Posts Tagged 'Neko Case'

This is what I done: Top Ten Albums of 2009

Let’s get right to it. In settling on my top ten albums of dearly/gladly departed 2009, almost all the tracks that I lingered on turned out to be the slower numbers. Could it be a commentary on the year, one that saw my own household and the nation at large work with considerably meager resources and disproportionately grand expectations, resulting in the need to draw something more than simple pleasant distraction from music? Or could it be that the weather outside is soggy and cold and I’ve been operating in my pajamas with a bit of a hangover, thus making peppy dance songs sound less enticing? It’s hard to tell. But like I said earlier, no further delay!

10. Why? ~ Eskimo Snow ~ Anticon

Like the clownish guy at a party, Yoni Wolf knows how to get your attention right off the bat, as evidenced by the first words on Eskimo Snow when Wolf explains, “I wear the customary clothes of my time like Jesus did, with no reason not to die.” But Why?’s work goes beyond non sequiturs and bon mots, not to mention bizarre punctuation tendencies. The lyrics come from an absurdist’s vigilant eye, and the bell-heavy music makes the horny preoccupations in songs like “In the Shadows of My Embrace” appear almost whimsical. The production gets a little silly on more than a few of the tracks, but you can think of that approach as the funny man from the party pulling out all the tricks he knows to get you to smile.

In the Shadows of My Embrace

9. mewithoutyou ~ It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright ~ Tooth & Nail

This past year, the Decemberists put out a record that barely sounded like the Decemberists of albums past. So while that band explored their hard and prog rock proclivities with mixed results, a band called mewithoutyou from Philadelphia assumed the helm of braying vocals and evocative, well-read lyrics. The rousing music giddily pulls the listener through mewithoutyou’s tableaus of modern-day mythology, drawn from pastoral imagery, religious folklore, and hyper imaginations.

Goodbye, I!

8. Fanfarlo ~ Reservoir ~ Atlantic

It’s a double-edged sword when a band boasts rich layers of orchestral instrumentation as well as lush production values, in that the final product can sound nearly clinical, too pristine to have been made by human beings. All the same, there’s no denying that Farfarlo’s Reservoir is a booming, gorgeous album that sounds just as eloquent in a miles-wide amphitheater as it does in the few square feet of one’s bedroom.


7. Neko Case ~ Middle Cyclone ~ Anti-

You could spill ounces of toner in rapturous descriptions of Neko Case’s cool and confident voice, her pretty red hair, and her impressive résumé of projects. The component of Case’s work that often gets overlooked is the honest, thoughtful quality of her song-writing. On Middle Cyclone, she assumes the forms of a lovesick tornado, a prematurely married girl, and occasionally, a smart and bruised woman who has allowed herself to indulge in romantic fantasy for just a little bit too long. There’s a lot of anger in Middle Cyclone on behalf of the wronged earth as well as its unjustly treated inhabitants. Since Case herself has tried to avoid the use of metaphor in her songs, I’ll back off the hackneyed “force of nature” reference and say flat-out that this album is lovely and, just below the surface, even more brutal than the sword on the cover.

Middle Cyclone

6. Laura Gibson ~ Beasts of Seasons ~ Hush

It’s extremely appropriate that I saw Laura Gibson perform at a big, old church in downtown Portland this last year. The obvious reason is her album’s, Beasts of Seasons, dual themes of communions and funerals and the related explorations of loss, grace, and self-improvement. All Christian associations aside, the main reason I’m grateful to have heard Gibson in that venue is because the broad acoustics serve her soft, husky voice and careful fingerpicking style perfectly. Part of the notion of church, part of the reason some of us failed Catholics squirm at the very mention of mass, is the requirement that an attendee sits quietly and attentively. But it doesn’t feel burdensome when you get to listen to Laura Gibson sing. It’s the best way to hear her.


5. Avett Brothers ~ I and Love and You ~ American

The brethren Avett became grownups in 2009. That’s not to say that the two thirty-something brothers and their bassist, Bob Crawford, haven’t done a ton of growth, from their country roots to their stellar 2007 album, Emotionalism. But despite the fact that I and Love and You is the band’s major label debut and supported by the magical ear of Rick Rubin, there is a profound level of humbleness in the thirteen tracks. There is confidence without cockiness, though the effortless harmonies and bobbing pianos certainly afford the band some bragging rights. There is also a dominant insistence on love and acceptance minus the need to shroud such a desire in irony or gimmicks. You might call such a perspective naïve or ambitious, but just a minute into the title track, you already understand that the Avett Brothers have earned the right to ask for something epic.

I and Love and You

4. David Bazan ~ Curse Your Branches ~ Barsuk

During his live performances, in the breaks between numbers, David Bazan famously has his audiences ask him questions, and when I saw him at Mississippi Studios a couple months ago, a person asked him why he fell out with his faith. Bazan’s response? “Because I determined that it was bullshit.” But somehow, in spite of his recent uprooted stance, Bazan’s work is free of self-pity. He holds nothing back as his narrator watches his grasp slip away in the slide toward alcoholism and helplessness. In a year that struck a healthy fear of the unknown in a lot of people, a voice as shrewd and generally hilarious as David Bazan’s is a welcome form of assurance.

Lost My Shape

3. Dirty Projectors ~ Bitte Orca ~ Domino

It might be easy to dismiss the Dirty Projectors as a hipster fad. They were covered by a ton of artists from college a cappella groups to famous sisters. They earned the devotion of Questlove. The band is from Brooklyn, for goodness sakes. All the signs of twee are present, but nevertheless, the eccentric mind of Dave Longstreth and the fresh-faced folks who make up the Dirty Projectors produced an inventive, thrilling record. While most music critics as well as fellow musicians remain stumped about how to describe what the Dirty Projectors sound like, the factor you can count on throughout Bitte Orca is that you have no idea what each song will do. With every dizzying run of Longstreth’s guitar, blast of sound after a quiet interlude, and choral spasm from Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, the album may be too haphazard for some listeners, but the rest of us are too busy having our socks knocked off to care.

Temecula Sunrise

2. Rodrigo y Gabriela ~ 11:11 ~ ATO

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know that for me, 2009 was a year for a multitude of live music and a score of bizarre maladies. So when I contracted H1N1, it was less of a surprise and more like a running gag in a sitcom. I tried not to bitch too often about the various illnesses that plagued me, but I am still so pissed that the swine flu kept me from watching Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Schnitzer in October. “But you saw a bunch of shows, what does it matter?” some of the less perceptive of you might ask.  To that body of imaginary readers, I would direct you to obtain a copy of 11:11, press play, and proceed to have your aural cavities rocked in a way they have not previously been rocked. Because if you already knew what the duo is capable of, you’d be pissed at my side. Each track on the album is a tribute to artists who have influenced Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez, and based on the frenetic rhythms and enthralling guitar work, every listener should be just as thankful. If you happen to be in Australia, Japan, or Western Europe this year, see one of the band’s concerts for me.

Santo Domingo

1. Elvis Perkins in Dearland ~ Elvis Perkins in Dearland ~ XL

There is no algorithm to picking one’s favorite album of the year. You could arrange your iTunes library by the highest play count numbers then do a bit of fuzzy math under the influence of a few glasses of Malbec, maybe with some improvised program of Obscure Band Affirmative Action tossed in, so you appear open-minded but not indiscriminately so. But that just isn’t the case. Sometimes, you only need a snip of a given album, and you already hear that album playing on a days-long loop from your stereo. You memorize the words from a couple songs within a day. And even if you listen to technically more deserving albums afterward, if someone were to grab you at gunpoint and demand that you name a favorite album – because that’s totally what armed assailants want to know – you would give that album’s name.

As soon as I heard Elvis Perkins sing, “What am I if bound to walk in chains ’till I die?,” I knew what I’d be writing about in this entry.

While the song that the line comes from isn’t even the best one on the album, the emotional hooks that the song plants serve as a handy representation of what the rest of the self-titled effort does. Some of that response has to do with the music, which swings from deliberate and morose to airy and lively, all carried by Perkins’ passionate tenor and the band’s generous supply of instruments. Part of the album’s resonance is in its subject matter, which bids goodbye to loved ones from the past, present, and even future in the indomitable single, “Doomsday.” On a very personal level, however, I think the reason Elvis Perkins in Dearland tops my list is because it’s exactly what I needed to hear this year, as age and the nebulous notion of an impact started to weigh on my mind more than effective hangover cures and dinners that can be cooked within half an hour. This album has a few great tracks by which to brood, much like Perkins’ debut, Ash Wednesday. But at the same time, when I begin to take it all too seriously, the album hones in on the fluidity of joy in day-to-day existence. In 2010, I hope that the balance between documenting and living life becomes easier to negotiate, and I hope to do that with the kind of skill this album possesses.

Hours Last Stand


It’s Sweat or It’s Songs: Happy hundred to me

Spoiler alert: My true writerly identity

Spoiler alert: My true writerly identity

Much hoopla has been made about the anti-writerly, anti-grammar practices reinforced by social networking. I don’t need to add much more to the peanut gallery, but I will instead quote Heather Havrilesky, authoress of the rabbit blog, who eloquently spells out the dilemma: “Why would we want the writer, dull know-it-all that he or she so often is, to go and pollute our lives with his or her steady stream of opinionated tripe?”

It’s been a thought that often crosses my mind when I sit down to produce and vomit my personal stream of tripe for all the Internets to peruse. Since the beginning of 2009, I have put myself and my handful of readers through this routine a total of 100 times. Some of these excursions into my musical and otherwise-minded psyche have been as painful and laborious for both parties as regular trips to bikram yoga. Believe me, I used to attend bikram yoga at least three times a week maybe five years ago. But ultimately, I hope that my best efforts, the entries I would actually be pleased to attach my real name on, leave you with a similar feeling of triumph and enlightenment that a good yoga workout imparts (albeit, a smug and entirely cerebral one).

Half the days I do this, I feel like a little girl playing dress-up with her mother’s castoffs in the closet. I’m not a real writer, but I might look like one. In the same vein, some of the criticism for networking sites like Facebook and Twitter involves the traditional and sometimes stodgy notion that writing honestly and thoughtfully about one’s life should not be an activity confined to 140 words, should not be something the writer does in easy bids for attention (unless your inner workings really bleed themselves out when you list all your potential lunch options), and should not be so readily, you know, shared. Because writing, at its black and coal-laden heart, is a solitary pursuit. You as the writer can forward drafts to friends and ask for feedback, but when the product meets paper, when you present your stack of papers to a publisher or a jaded editor, the effort becomes your property. You own it, no matter how much help you had along the way, because at its nebulous beginning, it was your own silly idea to make it a thing to be completed at all. And it’s yours to bask upon when it’s sunny and clear outside, as well as yours when the neighbors decry your use of prosaic analogies and obviously cheap paint.

Some make the argument that the act of listening to music went in the opposite direction. Historically, music was a social activity consisting of dances and big bands that infused a pulse into parties and events. But as musicians’ attention became primarily focused  on the wealth of tricks to be figured out in a recording studio, maybe around the time the Beatles became more Sgt. Pepper and less Meet the Beatles, music became a pastime any individual could easily enjoy alone. Indeed, some of the best moments of life have involved lone walks with my ear buds tucked into the appropriate canals and the songs that ushered me along that moment.

But somehow, this current writing exercise  has helped me feel more connected to a community than I ever have before. As a result of this blog, I’ve learned just how rich my cute , bridged city is in terms of musical entertainment and resources for emerging mods and rockers. I’ve communicated with a couple real-life musicians and found introductions to artists and songs I wasn’t aware of through other bloggers. As I continue to post here, I don’t always expect to write something of head-spinning import or humor, though I will continue to give it a shot here and there. But this intersection, this compromise between the writer and the music lover, has never failed to surprise me. There is so much music out there, and so many fans, and so many different interpretations of a time signature here and a lyric about eggs there. Even though the underslept loon hunched over a keyboard never really vacates the premises, she’s found a lot of like-minded voices to keep her company as she crazies her way through the bandwidth.

Or I guess I could have just said: Here’s a playlist – some new favorites, a few you’ve heard about here before, and a couple re-discovered joys. I’ve had fun, hope you have too. Thanks for reading.

June 2009 mix ~ It’s Sweat or It’s Songs

Harlem Shakes ~ Strictly Game

The Kills ~ U.R.A. Fever

Fol Chen ~ Cable TV

Lisa Hannigan ~ Lille

Andrew Bird ~ Fitz and Dizzyspells

Okkervil River ~ Unless It’s Kicks

Chicharones ~ Taco Wagon

The City and Horses ~ Little Finland

The Dodos ~ It’s That Time Again

John Vanderslice ~ Exodus Damage

Plushgun ~ Just Impolite

Department of Eagles ~ Teenagers

Dirty Projectors ~ Cannibal Resource

Neko Case ~ Don’t Forget Me [Harry Nilsson cover]

Otis Redding ~ These Arms of Mine [The link to this song has been removed by request.]

The Builders and the Butchers ~ Down in This Hole [Daytrotter session version]

Laura Gibson ~ Postures Bent

Apples in Stereo ~ King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3 [Neutral Milk Hotel cover]

How do I love thee, NPR, let me count the ways

Either the most advanced Venn diagram ever or mind-melding

Either the most advanced Venn diagram ever or mind-melding

In case you haven’t devoted some time to the Exclusive First Listen feature of NPR Music, you will shortly upon finishing this blog entry. The website streams entire new albums from the up and comers of modern music as well as the veterans. NPR has streamed the newest offerings of quite a few TS&tN favorites (yes, I’m abbreviating my own blog name to a pithy acronym — if I don’t do it, nobody else will), such as Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Laura Gibson’s Beasts of Seasons. The choices are so exciting that they make me wonder about the origins of my own tastes. Do I like music because NPR politely suggests I should, or do I like NPR because it shares my musical interests? It’s a conundrum as knotty as the act of listening to pop music itself.

I’m particularly appreciative of Exclusive First Listen’s attention paid to the upcoming album from the Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca. I had heard a couple of the leaks already, and they intrigued me as most blends of girl/boy harmonies and unconventional structure usually do. But Bitte Orca should be heard as a whole to completely appreciate all the weird and classic elements that the band juggles. The band sets forth rhythms you expect to go in one direction, but instead sprawl out into five distinct trajectories in the space of a single song, partly thanks to drummer, Brian McComber. Female vocals from Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian sound like choir girls cutting loose after the choral director has left for the afternoon. You could rightfully call founder Dave Longstreth a kid with a short attention span and too many toys at his disposal. But then you would discount the way the songs alternate between ethereal and intense. It’s a fun kind of bipolarism, and you get to hear it for free. Public radio rules.

Dirty Projectors will release their album, Bitte Orca, on June 6. They will play at Holocene on Saturday, July 4. What’s Up will also play.

  • Dirty Projectors ~ Bitte Orca ~ Domino

Stillness Is the Move

Canada’s got class

Like a bat out of hell

Like a bat out of hell

If independent music were school, any association with the New Pornographers is an initiation to the popular kids’ group, where the members tour, play, and drink nothing but awesome sauce. The hands-down taker of the titles Most Likely to Succeed and Biggest Sweetheart would be Neko Case, who’s seen a lot of love on this blog already. Class President might go to A.C. Newman, the main songwriter of the New Pornographers, for his leadership roles in the band as well as his solo work. Newman might also receive special recognition for Throws the Best Parties, since his spouse heads the marketing department of Matador Records.

But bandmate Dan Bejar easily takes the cake for Most Unusual. You could hand Bejar that title based on his signature acidic-tinged vocal style alone. But that doesn’t take into account the non-sequiturs he’s known for spewing out as part of his solo project, Destroyer. Seriously, who talks about foam hands in a song about love and longing? However, Bejar’s melodic choices help to balance the mysterious nature of his lyrics. Maybe it’s a gift from his production team, who possess a knack for knowing when to soften the rough plea of Bejar’s voice and add a bell run to make any song sound like a lullaby. On Destroyer’s most recent album, Trouble in Dreams, the counterparts to Bejar’s fever dream tendencies are the placid and impossibly pretty string arrangements of Ted Bois, the group’s pianist. Last month ushered in another Bejar baby, an album named Enemy Mine that was born of a union with Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade under the name Swan Lake. And it is likely that Dan Bejar never sleeps, as he maintains a third band called Hello, Blue Roses, a duo consisting of him and his significant other. Given Bejar’s frenzied production rate, the oddest member to carry the New Pornographers’ pedigree will certainly never claim the title of Slacker.

Destroyer will play at the Mississippi Studio on Thursday, May 7. Azita will also play.

  • Destroyer ~ Trouble in Dreams ~ Merge

Foam Hands

Song to confess your feelings with violent solemnity

Down on the piano farm

Down on the piano farm

My cousin got married a little over a week ago. At the reception, she surprised her new hub-sauce and the rest of the party by grabbing the mike and singing Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am.” Maybe it was all the wine I had ingested at that point, but I thought it was really sweet, like almost-made-me-teary-eyed-sweet to see such a bold statement of someone else’s devotion. Yucky, right?

Of course, it made me think about the song I could belt out to my newly-wedded, should that event ever happen. I would glide to the front of the room (in my nuptial fantasies, I’m also a swan, apparently), groomed to a degree of perfection that I probably won’t see again until my funeral. Friends, family, and random attendants in chiffon would politely raise their eyes. Then thanks to the brain of Neko Case, I’d sing “This Tornado Loves You.” With lyrics like “I left them motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling inside out from their mouths but it’s never enough. I want you,” how could my partner in holy-moly matrimony ever doubt my love? My captive audience may question the appropriateness of my song choice, my taste level with respect to my old aunts, maybe my sanity. But as long as the person I’ve married understands and appreciates my song selection, I think it’ll be OK. Plus, everyone gets cake and free booze.

  • Neko Case ~ Middle Cyclone ~ Anti-

This Tornado Loves You