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It’s been a great year for North Carolina bands (Exhibit A: Spider Bags, below), and Whatever Brains, one of the state’s most exciting rock outfits, is right out at the forefront of that greatness. There’s much to be said about the eccentricity of this punk-rock ground, since they seem to crank out new, bizarre demos at will, and they’ve now put out two records called Whatever Brains, though they maintain neither are “self-titled”. But can we forget all that for a second and realize just how much these guys flatly kill it on this new record? This is both as fiery as rock music gets and as experimental and exciting as pop music gets. “Summer Jammin’ 2” meshes Jay Reatard’s concision with Tom Waits’ circus-y antics, while the expansive “Marquee Welfare” lets guitar riffs ring out and break down over its five minutes, dragging the band’s usual fury through some noise-experiment muck, and “Diptheria Trot” turns the album 180 into jangle-pop folk sweetness. There’s also the pure rock heft of “Bad Dads” or the punk speed of “I’m Going Martin” to remind you these guys are here, first and foremost, to melt your face off. Whatever Brains is buckshot rock, spreading out and hitting all kinds of different targets, but only partially. In the end, it’s hard to call this sound anything other than theirs. If it recalls others, it’s only because those sounds got caught in their creative vortex. Whatever Brains is a band operating on its own turf, building its own sound and aesthetic one puzzling but brilliant rock song at a time. It isn’t that its weird, it’s that it’s so damn good, so damn honest in its weirdness. That’s what makes these guys a band you should know already. But, hey, better late than never.
Strand of Oaks
Strand of Oaks’ Tim Showalter turned heads with his last album, the oddly expansive and great Pope Kildragon, but this year he quietly put out his best record yet not by expanding, but by stripping down. Dark Shores is a beautiful record about isolation, one that smartly puts Showalter’s love-worn voice and songwriting front and center. Produced by JohnVanderslice, the album strips songs down to the essentials, on the basic hook and guitar crunch of “Trap Door”, say, or the lonesome, bluesy folk of “Maureen’s”. It’s an album with a distinct mood, as the “stormclouds” and “Dark Shores” Showalter sings about show themselves in some negative space around these songs, highlighted by a subtle echo in his voice, as if he’s singing out into a void. But what makes Dark Shores brilliant is that Showalter’s isolation isn’t, well, isolation. It’s bracing. This album is a subtle, if bittersweet, declaration, both for Showalter as a person in the world and as a fine songwriter. Though he twists tropes here—see the off-kilter, twisted folk of “Little Wishes”—there’s no sleight of hand to this album. Showalter is putting himself out there, getting as close to you as he can. And, at every turn, you’re bound to be transfixed by what he has to say.
Live at the All Hands House
It’s a gutsy move to make your first full-length record a live album, but that’s exactly what Woodsy Pride did, and they did it flawlessly. One of many great bands on New York label All Hands Electric, Woodsy Pride is a trio that makes lush, deeply resonant music, music that shifts and swirls but never quite loses shape. These songs dip into Americana and classic rock but they don’t borrow, they build. The working-class pressure of “Reason on My Mind” feels fresh, with Bill Augustus’s honeyed groan punctuated by John Studer’s drums and Uriah Theriault’s singular, impossible to define but undeniably arresting guitar work. Woodsy Pride approaches rock and folk tropes with the loose experimentation and intuition of jazz musicians, and the results are unique in their charms. These songs don’t establish borders or shapes but rather form as you hear them, so, for instance, “All for My Love” doesn’t pile on so much as it blooms, revealing its sweet secrets over time. Woodsy Pride is one of the great young bands working right now, period, and the laid-bare beauty of this live record is proof positive of that. Woodsy Pride clearly has nothing to hide, and no wonder with a sound this striking.
Johnson may be the most high-profile artist on this list since he fronts Centro-matic and South San Gabriel and has played with everyone from Jim James to Jandek, but his solo career has always flown under the radar, and never has that been more of a shame than on his heartbreakingly beautiful new album, Scorpion. It marries the haunting space of South San Gabriel with a striking yet not broken-down isolation, one that allows his sweet, creaking voice to sound all the more powerful set against stark but intricate backdrops. The ringing guitars and distant, thumping percussion of “You Will Be Here, Mine” conveys the want and anticipation behind Johnson’s restrained vocals, while “Bloodkin Push (Forget the Ones)” transforms from solitary guitar phrasings into an expansive folk epic. Around these big sounds, the more contained “Riding from Within” or “Winter Screen Four” feel no less slight, and as Scorpion takes shape, it becomes clear that Johnson is not just one of our most distinct voices or one of our great songwriters, but also one of the great pure musicians and arrangers working. It’d be a bold thing, for a man with so many records under his belt, to call Scorpion his masterstroke. But guess what? It may be just that.
Shake My Head
North Carolina’s Spider Bags took the zealous genre-hopping of their last record, Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World and, on Shake My Head condensed it into the most unpredictable, rollicking, and purely brilliant rock album of 2012. The album gets all claustrophobic and tensed up by talking about the ever-closing borders of a hometown, but never gives into whining, instead pushing back at complacency with the R&B-tinged stomp of “Simona La Ramona” or the twanging garage rock of “Keys to the City” or the (relatively) softer power-pop of “Quatzelcoatl Love Song”. Shake My Head is hardly about despondency, or giving in, but rather about blowing those borders away. The howling vocals, the blistering guitars (see “Friday Night” for the band in prison-break fury mode), the charging rhythm section—it all meshes into a tight, endlessly impressive set of tunes. These rock songs may be lean, but they still keep secrets, little flourishes that reveal themselves over time. This is the kind of rock record built to last, from a band that—hopefully—isn’t going anywhere. If you’re wondering what you may have missed in 2012, the band at the top of that list should be Spider Bags.