Monday, December 27, 2010

Ten for '10: The Unblinking Ear's Year in Rock

The Village Voice Sound of the City panel recently asked if 2010 was the best year for music ever. I try to shy away from hyperbole myself but even if one ignores most of their (and, it seems, every other music critic's) picks (LCD, Vampire Weekend, the ubiquitous Kanye), 2010 was indeed a rather good year. In compiling the list below, I found myself with about six or so "definites" and 20 or so "could bes." That's a lot more than usual.

2010 was also the year we lost Jimmy Lee Lindsay Jr., better known to the universe as Jay Reatard. Though gone, his influence on the rock underground remains. It's been four years since he released his watershed solo debut Blood Visions. Also released the same year was Times New Viking's debut album and these two records cast a long shadow. The first few years of the 21st century yelled "Return of the Rock!" as loudly as possible but whatever moderate commercial success was achieved by demi-raw garage or post-punk revivalists fizzled by the middle of the decade. Of course, the music biz answer to failure is always "slick it up" and suddenly rock was in short supply once again.

While it's debatable on whether or not Reatard and TNV kickstarted the new lo-fi/DIY movement, they certainly seemed to remind many of the purifying, primal thrill noise and volume can bring to a pop song. Good records by interesting bands have been coming at a fairly steady clip ever since. Punk was finally (if only partially) reclaimed from the shopping mall and rock was not dead after all.

Or is it? This year, the Official Arbiters of Music Taste for the Young, White and Privileged seemed relieved that the lo-fi "trend" had run its course and it no longer had to pay lip service to a sector of the underground it didn't care for or understand in the first place. Evidence can be found in their dismissive, middling reviews of Woven Bones, Wounded Lion and Thee Oh Sees. Others found it difficult to distinguish what should be obvious sonic variety in different bands using the same basic rock vocals/guitar/bass/drums set up. At times, I feel like a teenage metalhead who can easily pick out the nuances between his favorite bands. Whereas to most people, it all sounds like the same unlistenable racket.

In any case, below is a list of the best rock music going right now. To my ears, anyway. Listed more or less alphabetically to free myself and the artists from the indignity of ranking. Accompanying each pick are either excerpts from past reviews or new text if I had not reviewed them previously. I'm sure some of you are going to download all of these at once. My advice: Pick the one that sounds most interesting you and try just that one. Music is a lot better if you take the time to enjoy it.

Casual Victim Pile compilation (Matador)
If Casual Victim Pile wasn't the record of 2010, then 2010 was the year of Casual Victim Pile. Released back in January, this collection of bands from Austin, TX was like a harbinger for the year to come. Many of the bands on the comp released good to excellent albums this year: The Young, Woven Bones, Dikes of Holland, Tre Orsi, Harlem, The Golden Boys' John Wesley Coleman. Others like Kingdom on Suicide Lovers and The No No No Hopes contributed standout tracks that have me looking forward to their future releases. Casual Victim Pile served as notice for every other scene to step up their respective games. Frankly, it might be one of the best regional comps ever. And Rayon Beach isn't even on it!

Grass Widow Past Time (Kill Rock Stars)
Rather than provide direct hooks to hang your hat on, Grass Widow invite you to luxuriate in their singular sound. Their voices (the band's harmonies are top notch) and instruments weave in and out of each other. Each element is distinct and sometimes oblique yet they seamlessly form a whole. That may read as being challenging and it can be but Grass Widow is also stealthily inviting. They prove that rock music doesn't need to loud or noisy to be uncompromising. Nor does it need to be traditionally catchy to burrow its way right into your brain's pleasure center. (Originally posted: 8/25/10)

Mantles Pink Information EP (Mexican Summer)
San Francisco's Mantles first came to my attention via their cut Woodist's excellent Welcome Home/Diggin' The Universe compilation. This made me feel like a fool as they had already released a handful of 7"s and a full length on Siltbreeze of which I was totally ignorant. I did manage to get my hands on this 5 track EP though. And, lucky me, it totally smokes. The Mantles have gotten the requisite VU/Paisley Underground/NZ comparisons but I heard healthy dose of Richard Lester Myers-style swagger and weariness in there as well. And really, you can never have too much of that.

Nothing People Soft Crash (S-S)
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. (Originally posted: 6/30/10)

Reading Rainbow Prism Eyes (HoZac)
Reading Rainbow's stronger melodies easily distinguish themselves. Songs like "Wasting Time," "Always On My Mind" and the title track are some of the most infectious of the year, outclassing most of band's peers among the new naive. (Originally posted: 11/23/10)

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists The Brutalist Bricks (Matador)
The Brutalist Bricks is not any kind of departure from Leo's trademark sound. Rather, it distills his greatest strengths and offers some strongest melodies of his career. And it sounds fantastic, sporting crisp production with each element clearly pronounced in the mix. (Originally posted: 3/9/10)

Tre Orsi Devices + Emblems (Comedy Minus One)
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 cliché, 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. (Originally posted: 6/8/10)

Tyvek Nothing Fits (In The Red)
This is the Tyvek album you've been waiting for. Though chaos is an essential part of Tyvek's approach, here they focus all the clamor and weirdness that sprawled all over their prior LP into their songs. The result is an unrelenting attack. Songs pummel you one after the other, never allowing you to catch your breath. (Originally posted: 11/9/10)

Wounded Lion s/t (In The Red)
Wounded Lion are not dissimilar to fellow Californians Nodzzz in their mix of rough simplicity and unrelenting catchiness. Actually, the band(s) I was reminded of most when listening to this platter were Big Dipper and the Embarrassment. Songs like "Hunan Province" and "Belt of Orion" seem to have inherited their sense of melody directly from Bill Goffrier's old bands, sources that are both fertile and infrequently replicated. (Originally posted: 4/27/10)

The Young Voyagers of Legend (Mexican Summer)
More than once I've seen the Young likened to the Replacements, probably because of singer Hans Zimmerman's passing resemblance to Paul Westerberg in voice and phrasing. It's a pretty erroneous comparison as the Young's music is wide open and exploratory, whereas the only thing the Mats were interested in exploring was the bottom of a Bud can. However, the false identification becomes easier to forgive when one realizes the Young don't have any easy precedents to reference. Are they the loosest post-hardcore band around or the tightest psychedelic trash? Live, I might say the former, on record probably the latter. It ultimately doesn't matter how one identifies them, of course, only that they're treading some exciting sonic territory that at once seems strange and alien yet undeniably, concretely rock. If you're only going to check out one album from this list from a band you've never heard of before, make it this one.

Honorable Mentions:

Best Coast Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)

Bottomless Pit Blood Under The Bridge (Comedy Minus One)

Dikes of Holland s/t (Sundae)

Fresh and Onlys Play It Strange (In The Red)

Idle Times s/t (HoZac)

Myelin Sheaths Get On Your Nerves (Southpaw)

Parting Gifts Strychnine Dandelion (In The Red)

Super Wild Horses Fifteen (HoZac)

Ty Segall Melted (Goner)

Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe: A Woodsist Compilation (Woodsist)

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: What I'm Into

(2010 isn't over. You shouldn't even be done with your advent calendar yet.)

Periodically, people ask me what I've been listening to lately. This kind of puts me on the spot as I try to cycle through everything I've listened to in the past few weeks and which of it might be appropriate or attractive to the speaker. Ultimately, it usually provokes a semi-hostile, passive aggressive reaction from me such as "I don't know! Stuff!"

Besides, I do a fairly regular podcast and maintain a music blog. What I'm digging at any particular time is a matter of public record. It's only a few clicks away if you own a computer. I can't do all the work for you people.

Incidentally, this is not a best of 2010 podcast. That will be the next one. Yes, I'll be condensing all the music I've liked best in the past year into a single download. How much more convenient does it get?

So the next time you see me out in public, just compliment what I'm wearing or something. We can talk about music. Just try and keep the topic narrow. And buy me a drink.

Download the latest The Unblinking Ear Podcast
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Monday, December 13, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Book Club: Andrew Earles' Hüsker Dü Biography

A biography of one of my favorite bands penned by one of the sharpest music writers around, there was probably no chance that I wouldn't enjoy Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock. And indeed, I did enjoy it, consuming the entire book in two or three sittings over the course of 24 hours. Though Hüsker vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Bob Mould declined to participate (he's working on his own autobiography with Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad), this is an exhaustive tome, featuring interviews and insights from vocalist/drummer/songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton plus many of the band's colleagues and contemporaries.

Author Andrew Earles makes explicit in his introduction that his book is meant to be a serious examination of Hüsker Dü's music and influence, not the more sensationalistic aspects of the band that often seem to dominate their posthumous write-ups. He succeeds admirably. Earles mostly avoids what could be considered the more exploitative elements of the Hüsker story: the band members' sexuality, their alleged drug use, the exaggerated acrimony of their messy breakup. He almost apologizes when the narrative necessitates these subjects' inclusion. This could be read as an attempt on the part of the writer to not alienate his heroes. However, it's more likely that Earles realizes that Hüsker Dü were not Mötley Crüe, and that this book is not The Dirt. Hüsker Dü's contributions to culture, in their music and as a trailblazing role model for future independent bands, are more powerful than any titillating tales of rock 'n' roll revelry.

One of the reasons Earles' book works is that he gives the band proper context. The author has a firm understanding of punk rock, post-punk, hardcore, college radio, the Twin Cities music scene, SST records, what later became "alternative" and "indie" and what each meant musically and sociologically. Hüsker Dü was part of all of these things to varying degrees while simultaneously forging their own path. Earles establishes where the Hüsker story converges with the above, often affecting them as much as they were affected by them.

Context is also part of the reason Earles spends the first six(!) chapters focusing on the band prior to the release of Metal Circus, conventionally deemed the band first "important" release. It's as though Earles wrote each early chapter as its own essay examining some part of the band's story. Usually mentioned in passing as a footnote, Hüsker Dü's label Reflex Records gets a full chapter, correctly establishing it as pioneering independent, not on the level of SST but born of the same impulse. This essay approach means the initial chapters bounce around a bit chronologically and contain some redundant information. For the most part this is fine, but a rather egregious example is a quote from Greg Norton regarding Canadian punks D.O.A. and the Subhumans that reappears in the following chapter a mere eight pages later. It's rare bit of sloppiness in what is otherwise a tightly constructed book. In addition to context, these early chapters also shed some much needed light on Hüsker Dü's hardcore days. Earles is sure to make a point that I've often made myself: Hüsker Dü were not some run of the mill hardcore act that eventually changed their sound and became "good." They were one of the best hardcore acts around, on par with anyone else in the genre.

Earles spends the remaining chapters giving a chronological account of each Hüsker release and the band's activities surrounding them, with an extra chapter thrown in focusing on the band's singing with major label Warner Brothers. This may seem like the author is rushing things in comparison to the early portion of the book, but it accurately reflects the speed at which Hüsker Dü was developing musically and gaining forward momentum. He concludes with respective chapters on the band members' ventures following their dissolution and the band's legacy as well as a lengthy appendix on Hüsker and Hüsker-related releases. In these chapters, Earles offers useful and insightful analysis of every release from the band, often dissecting them track by track. It's here that Earles demonstrates his strong grasp of why Hüsker Dü was a remarkable band, offering thoughtful appreciation of their not-infrequent musical innovations. A notable exception is the band's final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, about which Earles has seemingly little to say. While the album is certainly not Hüsker's strongest, this is disappointing. As a dense, sometimes frustrating, sometimes excellent 20-song double LP, it practically begs for thorough exegesis.

Overall, Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock is an essential read for fans Hüsker Dü. For those who aren't fans, I'll remind them that Hüsker Dü is an essential band. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

I'll conclude with a live clip of Hüsker Dü, because it's not like I need much of an excuse anyway.