[17 December 2004]
|70|| THE DIVINE COMEDY |
Absent Friends (Nettwerk)
All this time, we have been led to believe that when rock stars are happy, they soon start to suck, that music is the only muse they’re allowed to have (besides drugs, of course). If they become attached to another mere mortal, their music will surely suffer. Then news arrives that Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon has a baby girl, and he has sacked the rest of his band (at that point a septet) in order to rearrange his recording schedule around her. Ye gods, Hannon’s going to make an album full of “Butterfly Kisses” knockoffs! Please. The end result, Absent Friends, is possibly Hannon’s finest. Baby Hannon has inspired Daddy to reexamine his own childhood, from creating people to talk to when none other are available (“Imaginary Friend”), to the awkward post-adolescent years when people find their identity (instant classic “The Happy Goth”), and those brief but violently passionate flings that stick with you forever (the haunting “Our Mutual Friend”). Hannon also takes stock of the present, openly admitting to his change in priorities (“Come Home Billy Bird”, clearly a metaphor for dissolving the band). By the time album closer “Charmed Life” (a lullaby to his daughter) appears, Hannon’s made his point. Marriage, children and happiness are not the cause for some artists losing their touch, just a coincidence. The fact is, some songwriters, like Hannon, are simply better than the others.
David Medsker :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|69|| CARINA ROUND |
The Disconnection (Interscope)
Where debut album The First Blood Mystery introduced an important new singer-songwriter only sonically violent on the Patty Waters-style shrieking of “On Leaving”, Round’s sophomore LP sees her drifting into Pixies territory, her more understated yet also more accessible songwriting now cresting in outbreaks of guitar mayhem. There are few artists with her intuitive grasp of the electric, resentful, poignant tension between the heart, the mind and the groin, and to my mind both the evocative subtlety of her phrasing and the way she uses the brazen velvet of her gorgeous voice are without equal at this time. Whether sultry, raging, philosophical, poetic or deeply regretful (or all at once), Carina Round remains a complex and intelligently emotional force of feminine rapture who, on “Elegy”, nails the blues in four words: “Somehow/everything/is broken”. Hearing her sing it is both heartbreaking and healing. Not an album that grows on you; rather one that, with increasing familiarity, grows within you.
Stefan Braidwood :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|68|| JOHN VANDERSLICE |
Cellar Door (Barsuk)
Cellar Door would deserve notice for its production alone. I don’t know that anyone has been more particular in a studio over the past few years than John Vanderslice, but his results as a songwriter (and orchestrator) match those from behind the board. This album’s full of twisted and confused narrators, making life look beautiful and perverse all at once. Listening to this disc means stepping into a bizarre world where unexpected things (shootings, lightning bolts) take over our sense of the normal. It might not be fair to Vanderslice to suggest that he’s working in another world; he’s just working in the odder places in this one, but making those places relevant and affecting for the rest of us who live in relative normalcy. And the soundtrack for his spots is so, so much better than the one for ours.
Justin Cober-Lake :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|67|| THE MENDOZA LINE |
Fortune (Misra/Bar None)
Though their name is an obscure baseball reference indicating mediocrity, the Mendoza Line is anything but ordinary. On Fortune, their fifth full-length release, this Athens, Georgia band presents snapshots of American life, post-9/11. The characters in these vignettes are ambivalent about being American, but find solace in the sacred ordinary: cars, chats with strangers, and, of course, romance. The influences here are diverse; “An Architect’s Eye” begins with a boogie shuffle reminiscent of T-Rex’s “Get It On”, slides into Beatles-inspired backwards guitar, then settles into a “Tumbling Dice” rock romp. That’s damn impressive. Moreover, on “They Never Bat an Eye”, Shannon McArdle (one of the band’s three singers) delivers the most heartbreaking, epic line of the year: “Big street lights beam down like something out of last night’s dream / Exposing all you lack…” Somewhere in this middle of this ambitious meld emerges the American mythos—lonesome, starry-eyed, and restless.
Michael Franco :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|66|| APOSTLE OF HUSTLE |
Folkloric Feel (Arts & Crafts)
It’s funny how one record can be hailed as the savior of a musically dead year while another of equal excellence can slip unnoticed under the radar. In 2002 Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People was at the top of every year-end list written by anyone with a CD player. So how is it that the guitarist from BSS can release an album two years later and have it waltz on past the mighty keepers of all that is cool and should be heard? I’m not suggesting that Andrew Whiteman (who strums the guitar for BSS) should be praised simply because he plays with a band that put out a great record. I’m wondering how a record as sonically brilliant and diverse as anything out there can go un-praised, when the guitarist is from a band that had been praised to the heavens. It’s like an SAT word problem, isn’t it? Folkloric Feel is a boozy introverted affair. It’s upbeat while sad, slow in its most giddy moments, full of syncopated rhythms, odd instrumentation, maudlin lyrics and an unwavering commitment to melody. It’s like nothing else that came out this year.
Peter Funk :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|65|| MOS DEF |
The New Danger (Geffen)
“I’m the catalogue, you the same song.” When Mos Def looks back, as in “Close Edge”, he’s got some range of vision. As everyone who’s reviewed the new album has noted, he made the instantly classic and forever resonant Black on Both Sides in 1999, which this is not. Instead, Mos Def and the band Black Jack Johnson perform hip-hop permutations, some soft and percussive rock, some tracks more successful than others. What’s dangerous now is sameness, lack of imagination and awareness. Mos Def is nothing if not aware, as indicated by his use of Jay-Z (in “The Rape Over”, “All white men is runnin’ this rap shit… we poke out our asses for a chance to cash in”) as well as Kanye (who delivers to “Sunshine” his already familiar speedified sample). At its best, the new is inspired, as in “Life is Real” and “Sex, Love & Money”, which mix energy and self-consciousness, as in the latter’s lyric: “I’m bout to double the doses in half the time, huh! / Master physical, master mind.”
Cynthia Fuchs :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|64|| SUFJAN STEVENS |
Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre)
Seven Swans did for devout Christianity what Greetings From Michigan did for patriotism: wrestled it from the clutches of political exploitation, soundbite infotainment, and, well, Utah. “To Be Alone With You” was even played briefly on The O.C. as if it were a love song. Of course it is, but pssst!, he’s singing to God, bro. Play it again and pay attention. Whether you’re agnostic, atheist, or strong in any faith, you can’t help but be moved. “Sister”, “Abraham”, “Dress Looks Nice on You”, “In The Devil’s Territory”, each plays brilliantly alone or as part of the opus. Less orchestrated than its predecessor, Seven Swans strives for purity and purpose. Recent live shows have included a jaw-dropping minor key rendition of America’s national anthem, where at the end, Steven’s own added lyrics ask if Christianity’s only purpose in the U.S. today is to divide people. Unfortunately maybe, but at least not here.
Michael Metivier :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|63|| THE KILLERS |
Hot Fuss (Island/Def Jam)
The debut record from Las Vegas garage punk posse the Killers declares its influences on its sleeve but wears them well. Drawing on the ongoing revival in sharp-edged, guitar-powered pop, the foursome also rummage in the electronica toolbox of the early 1980s, marrying the two schools with surprising aplomb, under the creative eye of producer Jeff Saltzman, and providing results that were a blend of the fresh and familiar. “Mr Brightside” could have been on either of the two Strokes’ collections, “Andy, You’re a Star” is an uncanny early Velvets pastiche, while chunks of lush, plastic synthesiser gave “On Top” and the moodily magnificent “Smile Like You Mean It” a distinctly retro coating. But pin-up vocalist Brandon Flowers was never better showcased than on the stand-out “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll”, a big, brash and indulgently self-reflective anthem on the pleasures of rock’s unpredictable roulette wheel.
Simon Warner :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
Somebody told me that they were from Vegas, that they had an album that was really pleasing. Taking the likes of Blondie and other new wave acts and using them as a jumping off point, this quartet has managed to create a well-polished, well-crafted and extremely fine album that jumps off your discman. “Mr. Brightside”, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and the uplifting gospel touches of “All These Things That I’ve Done” are the keys to the album. But arguments could be made for the Bowie-esque “Andy, You’re a Star” and the quirky synth-tinged “On Top”. A band that looks ahead by doing double and triple takes back at the past.
Jason MacNeil :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|62|| DEERHOOF |
Milk Man (Kill Rock Stars)
This will be the third time that I’ve written about Deerhoof this year. I’m beginning to be a little afraid of repeating myself. But does Deerhoof deserve so much attention? Absolutely. Milk Man is a landmark achievement for the band. Conceptually and musically it’s their strongest, most focused album, with each song etching itself into the listener’s memory without detracting from the whole. What might be most remarkable is the level of interest in the artwork. In a time when most indie rock fans are affluent enough to have at the very least a high-speed Internet connection, if not an iBook and iPod, cover art has become less and less relevant. But the cheerfully gory image of the album’s title character is arguably the most memorable cover image of the year. A few months ago I interviewed drummer Greg Saunier, and was happy to find out that the band was finally supporting itself entirely through its music. Self-sufficiency is a hurdle few bands cross (see Jon Langmead’s “The Way We Get By” for the dismal details) and the greatest praise I can give them is to say that I fully expect to see them on the best-of 2005 list and onwards.
Peter Joseph :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
Apple-O‘s follow-up employs the same precision frenzy and ingenious dynamics that elevates Deerhoof heads above the rest of the experimental rock crowd. Few other bands could get as much out of contrapuntal guitar lines as Deerhoof do on “Milking” and “That Big Orange Sun Run Over Speed Light”. So gifted is the band with rhythmic variation (the drumming brilliance generally defies description) that on “C”, it manages to make simply playing the eponymous chord completely compelling. However content I might have been for Deerhoof to repeat Apple-O ad infinitum, the band seems determined to explore new musical strategies on Milk Man. “Rainbow Silhouette of the Milky Man” and “New Sneakers” shows how naturally their ideas extend to keyboard, broadening the group’s palette without compromising its identity. Even less successful efforts like “Desapareceré” and “Dog on the Sidewalk”, which inexplicably supplant the most exciting rhythm section in rock with sputtering plinks anyone with a laptop can make, don’t diminish the album’s overall triumph.
Rob Horning :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop
|61|| TED LEO AND THE PHARMACISTS |
Shake the Sheets (Lookout!)
Ted Leo is on one hell of a roll. Along with his high energy cross-country concerts, the talented songwriter continues to churn out pristine albums full of polished pop nuggets, harnessing the raw power of punk and political protest. His stunningly unique, levitating voice breaks hearts while delivering clever lyrics wrapped in tragically wounded optimism. Shake the Sheets showcases Leo’s group as stylistic chameleons, jumping genres without effort, and mastering them. Not as instantly brilliant as his previous efforts, Shake the Sheets is a grower. “Counting Down the Hours” manages to inject a fun little bar tune with a haunting bit of existential angst. “Shake the Sheets” mines similarly heady, earnest territory. These type of songs really display Leo’s astounding power as a rock musician. No one culls romanticism and nostalgia so effectively. No one is doing it like Ted.
David Bekerman :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop