John Cale and more...
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood
John Cale turned 70 just prior to the release of Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, but you wouldn’t have known it from listening to the album. The forward-thinking, always-mischievous Velvet Underground veteran was not one to go gentle into that good night. Cale’s masterful amalgam of garage, industrial, hip-hop, and classical sounds was fresh, vital, and utterly unique. Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood was one of the best albums of Cale’s long, intricate career. But just as importantly, it proved a broader point. Rock ‘n’ roll is not a tradition that needs “elder statesmen”, past-their-prime folks who are content to sit back, relax, and play to the softening tastes and expectations of their aging audiences. Rather, it needs more men and women like Cale, embarking on new adventures, even shifty ones, after the gray hairs have set in. John Bergstrom
Opening yourself up to your audience is less courageous than most critics believe. Yes, honesty is admirable, but in many cases, its that honesty that gives artists a comparative advantage to their peers. Putting your anger and depression out there is one thing. But for Chan Marshall a far more personal element of her private life was exposed to audiences as hospitalizations and financial woes were laid bare to the public. To many, these revelations would be far more painful to make public than any confessional album. At the same time, Marshall released an album that for all purposes, should win her a flood of new fans. Sun does away with the Memphis blues detour of The Greatest and embraces dance, late ‘70s era Joe Jackson (“Manhattan”) and even an 10-minute epic with an appearance from Iggy Pop. Sun isn’t Marshall trying to make a “happy” album to match some of her more morose releases. It’s simply Marshall making a great album. Sean McCarthy
One of the year’s most pleasant surprises was the highly anticipated sophomore album Something, by Chairlift. In 2009, the band won hearts and minds with their impressive debut Does You Inspire You, featuring complex snythpop arrangements centered around the palpable chemistry of partners Aaron Pfenning and Caroline Polachek on tracks such as “Bruises”, which with its complementary vocal harmonies made it the perfect poster child for an iPod campaign. In 2010, Aaron and Caroline split. Remaining band mates Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly soldiered on, facing down the challenge of the Aaron’s departure by “dialing back the artsy side” as one of my colleagues and early Chairlift advocates notes, in favor of a stripped down sound that in a courageous shift, laid emotions bare.
One of the first signs that Chairlift was intent on charting a new direction came with the band’s set at CMJ in October of 2011. Playing in complete darkness, the atonal synth riffs that open “Sidewalk Safari” signaled a departure from the sunnier textures of tracks. Few things say ‘baby is all grows up’ faster than a declaration that proclaims: “If I see you on the street, you’d better run. I’m aiming my all-terrain weapon in your direction”.
Something is a revelation, pairing Caroline’s confessional vocals sit atop industrial snyth riffs on a pair of contemplative tracks tinged in regret, “Wrong Opinion” and “Take It Out on Me”, that tap an emotional resonance not frequently found in krautrock or electropop. Something also features two exceptionally catchy dance-oriented tracks, “Amanaemonesia” and “I Belong in Your Arms”. which sit as two lost artifacts from the golden age and the album’s retro highlight “Met Before”, a John Hughes vignette if young love were to blossom among Ph.D students. Dennis Shin
After the release of 2010’s startlingly accessible Blue Sky Noise, listeners may have felt Circa Survive flirting with a big breakout and a whole lot of financial success. Instead, the band parted ways with Atlantic Records in 2012, choosing to record and produce their new album Violent Waves themselves, kicking off the affair with a seven minute song titled “Birth of the Economic Hit Man”. A quick cash grab this was not. No, Circa Survive knows full well where their talents lie, as lead singer Anthony Green’s meandering melodies flow effortlessly over the band’s progressive soundscape, led by Colin Frangicetto’s incredible guitar work. Violent Waves picks up where the band’s unpredictable 2005 debut Juturna left off, showcasing a maturity and a renewed sense of vigor in the band’s songwriting. Instead of delving into the world of radio-friendly rock and climbing the industry ladder (something the band likely could have accomplished with ease), Circa Survive has chosen to stay true to themselves and create one of the best experimental rock releases of the year in Violent Waves. Kiel Hauck
Few recording artists have combined longevity and integrity of vision to the degree of Leonard Cohen. I saw him perform live a few months back, and at 78 years old, he’s still as vibrant and gracious a performer as ever. But in a touching moment mid-set, he acknowledged the fact that this may be his final act, that “we may not meet again”. Then, with that signature blend of charm and irreverence, he declared that he couldn’t wait until his 80th birthday so he could finally start smoking again.
This mixture of mortality and mordancy defines the mood of Cohen’s most recent studio release Old Ideas. Musically, this album favors stripped-down blues and Americana-based arrangements over the more intricate work of Cohen’s past, allowing for his rich, well-aged baritone and vivid lyrical imagery to form the centerpiece of these songs. On “Going Home”, he riffs playfully upon his own legend, speaking as from on high: “I’d love to speak with Leonard / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” But he goes on to impart the song with deeper meaning and spiritual longing (“Going home without my sorrow / Going home without the costume that I wore”), balancing the sacred and profane as he has done to such great effect throughout his career. Robert Alford
In 2012, electronic pop auteur Dan Deacon brought the radically participatory revelry of his live show to the Occupy Wall Street May Day General Strike, developed an iPhone app that transforms his audience into an organic, orchestrated light show, and released his appropriately epic third album America, an ambivalent sonic testament to the nation’s natural beauty and hubristic imperial ambitions. Musically, the album offers some of Deacon’s most accessible, pop-based work to date, and blends a greater use of live instrumentation into his signature style of hyper-speed computer riffs and carnival ride synth-scapes. The record closes with the “USA” series, a four song suite of live, orchestral instrumentation interwoven with swirling synthetics and Deacon’s deranged and impassioned vocals. This song series may be the greatest artistic achievement of Deacon’s career to date, their sounds flowing by like the contours of their namesake land viewed through the windows of a speeding train—beautiful, vast and full of possibility. Robert Alford