In concert: The Beach Boys (Toronto; June 19, 2012)

The Beach Boys at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, June 19, 2012. The 48-song set included 26 U.S. Top 40 hits.
Note: click on all images to enlarge

The first seating section to sell out had been the one on Brian Wilson’s side of the stage; ticket touts outside the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre weren’t even offering them as game time approached for The Beach Boys’ Toronto concert (Tuesday, June 19). It’s probably the same at every stop on this massive North American tour. Spin it however you want – new album, milestone anniversary, all surviving members from the glory days reunited – the truth is Wilson’s both steak and sizzle here, at least for the fans with money to burn.

Brian’s rarely been a Beach Boy since 1986, which is both mortifying and pathetic. I can’t think of a comparable instance – not even Floyd without Waters – of a big-tent rock band sputtering along without its engine like this one has. Wilson’s tragic personal life dogged the band and imperilled its legacy long before he left, a cruel fate considering all he contributed to the cause. But even as he turned an unlikely late-‘90s comeback into a full-fledged solo career of intermittent brilliance and immense goodwill, his erstwhile bandmates  – particularly those still operating under the brand name –became easy punchlines. And that’s a shame, too, because it’s not as though these guys lost their chops – Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine are pros, comfortable at any venue ranging from casino halls to football stadia. That should’ve been enough – it is with practically every other act of similar vintage – but the perception of The Beach Boys has ever been complicated by factionalism. Love, Wilson and Jardine have all toured the songbook separately since 1999, with legal guttersniping practically an annual event.

The Fab Five: Brian Wilson, David Marks, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston.

But this might be the least dysfunctional The Beach Boys have been in about 45 years. Just in time to salvage some eleventh hour self-respect for the band, (“There’s lifespan involved here,” Love recently told Rolling Stone), Wilson helmed a pretty good comeback record that made #3 in the U.S. earlier this month, and everyone’s reconvened in front of just about the best backup band imaginable in order to do justice to one of the rock era’s best, deepest and most important song catalogues.

The result – for 33 shows and counting- is a staggering document of glorious sound and singing, best-in-class bundles of joy and wonderment springing from the golden age of the pop single, when every hook and chorus meant business, and when The Beach Boys went hammer-and-tong against the best Motown and British Invasion acts, none of which were slouches, and matched or bested them all.

In concert Tuesday night, the impact of their song selection was dizzying. Toronto opened with a six-song medley in 12 minutes. That’s a lot of staple-of-AM-radio choruses hurtling by before you’ve checked whether your drink is safely protected from shuffling feet. Early Beach Boys records were engineered so that something happened every 15 seconds or so, and Wilson could also be ruthless with the endings of his songs – the chorus or tag repeated once before a quick fade. The fact these songs are so recognizable, so punchy and bright, so packed with melodic derring-do, and coming so damn quickly at you is, in fact, breathtaking.

And after that sixth song, Love – ever the wisecracking emcee – announced the band would “like to take an intermission, followed by a nap.” I mean, har-har, but point taken, y’know?

Authenticity is the watchword on this tour. Behind the original voices are the instrumental choices that stoked the original records, including French horn, baritone sax, ukulele, vibes and lots of tambourine. 14 singers and musicians leave the songs sounding impressively full and familiar.

Several times the band plunged into themed fusillades that dared you to guess the next number, only to strike up the answer while you were still rifling through your internalized discography: cocksure car songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down” and “I Get Around”), sun-splashed surf tunes (“Catch A Wave,” “Hawaii,” “Don’t Back Down” and “Surfin’ Safari”), Pet Sounds in miniature (“Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”), and one sequence about women that may or may not have been intentional, but struck me as brilliant either way (“Surfer Girl,” “Wendy,” “Marcella,” “Then I Kissed Her,” and “Kiss Me, Baby”).

That “women” sequence spoke volumes about this reunited gang’s strengths. “Surfer Girl” gave Wilson his first solo lead of the night, on the bridge that announced his heartrendingly tender ballad voice to the world in July 1963. Feathered by age, its plaintive quality remains (and sounds a helluva lot better than it did in the late-1970s, to name a point in history), and Brian won the crowd’s first standing ovation. On “Wendy,” Love’s resonant lower register sparkled in the stacked harmony arrangement – he’s lost some power in his natural tenor range, but still lines the bottom like no one else has ever done in service of a Beach Boys tune. “Then I Kissed Her” was Jardine’s first lead in the set. His splendid voice, easily the best-preserved of the bunch, soars with the crackling energy he always brought to Beach Boys records. Marginalized since 1998 – isn’t that infuriating? – Jardine’s had to make do with smaller, mostly west coast bookings, but his fantastic performance is exactly what the Love-Johnston touring faction has been missing all these years. More than any other original voice, bar perhaps Love’s bass, Jardine’s makes the blend work. And that blend could hardly sound better than it did on the closing song in this sequence, the stunning, all-hands-on-deck “Kiss Me, Baby,” with its explosively rangy choruses and spectacular a cappella ending. I had my hands cupped behind my ears for that one, doing whatever I could to intensify the thrill. Another lengthy ovation. These guys were tossing gems around like there was no tomorrow.

VIDEO: “Help Me, Rhonda,” from the June 19 Toronto show:

The nine-man backing unit (sometimes 10; Nick Walusko was absent) is tremendous. It’s not the first time The Beach Boys have benefitted from a great live band. As a smaller, more-or-less self-contained unit, they earned Rolling Stone’s band of the year nod in 1974 despite not even releasing a new record. But this lineup, 80 per cent of it Wilson’s support act for the past dozen years of victory laps, will reproduce the old Capitol records note-for-note and feel-for-feel, which affords a best-case scenario for the Boys, who’ve largely become a band of singers. (Each of Wilson, Jardine and Johnston play instruments, but received wisdom has them pretty low in the mix, the better to maintain precious clarity.) With Wilson on board for this tour, it was a relief to learn earlier this year his band would provide the bulk of the backing. Rock music’s first true studio rat, Brian probably never jived with the inadequacies of sound reproduction on the road. This band plays the songs as he arranged them to be heard. (It’s not for nothing Brian employs a full-time percussionist on the road: Beach Boys records possibly feature the least amount of cymbal work in the rock idiom. It’s all about sound.) He’s enjoyed that luxury on all his own tours; now, hearing that band behind these voices must be immensely gratifying.

Among the players, Jeffrey Foskett is the superglue, almost a Brian-Carl amalgam. He’s been Brian’s right-hand man since 1999, safety-netting Brian’s leads at first, but eventually taking the falsetto parts in the arrangements. On stage, Foskett’s is the clearest voice besides the Boys themselves, and he’s singing the most identifiable part of any classic Beach Boys song. Challenging gig, but he is equal to the task. Given one lead vocal in the set – “Don’t Worry, Baby,” no less – he nails it. Keyboard and vibes man Darian Sahanaja, another key player in the Wilson camp, sings “Darlin’,” and it is wonderful. With so much strength in the wings, you wonder how much of the blend comes from Foskett, Sahanaja, et al. The answer, of course, is it doesn’t matter as much as it might, because each of the Boys is right on top of the blend, and almost always on his mark. Johnston sounded weak on the “Wendy” bridge, but did a bang-up job on the delicate “Disney Girls (1957).” Brian fluffed a couple of first verse lines, but, again: the blend, the blend. If anything, those imperfect moments served to remind one of just how good this crew really is.

David Marks is on this tour, let’s not forget that. It’s a great feel-good story on a feel-good-tour in a feel-good year. Marks was the forgotten man in Beach Boys lore, although he’s there if you look closely enough. He’s sitting on the hood of the car on the first Beach Boys album jacket. He played on the first five LPs before quitting in summer 1963. He joined Love’s Beach Boys touring band for 21 months in the late ‘90s. He’s been around, see. But now he’s on the front line, positioned between Brian and Mike, playing excellent, rugged, electric leads. In Toronto he sang “Getcha Back,” a top 30 single released more than 20 years after he’d left the group. Sometimes on this tour he sings “Hawaii.” On both songs, his everyman huskiness sounds closer to Dennis Wilson’s singing than any of his bandmates’. And they say you can never go back home. Welcome home, David.

Speaking of going home: late in the show there was a tribute segment to the departed younger Wilsons. Rogueish anti-hero Dennis and peacekeeping angel Carl were represented by isolated lead vocals from their respective signature ballads (“Forever,” “God Only Knows”), matched to live backing by the Boys and band, as video clips played across the screen upstage. I imagine it’s more a sop to the dedicated fan than the casuals: I found the gesture affecting, but it did slow the momentum some, and there were accounts of some concertgoers mistaking this for an Impending John Stamos Appearance.

The barefoot contessa: as far back as 1964’s “Beach Boys Lost Concert” video, Love’s had trouble keeping his shoes on.

It was a show of moments, snapshots of this band’s convoluted history and personal politics: the Boys gathered around Brian’s white baby grand for “Add Some Music To Your Day,” like they did while learning their parts in the ‘60s; Mike and Bruce’s practiced slapstick routine, to the exclusion of the other members; Al signing record jackets and shaking hands at the end of each set, as he is probably accustomed to on his modest touring circuit; Brian bolting from the stage as each set sounded its final note; David taking the solos once Carl’s domain; Brian leading the band through the tricky “Heroes And Villains,” surely one of the most complex songs to trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts; Brian strapping on his Fender bass for “Barbara Ann,” surely one of the most airheaded songs to trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts; the giddy, extended outro to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” a genius rock song concocted during the early days of Beatlemania, a call to arms back then, and a clarion call to summer ever since, that brilliant falsetto wail inciting the entire crowd, about 15,000 strong, to move in unison, to sing, to stamp feet, to snap smartphone pics, to SMiLE.

Sure, this tour won’t give you but a few moments from Wilson’s jaw-droppingly brilliant 1966 output, when he tapped into a higher plane of compositional creativity, only to lose his nerve and resolve in the face of intramural confrontation. We’ll never know what he was capable of, but we do know what he accomplished. He, and his brothers and cousin and school friend and neighbour and surf music peer, the guys who made up The Beach Boys’ 1960s lineups.

In the final analysis, this show really has something for every stripe: the casual fan, the rock music buff, the curious younger crowd, the diehards – we’re all treated to the best-possible representation of Beach Boys songs (and they played so many! 48 songs in two hours, fifty minutes!), with the first Wilson-Love-Jardine-Johnston package in ages.

All heroes, no villains: John Cowsill, Darian Sahanaja, Paul Mertens, Jeffrey Foskett, David Marks, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Scott Totten, Mike D’Amico, Probyn Gregory, Nelson Bragg, Scott Bennett.

Is it the last hurrah? Don’t know. By Labour Day each of the Boys save Marks will have turned 70. Rock music’s a relatively young creative idiom; its frontiersmen are still establishing the lifespan for bands with the will to go on. But this can’t help feeling like that gorgeous sunset breaking through the clouds after an unsettled day of thunder and lightning, calm after turbulence, the last thing you see before the onset of night. Against some awfully long odds, this Beach Boys show has us basking in that sunset glow.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BONUS VIDEO: One Toronto fan’s fantastically blissed-out reaction to “Then I Kissed Her.”


Add some music to your day #16: Four Very Important Records (June 2012)

Four personally significant new records dropped in a three-week stretch near the end of spring 2012, sort of my musical equivalent of a solar eclipse. No small potatoes, these. Ex-Blue Niler Paul Buchanan is my favourite singer from the 1980s. Saint Etienne is my favourite band since 1990. I think Beach House made the best record of 2010. And you might’ve heard I like The Beach Boys. There’s little stylistic common ground among the four, but together they created a sort of dream vortex of previous champions aiming to soundtrack summer 2012. How’d they do?

New records are like the new T.V. season or a new year of school: eventually they’ll be bunched together in a body of work or experience, but in the moment they’re disproportionately important. Evaluation’s not an exact science, especially from such a cramped perspective, but one thing’s certain: a good record from a pet favourite is a sigh of relief and a bad one’s an affront. Sometimes new records make me nervous.

PAUL BUCHANAN – Mid Air

Paul Buchanan once said five albums would make a good career; 28 years after The Blue Nile’s first, he’s made his marker, and Mid Air’s finally cast Buchanan in the role he was born to play – saloon singer. Playing both halves of the Sinatra-Bill Miller combo, Mid Air‘s lo-fi execution sacrifices cinematic TBN flourishes for aching immediacy, removing Buchanan from the pigeonhole of his band’s box and into the realm of anyone who ever ruminated over simple piano chords in a backstreet dive. Unsurprisingly, it’s awfully affecting: haunting and haunted, and the closest spiritual companion to the magnificent pair of ‘80s TBN albums as we’re likely to get. Several of TBN’s best songs eschewed drums (notably, “Easter Parade,” “Regret,” “From A Late Night Train,” “Family Life”), but this record’s hush goes deeper, past the bridge and over the hillside into extreme reflectiveness. That’s not to say Mid Air is close to AWATR or Hats in scale or song. But it restores Buchanan to his rightful place as a real go-to when chips are down. The voice still creaks while it searches for the higher notes, and wraps beautifully around the simplest of phrases (a disastrous “tear stains on your pillow/I was drunk when I danced with the bride/Let it go” denouement; a knowing “life goes by and you learn/how to watch your bridges burn” shrug). It’s anyone’s guess where art and life intersect with Buchanan, but that’s what makes his sketches ring with everyman wisdom and wry regret. Primarily a guitarist in his band’s day, Buchanan’s reliance on piano further eases Mid Air onto terra firma (heck, there’s even a touch of distant trumpet, just like the old days), but it’s a double-edged knife that leads to my only plaint: ex-communicated Niler Paul Joseph Moore might’ve worked magic with these brief songs (only one over 2:57), a few of which seem built for longer, fuller arrangements and suffer for lack of same (Buchanan’s instrumental skills are purely workmanlike; his chordings can be choppily rudimentary). But Mid Air is generous with displays of his innate songwriting genius, even if it’s held to a modest scale. “Mid Air,” “I Remember You,” “Wedding Party,” “My True Country” and “After Dark” aren’t run-of-the-mill voice-and-piano bedsit musings. They are wonderful, they are proof a Paul Buchanan exists.

 

THE BEACH BOYS – That’s Why God Made The Radio

Nothing that’s come out of the Brian Wilson camp since Carl’s death seemed possible in 1998. Back in 2004, the SMiLE album/tour was the cherry atop an impressive six-year solo run, but he’s still defying best-before dates eight years later. Here, on the eve of his 70th birthday, The Beach Boys have released their first record in 20 years, the first with Brian’s involvement in 27, the first with him at the helm in 35.

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There’s no template for how a new record by a rock band with an average age of 68 is supposed to sound, but what I do know is That’s Why God Made The Radio is better than the ones The Beach Boys were making when they were pushing 40, with a significantly greater degree of creative health and spirit. Admittedly such things matter more to long-time fans than new converts or the casually curious. I’m not recommending Radio to newbies. But to the beleaguered diehards, the thrill doesn’t end with the act of purchasing the product: Songs still matter to head Boy Brian, and he’s supplied six really good ones. They begin and end the album – which leaves a prolonged sag in the middle – but judicious iPod planning left me shaking my head in happy wonder. The title track may be more arrangement and performance than song, but it’s spectacular on those first two fronts, a brilliant stroke as lead single, because it both sounds like a post-surf/car Beach Boys song ought to and like nothing else on radio in years (except, maybe, Grizzly Bear’s three-year-old “Two Weeks”): unashamedly sumptuous and wonderfully well-sung. I think it belongs in the canon. Second single, the relatively spartan “Isn’t It Time,” surprisingly steers clear of imitation: although its lyrics are throwback, the ukulele-as-lead instrument and neat octave-doubling harmonies are new wrinkles in the Beach Boy sound. Radio closes with a sequence that’s earned a lot of attention and admiration, a three-song suite that hearkens back to a later California sound, the ‘70s singer-songwriter domain of Newman, King, Dennis Wilson et al, albeit with superb, fully integrated BB harmonies. Maybe it’s what The Beach Boys might’ve sounded like in the late-’70s if it hadn’t all gone tits-up. “From Here To Back Again” features the evidently ageless Al Jardine on lead, a delicate two-part song with a jaunty whistling tag; “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” are Brian showcases of a piece with a couple of tracks from That Lucky Old Sun – unhurried reveries on aging, loss and loneliness which might seem unusual for a Beach Boys record if you recall the forced jollity of their “adult” albums, but not so much with Pet Sounds or “In My Room” considered. While it’s jarring to hear Wilson sing lines like “sometimes I realize my days are getting on,” “sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say” and “summer’s gone, it’s finally sinking in,” the frail beauty of his weathered tone, the deep swells of support from the backing vocals and strings, the hypnotic drag of the sun-speckled music are the surest signs of genius still lurking in his compositional bag. Throughout Radio, the sound is great. Jardine, Wilson and Bruce Johnston fill the middle range admirably. Mike Love doesn’t get a lot of lead here, and when he does it’s on ballads, which minimizes creeping nasality. Brian’s live band plays on most of the tracks, although only Jeffrey Foskett sings, taking the high tenor and falsetto “Brian” parts. He fits. That Radio’s saggy portion shows fallibility hardly matters – the fact I’m thinking critically about a new Beach Boys album 42 years after the release of the song that lends its name to this column (“Add Some Music To Your Day,” geddit?) is one of the great events of this summer.

 

BEACH HOUSE – Bloom

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Beach House’s Bloom is more a refinement than Great Leap Forward, but now they’re on fire. The sharpest songs have a new and thrilling pop bite atop the expected glazy force, and Alex Scally’s single-note guitar style has edged into Disintegration territory, meaning anything they’re considering for a single or T.V. show appearance sounds positively mesmerizing. The new approachabiity is a rare treat, a kind of tangibility most of their dream-pop peers can’t touch. Bloom’s incandescence sounds great, but the songs hold up, too. “Lazuli” dazzles for every one of its 302 seconds, from the frayed, square-wave organ arpeggio intro to the beautifully staggered three-part contrapuntal vocal built into the last two minutes. Phenomenally grand but outfitted with a few inspired stripped-down breaks, swooning but cool, it’s a surefire finalist for my favourite song of the year. “Wishes” and “Myth” are nearly as good, superhero flick-sized walls of sound peaking with what’s becoming Victoria Legrand’s go-to move: the one-line lyric bridge that speaks of some unimaginable sadness (“one in your life, it happens once and rarely twice,” “or let the ashes fly, help me to name it, help me to name it”), either preceding or following searing, effect-heavy guitar passages that suck the air out of your chest. Bloom never hurries to the payoff; tension abounds in delayed choruses and suspended breaks. I suppose you could call Bloom’s songs a little samey – an accusation you might level at Disintegration or a Cocteau Twins record, too – but the bits that poke through the haze, a bristling solo or one of those torrid vocal bridges, dazzle and amaze. I get wistfulness from Bloom, but I bet it soundtracks euphoric love and bruised despair just as well. Simply put, this is an uncommonly great band at a new peak. Is it the best band in the world right now?

 

SAINT ETIENNE – Words And Music By Saint Etienne

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It shouldn’t register as a surprise to anyone in the know that Bob Stanley – in his other professional life, away from co-helming what is, for my money, the best damn pop band of the past 22 years – will publish a book on pop history next year. As Saint Etienne’s once prodigious work rate slowed in the middle of the last decade, Stanley returned to rock writing, regularly contributing pieces to Mojo, The Guardian and Pitchfork among others, showing the same archivist zeal that’s always tugged at the skirt of Et’s modern dance pop. What might be surprising, however, is how the newest Etienne LP – their first in seven years – functions as a totally serviceable introduction to the band for those who might only have a remix or two on their iPhone. Words And Music By Saint Etienne – a concept album about the age-defying emotional connection forged between artist and fan – is sometimes so damn good it gives me goosebumps. Of a piece with any Etienne record since 1994’s Tiger Bay, Words And Music is chock-a-block with floor-filling uptempos in all sorts of intriguing shades, no doubt aided by cannily chosen production hands (Tim Powell, Richard X, Nick Coler, Rob Davis and honorary Et Ian Catt), but the vision remains Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell’s. Referential songs about record collecting, DJs, gig-going and the centrist vibe regarding music as the most emotionally rewarding of all art forms might be gratingly cute in other hands, but Etienne set the emotional tone brilliantly with a mostly spoken-word opener “Over The Border,” which is one of the most intelligent things they’ve ever done, because it frames the following 40 minutes as a record about loving music for people who love music. Etienne’s played this card before (“Join Our Club,” “Clark Co. Record Fair”), but even without that knowledge, Words And Music is still a gas. Shades of chugging Italo, bright house, Philly disco and Baelaeric stompers abound, but the biggest surprise for vet fans might be “When I Was 17”’s indie guitar bounce. It wears extremely well. As they did on 2005’s Tales From Turnpike House, Etienne apply some thickening agents to Cracknell’s increasingly feathery singing – a great idea then and now. Longtime pal Debsey Wykes pops in to harmonize on the terrific “Haunted Jukebox,” and Brit disco chanteuse Tina Charles guests on three numbers, including “Answer Song,” which is one of the best songs they’ve ever done, a pop-soul tune Bacharach might’ve written had he started a few decades later, with a whomping string hook riding over a churning electro groove, and a gamine sexual/sensuality that explodes in the sky-punching chorus. Taking a cue from Smokey Robinson, the song’s title employs a time-tested pop music trope to deliver its more universal message of romantic longing, which is ultimately what both music in general, and Words And Music in particular, are about: as one-hit wonder Stardust put it in 1998, “music sounds better with you.”

All in all, that’s a heckuva good batch of records. Summer’s sounding better already.

Add some music to your day #15: New stuff, May 2012

Thoughts on new music from May, wrapped up in a tidy package. I bet these people don’t get much direct sunlight.

DYLAN ETTINGER – Lifetime Of Romance

Variations on The Human League circa Fast Product: dour synthesizer music twisted into recognizable form via a sneaky pop streak. At its best (“Disparager,” “Arco Iris”), Lifetime Of Romance grooves – not by being especially clubby or danceable, but by possessing a rhythmic centre that holds the fort while Ettinger lobs sore-throated, son-of-Todd Baechle wails into the abyss. Nobody’s idea of a gifted singer, Ettinger’s brief stanzas – verses as mantras, really – are another instrument in the mix, towered over by mountains of reverb and Moog bursts, but they’re hardly throwaway, and occasional detours into falsetto are startling and even a little amusing. There’s an urgency in the vocals that’s hard to dislike, which is sort of how I feel about Lifetime Of Romance in general: it’s dark music – think those fiery orange/red/purple Manhattan skies Spider-Man swung through in the ‘60s Ralph Bakshi cartoons – but it’s got a brawny energy that belies the initial impression of cold stasis. “Maude” embodies this best: icy pads hover for four minutes with guest saxophone providing a rattling human counterpoint to Ettinger’s burbling synthscape, before a creaky “Nightclubbing” CompuRhythm pattern refocuses the song for the second four-minute segment, an anguished Disintegration-like essay on sundered domesticity.

 

KILLING JOKE – MMXII

Here’s the force of nature that is Killing Joke, back for a second helping with the reconstituted original lineup and firing on every damn cylinder. The Mayan calendar tolls for Jaz Coleman as Ragnarok did 30 years prior; whether that leads to tomfoolery this time ‘round (read: band-splintering skedaddling to Iceland to escape the maaaadness) only time’ll tell, but while we wait, enjoy this doomsday soundtrack. Loads of good stuff here. In an era marked by stifling compression on hard music, top-dog mixing here grants all sorts of room for the arrangements to roam. Every major facet of the complex Killing Joke sound’s accounted for: ominous dub-throb, galloping dance-punk, metallic brawling, even a healthy return to Brighter Than A Thousand Suns-style synthpop. It’s not scattershot variety for variety’s sake, either: MMXII plays like a custom-built festival bill of likemindeds edited down to an invigorating 50-minute highlight package. Coleman adapts his singing accordingly: I haven’t heard his ice-cool “Love Like Blood” croon so much in years, but it sounds terrific amid the sphincter-clenched punk yowls and full-throated bellowing. Whatever he takes for sore throats, I want. My own preference for “Pssyche”/”Bloodsport”-styled dance music is covered by “Rapture,” “Colony Collapse” and “Trance,” excellent tunes in varying rhythmic settings (piledriving, swinging and chugging, respectively); those with a yen for sprawling, half-speed Joke are well served by great album bookends in “Pole Shift” and “On All Hallow’s Eve.” Joke’s politics are all over the record: “FEMA Camp” essays rumoured American-based internment camps for high-risk citizens; several songs outline environmental failings and technological overreliance in the face of stiff corporate rule. The lyric sheet’s filled with URLs for further reading. That the links will evolve or disappear entirely over time encapsulates the Joke conundrum: learn and act now or surrender this toe-hold. MMXII’s grim and critical outlook isn’t rounded out by scepticism – “marvel at the mysteries of quantum immortality” and “bring gifts and spirits, good wine…light up the graveyards to show how much we all care” sound like words by those who intend to dance around the bonfires while they wait out the apocalypse. That glimmer of sunlight delivers MMXII from the stigma of single-minded browbeating. All in all, a vivid, arresting album.

 

LIONESS – The Golden Killer

The two guys wear full face-covering skulls onstage, which is impressively ludicrous. I don’t mean to laugh at Lioness because it’s possible they’re dead serious about this, and I started listening to pop in an era defined by Adam Ant’s “ridicule is nothing to be scared of” mantra. Still, #Lulz. Compelling in controlled amounts, the music of Lioness more-or-less picks up where controller.controller left off in 2006 (Jeff Scheven and Ronnie Morris were members): regimented, vigorous death-disco that sounds great if you walk in halfway through one of their support slots with other stuff on your mind, but lacks the creative panache to withstand the rigors of an LP. It’s not like I can pick out any rotten songs, but The Golden Killer has as much variety as a steakhouse’s prix fixe menu after last seating. The girl singer makes an impressive sound – lion on a hot tin roof – which is I imagine much easier without wearing a skull.

 

CRAFT SPELLS – Gallery

A mildly disappointing EP that seeks to add a little punch to Idle Labor’s pastel-hued Factory Records post-punk, but doesn’t quite have the songs to finish the transition of power. Among the moves:  Justin Vallesteros no longer sounds like Ian Curtis at the other end of a long tunnel – he’s got a better voice than most of his Captured Tracks brethren and he’s wisely pushed it up in the mix. And even though the bass playing’s less propulsive than it was on Idle Labor, the momentum’s earned back with everything else in crisper colours. Although attractively dreamy, Gallery is also a little lazy (consider “Still Left With Me”’s overreliance on an unadventurous riff, and the next track’s very similar chorus melody). The clear highlight – the aptly named “Burst” – mixes thrusting bass, chiming guitars, a direct drum attack and a beachy vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on New Order’s Technique. (No chorus, either, and I didn’t notice ‘til about the fifth time through. Nice one.) But for all the careful cropping and composition, Gallery’s edges have curled up in the sun.

In concert: The Drums (Toronto; April 27, 2012)

Cocksure flair’s a big part of The Drums’ appeal, but historically their gigs’ve been real head-scratchers. The original lineup’s instrumental chops were basic to the point of paint-by-numbers record replication, and leader Jonny Pierce’s ongoing throat issues forced one of rock’s weirder Plan B’s: a lower register croon not that far removed from Bill Murray’s infamous SNL lounge douche. If you weren’t clued-in to band history you might’ve wondered if you’d been punk’d.

So, the big news in the state of The Drums c. spring 2012 is they’ve morphed into an awfully good live combo. New ballgame. The grandiose-yet-ramshackle studio versions might win your head, but the fleshier live versions’ll take your heart and feet. Ask the swaying throng who grooved to last Friday’s Toronto set at The Phoenix (April 27). The Drums deal in pulse-racing post-punk with melodic spangles and dramatic peaks. Now that they can play them too they may as well start wearing capes and tights.

Not to get persnickety about it, but The Drums have made the jump in part because Pierce and running mate Jacob Graham have filled the batting order with better players who’ve never contributed to those spindly recordings. Connor Hanwick’s touring Japan with g-f Peggy Wang’s The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and I dunno where his head’s at, Drums-wise. The current team, which includes Myles Matheny of Violens, is accomplished and fluid. I really like Matheny here, switching between guitar and bass, providing clever and crucial backing vocals. Given how essential vocal stacking is to Pierce’s songs, a strong second singer with falsetto range is spun gold. My issue with present-day male indie singers is mumbled lyrics low in the mix. With Matheny’s support, Pierce’s emergence as a quality stage singer is a major step forward for The Drums.

That hammy croon, which worked brilliantly exactly once but vexed me every other time, is nowhere to be heard. Slow tunes (“The Future,” “Down By The Water”) and spiky singles (the brilliant, frantic “Money,” “Me And The Moon”) alike soared without the fretful spectre of an indie kid absorbing a beatdown from his own song arrangements at every corner.

This iteration’s sculpted professionalism afforded all sorts of winning moments, often in powerful codas (dark tension in “If He Likes It Let Him Do It,” propulsive thrust in “Days,” encore-quality incandescence in “Me And The Moon”), but also in picking up the relative slack in the good-but-not-great Portamento’s song stock. The Drums might one day match the debut LP’s wondrous first side, but while we’re waiting on that it’s encouraging to hear the newer tunes taken to their aesthetic best-possible extreme. The result, spread across 62 minutes and 15 songs (seven drawn from The Drums, eight from ‘Mento) left the crowd thoroughly satisfied and uncharacteristically loud, at least for an indie club crowd ‘round these parts. We even had a crowd surfer at one point.

A more typical Toronto reserve blanketed Craft Spells’ earlier set. Idle Labor is a really nice record – #9 on my 2011 year-end – and the San Fran band’s Factory/Magnetic Fields dream pop is an ideal match for a Drums audience, but the vibe felt like a blind date, both artist and fan holding back a little, despite Spells playing Toronto twice before.

Spells’ half-dozen Labor songs stuck to the recorded blueprint, which probably provides a pretty good reference point for the three tunes from the imminent Gallery EP. It appears these’ll be more rhythmically assertive, with pounding toms to the fore. Singer Justin Vallesteros still affects a fine Ian Curtis-lite baritone but I hope he’s raised the level on his vocs a couple tics. (He’s one of those guys, see.) Anyway, established blog faves like “After The Moment” and “You Should Open The Door” sparked recognition from the crowd, and seemed to help shift a few units at the merch table at night’s end.

Last year, in the wake of rifts, defections and a glum second album I wondered whether The Drums were long for this world. And it mightn’t’ve bothered me if they’d gone kaput. Now it would. I’m not sure who’s temping and who’s permanent, but this is certainly the right time to catch The Drums in concert.

Add some music to your day #14: New stuff, March-April 2012

Thoughts on new music from March and April, wrapped up in a tidy package. Tough times for some dependable vets (unless your name is Tindersticks).

TINDERSTICKS – The Something Rain

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Music for nights of solitude – not of the forlorn variety, but more for those occasions when there’s no hurry to get any place and it can warm you like a fuzzy blanket while long shadows play across the apartment walls. Something like The National, but more soulfully cinematic and instrumentally varied, with shards of sax, twinkling glockenspiel and keening violins complementing trad rock tools to build mid- and crawl-tempo set pieces about disorientation and disappointment. “Show Me Everything” – not the first song to lift the classic guitar line from Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” (hello, “Thieves Like Us”) – and “This Fire Of Autumn” exemplify The Something Rain’s deft restraint, with each instrument, including Stuart Staples’ voice, woven into a fluid mass, determined but mostly absent of typical rock accents. These songs have momentum, and eventually steam up the windows, but the thing is you never see the switch being thrown. Nice work, you magicians. “Come Inside” is gorgeous and it knows it, hovering for nearly eight hypnotic minutes, a reminder of mood music’s supreme purpose: to enhance what’s already in play. At hush level, its gentle gait might even be described as a balm, a noble trait in any good sad song. It works even better on loop play (trust me, there are worse ways to spend 23 minutes). Here’s one of my favourite phrases: A very fine record by a veteran band on good form.

 

TRUST – Trst

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I’m thinking I ought to get a Maya Postepski app for my phone. She’s got unimpeachable taste in the bands she drums with, anchoring some awfully good, dark synthpop in the past couple of years. I saw Trust open for Washed Out in 2010, and although the vibe was great, the songs choked in deadpan gothic squalor. On this duo’s first LP, Trst, that problem’s been rslvd. Cavernously reverbed yet thoughtfully gated, good melodies ooze over Postepski’s clipped beats, mostly via bell-like synths , thickly whooshing pads and the Vincent Price-with-a-mouthful-of-marbles vocal stylings of Robert Alfons, who manages to sound like the creepiest cryptkeeper since Peter Murphy, without actually tipping over into stagey ridiculousness. He’s only decipherable part of the time – so Murph’s got him beat there – but crucially, he’s got range, often stepping out of baritone murk and into the kind of light where most vampires fear to tread. The peppy, driving “Dressed For Space” and hypnotic “Bulbform” sound awfully energized with that filthy-sounding lisp. The record wraps with its best track, “Sulk,” which restates the band’s strengths: pretty gusts of atmos, monophonic melodies, a vampire singing on the edge of sunlight, a metronomic beat and sympathetic mixing from Damien Taylor, who recorded Postepski’s other band, Austra. I’m a fan.

 

MAGNETIC FIELDS – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

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A misfire, Stephin Merritt squeezing into an old pair of pants but not exactly squeezing out sparks. Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is a wet fart despite a return to the keyboard arrangements and tinkity pinkety rhyme patterns that marked the Mags’ peak performances from a good dozen years ago. “Born For Love,” “I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies” and “I Don’t Like Your Tone” are all fine, typical Merritt vehicles, dependably bittersweet and sonorously sung, with enough funhouse play to keep the record bobbing above the surface. Unfortunately, eight of Sea’s songs – half the LP – are sung by Shirley Simms, and they quash momentum every time. They’re lighter in tone and dumber in lyric content; damningly, it’s all I can do to not think of The Fountains Of Wayne’s smirking, feckless tropes, and I stopped buying records by those nerds years ago. Merritt’s “Andrew In Drag” is an undeniable bullseye, though. Make sure you hear that one.

 

THE SHINS – Port Of Morrow

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It takes work to get into Port Of Morrow. It’s neither as immediate nor as sparky as peak Shins, and maybe this can be attributed to James Mercer diverting some of his song stock to Broken Bells in 2010, and to a band overhaul that left him last Shin standing. It’s a solo record in all but name. But it’s also been five years since Wincing The Night Away, and Mercer’s tied to Sony Columbia, where beans are doubtless being counted. Essentially a collaboration between Mercer and producer/multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin (ex-Shins appear on four tracks), Morrow’s downbeat, reflective cast still affords a small clutch of lovely, winding melodies and wonderful singing (“Bait & Switch” and “40 Mark Strasse” are noteworthies), but it’s only a moderate yield considering how much time Mercer’s had to create and craft. I’ll concede this could be a grower if you’ll concede I may not be in a rush to find out for myself.

 

TANLINES – Mixed Emotions

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Credit Tanlines with an imaginative aesthetic that mixes spare synth lines and serrated, highlife guitar with dominant, polyrhythmic percussion tracks for a fresh take on confessional indiepop. The singing is equally uncommon: unusual phrasing and accenting on lyrics that make a meal out of line repetition – it might be borrowed from South African pop, if I had to hazard a guess (these guys are white Brooklynites). Whatever, the admixture’s really quite attractive and listenable. On the negative side of the ledger, that staunch approach to song arrangement leaves the first half of Mixed Emotions sounding awfully samey; it’s a little counterintuitive to leave the best melodies to the back end. But some of those really stick: “Not The Same”’s gritty choruses, “Rain Delay”’s encapsulation of the pretty stop/start tension Tanlines are going for, and “Cactus”…well, that one’s absolutely gorgeous, possessed of a passage sure to rank among my favourite 79 seconds of the musical year. A flawed record, then, but one of occasional excellence. (And ahoy the Pet Sounds-lovin’ nod, found in “Lost Somewhere”’s big bite out of “I Know There’s An Answer”’s chorus.)

 

PAUL WELLER – Sonik Kicks

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Never having been a fervent Jam acoloyte – Paul Weller’s melodies were seldom as sharp as his fashions – I’m not the ideal candidate for whatever he’s hawking. But sometimes you walk into your local shop and a shiny cover catches the eye before the brain has a chance to remind you what the ear’s long known. (I snagged the current Mojo with the Weller cover before I left, too. Clearly I can’t be trusted with an excess of cash.) Sonik Kicks is fairly named. That bluff voice – a roughened croon always on the verge of a nasty snarl – is well intact, and the musical setting – gnarled post-punk with strong electronic shading – is active and physical. As ever with this guy, it’s the melodies that ground the flight. They service the song but seldom startle or amaze. Simon Dine’s the collaborator: Mojo informs me he builds the frames and Weller brings the paint, which might be straightjacketing the proceedings, given how vertical most of Sonik Kicks is. Some nice work across the usual panoply of Weller styles (“Kling I Klang” bashes and bangs, “That Dangerous Age” shimmies and bops, “Be Happy Children” deftly reasserts his capable embrace of white soul) neither rescues this record from the Not Bad But… pile nor guarantees my patronage next time around.

Add some music to your day #13: New stuff, January-February 2012

Thoughts on new music from January and February, wrapped up in a tidy package. Four of these will be on the year-end Top 25.

CHAIRLIFT – Something

The first Chairlift LP had one absolutely delightful art-pop number (“Evident Utensil”) and some nice second bananas, but still I bundled these guys with the likes of Captain, Go! Team, Black Kids and other pan flashes: briefly intriguing pretenders destined for shuffle play purgatory. But Something is something else – an unexpected Great Leap Forward into superior songwriting and all the relevance that attends it. Chairlift, down to a girl-boy duo with studio assistance, is still mining glistening ‘80s-biting dream pop, but nearly every song on Something has a moment – a winning chorus, a dramatic payoff, a lovely sound design – that lofts the band past the middle-of-the-pack and into the upper echelon of the newish new wave we’ve been listening to for half a decade. It helps that Caroline Polachek has a lovely, flexible voice and the brief to keep the lyrics audible. But the music’s got a lot of hustle, too:  “I Belong In Your Arms” sounds like a breezy 45 from about 1984; “Sidewalk Safari” churns over wobbly, interweaving melodic lines; “Met Before” kitchen sinks stately keys and heavily reverbed girl-group vocals over thudding Californian garage rock. On a cooler tip, “Frigid Spring” is delectable, a watercolour of breathy coos, twinkling keys and acoustic washes, heir to the debut album’s promisingly arty singles. Recall that “Bruises” was an iPod Nano jingle in 2008; Something debunks hipster taint with surpassingly strong material.

 

PORCELAIN RAFT – Strange Weekend

One of the most stimulating efforts I’ve heard from the endless pack of studio rats masquerading as bands, Porcelain Raft’s appeal lies in massed layers of trebly, kaleidoscopic sounds morphing into warm whorls of psychedelic dream pop, with some spectacularly beautiful results. Strange Weekend – the first solo album from 39-year-old serial collaborator Mauro Remiddi – is one of those relatively rare treats where the artist attains impressive conceptual cohesiveness through playing everything himself, filtering ostensibly rock-based instrumentation through the mix with cleverly deconstructionist flair. Especially whatever the hell he’s using for rhythm beds! The drum patterns are chopped, pureed and liquefied, but never at the expense of the momentum which drives and anchors Weekend’s swooningly appealing singles “Put Me To Sleep” and “Until You Speak From Your Heart.” Remiddi seems to have tapped into a sort of nostalgic prettiness despite the clatter – an old trick Thomas Dolby mastered on The Golden Age Of Wireless­ – but some of the more graceful passages (“Is It Too Deep For You?” and especially “Backwords”) recall Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s woozy stateliness. Dolby and OMD were terrific at invoking old grandeur through modern synthetic means, and the best moments of Strange Weekend repeatedly get there. Remiddi’s singing voice, which ranges from a harsh, Bolanesque lisp to a thin, keening tenor, is suited to both the material and the sibilant mix. On the closing “The Way In” there’s even a stab at Brett Anderson-scale ballad singing over appropriately melancholic strums and whooshes. This guy’s a great architect.

 

AIR – Le Voyage Dans La Lune

On the one hand, from the perspective of sound and intent, a moderately encouraging step away from the soporific, airbrushed fussiness that dominated the records they made in 2007 and 2009. On the other hand, from the perspective of songs and execution, a discouraging affirmation of Air’s enduring staleness. I was in the record store the week before this came out when some guy told his friend, “I’m really nervous about the new Air record.” You may recall Air occupying an exalted space in people’s minds a dozen years ago, riding a wave of otherworldly early singles, a dizzyingly grand debut album and a darkly affecting soundtrack LP. But now the disappointments outnumber the triumphs, and all the weaker records have come in succession. La Voyage Dans La Lune, an imaginary soundtrack to a century-old silent film, is a well-intentioned bummer. In reaching back for the feel of old glories, but failing to deliver anything you might remember an hour after playing it, Air’s bag is no longer worthy of such record-store hand-wringing. It’s always a downer to realize the goodwill’s spent, isn’t it.

 

FIELD MUSIC – Plumb

Fervidly inventive yet frustratingly fitful, Plumb’s hooks race by like samples from the golden age of T.V. show theme writing, dangling earworms long enough to capture attention but not to pay the pleasure zone. That flaw undermines the nicely shaped narrative, great sound (“significantly less compression and limiting than most contemporary records,” boasts the liner) and deep well of creative mojo. Plumb’s both too taxing and too brief: 35 minutes is a long time to absorb ideas whizzing by at warp speed; conversely, few of Plumb’s 15 fragmented tunes can stand on their own. Despite attention spans shaved to fractions of what they were in simpler times, pop music’s digestibility – not advertising jingle pop nor T.V. theme pop – is still founded on hook deployment. On Plumb? Well, how many unresolved notions comprise “Choosing Sides”? The brilliance of, say, SMiLE, is that while it’s built on modular arrangements it also sparks cognitive enjoyment through repetition and recurrence. But Plumb comes like lightning. In spite of themselves, a few songs are written to completion anyway, and are pretty affecting, whether lyrically (social exclusion brought about by careless time management in “Sorry Again, Mate”) or musically (the gorgeously searing strings that fill “From Hide And Seek To Heartache” to bursting). I’m buying the next Field Music record because I believe, I believe, but I think they shoot themselves in the foot about a dozen times on Plumb.

 

GRIMES – Visions

I’ve read she digs Animal Collective and it shows on Visions, which is surprisingly organic for a record built on brief, recurring melodic phrases. Not that the loops are so deft you don’t realize what’s going on, but the burbling synth-plus-beats work is fresh and invigorating throughout. Although live performances occasionally veer into twee ether, she holds it together as a vocalist here too, despite a delivery that essentially kills at least half the words before they reach the mic. Thus, it’s not so much an impediment as an artistic statement. Allowing for the featherweight vocals, the heavy lifting’s left to the music, which is tight and clubby, sometimes hinting at late-’80s chart cheese (“Oblivion”), sometimes nodding at Eurodisco narcotism (“Be A Body”), sometimes evincing the queasy otherness Lynch, Badalamenti and Cruise might’ve dreamt up for Twin Peaks if its time had come 20 years later (“Symphonia IX [My Wait Is U]”). Mostly, though, Visions retains an elemental approachability despite its animated idiosyncrasies, which is the best of both worlds for Grimes. A little like good AnCo, genuine pop moments appear throughout, long enough for some listeners to connect the dots and possibly hear things that aren’t really there. Is that why it’s called Visions, Claire?

 

FRANKIE ROSE – Interstellar

A lovely – and sometimes dark – album that reminds me somewhat of last year’s Miracle Fortress set, both of ‘em sparkling recordings that forestall most knee-jerk retro tags despite their reliance upon cozily familiar instrumentation. Icy synths, syncopated drumbeats and chorused guitars abound, but their deployment’s what makes Interstellar glow. Frankie cushions her modest voice with close harmony double-tracking that occasionally suggests Dolores O’Riordan purring in neutral. It’s a pleasant sound that works wonders on the peppy “Daylight Sky,” which cleverly trades that vocal approach off and on with a similar close-harmony synth melody, or on “Pair Of Wings,” which bursts into M83-like Technicolor over its final minute. Interstellar’s songs won’t smack you over the head with the kind of tension-releasing middle eights that’d cost Smokey Robinson any sleepless nights: a few songs somehow reach the three-minute mark without any real resolution. But nervy tunes like “Night Swim” and “Moon In My Mind” are so dynamically solid you don’t notice unless you’re listening for it. A classy effort that’ll probably fly under the radar but oughtta reward every pair of ears it graces. And I’ll bet this sounds great under a starry September sky.

Songs that saved your life: The Smiths – “The Headmaster Ritual”

THE SMITHS – The Headmaster Ritual (1985)

“Five years of education here proved to have no effect upon me whatsoever…except in a very adverse sense. Not to be recommended.”

In winter 1985, Morrissey walked The Oxford Road Show past childhood Manchester haunts, and stopped outside the gates of Stretford St Mary’s school. His sour pronouncements would compel the school’s sitting headmaster to mount a counteroffensive on local radio. The new Smiths LP, Meat Is Murder, was #1 in the U.K. album charts, while its tumultuous opening track, “The Headmaster Ritual,” made art out of the singer’s magnificent angst.

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s arch, vituperative lyric was neither the first nor last time Morrissey brayed about adolescent tribulations, but as the press and public’s fascination with his thematic material intensified, he began using his celebrity to ramrod a wider array of targets. The results could be spectacular. As the lead song on a chartbusting LP, “Ritual” was guaranteed analysis and notoriety, and its subject matter further distanced The Smiths from the Brit pack.

Morrissey’s March 1985 walking tour of Manchester, courtesy The Oxford Road Show:

The host album’s a wonderful piece of work, the most bewitching and beguiling of the four Smiths studio LPs. Miles ahead of  The Smiths‘ stiff and boxy execution, Meat Is Murder sounds luscious, muscular, vivacious. The all-hands-on-deck stylistic breadth’s amazing: consider the ground covered, from “What She Said”‘s metalheaded clangour to the swampy, multitracked guitar break in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” from “Well I Wonder”‘s desolate, rain-soaked reverie to the pound of flesh exacted by the stridently funked-out “Barbarism Begins At Home.”

And then, the lyrics. They’re the reason so many of us dig The Smiths in the first place, and while Morrissey arguably grew more artful over the next decade, Meat‘s lyrics represent the best Smiths-era expression of his morose, inescapably magnetic confessionalism: while he’s still teasing out his Wilde-ly romanticized frustrations, in improving upon The Smiths‘ model, his delivery’s rawer and less fanciful, experiential consequences more desperate and deep. Meat Is Murder diarizes fatalistic romantic entropy, dicey political rage, unsettling social forays, and, famously, “belligerent ghouls [who] run Manchester schools.”

The Headmaster Ritual” live in Madrid, May 19, 1985:

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s plainspoken imagery was unsettling (and is possibly even moreso today, a quarter-century further removed from the excessive corporal punishment once common to the English school system). With accounts of child abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – a matter of public record easily recalled through any Google search, “Ritual”‘s grey, dead-ended grimness ranks among Morrissey’s most powerful statements on inequity.

Mid-week on the playing field,                                                                                        Sir thwacks you on the knees.                                                                                   Knees you in the groin, elbow in the face.                                                        Bruises bigger than dinner plates.                                                                                     I wanna go home, I don’t wanna stay…                                                  Lalalalalala la-ee-ay…

Perhaps Morrissey’s taken poetic license with his recount of life on the soccer pitch at Stretford St Mary’s. Perhaps not. The word deployment’s awfully effective, either way. Thwack. Who else uses that in a song lyric? The mid-verse repetition of “knees,” first mentioned as the hapless victim’s body part, then as his tormentor’s weapon of choice. The ingenious long-vowel rhyming scheme incorporating “face,” “plates,” “stay” and the feral, wordless chorus yodel.

The couplet that gets me has to be the last verse’s “Please excuse me from gym/I’ve got this terrible cold coming on…” I went to Canada’s most prestigious boys’ preparatory school for five years (“not to be recommended”). Competition loomed at every turn, an exhausting and exhaustive gauntlet which re-made and re-modeled athletic, scholastic, social and pyschological heroes and zeroes on a weekly, if not daily basis, where class reports were sometimes graded by peers and field trips reasserted the alpha, beta and omega statuses of 10- and 12-year old boys, under the yawping direction of burly gym teachers and hirsute music instructors who grabbed shirt collars and screamed at below-average performances. Please excuse me from gym…Feigned illness? Oh, I used that. Sometimes it got me out of an undesirable task. Sometimes it got me screamed at. In “Ritual,” Morrissey’s pubescent sadsack finds himself grabbed and kicked in the showers. If this were going on today there’d be a whole lotta sad vaguebooking, a whole lotta investigation, a whole lotta publicity, a whole lotta withdrawn financial support. In “Ritual,” the protagonist only knows humiliation. In “Ritual,” Morrissey – supported by Marr’s cascade of jagged riffage, Andy Rourke’s ornate, thrusting basslines and Mike Joyce’s no-nonsense snare and cymbal work – exposes a bully pulpit for the monstrosity it is, and the result is one of the four or five best tracks in The Smiths’ canon.

And now, curios for the curious:

In 2009, Marr discussed Smiths riffs for a Fender guitar promo. In this excerpt, he lays out “Ritual”‘s central figure:

By 2004, Morrissey had taken to playing “The Headmaster Ritual” in concert, albeit at a slower tempo. This clip’s from the official tour DVD, taped in Manchester on the occasion of the singer’s 45th birthday, May 22, 2004:

In November 2007, Radiohead tackled a pair of cover versions by Manchester’s twin legends: the incipient New Order’s post-Curtis single, “Ceremony,” and “The Headmaster Ritual.” The Smiths cover’s energetic, full of feeling and worth a listen, if not a patch on the original article:

Time takes a cigarette: Happy 65th Birthday, David Bowie

April 28, 2011: Bowie and Iman at DKMS' 5th Annual Gala: Linked Against Leukemia

There’ll be snappy showbiz media jibes this week about David Bowie being in retirement well ahead of his 65th. Whether we’ll ever know the factors and their weight in determining his seemingly permanent retreat from performing life – crippling writer’s block, boredom, Iman and Alexandria accidentally destroying the disfigured painting in his attic – time seemed mostly kind to Bowie, his haircuts, his voice, his creative spark. But something snapped inside him in 2004, and suddenly he was gone. Eight years since his last tour, the silence is strange and disappointing. It’s not supposed to go this way. Maybe he simply woke up one morning, thought about Jagger, McCartney, Townshend, Franklin, Young, Ferry and the rest, and decided he wasn’t going to crash in the same car.

Whatever. Today – January 8, 2012 – is David Bowie’s 65th birthday. For the hell of it, here’s a look at what he was doing with himself in earlier years that ended in a “2.”

 

1972. Age: 25. Year Zero. Hunky Dory. Ziggy plays guitar.

RCA released the “Changes” single the day before his birthday. Before January ran out, he got a new haircut, shot some pictures in a phone booth, finished the bulk of the most important rock album of the decade, told the British press he was gay and unveiled the glam Ziggy Stardust costuming at a show in Aylesbury. Now there’s a guy serious about upholding New Year’s resolutions.

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was issued on June 6th. It peaked at #5 U.K. / #75 U.S, but it’s one of those records whose importance can’t be judged on sales and chart positions alone. Despite sticking to clubs and small theatres through mid-1972, there’s a generous supply of picture and film evidence of Bowie-as-Ziggy-as-superstar-in-bloom, thanks largely to photographer Mick Rock’s hiring as personal documentarian.

The clip below dates from June 21, 1972. (It’s silent film dubbed to same-year audio.) Four days earlier, Bowie’d broken in his notorious “simulated fellatio” move on Mick Ronson’s guitar during “Suffragette City.” You can bet that went over well in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967. Does he go for it again in this clip? I ain’t telling.

 

1982. Age: 35. Acting out: A grotty minstrel, a POW, a vampire.

Bowie whiled away the early ’80s waiting for his RCA contract to run out so he could take a greater cut from song royalties. A little unnerved by John Lennon’s murder, Bowie limited personal appearances to film work and one-off singles. In ’82, he didn’t record at all, but took on a couple of important film roles, as Catherine Deneuve’s vampire bf in The Hunger and as a POW with a Let’s Dance haircut in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

But the year started with the BBC airing a late-1981 project, Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s first play, one about a misanthropic bard who got all the ladies despite rampant ego and awful teeth. (It’s all about confidence, men.) The Baal soundtrack – really, an 11-minute EP – ain’t the high point of his career, but Bowie was playing with such a loaded deck in those days it demanded close inspection.

On record, Baal is significant because it was Bowie’s last recording for RCA, and his last studio work with producer Tony Visconti for two decades. The recorded versions are more sumptuous, perhaps someone’s attempt to sugar the unconventional dreariness of Brecht’s ditties with session strings, but the songs are much more arresting on video, in proper context, where one can focus on Bowie’s expert stage presence, scratchy banjo playing and feral singing. Here’s Baal‘s “Remembering Marie A.”

 

1992. Age: 45. Going solo (again). Praying for Freddie Mercury.

People slag off Tin Machine, but I think of the four-guys-in-a-rock-band phase as Bowie’s colon cleanse. And so I really haven’t any problem with it, so long as I don’t think about Hunt Sales’s “Stateside.” But it was high time for Bowie to get back to being Bowie.

In the summer of ’92, the “Real Cool World” single drove the Cool World film soundtrack, reigniting his solo recording career with a swank Nile Rodgers synthpop production that held out great promise for his next solo album. Before that, however, he returned to the scene of one of his great mid-’80s triumphs – Wembley Stadium, for Live Aid – to partake in the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. Bowie played a fab three-song set, albeit still very much in the collaborative mode of recent years: “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox taking Mercury’s part, “All The Young Dudes” as a duet with Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, and a spectacularly driving “Heroes” with old crony Mick Ronson playing the searing, signature guitar line for  the only time in his performing career. Ronson was terminal with cancer (he’d die almost exactly a year later) and hadn’t played with Bowie since one-offing in Toronto in ’83. With suitably pompish support from the surviving members of Queen, it ranks as one of Dave’s great, spine-tingling live performances.

And then he launched into The Lord’s Prayer. You’ve probably heard about it. You can see all that in the clip below.

 

2002. Age: 55. Touring with Moby. Exhibiting floppy hair.

Towards the end of 2001, Bowie officially reunited with Visconti – a much-loved player in the DB timeline for producing 10 earlier Bowie LPs, including the entire Low“Heroes”LodgerScary Monsters (And Super Creeps) progression – and set to work on Heathen.

The last productive Bowie phase is one of the least affected ones. No outsider poses, no full-length Union Jack coats, no “edgy” face fuzz. Just Dave, wearing Thin White Duke colours, enviably floppy hair falling about his remarkably youthful-for-a-fittysomething face, singing beautifully lush, stately art rock in a comfortably Scary Monsters vein.

In performance he was a treat, consummately professional, chatty and good-natured. Probably more artifice. In later years, Bowie tailored his public appearances to the audience – loopy swanning on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, Brit eccentric with a much better vocabulary on Letterman’s Late Show, soberly reflective on anything of a documentarian nature, et cetera – but he also reversed his early ’90s decision to shelve past hits, to the point most of the RCA classics were once again setlist-eligible. Here, from a June 15, 2002 A&E Live By Request show, is one which brings us back to the Bowie Year Zero: “Starman,” which hit #10 U.K. in the weeks before Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust made him, y’know…David Bowie.

 

He’s even been kind enough to give us an idea of 1952. He’d jump in puddles, laugh in church and marry his mom. Heck, he even wrote a song about it:

 

And 1962? You can read it in his face: two days before Valentine’s Day, George Underwood popped him in the left eye over some bird named Carol Goldsmith, causing a permanent dilation of the pupil. That’s why the eyes don’t match.

David, for all you (used to) do, this Bud’s for you. Happy 65th.

The Top 25 Albums of 2011

Here’s what I’d like to tell you about my 25 favourite albums of 2011.

25. MIRACLE FORTRESS – Was I The Wave?

Angular, almost architectural art-pop, sort of like the Brewis brothers’ Field Music and The Week That Was projects rolled into a one-man band, but with emphasis on keys, not guitars. Expansive, widescreen concepts with one foot in each of the minimal and complex camps, and one of the great headphone records of the year. I think the restraint straightjackets his brightest pop song, “Spectre,” which is a lovely, soaring thing missing only a live drummer’s gristle. Others – “Raw Spectacle” and “Miscalculations” among them – are fine as they are. Delicate but sturdy, unmistakeably ambitious.

 

24. WASHED OUT – Within And Without

Most of the chillwave class polished their presentation skills for this year’s records. Whether money, label pressure or a dose of ambition’s the reason, the wonky gaucheness and hit-and-miss brilliance of yore’s been buffed to a blinding sheen, which is actually rather easy to do with synths. Think “Avalon,” as opposed to “Virginia Plain.” Despite the absurdly reverbed vocals – stop being so precious, Ernest – I really like the first batch of songs, especially the sporty pair of “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati.” I saw Washed Out with Small Black last year and didn’t think his then-unreleased stuff was any great shakes, so this rates as a pleasant surprise.

 

23. PJ HARVEY – Let England Shake

“Soldiers fell like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief.” A world away from Rid Of Me, Peej’s still pushing buttons whatever she’s singing about. What gets me is her delivery:  pitching her voice close to trilling, sing-songy blitheness, and matching it to melodically catchy – even breezy – tunes about the Gallipolli Campaign and its impact on England’s psyche. From the army bugler almost trampled underfoot in “The Glorious Land” to the villagers diving into the sewage-infested rivers to escape the carnage in “Written On The Forehead,” Harvey’s characters are drawn right at the life-altering moment of realization. Like love and other personal politics, war cuts across the boundaries of fashion and era: her subject matter, as ever, has a timeless, challenging appeal.

 

22. ST. VINCENT – Strange Mercy

Less immediately gratifying than previous records – and disfigured by the abominably self-conscious opening tune – Strange Mercy doesn’t rewrite the rulebook so much as it rearranges the furniture, but it’s still the Annie Clark show, her placid singing masking querulous lyrics, leaving the harrumphing to angular guitar bursts. The “Cruel” single – daft, deftly charged art-rock – is another good stab at Kate Bush’s Dreaming-era territory, although it’s slightly undercut by milky production.  “Surgeon,” “Cheerleader” and “Champagne Year” rise above the straightjacketing sound, but the reason this isn’t higher is because I don’t like the development. Hey, I care.

 

21. ANNA CALVI – Anna Calvi

In contrast to the St. Vincent record, here’s a beautifully visceral recording I may like better for the sound than the songs. Early in the year I wrote: vividly dramatic accompaniment for the RKO studios B-movie playing in your head. A motel crime scene, a cop on the take, a shifty femme with a gold-plated cigarette lighter, sweltering air you could cut with a letter opener. A little freshman-year creative writing, but it was worth a shot. Speaking of the songs, I’d put “Suzanne And I,” “First We Kiss” and “Love Won’t Be Leaving” on the podium, each benefitting from Calvi’s sinewy guitar and muscular singing. Vibrant stuff.

 

20. DUM DUM GIRLS – Only In Dreams

J &M Chain/surf-beat-girl-group amalgam given the latter’s period raunch by Richard Gottehrer’s knowing production. At 36 minutes it won’t overstay its welcome, humming and thrumming along with great sound and groovy singing. “Teardrops On My Pillow” is my jam right now, a blister-in-the-sun mesh of shoegazey guitar blur, nervy singing and a soaring harmonic hook you’ve heard a hundred times before. Done right, it’s impossible to put down. That’s why it’s never that far out of fashion. Check out “Coming Down” too: six minutes’ worth of “Fade Into You”-style mope given an intense buzzcut. Something that’d sound great at the end of a Californication episode.

 

19. MAGAZINE – No Thyself

No Thyself’s erudite snark buttresses the Magazine rep. Despite absences (John McGeoch is RIP, Barry Adamson did a short tour but returned to scoring film), the classic Mag sound’s intact, corrosive and cinematic to the last drop. I think it gets better on the backside, where “Holy Dotage” runs religious faith into the ground to a tune as insistently catchy as ‘79’s “Rhythm Of Cruelty,” while “The Burden Of A Song” stomps along like “The Light Pours Out Of Me.” Running throughout: glutinous basslines, arch keyboards, Howard Devoto’s needling voice. It really was quite a sound, wasn’t it? Well, here it is again! Message to my post-punk peer group: ignore at your peril.

 

18. SOFT METALS – Soft Metals

Crisp, neon-lit, night driving record cast in various shades of spare club music from the tag end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. If the Chromatics band name wasn’t taken – by a similarly inclined group, mind – the moniker’d fit like OJ’s glove. I’ll give you two more specific reference points – Bertrand Burgalat’s work with Lida Husik, and early Saint Etienne: “Join Our Club” springs to mind, as does Etienne offshoot Cola Boy, especially in Patricia Hall’s vocal on “Pain,” which strongly recalls that band’s “He Is Cola.” These were all good-sounding records: acres of open space, pinging synth washes, floating femme vocals, rounded, insistent basslines. Comedown/chillout music without the hipster taint of ‘60s soul loops or horn samples. While “The Cold World Melts” breaks formation – it’s a little dirtier, like early Nitzer Ebb with a girl singer – the gleaming, chrome stuff – “Psychic Driving,” “Eyes Closed” and “Pain” among ‘em – would’ve fit, say, the Drive film soundtrack beautifully.

 

17. JOHN MAUS – We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

Madcap analog synthpop with ridiculously vampiric bellow-singing, and it’s great. Censors is a gauzy, gothic, Halloween romp with the structural backbone of an Ariel Pink record, but it succeeds on those wiles, whether evincing a Miami Vice death scene vibe (“Cop Killer”) or a heroic, you-’n’-me-’gainst-the-world-babe stance (“Believer”). The grainy, mid-‘80s, station ID song intros often recall the first Neon Indian record. The most normal-sounding song, a hauntingly dark piano ballad called “Hey Moon,” is an obscure modern cover that wouldn’t be out of place on a Peter Murphy record. Murphy dared you to take him seriously too.

 

16. DURAN DURAN – All You Need Is Now

I’m all for fountain-of-youth recoveries because there’s nothing beats overspending on a club gig by a former chart stalwart playing recognizable versions of pop classics which don’t utterly embarrass the current material sprinkled throughout the evening. Duran hired Mark Ronson to Memorex their loftiest achievements, and the product had all the swishy disco chug and zeitgeist insouciance of bygone days. Even the “Girl Panic!” video had the swagger of old. Sure, the album’s too long and a little bit form-over-content, but it’s the best Duran since Nick Rhodes was about 12 and thoroughly redeems the notion of Duran as an ongoing proposition. The April 25th concert review was my biggest blog hit of 2011, by the way. A place in my heart, then.

 

15. HOLY GHOST! – Holy Ghost!

Idiot-proof Italo-disco/new wave off the DFA imprint. They found a way to crap it up by adding a guitarist for the end-of-year tour, but the record’s a summer vacation of simple pleasures and direct hits. And there’s surely no song I spent more time singing imperfectly than “Wait & See,” an irrepressible, pop ‘n’ lockin’, Baltimora-styled throwback that would’ve ruled middle schoolers’ walkmans in 1986. Honestly, if this ends up in the Fox & Fiddle karaoke songbook, watch out. Sony’s making cassette walkmans again, simply to play this tune in its proper place. Ghost! stays peppy and preppy until the last number, when Michael McDonald stops by to belt the soulling “Some Children” outta the park like the yacht rock slugger he is. Style points.

 

14. THE DRUMS – Portamento

“Ridicule is nothing to be scared of,” sang Adam Ant, and so I admire The Drums’ thrift-shop sound and musical pilferage for the insular things they are. I imagine The Drums are in terminal decline already – one of the guitarists quit, everybody flipped musical instruments, sales and airplay dropped through the floor – which is a shame, because they have excellent musical taste and a real commitment to getting it across genuinely. At its best, Portamento’s grumpy tunes distil the essence of indie – always a day late and a dollar short, doggedly pursuing the production trickery and musical chops their favourite records sported at something less than the original’s cost. The Drums still don’t sound like they could play anything but their own songs. The band is a perfect, closed circle. Portamento isn’t as good as 2010’s bigger and bolder The Drums, but I know the music they’re compelled to recreate, and they’re doing a nice job. Even if it kills them.

 

13. NEON INDIAN – Era Extrana

I’ll miss Psychic Chasms’s cosmic farts and bleeps and may forever wonder whether Alan Palomo might’ve done even more with its bonkers blueprint, but he’s got hefty writing chops and may well be cut out for bigger things than blog love. You see that PAL198X informercial? Why hide your light under a bushel, right? Era Extraña is the new normal for Neon Indian, an almost-solo record that sounds like a almost-band record, stuffed with what would’ve made nice, left-of-centre U.K. radio singles circa 1983. More than a few times I’ve caught myself comparing Neon Indian to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, never moreso than during a gig performance of “Fallout” in October, in which a wordless bridge transmogrified into the kind of gracefully spare passage that powered Architecture & Morality-era tunes. An album written in a lonely, wintry place, about being in a lonely, wintry state of mind.

 

12. JUNIOR BOYS – It’s All True

Some amazing manoeuvres on this one. Whether sparely cinematic (“Playtime”) or sparely danceable (“Itchy Fingers,” “You’ll Improve Me”), Junior Boys stitch parts – and I mean both sound fragments and song fragments – together with the touch of great film editors. Most songs are arranged to peak twice, like classic disco twelve-inchers. The resulting tension’s delicious. The release is thrilling. The dizzy echo orgy at the climax of “Second Chance” is as good as Junior Boys gets, the payoff after five minutes of painterly bleeps and squibs and faux peaks. Christ, that’s good stuff! It’s All True closes with the super-sized, house-influenced “Banana Ripple,” which offers more of the same push-and-pull for a longer run-time and is surely the giddiest thing they’ve done yet. They wear it well, surprisingly.

 

11. SMITH WESTERNS – Dye It Blonde

All Pop Rocks ‘n’ Coke and Michael Kelso throwing the devil’s horns, or, less impressionistically: woozily high-pitched vocals over pillowy classic rock, spiked with declamatory guitar lines recalling the taffy tang of T. Rex. Dye It Blonde’s emotional gravitas is somewhere below heavy-hitting, but its best songs are affecting anyway. Maybe it’s in the way these kids fill their songs with tempo changes (“All Die Young,” “Dance Away”) or where-have-I-heard-that post-chorus guitar hooks (“Weekend,” “Still New”). Maybe it’s the redemptive quality of something normally defaulting to masculine softened by the youthfully wan singing. Blonde’s time capsule qualities don’t exactly scream sound of tomorrow, but the tracks are so pleasingly layered I found lots of little treasures while trying to figure it out. The only trick these Smiths left out is glammy handclap accompaniment. You may find yourself supplying your own.

 

10. GIRLS – Record 3: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Sad songs about regret and resignation, with a kind of stark confessionalism that’s alternately depressing and strangely uplifting. In “Vomit,” the limited lyric’s spun into hypnotic gold by means of repetition and discipline – at seven minutes it takes after the first record’s “Hellhole Ratrace” – but by never relaxing its white-knuckle grip the post-song track break which follows sounds like room tone jumped up several db. In “Forgiveness,” Chris Owens sings “nothing’s gonna get any better if you don’t have a little hope, if you don’t have a little hope in your soul.” It’s as simplistic as Conan’s speech on cynicism on his final Tonight Show, but it’s a bullseye. Girls have progressed from blistered indie rock to ‘70s FM sumptuousness. Quickly, too: two LPs and a long EP in 24 months. All worth a listen during dark nights of the soul.

 

9. CRAFT SPELLS – Idle Labor

Why don’t I just buy everything out on Captured Tracks? Although Idle Labor toes the label’s dusty ‘80s UK indie line, I think it most closely resembles Magnetic Fields circa Holiday and Get Lost, minus the lyrical acuity. Fragilely pretty, tinkly keyboard melodies tied to thrusting new wave basslines and simple drums. There’s a lot of this going ‘round right now – Radio Dept., Wild Nothing, Kisses – but Craft Spells steals ahead on the strength of lead Justin Vallesteros’ splendid Curtis-lite baritone. Like most of this brat pack, he’s content to douse his vocals in reverb – doesn’t anyone want to be heard? – a minor grievance that doesn’t imperil songs like “Scandanavian Crush,” “Given The Time” or “You Should Close The Door,” but undoes some of the good. Get this record to Martin Hannett up there in heaven, stat.

 

8. REAL ESTATE – Days

A sparkling guitar pop record, with nods to Television, Felt, The Feelies and the L.A. paisley underground scene, a beautifully played and paced twin-guitar attack – if that’s the right word – that wouldn’t sound nearly as great if either player held the upper hand. Days might not be chock-a-block with choruses built for bus-stops and arenas, but as sunny afternoon drive-time music, it’s a champ. (The notable exception, the giddy “It’s Real,” runs rings around Coldplay for wordless “whoa-oh-oh” refrains.) I also hear a little Grant MacLennan in Martin Courtney’s singing and in the comparatively dour “Younger Than Yesterday”’s bassline, and a little Go-Betweens is always welcome. After nine idyllic gems, waiting patiently at the end, lies “All The Same,” which is 2011’s “Desire Lines,” a hypnotic showpiece with a lengthy outro that might be termed “epic” if it didn’t seem so at odds with Days’s pristine glimmer. Lipsmacking.

 

7. COLD CAVE – Cherish The Light Years

Obsidian dancepunk for rhythmically inclined Goths, who would probably disagree even as they twisted the night away to this sneakily poppy stuff. It was the easiest damn thing in the world to turn a friend onto Cold Cave with the mighty, howling “The Great Pan Is Dead.” Who needs iTunes Genius, anyway? My favourite is “Confetti,” a spectacularly baleful homage to the spirit of 4AD and black mascara, dropping a magnificently anguished, Andrew Eldritch-styled vocal over a pulsing bed of electro-tom fills, crystal-clear guitar figures and churning synth lines. With a perfectly gothic yearbook quote-as-hook – “It’s important that evil people look good on the outside” – the spell’s complete. Cherish also goes in for muscular dance music in the vein of New Order’s Brotherhood, a spiky-but-frothy sound best repped by “Alchemy And You” and “Villains Of The Moon.”

 

6. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

No one, but no one,­ has ever made a great double album a trim regular-sized wouldn’t better, and the  Saturday=Youth singles might trump anything here, but still. Even when he saddles the lead single with the worst bleating synth hook since “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” it still sounds like something Thor would work out to. “Midnight City” even got lingerie models to shake their ennui like a Polaroid. Hurry Up is essentially the same 36-minute record twice, meaning the blurry mistakes get repeated too, but there’s so much development going on – including plaintive Peter Gabrielesque peals from the suddenly mic-comfy Gonzalez and a killer acoustic-electronic ballad of woe – it’s hard not to admire the guy’s stones. Hurry Up’s release felt like an event, and while a touch short of its gonzo critical reception, its mammoth synth rock highlights are indicators of a great modern talent.

 

5. AUSTRA – Feel It Break

With but one notable flaw – elementary song arrangements – this is a great first record by an act with immense potential. Feel It Break sounds incredible: gloomy, taut synthpop in a darkwave vein, beautifully recorded and mixed, topped with an honest-to-goodness opera-schooled singer bright enough to restrict her vamping to displays of vibrato and dramatic positioning. Even within the relatively predictable song structures, tantalizing teases: the ghostly suspended breakdown in “The Villain,” the insinuating pulse driving “Hate Crime,” the blocky art-pop piano riff supporting “Shoot The Water.” Best of all: the slinky, twinkling “Darken Her Horse,” which has all the icy hauteur of early Goldfrapp, or even mid-period Banshees. Watch this one.

 

4. DESTROYER – Kaputt

Kaputt’s shivery, end-of-the-‘70s production sheen overcomes the record’s only shortcomings: samey song tempos (mid) and static basslines (no scales, all heartbeats). Then I realized I’d been hypnotized. Drizzling sax and flute over the glassy grooves like the second coming of Wild Bill Moore’s exploratory What’s Going On riffing, Kaputt conjures a twilit sky from atop the Love Boat with the house band playing disco jazz below deck. Soundwise, it’s a yacht-rockish paean to pre-MTV American AM radio, but Dan Bejar’s masterstroke is in identifying the sucker punch hallmark of great early disco records: regret and longing trussed up in a Cinderella-like desperation to make it to the ball on time. Nostalgia infuses the fat, held, synth notes and gingerly enunciated lyrics, Bejar’s ginger enunciation detailing his protagonist’s voyage from hedonistic young gun to sage mage. Eventually Bejar rouses himself and sends the last revellers home. Too mellow to be a dance record, too shifty to soundtrack romance, Kaputt is a terrific, sturdy, headphones album of intelligence and craft. Recommended songs? Nearly all of ‘em.

 

3. LYKKE LI – Wounded Rhymes

This isn’t the first record to detail the reciprocal connection between joy and pain, but it’s a very good one, a lustrous – and lusty – record that brings to mind the writer Nik Cohn’s memorable description of Pet Sounds: “sad songs about loneliness and heartache; sad songs even about happiness.” That’s a telling interpretation, because even if there are a couple of places where Wounded Rhymes’ rainy day purview approaches the Spectorian-Wilsonian wall of woe, they’re only half of the story. The thematic centrepiece is “Sadness Is A Blessing,” which addresses the resiliency of youth over a “Be My Baby” heartbeat, with a gorgeously erotic vocal drag on the line “the only lover I’ve ever known,” and a clever bit of lyrical dexterity in the chorus. By following the titular phrase with “sadness is a pearl” instead of the expected “sadness is a curse,” you realize Li’s motored past the first four stages of coping, straight on into acceptance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt could’ve used this in (500) Days of Summer. “Silent My Song,” which sounds massive despite its spare instrumentation, offers more of the same. The production and economy of arrangement by PB&J’s Bjorn Nittling lavishes every bawdy lyrical urge with ravishing sound; even the cage-rattlers (“Youth Knows No Pain,” “Get Some”) that come out swingin’ with percussive “I Want Candy”-like clangour aren’t particularly angry: they’re rapturous, defiant, determined. So, if acceptance is the one state you’d prefer to meet in a dark alley, Wounded Rhymes is your ticket back to the light. Or, hell, as the artist herself puts it: “That must mean I’ll live again/And get back what I gave my men/Get back what I lost to them.”

 

2. CUT COPY – Zonoscope

Dan Whitford’s preference for trad song structure over cycling hooks is one reason Cut Copy look to have the legs to run awhile. For all the things Zonoscope could have been – a two-dimensional commercial sellout; an In Ghost Colours clone; a well-intentioned bummer – the most encouraging thing about its near-excellence is the clear sense of upward development: stronger lyrics, deeper arrangements, increasing mastery of form. CC blew a lot of ammo with 2010’s pre-LP single, the amazingly assured, giddily expansive “Where I’m Going,” and still more with “Take Me Over” in November, but there’s a lotta gold in Zonoscope’s hills, including the ab fab “Alisa,” the soaring successor to Colours’ “Unforgettable Season.” One saber-rattling, sugar-rush rocker per LP really isn’t enough when CC does ‘em so well, but we’ll make do when they’re this good. Zonoscope’s club-friendly bookends ply Whitford’s build/breakdown/release paradigm with the same assurance as their crowd-pleasing live shows: 15 minutes of “Sun God” went down a treat during the festival season. Cut Copy’s in pretty heady space after three LPs, with the discog already sounding like one of the all-time great dance-rock mixtapes. And there’s the feeling they’re only getting warmed up.

 

1.  THE HORRORS – Skying

About 40 years ago the UK label Pickwick footed the bill for a weird series of cash-grab LPs aimed at the youth pop market, wherein hack studio players re-recorded chart hits for budget compilations. As a form of rights circumvention, it’s not as though the practice ever disappeared: Dancing With The Stars does it today. If ABC ever wants to up the ante for a new wave-themed episode, I’ve got the house band for them. Skying could be the next instalment in Rhino’s Postpunk Chronicles, only with The Horrors playing original songs while dressed up as Comsat Angels, The Teardrop Explodes, The Chameleons and Simple Minds. And doing a bang-up job. Throughout, the band’s grasp of dynamics is excellent:  nervy (“Endless Blue,” “Moving Further Away”), stomping (“I Can See Through You”) or stately (“Still Life”), the sound and presence of Skying crackles with a ballsy sprawl melding chart ambition and record-collector wonk. It seems like a mainstream record only because the sound’s so familiar. But after playing spot-the-reference for 50 minutes, I’d like to note the only nod to Joy Division – seemingly every other postpunk-biting band’s go-to influence – is the drummer’s Ian Curtis bowl cut. He also plays more ride cymbal than anyone I’ve heard in ages. Many of 2011’s best albums sported shamelessly overt nods to once-derided and disinherited genres. In Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes about hypnagogic pop: “memory-mangled traces of eighties music…crisp funk bass and spangly guitar parts redolent of the slickly produced rock ‘n soul of that decade…the taut sequenced rhythms and bright digital synth sounds of eighties Hollywood soundtracks.” Dusting off these quarter-century-old signposts, The Horrors may simply be another band in an indie scene seemingly determined to eat itself to death. But they’ve also made the best record of 2011. Ultimately, music always comes down to songs, sound and playing, and Skying hits more targets than any other release of the past 12 months.

Honorable mention: Friendly Fires – Pala; Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong; The Cars – Move Like This; Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine; Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See.

Proof I don’t love everything Brian Wilson does: In The Key Of Disney missed the Top 50.

Songs that saved your life: The Big Apple Band (pre-CHIC) – “You Should Be Dancing”

click image above to play clip

THE BIG APPLE BAND – You Should Be Dancing (1976)

Nile Rodgers has a must-read memoir out in late 2011, and while walking the press gauntlet he’s maintained his admirable, fan-interactive approach on Facebook and Twitter. One of Nile’s great shares this fall is a clutch of privately filmed performances immediately pre-dating his big break into the disco and pop music scene as the fulcrum of CHIC. Filmed in late 1976, these clips are riveting pieces for any disco or ’70s soul fan, and I’d like to spotlight the one that killed me from its opening bars.

In one of pop music’s great meta moments, this clip presents the backbone of disco’s greatest performing band covering a recent #1 hit by the world’s most popular mainstream disco band, on what looks like a tiny, rented soundstage, with absolutely no indication of the fame and riches to come. At this point, these guys are just trying to get a record deal, and they’ll play any place that promises a payday. Including New York City area high schools and biker bars.

Think about that for a second.

Now, this band is not the same Big Apple Band that placed a Beethoven disco interpretation on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1977, effectively forcing a name-change for Rodgers and his equally important running mates Bernard Edwards (bass) and Tony Thompson (drums). The Big Apple Band we see here was –despite extant pedigree (all were successful session players) – a start-up venture susceptible to brand name pilfering and record label rejections. School of hard knocks, yeah?

In the Bee Gees’ iconic performance, “You Should Be Dancing” makes a superb pop single, airy and fleet despite the density of the arrangement, so fluidly played its innate rock heaviness is hardly noticeable. Bells ‘n’ whistles production – conga percussion, punchy horn charts, the Gibb brothers in biting falsetto mode – places the emphasis on the high end, the kind of thing that sounds great coming out of tinny speakers and AM car stereos. The breakdown even showed a clear understanding of early disco music dynamics; this group was no mere genre tourist. Released in June 1976, it quickly made #1 around the world and reaffirmed the Gibbs’ place in the pop firmament. They were huge, and about to get even bigger.

The Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson performance, stripped down to an almost metallic clangour, is hard-as-nails funk disco. Shudderingly physical, thrillingly intense stuff, with a little extra shading from a lead guitarist and singer. Interpreting another’s work, they play it loose and loud. Signature styling abounds: Edwards’s thumping basslines were miraculous – any CHIC YouTube clip invariably sports gobsmacked commentary from what appear to be younger, newer listeners in discovery mode – while Rodgers’s rhythm guitar technique (“chucking,” Edwards called it) has always sounded like precision-drilled sunbursts. Together they are phenomenally simpatico, one of the great axe tandems in rock history (Cropper and Dunn, Townshend and Entwistle…there aren’t many this good).

With Nile and Nard in recognizable form, Thompson is the revelation here. An incredibly heavy drummer (”He hits the drums harder than anyone I’ve ever seen” – Rodgers), his CHIC tracks were marvels of control and economy, wherein any short roll or flare could make your heart skip a beat. But on “You Should Be Dancing” he is unhinged, from the speedy fourth bar tom roll to the clatter of his hi-hat playing. Some of that clatter is miking technique. The rest of it is hands and feet, and Thompson had great ones.

The daunting task of covering for the three-headed Bee Gee vocal monster fell to Bobby Cotter, a Jesus Christ, Superstar cast member hired into the Big Apple Band as lead singer and face. In Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Rodgers writes, “he looked like a star and we looked like his band.” Cotter’s loose-limbed physical presence infects his delivery with similar spirit, unbridled and flamboyantly visceral. Sort of like Thompson, actually. He’s got amazing range, a delivery entirely at odds with CHIC’s deadpan female leads. As producers, whether for CHIC or their numerous clients, Rodgers and Edwards tethered singers to the songs. It’s tempting to wonder what Cotter might’ve done with CHIC’s own material. Alas, behavioural tics rattled his image-conscious Big Apple bandmates, and Cotter was left on the cutting room floor.

Functioning as a cover band here, the Big Apple Band brief is simply to get people bumpin’. They should be dancing. As a talent reel-cum-historical artefact, “You Should Be Dancing” is a thunderous rough draft from a band on the verge of history, working out the kinks while showing obeisance to a group they’d eventually outperform in the idiom for which each is best remembered. Thanks for sharing, Nile.

Further viewing: Big Apple Band soundstage covers of “Getaway” (Earth, Wind & Fire), “Sweet Thing” (Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan) and “Lowdown” (Boz Scaggs).