Dec 072012
 

Simply a hideous album cover, however.

Ke$ha, Warrior - The polarizing electro-popper has a chip on her shoulder in her second album. She’s pushing her sound in new directions and bolstering her dance genre credentials. A few exciting guest spots – including a couple members from The Strokes – also pop up. Unexpectedly, critics are saying her music has taken a huge step up in quality.

Memory Tapes, Grace/Confusion – Dayve Hawk’s chillwave group thrusts itself back into the limelight  with an epic, melody-obsessed opus. A must-get for fans of the genre.

Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: Deluxe Edition- The landmark alt rock album by one of the 90′s best groups gets a ridiculously exhaustive deluxe reissue. While it’s $125 price tag may put it beyond the reach of all but the most die-hard fans, it’s an ample opportunity to re-listen to one of the few records from Generation X that managed such epic ambitions. And that guitar solo on “Here Is No Why” never gets old.

Mar 272012
 

Thursday was, at first, a time to rectify the mistakes from a previous day. I had shown up to La Zona Rosa Wednesday much too early to see anything (because I mis-read the SXSW booklet) so that club was my first destination when I hit downtown on March 15th. I was lucky this time, as The Warner Sound Showcase had started around 1:30 PM. I had missed Kimbra, but when I got inside it was just in time to see Crystal Fighters, a British/Spanish electonic band that is getting heavy buzz on account of its soon-to-be-released debut album, Star of Love (it’s already out overseas) and enthusiastic, catchy performance. When I say they’re an “electronic” band, it’s more because that’s the generic term for it. In reality, this is a fascinating melting pot of sounds that includes Basque instruments and transcendental touches. They’re a wild, rangy-looking group and their boundary-pushing music fit them to a tee.

Also at La Zona Rosa was a very cool update to Guitar Hero that allowed you to play with an actual guitar. I took a whirl on The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – a song I already knew how to play – and it was actually pretty cool to hear a real guitar sound that you can manipulate during the song playback. Honestly, though, I don’t know how many people will want to get this update of the popular video game. While everyone wants to play the guitar, fewer people actually have the drive and work ethic to learn the instrument to the level that would make this game worthwhile. For real guitar players it makes Guitar Hero palatable, but it’s going to be hard to convince casual video game fans to buy and learn a musical instrument when a plastic controller is right there.

The Staves were up next, and while I didn’t watch their entire set they also impressed me. It was a totally different sound, and the the British group was much closer to indie-pop than electro-rock. There were some sweet-and-lovely harmonies to boot and the group was cute as a button onstage. Check out some of The Staves’ particular SXSW memories here.

I left La Zona Rosa and headed over to the Triangle. No, there wasn’t any event going on in the trendy restaurant/apartment complex, but the bus stop to head to Auditorium Shores was. Yes, even though I had a press badge I went to the free show at the Shores, because the headlining act was The Shins, who haven’t toured in close to five years. Their excellent new album, Port of Morrow, was going to receive a lot of play and they’re one of the great American rock bands, so it was really the only choice, as I saw it.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get there in time to see M. Ward. This was a big disappointment for me, as I believe Ward is one of the best singers, songwriters and guitarists working right now. His new album, A Wasteland Companion, comes out soon and I really wanted to hear the new stuff (as well as some of his older tracks like “Chinese Translation”), but when I finally got inside the park he had closed out his set. Oh, well…he might be at ACL (that’s the battle cry for any artist you miss at SXSW, by the way).

There’s been some controversy about “The Shins” name being used. I can see some of the hesitation; lead singer and songwriter James Mercer is the only remaining member of the group that put out the oo’s classics Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow and (underrated) Wincing the Night Away. But seeing them in action kinda puts any worries in that regard to rest. Mercer has always been The Shins, and his new backing buds are better than the earlier crew.

Jessica Dobson, the group’s lead guitarist and main back-up vocalist, is the ace in the hole. While the beginning of the show (“Kissing the Lipless,” “Mine’s Not a High Horse” and “Simple Song”) showed Mercer and crew getting into the swing of things and measuring the crowd, the gig gained in excitement and intensity as it went by. The Shins were never this hot onstage when Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez were there. The turning point was “Caring is Creepy,” the beloved opening track off Inverted World. That swirling, icy composition got the crowd involved and the band hit their momentum switch.

“New Slang” was another older song totally transformed. Dobson now guests with Mercer on the song’s iconic chorus (“and if you took/to me like/a gull takes to the wind…”); it adds a whole new dimension to a composition that I never realized could be there. If anything, the new “New Slang” is better than the recorded version. Dobson’s guitar work is more mature and emotive than Hernandez’, as well. “Australia,” “Phantom Limb,” “So Says I” and a psychedelic, almost-out-of-control break down of “One By One All Day” followed one after another. This band has a ton of great songs! And the new stuff from Port of Morrow works perfectly in the set list. I think my personal favorite might be the eerie title track, which kicked off the show’s two-song encore and sounds for the world like Mercer trying to write a David Bowie song. “Sleeping Lessons,” the mercurial opening track from Wincing, closed the night with everyone in the Shores audience dancing. I thought for a moment The Shins would do a second encore – they had more than enough enthusiasm for the crowd, as well as a few songs they hadn’t played yet – but the night was over.

SXSW was smart to schedule a group like The Shins after last year’s scary stage rush for The Strokes. While Mercer’s band is arguably just as good as the New York quintet, they were never as rapturously popular and haven’t grabbed the zeitgeist in the same way. There were no incidents, and the indie rock pillars still entertained the crowd well beyond expectation. I think The Shins picked up many new fans Thursday night.

That show was so satisfying that my group of friends went over to Aussie’s afterward to hang out and drink a few pitchers. The good vibes hung over downtown for hours afterward, and it was a shame to have to head home. Of course, all that beer doesn’t do you good if you have to wait for the bus, but I was able to get into a club (wristband power go!) to use the men’s room right before mass transit made its way to our stop.

THE CROWD!

Also, on the way home I caught another glimpse of Boba Fett! I called out and he nodded, cool as when he was in Jabba’s palace.

Hint for all the people I saw waiting vainly at bus stops: if you try to get on near campus, all the SXSW transit is going to be far too crowded for you to get on. There’s no trouble like that at the Triangle.

So far, Thursday March 15th was the best SXSW night I had experienced in 2012. Let’s see how the last few days stack up.

Jan 022012
 

2011 was in many ways a frustrating, painful year. I suppose you can say that of every year, though. And what is the point of focusing on the negative as we look upon this first day of 2012? Look at all the bountiful gifts we received in the year past. Take, for instance, the following list of records that

selected as the best of 2011.

First off, some honorable mentions:

Radiohead, The King of Limbs. Wye Oak, Civilian. The Roots, Undun. Alexander, Alexander. The Band of Heathens, Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo. Real Estate, Days.

The Top Ten

10. The Belle Brigade, The Belle Brigade

This Los Angeles-based brother-sister duo flew a bit more under the radar, but their work, a throwback to the golden age, classic rock of the 1970′s, is strong enough for a mass audience. Barbara and Ethan Gruska’s self-titled debut would be worth a listen because of its lead single, “Losers,” alone. But that victorious, gorgeous song is just one of numerous sweet-as-sugar earworms this warm, instantly lovable record boasts. Fleetwood Mac is channeled on “Where Not to Look for Freedom,” and “Rusted Wheel” surges and pounds with overwhelming confidence. Shades of folk, bluegrass, gospel and rock slip around each other, making The Belle Brigade’s leap onto the scene an exciting, re-listenable introduction.

9. Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong

The only Austin artist on this year’s list, Quiet Company’s opus delivers all of the band’s hallmarks. As per usual, Taylor Muse’s evocative, earnest singing is delivered via a continuous stream of catchy, ultra-melodic indie pop. But Muse’s focus this time ’round – relationship with religion – infuses his band’s winning formula with fascinating spiritual and philosophical textures. “You, Me and the Boatman” introduces this powerful formula with a flourish, and later tracks “Preaching to the Choir Invisible” (Parts I and II) and “Fear and Fallacy, Sitting in a Tree” expand and invert the group’s musical worldview. Mid-album centerpiece “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” is breathtaking, and “The Easy Confidence” is a knotty and nasty as anything the group has recorded. This band continues to surprise and impress on its fourth album.

8. Panda Bear, Tomboy

Panda Bear’s fourth solo album didn’t get as much press as his third, Person Pitch, but the shimmering, straightforward beauty of Tomboy cannot be denied. From the ethereal chant of “You Can Count on Me,” to the stair-stepping dynamics of the title track, to the inspiring “Last Night at the Jetty,” Panda Bear flexes his considerable vocal and producing talent in creating a full-bodied aural experience. Sensuous symphonics and arrangement tricks make the 1-2 punch of “Alsatian Darn” and “Scheherazade” one of the most beguiling 8-minute stretches of 2011. Panda Bear is already off again with Avey Tare, Deakin and Geologist on the next Animal Collective project, but Tomboy shows once again that Noah Lennox on his own  is one of modern music’s most unique musical personalities.

7. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life

Hardcore Punk is not usually my wheelhouse, so it’s got to be something special that gets me interested. Amazingly, Fucked Up’s epic-length rock opera, David Comes to Life, manages to keep my attention for all 72 minutes. The guitar symphony that introduces the Canadian sextet’s third album, “Let Her Rest,” is ambitious in the way we expect progressive rock artists to be. But once Damian Abraham’s raw-throated vocals enter on “Queen of Hearts” it’s immediately clear what kind of band this is and how much ass they are going to kick. It’s not just the muscular, complex playing and fiery performances that makes David Comes to Life one of the landmark punk releases of the 21st century, though. Abraham and his cohorts have crafted an intelligent, challenging artistic statement here, with sophisticated lyrics and attention to character and storytelling details. Guest vocals by Kurt Vile, Jennifer Castle, and Madeline Follin add further emotional underpinning. Key tracks: “The Other Shoe,” “Ship of Fools,” “Turn the Season,” “One More Season.” With an album this great and this vast, there’s area for discovery on every track. It’s a thrilling intro to the genre.

6. The Strokes, Angles

Although it seemed like it took forever to get The Strokes’ fourth album, it turned out to be well worth the wait. Their first release to fully measure up to their classic debut, Is This It?, Angles is a concise and efficient delivery of all the great things the New York quintet did on their third LP, First Impressions of Earth, minus all the bloat. Opener “Macchu Picchu” shows that they’ve moved into the future while keeping their lock-step likability. “Under Cover of Darkness” is wily and adventurous, and “Two Kinds of Happiness” looks back to the Cars while riding one of Julian Casablancas’ most yearning chorus melodies. It’s clear how far everyone has come in terms of musicianship and as composers. “Taken for a Fool” is as irresistible as “You’re So Right” is icy and bracing. “Call Me Back” shows tenderness and a willing to experiment that can only be good for a group as meticulous as The Strokes. “Gratisfaction” and “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” end the record on confident and searching notes, and Angles as a whole leaves you wanting to come back for more.

5. Tom Waits, Bad As Me

Before I heard Tom Waits was working on an album of new material, I kinda figured he was semi-retired. After all, he’s more than earned his lifetime pass at this point. Tom Waits is an artist of nearly unparalleled accomplishment; he has nothing to prove, obviously. But Bad As Me shows him to be as strong as he’s ever been. One of his more accessible records, it also ranks with his very best. The full-speed train opener, “Chicago,” shows that age hasn’t slowed Waits down one bit. “Talking At The Same Time” is smoky, beautiful and mysterious. “Kiss Me” is a husky-voiced throwback to Waits’ piano crooner past. Guest spots by Keith Richards on several tracks adds additional grit. He and Waits debut on “Last Leaf,” a song about surviving, and its one of the most effective cuts, context-wise, in modern times. But Waits can get still bawdy and rowdy with the best of them, as “Satisfaction,” “Get Lost” and the frightening “Hell Broke Luce” attest. “New Year’s Eve,” the closer, is a perfect sign-off note for this record and 2011. Let’s hope Tom comes through Austin on his tour for the record.

4. TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light

The loss of Gerard Smith was one of 2011′s worst musical moments. However, to again look to the positive, his final work with his seminal art-rock band, TV On The Radio, was an instant classic that stands as a monumental tribute. With each successive release, the Brooklyn quintet has pared its sound down into leaner permutations and packages. The only bad thing you can say about Nine Types Of Light is that it’s too short. The album reveals the full-blooded romantic underneath the electronic/white noise accents and wide-ranging genre mutations. “Second Song” builds from a drone to a horn smackdown. “Keep Your Heart” soothes inside Kyp Malone’s growl. “Killer Crane,” the massive Tunde Adebimpe composition in the middle of the record, is a tower of swooning crescendos. “Will Do,” perhaps the catchiest song TV On The Radio have ever produced, is the greatest R&B hit the 70′s never produced. With a punch-out end song in “Caffeinated Consciousness,” TV On The Radio put the bow on another year where they were one of the best acts going.

3. Wilco, The Whole Love

Wilco continued their dense exploration of the Americana psyche on The Whole Love, an album that simultaneously pushed them back to their roots and pulled them further into experimentation than anything since A Ghost Is Born. This album is the best thing Jeff Tweedy and the boys have released since the landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. From the krautrock riff in opener “Art of Almost” to quintessential Wilco winners like “I Might” and “It Dawned on Me,” there isn’t a moment of The Whole Love that doesn’t swell with bright-eyed invention. “Capitol City” ambles humorously, “Black Moon” simmers with tension, “Born Alone” dives and weaves (and lets Tweedy show off his Tom Petty impression) and “Standing O” knocks you into your seat. Closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is the most pensive, nostalgic and lovely 12 minutes of 2011. That Wilco can find one simple melodic idea and wrench so much meaning out of it is a testament to their staying power. The Whole Love looms large in their legend.

2. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

My God, PJ Harvey’s vitality is something to be treasured. You simply can’t miss the fact that now, 20 years into her career, Polly Jean is still making some of the best music of her career. Some of the best music that’s available, period. Although there are no bad PJ Harvey records, surely Let England Shake is one of her finest moments. A soaring, majestic collection of music ripped from the thoughts and concerns of today’s world, Harvey’s artistry allows her topical concerns to become universal statements, so her record both defines both the moment of its birth and summarizes its content for future generations. The bristly title track gives way to the slurring “England,”  which then jumps to the galvanizing “On Battleship Hill” and ringing “The Glorious Land.” Harvey’s wiry voice is in fine form throughout and the wide-open production provides yet another new context for her music. There are worlds to explore within the appropriately-titled “Bitter Branches,” or the chilly “In The Dark Places,” or in the propulsive revival “Written On The Forehead.”   In twenty years, we’re gonna be talking about Let England Shake as one of the major releases of this era.

1. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now

Nearly 30 years ago, R.E.M. released Murmur, which has since gone on to be universally recognized as one of the best debut albums of all time. In time, their final album, Collapse Into Now, will be accepted as one of the best farewell records ever, as well. The retirement of R.E.M. is one of the major musical epochal events of 2011. An era is over, truly. But R.E.M. went out on a high note. Collapse Into Now collects all of the alt-rock pioneers’ various styles and looks out proudly and defiantly into the future. The star-punching opener “Discoverer” bookends the best album of 2011, and it stops by wistful acoustic musings (“Uberlin,” “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”), unstoppable choruses in three-part harmony (“It Happened Today”), blatantly emotional and pretty ballads (“Oh My Heart,” “Walk It Back”) and some of the most fun R.E.M. has ever had (the goofy “Mine Smell Like Honey” and Peaches-assisted raver “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”) before meeting the horizon line of the future with fuzzy, Patti Smith-guesting oblivion on “Blue.” The album’s relationship with the world around it makes it like the American response to Let England Shake, and it makes a similarly fraught, emotionally charged statement about that world. R.E.M., this country’s greatest rock band, waves goodbye from the cover of Collapse Into Now. No more R.E.M. concerts or music video or records. They exited with gas in the tank, and we’ve gotta make it on our own from here. I’m glad to have had one last release for the road.

So that was 2011. Now, let’s get to the present! AME’s resolution: to get the album reviews up closer to their actual release dates. See ya’ll in 2012.