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At a time when most of his piers are busy with their fresh lo-fi take on folk, punk, pop, and any number of other ‘freak-’ affairs, Kurt Vile has gone very much his own way with his personal take on classic American rock.
Vile (real name by all accounts) is part of the recent boom from Philadelphia (Espers, Silk Breeze), and for this record has moved from the Woodsist label (see number two in this list), responsible for the release of his Constant Hitmaker LP, to the home of Pavement: Matador. Stating in interviews that Childish Prodigy is “my masterpiece, thus far,” and where previous efforts might have been “slacker to the discriminating ear,” the record possesses more full band arrangements, having brought in his touring band, the Violators, to record with him on the album. Although Childish Prodigy at no stage sounds over-produced, it is distinctly more balanced than either Constant Hitmaker or God Is Saying This to You. That said, even dubbed his most “serious” recording, all the tracks on Childish Prodigy are, as the name would suggest, still damn good fun.
The fact that Vile is a guitarist by trade (in the massively underrated War on Drugs) is distinctly evident as he sows devastating melody with his often warped rambling vocals that, as on previous releases, feel wholly off the tongue. Whispers of the not-so-classical pop song writing on perhaps his most known track, “Freeway”, can be heard, but he stretches these across the format of an LP recording. It’s not a comparison I often like to make, as I feel his ingenuity stands on it own in so many ways, but imagine if Dylan had fried his brain with too many psychedelic drugs and this is what he might sound like, where simple pop songs are seemingly elevated.
Album opener “Hunchback” has all the swagger of the Stones, and the name of his previous work, Constant Hitmaker, really does seem to sum up Vile’s songwriting ability, where amidst all the haze there are some distinctly catchy tunes. The tongue in cheek title of his most recent piece may just be true, and give signs of more to come.
Fever Ray, aka Karin Dreijer Andersson, of previous fame as one half of Swedish duo the Knife, released this year’s debut (and rumoured to be only LP under this guise) in March. The record is an effecting portrayal of Andersson’s time spent suffering from insomnia following the birth of her first child.
Stripping away all the dance beats, but keeping the pitch-shifted distorted tones found on previous recordings with the Knife, Fever Ray creates a desolate, isolated soundscape that is at times reminiscent of an ‘80s Kate Bush, and gained the inevitable comparisons with Bjork. With synths and drumpads alongside more traditional instrumentation, the record really shows how music, and more predominantly, psychedelic music, can be pushed with the use of modern technology.
Slow pulsating album opener “If I Had a Heart” sets the tempo of the record and translates the feeling of extreme sleep deprivation, with time seemingly slowing down, directly into a stark yet mesmerising resonance. With tracks portraying the often unreasonable prepossessions of an insomniac, with startlingly honest and cutting lyrics of life amongst “Concrete Walls”, the record feels like it is delivered direct from the heart, from a way of life rather than an outsider’s perspective.
A record as harrowing to listen to as it was to make, there is solitude to Fever Ray and a distinct sense of longing throughout. It would have been easy for Andersson to write an album full of desperation and gloom, but there is an idiosyncratic feeling of optimism amidst what, at times, verges on an uncomfortable fear held within the record, one that which seems to serve as much of a therapy for the artist as it does a triumphant release to its listener.
Immediately upon beginning Dos, the album introduces itself as a record that could blow the unsuspecting citizen’s mind with its throbbing ‘60s garage tunes laden with repetition and hypnotic production. The San Franciscans probably owe more than any other artist on this list to vintage psychedelia, as the tracks have so much kraut groove they make you want to get up and shake your undeserving rump.
Dos develops a minimal approach that echoes the noisy trance rock of the Velvet Underground immersed in reverb-drenched grooves. The acid-soaked hooks pick up from where “Dance California”, perhaps their most well known work prior to this album, left off, with their trademark thick haze bearing the blasé of Suicide as Erik “Ripley” Johnson’s vocals echo amongst the warped, intense funk.
Amp Dos up on a loud stereo and the results are outrageous, with the combination of organ stabs and warbles emitting a throbbing Pennsylvanian graveyard freak-out. The relentless motorik chug is drenched in reverb, but in a genre that often relies upon this, Wooden Shjips (not a typo) harness the mysterious effect to propel their accomplished arrangements. The rhythm section stick to it doggedly throughout as screaming guitar solos wander in and out of psychedelic jams that haven’t been so danceable since the Stooges.
The programmatic grooves are reminiscent of the Spacemen 3, and give the distinct feeling they could just keep going forever. As the slickest Wooden Shjips work to date, this is the sound of a band that are destined to make way more than obscure records for the next decade and, we can but hope, beyond.
Woods, fellow Brooklynites of Animal Collective and dozens of others, come from a city that has been synonymous with the lo-fi boom of 2009. Jeremy Earl, guitarist and frontman of the band, has had a busy year, finding time to both release a plethora of the best lo-fi recordings of the past twelve months (a number of which can be found on this list) from bands based in the city and beyond, as well as help pen the label’s greatest export.
The record quickly establishes that something quite special is going on amidst all the tape hiss, with its scuzzy, guitar-driven, psyched-out folk music. The trio share in Stephen Malkmus’s lazy sounding perfection, masterfully blending a hybrid of influences that possess a kind of futuristic nostalgia.
“Down This Road” sounds like you could be listening to the idle thoughts of a youthful Neil Young without the filter of the writing process or a recording studio upon him, and echoes of a youthful Young can be heard across the record, whilst the cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Military Madness” is a masterstroke.
One minute a melodic freak-folk affair, the next a psychedelic jam, the album continually reinvents itself without sounding at any stage schizophrenic, creating its own brand of free-folk in the process. With a distinct penchant for infectious melody, the only real ever-present theme throughout Songs of Shame is that of a record that seems to develop further every time the LP is played, the sign of a truly great album.
Merriweather Post Pavilion
(Domino; US: 20 Jan 2009; UK: 12 Jan 2009)
Perhaps astoundingly, Merriweather Post Pavilion is Animal Collective’s eighth studio record since debut Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished in 2000, with their back catalogue spanning a release in some format for every year of this past decade. Ranging from the experimental electronic ‘pop’ of Merriweather to single take, live recordings of the Collective in a forest, theirs is an output that knows no boundaries.
I feel almost as if writing what the record is about here would just be covering old ground, as the horde of blogs, forums, and critics that blew up both prior to and following its release covered every inch necessary, and beyond, back in January of this year. All I will say is, if you are reading this and have yet to hear the album, I implore you to do so. It is quite simply one of those records that everybody should have in their collection, and seems to be rapidly moving towards defining a generation.
However, what I do feel is relevant to highlight is the effect its release had, not only shining a light on what the band has been doing for almost a decade, but also on what a whole host of experimental artists have been slowly building over in the States for the past few years. Forget the 2008 indie-psych of MGMT, these are experimental acts that, although influences from past genres exist on the fringes of their music, are truly original in their creations, and give a final, definitive answer to the question, “Has it all been done before?”
Whereas previous albums have often taken more time to settle, Merriweather Post Pavilion is much more instant, with all the traits of past Animal Collective albums existing in perfect harmony, and although this was, quite predictably, labeled as the band’s ‘pop’ album, it merely is that their music never has sounded so together. That isn’t to say it is even necessarily their best, just certainly their most fluid of any record from start to finish.
For me, the album of the year, bar none, 2009 has simply been Animal Collective’s year, affirmed by the headlining of a whole host of festivals across the globe, inadvertently creating the perfect soundtrack to an altered summer.