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2011: Tobias Carroll

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Austerity was more than a G.O.P. buzzword for our Brooklyn writer in 2011.

2011: Tobias Carroll

  • Press play to hear music from Tobias’s Top 10 Albums of 2011:

  • Sometimes, when you let an argument stew long enough inside your head, it emerges in stunning clarity when you least expect it. In my case, 2011 came together while listening to Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.

    I was listening to track four, “She Divines Water,” an exuberant fiddle-driven song that builds and builds and builds, with David Lowery delivering his lyrics in an odd circular rhythm. You can tell it’s going somewhere; there are slight dissonant notes at the edges and the traditional signs of progression. And then there’s a roar, a mass of vocals joining Lowery to shout the title phrase, and it continues for about 20 seconds in this new mode. Then the whole song falls apart, figuratively collapsing under the weight of its own ecstatic mode.

    The first time I listened to it, I was disappointed. That mood that Lowery & Co. had summoned seemed so perfect that I wanted it to extend longer, wanted the experience to last as long as it could go. (Listening to Spiritualized’s “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” or Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” gave me — and continues to give me — an experience far closer to that ideal.) But after that, I understood just what they were after here: that sense of something fleeting; that idea that the ecstatic, as much as we’d like it to go on forever, needs to draw to a close. As any functioning raver will tell you, you can’t roll every day.

    Revisiting Fang Island’s 2010 LP the other day had me thinking about how the ecstatic is used in rock music these days. It’s a solid record, with elements that remind me of what I love about shouty punk rock and moments that suggest the influence of Lindsay Buckingham. But there’s also a temptation there to build to ecstatic, exuberant moments again and again. Something’s lost in there — amidst the frenetic assault on the calm, there’s very little room to breathe.

    It’s something that I can hear in particular moments on Gauntlet Hair’s self-titled album, where vocals reach out atop buried drums and songs built to clattering conclusions; it’s something that I can hear in the delirious aesthetic of Ducktails’ latest. It’s even something that I hear from time to time on Bon Iver’s Bon Iver — a middle-ground ecstasy as the space between Justin Vernon’s talents at confessional songwriting and creating beautiful works of drone-pop.

    Somewhere along the way, ecstatic seems to have become a default setting for bands — not one particular mood that makes for a useful shift of gears, but a space in which to settle. There’s often little to suggest an actual ascent to such heights. In most recent cases, one can hear the influence of Animal Collective, but it’s useful to remember that those fellows came from an improvisational background, and spent a not insignificant amount of time experimenting (and sometimes failing) before emerging into pop. I swear I sometimes hear remnants of Cap’n Jazz, whose songs occasionally seemed to be falling apart as you listened to them, but again, that that was but one stage in the arcs of the musicians involved. (Tracking the work of vocalist Tim Kinsella since then, for instance, reveals numerous albums that take bliss to a number of unexpected places.) More often than not, that frenetic exuberant ecstasy these days seems a given rather than an apex.

    Perhaps as a reaction to this, there’s a spirit of — dare I say — austerity embodied in several of my favorite records of 2011. (I wonder if there’s an argument to be made in parallel to this, comparing the popularity of musical ecstasy and austerity with more general economic moods and currents.) Gem Club’s stark Breakers dissects heartbreak in minute detail; it’s full of songs that could just as easily be played by a six-piece pocket orchestra, stripped down to their essentials. Demdike Stare’s Tryptych has a hauntingly minimalist quality to it, as does — in a wholly different way — The Sandwitches’ Mrs. Jones’s Cookies. The latter pulls off the difficult feat of evoking a strange sort of absence, despite its abundance of rich harmonies and memorable melodies. EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints does boom with a sonic expansiveness, but its high point, “California,” is also its simplest: vocals, piano and a low rolling cloud of feedback.

    And while The Mountain Goats’ All Eternals Deck is hardly John Darnielle’s most sparse album (that would be Get Lonely), one does get a sense of listening to an album where nearly every element is carefully chosen. There’s a point late when Darnielle’s voice emerges to introduce the next song. “This is ‘For Charles Bronson,’” he says, and what emerges is a nearly classic three-minute pop song. First we hear Darnielle’s vocals, then guitar, then drums. It continues, memorable lyrics over a compelling melody. And then, a little over a minute in, a modest keyboard part enters; it’s so unexpected, given the balance of the arrangement that’s come before, an emotional reaction that feels wholly earned — and more than a little fleeting.

    Top 10 of 2011:
    1. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life (Matador)
    2. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions)
    3. The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck (Merge)
    4. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
    5. The Sandwitches - Mrs. Jones’ Cookies (Empty Cellar)
    6. Demdike Stare - Tryptych (Modern Love)
    7. Gem Club - Breakers (Hardly Art)
    8. Johann Johannsson - The Miners’ Hymns (Fat Cat)
    9. Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)
    10. Ponytail - Do Whatever You Want All The Time (We Are Free)

    Honorable mentions: The Men - Leave Home; V/A - This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM 1957-1982; Grails - Deep Politics; Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges; Shannon and the Clams - Sleep Talk; Tune-Yards - W H O K I L L; Frank Ocean - nostalgia, ULTRA.; Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise

    By Tobias Carroll

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