31 December 2008
1. Sam Phillips – DON’T DO ANYTHING
Twenty years after the former Leslie Phillips quit being a contemporary Christian artist and adopted her childhood nickname, she’s still making unconventional, vital music. Several tracks on her seventh album firmly carry over the acoustic/cabaret vibe of her previous two releases (like the infectious, celebratory “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”); others feature some of her sharpest hooks in well over a decade – for instance, “Little Plastic Life” crosses the jazzy, supple swing of A BOOT AND A SHOE with the Beatles-fixated choruses of MARTINIS AND BIKINIS. But a good chunk of DON’T DO ANYTHING delves into new terrain: “No Explanations” startlingly kicks things off with just Sam’s voice and a distorted electric guitar before a loud, primal stomp comes in, giving the song an uncommon thrust. The title track, “My Career in Chemistry”, and “Shake It Down” also employ these elements to great effect, with the latter concluding in a delicate fury of clanging (yet not entirely cacophonous) percussion. Although this is Sam’s first effort without her producer (and now ex-husband) T-Bone Burnett, it feels not entirely correct to simply dub it her “divorce album” or to say she’s newly independent. Always an iconoclast, she’s forever pushing forward. She delayed this album’s release by a few months to work a little more on it, but instead of feeling smothered or hermetic, the twelve concise miniatures contained here exude spontaneity, a cutting wit, and a radiance that pierces through all the anger and sorrow.
Favorite songs: “No Explanations”, “Little Plastic Life”, “My Career in Chemistry”, “Flowers Up”, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”, “Watching Out of This World”
30 December 2008
2. TV On the Radio - DEAR SCIENCE
I overrated this band's last album - in an especially weak year for new music, it earned bonus points for originality. However, it's also a rather uneasy, challenging listen. Although I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone who likes challenging music, I rarely feel the need to dial it up on the 'Pod these days. Thus, I approached this follow-up with some skepticism, weary of buying into the hype yet again. Fortunately, all my concerns dissipated within hearing the opener "Halfway Home" for the first time. The song itself is not a radical departure for the band, but everything about it - the handclaps, vocalist Tunde Adebimpe's euphoric "ba ba ba's", the extra guitars that crash in near the end - is so damn irresistible and inviting. Subsequent songs have that sense of immediacy even as they each sound like the work of a different band - one eclectic enough to make room for both "Dancing Choose", a half-rapped political song (with a bloodline you can trace back to "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues") and something as sublimely beautiful and moving as the hazy, soaring "Family Tree". In short, they're now using their powers for good instead of evil, and it opens up the music's possibilities while also strengthening its impact.
Favorite songs: "Halfway Home", "Crying", "Dancing Choose", "Golden Age", "Family Tree", "DLZ"
29 December 2008
Five years ago, if you told me a musician as unique and obscure as Stew (a portly, middle-aged African American who fronts a band called The Negro Problem) would one day star in an award-winning Broadway musical, I would have laughed in your face. And yet, the former Mark Stewart actually did it, slowly developing his autobiographical show from small clubs to slightly larger venues (both in Berkeley and Off-Broadway) to a brief but celebrated run this year at the Belasco Theatre. This long-awaited cast album was recorded live before an audience on the Belasco's stage, which is only appropriate given that the production often plays more like a rock concert than a traditional musical. But unlike his previous albums (which, in their effort to encompass a multitude of genres tended to sprawl unevenly), this is a solid, complete work. It still includes everything from gospel, psychedelia and blues to punk, soul and a little calypso, but a compelling narrative and a canny use of countermelody and reoccurring hooks and phrases adds structure to the many shifts in style and tone. PASSING STRANGE ends up mocking musical conventions ("The Black One" slyly parodies A CHORUS LINE'S "One"), while also making the best of them in showstoppers like the career manifesto "Work the Wound".
Favorite songs: "Amsterdam", "Keys", "We Just Had Sex", "The Black One", "Work the Wound"
24 December 2008
4. Goldfrapp - SEVENTH TREE
I thought Alison Goldfrapp had truly found her niche churning out an electronic version of glam rock on her previous album SUPERNATURE, but I was wrong: this quite different, gorgeous comedown of a follow-up is an even better fit. The gentle, pastoral, somewhat eerie opener "Clowns" sets the tone, and the songs that follow sustain it even as they add a slight bounce to its step ("Happiness") or wash all over it with a psychedelic wall of sound ("Little Bird"). The second half is even better: the single "A&E" conveys what could be a suicide attempt with an irresistibly uplifting surge, "Cologne Cerrone Houdini" stimulates with its lush, pretty nonsense, and "Caravan Girl" convincingly rocks out with momentum before it all comes crashing down on the devastating closer "Monster Love". I used to think SEVENTH TREE would make a perfect summer album, but it's proving effective throughout all the seasons.
Favorite songs: "Little Bird", "A&E", "Caravan Girl", "Monster Love"
23 December 2008
5. Róisín Murphy - OVERPOWERED
This is where the album/year distinction gets fuzzy. Ex-Moloko vocalist Murphy's second solo effort came out in Europe in 2007, and was supposed to receive a domestic release in 2008. As of this writing, it's still in limbo, but still rumored to come out at some point. Since I bought it this year (and didn't have to pay import prices for it), for me, it's a 2008 album.
Following the more experimental RUBY BLUE, this is arguably the straightest pop Murphy's ever recorded, with a engagingly retro vibe that references dance floor divas from early Madonna and later Donna Summer to less iconic singers like Lisa Stansfield (check out the jazzy mid-tempo "Checkin' On Me"). Still, few of those ladies would ever think to open an album with a lyric as weird as "You're dating my daughter / the chromosomes match", or passionately sing "I wanna get you out of your cave, man" on the goofy, spooky, hypnotic "Primitive". Fact is, Murphy's personality shines so vividly throughout that even at her most accessible, she's neither derivative nor easily mistaken for anyone else--as if that album cover didn't already clue you in.
Favorite songs: "You Know Me Better", "Checkin' On Me", "Let Me Know", "Primitive"
22 December 2008
6. Portishead - THIRD
Their debut DUMMY continues to astound with each passing year, which may explain the decade-plus silence between their second and third records. If the second disappointed because it failed to match the first, THIRD succeeds because it takes a different approach. Almost entirely eschewing trip-hop and their usual film noir samples/facsimiles, they aim for something far more primitive and guttural. It's a bleak, difficult record, the kind I only want to play in rainy, miserable weather or when I'm in a foul mood. However, don't let that deter you from it, for THIRD is a fascinating listen. You can hear the band continually reinventing themselves with neat, sudden shifts in the music--like the Joy Division guitar riff that completely transforms "We Carry On" midway through, or the moment when "The Rip" morphs from an acoustic setting into an electronic one, or even the cowbell (!) that drives "Magic Doors".
Favorite songs: "Hunter", "The Rip", "We Carry On", "Magic Doors"
19 December 2008
7. Calexico - CARRIED TO DUST
After trying out a slightly more mainstream approach (with mixed results) on their last album, Joey Burns and John Convertino fully sound like Calexico again. Their Southwestern-noir take on indie rock never goes out of style mostly because they’re excellent songwriters (the Latin/Asian fusion of “Two Silver Trees” sports one of their most seductive hooks); they’re also resourceful in how they incorporate everything from dub-reggae (“Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)”) and icy electronics (“Contention City”) to breathless pop (“Writer’s Minor Holiday”) and country balladry (“Slowness”) into the mix. And like their best album, 2003’s FEAST OF WIRE, it all coheres into a singular, satisfying whole that makes more sense with each listen – no small feat in the iPod age.
Favorite songs: ”Victor Jara’s Hands”, “Two Silver Trees”, “Writer’s Minor Holiday”, “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)”
18 December 2008
8. Aimee Mann - @#%&*! SMILERS
Apart from some extra keyboards here and a few less guitars there, she hasn't radically changed her sound, much less her subject matter--she's still calling out poseurs ("Freeway") and writing exquisite kiss-offs both cutting ("Medicine Wheel") and wistful ("It's Over"). Rest assured she hasn't settled into too comfortable a groove, as her best album since BACHELOR #2 is chock full of fun stuff like a song about doing a crossword puzzle that clocks in at a succinct minute-and-a-half, or a charmingly shaggy closing duet with Sean Hayes (the musician, not the actor). On "31 Today" she sings, "I thought my life would be better by now" with such immediacy you don't even care that she'll actually turn 50 in two years.
Favorite songs: "Freeway", "It's Over", "31 Today", "Ballantines"
17 December 2008
9. Vampire Weekend - VAMPIRE WEEKEND
I had to look past the hype, the sweaters, the desire to create a soundtrack for an imaginary Wes Anderson film to get at what’s really remarkable about this band: its rhythms. Whether exotic (made explicit in the title “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) or merely unorthodox (the ska without horns of “A-Punk”), they’re almost always danceable, and they can even make a borderline annoying song like “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” tolerable. Although the singer is no David Byrne, early Talking Heads is a good reference point. They get props, however, for reveling in this very distinct little world while still making a generous effort to invite us all in.
Favorite songs: “A-Punk”, “M79”, “Walcott”
16 December 2008
10. Robert Forster - THE EVANGELIST
Two years after the untimely death of Grant McLennan, his ex-partner in The Go-Betweens, Forster resurfaces as mournful and elegiac as you'd expect: in the sorrowful "Demon Days" (which features some lyrics by McLennan), he sings "Something's gone wrong" and it's almost too much to bear. But Forster did some of his best work ever on the last Go-Betweens album, and much of this one feels like a new beginning rather than a closure. He even sounds jubilant on a few numbers and is still capable of a surprise or two: at first, "Don't Touch Anything" scans as an ode to complacency, before it reveals itself as a simple but touching love song, warped cathedral organ and all.
Favorite songs: "Did She Overtake You", "Let Your Light In, Babe", "Don't Touch Anything"
15 December 2008
Alphabeat - "Fascination"
It's too easy to copy the sound of another time and be done with it; this young, heavily '80s-influenced Danish sextet earns bonus points for also capturing the giddy excitement associated with the best pop songs of that era, and for being so darn infectious that they end up sounding more like today than yesterday.
The B-52's - "Juliet of the Spirits"
Gotta love Fred, but over the years, many of the B's best moments have been courtesy of Cindy and Kate ("Give Me Back My Man", "Roam", "Summer of Love"). Add this cascading, shimmering ode to Fellini and feminine awakening to the list - it's a highlight from their more-durable-than-you-would-expect reunion effort FUNPLEX.
Camille, "Cats and Dogs"
"Cats and dogs are not our friends," trills this sweet-voiced french chanteuse over a swaying piano line recalling early Kate Bush, before fast forwarding to a THE DREAMING-era Bush freakout, as she giddily leads call-and-response meows and woofs amidst a fabulous cacophony of barnyard noise.
Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal"
The lyrics may reference the colder months, but the music of this neat, if somewhat overhyped Seattle band sounds positively, blissfully summery, with wide expanses of tom-toms and 12-string guitars filling up space between the song's attention-grabbing a capella harmony bookends.
Hercules and Love Affair - "Blind"
It's more-than-adequate revivalist disco until Antony's androgynous, otherworldly voice comes in and nearly steals the show. Yet, he works with rather than overshadows the backing track, and the yin/yang combo makes for an urgently beautiful marriage.
Marit Bergman - "Out on the Piers"
Concentrating on singles (via a subscription service) rather than albums, she's come up with an unconventional but agreeable assortment of stuff. This gem, a semi-sequel to 2006's "No Party", is a crisp, jaunty, impassioned rise-up-and-unite anthem that seems especially relevant this year.
Mark Brown feat. Sarah Cracknell - "The Journey Continues"
Yet another year without any new material from Saint Etienne, although this collaboration between vocalist Cracknell and producer Brown can't help but sound like a St. Et. track - fortunately, it's as catchy (the propulsive beat) and weird (the eerie, operatic vocal sample woven throughout) as one of their classic singles.
Martha Wainwright - "You Cheated Me"
I respected Wainwright's 2005 self-titled debut well enough but thought it could've used at least one song with a really memorable hook (even brother Rufus had "April Fools" on his debut). With this highlight from her second LP (the wonderfully titled I KNOW YOU'RE MARRIED BUT I'VE GOT FEELINGS TOO), she not only fulfills the criteria but knocks it out of the park. I've spent hours, days even with this song's terrific chorus stuck in my head, and I don't mind (or feel cheated) at all.
MGMT - "Time to Pretend"
Psych-pop that's more pop than psych, sharp rather than precious, less ironic than affectionate, and with a hook that's nearly as unshakable as that of "You Cheated Me".
She & Him - "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
Over the length of an album, Zooey Deschanel's charming but somewhat flat tone starts to grate, but on one song at a time, it occasionally endears - especially on this single, and particularly towards the end when her multiple overdubs lift the track into retro AM-radio heaven.
Steve Wynn - "Manhattan Fault Line"
Wynn is one of my longtime favorite artists, and I'm still trying to figure out his latest album CROSSING DRAGON BRIDGE, an odd folk-rock detour recorded in Slovenia. But this single instantly connects, building slowly through wistful ruminations on the author's past and present until it practically explodes into a joyous, orchestral finale.
The Ting Tings - "Shut Up and Let Me Go"
You may have heard this one in an iTunes commercial. It's really catchy and kinda stupid and owes a sizable debt to Blondie (and maybe the Tom Tom Club). It stands to be this year's equivalent to last year's most co-opted, overplayed song (that would be Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks"). I still can't get enough of it.
12 more songs to download:
Alison Moyet - "A Guy Like You"
Cyndi Lauper - "Rain on Me"
David Byrne and Brian Eno - "Strange Overtones"
Duffy - "Mercy"
Elbow - "The Bones of You"
Kate Nash - "Foundations"
Magnetic Fields, "Drive On, Driver"
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Dig, Lazurus, Dig!"
R.E.M., "Supernatural Superserious"
Sam Sparro, "Black and Gold"
Sparks, "Lighten Up, Morrissey"
Super Furry Animals, "Baby Ate My Eightball"
11 December 2008
09 December 2008
In the meantime, check out the astonishing cover of Morrissey's new album, scheduled to come out in February. The venerable duo Sparks recorded a song this year called "Lighten Up, Morrissey" and I think he's taken that advice to heart or maybe has just lost his mind--either way, it got my attention.
02 December 2008
Six years passed between THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION (1985) and Jarman's previous feature film. However, he didn't exactly spend that period resting on his laurels. He devoted much time and energy to developing a screenplay and finding funds for what would become CARAVAGGIO; he also turned out an extensive body of work, including set design for a stage production of The Rake's Progress, a number of ultimately unfilmed screenplays (such as the sci-fi allegory NEUTRON, which almost got made with David Bowie in the lead role), his first memoir (Dancing Ledge), "pop promos" (music videos) for everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Wang Chung, and, as always, many Super-8 short films.
Following a retrospective of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, he finally managed to secure funding from the British Film Institute for CARAVAGGIO. But first, he diverted a portion of those funds towards a very different project that had far more in common with his shorts than his features. In fact, it's not difficult to think of THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION as a typical Jarman short expanded into a 77-minute tone poem: of the finished work, The Times duly noted, "The film seems like an excellent short spun out of control."
Jarman made many of his shorts as a communal activity, a simple but creative means of filming his friends, and THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION was born out of this intent. The project began when, at a bar, Jarman met and was taken with Paul Reynolds, a young archaeology student. Reynolds did not reciprocate Jarman's feelings, but when he expressed interest in Philip Williamson, another young man at the bar, Jarman decided he would film what he witnessed (and, to an extent, imagined to be) their subsequent affair. The results follow a trajectory of sorts: Reynolds and Williamson are both shot separately for the first half, then come together to share the frame as they physically embrace, only to be shown apart again during the final sequences.
Most of the film is shot in Super-8 and projected in slow motion (approximately 5-10 frames per second), giving it both a dreamlike, somnambulant feel and an exceptionally glacial pace. As expected from Super-8 stock, the images are grainy and are also often washed out with earth tones and orange and beige filters. A few fleeting sequences are in regular motion and their sudden appearance startles nearly as much as, say, the one fluid shot amongst the still frames of LA JETEE.
There is no dialogue and possibly no sync-sound (it's often hard to tell); in their place is an electronic, ambient score by Coil, an extended snippet of Benjamin Britten's "Sea Interludes" from Tammy Grimes, and the occasional voice-over reading of Shakespeare sonnets by Judi Dench. One could offer up a detailed analysis of how the sonnets add meaning to the imagery and are Jarman's way of advocating the theory that they were written out of some homoerotic intent, but in all my viewings of this film, I was less struck by the words than by Dench's reading of them. Her tone is cool but not without urgency, and it's a perfect match for the swirling, clanging, alternately soothing and jarring noise surrounding her interludes.
For anyone accustomed to the narrative-centric structure (no matter how loose or stretched) of Jarman's first three features, THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION might seem completely alien. Even on my second viewing of it this year, it took me a good fifteen or twenty minutes to adjust to its challenging style. Jarman counters this somewhat by stocking the film with motifs that will register with anyone familiar with his work: the sound of water and its calming presence; reoccurring images like a rotating radar and a burning car; the bold, fluid reflection of a mirror against sunlight; the flame of a lit flare, this time slowed down into an abstraction.
One of his most gentle and pastoral films, it is also nearly unprecedented in Jarman's oeuvre as a paean to the male form, although not straightforward or bluntly rendered enough to be considered erotica or even kitsch. Instead, it plays out like a series of closely observed rituals. Reynolds and Williamson spend much of the film building up a head full of steam overflowing with longing and extended gazes (sometimes at each other, but mostly directed from Jarman). However, when they finally touch, they do so as a slow-motion wrestle that seems less tender than defensive and aggressive. Their first explicitly tender embrace is briefly shown at normal speed, before Jarman slows it back down and it plays out like a series of tiny, isolated gestures--a holding of hands, a chaste kiss on the lips, the reaction and turn of a face.
The "story" here is told almost entirely through such images, but left wide open in terms of a literal interpretation. We don't know why the lovers are apart at the end, whether the circumstances are tragic or not. What matters is they are apart - their placement and the suddenly icy music that envelops them tells us as such. In this sense THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION is not only Jarman's most intimate film but also, perhaps, his most inscrutable. Naturally, such a "difficult" effort was the one film he was apparently most proud of and felt truly represented him. It undoubtedly requires an openness on the viewer's part to look past its abstractions and approach it as one would poetry instead of prose. For me, it's not a breakthrough nearly on par with the work he'd be doing in another two years, but certainly a stepping stone towards a truly independent, personal, original cinema.