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Thao with the Get Down Stay Down

Know Better Learn Faster

(Kill Rock Stars)

50



Thao with the Get Down Stay Down
Know Better Learn Faster



She’ll probably never shake the Chan Marshall comparison, but Thao Nguyen’s vocals are distinctly her own. On Know Better Learn Faster, they pour out of her body with an Animal (the Muppet)-like compulsion that makes every “ooh” and “la” sound not like popular music tropes contrived and refined over decades, but like completely natural phenomena. The album covers fairly unique emotional ground. She’s not weathered, she’s not despondent; she’s a pinball of energy redirected by encounters with sex and sadness and confusion. The unusual juxtaposition of melancholy with jaunty guitars and danceable rock music (after all, sad people dance, too) doesn’t seem dissonant or hackneyed or even really all that unusual—instead it seems inevitable, the recorded product of a causal chain that links today with Know Better Learn Faster and the big bang and all of history. Tyler Gould


 

 



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Jay Reatard

Watch Me Fall

(Matador)

Review [12.Aug.2009]

49



Jay Reatard
Watch Me Fall



Jay Reatard has mastered the art of being cool without really giving a damn. Haters labeled Watch Me Fall as something of a departure from his trademark, ragged, snot-nosed garage-punk. True, it’s a little slicker in its production than previous Reatard releases, but what shines through on Watch Me Fall is the undeniable quality of the songwriting. For every person who claims that a producer leaves his fingerprints all over a record, Reatard stepped up and seemed to say, “Nah, that’s not what I’m going to have you remember.” Reatard didn’t so much go out on a limb with his second solo full-length, as he expanded the sonic limits of the garage-punk genre with a brash yet terribly catchy efficiency. Having released dozens of releases under various monikers, Jay Reatard’s Watch Me Fall is proof of how a genre like garage-punk, often believed to be simplistic and stagnant, can evolve with daring charisma. It’s also proof of how hard this dude continues to rock while making it look so damn easy. Joshua Kloke


 

 



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Why?

Eskimo Snow

(Anticon)

Review [1.Oct.2009]

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Why?
Eskimo Snow



Tempting as it might be to label Eskimo Snow Yoni Wolf’s most personal outing as due to the intimate nature of the music, it would be selling short the fact that all four Why? albums to date have thrived on their author’s uniquely uneasy juncture of confessional candor and irreverent wordplay. Likewise, calling it the band’s sonically prettiest release ignores Wolf’s unfailing knack for infusing his amorphous mishmash of skewed raps and woozy, Pavement-esque indie-rock with moments of undeniable folk-pop grace—even at his music’s most willfully obtuse. Initially hyped as the band’s least hip-hop-infused collection, and then somewhat blindly deemed minor Why? on the grounds that its ten tracks are leftovers from 2008’s knottier and more expansive Alopecia, Eskimo Snow rather stands in seamless continuity with its innovative predecessors by coming from exactly the same wellspring of seeming contradictions: at once startlingly plaintive (“All my words for sadness, like Eskimo snow”, completes the line that lends the album its title) and hilariously, surreally profane in a way that no other current songwriter is even attempting, let alone equaling. If Eskimo Snow proves anything at all, it is that Yoni Wolf is simply on one hell of a roll. Jer Fairall


 

 



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Alela Diane

To Be Still

(Rough Trade)

Review [26.Feb.2009]

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Alela Diane
To Be Still



Alela Diane’s record is loaded with simple descriptions of nature: brambles, mud, dark waters, snakeskin, wind, snowmelt, last year’s antlers, lapping waves, knotty pine, dirt ditch, ocean, canyon, flatlands, silt, river mouths, creeks, rain, stones, trees, etc. In Hemingwayesque prose, she sings the stories of walking life’s paths. There is something beautiful in her voice that lets us know the eminence of the ordinary. What is common is what is special. The sounds of wood and wire (fiddle and guitar) remind us of the rhythms and patterns that surround us, if we can be still enough to simply observe. Being still; quieting the noise inside so that we can pay attention to the world within us and around us is the secret. Diane’s music transports us away from the social and political nonsense to remind us of our shared humanity and place in the world. That just might be the highest function of art. Steven Horowitz


 

 



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Meshell Ndegeocello

Devil’s Halo

(Downtown)

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Meshell Ndegeocello
Devil’s Halo



Though it is quite fashionable to say that Meshell Ndegeocello defies genre classification—and I think she does—her music is so wonderfully animated by the spirit of the blues, so much so that if I had to call her anything it would be “modern blues woman”. On Devil’s Halo, Ndegeocello blues has never been more compelling. From the funky melancholy “Slaughter” to her weirdly romantic cover of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down” to the guitar-driven lament “Crying in Your Beer”, Ndegeocello runs the bad ol’ blues through her uniquely 21st century consciousness and comes up with the most emotional potent and beautiful work of her career. Tyler Lewis


 

 



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HEALTH

Get Color

(Lovepump United)

Review [7.Sep.2009]

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HEALTH
Get Color



We critics wanted to love HEALTH in 2007 (some of us even claimed we did). We were all well aware that the LA scene didn’t have much longevity, but here was an exciting act, one that had potential to go past “fun noise punk” and into something more. Now, they’ve hit that something more. Although HEALTH’s debut isn’t unlistenable by any means, it takes a certain state of mind to approach its well-ordered chaos. Here, the group retains its taste for interesting sounds (see “Death+”) but now uses them to build interesting songs. Get Color still isn’t full of pop songs—“Die Slow” is the closest they come and that won’t be cracking the Billboard charts—but at least they’ve managed to channel their unique style through something a little less erratic. And when that leads to songs as good as “We Are Water”, what more do we need? Matthew Collins


 

 



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Andrew Bird

Noble Beast

(Fat Possum)

44



Andrew Bird
Noble Beast



“When one has spent too much time alone,” to quote the startlingly plaintive “Effigy”, I imagine one ends up a bit like Andrew Bird. The Illinois native has done just that since leaving Bowl of Fire behind in 2003; and from it he has honed a wonderfully singular and admittedly introverted blend of violin- and whistling-inflected folk. Noble Beast, with its formless interludes and bulky track lengths, may well be his most expansive work yet, buoyed as usual by eccentric wordplay (“from proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans”, anyone?) and dense, inspired melodicism. The freedom allows Bird to stretch in opposite directions at once, from cluttered electronic territory (“Not a Robot, but a Ghost”) to organic, majestic folk (“The Privateers”, “Effigy”)—and with almost unequivocal success. At the center of it all sits “Anonanimal”, which pairs gorgeous, overlapping interplay with some of his most tongue-twisting lyrics yet (“the seemingly innocuous plecostomus though posthumus”??). Bird could be forgiven for not changing his act too drastically since 2005’s breakthrough. What he has is sincere and real and, most of all, it simply feels right. Zach Schonfeld


 

 



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K’naan

Troubadour

(A&M/Octone)

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K’naan
Troubadour



Somalia-born emcee K’naan successfully avoided the sophomore slump and quieted any doubters on Troubadour. Raising the bar on his debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher (2005), he raps a wiser worldview with a tightened flow, blending Rakim’s sophistication with Eminem’s wit over an intercontinental, multi-genre tapestry of beats and melodies from African folk (“Dusty Streets”) to Southern funk, soul (“I Come Prepared”), and tweeter-rattling crunk (“Does It Really Matter”). He spits journalistic rhymes and delivers uplifting punch lines that entertain and educate, chronicling his experiences of rancor and turmoil from going up in war-torn Somalia. His commentary on the global state of hip hop is reintroduced and remixed on “If Rap Gets Jealous”. The whole album deftly captures the historic Marley vibe of its Tuff Gong recording locale. Most of all, he reps his homeland and raps a message the whole world can nod its head and groove to. Chris Catania


 

 



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Green Day

21st Century Breakdown

(Reprise)

Review [14.May.2009]

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Green Day
21st Century Breakdown



I didn’t think Green Day could do it. But with 21st Century Breakdown, they wrought another arena-sized punk-rock concept album which rivals their previous punk-rock concept-album, the massively successful American Idiot. Molded into three six-song acts, Breakdown traces the complex story of Christian and Gloria in Motor City’s post-Bush political landscape. And first single, “Know Your Enemy”, was the perfect bait into their world. Wherever you were when you first heard the snares hit, your head quickly synchronized to the beat and your voice then joined the collective in a defiant fight against silence. Fitting its operatic style, the album covers a gamut of sensations and styles from both frantic moshing and lighter waving in the title song, to the power ballad piano of “Last Night on Earth”, to the ragtimey stomp and fierce rock of “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)” and the smoldering intensity of “21 Guns”. Far beyond their Dookie days, Green Day still possess the same core punk ethos and youthful energy, only now with a musical evolution that draws comparisons to The Who. Their growth has built a following of all ages, as the audiences in massive sold-out arenas exemplify. With this album, Green Day reiterates their considerable weight as a voice of the modern age. Sachyn Mital


 

 



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Bill Callahan

Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

(Drag City)

Review [16.Apr.2009]

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Bill Callahan
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle



As the internet continues to pull indie rock’s most treasured secrets towards the mainstream, Bill Callahan remains one of the few undiscovered redwoods deeply rooted enough to withstand the undertow. On Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, his 13th full length and second album under his own name, Callahan once again subverts wistful, pretty melodies with just enough brooding weirdness to delight longtime Smog fans while simultaneously keeping the NPR fan-base at bay. This kind of accessible alienation is hardly unique amid Callahan’s oeuvre, but it did reassert Callahan’s role as the godfather of calculated melancholy in a year where nostalgia-leaning lo-fi noise ruled the blogosphere. Continuing Callahan’s career-long exploration into the human psyche, Eagle grapples with the big questions—the meaning of dreams, the existence of god, and the potential of love—with Callahan’s always assured baritone that, if it never arrives at the answers, at least conveys a comfortable solace in their absence.  Ryan Marr


 
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