Crate-Digging: My Favorite Records of 2010, part 2

Continued from Part 1:

5. Liars – Sisterworld (Mute)

I saw Liars live for the first time this year at the First Unitarian Church in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia. It was at that show – they played the sweaty basement instead of the sanctuary – that I realized Liars are all about the rhythm. Drummer Julian Gross is sick, driving the entire production in ways that aren’t quite as apparent on record. Angus Andrew is a beast. And Aaron Hemphill created an unholy racket behind his effects bank. They filled the subterranean locale with their unique brand of subterranean art punk. They were absolutely genius.

And so is Sisterworld, album number five for Liars. Inspired by the band’s relocation to Los Angeles, Liars explore the familiar themes of darkness and the human condition, such as in bounding late-album cut “The Overachievers”: “I bought a house with you / we settled down with cats / there wasn’t much to do / so we just sat and watched the TV,” Andrew sneers. But the restraint goes a long way in building up to such bursts of energy. One of my favorite songs this year, “Scissor,” does it all within the confines of its composition, creeping along through verses before exploding into monstrous fits. “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” is similar in punk brashness and LA angst to “The Overachievers,” while “Proud Evolution” and “No Barrier Fun” are sneakily two of the best dirges they’ve ever penned. Sisterworld is certainly a weird-ass alternate reality to visit, but it’s compelling in all it’s confounding glory.

4. Frog Eyes – Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph (Dead Oceans)

This is a blurb I wrote for Bank Robber Music, an independent music licensing company. I think it recaps the record pretty well. IMHO.

After a 3-year gestation, how does Frog Eyes follow up Tears of the Valedictorian, whose blazing epic centerpiece, the 9-minute “Bushels,” was one of the best things they’ve ever laid to tape? Why, crush us with a 9-minute epic opener, “A Flower in a Glove” from new album Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph of course! Although the sonic template differs little from their previous album, Frog Eyes reach new bombastic heights throughout this track, as the entire first half is one big crescendo, frontman Carey Mercer howling and screaming as if he’s being led to his own execution. Mercer and new guitarist Ryan Beattie sound as if they’re strangling their guitars to death, and their incendiary interplay smacks of Crazy Horse. The record contains danger at every turn, the narrative brimming with intrigue and war, and Mercer’s common lyrical dissection of the human psyche to its darkest atoms buoys the chaotic yet precise instrumentation throughout. There are quieter moments like “Rebel Horns” and “Violent Psalms,” but these relatively calm segments are toxic and claustrophobic, much like Mercer’s solo endeavors as Blackout Beach. But the huge moments, when the fury and catharsis are on full display, obliterate any sense of refuge, such as the twin 7-minute suites “Styled by Dr. Roberts” and manic closer “Paul’s Tomb.” Frog Eyes are truly here to judge the damned and raise holy hell – as Mercer frantically gulps in “Odetta’s War,” “everybody’s got a hole in their heart” and “a darkness in their gut.” Watch out.

3. Forest Swords – Dagger Paths (Olde English Spelling Bee)

Yep, I’m still digging this album just as much as I did earlier in the year when I first reviewed the record. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite.

Forest Swords is the one-man project of Matthew Barnes of Liverpool, and Dagger Paths is a hell of a opening salvo – it’s leapt into my top 10 records of 2010 for sure, and it may end up near the top of that list. Barnes specializes in a heady concoction of psychedelia and dark dub, crafting minimal guitarscapes accentuated by keyboard waves and R&B samples that are buried deep in the mix and distorted to incomprehensibility. I wouldn’t call this ambient music though, owing to its secret-ish weapon: rhythm. Despite the meditative qualities of the music, the Swords make great use of drums throughout….

But if rhythm is the secret weapon, then atmosphere is its not-so-secret one, and Dagger Paths plays like anything but a Liverpudlian summer. The production is heavy and dense, elements wisping from speakers like mist on a muggy Savannah evening. The instruments drip with humidity and smear forest floors with damp leaves and swamp variations. Listening to Forest Swords is like the opposite of beer commercials – instead of chilling to icebox temperatures and seeing your breath, Barnes lights you up in the sticky jungle, and your shirt immediately clings to your sweaty back. Sound uncomfortable? It really isn’t – it’s gorgeous….

I gotta say, even though the dankness is heavy and oppressive like jungle fog, it’s easy to breathe through Dagger Paths. Let it fill your lungs as well as your ears, and take in the fragrances of the outdoors – in fact, listening to Forest Swords on headphones amidst nature is probably the best way to ingest the album…. Dagger Paths is a space you can easily slip into, no matter where you are. Just be prepared for the rising barometer.

2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (Virgin)

Dance music is supposed to be dumb. Let’s talk about Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim for a moment. Once considered royalty among the dance floor cognoscenti – and let’s face it, he probably still is, if you pay him any mind – I counted myself among his adoring fans. When I was in high school. Fifteen years ago. I’ve tried listening to his records again, and my gosh, I really can’t. The beats lack invention, the samples are obvious, and the builds predict themselves. It’s Music for Dumbasses. Literally.

So why do I go on about Norman Cook? Because I want to know where James Murphy gets off making dance music for rock fans that actually works. It’s smart dance music – and no, not IDM, but dance music that you can internalize and relate to on an everyday level, as well as in those escapist moments. You can shake it and have a personal epiphany at the same time. Murphy structures his songs in ways that don’t get old even as runtimes eclipse the seven, eight, nine-minute marks, and albums that push well past pop record length. He creates music for the everyday masses, and yet he sneaks in the nuances that drive the record collectors into ecstatic frenzies of snobbery. He’s an everyman, and a scholar. He makes songs like “Drunk Girls” and “Pow Pow” transcend what you think they’re capable of. He dynamically weaves in and out of  “Dance Yrself Clean,” “One Touch,” and “You Wanted a Hit.” And he gets to the heart of human behavior on “All I Want” and particularly “I Can Change,” my vote for song of the year. I’m doing him a disservice with a quick year-end recap.

OK, OK – putting LCD Soundsystem so high on a year-end list isn’t a new thing. We all know, over the past few years, that LCD’s records have made some pretty important lists. (Hint – mine isn’t one of them. Yet.) But once again, James Murphy proves himself an expert songwriter – both at the single-track and album levels – and This Is Happening deserves attention.

1. Future Islands – In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey)

I still can’t get enough of this record. I’ve cobbled together some bits of the original review below. It still drives me crazy how good In Evening Air is.

Future Islands is a three-piece hailing from Baltimore (although they met at East Carolina University), and they’ve fallen in with Dan Deacon’s Wham City crew. But unlike the unhinged art pop the scene tends to churn out, Future Islands’ brand of art rock takes on a more serious edge; in fact, despite gleaming melodies and a penchant for major chord resolutions, the subject matter contained herein explores the darkest corners of broken relationships. The balance is extremely subtle and expertly crafted – the main instruments are a drum machine, nimble bass, and keyboards and synthesizers that resemble glowing pink clouds of haze, false sunshine, water droplets, and cavernous choruses – the texture and timbre are sublime. Guitar is scarce, it’s most insistent use a magical arpeggiated rhythmic picking on “Vireo’s Eye,” almost at the end of the album. They fall squarely in the Joy Division/New Order camp, but stretch beyond the claustrophobia of the former and soar beyond the memorable melodies of the latter. They’ve even dubbed their style “post wave,” an effort to meld the darkness and seriousness of post punk with lighter new wave arrangements. And the singer – oh the singer. Samuel T. Herring has a voice that resembles Tom Waits, and before you start criticizing me of unoriginal journalism for parroting what most other reviews have so, astutely, noticed, I mean that merely as a starting point. In that voice is the gravity of a thousand crushed relationships, the weight and the angst is so palpable that I imagine his words as objects or projectiles, so deeply they penetrate the psyche. Herring’s voice is deeper and not as strained as Waits’, and his range allows him to be naturally theatrical, although he doesn’t exude as much cynicism as Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. He’s honest and up front, sincere, although that’s not to suggest that Stewart isn’t, it’s just a completely different brand on display.

In Evening Air is a peek into the dark, ugly gutter of disintegrating relationships, the clueless and ignorant partner’s foolish attempts at recognition, and the self-destructive behavior that opens emotional wounds requiring years to heal. It’s a diary of the end, a bleak and painful cycle. But it’s so honest and resounding, delivered in such a palatable manner, that it’s impossible not to empathize completely with the band…. It’s a stroke of genius, a horrific emotional thrill ride. If I could have turned to this record the last time I was in a relationship that imploded, I don’t know if I’d ever come out of the depression. It’s just that good.

Honorable mentions:

The Besnard Lakes – …Are the Roaring Night
Ceremony – Rohnert Park
Clipd Beaks – To Realize
COOLRUNNINGS – Buffalo EP / Babes Forever EP
Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Here We Go Magic – Pigeons
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Photophob – Urban Dialectics
Pop Winds – The Turquoise
Reading Rainbow – Prism Eyes
Sea Oleena – Sea Oleena
Suuns – Zeroes QC
Superchunk – Majesty Shredding
Tobacco – Maniac Meat
The Walkmen – Lisbon

I expected so much more from you:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs. Nothing about it grabbed me. Nothing. Weird.

Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record. I wasn’t expecting an amazing record, I guess, but I can’t even remember what this one sounds like.

Captain Ahab – The End of Irony / The Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. “Acting Hard” was awesome. Everything else turned out to be frat boy garbage.

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