I know what you're going to say: "Why didn't you review these albums last year?" Let's play the numbers game and I'll give you the answer. Let's say there are 52 weeks in any given year. If I listen to, say, 2 new albums a week, that's 104 albums I had a chance to listen to last year.
In any given week, there are 7 days. Of those 7 days, I worked an average of 45 hours from Mondays through Fridays, not counting summer. Leaving those other 2 days (we'll call them "weekends") to do some serious album listening. Also, keep in mind I have something that remotely resembles a "social life" so maybe I had one solid day that I could dedicate to "active listening", which is required to objectively listen to an album to give it a proper review.
Then repeat that 4 or 5 times to give an accurate, in-depth review. So I was lucky to be able to actually pore over an album for an extended period of time for maybe 5 hours a week.
From that original number of albums, the hypothetical 104, take away one-third for trying to have a social life. That's about 35 albums, giving us the new total of 69. Then there's things like sickness, vacation, work, yadda yadda yadda, giving me the chance to realistically listen to about 55-60 albums, slightly more than one a week.
So now- what's different? I have slightly more access to "free time", which I choose to spend writing. About music. Mostly...
Deerhunter- Cryptograms (Kranky Records, released on 2/6/07)
A choppy and churning, roto-Leslie effect on the guitar, its intent to possibly mimic a siren signals the start of Cryptograms. It's an ominous warning, no doubt, and Deerhunter wants you to take them serious. As in "dead" serious- it's an album wrought with imagery of death, as their own bass player died in a tragic skateboard accident recently. It makes for a sad trip of an album, back and forth between light and dark until finally eschewing the grief and moving towards the light.
Track-by-track the same rotary effect is applied as a segue between (White Ink literally sounds just as it's been named) with a few minutes dedicated to what amounts to white noise. But the ever-present theme of the album returns itself back to those densely layered, choppy delays to segue us away to Lake Somerset; which falls into a jam-band induced trance and drops you lightly into Providence with a toned-down reprise of that thematic and soupy churn of organs and guitar and finally into Octet-Stream.
Evoking both a psychedelic feel and emotive urgency, with that same disconnected lyrical and haunting musical recipe that worked so well in Grizzly Bear's excellent Yellow House last year. Other bands that come to mind when listening to this album: Slint's Spiderland, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and last year's debut album from I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness. (Side Note: albums I seem to give favor to often find themselves in company with other good albums.)
But at the halfway point of the album, that bubbling theme settles itself to a simmer with an ambient and atmospheric soundscape, and the album's centerpiece is revealed with Spring Hall Convert and a nice segue into Strange Lights. So it basically took us about 25 minutes into this album before actual songs (as in rhythm, melody, hooks, riffs?) decide to make an appearance- to see if an actual album materializes. And it does quite wonderfully, after the aptly-named Tape Hiss Orchid gives itself into the arms of Heatherwood and its chanting chorus "was not seen again" playing us out of the album.
In short, a great achievement, musically, lyrically. This is where maximum creativity has been reached, definitely one of the better albums of the year. Deerhunter, as a band, has moved on and ultimately accepted reality, which makes for beautiful art.
Overall rating: 94
El Perro Del Mar- El Perro Del Mar (Memphis Industries, released 11/7/06)
Twee as fuck! If there's one word I've overused the last few months, it's "twee". Scottish for sweet, it perfectly describes that none-too-serious, catchy indie pop made into a brand name by the likes of Belle & Sebastian and others. But you know what? I fucking love it, and here's why:
1) Who the hell doesn't like smiling? I can't even try to think of pretending to stop myself in mid-smile while listening to the first track, Candy. Shoo-be-doo-wop-bop's aside, it's like going back in time to a simpler, less-realized version of life, when you could go out and get the paper in your slippers while the milkman pulls up with a few fresh quarts.
2) And God Knows lets you in on the secret of that life: "you gotta give to get back..." Commonly referred to as karma, it's a lesson that's as universal as free health care for all. In Sweden.
3) Sarah Assbring's (yes, that's her real name, and she is in fact very Swedish) vocals are simple yet lovely. Think a less-masculine version of Nico. Look, I'm not saying Christa Paffgen was a dude, she just sang like one. Okay, that comparison was weak, but they both have this in common: singing with slightly accented vocals AND their songs will never be played on the radio. Ever...
4) I thought it would be cool to make a list. I'm listening to this album and it puts me in such a playful mood, I feel like playing. With words. And lists. It's fun!
5) The 3-and-a-half-minute pop song will always reign supreme. Speaking of supreme, it's as if these tunes were pulled from the vaults of Motown and given the Scandinavian treatment. Motor city blues washed over by a Stocholm white-wash. So there- it's pop music your mom can listen to. With the family kitty-cat.
Overall rating: 74
Midlake- Trials Of Van Occupanther (Bella Union Records, 7/25/06)
Retro is so big right now. It's like Mugatu in Zoolander: "That damn retro is so hot right now!" Midlake is completely aware of this. Channeling both the spirit of 70's classic rock pioneers and a wholesome respect for pop melody, Trials Of Van Occupanther captures a vibe that died and is currently again in resurgence. Which I've been finding lately that most of these are completely hit-or-miss. I'm talking both my reviews and these albums. This one missed with me, or maybe I missed with it, whichever.
So here's the explanation: remember those commercials for TimeLife Music CDs, most specifically the AM Gold Collection? It was loaded with 70's-soft rock stalwarts Leo Sayer and Terry Jacks' classic, Seasons In The Sun. That's basically what Midlake is all about. Sappy at times, over-dramatic lyrics, I'm trying to figure if this isn't a well-contrived ploy to sneak into that sub-genre "freak folk". I'm not sure if I like that term- it's more offensive to freaks than to folks. That was a bad joke. Like I said: hit or miss...
Also; when doing the "concept album" approach, let's try to have a good concept first. Okay, so Van Occupanther is either a van, or a panther. Occupying. Something... He's actually a traveller of some sort, a modern day Gulliver or Homer. Here Midlake tries to make an ethereal-sounding homage to Fleetwood Mac, yet it sounds more like it will end up in the display rack in a truck stop 10 years from now next to America's Greatest Hits.
I really don't want to waste a hell of a lot of time on this, it's bad, like bad poetry over bad stolen Jethro Tull music. Which is a lot like the real Jethro Tull...
Overall rating: 58
Subtle- For Hero: For Fool (Lex Records, 10/3/06)
The East Bay has a posse of musical geniuses and lyrical malcontents, and they keep on pushing the envelope. More than just your average hip-hop record, Subtle's For Hero: For Fool toes the line between all genres and is as uncategorizable as anything I've heard lately. If Nas is listening to this, hip-hop isn't dead, it's alive as ever. But here it changes its shape, bends previously held ideas and smashes pretenses with a jaunt back down memory lane and simultaneously throwing you so far forward into the future to assure you that yes, this is the new stuff you've been looking for.
And the scene in Oakland is as alive as ever, too. Just ask MC Adam 'doseOne' Drucker and the rest of his Subtle crew, because they're the ones holding the test tube filled with the formula to save hip-hop by taking it back to the days of Chuck D and KRS-One. In other words, what is really being presented here more closely resembles a running social commentary than some mere rhyme fest, and Subtle's latest offering picks up where 2004's A New White left off. Synth lines, crunchy riffs, old school beats- it has all the ingredients of what it takes to make a good record. What makes it great is the lyrical prowess of Subtle's mouthpieces.
By attacking mainstream America with the blazing and overtly political tracks Middleclass Stomp and Middleclass Kill, Subtle sets out to provoke Mr. Status Quo and ask about his "well-dressed daughter". Since this isn't your ordinary hip-hop album, casting off the shackles of conformity is a must- and nothing is safe here. Remember your 10th grade physics class and Charles Darwin's ideas? MC doseOne provides a refresher course, for this may be the headiest entry in the rap world since the re-emergence of what I like to call "intelligent hip-hop" (you know who I mean: MF Doom, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Jurassic 5, Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, the whole "anti-bling" contingency).
If Jack Kerouac grew up in the 1990s addicted to hip-hop culture, his free-associative beat poetry would resemble the stylings of doseOne's flow- and one can sit and ponder over just how much influence exactly the beat generation has exerted over Subtle's songwriters. But what's also showcased here is the versatility of several styles of rhyme- lightning fast at times, a slow drawl at others, old school and off-beat, new school slang; it's less a battle of said styles than a perfect blending- an organic meld instead of a forced or contrived feeling throughout the album makes it extremely accessible. To find hip-hop alive and well, you may have to just go underground for it...
Overall rating: 89
Minus The Bear - Interpretaciones Del Oso (Menos El Oso Remixed)
Explosions In The Sky - All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone