I’m not going to do a Top Ten, because I’m not even sure I have a Top Ten for the year. It was that kind of year. (And, to be honest, I haven’t even bought the Ladytron or Broadcast albums yet—both of which need to be evaluated for a true Top 10 List).
I listened to a lot of Wolfgang Press this year, rediscovered Arto Lindsay and DNA in a big way, enjoyed the new Electrelane, Franz Ferdinand, and Knitters albums quite a lot. New Stereolab six-song EP was passable but more of the same, and hence, a pleasant enough disappointment. (I think I’ve maxed out on the ‘lab, sadly. Although I did find myself listening to Switched On and Peng! quite a bit so maybe it’s just new ‘lab that’s irking me with its drab meanderings. Hmm.)
Anyway, the list. Short but hopefully sweet: [cont’d>>]
1) THE OCCASION, Cannery Hours (say hey!)
Live, Sin-é [August 2005], Middle East Café [October 2005]
I’m not even sure at this point when or how I stumbled across the Occasion. But I do remember the precise moment that I heard “I Can’t Stop Falling.” It’s a song so compelling you just fall effortlessly into the little world it creates, this pocket fiction you want to take with you and study with rapt, slightly stunned attention. The refrain “I can’t stop falling,” repeated often and with a slowly escalating sense of desperation, is punctuated by sharp, startling whip-cracks of percussion. It is by turns quiet and poetic, furious and tense. “Sooner or later it will come to me,” singer Jordi Wheeler whispers, sounding like a man resigned to a peculiar sort-of hell that he both fears and welcomes.
After some investigating, I found out that “Falling” was off of their self-titled debut [Say Hey, 2004]. Their new album, Cannery Hours [Say Hey], is equally intense, building on similar timeless, enigmatic lyrical concerns and playful sense of sonic experimentation. Musically, the band paints in watercolors —sometimes in broad, dusky swathes, sometimes with bright, pointillist delicacy. Equal parts fitful and elusive, songs like the epic “The Maiden” and the stoic “Register My Complaints” evoke parched soundscapes —deserts where one or two hardy species of plant survive, seemingly against all odds. “You May Know Me” is touched with a rare, effortless sense of grace and buoyed by double-tracked, gentle harmonies and Brent Cordero’s plangent piano. In addition to the somewhat formal, elegiac quality, there’s also a subtle, surreal sense of whimsy at work. “What is this?” Jordi sings on “Register My Complaints”, “Is it the work of some imaginative florist?”
Loosely speaking, The Occasion traffic in a kind of pastoral psychedelia. Psychedelia is, at heart, about freeing music from earthbound limitations, and in turn invoking a trance-like state in the listener. And the sum total of the Occasion’s music offers no such balm. Songs often begin with undulating, gentle waves of sound, lulling you into a false sense of complacency, only to stun you with distortion and rumbling basslines. From there, it builds to these incredible crescendos, pulling you effortlessly to the top of a massive swell and leaving you there, slightly stunned and wondering how in the hell you’re going to get down to Earth again.
The band is, in some ways, a bit of a Frankenstein creature —the push and pull of influences is sometimes internal, and they’re a better band for it. While their sound certainly has some antecedents in the 60s and 70s (the Velvets, Cale, Tony Conrad, echoes of the motorik mantras of Can, Amon Duul II, and Neu!) it also has the crisp single-mindedness and emotional raggedness of post-punk, post-rock groups like Savage Republic, Slint, and Scenic. (The S’s in a row were purely coincidental.) They manage to incorporate three singers —Brent Cordero (vocals, Rhodes piano), Charles Burst (vocals, drums), and Jordi Wheeler (vocals, guitar)— without compromising individual songwriting styles. Yet, somehow, everything coalesces in this incredibly organic way, aided and abetted by the equally impressive contributions of bassist Marlon Sporer and tape loop guru/percussionist Sara Shaw, whose deft way with splicing gives the songs their tenacious, slightly windswept quality.
I’ve caught the band live twice now —once during CMJ at Sin-é, and recently at Boston’s Middle East, where they were opening for Acid Mothers Temple. Both shows were impressive in different ways, The first because the band took their limited time and ran with it, giving us a concise set that never once let up in intensity. Seeing them a little over a month later at the Middle East, it was clear that touring with loose-limbed collective Acid Mothers Temple had liberated the band in some crucial ways. Songs that were organic to begin with became even more freeform, ebbing and flowing with a newfound confidence and innate sense of trust. That, and they seemed to be having a lot more fun.
2) CITIZEN’S BAND [Deitch Projects]
This insane anarcho-cabaret collective/variety show spectacle includes Rain Phoenix, Karen Elson, Ian Buchanan (Twin Peaks) and (seemingly) an entire Coney Island Freak Show of insanely talented polymaths. I haven’t been lucky enough to catch one of their shows yet (they’re affiliated with Deitch Projects in NYC) but I can only imagine it’s like seeing Isadora Duncan, Mistiguett, Rasputina, and the Tiger Lillies playing Madame Nelson’s brothel on New Year’s Eve, a Gorey-esque, technicolor penny dreadful as bawdy, raucous, and wry as it is colorful. The group mixes originals with well-chosen covers, and plays music that is as mordantly funny (“Je T’Aime Scumbag”) as it is tender (Karen Elson’s heartbreaking reworking of the Velvets classic, “Candy Says”). I’m waiting (not-so-patiently) for them to release something officially, either an entire show on DVD or a cast recording/selection. I missed their latest opus The Trepanning Opera but hope to make it to whatever they’re offering up in the new year.
Karen Elson’s version of “Candy Says” is one of the most affecting songs I’ve heard all year. Given Elson’s background as a model, the song becomes a poignant exploration of a woman’s alienation from her own body —giving a nice, O. Henry-ish twist to the original’s plaintive longing of a transvestite to embody the feminine and understand the secret, elusive language of girls. Elson’s emotionally concise, nakedly vulnerable reading and her simple accompaniment on autoharp gives the song a tenacious delicacy that Candy Darling herself would have no doubt appreciated.
3) SONS AND DAUGHTERS, The Repulsion Box [Domino]
The Repulsion Box didn’t quite live up to the short, spiky promise of debut EP “Love the Cup” but it came close. Live, this band tore into their songs with everything they had and it was special indeed.
From my live review of their October Boston show: “This spiky but tender gender-balanced quartet won’t pull their emotional punches when they can throw them (especially fitting when you remember that half of the group formerly worked with arch-miserablists Arab Strap). Led by co-conspirators Scott Paterson and Adele Bethel, the group draws heavily on folk and country influences: think Appalachian murder ballads and sinister, countrified rave-ups, a little Gothic and roughed-up —more Johnny Cash, X, and Gun Club than Grand Ol’ Opry. Their songs collectively inhabit some erstwhile Bermuda triangle between gray, smog-riddled Glasgow and a dusty roadhouse out on a lonely expanse of two-lane blacktop.
Onstage, the emotional intensity between Patterson and Bethel barely ever lets up. Paterson plays the stoic, silent card, while Bethel slinks across the stage, evoking such rock femme fatales as Poison Ivy Rorschach and Exene Cervenka but effortlessly holding her own.
The songs —narrative tragedies of love gone wrong, love gone sour, of love gone, period, full-stop— are tough as nails, but possessed of narrative breadth and delicacy that softens them just enough. Time after time they cut close to the bone with restless, harrowing precision. Take, for example, a song like “Gone”: with its use of handclaps, brisk syncopation, and “la la la” harmonies, it could almost be could be a long-lost demo by a stripped-down, slightly sinister Shangri Las. That is, until Adele’s girlish coo veers sharply into a harrowing banshee wail. “I cut you out of every photograph within an inch of your life!” she spits out with shockingly pure, unmitigated rancor.
Every Sons and Daughters song is full-on, all flash and heat. But they’ve spun something darkly compelling and singularly vital out of such impetuous, romantic fatalism. Live, they’re even better: vibrant and luscious and a bit harrowing. See them if you can.”
4) GLASS CANDY, “Life After Sundown” 12”; Sugar & Whitebread EP [troubleman unlimited]
Any band that covers the Screamers, “Iko Iko” and the Rolling Stones has some cojones (not to mention a sense of humor). Glass Candy’s best release of the year by far was the incredible 12” single, “Life After Sundown,” a gloriously hi-NRG romp that plays out like the best song ESG never wrote, all dubby low-end and giddy hand-claps. If this doesn’t get you dancing around your office, there may be no hope for ya.
By comparison, “Sugar & Whitebread” is a pale imitation, but an enjoyable one. Tom Tom Club meets Blondie in a head-on collision of synth squiggles and cooler-than-permafrost vocals.
The band has posted on their Myspace page that they’ll soon be offering all their demos, remixes, and alternate versions of songs (over 50 in all) available as hi-res MP3 downloads. I’ll post the URL when it’s up.
5) HIS NAME IS ALIVE, Summerbird EP (online release)
There’s a new HNIA album on the horizon, called Detrola. This EP, released online this past summer, was a lovely preamble, a buoyant and lovely collection of four sun-drenched, lush songs.
6) SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES, Downside Up
What can I say? My Goth roots are showing. I’ll always love the Banshees, and this box-set gave me a chance to own all the odds and ends I was missing over the years —including two of my favorite B-sides, “Tattoo” (memorably covered by Tricky for his nearly god project), “Are You Still Dying, Darling?” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” All this and the Thorn EP too. Beautiful packaging is always a nice bonus.
Albums I Didn’t Buy in 2005 but Should Have:
Psapp, Tiger, My Friend [Leaf]
50 Foot Wave, Free Music [throwing music]
Lali Puna, I Thought I Was Over That [Morr]
Matt Elliott, Drinking Songs [Merge]
Ilitch, 10 Suicides [Fractal]
Broadcast, Tender Buttons [warp]
Ladytron, Witching Hour [Ryko]
Celebration, Celebration [4AD]
The Rogers Sisters, Three Fingers [troubleman unlimited]
Amadou & Mariam, Dimanche a Bamako [nonesuch]
Kokono No. 1, Congotronics [Crammed]