Monday, December 27, 2010

In The New Year

Whiskey Pie is going on a semi-annual hiatus for various reasons. Until then, listen to The Walkmen until your ears fall off.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whiskey Pie's Top 10 Albums Of '10

10) MGMT- Congratulations: “Will I ever make my mind up about this album?” This was one of the questions that was plaguing me all year. I must've started writing rebuttals to my original four star review a half dozen times on both sides of the scale. I was always over-thinking this album and should have gone with my gut feeling originally, so I'm going to do that now: this is a ballsy, psychedelic funhouse of an album that not only lives up to its ridiculous cover but bests it at every turn. Sure, there's no singles as strong as Oracular's best, but the title track and 'Siberian Breaks' especially are all the proof I need that these guys are going to be on the side of serious artists and not just some hipster opportunists.

9) Sufjan Stevens- The Age Of Adz: Unless he really gets crazy, it's hard to imagine Stevens ever recording another album as divisive and different-from-his-previous-work than The Age Of Adz. Sure, it's not the kind of album I can make it all the way through every time I listen to it, but in this case that's not a bad thing. Whether this more experimental and extroverted/dancing-on-stage-unironically Stevens is here to stay or just a temporary phase a la David Bowie or Beck, I can't say for sure. I hope he sticks with it for at least one more album, though, because I have the feeling he could top this in the same way that Illinois topped Michigan.

8) Sun Kil Moon- Admiral Fell Promises: Ultimately, yes, all of my top ten albums of the year are my opinion. But Admiral Fell Promises is such a personal and specific sort of album that I don't foresee any music sites or magazines having it on their year-end lists. When it comes to an artist like Mark Kozelek, you're either all in or all out, and, well, I am definitely all in. Though the sound of this album was predicted by his recent solo acoustic live albums under his own name, Admiral takes his acoustic guitar mastery to an altogether higher level. Utilizing a hypnotic playing style that's half epic acoustic folk a la Roy Harper and half Latin flamenco guitar (as previewed on earlier tracks like 'Si Paloma' and Red House Painters' 'Cabezon'), this is a rich, dense album that demands your full attention but rewards your patience and, some would say, indulgence every step of the way.

7) Vampire Weekend- Contra: At this point Vampire Weekend have supplanted The Shins as my favorite indie pop band. Oh sure, they're labelled Afro-pop or synth pop or whatever, but at their core they're pure indie pop. By which I mean, catchy, melodic songs and deep hooks that never quite leave you even when you set the album aside for a few months. I had all but forgotten how good this album was until I was going back over 2010 releases to make my list, and damn if it didn't immediately re-earn this spot.

6) Flying Lotus- Cosmogramma: Yeah, OK, here's my token electronic album. Whatever. Cosmogramma straddles the line between glitchy, quixotic electro-whatever and instrumental, jazz influenced hip hop...and sounds way more natural and amazing than that awkward description implies. As the man behind Flying Lotus is related to John Coltrane, it only makes sense that Cosmogramma has a jazz player's flair for repeated motifs and improvisational open-ness. Yet it also shows the keen rhythms and ultra-modern sound/production of electronic music and hip hop to make it unique and its own genre entirely.

5) Frog Eyes- Paul's Tomb: A Triumph: I often wonder when the rest of the world will wake up to the fact that Carey Mercer is a genius. That may seem like strident hyperbole, but I truly mean it. No one in the world makes music like him, whether in Frog Eyes, solo as Blackout Beach, or as part of the 'supergroup' Swan Lake. Anyway, I seem to be amongst the few who prefer Paul's Tomb: A Triumph to their earlier albums, so what do I know, right? Well, I know this is a hell of an album, raging and passionate and dense and demanding. And it's an ass kicker of a guitar rock album. If nothing else, go download 'Flower In A Glove', turn it up just below the “lease breaker” volume level on your stereo, and prepare for greatness. And I'll say this: I never thought about making a Wikipedia page for something before, but it's criminal that Paul's Tomb lacks one. Criminal, I say!

4) Wolf Parade- Expo 86: We're a scattered minority, but there are those of us who think that this band just gets better with each album. Expo 86 was recorded live as a full band in the same room, just as Frog Eyes' Paul's Tomb was, and it somehow has an even more live and full bodied sound than that beast. To put it another way, this is as 'live' as it gets without an audience. The songs all go on for a minute too long, which is to say, they're perfectly played and maximalist in their force and interplay, and therefore also exactly long enough. Expo 86 is one of the best indie rock albums to drive to and leaves me wishing more bands would push their labels to record and release live albums.

3) The National- High Violet: High Violet was the reason I got into this band, and while I now hold both Alligator and Boxer near and dear to my music nerd heart, High Violet is an even more accomplished and enjoyable album. Its darker atmosphere led me to compare it to post-punk and/or trip hop bands, and it does lack levity, not to mention any fast paced or energetic material. Yet I can't hold that against it because High Violet is either the band's first masterpiece or yet another masterpiece, depending on if you've heard their last two albums or not.

2) Beach House- Teen Dream: For the majority of the year, I was certain this would be my top pick. While it didn't win out in the end, it is still an incredible album. As I put it in my review,Teen Dream is the kind of album that a band builds a reputation on. Everything that is good about this band is at its utmost best here...” I don't imagine they could record a better album...yet I'm dying to hear them try. If it's half as good as Teen Dream, it'll make my list for whatever year it comes out, too.

1) The Walkmen- Lisbon: I'm reluctant to write too much about this choice because I feel like it's the sort of release that more and more people are going to discover as the years go by and curse themselves for not seeking it out sooner. The problem with a band like this is that their music is so disconnected from trends and hype that it's difficult to get other people excited about them without forcing them to sit still and listen a couple times through one of their albums. Still, The Walkmen are highly regarded by critics, fans, and their peers for good reason: Lisbon is a timeless masterpiece that could just as easily have been released in 1972 as it was 2010. Much as I have grown to love this band over the past few months and dig all of their stuff, nothing they've done before touches Lisbon. The band's “only use what is necessary” minimalist finesse and keen songwriting are at their apex here, and their always-just-under-the-surface-and-now-that-you-hear-it-more-prominently-on-Lisbon-you-can-go-back-and-hear-it-in-their-older-stuff surf rock fascination is in full swing. No, it isn't to say it's a surf rock album, as a majestic track like 'While I Shovel The Snow' and the Spoon-like rhythmic grooves of 'All My Great Designs' will attest. But I have no doubt if they did decide to go for a straight surf rock sound, they would knock it out of the park.

Lisbon is the only album this year that came close to Teen Dream, and not only came close but supplanted it. It gives me no end of pleasure to sit here disproving my comments in my review of Bows + Arrows: Lisbon has been showing up on the top slot of some other year end lists, and they did manage to top Bows + Arrows, too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Panda Bear- Tomboy & You Can Count On Me singles

It seems certain that Panda Bear's much-delayed Tomboy can only be a disappointment, especially to those who are expecting another Person Pitch. Judging by bootlegs of live shows from over the course of 2010, as well as the so-far-released singles, it's going to be a much different beast, full of darker, shorter songs based on guitars and electronics as the main instruments instead of samplers. As a huge fan of Person Pitch, it's hard for me to listen to Panda Bear's newer music and not wish for more versions of 'Take Pills' and 'Good Girl/Carrots.' But since he has continually pushed back the release of Tomboy—in fact, he's not done recording/mixing it yet—I've had more and more time to accept the new direction.

The Tomboy single was the first officially released taste of the album, and neither it nor its b-side, 'Slow Motion', seem like obvious songs for the purpose of introducing the album. However, listening more closely to 'Tomboy' reveals what Panda Bear was getting on about when he said the album would be more guitar based, though the guitar here is employed more as a vocal foil than anything else. There's something Radiohead-esque about its sound and melodic/rhythmic use here; furthermore, the minimalist beats and indistinct background sounds also remind me of that British band's Kid A era music. Panda Bear's vocals are as rich and reverb drenched as ever but lack the Beach Boys/angelic choir effects he used on all of Person Pitch. Aforementioned b-side 'Slow Motion', meanwhile, sticks a little closer to the Person Pitch sound, with a looping beat, repeated sound effects/speech samples, and Panda Bear's honeyed vocals. A good start, all told, but hardly a home run.

Second single You Can Count On Me reveals a much more abstract style. With heavy, vocally emphasized beats and a droning sound, Panda Bear often used this song as a set closer during his 2010 performances. There's something definitive and confident sounding about it. Despite its paucity of sonic elements, it sounds anthemic and full. Unfortunately, he's retreated from the more comprehensible vocal delivery of Animal Collective's last couple releases, so the lyrics are hard to discern. The same goes for 'Alsatian Darn', whose title I'm convinced is a reference to a Tom Goes To The Mayor episode wherein Tom says “darn” instead of “dam.” Anyway, there's a reason this song will (I assume) be relegated to b-side status and won't be included on the album: it's uninspired and half-finished feeling. Lacking a satisfying hook and with an out-of-character amount of lyrics that don't register, it plods along for almost exactly twice as long as 'You Can Count On Me' but is nowhere near as good.

The next single, Last Night At The Jetty, is due to be released digitally in a few days. I can only hope that it restores some of my faith in Panda Bear as a solo artist. Don't mistake what I mean there; I don't think either Tomboy or You Can Count On Me are bad singles. It's more that they're underwhelming, and when combined with the less-then-stellar Down There by Avey Tare, represent a cooling trend on my enthusiasm for the up-til-now impeccable stable of Animal Collective and related side/solo project releases. More importantly, the Tomboy album is now my biggest question mark for 2011: will it still turn out to be great, or will it be one of the biggest disappointments of the year? For now, know that the singles are worth checking out, though I sure wouldn't break the bank for the limited edition vinyl releases.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5 (Combined score)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Great Album Covers: Trout Mask Replica

Sure, you can find innumerable lists of obscure, weird album covers from the 60s through the 80s on various websites and blogs, but by and large they are both weird and terrible at the same time. Not so for Trout Mask Replica, which I owned on CD for years and eventually had to buy on vinyl just to have a bigger version of its cover. That's because it is both weird and fantastic at the same time.

This cover is like a multi-layered puzzle you eventually figure out by listening to the album. Even then, questions remain:

1) Is that a light bulb or something sticking out of the top of his hat?
2) Is that actually Captain Beefheart on the cover?
3) Is that a real trout's head or a really good simulacrum?
4) Why is he cradling it in his hand as if to give it a jaunty "hello" mime?
5) OK, I get that it's a replica of a trout mask. But why would someone need a trout mask to begin with? Furthermore, does this imply that a trout mask uses a real trout, while a replica uses an aforementioned simulacrum?

Yeah, I know it's an absurdist, surreal picture that isn't trying to make sense. One of the things I love about album covers is that they can be vague or abstract and leave a lot up to the viewer. Trout Mask Replica is definitely this way, and I enjoy puzzling over it even though there are no answers to be found.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Eastern Conference Champions- Santa Fe EP/Akustiks EP

Eastern Conference Champions need to finish and release their forthcoming album, Speah-AHH, as soon as possible, and it needs to be great. I say this both because I love their music and think they're capable of even more than these EPs demonstrate and because they're in danger of falling prey to 'Whatever Happened To Them?' syndrome. The band is best known for appearing on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack, rubbing elbows with acts of much greater renown and acclaim. Lest they turn into one of those bands whose name you don't recognize on popular soundtrack albums, they need to capitalize on this pseudo-fame and deliver the goods. Anyway, enough career advice...

The Santa Fe EP was released last Fall after Eastern Conference Champions left a major label record deal as well as replaced a band member. Judging by this music, however, they're all the better for it. Despite the annoying cardboard packaging, I found myself returning to this EP again and again as it's been lying around my apartment. The singer sounds like someone who started out imitating Thom Yorke of Radiohead but has now developed his own quirky, nasally indie rock style. He still has that sense of power and grandeur that Yorke does but it's been tempered with restraint and personality. The music, meanwhile, goes from sounding like a fuzzed out power-trio take on indie rock ('Common Sense') to a less classic rock-y Built To Spill ('Bloody Bells') to a less groovey, more harmonica-y take on Spoon circa Girls Can Tell ('Silo'). As a kind of re-introduction of where Eastern Conference Champions were as of last Fall and where they could go, it's as impressive and enjoyable as you could hope for without entering the realm of landmark EPs like TV On The Radio's Young Liars.

Since the band's Speak-AHH album was still unfinished a year later, they decided to record an acoustic EP to tide fans over (and possibly also to take a break from the sessions for the album). The cover art and title are just plain bad, yet the music on Akustiks is, if anything, even more impressive than Santa Fe. By setting aside the indie rock power-trio style, they prove themselves to be shockingly adept at trying out the more beardy and more-liable-to-wear-flannel-unironically style of the hipster/indie rock scene. Which overlaps with my taste, so I guess what I'm trying to say is, this EP is great: these folksy songs showcase the band's softer side as well as their songwriting chops. 'Bristol Road' and 'Timeline' feature vocal harmonies lovely enough to begin approaching indie standard bearers like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, if a bit less powerhouse than the latter, and the pedal steel guitar used on a few of the tracks reminds me of what I wish Band Of Horses had gone for on their second and third albums. The harmonica is also a great touch and leaves me hoping they carry over some of Akustiks' instrumentation over to the forthcoming album. While I would never claim ECC have the most original sound, the strong hooks and songwriting of the buoyant 'Summertime' and the grooving, headlong rush of 'Single Sedative' make originality somewhat irrelevant. I would go so far as to say that I hope they have electric versions of these two songs on Speak-AHH since I'd hate to see them relegated to an EP that many people may never hear.

Ah, but that's music (and independent music especially) for you. The true test of this band, like so many others in the past, will be their new, post-brush-with-fame album. Judging by these two EPs, though, it's more a case of anticipation than it is doubt or worry, at least on my part. Since they're an indie rock band with a lone female member who isn't their bassist, and they successfully pulled off an acoustic EP, I have great faith in Eastern Conference Champions.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5 (for both)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Destroyer- Archer On The Beach EP

After hearing Archer On The Beach, I feel confident in saying that no one quite makes music like Dan Bejar. He comfortably fits into two stylistically different side projects/supergroups: the power-pop of the New Pornographers and the experimental indie rock of Swan Lake. Yet when it comes to his band, Destroyer, it's increasingly difficult to pin down where he's going. His last two albums, Destroyer's Rubies and Trouble In Dreams, perfected and began to ossify his mid-60s-Bob-Dylan-meets-70s-David-Bowie style. Then, for last year's Bay Of Pigs EP, he seemed to toss everything out the window and begin anew. The title track was a 13 minute synth-pop/groove-rock marathon, with plenty of ambience and detachment that carried over more overtly in the other song, 'Ravers', a remake of the song 'Rivers' from Trouble In Dreams.

With Archer On The Beach, Bejar has taken his music to an even more fractured and atmospheric direction. Whether this will be the predominant style on the forthcoming Kaputt album is unknown, but it has certainly raised my expectations and curiosity about it. The two songs on this EP were collaborations with ambient/electronic artists Tim Hecker and Loscil, the latter of whom is the drummer in Destroyer, and who had previously contributed some kind of remix or remake to the Destroyer's Rubies vinyl release. Anyway, Archer On The Beach is interesting because it's arguably not a Destroyer release to begin with. Bejar contributes only lyrics/vocals while the music is entirely from the other two musicians. It seems odd, then, that this was released under the Destroyer name, since other than Bejar, none of the Destroyer band members appear. Well, Loscil does, but he appears under his ambient/electronic name and not his real name as he does when drumming for Destroyer. Confused yet?

The title track of this EP plays like a morose ballad, with lightning storm sound effects, crowd noise, and echoing keyboards creating a foreboding atmosphere that never quite goes anywhere but never feels repetitive. 'Grief Point', meanwhile, is either a remake or reworking of the Loscil song 'The Making Of Grief Point', on which Bejar had appeared. I'm pretty sure it's the same vocal take, and to confuse matters further, the Merge Records website description of this EP says that 'Grief Point' was the original working title of a song called 'Bay Of Pigs.' Whether that was the same 'Bay Of Pigs' from the last EP...well, who knows? Destroyer has so often remade or retitled his songs, and his discography is chock full of meta-references, that it feels futile to figure it out.

What I do know is that Bejar must be going through some kind of artistic crisis not unlike what Sufjan Stevens seems to have gone through over the past four years. Again, according to the Merge site, 'Grief Point' was the first song Bejar made after deciding to never record again. Is this statement hyperbole? Seeing as how the title of the forthcoming album is Kaputt and the cover features the Destroyer band near a cliff (possibly the titular Grief Point?), seemingly considering whether they should jump or not, it strikes me as appropriate that this song seems to be about how he doesn't care about making music any more, and by extension, how pointless making any art is. It's also his first spoken word performance as Destroyer: “I have lost interest in is horrible,” he intones, before the sound of a drink being poured jokingly(?) follows. All the while, the music is nothing more than some unobtrusive synth sounds that are just barely more accompaniment than pure silence, as well as some musique concrete stuff, such as dogs barking and the sound of Bejar shifting in his seat.

It's hard to say how true this spoken word piece is, since Bejar has made a career of writing about all sorts of characters and situations that he has no personal stake in. Is he just messing with us, or is he serious about quitting music? Either way, this EP is a fascinating listen, albeit not a wholly satisfying one. I feel like all of Bejar's releases are key pieces of his mystique, but where Bay Of Pigs was engaging and enjoyable, Archer On The Beach is too given over to ambience and atmosphere, and a questioning of his creative impulse, to feel substantial or rewarding. Had this EP been released under a different name, or with top billing given to the two other artists involved, I may have been more lenient. As it is, though, Archer will only interest the Destroyer faithful, and will only satisfy about half of those.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5