Rallying the Base
I went another year without experiencing a Philadelphia sports victory. Wings and records got me through it.
Most of the criticism coming at Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's sophomore bow is undeniably accurate. The album is all over the place, with the bad tracks suffering from songwriting that goes nowhere and the good ones sabotaged by Dave Fridmann's bombastic and intrusive production. I don't know of anyone who totally got behind this record, and perhaps that's the inevitable backlash directed towards a band whose debut didn't warrant the attention and praise lavished upon it. I'll step in for the defense and say that Some Loud Thunder is miles ahead of that last album, if only for the few tracks where the band accept Fridmann's mess and revel in the ruins. If the album is a failure, it's of the best kind. Plus, "Emily Jean Stock" is the indie-pop song of the year, hands down.
While it's hard not to enjoy at least some of the Sublime Frequencies catalog, the ethics of its musicology are open to debate. Lack of proper accreditation is usually the bone to pick, but that's not an issue with Group Doueh's absolutely slamming debut, which is undeniably the singular product of its creators. Dominated by Doueh's righteous guitar shredding throughout, it's more raw and rocking than a basket of Homostupids releases. Hendrix is cited as the key influence – contextualize that in the modern Sahara, add in on-the-fly ramshackle recording, and you can't lose.
I had wandered into the last 10 minutes of the Shjips' performance at SXSW earlier this year, and when I first picked up their debut, I was expecting something equal to the heavy weight I saw on display. Turning my expectation on its head, the Shjips ended up streamlining their noise sprawl into smooth as silk kraut-psych burners, with every groove eventually bleeding into the red like they couldn't help themselves. It's as if Neu! decided to let their hair down and actually rock out.
The towering citadel album of the year. McBride and Wiltzie's hands stretch out, not upwards. Just because you're moving in a straight line doesn't mean that you're not on top of the plateau. Play this quietly or let it tear the roof off – it doesn't matter.
About the excellent Paradigm label's reissues of Lily Greenham and Daphne Oram works in The Wire earlier this year, David Toop wrote, "Obscurity clouds the issue…these are sonic remnants of frustrated ambitions, lives which drifted out of earshot and now return in a compressed, somehow indecipherable form." Sorry to say it, but Toop needs to chill out. Releasing collages of Middle Eastern radio broadcasts without giving the listener a proper foothold and context (see above) inevitably puts music out of time and grasp. If Greenham remains an "indecipherable obscurity" after spending time with this two disc collection, then there's nothing that can bring history to life for you. The sound poetry contained within is darker and weirder than most of what was being produced at less "obscure" institutions like Columbia-Princeton at the time, and I can't wait to hear what else Paradigm has up its all-knowing sleeve.
Speaking of academic adventures, the Latitude label released an amazing album of an anthropological study done by Columbia's Michael Taussig between 1976 and 1981 on Putumayo shaman and healer Santiago Mutumbajoy. Used as notes for a book Taussig was writing at the time, the tapes are composed solely of Mutumbajoy shaman chants recorded under the influence of a hallucinogen called "yagé," with minimal percussion accompaniment provided by the man himself. Though the release's subtitle, "Psychedelic Shaman Songs," has the ring of some crass marketing, it's, well, accurate, and included in the liner notes is a sensitive discussion of the line to toe in how to present research as a proper "release." In the end, the listener is left with a stunning, hypnotic, and educational document of another culture, which seems to me to be the whole point of releases like this.
In a just world, Hawley would be an icon. Distinctive, profound, clever, sweeping, emotional, concise, catchy, and produced but not over-produced, he's the right glass of curdled milk for those who can't shake the feeling that Morrissey is a solipsistic twit.
2007 marked the return of Pan Sonic after a three year absence, and their Katodivahie was a welcome return to the duo's Sahko label roots, but for my money, member Mika Vainio's Revitty is the keeper. It's a flat-out ugly affair that dredges up the worst of Pan Sonic's sub-Gristle frequencies in order to decorate some terrifying stop-start rhythms, and whereas PS might use those rhythms to explore techno from the inside, rhythm only shows up here because it can manipulate. Evil stuff.
They haven't reached the top yet, for unlike both Sabbath and true psychic explorers like Mutumbajoy, they've failed to connect the dots. Spiritual hypnosis is all about transcending limitations, and a true visionary is able to reconcile the pursuit with the root causes of human misery. All Om seem to care about is the pursuit itself, and while they're to be commended for keeping their eyes on the right prize, they've potentially sacrificed too much. Still, the fact that I'm realistically disappointed that a band hasn't reached the heights of both Sabbath and a Putomayo spiritual healer speaks volumes – no one is half as serious as these guys, and that's why they're unstoppable.
Burial's Untrue is getting most of the attention at the end of the year, but that album, unlike his debut, says more about dubstep now instead of exploring its possibilities. Like the bulk of the scene's output, it's pure status quo, and one need look no further than these two 12"s for the next level. The Rustie EP is a straight-up banger, dropping all pretense of atmosphere and attitude by highlighting dubstep's too-often-obscured maximal leanings. Rustie may sacrifice grit for IDM sheen, but at least he's aware that risks need to be taken. Also, his remix of "Throw Some D's" for Dress 2 Sweat beats Mad Decent and Hollertronix at their own game ten times over.
And if anyone knows that risks need to be taken, it's Villalobos. The "Apocalypso Now Mix" does what Plastikman's Closer couldn't accomplish – putting across dark, minimal techno as a plausible reflection of human paranoia. There's no gimmicks or pandering, and listening to all of its 18 minutes is a humbling experience.
Meet the polar opposite of the Villalobos “Apocalypso Mix.” Schmickler's first all-electronic album in almost a decade is the type of studied, calculated computer chaos that is all but impenetrable. Unbelievable, but the recent Hecker releases and Schmickler's just-released collaboration with Peter Rehberg feel like methadone in comparison. This is the real thing.
Metzger does his Three Improvisations on Modified Banjo one better by taking a few pages from fellow traveler Jack Rose's playbook and exploring the raga leanings of Americana. He's part of a dwindling group of folks who intuitively know that words like "folk" and "psychedelic" really are window-dressing, and that buying into or celebrating a revival is the same thing as selling your soul.
What a mess. M.I.A.'s sophomore album throws the globalization of "I'm a get mine" hip-hop culture back in the first world's face while simultaneously angling to get a piece of the pie. This is a problem, and the solution is above her head; no other album this year contained as much sublimated and contradictory rage. That it succeeds as the best pop album of the year speaks more to raw talent and cultural denial than it does to the power of its critique or to any immoral ambition. Heard in a club or in Urban Outfitters next to "SexyBack," Kala is far from a coup for the underprivileged. Its resistance is short-circuited by an enabled establishment's co-option, its danger drained by the glossy gangster image it necessarily, inevitably, tragically perpetuates. It's all very ugly, and proclaiming it the "Best Album of the Year" is akin to calling George W. Bush the "President of the Year." It's not an honor, but the sad reality. Kala is the world we live in, and it tops my list for having the balls to make me admit that.
By Brad LaBonte