Mar 25, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Blackalicious - Blazing Arrow (MCA, 2002)

When the decade wrap-ups started appearing all over the internet in the latter half of last year, I was surprised to not see this album pop up on more lists - especially because I've always felt like it inspired quite a bit of the best of the underground leaning hip-hop of the decade. I can hear strains of a lot of what was to follow in here including Mos Def's comeback, Common's mid-decade rise, and especially the forward-looking funk of Erykah Badu's latest round of work. Magnetic tongue-flipper Gift of Gab and beat-crafter par excellance Chief Xcel reached heights on this album that they'd only hinted at previously and, perhaps disappointingly, haven't come near since. Sure, a lot of the big names dropping by helped out (Ben Harper, Lyrics Born, Cut Chemist, Gil Scott-Heron, Questlove, etc.), but without the duo laying down a fantastic base, all of the guest stars in the world wouldn't have helped. A particular favorite is the epic "Nowhere Fast", which features Questlove on drums and James Poyser on keyboards. It starts off with a funky bounce that mutates into a slinky groove as the track rolls on, definitely pointing the way towards future collabs with Ms. Badu. That particular track is followed by the jaw-dropping "Paragraph President", with verses so tightly-wound and densely-packed that it becomes impossible to deny Gab's talented flow. The record hits on many moods over the course of its run time - slinky jazz, psychedelic haze, slow jam grooves, and on and on - but it all comes together surprisingly well and forms one of the most thrilling hip-hop statements of the decade. I just wish it was still receiving more props.

Mar 24, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:
Silversun Pickups - Carnavas (Dangerbird, 2006)

As a music fan that really blossomed in the early 90s, mostly thanks to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Soundgarden, I've often been disappointed that of all the strains of 90s alt-rock that could have been carried forward in to the next decade it had to be the angst-ridden sub-grunge of Creed and Candlebox that took hold. I'm talking about all the Three Days Grace, Seether, and Puddle of Mudd crap that is still clogging up the pores of whatever few alt-rock radio stations are still out there. Thankfully the past decade saw a band willing to strap on their guitars, stomp on their fuzzboxes, and rock out to a slightly different vein of the 90s. On this, their debut full-length, Los Angeles' Silversun Pickups picked up the torch dropped by bands like the aforementioned Pumpkins and Hum; unafraid to drown their pop songs in feedback and aim for the arenas without the navel-gazing self-pity and teenage angst. It is, to be certain, a well-worn formula but one the band wears well, just listen to those undeniable riffs on "Little Lover's So Polite" or their breakthrough hit single, "Lazy Eye". This kind of thing doesn't work for everyone, but as a guy that really latched onto this sound in his formative years - the Pickups roll right up the middle of my alley.

Mar 23, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:
Cobalt - Gin (Profound Lore, 2009)

This intense record was one of last year's more pleasant surprises and one of the best indications that there is plenty of ground left to cover when it comes to United States black metal. Front to back this thing is absolutely massive and crushing, from the thunderous riffs to the huge sounding drums ready to crush careless skulls into tiny bits and pieces. But what makes it such a special record, beyond being so relentlessly heavy, are the many moods and phases it manages to swing through while beating you about the head and face. Much of this is due to Erik Wunder's absolutely stunning approach to his drumming, choosing to thrill with his rolling, tribal style instead of plowing through each song as rapidly as possible - an approach that can become very tiresome over the length of an hour-long album. It almost seems like the dark mood comes from what Wunder is holding back, not what he unleashes. Toss in some acoustic interludes and other sparse throwbacks to American traditional folk music (a vibe more than reinforced by the field recording of a prison gang on the hidden track) and you've got one of the more creative approaches we've seen in a subgenre all but left for dead by many critics and fans.

Mar 17, 2010

RIP Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

Horrifically sad news out of New Orleans this evening, as it has been confirmed that Alex Chilton has passed away at age 59. One of the most gifted songwriters I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, this is definitely a huge loss for music. In honor, here is one of my absolute favorite songs he wrote, as well as a wonderful tribute song from the Replacements.

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:
Sonic Youth - The Eternal (Matador, 2009)

Sonic Youth has been releasing records for over 28 years, which is a huge accomplishment in and of itself even if we ignore just how fantastic most of them are. I guarantee if you stack up their discography against, say, The Rolling Stones, these NY noisemakers would wallop the old boys in hit:miss ratio. So I find it incredibly easy to forgive the band for sort of easing into a comfortable pattern over the last decade, especially towards the end. The last 2 or 3 records haven't been groundbreaking or envelope-pushing, but they've been chock full of Sonic Youth doing exactly what Sonic Youth does best. Strangling the necks of their guitars as they wrap them around pop melodies played off sheets of feedback and squalls of noise. No one does this type of thing better, and even a v2009 Sonic Youth album is better than many of the alternatives the blogs might be trying to push. As hinted at before, this particular record isn't a game-changer like a Sister or a Daydream Nation, but it is a thrilling listen from start to finish. "Sacred Trickster" and "Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn" bring back short bursts of punk energy that we really haven't seen since the Dirty days, but epics "Antenna" and "Massage the History" will please those who love the long-form jams. The latter is a particular treat, closing out the album on a gentle note with Kim's breathy vocals and some gently picked acoustic guitars(!!!) swirled into the mix. Yet another great Sonic Youth album. I really hope they pump these out forever.

Mar 15, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Saves the Day - Stay What You Are (Vagrant, 2001)

I'm sure this will be the first entry in this series to raise some serious eyebrows over its inclusion, but probably not the last. Most people have, by this point, dismissed Saves the Day to the bargain bins of emo history, unfairly lumping them in with the countless bands from the turn of the century milking the earnest, heart-on-sleeve thing for all it was worth. The problem with such a dismissal (as opposed to doing the same for a band like, say, Dashboard Confessional) is that Saves the Day actually contain a little soul and more than a little musical talent. Though they are still a going concern as of 2010, it is highly unlikely that they'll ever reach, let alone top, this 2001 high water mark. While most of the lyrics do fall squarely into the navel-gazing valley of lovelorn teenage male angst, the musical performances are spry, lively, and allow something to focus on besides Chris Conley's girl problems. But even Conley strikes upon some great imagery from time-to-time, particularly on this gem from "All I'm Losing Is Me" - "the moon hangs like the blade of an axe tonight / and it's poised to drop sometime soon enough". Despite a couple of significant stumbling blocks, Conley's voice may be a bit much for some people and there's a weird misogynistic turn in "As Your Ghost Takes Flight" that rubs me the wrong way, this is an excellent example of pop-punk done very well. Fans of the genre would be well-served by giving this another listen and seeing how the band helped bridge the gap from the Get-Up Kids to Fall Out Boy.

Mar 12, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland, 2009)

It was slightly unexpected for this to become the success it was last year, mostly because it seemed like the Slumberland era was long past. Not that the label was any less worthy, but it had seemed to have settled into a comfortable place where it knew its fans and the bands that perfectly fit their sound. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart fit this to a tee, but by incorporating plenty of other pop touchstones they were able to grab a much larger audience than might have been expected. Far from being "just" another indie pop band on a hip underground label, this foursome expertly blended influences as wide-reaching as Phil Spector, New Order, and My Bloody Valentine into their exquisitely crafted pop songs. And that is really what this album is all about, bloody brilliant pop tunes. "Young Adult Friction" was the killer single that launched them into a hundred RSS feeds, but picking a favorite out of this bunch is downright impossible. Right now my answer would surely be "A Teenager In Love" with its immediacy and timeless feel, particularly in how the acoustic strumming marks a change in pace from the more shoegazey parts of the album. Really though, each and every song is packed with little bits that will make you "ooh" and "ahh", and I could have made arguments here for every single one of the ten tracks.

Mar 10, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note, 2009)

I remember being a little worried when I finally bought this album on its release day and saw that "Listzomania" and "1901" (the two pre-release singles that I could. not. get enough of.) were the first two tracks on the album. I was thinking, "is this going to be another one of those albums that kicks off with two incredible singles only to fade with each successive track to the point where it becomes a chore just to sit through it?". Luckily a loud spin on a sunny spring day quickly cleared my mind of any such foolishness. While it was true that, no, nothing else on the album topped the exorbitant joy of "1901" and "Listzomania" (but really, who can fault a band when these were two of the absolute best songs of the entire year?), there was plenty to discover and fall in love with. Thanks to my long-standing admiration of bands that put their love of krautrock to good use, the bit I loved immediately was the two-part "Love Like A Sunset" suite. The five-minute instrumental lead-in was smothered with all the hallmarks of great krautrock - hypnotic synths, Michael Rother inspired guitar work, and a slow build to a motorik groove. Stunning and, to be honest, completely unexpected. Repeat listens revealed how much more there was to the album - "Girlfriend", "Fences", "Countdown" and especially "Lasso" were all great pop in their own right. I love an album that reveals new depths after the novelty of the singles starts to wear off. Except, upon replaying this just now, it is clear that the novelty of "1901" and "Listzomania" will never wear off. Ever. If you don't believe me, just check out what these P.S. 22 kids think.

Mar 8, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Pela - Anytown Graffiti (Great Society, 2007)

It really is a damn shame that this Brooklyn foursome packed it in in 2007, citing their various battles with record labels and injuries to band members as reasons for moving on. A shame because, honestly, these guys are one of those bands that deserved to be far bigger than they were. They did manage to gain a degree of cult status thanks to this record, but I think it was only a sliver of what could have come with the maturation that would have come with a second album. For a band that wears their influences clearly on their collective sleeves, Pela managed to craft a sound that rose above the clatter of those disparate sources and found a unique voice. Sure, one can hear the yelped vocals of Isaac Brock, the dramatic build of Interpol, the sleepy croon of Matt Berninger, and the anthemic guitar playing of Edge all over this album - but it all blends together so well that you're left with an album distinctly of its time and place. Stunning originality may not be a claim oft leveled against these guys, but when you find yourself knee-deep in the impassioned choruses of "Tenement Teeth" or "Song Writes Itself", playing a game of spot-the-influence will be the furthest thing from your mind. I wish we could have had the chance to watch these guys mature, because this was a thrilling indication of greater things to come.

Mar 5, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City, 2006)

I'll be the first to admit, it took me a long time to come around to this album's charms, but I'm glad I gave the chance to win me over. There are plenty of reasons to be wary of what Ms. Newsom was offering on this album - an average running time of just over eleven minutes for the album's five songs, the elfin Renaissance Faire cover art, her distinct voice and accompanying squeaks. But it would be a shame if these kept people from discovering the album's true charms - lovely vocal melodies, beautiful harp, striking lyrical imagery, and lush orchestral arrangements by one Van Dyke Parks. For a lot of people the album's centerpiece and high point is the epic 17-minute "Only Skin" which features some of the best orchestral flourishes on the album and the striking backing vocals of Bill Callahan (Smog), but I keep finding myself returning to one of the album's simplest pieces, "Sawdust & Diamonds". As moving as Parks' arrangements can be, there is a stunning beauty in just hearing Newsom string her playful melodies through the harp strings without distraction. This album is definitely not for everyone, but will more than likely become essential to those that fall under its spell.

Mar 4, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:
Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst (Merge, 2008)

I suppose we can never be entirely sure why Conor Oberst decided to ditch the Bright Eyes moniker, but I'd imagine it pretty much boiled down to a desire to remove himself from the "emo" albatross that continued to hang around his neck. With his sights clearly set on newer ways to stretch out his songwriting, he didn't really need one more wrong-headed tag to set people's expectations against him before hearing a single note. This eponymous release also marked another interesting milestone, his first record not released by the Omaha label that he was instrumental in putting on the map, Saddle Creek. I think this record will be looked back on as a significant turning point in his career, one in which he struck out in a new direction by burying himself in a scene of the past. As evidenced clearly by tracks like "Sausalito" and "Moab", there is a tremendous 1970s Southern California folk-rock vibe that permeates the entire album - and I think it works really well with Conor's style of songwriting. Gentle folk rubs up against clean and clear electric guitar meanderings, surrounded by a playful, collaborative vibe and sprinkled with Americana imagery. As with some of his best Bright Eyes work, the musicians are all top-notch and able to keep him from giving in to his more insular instincts - there is virtually no pretentious meta-references or needless field recordings. It probably won't be remembered as his most essential work, but it will be recalled as a vital stepping stone.

Mar 3, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Silkworm - Lifestyle (Touch & Go, 2000)

Even if it weren't for the tragic loss of Michael Dahlquist in 2005, Silkworm would still be one of the more unjustly forgotten bands of the indie rock era. These Midwestern rockers deserved just as much success and recognition as bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices were getting, if not more. Their carefully crafted combination of the 1970s classic and 1990s indie strains of rock music combined the best of each, melding into a lumbering, formidable beast all their own. Ask five different Silkworm fans for their favorite album and you'll probably get five different answers, but as far as I'm concerned it was never better than this. The album is jam-packed with meandering guitar work, some of the most exciting drumming indie rock ever gave us, and explosive guitar solos that mine the territory of Crazy Horse and Dinosaur Jr. But what really makes this album stand out is that the thrilling instrumental work is topped off with really engaging lyrics that can be equal parts clever, knowing, or just plain lovely. Check out this section from the wonderful "Roots":

There's a Puerto Rican in this bar, she's thinking about San Juan
If I could, you know, I'd wave a wand and send her home
But first, you know, I'd send myself back where the river flows

Mar 2, 2010

Evaluating the Teargarden Part 3: A Stitch In Time

As Billy rolls forward, however slowly, as does via//chicago in evaluating his latest opus. With this we are into track three.

EP #1, Track #3: "A Stitch In Time"
We began this journey with an epic track that showcased Billy's guitar fireworks and love of classic rock, followed by a pop tune that recalled some of his better moments without quite reaching the same heights. And now the third track shows off the introspective, acoustic side of Corgan's songwriting that we've often encountered before via songs like "Disarm" and "Thirty-Three". Again, not a bad thing in and of itself, Billy has managed to toss out his share of simple gems in this department (oh if only more of that fantastic Djali Zwan stuff would have been released!). "A Stitch In Time" starts off promising, with a pretty strong guitar melody accompanied by what I can only call some sort of twisted string instrument that sounds sort of like a calliope. Billy's vocals kick in, again really dominant in the mix, perhaps too much so, but we get a little hint of sitar floating around in the background to spice things up a bit. The weird instrument from the intro comes back in, except now it pretty clearly sounds like some sort of keyboard setting. These three instruments make up the bulk of the song and set a pretty steady course from the start from which it never bothers to deviate, which is actually fine for this song, but I find myself wishing for some sort of twist thrown in - maybe a shift in time signature, or an unexpected guitar solo, something. Lyrically, well, maybe it's best not to dwell on those too long. As often as Billy is able to wrench real emotion out of remarkable imagery ("Muzzle", "For Martha"), he also can use his distinct voice to smooth over some real clunkers that amount to not much more than strung together platitudes. Unfortunately, this one clearly falls in the latter camp. I do like the sitar and the even keel of the acoustic guitar actually gives this sort of a hypnotic vibe that fits in well with all of the sailing and ocean references throughout the first three songs. I think this will fit in well once dropped in to the overall but picture, but as a stand-alone song that fans have been waiting over a month to hear, it is a bit of a disappointment in that regard. Not terrible, but certainly the least "repeat" worthy song we've heard from the project so far.

Rating: 6.7/10.0

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:

Robyn - Robyn (Konichiwa, Interscope, 2008)

(I'm referring to the long-delayed U.S. version from 2008 in this post, the original version was released in Sweden in 2005)

Talk about your completely unexpected pop comebacks, I think there were few more left-field than the return of Robyn. Mostly remembered in the U.S. for her 1997 hit "Show Me Love", Robyn gained a huge cult following in the second half of last decade, mostly due to a huge amount of blog buzz (nearly every word of it deserving). Songs like "Konichiwa Bitches", a blipped-out electro take on hip-hop that prefigured Ke$ha by a good five years, and the minimal R&B "Be Mine!" flew around the internet, passed from pop lover to pop lover with feverish fanaticism. Fortunately for us, by the time the album was released in America, huge hits like her cover of Teddybears' ubiquitous "Cobrastyle" and the dancefloor killing "With Every Heartbeat" were added to pad out the tracklist. The complete package makes for a thrilling listen, incorporating almost every aspect of mainstream pop from 1999 through 2005 without ever sounding dated once. Easily one of the most consistently great pop albums of the entire decade and one that was even more exciting for coming from such a surprising source.

Mar 1, 2010

via//chicago's 200 of the 2000s:
Bright Eyes - Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Gound (Saddle Creek, 2002)

It seems like this album tends to get lost in the shuffle, coming as it did between the much beloved Fevers and Mirrors in 2000 and the two albums from 2005 that really seemed to break him with the mainstream (I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn). Not to mention being released in the same year as the uptempo Desapararecidos album, the one that really seemed to appeal to quite a few vocal Oberst haters. Whatever the reason, it is an unfortunate situation, especially considering this album really gave us all a taste of what was in store. "Lover I Don't Have To Love" was one of the most successful attempts at pop Oberst had made to date, echoing the club setting of its lyrics with a bass-heavy beat and an Omaha garage-band approximation of synth-pop. The song clearly set the template for what he was to explore on the Digital Ash release. Both "Make War" and the epic, ten-minute "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" give us hints of the country-rock that was to be explored more fully during the Mystic Valley Band era. Even when Oberst falls back on his standard tropes - Dylan indebted folk passion, heart-on-sleeve earnestness - he is wise enough to surround himself with fantastic musicians that color in the gaps and breathe life into these compositions. We'll see more, and better, Oberst records on this list, but this one should not remain forgotten.