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 St. Vincent

It took me a long time to track this down, so, rather than make you wait even longer for a full review, I am going to try my hand at liveblogging. I apologize in advance if this sucks. I’ve never done this before, but here is my initial impression of St. Vincent’s new album Actor.

“The Strangers” – I’ve heard this song several times, mostly because I listened to it on repeat for about half an hour when it was first posted on MySpace. It’s a subtly driving tune opening in a straight 4/4 but somehow seamlessly shifting into 3/4. I can’t even say for sure when this happens, it is that smooth. A good way to start the album, not too different from Marry Me.

“Save Me From What I Want” – The drums on this track are interesting. They sound more like a drum machine than anything else, but they are live as far as I can tell. Nice, close, dissonant harmonies on the chorus, “Save me. Save me. Save me from what I want.” with continual layering toward the end.

“The Neighbors” – I am getting the impression that this is going to be an album heavily reliant upon rhythm, especially rhythmic dissonance. At the outset, this sounds like a straight up waltz–until the handclaps (on every other beat, i.e. 1, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, etc.). The drums pick up this rhythm and run with it, further confusing the listener, until the two merge with each other into a fabulous 8/8 (that is 3+3+2/8).

“Actor Out of Work” – This song probably comes closest to the last album, stylistically speaking. I’d say it is most similar to “Your Lips are Red” only sweeter. Background vocals are a chromatically ascending sequence.

“Black Rainbow” – Heavy use of winds in parallel thirds in the intro and later instrumental interludes. The pulsing eighth note instrumental accompaniment is very reminiscent of Philip Glass. Moving into the bridge, Annie’s voice is doubled by, I think, muted horn in some seriously high register. Another chromatically ascending (ad infinitum) sequence closes out the track.

“Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” – Opens with a simple drum, bass, and chordal synth accompaniment. Strings enter in the background of the chorus in an ascending whole tone (I think) scale. Add winds in bridge.

“Marrow” – Another Glass-like intro. Annie is really starting to sound like Shara Worden on this record. And now I feel like I’ve been transported to some London disco where Steve Reich and Grandmaster Flash are battling it out in some kind of battle of the DJs. This has a very similar feel to the more rock oriented tracks from Marry Me.

“The Bed” – Only a few seconds in, and I already think that this is the track I’ve been waiting for. The metrical deception on this track hinges on hemiola and accented offbeats. It’s almost like Bjork. I hear something that sounds like a pipa. This may be the sarongi, though I have no idea what that is. Yes! This is definitely what I’ve been wanting. Brooding, orchestral, even operatic, with a touch of George Crumb’s Black Angels and lots of woodwind flourishes–I love this!

“The Party” – This great, pretty much straight forward trip hop feel with piano, drums, and vocals in the verses. Oh, there goes the 4/4-3/4 changeover again. I’m starting to wonder if Annie can manage to record a song without any metric shiftiness. And for the first time, I have actually managed to discern some lyrics: “I sit transfixed by a hole in your T-shirt”. I do wish I’d been given some liner notes with lyrics. Environmentally conscious record labels can be a bit annoying at times. A big choral/orchestral finale builds to the end of this number, though it’s really just the same stuff layered over and over again. More of a vamp, really.

“Just the Same But Brand New” – The title is certainly not descriptive of the album, which, stylistically, falls somewhere between Marry Me and My Brightest Diamond’s A Thousand Sharks’ Teeth. And here we are. We have been through some modulations and dynamic changes, but we have in fact managed to maintain the same time signature, though the drums do toy around with us for a moment when the full band first comes in.

“The Sequel” – Another wind intro. Such a beautiful ascending tritone motive over sustained perfect fifths creates some gorgeous dissonances, almost like Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, even. It comes in at under two minutes, really just a postlude, but in many ways the simplest and most interesting track of the album. What a brilliant way to wrap things up.

This is such an intricate record, meticulous in ways that Marry Me wasn’t and it is going to take several more listens and a visit to the website (apparently) before I understand it all. But that’s what I want (well the complexity anyway, I still want a booklet with lyrics). Will this be the album of the year the way many have hyped it? I can’t say yet. It’s going to depend on what we get from The School and if Venus Hum gets their new record out in time, but Actor is definitely in the running. For now, I have no trouble recommending, no, demanding, that you give it a listen.

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:


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.

Go die, kid.

I had planned to liveblog the new St. Vincent album, Actor, which came out today. But it was sold out everywhere I looked. That makes me happy, but I am still annoyed. I will just have to pick up a copy  before the Manchester Orchestra show I am going to tomorrow.

In retrospect, I could have just picked up the new Camera Obscura and blogged that one instead, but the thought did not occur to me until I got home because I am an idiot.

During my Actor quest, I parked next to a silver Jaguar XK8. Sexy car. Almost as sexy as this blog. But more money than I was planning to spend on the CD, so I didn’t buy that either.

So, since I didn’t have anything else prepared, you are getting a label spotlight from me tonight.

Go Die Kid Records is a small upstart based in Columbus, OH. In the interest of full disclosure, you ought to know that I do happen to know one of the owners (he makes my coffee). Before listening, I asked my friend if they specialise in any particular sort of music. He told me that, as long as they like the music and they are cool people, they will represent them. I like that attitude. I also like the music because I did, in fact, listen to it. Here are a few of the highlights, but check out Go Die Kid on MySpace for the full roster.

Steamboat: Strikingly sparse. Check out “What did I do so long ago”

Civil War Generals: Not quite as stripped down as Steamboat, but with a distinct Appalachian folk sound. Think “Sacred Harp”. Plus, how many other bands do you know that prominently feature photographs of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on their MySpace pages? Try “Footprints in the Snow”.

RUM TUM: Experimental, ambient, instrumental. Not quite IDM type complexity, but I really dig this stuff. See: “Sea Pods”

I Am Mute: This music (kind of folksy with nice harmonies, violin, and glockenspiel) makes me happy and is not lacking in occasional outbursts of passion on numbers like “Tall Tales of Taller Giants”