Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 FAVES: OPTIONS, ANGLES & PUMPED-UP KICKS


A year ago this week, as I was finishing up my list of 2010 favorite albums, I finally got around to digging into the Black KeysBrothers, and—after kicking myself for having underestimated the band for so long—added the record to my Top 10 at the very last minute. Now, I’m making similar adjustments in order to accommodate the Keys’ new El Camino, an instant grabber, and wondering where it’ll wind up among my ’11 faves once the novelty has worn off. Don’t know yet how this year stacks up against other recent years in terms of quality, but with the addition of El Camino, I’ve got a rock-solid Top 10—and I have yet to uncork Tom WaitsBad as Me.

While I was falling under the spell of Brothers a year ago, I was also getting hooked on a trio of lead singles from albums that were scheduled to hit in early 2011: the Decemberists’ jangle-fest “Down by the Water,” Paul Simon’s wicked-clever “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” and Adele’s kick drum-driven churner “Rolling in the Deep.” I had no idea, of course, that I’d be hearing “Rolling” throughout the next 12 months, more than any other song, except, perhaps, for “Pumped Up Kicks” from rookies Foster the People—and though I left both off my 2011 playlist due to their sheer ubiquity, I admire them as performances and productions as much as any recordings this year.

As I put my 2011 picks to bed, I’m listening obsessively to tracks from a couple of albums coming in January: When I Was Young” from Nada Surf’s The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk), and “Change the Sheets” from Kathleen EdwardsVoyageur (Zoe/Rounder), which she co-produced with her significant other, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Both tracks are anthems of a decidedly personal nature, and both albums capture their authors in the very act of self-discovery. I’ll be surprised if Edwards and Nada Surf aren’t represented in my best of 2012 lists a year from now.

The non-musical works that captivated me this year were Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (fiction); Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Mike MillsThe Beginners (films); Showtime’s enthralling Homeland and tragicomedy Enlightened, AMC’s unbearably intense The Killing and ABC’s zeitgeist-capturing sitcom The Middle (TV series).

Here’s a 25-song year-end playlist (which you can listen to on my Spotify page), followed by my Top 30 2012 albums, quick takes on a bunch of them and in-depth critiques of my big three.

2011 YEAR-END PLAYLIST: OPTIONS
1.      The Black Keys, “Sister”: It was the single “Lonely Boy” that first had me in its thrall, but this springy groove may stand as Pat Carney’s coolest rhythmic pattern on a record that’s all about the big beat.
2.      Foster the People, “Warrant”: Year’s best LCD Soundsystem tribute on the year’s hookiest album—with the possible exception of El Camino.
3.      Gomez, “Options”: My wife Peggy fell in love with this highway cruiser last summer when Sirius Spectrum started banging it, and Esquire has endorsed as one of the top 10 2011 songs you need to hear. The groove, the horns and the premise combine to make this souped-up shuffle the veteran band’s most irresistible cut ever.
4.      Ryan Adams, “Lucky Now”: Austere, silken perfection, resolving into not one but two giant hooks.
5.      Feist, “The Bad in Each Other”: So sonically tactile that you feel it more than you hear it, this enthralling track showcases Feist’s urgent, Neil Young-like guitar playing, as she gets to the heart of a tumultuous romantic relationship.
6.      The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow”: What gets me about this rootsy hybrid is the duo’s ability to capture the ghostly vibe of ancient Appalachian ballads inside a meaty primal groove. I’ve heard this track a ton, but it still seems fresh.
7.      Brett Dennen, “Sydney (I'll Come Running)”: On this Van Morrison-style hookfest, Brett expresses the extent of his devotion as he comes to the aid of a damsel in distress. “Straight from the airport,” he promises, “right to the courthouse, Sydney, I will testify,” as the handclap-punctuated groove trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible sing-along fashion.
8.      The Decemberists, “Calamity Song”: Amid the masterful early R.E.M. and Harvest appropriations of The King Is Dead sits this shimmering nugget of harmony-rich folk rock. The goosebump moment occurs when the hyper-verbal song, riding its galloping Murmur-like groove, explodes into joyous falsetto ahh-oohs.
9.      Radiohead, “Morning Mr. Magpie”: Can’t wait to hear the band tear into this scorcher on their 2012 tour.
10.  Wilco, “Art of Almost”: During its seven-minute course, this mind-blowing track builds from a careening off-kilter groove to a hyper-skronk climax of almost unbearable intensity.
11.  My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”: Another seven-minute widescreen extravaganza, as uplifting as the Wilco track is lacerating.
12.  Bon Iver, “Holocene”: The biggest surprise of this year’s Grammy nominations is one of the most exquisite soundscapes on an album you can get lost in.
13.  Paul Simon, “The Afterlife”: This whimsical first-person account of a soul taking his place in a queue forming at the pearly gates is the centerpiece of an album filled with insanely catchy songs about extremely heavy themes, as Simon proves there’s no reason to hang up his dancing shoes at age of 70.
14.  The Cars, “Sad Song”: Catchy and clever enough to fit seamlessly on the Cars’ brilliant 1978 debut album. 
15.  Lindsey Buckingham, “When She Comes Down”: Sounds like a just-discovered outtake from Tusk.
16.  The Belle Brigade, “Where Not to Look for Freedom”: Sounds like a just-discovered outtake from Rumours.
17.  Amos Lee, “Windows Are Rolled Down”: While this balmy, cruiser may be closer to del amitri than to “Thunder Road,” it’s so evocative that you can practically feel the breeze whipping through your hair.
18.  Fountains of Wayne, “A Dip in the Ocean”: Here, these brainy masters of specificity recount a dysfunctional couple’s drive up the coast on a weekend getaway in 1998, delivering the misadventure in a rollicking power-pop performance.
19.  Dawes, “Time Spent in Los Angeles”: The year’s best love-hate song to L.A. from the Jackson Browne- and Robbie Robertson-endorsed native neoclassicists.
20.  Robbie Robertson, “He Don’t Live Here No More”: The punchiest cut Robbie has fashioned during his spotty solo career.
21.  Daryl Hall, “Eyes for You”: The ardent flipside of H&O’s blow-off classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” but just as slinky and sexy.
22.  Beck: “Stormbringer”: If you loved Sea Change, this track from the John Martyn tribute Johnny Boy Would Love This will have you in the fetal position before the Beckster even opens his mouth. Gorgeous in its cloud-filled melancholy.
23.  Fleet Foxes, “Lorelei”: Don’t think the old-school harmony specialists’ second full-length, Helplessness Blues, hits the Bon Iver level of continuous gorgeousness, but there’s a real natural beauty on this soaring performance.
24.  Nick Lowe, “I Read a Lot”: A palpable sense of loss and loneliness leads to intimations of mortality on this modern-day standard.
25.  Death Cab for Cutie, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”: “You Are a Tourist” is the hookiest cut on Codes and Keys, and “Doors Unlocked and Open,” with its high-revving motorik groove, is one of the year’s quintessential driving songs, but this string-laden sleeper finds Ben Gibbard at his most compassionate and life-embracing.

FAVORITE 2011 ALBUMS
1.      Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
2.      Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope)
3.      Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)
4.      The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)
5.      Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax AM/Capitol)
6.      Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music/Concord)
7.      The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
8.      Foster the People, Torches (Columbia)
9.      My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO)
10.  Radiohead, The King of Limbs (TBD)
11.  The Cars, Move Like This (Hear Music/Concord)
12.  Brett Dennen, Loverboy (Dualtone)
13.  The Belle Brigade, The Bell Brigade (Reprise
14.  Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow (Mind Kit)
15.  Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Lolina Green/Missing Piece)
16.  Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong (ATO)
17.  Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes
18.  Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
19.  Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog)
20.  Daryl Hall, Laughing Down Crying (Verve Forecast)
21.  Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant (Macro-biotic/429)
22.  Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, Rome (Capitol)
23.  The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (sensibility)
24.  Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (Universal Republic)
25.  Adele, 21 (XL/Columbia)
26.  Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway)
27.  The Strokes, Angles (RCA)
28.  The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time (Rounder)
29.  Bright Eyes, The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)
30.  Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues (Rounder)

QUICK TAKES
The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch), Foster the People, Torches (Columbia):
The year’s two best rock albums are polar opposites. FTP’s streamlined, state-of-the-digital-art debut is a purring, crisply contoured high-end Audi to the Keys’ vintage muscle car, but they’re both brilliantly conceived and executed longplayers crammed with phat grooves and gigantic hooks—all killer, no filler. Torches comes off like a greatest-hits collection, striking proof of Mark Foster’s conjoined gifts for heady songcraft and dynamic production, while the Dan Auerbach/Pat Carney/Danger Mouse triumvirate is a marriage made in rock & roll heaven. Together, these two records make it absolutely clear that rock remains a vital form in the second decade of the 21st century. Put El Camino and Torches on shuffle and you have all you need for a rockin’ New Year’s Eve party, but I strongly suspect I’ll be blasting these two albums on any given Saturday night from here on out.


Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax AM/Capitol):
The latest set from the hyper-prolific Adams hearkens back to the golden age of SoCal rock in the early ’70s—intimate, reflective, close-miked and melodically gorgeous. Ashes & Fire is the result of a close collaboration between Adams and legendary English engineer/producer Glyn Johns, whose body of work includes the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Eagles first three albums—a pertinent reference point for this LP’s peaceful, easy flow. Adams’ sensitive, introspective side is on full display throughout this poetic, bittersweet meditation on the nature of love and the passage of time. “Dirty Rain” contains the most soulful vocal Adams has ever put down on tape, the wood-grained title track evokes The Band in its prime, “Invisible Riverside” radiates with the burnished Laurel Canyon glow, the timeless “Lucky Now” is an instant classic complete with a rhapsodic chorus hook, and the culminating “I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say” is almost unbearably emotional, with its poignant payoff, “I promise you/ I will keep you safe from harm.” Forget those comparisons to his 2000 debut Heartbreaker that every subsequent Adams LP has inevitably elicited; the austere, heartfelt Ashes & Fire sets a new standard for this restless, hyper-prolific artist.

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol): A radical departure from 2009’s The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists’ compact sixth album was recorded in a barn on Pendarvis Farm, outside the band’s Portland, Oregon, home base, and it sounds authentically homemade. Whereas the previous undertaking was a wildly ambitious reimagining of British traditional music and myth, the new album’s touchstones are Neil Young’s Harvest, which band leader Colin Meloy refers to as “the quintessential barn record,” SoCal country rock in general and R.E.M.’s pastoral jangle-fest Reckoning. Gillian Welch appears on seven tracks, updating the roles of Nicolette Larson on Young’s Comes a Time and Emmylou Harris on Gram Parsons’ solo albums, while the R.E.M. homage is made literal by the presence of Peter Buck, who plays electric guitar on two tracks and mandolin on another. But more than a knowing tribute to the past, the LP gives the five band members a chance to step out of Meloy’s lavish facades and show what they can do playing it straight. Turns out that they’re one of America’s very best bands.

My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO: Here’s co-producer Tucker Martine recalling the band’s reaction when listening back to the keeper take of this epic moments after recording it live off the floor in a Louisville church gymnasium: “That was a really special moment. They were all dancing around the room and bobbing their heads with their eyes closed, and then, when the song was over, they were hugging and high-fiving each other. It was so inspiring to see veteran musicians who were still able to get that much joy out of making music together. It was like we were all going on an expedition together to find something magical, and there it was. We found it, and no one was afraid to have unbridled joy about it. That’s how it should be.” It’s performances like this one—inspired, synchronous and clutch, like a veteran basketball team kicking it into high gear at crunch time in a tight playoff game—that make Circuital such a thrilling, even ecstatic, listening experience.

The Cars, Move Like This (Hear Music/Concord): A huge influence on countless contemporary bands, the Cars made a debut album so striking and hooky that nobody could equal it—not even the Cars themselves. But 33 years later, auteur Ric Ocasek and the three other surviving members have come remarkably close to achieving the contoured crispness and in-your-face immediacy of their greatest achievement. Their potent chemistry is undeniably present in super-sticky instant classics like “Sad Song” and “Keep on Knocking”: the taut interaction of guitarist Elliott Easton and synth player Greg Hawkes, the howitzer snare hits of David Robinson, Ocasek’s wry, terse vocal persona. That these long-separated musicians were able to make a quintessential Cars LP in 2011 constitutes a small miracle.

Brett Dennen, Loverboy (Dualtone): The most engaging tracks on the androgynous-voiced iconoclast’s third album deftly blend nimble grooves, creamy choruses and vocal performances of immediacy and genuine feeling, attaining a sort of carefree soulfulness that recalls Van Morrison circa “Brown Eyed Girl” (the seeming blueprint for the ecstatic “Cosmic Girl”) and Silk Degrees-era Boz Scaggs. The record’s a cavalcade of sprung rhythms resolving into cascading chorus payoffs, starting with the first three tracks: A pugilistically punchy groove and a guileless “nah-nah-nah” chorus provide “Comeback Kid” with its yin and yang; the balmy, string-laden “Frozen in Slow Motion” evokes the late-morning sun breaking through the marine layer at Paradise Cove; and the handclap-powered falsetto chorus of “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible fashion. Toward the end of the LP, the band stretches out languorously on “Queen of the Westside,” its sleepy-eyed rhythm not that far removed from the narcoticized reggae bump of the Stones’ “Hey Negrita.”

Matthew Sweet, Modern Art (Lolina Green/Missing Piece): Defiantly unorthodox, but often playfully so, Modern Art is a stealth album, embedded with half-hidden hooks lurking in its recesses, just out of focus, waiting to be discovered. Nope, this is not a one-listen album, but a progressive deepening has always characterizes the most memorable longplayers, whose authors rarely put all their cards on the table right away. Not that there aren’t some instant grabbers here: “She Walks the Night” captures the Byrds of “Eight Miles High,” while “Ladyfingers” stomps along with the authority of T.Rex, and the tortured “My Ass Is Grass” could serve as the belated follow-up to “Sick of Myself,” the hit single from Sweet’s 1995 LP 100% Fun. At the other extreme are provocative, soul-deep, virtually unprecedented tracks like “Oh, Oldendaze!,” “Late Nights With the Power Pop” and the title song.

Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog): The twelfth studio album from the southern Ohio-based husband-and-wife team of pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist is something rare—an intimate epic. “Sharpest Blade,” which the couple wrote with Joe Henry, who produced, sounds like some just-unearthed Billie Holiday torch song. Bergquist and Lucinda Williams trade off lines on the hushed ballad “Undamned,” which evokes a campfire gathering under a canopy of stars in a John Ford western. The smoldering “The King Knows How” is a sort of secular hymn, while the climactic “All My Favorite People” glows like embers in the hearth at the end of an evening of wine and conversation. Even more than OTR’s earlier records, The Long Surrender seamlessly interweaves the disparate idiosyncratic strains that form the many-colored crazy quilt of American music.

Daryl Hall, Laughing Down Crying (Verve Forecast): Just as Hall & Oates’ body of work is being rediscovered, the duo’s lead voice delivers his strongest solo effort since the first, 1980’s Robert Fripp-produced cult classic Sacred Songs. On these 10 beautifully crafted and arranged songs, Hall masterfully revisits his various modes: silky Philly soul (“Eyes For You,” “Lifetime of Love”), H&O’s edgy late-’70s rock phase (“Wrong Side of History,” “Talking to Myself”) and their folk-pop origins (the title track), throwing in a sultry take on Memphis R&B for good measure (“Message to Ya”). The LP strikingly captures one of the great singers of the last four decades (no racial or stylistic modifiers needed) in peak form.

Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (Universal Republic): Get To Know You”, the first track on the Detroit-born blue-eyed soul singer’s sophomore album, begins with a Barry White-style spoken-word boudoir call, which may lead you to figure the whole thing’s a put-on. But the ecstatic old-school falsetto chorus that follows makes it clear that Hawthorne is totally for real. There’s nary a false note on these dozen richly detailed pieces on which the singer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist recaptures the heart as well as the techniques of vintage Motown and Philly soul. The only liberty he takes is the R-rated lyric of “The Walk”, which is otherwise note-perfect—just like everything else on an LP that’s as deeply felt as it is technically adept.

The Strokes, Angles (RCA): Appropriating classic grooves is nothing new for the Strokes, dating back to their archetypal 2001 single “Last Nite,” which borrowed the high-revving power plant of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.” Here on Angles, they lift blatantly and gleefully—the faux-reggae rhythm of Men at Work’s “Down Under,” of all things, on opener “Machu Picchu,” Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” on “Gratisfaction,” the Cars on the chromed-out, high-revving “Two Kinds of Happiness” and the rock nocturne “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” and practically the entirety of early-’80s synthpop on the new wave homage “Games.” There aren’t many instantly identifiable bands that can mess with the familiar recipe while somehow also honoring it, but that’s precisely what the Strokes have achieved on Angles, an album as warm as it is cool.

R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) Capitol/I.R.S.:
While not as celebrated as other R.E.M. albums, Lifes Rich Pageant holds an important place in the canon. Not only was it the band’s first LP to go gold, it’s the record on which they morphed from floating like a butterfly to stinging like a bee. Recorded at John Mellencamp’s Indiana studio by his longtime engineer/producer, Don Gehman, Pageant delivers one knockout punch after another, from the jangle-on-steroids opener “Begin the Begin” to the aggro-majestic finale “I Am Superman.” Second disc on the expanded reissue contains 19 demos, a bunch of them similarly explosive, none of them essential.

Talihina Sky: The Story Of Kings of Leon (RCA): In this feature-length rock doc subsidized by KOL’s label, Stephen C. Mitchell throws together vivid archival footage, revealing band member interviews and bizarre character studies of local yokels, with surprisingly cogent results. The chronology-be-damned approach, revolving around the Followill family’s annual gathering in the backwoods Oklahoma town referenced in the title, moves along at a headlong pace, juxtaposing spirituality and debauchery, sibling love and loathing. Rarely has an authorized documentary been so brutally honest in portraying its subjects.

THE BIG THREE
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar):
Adopting the nom de plume Bon Iver, Justin Vernon made the leap from unknown to major artist in the few seconds between the strummed acoustic opening and the first chorus of “Flume,” the first track of his unforgettable debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. The transformation occurred at the precise moment when his double-tracked falsetto voice abruptly multiplied into a celestial choir, rising to an even higher register to deliver the gut punch, “Only love is all maroon/Gluey feathers on a flume/Sky is womb and she’s the moon.” In that moment, Vernon touched a nerve, and many of those who discovered his album responded to its choral richness and psychological authenticity in an uncommonly deep way. Beguiled by its author’s Walden-like backstory, they were sucked in by his every wistful sigh, every cathartic outpouring, making the connection between this stunningly personal work and their own inner lives.

For Bon Iver’s full-length follow-up, Vernon no longer had the element of surprise going for him. On the contrary, confronting him were staggering expectations and the assumption that whatever he attempted next would inevitably fall short of the first album’s magical cosmology, its cavalcade of handmade hooks. As John Mulvey aptly put it in his five-star Uncut review, “For Emma, Forever Ago is such a hermetically sealed, complete and satisfying album, the prospect of a follow-up—of a life for Vernon beyond the wilderness, even—seems merely extraneous.”

Could Vernon come in from the cold of that isolated Wisconsin cabin with his artistry intact? As it turns out, he could, and he has. He spent nearly three years gestating the new record in a studio he’d built in Eau Claire, while also taking the time to stretch himself via outside undertakings with Gayngs, the Volcano Choir, St. Vincent and Kanye West. All this networking is telling because, unlike the first album, Bon Iver is a collective effort resulting from ongoing interaction with 10 other musicians, including pedal steel master Greg Leisz, three horn players, a string arranger and two Volcano Choir mates who provided “processing.” The full-bodied ensemble work results in an album with pace, scale and stylistic variety, but all of this sound and rhythm feels purposeful. Essentially, it exists to support the quintessential aspects of Vernon’s aesthetic: the soaring melodic progressions; multitracked vocals that take on the sonic dimension of instruments; the overtly poetic lyrics, whose elusive meanings are far less important than the sounds of the words, tactile with the textures of natural things.

The array of reference points Vernon hints at on these tracks is dizzying, and spotting them as they pop out of the fabric is part of the fun. The skewed orchestral tableaus of the sonically connected “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI,” which open the record in widescreen yet elliptical fashion, recall Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise, while Vernon seems to encapsulate the whole of early-’70s Cali country rock (i.e., Fleet Foxes) on “Towers.” He adopts the minor-key art-folk of Simon & Garfunkel on “Michigant” before shape-shifting into the mid-’60s Beach Boys on “Hinnon, TX,” playing up the radical contrast between his airy, Carl Wilson-like falsetto and an earthy lower register that improbably recalls Mike Love. Then, on “Wash.,” Vernon breaks out his Marvin Gaye-style purring soul man as he sings a love song to a woman named Claire—or is the object of his affections his hometown of Eau Claire?

But there’s no obvious precedent save Bon Iver itself for the three peaks of this spellbinding album. Muted at first, “Holocene” almost imperceptibly blossoms into glorious life, intimating the first breath of spring after the long, hard winter. “Calgary” mates a soaring melody that embeds itself in the consciousness with a percolating groove. And the widescreen closer “Beth/Rest” has the satisfying resolution of the end title theme of a classic western film, employing the entire ensemble and interweaving the album’s accumulated thematic and tonal elements in a majestic payoff.

Fully realized in its ambition, Bon Iver possesses all of the austere beauty and understated emotiveness of its predecessor. Nestled within these panoramic soundscapes is the affecting intimacy the first album’s fans fervently hoped Vernon would recapture, as this single-minded artist somehow manages to have it both ways. And so does the listener.

Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope):
Leslie Feist’s career path has been a zigzag. The Nova Scotia-born, Toronto-based artist played guitar with rapper Peaches (who nicknamed her Bitch Lap Lap) and Canadian indie rockers By Divine Right, releasing a DIY debut album, Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head), in 1999, before joining the Broken Social Scene collective in 2002. Then came 2004’s Let It Die, which contained witty covers of songs from the Bee Gees and Ron Sexsmith, as well as the wicked-clever original “Mushaboom.” She laid low for three years before making a dramatic return with The Reminder and its insidiously catchy hit single, “1234,” which broke her in the States when Apple picked it up for an iPod nano TV campaign. After an even longer respite, she’s returned with her boldest, most idiosyncratic album yet in Metals.

A location junkie, Feist cut The Reminder in a 19th-century French manor house, and for the follow-up she brought her longtime collaborators Chilly Gonzalez and Dominic “Mocky” Salole, along with a fresh batch of material, to a converted barn sitting between the rocky cliffs and lush forests of Big Sur on the California coast. Working with a handpicked crew that included keyboardist Brian LeBarton (Beck) and co-producer Valgeir Siggurdsson (Björk), she knocked off the album in two and a half weeks in this breathtakingly picturesque locale. The resulting LP, throbbing with rugged beauty and exhilarating natural energy, cinematically evokes the environment in which it was created.

Feist possesses the sensibility of a painter—she has a rarefied sense of composition and detail—and a tart, elastic alto made for sharing confidences and intimacies. She’s the antithesis of the demure female singer/songwriter; throughout Metals, she delights in rubbing together raw and refined elements, making for a friction that keeps the soundscapes energized and ever-changing, as giant pop hooks erupt at unexpected moments in a thrilling marriage of solipsistic risk-taking and in-your-face accessibility. There’s enough shape-shifting within these performances to keep the listener in a hallucinatory state throughout the 50-minute running time, as Feist absorbs and assimilates musical and environmental inspirations like a sponge on steroids. From moment to moment, her singing suggests P.J. Harvey, Björk, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple and Suzanne Vega, while the quicksilver backdrops recall Sufjan Stephens, Fleet Foxes, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach.

The first three tracks hauntingly set the scene. “The Bad in Each Other” opens with a brutally pounded kick drum, with Feist playing rings around it on scrappy electric guitar, the arrangement expanding with strings and subtle horns that sound almost impromptu in their air-moving, real-time immediacy. The muted “Graveyard,” with its “Bring ’em all back to life” refrain, and “Caught a Long Wind,” as subliminal as wind chimes on a lazy afternoon, are palpably atmospheric, the result of a naturalistic recording approach that drops the listener into the space in which the performances went down. There’s as much air here as sound, and that is the source of the record’s palpable presence.

The tone turns sultry with the sublimely infectious “How Come You Never Go There,” interspersing a wistful wordless chorale, her gnarly Neil Young-style electric guitar and burnished horns. It’s the first of four tracks of stunning inventiveness. The ragingly intense rocker “A Commotion” bristles with an Arcade Fire-like repetitive grandeur. The mutated nocturne “Anti-Pioneer” featuring queasy guitar licks, a masterfully torchy vocal and a shuddering drone occupying the lower register, is Big Sur noir, moving with the primal rhythm of waves crashing against cliffs. And “Undiscovered First” juxtaposes instrumental dissonance and a schoolgirl chorale. Here, she purrs, with dominatrix authority, “You can’t unthink a thought/Either it’s there or it’s not.”

These powerful pieces are interspersed with quieter songs of dreamlike purity, including “Bittersweet Melodies,” in which cello-powered strings pass over the track like fast-moving storm clouds, leaving hazy sunlight in its wake; “Comfort Me,” which turns on the killer couplet, “When you comfort me/It doesn’t bring me comfort, actually”; and the closing “Get It Wrong, Get It Right,” which places her hushed voice amid the ghostly chinking of chains and a gong-like cymbal.

Feist’s fiercely uncompromising nature is exemplified by her decision to remove “Woe Be,” which had been singled out by Spin in an album preview as the obvious follow-up to “1,2,3,4,” from the tracklist. It’s this insistence on resolutely following her instincts that makes this record so lustily appealing from top to bottom.

Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm):
Wilco fans are as polarized as the US congress. Some revel in the band’s eardrum-pulverizing forays into the sonic unknown, introduced on 2000’s art-damaged Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and refined on 2004’s brutally beautiful A Ghost Is Born. The rest are entranced by what Jeff Tweedy describes as “cinematic-sounding country music…you know, folk music,” represented by 2007’s glorious Sky Blue Sky and ’09’s intermittently captivating Wilco (The Album). There’s little argument that the latest version of Wilco, which contains only two original members in Tweedy and bassist John Stirrat, is the not only the most stable unit Tweedy has assembled in the band’s 17-year history but also the most skillful. The irony of the situation is that the band’s current lineup, completed with the additions of avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone prior to the recording of the 2005 live album Kicking Television, is far more suited to experimentation than any previous iteration. Given the radical extremes in Wilco’s body of work, and the band’s acute awareness of the fans’ conflicting expectations, it’s tempting to view The Whole Love as a dialectical conversation between Wilco and the passionately partisan camps of its constituency; the resulting back-and-forth is tantalizing at first, but Tweedy and company firmly establish the record’s operative mode immediately thereafter.

Throughout Wilco’s eighth studio LP, the versatile, virtuosic current lineup juxtaposes introspective understatement and experimental edginess. They set up the contrast dramatically on the wonderfully titled seven-minute opener “Art of Almost,” powered by a customized motorik groove somewhere between Ghost…’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and Wilco standout “Bull Black Nova.” The groove appears out of the crackle of static and takes on percolating cross-rhythms behind Glenn Kotche’s marvelous drumming, the sonics gradually morphing from Mellotron-washed gorgeousness to a savage intensity, as avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline whips himself into a head-exploding frenzy. After such a beginning, the hard-core have to be hopeful that the wait is finally over. But that’s pretty much it for shrieking over-the-top-ness. What we get instead in the body of The Whole Love is an alternating mix of trademark rockers and ballads, bonded by Tweedy’s central presence, shifting between scarred and elated, and the arrangements, which play off the bandleader’s range of moods. While the album is packed with inventive, envelope-pushing moments, there’s no more lacerating skronk, for a very good reason: the emotions the band is mirroring don’t call for it.

On “I Might,” the first of the upbeat tracks, the band bangs out a clattering, garage-y groove in the spirit of Elvis Costello and the AttractionsGet Happy, with Mikael Jorgensen making like Steve Nieve on the Farfisa. Here, Tweedy rolls with his signature blend of puppy dog earnestness and relatable real-life agitation (sample lyric: “You won’t set the kids on fire/Oh but I might”), but the prevailing emotion is his sheer joy at being part of this killer band in full-on rave-up mode. “Born Alone” chugs along with country-rock amiability, Tweedy’s hayseed vocal set off by Cline’s trumpeting lines as the other players rise up to make ecstatic noise alongside him, a la Sky Blue Sky’s sublime “Impossible Germany.” Half musical snapshot, half long-distance love note, “Capitol City” visits the antique Americana of Randy Newman, Cline impersonating a Dixieland clarinet with his slide lines. “Standing O” picks up where “I Might” left off, sounding like some newly discovered outtake from the Stiff Records catalog. The title song is the album’s warmest, most relaxed and poppiest track, Tweedy going for some falsetto lines amid the band’s merry bounce.

Of the reflective songs, “Sunloathe” settles into a “Strawberry Fields Forever”-like pastoral eeriness, “Black Moon” is as noir-ish as the title suggests, “Open Mind” hints at the psychological devastation of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night and “Rising Red Lung” finds Tweedy singing in a near-whisper over a fingerpicked acoustic while the band floats sunset clouds overhead. On the 12-minute-plus closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” the band essentially inverts the buildup of “Art of Almost,” moving with dexterous subtlety from anguish to acceptance, as Tweedy’s describes the emotional wounds inflicted by a father who takes his deep disappointment in his son to his grave, the band tracing the course of the narrator’s struggle and ultimate release with subtle intensity.

Three albums in, Wilco’s latter-day character is now readily apparent. No longer the American Radiohead, as the true believers proclaimed a decade ago, this incarnation of Wilco is closer to a postmillennial Buffalo Springfield—especially when Cline, Tweedy and Sansone’s electric guitars blazing away in tandem. And if Jeff Tweedy is no longer the tortured soul who ripped …Foxtrot and Ghost… out of the recesses of his ravaged psyche, that is something worth celebrating. The Whole Love is what redemption sounds like.

2 comments:

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Bud Scoppa said...

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