erasing clouds

O Thank Heaven, It's The Best of 2007!

by paul r jaissle

1.Robert Pollard - Standard Gargoyle Decisions (Merge)

I imagine keeping up with Pollard can seem daunting to the casual listener. Hell, I'm a fan and even I have trouble staying on top of it all. Couple that with the fact that most critics still trot out the same, tired “alcoholic ex-schoolteacher who shits out songs without an editor” line for each album, and it's not surprising Uncle Bob's appeal is becoming “more selective” in today's post-GBV world. HOWEVER, narrow-minded reviews are no reason to ignore a (yes, I'm about to say it -hyperbole be damned!) stone cold genius at the top of his game. Presented as the “rock” half of Pollard's two-records-same-day one-two punch, Standard Gargoyle Decisions is actually one of the most varied, challenging, and ultimately rewarding records in his catalog. While the “pop” disc Coast to Coast Carpet of Love sticks mostly to mid-tempo hooks, Gargoyle careens wildly from hard psychedelic rock (opener 'The Killers'), ragged rave-ups ('Psycho-Inertia,' 'Here Comes Garcia'), atmospheric ('Island Lobby'), fist-pumping anthems ('Feel Not Crushed'), and prog-tinged epics ('Shadow Port,' 'Spider Eyes'), to name a few (even a song about global warming (???): 'Don't Trust Anybody').

Pollard appears to have settled into a comfortable working relationship with musical collaborator/producer Todd Tobias, who brings tight, intricate arrangements to life with all the fury and power of a full band. For his part, Pollard sounds as invested and energized as he has in years toying with inflection and vocal delivery without forsaking his innate knack for melody (for example, on 'Butcher Man,' the chorus is sung in three different voices: each taking the melody in a different direction over the course of the song). At first listen, the experiments in noise samples, voice, and song structure may feel “difficult,” but with each listen it becomes obvious that underlying everything is Pollard's unwavering pop sensibility: there are twists and turns, hidden treasures, and unexpected surprises just waiting to be explored on this album (if it doesn't grab you at first, remember this hint: this is a rock record, play it fucking loud), which proves Pollard as the finest song-smith working (overtime) today. But, he demands time, attention, and trust from the listener. If you're willing to invest yourself in Standard Gargoyle Decisions, the payoff is tremendous and thrilling. An essential edition to a catalog with its fair share of masterpieces already, this album should not be overlooked. Dig it.

2. Tegan and Sara - The Con (Vapor/Sire)

Where the hell did this come from? As far as I can recall, until this summer I had never considered Tegan and Sara. Sure, I knew the name and their faces, but my curiosity was never piqued until grabbing The Con from a used bin on a whim. Even more surprising was the fact that the this disc didn't leave my player for weeks afterwards. Alongside producer Chris Walla, the Quin twins have crafted one damn fine pop record that matches my criteria perfectly- short on time (14 songs in 36 minutes), but long on hooks. Not only is there not a dud on here, every track has at least two or three genuinely great melodic ideas that never overstay their welcome and had me returning with renewed interest after every spin. Tegan and Sara each provide enough energy and creativity to shift from the ubiquitous indie-pop bounce of 'Back In Your Head' and 'Hop A Plane,' to the paranoid, atmospheric 'Are You Ten Years Ago,' to the bittersweet closing number 'Call It Off' (the best last track I heard all year) with amazing grace and agility. Walla's production enhances and drives the songs without sounding forced or overwhelming, making the album function as a whole alarmingly well. Lyrically, Tegan and Sara don't shy away from earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve emoting, but it never sounds forced or precious. 'Nineteen,' for example, hits all the right notes for an angry high school breakup song but is delivered with enough conviction and passion to melt even the coldest hearts. After hearing The Con, I felt guilty ignoring Tegan and Sara for as long as I have, but am certainly anxious to hear how they follow up such a stunning creative achievement such as this.

3. Dinosaur Jr - Beyond (Fat Possum Records)

Forget all the critical ink spilled about Dinosaur Jr's triumphant reunion tour and album for a moment and listen to the first thirty seconds of Beyond again. Hear that? J Mascis's blistering opening guitar solo is the most exhilarating thing you'll hear all year: a loud, furious distillation of the distortion and melody that made us all Dinosaur fans in the first place. At once familiar and thrillingly new, Beyond feels less like a reunion album by a beloved band back from the grave and more like a friendly greeting from an old friend wondering 'where you been?' It is as if all the harsh words and hurt feelings never happened and the band never left. Sure, the production and songwriting is more reminiscent of Mascis's solo albums than You're Living All Over Me, but nearly two decades have passed since J, Lou, and Murph were in the studio together; obviously some things can't stay the same. The only thing to nitpick is that Lou's bass is only audible on the two songs he wrote (the slow, throbbing 'Back To Your Heart' and the driving, psychedelic 'Lightning Bulb'), but that is easily remedied by just turning it up to eleven. The whole band sounds committed and engaged- tearing into songs like 'Been There All The Time' and the metallic, chugging riff-fest 'It's Me' with all the fury of some sort of ancient giant lizard. Mascis, for his part, delivers some of his most awe-inspiring, spirited guitar work in ages, especially on 'Pick Me Up,' which features a monstrous extended solo at the end of the song which is as emotionally evocative as it is ear bleeding. The fact that there was a new Dinosaur Jr album in 2007 certainly made my life tangibly better, and the fact that Beyond is as good as it is even more reason to celebrate.

4. New Pornographers - Challengers (Matador)

How exactly does A.C. Newman do it? Four albums in, and he and his gang of Pornographers show no signs of slowing down. Well, actually, they have slowed their tempos for Challengers, but have added all sorts of bells and whistles to the arrangements without sacrificing hooks in the process. Slow numbers such as 'All The Old Showstoppers' and 'My Rights Versus Yours' are just as catchy and thrilling as the up-tempo exuberance of their previous albums, they just take their time getting there rather than sprinting to the finish. While the songs here may crawl rather than leap out of your speakers, that doesn't mean they aren't catchy. In fact, in giving them a little more room to breath, Newman shows he is able to carefully craft songs as well as he pounds them out. This also means there is more emotional weight the songs shoulder: 'Failsafe,' 'Go Places,' and the title track all have a melancholy, yet uplifting feel that lend the album as a whole an emotional payoff that previous albums didn't have. For his part, Dan Bejar provides both characteristic, shambolic pop (the glorious 'Myriad Harbor' and 'Entering White Cecelia') and a mid-tempo ballad (the closing number 'The Spirit of Giving). Overall, Challengers is not an artistic indulgence or miss-step, but proof that the World's Best Canadian Power-Pop Supergroup is capable of slowing down and smelling the roses from time to time without forsaking their strengths.

5. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)

Wilco's most daring record yet. Honest. Certainly, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born were covered in noise and unexpected “experimental” elements, the songs themselves always sounded pretty straightforward to me. There is a logical progression from the polished pop of Summerteeth to the song structures of Yankee, the difference is that they dressed up solid songs in wildly loud shirts. Sky Blue Sky may have ditched the noise, it takes the songwriting itself into uncharted territory, and that to me is far more “experimental” and exciting. If you hear the first thirty seconds of any song, it might sound like a laid-back, Eagles-tinged affair, but if you pay attention, there are plenty of twists and turns and surprises awaiting you here. It's as if Jeff Tweedy brought the creative, proggy vibes from last year's Loose Fur album, Born Again In The USA home to his marquee band: melodies twist and turn and songs shift from lite-rock to extended guitar workouts, taking off to totally new areas before landing in a completely different neighborhood. For example, 'Impossible Germany' starts slowly, but after Nils Cline's solo, the group joins in on an up-tempo, harmonized coda. 'Shake It Off' morphs into a funky, keyboard driven start-stop lurch that seems do emerge out of nowhere. Tweedy also provides some of his best, most touching songs in 'Please Be Patient With Me,' and 'On And On And On' (“Don't cry/We're designed to die”). Overall, it is clear that the band is re-focused on having fun playing music rather than finding new sounds and effects to experiment with: there is still plenty of ideas to explore just seeing where music takes you.

6. Bill Callahan - Woke On A Whale Heart (Drag City)

Even though he's dropped the Smog moniker, Callahan still crafts his songs with a level of care and skill that is belied by their simplicity and ease. Moving to a fuller, more lush production than 2005's stark A River Ain't Too Much To Love, Woke On A Whale Heart expands the palate of textures and moods that anchor Callahan's casual, off-the-cuff sounding delivery. Examples? 'Diamond Dancer' uses sparse acoustic guitar notes and a throbbing, primal bass part, 'Footprints' features a martial drumbeat and a staccato string arrangement, and 'Sycamore' is covered with reverb as thick as tree sap. 'The Wheel' features Callahan's most unique vocal delivery yet: speaking each line softly before singing it as if leading the listener and the band through the song for the first time. The effect makes the song sound like the sort of old, traditional folk song he clearly draws on for inspiration. Little has changed for Smog fans other than the name; Bill Callahan is still capable of unique, challenging music that seem strange and different on the surface, but become comforting and familiar with each listen.

7. Low - Drums And Guns (Sub Pop)

Speaking of experimenting, Low gambled and won with Drums And Guns: proving that their established, expected sound will still come through even with radically different arrangements and sounds. Relying heavily on drum machines and samplers, Low bring in glitch, Radiohead-esque noises to their slowcore game. However, unlike the cold, sterile mechanization of Radiohead, Low still retain the raw, emotional core that drives their best work. The stark, bitter 'Breaker' is a haunting mediation on the physical and emotional cost of war, while 'Hatchet' is moody celebration of mending friendships (“You be my Charlie and I will be George/Let's bury the hatchet like the Beatles and the Stones”). Such a departure from an established sound may seem shocking, but thanks to their conviction to their art, Low never feel out-of-place in these new environs. The ace in their sleeve is the final track, 'Violent Past'; an organ-drenched slow burner that recalls the band's finest work of the past complete with soaring, harmonized vocals.

8. Pig Destroyer - Phantom Limb (Relapse)

Whew. Grindcore is a genre that is appealing due to its very nefariousness. This is music that (I'm assuming) aims to be as ugly and violent as possible, yet in that attempt somehow becomes fascinating. Pig Destroyer have produced a metal album as brutal, punishing, yet oddly catchy: a feat similar to Slayer's 1986 genre-defining thrash masterpiece Reign In Blood. Like that album, Phantom Limb has the ability to attract non-metal fans as well as die-hards due to the fact that it showcases a band operating at the very best of their specific genre. The strength here is the guitar playing of former Anal Cunt and Agoraphobic Nosebleed member Scott Hull. Alternating between chugging and lightning-fast riffing, Hull lends these songs memorable hooks to hang your head from. Yes, believe it or not, there are interesting, melodic hooks on a grindcore album. When the band slows their blastbeat barrage and settles into a groove (such as the driving 'Loathsome' or the funky riff of 'Heathen Temple), it's clear that they can write songs as well as they can torture eardrums. The fact that a genre based on noise and racket can manage to be interesting and downright catchy without sacrificing an ounce of energy or violence says an awful lot.

9.The High Strung - Get The Guests (Park The Van)

It's a shame that The High Strung have so far gained more attention for tours playing at libraries and “donating” their van to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame than their songs. Lead singer and main songwriter Josh Malerman has an obvious knack for crafting smart, tight pop tunes as well as literate, witty lyrics. The real skill is to be smart and literate without sacrificing rock action in the process. Luckily, The High Strung hit the perfect mix between the two on Get The Guests; from the horn-tinged opener 'What A Meddler!' to the joyous 'Raise The Bar,' Malerman obviously knows just how to couple hooks and books. Although drawing on the Mod-stomp of early Who, the laser-guided pop of Revolver-era Beatles, and the glam swagger of T. Rex, nothing here sounds derivative or forced: imitation can never be an adequate substitute for strong songwriting. Even if some songs sound reminiscent of older classics, there is always a twist that lends these songs their own, unique feel that sets The High Strung apart. If The High Strung's music is itself a marrying of brains and brawn, then what better example than 'Rimbaud/Rambo,' a song about a poetic soul in a muscle-bound body accepting the duality of existence. Much like that character, Get The Guests does indeed “stick in your head like a weird thing to say.”

10. The Stooges - The Weirdness (Virgin)

Even after showering the reunited Stooges with endless praise for their live shows, critics couldn't decry this disc fast enough it seemed. Iggy himself even says “rock critics wouldn't like us at all” on the opening track, and I guess he's right. The music is simple and repetitive? Iggy's lyrics are dumb and sexually retarded? Well, yeah, but I thought that was the point. Time has proven that the Stooges first two albums were groundbreaking, revolutionary statements heralding in a new chapter of rock history, but they are a rock band first and foremost and musical saviors by accident. Obviously, no one will confuse The Weirdness with Funhouse, and trying to find the magic of the original Stooges in the 2007 version is pointless since the idiot-savant charm they established is no longer there 30 years on. For their part, Ron and Scott Asheton are still able to kick up a thrilling garage rock ruckus (captured in all its raw and noisy glory by Steve Albini) with the power of men half their age and Iggy is still charming even as a 60-year-old pervert. To be fair, this album is far from perfect; Iggy sounds bored from time to time (not in the good, disenfranchised way of the band's debut, but in a lazy, first take sort of way), and some of his lyrics are cringe-inducing. However, secret of the the Stooges was if you thought about it too hard, you were missing the point; it's about playing big dumb rock loudly, period. What else do you expect from a band from Detroit? It might not always be pretty, but there is sense of reckless danger that will draw you in if you let it. Looking at the highlights, 'My Idea Of Fun' is the sort of misanthropic scuzz rock (“My idea of fun is killing everyone”) along the lines of 'No Fun' and 'I Gotta Right' and the title track allows Iggy to stretch out and indulge his dreams of being a crooner. Still don't hear it? Stop thinking so much, turn it up and relax. That's what Iggy would do.

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