December 21, 2009

Clicky Clicky's Top Albums Of 2009

So that was 2009, huh? Besides all the day-job stuff, we'd be happy for another year just like it, musically and personally. We loathe when people say "this year wasn't very good for music" or crap like that, because, frankly, if you're saying that you weren't trying hard enough. There's always more music, and there is always great music. But enough of that rant. We're pleased with the array of artists we spotlight below; we hope you'll find some things here that had escaped your attention heretofore, and that you derive as much enjoyment from listening to them as we do. For those who are curious, here are links to some of our prior annual lists [2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2002]. Thanks for reading Clicky Clicky in 2009, and special thanks to Michael Piantigini, Jay Kumar, D.P. Dean, The Good Doctor and anyone else whose writing made these electronic pages better during the last 12 months. We're grateful for their help, and we're grateful to our readers. See you in 2010.

1. Johnny Foreigner -- Grace And The Bigger Picture -- Best Before

Unsurprisingly, Johnny Foreigner's wonderful, epic sophomore effort Grace And The Bigger Picture tops our list of best records of the last 12 months. We already named the Birmingham, England-based noise pop trio's 2009 release one of the best records of the decade in October, and the band's prior releases topped our list last year and was runner-up in 2006. Grace And The Bigger Picture was exactly the record we were hoping the band would deliver as a follow-up to it stellar debut: loud, brash, aggressive, tuneful and articulate. There are some surprising turns on the set, such as the beautiful, piano-led ballad "More Heart, Less Tongue," and an abundance of awesome anthems. The ambitious three continues to impress, and we're eager to hear what comes next.

[review] [listen] [buy] [MP3: "Feels Like Summer"]

2. Projekt A-ko -- Yoyodyne -- Milk Pie

As far as surprises went in 2009, this was the biggest and the best. The apparently still-warm embers of Urusei Yatsura here are reignited under the moniker Projekt A-ko, a trio led by Fergus Lawrie. The trio not only put out the second-best record of the year, but frankly they arguably put out the best Dinosaur Jr. record of 2009, as well (we're huge Dinosaur fans, so this is saying a lot). Yoyodyne is graceful and cacaphonous, literate and blunt. The band cobbled the set together in free time with no budget, and released it on their own label with almost nil publicity, which means too few know that this gem is out there. Which we suppose is one argument for being affiliated with a reputable record label. But that is a discussion for another day. Yoyodyne is filled with incredible songs, a treat from end to end.

[review] [listen] [buy] [MP3: "Ichiro On Third (Demo)"]

3. Nosferatu D2 -- We're Gonna Walk Around This City With Our Headphones On To Block Out The Noise -- Audio Antihero

We had no idea this record was at long last getting its official release in 2009, although we were quite familiar with the stunning music it contains. While his earlier trio Tempertwig is quite respectable, it is with Nosferatu D2 that fronter Ben Parker established his legacy. Let's quote ourselves, shall we? "Here is England's greatest contemporary lyricist, Ben Parker, coupling his words and fairly singular guitar playing with the punishing drumming of his brother Adam to create perhaps the greatest unheard record of the decade. The contents of defunct duo Nosferatu D2's We're Gonna Walk Around This City With Our Headphones On To Block Out The Noise -- recorded years ago but only now available in stores -- seethe and brood with startling intensity, as Mr. Parker's narrators botch relationships, asphyxiate under the weighty, numbing press of an increasingly homogenized consumer culture, and second-guess their way into oblivion." It's a brilliant effort, it's important music, and the record's release hopefully in some way affirms to a broader audience that Mr. Parker is one of the best songwriters in England today.

[review] [listen] [buy] [MP3: "Springsteen"]

4. The Beatings -- Late Season Kids -- Midriff

A tour de force of American indie rock. To quote ourselves: "The title to Boston-slash-New York rockers The Beatings' sixth full-length evokes the surging success of a pro sports franchise making all the right moves perhaps when least expected. Nearly a decade into the band's career (and well into certain members' thirties, marriages and parenthood) is an unlikely time to have created its best, most confident record -- and yet here it is. Late Season Kids is a triumph crafted by a quintet whose tenure is longer than many -- if not most -- big-leaguers and rock acts alike." Local fans should note the quintet returns to the stage Jan. 23 at Great Scott in Boston.

[review] [listen] [buy] [MP3: "Bury You"]

5. Dananananaykroyd -- Hey Everyone! -- Best Before

The most overtly awesome band in the UK, there is just no denying Dananananaykroyd, no debating the potency of its masterful songwriting, brilliant chops, spectacularly boundless energy. We've got a soft spot for bands whose first word on their record is their own band name, and Dananananaykroyd earns points for that here, too. Hey Everyone! is a blitzkrieg of positive-vibes and surprisingly jangly post-hardcore/screamo. It's somewhat surprising that this is a formula that few if any other combos have hit on. As a sidenote -- we're sure this is among the worst times to invest money in breaking your UK-based band in America (presuming you stand to gain financially from doing so), but Best Before Records, home to both Dananananaykroyd and Johnny Foreigner, needs to figure out how to get these bands into America. Because America has been deprived for too long.

[review] [listen] [buy]

6. Calories -- Adventuring -- SmallTown America

Ten sing-alongable punk anthems from another stellar Birmingham-based trio, all killer and no filler. In the time it takes you to read this Top 10 list you could have listened to most of Adventuring, with time left over to make a delicious cake ("Jesus was waaay coool"). Calories' melodic, agressive approach gives the appearance of being simplistic, but in fact between changes in tempo and dynamics there is a lot going on here. There is cleverness in not appearing over-clever, and Calories will hopefully begin to garner a much deserved reputation as one of the smartest indie punk bands working. Look for the band's sophomore full-length Habitations to street in England in March, as we reported here last month.

[review] [listen] [buy]

7. Cold Cave -- Love Comes Close -- Matador

This is the most recently released record that made its way onto our list, and only last week did we throw a record off the list to make room for Love Comes Close, which so persistently had us reaching for the IPod lately that we had to include it. Although not as graceful and understated as The xx, Philadelphia-based synthpop concern Cold Cave's music has a similar way of sinking deep into your conciousness, getting comfortable and residing there. The tracks on Love Comes Close at turns recall darkwave-era Depeche Mode or early New Order, with a little more grit and a little less sophistication. So it is kind of surprising that Cold Cave's primary songwriter, Wesley Eisold, once fronted hardcore acts and has songwriting credits on a Fallout Boy record. We don't recommend people try listening to the quartet, we challenge them to STOP listening. And we have a feeling that if we had spent more time with their record before making our year-end list it would have ranked even higher.

[review] [listen] [buy]

8. The Answering Machine -- Another City, Another Sorry -- Heist Or Hit

The long-awaited full-length from this scrappy Mancunian quartet did not disappoint. In fact, during the wait that started with the release of the band's third single "Silent Hotels" way back in 2007 the band added significant dimension to their guitar-pop foundation with the addition of a flesh-and-blood drummer and sharp focus on songcraft. Sure, we were disappointed that the Tony Hoffer-produced demo "Romantic And Square" did not make its way onto Another City, Another Sorry, but that just means the band has one more amazing track in its back pocket to use for a single or the next album. And speaking of next albums, an email from a publicist earlier this month indicated that a 2010 release from The Answering Machine was TBD, which we'll take as a positive sign that the young band is fired up and ready for album no. 2.

[review] [listen] [buy]

9. Morrissey -- Years Of Refusal -- Universal

We're not the sort of Morrissey fan that glad-hands every successive release of the former Smiths fronter. In fact, we're of the opinion that the fans and critics that annointed 2004's You Are The Quarry as Morrissey's great come-back were premature, even wrong. Instead, it is Ringleader Of The Tormenters that truely displayed Morrissey once more at the peak of his powers, which powers, in our opinion, markedly waned not long after the dawn of the '90s. 2009 brought us Years Of Refusal, and it is a barn-burner. It certainly would have been improved by Visconti's production, but nonetheless the record is aggressive ("Something Is Squeezing My Skull"), smart-alecky ("It's Not Your Birthday Anymore"), dour ("I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris") and brilliant all at once.

[review] [listen] [buy]

10. Fleeting Joys -- Occult Radiance -- Only Forever

A masterpiece of sculpted guitar and angelic vocals. Sure, you've heard this sort of thing before, but we don't think you've heard it done as well or as recently as Fleeting Joys' 2009 stunner Occult Radiance. Tidal waves of guitar, nods to contemporary gothy psyche/space rock, but mostly it is incredible song writing that makes this one of the best of the year. The Northern California-based duo make only rare live appearances, making this record all the more important as a document of the greatness of Fleeting Joys.

[review] [listen] [buy]

December 17, 2009

Michael Piantigini's Top Albums of 2009

Listened to a lot of great new stuff this year, 10 of my most appreciated below. What better way to work out your (and my) love/hate relationship with Top 10 lists?

1. The Low Anthem, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)

If I were truly in-the-know, the earlier indie release of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin should have been one of my top 10 of 2008, but lucky for me – and the world generally – Providence, RI trio The Low Anthem got promoted to the show this year and their sophomore album was re-released by Nonesuch. After seeing this performance of “This Goddamn House” from the band’s 2007 debut What The Crow Brings, a gut-punch performance so powerful and affecting that it makes one question their whole life, I was prepared to pack it all in and follow them around on tour or something. Or, at least, see them as much as I can. Of course, my punishment for not getting hip sooner is that I missed them in your more intimate venues, but their recent opening slot with Blind Pilot at the Paradise demonstrated that they are one of those rare quiet bands that can silence the chattiest of crowds and hold us mesmerized.

When I realized that the composer of “This Goddamn House” wasn’t even in the band anymore, I naturally worried that what was left couldn’t possibly be as good. Thankfully, I thought wrong and Charlie Darwin more than lives up to my hopes. The gentle songs are gentler, the rockers more ramshackle. The music more varied and the arrangements more creative. And songs to match: “To Ohio” feels like it’s always been there, and we’ve just discovered it on some lost reel of tape. The set makes you feel like privileged – like you’ve been invited to the most amazing, house party in the best sounding living room ever.

The Low Anthem: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter

2. Lo Moda, Replica Watches (Creative Capitalism)

Internet details on the Baltimore combo Lo Moda are hard to pin down, but listening to their two albums, 2007’s Gospel Store Front and this year’s Replica Watches, that mystery (whether inadvertent or not) seems to suit them fine. Alternately playful, hooky, sinister, and often all three, describing this album makes it sound much more difficult than it really is. For all the odd, creative arrangements of insistent droney riffs, there’s just enough hook to grab onto and get under the skin.

“Robespierre” riffs its way into an organ hook and string drone over a marching rhythm section while telling us “we’re practically nowhere,” but the building droner “Real Real” – simpler than it seems with droning strings, organs, and guitars trying to break free certainly feels like its heading somewhere. That somewhere may be the perfect pop gem “Paper Bombs” that has all the aforementioned properties, but in a tighter, neater package. If I was doing a "Top Songs" of the year it would surely be near the top. If one isn’t enough, I’m certain that if “Simple Geographies” were done got the exposure it deserves, it’d be some kind of hit.

Lo Moda: MySpace

3. Obits, I Blame You (Sub Pop)

Sort of like a more punk rock Feelies, Obits have the same jittery energy as their brothers and sister across the Hudson, but with louder guitars, grittier vocals, and an angrier attitude. It actually doesn’t seem fair to compare them to the Feelies, since Obits have more than their share of college/alternative/indie rock pedigree just from main singer and guitars Rick Froberg’s tenure in Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes alone. If the Low Anthem’s album sounds like you’re in the best sounding living room ever, this hooky, dual guitar (which is different from guitar-dueling!), soul-shaker is what’s going on in the packed, sweaty basement.

Obits: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter | SubPop

4. Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs/ Condo Fucks, Fuckbook (Matador)

For a band with a 20+ year history, it is more than a little amazing that Yo La Tengo have a clunker rate that is near zero. All the while absorbing styles and continuing to evolve and express those elements in great songs in a way that is distinctly theirs. They’re like a one-band record collection.

On Popular Songs, elements of soul and just classic sounding well-arranged 70’s “records” (when that really meant something) influences have led to gems like “Hard To Fall” and “If It’s True”, both with their classic string arrangements (by a classic string arranger!), stomping single “Periodically Double or Triple,” and the just perfect “All Your Secrets.” The latter having some of the better “do-do’s” you’re likely to have heard in a while.

Of course, there’s certain elements of their sound and style that they have continued to keep fresh after all this time – I’m talking here about how Popular Songs closes out with not one, not two, but three guitar epics in a row clocking in at 10 minutes, 11 minutes, and 15 minutes, respectively. Each, though, has totally different palettes and tones and they all draw you in in a different way. “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” mesmerizes with a droning repetitive vocal line over e-bowed guitars, while “The Fireside” relies on sparsely strummed acoustic guitars and sound effects, and “And The Glitter Is Gone” is just an all out heavy bass and guitar orgy. I’m all in.

Meanwhile, under the guise of long lost “legendary New London, CT trio” the Condo Fucks, the members of Yo La Tengo also displayed their impeccable taste with a bootleg-quality collection of covers of the likes of Small Faces, The Kinks, and Slade. Just plain fun.

Earlier Clicky Clicky Yo La Tengo coverage

Yo La Tengo: Intertubes | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter
Condo Fucks: Matador | Documentary

5. Reigning Sound, Love and Curses (In The Red)

I’m admittedly late to the party, but Reigning Sound hit me hard this year and have me scurrying to catch up – I can’t believe I've lived this long without them! Led by longtime Memphis rocker Greg Cartwright, late of the greasy Sun Studios-inspired garage punks, The Oblivians (and occasionally still of – the Oblivians did a European tour with the Gories this year), Reigning Sound still have that Sun influence, but are tempered by more prominent soul influences (the Stax side of Memphis?). Still garage rock and primal swagger, but with the sneer making room for a knowing weariness, Love and Curses, their fourth album of original material has a warmer, lusher guitar sound than the biting attack of it’s immediate predecessor, 2004’s Too Much Guitar, and it is pure garage rock comfort food.

Reigning Sound: MySpace | Facebook

6. Wye Oak, The Knot (Merge)

Just when I was starting to think the guitar and drum duo line up was just too limiting to really allow a band any breathing room, along comes Wye Oak to prove me stupid. Jenn Wasner’s honey-sweet voice and nimble guitar riffiing are more than well-supported by Andy Stack’s... well, everything else. It is a sight to behold: some songs have him keeping the beat with one hand (and his feet) while playing bass lines with the other all while supplying harmonies. Hooky stomper “Take It In” leads the way, but gives over to the shoe-gazers like “Talk About Money” and “Tattoo” and the lurching “That I Do.” The Knot is one of those exciting albums where a band tops their road-tested first record with an even better set of songs.

Wye Oak: Intertubes | MySpace | Facebook

7. The Bats, The Guilty Office (Hidden Agenda)

I may just be a sucker for the well-crafted strummy guitar pop that New Zealanders seem so to be so good at, but The Guilty Office is really is one of those deals where we what have is just good, solid songs. The Bats have again returned with another batch that makes me ask, what more do you need?

The Bats: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter

8. Varsity Drag, Night Owls

Long-time Boston rock underdog Ben Deily, the under-credited co-founder of the Lemonheads and arguably the creative force of that band’s formative years is back with Night Owls, the latest from his band Varsity Drag (and the first with the latest lineup with his Mrs., Lisa on bass and Josh Pickering – the bass player in 90’s-era Deily project Pods – on drums).

Looking at the credits, it seems that it would be a back-to-basics affair, with the production handled by Tom Hamilton – no, not that one, the other one, who produced those aforementioned early Lemonheads records back in the day. In some ways it is – Deily’s got a distinct style – but there’s more going on here, and Night Owls takes chances: “Morning” is practically a self-contained rock opera, and “Post Script” is as naked a piano ballad as any, all the more poignant coming from a classic punk-rocker.

Deily hasn’t been as prolific over the years as us greedy fans would like. To have a new full-length just 3 years the Drag’s debut EP (albeit years in the making), For Crying Out Loud, is a happy occasion indeed.

Earlier Clicky Clicky Varsity Drag coverage.

Varsity Drag: Intertubes | MySpace | Ben Deily | Twitter

9. Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly (Hometapes)

Had Megafaun not been one of those serendipitous SXSW stumble-upons - had they been just sort of explained to me - there's a chance I would have dismissed them as another bunch of hippy rednecks making with the wanky jam-band antics. As I said above of guitar-drum duos, I'd be proved stupid. They have a warm, soulful sound and feel that has a way of making you as intrigued by the sound collage of "Darkest Hour," as you are hooked into the sunny three-part harmony pop sound of "The Fade," and the lyrical direction of both add even more depth.

Gather, Form & Fly
is a thrilling exploration of the marriage of traditional folk instruments - guitars and banjos and percussion - and sound manipulation both analog and digital. One of the best things about it is wondering where it will lead Megafaun next.

Earlier Clicky Clicky Megafaun coverage.

Megafaun: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter

10. Mean Creek, The Sky (Or the Underground) (Old Flame)

Why is it that when a band like Mean Creek so eagerly reaches for the sky, it is so surprising and refreshing? In a world of bedroom pop, it helps when good bands with good songs turn up now and then to remind us about ROCK. Look, I'm not going to lie to you: there's plenty of big rock touchstones here - there's some Zeppelin, some Pink Floyd, and - so help me - does "Beg & Plead" ever so much remind me of mid-90's Boston rockers Smackmelon (I guess you'll have to trust me on that one, kids), but the songwriting is solid, the arrangements tight, and the vibe inspirational.

Mean Creek: Intertubes | MySpace

BONUS LIST! Top 5 Songs not on any of those albums that I just couldn't not mention:
1. Wilco, "One Wing" from Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
2. The Clean "In The Dream Life U Need A Rubber Soul" from Mister Pop (Merge)
3. Superchunk "Crossed Wires" from the Crossed Wires 7" (Merge)
4. Bare Wires “I Lie Awake” from Artificial Clouds (Tic Tac Totally)
5. Noise Addict “Big Ups” from it was never about the audience (self-released)

-Michael Piantigini

Check out Jay Breitling's Top Songs of 2009, and watch for his Top Albums of 2009 next week!

December 15, 2009

Today's Hotness: Varsity Drag, State Champion, Screaming Maldini

>> Christmas has come early for fans of Cambridge, Mass.'s superlative pop-punk trio Varsity Drag, which has posted for free a recent radio session recorded on the heels of an October jaunt across the pond. The band, fronted by Ben Deily, is offering via Bandcamp free downloads of 13 tunes committed to tape (well, probably not tape) Oct. 28 at Tufts University's WMFO. As the band had just come off the road (and had recently kicked some nasty colds), the performances are particularly tight and confident. With the energy and gusto on display here, the live performances of tracks from The Drag's new album Night Owls give many of the recorded versions a serious run for their money. This is particularly the case with "Richard's Gone" and "Night Owls." We're offering the latter track as an MP3 below, head over to the Bandcamp site via the link supra and grab the rest of the set, you will be glad you did. C'mon, c'mon, let's stay up all night.

Varsity Drag -- "Night Owls" -- Live Owls: Varsity Drag Live on WMFO
[right click and save as]
[buy Varsity Drag music from the band right here]

>> We've received an unusual amount (meaning "some") very good unsolicited pitches of late. How about we tell you about one? There is a newish combo out of Louisville, KY (birthplace of Slint, among many others) called State Champion that will put out next month a full-length called Stale Champagne, the title of which is as best as we can tell a play on the band's name. The eight-song set -- State Champion's fourth if you count a bunch of demos collections and small-run releases that have preceded it -- will be released on vinyl only by the Sophomore Lounge label, which we've also never heard of. But all of that information is secondary to the following: Stale Champagne is a gritty collection of zealously delivered and countrified indie rock tunes that will remind listeners of Palace Brothers and Okkervil River (incidentally, Stale Champagne was produced by Palace sideman Paul Oldham). And Deer Tick. It's really good stuff, although we have not yet fully digested it. Fronter Ryan Davis kindly is allowing us to share up a track, so we're posting the rollicking set-closer "The Years" below. Stale Champagne is out Jan. 26.

State Champion -- "The Years" -- Stale Champagne
[right click and save as]
[buy earlier State Champion recordings via Sophomore Lounge right here]

>> Word from futurepop savants Screaming Maldini, who we've curiously not mentioned in ten months, is that the Sheffield, England-based sextet has signed with Oxford-based Alcopop! records. Alcopop! will release in February an EP of Screaming Maldini tracks including some of the demos we were treated to early this year, as well as some new tracks. According to band member Nick, Screaming Maldini hopes to record a full length by the end of 2010, and the sextet has amassed scads of tracks that the band is eager to get out there. Incidentally, the band is giving away a secret Christmas present at its Facebook page right now, so you should head over there and see what you can score. We first wrote about Screaming Maldini here in February.

December 11, 2009

Clicky Clicky's Top Songs Of 2009

Here it is, our annual salute to the greatest of the (contemporary) greatest: our most-listened-to tracks of 2009. The usual rules apply: each band only gets one song, so despite the fact that most of our Top 10 most-listened-to 2009 tracks in ITunes are from Johnny Foreigner's superlative Grace And The Bigger Picture, only the most-played track gets a slot on our list below. The main reason for doing this list is to spotlight great songs that might not have been on an album that warrants best-of-the-best status for the year. The inclusion of George Washington Brown's "End Of The..." is a perfect example, as the tune was released on a Slumberland split single, not the sort of thing that ever makes a year-end albums list. Even so, our Top Songs list does shed light on certain albums that will be on our year-end list. That said, if you've regularly read along this year, you probably already have a good idea of what the albums list will bring. You'll know for sure a week from today. But for today, here they are: Clicky Clicky's Top Songs Of 2009.

1. Johnny Foreigner -- "The Coast Was Always Clear" -- Grace And The Bigger Picture

We'd call this the anthem to end all anthems, except that given the band's track record we expect there will be a song equally as good if not better released by Johnny Foreigner in the future: the act is among the most consistently excellent combos in indie rock today. In 2009, despite intense competition from itself and the rest of the acts on this list, the number one anthem is "The Coast Was Always Clear." We long harbored fears that the album version of this track could not possibly compare to the YouTube version with Dananananaykroyd or the New Slang 2008 bootleg version we played to death last year. Those fears were unfounded. The layered lines in the coda ("He's half asleep for you" and "I'm not done holding hope in my hands") are among the most beautiful musical sentiments of the year. And sure, the tune structurally is similar to the final track on the band's first full-length, that doesn't detract in the least from the series of spine-tingling moments in "The Coast Was Always Clear," which seems to somehow have about four different choruses. That's just how Johnny Foreigner rolls, and we look forward to new music from the Birmingham, England-based noise-pop titans in the new year.

2. The Beatings -- "All The Things You've Been Missing" -- Late Season Kids
Download MP3 (with thanks to the band)

This is a classic E.R.-led screamer from the storied Boston quintet, and it is filled with visceral moments that make you feel like you are shedding your skin. And then, when the chorus hits and the guitars cascade around you through curtains of reverb, you are born again. We're not sure why this track is wedged in the middle of Late Season Kids, but then again, it's not like the rest of the album sucked. As we said in our review of the set earlier this year, The Beatings really have no business being this good this late into the game. "All The Things You've Been Missing" sets the new high water mark.

3. Projekt A-ko -- "Hey Palooka!" -- Yoyodyne

Deciding which track is best on Projekt A-ko's shockingly good debut is like deciding which nine fingers to cut off. Every track touts its own revelations delivered via squawling guitars and brilliant disjointed lyrics. So although for months we believed that we'd select "Here Comes New Challenger!" for our year-end list, it is Yoyodyne opener "Hey Palooka!" to which we ultimately give the nod, primarily because we've been unable to get these lines from the second verse out of our heads since March: "and all the stars are out, they kiss you on the mouth, they kiss you on the." Full stop. It's a sweet sentiment. And as we'll always tie the release of Yoyodyne to their birth of our daughter, that sweet sentiment carries a lot of weight. It also helps that the slow build of the song's opening is an homage of sorts to the opening cut on Drop Nineteens' earthshaking 1990 debut Delaware.

4. Favours For Sailors -- "I Dreamt That I Dreamt That You Loved Me In Your Dreams" -- Furious Sons

2009's shooting stars flamed out and lodged themselves in the soil long before the end of the year rolled around. One of a crop of contemporary English bands indebted to some of Pavement's more tuneful moments, Favours For Sailors released the Furious Sons EP on Tough Love Records in March, but by July the London-based quartet had called it quits. This tune is a melodic, uptempo guitar anthem with clever lyrics that beg to be stumbled over in the chorus. The real pay-off is in the final moments, when singer JRC drops in the last kick "...but you don't." It's fitting emotional punctuation that parallels the dashing of fan hopes by the announcement of the band's dissolution. Let's see, what else: nice harmonies, there's some kick-ass tambourine work... uh... we think the lead singer looks a little like Greg Kihn. And Favours For Sailors were not afraid to bring the chorus back over and over, because they knew they had a killer on their hands.

5. Dananananaykroyd -- "Black Wax" -- Hey Everyone!

This is one of those tracks that is so good it doesn't matter that you can't tell what the hell the singer is saying. Sure, Dananananaykroyd's dual fronters tout Glaswegian accents, but they are also excitedly hollering, and even when the words take shape in your mind ("write your name in cellophane strips something something blah blah blah"), it is hard to figure out what they are on about. But with Dananananaykroyd none of that really matters, as the band's singular mix of maximalist hardcore energy and wonderfully saccharine hooks makes the end product undeniably arresting. The sextet also made a killer video for this track, incidentally. As we get older we are finely tuned into things we perceived as redemptive or transformative, and the crescendo two-and-a-half minutes into this track certainly qualifies as the latter if not the former. But even that is secondary to the overall electrifying vibe and delicious guitars that make this track one of the best of the year.

6. The xx -- "Basic Space" -- xx

Twenty-five years ago this song would have been perfect for use in a television show that was trying to depict music of the future. It's sort of space age, but it is minimal to the point of being almost transparent. Between the electronic beats, diaphanous house keys, understated bass playing, reverbed guitar and murmured vocals, the London trio (a quartet for most of the year until the departure of keyboardist and singer Baria Qureshi) somehow crafts one of the most gripping, darksexy tracks of the year. We had the pleasure of taking in The xx's sold-out Boston show at the beginning of December and report with pleasure that the band is even more of a sensation live. Not because of the somewhat affectless performances, of course, but because all of the elements of the record were powerfully underpinned by the electronics being blasted, bass-heavy and at gut-level, through the house sound system. The embiggened beats and tones provided an added dimension of shadowy aggression to the music which was exciting. It also made our insides wiggle, and we liked it.

7. Fleeting Joys -- "You Are The Darkness" -- Occult Radiance

Another year goes by in which we wonder when Fleeting Joys will finally get wide recognition they deserve. Certainly if "You Are The Darkness" can not break the Northern California-based duo into the broader underground, then we don't know what will, because this track is as fine a shoegaze anthem as has been written. It's up there with Ride's "Taste" or Lilys' "Claire Hates Me" (well, nothing is as good as "Claire Hates Me," but it's in the ballpark). Sculpted guitar guitar, breathy vocals with perfectly layered harmonies: it doesn't get better than this.

8. The Answering Machine -- "Another City, Another Sorry" -- Another City, Another Sorry
Download MP3 (with thanks to the band)

While this Manchester, England-based quartet is generally wired for writing pop-leaning tracks, the title tune to its long awaited 2009 full-length debut is an outright scorcher, and the most exciting two-and-a-half minutes from a very good album. "Another City, Another Sorry" also shows the band's acquisition of an actual drummer (early on it relied on a drum machine) paying huge dividends -- it's the sort of track that swings and bashes along in a way that only a live drummer can pull off. The manner in which the accompaniment drops off and spaces out during the last pre-chorus launches the anthem into a final driving salvo that defies you not to sing along. If The Answering Machine did nothing more than release this track in 2009 they could still call the year a huge success.

9. Morrissey -- "Something Is Squeezing My Skull" -- Years Of Refusal

There is actually something very heartening about a misfit misanthrope that continues to persevere into middle age. It suggests that one need not capitulate to the square world, that one can live life on one's own terms for as long as they choose to. And so when Morrissey sings "I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out,thank you, drop dead," it just feels good. Thanks Moz. Sure, the latter half of the track is a litany of drugs and problems, but hey, we didn't say the guy was *thriving*, we said he was giving life what for. Years Of Refusal may be the most straightforwardly rocking set Morrissey has ever released (although fear not, it still has many interesting dimensions), and this lead track is its best calling card.

10. George Washington Brown -- "End Of The..." -- Searching For The Now 6
Download MP3 (courtesy of Slumberland)

Eighty-eight seconds of fuzzed-out glory with brilliant lo-fi production. Despite the entire proceedings being rendered as a tinny mess, this song is brilliantly realized. We love the slap-back on the voice, the crazy space key-chain noises, the Boyracer-esque vocals. A masterpiece, and perhaps the best track Slumberland issued in 2009, which is saying something, since the label is kicking several different kinds of ass lately.

December 8, 2009

YouTube Rodeo: The Hush Now's "Wishing You A Very Merry Christmas"

We started to feel a little Christmas-y today. Turned on the all-Christmas-music station on the radio on the drive home from work, even. We think maybe the cold weather finally kicking in brought on the feeling. Coincidentally, Boston indie pop heroes The Hush Now sprung the video for their new Christmas tune today. It's got beautiful footage of our fair city. It's got the band hamming it up a little. And you think you know what's in store for you. That is, until the band sets up in their local liquor store and starts rocking out. When the quintet's recently ensconced lead guitarist (is that John or Adam?) steps out on the sidewalk for his solo, and fronter Noel Kelly is there holding his amp, that's not just good Christmas music, that's comedy gold. And so we present to you The Hush Now's "Wishing You A Very Merry Christmas." You can download the track, too, so why don't you?

The Hush Now -- "Wishing You A Very Merry Christmas"
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The Hush Now: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube | Flickr

Previous Hush Now Coverage:
YouTube Rodeo: The Hush Now's "Constellations"
Today's Hotness: The Hush Now
Back To Now: The Hush Now Interview With Noel Kelly
In The Studio With... The Hush Now
Review: The Hush Now -- The Hush Now

December 5, 2009

Be Prepared: A Weather | Everyday Balloons | 2 March

According to this recent item at Williamette Week's Local Cut blog, superlative slowcore combo A Weather will issue its sophomore set Everyday Balloons March 2 on the Team Love label. The set -- 11 tracks deep -- is apparently more guitar-heavy, which sounds like a good thing, although the tension and restraint of the band's first set was one of its strongest features. We know that "Lay Me Down" in the track listing posted below is not a cover of Grateful Dead's "To Lay Me Down," although we think it would be amazing if A Weather decided to take that on (as we've said before). The Portland, Ore-based quintet has continued a tradition of releasing a holiday track, and this year it offers at its MySpace cabin and on Williamette Week's Another Grey Christmas 3 comp a version of the standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Last year's track was "Winter Wonderland," which we are posting below. We reviewed A Weather's 2008 debut Cove here, and named it one of the best records of the rapidly waning decade here.

A Weather -- "Winter Wonderland" -- 2008 Williamette Week holiday compilation
[right click and save as]
[buy A Weather music from Newbury Comics right here]

Everyday Balloons:

1. Third of Life
2. Winded
3. Ducks
4. Seven Blankets
5. Midday Moon
6. Newfallen
7. No Big Hope
8. Fond
9. Happiness
10. Giant Stairs
11. Lay Me Down

December 4, 2009

And Then This Happened: Sloan, Magneta Lane, Scarce | TT's 12.03.09

[Sloan with Magneta Lane and Scarce at TT the Bear's Place, Cambridge, MA 12/3/2009; Photos by Michael Piantigini]

Scarce: MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Documentary | at TT's in 1993 | Joyce Raskin's "Achin To Be" memoir
Magneta Lane: Intertubes | MySpace | Facebook
Sloan: Intertubes | MySpace | Facebook

December 3, 2009

YouTube Rodeo: Ranking Eight Covers of Palace Music's "New Partner"

"New Partner," the brilliant ballad from Palace Music's bar-setting, perfect 1995 collection Viva Last Blues, is the second-greatest song Will Oldham has written, in our humble opinion. His best song is the distressingly sad (to the extent we can't bring ourselves to listen to it sometimes) but absurdly titled "You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out." But that is a topic for another day. Over a recent weekend we wondered to ourselves why no one had ever covered "New Partner," and moseyed on over to YouTube to see what we could see. After about a half-hour screening videos we modified our query to "why have only very few covered 'New Partner,' and even fewer covered it well?" Below we rank the eight covers we encountered. The winner's clip is posted atop this item. Note that the video for the winning clip sucks -- this wasn't a contest for best video, it was a contest for best cover. So there. The winner, also-rans and commentary in descending order below.

1. The Frames "New Partner" (studio version)
Like we said, this video is a weak slideshow. But the performance holds fairly true to the original, with perhaps a couple layers of gloss shellacked over top. We're not crazy about the lead voice, but The Frames, an Irish act that will celebrate 20 years of, uh, banding, next year, really work the dynamics of the song. This is head and shoulders, and maybe a sternum, above what is below.

2. Woodstein52 "New Partner"
Don't know who this guy is, but he nails this, and we very nearly named him the winner of this little exercise, except we weren't crazy about his phrasing in the chorus. But the lone man and guitar totally going for it really captures and conveys an Oldham-esque vibe.

3. dEUS "New Partner"
Another very strong entry, but we docked these guys substantial subjective points for the stupid capitalization thing they do with their band name. Sorry dudes. This is actually a really nice cover, although we lose the feel a little in the second verse. The first singer should have just bogarted the proceedings and left the other chap to back him up.

4. The Frames "New Partner" (live version)
Hey, look, it's The Frames again! Technically the studio and the live version are separate covers, so we gave them two entries. Obviously this suffers from the audience clearly not giving a shit about this band -- until suddenly at the second chorus you can hear under the buzz of the crowd a swell of the audience singing along. That's pretty cool. Still not as strong as the studio version, but that is likely as much a problem with the audio quality from this video as much as anything.

5. Jacob Ruefer "New Partner"
And we've dropped into the bottom half. This is a well produced, if not over produced, cover. The singer and the arrangement, unfortunately, completely miss the mark emotionally. This sounds like the kind of industrial pop you hear over the public address system at a regional airport or something. Sorry Mr. Ruefer.

6. Mark Kozelek "New Partner"
You know Mark Kozelek, yeah? He was the Red House Painters guy? Unfortunately he tries to do something very original with the track here, and while we admire his yen for experimenting with a beloved song, this cover is tepid and confusing. If we didn't know anything about the Palace Music version we might think this is great. But sadly, that is not the case.

7. Lev9876 "New Partner"
Starts out with a promising Dylan-esque twang but then the vocal just goes places we don't want it to do, hunting out cascading notes like all the Mariah Carey wannabes you hear soundtracking television shows or appearing on reality television competitions. But we do love the little yodle bit he does in the third line of each pre-chorus. But on the whole there is not enough Hank Williams, and too much "American Idol," in this version.

8. gnohara "New Partner"
We like that this guy goes for it, but the fact is there is just not a lot of there there once that chorus rolls around what with the fellow's vocal sneer. If it wasn't for that, we think we'd have ranked this one much closer to the top, because we like the genuine gusto of the delivery.

November 30, 2009

Playlist: Indie Rock vs. Baby Wakefulness, Vol. 1

This is currently the go-to soundtrack to our efforts to get our baby girl to go to sleep and stay asleep. A sad by-product is the fact that we are starting to get sick of a lot of these songs, some of which have been favorites forever and ever (we first got The Glove record around 1989 or 1990, for example). That said, we still find almost all of these to this day to be very moving in their way whenever we stop and sit and listen to them go by on the IPod docked in the nursery. The Logh and Spent tracks in particular are sublime and evocative. We've started piecing together a second mix for nighttime in the nursery. But for now, this is on heavy rotation.

1. The Glove -- "A Blues In Drag" -- Blue Sunshine [AmazonMP3]
2. Sam Prekop -- "A Cloud To The Back" -- Sam Prekop [Emusic]
3. The For Carnation -- "On The Swing" -- Marshmallows EP/Promised Works [Emusic]
4. Esquivel -- "Snowfall" -- More Of Other Worlds, Other Sounds [AmazonMP3]
5. Haywood -- "Plow" -- We Are Amateurs, You And I [Emusic]
6. Logh -- "The Big Sleep" -- A Sunset Panorama [Emusic]
7. Mogwai -- "Christmas Song" -- Mogwai EP+6 [AmazonMP3]
8. Jon Brion -- "Spotless Mind" -- Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind [AmazonMP3]
9. Jon Brion -- "Phone Call" -- Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind [AmazonMP3]
10. Jon Brion -- "Bookstore" -- Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind [AmazonMP3]
11. Archer Prewitt -- "Along The Coast" -- Gerroa Songs [Emusic]
12. Drop Nineteens -- "My Aquarium" -- Delaware [AmazonMP3]
13. Spent -- "Brighter Than Day" -- Songs Of Drinking And Rebellion [Emusic]
14. September 67 -- "Bring Back The Weight" -- Lucky Shoe [Emusic]
15. Lilys -- "Kodiak (Alternate)" -- Send In The Subs [Unreleased/MP3]
16. Velocity Girl -- "Wake Up, I'm Leaving" -- Simpatico! [AmazonMP3]

November 26, 2009

Review: Varsity Drag | Night Owls [MP3]

It neither sounds like it was recorded in a metal shipping container, nor does Night Owls completely hew to the straight pop-punk for which Varsity Drag fronter Ben Deily has long been known. But beyond the fully actualized production and more thoughtful compositions, fans of Mr. Deily's music will recognize a more subtle difference between the 2006 set For Crying Out Loud and his reconfigured Cambridge, Mass.-based trio's new collection. Simply put, For Crying Out Loud was an "if" record, but Night Owls is a "then" record. The former's biggest tune "Summertime" commences with the line "if you'd be mine, I'd find the time..." That record's opening anthem "Skinny Ties" is entirely predicated on supposition: "I'd give up all of my skinny ties, give up cheese omelets and curly fries..." Where Deily does not yearn on For Crying Out Loud ("the place just ain't the same without Billy Ruane..."), he cracks wise, sending up the last decade with "1999." Throughout Deily maintains a wish or a laugh's distance, stays to the left side of the comma.

Night Owls, by contrast, opens with the lyric "And so the years went crashing by..." and then examines various crashes one after another. And with that declaration Deily steps over the comma into the hindsight of unenumerated mornings after (or, more likely for a night owl, afternoons after) and confronts his emotions straight on. Calling Varsity Drag's new record introspective doesn't go far enough to describe some of the psychic scab-ripping herein. While Deily doesn't name names or proffer genesis stories, the meaning of lyrics including "I let you down to save myself... like an animal" is not cloudy. That said, it isn't all fear and (self-)loathing: the title track describes the phosphorescent glow of a new relationship with sentiments so positive they approach a giddy serenity. What does this difference between Deily's "if" and "then" worlds signify? Maturity? Personal peace? We'll leave that for individual listeners to ponder.

As we stated supra, the differences between the aforementioned sets are not limited to more intense lyrical themes. On Night Owls Mr. Deily -- now abetted by Lisa Marie Deily on bass guitar and Joshua Pickering detonating the cans -- reveals musical ambitions that fans were likely unaware that the punk statesman harbored. Old timers will recall Deily's affecting acoustic ballad "Postcard" from the latter days of Lemonheads Mach 1 (and featured on last summer's live release from Varsity Drag). On Night Owls Deily offers "Postscript," a Bacharach-esque and lush guy-piano-strings number. It is apparent that Mr. Deily has been thinking about making these songs nearly as long as he has been feeling them, and while he selected former Lemonheads producer Tom Hamilton to mind the faders and the knobs, Night Owls is a significant sonic step forward for Deily. The smart chord and key changes, keen production details and more orchestrated compositions make that plain. The vocals buried in the background of "Animal" are genius (particularly at the line "I know I failed my darling"), the layered acoustic and electric guitars of "Richard's Gone" deliver a completely satisfying, crystalline crunch, the aggressive attack of "In This World" (whose guitars recall Rush's "Fly By Night" in brief moments) entirely gratifying. Varsity Drag recently returned from two weeks in another country (namely the U.K.) and -- although there are no pending live dates currently listed at the band's MySpace dojo -- the trio is presumably now plotting the promotion of Night Owls to fans in the States.

Varsity Drag -- "Animal" -- Night Owls
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[buy Night Owls from the band right here]

Varsity Drag: Internerds | Bandcamp | YouTube | Flickr

Previous Varsity Drag Coverage:
Be Prepared: Varsity Drag | Night Owls | Date TBD
And Then This Happened: Varsity Drag | Middle East Rock Club | 8/7/09
Remarks: Varsity Drag, Grownup Noise, Winterpills
Review: Varsity Drag | Rock and Roll Is Such A Hassle: Live in Europe
Varsity Drag @ Cantab Lounge, March 2009
Varsity Drag @ O'Brien's, August 2008
Varsity Drag @ Cantab Lounge, February 2008
Free Range Music: Varsity Drag, May 2006

November 23, 2009

That Was The Show That Was: Sonic Youth, The Feelies | Wilbur

[PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Piantigini | We welcome back to these digital pages longtime friend and occasional contributor Jay Kumar, who you may recall hosts the podcast Completely Conspicuous. -- Ed.]

The last time I saw Sonic Youth was way back in October 1995, when the band was already considered the elder statespeople of alt rock/punk/grunge/whatever. I was supposed to see them play at Avalon (now doing business as House of Blues) on Lansdowne Street in Boston, but the surprise success of their single “The Diamond Sea” caused the promoter to move the show to the larger Orpheum Theatre. In my late 20s at the time, I was struck by how many really young kids (i.e., pre-teens) were there, drawn by the radio edit of the aforementioned 19-minute song.

The audience at Sunday night’s SY near-sellout show with The Feelies at the Wilbur Theater had a decidedly different look: a mix of aging hipsters, college kids and the occasional pre-teen. And while the band is decidedly older -— all five members are 47 or older -— they rock as hard as they ever have.

Touring behind The Eternal, the band’s first release on Matador, SY played a 90-minute set that included pretty much everything from that album. The new material was strong, with “Anti-Orgasm” a standout with its cascading waves of noise. In addition, the band sprinkled in some classics from the 1980s: “Tom Violence” and “Shadow of a Doubt” from Evol, “Stereo Sanctity” from Sister, “Cross the Breeze” and “The Sprawl” from Daydream Nation and the scorching show closer, “Death Valley ’69” from Bad Moon Rising. Interestingly, the band didn’t play any material off its nine major-label albums. For those folks disappointed that they didn’t get to hear “Kool Thing” or “100%,” there’s always YouTube.

Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were in peak form, alternately bashing out violent riffs and coaxing squalls of feedback from their guitars. Moore especially was animated, jumping around and looking like he was going to jump into the crowd at times while playing at the edge of the stage. Pavement’s Mark Ibold has taken over bass duties, which freed up Kim Gordon to play rhythm guitar or just focus on vocals, although she still played bass on some songs. Drummer Steve Shelley was impressive, whether he was hammering away on the harder stuff or creating a psychedelic mood on songs like “Shadow of a Doubt.” Perhaps in a nod to the sheer volume of songs the band has written, a roadie brought out lyric sheets that were taped to the stage for Moore, Ranaldo and Gordon for the older material.

Openers The Feelies drew some of the older audience members, similar to its reunion show at the Roxy in October 2008. Although much of the younger crowd at the Wilbur were unfamiliar with the band, which only has four albums and hasn’t released one since 1991, the older fans were shouting encouragement throughout the 50-minute set.

Singer-guitarist Glenn Mercer said few words between songs but bounced frenetically around the stage as he played his similarly winding solos. Thanks to a muddy sound mix, however, Mercer’s already subdued vocals were barely audible. Rhythm guitarist Bill Million (who one audience member rightly noted bears a striking resemblance to talk show host Jerry Springer) kept the jangly chords going and provided occasional backing vocals along with bassist Brenda Sauter. Stanley Demeski was a powerful presence on drums while percussionist Dave Weckerman intently played a variety of instruments including drums, tambourine, cowbell and blocks.

Highlights included “The Time is Right,” a new song the band played last October in Boston, “Too Far Gone” and the one-two punch of “Raised Eyebrows” leading into the sped-up strumfest of “Crazy Rhythms.” Hopefully, the band will release some new material soon because they’ve obviously still got the goods.

The Feelies have been playing sporadic shows in conjunction with the recent reissues of their albums Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth. No further dates have been announced. Sonic Youth, however, were slated to play another show at the Wilbur with openers the Meat Puppets and Cold Cave.

One note about the Wilbur: What’s up with the byzantine series of checkpoints, wristbands and holding pens that the venue concertgoers undergo? There had to be 87 people staffing this event, and it just resulted in absurdly long lines for the restrooms and overall confusion. And on top of all that, they collected everyone’s ticket stubs. Weak. -- Jay Kumar

Sonic Youth: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube | Flickr
The Feelies: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube | Flickr

Previous Sonic Youth Coverage:
Today's Hotness: Sonic Youth, Jai-Alai Savant, Thrill Jockey
Industry Watchdog: Sonic Youth, UMGI, Gawker Media
YouTube Rodeo: Sonic Youth's "Incinerate"
Review: Sonic Youth | Rather Ripped

Previous Feelies Coverage:
Review: Velvets | Big Star | Feelies | Pixies
That Was The Show That Was: The Feelies At The Roxy
YouTube Rodeo: Half-Way To The Feelies And "Higher Ground"