2009 Music Reviews
AIDS Wolf, Pas Rapport (2009) D-
Bonjour public et vous remercie de votre attention. Rechercher dans notre folie. Ecoutez nos cris. Consommez avec prudence.
Akron/Family, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free (2009) C-
First two tracks are deceptively good and there are some skillful moments scattered here and there, but then they shift to some sing-a-long campfire chants and They Might Be Giants B-sides and noise metal gibberish and whatever was striking everyone's mood at the moment (or did they get 11 different people to write the songs?). I couldn't wait to skip past "They Will Appear."
Lily Allen, It's Not Me, It's You (2009) B
Holy Moses: it's social criticism thinly disguised as pop (and it's pretty good!). There's a lot of sadness beneath the well-produced veneer, and I'm not sure if I'll be listening to it over and over in the near future, but I can say after two focused spins that I think it's a fairly stunning sophomore album. She's crass, she's haunted, she's a little unsure of herself, but she has a way with words.
Amesoeurs, Amesoeurs (2009) D-
More 'progressive' rock than doom metal, death metal or any other label you'd put on it, and it's meandering. Sorry, but death metal vocals don't sound that menacing in French.
Animal Collective, Fall Be Kind [EP] (2009) B+
Luscious, earthy, thoughtful ... and this follows (!) what's already one of the best albums of the year in "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Panda sings and he answers himself; his mates keep his background music humming along with him - they shift gears so beautifully, too: "Graze" goes from haunted dreamscape to avant-jamboree mid-track (!). I can only imagine what an Animal Collective movie would look like....
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) A-
I think it's safe to say at this point that this is one of the best and most important bands in the world (though I'm still puzzled why ... they aren't exactly mainstream). The guys managed to make this a more mellow listen than "Strawberry Jam" without running the risk of being called 'sell outs' or whatever it is people like to shout at bands nowadays. The bookends ("In the Flowers" and "Brothersport") are fantastic.
The Antlers, Hospice (2009) B+
It isn't strange that this didn't really catch on the first time I listened to it - it has its moments of loudness, but it's really a pensive, distraught and sometimes chilling record. Sure, it sort of stumbles on its way through ("Atrophy," "Shiva") - it is an album about dying, let us not forget - and like Antony & the Johnsons, these guys are not shy about being maudlin, but if you're in the right mood this one has the ability to really get inside you. It was built for lonely, rainy Sunday afternoons.
Architects, Hollow Crown (2009) C
Not exactly revolutionary - it's a good thing I can't make out most of the lyrics - and the tracks could use a little more distinction but I have to give them credit for turning everything way the hell up: you call yourself a metal band, you better sound like a metal band (not common nowadays). By that I mean: it should be loud, it should be heavy and it should be relentless (as with the far superior but defunct Blood Brothers, there's a punk influence). They're also British, and I tend to forget that our friends across the pond have energy to burn.
Arctic Monkeys, Humbug (2009) B
... And this is what I heard from them live: formal precision and total confidence. So many people talk about forming bands and dicking around in the garage, but these guys are really the overachievers of the young(er) musicians operating out there, endlessly tweaking the sounds. It doesn't have girls looking good on the dance floor, though - the title captures the less ... optimistic mood of the band's collective mind.
Art Brut, Art Brut vs. Satan (2009) C
I guess he's. Trying to be clever. But the tracks. Follow a pattern. With predictable breaks. And average music. Plus Eddie admits. He likes comics. Stop the presses. That's just so deep.
Asobi Seksu, Hush (2009) C-
As lovely as it can be in spots, they can do the "Whooaaaa Ohhh OHHHH" coupled with the distorted guitars all night long, even long after this chirping has ceased having any meaning. Some people are under the impression this is JPop but in English - these people have apparently never listened to a (no doubt superior) Cocteau Twins album.
Atlas Sound, Logos (2009) C+
Bradford had the right idea with his first album - it was gauzy and autobiographical - but this follow-up may have been a bit rushed and it lacks the same level of power (not helping any: guest appearances by Panda Bear and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadler). Bits and pieces are still haunting, particularly the cryptic "Kid Klimax," which ends with Cox chanting "oh my God" repeatedly, sounding as hopeless and desperate as he's ever been.
William Basinski, 92982 (2009) D+
Sigh. The "ambient" tag - in this case - means four tracks of what I can best describe as listening to an orchestra warm up from a great distance. It never took me anywhere sonically - it's basically a long hum.
Basement Jaxx, Scars (2009) C-
So up-and-down erratic that I wonder whether or not the band has some kind of musical bipolarity: one minute they're in prime form ("Feelings Gone," "My Turn," the mellow "A Possibility") before botching several tracks so horribly ("Day of the Sunflowers," "What's a Girl Gotta Do") it's as if some hacks broke into their studio and sabotaged them.
Bat for Lashes, Two Suns (2009) D
Conceited fantasy drivel from the former nursery school teacher (!?); she belongs in Xanadu. She even tries to out-Tori Amos Tori Amos, and you have to get up pretty early in the goddamn morning to do that.
Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (2009) C+
Bird was amazing when I saw him at the Zoellner Arts Center last year, but none of his records - including this newest one - have really won me over. I've speculated as to why this is: it could be because he thinks his voice and lyrics are more important than his music and on record he emphasizes his voice when it should probably be the other way around. It could be because he's busy portraying himself as this precious little wounded flower and too much of that is no good for anybody (whiny white guy syndrome?). It could be because he still whistles too damn much.
Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us (2009) F
Iron lemonade / eat my face away? I think they're in a contest with Ladytron as to which of them can sound more ridiculous (and right now, they are way ahead). I had a hard time getting through this album, and it's only 36 minutes long.
Blank Dogs, Under and Under (2009) C
Murky, disconnected tracks, like drunk demo tapes by The Cure. I'm not sure what's with musicians trying to be super anonymous nowadays like they're Jandek or something - just smile for the camera, sing your songs and the minute someone wants one of your tracks for an ad, take the goddamn money. I'm not exactly sure there's such a thing as 'selling out' any more - it's about surviving as an artist.
Boredoms, Super Roots 10 [EP] (2009) D
This isn't an "EP," it's a glorified single: one sub-standard Boredoms track ("Ant 10") remixed four times.
Bowerbirds, Upper Air (2009) C-
Drowsy, folksy collection that turns into vapor - I even liked their last album a little bit, but improvements don't seem forthcoming.
The Breeders, Fate to Fatal [EP] (2009) C-
Now that is something I didn't know: apparently in rehab they let you have band practice. I guess they're making it one of the twelve steps.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Smoking Acid [EP] (2009) B-
I like the way he's been growing and changing as an artist, always keeping the basics perfect while experimenting with a really rough garage rock sound ("The Serious Matter") before getting into two excellent club tracks (both versions of "Tempo 116.7").
British Sea Power, The Soundtrack to the Man of Aran (2009) B
Hard to tell without re-watching the terrible Flaherty "documentary" how this will compliment the images of fishing and water, but as a stand-alone, mostly instrumental work, it's a nice - if mellow - addition to their canon.
Burial/Four Tet, Moth/Wolf Cub [EP] (2009) B
Black on black on black on black album cover, no more information provided: it's just two guys gettin' together and making a mini buddy album. A smidge of Burial's dub step sneaks in there, then it's Kieran tip-toeing back with his glitches. It's a see-saw of compatible styles. I demand more.
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (2009) B-
They've been pumping out this same disc with minor variations for a few years now, and I guess I have to just adjust to that fact and admit I most likely will never be 'knocked for a loop' by them ever again. As always, it's a lot more sweet and witty ("You want to be a writer / fan-tas-tic i-dea") than maudlin, which makes that acceptance so much easier.
Julian Casablancas, Phrazes for the Young (2009) C-
Another case of a front man ditching his mates, claiming he needs to 'express himself' and coming up with an album that sounds like a flimsier version of what he and his band squeezed out previously. It's definitely more synth-driven than the Strokes albums, but not even close to being as economical or memorable (LCD Soundsystem is the goal, but Murphy's more polished).
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (2009) B-
I disliked "Blacklisted" so much I tried my best to avoid the critically-praised "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" - now I'm back with this, and impressed: she's got a range of emotions in there, and it isn't just some alt-country piffle. She's over-praised in some circles for her fierce independence and success at going against the grain of popular independent music - critics love that kind of thing - but she's not exactly Dusty or Joan, so some temperance is required. She's good. I like this. I can even tolerate with the Sound of the Woods that concludes the disc (since it lulls you to sleep).
Clues, Clues (2009) D
It's terrible that I had to listen to this entire disc twice in a row (!) to remember what the first tracks sounded like - this band really comes prepared to be forgotten. Just because you were inspired by great musicians doesn't make you a great musician. Feeling deeply doesn't make you a great lyricist. Sermon over.
Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications (2009) C+
I guess you could say his dirty lush routine is passé - and the aggressive musical stylings too in-your-face (what is with the pseudo-Batman theme in "Homewrecker!"?) - but with a wit like this (the boozy-Vegas "I Never Said I Was Deep") I shouldn't grumble too much.
Coconut Records, Davy (2009) D
Ugh, another young indie type making an indie record. Jason Schwartzman takes time to go after his former band (Phantom Planet), use a xylophone and be self-absorbed. When Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes his own LP, the Earth will implode.
Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate (1971) A
Though the original record had a side for the "love" songs and a side for the "hate" songs - now rendered obsolete by the CD - this is the Leonard Cohen we're talking about: there are touches of love and hate in each track. Most people talk about the marvelously 'autobiographical' "Famous Blue Raincoat," but my favorite on here is "Dress Rehearsal Rag," which is one of the most desperate and haunting pieces of music he's ever composed ("Wasn't it a long way down / Wasn't it a strange way down"). (Misc. aside: I think Adam Sandler taught himself to 'sing' by listening to "Diamonds in the Mine.")
Cymbals Eat Guitars, Why There Are Mountains (2009) C
Mawkish hipsters whine unconvincingly on this self-released album; they've heard the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Modest Mouse records of the past few years and know you've heard them too. Sometimes they pull something nice off ("And the Hazy Sea," "Share"), but other times they're just trying too hard.
DD/MM/YYYY, Black Square (2009) D-
"Bronzage" is okay - it fits in with the lo-fi movement of the moment - but most of this is just a poorly-mixed collection of sounds (Smash TV?) and random sections of music.
Dinosaur Jr, Farm (2009) C
I know the temptation: you grow so disgusted with the present that you long for the past, and when someone hands you the past again with new wrapping paper on it you think it's the answer to your woes. Yet we move forward, the past wasn't exactly as we remembered it, and those guitar solos really were too damn long.
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (2009) B-
Indie music for that slim ADHD target audience: it's jumbled, eccentric, bubbling. Mr. Longstreth can't be faulted for trying new things, though I'm not sure that trying them all at once is so great (or even mid-song). Stop! Listen! A guitar from over there! Stop! Listen! A chorus over there! Stop! Listen! The drummer!
DOOM, Born Like This (2009) B
Bukowski's only just the starting point to this one, allowing mastermind DOOM (formerly MF Doom and a lot of other names) to rattle off whatever's on the top of his (packed) brain. Warning to other rappers: no one except him should ever make an attempt to rhyme 'tore hymen' with 'Paul Simon.'
Double Dagger, More (2009) C+
Got the whole retro-punk idea - spoken word, fuzz, pounding drums - and only using a bass guitar (with the levels jacked up) is a nice touch, though for apparently doing impressive and innovative graphic design on the side, their music isn't exactly revamping the genre. I spent my whole life just thinking of dying too, man.
The-Dream, Love vs. Money (2009) D
That "vs." should be replaced with the word "of." It doesn't take a French literary theorist to rip this to shreds: the target is sex, but the mode of attack is objectification - you get women with money (objects for objects). That's not love, it's consumerism. His work for others is better, -ella, -ella, -ella, shaw-tay.
Tim Exile, Listening Tree (2009) C+
Force The Faint and Depeche Mode to mate and you might end up with this guy. This disc is inconsistent, but some allowances should be made for a guy who uses - among other techie gadgets - a joystick phallus (no ... really) to alter his voice. "Carouselle" sounds like PWEI doing musical theatre.
FaltyDL, Love Is a Liability (2009) C+
Kitchen Sink dance music: get too tired of one approach and Mr. Lustman is sure to flip it for you. Not into garage? Here's some 8-bit Nintendoesque funk. Don't care for that, we can do some drill 'n bass, some acid jazz, jungle, house, and whatever else you prefer! We aim to please.
Faust, The Faust Tapes (1973/2001 re-release) C
More like several Faust tracks 'blended' together into one random, 40+ minute song. I know the 70's were wild as hell, fellas, and pressing as many buttons on a console can be fun, but this makes Coil seem focused.
Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cendre (2007) B+
The brilliant Sakamoto teams up with minimalist glitch artist Fennesz for this atmospheric collaboration (that sounds readymade for a "Blade Runner"-type Neo Tokyo). It's dueling banjos for a digital age: C.F. throws in some fuzz, R.S. some piano notes - it's classical tranquility but with dark modern undercurrents.
Fever Ray, Fever Ray (2009) D
As if Karin's voice isn't too much by itself, she has to run it - and the voices of her collaborators - though oodles of filters and stretch them out to the point where enough literally becomes enough. Adding to the tackiness of that is the background music - this won't age well at all.
The Field, Yesterday and Today (2009) B+
It's not as 'transcendent' as his first disc - and how could it be? - but his ability to oh-so-carefully tweak his tracks and teleport you to his own dimension with (what seems like) so little effort is still staggering. All over the world laptop kids spend hours trying to overload their tracks; Axel Willner seems to just will sonic harmony. You ride the waves, and ask not where they lead.
The Films, Oh, Scorpio (2009) C
Precisely the kind of wide-eyed sunny-day pop that Apple shoves in their iPod commercials ... but I won't hold it against them too much. The first two tracks are decent: the sarcastic, skeptical "Completely Replaceable" and the radio-ready "Holiday."
The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (2009) B
Gauzy double album from the Lips is indulgent and spotty, sure, but the overall mood is consistent throughout. It's a strange departure from the past Lips albums - it seems defiant in its refusal to go for easy pop hooks, making it more of a headphone album. Keep it out of the car on cloudy days; you may end up at a destination you never planned.
Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (2009) C-
Uncreative album title, uncreative album. All of the tracks sound like some alternative disco/glam nonsense - take "Can't Stop Feeling" for instance: there's a demo of this that's been around for years, and it sounded fine, but now they had to screw with it and it lost its power. The entire last part of "Lucid Dreams" should be on some cheap rave music compilation. I thought Alex Kapranos was supposed to be more literate than this.
Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport (2009) B-
English electronic duo Andrew Hung and Ben Power craft what might be described at one moment as a screeching march to oblivion ("The Lisbon Maru") and at another as a sprint across the beach towards victory ("Olympians"). It's oddly inspiring and oddly human, like Vangelis revamped.
Funkadelic, Maggot Brain (1971) B-
Great, a ten minute guitar solo that is the title track: that's always the best way to start an album. Picks up considerably thereafter: politics mixed with plenty of swagger.
Jonny Greenwood, The Soundtrack to There Will Be Blood (2007) C+
I was one of the few that didn't think the music worked well in the movie, but there are a few bits on here - sans Elswit's images, naturally - that are stunning, like the horror-themed "Henry Plainview." His soundtrack to "Bodysong" was still more elaborate.
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (2009) C
The romantic "Two Weeks" is without question one of the best singles of the year - the rest is a thumb-twiddling, ponderous affair. Most of the tracks just wander aimlessly ("Foreground," for one), unable to build up to anything big: they're content to plod on until the songwriting runs out. As with "Yellow House," there's potential but little fulfillment.
The Harlem Shakes, Technicolor Health (2009) B
Delightful LP from one of my favorite acts comes just as I discover, to my great dismay, that they've disbanded so everyone in the band can work on their own side-projects (translation: sleeping). It's a shame I never got to see them in concert - though I had countless chances - and I've always admired their way of being realistic without being depressing, of being accessible without losing their identity. Every place we go is full of sickos.
HEALTH, Get Color (2009) C+
Not the most intellectually stimulating of bands - and without the 6-minute closer (a puff piece called "In Violet"), this is a remarkably short LP - but they've got their own sound and really commit to it - it's a kind of digital roar, a bit like the little-remembered Stabbing Westward.
Tim Hecker, An Imaginary Country (2009) B-
He makes music that I wouldn't be hesitant to call "shimmering" and peaceful, if on occasion lapsing into the mundane and safe. But where's Aidan?
Jon Hopkins, Insides (2009) C
Half atmospheric fluff, half Richard James glitch - Hopkins is averse to taking chances, and what you get is second-rate. Sometimes he's doing a half-ass Squarepusher routine ("Colour Eye"), other times he struggles for the dreamy ("Light Through the Veins," better in pieces on the Coldplay disc).
The Horrors, Primary Colours (2009) C
What they were doing before didn't work, so they followed the advice of others to borrow from their betters. And they listened. After all, they sell those cool guitar peddles and such at Guitar World: make it creaky and squeaky! As for the all important content, are they haunting or busy being haunted? With all the crooning going on it's difficult to tell.
The Hours, See the Light (2009) D-
I've heard of bands wanting to aspire to great things - win a Grammy, sell a million copies, make something lasting - but aspiring to sound like Keane is not a great thing. Make that Keane without even one or two semi-original compositions (the disc's nadir: "Think Again") and double the amount of preening.
Isis, Wavering Radiant (2009) D
The soft/loud melodic/grumble dynamic is so incredibly trite I find it hard believing anyone still feels any power behind their music. The hooks from "Oceanic" are missing. They're going through the paces, like rock stars screwing their thousandth groupie.
jj, jj n° 2 (2009) C
Has two moments of excellence: the poetic opening track, "Things Will Never Be the Same Again" (like Seefeel or Mu hovering around the Equator) and on "Ecstasy" where they disassemble a certain Lil' Wayne track about oral sex and make it drowsy and ethereal. Otherwise, they're not nearly as a playful and basically a bunch of whispery mush.
Junior Boys, Begone Dull Care (2009) C-
Doesn't have nearly the level of desperation - or wounded insecurity - of "So This Is Goodbye" leaving our auspicious duo more like a Canadian equivalent of Lionel Ritchie. The lyrics are weak, too - did they just dig out some B-sides and throw them together?
Kaki King, Mexican Teenagers [EP] (2009) D
For being a Guitar God she's terribly uninspiring. I think I'll go back to praying to St. Jimi.
Little Joy, Little Joy (2008) D
Fabrizio of the Strokes teams up with Rodrigo of Los Hermanos to make aggravating, meandering sunny-time drivel. Sounds like someone needs to stay away from the Beach Boys archives.
The London Apartments, Signals & Cities Are Forever (2009) D+
Electronica surrounded by gobs of static and distortion, plus terribly neo-Pastels vocals run through filters. I guess it's supposed to evoke loneliness on Antarctica or something. Just because Bradford Cox did this very well using his Atlas Sound moniker doesn't mean it should be attempted by all.
The Lonely Island, Incredibad (2009) D+
Music mockery a la "Weird" Al - in this case, three 'dorky' Jewish guys (mostly) making fun of rap - that suffers without its visual component, so if you have to bother with this dumb novelty, stick with the DVD version (I only have the CD). Owes much to Parker and Stone, though without going for the jugular; "I'm on a Boat" not as funny as Ferrell and Reilly's "Boats 'N Hoes." (True dat.)
Loop, Heaven's End (1987/2008 re-release) B-
Neglected noise punk album that reminds me a lot of the Jesus & Mary Chain formula of piercing, fuzzy guitars and spoken vocals through effects boxes. They aren't the J&MC - and this isn't "Psychocandy" - though that doesn't mean this isn't a curious listen.
Madeline, White Flag (2009) D
I don't wish I was a baby again, young lady, nor do I wish to ever have to listen to your vain declarations again. The one throwing up the flag is me: I surrender, just take your whining elsewhere.
Major Lazer, Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do (2009) C+
Illadelph's Diplo and the UK's Switch find inspiration in Jamaica ... oh, and in M.I.A. and cartoons and novelty records. It isn't very articulate, and sometimes tiresome - like Spank Rock, another Philly act, there's little let-up - but you can never knock the two DJs for a lack of vitality.
Mastodon, Crack the Skye (2009) D
It wasn't enough that they sounded like themselves, now they're trying to do this Black Sabbath/Nickelback thing? Don't stay? Run away? I guess I'm not schooled enough in the dubious world of prog. rock to find anything worth re-listening to here - the reviews are almost overwhelmingly positive - because no one needs 11 minute songs about historical nonsense the band probably just picked out of a random book. Remember thrash metal? Anthrax? I need to get "State of Euphoria" out again.
Metallica, Death Magnetic (2008) D
I loved these guys when I was in middle school and early on in high school - before shifting to the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pixies - but ever since "Load" came out they've been working way past their stamped creative expiration date. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with age, and this isn't continued disgust over the way they treated their fans (in the Napster days) - I just don't hear four guys who drink a lot of beer and want to have fun and energetically fire through four to five minute songs. They're the kinds of guys who have therapists and hire people to clean their pools.
Metric, Fantasies (2009) C-
Sometimes it seems like Emily Haines' lyrics sheet can fit on a Post-It Note. And though the band got the right idea and started sounding more electronic than "indie rock," they still can't diversify their tracklist.
Micachu & the Shapes, Jewellery (2009) C+
Nothing's tuned and it's really sloppy, but I guess they know what they're doing; gap-toothed, awkward Mica-Levi-Pikachu's a bizarro alternative to Jemina Pearl's filthy prom queen. I don't dislike it, which is important, despite finding myself growing more infuriated with the no-fi movement.
Mirah, (a)spera (2009) B-
If this were only five tracks long the rating would go up, but Philly's own Ms. Mirah's album gets a little eyelid heavy, with her voice never, ever raising above a low whisper and the music just as low-key. Basically, it's lovely and soothing ("Generosity" and "Bones and Skin" are outstanding) but keep a can of Red Bull nearby just in case.
Modest Mouse, No One's First and You're Next [EP] (2009) B
So their outtakes are better than their album of "A-sides?" Did they just need to get ... lazier? Is recording on a Sunday morning better than a Wednesday afternoon? Sure, it can get bloated ("The Whale Song"), but then they chuck out something as quaint and simple as "Autumn Beds," and all is forgiven.
Mokira, Persona (2009) C
All right, so Tilliander's dumped the laptops for tape machines and synthesizers, but the resulting hisses and beeps don't evoke a lot of feelings (or even nostalgia). The potential association with the Bergman film is also tenuous - I doubt this would be a fitting soundtrack to that picture.
Morrissey, Years of Refusal (2009) B
I guess three straight great albums was just too much to ask - this one's only 'very good.' He's doing goofy vocal things in some of the tracks - "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" and "That's How People Grow Up" in particular (which, incidentally, are two songs I'd rather not hear again) - but there's a luscious simplicity to something like "You Were Good in Your Time" for example. Moz on life support and barely able to keep his eyes open is countless times better at songwriting than most of the artists working.
Mos Def, The Ecstatic (2009) B+
This is easily the most confident and energetic Mos has been in a while: the tracks have a jolt, the touch is light, the interest in positive change rejuvenated. Could his panacea be spelled O-b-a-m-a? It's likely. Also, Mr. Def: don't let Hitchens talk to you like that.
Mount Eerie, Wind's Poem (2009) C-
Uh-oh! Sounds like someone's fallen asleep on the keyboard again ("Through the Trees")! The rest passes by like a murmur in an alleyway ("Ancient Questions"). I like to think the wind can be more poetic than this.
MSTRKRFT, Fist of God (2009) C
They've shown they can take the shakiest of songs and craft some potent remixes, but their original LPs are ... well, shaky themselves. They corral a ton of talent to help them out with the tracks, but only John Legend's contribution to "Heartbreaker" (which I think is the best song on the record) stands out - Keeler and Al-P too often get themselves stuck on monotonous loops ("Fist of God") and forget to move on. Or maybe I'd find them better if I was in a drunken stupor and accidentally 'knocking' into unassuming young ladies (apologies to those unassuming young ladies in advance).
N.A.S.A., The Spirit of Apollo (2009) D+
Paradox time: If money is the root of all evil, how else can you get close to forty of music's top talents together to put this vanity project together? Nothing meshes, Karen O. sounds like she's adopted a Southern accent (or has a cold) and they put incompatible people together (Tom Waits and Kool Keith?). The dreamy Oakenfold-inspired "Gifted" is a stand-out moment.
Neon Blonde, Chandeliers in the Savannah (2005) B-
Johnny Whitney has the most distinctive voice in music, and it helps when he's surrounded by good musicians and has good material ... or, in this case, when he does everything himself. (Take that, Pretty Girls Make Graves.)
1990s, Kicks (2009) C-
Not much improvement over the Clashisms of their 2007 album "Cookies" - no 'getting out' 'like blondes get out of cars' to report on ... sorry fans of blondes, good music, etcetera.
Jim O'Rourke, The Visitor (2009) B-
As a single instrumental track running 38 minutes and going through a variety of moods - from somber to bouncy - it's apparent that Mr. O'Rourke wants this digested all-at-once. Sure, I'll go along with him for this simple backwoods, proto-bluegrass stroll, I guess, but I still miss the Jim who sings and makes discord beautiful.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (2009) D
Fey proto-80's sugar pop, with those guitars ringing and that feedback swirling like the Reids used to do. On top of that, I find it missing hooks and verve, but they've convinced some otherwise intelligent people that they're the next big thing. That, frankly, pains my heart although we all make mistakes at times.
The Papercuts, You Can Have What You Want (2009) F
While trolling one of the many music discussion sites scattered across the Interwebs, I recently ran into a post by someone who said that he/she (?) saw The Papercuts open for some other act (I don't remember the city or venue the poster mentioned) and that they were "unbelievably boring." Now, I usually don't take things said in these forums all that seriously - and I absolutely abhor the word "boring" - but that comment really struck me while listening to this laborious release. If they sound lethargic and roundabout on disc, I can't imagine how this would play out in a live venue (I know I would have used the time to get myself another beer or use the lav). Quick: airlift them some charisma.
Passion Pit, Manners (2009) B+
Somewhat derivative but playful dance rock from more young indie kids; it's so garish and campy it's tempting to want to slap some sense into these Urban Outfitters-clad dorks, but Michael Angelakos' romantic intentions sound genuine, and the music holds up. They are also forgiven, of course, for the marvelous pro-drug/pro-independence "Little Secrets," which transcends the Justice influence and becomes something magical altogether (the nocturnal and helium-voiced "Sleepyhead" is not to be missed, either).
Katy Perry, One of the Boys (2008) B-
Nobody listened to the lyrics to "I Kissed a Girl" - as soon as it came out people were like, "She's a lesbian!" and they missed the point. Nobody listened to the lyrics to "UR So Gay" because they would have realized it's not homophobic - it's criticizing hipster culture. It's bubblegum, but if it comes on the radio I won't turn it off. And she's adorable too.
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) B-
Not sure if they care about classic composers or if they just saw the Ken Russell film - hell, I'm not sure they care about Ken Russell - and I'm not sure this is really 'full' enough to be called a great album - "Love Like a Sunset" being mostly instrumental, the entire disc runs a sparse half hour - but they know how to write a decent pop song, and their music has bounce.
Pissed Jeans, King of Jeans (2009) B
I don't think I'm overrating them because they hung out at the Lehigh Valley Mall, know about the best coffee shop in A-town and have probably gotten kicked out of (or started trouble in) the Globe and the Funhouse and the Sterling. Hell, I never saw them live and I'm the worse for it. But there's a maniac energy there, a celebration of hedonism and brofisting, of finding stains in and on your Levi's. Matt Korvette's growl is sinister.
Pomegranates, Everybody, Come Outside! (2009) B
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!-esque first track a hell of an opener - what follows is much smile-on-your-face, let's get the kegs out indie rock (being cohorts with the underrated French Kicks has rubbed off in a positive way). It's not about to redefine the way music is made or anything like that, but there's something to be said for maintaining the same tone and spirit throughout the length of an album. That is, until it reaches the completely unnecessary 13-minute-long "I Feel Like I'm a Million Years Old"....
P.O.S., Never Better (2009) B+
Lyrical wizardry - he even works in a reference to the OveGlove. There's no reason why P.O.S. shouldn't be better known than he is, though thoughtless detractors' comments about his unorthodox mix of punk elements and rap could be the reason. This is an even bigger step up from the already solid "Audition."
Polly Scattergood, Polly Scattergood (2009) C
Any guy that listens to "I Hate the Way" and says, "I think I'm in love" ... you get what you deserve. Hush-voiced emo chic - if Goldfrapp wants to come over your house and lash you with a belt, this one's in the bathroom cutting herself to ribbons and crying. I've already heard too much bad teen poetry in my life.
Prince, Sign o' the Times (1987) B+
I still don't know how he manages to follow up crude but delightful songs about dirty sex ("Starfish and Coffee") with noble and earnest tracks about romance ("Slow Love"), but it's a gift few - if anyone else - possess. And listen to him getting into it on "Adore" - what woman could turn him down?
Real Estate, Real Estate (2009) C+
The "Sunny Day" is missing from the name, but it's implied: this is a crude wink to the Beach Boys but with more of a progressive rock influence. I like them a lot more when they bother to sing ("Beach Comber"), but singing interferes with catching some Z's and soaking some rays, man.
Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall (2009) B-
He's changed gears already, and he's still young: he took some of the edge off the guitar-pounding for a more melodic, pop approach. It's bouncier, but the lyrics still hint at a lingering negativity ("It Ain't Gonna Save Me," "Rotten Mind"). Call me crazy, but I swear I hear the Pixies in there .... somewhere, if only to a small degree ("My Reality").
Röyksopp, Junior (2009) D
Hideous dance record from an outfit I, at one point, respected, and now they're like M83: barely able to make anything original or fun anymore ("Happy Up Here" is okay, but the loop sounds like Daft Punk). Lyrically, it's best to pretend like they're speaking Norwegian. 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9? Borrowing 'jokes' from 2nd graders, are we?
Slayer, World Painted Blood (2009) C
Well, of course the world is painted blood - didn't you guys sing about it raining plasma just a few decades ago? You know, back when your heart(s) were actually in it? And now you're really picking a fight with the Almighty: should I do a shot of Jäger every time Tom croaks out something about God?
Slint, Spiderland (1991) A-
A cult album that deserves its following: it's creepy, terribly wounded and intimate. It isn't an obvious masterpiece (the lyrics seem half-written, half-conjured at the last minute, the instrumentals sound patched together at times), but its flaws - and influence on other bands - have done much to heighten its mystique (also factor in: the memorable cover photo, the band members' apparent battles with mental problems, the fact it's the last LP they ever recorded).
Sonic Youth, The Eternal (2009) C
The (Not Quite) Youth are so ingrained in the psyche of independent music that saying something negative about them almost seems like it's punishable by being stoned (with rocks ... not ... you know what I mean). But I maintain that they're a little like a Jackson Pollock painting: in a way, a lazy cop-out, but in another, wholly unique. Kim's voice cracks, it's a little creaky, they are willfully unapproachable, they're indulgent. But a Pollock painting doesn't kick your ass in concert, that's for sure.
Regina Spektor, Far (2009) D+
She has the voice, but it isn't enough to distract from the walrus-like barking in "Folding Chair" or the banal declarations about blue being the most human color ("Blue Lips"). When she turns into Spokeswoman for the Lord I just want to shake the holiness out of her.
Steinvord, Steinvord [EP] (2009) B-
An "18-year-old kid" "from Barcelona" who makes "music with his fucking computer" threw six "IDM/Drum & Bass/Experimental" tracks on MySpace. You'd think someone with this kind of talent would be trying to get signed by, say, Warp Records, but "he" doesn't add friends, pictures or post tour dates. I wonder who he is.
Sufjan Stevens, The BQE (2009) C+
Plucky and whimsical though ambiguous - it could very well be the soundtrack to any of the following: the first day of ice skating at Rockefeller Center, an animated short about two gazelles mating, a Wes Anderson film about a planet full of robots assembling a human being out of scrap organs or a shampoo commercial on MTV Europe.
St. Vincent, Actor (2009) A-
At least she's not the "female equivalent to Andrew Bird": a few tracks really stand out ("The Strangers," which seems to be some sort of pomo flapper record, "Marrow," "Actor Out of Work") and my original (and fleeting) concern that this disc is too pat and snuggly with its own preciousness just seems inconsiderate; this isn't sophomoric twee pop and Ms. Clark is able to dole out gobs of fantastic wit, cutting sarcasm and insight with piercing originality. Now all we have to do is force-feed her some calories so that she can survive long enough to record more records (and this is coming from a lover of skeletons).
Sunn O))), Monoliths & Dimensions (2009) D+
The 'darker' they try to sound (they enlist Attila Csihar to burp out the vocals), the more I giggle. Fans and/or druids should know I at least try to muffle the giggling so as to not interfere with the attempt to awaken the Dark Serpent.
Richard Swift, The Atlantic Ocean (2009) F
Obnoxious garbage that is part Ol' Tyme Saloon music, part attempt at Randy Newman. Not everyone knows when they're going to die, Dick. Turn the record off, turn the record off, turn the record off.
Telefon Tel Aviv, Immolate Yourself (2009) C+
I admit to liking the throwback "Stay Away from Being Maybe" in its Depeche Mode/"Violator" era snowy dreamscape though the rest of this is in desperate need of a 21st Century revamp with a lot less echo. It's unfortunate to listen to this and know that the band's co-founder Charles Cooper killed himself in Chicago in January - the title, of course, is tragically ironic.
The Thermals, Now We Can See (2009) D
Another witless, parasitic indie act: the host in question is The Hold Steady, with singer Hutch going far enough to emulate Craig Finn's delivery. Why should anyone try to be really radical and independent? Latch onto someone else's audience! Hooks are so 20th century! Visit our web site!
Tortoise, Beacons of Ancestorship (2009) C-
I had to check my music player (Winamp, naturally) to make sure I didn't have a new Stereolab album playing, because this doesn't sound anything like the John McEntire project I've known and admired for years. It's both mechanical and repetitive.
Truckfighters, Mania (2009) C+
In the oft-lousy area of hard rock revival, may I offer for your consideration this four-piece from Sweden who have, no doubt, studied Monster Magnet and early Soundgarden very, very closely? It doesn't pull off anything extraordinary, and they should probably steer away from 8-13 minute track lengths, but I like the effort.
U2, No Line on the Horizon (2009) C-
Force Quit? Then move to Trash? They know where their paychecks are (were?) coming from! Easily their weakest album in roughly a decade - which shows how decent their track record has been - and tracks like "Stand Up Comedy" and "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" sound like parodies of U2. "Cedars of Lebanon" is a pleasant sermon - if this music thing never worked out Paul Hewson would have made a fine, small-town preacher: one that could get me back into the pew.
The Veils, Sun Gangs (2009) C
"The Letter" is impressive, but this lacks the creativity of the two other Veils albums I've enjoyed. When the only person I know who is a major fan of the band tells me she thought this is terrible I feel comfortable agreeing. No one's going to kill themselves over this album, that's for sure.
Vetiver, Tight Knit (2009) C
I see the "Iver" in the name, but the "Bon" is missing; I hear the simplicity of the music, but the lasting impact is minimal.
Wavves, Wavvves (2009) D+
It's just thoughtless fuzz and distorted vocals. I get the acclaim for the lack of musical polish - in light of over-produced pop garbage, "American Idol" and that kind of thing - but I refuse to celebrate laziness as an acceptable aesthetic alternative.
Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (2009) C
Abandoned album titles: Wilco (The Twelve-Step Program) and Wilco (The Topical Ointment). This has been described as Tweedy and the Boys "at their most upbeat" - relatively speaking - and I suppose I agree, though those waiting for them to get as down and desperate and poignant and defeated and experimental as they were on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" will have to keep waiting. "You and I" sounds like a duet from lesser talent(s) (you didn't need Leslie in there for that one) and there's a softness to the writing: maybe they just need a good internal brawl or a relapse to get the fires going. Or they need to get Jim O'Rourke back.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz! (2009) B-
Karen, Nick and Brian lock themselves in a room, listen to discographies of Donna Summer, Debbie Harry and ABBA for days, come out dirty, hungry and delirious and record this half-decent half-disco record. As of right now they have yet to realize it's 2009, why NYC is so cleaned up, why half the Ramones are dead and why CBGB closed, but they don't care. Just dance 'til you're dead.
Zola Jesus, New Amsterdam (2009) D-
So wait, is it drumming accompanied by mumbling or mumbling accompanied by drumming? One needs to be certain of these things.
Zomby, One Foot Ahead of the Other [EP] (2009) B-
I know I'm overrating this, but anything that cribs the music of my childhood (mostly Nintendo's 8-bit beeps) and does so with a scintilla (and I mean scintilla) of creativity can't be so bad. "Helter Skelter" sounds like it came out of one of the Castlevania games.
Live Acts Caught, or: Why Yes, I Do Leave My House At Times
April 1, 2009: Brian Jonestown Massacre with The Asteroid No. 4, Terminal 5, New York City [* I joked during The Asteroid No. 4's opening bit that they're fine but needed more denim and more guitars ... only to have my joke's ass kicked by Anton's army of six-string warriors. The BJM set ran over two hours and could have probably ran longer: they have a sizeable catalog to work through, covered some of their older stuff (they even got "Hide and Seek" in there!) and weren't afraid to take a simple song for a long walk ("This next song I dreamed up in '87 after swallowing a sheet of acid"). Brevity, humility, sanity: who needs 'em.]
April 9, 2009: The Books with Timothy Andres, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City [* The Books' set was enjoyable enough in the crowded, sweltering auditorium (noticeably smaller than the one at my alma mater) despite minor concerns that the 'kitsch' of the video art sometimes works against the solemnity of the music. To Mister Andres, I shall say only one thing: temper thyself, young man.]
Singles of the Year: Lily Allen: "Everyone's at It," Animal Collective: "In the Flowers," The Antlers: "Kettering," Arctic Monkeys: "The Jeweller's Hands," Art Brut: "Alcoholics Unanimous," Atlas Sound: "Kid Klimax," Basement Jaxx: "Feelings Gone," Andrew Bird: "Tenuousness," Burial & Four Tet: "Moth," Camera Obscura: "My Maudlin Career," Jarvis Cocker: "I Never Said I Was Deep," Dirty Projectors: "Temecula Sunrise," Estelle (Featuring Kanye West): "American Boy," Tim Exile: "Don't Think We're One," Falty DL: "Our Loss," The Field: "I Have the Moon, You Have the Internet," Fuck Buttons: "Surf Solar," Girls: "Summertime," Grizzly Bear: "Two Weeks," Harlem Shakes: "Sunlight," HEALTH: "Die Slow," Metric: "Collect Call," Mirah: "Generosity," Modest Mouse: "Autumn Beds," MSTRKRFT with John Legend: "Heartbreaker," N.A.S.A.: "Gifted," Passion Pit: "Little Secrets," Phoenix: "Lisztomania," Pomegranates: "Everybody, Come Outside!," P.O.S.: "Purexed," Real Estate: "Beach Comber," Jay Reatard: "My Reality," La Roux, "Bulletproof," Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: "Home," Sonic Youth: "Sacred Trickster," St. Vincent: "The Strangers," The Veils: "The Letter," The xx: "Basic Space," Yeah Yeah Yeahs: "Heads Will Roll," Thom Yorke: "Hearing Damage"