Trembling Bells and more...
Funeral Mariachi is my favorite listen of 2010 and may be the best record of the Sun City Girls’ industriously exotic, provocative, 30-year career. This final album contains track after track of beautiful, cinematic, erotic, hummable music; as poignant and bizarre as a remembered stroll through a labyrinth of Day of the Dead artifacts with someone you really desire. It’s a fantastic simple eulogy for the group and their deceased drummer Charles Gocher but (Sir) Richard Bishop’s tense spaghetti-Eastern meets surf-pollution guitar and the SCG’s bile-sweet, cold-hearted mysticism ensures no sentimentality. Funeral Mariachi is an album in the old sense but the whistling, piano, and (is that?) melotron, on “Vine Street Piano” is a sublime standout. They cover Morricone, mock notions of authenticity, and celebrate life and death (“When I was dead I looked exactly like you / Now I’m alive where nothing is true”). They also showcase East/West guitar and vocal styles, and blend a slightly camp Beckettian theatrical hilarity with instrumental reverence worthy of Sketches of Spain. Most of all, though, they offer the perfect gateway into their ecstatic, sanctified, blasphemous world: the Sublime Frequencies collections of African and Eastern music, the vast (much deleted) SCG catalog, Alan Bishop’s newer collaborations and Sir Richard’s fantastic solo guitar discs and his new group: Rangda. Pass the tequila and keffiyeh. D.M. Edwards
This Aussie export from Perth blends late ‘60s/early ‘70s lo-fi, guitar-driven rock with flecks of contemporary production to create dreamy, futuristic soundscapes. Much has been said about lead singer, Kevin Parker’s uncanny vocal similarities to John Lennon—and this is indeed fascinating—but it’s really the construction, propulsion, and classic sound of the songs that drive the album. Album opener “It Is Not Meant to Be” kicks off the album with a phased guitar and a rolling bass line that is discarded before the verse. However, Tame Impala’s ability to revisit certain sounds and ideas without sounding redundant is part of what makes this album an intriguing listen every time; and not long after that opening sequence is seemingly abandoned, it’s brought back. It’s a microcosm of what this band seems to represent. While they rely heavily on sounds from a bygone era, they certainly do not sound as if they are defined by it. While employing this technique, most groups would end up sounding derivative, but Tame Impala sounds like they’ve found something forgotten or left behind… something worth revisiting. Matthew Craig Werner
The Brutalist Bricks
Is it possible to listen to a new Ted Leo release without wondering if he’s lightened up yet? Hearing Leo sing on the exuberant opener to The Brutalist Bricks, “The Mighty Sparrow”, it’s hard to remember the angry young man I saw play on election night 2004. No one in the crowd that night was exactly dancing a jig, but Leo’s palpable pain and frustration made me wonder if he might just bail—on this country, on music, on everything. Fortunately, he has persevered, and even found a way to reclaim the buoyancy of the best of his back catalogue. After a few years of label-hopping, The Brutalist Bricks is the band’s first outing on Matador Records, which might prove to be the perfect home for the Pharmacist formula: sterling pop instinct with an inexorable hardcore past. Ted Leo is still the only guy on the block who writes rock lyrics like “There was a resolution pending on the United Nations floor”, so don’t get it twisted, he’s still Ted Leo. But almost a decade after the peerless Hearts of Oak, he’s finally made another record as enjoyable as it is righteous. Jennifer Cooke
The Place We Ran From
Talk about a late holiday bonus… last January, Gary Lightbody’s invitation to members of R.E.M. and Belle & Sebastian opened up this Americana side project to contributions from M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel and Editors frontman Tom Smith. But for a man surrounded by such talent, the Ireland native sounds awfully lonely here in the West. On this debut, Lightbody lays out 10 beautifully windswept sea shanties that read like a weary traveler’s diary. Even the weaker tracks exhibit the profound ache felt only by someone far from home but still not where he wants to be. Except for a catchy bastard of a single (“Dead American Writers”), rockers were pointedly relegated to B-sides; this is one for starry nights viewed through cracked apartment windows, contemplating life’s rich pageant. The best part is on “The Deepest Ocean There Is” where Peter Buck’s baritone guitar lets you know just how deep the sea goes. Alex Bahler
A lot of bands have been exploring the sounds of ‘60s and ‘70s British folk rock in recent times. Where Midlake’s dalliance with the sound of “Electric Eden” (to quote the title of Rob Young’s recent book on English music) has been the most documented, the work of lesser known Glasgow collective Trembling Bells has been even more interesting. Bringing together musicians from the worlds of folk, early music, rock, jazz, and free improv (where band leader, drummer, songwriter and occasional vocalist Alex Neilsen first honed his craft), Trembling Bells produce musical confections whose eclecticism recalls that of another Glasgow institution (and obvious influence), the Incredible String Band. Second album Abandoned Love presented tales of pirates in Yorkshire, doomed Septembers, and shipwreck victims. There were traces of country rock among the grooves, though they owed more to the kind of dalliance with country practised by the ISB and Fairport Convention in the ‘60s, an imaginary country distorted by distance. It was clear that this was a British record, from Lavinia Blackwall’s Collins/Denny/Prior-channelling vocals, through the glam-rock swagger to the brass band flourishes. Brilliant proof of Neilson’s vision, the health of the Glasgow music scene, and the continued strength of the Honest Jon’s label. Richard Elliott
Some discs slip out of earshot for a very good reason. At an unknown time, in an unknown place, an unknown musician named Scott Wells recorded Day Songs and printed just 100 copies of it for the entire world. He housed the copies lovingly in chipboard cases and gave each one a unique, hand-painted watercolor cover. Then, he quietly walked into the San Francisco offices of Root Strata, left the records in their mailbox, and walked out.
It’s easy to hear why the label heads were floored when they spun the surprise that awaited them: Day Songs is a mutedly gorgeous, seductively brief, guitar-based ambient record in the Root Strata aesthetic, where layered drones and sparkling tones conjure a soft, pillowy atmosphere. Faint sounds of rustling and old metallic creaks give it an especially earthen feel, while plucked harmonics approximate wind chimes, as if you’re drinking in the day from someone’s rustic front porch. Though the album shifts gradually over its 20 minutes, the beauty is actually in its smooth consistency. It sounds like a folk song’s single strum stretched languorously over a long distance, so that every flickering, decaying element is perceptible. That only 100 records were ever produced, and that Wells put so much care into the packaging, makes Day Songs appear like something of rare preciousness—an imperial topaz in the rough, glistening under the afternoon sun. Mike Newmark