Ten Things I Loved About Oh-Five
by paul r jaissle
1. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador)
As far as I can tell, the New Pornographers are the only band since the Ramones to bat 1.000 on their first three albums. After it seemed they might have been stuck in a rut with 2003's Electric Version (albeit an absolutely thrilling power-pop rut), the Porno's come back with their strongest set yet. Carl Newman stretches his songwring muscle without ever losing sight of what the band does best. The songs that don't grab you right away will on the second or third listen. Honest. Not only that, but there's all sorts of little production tricks that will have you pressing your ears to the speaker in an effort to capture all of the orgasmic delight they will send through your body. Like the weird machine-gun guitar/drum riff that opens "The Jessica Numbers" or the broken record effect on the chorus of "Falling Through Your Clothes." Even when the tempo slows on songs like "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "These Are The Fables" the hooks slowly build strength and explode all over your ears, covering them with sticky, melodic wondefulness. That didn't make any sense. Mystery member Dan Bejar also delivers some of his finest songs yet: "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" which slithers along just as you would if you were dressed in cobras and "Streets of Fire" which sounds like a surreal campfire sing-along. "Sing Me Spanish Techno" is the best power-pop song written in years. Do you think "Three or Four" is about group sex? Pervert.
2. Pernice Brothers: Discover A Lovelier You (Ashmont)
The prettiest sad record of the year. Even glossier production than 2003's Yours, Mine & Ours , but defiantly not as happy-sounding as that record was. Even shimmery songs like "Saddest Quo" reveal a broken heart behind all the chiming guitars and breathy vocals. In fact, if you didn't listen the lyrics at all on this record, it might sound like a perfectly fine, poppy indie rock record. But once you hear Joe Pernice sigh "It's getting hard to sleep when I lay my herd down/Hopped-up on sweatshop cola, did my part to execute a sleepy town" on "Saddest Quo" or "Can you pick a favorite color from a thousand shades of gray?" on "Say Goodnight to the Lady" you realize this isn't the feel-good record you thought you bought. The whole album seems to drift along rather effortlessly, and that is a compliment. Pernice obviously seems confident enough in his songwriting to let the songs flow and speak for themselves. Repeat listens reveal production and lyrical nuances that make the album glow. I feel like I can't pin this one down with words. I guess that's a compliment too.
3. The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (French Kiss)
I'm loathe to use "so-and-so meets so-and-so" comparisons or combinations to describe music, but here's one anyway: Mark E Smith fronting The E Street Band. That really doesn't do justice to this fine little record, but that's what it sounded like the first time I heard "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" which quickly became stuck in my head for weeks. Lead hoarse shouter Craig Finn spins tales of disenfranchised kids in suburban Minneapolis finding salvation, as well as drugs and boozy bar-band rock and roll along then way. Concept album? I guess. Some people might not like his voice, but once you get used to it becomes obvious that his distinct delivery helps The Hold Steady perfectly capture the grime and grit of gutter living. Finn also appears to be quite the clever writer: "When they say killer whales/I mean they whaled on him," "Silly rabbit/tripping is for teenagers," "Tramps like us/and we like tramps." All of these (and more) gems are shouted over the sort of anthemic, working-class rock that the Boss perfected. Without all the stupid saxophone solos.
4. Des_Ark: Loose Lips Sink Ships (Bifocal Media)
The opening track on the debut album by Des_Ark is incredibly misleading. A simple acoustic guitar and female voice lament lulls the listener into complacency. What follows is the best set of thundering, guitar-punishing angry/mathy indie rock of the year. For a two-piece band, Aimee Argote and Timothy Herzog kick up more noise than most full bands. And lyrics like "Every excuse we make for men makes it that much harder to take pride in them," and "You get that shit out of your arms and you get well right now/Scrub that smell off of your body, have dinner with the family" are hardly comforting. Aimee's scream on "Yes Sir, Yes Way" is more frightening than any testosterone-fueled metal singer could ever hope to be. She is also an impressive guitar player, causing enough beautiful racket to make producer J Mascis jealous. In fact, this may be the heaviest record I've heard in a long time. The fact that's all from an unassuming boy/girl two-piece is even more thrilling. "Jesus Loves You (But Yr Still Coming Home With Me Tonight)" is my favorite song title of the year.
5. My Morning Jacket: Z (ATO)
My Morning Jacket stripped their sound of all the guitar heroics and Southern rock tendencies of their last album (2003's It Still Moves ) and sound all the better for it. Singer Jim James crafts the songs with precision and focuses the playing, which helps save the band from the jam-rock that It Still Moves threatened to lead to. The production is slick, but never feels forced. They even experiment with electronic sounds and reggae rhythms to surprisingly good results. James also includes a few straight forward pop-rockers like "Anytime" and "What A Wonderful Man" (listen to the way he pronounces 'meant' like 'meen-t' in order to make it rhyme. That kills me.) in case the experimenting gets tiresome. So, the band skillfully dodges the jammy, southern, Crazy Horse labels that were thrown at them and makes a perfectly competent pop record that remains interesting with repeated listens. Perfect.
6. Nada Surf: The Weight Is a Gift (Barsuk)
Even though they will always be remembered for their stint as '90s one-hit wonders with "Popular," Nada Surf have moved on and made a third in a string of great indie-rock records. Where 2002's Let Go tended toward slower acoustic songs, the guitars here are louder, and the lyrics (somehow) are sadder. Seems that the more depressed Matthew Caws gets, the catchier songs he writes. Even the seemingly boastful opening line "Oh, fuck it/ I'm gonna have a party" on "Blankest Year" seems to be hiding an inherent melancholy intention. It may come off as a little samey (that's a word I made up to imply all the songs sound the same) at first, but there is a lot of interesting stuff on this record. Which is more than you can say about most bands these days.
7. Magnolia Electric Co.: What Comes After The Blues (Secretly Canadian)
It seems that Jason Molina's new project is just as shape-shifting as his previous band, Songs:Ohia, was. After the heavily Neil Young and Crazy Horse fueled Trails and Errors live album, Molina produces a quieter, more country-tinged album. "Leave the City" is a lonesome, open road ballad and "Hard to Love a Man" is as heartbreaking as it is hauntingly beautiful, thanks in part to an ethereal mellotron part. Those who were put of by the sudden shift in volume from Songs:Ohia to Magnolia will find comfort in Molina's songwriting this time around. Both "Hammer Down" and "Northstar Blues" rank among his strongest work; the later specifically with it's lilting melody and lonesome questioning lyrics: "How can I be the only one/whose life can't live up to the lie? How can I be the only one/whose heart refuses to try?"
8. The Evens: The Evens (Dischord)
Another debut from a boy/girl two-piece. This time, it's punk's elder-statesman Ian MacKaye on vocal/guitar duties along with Warmers' drummer Amy Farina. If you're expecting some Fugazi style math rock, well you're out of luck. Much quieter than his other band, The Evens sees MacKaye nonetheless still the pissed off provocateur we've come to love. The angular guitar work is still here, as well as the simmering political/emotion discontentment; it's just played at half speed/volume. The chant of "The police will not be excused" on "Mt. Pleasant Isn't" proves that MacKaye is not softening his message anytime soon. For her part, Farina propels these songs with her lyrical drumming patterns, which perfectly fill in the gaps in MacKaye's baritone guitar parts. Kind of loses steam toward the end, but a solid set from a reluctant "alternative icon".
9. Lucero: Nobody's Darlings (Liberty&Lament)
Straying from their alt-country sound, Lucero produced a Southern rock album that owes more to the whiskey-soaked storytelling of Phil Lynott than Lynyrd Skynyrd. "Watch it Burn" and "Anjalee" are swaggering, bluesy odes to wild abandon and young love. "Bikeriders" sounds like the Pogues if they had been from Nashville instead of Dublin. "Sixteen" has a Replacement's reference in it, and "Last Night in Town" owes quite a bit to Lynott's own Thin Lizzy. So, this isn't the stereotypical Southern-rock that people usually think of; it's closer to an album of Americana that relies on whiskey, outlaws and broken hearts for its mythology.
10. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)
The second in Stevens' 'Fifty States' sounds much more assured and focused than 2003's Greetings From Michigan. But, at 74 minutes, it is a bit of a chore to sit through and the paragraph-long song titles seem a bit too…precious I guess. Still, aside from that nitpicking, Illinois succeeds due to Stevens' songwriting abilities. "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is an example of his skill: Stevens takes an unflinching look at a serial killer who'd "Kill ten thousand people/with the slight of his hand" and finding his own shortcomings reflected back as "In my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/for the secrets I have hid." Honestly, that song alone makes this album necessary. Two down. Forty-Eight to go.