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january 2015

So this is a nice way to start the year: Jens Lekman is planning to write a new song each week of 2015 and release it online. The first one is called "Postcard #1" (and I'm guessing this might be the name he uses for all the songs in the series):

It's a pleasant little demo-quality song, which is exactly what you would expect. Because this is not really about the quality of any given song; it's about having a connection with Jens, which, if you love him anywhere near as much as I do, is a charming prospect.

Also: it would be great if this led to the release of a new album. It's always far too long between releases for his fans, who would buy a new album every month if he could release them that often, but I'm really hoping it won't be five years between releases this time like it was between Night Falls Over Kortedala and I Know What Love Isn't.

Anyway. Lovely to have a little bit more of Jens in my musical life every week.

Belle & Sebastian have shared another track from their forthcoming Girls in Peacetime Just Want to Dance. This one is called "The Cat with the Cream":

My favorite so far, but still not necessarily enough to redeem this record. Don't get me wrong: I've preordered the thing because I like this band so much despite their recent output, so I'm happy there's at least one listenable track on here. But my hopes for even half an album of decent material are dwindling fast.

of Montreal have shared "Empyean Abbatoir", a second song from their upcoming Aureate Gloom album:

As with the previous song from this record, "Bassem Sabry", I wish there was a little more going on in the background——I'm very eager for Kevin Barnes to become reinfatuated with electronic sounds——but I instantly like this song more than anything off their last record, Lousy With Sylvanbriar, which is far and away my least favoite of their releases so far.

This could still end up being my second-least-favorite, but that would be okay if it was a batch of songs that I actually liked, even if I didn't like them as much as their earlier releases. I've preordered the record from Polyvinyl, and if they stick to their previous habits, they'll send it out digitally to preorders about a month before the official release. So I might only have another couple of weeks to wait before I get to hear the album in its entirety.

Iron & Wine (aka Sam Beam) is planning to put out previously unreleased archival recordings from across the band's career, and the first entry is Archive Series Volume No. 1, which features 16 songs recorded around the same period as their debut album. Beam also shared one of these songs, "Everyone's Summer of '95":

I actually didn't have a problem when Beam moved to a full backing band for his later albums——some of my favorite Iron & Wine albums (like Our Endless Numbered Days and Kiss Each Other Clean) used a band——but hearing this song reminds me instantly of why I fell in love with Iron & Wine in the first place, and it doesn't sound at all like a leftover that wasn't good enough to release.

Hopefully the rest of the archival material (especially from the band's early days) will be as strong——if so, I'm definitely on board.

Finally finished re-listening to every album I own that came out in 1986. That was a pretty fucking good year in music. I'm sure there will be other years that come close to that level of consistent quality despite a diversity of styles, but it's going to be a hard one to top.

Jens Lekman has shared the second in a planned fifty-two weekly songs that he's planning for 2015, one for each week. Given the first one title of "Postcard #1", this one is predictably called "Postcard #2":

This one is the lighthearted, goofy version of Jens at his best, and while I would love to have a new official album this year, if we get fifty two new pieces of music from him that are at the quality of the two we've heard so far, I'll be very happy.

Although it would be nice if he would let us download them from Soundcloud——I'm not particularly keen on only being able to hear these when I'm at my desktop (alternatively, I guess, I could talk to any random person half my age and find out how/where to download them from somewhere besides Soundcloud).

Fuck yes! Waxahatchee has announced a new record, Ivy Tripps, and shared a song from it called "Air":

I don't immediately like this song as much as I like the stuff on her first two records, but I also remember that it took a while for those records to grow on me, and then man, did they ever take.

I was a little concerned that she would move away from the sound she established on Cerulean Salt given how she transformed those songs in concert, but I don't hear any evidence of that here. The production is bigger and richer, but it's not awash in walls of electric guitar, which is how much of Cerulean Salt was presented when I saw Waxahatchee play live last year.

There's almost no way this new record can live up to my expectations, because I've been more or less obsessed with Waxahatchee for the past year, especially 2013's Cerulean Salt. But still, it's not likely to be awful, and there's every chance that someone so early in her career could just be entering a peak phase. So while it's unlikely to be better than Cerulean Salt, there's every chance that it could still be pretty amazing.

The Decemberists have shared a third song from their upcoming new album, this one called "A Beginning Song":

This is my favorite of the three we've heard so far, and while in comparison to classic Decemberists tracks, it tends toward the generic, but compared to the other two songs that we've heard from the new record, it's positively a classic itself——it's the first thing from this album that really sounds like the Decemberists, and that really sounds like Colin Meloy was trying to create a new and interesting variation on the Decemberists' sound instead of creating the blandest possible version of it for mass consumption.

If more of the album lives up to this song, this could still be a good record. I've got my fingers crossed, because I really love this band, and I really want some great new songs to enjoy.

I preordered Panda Bear's Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, and it came yesterday (making it the first 2015 album I've purchased), and I've also purchased the following albums recently: Lucinda Williams' Lucinda Williams, Grimes' Geidi Primes, M.I.A.'s Kala, Run the Jewels' Run the Jewels 2, Ryan Adams' Demolition, Social Distortion's Social Distortion, and King Tuff's Black Moon Spell.

I haven't listened to all of these yet, but I sampled all of them on iTunes or Spotify before I bought them (except for the Social Distoration, which I remember from a kitchen job I had in college——one of the cooks was obsessed with that album and would always play either that or Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting when he was working).

So let's get this out of they way: yes, I bought another Ryan Adams album, although this one was only $5 and it was from a period in his career when he was generally doing decent. And yes, as with most of his releases, there's nothing horrible on it, but no killer songs either. I doubt I'll listen to it more than twice.

I've really liked King Tuff's other releases, so I'm not sure how I missed the fact that they released a new record way back in September. I'm going to wait to do my top 10 list for the year until after I get to know this one a little better, because there's a decent chance this could make the list, especially given the lack of strong releases this year. But I haven't listened to it yet.

My wife and I bought tickets for the two April Decemberists shows in Atlanta, but I've recently bought tickets for a few other shows, most of which I'll likely be attending solo.

First up is Helmet, a band that has two albums I was obsessed with for about two years and which I still love (Meantime and Betty) and an extensive catalog after that that I haven't listened to at all. When frontman Page Hamilton stopped using his laid-back, near spoken word delivery and instead switched to the hoarse screms more typical for harcore metal, I just couldn't listen anymore. What made me want to buy tickets for this show, however, was the fact that they're celebrating the 20th anniversary of Betty and they're going to perform the album in full. I actually saw them on the original tour supporting Betty (with Melvins opening), and I'm eager to revisit that experience. I may listen to some of their more recent material before the show, but that's not guaranteed.

I also got tickets for Waxahatchee's show in April, which comes only a couple of days after the two Decemberists' shows. If not for the fact that their Chapel Hill date overlaps with the second night of the Decemberists, I might have taken a little road trip to catch four shows in a row: Chapel Hill, Asheville, Atlanta, and Birmingham. I still might head over to see the Birmingham show in addition to the Atlanta one, but I'm very excited for Katie Crutchfield's new record, and happy that I'll get to see her play live again at least once this year.

The middle of April is shaping up to be a busy time for concerts, because about a week and a half after the Decemberists play the Tabernacle, Sleater-Kinney is playing there, so between April 10 and April 21 I'm planning to go to at least four concernts (there's also a concert in Athens on April 8 that I'm thinking about). I've never seen Sleater-Kinney live despite being a fan since around 1998, and while I know they'll play mostly the material from their new album, I'm hoping the fact that they haven't been on tour in over a decade will mean that they'll also dip into the back catalog for some of my favorite songs.

of Montreal is also playing a couple of times near here over the next couple of months, but I haven't convinced myself to make the trek to see them, since none of the dates are actually in Atlanta. If I like the new record, I'll probably try to go to see them in Athens when they play the 40 Watt Club. I've never seen a show in that storied venue, and it would be kind of cool to see them play their hometown.

There are a lot of elements of Ex Hex's Rips that remind me of Big Star——both what I liked and disliked about the iconic 70s guitar pop band. And like Big Star, there are some pretty good songs on their debut record, but there are some decent but reasonably forgettable songs, too.

In its best moments, the album can give you a sense of what it might have been like to have Joan Jett play with Alex Chilton, or Chrissie Hynde play with Tom Petty when they were all at the peak of their creative powers; I just wish frontwoman Mary Timony had waited until she was able to flesh out a full album with great songs instead of settling for a few tracks that were clearly filler.

Week 3, and Jens Lekman is still keeping his promise to share one new song a week, this one titled exactly as you would expect, "Postcard #3":

This one might be my favorite so far, finding a nice balance between the somber, reflective "Postcard #1" and the bouncy, jaunty "Postcard #2". It feels like walking around town on a summer night with a friend, trying to decide whether to go to another bar or keep on walking and talking. A great early summer song, which makes me all the more wistful for that time of year given the cruel heart of winter that we're in now.

As is my usual habit, I've been taking a look at the other year end best-of lists to see what I've missed over the year, and the album I've picked up that I've been sort of blown away by is Run the Jewels' Run the Jewels 2.

I've been hearing about how great it is since its release, but I'm not a huge hip hop fan, so I sort of ignored it. But when Amazon listed it for $5 last month and it was named album of the year by more than one publication, I figured it was worth a listen.

And man, does it take you by storm. It's the closest thing to be assaulted that I've heard since Kanye West's Yeezus, but a lot more fun, like being in a fight club where you're a willing participant instead of a victim. There's not a stronger trio of sequential songs on any album in the past couple of years than tracks 2-4 of this record, "Oh My Darling Don't Cry", "Blockbuster Night Part 1", and "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)" (and yes, it's super raunchy in both subject matter and language, so you need to be able to get past that just like you have to get past violence in a movie like The Matrix if you want to really see the truth underneath).

I'm going to have to pick just one of these tracks to be on my year end top 10 list, but I have no idea which one. "Close Your Eyes" might have the edge simply because it features Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha——his killer performance simultaneously reminds us of why he was so vital and makes us wonder (with no small dose of frustration) just what the hell he's been doing with himself since that band stopped making new music more than a decade ago.

I haven't heard the first Run the Jewels record, nor have I ever listened to the other material made by the two principals, Killer Mike and El-P, but those are going to be worth investigating even if they are only three quarters as good as this record.

So, while seeking out the first Run the Jewels record, I realized that both albums were made available as free downloads, so my $5 buy wasn't such a bargain after all. Oh well, I guess that's what I get for 1) not paying attention when these records came out and 2) being old. At least I figured it out before I bought their first record.

So St. Vincent is releasing a deluxe version of her 2014 self-titled album that includes five new songs, and while I'm all for new St. Vincent material, I almost wish she had just released this as a standalone EP——this whole thing of releasing a "deluxe" version of your album shortly (within a year) of the actual album's release is bullshit and smacks of the vacuous moneygrubbing that is part and parcel of the marketing and selling of manufactured global pop stars. But you don't typically expect it from indie artists with rock-solid cred.

I mean, I suppose I can just buy the track digitally for $1 each and end up paying the same $5 that an EP probably would have been priced at, but it's the principle of the thing that bothers me.

Anyway. St. Vincent shared one of the new songs from the deluxe edition, "Bad Believer":

Jens Lekman. "Postcard #4":

Kortedala reference! And he rhymed it with amygdala!

A sweet, mid-tempo waltz. Just lovely.

This batch of songs is proving pretty amazing so far. If you're a Jens fan, this would be exactly what you would hope for upon hearing that he was going to be releasing a track a week for an entire year.

I don't know if he'll be able to sustain this quality for an entire 52 songs, but add one more decent track next week and we've gotten at least one pretty solid EP out of this experiment.

Death Cab for Cutie recently announced a new album, Kintsugi, and shared a track from the record called "Black Sun":

This is the final album for founding member Chris Walla, and although he played on a few of the album's tracks, it sounds pretty clear from this song that frontman and primary songwriter Ben Gibbard is pushing the band in a new direction, and it's one that sounds different not only from Death Cab's prior work, but his solo album and his collaborative Postal Service project.

Not sure I like this song so much, but I usually come around on whatever Gibbard does (his solo record is the lone exception), so I'll give this album a chance to take hold of me.

Many, many people in my demographic have likely purchased all three new albums from indie stalwarts Belle & Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney, and the Decemberists, but just in case you haven't, here's some advice: the only one of these records that is truly vital and adds something to a catalog already overflowing with greatness (as all three of these bands' catalogs do) is Sleater-Kinney's No Cities to Love. The other two, Belle & Sebastian's Girls in Peacetime Just Want to Dance and the Decemberists' What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, you will likely find mediocre to not-good depending on your personal preferences.

For me, Girls in Peacetime is the stronger effort, and better than the band's last release, Write About Love, but that was probably their worst album ever, so it wasn't hard to be slightly better than that, and it doesn't mean this is a good record.

The Decemberists, meanwhile, have delivered their first true dud; I've been waiting years for this album, and there's not a single song on there that I really want to listen to again, and many that I know I never want to hear again. I'll keep living with it and trying to find a way to love it because I love this band so much, but I'm really terribly disappointed, especially as this effort comes after the band's longest hiatus ever. Instead of sounding vital and alive, like it contains several years worth of ideas, it sounds flat, empty, and bored——the kind of record you might expect if the band had run out of energy and vision but still needed to put food on the table.

The Church are releasing a new album next week called Further/Deeper, their first since 2009's Untitled #23 and their 25th release overall. They have also recently shared two of its tracks on Soundcloud, "Vanishing Man" and "Pride Before a Fall":

Founding member and lead guitarist Marty Willson-Piper isn't featured on this one——he's departed from the band a couple of times before due to geographic and artistic distances——but both of these songs remind me a lot more of what I like about the Church than anything I heard on Untitled #23. I'm pretty likely to buy this if the rest of the record is in a similar vein, and I'm desperately hoping for a US tour to back it up——I saw them a few years ago when they played Starfish, Priest = Aura, and Untitled #23 in their entirety, and it was one of the best shows I've seen in my life.

I doubt they would go that route again, but I would give just about anything to see them do the same thing with Heyday, Gold Afternoon Fix, and this new record.

Modest Mouse shared a second track from their upcoming album Strangers to Ourselves, and this one is called "Coyotes":

I don't like this one nearly as much as the first one they shared, "Lampshades on Fire". This one's not good, not bad, it's just kind of there and sounding a bit like Modest Mouse is supposed to sound when they want to be quietly morose.

If this is tucked in the middle of an otherwise great record, it will be reasonably tolerable to listen to as part of that experience, but if it's surrounded by a gaggle of similarly mediocre-to-just-barely-good tracks, this album is going to end up at the lower end of their career output along with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.