Apologies to all… It’s been an interesting holiday break. A lot of competing priorities and the blog took the hit. We’re back on track for the year, and complete our year in review with the conclusion of my picks for 2011. Thanks again for an incredible 2011!
Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know: When reviewing this album, it’s hard not to focus on Laura Marling’s age. The 21 year old folkstress continues to demonstrate brilliance with the release of her third album, which follows last year’s outstanding, I Speak Because I Can.
A defining moment for many great folk artists is the decision to stay true to the genre or expand upon it. Bob Dylan was vilified and jeered at Newport for going ‘electric’ at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. No one there would imagine that he was in the middle of releasing the three best records (i.e., Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde) of his incredible career. Similarly, Joni Mitchell gradually ventured into jazz with the subtleness of Court and Spark through the brash experimentalism of The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) and Hejira (1976). Then there is the development Richard Thompson, who with wife Linda flourished with the outstanding, Shoot Out The Lights. While Marling comes out of the same “school of folk” as Thompson, she compares favorably with Dylan and Mitchell, because her music is often considered timeless and accessible. Regardless of comparisons, Marling is clearly waxing and her youth holds great promise for a career that rivals Dylan, Mitchell or Thompson’s.
A Creature I Don’t Know gravitates towards darkness and the underside of life. It’s less a mirror and more a shadow. That is, it explains what lies underneath us and is not apparent at first glance. The album opens fairly innocuously with the Americana-inspired track, The Muse, that describes the encounter with a mystery man who is revealed to be “the beast.” Marling continually revisits mystery men or men that “know something about me (her) that I don’t want him to know” in I Was Just A Card, or sate their pleasure from her in The Beast. The Beast is the album’s most powerful song, starting off with Marling’s stark voice and climaxing with grinding guitars, drums, and the dark imagery of tainted lust. Sophia, the lead single, is an instant classic, and the track where Marling stands alone with strength and resolve.
It is inspiring to see a young talent make history, and Marling shows progress and continued growth with this release. Her smoky soprano, dark lyrics, and willingness to go beyond the folk genre make A Creature I Don’t Know her best album to date.
Watch – Sophia
Edda Magnason – Goods: Edda Magnason’s second album is a marvelous mix of quirky pop songs that make use of traditional as well as toy instruments. On Goods, the Swedish songstress adds quirky keyboards, sitars, children’s toy instruments, and choirs of Russian sailors (yes, you read that correctly). Magnason expands on the depth of her debut, proving to be more than a piano tickling chanteuse.
There are obvious comparisons to Björk who Magnason resembles vocally. However, Magnason’s work is a bit more accessible indie pop than that of her Icelandic cousin, and beyond the vocals, the music is distinctly Edda’s.
Blondie is an incredible pop song that describes a story of longing after a secret crush. Handsome is a bouncy number with piano rhythms and a hooky chorus. The opener, Camera, opens with gorgeous harps before lifting off into a funky groove of mellotron and all sorts of groovy sounds. Falling Asleep to a Kitchen Conversation features Magnason scat singing to a jazz-pop arrangement. The soft space of Beatle and quiet jazz piano of Magpie’s Nest are welcome changes of pace.
Goods is surprisingly refreshing, and will probably see more attention in 2012 as Magnason is now working with an international PR firm. Preview the fun pop track, Handsome.
Edda Magnason – Handsome
Starfucker – Reptilians: The opening chords on Born set the stage for this album. It’s full of cacophonous noises and a gripping, hooky groove that’s hard to ignore. Reptilians is fun like the Flaming Lips and funky like of Montreal with all of the saccharine of Oracular Spectacular on hallucinogenic drugs.
This is a serious headphone album. Layers of synth, percussion, and samples pervade Reptilians. It has something for everyone. The synth horns drive the spiraling pop smash, Bury Us Alive. The radio-friendly Julius and Mystery Cloud balance the indie rock/chillwave line well. Deeper cuts Millions and Hungry Ghost are core tracks that stay true to Starfucker’s synth pop roots.
Reptilians is the ‘fun’ album of 2011. Play it and smile.
Starfucker – Hungry Ghost
Starfucker – Millions
Starfucker – Bury Us Alive
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead: Their sixth studio album stands in sharp contrast to its predecessor (the magnificently bloated Hazards of Love) and marks a return to something more familiar for fans of the Portland-based group. Enlisting support from Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, and R.E.M. guitarist, Peter Buck, the band delivers 10 crisp tracks in the span of 40 minutes. The result is refreshing, and it captures the feel of the Pacific Northwest summer during which recording sessions occurred.
The pre-release buzz for this album focused on Peter Buck’s involvement in recording three tracks: Calamity Song, Down By The Water, and Don’t Carry It All. The tracks are undeniably accented by Buck’s presence with the darkly comic Calamity Song sounding like early R.E.M. and Down By The Water echoing familiar arpeggios from The One I Love. While Buck’s presence is welcome, it’s hard to imagine this recording without Gillian Welch, who appears on most of the album. Welch’s backing vocals warm Meloy’s strong nasal-tinged singing, and she proves to be as valuable as any instrument on this recording. Her partner, Rawlings, contributes notably with backing vocals on June Hymn and joins the band as an instrumentalist on other tracks.
This recording marks significant change, but the Decemberists don’t veer too far from their strengths. Songwriting and composition continue to be a hallmark of this quintet. Rise to Me is the most powerful song on the album, and features a beautifully played steel guitar by Chris Funk. Other highlights include January Hymn, June Hymn, This Is Why We Fight (the only modern rock track on the record), the aforementioned Calamity Song and the first single, Down By The Water. While the king may be dead, the Decemberists are decidedly not, as they continue their run of excellent albums.
Watch: Down By The Water (at KCRW studios)
Watch: This Is Why We Fight
Cut Copy – Zonoscope: Combining elements of indie rock, rave and electro-pop, Zonosphere is a landmark album from the Melbourne-based quartet. Dance floor rhythms and trippy atmosphere are at the heart of this recording.
The slow grind triptastic voyage of Need You Now is a classic club track that can thump the floors at any discotheque. The funky guitar, shadowy synth and jungle beat of Take Me Over captures the spirit of pop-synth bands of yore. Where I’m Going is a spacey pop song with vocals strangely reminiscent of Tear for Fears during their Seeds of Love days. However, the tracks not meant for airplay are the most intriguing. Blink And You’ll Miss the Revolution is an anthem for the beach dancing, laser light worshippers who gave this band its start with its synthed kettle drums, handclaps, and polyrhythmic keyboard chords. The hazy alarms on Corner of the Sky power this mid-rave groove as it slowly builds into an eclectic mix of noise and beats. This is a nice balance of old and new, and sure to draw new fans for this Aussie foursome.
Cut Copy grows up on this album, but they don’t forget their roots. Zonosphere is best when the moon is rising, the night is clear, and there’s a party on a beach somewhere. For me, visions of Maggie Island nights and full moon parties abound.
Cut Copy – Need You Know
Cut Copy – Take Me Over
Future Islands – On the Water: The third LP from these sons of Morehead City, NC is a departure from the early days of dance-infected grooves with vocalist Sam Herring writhing, screaming and performing his theatrics akin to a Maori Haka. Sam’s a nice guy, but there are times where he can honestly scare the piss out of you–he’s that intense.
The air of gravitas is undeniable on this effort. Herring’s powerful vocals are beautifully complemented by bassist William Cashion’s steady presence and Gerrit Welmers’ subtle but nuanced keyboard playing. To put it simply, this album is a home run. The synergy between the three players has never been better. The balance between Herring’s emotive style and Cashion and Gerit’s compositions is remarkable. It’s their first complete album. It’s as if each songs melts into the next, or more appropriately, flows into the next.
On the Water centers on reminiscence, memory and haunting images with which one is left. At a show in Greenville last March, Herring talked about the memories of heartache and loss before diving into the title track’s splendid ballad. Where I Found You implores its antagonist to “remember the past” while Welmers’ polyrhythmic chords churn like calm waves hitting the side of the boat. The Great Fire is a fantastic duet with Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) who smolders while Herring seeths controllably.
The atmosphere, like that of the winter waters of the Albemarle Sound, is dark, murky and cold. The periodic use of seaside sounds from their recording location in Elizabeth City, NC enhances feelings of uncertainty, angst and being out of control. Cashion and Gerit do the rest, giving Sam Herring a proper vehicle for his visceral lyrics and emotive performance.
Future Islands – Before the Bridge
Future Islands – Balance