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)

Piney forest – Piney floor – Piney Gir

Photo by Julius Beltrame
Photo by Julius Beltrame

Here it is! The first of my three most anticipated albums of 2009 is here (or at least it will be on 14 September). If you want to know more about Piney Gir, read this post, because there is so much to cover with The Yearling (16 tracks totaling about 50 minutes), that I don’t want to waste space regurgitating old information. So, to begin with, let me say this:

The Yearling is even better than I’d hoped it would be.

This is a far cry from Piney’s first album, Peakahokahoo, but those who, like me, fell in love with her early electronic tinkering, will not be disappointed. Blended alongside folk, twee, and jazz elements are shades of that retro Casio keyboard sound (a PT-20, to be exact). Mostly, this manifests as a sort of undercurrent, riding beneath and propelling forward about a dozen tracks, but in other places, such as “Early Days” (which bears a stylistic resemblance to “Janet Schmanet” from Peakahokahoo), it plays a more prominent role.

The album opens with “Hello Halo”, a sort of slowed down, gypsy-less hot club jazz ditty with guitar and violin supporting the simplest lyrics on the album, and the first of three miniatures that provide some of the most endearing moments on the album. The meat of the album begins with the second track, “Say I’m Sorry”, which also happens to be one of the highlights of the album for me. This is more straightforward C86 than I ever thought Piney Gir could get, right down to the handclaps and jangly guitars (all that’s missing now is the glockenspiel). “Say I’m Sorry” flows right into “Blithe Spirit”, which you may remember from that old entry I mentioned earlier. And whilst, in listening to the two songs in succession, one may be inclined to believe that, whoever this girl is, she must have died of twee fever, the sentiment is still a wee bit creepy. I love it.

A few tracks down the list, comes the next (and my favorite) miniature, “Blixa Bargeld’s Bicycle”, ostensibly about a bicycle for sale. Yes, perhaps it sounds like a simple vocalise and maybe you don’t need a bicycle, but “say you have a toothache / and you need to see a dentist / and you don’t know how to get there. / You could always ride a bike”, and wouldn’t you like to know Mr. Bargeld was selling his before moving to Shanghai? I thought so. The last of these miniatures is the a cappella “199 to Elephant and Castle”, a tiny, textless interlude opening with a bit of bus driverly wisdom and bridging beautifully the gap between “Abelha – Bumblebee” and “Lion (I Am One)”.

Speaking of which, “Lion (I Am One)” is an interesting number and another one of my favorites. With its opening Beat era cool jazz walking bass groove, it sets a chill, stalking tone for the track to come. With the introduction of some extra noise about halfway, this track becomes something akin to a shoegaze version of Audrey Hepburn’s café dance scene from Funny Face. Also of note here, is what could possibly be considered a bit of involuted songwriting: “I walk the forest across the floor / A piney forest / A piney floor”. Lewis Carroll would be so proud. “Oleanna”, which follows, about a man scouring the country searching for the woman of is dreams, is probably one of the more radio-friendly tracks on this record. (Incidentally, it features some fine Spanish diction on Piney’s part.)

The album closes out beautifully with the flute and harp accompanied “Love Is a Lonely Thing” (which reminds me, for no good reason, of Chet Baker’s “Born to Be Blue”), the considerably folksier “Weeping Machine” (one of the darkest Piney Gir songs I know: “I clean my house the best I can / discarding every hair and flake of skin, / so I can start again in a space that’s mine”), and ends on the more lilting, sing-along style of “For the Love of Others”.

Yes, it’s true that I still haven’t heard Piney Gir’s second album, Hold Yer Horses, but somehow, after having listened to The Yearling, I don’t feel so bad about that. Yes, I’d still like to hear it, but this album is so good, I am inclined to believe those who are calling it her masterpiece. It is more focused than Peakahokahoo and consistently entertaining. Having listened to this album eight times already today, I am about to get back in my car, where it is sitting in my CD player, waiting for me and it is likely to stay there for several days. Kristin says the mark of a great album is the inability to pick one favorite song. My favorite track from The Yearling has changed three times over the course of writing this review. It is just that good. It will be out on Hotel Records in the UK starting Monday, 14 September with a US release planned (I think) for some time in October. You owe it to yourself to buy this record and listen to it on repeat until you die.

I suppose “Blithe Spirit” is a literary allusion

I was going to post about Dear Reader tonight. I told Kristin I would. But I have changed my mind. (Besides, I plugged them on Facebook a fortnight ago.) There is something I’ve been wanting to tell you about since we started this blog, but I decided to hold off until we had a larger audience. This is one of those artists I always tell people to check out even though I know they won’t. (These are the same people who interrupt a trip-hop DJ in a posh martini bar to request Sum 41 or Lady Gaga or whatever the kids are listening to these days. Yes, it happens. Yes, they are my friends. Yes, it is embarrassing. No, don’t remind me.) So, anyway, I can’t hold it in any longer. I hope Kristin doesn’t beat me up at the company picnic.

Piney Gir is from Kansas. Let me rephrase that. Piney Gir is from Kansas in much the same way that T.S. Eliot was from St. Louis. Granted, she doesn’t insert Ovid, Dante, and Shakespeare into her work with quite the frequency or fluency of Eliot, but she does play the accordion, which is at least as hot as historico-poetic allusion, perhaps more so. (For those who lost me after Kansas, she lives in London now.)

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you why I love her music so much. Chalk it up to the accordion, if you like. Or maybe it’s the fact that “Jezabel” from Peakahokahoo still ranks in the top two on my list of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard, in a disconcerting Joan Jett kind of way. Or it could be because we both love 50s frocks. (Though I tend not to wear them. Kristin and I did, however, visit the Golden Age of Couture exhibition at the V&A two years ago whilst I was on a layover, bound for Scotland). Perhaps it is the very indefinability of her music that makes it so alluring. The first album, Peakahokahoo was highly influenced by electronica and those Casio keyboards she loves so much, and included a(n absolutely) fabulous take on “Que Sera, Sera”. The next album, Hold Yer Horses, by The Piney Gir Country Roadshow, I take to have had a distinctly more countrified flavor. I haven’t heard it, unfortunately, because every time I try to track down a copy, everyone tells me it doesn’t exist. Then again, maybe that’s it. Every dead end makes me want it more. And exclusivity is the sexiest thing of all.

And there is a new album coming. The Yearling, this time by Piney Gir & the Age of Reason, will be out sometime soon, I guess, I am having trouble finding a date (don’t worry, I’m used to it by now). If you can help, let me know (that goes for the other thing, too). The limited edition lead single “Of All the Wonderful Things” featuring Eamon Hamilton and beautifully twisted lyrical moments like “as much as I would like to see you die, I never find the strength to strike you down”, is out now in the UK (buy it via the link here) and will be released in the States on 30 June (with a different B-side, so buy them both).

Speaking of 30 June, Piney Gir & The Age of Reason will be playing the Lexington (in London, not Kentucky). Check the Facebook event page for more details. Sadly, once again, I will not be there. Piney, I promise I will hear you play someday, you just never have gigs when I’m in your country. (I am getting the distinct impression that an Indie Handbook field trip is in order.)

Oh, and one last thing. Her MySpace postings are precious. If we ever decided to expand The Indie Handbook, I would want her to write for us, though I’m sure she has better things to do.