2010: Ben Donnelly
This year, no garage albums. That was weird for me. Basic punk rock has been the spine of my listening for ages. I heard lots of great tracks, but no full-lengths that measured up to the freaky desperation of A Frames, Jay Reatard or Marked Men. Those three acts have departed the scene, and maybe that scene is changing. A collection of odds and ends from A Frames’ 333, had throwaways like the country goof “Dress in Black” that had more irony and immediacy than any new garage punk I heard.
The full-lengths that knocked me out had bloodier fists. And when these artists wash the red (self-inflicted, or accidents, or otherwise) from their clothes, I bet they add an envelope of black Rit dye to keep the darks dark. They wear black well.
She’s a fav, and maybe the most underrated songwriter of the last decade. Her melodies rip into me even when divorced from her words. Often, her words can do it alone. This time out, she doesn’t come up with any lyrics that haunt as deeply as “Brad Haunts a Party,” but she makes up for it with soaring chamber rock, and her unusual attention to percussion. If the surface of her music suggests another girl strumming a dreadnought, it’s the details and background designs that continually elevate her recordings beyond convention.
Was the vocalist Darkstar added for this album really born with the name James Buttery? It suits his vocal tone, and his tone suits this previously instrumental duo. Their single “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” sounded like cold electronics longing to be turned into synthpop. The wish was granted. North is a set of torch songs with settings that could stand on their own.
Just as with Darkstar, a charismatic voice can bring a lot of light into stark work. It’s hard not to hear Paul Westerberg’s power-pop rasp in the delivery here. But the playing is unhinged, with the can-they-keep-it-together suspense of the early Replacements. Tracks like “Voices Revealed” are as dreary as a 3 a.m. walk home alone, and like those walks, punctuated by inspired insights.
This project applies Bristol dub and dank to heavily looped rock. It’s very hard to make out what’s played and what’s programmed from fragments. It makes for grand, slightly unnerving dirges. Even when loops are cut short and busted, chiming guitar gives a natural feel. When, for fourth time in a row, a track starts like it is going to be lead by a lonely surf guitarist, the vocal samples and the bass get busy and bring out hidden funk.
Cautious, yet confident in its sound, Lower Dens has made the kind of album prone to being overlooked. (See also: Casual Dots, Electrelane.) Every track here, even the ones that seem half finished, become complete upon repeated listening. The success of The xx suggests there’s a lot of people who could appreciate Twin-Hand Movement. But as The xx has become a freestanding phenomena, it is unlikely to happen. So this sort of brashly modest band stands in the shadows as usual, near the wall, flowering.
My Father would be interesting if only to learn what Michael Gira thinks Swans means after all these years. With the folky breath of the calm parts, there’s some evolution from the final Angels of Light album. The breaking waves of sound that open “No Words/No Thoughts” and close “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” reach back early into Swans’ sound. So he continues his story and gets a clean break, too. Having Devendra Barnhardt and Gira’s own 3-year-old son stand in on “You Fucking People” is inspired — a technique he’s suggested he might explore further. He’s investigating power and powerlessness from a new vantage point.
Double Negative provided the freaky desperation I was hoping to get from the garage scene. Despite the title (or because of it), they play punk like SST and Homestead never happened, though the guys have played in other bands that followed in that noisy, mathy path. Their hardcore goes to the edge-of-metal like early Corrosion of Conformity and Poison Idea. Traces of their 1990s roots creep into the blurry throb of “Endless Disappointment," before skateboard accident footage corrects it. Matinee thrash like this is supposed to work best on 13-band compilations, but D/N kicked out a full album of winners for losers on their own.
Black Breath’s twin guitars and horror movie lyrics play as metal. On the other hand, their frontdude has a certain barrel-chested animosity that’s straight and alert. There’s something itchy here, and it drives the tempo shifts more than any desire to be flashy. Each crazed change hits before the last has sunk in, like he’s gotta tell you one more thing. "There’s a virus loose. There’s witches and shit. Look out, you’re gonna die."
Matt Pike chooses a mainstream metal producer and upsets those who prefer sludge for every meal. Damn, this is a tough room. The title track is one of the best diddly-diddly metal songs ever, and Pike has never even tried building a song around string tapping in his two decades on the scene. The second half is all doom, completely epic, which the skeptics will eventually notice. After a half a year, they seem the kind of classics that have been in the repertoire for years. Pike and drummer Den Kensel can make sludge fast and speed heavy like no one else, and this is their fifth completely necessary album.
Forty five minutes of music that works best in one listening, entrancing the whole time. That’s what an album supposed to be. I’ve been wrapped up in the band’s catalog for a year. What a kick to be all caught up in time for their biggest statement yet.
Singles, and Stray Songs
• Pissed Jeans – "Sam Kinson Woman/The L Word"
• TV Buddhas - TV Buddhas EP
• Liminanas – "I’m Dead"
• Disappears – “Magics”
• Joy Orbinson – “The Shrew Would Have Cushioned the Blow”/”So Derobe”
• Nothing People – “Marilyn’s Grave”
• Vex’d – “Nails”
• Jonas Rienhardt – “Atomic Bomb Living”
• Wetdog - “Lower Leg”
• Rowland S. Howard – “The Golden Age of Bloodshed”
By Ben Donnelly