ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 5-1
5. (a) Brothers by the Black Keys and (b) Transference by Spoon. There should be a reason I’m writing about these together. That is, there should be a better one than poor counting. Some sort of “this album reminds me of this and that dovetails into my thoughts on that and both are clearly influenced by whoever.” There’s not. I got ahead of myself; Kanye threw me out of whack, whatever. Other than potentially seeing both of them perform at Austin City Limits, I can’t put these to bands/albums together in any sort of cogent way. But I do dearly love both of these albums albeit for different reasons.
It’s janky. It’s jerky. It’s quientessential Spoon (this coming from someone who hasn’t listened to Spoon all that long). Transference (like all Spoon albums I’ve learned) has some jam-band-i-ness that sometimes wears me out. You have to wait too long to get to their really good stuff. But the album has really really good stuff worth waiting for. The jam-band-y filler is, at least, interesting. Highlights, other than Who Makes Your Money (one of my favorite tracks of the year), are Written in Reverse, (There is no instrument in rock more irreplaceable than a good old piano, like drums with a soul.); Trouble Comes Running (if this song doesn’t make you want to drive, (getting behind the wheel, rolling down the windows and getting the hell out) then you must not be a lawyer); Goodnight Laura (Again with the female names in the titles. I hope you’re ok, Laura.). All together this is a coherent bunch of songs. I can hear them playing at the party where the bored gentlemen on the cover is hanging out. They make me feel like he shouldn’t be bored and maybe it’s a cool party and he’s just being a jerk. Transference shouldn’t be your introduction to Spoon, but if it is, it’s a great one.
I love that they titled this Brothers. That’s how I see them, loving and hating each other simultaneously. They craft these unbeleivably simple sounding yet, upon examination, complex songs. I can see them laying one down in the studio, the instruments go silent, they both look at each other and do that combo nod/smile/eyebrow raise thing and think, fuck, that was pretty good. There are about 16 pretty goods on the this album. You’ll learn in two weeks what my favorite was (It won’t be that much of a surprise.) and it seems like I can’t turn on the TV without hearing Tighten Up. However, I’ve really been into Ten Cent Pistol lately. It’s pure Keys, a little brooding, but faithful to its story. Never Gonna Give You Up, makes me wish I was back in high school, for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, at a really cool high school, for stalkers or sociopaths. “Do you see these tears in my eyes? Ain’t no use in my lyin’ cause I really cried.” Come on, man. At least your brother’s there to hug.
Here’s to Taking it Easy has several highlights, not the least of which is, singer/songwriter Matthew Houck’s (N.B. I’m unclear if Matthew Houck is himself Phosphorescent (in a Ziggy Stardust kind of way) or if that’s the name of the band which he founded.) faithful bearded ugliness. Regardless, Houck tells us on the album’s first track that “It’s Hard to Humble (When You’re from Alabama).” Then he spends what remains demonstrating how humbled he has been by the ending of he and poor Amanda’s marriage. I don’t know how biographically accurate this is, or if he’s just telling us a story. I didn’t do the research. I’m certain it doesn’t matter. So when I refer to “him” I refer only to the person I believe he’s writing about. Musically, after the bit of bluster in the opener, he’s in full meandering country-folk mode from which he only varies slightly. What’s great about it lyrically is only once does he come right out tell you about the frayed end of the relationship (The Mermaid Parade, which you’ll read more about) and it’s brilliant. Instead he ruminates on matters tangential to the ending. Things/feelings from the aftermath that struck him (other than Hej, I’m Light, which I’ve been campaigning to be added to the playlist during my Alt-Country yoga class. But, fits in only in mood-lighting kind of way.). I found this to be a refreshing take on the normal break-up album (I’m talking to you, John Mayer). Then it ends with the beautiful seven-minute dirge, Los Angeles. He seems to be cobbling together his emotions concerning moving to L.A. to be with her and moving to L.A. meaning “selling out” as a musician. To which I only respond, interesting.
3. The Monitor by Titus Andronicus
Notes on Titus Andronicus Band Meeting Re: Ideas for Sophomore Album:
Must be huge. Maybe a song titled Titus Andronicus Forever? Scream more or less? Needs theme, Civil War? Civil War + Rock + Drinking = ? Love New Jersey. Hate New Jersey. Love Springsteen. Is this how it is growing up? Abraham Lincoln: “I am now the most miserable man living.” Concerns about length of songs/album? Famous abolitionists: “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.” Are we being pretentious? Do we care? “Funny how we’re still doing car-bombs after all of these years.” Can we make the best pure rock-n-roll album of the year?
The National are on this slow burn trajectory where every album they make is better than the one before it. Listening to music (and following the careers of musicians) I’m begining to realize both (1) how rare this is and (2) how much it should be venerated because of its difficulty. Off the top of my head, I can name ten bands/artists of which the common perception (not necessarily because it’s accurate) is “it all went downhill after their first album” or “I still like them but X-first-album was their best.” From what I can tell, no one says that about The National. This could be because not very many people are talking about The National. This is probably because their first album didn’t explode on anyone. (Or at least not on me.) This will change (the exploding, or at least the talking about). When we’re old, they’ll be the band that when our kids say to their friends’ parents “my folks are at The National concert tonight” the parents’ thoughts will be “I always meant to check them out. They’ve been around forever. I wonder if they’re any good. I bet her parents think they’re too cool to hang out with us.”
High Violet is dense and beautiful but it’s also dark and honest. Don’t listen to it unless the sun’s out. The songs build upon each other like applying another coat of mood colored paint. They’re getting older, that’s what they’re painting. “What makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood?” “I still owe money to the money to the money that I owe.” And they’re realizing it’s not how they thought it would be.
The following is an excerpt from an article about The National from NME. I found it particularly prescient. “They’re the perfect band for anyone making a jittered foray into adulthood and feeling like an imposter because your head and heart aren’t as full with answers and ability as you think they should be by now.” This may actually perfectly describe this point in my life. High Violet is the perfect soundtrack to play during it.
Those of you who have had any sort of coherent conversation with me about music in the last six months can’t be too shocked by this selection. Initially, if my thoughts on no. 2 above weren’t clear enough, I want you to understand just how much I truly, truly love High Violet. In any other year, it’s my Album of the Year hands down. It’s that good. Now I want you to understand how far of a distant second it was to The Suburbs. This album is so many things. At times I think maybe the best compliment I have formulated for it is “it’s the best book I’ve ever read.” Then I realize that might only make it appeal to me (and let’s be honest…). Arcade Fire spend an entire album alternating between despondency about modern life and cautious hopefulness. Then they are able to craft the penultimate track (And there’ll be plenty more about it in the Songs of the Year. In fact, I probably should have just combined these.) to resonate both feelings. It’s frankly one of the most remarkable feats of song/album creation this guy has ever experienced (jeez, maybe “the most remarkable”).
Every single track on the album has a something (normally a lyric) that has peanut-butter-in-the-roof-of-my-mouth hung itself in my head. Non exhaustive list: (1) “I want a daughter while I’m still young. I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all the damage is done.” (2) “Never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount.” (3) The post-apocalyptic jam band opening of Half Light II; (4) The make your own music video for We Used to Wait (do this, right now.).
My obsession with this album coincided with my reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (late summer/early fall. Read it, by the way. It’s unreal and worthy of the overdoses of praise it receives). If not topics, they hit many of the same sentiments. The book and the album mashed up into some kind primordial mental ooze from which sprang a new way of looking at this country/world. Neither a better nor worse view, a purified one. They connected a lot of thoughts/feelings I had, both fully formed and nascent, into something that, to a certain extent, altered my worldview. And that seems to me to be a lot of shit for one book and one album to be able to do. So I guess that makes them both seminal. But Arcade Fire was able to simultaneously create an unbelievable sounding piece of work. Even divorced from the “big stuff” they conveyed, they made a “bunch of good songs” (many of them would appeal to me even if they were in a different language or less lyrically unreal). Now that is an achievement.
So The Suburbs has submitted its application to the UN Security Council of my all-time favorite albums. It’s pending, but don’t be surprised when The Black Eyed Peas or Kenny Chesney or John Mayer again violate some international music standard that The Suburbs has a vote on their punishment. But the rest of us should simply feel lucky we get to listen to this group of dorks make unbelievable and important music.