2009: Ben Donnelly
Bass | Treble
I wasn’t completely sold on Andy Falkous (the guy behind Future of the Left, and previously, Mclusky) and the Jeans before this year. They’d reached some undeniable peaks – songs like "Boring Girls" and "Forget About Him, I’m Mint" have been in my heavy rotation for years. Both bands had claws. Both relied on snark. When they popped a balloon, it popped loud. But there were moments that just sputtered to a stop with a lot of rude noises. It’s instructive that it was easier to talk about both artists in terms of record labels – early Touch and Go, Am Rep – than specific high points in anti-social behavior like Album Generic Flipper or Locust Abortion Technician. Their 2009 albums were incremental improvements in focus, but leaps in effect; more vivid lyrics, tighter turnarounds, a gutsier sense of the fears that motivate the snark. Travels and King of Jeans work equally well as comedy and horror. These guys finally their mix of beer, coffee, meth and weed just right. A precarious high for sure. Had I lost my good day job in the last year, it would be perfect music for backing over mailboxes to deliver the next pizza within Dominos’ 30 minute deadline.
I didn’t expect Marked Men to break away from the pack, either. Song for song, this is more solid speedpop from a band that’s had good outings before this. But Ghosts is a bit of a marvel as a whole. Around track nine, just as it seems like their vocal harmonies might be thinning, the two guitar interplay revs up, and Ghosts turns into an M.C. Escher staircase of accelerated tempo, each of the tracks somehow picking up the pace from the one before it. It leaves me feeling like one of those aforementioned mailboxes.
Three bass-blowouts that are ostensibly dubstep, mostly because of national origin and technique. They play like different organisms that have adapted to the same niche, the way a bat, vulture and pterodactyl all have wings. On the surface, they’re animals out nightmares. But in the ecology of sunken-frequency electronics that has evolved over the last few years, they are beautiful creatures. Shackleton’s set is a wistful and irate collage of middle eastern shrapnel and brainwashing voiceovers. Distance makes a metal-inspired dubcreep. Emptyset takes a techno heartbeat and stress-tests for 37 minutes against trapdoors, sandblasts and freezing gusts. The tempo trots along, gingerly bearing its way though the hostile climate.
Yvonne Cornelius fractures Sunday morning pleasantries – jazz combo bass, chamber pop, Astrud Gilberto pillow talk. It’s like that nicked furniture from Pottery Barn, distressed to the point it’s actually distressing to witness. As playful as her arrangements are, there’s nothing girlish in her voice, and it makes her games seem less like experimenting and more like a complete vision.
The makers of my three favorite garage albums of the decade offered worthy followups this year. It took Thee Oh Sees a few months, Reigning Sound five years, and Reatard three years buffered by a dozen singles and a few side projects. It says something about the working methods of each of the band leaders. Always prolific with noise and riffs, Oh Sees’ John Dwyer has become expert at illegible hooks, making infectious songs that dance behind a haze. Jay Reatard’s Watch Me Fall doesn’t keep up with the unstoppable roar of Blood Visions but works great as another batch of singles. He describes his records as hand-made pies. Don’t you try to eat all the slices at one sitting, it’s delicious. Greg Cartwright has the opposite problem – no track on Love & Curses stands out like the gems on Too Much Guitar. As a full-length, it’s a satisfying song cycle of burnt-out souls, delivered over dirty blonde soul. Their affairs are as seedy as the thrift store painting on the cover – kinda sexy, kinda sad. When the good-natured rock collapses into Brechtean surrealism on the last track, it’s like a tough guy loosing it after too many shots – shots to the heart, to the bloodstream. He is one hell of a singer, as the toned downed guitars reveal.
When I popped in the promo disc for Serpentcult’s Weight of Light, I instantly liked their way with doom, and was surprised to find myself tolerating the Geddy Lee upper register of the singing. Usually that’s a dealbreaker for me – I’m closed off to half of the metal world ‘cause of it. I prefer my heavy to be heavy all the way through. Turns out the Belgian group is fronted by a woman. So I got some gender introspection to go along with the octopus-faced sludge.
What’s the one section of Blue Record that breaks the flow for me? Why it’s the two minutes of upper register harmonies in "Steel That Sleeps the Eye". The southern rock leads played as thrash brushes all that aside, though. Like Ghosts, smart sequencing makes solid songs into an even more exciting whole.
These electronic albums stood out from the crowd, in part because of the processes used to create them. They could be manifestos to analog recording, if they didn’t avoid brashness. The small beats from real drums (Lindstrøm) and early synths (Subway) made for disarming grooves at a time when distorto-basslines are everywhere.
Like Human League or Eurythmics at their peak, flattening the emotions of standard pop, with the audio cliches they inspired excised.
The crate-diggers bring us more diamonds from early-seventies Detroit. After last year’s reissue of Rodriguez’s Cold Fact, what else will turn up from the gutted city’s golden age?
These guys are friends of mine, and like myself, Pittsburgh to North Carolina emigres. So while I’m hardly objective, I’ve also never heard a better characterization of the beat-down insecurities that float around Western PA. And the way they mix it with Chapel Hill alt.tuning punk captures a journey more than a few people have made.
Some keen political wit, set to the best rockabilly shuffle I’ve heard in a long time.
I can’t make it through their album without groaning, but I can’t make it through this single without blinking like Bambi.
Gunshots and siren sound-effects over dub are a weakness I always give into.
By Ben Donnelly