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Vampire Weekend

Contra

(XL; US: 12 Jan 2010; UK: 11 Jan 2010)

Review [18.Jan.2010]

40



Vampire Weekend
Contra


As with its self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend’s sophomore effort almost hides all of its innovation—its ability to blend global sounds, straight-up indie rock, and electronic music—by making such an easy, simple pleasure to listen to. Much is made of bands’ tendencies to put up a “difficult” second record, but Contra seems engineered to encourage maximum repeat listens—there’s nothing abrasive about it, so you can throw it on at any time. Listenable, however, shouldn’t be confused with simple: band member Rostam Batmanglij’s production is easy to take in, but it’s also lush, bright, and full of twinkling elements: a marimba here, a keyboard flourish there. The full sounds still supports lyrics in that preppy upper-class milieu that brought them scorn with the last album, with references to Richard Serra, Wolford’s, and “living at the French Connection”. But it just goes to show that the band isn’t apologizing for what it is: a band that’s created in the same mold as Paul Simon and Talking Heads, isn’t ashamed to sing about frippery like organic toothpaste and San Pelligrino, and one that is thoroughly enjoyable to hear. Marisa Lascala


 

 



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Justin Townes Earle

Harlem River Blues

(Bloodshot; US: 14 Sep 2010; UK: 13 Sep 2010)

Review [14.Sep.2010]

39



Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues


Is this the best hillbilly record ever to emerge from New York’s East Village? Probably not, but it’s tough to think of a more worthy contender to that throne than this. Justin Townes Earle—son of Steve, namesake of Van Zandt—comes from the right background, and it shows. He’s smart as hell (despite an addiction problem that keeps knocking his career off track) and he demonstrates a wisdom and clarity of purpose that belies his age. At just 28 years old, and on his fourth record in four years, he has got record-making down to a science. Keep it simple, tell the truth, and don’t let them mess with your arrangements. This ain’t commercial country by any means—there are buzzing guitar strings and other evidence of homespun realism all over the record. But while a lot of that hit parade stuff will fade away in a few months, this is a record that will stand up for years and decades. It’s old school music from one of the leading lights of the new school, reminding us it all comes ‘round again. Stuart Henderson


 

 



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Patty Griffin

Downtown Church

(EMI/Credential; US: 26 Jan 2010; UK: 26 Jan 2010)

Review [26.Jan.2010]

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Patty Griffin
Downtown Church


There is no guarantee that simply going to a place of worship will inspire devotion. Musicians regularly “turn” gospel or enter holy places to record songs that ultimately fail to take the listener to church. But the most successful of these recordings seem to carry consecration through the speakers, and Patty Griffin’s Downtown Church is a stunning example of such an album. Recorded at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, featuring esteemed guests (Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Shawn Colvin) and produced by Buddy Miller, the album consists mostly of traditional numbers and songs by writers other than Griffin. Her skill in interpreting others’ words and music is of a piece with her attempt to reconcile her own complex opinions of religious devotion with the pure expressions found within the sacred songs. Though there’s nary a misfire in the collection, the highlights (“House of Gold”, “Never Grow Old”, and “All Creatures of Our God and King”) express a spiritual yearning that moves the listener beyond present concerns and into the life of the world to come. Thomas Britt


 

 



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Twin Shadow

Forget

(Terrible; US: 28 Sep 2010)

Review [5.Oct.2010]

37



Twin Shadow
Forget


Some impressive new bands have closed the decade by turning back the clock to the dreamy period bookended by new wave and shoegaze. On his debut album Forget, George Lewis, Jr. casts his own line into this slice of ‘80s pop and comes out with an astonishing collection of songs. The Brooklyn native separates himself from his fellow ‘80s pop devotees by scaling back on the layered guitars (Wild Nothing) and side-stepping the twee (Pains of Being Pure at Heart). Forget is mostly dark, richly-textured songs created by an artist who cares about precision (and who benefited from the production assistance of Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor). Perfectly-placed instruments (twinkling synths, spare strumming on the Telecaster) give the album’s best moments (the cloud-parting chorus of “At My Heels”, the disco-beat opening to “Shooting Holes”) all the space they need to breathe. Together with Lewis’ rich voice, which he overdubs to great effect on tracks like “Castles in the Snow” and “Tether Beat”, and gut-wrenching lyrics, the result is an album that sounds like
it was years in the making. People will adore Forget for just as long.” Freeden Oeur


 

 



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The Tallest Man on Earth

The Wild Hunt

(Dead Oceans; US: 13 Apr 2010; UK: Import)

Review [15.Apr.2010]

36



The Tallest Man on Earth
The Wild Hunt


Considering that “Dylanesque” was already a dusty cliché before Kristian Matsson was even born, saddling the Swedish singer/songwriter who calls himself the Tallest Man on Earth with that tag in 2010 amounts to the laziest sort of critical shorthand. With his bleating vocals, rustic acoustic guitar playing and effortless lyrical phrasing, though, Matsson is practically asking for it, inviting the most imposing and irrelevant of comparisons before brazenly shrugging them off and heedlessly pressing forward. Think of The Wild Hunt in terms of homage and find not, as you would with many a wannabe, a young upstart’s attempt to adopt the elusive Dylan mystique into their own personal mythology or a revivalist’s shot at picking up on one of the many threads that Bob left dangling throughout the last five decades of popular music, but rather a bold hit of the “reset” button that re-imagines the young, circa 1963 Dylan in an alternate universe incarnation in which he suddenly has the entire history folk rock that he inspired at his fingertips. Or, if that is a thought experiment too brain-scrambling to pursue, just think of The Wild Hunt purely as music, and find that it is one of the year’s freshest and most melodically rewarding releases, regardless of any genre, history or influence at all. Jer Fairall


 

 



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Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses

Junky Star

(Lost Highway; US: 31 Aug 2010; UK: 31 Aug 2010)

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Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses
Junky Star


Ryan Bingham was thrust into the spotlight when his song “The Weary Kind” (co-written with T-Bone Burnett) from Crazy Heart won the Oscar for best song. He then teamed with Burnett as producer for his third album and it offers a blend of blues, country and rock that show Bingham as arguably the premiere crossover artist in those genres. The world-weary yet soothing cathartic quality in Bingham’s gritty voice oozes from every track. “The Wandering”, “Depression”, “Strange Feeling in the Air”, “Hallelujah” and “Change in Direction” all highlight the band’s bluesy rock side with great effect. “Depression” and “Change in Direction” also feature socially-conscious lyrics that infuse a great Dylan-esque vibe that’s all too lacking in the 21st century music scene. The rest of the album focuses on an atmospheric Western sound, one the Dead Horses are quite skilled at. The blend makes for a unique mix that offers a memorably fitting soundtrack for the economic strife of 2010. Greg Schwartz


 

 



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Drive-By Truckers

The Big To-Do

(ATO; US: 16 Mar 2010; UK: 15 Mar 2010)

Review [14.Mar.2010]

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Drive-By Truckers
The Big To-Do


Character studies are fine and all, but they’re much more interesting if they rock. Case in point: “The Fourth Night of My Drinking”, funny and pretty when played on the piano, also sounds like an immense cloud of longing and dread when subjected to the Truckers’ triple-guitar attack. Their song subjects are ripped from the headlines, sure—a working stiff is worse off than his daddy, a preacher’s wife goes on trial for murdering her depraved husband, the local music scene dies. But you keep listening because the rhythm section’s a powerhouse, their chord progressions are unique, and the guitarists have a penchant for noisy squall like nobody this side of Sonic Youth. Though the second half’s got some filler, it’s in the grand tradition of filler that sounds pretty good whenever you put it on. And put it on you should, because for sheer beautiful guitar tones, nobody can touch this band. Josh Langhoff


 

 



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The New Pornographers

Together

(Matador; US: 4 May 2010; UK: 3 May 2010)

Review [4.May.2010]

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The New Pornographers
Together


In a banner year for Canadian indie bands, Together stands out for the sheer magnitude of its grin-inducing creativity. You can’t fault a record for living up to its title: the songs on the New Pornographers’ latest take on many shapes and sentiments, yet end up coming together to create one of the year’s most uplifting pop albums. Whether amid the hooky rush of songs like “Crash Years” and “Moves” or the intricate and eccentric mode of “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” or “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco”, Together deftly matches romping, full-band noise with equal parts clarity and tenderness. No matter which of its many members find themselves at the helm of a given track, the sum total feels more integrated and powerful than any of the band’s previous work. The result is a sustained feeling of dauntless motion and optimism: much as its cover art suggests, Together strives to blur the lines that separate a joyful leap from a plunge into the starry void. Chris Matei


 

 



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The Roots

How I Got Over

(Def Jam; US: 22 Jun 2010; UK: 21 Jun 2010)

Review [24.Jun.2010]

32



The Roots
How I Got Over


Complacency can be one of the biggest creative killers to musicians. And there’s nothing more complacent than a stable, full-time job. That’s what was facing the Roots during the recording of How I Got Over. No doubt some fans may have been concerned about how the band could maintain quality control on the album front while carrying on their gig as the best late night house band in the industry. Worry not. How I Got Over is every bit as urgent, assured and flat out solid as its fiery predecessors Game Theory and Rising Down. As the lead off track states, Black Thought and company get their Charlie Parker on throughout the album, blending gospel, hard-hitting hip-hop and folk into a filler-free 40 minute testament of their staying power. Much has been made of the more optimistic tone of the album, but the real coup of How I Got Over is the band’s ability to manage a guest list worthy of Conan O’Brien’s last week at NBC (John Legend, Joanna Newsom, Monsters of Folk, P.O.R.N.) and make it sound like a unified work only the Roots could pull off. Sean McCarthy


 

 



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Neil Young

Le Noise

(Reprise; US: 28 Sep 2010; UK: 27 Sep 2010)

Review [26.Sep.2010]

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Neil Young
Le Noise


Le Noise sounds like everything that audiophiles would have breathlessly anticipated a Daniel Lanois-produced Neil Young record sounding like, but it’s also an impatiently weary and beautifully harsh soundtrack to the unravelling of America. Armed with a guitar, that timeless warble of a voice, and all of the warped feedback effects that he and Lanois can dream up, Young conjures his most darkly-hued vision of existential malaise since Tonight’s the Night. Even on the acoustic ballads “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”, Young expresses doubts that the old appeals to reason and justice hold sway any longer. That his lyrics tend towards the familiar expressions of bruised hope and open-road salvation that he’s relied upon since the late ‘60s doesn’t render the mystic rumbling that underlies them any less frank and immediate. The dopplering waves of grinding distortion that haunt Le Noise may well be the year’s sharpest metaphor for the crumbling empire, and Young and Lanois deserve credit for amplifying them rather than turning them down. Ross Langager


 
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