Oh good, glad to see you like my illustration. Yeah, I had some downtime and wasn’t feelin’ too creative or too much in my graphic design game as far as doing something special for The Decibel Tolls year-end list. So Lana and I started talking, and it came to us that it would be hysterical to do a collage with people like Bradford Cox eating that Ezra Comma dude from Frankenstein Weekday or whoever, and Franz Ferdinand… stuff like that. I didn’t have time to add Lil’ Wayne. And then I had to make, like, the fuckin’ universe as the backdrop. That’s how we roll here at the Decibel Tolls – no fun, tasteful graphic to designate this article as the accumulative best-of list. Nope, just crude images of artists I like with their heads detached eating shitty bands. I’m additionally thrilled that I was able to describe the image even further despite the fact that it’s already annotated. I rule.
I put some serious thought into this list, and did a bunch of narrowin’ down. There were other jam hives I was rather infatuated with this year, such as releases from Magik Markers, Burning Star Core, and Vivian Girls. But I wanted to do just the standard top ten this time around. No reason to not do things standard every now and again…
From 7.29.08: Koushik’s Be With compilation was amazing, but a little brief (only one track made it over the three minute mark). That issue is fixed with Out My Window. Lead single “Lying in the Sun” is sunny psychedelia that comes correct and interpreted electronically – kinda like Caribou (Koushik even provided throat duty for some jams on Up in Flames, back in the pre-MySpace days when Danny S was known as Manitboa). However, Koushik remains very distinct, particularly by way of his clam, insanely reverberated vocals. All that was good about Be With is brought to the forefront – the sonically organic, lush, and hazy textures juxtaposed against crashing beats. However, you can tell, with this track alone, that Out My Window is going to showcase a lot more new ideas. Koushik is the latest heir to the Free Design’s throne, as long as that throne has room for some thumpin’ low end. This… this sweet psych slice is so sickeningly good. It’s an IV drip of technicolor beauty. This groove can heal most terminal illnesses.
Koushik – Lying in the Sun
09) THE BLACK ANGELS – Directions to See a Ghost
From 6.30.08 (The first Decibel Tolls post, actually): The Black Angels‘ latest, Directions to See a Ghost, a poignant title encapsulating their increasingly distinct desert-noir dusty psych grooves, picks up right where 2006’s Passover left off. Tom-heavy percussion intros, tremolo-saturated guitar meltdowns, nasty bass rumbles, and Alex Maas’ throat offerings (vocals that, to me, flutter somewhere between Jim James and Gregorian chant) are all still intact from the Passover days. However, Directions to See a Ghost does mature in two distinct ways. First, there’s a very fluid motion to the album, connecting each windswept canticle to the next. By structuring and composing most of the album in a similar vein with slightly altering moods, the Black Angels have created a whole, cohesive work as opposed to simply a collection of songs they dropped off at the studio on the way to the store. Of course, a good psych rock record should have a consistent ambiance as per the clientele since, you know, Beck albums are not the weapon of choice for the 420 LOL contingent. Secondly, the Black Angels have adopted a deeper sense of melody. Dare I say some catchiness abounds in the major-key call to arms “Doves,” the evil-Beatles sitar raga of “Dee-Ree-Shee,” and the funkadelic first movement of “Snake in the Grass.” This newmelodic slant pushes the Black Angels above some of their LSD theater contemporaries like Dead Meadow and Bardo Pond… Ultimately, If you’re going to emulate and lightly interpret bygone music, why not merge the music of the most triumphant groups ever and mold them into one totally epic behemoth? You know, originality often comes at a cost to the listener. Sometimes it works well and makes an urgent statement, but sometimes it doesn’t and is just overly challenging and annoying (Lou Reed and Tony Conrad anyone?). You know exactly what you’re getting with the Black Angels – no frills – just pop on, flip on the iTunes visualizer, take a bong rip, tune in, turn on, and drop out.
The Black Angels – Vikings
08) SIC ALPS – U.S. Ez
From 10.21.08 This isn’t your father’s unwashable, filthy, no-fi psychedelic rock scuz – Sic Alps twist, creak, and thump, taking you on a cosmically damaged romp through west coast good vibes and future shock trepidation. The latest, U.S. Ez, has a comfy place on the Siltbreeze roster with the likes of Charlambides, The Dead C, and U.S. Girls. Sic Alps certainly drink from the same goblets as the highest in psych rock royalty, but they also bring the goods to back up their seat at the table… I was casually listening to my iTunes on shuffle whilst engaging in some fast-track multitasking when “Clubbing For $$” came on and I thought “hmm, I don’t recognize this Alexander Skip Spence song.” Both Skip Spence and Alps vocalist Mike Donovan retain a subtle, gorgeous quality through raspy timbre and decimated, hissing melodies, suggesting that both gentlemen have seen the true face of God and didn’t like what they saw. “Gelly Roll Gum Drops” also provokes this same, insane electric folk feel, with a bit of 13th Floor Elevators style celestial boogie and some general Holy Modal Rounders headfuckery tossed in to give this exercise in tape reverb fortitude some serious lift. I’m also reminded of my favorite work of Neil Michael Haggerty in U.S. Ez, so imagine my elation when I found out they play as his backup band every now and again. The blitzkrieg of fuzz on “Massive Place” might make Mudhoney feel retarded. But enough of comparisons. Comparisons are lame. I’m listening to this record right now as we speak, and all that needs to be said is that it’s so fucking good… I hope Sic Alps sell a billion records.
Sic Alps – Bathman
07) HIGH PLACES – High Places
Beach House on uppers. High Places take the hippie thing in a whole new direction. Whereas Brightblack Morning Light are unabashedly hippie to the point of almost self-parody, High Places keep their love of nature and petuli more subtle. Very similar to Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, High Places create a veritable tower of power of lush and bucolic sampled layers, all of which are sun-tinged, and some of which lean on that Raymond Scott-esque atomic age quality found in Broadcast’s latter stuff. Less beat heavy than Panda, however, High Places tear down all walls and allow the fluid hippy trance melodies to flow like urban runoff, letting Mary Pearson’s vocals provide the ropes to keep everything together. This is undoubtedly the summer jam. Sometimes those marimba sounding beats come in a little too heavy and everything gets a little too “hey mon, no problem” for me. No matter, “From Stardust to Sentience” is so grandiose and gorgeous that nothing else is relevant. “From Stardust to Sentience” is some next level shit. High Places also gets best album art of the year – what, with the giant pink ghostly baby and the illuminated agrocrag. Get this album, or else the terrorists will win.
06) WOMEN – Women
From 10.20.08: I was introduced to Women (that sounds so odd) by a fellow Tiny Mix Tapes writer who proclaimed that Women is prefect for anyone who “gets their dick up to Animal Collective.” I was certainly intrigued after that statement, especially since he said the word “dick.” And while I would concur that the Calgary band sometimes evokes the more menacing material on Here Comes the Indian and Danse Manitee, Women are by no means a knock-off. Whereas Animal Collective has always exuded a playfulness and childlike veneer, here be dragons within Women. The crescendo of the excellently titled “Lawncare” wants to pillage your village and breed with your women (pun intended, motherfucker). I would also be somewhat remiss to not recognize the pretty spot-on review courtesy of Jagjaguwar’s one sheet: “Sometimes light and spacious, at other times eerie and dense with an ominous weight, this self titled album touches upon Velvet Underground, Swell Maps or This Heat while not really having any obvious precursors – a lo-fi masterpiece cloaked in layers of vibrato and guitar wash.” That’s certainly true, as Women adopt the traditional instrumentation of gritty garage punk and stretch its potential across ’60s Nuggets-ready psychedelia, early ’80s no wave, and contemporary, slightly-askew pop peppered with noise flourishes. You also get a heavy-dose of the elusive hummable anthem with “Black Rice,” Fahey-esque guitar noodling on “Sag Harbor Blues,” and a nihilistic Madchester zeitgeist-meets Boredoms thirsty on bloodlust hodgepodge on “Shaking Hands.” The insanity and panning production on “January 8th” attacks your brain with holy water sprinklers. January 8th, as a fun fact, is David Bowie’s birthday. Women’s “January 8th” sounds nothing like David Bowie.
Women – Lawncare
05) INDIAN JEWELRY – Free Gold
I had the pleasure of suffering moderate brain damage for a sustained period of time after seeing Indian Jewelry in October of 2005, a few months shy of their debut Inevasive Exotics dropping like hot magma. They were playing a show with some friends of mine whom I came out to see. I had never heard of them and offered no expectations. Dudes started wrapping the stage in hundreds of feet of aluminum foil betwixt multiple strobe lights, animal skulls, fog machines, and a large Lone Star state flag backdrop (certainly a sinister symbol in the middle of W’s second term). It was total brutality. And while Inevasive Exotics was an excellent albeit very evil album, Free Gold furthers Indian Jewelry beyond shock and swells of noise, moving away from the mechanical squall of their influences like Suicide or Swans. Free Gold is rich in hooks and melodies, and they’re not necessarily subtle either. But Indian Jewelry does not completely abandon their destructive forces. Just about every track is stacked high with sludge, fuzz, and squelches, and all songs remain unequivocally foreboding. But the song structures are not freeform anymore, but rather, concise, crafty, and almost, gulp, electric folk. Free Gold’s midsection is flawless and so cohesive that it almost comes across as a suite, starting with “Walking on the Water,” and ending abruptly with the quite, curveball all acoustic Erika Thrasher track “Everyday.” Indian Jewelry is doing a rather new thing, as far as creating moods of almost-fright within songs that balance catchiness and chaos. It’s rather unfortunate that Free Gold has not been more celebrated, but alas, that’s the inherent issue with being ahead of the curve, as it were.
Indian Jewelry – Nonetheless
04) GROWING – All the Way
From 8.20.08: I’ve seen Growing twice. I witnessed them offer a very competitive opening set for Mogwai. Though there was nothing much to watch, per se, hearing their very warm and resonating drone assault, as suffocatingly prominent as their rapid-fire fractured guitar architecture, over a 8,000 watt PA felt like marching into Mordor. Shit was powerful. Growing has often been described as doom. I don’t really agree. Perhaps it’s because I saw them later at a party cracking wise and crushing Rolling Rock on top of a washer/dryer unit, but mostly because their harmonically complex jam hives sound almost hopeful – vast and assuring – like trying to look over the curve of the Earth. Growing seems to be taking a new direction now, offering a more shimmering, melodic approach, not too far removed from Cloudland Canyon [Bloggins note: see blow]. “Innit” is a big fuzzy bit-decimating tremolo defibrillator. “Green Flag” has a charming, delightful little breathing monster under its surface. This is profoundly good. Growing likes to rip a big hole in the sky only a couple meters above your dome.
Growing – Rave Pie Only
03) CLOUDLAND CANYON – Lie in Light
From 8.15.08: About 10 years ago, Art Bell, then host of late night alien and conspiracy theory-themed radio program Coast to Coast AM, aired the frightening urban legend recording “The Sounds From Hell.” It’s an unsettling clip, but also morbidly fun. It’s also completely a hoax (literally speaking, not theologically). The origin of this sound is as follows: Soviet scientists drilled a hole nine miles deep in the heart of Siberia to study plate tectonics. When they hit a heat pocket, their drilling equipment was destroyed, followed by the sound of millions of screaming souls. As any good scientist would do, they whipped out the mics and recorded it… I tell this anecdote as it relates the feeling I get when I hear Cloudland Canyon, and subsequently, when I feel my face melt off my skull. I don’t believe in hell, but I believe in nine mile deep holes. And at the entrance of such a tremendous cave, portal, the dark and cavernous chasm reaching deep into foreboding stretches beyond our measly surface existence, is the sound of Cloudland Canyon. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, but it’s teeming with trepidation. If they ever make a film adaptation for Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Cloudland Canyon should produce the sound of the ever-expanding house. This is the biggest thing on the planet. Cloudland Canyon, should their discography get too prolific, will knock our planet right off it’s fucking orbital plane. Fans of Lichens would do well to take notice, as well as folks who like to go get some shit done.
Cloudland Canyon – You and I
02) HUSH ARBORS – Hush Arbors
From 10.23.08: Hush Arbors, as far as the whole freak folk/New Weird America thing goes (I begrudgingly use this term), has always struck me as the obvious choice for ambassador of the aforementioned movement, as he offers the perfect median point for the disparate sounds found therein. Wood’s take on psychedelic folk demonstrates that it is not necessarily his intent to destroy strong structures, nor is it his intent to play it straightforward and traditional. However, Hush Arbors has gone above and beyond comparison to similar artists. It’s no longer fair to say “this is a great offering from the New Weird America camp,” it’s only befitting to describe this self-titled record as a monumental collection of music that stands up against any album, anywhere. I’m not trying to overhype this really, but Hush Arbors rules so hard. Hush Arbors’ adventurous, wide-ranging sonic paintbrush invokes the past whilst thrusting the very notion of folk rock into future territories. In short, Keith Wood just dropped the type of album that separates the men from the boys… As a contributing member of Six Organs of Admittance (not to mention Current 93, Wooden Wand, Sunburned Hand of the Man), you certainly hear the familiar Fahey-esque, drone note heavy guitar noodling that defines the Organs’ catalog through each and every track on Hush Arbors. But the riff-heavy structures only accent the music, never existing as the sole focal point. These are well written, melodic, solid songs – simple enough to hum along, layered enough to overload your headphone technology and melt your brain. Also different than Six Organs is that Hush Arbors keeps his weirdness prominent and economical. Whereas contemporaries Ben Chasny and MV & EE like to break down into drone examinations and take lengthy journeys down sunken catacombs, Hush Arbors keeps his ideas contained within fairly concise, brightly colored, accessible songwriting. The album’s rollicking psychedelic folk, with vintage AM radio influences like classic Mayall-style R&B and Byrds-helmed feel good bucolic flourishes, is a shapeshifting exercise in sonically diverse, cosmically dense, warmly welcoming electric folk. Fuck Chinese Democracy, this is Hush Arbors’ time, as far as I’m concerned.
Hush Arbors – Gone
01) DEERHUNTER – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
From 8.27.08 and 8.29.08: What other album released this year has a real legend behind it? The secret album, the accidental self-inflicted leak of the secret album, the ensuing drama, the strange tours, the countless articles always having to mention Bradford Cox’s physical appearance – not to mention lineup changes, ample shit-talkin’, and general boobish antics. Trouble finds Deerhunter more than the visa versa, though. Yet they emerged victorious with a massive, sprawling statement.
Deerhunter exists in this strange chasm between fuzzy sludge and krautrock. Though they don’t sound like Neu or Faust, per se (except for “Slow Swords” perhaps), “Calvary Scars II” and “Nothing Ever Happens” are fiercely motorik. If you were fighting in a medieval battle, but rode high on unicorns instead of steeds and bested your opponent with candycanes versus lances, 4:03 – 7:31 of “Calvary Scars II / Aux Out” is the best battle cry you could have. This track could also act as triumphant shag music (it is Deerhunter’s deontologial duty to please that booty). Shit is crucial.
I like Cryptograms a lot. I sorta like Flourescent Gray. But goddamn, I did not expect Deerhunter to slay me. Twice! I’ve been twice slain! Microcastle in conjunction with Weird Era Cont. is one of the most significant, important releases of this decade, hands down. Neither one is better than the other – they’re one sick unit.
And I now take umbrage with the idea that an album is either pop or experimental. Though I’d like to think that the Beatles’ last four albums debunked that myth, the label-happy world of the blogosphere has again segregated these term, shall we say, “terms” when reviewing music. It’s lazy journalism. Weird Era Cont. is a flawless example of toying with pop structures and creating a soundscape that’s both catchy and mind-melting. You can hum along or you can rip the bong. Each is equally appropriate, and Deerhunter does this with an increasingly recherche panache.