The Ones that Got Away: Other Good Music in 2011

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here are a few other albums that I think deserve your attention from this past year. If you missed my top ten, head over to the Mockingbird Blog to check it out.

Return of 4eva-Big K.R.I.T
Big K.R.I.T. is a rapper’s rapper: he makes his own beats, writes his own songs and releases song-heavy mixtapes for free. The reason Return of 4eva didn’t find a spot on my top ten was due in part to the sprawling nature of the album. With 21 songs on the album, some of them just don’t measure up to the others. K.R.I.T. is at his best when his raps are personal and socially conscious, and those tracks are the ones that carry this mixtape along and make it stand out. One such song is Dreamin’ where K.R.I.T. tells his life story, his smooth flow sliding over a laidback beat, which acts as a counterpart to the personal and relatable final songs of the mixtape Free My Soul and Vent. However, the two best songs on the album find K.R.I.T. commenting on the perception of hip-hop and African Americans. American Rapstar’s chorus is a hard-hitting condemnation of the hip-hop lifestyle and what it engenders, while Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism’s (it’s an anagram) quiet piano and shimmering horns mask a potent social commentary about race.

Metals-Feist
The newest album from Canada’s Leslie Feist is beautiful and heart-rending, and would have made my top ten save for a few songs I just really don’t enjoy. However, Metals is home to some of the most beautiful songs I heard this year: Cicadas and Gulls, Graveyard and Bittersweet Melodies. And bittersweet this album is, filled with Feist’s tender voice ruminating on a broken relationship, emotional and fragile. It is a certainly a cathartic piece of art and more than worth your time.

Lasers-Lupe Fiasco
If you know anything about Lasers, you probably know about Lupe’s problems getting this album released and the eventual compromises he had to make with his record label. When Lasers is good, it’s very good; however, when it’s bad, it’s some of the worst music Lupe has ever put his name on. For an artist who thrives on his nerdy persona, slick, over-produced songs like Out of My Head and Break the Chain just don’t work. Fortunately, songs like The Words I Never Said, The Show Goes On and All Black Everything find Lupe at his best and are welcome additions to his best songs.

The Whole Love-Wilco
Shortly after arriving in Texas, I went on a Wilco kick and finally listened to some of their older albums like Summerteeth and A Ghost is Born. This minor obsession culminated with my purchase of The Whole Love, which is a perfectly good album, but can’t compare with albums like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It simply doesn’t have the same consistency as those albums, however it still boasts some fantastic songs like I Might, The Whole Love and the twelve minute album closer One Sunday Morning.

The next three albums definitely would have found a way onto my year-end list had I listened to them in 2011. Alas, I can only give them my stamp of approval now, and hope if you haven’t already checked them out, that you do so ASAP.

Bon Iver-Bon Iver
While I often have no idea what Justin Vernon is singing about, his music conveys emotion with such ease that it is hard to not be swept away. In that manner, Bon Iver reminds me of a Terrence Malick film: poetic, abstract and transcendent. Art like this is not immediately accessible, especially if you’ve never listened to Bon Iver before, but it’s worth the effort to appreciate.

Camp-Childish Gambino
I’ll come right out and say it: this is not an album for those easily offended. Donald Glover, known for his role on NBC’s Community, is also a very good rapper, and Camp showcases those skills much better than previous mixtapes he has released. Musically, the albums stands out, with luxurious soundscapes on the softer songs, and hard-hitting beats that let Glover’s explosive flow stand out. Lyrically, Camp reminds me of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as songs like Outside, L.E.S. and That Power are achingly personal, while others (Bonfire, Sunrise) are straight-up battle raps, pointed at Gambino’s haters. Despite some of these ill-advised jabs, Glover often takes aim at important social issues, which makes Camp an engaging, if paradoxical listen.

Helplessness Blues-Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues is a big album, asking big questions about life and love, and doing so with such grace that it never feels overblown. The folkish Americana played by the group transitions in between upbeat and slower tempos effortlessly over the course of the album, and often even mid-song, creating a musically well-rounded album. Considering that themes of purpose and growing older carried through the album, Helplessness Blues feels like a coherent work of art, not just a few scattered songs.

All Eternals Deck

May 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

From the opening notes of Damn These Vampires to the closing lines of Liza Forever Minnelli, All Eternals Deck is a upward journey through the dark places of the human psyche and condition into a place of a certain contentment, touching on matters of utmost importance often veiled in cryptic phraseology. Like many of The Mountain Goats previous releases, All Eternals Deck continues to touch on the deepest failures and fears of human life, but manages to push through these tribulations toward a genuine awareness that although this world is still marred by pain and sorrow, beauty and healing can be found. In this way, All Eternals Deck reminds me of The Sunset Tree in its ability to address deeply personal matters in such a way that the listener can experience their own emotions in the obliquely worded lyrics of John Darnielle. This time around the music matches the songs and is quite worthy in its own right unlike the majority of The Mountain Goat’s last album, The Life of the World to Come, which suffered from similar sounding music and poor pacing.

Our journey begins with the mournful piano of Damn These Vampires, a slow burning meditation about vampires. As Darnielle sings in the chorus, “Crawl ’til dawn/On my hands and knees/God damn these vampires/For what they’ve done to me,” one can’t help but wonder what these vampires represent. Is Darnielle musing on on the general state of mankind, drawn in by dark and mysterious things until it is too late to escape? Or do the vampires represent the past, unshakable memories that haunt and wound?  Whatever the case may be, Damn These Vampires sets up the brooding and questioning nature of the rest of the album, where allusions, references and metaphors abound and it is up to the listener to untangle them and make sense of Darnielle’s lyrics.

These metaphysical concerns and references keep coming up throughout the album, and with them it seems as if Darnielle is attempting to answer or at least consider some larger questions of life. The album’s third track, Estate Sale Sign, is full of religious imagery and lyrics mentioning memory, while the music draws the song along at a quick clip, not giving us the luxury of really being able to catch the meaning. Lines like, “Worked hard to build this altar…the sacrificial stains all spreading out and and soaking through,” and, “Stock shots, stupid stock shots…set up like unloved icons gathering dust up on the wall/from films no one remembers,” draw our attention to the recurring theme of memory, the past and forgetfulness that Darnielle seems particularly occupied with on this album. Age of Kings, whose musical backdrop is pristine, featuring some beautiful string arrangements, picks up this theme of memory again, as Darnielle sings of a past relationship. The last verse is gut-wrenching, “Small chambers sinking ’til they vanish/Wolves in the hallway gaining ground/Reach down to the moment when I should have said something true/Shadows and their sources now stealing away with you.” 

After the moody The Autopsy Garland urges its recipient to remember certain places and times, Beautiful Gas Mask takes over the listener’s ear drums. The refrain commands us to “Never sleep, remember to breathe deep,” trying to make us calm and alert at the same time as we try to stay together in the face of nameless shadows and an eventual reckoning with someone or something. High Hawk Season asks us how we will be remembered, “Who will rise and who will sing?/Who’s going to stand his ground and who’s going to blink?”  There is almost a sense of paranoia in Darnielle’s voice as he sings, “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake,” as if the world is coming to an end or that this may be the only chance we have to truly live, taking advantage of every day.

Prowl Great Cain deals with the curse that bad memories can bring, and I can’t help but wonder if this song is mining the same autobiographical territory as The Sunset Tree in Darnielle handling the memory of his abusive father. As the song draws near its close and Darnielle wails, “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me/And other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy,” I am reminded of the scars of the past that haunt all of us. The very next song, Sourdoire Valley Song, highlights another facet of memory, the bittersweet nature of leaving things behind that once held such joy. In a few words, the song’s chorus beautifully sums up having to leave behind memories and the past as we move forward, “And then the grass grows to cover up the fire pit and the forge/Half a world away from the Olduvai Gorge.”

It is with Outer Scorpion Squadron that the album begins to take a turn to the positive. In this soft, touching ballad, Darnielle sings of conjuring up ghosts of the past, learning to live with them and eventually putting them behind you. He seems to suggest that once you own your past and the many terrible, painful things that make up a part of it you can begin to make steps toward healing, and with the final three songs of the album, this healing begins to manifest itself. For Charles Bronson encourages a certain Stoicism toward the past, advising to concentrate on good things and try to live as if the past has no hold on you or your current state. I think many pass through this stage on their way to realizing that true healing never comes in this manner.

Healing comes in the awareness of our own failure to ever escape the past and its damage, and this is what Never Quite Free masterfully shows. On this Earth, the closest we may come to true freedom is this deep and difficult realization that our past makes us who we are and we have to learn to live with it and the way it has shaped us. The most cathartic song on the album by far, I can identify with Darnielle as he almost whispers the verses, and the second one especially hits home, “It’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward/There’s no fear of shadows spreading where you stand/And you’ll breathe easier just knowing the worst is all behind you/And the waves that tossed the raft all night have set you on dry land.” Now, maybe the worst isn’t behind me, but I know that the struggles and wounds of the past and present have shaped me and will continue to do so as long as I live. In order to move toward healing, we have to acknowledge our flawed and damaged state or we may forever remain entrapped by our pain and our suffering, not understanding that everyone has their own skeletons in their closets: we are no different.

All Eternals Deck is a challenging, but rewarding album. For those who want a straightforward message in their music, this is not the album for them, but for those who invest careful attention it will reveal a deeper message, spoken through metaphor and imagery. By wrestling with his past in an open and vulnerable way, Darnielle encourages us to take a second look at our own past and how we can find healing in our circumstances, a topic he frequently sings about. I can’t recommend this album enough.

The Age of Adz

October 14, 2010 § 5 Comments

When Sufjan Stevens announced a new full-length album after several years of side-projects and silence, indie fans everywhere rejoiced. Here was Stevens, the poster boy for high-brow indie folk-rock, finally returning to blow our minds again. And if the critical and popular response is a barometer, The Age of Adz has either exhilarated you or confused the crap out of you. Departing from his usual orchestrated, quirky folk-rock, Sufjan has replaced the banjo and acoustic guitar with a dazzling array of electronic effects and dark, soul-searching lyrics, which in turn has alienated some of his old fans.

It seems to me, however, that this isn’t that radical departure that some have said it is. These songs are still packed with sound, except this time it is electronic noise, not layered guitar parts. Sufjan’s lyrics have also carried their dark side (John Wayne Gacy Jr. anyone?), but in the past the music surrounding this darkness has softened it, not intensified it. Yes, for those accustomed to Come On, Feel the Illinoise!, Michigan and Seven Swans, The Age of Adz feels like someone has replaced their best friend with a strange facsimile of him. But I think if they keep listening they’ll find that their friend has not been replaced, but only been changed by his experiences over the past few years. This is an album created from a deeply personal place, and while Sufjan does take inspiration from artist Royal Robertson (the album is named after one of his paintings) and his story, this album is more an exploration of Sufjan’s psyche than it is anything else.

To some this album may sound like a disaster, like it was created without form. To think that Sufjan, a meticulous musician if there ever was one, would have just thrown Age of Adz together without thought is a preposterous assumption. Now, some may say it is over-indulgent or pompous, but that doesn’t mean it is unorganized or sloppy. It is a chaotic, bewildering ride, but I think it is like this for a reason. What is Sufjan, who is an artist obsessed with making grand statements about life through his music, trying to say with The Age of Adz? This is the question before us as we listen to this confounding, glorious mess of an album.

Opener “Futile Devices” closes with the line, “And words are futile devices.” As the delicate music fades, we are abruptly forced into the harsh, electronic landscape that constitutes “Too Much.” I think this is a deliberate move on the part of Sufjan, and by forcing us to confront this new sonic texture he is placing the music/style of album above the “futile devices” of language. This isn’t to say that the lyrics don’t play a major role on this album, but that perhaps they play, and always have played, a subservient or complementary role in Sufjan’s music.

So onward we venture, into the noise that is The Age of Adz. There are big questions everywhere on this album, sometimes voiced very subtly. Sufjan is contemplating aging, fame, relationships and ultimately life and love and he’s doing this within the framework of the album. He’s asking us to concentrate, and in recent interviews, he has wondered if the album means anything anymore with people downloading music as much as they do.

“When I die, oh when I die, I’ll rot/but when I live, when I live, I’ll give it all I got,” sings Sufjan on the title track. The Age of Adz seems to embody tension throughout its running time. There is a tension between the electronic elements and the horns and strings, a tension between death and illness and life and love and a tension between Sufjan the artist and Sufjan the person.  On “Vesuvius” Sufjan refers to himself in the third person with these lines, “Sufjan, follow your heart/Follow the flame or fall on the floor/Sufjan, the panic inside/The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.” This is Sufjan revealing his thoughts to us, and possibly giving us a clue about his departure from his previous style of music.

It seems as if Sufjan is trying to follow his heart, answering his own question from “Come On, Feel the Illinoise!” of, “Are you writing from the heart?” On “I Want to be Well” Sufjan confidently declares, “I’m not f—ing around.” This comes as a shock to us, as Sufjan normally never uses profanity in his songs, but I think it is a necessary shock. It’s Sufjan letting us know that this album isn’t the result of him screwing around, but that it is a cohesive statement about life and his desire to live it in the right way. It is also fitting that this line comes right before the album’s 25 minute closer, “Impossible Soul,” an exhausting, overwhelming, yet truly triumphant song if there ever was one.

“Impossible Soul” deserves a blog post in its own right, which I will save for another time. The Age of Adz also deserves more than this slight write-up. It deserves your time, concentration and contemplation. There are parts that confuse me and that I don’t appreciate musically, but I think the musical vision that Sufjan is bringing to the table here is something that hasn’t been heard before. Is it the defining album of our time, as some of the more extreme hyperbole has stated? Is it even the best album of the year? We’ll have to see how well it holds up, but what I can say is that it will definitely be one of the most challenging and also most potentially rewarding albums of the year. So what is Sufjan trying to say? I think he’s asking us to filter through all the noise in our lives, mirrored in some ways by the noise on The Age of Adz, and find the meaning underneath it all.

The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together…crushing each other with colossal expectations.”

You could make a case for Stuck Between Stations as being one of the best songs on Boys and Girls in America but when you have this many good songs on an album, why quibble? As the frenetic keyboard of Franz Nicolay swarms through Finn’s vocals you already know that this album is something special. It’s strange how easy it is for me to identify with The Hold Steady, considering that during my teenage years, I didn’t do any of the things they sing about. But there are certain things that are universal to being a teenager in America, trying to grow up in a country that places such large expectations on its youth, which we in turn place upon ourselves.

If one pays attention to the Hold Steady’s discography there is a clear thematic progression from their debut Almost Killed Me to their latest album Heaven is Whenever. That theme is growing up. Almost Killed Me is full of tales of parties, whereas Separation Sunday deals with redemption and religion amidst the parties. Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever both deal with the consequences of these actions and the slow realization that responsibility eventually comes along with life. And with this responsibility comes some wisdom gathered from failures and successes (more on this in weeks to come). Boys and Girls in America is the transitional album between these, as it seeks to find out how this transition takes place and while doing this it delivers some beautiful insight into the growing us process.

I don’t pretend that I’ve fully grown up, so in many senses there are still things in my life that resonate with Finn’s lyrics. Not necessarily with the specific circumstances but with the emotions behind them. I know the colossal expectations us boys place on the girls and in many cases the colossal pressure girls place on guys. And I also know the expectations we place on ourselves.

There are songs like Party Pit, Massive Nights and Hot Soft Light that tap into the joyful invincibility of teenage years. You can hear it as Finn sings. Those years when you don’t want anyone telling you what to do and when you think you know everything. When you have your first girlfriend and you are absolutely convinced that nothing would ever make you break up, even though everyone older than you says otherwise. You feel like you can defy the entire world, until you learn that you can’t.

This is something Craig Finn seems to know well as these odes to parties and good times are broken up by songs like First Night, Citrus and Southtown Girls which show a different picture. Some things can never be the same when you grow up. High school is never high school again. As Finn sings in First Night, “We can’t get as high as we did on that first night.” What follows this line might be the closest thing to musical realization of growing up that I’ve ever heard. Everything always changes and we can try to postpone that, Lord knows I’ve tried, but we can’t stop it.

It’s fitting that the album closes with this line from Southtown Girls, “Southtown girls won’t blow you away, but you know they’ll stay.” What’s more important, loyalty and security or life-altering experiences? It’s almost like Finn is asking us, the boys and girls in America: who are you going to be? It’s up to us to make the decision.

The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday

June 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is not a review of just an album or even necessarily a review. Think of it as an exploration, if you will, trying to figure out why over the past few months The Hold Steady has become one of my new favorite bands. Certainly, they make good music with, at times, monstrous hooks, but it’s something more. They have it. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that one line or one piece of music that transforms the music into something transcendent, hopeful even. Some bands have this in small quantities, and some, even though they may make great music, don’t have it at all. But The Hold Steady does, and this light pops up in unexpected places in their normally dismal (or triumphant) tales of drugs, alcohol and relationships gone awry.

Most of my love for The Hold Steady springs from their albums Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America. These are also the two albums of theirs I have the most experience with. I hope to, over the next few weeks, do write ups on each of the albums and their moments of profound truth. I’ll start with the albums I know the best which will give me time to listen to the others and form a better opinion.

Craig Finn, leader singer and lyricist, is part genius and part insane. There is a certain poetic brutality to some of his lyrics. At first listen, his lyrics seem to be rambles about partying and living it up. But with repeated, concentrated listens we see Finn is often telling both sides of the story. He does this through a myriad of ways, one of the most prominent being recurring characters, Holly (or Hallelujah), Charlemange and Gideon, that resurface in the lyrics from time to time as we follow their lives.

Holly is the main focus of Separation Sunday, as the album is a loose concept album related to Holly’s life and her eventual return to her church on Easter Sunday. Considering the album ends with “This is How a Resurrection Really Feels” it’s probably the most redemptive of The Hold Steady’s albums. To really understand the story takes some in-depth listening. That’s the beauty of The Hold Steady. You can rock out to their music if you just want to listen to some loud guitars, or if you take a little more time you can peel back the layers of depth underneath the music. Let’s look a little closer at how Separation Sunday manages to tell a story of true redemption amidst a bunch of crap.

Hornets! Hornets! starts off the album giving us a sort of background to Holly and who she is, “She said there’s going to be a time when I’m going to have to go with whoever gets me the highest.” This leads right into Cattle and the Creeping Things which is slathered with religious images, as Holly appears to be going through rehab, where she has discovered God. Filled a plethora of ingenious lyrics such as “I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted” and “she said: I was seeing double for three straight days after I got born again” the song propels religion into the forefront of this album. Right after this song, the albums swings back to the partying, and continues these drastic swings throughout.

In an interview Craig Finn says this, which I found fascinating and which explains a lot of the struggle between religion and hedonism on Separation Sunday.

You know, so I went on the road, and I brought a bunch of Kerouac stuff. And I think it’s just incredible writing, and beautiful, but one of those things that I thought was interesting was how he was always wrestling with his conservative upbringing. I think a lot of people wrestle with that, and that’s what these characters are doing. They’re swinging wildly between a conservative, religious upbringing and a more hedonistic, desperate lifestyle. (http://www.splendidezine.com/features/holdsteady/)

This phenomenon occurs right away in the next song, Your Little Hoodrat Friend. Talking about Holly, the song says, “Tiny little text etched into her neck that says ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins.’ She’s got blue-black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back, says ‘damn right, He’ll rise again.” Immediately the religious imagery appears again among the “getting plastered” and “getting probed” by the cops. One line in particular points to this mentality that Finn is trying to get at when it says, “I’ve been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church and I’ve been plowed.” The “searching” here could mean a number of things and that half of what makes Finn’s lyrics so interesting. Searching for God or simply searching for a place to crash until the high wears off?

The album rolls on with Banging Camp, finding our characters searching for redemption among drugs and alcohol as they party along the banks of the river. Charlemange in Sweatpants continues the story, “Holly was supposed to be at CCD but she was down on shady streets…and it’s not like she’s enslaved, it’s more like she’s enthralled.” Here we have Holly skipping out on CCD to go downtown, party and find drugs so she can have a “good time”.

Stevie Nix could be considered the turning point of the album, as the final stanza tells us about Holly’s past and the many things that contribute to her eventual redemption at the end of the album. “She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players…she got confused about the truth, she came to in a confession.” All of this could be so easy to miss with the guitars blaring in the background and the beautiful piano solo that leads into and continues throughout this final stanza. Multitude of Casualties tells of how Holly eventually arrives at the end of her rope, ditches her boyfriend (Gideon?) and becomes born again. “While he was down in Lowertown, she was feeling out the 5:30 folk mass…youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed up teenage life.”

Don’t Let Me Explode and Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night don’t really further Holly’s narrative along much, but they do explain Charlemange’s fate, if you catch the subtle hint to it at the Don’t Let Me Explode.   Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night is interesting due to the numerous religious references that pepper its lyrics, and is a great jam, like most of the songs on the album. But as far as Holly’s story goes, the last two songs on Separation Sunday are by far the most redeeming and interesting.

Crucifixion Cruise despite its under two-minute running time, truly marks Holly’s turn from her former life to grace. “Talking loud over lousy connections, she put her mouth around a difficult question. she said, ‘Lord, what do you recommend to a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends?’” The soft music that swells underneath this declaration stands in contrast to the rather raucous rock ‘n’ roll that has characterized the rest of the album, and really sells this moment. Then, with all the joy that a guitar can muster, comes How a Resurrection Really Feels, crashing into the quiet and delivering Holly’s final message.

She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass…when she said, ‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Holly has returned. Enough said.

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