2009: The Year In Review (Part One).
This post, in particular, will kick off a series that will probably last all month, in which I write (relatively) short reviews of every new album I heard in the year 2009. I like the idea of doing this a lot better than the making of "top however-many albums" lists at the end of every year. Those lists get tough to make, because other than the first 5 or so, it can be tough to say which albums you really think do or don't deserve to be on them. I always have a lot more records I like in any given year than I have slots on a list to fill, and in hindsight, the choices of which albums to include at #13 or #17 always seems so arbitrary. In order to replace that arbitrary feeling with something much easier to understand and learn from, I present the following reviews (as well as the ones that will fill the 4 or 5 related posts to follow):
The Entrance Band - The Entrance Band
2006's Prayer Of Death, released under Guy Blakeslee's former solo-project moniker Entrance, was the Entrance Band's actual debut LP, and it was a glorious clusterfuck of chaotic boogie riffs and atonal violin sawing, the sort of thing that would appeal to fans of the first Velvet Underground LP (and without forcing them to sit through any Nico vocals). That album was obviously transitional in nature, though, so the fact that The Entrance Band is a much more organized, better produced, conventional blues-rock album isn't all that surprising. It is somewhat disappointing, though, and that disappointment is crystallized by a new, cleaned-up version of Prayer Of Death's opening track, "Grim Reaper Blues." Where the old version sounded like something broadcast from another planet, this new version sounds almost conventional, as if with only minor tweaks (none of which would need to affect the production), it could show up on classic rock radio tomorrow. And the thing is--it's still the most interesting song on the record. The problems with the production on that song are at least somewhat offset by the song's fascinating construction and awesomely bizarre riffing. Without that riffing, though, the remaining elements that made Prayer For Death so interesting to me are completely absent. I was excited when I found out there was a new Entrance Band album, because I was hoping to have another record's worth of Prayer For Death's awesomeness. As it is, though, this new record just doesn't hold up in comparison.
The Network - Bishop Kent Manning
Absolutely tortured freakout of a metalcore record here. Their first LP, This Is Your Pig's Portrait, was a bit disorganized. As I recently learned, this is probably due to their not having had a full-time vocalist on that record, and using a bunch of different friends and band members who normally played other instruments, so that no two tracks featured the same singer. They've got a steady lineup now, and instead of sticking with the chaos of their first album, this one goes in a more measured direction. What that translates into is lots of tortured screaming and slow-burn riffs, alternated with frantic headbanging riffs that manage to sound like insanity despite being, for the most part, perfectly comprehensible midtempo stuff. For those who felt that A Life Once Lost were never the same after The Fourth Plague: Flies, this record will hit the spot in a big way.
Slayer - World Painted Blood
Slayer hold a permanent position in my top 10 or 20 bands of all time, but in stating that, I must also admit that the apex of their career is long past. Their first five albums, and especially the three-album stretch between Reign In Blood and Seasons In The Abyss, set their legacy in stone, and any of the albums they've done since then have seemed almost anti-climactic. Even the best of them, 2001's God Hates Us All, wasn't quite on the level of those three classics. It was, however, a worthy sequel to Reign In Blood's all-killer-no-filler aesthetic, even with 90s era replacement drummer Paul Bostaph in the fold. Now, original skin-pounder Dave Lombardo has returned, which raises expectations through the roof. And yet, it is just at this point that Slayer trips up. World Painted Blood isn't terrible by any means, and I can even enjoy it when it's on, but the riffs here are subpar on the whole. It sounds like they're overthinking it, like what came naturally to them in 1986 now requires concentration to recreate. But as Neil Young will tell you, "The more you think, the more you stink." That adage is proven on this record, as riffs designed to be direct sound dumbed down, a production intended to sound raw and immediate makes the record sound like an unfinished demo, and a string of uptempo tracks designed to come across as focused just get boring. It's as if Slayer knew they were getting old, and felt that they'd have to work extra hard to prove to everyone that it wasn't affecting them. But in working extra hard, they only made it obvious that they aren't what they once were. I don't think Slayer is capable of making a BAD album, but this is the closest they've come to mediocrity, and that's a sad thing to see.
Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone
I never would have expected to hear a band that combines insanely upbeat poppy emo of the post-Cap'n Jazz stripe with the spastic art-core of the Blood Brothers, and yet, here are Dananananaykroyd, coming out of Glasgow and blowing my mind with a potent genre cocktail that I can't stop listening (and dancing) to. There are six members of this band, with the standard two guitars/bass/drums rock band lineup augmented by both a full-time singer and a guy who switches between singing and playing drums. The dual-vocal songs, especially "Watch This!", which is both an introduction and a sort of manifesto for the album and band as a whole, feature interplay that avoids conventional structure in favor of excited simultaneous rants. Both singers babble and scream, tripping over each other's words and lines in a manner that heightens the excitement of the song. But at other times, when the band is in their dual-drum lineup, the increased focus that it provides allows them to tap into even more potent melodies. The unstoppable bounce of "Totally Bone" only increases in intensity due to the driving percussive clatter on which the whole song is based. Meanwhile, "Black Wax" is constructed around a delicate melody without much heaviness at all. Yet both singers sing on it, and there are definitely moments when both of them are amped and in full freakout mode. It seems like Dananananaykroyd are willing to try anything that even sort of fits in with their mission, and as a result they sometimes veer so wildly within a song that they can make it seem like two different ones. It all works, though, and that's the important thing. This record is a nonstop blast, and whenever it ends, I just want to start it over again. What higher praise can I offer than that?
Passion Pit - Manners
There's a point that comes in the evolution of any particular subgenre of the indie scene, where the bands being produced by that subgenre become nigh-indistinguishable from their mainstream counterparts. With indie-techno-pop, that point has been reached, and Passion Pit's Manners is, even more than anything previously produced by LCD Soundsystem, completely indistinguishable from the sort of stuff they play in discos and on top 40 stations. Which all sounds like a condemnation, if you proceed from the first principle that indie is always better. But who says it is? The indie mentality, as an opposition to major labels and their privileging of monetary earnings uber alles, is dead and buried. With no political ideals left to fight for, that makes indie nothing but a genre. And when an indie band produces an example of a mainstream genre that can compete not only within the indie subset of that genre but right up there with the mainstream versions, shouldn't we be celebrating that? Passion Pit's "The Reeling" is the best dance single I've heard since Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," and the rest of this album, once I finally gave it a chance, proved to be full of additional examples of pure techno-pop nirvana. From the little-kid group chants on "Little Secrets" to the falsetto "na-na's" on "To Kingdom Come" and the ringing guitars on "Make Light"--which point back to the group's indie heritage no matter how deeply buried in the mix they are--this record is crammed full of pop music delights, and everyone short of the most diehard rockists should be able to appreciate them.
Four Tomorrow - Four Tomorrow
Four Tomorrow are from Japan, and have absolutely no profile in my native United States. However, because I know gamer dudes and other people who follow Japanese pop music, I occasionally hear Japanese bands I'd never come across otherwise. Four Tomorrow was the one band that that process led me to this year, and like Sambomaster, whom I discovered a few years before in the same manner, I find in their music a kind of joyous exuberance that you very rarely come across in American bands. Algernon Cadwallader have a bit of it, Cap'n Jazz had it when they were around, but I'm hard pressed to come up with examples other than those. That exuberance comes out in Four Tomorrow's choruses, which generally involve multiple members of the band shouting frantically, and in their frantic performance of uptempo punk riffs that might sound considerably more sedate in the hands of some other band. The guitars are jangly rather than distorted, but the punk influence is nonetheless at the forefront; it's because sometimes, playing something sloppily but with heart is more perfect than nailing it with technical perfection. Four Tomorrow's songs are ramshackle in construction, and played so quickly that you get the impression of all the members jumping around and falling all over themselves in the studio, just like they do in live situations. But their intrinsic jubilance, their incredible excitement at the very fact that they're a band that's playing songs, is impossible to escape. For that reason, Four Tomorrow's debut album is an infectious thrill.
Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
At this point, it's hard to even talk about the Manic Street Preachers in terms of their sound. They're the sort of band that I use to explain other bands. I found out how inconvenient that could be earlier this year, though, when trying to explain The Cribs to a friend of mine by saying that they sounded somewhat like the Manics. He'd never heard the Manics, so the reference meant nothing to him. Fortunately, we could hit up Youtube and watch some Generation Terrorists/Holy Bible era MSP videos, and he immediately learned what I was talking about. When writing a review that attempts to encapsulate a band's sound WITHOUT sending the reader to Youtube, things get a bit harder. Part of what's weird about it is that all of the reference points I want to cite post-date MSP: mid-90s Britpop, post-Y2K Britpunk revival (think Libertines/Dirty Pretty Things), and oh, here's one that goes back farther--British glam-rock from the 70s, like T. Rex or Gary Glitter. Roll all these things up into a ball, and you've got the Manics, though that's only half the story, at least for their best material. Because their best material featured lyrics by rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards, who used his unique worldview and remarkable wit to give the Manics a verbal personality that was unmatched on the British alt-rock scene in the early 90s. Tragically, Richey disappeared in February 1995, never to be seen again. Fans, family members, and even the rest of the band have long held out hope that he'd reappear, but it hasn't happened yet, and hope's a hard thing to keep up after 14 years. Journal For Plague Lovers, then, is an attempt at closure, a trip through the notebooks Edwards left behind when he disappeared, in order to yield one last album featuring his lyrics. There are some gems here, too: "Only a god reserves the right to forgive those who revile him," from the title track; "crucifixion is the easy life," from "Doors Closing Slowly;" and "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time"'s excellent chorus, "Mommy, what's a sex pistol?" Surviving members James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore rise to the occasion musically as well, producing some of the band's best music of the past decade, if not longer. Still, though, it's kind of a sad thing to hear, no matter how great a record it is. Even more than the other records they've done since Richey Edwards' presumed death, it is this one that most makes one wish he was still alive, simply by pointing out how much he contributed when he was.
Sonic Youth - The Eternal
I guess the career renaissance that Sonic Youth experienced this decade is becoming something I'm used to. I say that because, unlike the three albums that preceded it, The Eternal did not shock me with its goodness, its solidity. When I had hated everything since Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Murray Street was mindblowing--an actual good Sonic Youth record! I thought the time for those was over! Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped also got my blood flowing--and more importantly, got me to head for the record store with cash in hand, something I didn't hardly do at all in 2009, the year of my personal economic upheaval. Even if I had bought The Eternal, though, I'm not sure I would have played it anywhere near as often as I played the last three Sonic Youth albums. For one, as I said back at the beginning of this paragraph, I've gone back to expecting good records out of Sonic Youth. For another, as solid as The Eternal is, as much as it can stand up on an overall quality level to any of the past three Sonic Youth albums, it has considerably less memorable moments. There aren't any songs on this album that get stuck in my head the way "Pattern Recognition" or "Karen Revisited" or "Or" did on those last three records. It's a very solid album, but I think that solidity comes out as uniformity rather than a collection of peak moments, which leaves me with quite a bit less to take away, even if I do enjoy this album every time I put it on (which doesn't happen all that often). I'm not sure if the fault is mine, for not listening enough, or Sonic Youth's, for making an album that blends into the background a bit too easily. Regardless, this album didn't stick with me the way a lot of their albums have over the years, and while I don't think it's bad, there's definitely something missing here, the absence of which keeps it from attaining the level that the best Sonic Youth stuff easily reaches. [P.S. - I had forgotten that I actually do get "Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn" stuck in my head on occasion, which doesn't change my overall feelings about the album but deserves to be noted.]
Japandroids - Post-Nothing
This is the sort of record that, when it gets hyped, reminds me of how different my listening patterns are from the indie-rock mainstream. When it started getting big, I listened to it, and found it to be a fun record for the most part, especially on the uptempo songs. In fact, starting with "The Boys Are Leaving Town" followed by "Young Hearts Spark Fire," but ending with "Crazy/Forever," "Sovereignty," and "I Quit Girls" may be the only really obvious wrong thing about this record that I can point to. It starts with a glut of energy and ends with a glut of slowed-down haze. The songs should have been sequenced better, and unlike Counting Crows' 2008 effort, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, there wasn't even a thematic reason not to. But whatever, getting away from sequencing and into the songs themselves, yeah, this is fuzzy bassless guitar-pop, and it's pretty well-done. However, for all the babble about noise and distortion among the indie rock faithful, it didn't seem all that noisy to me. Everything is relative, though, and this is an obvious case of my relativity being different from theirs. Bands like Wavves and No Age and these guys probably do seem like a wall of noise overload to kids who spend a lot of time listening to Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear. For dudes like me who spend a significant amount of time listening to Every Time I Die and Das Oath, Japandroids still seem pretty melodically oriented. So, that was a weird thing for me about listening to the dialogue around this record, but it doesn't mean it's any less good. One thing that I did feel made it a bit less good was a discovery I made when I saw these guys play on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon: their songs are, lyrically, insanely repetitive. They played "Wet Hair" on Fallon's show, and hearing the vocals without distortion for the first time, I realized that the song only has three lines, which are just repeated over and over and over again. I'd have to say that the vocal distortion on the album works in their favor, since it kept me from realizing that for several months. If I'd noticed that on first listen, I would probably have liked this record a lot less. And really, I don't love it; when I want to hear a distorted pop record, I generally have many more interesting specimens to turn to. But it's not bad, by any stretch.
Jemina Pearl - Break It Up
So right after the release of their second album, teenage Nashville punk band Be Your Own Pet fell apart. The only people left standing were singer/co-founder Jemina Pearl and drummer John Eatherly, who'd only been in the band for a short period of time. Frustrated but undaunted, the two of them began recording songs together, with Jemina singing and John playing all of the instruments. Eventually, they ended up with enough material to release an album, and Break It Up was the result. To a great extent, it sounds like the third Be Your Own Pet album; the majority of the songs are the same sort of catchy but snotty melodic hardcore/punk that made Be Your Own Pet so fun and memorable. However, there are additional sounds to be found here. "Ecstatic Appeal" is a disco-punk hybrid with a beat like Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" and wonderfully retro glittering synth noises augmenting the rhythm guitar riffs that propel the song. "Nashville Shores" is slower and poppier than most of the tracks on the album, and its chorus features triple-tracked harmonies from Jemina. Unfortunately, the 50s-ish ballad "I Hate People" is a less successful departure, and while one would expect a Jemina Pearl-Iggy Pop duet to be a smashing success, even the combination of the two of them can't overcome the schmaltzy monotony of the song's music. Thankfully, it's the only dud the album has to offer, and it's more than made up for by propulsive bubblegum-punk hits like "Heartbeats," "Band On The Run," and "So Sick," the latter of which closes the album with the sound of Jemina, John, and a studio full of friends energetically making vomit noises. This whole record sounds like it was a blast to make, and it's every bit as much fun to listen to. Jemina and John have recruited a band to play the songs live, and are now on tour. One hopes that regardless of what they call it, they'll keep making fun, energetic music like this.
End of Part One; More to come in a few days!