Best of 2010: Albums and EPs

I feel as if I’ve read through innumerable Best Of lists this month, as, I suspect, do you (especially if you’ve managed to make it far enough down your googling results to reach my little bit webspace). And, as is usually the case, most of them probably read as a tidy summation of what began the year as the most anticipated releases of 2010 with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. But, as hard as I try, no list I can pull together could hope to effectively encapsulate the music of 2010. Of course, there are the usual gaps in my listening, as there are with anyone. But, more importantly, I think the legacy of this past year, at least in my experience, will be an idea. ‘Beauty is back‘.

With it’s near-flawless litany of releases, the genre-bending and earth-shattering work of New Amsterdam Records is proof enough that beauty is a priority once again. But add to that the utter sweetness of The Secret Sisters, rampant sexual tension of Bitter Ruin, the raw power of My Gold Mask and Dimbleby & Capper, and the sheer joy of Super Desserts and Allo Darlin’, and our rediscovery of the visceral impact of technique and execution is impossible to ignore.

I haven’t ranked the albums and EPs on this list. Their very appearance here will attest to my attachment to them (if you want more details—well, that’s what the rest of this blog is for). Still, despite the ironic egalitarianism of my Best Ofs, there is one album which stands out in my mind as the landmark achievement of 2010. This one.

Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’

Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love [review]

Bitter Ruin – Hung, Drawn, and Quartered [interview]

Dimbleby & Capper – Slick Maturity [more info]

Hooray For EarthMomo

Ivan MoultThe Mine Canary [review]

My Gold Mask – A Million Miles (From Where We Were Last)

Public Service Broadcasting – EP One

The SchoolLoveless Unbeliever [review] [interview]

The Secret SistersThe Secret Sisters

Sarah Kirkland Snider (feat. Shara Worden and Signal) – Penelope [review]

Super Desserts – Twee As Folk [review]

VictoireCathedral City [review]

I fell in love in a wicker chair – Super Desserts are Twee As Folk

Twee As FolkSome time in the last 20 minutes, warm and sunny Columbus has become Galveston circa 1900. As I glanced out the window a few moments ago, the sight of horizontal rain and trees bent nearly in half* came as quite a surprise. Though, I daresay, if those turn of the century Texans had been spinning the latest Super Desserts album, Twee As Folk, on their phonographs as I have been, they wouldn’t have noticed the approaching storm either.

Attached as I am to the title Twee As Folk, it is (I think) a touch ironic that it be applied to this particular album (the second in five months) as the term “twee” is less applicable to this one than it was to either Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest or Banjo Forever. That is not to say that Twee As Folk is any less clever (or just plain fun) than the previous releases—see the rollicking “Wicker Chair” or “Missy Madame” (a cover of Columbus locals The Curiosities/Maza Blaska) to allay any concerns—but that it is a more mature album, expanding on the musical ideas hinted at in previous albums.

For one thing, the band make more effective use of the myriad instruments they cram onstage, evolving from band to indiepop-chamber-folk ripieno orchestra (“Give Your Mom a Call” and “Turn Up the Sunlight”). Likewise, several tracks on Twee As Folk put more emphasis on rhythm, even incorporating a northern soul-tinged groove beneath folk instrumentation on tracks like “Winter Is Here” or the laid-back, summery shuffle of “Crush On You”. Then there are the long phrases and willingness to toy with dissonance, evident on several tracks, but especially “Margaret Yang” (dig the background vocals…).

Of particular note on Twee As Folk, however, are the vocals, with more than half of the band taking lead duties at one point or another—and all of them good performances. Even those who habitually took lead roles on previous records are sounding particularly good on this one. But, by far, the most pleasing discovery for me has been newish band member Ianna. Until now, I’d never heard her sing lead on anything, but the effortless clarity of her voice—think a richer, silvery version of Catherine Ireton from God Help the Girl—has left me wanting  much (much) more. For now, I’ll have to be content to listen to “Vector of Affection” and “Fall Down” on endless repeat.

With an album like Twee As Folk, it is difficult for me to pick favorites—I have listened to nothing else for three days now—but if pressed, I would point out that “Everybody Loves To Be Loved”, “Fall Down”, and “Wicker Chair” have the highest playcounts, respectively. And then there is the fact that it hasn’t even been six months since Super Desserts released Banjo Forever. Under normal circumstances, most reviewers (myself included) would be skeptical of a band that can turn out an album in a matter of months, which makes the current album all the more remarkable.

Now, I suppose an indie-folk chamber orchestra with about half a dozen songwriters can afford to be prolific, but with Twee As Folk, it’s not as if Super Desserts have simply produced their second decent album of 2010, but a legitimate contender for Album of the Year.

So, download the two tracks I’ve posted below and, if you’re lucky enough to be a Columbus local, head over to Wholly Craft at 7:00 Friday night (June 4) for the FREE(!) release show and pick up a copy for yourself. For the rest of you, the album should be streaming in full on the Super Desserts bandcamp page some time in the next day or two.

*It turns out there were also tornado sirens sounding. I was too distracted to notice those, as well.

**The narrative-style subtitle from Barefoot In the Disenchanted Forest also make a return appearance on this album. The subtext: “We need a bass clarinetist. Also, we miss Steve”.

Download – “Wicker Chair” mp3

Download – “Winter Is Here” mp3

Super Desserts: “Banjo Forever”(!)

This is the closest I came to getting everyone in one shot
photo by me (click to see more)

I’m not really sure when it happened, but at some point in the last 10 months, I forgot what it was like to hear Super Desserts for the first time. I’ve been to several of their shows and listened to Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest countless times in the last year and at no point has my love for them faltered.  But somewhere along the way, the drop-jawed astonishment–that “how is it possible that something like this actually exists?” sentiment–of the initial experience dissipated. And I’d had no idea I’d lost it until Sunday afternoon.

Soaked through from walking ten blocks in persistent rainfall and packed into a small independent record store with 75 other local music enthusiasts, I was treated to an unexpected reawakening. It was the release party for Super Desserts’ newest album Banjo Forever, a collection of soon-to-be classics and a handful of new versions of the songs I fell in love with. If you are familiar with the last album, you will recognize “Funeral” and “Jump Out of the Way” , as well as four others. Everything else here is new. New and wonderful.

“Gotta Lotta Sun” is vintage Super Desserts with prominent string accompaniment, a fun singable refrain, and a whistle chorus outro while “Falling Out of Fashion” (surprisingly) calls to mind a late 1990s Belle & Sebastian sing-along with handclaps and cantus firmus-like chordal accompaniment supporting jangly guitar strumming.

Then there is “Yr Heart” which, in one sense, is unlike many of the other songs on this album. Featuring the distinctive vocals of Eve Searls, it is more reminiscent, I think, of her work with Bird and Flower (just replace the handclaps with a drum machine, and there it is). As it stands, the track has that distinctive updated 60s sound that I (and really anyone with taste) can’t help but love.

For me, though, the highlight of Banjo Forever is “I Only Love You Because You Can Play Guitar”. And it ought to be required listening for every boy who has ever been a freshman in college. (And don’t even pretend you have no idea what I mean. I know you sat beneath a tree outside the girls’ dorm with your guitar, strumming the three chords you knew [G, C, D] and singing a sappy love song, probably John Mayer. We all did it.) With clever lyrics, a charming melody, and vocals of an unforced (almost naive) sweetness, it is equally reminiscent of She & Him and Pink Martini and has been stuck in my head for the last 48 hours.

I’m sure I would have loved Banjo Forever had it just appeared as a .zip file in my inbox one afternoon, but there is an added appreciation that has come along with my first experiencing two thirds of these songs (or all of them, if you include my first Super Desserts show) in a live setting, yet it is an experiential dimension I may have missed out on had it not been for the guy standing next to me Sunday afternoon. (Though I’ve forgotten his name since then,–it was John or Luke or something like that–I think it is safe to just call him Confetti Guy.) From what I gather, Confetti Guy knew some of the band members, but had never actually heard their music. I assume he had come to the show to be supportive of his friends, but it was easy to see (in fact, it would have been difficult not to see) that, with each subsequent song, he was growing increasingly enamored with Super Desserts’ unmistakable brand of folksy indie pop (or, perhaps more appropriately, “twee as folk”). And, in listening to his enthusiastic (an understatement) response to every song, I couldn’t help being transported back to a small bar with a maple tree growing out of the floor and through the ceiling (no, really), to a show I almost didn’t attend. It was then that I remembered what only the stunned look on my face could have conveyed that night in March 2009: that Super Desserts are a revelation not to be missed at any cost.*

If you are in Chicago and you want to experience Super Desserts firsthand, which you do (see above), they will be playing The Hideout on Thursday (28 January) and Cole’s (in the Logan Square area) on Saturday (30 January). In between, they will be somewhere up in Madison, WI. See their Facebook page for details.

*unless you or someone you know is/are a) dying or b) giving birth