Listening to the Scottish group’s latest is like being in a depressed teenager’s bedroom, suffused with lethargy but dreaming of escape, not so much consumed with regret but distracted by rumination, with no one to commune with but pop records, as on the album’s opener, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken”, a rejoinder to Lloyd Cole’s taunting “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” from 1984. You empathize, because traumatic heartbreak would beat the muted melancholy that threatens to gently suffocate listeners with church organ trills and weary, deprecating vocals. Camera Obscura perfectly captures the inevitable moment we all face, when we must decide if we’re going to get over ourselves and leave teen malaise behind or surrender to the succor of sweet self-absorption. The record plumbs the sweetly lulling depths of the latter to make the former ultimately that more attractive.
Camera Obscura - Let’s Get Out of This Country
- “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” [Streaming]
Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
MTO Volume 1
(Sunnyside; US: 1 Aug 2006; UK: 1 Aug 2006)
Bernstein, a downtown trumpeter who combines puckish humor with a history lesson, has a brilliant mini-big band that plays with raucous exuberance. Here, the group tackles 1930s jazz alongside soul classics like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Darling Nikki”. The past and the present never feel uncomfortably “fused”—rather, Bernstein’s arrangements make it seem like Prince and Duke Ellington were always meant to hang out. Combining the cheek of Lester Bowie’s old Brass Fantasy band and an archivist’s love for the grit of the past, Bernstein has found a new way to honor the masters.
Stephen Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
The Body, the Blood, the Machine
(Sub Pop; US: 22 Aug 2006; UK: 21 Aug 2006)
Invoking the wrath of God and inventing a modern fascist dystopia may not be your run-of-the-mill topics for a pop-punk album, but this Portland trio tackles these and other grandiose themes with reckless abandon. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is Hutch Harris’s Orwellian allegory, sort of like 1984 set against a backdrop of ultra catchy power-pop hooks and a rollicking rhythm section punctuated by the buoyant bass lines of Kathy Foster. Harris’s emotive nasal twine is reminiscent of contemporary indie-rock troubadours such as the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Magnum, but the soft acoustic touches are replaced by soaring punk guitar riffs. During this ominous effort, Harris emphatically chronicles a dialogue between God and Jesus, eerily forebodes the future of mankind, and narrates a daring escape from a bastion of radical Christianity. The Thermals’ third, and most prolific, album is a raucous and explosive tome. The tunes are cerebral yet still fun, and utterly enjoyable.
The Thermals - A Pillar of Salt
- “A Pillar of Salt” [MP3]
(4AD; US: 22 Aug 2006; UK: 21 Aug 2006)
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is increasingly recognized as one of the best lyricists in music, and rightfully so. Over the last 15 years he’s written many memorable characters, settings, and stories into song, in clever, insightful, and original ways. But this is the first Mountain Goats album where all of the other aspects of his songwriting—melody, mood, expressions of emotion—are just as accomplished. In that regard it surpasses even last year’s critically revered The Sunset Tree. The musical landscape is expansive, filled with unique sonic touches. Darnielle ties post-break-up tales of absolute heartbreak together with Frankenstein-esque monster birth/death stories in fascinating ways. And he sings these songs in an unexpectedly soft, sensitive way that complements the album’s themes and melodies. Get Lonely is one of those assured musical statements where every piece fits together perfectly, the end result sounding like no other album, old or new.
The Mountain Goats - Woke Up New
American V: A Hundred Highways
(Lost Highway; US: 4 Jul 2006; UK: 3 Jul 2006)
As fans and listeners, we’ve been eulogizing Cash since his death in 2003, but American V is like hearing his voice from beyond, uttering his final thoughts on this whole mortal coil business. These are the recordings he was working on as his death approached, when Rick Rubin kept a band on call for the increasingly rare moments when Cash felt well enough to record. Religion and death intertwine, as they often have for Cash, throughout this record. American V, though, finds Cash’s mood ranging from accepting (“Like the 309”, “Further on Up the Road”, and “On the Evening Train”) to apocalyptic (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” sounds like a marching song for the armies of judgment), showing that Cash didn’t lose his focus even in those final days.
With bassist Jim O’Rourke out of the band, Kim Gordon says she was nervous about everything—from writing lyrics to playing bass again—but she still emerges the hero here, her cool-toned singing taking “Turquoise Boy” to spiraling, spacious places, her deadpanned chant the blue-fired heart of “Jams Run Free”. Thurston Moore counters with the unexpected serenity of “Do You Believe in Rapture?” and the off-kilter but instantly addictive “Incinerate”. A smooth ride throughout, Rather Ripped mutes the noise and buries the dissonance, letting feedback rule only occasionally (at the end of “Turquoise Boy”, in the interstices of Lee Ranaldo’s “Rats”). That Rather Ripped is not Washing Machine or Daydream Nation or Goo may rankle in some quarters. Still, any band this long-standing battles its history with every new release. Only Sonic Youth comes out a winner most of the time.
Sonic Youth - Reena
When it comes to best-of-the-year lists, my primary criterion is artistic achievement, the sowing of new seeds. From this teleological view, Destroyer’s Rubies was one of the most fruitful plows of 2006. Dan Bejar (of the New Pornographers) has added a full (and rotating) band throughout the years to the Destroyer moniker, and it is here that the group hits its stride, from the jazz-piano ditty “Looters’ Follies” to the ripping guitar solo in “European Oils” to the nine-minute epic title track. But it is Bejar’s distinct vocal style that earns Rubies its (and this) honor. The lyrics in and of themselves are hit (“Never had a chance / Never had to choose / Your blood versus your blues”) and miss (“I woke up / I looked around / A famous Toronto painter shot me down”), but the slicing, flowing, stilted vocal style relegates words to second-class citizenry as Bejar pathologically convicts listeners through his fluid manipulation of the nondiscursive elements of rhythm, rapidity, and cadence.
- “European Oils” [Stream link]
Get Used to It
(Delicious Vinyl; US: 27 Jun 2006; UK: Available as import)
The reunion of N’Dea Davenport with the Brand New Heavies produced 12 of the funkiest sides released this year, if not the 21st century. Get Used to It is an indispensable reminder that organic, unfiltered funk is alive and well in 2006. Anchored by Jan Kincaid, Andrew Love Levy, and Simon Bartholomew, Davenport purrs with a sinuous sensuality on “Sex God” and wails like a soul siren on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)”, effortlessly usurping Wonder’s original. Track for track, the boys in the band maintain a simmering groove and are as much in command of their musical prowess as Davenport is with her voice. More than two decades into their career, the Brand New Heavies exemplify the “rhythm” in rhythm and blues better than ever.
The Brand New Heavies - I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)
M. Ward has always displayed an uncanny ability to channel a sound and vibe that emanates from another time entirely. Ward’s deft work on the fretboard coupled with his breathy, ethereal voice has consistently been a powerful vehicle for transmitting his fascination with a traditional American music born of an era more honest, more straightforward, and more romantic than the one we live in. Albums like Transistor Radio and Transfiguration of Vincent relied on little more than Ward’s voice and guitar. While those albums had an undeniable charm and showed him to be a songwriter of note, his need to play the role of old-time troubadour could make his albums as anachronistic as celebratory. So what happened on Post-War? For starters Ward worked with a full-time backing band for the first time. These additional collaborators seem to have freed Ward from his penchant for musical revivalism and encouraged him to hang flesh and muscle on songs that otherwise would have been skeletal. Lyrically Post-War contains Ward’s best work. Sounding as hopeful and fulfilled as he ever has, his wordplay is clever and deft recalling Newman, Bacharach, and Costello as much as traditional folk lyricists like Dylan and Guthrie. Post-War‘s greatest success is how Ward has blended his sounds both modern and venerable to create a richly romantic album and, indeed, a collection of some of the best songs of the year.
M. Ward - Chinese Translation
- “To Go Home” [MP3]
Comfort of Strangers
(Astralwerks; US: 7 Feb 2006; UK: 13 Feb 2005)
While Beth Orton’s quirky and expressive voice gets most of the attention, and Jim O’Rourke’s clean and sparkling production receives lots of notice, the best thing about Comfort of Strangers is the high caliber of songwriting. Orton creates little soundscapes that constantly move and merge in meaning. One never quite knows what Orton’s singing about as she constantly shifts the lyrical tones and implications (i.e. “I get too weak to fight / From all this laughing”) of the lyrics so that the everchanging rhythms make sense as they try to keep up with the words. Her thoughts and feelings can be intricately concrete in detail one verse and then metaphorically vague the next without missing a beat. Meanwhile, guitars and drums, pianos and harmonicas—and was that an accordion?—weave in and around the melodies. And then there is Orton’s wonderfully different voice, somewhere between a chortle and a sigh, and O’Rourke’s inventively simple-yet-complex production skills.
Beth Orton - Conceived [Live on Letterman]