Monday, December 29, 2008

What the Kids Thought Was Great in 2008

(Hint: it definitely wasn't SSD.)

I posted my best of 2008 list on Friday and the general reaction I got from my friends over the weekend was "I didn't I know any of the bands on your list." Or alternately "I didn't I know any of the bands on your list except for one," the Vivian Girls being the exception. My retort probably should have been "Well, I didn't know any of them either until someone told me about them" thus casually diffusing any implications of cultural elitism. Unfortunately, I didn't think to say that until just now.

One friend told me I should do another top ten but this time list records people know, which is sort of an odd proposition. Hey guys, I know I told you the stuff I really like but just to let you know I'm with it here's a bunch of records you're already familiar with, shuffled into a slightly different order than all the other year-ends you've been reading. I actually thought it would kind of funny to do just that and denounce my previous list as being too snobby or perhaps imply that none of its bands actually exist other than in my mind. However, as with most things I think are funny, I run a huge risk of no one but me getting the joke.

My ultimate decision was to give my thoughts on the top ten tracks of the year as decided by the folks at Pitchfork Media, who are as good a barometer for what the kids listen to nowadays as any. I purposely avoided reading the write-ups of each track as to not have the opinion of the author sway my thought process in any direction. I hadn't heard most of these songs until I listened to them just now, or if I had I didn't really know who the artist was. That doesn't make me better than you or anything. It just means that we have different interests and tastes. Stop being so insecure, goddammit.

10: Estelle
"American Boy"
I like this song. I've heard it many times at clubs/bars/wherever-guys-with-laptops-"DJ." It's readymade-for-the-dancefloor pop fluff but it's good pop fluff. It's involving and memorable and it doesn't insult the listener's intelligence. I still might like "Single Ladies" (Number 23 on the Pitchfork list) better though.

09: Portishead "Machine Gun"
Even at their mid-90s peak, I was never a fan of Portishead. That "Nobody Loves Me" song was pretty ubiquitous back then and it was decent enough aural wallpaper. This song however is a thoroughly unpleasant listen and not in a good Electric Eels-kind of way. Some might call that "challenging" but to my ears it's just kind of repetitive and lazy-sounding.

08: Air France "Collapsing at Your Doorstep"
Songs like this are fodder for my theory that most music fans these days mainly use music to provide a non-distracting soundtrack to dozing off on the subway. I'm sure there will be more examples before we get to the end of the list.

07: Cut Copy "Hearts on Fire"
I heard a friend of a friend of mine play Cut Copy at a BBQ this past summer and I remember liking one of their songs. It might have been this one but the fact that I'm listening to it and still don't remember if it was or wasn't is probably not a good sign. Is there any way I can possibly discuss this song without mentioning New Order? I suppose it was inevitable that hipster band emulation of Joy Division a few years back would be followed by NO copyists. There are worse sources of inspiration to be sure but this cut reminds be more of New Order's post-Technique output than their 80s peak. And it's not even half as good as "Regret."

06: Deerhunter "Nothing Ever Happened"
I know more than a few people whose opinions on music I respect that dig Deerhunter plenty. However, when I first checked out the band a while back via the cuts on their myspace page, they didn't make much of an impression and I never bothered to explore further. I gotta say though, this song is pretty good. Good enough to make me want to check out the rest of the album. I'll get right to that after I'm done listening the rest of the dozen or so albums in my "I guess I missed this one" pile.

05: M83 "Kim & Jessie"
Sounds a bit like the Brains' original version of "Money Changes Everything" crossed with Flock of Seagulls' "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)." And we all know what prolific, artistically-rewarding careers those bands had. An attractive, lush sound but I wish that the band would have been kind enough to provide something in the way of a hook as well.

04: Santogold "L.E.S. Artistes"

03: Hot Chip "Ready for the Floor"
I like Hot Chip's song "Boy From School." Nothing else they've done has impressed me very much. This is no exception.

02: Fleet Foxes "White Winter Hymnal"
This is the band that also won PFM's best album of 2008, a choice so controversial that even noted Pitchfork apologist blog A New Nuance publicly disagreed. (A move that's somewhat like Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche.) I've actually never heard the band myself. I heard someone describe them as "they're kind of like My Morning Jacket but not as good" and that was enough to keep me far, far away. However, when I read Popmatters' Joe Tacopino say that on this album they "reinvent themselves as Hüsker Dü," it made me somewhat intrigued. Um, Joe, are you sure you're aren't confusing Fleet Foxes with a completely different band? You know, one that sounds like Hüsker Dü? Because this sounds like the Shins covering the O Brother Where At Thou? soundtrack.

01: Hercules and Love Affair "Blind"
This is the best song of the year? Really? Really? If I wanted to hear a shitty version of Blur's "Girls and Boys," there's plenty of examples on YouTube.

Friday, December 26, 2008

What Was Great in 2008

Besides, you know, the obvious.

Instead of a very extensive year-end list like I did last year, I decided to simply give a list of 10 records which came out this year that I am very, very happy I purchased. I'm not going to pretend this is a "best of" list as I'm sure there are more than a few worthy records I missed in the past 12 months. As more year-end lists trickle in, I'll hopefully get myself caught up.

Still, none of the below albums are crying out to be usurped. It took some trimming to get it down to ten. In no particular order other than the order they occurred to me:

1 Thomas Function Celebration (Alive)
Here's what I wrote on this blog after seeing Thomas Function back in April:
On Tuesday night I had the pleasure of seeing Thomas Function perform at the Annex here in New York in front of a crowd of maybe three dozen or so. Lately I've been verbalizing to anyone who will listen that I think bands should only do 20 minute sets. This probably started shortly after seeing Jay Reatard, who blasted through a set of about a dozen song in about that time. I get bored easily I suppose and usually about halfway though many bands' sets I become restless and wonder if I couldn't be spending my time better elsewhere. But damn me if Thomas Function didn't keep my attention for the duration. So much so, that without hesitation I plunked down $20 for their LP and both 45s they had for sale (All on colored vinyl! Take that, digital age!) despite the fact that I have about $25 in my bank account until my next payday. Hell, if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is. I've seen the band compared to Television and the Modern Lovers but that's really only telling half the story. They're nowhere near as punctilious as the the former or as coy as the latter. Thomas Function play their off-kilter pop songs with an unabashed enthusiasm that's won that them a following with the usually suspicious of anything cleaner than scuzz garage crowd. I know it's only April but the band's debut album Celebration is going to be hard to beat for record of the year.
I can't say for certain whether or not Thomas Function retained the title for '08 but when it came time to list the best of the year, Celebration was the first record that came to mind

2 Prisonshake Dirty Moons (Scat)
The world waited 15 years for Prisonshake's followup to The Roaring Third and, unlike Chinese Democracy, it wasn't a huge disappointment. Dirty Moons is not the tight, leave-no-fat-untrimmed affair that The Roaring Third was. It's loose, expansive and filled with ideas, befitting a band whose released a box set(!) as their debut album. There's pummeling straight-up rock tunes, tender ballads, mini-rock operas, a 5-song suite, tossed-off minute-long jokes, tunes that stretch past the five, six and ten minute marks, and what feels like everything in between. And yet, it all holds together quite well. For all their ambition, Prisonshake still comes off like the band who could take the stage at your local bar and rock the shit out of the place as effortlessly as if they were tying their shoes. Robert Griffin remains one of the best guitarists to ever come out of the American independent underground, gorgeously lyrical at one moment and bringing the noise the next. I don't know if Dirty Moons is going to win Prisonshake any new fans, but the world is much richer for its presence. It's good to have you back, boys.

3 Thee Oh Sees The Master's Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In (Castle-Face Records / Tomlab Records)
John Dwyer's most famous project, the Coachwhips, never really did it for me either way. His new (side?) project, Thee Oh Sees, is another matter entirely. Primitive? Sure. Retrogressive? Hardly. The issue I have with a lot of neo-garage (or neo-whatever) acts is that they're all too often content to simply recreate the sounds of a bygone era, offering little in the way of innovation or even individuality. Drenched in reverb, Thee Oh Sees recall primal rock without ever sounding revivalist or particularly derivative. You can hear bits of everyone from Billy Childish to the Scientists to the Red Crayola in their sound but, like a master chef, they use these ingredients to create something entirely their own. Plus, there's as much emphasis on songwriting as there is on sonics. Making a cool noise is fun and all but unless one is using it to shape good songs the appeal is limited. Dwyer and company never loose sight of that and the result is one of the best records of the year.

4 Meth Teeth Bus Rides EP (Sweet Rot)
My favorite 7 inch of the year. Here's what I wrote about it back in April:
If you told me these guys began life as a Beyond the Implode tribute band I might be forced to believe you. Meth Teeth revel in the static like many of today post-Messthetics bands but there's a creepy, almost Barrettesque psych vibe going on here. Brings to mind early SPK covering Skip Spence or perhaps the Strapping Fieldhands doing likewise with the Mudhutters. Very impressive. Apparently only 500 copies pressed so don't sleep on it.
Full-length is supposedly in the works for '09. I'm looking forward to it tremendously.

5 Vivian Girls s/t (Mauled By Tigers/In the Red)
Yes, there's been a wave of hype about this Brooklyn-three piece and, of course, the inevitable backlash. (In fairness, being interviewed by John Norris will harm anyone's cred.) Who knows what the future holds for Vivian Girls? Are music biz-type assholes tripping over themselves to snatch the band up and turn them into the Pussycat Dolls for the Pitchfork set? Will the band ditch their inspired amateurism for professional sheen? Will they collapse under the pressure of the position in which they suddenly find themselves? Do they even have another good record in them under any circumstances? Did it stop being fun a long time ago? All valid questions but when the needle hits the wax on this baby, none of it matters. For the 21 minutes that Vivian Girls is playing, their magnificent DIY-pop renders all flavor of the month concerns irrelevant.

6 Oxford Collapse BITS (Sub Pop)
Nearly every review I read for Oxford Collapse's 2009 album, BITS, seemed totally off the mark, whether trying to lump them in with some kind of lo-fi reaction against orchestral indie rock (a valid point but not the best place to make it) or displaying general cluelessness. Perhaps the reason the crits find the OxC difficult to review is that they can't be easily pigeonholed. They're a band that follows their muse, not trends. When they first began performing earlier in the decade, it seemed that every band in New York was co-opting the angular sounds of British post-punk. Gang of Four and Joy Division soundalikes were more common in the city than service interruptions on the N/R line. The Oxford Collapse, however, were mining the less celebrated but no less fertile territory of US post-punk, taking cues from innovative but virtually unremembered acts like the Embarrassment, Pylon, and the Urinals. While this meant that the band was overlooked in the post-Strokes major-label signing frenzy, fast forward a few years and most of the post-punk revival pack is gone and/or forgotten while the Oxford Collapse have released their fourth and most consistent album yet. They may well be doomed to languish in the same semi-obscurity as their heroes but anyone with a taste for adventurous indie rock would do themselves a service by picking up BITS. The OxC's other 2008 releases The Hann-Byrd EP on Comedy Minus One and "Spike of Bensonhurst" 7" on Flameshovel are also highly recommended.

7 Hank IV Refuge in Genre (Siltbreeze)
I liked the Hank IV's 2006 debut, Third Person Shooter, well enough that it made my list of best albums for that year. On their second platter, they've really upped the ante, stripping away any traces of hobby band silliness for a potent dose of stomping, howling punk rock. Singer Bob McDonald has got to be one of the best frontmen in rock music today. His voice sounds like equal parts Brian Johnson and John Brannon and on stage his antics shame men half his age. This is definitely a band you should experience live. Just pick up Refuge in Genre first as you'll most certainly want to be able to sing along. You just try and resist yelling "She's got!/Dirty poncho!/Drop dead gorgeous!" whilst pumping your fist in the air.

8 Eddy Current Suppression Ring Primary Colours (Goner)
Sometimes it's hard to explain exactly why a band stands above the pack. Eddy Current Suppression Ring plays garage punk, plain and simple and lean and mean. There's no angle. No bells and whistles. Nothing to make blogger/critic/hype machine-types to perk up their ears and say "Oh, isn't that interesting!" So what makes ECSR better than the rest? It's that's indefinable quality called... I don't know... talent? For example, how did ECSR know that dropping out all instruments besides guitar in the middle of "Which Way to Go" before bringing them all crashing back in would up the intensity tenfold? Or how did they know to have singer Brendan Suppression croon over the jangly "Wrapped Up" instead of his usual Mark E. Smith-style declarative recitation? Or that the slow burn of "Memory Lane" followed by the crash-and-bash "Sunday's Coming" would be the perfect way to kick off the album? Beats me, but I suppose that's why they're a fantastic rock band and I'm sitting in front a keyboard struggling to tell you that you'd be a fool to pass on this album. The best Aussie rock band since the Saints? Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement but it got your attention, didn't it?

9 Nothing People Anonymous (S-S)
The name Nothing People conjures images of a Manson family-esque cult of hippies. Instead of preaching the good vibrations of peace and love, they've adopted a philosophy of nihilism, as if they spent a bad acid trip staring into the void and never fully came back. I know nothing of the Nothing People's living habits but their music is nearly an aural equivalent of the above: a twisting and snarling psychedelic maelstrom intent on producing tension. And as befitting a cult, this record comes in innocuous yet oblique packaging and in a very small pressing of 600 copies, LP only. If you can't find one at your local record shoppe, write the fine folks at S-S Records and see if they can sign you up for reprogramming.

10 The Lines Memory Span (Acute reissue)
I pride myself in knowing a thing or two about the British DIY scene of late 70s/early 80s. I was bugging dealers at WFMU Record Fair looking for Homosexuals records when you were still trying figure out how Thom Yorke gets his hair like that. So how did I totally miss the Lines? The short answer is that they were obscure in even for a genre that was in and of itself obscure. That's why I'm thank the creator everyday for people like Dan Selzer and his fantastic Acute label. Memory Span compiles all the Lines' singles and EPs along with a pair of unreleased demos to paint a portrait of a remarkable band. Their first single, the stunning "White Night" sounds at least 10 years ahead of it's time, like something a Creation-label shoegaze-y outfit would be proud to call their own. The remainder of the collection is equally impressive. Even at their most jagged, the Lines are melodically rich and inventive. Try to imagine Robyn Hitchock backed by Grotesque (After the Gramme)-era Fall for an approximation. About a month ago, Acute also released Flood Bank, which collects both of the Lines full-lengths. I have yet to pick it up. Now you know what to get me for Xmas. (Ed. Note: I was planning on posting this list before December 25th.)

A podcast containing songs from the above (as well as more than a few honorable mentions) is coming soon.

In the meantime do check out the '08 lists of the below from folks whose opinion on musical matters I respect probably a lot more than yours:

Nate Knaebel
Doug Mosurock plus Still Single Best of Podcast
WFMU's Terre T
WFMU's Evan "Funk" Davies
WPRB's Jon Solomon
Matador Records Staff and Artists
More to come.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: My Christmas Gift to You

Please do not take the above image as an endorsement of assault, Santa Claus or Christianity.

This podcast does not contain any Christmas music.

Instead, my gift to you is that this is my first Podcast available through the iTunes music store!

Just search "unblinking ear" in the iTunes store and you'll find my podcast to which you can subscribe for free. You'll also see an episode of Carl Sagan's Cosmos for some reason but that will cost you a buck ninety-nine. Anyway, subscribing will allow you to automatically download my podcast via iTunes anytime I post a new one. (There is probably a 24 hour or so lag, FYI.)

You'll still be able to download and listen here if you so desire but I'm all about providing convenience. I'm not so much about it that I would figure out how to so this months ago when I first started the podcast. Though I will say that saving it for Christmas instead of International Nurses Day probably has more of a universal appeal.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Until we get early Necros material reissued...

...this will have to suffice as the greatest moment of Midwest hardcore:

(Pic courtesy of WFMU's Beware of the Blog.)

Say what you will about Blagojevich. How many other governors would campaign next to a guy intent on recreating the cover of Tesco Vee's Dutch Hercules EP?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paleontology for Dullards: A Consumer's Guide

"Paleontology for Dullards" rates records I've found in used LP bins by assigning them a cash value. For further explanation, please see my original post here.

Drunks With Guns s/t
Many years ago I was lucky enough to stumble upon a copy of Drunks With Guns' Second Verses LP. Though I enjoyed it thoroughly, I was told that despite containing the awesome Alter Human Industrial Fetishisms 7" in its entirety, the LP did not actually represent the band at their finest. The self-titled LP, a comp of their first two 7 inches plus an extra track, was the pukka DWG. And after listening to this, I find it hard to disagree.

For those who've never experienced the glory, try to imagine punk band just as powerful as Minor Threat but sort of their aesthetic opposite. Instead of taut and speedy, Drunks With Guns were sloppy and plodding. And instead espousing a generally positive philosophy of mental acuteness, they were about a negative and nihilistic as they come. You can practically smell the cigarette butts and stale beer wafting from the grooves. (Or maybe I just get that impression from the cover shot.) Singer Myk Doskocil doesn't so much sing or even scream as much as he vomits up total contempt for humanity as the band churns away behind him. Many since have tried to emulate Drunks With Guns mixture of misanthropy and primitive rock action (Pissed Jeans is recent example) but few have matched their potency. And the preceding isn't enough to pique your interest, then song titles like "Dick in One Hand" and "Punched in the Head" probably won't either.

I must stress that this is not the original Archvillian/Chopper 1987 pressing but the 1999 Demolition Derby/Nitro! reissue. I still paid $15 for it. It was still worth every fucking penny.

(Caveat emptor: Not the most comradely bunch, Drunks with Guns split up and members formed two separate bands, both called Drunks With Guns. Records from this era should be avoided.)
Price Paid: $15 Rating: 100%

The Jam In the City
I've never been as much of a Jamophile as some but I like most of their records just fine. Paul Weller was an undeniably skilled pop tunesmith even if his reach sometimes exceeded his grasp and the soul affectations got to be too much after a while. Here, on the Jam's debut, Weller's skills were still in nascent form and the band simply bashes away at appropriated sixties mod at punk tempos. The energy level never seems to drop below blinding fury and the band's chops are up to the task but considering what they would later accomplish, the Jam's lack of ambition is somewhat startling. They seem content to reenact a bygone era rather offer new ideas. It doesn't seem probable that they would become one of the most important British groups of their era. Clearly, their best work was ahead of them.

Still, In the City succeeds on it's own modest terms. The title track is an absolute monster and fully deserving of it's classic status. None of the other cuts come close to equaling it, but most ("Away From the Numbers" and "Takin' My Love," for example) are high-energy fun. The album is far from the greatest artifact of class of '77 Britpunk, but it's a good one.
Price Paid: $10 Rating: 60%

The Smiths The Queen is Dead
This is the first Smiths album I've ever owned. Yeah, really. Morrissey, Marr and co. never really did it for me except as a singles band, maybe. The Smiths are enjoyable in short bursts but Mozz's schtick really grates on my nerves in larger does. And I wasn't going to drop money in the amount of double digit figures for Rough Trade imports to possibly have my mind changed. Though when I saw The Queen is Dead available for under 5 bucks, I figured I'd give it a listen. Have I changed my opinion? Slightly, perhaps. I was able to get through the entire record without really grimacing but that may have been because the band put the best songs on Side 2, which is about 80% brilliant. ("Vicar in a Tutu" is okay though if I could never hear it again for the rest of my life I wouldn't lose any sleep.) Or maybe it's because Mozz is in a more playful mood than usual. Or maybe it's just the talent of Johnny Marr shining through. Whatever. I still like the Go-Betweens better.
Price Paid: $3 Rating: 100%

The Move Looking On
This is first album on which you can hear the path crackpot/genius Roy Wood took for more or less the rest of his career: saving concise poppy statements for singles and using albums to stretch out with his more ambitious ideas. The LP features seven(!) songs, none of which you think were by the same band that recorded "(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree." This is also the first Move album to feature Jeff Lynne and one can certainly hear the embryo of ELO. This is art rock, through and through, though to their credit the Move never lose slight of the "rock" part of that equation and never let wankery get in the way of melody. On paper, the album's blend of highfalutin prog and hard boogie may appear to be a recipe for disaster. However, so gifted were Wood and Lynne as arrangers and composers that it rarely sounds pompous or lumpy in practice. Emerson, Lake and Palmer couldn't dream of such vitality. Wood has done more enjoyable work before (and after) but in it's own way Looking On is an example of "rock as art" on the level of Sgt Pepper or Tommy. Do keep in mind I'm not particularly fond of either of those records.
Price Paid: $7 Rating: 85.7%

Thursday, December 11, 2008

God Save The Cream(y, Rich, Buttery Taste)

(Video courtesy of Chunklet.)

It's a long way from "There must be meaning/Behind the moaning/Spreading tales/Like coffin nails" but I guess 30 years will mellow a guy out.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Cranky Old Man Discusses New Music

Girl Talk: What the fuck is this shit?

In my day, DJs used samples to serve the song, not be the song. And they at least had an MC to provide some original content.

If you look at what someone like Grandmaster Flash was doing back in the early 80s and what Girl Talk is doing now it might be similar of the surface but it terms of creativity it's miles apart. It's not like digging through crates to find records to sample and getting a funky drum break from the Steve Miller Band or something. Girl Talk isn't Ultimate Breaks and Beats. It's all songs people know! It's a bunch of ringtones spliced together.

Are we so bereft of ideas? Are our attention spans so short? Is the motto of the current generation of music makers "why be creative when you can be clever?"

And what's with the new Kayne West album? Has he been listening to the Postal Service non-stop or something? And look, I know the guy has the freedom to do whatever he wants with his records, something any pop artist would be lucky to get, and I commend for not simply repeating the formula which gave him the most commercial success but, come on, give the Auto-Tune a rest, will ya? I don't even think Kayne has to sing on his own records. Couldn't he just give someone a call who can actually carry a tune and have them sing on the album? All these hip hop guys seem to have a hard-on for Chris Martin anyway. Imagine the crossover appeal!

I do like the new Beyoncé single though. Maybe not enough to put a ring on it, but still...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: It's that Time of Year Again

How do we know it's getting to be winter here at Unblinking Ear HQ?

Very simple.

Every time I go lift the needle from my turntable, I get an electric shock. It makes me feel like I'm singing Big Country's biggest hit.

Anyone with advice on how to avoid this will get a prize... of some sort. Maybe I'll just burn those CDs I promised you months ago.

(I'm aware this post is a little late for Black Friday but I thought about recording a new podcast then. That counts for something, right?)

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hyperbole Time! The (Actual) Greatest Cover Song Ever

A few weeks back Jason Heller at the Onion AV Club offered his opinion on the Greatest Cover Song Ever. I'll give him points for being idiosyncratic though if we're talking cover songs on the B-side of a Touch & Go seven inch from the 90s, I'll personally take Mule's cover of "To Love Somebody."

However, the greatest cover song ever is actually this:

In the era in which we live, I certainly don't want to fan the flames of racial intolerance. H owever, I will note this may be the only known example of a white English rock band doing a song better than a black American soul singer. Apparently, Richie Unterberger feels much the same way.

Actually, hold that thought. I forgot about "Shack Up."