Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Obligatory Update: Mid-Year Roundup

So it's been quite a while since I've written anything for this blog. All I can offer is apologies and excuses. It's been a particularly busy period in my professional life and once the work day is over I'm pretty much unwilling and/or unable to further sit at a computer screen for any prolonged period of time. I don't know how more prolific bloggers do it. Then again, I don't know how they find the time to listen to deluge of crappy bands they listen to either. And it's particularly beyond me how they can enjoy them.

Anyway, since we're just about at the midway point of the year, I figured I might as well do a little round up of some of 2010's more worthy releases so far. Folks I know are always asking me what I've been listening to. I usually stammer, because that's what I do when put on the spot. (It's also just a little vexing, considering that I usually update this space fairly regularly and my podcast almost always highlights new releases.)

So you can consider the following a handy consumer's guide and pre-emptive chance to listen to some of this year's best records before they start appearing on end-of-year best-of lists. Well, my best-of list, at least. If you want to know what the music crit cognoscenti are listening to, I'd direct you to the Onion AV Club's own roundup, conveniently coupled with a discussion of already forgotten genetic engineering thriller Splice. While I generally value the AV Club's opinions on film, television and comics, their music coverage seems to fall in line precisely with the zeitgeist, and I personally find that pretty dull. That being said, anything that encourages one to listen to the Dum Dum Girls "Jail La La" (the head and shoulders highlight of their Sub Pop debut) is at least somewhat redeeming and I'll admit the new LCD Soundsystem album ain't half bad, even if it doesn't contain a moment as transcendent as "Someone Great."

It would seem that 2010 has been a fairly lean year thus far. Still, those who complain "there just isn't any good music anymore" or "all these new bands suck" or "there hasn't been a good record since I lost my virginity" are, as usual, not looking hard enough. There's always good stuff to be found if you care to find it. In particular, there was been three albums released this year that I feel are necessary addition to any record collection. Two I've reviewed in this space previously so I won't go into too much further detail on those.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists latest album, The Brutalist Bricks is almost certainly their best record yet. On Leo's previous album, he seemed to be in danger of repeating (Bomb.Repeat.) himself. While one might level the same charge at his latest effort, it doesn't play that way. Rather, it feels as though he's consolidated all his strengths and has delivered the album he always had the potential to make. Read my full review here.

Tre Orsi's Devices + Emblems will likely take the award for 2010's best debut. Hell, I feel pretty confident calling it now. While the band certainly evokes a particular mid-1990s sound, they're no mere exercise in nostalgia. (Not that the indie kids of today have any frame of reference for music pre-1997 anyway.) Rather, it's a reminder that songcraft and emotional weight can be achieved without sacrificing sonic heft. Read my full review here.

The final album of this trio belongs to the Nothing People, who gave us their third album Soft Crash earlier this year. Unlike those above, I didn't give it a day-of review, mainly because their label, S-S Records, isn't the type of operation to do things like hire publicists, send pre-release MP3s for review or set release dates. I'm not complaining though. Given the quality of S-S releases the past couple of years, I'm perfectly content to have them continue doing things the way they do them.

Back to the Nothing People. Their debut, Anonymous, made my best-of list for 2008. Their second album, Late Night, was in some ways even better and surely would have made my best-of list for 09 had I bothered to make a proper one. Soft Crash, their third album in as many years, is better still. Such prolificness is impressive in and of itself but the substantial growth they've shown with each release in such a short period is simply astounding.

As with most truly exceptional bands, describing their music is a tricky proposition. I've casually called them psychedelic but I've decided this label is inappropriate. It's really only apt if you consider Pere Ubu's "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" to be the quintessential psych song. (I do, but I'm probably alone in that.) Others have compared the Nothing People to Chrome, which works to a degree. If nothing else, Chrome's self-attributed genre of "acid punk" fits the band quite well. The Nothing People take the first person agression of the id on journey through the dark recesses of the subconscious. Their excursions may float toward the ether but are tempered with an earthy bite and snarl. There are a few precedents. Ubu and Chrome, sure, but who else? This Kind of Punishment? Bad Moon Rising-era Sonic Youth? Jim Sheppard's more rocking moments? Hopefully, you get the picture (and the album.)

Beyond those three mighty and essential rekids, theres been plenty of other good stuff worth a listen. The Woven Bones' debut full-length is neat little slice of drone-fuzz and features a video you can feel good about embedding. Despite a middling review from the arbiter of taste for clueless white kids, Wounded Lion's self-titled debut seems to get better with each listen. Ditto for the New Pornographers' Together, which is probably their best album since Electric Version. Eddy Current Suppression Ring's new platter may not quite reach the heights of their previous disc but is still better than most of the records you heard this year. The Nervous Systems' Need Medicines is a delightful bit of distorto-pop that's good enough to make you forgive all the questionable "lo-fi" that's been foisted upon the public the past few years. Ty Segall takes a hard turn into 60s freakbeat on Metled and gives further credence to his rep as an artist to watch. Matador's Casual Victim Pile comp of bands from Austin and Denton, TX (featuring both Tre Orsi and Woven Bones) makes a compelling argument for relocating to the Southwest. I've only listened Naked on the Vague's Heaps of Nothing a handful of times thus far but I'm digging it quite a bit.

There's also a lot of stuff to look forward to in the coming months. Former Silkworm members Tim Midget and Andy Cohen will give us another album from their Bottomless Pit in August. Also in August, Grass Widow will release their second album and first for mid-sized indie Kill Rock Stars, so we can expect lots of attention from the chumps who ignored their debut. Speaking of KRS, they'll be releasing the debut album from former Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist Corin Tucker's new band in September. And hell, maybe we'll even get the long-promised full-length from Nuevo León, Mexico's XYX on Siltbreeze.

So there you have it, a bunch of music that you'll probably find more rewarding than MGMT name-dropping a former member of Roxy Music. And if you don't, this probably isn't the blog for you, boyo.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

New Release: Tre Orsi

Before I contented myself with making podcasts for solitary listening, I used to be a DJ. That is, I used to play pre-recorded music in a public space for the pleasure (or displeasure) of whomever was in the particular venue at the time. One record (well, double CD, factually) I always had on standby was What's Up, Matador? In my mind, it's one of the finest rock compilations of all time. It's almost certainly the best rock comp of the 90s, beating out strong contenders like Abridged Perversion and the Clueless soundtrack.

What's Up, Matador? was not intended to be an overview of its era but simply a cheap sampler of bands on the Matador label through its first five years. Nonetheless, it plays like it's comprehensive: the definitive statement on pre-OK Computer/pre-Strokes/pre-suburban-emo-explosion indie rock. Disparate bands making different sounds, sharing some common influences and a commitment to doing it their own way. If grunge was America's punk and 1990s alt-rock its new wave, then WUM? was its Wanna Buy a Bridge?

While one of WUM?'s strengths is its variety and it's unlikely that any of its bands sought to sound like each other or even behold themselves to the parameters of a genre, there is an inescapable if almost intangible sonic kinship to some of the songs. Heartfelt without histrionic over-emoting. Cerebral with out being clinical. Melodically dynamic and instrumentally expressive without forgetting to bring the rock. (And usually mid-tempo.) You could hear it in songs like Yo La Tengo's "Tom Courtney," Liz Phair's "Stratford-On-Guy" and Silkworm's "Couldn't You Wait." You could hear it in cuts from non-Matador bands of the era, like Sebadoh's "The Freed Pig," Polvo's "Tilebreaker" and Versus' "Bright Light." I certainly wouldn't use the term "generic," but it was prevalent enough that I, however naively, considered it to be the "indie rock sound." That is, if someone said they were into indie rock at the time, that's the sound of which I thought they were speaking. And they usually were, more or less. (Nowadays when someone says they're into "indie," I have no clue what they like. But that's a story for another time.)

So why am I talking about one record when I'm ostensibly reviewing another? When I heard "The Engineer" from Denton, TX band Tre Orsi on the Casual Victim Pile compilation (coincidentally [or not] released on Matador 16 years after WUM?) earlier this year, it brought back a flood of warm memories of a bygone era. It wasn't so much the comfort of nostalgia as it was the thrill of rediscovery of a lost art, the head-slapping thought "Why don't more bands sound like this?" As good as Casual Victim Pile was (and it was quite good), "The Engineer" was head and shoulders the standout out track. I couldn't wait to hear more from Tre Orsi.

Today is the digital release of their debut album Devices + Emblems on the Comedy Minus One label. (The vinyl came out a few weeks ago.) "The Engineer" is here along with 8 (on the LP, 10 on the download) other tracks that prove this is a band worthy of your attention. I may have given the impression that Tre Orsi is merely some revivalist act. This is not the case. If they wanted to go that route, they could simply drive headfirst into cliche, which they thankfully avoid. Rather, the trio uses their influences as a foundation for their own style, simultaneously muscular and melancholy. That they could reclaim the soft/loud dynamic from nearly 20 years of terrible post-grunge and spin it into something distinctly their own on a song like "Best Kind of Failure" is nothing short of remarkable. I could cite other tracks as fine examples of their craft but, frankly, it seems a little redundant. There's simply not a bad one in the bunch.

In his review of this album for Dusted (which I'll freely admit is probably more convincing than this one), Doug Mosurock concludes "The notion of ‘90s indie rock might as well be folk music (or at least the sort of folk music we looked down upon in the ‘90s) but goddamnit, this is my folk music, and I’m sure more than a handful of you wouldn’t argue that it’s yours, too." I certainly concur, but I'll take it a step further. Devices + Emblems is one of the year's best albums. A subjective notion, sure. But if you wanted objective relevance you could head over the Hype Machine and let the algorithms steer you toward what's hot. I'm just a human recommending some human music. (Hey! That's another awesome comp!) Your reward is the same as mine.