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Annie Clark sounds like she could get you into some serious trouble on Actor. Among all the industrial clatter she coats her songs in, there is that siren’s voice, luring us into the unknown. She invites us to “paint the black hole blacker” and we do, because we are helpless at the sound of her devastating lilt, even as it’s delivered through a knowing smirk. And the playful nature of her songs—weaving as they do through folk and orchestral pop and rock while they squeal and bleep with pixels—makes her all the more unpredictable. But the mystery she brings, dark as it is, is also awfully charming. And standout tracks like “Marrow” and “Actor Out of Work” show off a delightful and multi-talented performer who can puff us up with love one moment, devastate us the next, and then make us burst out laughing. By album’s end, you’re pulled into her game, ready to smash glass or kiss a stranger or dance in the middle of the street. Or listen to Actor all over again.
The Life of the World to Come
(4AD; US: 6 Oct 2009; UK: 5 Oct 2009)
Isn’t it enough that Darnielle takes big cuts out of the Bible and makes them his own? Doesn’t that qualify this as an amazing singer-songwriter album? How about the fact that Darnielle strays away from lunging wild-eyed for our jugular the way we kind of want him to? The strained piano chords, the often gentle pluck of a guitar, the whisper of vocals—they’re all delivered with a considered restraint. And for a dude as excitable as Darnielle, this is surely a feat. With a tempered voice, Darnielle grapples with all kinds of demons, and angels, with the help of the Good Book. There’s a cautious, fleeting hope in “Romans 10:9”, deep grief and loss in “Matthew 25:21”, and even that maddening frenzy we expect from him on “Psalms 40:2”. Through it all, Darnielle commits fully to his Bible references. Quotes work their way into these songs, and there are unabashed confessions of faith. It’s not because Darnielle has had any awakening, it’s because he’s a great writer battling to understand. And with that fearless eye, his lines hits hard and true in every song. “Drive till the rain stops… keep driving”, he pleads at the album’s end. The Life of the World to Come, and the very Word it’s based on—they can only take us so far. We have to choose to press on. Darnielle figures this out over twelve excellent songs, and leaves us to grapple with the crushing hope in having that choice. Sounds like a big book I read once.
(Dead Oceans; US: 3 Feb 2009; UK: 9 Feb 2009)
To Willie feels so natural in its delivery that it’s hard to believe these are all covers. Matthew Houck’s love letter to Willie Nelson sounds like an intimate conversation between the two. When Houck and his band shuffle through ““Pick Up the Tempo” or stomp dust off the floor on “I Gotta Get Drunk”, it sounds like they’re downing whiskey with Willie and the boys. But when things shift, and Houck sings a ballad like “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way”, it’s like he’s feeling Willie’s hurt all over again. Like his heart is breaking anew for the Red-Headed Stranger. And in covering these songs, we see something of Houck’s own work, where he found the ability to make his own lonesome sound come across as so universal. We see all that Houck has learned from Willie Nelson, and all the other urban cowboys that came before him, but we also see the earnest emotion Houck puts into his music, the thing that can’t be faked. So, in honoring Willie Nelson, Matthew Houck has also taken hold of those sad country reigns. And there isn’t anyone around to take them from him anytime soon.
Life on Earth is the most silent tension you’ll hear in 2009, and perhaps the sparest album of the decade. It leaves you breathless because it breaths so hard itself, sucking up all the oxygen in the vast, black space around it. These songs aren’t interested in looking at the abyss, or in wondering about isolation. They throw themselves down there and shout at the rock walls that might be somewhere out there in the dark. Strings are plucked, chords rise from guitars, only when absolutely necessary. And around them the silence is huge and deafening, with Jesy Fortino’s rattled, baying vocals cutting bravely through it. She may be lost, but she won’t plead. Even as she sings, “I’m dying for a way out”, she sounds dangerous and untethered, not defeated. Fortino is facing the beasts and forging ahead into a landscape she can’t see. And that bare fearlessness is what makes this quiet record so rewarding. It demands of you—attention, energy, and emotion will be spent if you really listen—but the rewards are great and run deeper with each listen. So go ahead and get quiet.
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
(Drag City; US: 14 Apr 2009; UK: 13 Apr 2009)
In his days under the Smog moniker, Callahan could be awfully harsh. He demanded wives to dress sexy at their husband’s funeral, or got dangerously drunk at ex-lovers’ weddings. But these days, he sings lines like “I used to be sort of blind, but now I can sort of see”. And boy is he right. That resonant voice isn’t dismissive and clustered-up anymore; it’s deep with knowledge and searching for hope. And behind him, a huge band of players make a spacious and dreamy sound. Horns and strings and pedal steel swirl around him, swelling and pulling away from spare, steady percussion. At the middle of it all is Callahan, unmoving but searching for hope in the everyday. Here Callahan sets aside the caustic one-liner in favor of building a subtle, deeply felt moment. When he strings together a line word by word at the end of “Too Many Birds”, you’re hanging on every breath. And when he gets it all out—“If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat”—you’re left with a melancholy that feels oddly comforting. Callahan has long been one of our finest and most daring songwriters. But when he turned away from that dark, and towards some humble light, he made his most crucial work to date. No wonder he’s not hiding behind Smog anymore. This is a sound to put your name on, to be proud of, to be remembered for.