I picked up the Thermals' Fuckin A at Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill over the holidays (along with a blue and white Smorkin' Labbit), but it got lost amongst all the other Christmas swag until just yesterday, so I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet. My impressions and my 2006 best-of lists coming soon.
Kind of disappointed with the year end critic's lists for 2006. Usually I dig through them and find four or five records that I somehow overlooked that can keep me occupied until the new releases for the new year start coming out, but I've listened to tons of clips from bands that I hadn't heard who showed up on multiple lists, and so far nothing has resonated. I'm also a little surprised by the lack of correspondence between my probably top 10 list and the top 10s I've seen from othersusually there are several lists that overlap with my own on at least five or six records, but this year I'm lucky if I can find one that has three overlaps with mine.
I think part of the reason is that most people try to make their end-of-year lists a little eclectic to show off their wide-ranging tastes, but this year I was pretty focused on guitar-based indie musicthere's really only one hip hop record that has a chance of showing up on my list, and I don't think there are any electronica, country, folk, etc., albums that are going to make it.
Modest Mouse is streaming a new song, "Dashboard", from both their record company web site and their MySpace site. This track is from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, their impending album that still lacks a precise release date.
It's not a terrible song, but it's not a great one eitherit's basically the follow-up to "Float On", their breakthrough hit single from Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and given their major label backing and their unexpected entry into the singles chart, it's not surprising that they recorded a song like this and are using it to launch the new record. But with the addition of Johnny Marr and the re-integration of Jeremiah Green into the band, I'm hoping the rest of the album will be a little more adventurous.
It used to be that the summer was a completely pointless time to watch television; since all shows started their seasons in the fall and ended in May, there were nothing but reruns, and if you had already watched the shows the first time around, there wasn't much point. But then the networks wised up and realised that more people would watch television during these off months if there were actually new programs to watch, and so they started airing new, sometimes riskier content during the summer months, hoping that more unconventional shows would have a better chance of hooking an audience if they weren't competing with already-established ratings behemoths. The cable networks took advantage of this whole in the broadcast networks schedule first, but after the strategy proved viable, even the tradition-bound major networks followed suit.
In the music world, the months of November through January are equivalent to the months of June through August in television 25 years ago; the major releases finish up just before the holiday shopping season, and new releases all but halt until late January or even February, leaving a major hole in the music-buying schedule. I know part of this has to do with consumer holiday gorging followed by a brief period of financial fasting and with the business of scheduling tours, etc., but just as in television, part of it is due to nothing more than tradition.
I guess my point is, I sure wish some enterprising indie label would take advantage of this period of no competition and release some records. They need to sell a lot fewer records to be successful than a major label does, and any small advantage could make the difference between a record losing money and a record making a profit.
Plus, I wouldn't have to sit around bitching about the lack of new music for three months every year.
After releasing a single, "Intervention", from their forthcoming Neon Bible album on iTunes less than two weeks ago, Arcade Fire (who at some point seemed to have a "The" at the beginning of their name) have announced a release date for their sophomore record (March 6) and have started streaming another song, "Black Mirror", from the new release on their web site (you have to go into the section devoted to frontman Win Butler).
I've still got to wrap up my thoughts about 2006, but since it's been nearly two months since I purchased new music, I'm sure looking forward to the impending 2007 releases, and from these two songs alone, I feel pretty sure that Arcade Fire's follow up to their astounding debut, Funeral, won't disappoint.
I know I've been harping about the lack of new releases this time of year, but I'd like to point out that Entertainment Weekly didn't review a single record this past issue, instead devoting their entire music section to a retrospective of James Brown's career. Even the snarky Pitchfork, which should never run out of something new to review from their piles of indie promo CDs, is reduced to reviewing mostly releases from last year while awaiting the new Shins record.
I've finally given the Thermals' album Fuckin A, which immediately preceded the brillant The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a good, serious listen, and I have to say, I would have never guessed that an album like Body would have been the next thing to come from the band that recorded Fuckin A.
Musically, there are hints of Body's sound, but it's almost like the songs on Fuckin A are demos that were completely reworked for Body, with the band saving only the best parts and building completely new songs around them. The drumming in particularly is almost amateurish compared to Body, which is odd because the band's drummer quit after Fuckin A and all the drums for Body were recorded by frontman Hutch Harris. Lyrically, Fuckin A doesn't hold a candle to Body.
If you're already a Thermals fan based on Body, Fuckin A is an interesting curio, but there's hardly a song on here that comes close to matching the worst that Body has to offer. If you're not a Thermals fan, this is unlikely to make you one, at least not if you share my taste.
2006 was kind of a weird year in music, because there were plenty of good, solid releases that were worth buying, but very few that stood head and shoulders above the crowd. When I was making out my top 10 list for the year, there were three or four that I knew instantly belonged on it, but the rest of the spots were kind of a toss-upthere was very little difference in quality between number 5 and number 25, and the lower half of the top 10 is essentially constructed to add some diversity to the list.
Anyway, I'll get on to the specifics next week, starting with the truly awful, working my way up to the good, and finishing with the top 10.
I like Iron and Wine a lot. But Sam Beam should stop doing covers.
I know, I know, I've been slack lately about the year end stuff. Gonna start wrapping it up tomorrow, I swear. Which is good, because the 2007 releases are about to begin, starting with the new Shins album, Wincing Away the Night.
The average quality of the records I bought in 2006 might well have been the highest this century, which means that many of the subpar records fall more into the disappointment category than the outright failure category.
But there were still some outright failures, the most notable of which was probably Sean Lennon's Friendly Fire. This sophomore release come six years after his promising but patchy debut, Into the Sun, and all the off-kilter stuff I liked on that record has been smoothed out and ground down into blandness on this one. At its best, it can sound like a weak Elliott Smith imitation, but unless you're looking for something to put you to sleep, there aren't too many nice things to say about this record.
Another album that utterly failed to live up to expectations was I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness' Fear Is on Our Side. This Austin band's debut full-length came after years of glowing reviews of their self-titled EP, which was produced by Spoon's Britt Daniel. The EP had a decidedly Spoon-like bent which, in retrospect, is what people were really excited about. Fear contains almost none of that influence, and it's all but unlistenable, mopey and gloomy and dark, like some early 80s Joy Division wannabe that thought they could put just enough pop into their music to get it on the radio.
A final genuinely bad record is Tilly and the Wall's Bottoms of Barrels. I have a lot of affection for this band's debut, which trafficked heavily in their tap-dancing-as-percussion gimmick without becoming tiresome. It's a little more tiresome on this outing, mostly because it feeels like they're trying to emulate an actual drum kit on some of the tracks, especially the ones with a heavier dose of electric guitar. It sounds an awful lot like they decided to give up on the lo-fi oddball sensibility of their first record and try to make a more traditional rock/pop album. But with a band like this, when you lose the quirky charm, you pretty much lose interest, since that was often the most compelling element of their songcraft. I didn't really expect that I would be a longtime follower of Tillyin fact, they seemed for all the world like one of those fun side project things that would create one good but little-heard record before disappearing forever. Turns out that scenario might have been a better move for them.
I'm going to include Matthew Friedberger's deliberately difficult solo release Holy Ghost Language School in this list, although I'm a little reluctant to do so because it was released as part of a double album with Winter Women (you can't buy them separately, at least not in the brick and mortar world), and if you take both albums as a single project, I'd have to say that on the whole they would not belong in the bad records category. But I'll separate them out for simplicity's sake and talk about Winter Women later in my year end wrap up.
I picked up my first CDs of 2007 last night: the Shins' Wincing Away the Night and Deerhoof's Friend Opportunity. I don't have much to say about them yet, except that I'm betting I'm going to hate the 11 minute plus track that closes out the Deerhoof record about as much as I hate most every track that lasts longer than 10 minutes. Which is to say, a lot.
I'm waffling on posting the rest of my year end stuff because I'm having a hard time settling on the top 10. There are a few records that obviously belong there, but past those, there are about 15 or so that are all about equivalent for the last 5 or so spots.
I tend to divide up my year end evaluations into the bad (which I've already posted), the disappointments (which are records that should have been better based on the artist's past work), the good (with the subcategory of the decent, which are records that fans of the artist will certainly appreciate but which might not be the best in their career), and the top 10. Once I get it sorted which ones belong in the final 10, everything else should fall into place pretty easily.
The new Shins reocrd, Wincing the Night Away, is a nice blend of their previous two efforts, keeping the best of both. I love the spookiness of Oh, Inverted World, which occasionally suffered from muddy production, and the clean production of Chutes Too Narrow, which was sometimes a little too shiny.
The songs are still the ShinsJames Mercer's songwriting is amazingly consistentbut they may finally have found the right recording techniques to allow the compositions to shine. I'd love it if they would go back and re-record Inverted World with this same productionI think that would be a masterwork that many fans would buy a second time.
Oh, and I was right about the ten minute Deerhoof track, "Look Away", from their just released Friend Opportunity. It's fucking annoying. I'm generally too obsessive compulsive to delete certain songs from albums that I otherwise like out of my iTunes music library, but tracks like that one make me seriously consider it.
Okay, for the disappointments category, we only have a few entries from 2007. These are records that I had high expectations for which didn't pan out.
We'll start with Beck's The Information. There are actually some pretty good tracks on this record, but there are also a lot of solidly mediocre ones, all capped off by a ten minute track called "The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton" that goes on for at least seven minutes longer than it should have. I thought last year's Guero was a real return to form for him, easily ranking as one of the best three albums in his career, but The Information is a step backwards. I probably could have put this in the decent category, because I'm betting Beck aficionados really like it, but for me it was a disappointment, especially compared to Guero.
The Walkmen released one of my favorite records of 2004, Bows and Arrows, but their 2006 release A Hundred Miles Off reminds me more of their inconsistent debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. Hazy, imprecise, echoey guitar landscapes are the stock in trade for the Walkmen, but more focused and energetic tracks like "The Rat", "Little House of Savages", and "Thinking of a Dream I Had" (all from Bows and Arrows) make the looser tracks better by providing some contrast. When you string together a whole album of midtempo, boozy explorations, all the songs start to sound the same, and that's pretty much what happens on A Hundred Miles Off.
Finally we have Bitter Tea from the Fiery Furnaces. This band has been all over the map the past couple of years: last year's EP had some of their best work to date, but Rehearsing My Choir was nearly unlistenable. Songwriter Matthew Friedberger released two solo albums last year in addition to Bitter Tea, one of which was not all that good and the other of which would have been a pretty good Fiery Furnaces release. And while Bitter Tea has some great songs and overall is much better than the experimental Choir, it still suffers from too much drosss and a few too many echoes of Choir's sonic palette. Most of all it's frustrating because it's clear that they could have made a great album if they had wanted to, they simply chose not to.
I picked up Clinic's Visitations and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Some Loud Thunder today. I wasn't as nuts about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut disc as most of the indie kids were, but I still liked it pretty well. The new one was produced by Dave Fridmann, and it's definitely got a different sound. I like what I've heard so far, and I have a feeling I'm going to end up liking this record more than I did their first one.
I've been buying Clinic albums for awhile now, and I'm still not entirely convinced that you really need anything other than Walking With Thee, but on both Visitations and 2004's Winchester Cathedral, they've worked to refine their sound. Visitations sounds a little ballsier than Winchester Cathedral, but it's still Clinic all the way. So if you like that sort of thing, I guess you should run out and buy this.