2013 Mid-Year Album Roundup: Miscellaneous

Tue Sep 10 2013

I know, I can scarcely call it the middle of the year any more, but here’s the last installment of long-overdue reviews of albums from early 2013. Some of them could definitely use more work and I didn’t include mp3s (although most title links take you somewhere you can listen) but what the heck, it’s just a blog, right? My apologies to Ceramic Dog, Day Joy, Dirty Beaches, Eric & Magill, Pizza!, Steven Wilson, Thundercat, Twin Brother and anyone who might bother to read this.

Ceramic Dog, Your Turn

I'll get this out of the way: I saw this band in late May, after years of wishing Marc Ribot would come and play live in my area, especially with this, my favorite of his projects, and all I can say is the show surpassed all my expectations. When Ceramic Dog first appeared with 2008's spectacular Party Intellectuals album, Ribot's website made one thing clear: this was "Not a 'project': a real band." So I waited patiently and futilely for this real band to tour, which it did, in Europe and sporadically on the coasts, but never here. I figured it was dead in the water, as Ches Smith (drums/electronics) and Shahzad Ismaily (bass/electronics) could easily keep busy with Secret Chiefs 3, but suddenly, up popped Your Turn and two Chicago shows. And there was much rejoicing. Now, I didn't expect this album to compete with Party Intellectuals; that album is completely unique and perfect and there'll never be another one like it, but it's all over the place. Your Turn is more of an attempt to perfect the particular style of Party tracks like "Digital Handshake" and "Midost" and the cover of "Break On Through", a driving, garagey mashup of post-punk and jazz fusion, and actually define the style of the band; the funny part is that rather than polish it, they've stripped it down to quasi-punk rock.  This approach is represented on tracks like "Your Turn", "Ritual Slaughter" and the incredible sucker-punch instrumental "Prayer", among others, but the razor-sharp, hectic energy pervades most of the album. Ultimately, it's at the live show where this style takes over the entire proceedings; Your Turn isn't as eclectic as the first album, but it's still got quite a few outlier tracks like the Eastern-flavored rant "Masters Of The Internet", the defiantly sweet plucked ballad "Ain't Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around" and the bitter lounge swing of "The Kid Is Back", and each of these is a great, great song. The musicians, each of whom is arguably in the world top ten on his instrument, rarely lay all their cards on the table; they prefer to experiment and play to the strengths of the song than show off, and Ribot's crop of tunes is almost as good (and certainly more lyrically incisive) than on the band's first album. It's a less pleasant record, with fewer supremely satisfying moments and nowhere near the overall flow, but although it requires more effort, it's damn near as good as its predecessor. Y'know, if you like weird, hard-to-play music.

Day Joy: Go To Sleep, Mess

The first things that came to mind listening to this album were Blessed Feathers and that first real Grizzly Bear album (Yellow House; I don't really count Horn Of Plenty); the very natural-sounding echo, the ghostly harmonies, the organic plucks and strums, music for sunrise or dusk. Day Joy isn't as inventive with its arrangements, but its songs and production tug at the heartstrings just as urgently. Things even get a little animal(collective)istic with the pounding and yelping in "Talks Of Terror" and the swells of windy howls towards the end of "Walking Home", but for the most part, while not exactly joyful, everything stays chill and nonthreatening. Those bits of tension provide just enough counterpoint to make this album an ultimately beautiful and moving work, even though it lacks a distinctive vocalist or notable lyrics. The tasteful banjo throughout, the gloomy strings in "Purple", the hushed organ and washed-out chorals of "CCD" are all fairly common ingredients for freak-folk buzz bands, but they're really effective in almost all instances on this record. Admittedly, the lazy pace can become oppressive, and tracks like "Melting" and "Everything Is Going To Last" are SO mellow in a sea of pretty-mellow that they're downright tedious, but overall, Go To Sleep, Mess sounds like the focus of a very committed and cooperative group whose collective vision achieves something far greater than its individual parts would suggest. If they wanna be the new Grizzly Bear, I'm cool with it.

Dirty Beaches, Drifters/Love Is The Devil

Ariel Pink is everybody's favorite weirdo/subversive pop genius, but have you ever wondered what would happen if he eschewed accessibility entirely and just indulged his darkest, most impenetrable tendencies? My guess is the result would sound something like Dirty Beaches. The only people I know who would ever consider putting on Drifters (the more vocal/beat-driven record) or Love Is The Devil (the more organic, mostly instrumental one) at a party are people who never have parties. There's somewhat of a psychedelic flavor to this music; it's so muddled and indecipherable that it sounds like really bad demos recorded on a ten-dollar boombox the first couple of listens, but eventually you begin to discern not only a bunch of really terrific, creepy-as-shit music but also Alex Hungtai's bizarre sense of humor, a combination that you might be very tempted to refer to as haunted graffiti. Hungtai isn't the first guy to take the most primitive extant electronic beats and build cool songs around them, but his commitment to lo-fi doesn't come off as ironic in any sense; he's more of a revivalist, except the music he's making doesn't sound like anything old. There are bits and pieces that sound like tossed-off interludes on old Ween or Beck records, except these are actual songs and even if they make you smile, they're serious compositions. And some, like "Aurevoire Mon Visage" and "Landscapes In The Mist", are downright freaky.

That's the gist of the first disc. "Landscapes", the ghostly instrumental that ends it, serves as a stylistic bridge to the more subdued and sometimes deeply disturbing Love Is The Devil. The ominous piano flourishes and pulsing synth bleeps of "Woman" paint an unstable, abstract and paranoid picture of, um, love?  This is followed by the title track, one of the least gloomy tracks despite its icy synths and overbearing muffle and whine; it's the timid hope and dull ache of unrequited love in one brief musical passage. And then there's the blaring, unadulterated, beautiful ache of "Alone At The Danube River", the first piece many listeners will be able to grasp onto. It takes its primary melody from the "Soon" section of Yes's "The Gates Of Delirium", a crying-out for peace that, whether or not Hungtai was aware of this appropriation or not, is so powerfully realized by the onset of a warm, full synth chord that it chokes me up every time I hear it. Once you penetrate the thick lo-fi haze of this double album, you will find so much to love about it. It's one of my favorites of the year so far.

Eric & Magill, Two Travelers EP

Extending the theme of their 2010 debut All Those I Know, Eric & Magill enlisted a little more help from their friends on this EP, once again with beautiful results. Milwaukee singer/songwriter Heidi Spencer lends her unmistakable voice to opening track "Tangled Up In Nets"; the interplay between her and Ryan Weber's voices is so choice, particularly fitting for this paean to music itself. The EP is perhaps a bit less adventurous than the duo's celebrated debut; the focus is very much on vocals and acoustic guitars, making the atmospheric synths of "Take On Too Much" all the more striking and emotional, while the wistful ache of "I Feel Your Pain" might've been rendered dull with any more than the simple embellishments on the vocals. "Carried Away" is the exception, a somewhat ominous (but not bombastic) end to the record (less the little piano coda "Super Oso"), leaving "Don't Worry" as the only weak tune (great sentiment, sort of a dull song though). It feels a little frivolous, but that's how between-albums EPs are supposed to feel.

Pizza!, We Come From The Swamp

This goofy-ass record will probably be ignored by the world at large, and perhaps justifiably so; after having it on my iPod for months, I can't say I've been impressed. But Pizza! isn't out to impress, and here is We Come From The Swamp, still on my iPod. When some of these tracks, especially "Big Mammoth Skull" and "Get Excited", pop up on a shuffle, I enjoy the shit out of them. It's only when you listen to the album as a whole that you realize it sounds like a virtually shameless attempt to tap into the weirdo retro-pop groove of Ariel Pink with a serious latter-day of Montreal fetish that rears its head at times. Except it's unselfconsciously frivolous throughout; there's no unironic blatant pop hooks and no stabs at genuine melodrama. That's not to say it's lazy or amateurish, but the novelty does wear a bit thin after a while. It seems like these goofballs could write a great pop song if they wanted to, but based on this album I'll have to assume they can't, and the jokes are there to mask that deficiency. I think it's time to take....MOST of these tracks off the iPod now.

Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

Steven Wilson has been on my shitlist for a few years now, ever since that last godawful Porcupine Tree album, 2009's The Incident, where he finally surrendered to his primal need to do nothing but rip off Pink Floyd. I've been playing the jilted fanboy even though I should've seen it coming since 2005's Deadwing, but that album was SO FUCKING GOOD I ignored the warning signs. I suppose I should be happy that Wilson has graduated to ripping off Yes and King Crimson now, and actually, I sort of am, because within those confines, he has actually put together some pretty sweet prog pieces. Granted, the middle quiet section of opening track "Luminol" is a shameless rape of "South Side Of The Sky", and the rest of the song reeks of 80s Trevor Rabin-led Yes West, but it's a fun listen all the same. "Drive Home" is the same sappy ballad he's rewritten on practically every album since "Gravity Eyelids" first appeared on In Absentia, and "The Watchmaker" is pretty insubstantial Moody Blues worship (yes, it features flute and mellotron) at first, but it mutates through some interesting twists and turns and winds up in a full-circle moment: the dude who killed Opeth as a metal band utilizes a very Opeth-esque theme to end the song, and it's a great moment. The fusion-y intro to "The Holy Drinker" is straight outta the Larks' Tongues playbook, complete with free-jazz sax, but it's enticing and the song overall is Wilson's least-derivative one in many years, the producer-at-heart indulging in all his lame tendencies at once and cobbling together a really compelling musical story when all's said and done. It's too bad the title track's grand narrative aspirations aren't realized by the uninventive swell of a string quartet as Wilson's story gets obscured by his tendency to over-orchestrate. Still, the album as a whole contains the best stuff Wilson has come up with as a songwriter in years; the bastard is forcing me to give him another chance.

Thundercat, Apocalypse

It's obvious from the first minute of Apocalypse that Flying Lotus had a hand in making the record, and his influence pervades far more than the title of "producer" would suggest. FlyLo is as much a part of this album as Eno was of "Heroes", and only time will tell whether or not the collaboration will stand as a similarly legendary one, but it's been a promising first couple chapters. You never know what direction Apocalypse will go in next; Stephen Bruner dabbles heavily in jazz, R&B and funk (on this album; he was also in Suicidal Tendencies for almost a decade), and while the individual songs are very different from each other, there's a thread tying them all together: the bass. You could give this album a cursory listen and not necessarily realize what a wizard Bruner is on that instrument because the songs are so frikkin catchy, and his voice, while not exactly golden or even distinctive, is incredibly endearing throughout and ideal for projecting his oddball metaphysics and goofy party anthems, as well as some truly incredible pop melodies ("Tron Song", "Without You" (as a side note, this track sounds like the perfect merging of Steely Dan and Wesley Willis--listen to it again with that in mind and see if you don't agree) and "We'll Die" stick out the most). You've got hella-danceable tracks like the irresistible "Oh Sheit It's X" and totally esoteric fusion freak-outs like "Lotus And The Jondy" and trippy chill-room jams like "Evangelion" and a spacey prog suite in album closer "A Message for Austin/Praise The Lord/Enter the Void", so by the end you might feel a bit disoriented but there's no way you're not going back for a second listen. And then you start to notice those basslines. For the most part, they're not even flashy; there are snaky trills running throughout opening track "Tenfold" but they're so quiet, and then in "Heartbreaks + Setbacks" there's the jazzy plucked chords by themselves, making you go back and listen again because he's switching between that and a pure R&B rhythm anchor throughout the song, but the little improvisational departures around each actual riff are what will start to blow you away. After you become aware of that bass, you start to realize that it is the driving force behind every song (not including "We'll Die"), and even when he's dazzling you on the treble clef, that shit is basically all decorative compared to the true art being made on the low end. It all merges together in a brilliant multidisciplinary haze; even the lyrics alternate between hilarious and thought-provoking without a hint of pretense, giving the impression that this cat has very pure intentions with his music: to enrich lives, one way or another. Success!

Twin Brother, Twin Brother

I dare you to brush this album off initially as just another Brew City folk rock record, riding the Juniper Tar/Field Report coattails. You just think that because that's what you're expecting. The truth is, this debut LP by the duo formerly known as Jackraasch has as much in common with a Low or Yo La Tengo album as anything in the folk rock realm. Sure, there's quite a bit of lap steel, some vintage-sounding organ, even a banjo on the folkiest tune, "Dear Sweet Dove". And…okay, the lyrics are focused on a lot of the political and personal issues that have historically inspired folk singers. But Sean Raasch is almost too good of a singer to be folk. Even when he's swathed in lush instrumentation you can hear that voice cut through, but on album closer "See It In Trust", it's just Raasch and an acoustic guitar, and you'll feel a sudden flush of "wow, this guy is a professional." He doesn't have a gimmick or indentifying quirk; he simply outclasses most rock singers around town in terms of the naked voice, and he lays his words out with soul and conviction. He's wise to save this song for the end; even if you weren't paying close attention on your first listen, he just made you perk up your ears and resolve to go back and listen more intently the next time.

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