You heard it here third: Idolator tipped me off to this Kranky interview over at Indie Judas. Pithy to the point of surly, it's an amusing little read (and a curious glimpse into the mind of the unfortunate indie label that tries to rise above indie culture's hype-mad fray). Better still, free MP3s from Stars of the Lid, Deerhunter, Benoit Pioulard, Tim Hecker, Christina Carter and Chris Herbert round it out.
Revisiting the high-school mindspace isn't always a good idea; bitter-root dried and reconstituted is still bitter, often to the exclusion of the other flavors that tapped less accessible quadrants of the tongue. But Deerhunter drummer Moses Archuleta brings a really referenshing take on Burger/Ink over at the increasingly essential Paper Thin Walls.
I haven't yet heard Klaxons' album, which Simon describes as "The kind of odd bodge that only the UK music scene produces. Sounding variously like Bizarre Inc buggered by Age of Chance, Aha mugged by Lo-Fidelity Allstars, World of Twist in a scrum with Manic Street Preachers. Their real spiritual forbear, though, now I think of it, is the KLF. Especially on the lyrical front, all over-ripe vision-quest and epic adventure imagery."
Uncanny times two, because when I interviewed Klaxons' Jamie Reynolds (lovely chap, by the way, even if he talks a mile a minute--total interviewer's nightmare), and we got on to talking about pop, he confessed something interesting. Not just that he envisioned Klaxons strictly as a pop band, aiming to reach the greatest mass of people possible, but that he had studied the manual as well: that's right, The Manual: How to Have a Number 1 the Easy Way, by the KLF's Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, in which they prescribe their foolproof plan for landing a single in the UK charts.
"I literally read that book and put it into practice," said Reynolds when I talked to him. "I took direct instructions from it, if you like. Get yourself a studio, get a groove going, sing some absolute nonsense over the top, but a breakbeat behind, it and you're away! That's what I did! That's genuinely it. I read that, I noted down the golden rules of pop, and applied that to what we're doing and made sure that that always applies to everything we do. That way, we always come out with a sort of catchy hit number."
You wonder why more peoplep don't do it, I said, and he agreed. "This is it! It depends whether or not you want to be a pop band, we said we wanted to be a subversive pop, and for our structure, I'm following the golden rules every step of the way."
...in which I jump into the new rave fray. The piece may spin out of control a bit--there was a shocking amount I wanted to touch upon, and a few excellent interviews (crucially, Mark Leckey, whose 2000 video piece Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore was almost a decade ahead of its time in the attempt to grapple with the meaning and aesthetics of the rave imaginary) fell by the wayside. Before anyone jumps down my throat -- new rave is just a trumped-up marketing phrase, Klaxons are a rock band, etc. -- I'd ask you to actually read the article. I could care less about how new rave pans out, frankly; what interests me is the way that rave's legacy is being reimagined. The crux of the article is really how differently that is playing out in the UK and Germany; for the fullest recounting of the story, of course, you'd need a hell of a lot more historical analysis. Speaking of which, anyone know of any good histories of German rave (available in English)? The German equivalent to Altered States or Energy Flash?
Rather uncannily, Simon seems to have landed on a similar page just yesterday:
"Now how do those of us who actually lived through and participated in this mass eruption of gladness-as-madness--the last full-on movement in UK youth culture, a complete subculture package with its own style and slang and dance-moves and rituals--how do we respond to this development, very different from the various retro-rave currents that have been generated internally by dance culture? For this is the Enemy (or should i say NME) hijacking our memories, the hegemonic indie-rock culture despoiling our myth for its own ends. Yet it's too easy to take shelter in that old Marx 18th Brumaire line about revolutions returning "the second time as farce" . The fact that the Ghost of Rave, in however mis-shapen a state, stalks the culture again signifies something, surely. It announces a lack, speaks of a yearning."
(In tantalizing news, Reanimator recently rebanded to record a few new songs and are hoping to work together again this spring. No word from the band on plans for a release, but hopefully even the spectre of new material will be enough to calm the trembling of tone-generator junkies in search of their sinewave fix.)
Pleased to see the mighty Polwechsel included in Ben Ratliff's Playlist in the NY Times over the weekend, for their evocatively titled new album, Archives of the North. Of the group's players--drummers Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlmayr, saxophonist John Butcher, bassist Werner Dafeldecker, and Michael Moser on cello and computer (Burkhard Stangl doesn't appear on this disc)--Ratliff writes, "they make the most beautiful bowings and chimings and scrapings, blending them so that it all becomes one fluid motion. It’s lovely music that some people might not call music at all."
(Until now, I've had absolutely no luck finding the new disc anywhere in the US; Wrapped Islands (Erstwhile), the group's 2002 collab with Fennesz, is usually the easiest to track down. Among the shops that don't stock Archives: Amoeba, Aquarius, Other Music, PDX's Everyday. Amazon has it through third-party sellers, but at a premium. But Bellevue, Washington's Jazz Loft, stocks the full selection of Hat Hut releases, so the disc is finally on its way to me.)
Judging from the excerpts on Polwechsel's own site, Archives promises exquisite drifting. This is quiet music, where the clacking of pads and valves may be louder than the breath moving through the horn. Brushed cymbals lose their attacks to become more like a bellows, and disparate timbres flow into one another like melting icecaps into the salted Arctic.
[Another reprint from my URGE blog today, for you non-PC types.]
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but D*I*R*T*Y is cooler than you. First of all, they're French. And like their compatriots at the Tigersushi label, the folks behind D*I*R*T*Y—a website, soundsystem, and occasional record label—have collections so deep that just moving from the Krautrock to space disco categories could give you the bends. As if that weren't enough, their Pilooski Edits series—the work of the mysterious Pilooski--is steadily reissuing some of the more delectable gems from their stacks, edited and extra-funked for demanding dance floors.
Truth be told, they're cooler than me too; I discovered all this only last week, and a visit to the official Dirty Edits website reveals that all but the last installment of their limited 12-inch singles are already sold out. Sadly, that means missing out on Alan Parsons Project's "I Robot (Pilooski Edit)," a bizarre, grinding number that's like Moroder made for slowdancing. (You can hear the original version in the playlist on the URGE page; Pilooski's edit, along with a few others, is on the series' Myspace page.) It means missing out on the drone 'n' roll shenanigans of the Human Beinz' "Nobody But Me (Pilooski Edit)." (Does anyone else find it weird that with that track, D*I*R*T*Y becomes the lone degree of separation between video artist Pipilotti Rist and ESPN's The Greatest Crowd-Rockin' Anthems of All Time?) Worst of all, it means missing out on Pilooski's versions of both Edwin Starr's "Get Up" and Can's "Mothersky." The former rolls out its bass line like an undulating strand of DNA that pulls together acid, disco and the flangy twang of a mouth harp; Starr's grunts and shouts are dubbed to hell and back, with a drum break so slow you could churn butter to it. On the latter cut, motorik, proto-Stereolab rhythms purr away amidst thunderstorms of toms and lightning flashes of white noise: pure drama.
Fortunately, the fourth record, still available, might just be the weirdest yet. There's a grinding (yet again—dude likes his tempos s-l-o-w) rework of Cat Stevens' "Was Dog a Doughnut," long a crate-digger's gem—more mercury-and-molasses than "Fire and Rain," for the skeptics among you. There's a chunky remix of "Euro vs. Dollar," by the great French act Octet, to please all the Lindstrøm and Who Made Who fans out there. And finally, Pilooski tackles none other than freaking Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Check the original of "Beggin'" on the playlist at URGE, then listen to the edit. What might be most shocking is how little Pilooski actually does. Sure, he more than doubles the tune's length, from 2:50—par for the course in 1967—to a more DJ-friendly 5:37. Thanks to the magic of mixing and mastering, the edit is definitely beefier: the low end more solid, the handclaps and tambourines brighter, everything a tad more separated. But structurally, it's almost impossible to tell what's been changed—the chorus has been stretched out and looped, but it's done so naturally, so seamlessly, that it doesn't detract from the deep blue heartbreak of the original composition. (That's the magic of edits, of course: unlike remixes, they never call attention to themselves.)
But what really makes D*I*R*T*Y cooler than any of us is that they chose this cut at all. Any wannabe Disco Stu with a Giorgio Moroder CD and a copy of Ableton Live can churn out a workable Italo edit, and that's precisely what can make the whole nu-disco scene occasionally rather dull—everyone's jacking the same sources. But this is more than just digging: it takes nerves (and ears) to bust out 40-year-old top-20 hits and make them relevant to young listeners today. Counterintuitive poptimism: the new rock snobbery! (But way cooler.)
I've got a blurb on Swedish musique concrète/radio play producer Åke Hodell in today's Pitchfork feature, Found Sound 2006, a nifty roundup of obscurities that the site's individual contribs discovered this year. Check Ubu.com for some Hodell background and audio samples; more comprehensive info to be found here and here. (Note to googlers: you'll have different results for "Åke" and "Ake.")
Props, kudos, and huzzah Idolator, who chimes in for the International Pony love with a long-overdue installment of "Please Release Me", advocating for a domestic release (plus MP3s of the awesome "Gothic Girl" and the even awesomer "Solid Gold (The Lost Version)." Sony Gemany, are you listening? Wir wünschen unser Pony!
If you ever needed proof that camcorders and YouTube are probably not the choicest dough for baking up a batch of dubstep-approved Bass Communion wafers, this footage should convince you--but it's still pretty enlightening to get the firsthand view of the real sublo, slo-mo, seaweed-flo type shit.
Thanks to the everrad J-Shep for bringing our attention to it. One thing, though: Julianne says, "I would really like to see the sound of dubstep merge with B'more club-level enthusiasm on the dancefloor." Could someone please explain Baltimore club to us? Why it's any good, why we should care, where we should start? Last time we were in "B-more," as the younguns seeem to be saying, we were at an all-ages Universal Order of Armageddon show at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall (and believe me, you haven't lived until you've seen UOA at the VFW). Which is a long way of explaining how we're kind of out of step with contemporary developments in Baltimoricity.
No, not a Jesse Somfay track title. Rather, a moving (and tasty) remembrance of the inventor of ramen noodles, filled with koan-like nuggets such as these:
The silver seasoning packet does not always tear open evenly, and bits of sodium essence can be trapped in the foil hollows, leaving you always to wonder whether the broth, rich and salty as it is, is as rich and salty as it could have been.
[Note: Today's entry is re-run from my blog over at URGE.]
I've been advocating a crossover (or at least a friendly afternoon tea) between dubstep and minimal for a couple of years now, and 2006 saw such encounters start to happen. One tune appears to have been the key: Shackleton's "Blood on My Hands," released by his own intrepid Skull Disco label. That tune was an early entrant into minimal techno sets from the likes of Ricardo Villalobos; now Skull Disco will release a remix of the tune by Villalobos himself.
When Villalobos charted it early last year, it was probably dubstep's first high-profile infiltration of the 4/4 ranks; it made sense, too, given Shackleton's liquid congas and overall sense of gloom. (As a DJ, Ricardo often plays to the party, but in his studio, he likes to indulge his dark side.) Cassy picked it as the opening track for her Panoramabar 01 mix CD, on the venue's own Ostgut Ton label—an ambitious choice, if in retrospect a somewhat misguided one; the tune's too creepy to really sit right with the sax-smeared deep house groove that follows it, and by fading out when she does Cassy doesn't do justice to the vocals that form the centerpiece of "Blood."
Those vocals: I heard them oozing out of many a Villalobos mix from this summer. Not having listened to Shackleton's single in a while, I couldn't place them, but you never forget the words themselves:
"When I see the towers fall,
It cannot be denied that,
As a spectacle,
It is a realization of the mind.
You see, I'm standing on a mountaintop
And letting out a scream,
It's the language of the earth,
It is the language of the beasts.
There's no point to look behind us,
We left the corpse behind,
Because flesh is weak and forms break down.
They cannot last forever."
Hearing that line about "the towers fall"—followed by indistinct muttering, all of it pitched coagulatingly slow, and then a vision of Lot's wife standing near Wall Street, covered in ash—is unnerving. Especially when the context is a festival, a rave, a sweaty, loved-up dancefloor bumping at 128 BPM. But that's precisely one of Villalobos' strengths as a DJ—the ability to lace the rave with a flash of gravitas, of sobriety, without being portentous or a buzzkill. Knowing something of Villalobos' oppositional politics—he refuses to play in the U.S. while Bush is in office—I suspected that for him, the lyrics referred to the World Trade Center. It wasn't until reading Blackdown Soundboy's recent interview with Shackleton that I learned that he indeed intended the lyrics as a response to 9/11.
I most recently heard Villalobos mixing "Blood on My Hands" in part two of his session at Fabric's seventh birthday party. (You can find it over at Cocoon Styled.) Here, he blended Shackleton's tune—his remix, in fact, though I didn't know it at the time—with his own "Fizheuer Zieheuer," the 35-minute, over-the-top minimalist extravaganza of modulating drums and horns. It was doubly unnerving, because this time—with the drums reduced to nearly nothing—I couldn't figure out where the tracks began and ended; I figured the vocals must simply be an a cappella that Villalobos was playing over another of his drum tracks. Well, yes and no, because finally we come to the very point of this entry: the remix.
(It's not out yet, but for a taste of Villalobos at his most expansive, check his classic "The Contempt (Last H of Porto Mix)" in the playlist on on the URGE page; for a taste of Shackleton's music, download DubSTa's mix from the Skull Disco site.)
Villalobos' rework of "Blood on My Hands" slows the pace and turns it into an 18-and-a-half minute brood, nominally four-to-the-floor, flecked with congas and sunk deep in an airless chamber filled with watery keyboards. It is, in a word, perfect. Hardly a party tune, God knows, but imbued with such a sense of motion—thanks to those perpetually modulating drums, flanging out towards the horizon—that it begs to be snuck in just after the peak hour, when dancers are regaining their breath, their bodies still bobbing involuntarily, gathering speed. The vocals are no longer creepy, but simply mournful, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that that's precisely what Villalobos, who grew up in exile, probably intended.
Coincidentally or not, that's the tune that was playing on my stereo, driving down the coast of Chile, when I first heard that Pinochet was dead, which is rather uncanny when you think about it. Chile's exiles had been resisting the urge to look behind since 1973; even the country's return to democracy in 1990 did not permit a full backwards glance. Only with Pinochet's death—because flesh, thank God, is weak, and forms break down—does it become safe to look behind. Safe, but still painful. You wonder if Villalobos had all this in mind when he first heard those lyrics, if that's why he focused so heavily on the vocals when he produced his remix. His mix, it must be said, is imbued with a gravitas that Shackleton's original, no matter how good it is, doesn't quite achieve. There's something else that elevates Villalobos' remix above the level of the merely good: a reminder that for the survivor, for the exile—even (especially?) in the context of a dictator's death—there's no such thing as celebration.
That was a serious oversight, because this one has become an absolute afternoon-walk staple, and also the record that was playing when I last touched down in Portland, which felt somehow appropriate—getting in touch with my granola roots, innit. I don't know if this is what was called "freak folk" way back in ye olde 2005 or not, and frankly I don't care; it's too good, too true to its own weird program to be reduced to a genre caricature. I was reminded what I hate about music writing—mine included—when I ran across a recent review of this that highlighted the instrumentation and external stylistics (warbly vox, lotsa piano, ok ok) and whatever the New York scene backstory is, already forgotten by me, but totally neglected to talk about the way the record works: how singers and players dig into the material, into you, how totally meaty the record is, like a beefcake tomato. For all its foregrounding of affect, this record is secretly all about structure, which somehow makes it far more subversive than merely its outward unkemptness could convey. I'd never have expected such a bizarre wash of references to come at me: in opener "The Light" I hear Hugo Largo and, in the vocals, Yes, for starters. With the piano's predominant role in the rhythm section, the bluesy guitars, it's impossible to ignore the, howdyacallit, down-home quality of the music, the porch-thumping and whatnot, which I suppose begs the f---k f--k tag. But it'd be a shame to hear only that and miss the powerful harmonics of a song like "Childhood Song," that swell and shake like an eyeball under its flesh curtain precisely at the moment of sleep, notes flashing out like dreamcarpets for flying on. The album sags a little in the middle, maybe, but who cares: with "Katie Cruel," a bracing acoustic lament, it picks back up for a magnificent four-song close that's repetitive as reaching for the whiskey bottle. And after so much earnest earth, wrapping up with a song that might be a Siouxsie outtake is pure genius. Someone get these guys in the studio with Ekkehard Ehlers already.
For the first time perhaps ever, I'm going to make good on a years-old promise and blog my best-ofs for the year. I'm not good at summaries, in part because my memory sucks—I can't figure out the tracklists to my own DJ mixes, much less recall what I was listening to in January. I'm also, I suppose, more partial to the microscopic pleasures of individual tracks than the macro gestures required of a skillful overview. Increasingly I seem to glom onto the pinprick details instead of the broad strokes. Perhaps it's because I'm trying to make my own music, but a lot of what I'm drawn to in a given song is more interesting from a producerly perspective (say, the echo on a snare drum, the torquing timbre of a synth lead) than from a more broadly critical one. I seem to be thinking more in terms of nuts and bolts than social significance: can't see the forest for the trees. (For that matter, can't see the trees for all the branches, gnarled bark and pine needles.)
I had a weird year in listening, too. Until May, perhaps, I was more focused on making my own music than listening to others'. The summer season was the typical whirlwind of festivals and beachside slacking. And then fall found me temporarily living at my mom's house in Portland Oregon—not the end of the world but not the best place for musical immersion, either. Taking daily walks around the neighborhood, though, I rediscovered my iPod—and, not coincidentally, rediscovered albums, despite the fact that digital music was supposed to spell doom for the longplayer format. To the contrary, I've found that my 45-minute suburban loop makes the perfect complement for full-length immersion; I'm sure I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time with the likes of the Guillemots and Jeremy Enigk and early Bob Dylan if not for the back roads and pine trees.
What follows are the albums that made the biggest impact on me in 2006—a few of them I've mentioned copiously in other venues, but quite a few of these fall outside the techno niche that's become my usual purview, at least in recent years. I hope you find something to your liking; all of these records served me well, and I anticipate a long and intimate acquaintance with all of them.
Root 70, Heaps Dub (Nonplace)
Not only my favorite album of 2006; this is probably one of my favorite albums of the last five years. The backstory is almost too clever for its own good: jazz quartet arranges and performs the music of Burnt Friedman and Flanger (Friedman's collaborative hyperjazz project with Atom Heart), then turns over the tapes to Friedman himself, who remixes it all in a dizzying game of round-robin. But there's nothing pretentious or cutesy about the final product, which simply offers 10 tracks of dizzyingly expressive fare. It's the kind of album that makes you think about music in the way you think about language, raising ideas about logic, communication, abstraction, games, connotation, secrets and hints. The playing is wildly accomplished: virtuosic without calling undue attention to its own virtuosity, it's muscular, tender, and brilliantly nuanced. Bonus points for the fact that every track on the album is exactly five minutes long, and yet you'd never know it from listening alone. (I didn't figure out that factoid until after about 20 listens, when I happened to glance at the "Time" column in iTunes; I thought there must be some kind of database error, but no. Mr. Friedman, you are a cheeky bastard.) More bonus points: Nils Wogram's trombone solo on the closing "Nightbeat" is simply the most perfect 24 bars of music this year.
(eMusic subscribers can find the album here; eMusic also has the 2006 album Fahrvergnügen, credited to Nils Wogram & Root 70. Again, it's a delicious balance of songwriting and improvisation; much of it leans closer to tradional jazz idioms. The opening "Breathing," foregrounding shivering intervals played on saxophone and trombone, is an elegiac ballad that stands as the best thing I've yet heard from the group.)
"Frankfurt's Playhouse label scored the decade's best House/not House release with Isolée's Wearemonster in 2005; that album paid homage to House music's functional, consensus-based rhythmics while radically expanding upon the genre's compositional possibilities via savvy songcraft and four-dimensional arrangements. The Berlin trio My My's debut album will likely rank as this year's triumph within the quasi-canon, well in keeping with Isolée's strategy but marked by their own distinct personality.
It's curious that there might be a My My "sound," given that the group's members often compose individually, making any release as much a compilation as a group effort. But the dozen tracks here all play wonderfully well together, balancing skippy, shape-shifting drum programming with big, bulbous melodies, and counterbalancing those with rocksteady rhythms and squiggly flourishes as impossible to track as floaters, those amoebic specks that drift across the eye. In other words, theirs is a swollen minimalism, or a big-room House sound compressed as flat as a fruit roll; it's a musical world where the natural proportions are all out of whack, oddly processed vocal samples tangled up with dainty analog blips and zooming oscillators stopped in their tracks by the ringing of a tambourine. Fittingly, this generous, sumptuous album works on multiple levels; "Serpentine" still sounds as massive as it did as a DJ-oriented 12", but it's surrounded by sensitive, swinging tunes infused with strings and rimshots; the whole thing brims with little déjà vu moments recalling favorite songs you can't quite put your finger on, as though My My were listening to you listening—not surveillance, but mind-meld. With so much dance music obsessed with cramming as many sounds into the square centimeter as humanly (or digitally) possible, it's refreshing to hear artists privileging restraint, valuing every sound as though it were, potentially, the last sound you were ever to hear. I could live with that."
Moving into 2007, it looks like there'll be plenty more where that came from: My My's Just Recordings is steadily amassing a worthy catalogue from artists like Pigon, Kock & Wilk, and My My's own Lee Jones; and My My and Jones have plenty of new and upcoming material on Aus Music and its parent label Simple, including a killer new single by Jones called "There Comes a Time," featuring a remix from none other than Prins Thomas.
The Knife, Silent Shout(Brille/Mute)
It sort of freaks me out that I dug so heavily an album that was, by so many accounts, the consensus pick of the year; most years I'm lucky if I've even heard a blogosphere top-10 pick, much less favored it myself. But Silent Shout got under my skin early, and stayed there; in a year in which I was lucky enough to take two road trips up the Chilean coast, this album proved, hands down, the best soundtracking for dirt-road rambling across the coastal desert. Its sense of drama, scope and grandeur went unparalleled for a nominally pop record.
Here is what I wrote about it for Pitchfork's year-end roundup: Entering the year, could there have been a more unexpected consensus pick for 2006 than the Knife? OK, so the Swedish brother/sister duo got a boost from the Sony Bravia commercial featuring José Gonzalez' rendition of their brilliant "Heartbeats", and that exposure served as unintended cross-promo for Silent Shout, helping anoint them among the upper echelons of this year's blog-rock royalty. But nothing else on the blogs sounded like this. Masters of their own record label, Rabid, the Knife may be indie, but nowhere would their shuddering trance arpeggios and steely technoid programming qualify as "rock."
Vocals aside, Silent Shout is deeply rooted in contemporary European techno at a moment when techno remains deeply unfashionable among American listeners, for all but a few Europhilic holdouts. Retaining the merest echo of their last album's electro-pop perk, Silent Shout plunges into the darkest thickets like a Japanese horror flick, turning sunny-day steel drums into instruments of harmonic torture and processing vocals in a way that decouples the "human" from "expression."
Perhaps what stuck out for listeners, despite the shivering digital luster of it all, was the obvious attention to old-school notions of musicality: Here, no matter the synthetic nature of its source, a sound is never a static thing but a breathing, heaving presence that pushes air across the room helter-skelter. It didn't hurt that, no matter the studio-bred nature of their music, the Knife built their popularity the old-fashioned way, by touring-- embellishing their playback-heavy concerts with suggestive video projections and ominous theatrics.
Ultimately, Silent Shout thrives on its uncomfortable balance of mystery and transparency. The way they structure their tracks, every sound sticks out like a lone wire waiting to be stripped, but the more you tug on any given strand, the more all the rest-- unstable harmonics, queered pitches, android shanties, looping tales of forest families-- is plunged into the most addictive kind of inscrutability.
Soylent Green, La Forza del Destino (Playhouse)
Alter Ego's Roman Flügel followed up a banging 2004 and 2005—years of "Rocker" and "Gehts Noch," respectively—with a comparatively understated album as Soylent Green, his deep house moniker. None of these tunes became hits the way those tracks did, but that was precisely the point. Instead of excess, these were all clenched intensity—gravelly drums, showers of percussive white noise, dry-as-a-bone hi hats, gnarled acidic bass lines and lurching genuflections to Chicago. Getting to hear Flügel himself spin the album cut "Stay Stupid" at Amnesia was one of the year's highlights.
Reanimator, Special Powers (Community Library)
The best Pan(a)sonic album that Pan(a)sonic didn't make in 2006, Special Powers quickly showed itself to be more than some kind of Säkho tribute project. Sure, it had all the requisite sinewave scurry and sonar pinging, but these all-hardware, live-to-tape jams gradually reveal a compositional sensibility that's this duo's alone. Reanimator is now kinda sorta split up—one member lives on a green commune in North Carolina, and the other is based in Brooklyn, moonlighting in an anarchic marching band—but the related Impractical Cockpit promises to take the grinding machine aesthetic even further.
Crowdpleaser & St Plomb, 2006 (Mental Groove Ltd.)
File alongside Soylent Green's album: another longplayer of deceptive simplicity, graced with a performed-live feel and slathered in warm analog hiss. Michael Mayer used "18 Years" for his Immer 2 mix, and that wasn't even the album's best cut. It's available as three 12" singles, but this is one of the few recent dance albums that really begs to be heard as an album, veering from the opening Jarre-isms into deep underwater oozing, Urban Tribe-like pulsing, Kate Wax-led deadpanning, and lots of slow-ass funk.
Ben Goldberg Quintet, The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The Fact (Cryptogramophone)
I won't pretend to know much about jazz. But this year I had the urge to listen to clarinets, and somehow that led me to this fine album, published by the same label that did Nels Cline's well-received New Monastery. Led by Tin Hat (Trio) member Ben Goldberg, the record is apparently a tribute to Goldberg's longtime mentor Steve Lacy; the lineup of tenor sax, bass, drums, violin and clarinet bob between structured composition—tightly knotted tone clusters, ragged harmonics trailing like fringe; push-and-pull melody lines; skirmishing counterpoints—and inspired group improvisation. Like Root 70, a deeply lyrical undercurrent leaves it accessible to those of us with little grounding in 20th century composition or in deciphering chord changes. Well worth spending time with.
Grizzly Bear, Yellow House (Warp)
The color and heft of a dust-drunk beam of light. The instrumentation, harmonies, and melodic ideas are exactly what I want out of pop music these days (using "pop" in the loosest possible sense). And to think I once hated the banjo. To be honest, I didn't spend nearly enough time with this record this year, but every time I listen to it (like right now), I kick myself, and resolve to correct that situation post haste.
Jan Jelinek, Tierbeobachtungen (~scape)
Jelinek's Kraut-psyche fury was one of MUTEK's absolute highlights; this is something different, a modest set of sonic baubles and gizmos that whirr quietly in place, indifferent to your presence, at once as comforting and unnerving as a rickety space heater. Like Philip Jeck's work, a reminder that there's always magic to be found in loops.
Loscil, Plume (Kranky)
My number-one ambient album of the year, I listened to this night after night; it's one of the best bedtime records I've ever heard. Some reviewers wrote this off as slight, but it's my favorite Loscil offering to date, a skillful balance of self-propelled drift and understated ideation. The touches of Rhodes top it all off.
Ellen Allien & Apparat, Orchestra of Bubbles (Bpitch Control)
On Pitchfork, I wrote: More assured than Ellen Allien's solo work and more immediate than Apparat's, Orchestra of Bubbles is at heart a pop album, albeit one cloaked in techno's urgency. With both artists working at their moody best, the Bpitch Control label's typical stridency is tempered by an uncommon attention to warm, electro-acoustic sounds-- resonant strings, harpsichords, voices and analog synthesizers. Despite nominally four-to-the-floor cadences, Allien and Apparat layer long phrases in a way that creates a sense of suspended animation, with morphing tones extending to the horizon in undulating waves-- with the exception of one dubstep-inspired cut and Apparat's bashful foray into balladry, both of which usefully break up the record's horizontal sprawl. The whole album, ragged at the edges and bloody with tone, is swollen in the best way, and it crests from peak to peak across 13 tracks that are at once meditative and eruptive.
Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon)
Susanna = singer Susanna Karolina Wallumrød, "Orchestra" = former Jaga Jazzist-ist Morten Qvenild, now of In The Country. On Melody Mountain, they cover an array of pop standards and unstandards, from "Love Will Tear Us Apart" to Prince's "Condition of the Heart" to Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence." The tempos are uniformly lento, even for Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"; arrangements are never more than skeletal, usually a simple keyboard melody. The focal point of the record is Susanna's voice, which has range, understated power—just listen to the highs she hits on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"—and heartbreaking intimacy. The whole thing is flat-out gorgeous. Just buy it.
Egoexpress, We Do Wie Du & Hot Wire My Heart, (Ladomat 2000)
Why don't we hear more about Egoexpress? For that matter, why didn't I write about them this year—and in fact, why didn't I hear this until almost the end of this year? (I suppose the dissolution of Ladomat may have had something to do with it.) This may be a 2005 release—Discogs and Egoexpress' own website are slightly at odds re: dates—but I'll include it here anyway. From cheeky, slightly International Pony-ish pop to analog bangers like the 2005 single "Knartz IV," an album with depth and range, unafraid to look beyond techno as a genre exercise.
International Pony, Mit Dir Sind Wir Vier (Sony)
Speaking of International Pony, why didn't I write about this album when it was fresh out? And why on earth did no label outside Germany pick this up? (Their earlier releases were licensed to Skint in the UK, but not this one.) At first, I didn't think this was as strong as previous material from the trio of DJ Koze, Cosmic DJ and Erobique, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. A funny, engaging, dreamy, funky collection of pop gems and party jams, full to the brim with hooks, distinguished by massive production chops, and with just enough jokes to raise it above the seriousness of their peers. (Get a load of "Gothic Girl," which tells the tale of a girl who likes "black music, but of a different kind.") I've long believed that Pony should be Germany's equivalent to Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx--although, to be honest, I think they're probably more talented than either of those duos. (Heresy, I know.) Just seek this out and get it. And if you're a label, license it already. My personal best for unassuming good-time album of the year.
I should be re-listening to 2006 bobbins, seeing as I have a year-end summary to wrap up. Instead, I am listening to this fantastic live set from Minilogue, recorded last June in Berlin. If I didn't know a little something about the Panoramabar, where this hour of dusky funk took place, I'd say it was almost as good as being there. Exuberant crowd noise lingering over the mix promotes the fantasy, in any case.