Fictional Friends (like Fflewddur Fflam)

I’m reading Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain for the first time in many years.  A childhood favorite, I’ve visited Prydain many times over the years, journeying and growing with Taran, Gurgi and company.  I have friends and family who don’t read a book more than once, believing they’ve gleaned all they can from that first encounter.  I respect that viewpoint but don’t understand it; I’m not the person I was when I last read a favorite book, and expect I will learn something new about myself or the book in question this time around.  In the case of The Chronicles of Prydain, I’m finding I am less interested in the plot, and loving the characters.  It is still a page turning adventure, but what is touching me is the people; the paternal characters that watch over Taran, seeing in him things he can’t perceive; Medwyn, the animal protector, who gets one chapter but is fully realized and unique, with behavior that fits the internal logic of the character; likewise Adaon, who, in The Black Cauldron, fills a paternal role, that of an older brother, and a man doomed by destiny.  His gift to Taran serves both to enable the companions to get the title Cauldron, and to give Taran a glimpse of what the grown up world will entail in choices and sacrifices.  Adaon may get thirty pages of occasional appearances, and yet I know him, and feel for his sacrifice.

I didn’t get this as a kid; I don’t remember feeling like I knew the smallest of characters in a substantial way even when I last read the books a decade or so ago.  It is easy to get lost in mere plot or Taran & company, for both story and lead characters are outstanding.  Prydain itself seems real, but Alexander knows a fully realized world is more about its inhabitants than its geography.  This isn’t Middle Earth, and he is not Tolkien; when Taran finds some herbs to make a poultice, that is all there is to say.  I don’t learn the name of the herb, the etymology of the name, the name by which the Elves refer to it (both Noldor and Sindar), the Maia who blessed the world with said herb, or how to prepare the herb or its efficacy.  I love the world building Tolkien engages in, the mythmaking, gardening and geographical evolution.  But it is easy to say Aragorn is a gruff but noble character, with “unseen depths” that are never plumbed or explored in any way more than showing his family tree.  I got more from Medwyn’s dozen pages than Aragorn’s hundreds, as far as character is concerned.

It is a pleasant discovery, these characters of Prydain.  I’m glad I’m taking the time to read about them again.

Oh Lord, I’m Stuck With Roadeyes Again

Real time impressions of the 1979 Neil Young concert film Rust Never Sleeps, which I have never before seen.

Rust Never Sleeps

*Though I generally just use ” ” around song titles, I use a bunch of quotation marks in other ways so I italicized titles within quotes for clearer reading.*

Hendrix’ “Star Spangled Banner” plays while roadies dressed as Jawas wrangle with an over-sized mic, tipping it to and fro like James Brown. The set, a series of over-sized equipment crates, looms large. The Jawas are joined by mini-Jawas (I’m guessing Neil’s kids) as actual equipment crates are wheeled in, pianos, drums and the like unpacked, mic’d, and set in place. “A Day In The Life” plays in the background. The crowd strangely cheers each time another set of Jawas brings out more crap. With the end of the Beatles comes Neil, sporting his regular boys haircut (same as Iggy and Keith Richards back then; gotta be the drugs).

Sugar Mountain“, solo, acoustic. Neil kneels on a giant fake amp. He’s singing into the mics on his harmonica holder, but he sounds pretty frickin great. He’s in good voice, confident in tone, still able to hit the notes. Crowd cheers when he blows his harmonica. WOoo! Harmonica motherfucker! WooOO! This era of Neil reminds me how much Axl Rose looked like him before he turned into a steroidal Danny Bonaduce. The hollow cokehead eyes sure add to that impression. I hate when people clap to a tune without a beat.

Another solo number, though he’s moved off the faux amp, down the stairs onto the stage. “I Am A Child” I’m not a fan of either of these tracks, but I can’t fault the performance. Just not anything to get me going. Crowd seems happy though. I am a big fan of artists known for solo acoustic stuff to open with it as opposed to the mid-show breakdown. Someone threw Neil a bouquet. Looks like a head of cauliflower in the light.

Comes A Time“, more Neil, earnest busker, roaming slowly stage right. He’s moved into the shadow of the giant Jawa mic. I have no idea conceptually what Neil was aiming for with this production. Neil as a toy; a small cog in the industrialized world the Jawas represent; just dwarfed by what touring means now; the product vs the artist? No idea.

Neil found a piano and busts out “After The Goldrush“. The crowd gets to see the back of his dirty white tee shirt. Crowd cheers “I felt like getting high” like the stoners they are. Neil’s voice isn’t up for this; he’s cracking and straining. I like his old school Adidas. Probably weren’t old school then, come to think of it. I’ve always thought that song never quite goes anywhere; it sounds like a great opening to something more.

“When I get big I’m gonna get an electric guitar,” Neil quips. Back to the old acoustic. “Thrasher“. Lower key, Neil sounds much better. He pronounces “shone” as “shawn”, though it isn’t needed for the rhyme. Hmm. Dirty hippie fans cheer “Burned my credit card for fuel.” I don’t know what is going on with this crowd. Reminds me why I hate big shows these days. Glad he left the “rock formations” fuckup in. Just smiled and got the line right. I’m getting impatient for some Crazy Horse madness.

My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” we’re getting somewhere now. Even acoustic, the guitar line is great. Really a teaser for the electric version, but lets you see the bones are great, something that is sometimes hard to see because of the size of the swinging balls the electric version smacks in your face.

The break as they finish setting up for Crazy Horse is interminable. Bunch of Woodstock refs – Brown Acid, burned down hot dog stand etc – which are really, really lame. Someone just walked by dressed as a Pope or Bishop or other tall-hatted religious goombah. Still got Jawas, or “roadeyes” as Young called them. Crates beget massive Fender amps; he dug ’em back out a dozen years later.

Let’s get some rocking going. “When You Dance” is not really the barn-burner one might expect, but this groover lets the band get their feet under them. Crazy Horse swings way more than I remember in my mind. Never as sloppy as I think either. They’re fluid with both beat and tempo, but not off-step. That to me is swing versus sloppy. When I saw Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, they were sloppy. This is not.

The Loner” lets the band tear into a bit more, but not really burn. Another strong showing from the rhythm section, and Neil revs up for some patented fuzz. Another one of those songs I’m pretty “eh” on, but a longtime favorite of artist and (most) fans alike.

Again, Ralph Molina on drums and Billy Talbot on bass, shuffling along under Neil’s “Welfare Mothers“. What a strange song: “Welfare mothers make better lovers. Divorcee!” I’ll chalk this one up to more coke.

More Woodstock bullshit, with storm sounds and “move away from the towers”. “No rain! no rain!” No shit, your indoors.

The Needle and the Damage Done” performed solo acoustic, written about Danny Whitten (original Crazy Horse guitarist) before he died from an OD (see Tonight’s The Night for more).

Band joins Neil in his Eagles-esque “Lotta Love“. That this isn’t a James Taylor song blows my mind. Of course, even he might be ashamed to sing “lotta love, lotta love, la la la loo”. This is a strange concert. The set and staging, with the “roadeyes” and Woodstock announcements, has totally disconnected with the crowd. Now we get “Rust-O-Vision”. Total fuckery.

And then the band launches into “Sedan Delivery” with its fifties rock/punk verse structure, and slow, wanky choral bit. Even Zappa finds this shit conceptually undercooked. Neil’s rock star posturing as he walks to the edge of the stage and tries to “connect” with the audience is really pathetic. Even Pancho is finding this pretty lame, as he barely bobs up and down while he plays guitar. Nice drums in lights over the stage.

Now were talking: “Powderfinger“, in all its fuzzed-out glory. Studio versions (like on the unreleased Chrome Dreams) really miss this haze; clarity is not the friend of guitar licks like this. This song helped invent the Drive By Truckers, which may be good or bad depending on how you view it. Subject matter, underlying swing, background vocal, guitar tone; it’s all there.

Guitar distortion causing cymbals to rattle; must be “Cortez the Killer“. Maybe my favorite Neil song. I used this to teach my wife that guitar solos can be lyrical and illustrative of the song as opposed to sheer Eddie Van Halen hammer-on masturbation. Great to see the camera from behind the drummer, as it shows how much Molina and Talbot love playing this song; Talbot in particular is just inhabiting the bass line. Even Pancho is rocking on the balls of his feet, coaxing the notes and rocking out as much as he has all show. He’s wearing a Larry Robinson Habs jersey. Is he Canadian like Neil or just a bandwagoner (Montreal, and Robinson in particular, were tearing it up in the 70s)? OH FUCK!! Neil just got Caribbean on our ass! “Dancing across the water, man” Three fucking times he gets all 7-Up on that line. What a douche! He’s trying to get the crowd to sing his damn lilting Irie crap; they’re all jaws agape and not singing. Way to be a douche, Neil. Well done.

Peals of feedback. Oh shit – here’s my true favorite song, “Cinnamon Girl“. Jawas rocking backstage, band tight as tight can be. They must have played this a thousand times by now. A little faster than on record, less swing. I married my Cinnamon Girl so I’m one up on Neil. Jawas still grooving all to shit, air guitars and head-banging. A couple of ’em are onstage doing a hoe-down square dance “swing your partners” thing. He missed the tentative little, “woo” after the verses that I just love. Seals the song like a kiss.

Roadeyes are repelling out of the ceiling – wait, it is one of the Devo guys in his Devo suit! (Actually, I think it is a pro with a plastic mask and Devo uniform) I know they were the opener on this tour, but whatever. Pancho is now playing a synth, suspended on wires and edged with a bird cutout (complete with wings), to accompany “Like A Hurricane“. Pretty straight and mid-tempo here; not the slow, cavernous dirge he sometimes makes it, nor the post-apocalyptic guitar workout he sometimes plays. The tinkly synth is not a bonus. I love watching a Neil solo; I have no idea what the weird back-and-forth rocking and wrestling-a-mongoose motions mean, or if they help, but they do entertain. I think the rhythm section is playing a variation on “My Girl”. Everyone wants to be James Jamerson, including Billy Talbot.

All the roadeyes are on stage, Neil’s making his thanks to them, his staff and the audience. The chord that ends “A Day In The Life” sounds, and exit stage right. One lone jawa is trying to drag the giant mic offstage. Another is pulling down the curtain. Neil has a live mic backstage and is saying, “I think we should go out there.” and the crowd is cheering. The jawas bring back the mic, Neil is prattling on, crowd cheering, blah, blah, blah. Just noticed Billy Talbot is wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt that looks like a Jack Daniel’s label.

Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)

You want more than that? It sounds like it should, balls swinging (as previously noted), slap-your-mama, unadulterated badass. The bottom end is tearing holes in the pavement, Neil squealing, his guitar squealing with him. Showing the punks love while giving them notice.

Roll credits, cue Chuck Berry’s “School Days“.

More “Rust-O-Vision”. Roadeyes return with the giant mic. Neil and Crazy Horse emerge, more Jamerson walking bass for “Tonight’s The Night“. This isn’t harrowing, like the familiar studio cut; they’re funking it up, little breakdown section. Oddly celebratory, but probably the nerves aren’t as raw six years (and many performances) on. This arrangement reminds me of my more smarmy self, back in the college days. I said that if the Stax house band was the MGs, Crazy Horse was the GMs; sturdy, American made rock with little flair but dependable when you just wanna haul some shit. They’re just hauling shit here, playing a cruddy variant of “Walking The Dog” for Neil to stomp over.

And its over.

Missed the Piper

I totally forgot one of my big reissues from 2007 – the three disc special edition of Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Though the three discs aren’t really for everyone, I needed to have both mono and stereo releases, as well as nice, clear versions of early singles and alternate performances. The mono Piper is of particular interest; in 1967, artists and producers still spent more time and effort on mono mixes as it was still the predominant way their audience would hear the work. In most cases, the stereo release was an afterthought, put together by producers and engineers without the artists input (most famously, after three weeks of mixing the mono Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles and George Martin let engineer Geoff Emerick do the stereo mix which he hammered out in three days. Shame that most people have never heard the album as intended; the mono mix has never been released on cd). The mono Piper has different organ sections and some different drum takes in addition to more punch and power to vocals and guitar. Not that the stereo mix is bad (I fell in love with it many years ago), but hearing it closer to how the artist intended it is always refreshing. The biggest change? The mono mix doesn’t have all the forced panning and “space effects” I’ve grown up with, so the only psychedelic part is in the music.

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Witchcraft5. Witchcraft – The Alchemist

If you’ve been following along, I do have a soft spot, a liking, a keen appreciation, of early-70s scuzzy hard rock. In Sweden lives a band so in tuned with that time that their first two albums are less homage that riff-stealing aping. However, this is their third album, and Witchcraft have moved past “look we’re Pentagram!” to a place of their own. Vocalist Magnus Pelander may sound a good deal like Pentagram’s Bobby Liebling, but his ESL accent and penchant for raising his voice at the end of lines strikes my ears as Jim Morrison. The production here is more open than prior releases, the mix highlighting some great keyboard work (the organ on “If Crimson Was The Colour” totally saves the song from the lyrics) and, on the epic title track, some of the most airy, delicate guitar reverb I’ve ever heard. That title cut is, in my opinion, their high-water mark; an eleven-minute suite with three distinct sections, “The Alchemist” is aptly named for it where they meld their disparate influences into a sound all their own. Magic.

Tinariwen4. Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water Is Life

I love recommendations. Mr. Seward tipped me to Caina, Mr. Mathers to Low and The National, Mr. Adrian Begrand (more on him later) to The Angelic Process and my number one album. Tinariwen came via Jay Kelley, the manager of my local independent record store. Jay and I often share stories and recommendations, and we have many similar likes and dislikes, but our passionate favorites are our own. Tinariwen is a case where his fervor matched mine. The combination of rough American blues licks and North African drums and drone is captivating, its sinuous, circuitous motion hypnotizing and butt-shaking at the same time. I honestly don’t care about their biography, or that they’re being dismissed in some circles as “this year’s Konono N°1″ (whom I don’t get – they sound like Fela records played on my record player with its worn-out needle). The sound as sound is outstanding; lyrics, biography and soft cotton robes be damned.

Clutch3. Clutch – From Beale Street to Oblivion

The two phases of Clutch and me; in 1993, they release their debout, a crossover hardcore/metal album. It is greeted by me with a “hmm.” Sometime in 2006 I hear “Burning Beard,” which is greeted by me with a “holy shit this fucking rocks!” I hear the album Robot Hive/Exodus and am less excited. I read an article somewhere talking about the recording sessions for the next album that mentions the “greater muscularity and focus” the band is working with. I listen to “Burning Beard” some more in hopeful preparation. The album is released and I am not disappointed. Propulsive hard rock with a classic Southern bent, From Beale Street to Oblivion ditches the stoner jam band tendencies and up-front organ bits from the last few albums and channels the energy towards riding the riffs to greater glory. It really is muscular and focused, “ZZ Top on steroids” (if I may quote myself). It was my Spring driving album and my Fall driving album; bringing life and burying it. You can’t stop – no, no, no.

The National2. The National – Boxer

As I mentioned, Ian pointed me in this direction. Thanks. I had heard their prior release, Alligator and was unimpressed. I have an issue with low/high vocal echoes, as in I think no one but Leonard Cohen was ever served well by it. Boxer dropped that affectation and is stronger for it. It still sounds to me like Lambchop meets the Psychedelic Furs, but that isn’t what made it reach number two; this album is all about the drums. When I first heard it as MP3s, I was intrigued but not hooked, for it seemed flat and samey; the songs were good, but the mix felt flat. As it was on sale upon release, I decided to pick it up and see if higher fidelity would open it to my ears. I was blown away – this was not the album I’d been listening to for a few months. Even with tinny compression you can hear that the drummer is really working, almost in opposition to the lugubrious motion of the rest of the band. Hearing it in full flower, spacious and open, the drumming is amazing. Bryan Devendorf (he deserves a singular shout-out) is not only the only forward propulsion this band has, he’s the hook. His playing, in apposition to how a typical indie drummer would approach the material, held me long enough to appreciate the subtle strengths of his compatriots. I hate to use the construct of an album being “a grower”, but it took me some time to appreciate its richness.

Alcest1. Alcest – Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde

If Ian was due a thanks, Adrien deserves a full genuflection and some sort of honorific. Profound Lore licensed this for North America, capping perhaps the best year a tiny label has ever had. I’ve brought up my love of shoegaze, and its dreampop relative. I’ve mentioned music as beauty, sound as atmosphere. This is all. It is delicate but not weak, gentle but firm. One-man-band Neige doesn’t fall into oscillating waves of MBV or Jesu, nor into the undifferentiated sheets of noise summoned up by The Angelic Process. Alcest operates in a realm where a single chord can be played for minutes, while other guitar lines dive and swoop, soar and float like birds in the sky. The lyrics are French, the album in English is Memories Of Another World. I can’t explain quite what this album does to me, or for me; whether it is touching the man I am, or the child I was. I can only say it is beautiful in both a heart-breaking and uplifting way, and that I can think of nothing else that can both fit and shape any mood. Mr. Begrand, who was struck similarly by this album, summed up his thoughts with a quote from Allen Ginsburg. I don’t have a better ending, but I do have the album playing in my ears.

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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss10. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raising Sand

This shouldn’t have worked. Plant has no record of being able to collaborate with or defer in any way to another vocalist; Krauss hasn’t shown she can do anything I like (I do like her voice, but her material is a different thing). So how does this work? Because it is their album in name only. This is a T-Bone Burnett record with featured singers. Burnett produces, arranges and plays all-star bandleader on songs he hand-picked for the vocalists. He gets Plant to step away from his penchant for “rock ‘n’ roll scat” (think all those asides, oohs, and babies that litter the outros and instrumental bridge of the Zep catalog) except for a few ill-fated moments in the Everly Brothers cover “Gone, Gone, Gone”. He gets Krauss to sing without allowing her to fall back on the crutch of her bluegrass fiddle, forcing her to commit fully to fronting the band instead of being part of it. This results in about an 85-90% success rate, which puts it head and shoulders over most albums. It is a bit too long, and can be a bit soporific in places, but with a cup of coffee late at night it is magic.

 

Electric Wizard9. Electric Wizard – Witchcult Today

This isn’t your older brother’s version of Electric Wizard; For they are no longer an inward-gazing trio, malevolently blissed-out upon the Dopethrone. This is a dual-guitar, riff-laden necromancer with piercing eyes, weighing the darkness of your soul. This line-up tested the waters with 2004’s uneven We Live, but there is nothing testing or tentative about Witchcult Today [OT: nice of Village Voice to get the title wrong in their Pazz and Jop poll – it’s cult not craft]. The guitars are thick and down-tuned as one would expect, but having second-guitarist Liz Buckingham (who also gets to torture a Hammond organ on a few tracks) allows for some surprise runs into the higher register and some beautiful dark harmonies to emerge. By mixing Jus Oburn’s vocals a little more to the front, they definitely evoke their forefathers a bit more; there are tracks here that would fit nicely in with the heaviest stuff Sabbath or Sir Lord Baltimore were laying down in the early 70s. More approachable than Dopethrone, if not quite on that level, Witchcult Today was where I turned for my classic sludge fix in 2007.

 

The Angelic Process8. The Angelic Process – Weighing Souls With Sand

Canadian record label Profound Lore was, hands down, my greatest discovery in 2007. Three releases grace my top ten, with the first being the latest, and sadly, most likely the last, from husband and wife duo K.Angylus and MDragynfly. Graceful, beautiful and pounding, the sheets of sound torn from guitars with cello bows and processing wash over and scour clean; a cleansing, though abrasive, experience. I’ve already brought up My Bloody Valentine twice in this year-end listing (and they’ll be back again), but like Jesu, The Angelic Process are taking things forward from Loveless‘s sound by adding bits of Swans and Neurosis, subtracting bits of Cocteaus and Psychocandy, and creating something new from the mass of influences. They alternate moments of melodic fragility and outright screaming noise, but there is something particularly human in their electronic sound. There is a warmth, or better yet a sense of heat, to their outbursts that is passionate and enveloping instead of the off-putting distance and coldness of fellow extreme duo The Goslings (whom I love as well). I never stop this album once it starts, which is as high praise as there is in this era of shuffling impatience.

 

Eluvium7. Eluvium – Copia

I consider myself pretty anti-ambient. I don’t care for Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Carparks, Elevators, Public Toilets, etc., if I hear anything described as “Trance” I walk away (which appears like running madly to the listeners), I even find most drone metal a colossal bore (see the Om mention in my Serious Shit) mention and think all the parenthetical bits in Sunn O))) indicate yawns. However, I truly, truly love this Eluvium album. I was unfamiliar with his work before hearing Copia, but was immediately taken with its quiet beauty. Atmospheric, symphonic washes of synths form the quintessance, with bits of brass, piano and strings pulling melodies from that ethereal matter. In less pompous terms, it is pretty and delicate, with a field of sound that ranges from Vangelis to Michael Nyman. Sometimes I need a gentle exfoliant after the mud and murk of Electric Wizard or Ufomammut, and Copia leaves me feeling fresh and radiant.

 

Caina6. Caina – Mourner

The second Profound Lore artist on the list is here only due to the not-so-gentle prodings of one Scott Seward (see Pie. Metal. Love. in the sidebar). First, he ranted and raved on the Rolling Metal Thread on ILX, then he wrote one of my favorite reviews of the year for Decibel. The end of that review so encapsulates what Caina seems to be doing that I’m just going to quote it, “You must know, feel, believe and live the idea that EVERY day is a good day to die. That life and death are one and the same and that there is no beginning and there is no end. There is only what we see and what we choose to do with what we see.” This is dark, dark stuff; the artist is a professed Satanist, and his music reflects the harsh realities of that viewpoint. It is the cold and deadly beauty of the crashing waves and jagged rocks at cliff’s end that Mourner evokes, the clear fact of death not being a warm, comforting embrace. I tried to get the term “Damnbient” to catch on to describe these dark and sinister soundscapes, but I have been so far unsuccessful. Nothing is more damned, more final, than Mourner.

2011

Drums and Guns20. Low – Drums and Guns

This is the year I started to understand Low. I had heard their early albums when they first came out, and their slow, minimalist style didn’t grab me (to be honest, I’d kind of burned out on the pleasures of null-tempo through too much Galaxie 500). I read the reviews through the years but they never registered on my radar. Becoming friends with Ian means coming to grips with Low; when I heard a new album was coming out I decided to take the plunge. Drums and Guns is a weird album to start with because they chose to use hard stereo isolation with the lead vocals only appearing in the right channel. It is an aesthetic choice you have to grapple with to approach the album, and one that of course alters depending on how you listen. It cries for headphones; the isolation that imposes, and the corresponding increase in intimacy, creates a more individual response. The aforementioned Mr. Mathers linked to Glenn McDonald, who captured this listening experience better than I ever could.

 

 

This Fool Can Die Now19. Scout Niblett – This Fool Can Die Now

I heard the song “Kiss” and bought the album. I still can’t quite articulate why; I’m not a Bonnie Prince Billy fan, so his involvement wasn’t a selling point, and Niblett has been around for a while without me noticing. There’s a quiet rage to this album, which no doubt is amplified by Steve Albini’s engineering – each instrument and vocal moment is given his typical space and dryness, sounding spartan even in distortion. At times it reminds me of a more famous Albini production, Pj Harvey’s Rid of Me. But where I tired of that album rather quickly, the repeating presence of Bonnie Prince Billy gives the album moments of warmth amidst the dry kindling. It is an album, like Low’s, that benefits from headphones, for the intimate production work gives a place for each instrument to resonate discreetly and openly. Another way it is like Drums and Guns is that I think this is an album that can be easily polarizing; some people will be turned away by the production, while others will be intrigued and drawn to the subtle beauty within.

 

 

jesu/Eluvium Split18. Jesu – split with Eluvium on Temporary Residence

Justin Broderick of Jesu had a busy year, with this split, a full length album (Conqueror), and follow-up EP Lifeline. Wheras Conqueror built (and built, and on, and on) on the sound of last years Silver EP, and Lifeline went a few steps into an even cleaner sound, the three songs on this split release are Broderick tackling one of the roots of the Jesu sound. This is Jesu as true shoegaze, without the fusion of doom and drone and metal; “Blind and Faithless” is as close to My Bloody Valentine as anyone has gotten, tremolo, feedback and “Soon”-ish drum loops included. It also sounds processional, with its descending lines. “Farewell” is a standout in the Jesu catalog, with its 80s r&b drumloop (it could be from a Minneapolis-produced ballad), easily discernible lyrics and swirling guitar that strikes me as approximating seagull cries. There’s even beautiful synthesized marimba towards the end. As lovely a sound as he’s ever reached. The third song, “Why We Are Not Perfect” is some unholy amalgam of Slowdive and Disintegration-era Cure, but sadly doesn’t rise to those levels. But two great songs push it onto my list. The Eluvium side of this split, the twenty-minute epic “Time Travel of the Sloths”, is also ace. Great, great split.

 

 

Tervaskanto17. Korpiklaani – Tervaskanto

Here comes the other side of 2007; where Low and Niblett were about intimacy and quiet rewards, Korpiklaani was about bombast and shared enjoyment. Folk Metal was one of the new things I discovered as I dove back into the genre, and I found that, overall, I love this shit. Combining the chugga-chugga sounds of my youth (You could always imagine yourself as Conan, riding a fearsome warhorse into battle, to the sounds of Priest and Maiden) and the beer-drinking jigs and reels of the Celts and Norse, Korpiklaani is just plain fun. I throw it on, jump around while head-banging, and have a good time. Opening an album with “Let’s Drink” sets not only a proper stage but a proper set of priorities. According to their website, they’ve got more goodness in store come April. While I’m not sure just how many Iron Pogues albums I need, I think it will be at least two. Maybe this will be the one that gets them to tour the states.

 

 

Loveless16. Japancakes – Loveless

No one who knows me should be surprised to find this near the top of my list. Chamber pop group records acoustic version of My Boody Valentine’s Loveless. Unless the fuck it up royally, I’m a guaranteed fan. Now, not only did they not fuck it up, I would argue that they shed light on the beauty of the original compositions. Stripped of layers of feedback as if it were unwanted varnish, the members of Japancakes show at heart that MBV was writing beautiful, melodic pop. They just chose to bury them. Also, by not reproducing any of the vocals as vocals (strings usually play the melody line), we are spared a clear reading of the generic love song poetry that peaks here and there through the murk of the original.

 

 

Maths + English15. Dizzee Rascal – Maths + English

Released domestically only as a download (which is now unavailable, as the album is finally scheduled to hit US brick-and-mortar stores in April), I had to pay for a damn import so I could actually get it at something better than 128kps. It was well worth the money (I got a good deal anyway, despite my whining), and continues his string of solid albums. No longer a novelty, Dizzee’s rap style is a great deal more interesting than what I hear in the mainstream. Even when he recycles one of the oldest samples in rap (the “It Takes Two” bit), he makes it work for him just with a “Don’t make me go old school!” shout. If you got it from iTunes you have no idea what I’m talking about, because they cut “Pussyhole” from the album (It is just a slightly different way of questioning someone’s manhood, but I guess the added “hole” somehow makes it more objectionable to Steve Jobs). Maths + English is a slight departure from his prior works, a step away from the dance/dub influences on Boy In Da Corner towards a slightly more mainstream sound. It was a great summer album, as people will likely discover this year – if they don’t release “Da Feelin'” as a single this year they really don’t want to break Dizzee in America.

 

 

Shadows of the Sun14. Ulver – Shadows of the Sun

I don’t know their history, and hadn’t heard a note of their long career before hearing Shadows of the Sun. Built around ambient swaths of keys and subdued but powerful percussion, with guitars, strings and horns used as color, it is a haunting album; it is beautiful, like the thorns on a rose. Dated July 13th, Ulver wrote on their website,

“We needed to be alone, without the hustle and bustle of the living. We are uncomfortable with the world, the industry and our place. We have been working, sluggishly, well aware we could end up with nothing. Nonetheless we believe we have succeeded in giving our fears some kind of form. SHADOWS OF THE SUN, our 7th full-length album, is finished and will be released October 1st. We feel it is our most personal record to date. Low-key, dark, and tragic. As we are.”

What can I add to that?

 

 

Supernaturals - Record One13. Ufomammut & Lent0 – Supernaturals: Record One

It is unfair to say I discovered Ufomammut this year; I devoured them. I tracked down all their prior albums and this improvised collaboration with their fellow Italians, ambient post-rock band Lent0. It comes across like the “Ufomammut Big Band” – the core guitar/bass/drum & vocal trio supplemented by three more guitars and synths. The vibe is distinctly within the Ufomammut sphere, a psychedelic, hypnotic sludge of Sabbath, Hawkwind and the soundtracks to the films of Dario Argento. Lent0’s own post-rock style (as shown on their 2007 debut Earthen) is barely in evidence, as Supernaturals is all forward propulsion, ambiance and openness be damned. Though not as good as their prior work (improv tends to miss out on focus), it totally rocks my world. If any of the prior Ufomammut works had been released this year, they would have been top ten or top five easy; the sense of purpose missing from this jam session knocks it down a bit. With a new album scheduled to hit in April, expect me to slather all over these guys in the future.

 

 

Civilians12. Joe Henry – Civilians

A scaling back from Tiny Voices (which hit number 5 in my rankings back in ’03), Henry lets his songs speak for themselves as opposed to wrapping them in an overarching style and flow. In some cases, the songs open doors Henry hasn’t since stepping away from the country and americana of his first few works for the trip-hop and jazz inflections of Fuse and Scar and those that followed; the slide guitar on “You Can’t Fail Me Now” and the guitar line that opens “Shut Me Up” are nice returns. The production work he’s made his money at the past few years (Solomon Burke, Bruce Cockburn, Mary Gauthier) seems to have opened him up a bit, removed some of the tension that has infused his albums. In one way I really like it; songs like “Time Is A Lion” (which sounds like Burke’s album, and which Burke would knock out of the park) and “God Only Knows” (which sounds like Randy Newman at his most heartfelt) show a confidence and swagger missing from Scar and Tiny Voices. But those albums have an edge this one doesn’t. Civilians is a masterful collection from one of the great overlooked artists of the present day, but it isn’t the masterful album that is Tiny Voices.

 

 

Ash Wednesday11. Elvis Perkins – Ash Wednesday

Halfway through the year, I wrote,

“Though there are a few misfires on this (“May Day” is like the worst round of Kumbaya ever), his debut lives up to the tracks that have been floating around for a few years. I have a weakness for singer/songwriter stuff, and Perkins has a just enough of a touch of Mangum and Buckley to be right up my alley and to cause others to run in terror.”

I still cringe at “May Day”, but the rest has only grown on me. I sometimes have moments of eloquence, and think I do a good job of seeing those moments in others. Since Marcello Carin wrote of Ash Wednesday more eloquently than I can even conceive, please read his words instead of more of my own. He also ranked it higher than I; it was his number 10.