessly about this summer, the Fourth of July, reconciliation in Seattle, drives through Portland at night, the last time I saw my grandmother alive, all of them just as valid, and all connected to this record.

And I probably could spend pages (and pages and pages) dissecting how good it is on every conceivable technical level—lyrically, compositionally, melodically, the sheer scope of the thing, how it seems to effortlessly redefine (and reinforce) pop music and what it is capable of, how every moment is a pitch-perfect highlight, how, even all this nostalgia aside, it is, without a doubt, my favorite album of this year, and one of the albums closest to my heart for all time.

But at the end of the day, Bitte Orca is the soundtrack of this drive, of my trip, of this feeling of renewal and escape. To me, it is the sound of falling in love. In love with life and its enormity. In love with being alive amongst lovers, friends, and family. That’s what this record sounds like to me.

the year in music: The Hazards of Love

The Decemberists The Hazards of Love

The Hazards of Love is the nerdiest thing I’ve ever heard. Think about it—it’s a prog-folk concept album inhabited by folklore characters and their salacious trials and tribulations. There’s even a fucking “Forest Queen” for god’s sake!

Perhaps this explains why the indie elite poorly received the record. It certainly isn’t “cool”. Yet I feel The Hazards of Love rightfully deserves a place at the table with some of the “hipper” inclusions on my list.

Hazards is, without a doubt, a pitch-perfect concept album, with melodic and lyrical themes threaded seamlessly throughout, a seamless ebb and flow, and all the trademarks of the Decemberists’ back catalogue mingling with some lovely surprises. It is so assured of itself, so meticulous in its construction, and, above all else, so massive in its sound. Even its connective tissue is staggering—the ominous twenty-nine seconds of “The Queen’s Approach” never ceases to give me goosebumps, as it segues perfectly into the dreamy romanticism of “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?”

The inclusion of Ladies Diamond, both Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, was one of the smartest decisions imaginable for a record of this scope. Stark’s ethereal folksiness contrasts brilliantly with Worden’s fucking massive bazooka of a voice, (beautifully cast as the aforementioned icy “Forest Queen”). Worden, quite simply, steals the show, elevating the album to legendary status; she makes what might have just been a great Decemberists record, to a simply great record.

While Colin Meloy has previously used his hyperliterate voice in the Decemberists to craft pop songs into short stories, The Hazards of Love is his novel. And while it may have been blackballed from the indie-rock intelligentsia, (and fuck them—they’re no fun anyway) the rest of us can explore a truly remarkable album, and bask in its pretentiousness without pretension.

the year in music: Bromst

Dan Deacon Bromst

I never got Dan Deacon before. I couldn’t get past the Woody Woodpecker samples, the tingy midi-controlling, the mind-numbing speed and cracked out joy of his earlier works. “But ‘Wham City’ is great, Chris, you really need to hear that one!” “No, you need to see him live!” “No, really, Chris, you have to throw it on a party to get it, any place with lots of people.”

I’d only ever listened to him alone. I had never listened to Dan Deacon with other people.

Devin bought Bromst during Spring Break, the week it came out. I had heard it prior, and found myself oddly moved by it. From an objective musical perspective, I could understand the dynamics of what he was doing, the nuance in his orchestration (now with live instrumentation), the creative shifts in mood he had begun experimenting with on this record. In particular, “Wet Wings” was truly something to behold.

Devin intended to just drive me back to my house. We’d just shared a beer and a half at his place in Northeast, and spent the time discussing our futures, the nature of artists in society, our fears, our doubts, as well as our hopes. The album played, and we just kept driving. We had reached my neighborhood—“eh, keep going, I got time,” I said.

We detoured through suburbia, during the first few tracks of Bromst, continually getting sidetracked, always saying I’d be back in a little bit. Hills rose and fell, and I knew we were running short on time, but it certainly didn’t register. As far as time was concerned, we were exploring our pasts, the endless expanses we had grown up in, and out of.

We said nothing. We drove up a hill. He put the car in neutral. We said nothing. He took his foot off the pedals and his hands off the steering wheel. We shook the car forward. As “Snookered” reached its peak, we rode the hill, like a longboard, or a roller coaster. Though there was a brief swell of panic in my stomach, it subsided. I trusted the hill. I trusted this moment. At the bottom of the hill was the single ting of a glockenspiel.

We said nothing. We didn’t have to.

Bromst is a social listening experience, one designed to share and be shared. It will always remind me of this drive, and the joy of just letting go.