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White Chalk & Other Pleasures

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Nathan Hogan reflects on 10 records that moved around with him in 2007.

White Chalk & Other Pleasures

Taken as a whole, 2007 was a pretty itinerant year for me. I had the experience of moving duffel bags between international airports, a U-Haul between U.S. cities, and an iPod between countless places in between. The space I have to store music – be it an external hard drive or rows of shelves – keeps shrinking and expanding, expanding and shrinking. There are living room records and car stereo tapes, radio station CDs and bus headphone mp3s. Sometimes it’s the same music, but very often it varies. I seem to have more of it than ever before, but less of it manages to follow me everywhere. So it should go without saying that this is not a “best of.” These are just ten records that proved durable enough to survive my many moves and moods.

PJ Harvey - White Chalk (Island)

My hands-down favorite record of 2007, made by an artist I thought I’d learned to live without. Polly Jean Harvey forgoes the blues, bass, and bombast that made her famous to crawl inside the skin of a heroine Thomas Hardy never got around to writing. White Chalk is a cycle of deeply disconcerting songs that strikes a perfect balance between revelation and occlusion, sleepwalking around Dorset with the same aura of troubled mystery as Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman. The stately piano arrangements are as delicate as lace, yet Harvey climbs out of her vocal range to set fire to them. Beautiful and beguiling, this is the thirty minutes of music that I found myself returning to most often this year.

Tinariwen - Aman Iman: Water is Life (World Village)

Simultaneously world-weary and yearning, this much-discussed record from a band of Tuareg nomads is fascinating and deeply soulful both in and out of its context. This publication’s mid-year round-up drew a connection between this group of Malian musicians and one of last year’s critical darlings, Brightblack Morning Light, and that’s a trajectory I can easily follow. In other words, as otherworldly as Tinariwen’s music is, it throbs with a pulse that’s strikingly familiar – redolent of big skies, open spaces, and plenty of room to move.

Susanna - Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos (Rune Grammofon)

I get the sense that this record is considered slight in a lot of people’s estimations, but the longer I spend with it the more certain I feel that sparse upper-octave piano and warm bass lines are a better fit for Susanna Wallumrød’s icy Scandinavian voice than the electronic throbs and flickering tones of her Magical Orchestra full-lengths. Wallumrød has room to grow as a lyricist, but she’s become more precise in how she employs her voice, and the radically reduced instrumental palette helps play to that strength. For me, this has had more lasting power than either of her other much-admired records; it’s also the perfect accompaniment to the sound of rain on the windowpanes.

Low - Drums and Guns (Sub Pop)

For a record that so dramatically breaks with an established template and coalesces around a prickly theme, Drums and Guns has a surprisingly modest feel to it. I almost typed “surprisingly quiet,” which I kind of mean in a figurative way, but it’s Low – I don’t think I can get away with calling their new record “surprisingly quiet.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that, for whatever reason, Drums and Guns made less of a splash than The Great Destroyer, but I’ve ended up liking it better. What it lacks in truly standout tracks, it realizes in a sustained, elegiac mood – something the best of the Low records all have going for them.

Grinderman - Grinderman (Anti-)

While PJ Harvey made her most impressive record in years by undergoing a near-total reinvention, one-time squeeze Nick Cave manages the same trick by going utterly back to basics. And I’m talking all the way back – back to the Birthday Party, with all of its squawk and swagger, and back to the most primal of animal urges, uncluttered even by bruise-colored eyeliner or gothic androgyny. “No Pussy Blues” is so hilariously hyper-hormonal that Cave’s too struck dumb to properly measure his syllables (“I patted her revolting little Chihuahua”?), leaving the fuzz guitars and driving percussion to manage the release. Even in its more restrained moments, Grinderman pulls a glorious bait-and-switch, wearing its bad rhymes, corny jokes, and rock clichés like a badge of honor.

James Blackshaw - The Cloud of Unknowing (Tompkins Square)

I praised this record in my Dusted review in June, and kept returning to it throughout much of the fall. There’s a palpable warmth and joy in Blackshaw’s incredibly dexterous 12-string picking that sets his music apart from distinguished peers like Glenn Jones, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Jack Rose, and Harris Newman. Not that their music doesn’t exude warmth, but Blackshaw’s seems to burst with it. His sixth full-length is structured like a palindrome, folding at its center into a foggy, atonal experiment and bound at both ends by a pair of soaring ten-plus minute tracks, boasting chiming strings and beautifully cycling melodies.

Robert Plant & Allison Krauss - Raising Sand (Rounder)

This isn’t really your typical Dusted fare, but it’d be disingenuous to leave it off the list, as it’s pretty much lived with me for most of the past month or two. If T-Bone Burnett’s production values have a way of sounding irksomely vanilla, the song selections and the glorious harmonies more than manage to compensate. I don’t know enough of Krauss’s catalog to speculate about whether this is the best thing she’s done; I know enough of Plant’s to know that it obviously isn’t. But this is really lovely stuff, and satisfyingly full as an album. Tracks like “Killing the Blues” immediately leap to the fore, but there are gems towards the back end that have a way of revealing themselves over time.

Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky)

There are few things less necessary and more welcome than a new Stars of the Lid record. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride play orchestral arrangements in airless space, making music that rewards rapt attention or a complete lack thereof. If this record pales, somehow, next to The Tired Sounds Of, I’d be hard-pressed to explain just why. It’s still exquisite, rooted in sounds that are identifiably of our earth – woodwinds, brass, and strings – but which have been ironed so flat as to float into space, on a no-velocity intersection course with Eno’s Apollo.

Oakley Hall - I’ll Follow You (Merge)

I was inordinately excited for Oakley Hall to make the leap to Merge, figuring there was soon going to be some common ground to stand on next time I was asked if I liked the new Spoon or Arcade Fire records. Then, I was disappointed that I’ll Follow You seemed to add up to something less than Gypsum Strings, with stretches of unmemorable guitar rock spanning little jewels like “Marine Life”, “Angela”, and “Best of Luck.” Then I listened to the whole thing a few more times and decided that I liked a lot of it quite a bit more than I initially realized. But most people still wanted to talk about Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Magik Markers - Boss (Ecstatic Peace)

I appreciated but never really loved Magik Markers in those heady days when their faces first started occupying those big brown squares on the top of this publication’s front page. But the band has since spooned a bit of sugar into their bubbling pot, and the result is a record that’s a lot more accessible to these ears. Multiple listens have closed the distance between the swagger of “Axis Mundi”, the woozy balladry of “Empty Bottles”, and the howls, squeals, and whispers in between. This has been a grower, but I’ve learned to like it quite a lot.

Thanks for reading and have a lovely 2008.

By Nathan Hogan

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