1. Honey Bunny
4. Saying I Love You
5. My Ma’
7. Just A Song
10. Love Like A River
11. Jamie Marie
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two years since Girls released their debut LP Album, that in such a short amount of time a band could make so astronomic a leap or leave so bold an imprint on the world of independent music. Essentially, Christopher Owens and his little lo-fi band from San Francisco have crafted an entire genre and burned down a path for innumerable other bands to diverge from. Album was an early-career masterpiece for Girls, a 12-track exploration of heartbreak and the dreadful feeling of being an island, an isolated soul in a less-than-welcoming world. Sure, there were some fun and upbeat tracks, but largely it was an affectionally longing record highlighted by its singles “Lust For Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace” that delved into a dichotomy between playfulness and drab loneliness and more importantly by oft-overlooked back tracks like “Lauren Marie” and “Darling” that were as soulfully dolorous as they were enchantingly dreamy. No band in recent memory could appeal to so broad a spectrum of interests or occasions. Whether you sought a summery beach rock tune like “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” to rock out to, or a brash yet sweetly remorseful track like “Laura” to include on a mixtape after you’d been dumped, or just something to calm yourself like the instrumental “Curls” with its sly psychedelic undertones draped behind crafty and subtly masterful guitar harmony, or just about anything else that could fall under the loose umbrella of heartbroken lo-fi pop, Album had it all. It was quirky, gushing, charming, artistic, and friendly. It was, and still is, as good as anything we’ve seen since its release.
Even the EP that followed it, Broken Dreams Club, couldn’t quite encapsulate all that was available on Album, but was still one of the best EPs of the decade. That left us, like many of you, wondering – what the hell can we expect from Girls on their second full-length record? It was difficult to imagine them avoiding the inevitable slight step back that a band that is nearly perfect on their first go-around is almost always forced into. Just take a look at a few of the artists of the same time-frame and their recent second attempts if you need examples, Bon Iver, Toro Y Moi, Sharon Van Etten being the easiest to pick out. Certainly, all of those artists’ second LPs (SVE’s is somewhere between a full-length and EP, but it serves the same purpose here) were very good albums, but they were also letdowns in one way or another. They displayed shifts in style, lessened but not extinct soul, and a palpable effort to recapture what was previously effortless. Before actually listening to Father, Son, Holy Ghost, you might assume it would be destined for much the same. For the most part, however, it escapes that fate and stands on its own feet as a great album in its own right.
The only flaw, in fact, in the entire record is their attempt to slip (perhaps too far) into the psychedelic/experimental classic rock style that was never previously their draw. I wouldn’t count that against them necessarily except for the fact that when they attempt that sound, it’s not woven all that well into the fabric of the rest of the album. The heavy-handed and pounding “Die” juts out from its surrounding tracks “Alex” and “How Can I Say I Love You”, which are both palatable and emblematic of the rest of the album – fun, sweet, easy to get into, sad but in a sort of offbeat bouncy way that only Girls could impart. Instead “Die” feels like something you’d expect from a garage rock group or some classic rock knockoff band, thrashing about with harsh drums and blaring guitar solos that lack the one thing Girls always had in abundance, which was subtlety. I’m certain that’s along the lines of what they were attempting to do, I just think it could have been better executed within the bounds of this record. Or perhaps it couldn’t have been placed anywhere else among the track listing, couldn’t have been worked in better, and that’s why it sticks out so much.
Otherwise, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is as solid an album as Album was. Lyrically, it’s a little simplistic, which I will never give any record extra credit for, but because it seems intentional and done to good effect you can’t exactly hold it against the band either. The sonic painting has a little less grit to it, but is well-rounded and crafted with more crispness and a more delicate touch. Despite the obvious attempts to rock out, it is largely a river of sweetness with undercurrents of loneliness, and a truly great pop album. Girls probably wouldn’t fit on a bill with the lo-fi rock groups of the scene any more, but would more easily be heard in a show among loose-form indie poppers or avant garde artists. Truth be told, I like this a little less than their first album, but only for subjective reasons. Technically, it is by far Album‘s superior, but I just preferred its sound to this one. The difference is only slight in terms of its quality, and it is no less a must-have album, perhaps the best album of the year at this point. Only the test of time will truly reveal if it will rank above the other greats of 2011, but the fact that it’s squarely in the conversation should say enough.
In this business, it is not fashionable to admit ignorance. I, however, have always been more interested in honesty than in fashion, and so I have no problem confessing when I have been wrong about an artist. In this case, I have to say that I was late to the party when it comes to the band BRAIDS. I had heard many times from friends and respected musical observers how imperative it was that I go see them, that I listen to their album, et cetera. It took them opening for Toro Y Moi, though, to motivate me enough to get off my figurative ass and investigate. Needless to say, I was more than impressed – I was awestruck. What I saw in that short opening set was the stuff of legends. The first and lasting impression was that I was witnessing the second coming of Animal Collective. They had the personality of the Grass / Sung Tongs era, the pop prowess and instrumentation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the flippant, don’t-care attitude of Strawberry Jam. Of course, a multitude of other influences were at play, but Animal Collective (especially pre-egocentric AC) was the most direct and noticeable of all. There may only have been 200 people there that night, but it felt like a 700-800 person dance party for those 30 or so minutes. I then was compelled to delve deeper. I found them in the smallest places (Kanine Records promo releases, most notably), caught a song here or there playing in the background at record stores, and eventually came to find them on Rhapsody in the form of Native Speaker. It is a hell of an album, both consistently brilliant and brilliantly consistent. It’s less of a dance party, even if it does house the very tunes they played live like “Plath Heart” (an instant classic), and it’s more involved with experimentalism within the indie dance / electropop sonic shell. There are plenty of danceable moments, but it’s like the difference between reading the cartoons in the newspaper and viewing an art exhibit – Native Speaker is the most mature display of blended pop and art we have seen all year, and in fact in many years.
Sarah Jarosz. The name may not be familiar to many, but if she keeps churning out great releases one after another as she has thus far you can expect that to change quickly. She and her career are both very young as compared to her peers. Follow Me Down being only her second full-length album, Jarosz is certainly still an emerging artist, but you wouldn’t know it by the maturity of her lyrics nor the experienced craftiness of her work on guitar, banjo, and just about everything she touches. With this record, she thrusts herself squarely into the debate of best country/folk/Americana artists on the scene today. Bluegrass was in need of an artist flavorful, fresh, and talented, and has found just that in Sarah Jarosz. From our initial review of Follow Me Down: “[It] is everything you could possibly hope for from Sarah Jarosz. It is intelligent, artistic, sweet, spiritual, and just overall – in every way – delightful. It reaffirms all the love we had for her first album, and puts on full display the growth of an artist that was already mature beyond her years. Jarosz remains one of the most beautiful artists in the independent music world, and in music in general. One can only hope she sticks to her roots for a long, long time, and continues to put out great work for years to come.”
“Ring Them Bells”’
“Here Nor There”
Truth be told, this album deserves to be considerably higher on this list. If any other artist had penned it, it might be the very top album of the year. But that is not the case, and the standards that we hold Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) to are much higher than “any other artist”. They were set by him three years ago when he released For Emma, Forever Ago which is and will always be a symbol of perfection in the history books of indie folk. This album is not the equal of his debut, especially as you give it time to sink in, but it is still great. It opens with two tracks (“Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”) that inspire the listener to lust; if you didn’t know the genius of Bon Iver, these are perfect introductions to his spiraling complexity and quiet ardor. Then there is “Towers”, which is speechlessly good. It’s feverish, at least as feverish as Bon Iver gets. The lyrics are, as with the rest of the album, flawless and complex and just vague enough that they can largely be applied to any number of situations. Of course, here they are most directly the words of a love song, but could he just be using romance as an allusion to something greater?
“From the faun forever gone,
In the towers of your honeycomb,
I’d a’tore all your hair out just to climb back darling.
When you’re filling out your only form,
Can you tell that it’s just ceremon’?
Now you’ve added up to what you’re from.”
As we pointed out in the full review, the only thing Bon Iver is lacking in is intimacy, something For Emma was brimming with. It is not as directly engaging to the soul, but rather to the mind. There is only one other drawback that sets it behind For Emma, and that would be the fact that it sounds a little too much like the Blood Bank EP and Volcano Choir and all his various endeavors since bursting onto the scene. You can’t hold that against him as an artist, but you can hold it against this particular record.
It’s not been a terribly long road for Woods since their first album back in the good old days of 2007, but it has been a road nevertheless that has taken them to a very different place from their outset. Where At Rear House was an exploration of psyhchedelic folk, their newest album Sun And Shade is an exploration of acoustic pop through the eyes of psychedelic folksters. It has the twang and jangle of an Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros album, but to compare it completely to the Zeroes would ignore that it’s far more artful, intelligent, consistent, and odd. In that way, it is very much in the mold of their recent releases like the At Echo Lake EP, so it’s not a totally unexpected development, and in fact something we’ve quite gotten used to. All that said, this new record still retains some of the qualities that have made Woods so noteworthy in the past. First, an eye for experimentalism; they never shy away from an opportunity to blaze – or more appropriately go for a leisurely stroll down – their own path. And second, Sun and Shade continues their legacy of being one of the most consistent groups around. There are no bad, or even mediocre tracks put forth here: every single song stands on its own as a terrific work, and all of them together create something even greater. Not everyone will see how great Woods are, as they can be an acquired taste, but I highly encourage you to look into them and start acquiring a liking for them – you’ll be a better music fan for it.
“Be All Easy”
“Hand It Out”
Four years and three full-length albums in, it’s reassuring to fans of the Vivian Girls to be able to find yourself still surprised by both the band’s consistent quality and their ability to continue developing and maturing and shaping their sound into something new without having to craft an altogether new sound. Share The Joy is still grainy and reverb-beaten, but is not nearly as dark as its predecessors. The more shaded tracks feel a little droning and drawn-out (e.g. opening track, “The Other Girls”, “Death”, “Vanishing Of Time”) whereas they might once have been dissonant off-punk anthems, thrashing and menacing and fiery. There are still a couple of songs that embody that older feel, such as the back-to-back “Lake House” and “Trying To Pretend” at the heart of the album, but Share The Joy packs a much less powerful punch than 2009’s Everything Goes Wrong. In a way, you can hear a lot more of their self-titled debut LP here, except with an underbelly of pop music to back it. Kickball Katy’s influence is much thicker on this record in that sense – you can hear evidence of her time with her side project La Sera heavily on songs like “Dance (If You Wanna)” and the swinging alt-bubblegum “Take It As It Comes”. Altogether, a damned impressive record. It’s probably not technically as good as their first two, but those are lo-fi standards that pretty much everything else is measured against, so that doesn’t mean a lot. Great live tour in support of the album earlier this year.
“Trying To Pretend”
Perhaps the most difficult album of the year to really get a handle on, Toro y Moi’s second LP was the most anticipated records we’ve had in quite a while at the time of its release. His first album Causers Of This was a game-changer in indie music. Not celebrated to the point that it should have been until at least a year after its debut, it could (or rather, should) be called the defining record of the chillwave movement. There is nothing out there that did what it did with greater intelligence or to greater effect. This of course led to a lot of speculation about how amazing Underneath The Pine would be, but no one could have expected the turn that it took. Sure there are still electronic and hip-hop influences in the beats, but this new album infused those with the sounds of disco and psychedelic pop. Somehow, from out of left field, Underneath The Pine shifted Toro Y Moi from being a one-man electronic mastermind to a psych-pop band. It is still incredible in its own ways, but hardly embodies the sound that we all fell in love with his debut for. It doesn’t conform to any industry norm, but still forsakes its precursor. It also doesn’t help that he has turned in the solo status that was a strength and a quality that set him apart, in order to take on the backing of a full band; this leads to attempting to draw in too many sounds, and gives Underneath The Pine a chaos that is difficult to wrap one’s mind around, especially in contrast to the order and wholeness of his first record. Much the same as the album, the live show in support of it was good but the mind-boggling amount of changes made it impossible to lose yourself in the music. Instead, you found yourself wondering what was going on. What happened to the Chaz that had such indomitable stage presence and command of the music and the audience when he was on his own? And why was the once-show-stealer of an artist having his show stolen (as it most certainly was) by Braids? Even for all this that might make you think Underneath The Pine was an utter disappointment, it was still a very good album and still more than worthy of making this list. “Divina” is a great, mellowed-out tune that swirls trip-hop and psychedelia into a soulful, juicy two-minute instrumental melody that transports you to some distant ethereal cloud. It’s at moments like that, and on the last two tracks “Good Hold” and “Elise”, where this record is at its best – returning in small ways to the modesty of Causers Of This with a little more energy and less forcefulness. Even if it does lack the off-the-wall looping and the unpretentious soulfulness of Causers, this is still one of the best and most memorable albums of the year.
It’s never too early to start making lists, I say. Being that the summer release schedule has now unofficially ended, I figured it was a good time to go ahead and throw together a list of our favorite albums of 2011 as of today. This is not based solely on our grades of the albums from their respective reviews, although that does factor in. In a way, this list both takes into account more than those reviews encompass. For instance, here we will include the live performances given in support of these records, their lasting effects that can only be measured after extended listening, and a much heavier emphasis on pure enjoyment of the album as opposed to the more objective means we use in the initial evaluation process. This list is in order, from 10 to 1, of our favorites but that’s not to diminish the lower-ranked albums; these are all phenomenal works, superior in many ways to their peers, and there is an argument to be made for every record on the list to be ranked number 1 overall. But they can’t be, and aren’t all equal, especially when we’re making a list of favorites.
It should be noted, obviously, that this list will certainly be changing in the coming months, especially after September 13th. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but it’s safe to say that one of these albums will likely lose its place to Girls’ new album, and another to the new Dum Dum Girls. And I’m also sure that the order in which they are listed will shift in some ways by the time December rolls around and we’re tallying up our final list for the year.
Later this week, or perhaps next week sometime, we will be doing a “Best of the Rest” post that pulls together all the other great albums released so far this year that didn’t quite make the cut, but were not far off. As you can imagine, that will be just as daunting a task (or more) than this relatively small list, as 2011 has been a busy year – especially for records of the very-good-but-not-great variety.
Anyway, we’ll start with number 10 and work our way to the top of the list from there. Remember you can find all of these compiled on our Rhapsody page in one handy playlist for you to listen to.
There are certain times where the chillwave “movement”, and electro-pop in general, starts to feel stagnant and unimpressive, like the bands that call themselves proprietors of the genre become complacent and settle for putting out the same old thing in a shiny new package. When it’s at its blandest, though, it seems like you always come across a dazzling unheralded artist that takes the sound and style to a whole new level and does so with a bang. Even though this summer has given us a few good albums from the likes of Washed Out and Memory Tapes, those were for the most part just really well-executed continuances from bands we already knew, and knew well. Tuesday, however, brought us a brand spanking new EP from a brand spanking new artist, Botany. This is the one release of the year in electropop music that will undoubtedly shake off the cobwebs and brush away the thin layer of stale dust to bring you right back to the first time you heard the distinct sound of backwards tape loops and spaced-out synthesizers.
Botany, a moniker for Texas-based Spencer Stephenson, doesn’t need a full-length album to be groundbreaking, doesn’t need 12 tracks to show he’s got the talent, imagination, know-how, and unique identity to be among the best of his peers. Instead, his first release to the world is a five-track (six if you include the vinyl-only bonus track “Glasshouse”) EP that will lead into his debut full-length LP. Feeling Today compiles years and years of assembled samples into one incredibly personal, euphoric, and fulfilling sphere of color and flavor. Texturally, it is on par with some of work of the best current artists in that regard – the Books, Here We Go Magic, and Memory Cassette to name a few. The entire EP has a fullness to it that is mind-blowing, heart-melting, and soul-stirring. There is an organized chaos of instruments and samples all woven together to create one intertwined, unified, and fluid work of art. It amalgamates the impersonal and the personal to forge something emotional and spiritual, brings together Stephenson’s personal past and musical present to craft a view of the future of sound.
All five songs are tremendous, but none more outstanding than the third “Waterparker”. If you blink for a second, you’ll surely miss one of the hundreds of lissom and impatient details in its ever-shifting landscape. In fact, you’ll probably miss several anyway and need a couple more listens to really catch everything. Imagine looking at a mansion in which every window is continually opening and closing, and each one provides you a view of only one room. If you want to know everything taking place inside at any one moment, you need to be able to see all sides of the house at once, need a photographic memory and split-second recall of those images, and need to understand the way each of those fragments fits into the whole. Or, you could just freeze that moment in time until you can grasp everything that is going on. This is the only conceivable way to understand the beauty of “Waterparker” and the EP as a whole – through the careful, repetitive study of multiple listens.
I continue to ask myself with each revisiting of Feeling Today if I can ever remember hearing anything quite like it; anything with the complexity, the ability to blend artistry and enjoyability, the texture and the fullness. Sure, there have been others that embodied pieces of this equation in the psychedelic electropop field, but I cannot remember any artist that so thoroughly addressed all of those key points. The closest one that comes to mind is A Sunny Day in Glasgow, and specifically Scribble Mural Comic Journal, but even they seem too inwardly-focused and consumed with the art of concept to fully communicate with the listener at times. I can’t wait for everything that is to come from Botany, but this EP will keep me busy until that comes along. Get this, and get it right away. And make sure you pick it up on vinyl to get that extra track!
Hercules and Love Affair – Blue Songs
Following their first eponymous record, nu-disco fans everywhere can rejoice as Hercules and Love Affair have released their sophomore album this week. Without Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), this album will garner a little less attention but looks to be as good or better than their first. Don’t know if we’ll be posting a full review later this week or not, but we’ll get around to it.
Botany – Feeling Today EP
Need a refreshing bit of chillwave to lighten the weight of the late-summer heat? Perhaps something new, from a band you haven’t heard of, with a tone that is as soft and comforting as it is weird and off-the-beaten-path? We’ve got just the band for you. Texas-based Botany released their first EP this week, and it’s five tracks of mellowed-out madness. There is an epic kind of feel despite its tender voice, the intricacy and fragility and incomprehensible strength of a spider web only minus the scary little biter it houses. Instead, the only poison here is its catchy beats and unequaled flavor. Think of a more refined, more chilled out version of the chaos of A Sunny Day In Glasgow – lots of windows opening and closing, an impressive amount of sonic texture, and more than enough complexity to keep your mind spinning play after play after play. There are a lot of releases out this week, but so far this is the one we keep coming back to.
Mister Heavenly – Out of Love
It’s quite an odd pairing, this Mister Heavenly band is. Honus Honus of Man Man, Nicholas Thorburn of Islands and the Unicorns, and Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse and the Shins. Hell, they even welcomed in Michael Cera (yes, that Michael Cera) to tour with them on bass. Their first album, Out Of Love, was recorded late last year sometime during the tour in which they opened for Passion Pit, but is finally being released this week. We’ve played a lot of it in the last couple weeks on the podcast, so you’re probably fairly familiar with it. It’s not particularly inventive, sort of settles in to the generic indie rock canvas and doesn’t do anything that sets it far apart from their contemporaries, but still is a very enjoyable album. A little unfocused at times, it waffles between cute and dirty, but I guess you could call that “showing a wide range” if you wanted to. The best element of this group is clearly the Thorburn influence. Honus brings a cool flavor to it to. Probably could have done without Joe Plummer, but hey, if we’re throwing together a super group, why not toss him in there too?
The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
The War On Drugs’ first album, although at times unfocused and figuring out its own sound on the fly, quickly thrust the Philadelphia, PA indie rockers into the limelight. The Americana influences on it were thick, but not so thick as to block out the jangle pop, psychedelia, and ambient rock that also were swirled in to form what would become a cornerstone album of the late 2000’s indie rock catalog. The band’s second album, and the first without Kurt Vile and two of the others in the band’s first steady line up, still features much the same sound: Dylan-/Springsteen-esque Americana, this time a little more heavily drowned in ambient indie rock, a sound produced by more pronounced keyboards, longer and more churning guitars, and an overall more chilled out affectation. Very, very cool stuff.
Stephin Merritt – Obscurities
Yes, I know, it’s not out until next week *technically*, but we’ll put this here for two reasons. One, it’s a huge release and one we cannot wait to get to next week, and two, it’s actually available for your listening pleasure if not for purchase. Just head on over to PasteMagazine.com and you can stream the album in its entirety. The whole album is a compilation of random recordings from before 69 Love Songs, including five previously unreleased tracks, three from the unfinished sci-fi musical written by Merritt and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snickett), and several from Merge-era 7-inches and compilations, from the 6ths, from an audio book, and even one from a K Records cassette.
Tour Dates Posted
Eric Bachmann is going to be one busy dude over the next year or so. Monday, Merge Records announced that he would not only be touring with Archers of Loaf, who have recently begun re-releasing their early works and have seemed to have a lot of news surrounding them in the last couple weeks, but that he would also be doing a full tour with his other band Crooked Fingers in support of their new album Breaks in the Armor (out October 11). As it should, this tour features a ton of dates in the Carolina-area: three in NC, one in TN, one in DC. Of course the date we’re most interested in is on October 15 at the Cat’s Cradle. For the record, trying to pick between Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf is comparing apples to oranges, but I’ll give a slight edge to Crooked Fingers in terms of personal taste. Would never argue against someone who takes Archers though.
Cat’s Cradle –
Friday – Archers of Loaf, Electric Owls, Schooner
Saturday – Archers of Loaf, Hammer No More The Fingers, Cobra Horse
Kings Barcade –
Friday – Hadwynn Album Release Party
Saturday – Dntel (of the Postal Service), the One AM Radio, Geotic
Local 506 –
Tuesday – Shovels and Rope, The Bayonets, Matrimony, Humble Tripe (Solo)
Wednesday – Rayland Baxter, Uncle Mountain, Jack the Radio
Friday – Six Organs of Admittance, Donovan Quinn, Degollado
Saturday – L in Japanese (Dance Party)