The Year In Music (Joel Calahan)
2003 was a good year for me. Much was done, much was listened to, much was written about. These following entries highlight bands, musicians, and other creating entities that hit my sweet spot musically, and I have ranked them in no kind of order. In some way, these works have contributed significantly about the way I think about music, and thus they each deserve equal attention.
This journey of un-sacred folk rites intrigues, lures, captures, hypnotizes, and purges, all in that order. Minimalism instilled with the energy and unpredictable treats of the psychedelic pinwheel. The development from Danse Manatee and Spirit Theyíve Gone, Spirit Theyíve Vanished is astounding, shrugging off the trappings of production for a minimalist approach that requires an equal amount of careful attention to nuance. Hurrah for a group that refuse to stay with what works and improve in the process. Plus, Avey Tare and Panda Bear rhyme when they are said aloud.
Extra, extra. Gibbard makes good on archeological dig of relics from the 1980s. Album of Depeche Mode and Yaz covers recycled, reused, revised, resurrected, and reinforced with the scotch tape of twenty-first c. laptop sterility. And it works; I love it.
I recognize the man above the music because the output of Giraís own bands, the Swans and the Angels of Light, and his Young God label are steady enough to let his mastermind be somewhat forgotten. Iím not alone in thinking that Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home is the finest thing Michael Gira has done musically since the Swans disbanded. The songwriting is minimal conceptually like much of Giraís work, but the eclecticism of the darkly superb accompaniment over Giraís more-highly-inflected belly croon finds itself integrally linked to the structure of each song, not slapped on as pure ornamentation.
Though I was not familiar with this New Zealand ensemble before the stunningly quiet Lullaby for Sue was released this year on Brassland, I soon fell in love with their unwillingness to take the classical elements that have been introduced into the indie rock music in the logical direction of a Rachelís or a Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The Clogs focus on one instrument at a time, letting violin and bassoon dance elegantly around in a free form play that climaxes in pieces like "Lullaby for Sue" and "Scratched by the Briar Patch." The album is sparse, and wonderful.
If thereís a title to be won, Brother Aliís done it, and not just a self-proclaimed champion (see track 2 of Shadows on the Sun). Aliís big and brings the beef to the table with some intricately worded storytelling tracks like "Dorian," and the cleverly postured battle rhymes "Star Quality" and "Shadows on the Sun." He overcomes some lazy production from DJ Ant in places to make Shadows on the Sun work as a splendid whole.
Jason Molina, Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts got together for a brainstorm EP last year, and this year returned with one solo full length each, all three establishing landmark moments in their respective evolutions. Molina decided to leave behind the pseudonym Songs: Ohia in favor of Magnolia Electric Co., and the sound of the namesake album is not only expanded with the full band he brings along, but he trades the sparseness for a world-weary richness, a hopeful working-manís folk music with a lyrical energy that relies less on poignant imagery and more on old-fashioned feeling. Oldham did an almost opposite move on Master and Everyone, shedding his band of tag-alongs for the earthy warmth of his familiar voice and a simple acoustic guitar. "The Way" is alone in employing melancholy strings, and with them Oldham creates one of the finest songs of the year. Alasdair Roberts gave us his second solo full-length this summer, Farewell Sorrow, a disc lacking in surprises but full of Robertsí charming lilt and highly traditional Irish folk music. In a show at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood that was cut short due to a tightly crammed schedule, Roberts blocked out all the fuss and goings on, and ripped off five of the albumís tracks with uncharacteristic abandon, though it was the unaccompanied "Come, My Darling Polly" that won me over. Three albums by three of independent musicís finest folksmen.
Frankly, this is an album that I know nothing about. I have not looked at the liner notes, I have not researched the Net or the one sheet for bio information; and so, I have no idea who makes this music or where it comes from, or why. But I donít want to. Something tells me factual information would kill the magic of this electronic pop music that sounds achingly like the Magnetic Fields, and nails, absolutely NAILS that shaky, melismatic quality of the synths and vocals that can only come from a convergence of the gods of lo-fi production.
Please Believe it riffs and riffs, and riffs again, and steals my heart in the process. I never thought an emotional record would sacrifice lyrical clarity for melodic scales, but being proved wrong is pure joy. The vocals might be sappy; the indefatigable guitar lines might be too technical; the drum kit might be the follower and not the leader; but in the mix we somehow find the party. The closest one can find to Bach in indie rock is going too far, but this group is well-tempered, and anything but traditional.
Family Vineyard has proved to be one of the most consistently brilliant record labels releasing projects in the vital field of experimental music. A few of my favorite releases came from this highly quiet, but eclectic group of bands. Unstable Ensembleís Liturgy of Ghosts is a searing mixture of embellishment and experimentation thatís as easy to listen to as music can be without being written out first, conjuring a haunting but full sound that attaches traditional modern composition effects to a representation of crumbling modern rock. Members Ian Davis and Jason Bivins released their own exploration of layered guitar and atmospheres in the vein of Sonna or If Thousands, but vastly surpassing these peers in the craftsmanship of a coherent aesthetic and sustaining it through subtle variation. Finally, Grand Ulena cracks the sound of modern and prog rock with a tantalizing aggressiveness, both on their debut Gateway to Dignity and an EP of extra improvised material from those sessions, Neosho. Recalling the crushing intensity of Lightning Bolt and Japanís Acid Mothers Temple collective seems easy for this trio, yet their studio presence is capped with an experimental flair that makes them right at home in the Family Vineyard group.
Not just for Tim Kinsellaís cozy head rock that finally swished with So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness, but for one of the best live performances I attended all year Ė Joan of Arc made me believe this year. Joan of Arc, Hella, Wives, in an abandoned apartment building in West Hollywood inhabited by squatters; acoustics be damned, this living room parade of wandering, melodramatic guitar noodling canít be matched live. Kinsellaís guitar tricks are magical, and even though Iím sure theyíre just tricks, Iím a sucker for the illusion.
So much done in so little time. Two years, two members, two full lengths, four times as many tours, and eight times the gusto of a dust devil. Japanther score a big one with their latest full length, Dump the Body in Rikki Lake, shooting subtle flares of fuzzed-out bass guitar and snare thwaps like garlands over arenas as big as my bathtub. The addition of doodling melodic motifs over the top of the lumber-thick backbone of the drums and bass reveals a lighter side. The three part "Symptoms" series on the album plays variations of a bass theme that will make your eyes roll back in your head itís so smooth, and youíll have to replay all three songs to hear the subtle trap set variations that drummer Ian Vanek develops over the suite. This is the hottest thing on record right now.
This trio keeps it dirty only with the name, dropping one of the yearís most clever and virtuoso hip-hop recordings. SouthernUnderground gushes positive and reflective ("Love Ainít," "Doiní Alright"), political ("Dying Nation"), nostalgic ("Seasons"), and insane ("Falling Down"). The latter is one of the most epic hip-hop tracks ever produced, displaying DJ Knoís eclectic mix of bitterly golden samples with masterful beats.
Beth Cameron and Doni Schroeder blew me away with the fullness of their sound as a growling rock two-piece with a tender side. Songs on the debut Instruments of Action rise and peak naturally, and they deliver pummeling energy and uninhibited melodies with near-virtuosic performances that prompt comparisons to Pretty Girls Make Graves, though nothing about their sound suggests subservience to any band or genre. This is an album that gets better with every listen.
I saw quite a few shows this year, but nothing quite like the rare performances by these legendary rockers.
The Frogs played all the good íuns from a back catalogue of offensive music 20 years long, ripping out such "hits" as "Baby Greaser George," "Hot Cock Annie," "Whereís Jerry Lewis?" and "Who's Sucking on Grandpa's Balls Since Grandma Ain't Home Tonight?" Dennis and Jimmy Flemion held center stage, Dennisí face scribbled over in black magic marker and Jimmy decked to the hilt in a fuzzy purple top hat, a feather boa, and rainbow sequin angel wings. Phenomenal.
In the past few years, Rocket from the Tombs has been capitalizing on their status as a myth, re-packaging and releasing copies of their ultra-rare recordings of live performances with comic book kitsch covers, and now touring to bring the legend to John Q. Rocker. David Thomas made the show, naturally, with heartfelt belting and as frantic motions as his massive frame could handle. He rested on a chair center stage while Alan Ravenstine and Cheetah Crome displayed guitar acrobatics. I was not familiar with RftTís catalogue, but recognized those songs that Pere Ubu re-recorded, gems such as "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution." In short, the Rocket rocked. Hard.
By Joel Calahan