The Indie Handbook: best of 2009

The best according to Kristin:

10. Our Temperance Movement, Cats on Fire (Matinee)
9. A Balloon Called Moaning, The Joy Formidable (self-released)
8. The Yearling, Piney Gir (Hotel)
7. The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats (4AD)
6. Where the Wild Things Are [soundtrack], Karen O. and the Kids (Interscope)
5. Tarpits and Canyonlands, Bombadil (Ramseur Records)
4. God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade / Matador)
3. Aim and Ignite, fun. (Nettwerk)
2. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD)
1. Know Better Learn Faster, Thao w/ the Get Down Stay Down (Kill Rock Stars)

Honorable mentions: A Very Cherry Christmas 5, various artists (Cherryade); Reverence for Fallen Trees, The Black Atlantic (In a Cabin With / Beep! Beep! Back up the Truck)

The best according to Eric:

10. Rockwell, Anni Rossi (4AD) – If you caught Camera Obscura on their US tour this summer, you now have a better idea just what one girl and her viola are capable of, but I saw Anni twice this year, and I still can’t believe it.

9. Actor, St. Vincent (4AD) – Though my review of this album for a certain e-zine was “improved” by some hack of an editor who considered my avoidance of clichés downright unpalatable, Annie Clark remains one of the great musical geniuses at work these days.

8. The Big Machine, Emilie Simon (Barclay/Universal) – It’s a departure from her last (and my favorite) album, Végétal, but this, the first of what you might call Emilie’s “American” recordings, proves that a creative powerhouse starting anew is still better than any number of pop idols doing what they do best. [interview]

7. Uam, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine/Cadiz) – I hesitated to include this since none of the songs on this album were even written in this century, but few (if any) have done more to make one of the world’s great musical traditions relevant again than Ms. Fowlis. That combined with impeccable musicianship and a killer set of tunes spanning several centuries are enough to obliterate my reticence.

6. Pays Sauvage, Emily Loizeau (Polydor) – On her sophomore release, Emily Loizeau copes with, among other things, the loss of her father. In the process, she will tear your heart to shreds – and you will never again be more happy to be heartbroken. If you had told me a year ago that a French woman would prove this year to have a better grasp of American roots music and slave songs than almost anyone I’ve heard in recent memory, I’d have written you off as a complete nutjob (no offense).

5. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD) – Apparently, it’s been a good year for 4AD. “French Navy” is probably the catchiest song by a band I like that your average Starbucks customer may have actually heard this year. Still, I think “Honey in the Sun” is my favorite from the second Scottish act on this list.

4. Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors (Domino) – The only album on this list that I do not actually own and I am ashamed. Even worse, I missed their Columbus show this year because I suck. I streamed this about 3,487 times when it was streaming on the NPR website. Holy crap, it’s brilliant.

3. Lungs, Florence + the Machine (Universal Republic/Island) – You Brits have been hearing about Florence Welch for ages now, but I guess Paste hasn’t given the American indie subculture permission to trade in their Grizzly Bear CDs for one of the most monumental voices of the decade yet, not to mention the super sexy percussion. But her time will come, kids. Now is your chance to get in on the ground floor. I suspect that, if I’d had more than two months with this album before writing this, Florence + the Machine would be finishing even higher on this list.

2. A Balloon Called Moaning/First You Have to Get Mad, The Joy Formidable (self-released) – If you have not heard of The Joy Formidable by now, you a) live outside of the UK and/or b) do not read this blog enough. Technically, these are two albums, one studio and one live and there is a lot of overlap between them. But together, they prove two things conclusively: The Joy Formidable are the best unsigned band in the world (yes, I said it); and they are the band to watch in 2010. If you don’t already own these albums, ask yourself why and the go out and buy them. Then, when they play their three shows in NYC with Passion Pit in January and all those cool Brooklyn kids think they’ve discovered something groundbreaking, you can (gently) remind them that you and some unenlightened hick from the Midwest got there a year before them.

1. The Love Language, The Love Language (Bladen County) – This album took 150% more turns in my car stereo than any other album released in 2009. That fact alone made my album of the year decision an easy one. (Not a bad accomplishment for one guy sitting alone in his bedroom.) Then there is the fact that the live incarnation of The Love Language, which is considerably larger, put on what is, at the very least, the second best show I saw this year (Los Campesinos are pretty phenomenal in their own right). I am speechless just thinking about it, so go back and read what I wrote after that show, if you’re interested. And, Stuart McLamb, if you’re reading this, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for this record. I hope I won’t have to wait too long for a second one.

Honorable Mentions: Welcome to the Walk Alone, The Rumble Strips (Island); God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade/Matador)

I love fun.!

Ok, all you who are broken-hearted because of the Format’s break-up, come to The Indie Handbook and we will give you rest.  We have all been waiting so patiently for fun.’s album, Aim and Ignite, trying to subdue our anxious ears with “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be),” but now is the time to rejoice because the album is here! It is here for real tomorrow, and it is here now streaming on their myspace page!

We’ve talked about these guys before because Eric got to see them live which makes me so jealous  I could scream, so you probably already know that fun. is the collaboration of the Format’s Nate Ruess, Anathallo’s Andrew Dost, and Steel Train’s Jack Antonoff.  And ohh my gosh their album is streaming.  Am I over eager?  (no such thing).

I’ve heard mixed feelings about fun. from friends who saw them live and have streamed Aim and Ignite, and I have to agree most with a friend who said that their name truly fits them–they’re really just a lot of fun to listen to, and probably even more fun to see live.  To the assertion that they’re not catchy enough, I must disagree.  After listening to Aim and Ignite, I would say that fans of the Format’s Dog Problems will appreciate this album the most.  I’m sure fun. would rather not be constantly compared to the Format (sorry!) but I hear definite stylistic parallels between the melodramatic structure shifts and incredible orchestration in the two albums.

I have no idea if fun. claims Queen as an influence, and maybe I’m committing some kind of musical treason in saying this, but I hear elements in Aim and Ignite that are very reminiscent of Queen–strong lead singer, complex orchestration, a tendency towards the anthemic, raw emotion, and a general songwriting courage…there’s no shrinking from drama here, but somehow it isn’t kitschy or annoying–it’s awesome, actually.  Could fun. be the next Queen?  I don’t know.  I’m just sayin’.

So now let’s play a game called, listen to Aim and Ignite and tell us your favorite song on the album.  I can’t pick just one, but I really enjoy “Benson Hedges” (kind of an interesting gospel influence that you also hear  a bit in “Barlights”) and “I Wanna Be The One.”  And I still love “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be),” even though it isn’t so new.

Kristin is taking a week off.

Yesterday was Kristin’s birthday and because she is my friend and I have been slacking off lately, I suggested she take the week off. (Also, I am too cheap to buy her a real present.) Sorry folks, you’re stuck with me for the week, but at least you’ll get a brief respite on Wednesday, because I have another guest submission from Dan Holloway. I guess every cloud really does have a silver lining.

But wait, it gets worse. I have been crazy busy lately: the Dublin Irish Festival last weekend followed almost immediately by four and a half days out of town (that’s a lot of hours in my car and even more scones). Consequently, I have had very little time to explore and have been listening almost exclusively to Julie Fowlis, Tilly & the Wall, and the Pipettes. (In the process, I learned a beautiful Scots lullaby, which I will be happy to sing to you, if you are a girl.) So, unless you really want to hear more about one of those artists, you will have to content yourself with the news contained in this article.

In case any of you actually expressed interest in the initial clause of that last sentence, you may be interested to know that Rose Elinor Dougall, formerly Rosay of the Pipettes, is in the process of releasing her second single as a solo artist, with plans to put out a full LP some time in 2010. Also, Gwenno Saunders, currently of the Pipettes, had some success with Welsh and Cornish language electropop before joining the band.

Word from Cardiff is that The School are in post production of their debut LP. Mastering and production work were completed on Wednesday. From what I hear, all that is left to work out are the singles, artwork, and that sort of thing, hopefully to be completed in time for an October release.

Not to mention, we are but a fortnight removed from Fun’s Aim and Ignite and Imogen Heap’s Ellipse. Of course, you knew that already. What you may not know is that you can stream Aim and Ignite on MySpace right now.

Even more pressing, however, is the imminent release of the new album, Silent City (featuring Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, on three tracks), by Columbus, Ohio’s own Brian Harnetty. That is, it comes out tomorrow. For you locals, there is a release party at Rumba on Friday. Super Desserts will also be playing. I’ve heard Brian perform once before, in a local used record store. It was a low-key affair, but I was transfixed. He is Paste’s “Artist of the Week“, and deservedly so.

17 is kind of a sexy, unlike Megan Fox

Someone from Paste magazine recently posted his top 25 songs of 2009 so far (I’m too lazy to go looking for it, so you can find it for yourself). I only agreed, I think, with one of the tracks on his list, so I have made my own. I’m also too lazy to actually come up with 25 songs and put them in any sort of real order, so here are 17 songs, more or less in the order they ranked in my mind at the time I posted this. (Why 17? I don’t know. I like it. It’s prime number and a rather attractive, if slightly abrasive, one at that.) I’m sure, if I had an entire day to work on this (and didn’t have to drive to Chicago after work tomorrow), it would probably look somewhat different. Also, I can’t promise that these all came out in 2009, it’s a little hard to tell with unsigned bands.

1) On My Usual Catch Up with Cecilia – Hari and Aino I think you all already know how I feel about them

2) Close My Eyes – The Peekers Life in the Air is a pretty fabulous album. This song reminds me a lot of Pink Martini’s “Sympathique” 

3) In Knowing – Swimming in Speakers Yeah, we love them a lot. It looks like a lot of people are coming round to our way of thinking.

4) Good at That – The Hard To Get It’s encouraging to know that producer agrees that this is the best song on the EP 

5) Bobby on Repeat – Parlours I haven’t told you about Parlours yet, but I will. Right now it’s a handful of demos recorded by Dana Halferty but I am very excited about the future of this project.

6) And Suddenly – The School Granted, it’s not my favorite song on the MySpace page, but it is my favourite of the tracks to be released this year. 

7) Funny Little Frog – God Help the Girl Yeah, it’s a cover, but Brittany Stallings’ voice is brilliant. This is one sexy recording. 

8 ) Sad Eyed God of Lovers & Drunks – Bitter Things I forgot how much I love this band until I listened through their MySpace again in preparation for this list. 

9) At Least I’m Not as Sad as I Used to Be – fun The new album will be out in August, but you knew that already 

10) French Navy – Camera Obscura This is the one that made the Paste list.

11) Mess of Hope – This is Ember I am sorry to admit that I haven’t really thought about This is Ember since Dutch Week. I miss them. 

12) Keep Cooler – Nancy They are from Brazil. I am pretty sure it is not pronounced quite the way it looks, but I might be making that up.

13) Seventeen – Casxio *Note the irony…

14) Sweetheart – Mari Persen Mari is also a member of The Royalties, from Bergen, Norway. The Royalties have an American tour coming up in October, but it looks like it is going to be limited to the NYC and L.A. areas. Sad. I like them a lot. Mari’s solo work is more inspired by Blossom Dearie and will appeal to fans of the early Cardigans (like Emmerdale and Life). There is an album due out around October.

15) The Magic Between Us – Venus Hum I still don’t really know when the album is going to be coming out, but I’m gettin’ antsy. I love you, Annette. (By the way, is anyone keeping track of the crushes I have admitted to since starting this blog?)

16) Whirring – The Joy Formidable Technically, this song was released in 2008 on A Balloon Called Moaning, but the eponymous 7-inch came out in May. My copy is autographed because they love me and because I pre-ordered. 

17) It’s not the End of the World, Jonah – The Secret History I admit it. This kind of sneaked in at the end of 2008, but I didn’t hear it until February of this year. That is the only reason it falls so low on the list, otherwise it would probably hover somewhere around 6 or 7.

So, there’s my hastily assembled “17 Best of 2009” list. You probably think I’m a complete whackjob. That’s fine. I’m used to it. Argue with me here or on Facebook.

Oh, I totally forgot that Dear Reader‘s Replace Why with Funny came out this year. In that case, stick “Dear Heart” somewhere up there in the top five.

An open letter to “cool” kids everywhere

In case you have forgotten, there are some big releases due out next Tuesday the 23rd (Monday for you Brits). I was going to review one of them, God Help the Girl, tonight, but I got distracted (more on that later). Instead, expect a double review on Monday (GHG, and Regina Spektor’s Far). Also on the cards in the near-ish future, Imogen Heap announced yesterday that her new album, Ellipse, will be released (in the States) 25 August, which is also the scheduled release date for Fun’s upcoming Aim and Ignite. But the biggest news of the day, at least for me (and not only because I love Welsh accents), The School have finished recording their debut LP! With mixing and stuff still to be done, they are aiming for an October release. So excited!

So, anyway, why are you not reading a review right now. Well, I was doing a bit of research whilst writing my God Help the Girl review and came across this analysis over at Drowned in Sound. I am not going to argue with the judgment of the author because he has had a lot of time to listen to listen to a hard copy of the record whilst I have had only recently had a couple of passes through an online stream. I do, however, take issue with the tone of the article, because it seems that Mr. Tudor has fallen victim to his own coolness.

We are not 100 words into the article before he declares God Help the Girl to be “another step backwards”–for Belle & Sebastian. Funny thing, though. This is not a Belle & Sebastian record. Judging GHG in light of Tigermilk or If You’re Feeling Sinister is like calling Band On the Run a step back for the Beatles because it’s not The White Album. I suppose it would not be completely justified to take Mr. Tudor too severely to task for the style of his critique. As a reviewer, it is essential to recognize that there are certain landmarks within each genre (for instance C86 or the Velvet Underground) and that they are necessary in describing other albums and artists. And in a genre that was in many ways created by Belle & Sebastian 13 years ago and dominated by them throughout the ensuing decade, B&S references are inevitable. Perhaps, he has simply taken that comparison a step too far. (Ironically, I suspect that, frequently, reviewers are not nearly as familiar with the reference points they invoke as they let on. I, for instance, have never actually heard the C 86 compilation, but that hasn’t stopped me from referencing it on several occasions. Or, everyone touts the “literary influences” of Belle & Sebastian, but how many of them have actually read John Whiting’s The Devils? [For the record, I have.])

Now, it is quite possible that, upon closer examination, I will not like God Help the Girl. They may not arouse in me the undying devotion that Belle & Sebastian do. Be that as it may, it will be a strike against God Help the Girl, not against B&S. Who knows, it might even awaken the ennui in me and I will find something in the album to be entirely indifferent about. You will have to wait until Monday to find out. But I have listened to it a couple of times and, unfortunately, I like it. I guess I’m not a critic after all, but one of those pathetic, toxic creatures who typically reserve their passion for football clubs and SciFi television programs. I am a fan. Luckily, I live in the American Midwest where we’re all backwards, inbred, and friendly to begin with and you will never have to come within 35,000 feet of me.

I Miss You, The Format

Tonight is a night of mourning, because I am reviewing The Format, who I love and have no more.  They are the biggest teases ever…giving us but two albums and then splitting.  I know when I’m unwanted!  These two albums, however, are two of the best, most personal albums I have ever owned.  So, I forgive them for the split.

Anyway, many of you may already know and love The Format, in which case you should probably honor them with me by listening to their albums on repeat and looking into fun., Nate Ruess’s brand new band, who actually toured with Manchester Orchestra and who Eric got to see in concert while I listened to top-40 radio in Hampton Roads.  However, many of you may not have heard The Format because you are too young or were too uncool in high school/college to listen to them.  It’s  okay.  I was uncool at one time as well.  Now is a time of celebration for you–and a time of spending money on some new albums.  Listen up, kids.

My second favorite of The Format’s albums is their first album, Interventions and Lullabies (Elektra, 2003).  In their first album, The Format begins showcasing what sets them apart from others–quite literally, the format of their songs.  As far as I can tell from their lyrics, the band members seem to be personally acquainted with restlessness and change–one reason why I connect so deeply with them, I guess–and these qualities play a significant role in their music-making.   Perhaps the most prominent examples of this are the bridge on “Let’s Make  This Moment A Crime,” the general structure of “Sore Thumb,” and the surprising last minute or so of “Career Pay,” which by the way, is my favorite track.  Just in case you were wondering.  Beyond the interesting FORMAT (haha it never gets old!) of their music, their lyrics = genius.  From “I’m Ready, I Am,” The Format hits what is important to me as an artist and listener: “I”m trying to find truth in words and rhymes and notes and all the things I wish I wrote”–isn’t that the point?  Their twentysomething/graduate feelings are familiar…”old classmates please drop all your pens/don’t write a word caus i won’t reply/i’m not bitter no it’s just i’ve passed that point in my life” or “as for joe oh i’ve seen him around/then there’s adam/he’s afraid to go out/i don’t blame him/i just wanted to go out to eat/then there’s mark goddamn i wish him the best/we were kids back then/as if we could progress/sometimes i, i just can’t sleep/thinking of the things we could have been.”  I know, it sounds kind of emo.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Well,  I feel like that a lot.  So that’s enough.

Moving on, Dog Problems (The Vanity Label, 2006) is my favorite of the two albums, because at this point, the Format has grown into musical  maturity.  The interesting changes in FORMAT!! are not only in the bridge or the last thirty seconds of a song, but they keep occurring…not too many key changes because that is annoying as hell, but tempo and style…it’s incredibly intriguing, and incredibly ADHD-friendly, which is always nice.  They have figured out how to use background vocals brilliantly (“I’m Actual” — great example) and have played with instrumentation.  The melodies are interesting, the writing is creative, and it’s singable.  So, that’s pretty fantastic.  Because I’m a self-aware lyric whore, “Oceans” (“why am i scared of people in a room?/why can’t they see a good time/are the people close to you?/why don’t i just give in/have a drink and shake some hands…”) and “If Work Permits” (“now standing in a room/it’s filled with older folks/they’re pleading ‘baby listen’/and i scream as loud as anyone/but when asked to make a point/i tend to whisper”) are my favorite tracks on the album.  They make me want to scream, I feel that way!!!!!!!!!! But I don’t, I just listen.  Anyway, despite these being my favorite, the title track is amazing and in my opinion, puts all of the great characteristics about this band into one song.  The lyrics, the swing to ballad style changes, the awesome instrumentation… it’s all here.  And check it, yo.  You can watch the video.

You can also listen to some of their songs on myspace, but really I’d just recommend buying the albums.  You can probably get them cheap on Amazon.  Is that cheap of me to mention?  I don’t care.  We’re poor, you probably are too.

I miss you, the Format…

I’m living in the future again

I am so tired. I was up until 3:30 this morning writing a review and then back up for work at 8:00. And I have to host a dinner party Saturday evening, so you will forgive me if I choose the path of least resistance and discuss a few albums that I am looking forward to, rather than delve into completely uncharted territory. Back in January, Under the Radar Magazine printed a list of about 25 of the most anticipated indie releases of 2009. I was anticipating 4 of them and they have all been unleashed. These four were not mentioned. They are nothing less than subterranean.

Little Birdie Storybook (more of an idea, really) – Little Birdie Storybook is Becca Kreutz who writes some of the most charming and enchanting songs you will ever hear. All that exists at the moment is a handful of demos on her MySpace page, recorded at home in one take on an out-of-tune piano, but she will be heading into the studio to have another go at them. To be honest, I am going to miss those blue notes. You Regina Spektor fans will enjoy this, though Little Birdie Storybook is pretty much impossible to dislike. I think I am looking forward to this one the most. You will be hearing a lot more from me on this topic in the months to come. In the meantime, listen to the demos. You can find the lyrics here.

FunAim & Ignite (23 August) – Fun is the name of the band. The name is nearly as pretentious as that of French rockers Rock and Roll, but it is entirely appropriate. I caught their set in support of Manchester Orchestra, and I can say without reservation that they have earned the name. Stylistically, they fall somewhere between Queen and Mika. The release date for Aim & Ignite was up in the air for a while, but it now stands at 25 August. I know what I’ll be doing that day. For now you can check out their MySpace where you can pick up a free download of “At least I’m not as sad as I used to be” which you can also stream on Facebook (where you can also become a fan of The Indie Handbook). If you want more, catch one of the few remaining dates with Manchester Orchestra.

The School, (title and release date TBA) – This one is still in the works. They went into the studio to begin work a few weeks ago. If you’ve been following us for a while, you already know how much I love this band and for your sake I will tell everyone else to read this. Needless to say, I am pumped. I may have to go to Cardiff to thank them in person. You are all more than welcome to join me.

Venus Hum, (also TBA) – I mentioned this on the Facebook page a couple of days ago. It’s been three years since their last studio album, The Colors In the Wheel, which included one of my favorite songs ever, “Pink Champaign” (I will post the video below). Finally, they are back in the studio. Annette Strean has one of the most striking voices I have ever heard and backed by multi instrumentalists Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle, they have produced enduringly appealing albums in my music library. I’ve been listening to Big Beautiful Sky all week. You can track the progress of the recording and here a few samples (which may or may not end up on the record) at the band’s blog here. (Ok, I am adding a live version of “Yes and No” because the band are actually in it.)

And suddenly, the world is full of sunshine

Welsh shoop-pop darlings, The School, are in the studio this week to begin work on their debut LP. It is already in the running for album of the year in my book and it doesn’t even exist yet. I have posted several links to their MySpace because not enough of you followed the one I posted in this entry. Seriously, since I posted that entry, their music has been running through my head nonstop. I have a Belle & Sebastian / Tilly & the Wall type love for this band. They had better release this LP soon, because I’m getting antsy.

Speaking of which, I still can’t find the new St. Vincent record and it’s starting to get annoying. One more indie store left to check, otherwise I just have to wait and browse incessantly.

So, no St. Vincent post (again), but I’ve got something equally fabulous for you. I went to my first Manchester Orchestra show last night, and not just because, apparently Andy’s father (at least I think it’s him) serves on some board with my uncle and my dad, but because I was promised it would be the best show of my life. So maybe Jeremy was wrong and it wasn’t the best, but was a great show. The most impressive thing being that, for the first time in years, I saw three amazing opening acts who, in my mind, were on par with the headliner. You ought to check them all out:

Fun

Audrye Sessions

Winston Audio

We will get to all of them eventually, but for now I want to focus on Winston Audio because they took the stage first and, due to a scheduling mix-up on my part, I missed half of their set. If you are planning to attend any of the remaining dates on this tour, do not, make that mistake. (And if you are not planning to be there, change your plans and get there on time.) We are talking solid rock here, like a blues infused southern grunge, cleaned up but still sufficiently scruffy. Think of something on the heavier side of Consolers of the Lonely era Raconteurs, minus the electric presence of Jack White. (This is no fault of Winston Audio, of course, there are maybe three people in the world who can begin to approach that Jack White aura.) I am posting a video below. The sound is kind of tenuous, but listen closely and you might hear a tinge of “Carolina Drama”. Of course, you could visit their MySpace to here a higher quality recording from their new album, The Red Rhythm.

Seriously, catch this tour if it comes anywhere near you, it is a power-packed lineup. Winston Audio will also be heading out on the road again in late summer, in August, I believe.