Monday, September 23, 2013

Belle & Sebastian - Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant

Belle & Sebastian - Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant
by Melanie Baskins

Who would have thought a band as ultimately inoffensive and pleasant as Belle and Sebastian could have such a tempestuous relationship with fans? Their first album Tigermilk made them unlikely heroes to a generation of Lisas and Judys, and their second album, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, perfected their sound and leader Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting, consolidating the spiky experiments of their then little-heard debut, with a more full-bodied, yet streamlined approach. Following the overly familiar and more tepidly received The Boy with the Arab Strap, Stuart and Co. knew that moving forward was essential to staying vital, and what resulted was what most B&S disciples consider the nadir of the band’s first stage, the clumsily titled Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. It’s the album where the band ran its previous ideas into the ground, but it’s also a fucked up sort of masterwork, a fuck-up greatest hits, if you will. It features the band’s best ideas on an epic scale and some interesting new ideas they thankfully thought to capitalize on in the second phase of Belle and Sebastian’s career.

In interviews, band members have stated that the tracks on the album were picked out of a group of songs based on how they sounded together, but for the most part, Fold lacks lyrical and sonic cohesion. This, despite the fact that their first three albums held together only through similar thematic concerns, doesn’t prickle my ears besides the inclusion of the “pastoral” “Beyond the Sunrise” and the “Stars of Track and Field”-on-steroids opener “I Fought in a War.” But this was also the period of the band at their most democratic, choosing to include songs written by Stevie Jackson, Isobel Campbell, and Stuart David as well as Murdoch’s usuals in the collection. The collaborative effort provides some interesting contrasts and textures not seen before on a B&S record. Campbell’s “Family Tree” has its defiant female narrator declaring “If you’re looking at me to start having babies/ than you can wish because I’m not here to fool around.” The next song, Murdoch-penned closer “There’s Too Much Love” provides the fearsome retort that “I’m honest, brutal and afraid of you.” “There’s Too Much Love”’s lyrics, most particularly the line “I can’t hide my feelings from you now/ there’s too much love to go around these days,” when compared with “Family Tree,” make up an almost he-said/she-said whole documenting both Murdoch and Campbell’s disintegrating relationship as well as the internal strife of the band reaching a breaking point. This is entirely subjective; “Family Tree” was written by Murdoch before the band was fully formed, but the decision to put these tracks back to back provides a small hint that they knew what they were doing when they sequenced the album.

Even when listening to Belle and Sebastian’s worst songs, you never feel sorry, and you’re never embarrassed for the band. This is the album’s saving grace: “Women’s Realm” blatantly rips the hand claps and stuttering piano of “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” but you can’t blame these guys—it was then and remains a great fucking idea for a song (the best on its respective album, matter of fact). And while “Nice Day for a Sulk” is a pleasant if self-parodying throwaway, there are plenty of great songs here. The oft-derided “Beyond the Sunrise” features an epic narrative nicely contrasting Stevie Jackson’s uncharacteristic baritone with Isobel’s paper-thin whisper and could logically take place in the aftermath of the equally brooding “I Fought in a War.” The bubblegum pop of Jackson’s “The Wrong Girl” puts the lie to the theory that Trevor Horn was their savior on Dear Catastrophe Waitress (an album that I am at a loss to defend like this one). Horn may have helped the band take a large step toward pop, but they were headed in that direction anyway. Fold, however, has the distinct flavor of a transitional album: half of its songs are familiar and another half is uncomfortably unfamiliar, yet it’s masterful at demonstrating what they’re best at as well as what they would become best at on 2006’s The Life Pursuit. The consolidation of their strengths, new ideas, and that album cover make it a worthier and more essential entry in Belle and Sebastian’s catalogue than sees its due.

Not much is known about Melanie Baskins other than she's a fan of the blog, claims to be "almost 19," and sent us this Belle & Sebastian piece!


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

that's all folks

I want to thank everyone who helped keep this blog going consistently for (almost) a full year, and anyone who read it. In this economy, time is a luxury. I don't blame the gracious staff (myself included) for being unable to volunteer their typed insights on a regular basis, and I appreciate them contributing (secretly some of the best music writing around) for imaginary peanuts. Todd Hutlock, for editing and guidance. Ian Mathers, for the most contributions and his unwavering enthusiasm and belief this staff. Todd Burns, the O.G., for his blessings. Our newbs, Melanie Baskins and Gillian Watson (wherever you are), you came out of nowhere to boost the estrogen quotient and kick the shit out of your elders. Do not stop. Some idols of mine! Travis Morrison, Jason Gross, Chris Weingarten, who've all been to far higher places, lowered themselves a little just for this. Orme, for coming through at the 13th hour for that Cut Copy blurb. Kronish, for the URL hookup. Bradley, for being the easiest edit. Theon, for being a pal. As many ex-Stylusers as I could rustle up for attempting to simulate what a 2008 Stylus year-end would look like. Everyone else who contributed. Any goal I could've possibly had for this blog was reached. It's 2009; onward to new vistas.

-Dan Weiss


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Best (or Worst?) Albums of 2008

1. Portishead - Third

+ Generally speaking, it’s hard for artists that are at the head of a certain musical movement or subgenre to escape it. For all the benefits of being a figurehead, those same bands watch their careers disappear when said subgenre (you name it -- Big Beat, Ska Revival v5.0, and in this case, Trip Hop) falls out of favor. Reinvent yourself or die along with the scene. Portishead beat the game, however, by disappearing all on their own in 1998 after the release of their better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be live album. Far from the dated embarrassment it might have been in lesser hands, then, Third was a wall-to-wall triumph, proving that the real cream of any particular crop should (and will) rise to the top. Full to the brim with dramatic sounds, alternately chilling and totally heartfelt emotional swordplay, cinematic soundtrack wizardry, and of course Beth Gibbons’ singular vocal stylings, Third proved to be the most improbable--and successful--of all comebacks. I don’t mind waiting another decade for the follow-up if it's going to be this good.
-Todd Hutlock

- I was happy for Portishead to remain an artifact of the ’90s, represented by an exceedingly respectable and satisfyingly concise catalogue of two albums and a top notch live disc, but Beth Gibbons and cohort couldn’t stick to the script. And disappointingly, when the band reemerged this year, they left their rhythmic prowess and spy-movie intrigue behind them. On their first two discs, Portishead bolted melancholic torch songs to hip-hop rhythms so seamlessly that the pairing seemed organic. In a decade rife with instances of cross-cultural pastiche, Portishead so effectively absorbed hip-hop into their sound that more than one rap producer returned the favor, pilfering their catalogue for samples. I had hoped they might have retained their interest in hip-hop, and incorporated some of the substantial creative leaps the genre has made since the mid ’90s into their new sound, but the 2008 version of Portishead has apparently excised that portion of their history entirely. That’s disappointing, but it would not matter if they had found something interesting to replace it. Instead, when Third jettisoned the deep throb underpinning the group’s material to date, it substituted murk. The rhythms plod, and Gibbons, who once entranced with her hermetic misery, now sounds merely glum. I like the clattering beat opening “Machine Gun,” but for the most part, this is dull, dull stuff. You can’t nod your head to it, you can’t weep along; you can’t even marvel at its trickery. What use is it?
-Jonathan Bradley

2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science

+ In this space, I've said some harsh things about this band, who still appear directionless as ever. But as their songcraft has tightened, their losing the map has grown charming. And while even supporters have mocked it as too garden-variety, too "easy," Dear Science took this hater one listen to enjoy and few others to hum. There's something to be said for "garden-variety" and "something for everyone," not because there's something for everyone but because there's few for no one. "Red Dress" and "Dancing Choose" would probably annoy more people if TVOTR wasn't Important enough for the discerning annoyed to spend the extra effort to lighten up. The Pitchfork effect has its uses.
-Dan Weiss

- No one here is denying the electric drama employed by TV on the Radio. It's just that Dear Science is not the best record of the year, and yet it seems that it's been handed that distinction almost by default. True, Dear Science's art rock may most easily enable sonic parsing of any record in their collection, and it also doesn't compromise the gotcha! production of previous records. On the contrary, fizz pours out of the stereo like someone shook up a can of soda and jammed it in there. But there's a distinct sense of uneasiness. On "Golden Age," vocalist Tunde Adebimpe tarries a little too long in the verses, eventually resorting to percussive freestyle to get in another couple bars before bringing in the big hook. The record's aggressive stabs of horns, strings, organ swells and guitars seem thrown in arbitrarily in places whereas on previous releases simple swaths of fuzz bowled listener over. These guys obviously know how to write smart pop songs, but while Dear Science appears to assert the band's strengths as art-rock phenomena, it only reaffirms their tenuous and (perhaps purposefully) insecure grip on their own message.
-Mike Orme

3. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III

+ Maybe it's not really a rap record. There's no care to it, no - I was going to say no pride in workmanship, but then it's nothing but pride, a sprawling litany of Ways Weezy Wins pushed through obsessive, repetitive rhymes. Few of these songs have private subjects - "Mrs. Officer" does, and "Dr. Carter" has a plot, which is misdirection, but really they're different arenas for Wayne to show off the same moves, the order and approach changing the way you'll use Mario's wall jump a lot in this level and not so much in that one. Weezy's Biggie/Pac complex; Weezy's vague desire to be Michael Jackson; Weezy's touching conviction that poop is always funny; that time Weezy got shot (so now he's got cred and don't say he doesn't) - fixations reshuffled and redealt in shifty, savage, rambling language that makes a hundred different circles around the same points. All of which would be infuriatingly dull (no small trick) if (A) Dwayne Carter's linguistic facility - textured, precise, surprising - lacked the depth to be The Whole Point and (B) the beats, from "A Milli"'s bloody-minded prank to "Got Money"'s T-Pain exhibit to "La La"'s deranged childishness, weren't as willing as their rider to chase down obsessions until they can't run anymore. To say nothing of "Lollipop", which isn't about sex or dancing but about how far to the right you can turn the AutoTune knob before the universe disintegrates. Thus it's not really a rap record. Dwayne wants it to be a pop record but it's not that either. It's more of a record record, the most mazelike, rewarding meta of the year.
-Theon Weber

- Why is Tha Carter III overrated? Because “3Peat” is a lesser version of “I’m Me.” Because “A Milli,” overreaches and becomes dull after minute three. Because “Got Money” sounds like it was created in a test tube and under the influence of too much cocaine (not the good Berlin kind). Because “Dr. Carter,” is a great song but we act like no one ever heard Dr. Octagon. Because “Lollipop” is about as erotic as a prostate exam. Because “La La’s” beat sounds like it was made by a eight month-old whose vocabulary consists of the titular phrase.” Because “Miss Officer” is the least realistic romantic tryst since “Billie Jean,” and is about 1/00th the song. Because “Misunderstood,” features a seven minute coda that can only be considered deep if you previously thought Wayne had the brains of a katydid. Because if you have it in your Top 10, odds are you’ve listened to 10 rap albums this year. Or less. Yes, this is probably better than 75 percent of the major label albums released in the last 12 months.
-Jeff Weiss

4. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

+ What people tended to miss in the online furore (and counter-furore) over these guys was that, via Rostam Batmanglij's synths, strings and synth-strings many of these songs are just as much chamber pop as they are whatever African songform they're accused of ripping off today. And not only does Ezra Koenig write a hell of a melody, his lyrics wind up being surprisingly opaque and interesting, even moving, for songs basically about the privileged young. I'm still not sure the likes of "Campus" work unless you are or fondly remember being on an actual campus, but the result for those who buy it is one of 2008's most joyous records.
-Ian Mathers

- I'm not getting all the hate on Vampire Weekend this year, but mainly because I'm not getting all the love either. I spun the record a few times, and everything after the first listen was simply to figure out why people were obsessed with writing about it. It's a pretty nothing album: not especially creative, nuanced, exciting, challenging, charming, or anything else. I don't necessarily dislike guys in preppy sweaters, so I can't really get worked up about anything that also isn't tedious, poorly executed, badly produced, etc. The only good thing here is that the band fittingly went with "Oxford" over "serial" in the great comma debate, but when a band's choice of grammar terminology marks their highwater of interesting (and there's no schoolboy charm to make it engaging), it's just not worth talking about past a second adjective.
-Justin Cober-Lake

5. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

+ A glance at this record's cover hints at its dramatic change of pace: an aggressive punch at exploitation from an R&B oracle who once spoke hip-hop fortunes in tongues. Erykah snaps out of her trance and communicates with sharply pointed words, but as the cover illustration reveals, she has obsessed over images, with a tuning fork, an ankh, musical notes in chains, musical notes in DNA chains, religion, protest, and violence all coming right up out of her hair. Fittingly, New Amerykah is just lopsided, with Alvin and the Chipmunks vocal tricks on "Amerykahn Promise" butting up against "The Healer's" Afro-Druidic chant, and "The Cell" banging a hardcore riff right after the somber tributes in "Solidier." The big single "Honey" doesn't even appear until the end of the record after the seven and a half minute ?uestlove co-production "Telephone" winds down. Her choice typifies the power of the New Amerykah: sheer balls and a worldly tenacity coming out of a performer who once seemed lost within her own ethereality.
-Mike Orme

- At first I too thought I loved New Amerykah. It felt important sociopolitically and sounded deep; after the blaxploitation-funk sendup intro, there's no surface, just mysterious splashes of color and meaning to decipher from listens and listens preferably under the influence. This was anticipatory praise. Those colors and meaning never appeared and the resulting wash of psychedelic trip-hop - indeed one of the richer gauze blankets to receive universal acclaim in this century - topped out for me in the bottom reaches of my A-list, as impertinent, pretty sonics. After Obama won, Dear Science deepened by comparison as a big, warm, technology-brushed-but-not-drowned group hug. I've yet to reach the bottom of D'Angelo's famously smoky Voodoo. But Erykah's grooves are prepared loops bent on hypnotica, and krautrock isn't half her originality or metier. Her political philosophy is as vague as Nas' but takes far fewer risks; the latter's better record was much criticized for putting tried-and-true Neil Young opaqueness on the line. At best, this record is simple, effectively making me long to hear the mantra of just four words, "hold on/ my people," breathily intoned for days and days. At worst, it's a mesa of pleasantries decorated with Here and Now neon signs to exploit the times and inflate its self-importance.
-Gnarls Merkin

6. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

+ From the moment the car noises and synthesized Doppler shift conjured images of fading tail lights whizzing by Cut Copy's debut Bright Like Neon Love, opener "Time Stands Still" following in hot pursuit, you had to think that Cut Copy understood something we didn't. Sure enough, their little bit of introspection calls out the subtext of ethereality in electro-pop revival. This was only made clear on In Ghost Colours, when they re-wrote the actual text.

While Neon Love constructs a bleary-eyed collage of the evening's wonders (were they too inexperienced? too insecure? too inebriated?), In Ghost Colours crystallizes the shadowy pursuits of rock stars, keyboards and dance floors. Some credit goes to DFA producer Tim Goldsworthy, who coaxed out a fearless performance out of these airy Australians. But most of the praise goes to Cut Copy, whose elusive live shows spark elation in even notoriously stoic indie rock fans and whose giddily constructed dance/pop sensations ("Hearts on Fire," "Lights and Music," "Out There On The Ice," "So Haunted," etc.) constantly whizz by. You won't hear any Doppler effect here: once In Ghost Colours enters your consciousness, it tends to stay put.
-Mike Orme

- If anyone needed more convincing that 2008 really was a great year for music even if rap and actual pop hits were, heaven forbid, lacking for a smatter of months, its most overrated record is pretty good. Everyone decided biting New Order with no new angles, barely an update (a guitar here, a 2.0 tech sprig there) and not a lyric (Alfred Soto tricking me into hearing "get so horny I'm misunderstood tonight" in the one great song only proves his own cleverness) was okay, fine. But it would be polite of them to notify VHS or Beta.
-Dan Weiss

7. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark

+ I don't know, I may be in the minority here, but I loved The Warning not just for the dance beats but also the combination of that and Hot Chip's sweetly melancholic take on joy – it was the most emotional affecting electronic record I'd heard in years, and it resonated. So imagine my surprise when the follow-up not only followed up on their live prowess but also upped the emotional stakes. Not many bands can switch as fluidly as the Chip does between kinetic bangers and doe-eyed ballads – hell, most bands aren't this good at either one of those.
-Ian Mathers

On the surface, it would seem that Hot Chip were still on an upward trajectory when they released Made in the Dark; touring and writing relentlessly, with critical cache to spare and an adoring public that ate up their suddenly prolific output. But outside of the confines of the live set, where they were held up by the familiar and tested tunes around them, the songs of Made in the Dark were dramatically unmemorable. Sure, they still have their quirked-out production, mixing skills, and rock-dance chops in place, but without melodies to hang them on, it’s all just wank, isn’t it? A spin through The Warning left you with more earworms than you knew what to do with, leaping for the replay button; Made in the Dark left you wondering what you missed, leaping for the replay button. I can’t give up on Hot Chip -- they’re too damn talented, and there are still a few choice nuggets here and there on the album (the title track, for instance, and maybe “Wrestlers”) -- but they need to step up their game again, just as they did in-between their lackluster debut and The Warning.
-Todd Hutlock

8. No Age - Nouns

+ “Punk-Pop” is such a misnomer, because punk is pop. It always has been. The ethos of getting back to basics and creating something that’s fun to listen to and fun to play is at the heart of all pop music, and punk, from the thirteen year old jamming Simple Plan in her bedroom to the intense looking kids at East Coast hardcore shows with Xs scrawled on their hands, is pop music. Scrape away the sunburnt Los Angeles gunk caked over No Age’s Nouns and you find a punk record, which is to say that you find a pop record. If you don’t believe me, I forgive you; I too was once convinced this bullshit was nothing but noise interspersed with trilling feedback ambience. Then, from out of that haze emerged “Things I Did When I Was Dead,” an actually beautiful piece of work built on gentle piano chords and hangover vocals. Call it the album’s ballad. Add to that a couple of rousing small-scale shout-alongs in “Teen Creeps” and “Ripped Knees,” plus more than a little bit of blacktop-burning guitar squall, and you’ve got a damn fine half hour of punk-pop. Now I wanna sniff some glue.
-Jonathan Bradley

- I know I kept this around and listened to it at least seven or eight times before I deleted it, but for the life of me I can't remember what it sounds like. Poring over YouTube now, I get fragmented tracks (not necessarily songs per se) of hashed and reheated indie leftovers – the sloppiness of Pavement, the atonal opacity of My Bloody Valentine, the purposeful avoidance of meaning found in dozens of acts. Honestly, that description could have described something bracing, weird and necessary, but in No Age's execution it plays more like wallpaper music for people who listen to Wolf Eyes and Guided by Voices, the real indie rock equivalent of Feist. Mildly pleasant, but utterly inessential.
-Ian Mathers

9. The Kills - Midnight Boom

+ All good art is rooted in conflict. So are all good duos. Bogart and Bacall. Calvin and Hobbes. Siegfried & Roy. VV and Hotel embody this. Who cares about will they or won’t they, did they or don’t they. What the fuck do you think this is, Moonlighting? The only tension that matters is in the serrated guitars and anxious drum machines. The snarling agro-punk with Nina Simone swagger, Allison Mosshart vs. the laconic thin-lipped Englishman Jamie Hince. When they clash, it’s nothing short of War of the Roses music. Which explains why I once saw Danny DeVito catching their set at Coachella. No tiger necessary.
-Jeff Weiss

- It's not that artily empty garage-rock with a hot chick on mouth sounds is necessarily shallow, or stupid, or bad. It's that the Kills seem more a fragile projection of a particular fleeting fashion than a band. A friend who adores them claims they're the band for the girls he sees in Brooklyn cafes having pre-shoot coffees with American Apparel photographers - the band, in other words, of our generation, but then from my Portland apartment the Decemberists look like the band of our generation and I'm pretty sure that's not true either. (Meanwhile the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whatever generation they're the band of, start with all the same pilfered touchstones, soundtrack the same porn-aspiring photoshoots, and find the real voodoo heartbeats in city sin.) All this is only sociology, of course, but I'd have found something else to talk about if could remember any of the songs.
-Theon Weber

10. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing

+ The gimmick was cute at first. Up-and-coming D.C. rapper centers his mixtape around Seinfeld. Great, now a rap album that'll make my Dad intentionally laugh. Well, after the novelty of hearing Julia Louis-Dreyfuss say "motherfucka" wore off, what we're left with is a really good rap album. Amidst a soundtrack of sharp East Coast hip-hop and savvy lyricism, Wale achieves the remarkable by utilizing the mundane. Wale forges a bridge between the bourgeois concept of "nothing" and the experience of real life in the District. It's not so much about taking what's considered "white" and applying it to what's "black," rather, it reflects the hidden pathos of modern life that get lost in the context of endless rerunning. "Men as pathetic", "a vacation from us", asserting your artistic credibility when you're neither artistic nor have credibility. "Nothing" just got a lot more substantive.
-Andrew Casillas

- As I hinted above, hip-hop heads really gasp for oxygen to fill quotas, and 2008 is one of the saddest times for that caucus ever. The Anti-Weezy contingent (big even before he was) chose from other superstars (T.I., who's back, and Ludacris, who ain't) and some half-excitable newbs (The Knux and Wale) to laud. Me, I preferred the newbs, but as is wont in the reviewing game, found both a mite overrated. The Knux had it all together sonically, but little to say. And Wale, billed as the likeable Lupe, is the inverse. The Seinfeld mixtape was indeed brimming with unpretentious thought, fresh concepts and a healthy sense of the meta. But the serviceable go-go sound is merely a promising, song-shaped sinkhole. Right, this is a mixtape, what am I asking. But blame yourselves for thrusting him into the critical eye too soon. Lord knows "The Kramer" won't be his "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance." But if he really is a pro in potentia, we can keep the drool in the pan and wait for the output.
-Dan Weiss

11. M83 - Saturdays=Youth

12. David Byrne/Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

13. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair

14. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

15. Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs

16. Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster...

17. Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak

18. Why? - Alopecia

19. Deerhunter - Microcastle

20. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals

21. The Knux - Remind Me in 3 Days...

22. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion

23. Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward

24. The-Dream - Love/Hate

25. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

26. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna

27. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

28. Santogold vs. Diplo - Top Ranking

29. Taylor Swift - Fearless

30. Steinski - What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective

31. Drive-By Truckers - Brighter than Creation's Dark

32. Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins

33. Ne-Yo - Year of the Gentleman

34. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too

35. Sam Amidon - All is Well

36. dj/Rupture - Uproot

37. Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too

38. The Roots - Rising Down

39. Ashlee Simpson - Bittersweet World

40. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords


Thursday, December 18, 2008


Melanie Baskins:

1. Beach House - Devotion
2. No Age - Nouns
3. Evangelicals - The Evening Descends
4. Deerhunter - Microcastle
5. Destroyer - Trouble in Dreams
6. Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville [reissue]
7. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
8. Xiu Xiu - Women as Lovers
9. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
10. Times New Viking - Rip it Off
11. Little Joy - Little Joy
12. Sigur Ros - Blah, blah, foreign title
13. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
14. Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster...
15. Deerhoof - Offend Maggie
16. The Walkmen - You & Me
17. Tapes n’ Tapes - Walk it Off
18. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
19. The Raveonettes - Lust, Lust, Lust

Jonathan Bradley

1. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
2. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
4. Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak
5. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III
6. Laura Marling – Alas I Cannot Swim
7. Taylor Swift – Fearless
8. The-Dream – Love/Hate
9. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
10. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
11. Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers
12. Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke
13. Ashlee Simpson – Bittersweet World
14. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
15. The Knux – Remind Me in 3 Days...
16. Santogold – Santogold
17. The Veronicas – Hook Me Up
18. No Age – Nouns
19. Augie March – Watch Me Disappear
20. The Kills – Midnight Boom

Ally Brown

1. Portishead - Third
2. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
3. Shearwater - Rook
4. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
5. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
6. Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight
7. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
8. Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend
9. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark
10. Santogold vs. Diplo - Top Ranking
11. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
12. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
13. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
14. Super Adventure Club - Chalk Horror!
15. Santogold - Santogold
16. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
17. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
18. The Bug - London Zoo
19. DeVotchka - A Mad and Faithful Telling
20. Monkey - Journey to the West

Andrew Casillas

1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
3. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
4. Sons & Daughters - This Gift
5. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
6. Lila Downs - Shake Away
7. The Knux - Remind Me in 3 Days...
8. Julieta Venegas - MTV Unplugged
9. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
10. Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster
11. Akrobatik - Absolute Value
12. No Age - Nouns
13. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
14. Santogold - Santogold
15. The Kills - Midnight Boom
16. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Vol. 1: 4th World War
17. She & Him - Volume One
18. Estelle - Shine
19. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
20. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath

Justin Cober-Lake

1. Aaron Parks - Invisible Cinema
2. The Shackeltons - The Shackeltons
3. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
4. The Duke Spirit - Neptune
5. Marco Benevento - Invisible Baby
6. Public Record - Public Record
7. Wovenhand - Ten Stones
8. Grampall Jukabox - Ropechain
9. Avishai Cohen Trio - Gently Disturbed
10. Mavis Staples - Mavis Staples Live: Hope at the Hideout
11. Sean Noonan - Boxing Dreams
12. The Strugglers - The Latest Rights
13. Janelle Monae - Metropolis: The Chase Suite
14. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
15. Major Labels - Aquavia
16. David Crowder - Remedy Club Tour - Live
17. Shot x Shot - Let Nature Square
18. Calexico - Carried to Dust
19. Danny! - And I Love H.E.R.
20. Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog - Party Intellectuals

Jason Gross

1. Wussy - Left for Dead
2. The Whigs - Mission Control
3. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark
4. Honeydripper OST
5. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
6. The Heavy Great Vengeance - Furious Fire
7. Los Campesinos! - Hold on Now, Youngster...
8. Clark - Turning Dragon
9. James McMurty - Just Us Kids
10. Absentee - Victory Shorts
11. Münchener Kammerorchester Haydn, Yun: Farewell - Symphonies Nos. 39 and 45 / Chamber Symphony I
12. Paul Westerberg - 49:00
13. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
14. GZA - Pro Tools
15. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
16. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
17. Lucinda Williams - Little Honey
18. The Knux - Remind Me in 3 Days...
19. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip
20. Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins

Todd Hutlock

1. Portishead - Third
2. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
3. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
4. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
5. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig Lazarus Dig!!!
7. Fennesz - Black Sea
8. Brian Eno/David Byrne - Everthing That Happens Will Happen Today
9. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
10. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Sunday at Devil Dirt

Josh Love

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers
2. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
3. Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You
4. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
5. Diplo vs. Santogold – Top Ranking
6. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
7. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
8. Lee Ann Womack – Call Me Crazy
9. Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
10. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
11. Portishead – Third
12. Wale – The Mixtape About Nothing
13. Ne-Yo – Year of the Gentleman
14. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
15. Why? – Alopecia
16. The-Dream – Love/Hate
17. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins
18. Arthur Russell – Love is Overtaking Me
19. Hot Chip – Made in the Dark
20. Marit Larsen – The Chase

Ian Mathers

1. Sam Amidon – All is Well
2. Los Campesinos! – Hold on Now, Youngster…
3. Hot Chip – Made in the Dark
4. Stars Like Fleas – The Ken Burns Effect
5. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
6. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
7. The Kills – Midnight Boom
8. The Wedding Present – El Rey
9. Portishead – Third
10. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
11. Foals – Antidotes
12. Populous With Short Stories - Drawn in Basic
13. Delays – Everything's the Rush
14. Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
15. Horse Feathers – House With No Home
16. Los Campesinos! – We are Beautiful, We are Doomed
17. Paavoharju – Laulu Laakson Kukista
18. Mount Eerie & Julie Doiron - Lost Wisdom
19. The Goslings - Occasion
20. The Bug – London Zoo

Patrick McKay

1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
2. Portishead - Third
3. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
4. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
5. Steinski - What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective
6. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
7. Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs
8. Islands - Arm's Way
9. Brian Eno/David Byrne - Everything that Happens Will Happen Today
10. of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping

Lisa Oliver

1. Portishead – Third
2. Herbaliser – Same As It Never Was
3. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me
4. The School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
5. Dungen – 4
6. Sigur Ros - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
7. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
8. Adele – 19
9. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
10. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
11. Bubblegum Lemonade – Doubleplusgood
12. Noah and the Whale - Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down

Mike Orme

1. The Chap - Mega Breakfast
2. Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too
3. Max Tundra - Parallax Error Beheads You
4. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
5. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
6. Portishead - Third
7. Air France - No Way Down
8. The Kills - Midnight Boom
9. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
10. Osborne - Osborne
11. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
12. Jamie Liddell - Jim
13. The Field - Sound of Light
14. Li Jianhong - San Sheng Shi
15. Lykke Li - Youth Novels
16. School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
17. Kelley Polar - I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling
18. Brian Eno/David Byrne - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
19. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
20. The Depreciation Guild - In Her Gentle Jaws

Alfred Soto

1. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
3. Robert Forster - The Evangelist
4. The-Dream - Love/Hate
5. Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
6. Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
7. Ne-Yo - Year of the Gentlemen
8. Portishead - Third
9. Drive-By Truckers - Brighter than Creation's Dark
10. Steinski - What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective
11. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
12. Randy Newman - Harps & Angels
13. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
14. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
15. T.I. - Paper Trail
16. No Age - Nouns
17. Dolly Parton - Backwoods Barbie
18. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
19. Brian Eno/David Byrne - Everything that Happens Will Happen Today
20. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

Dave Toropov

1. Sam Amidon - All is Well
2. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
3. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
4. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
5. dj/Rupture - Uproot
6. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
7. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
8. Immortal Technique - The 3rd World
9. Why? - Alopecia
10. JDSY - Adage of Known

Theon Weber

1. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
2. Jonny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood OST
3. Brian Eno/David Byrne - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
4. Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward
5. Portishead - Third
6. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III
7. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
8. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
9. Taylor Swift - Fearless
10. Why? - Alopecia
11. Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs
12. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
13. The Knux - Remind Me In 3 Days...
14. Ashlee Simpson - Bittersweet World
15. Bloc Party - Intimacy

Christopher R. Weingarten

1. Portishead – Third
2. Kanye West – 808s And Heartbreak
3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
4. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing
5. Lindstrøm – Where You Go I Go Too
6. Torche - Meanderthal
7. Made Out of Babies – The Ruiner
8. The Roots – Rising Down
9. Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna
10. Harvey Milk – Life… The Best Game in Town
11. Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls
12. Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers – Bloom iPhone application
13. James Blackshaw – Litany Of Echoes
14. Boredoms – Super Roots 9
15. The Breeders – Mountain Battles
16. Extra Life – Secular Works
17. Be Your Own Pet – Get Awkward
18. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
19. Marnie Stern - This is It and I am It and You are It and So is That and He is It and She is It and It is It and That is That
20. Ponytail – Ice Cream Spiritual

Dan Weiss

1. Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward/Get Damaged
2. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III/The Leak
3. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
4. Portishead - Third
5. Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
6. Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It
7. No Age - Nouns
8. Stereolab - Chemical Chords
9. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
10. The Roots - Rising Down
11. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark
12. Blitzen Trapper - Furr
13. Deerhunter - Microcastle
14. The Breeders - Mountain Battles
15. Weezer - Weezer [Red Album]
16. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
17. Al Green - Lay It Down
18. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
19. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
20. Nas - Nas

Jeff Weiss

1. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
2. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
3. Madlib - Beat Konducta Vol. 5 Dil Cosby Suite
4. The Knux - Remnd Me in 3 Days...
5. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
6. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
7. Dungen - 4
8. Elzhi - Europass
9. Portishead - Third
10. Why? - Alopecia
11. Flying Lotus - Los Angeles
12. Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit - Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best
13. The Kills - Midnight Boom
14. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
15. Islands - Arm's Way
16. dj/Rupture - Uproot
17. Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer
18. Sic Alps - U.S. EZ
19. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
20. Al Green - Lay It Down


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beck - Sea Change

Beck - Sea Change
by Lisa Oliver

For years I disregarded Beck. When “Loser” came out, I thought “novelty song” and dismissed it outright. Still, despite my best efforts via various accidental means (similar to my deal with Everyone Loves Raymond I utterly dismiss it, yet somehow I’ve seen it), I ended up hearing bits and pieces of Mellow Gold and it didn’t change my mind (see aforementioned Everyone Loves Raymond reference). Then Odelay came out and even with a few strong singles, I remained nonplussed by the key-fob sized Mr. Hanson. Plus, the cover of that album really got to me after awhile. I mean yeah, it’s kind of funny but it just looks like it’s totally aware of being a weird/funny album cover. And that kind of overly conscious, cultivated oddity works me into a right lather. Like doofuses who think it’s cool to collect John Wayne Gacy's paintings.

So I sat on the sidelines and outright ignored Mutations at the time (at the urging of my boyfriend, I recently gave it a shot and it’s not bad). Sounds like reanimated Syd Barret and a non-sucking Bowie, with dusting of post-krautrock Eno and Nick Drake's gossamer whisper. Midnite Vultures was fine, but never made it to heavy rotation; I only just realized “Debra” was on it.

Signal Sea Change. I heard “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and I melted. Then I heard “Golden Age” and was an utter goner; it never occurred to me that it was Beck. I got the whole album and I’m not really sure what the tipping point was–music, words, time in my life–but for some reason it all washed over me in a gorgeous, honey-hued haze. After further listening, with the initial infatuation gone, I realized that all the tracks have a similar aural range and the lyrics, well, aren’t great. They remind me of Foo Fighters lyrics in the sense that there are intense fragments of insight, but also an internal monologue that we don’t hear and ultimately, the lyrics and vocals end up acting as another instrument. I mean, yes, there is the obvious theme of Beck’s long-term relationship ending but the music speaks far louder than the words. The same slow tempo mimics the static blur of heartache and the mourning period that follows it. Most ballad-inclined musicians don’t realize how difficult it is to play slow music smoothly and have it land right in the pocket so it ebbs and flows seamlessly. Impressively, Sea Change flows as a body of work and sustains, like a book.

One of the reasons I moved away from big cities and back to my medium-sized hometown was that I had lost sight of the sky. In big cities, you are able to catch glimpses of it, but not whole sheathes. I still marvel at the expanse of sky now – despite the fact I’m two years into sky sightings. I played Sea Change in my car to re-inspire myself for this piece. As I was driving down the highway to go food shopping, I realized this album is like watching the sky – a thick patina of blue, white and gold. The swath of big sky, like the sea, shows no endpoint, no horizon line. Kind of like heart-break – it rolls on and on. With Beck’s help (of all people!), I can see the sky, the endpoint and the beauty of the stars. Can hear 'em too.

Lisa Oliver is a Columbia-educated writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Stylus, The Fly UK, Musicweek UK, Yahoo! Music, NME, Publishers Weekly, Domino and People.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Look Back in Anger #4

Look Back in Anger #4
by Justin Cober-Lake

What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? The intention of this column is to go back in the ol’ time machine to examine the albums that we personally named the best of a given year and see if we still feel the same way about them. Did they age well? Do we still play them? Did we leave off an album that we’re now kicking ourselves over? These are the questions we will be asking ourselves in this WWIA? Series.

This week, Justin Cober-Lake reexamines his Best of 2003 list.

I began my career as a music critic in 2003. I always feel compelled to simultaneously hide and confess the fact that I hadn't been a music nerd for too long before that. I didn't grow up poring through music mags or rounding up Velvet Underground. I had gotten enough of a handle on things by 2003 that I felt confident enough to start writing, but barely.

When it came time for list-making, I didn't really have much to offer. I had spent most of the year following trends, trying to learn what "good" music was. I'd have been insulted, of course, if you'd have suggested I was following the crowd, but I was to an extent, primarily by reading every article on PopMatters and Pitchfork and then downloading or occasionally buying whatever they told me to (eMusic was a blessing). When I went into my stacks to re-listen to 2003 for this article, I was struck by how much the music I had at the time could line up with the best-of lists of either particular magazines or Metacritic. Or were completely random albums I had reviewed.

Still, I think I did a pretty decent job putting together a collection of records that I liked, and it holds up reasonably well for me today (even if there's a distinct appeal to only one color/sex/style of person and no thought for spiritual music). I'll probably knock about half the list out of the top 10, but I still think they're all good records, and acceptable picks at the time. As is always the case, I didn't necessarily pick what had the most holding power, and that's one of the ways I can tell in retrospect which albums I really should have included.

Where I give myself away, though, is less with my list and more with my comments. Start with the fact that I had to include four "honorable mentions." I had probably heard 20-25 albums by the time I made my list, so it's doubtful that I needed to mention 14 of them in my top 10. Notice that for my last album, by the Unicorns, I mention how they knocked the Shins out of the final spot. It's a moment where I have to assert my familiarity with the landscape (because I'm questioning it internally), but also where I'm assuming that it's just conventional wisdom that the Shins are a top 10 pick. I need to explain not having them.

And so my list goes like that, with me trying to hide a lack of knowledge (of music in general and of 2003) and of confidence (in my taste), and secretly giving away both. One final note: I kept Broken Social Scene off my list because I was being a snob about the release date. I had ordered the Canadian release in 2002 and wanted to prove -- if only to myself -- that I knew when that album really came out.

1. Elbow, Cast of Thousands (V2)

I can stick by this pick. This was the second import CD I had ever bought (BSS being the first), and easily the most impulsive. I had streamed the album at some site online and was so blown away that I downloaded the previous album and immediately ordered this from Amazon UK. Note that it wouldn't come out in the US until 2004, but I was consistent with my dating system. I still love this one five years later, and imagine I always will.

2. Calexico, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick/Touch and Go)

Another one I don't have a problem with, and re-listening to it with this list in mind made me think that the gap between #1 and #2 here is smaller than I'd have thought. Burns and Convertino can't go wrong, but this disc just works better than the others, right from that opening line through the restlessness of "No Doze" (or, more fittingly, through the bonus tracks and "Fallin' Rain".

3. The Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)

I must have been caught up in the backstory and the different feel that this had in my louder, more raucous collection. It's a smart, beautiful album, but I've only played it a handful of times since 2003, and I can only hum two songs off it. It's an album I appreciate and respect more than I spin, and, in this case, that has to bump it down a little.

4. Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantics (Dirtnap)

Love it. This should have been the last album I bought before I got married, but… it was just before two days of driving and shortly before my stop in the music store that I read about their tragedy [only one member of the band survived a touring van accident] and, out of nervousness, bought Grandaddy instead. This kind of music sounds like it should be easy to make, but if that were so, there'd be more bands this enjoyable.

5. Clearlake, Cedars (Domino)

The first half of this album is definitely top ten. The second half holds up well, but it's just not as strong. I really dig this band, but the gushing praise I gave this as one of my early reviews and its placement at number 5 isn't quite deserved.

6. Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (Ya Basta!/XL/Beggars Group)

This record fit perfectly in with my explorations of electronic music at the time, and especially in downtempo or lounge-y acts. The blend here still works really well for me, and, probably because of my limited palette, I haven't heard much that does what this one does as well as it does, mixing electronics and the tango. Discovering this record was fun, as was discovering that I could really like something like this record.

7. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)

Clearly I gave Leo my vote for Tyranny of Distance. As much as I like Leo, I don't know how this record snuck on. I don't even remember liking it this much, even though I went through a Ted Leo phase and still dig "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?"

8. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)

An example of me liking something I was supposed to like. "Now It's On" remains a great cut, but I played this album too much at the time, and I haven't picked it up in years. Going back over it, it really is a good record and I don't mean to disparage it, but I think it benefited from me not having heard much like it at this point. The indie world was relatively new for me and I found something here I could connect with.

9. Four Tet, Rounds (Domino)

I don't know why I like Four Tet so much, and I've even been considering doing an article on this year's release with exactly that premise. Everything this guy puts out really connects with me, even though he's not operating in a genre(s) that I usually flip for. This release just has so much going for it in so many ways. It's easy to forget how many ideas are packed in here because Hebden does it so smoothly.

10. The Unicorns, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (Alien8 Recordings)

Happy to be weird. I like that it's goofy and fun, and has some incredible pop hooks in the middle of it. I'm unsure what to do with it, because I think it's a blast and I have warm fuzzies from its appearance during the newlywed bliss period of my life. Even counting its brevity as a strength, though, it's still just a little too long. I might regret what I do with this one...

I haven't really broken away from what I recognize as circumscribed thinking from that period. My tastes expanded wildly after this point and I started listening to drastically more albums per year. Even so, I haven't shaken the connections I made with some of the albums from that period (and will confess that my Postal Service love might be influenced by the numbers of listens my new wife and I gave it on long car rides). My new list is only as fleetingly accurate as the first, but it does account for durability even if it marks a somewhat frozen moment of thinking. Interestingly, though, none of my honorable mentions even sniff this one.

New List:

Elbow, Cast of Thousands
Dave Douglas, Freak In
Calexico, Feast of Wire
Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It in People
Four Tet, Rounds
The Postal Service, Give Up
Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantics
Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango
Jason Moran, The Bandwagon
Derek Webb, She Must and Shall Go Free

Original list

Honorable mentions: The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow; The Heavenly States, The Heavenly States; The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music; Over the Rhine, Ohio

Justin Cober-Lake is the interviews editor at PopMatters and has published fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and lyrics in a variety of places, including Stylus,, Chord, and Trouser Press. He's been writing steadily for Wrong Note Media for several years, and his work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off

The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off
by Ian Mathers

When I pitched a defense of this record, Dan asked if I wouldn’t rather knock Bows + Arrows down a peg. I politely declined, partly because I want to mostly talk about their best album, the only truly great one they've recorded yet, not the others. And I simply don’t have much to say about the Walkmen’s other albums. The new You & Me keeps inviting the “return to form” tag, but it seems draggy and formless to me. So maybe the problem is that I don’t like their normal form. Their ostensible peak is actually from Bows + Arrows: “The Rat,” is still a blistering example of I’m-getting-too-old-for-this-town self-loathing. But beyond the rather graceful “Hang On, Siobhan,” the album fails to maintain the intensity and slips past me.

By contrast, I love red-headed-stepchild-by-acclamation A Hundred Miles Off for its confident, muscular ugliness. It’s the rare album that soundtracks the joyously intoxicated night out as well as the next morning's headache. It's frequently atonal, smeared, trebly, possibly overcompressed, and so on. And it is one of my favorite recent rock albums. Hamilton Leithauser pushes his sneer upwards into a painful semi-falsetto and into almost Dylanesque territory, while Matt Barrick absolutely murders his drums (that drumroll in the middle of “Tenleytown” goes on and on until it hurts). This is the album where Peter Bauer and Walter Martin switched instruments (to organs/keyboard and bass, respectively), possibly why they sound fresher here than they ever did.

If you're keen to this manic slop of an aesthetic, the thing's astoundingly solid–no filler in 41 minutes but for a few hazy blobs that advance the post-booze comedown feel. “Louisiana,” the most “accessible” track, eases the flow of caterwaul until Leithauser announces “I got my hands full!” and the horns start parping away. But the echoing “Danny’s at the Wedding” is more indicative of where things are going. The tempo remains distorted (if it exploded, we’d be in “Tenleytown” territory, not the last time this record will circle back around on itself) in a dead, ugly groove, building to Leithauser shrieking out “I really tried my best! I really tried my best!” His voice really is a thing of wonder here; without his piercing vociferation, these songs wouldn’t impact. I can understand why it might only have niche appeal, since that target sound is so messy and difficult.

“Good for You is Good for Me” ups the tempo a little, and brings up the first of several near-thematic mentions of dreaming (“Maybe I'll stop by/ You weren't in the dream I had last night”). The guitar is mostly a rhythmless background blur that gathers momentum as Leithauser croons, “I don’t get some people/ I don’t even try.” The approach bears fruit in “Emma, Get Me a Lemon,” which opens with such a perversely unappealing call for booze-related fixings that only that far-away guitar buzz and Barrick’s circular work make it bearable. We’ve gone from a song about moving in with someone from sheer inertia to something more twisted, impermanent and doomed (“It’s a long way home, let’s enjoy the ride” is as happy as the Walkmen's narrators get).

The fuzzier, indistinct half of the record comes to a head with “All Hands and the Cook,” and the most explicit summing up of the record's perverse belligerence: “Stop talking to the neighbor’s dog/ I got a temper when it’s late/ Break all the windows in my car
Burn down the room when I’m asleep/ Break out the bottles when I go/ I’ll dig a hole for all your friends.” Leithauser sings with less malice than just offhand menace and blustery afterthought. “Don't Get Me Down (Come on Over Here)” is even more direct, Barrick shoving the track forward to give some thrust to Leithauser’s wailed demand to “come on over here.” It’s a song of curdled lust and genuine affection soured by time and ennui.

And it leads right into the impossibly strident “Tenleytown” with a middle break where Barrick does his best to imitate a migraine. The guitars are still kind of distant, albeit doing this great almost-rockabilly figure, as the song makes like the Stooges during the more straightforwardly manic bits of Fun House. I haven’t looked at the waveforms to see how hot they are or anything, but A Hundred Miles Off has a cohesive, distinct sound that would be inadvisable for most artists, yet works wonders for this usually unremarkable unit, shoving the brash unpleasantness of their record right through your ear canal.

Ian Mathers has written for Stylus Magazine, Village Voice, PopMatters and the world's biggest Philip K. Dick fan site. He is currently finishing his Master's degree in Philosophy at the University of Guelph and wishes he had more time to write about music.