Author Archive

Thoughts on early January

Guided by Voices — Let’s Go Eat The Factory

A rather busy end to 2011 and start to 2012 saw me miss what I thought would be a lot, but it turned out that I was just late to my first listen to the new Guided by Voices record.

Wait, what?

I shouldn’t be surprised.* When I saw GBV at Matador at 21 — you know, that concert that was supposedly their only reunion show that turned into a full-fledged tour — they looked, well, happy. And really happy at that. None of the infighting (oh, Pavement…) and just some good old-fashioned rock music. Well, if old-fashioned means 1990s indie rock, then that. Otherwise, I retract my statement. At any rate, I also shouldn’t be surprised that they’re planning to release three albums in 2012. End of the world my ass.

But this — well, this is good, I think. A few tracks in and there’s nothing hugely surprising yet. Let’s Go Eat the Factory isn’t the polished pop-rock heard on soundtracks to mid-2000s television series (hey, I like that stuff sometimes, no hard feelings!) and it’s not exactly the fuzzy nonsense of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. No, it’s somewhere in-between, and I can’t place my finger on where that really is. That’s kind of nice, actually — we already have those albums to listen to whenever we want, and another just like it — well, that’s a bit much. Or, you know, something like that. Honestly, I wouldn’t actually have complained at first.

Wait, what’s this piano doing in here? “Spider Fighter” … nice vocals. It’s different. It’s… nice. Respectable. Why? Maybe it’s Robert Pollard’s Surprise Symphony. No, wait — it’s Tobin Sprout. Maybe that explains it. I really should listen to those two Tobin Sprout solo albums again.

Yeah, it’s all here. The oddball songs, the slowdowns at the end of tracks that just sing GBV, the overtly cut-short writing, and, of course, those attempts that really don’t come off but somehow made the album anyway. All those things that made the band a cult classic. I’d wonder if it was a forced thing, but I won’t complain either way.

Shit, wait. There’s a song called “How I Met My Mother”? It’s probably just a nice little shout after the repeated use of Guided by Voices tracks in How I Met Your Mother. Oh, and it’s a minute long. Plus two seconds. Maybe five seconds of that is guitar noise at the end though. Well, that’s weird and a bit cool.

So, yeah. This is classic Guided by Voices — to a point. It’s not obnoxiously classic, and it’s not just a weird throwback album. Or maybe it is, I don’t know.

Whatever it is, I think I like it.

* I’m not actually surprised. I already knew it was coming out long before today. But at some point, I was surprised and that’s what matters. I hope.


Nada Surf — The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy

Onward and upward — and onward to The Binding of Isaac, which is my favorite game of 2011. Now, of course, I didn’t play it until January 2012, but you’ll hopefully forgive me for some delay there. But relevant to this piece is the album I’ve opted for: Nada Surf’s latest. Sure, everyone’s going to say something about “Popular” while completely ignoring the four very good albums that came after High/Low — and then declare that they’re mounting some sort of brave comeback with their last two albums. Yeah, If I Had a Hi-Fi is good — but so too was Let Go and The Weight is a Gift.

But I guess that’s water under the bridge, isn’t it? OK, so The Stars… is good. I’ll have to listen to it a few more times. In the mean time, I suppose I’ll watch the end of the U.S. Women’s National Team demolition of the Dominican Republic. 14-0, seriously?

Still, this Nada Surf album is a nice one, and I’m sure it’ll hold up to repeated listens without much controversy. They’re a band I keep coming back to because of their consistency, so to see that continue is quite nice indeed.


Diagrams — Black Light

Right, on to the point where I listen to new things and play video games or, well, something. I’d read some Quine but I suspect I’d fall asleep.

I’d not heard Diagrams before this (as, I suspect, is the case for most people — it’s Sam Genders, formerly of Tunng) but a first listen reveals some poppy shambles. Good lord, it’s fun, and I suspect I’ve already got a song or two stuck in my head. There’s nothing quite like British experimental pop, is there? Juan over at No Ripcord (where I also write, though perhaps not as often as I should) called it “an album of brainy arrangements and palatable textural work.” He’s right, of course.

Hell, I’ll say it: It’s sometimes downright proggy. And I like that.

Released This Week: Veronica Falls, Twin Sister, Youth Lagoon

Another week, another chunk of albums released. Here are three that may have flown under your radar more than, say, new Bjork or Wilco. I’m sure, however, there’s plenty I’ve missed, so send it along!


Twin Sister — In Heaven

I first saw Twin Sister open for Beirut in Salt Lake City. Until I heard In Heaven in its entirety, my knowledge was limited to basically that. That this is their debut LP might be a little hard to believe — it’s mature, inviting and a nice electronic indie pop record.



Veronica Falls — Veronica Falls

Everybody needs some noisy C86-style indie pop once in a while. When you can’t be arsed to get out your tapes, try this debut LP from Veronica Falls. It’s two years in the making and well worth the wait. Need a track to start with? Try “Stephen.”



Youth Lagoon — The Year of Hibernation

No week would be quite right without a reverby pop mess of an album — especially when that album is actually pretty good despite it all. Youth Lagoon is more in that synthesized-but-lush vein and it’s well worth a listen.


Released This Week: Sept. 20

Right, here are three albums released this week that I thought were worth touching on. If I’ve missed something you really enjoyed, please, let me know. Preferably not by yelling, but do what you must.

Ivy — All Hours

Full album stream (Soundcloud)


Here’s some interesting indie pop that delves into the electronic side of things. If you like what you hear from a few tracks, you’ll probably like the whole thing, though personally the strict rhythmic nature gets a bit overbearing at times. If you listen to the full album stream, you can catch some interesting thoughts from French-born Dominique Durand on the album — and that might make the whole thing worth a listen. It disrupts the flow of the album, sure, but it’s fun. Why not?


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — Hysterical

Full album stream (NPR)


To be completely honest, I never really cared about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Just one of those band names, you know? Something about that name doesn’t sit right with me. Who knows why. Anyway, I don’t hate the music, though if you only read the first line of that, you’d think I did, and that’s only my fault. Hysterical’s more of that energetic pop music you may or may not love (hopefully for better reasons than I.) Who knows, maybe this album will finally change my unjustified opinion. Hell, if it holds up after this good first listen, I’ll change opinion immediately. At any rate, my rambling says nothing about the album.

Jens Lekman — An Argument With Myself (EP)

Full album stream (Soundcloud)


We all love things that remind us of a surprisingly effective but sadly imaginary collaboration between The Smiths and Stephin Merritt, and An Argument With Myself (especially that title track!) fits that mold surprisingly precisely. If this is a precursor to a third full-length, count me among those who are now sold on it. You see, this EP is really, really good.

Strange Finds: Sesame Disco! (1979)

Yeah, that's the cover.

Sometimes, during that ever-so-regular search for something rare and interesting in the bargain bins of thrift stores and consignment shops, you run across a record that gives you pause for thought — something so bizarre that you can’t much pass it up. Sometimes, it’s Peter and Wolf with David Bowie doing narration. Other times, it’s a spoken word record with presidential speeches. Few can top, though, the strange 1979 recording of Sesame Disco.

It’s an album that includes such, uh, hits as “I Lost Me Cookie in the Disco” (“…and me got careless, me don’t know how, and me have something me can’t find now…”) and the inimitable “Bein’ Green” in a strange disco mode.


Imagine, if you will, the sounds of singing Muppets, female backups, and that predictably bouncy disco sound. Bizarre, right? It won’t come close to how absolutely weird this is. Hell, the album art alone is worth the inevitably low cost of this album. The sight of Grover thrusting forward as he does the hustle, or Ernie with a gold chain around his neck and a white turtleneck, or Cookie Monster with his shirt open wide? Why, that’s all I needed! The addition of Oscar, The Count, Big Bird, Herry Monster, and a young muppet girl with pigtails (Prairie Dawn, is that you?) — why, it’s icing on the cake. Oh, and you mustn’t forget that there’s a sandwich board advertising the special guest star: Kermit the Frog! The gatefold also shows some of the Muppets with children. That’s sort of weird. And if you couldn’t get enough of the front, why, it’s repeated on the back, only, you know, smaller. It’s a weird one.

Sure, this was a novelty record for kids, but there’s plenty here to enjoy. If you’re looking for something strange and exciting to listen to repeatedly, though? Well, don’t look here. Those backing female vocalists just keep going and going and going: It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. And those bouncy beats? If you’re feeling particularly down, listen to this. If it doesn’t help immediately, turn it off. This is somehow lots of fun, but it’s also enough to drive one to madness. “Disco Frog” is particularly egregious. It included a moment where I thought the record was skipping — I found out after 10 or 15 seconds that the repeated bass line and the “ribbit ribbit” was quite intentional. Oh, boy.

I will say this much: The disco rendition of “Bein’ Green” is actually kind of interesting. Who’da thought?

Is it fair to criticize a kid’s album from 1979? Well, probably not. But this is Sesame Disco! — it’s in a world all its own. If there’s one thing we can certainly agree on, it’s that this is definitely one strange find.

Released This Week: AA Bondy, Girls, Mates of State, Wild Flag

AA Bondy — Believers


Well, he’s done it. He’s gone and changed his signature style. You know the one: stripped-down recordings, acoustic guitars, that voice of his. Thankfully, the change really is quite good: Believers is lush, evocative, and most importantly, an enjoyable 40 minutes of great songwriting.

Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost


I reviewed this album last week because I’ve been consistently impressed by the band and thought the new album would probably be worth a go. I think that may be the understatement of the year (though perhaps that’s an overstatement). Anyway, the album’s quite good. I’d parrot a bit of my review, but why don’t you just read it? Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost review []

Mates of State — Mountaintops


If more husband-and-wife indie pop, male and female harmonies leading the way, is what you want, Mates of State have predictably done it again. By their seventh album, they’ve got a very clear idea about how to do this sort of thing, and they aren’t straying too far from the ground they helped to establish in the genre.

Wild Flag — Wild Flag


Wild Flag are sort of this indie rock female supergroup featuring some names you’ll probably recognize — and one you’ll most definitely recognize (apologies if you don’t recognize her name!): Carrie Brownstein, best known for her work in Sleater-Kinney — though her sketch comedy show Portlandia is certainly growing in name recognition as well. Anyway, this album’s really, really good. Listen to it.

A. A. Bondy drifts from roots toward lush sound on Believers

A. A. Bondy — Believers

You probably know A. A. Bondy for his evocative songwriting and stripped-down style — a reasonable expectation, as his first two albums were in that very style, and it’s what he made his solo name on. Through those first two albums, he made his name as an effective songwriter in the folk style, and his songs were really very good. But with Believers being his third album, it was perhaps time for a minor shift in style to, you know, freshen things up.

Why, then, am I surprised that Believers departs from his stripped-down instrumentation, a lush aural environment taking its place? Because, well, this is good. And I don’t just mean passable — that was sort of a foregone conclusion. This is really quite good even though the lyrical sensibilities he brought to the fore of his style previously are perhaps buried a bit. There’s something regrettable about that, though not in a big way, because the additional layers are viscerally enjoyable: The steel pedal, the fullness of the guitar, the wholly flowing feel to some of these tracks — it all makes for quite an experience.


A. A. Bondy has made himself out be a songwriter worth his weight in, well, something — salt, probably, but how much does he weigh? I can get 100 lbs. of fine rock salt for $130, so I’d say he’s worth somewhat more than about $200 (a rough estimate, mind.) Back to the point, right? Believers is good, and it builds on the work he’s done without tearing it down. The stylistic shift he engages in is both effective and approachable, but most importantly, the album just … works. Everything comes together in a beautiful collision of sound, and the sound of the impact is more ocean-waves-soothing than it is jolting. And when you make a shift like this, that really is something you’ve got to look out for.

The Artist Behind the Art: Nick Drake and Keith Morris, Five Leaves Left

The front cover of Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left. Photography by Keith Morris.

The inimitable Nick Drake, recognized after his death as a brilliant songwriter but rarely before, is still the master of that brand of moody, emotive finger-picked acoustic guitar. The haunting melodies, the unshakable vocals, the ability to move through song: Nick Drake, an English songwriter but a speaker for deep veins of sadness and despair running through all culture, is still untouchable as a musician.

His first album, Five Leaves Left, was produced between 1968 and 1969, when Nick was 20 and 21. Keith Morris was asked to photograph Nick for the album cover by the album’s producer. Incidentally, this was the first album cover Keith would work on, and it’s one that defines him still today. The moment for both young artists, both near the start of their careers, was the first in an unfortunately cut short collaboration between the two, in which Keith photographed Nick in conjunction with each of the three legendary Nick Drake albums: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, and Pink Moon.

Visit the Keith Morris Gallery online for more of the iconic photographs of Nick Drake.

Keith, still, had little chance to engage the elusive Nick Drake; despite being the only professional photographer to work with Nick, he hadn’t worked with him aside from the work the three albums — and then, on but a single day for each.

The artwork taken for Five Leaves Left, the first of those opportunities, captures the young Nick Drake looking perhaps as contemplative as his early music. The photograph used for the front of the album depicts Nick gazing out a window, and presumably, the only light in the room being the natural light coming from the two windows seen in the photograph. The strong shadows cast by only in the corners of Nick’s Hampstead flat set the mood for the music: The whole thing is not cast in shadow, though certainly parts of it are. The play between the light and the dark serves as a visual metaphor for the bleakness and the exuberance heard contrasting in Nick Drake’s guitar work and vocals.

The photograph from the reverse side of Five Leaves Left. © Keith Morris. Image used under Fair Use rationale.

The photograph on the reverse side is as much revealing, but it exists more as a metaphor of Nick Drake’s musical attitude than of the musical performance. Nick, against a brick wall, is still, and again, he is gazing into the distance. It’s not the gaze of a combat-hardened soldier, that thousand-yard wear gaze. Nick is instead looking almost wistfully into the distance, unaware that, ahead of him, people are running by, carrying about with their busy lives. The specific photograph in the series depicts a man, perhaps a businessman, running into the frame in some sort of rush.

Through the visual metaphor of Morris’s photographs, the album gains additional valuable meaning that could not be achieved without a visual narrative, as non-literal as it may be. There is a specific art in capturing the combination of weariness and optimism that is packaged gracefully in Five Leaves Left: Keith Morris, for his part, tells the story of Nick Drake, the musician, through these two beautiful photographs, and through the others he took throughout the musician’s tragically short career.

How’s it Holding Up? Destroyer — Kaputt

Early on every year, there are those records that you’re certain will make the top of your year-end charts, that you’re sure is going to be among the very best the year has to offer. Perhaps it’s in part due to our particular demarcation of years as periods for music, when clearly the shifts and swings are more organic than that.


Perhaps it’s just out of a desire to start with a clean slate: The music really piles up when you’re making those year-end lists, then there’s nothing of note for two, three, maybe four weeks. That break is a bit like those coffee beans they give you to cleanse your palate at a wine tasting, and after a full year of listening, a cleansing is certainly beneficial.

This year, my early pick was the consummate Destroyer album Kaputt — easily my top pick of January and somehow still in the running for my year-end list. It’s full of little things that are easy to ignore but brilliant to take in: Every listening produces something a bit different. And those melodies — oh, those melodies — are impossible to ignore. It’s the lack of jumpiness, both in construction and in presentation, that really define Dan Bejar’s outpouring. The melodies are evocative in the smooth, definitive quality that permeates the album.

It’s even better on vinyl, too! The third side of the album is a bit of a suite that’s not found in other releases, and it adds a nice quality to the flow of the album. Sure, it pushes the runtime to a lengthy 70 minutes, but it completes the album. The thing is, I’m not even sure it needed completion, and it was dangerous to mess with what was already very strong — but here it is nonetheless, and it’s one of the best parts of the double LP. See what a little risk-taking gets you?

Standout tracks include “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker,” “Song for America,” and “Kaputt,” though it’s a bit odd that tracks can stand out when the whole of the album is at a high level. To be fair, any of the songs could have reasonably been picked as standouts, and any decision has a degree of arbitrariness to it.

Has it held up well? Certainly so. It’s one of the few albums released this winter that have held my attention raptly through the spring and summer, and I don’t think I’d be lying if I said that I expect it to last a good deal longer than that with consistent listening. Is it Destroyer’s Rubies? No, but it certainly holds up favorably next to it. Thankfully, I’m not in the business of ranking Dan Bejar’s work on some mysterious scale.

At this point, it would take a downpour of brilliant releases to seal this one out of the top ten. It is, I think, one of the few surefire bets of the year.

“… this is an early contender for album of the year — when the end comes, don’t forget about this January masterpiece.” — Me, in January.

Yeah, I’d say it’s held up just fine.