Monday, January 25, 2010

2009: The Round Up

#1. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Hometowns
(Saddle Creek, 2009)

Tamtaratamtam! The winner is The Rural Alberta Advantage. Try saying that fast three times. Or try saying that when you are drunk. Better yet, just try saying it. Than say it over and over again 'til it's stuck in your head. Then go out and tell the world about this fantastic band from, well yes you guessed it, Alberta in Canada. They are now located in Toronto. The debut album Hometowns was first self released in 2008, but first had a full release by Omaha, Nebraska's Saddle Creek in 2009. So for me this most certainly is a 2009 release.

First of all I would like to thank my wonderful girlfriend for bringing this album to our humble appartment. How she heard of the band I do not know, but what I do know is that my life would be less if I had never heard this album. In someways Hometowns give me some of the same feelings as Funeral by Arcade Fire. Not really a comparison in how it sounds, but more the feeling you go away with. As Funeral this is a album that gets better with each repeated listen.

To friends who have wondered what The Rural Alberta Advantage sounds like I have compared them to a Postal Service without electronics. That said, almost no one I have said that to have agreed with me. Some compare them to Neutral Milk Hotel which I sort of can see, but not really. So how do they sound then? I think the best way to explain the sound is to say that it is acoustic folk melodies with lots of percussion and energy. It's just bloody good music. That's what it is.

I love each and every track on this album. Before Christmas I tried to make a mixtape of my favourites of 2009 and I really struggled with which song to pick from this album. I could easily just have picked them all, but whichever I did choose it couldn't be wrong. 'Cause they are all hits in the making.

If you did put a revolver to my head, I guess I would pick "The Ballad of RAA", "The Dethbridge in Lethridge", "Don't Haunt This Place", "Frank, AB" and "In the Summertime" as my favourites. Ask me again tomorrow and I may pick completely different.

A stunning record, the best of 2009.

2009: The Round Up

#2. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
(American Recordings, 2009)

The Avett Brothers were a band I kind of discovered with their last release, Emotionalism, but it wasn't really until this album I really fell for them. Emotionalism had it's moments but as a album I thought that it really wasn't strong enough. All that changed with the first listen of I and Love and You. Man, I don't think I've had that strong a feeling the first time I've listened to an album since maybe the first time I heard Band of Horses' second album Cease to Begin. The thing that is a bit scary about liking an album that much after just one listen is that these albums probably not have the same stamina as a album that grows on you after some listens. But, that said, I still listen a lot to the Band of Horses album. And yeah, this one too.

The title song and album opener is so stunningly beautiful that it sometimes can be hard to get past that song and get to the others on the album. Both the melody and the lyrics takes a hold on me here. And that the lyric references The Band, " don't know the shape I'm in.." makes it even better.

When you get past the first song you will discover that the album is full of gem's like this. "January Wedding", "And it Spread" and "Ill With Want" all have the same effect on me. I get this feeling that I best can explain as a sense of longing, but at the same time it is both soothing and comforting.

The album also has some uptempo numbers that are equally great as the ballads. "Slight Figure of Speech" and "Kick-Drum Heart" being the very best. The latter is a fantastic song which should have been a huge hit everywhere. But maybe it's for the best that they don't get that hit. The Avett Brothers is a band that works better in small clubs than on big arena's anyway.

Both the ballads and the uptempo songs benefits from the fact that both of the Avett Brothers sings and they get this harmonies that only brothers could get.

I and Love and You is a great acoustic folk/country album which continues to blow my mind with it's good melodies and interesting song structures. And it gave me another favourite band.

2009: The Round Up

#3. Wilco - Wilco (the album)
(Nonesuch, 2009)

Wilco always ends up in the top of my round up's. I remember Sky Blue Sky also ending in the top 5 back in 2007. And now, with a new album they continue their run in Heartworn Highways top 5 albums of the year lists. This summer I even had the pleasure to see them live for the first time. Another classic moment for the history books there.

Well, so how about this album then. I absolutely loved the last album, Sky Blue Sky. I think I would even rank that as my favourite Wilco album. But this one doesn't come far behind. I really think that this version of the band, the line up they have now is the best line up this band has ever had. Some say that they are playing "dad-rock", but hey, who cares. I for one love "dad-rock". Both Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album) is the sound of a band who really have come in to their own. This is the music that fits the band the best and the songs are really really strong. At first they may sound a bit easy and simple, but listen again and you will find magic. Nels Cline's guitar melodies are everywhere. Take the song "One Wing", one of the best songs I've heard all year.

Wilco (the album) is what I would call a grower, and I think it will continue to grow in the coming years. I can see myself finding this album in the shelf and putting it on ten years from now, even twenty to thirty. It's a classic rock album, the same way that a lot of my favourite albums now are from the sixties and seventies.

I, for one, like the slower songs best on the album but songs like "Bull Black Nova" really shines when they are played live. The album opener "Wilco (the song)" shows that the band also has a lot of humour these days. Which is good to see, the band has often been seen as a bunch of miserable men. Other favourites of mine on the album are "You Never Know" with its George Harrison-ish guitar hook, "I'll Fight" and "Everlasting Everything" which leaves you longing for more.

So spin the record again and discover new things. This is a classic in the making.

2009: The Round Up

#4. The Little Hands of Asphalt - Leap Years
(Spoon Train Audio/how is annie records, 2009)

A couple of things before I write about this album. Yes, The Little Hands of Asphalt main man, Sjur Lyseid, is a friend of mine. That doesn't mean that this album automatically had a place in this round up. If anything it had to be even more impressive than some of the others.

With that out of the way, who are these Little Hands of Asphalt? Well, sort of like Phosphorescent, The Little Hands of Asphalt is a one man band. A one man band with up to eight people on stage when they are playing live one would might mention. The band name comes from a Elvis Costello album called King of America and the band is kind of the sideproject for Monzano vocalist/guitarist Sjur Lyseid. Leap Years is the band's debut and what a debut. Almost every song on the album is a favourite. The sound range from acoustic folk, twang-like country and Springsteen-ish rock, but there is always a good pop-melody at the core of everything.

Pop-melodies and good lyrics are the backbone of this band. Both the first song "Oslo" and the Springsteen-ish "The Future" have been minor radio-favourites in Norway and certainly should have been hits. If I were to pick favourites among my favourites on this album I think I would go for the achingly beautiful "The Next Time We Meet" with the stunning harmonies from Marit Falkum Enerhaug. Espescially on the lines:

"So when we'll stumble under the street lamps
the broken glass will feel like diamonds 'neath my shoes,
just like last time."

Favourite number two is "Bait". A very bitter and stunning song and lyric.

"The deep water swallowed us and we talked until we got the bends about love in the modern world with the awkwardness of passing friends. Eventually I shrugged it off. Maybe that's how I feel? But you don't seem offended by the fact that I have kept you here as bait for something real."

My absolute favourite on the album is the song "A Few Words from Our Ten Nominees". This song makes me get all teary-eyed almost everytime I hear it. I don't really know for sure what does it for me, but I think it is the combination of the hauntingly beautiful melody and the lyrics. The last words in the song always leaves me with a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes and shivers down my spine. Not many songs has given me these feelings the last years. So this my friends is a classic.

"Though I know you're already immune to every decision I'll make. Both the good ones and the ones that'll turn out to be mistakes."

Leap Years, a fantastic album.

The Little Hands of Asphalt - The Future

2009: The Round Up

#5. Phosphorescent - To Willie
(Dead Oceans, 2009)

I've written about this album before, but it surely is good enough to be written about again. And again, and again. To Willie is Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent's tribute to the one and only Willie Nelson. Houck picked out his Willie favourites and recorded this gem with a full band in late 2008. The result is an outstanding record that never really feels like a covers album. The way Houck sings this songs they really sounds like they were his own.

The cover art and album title is a wink to Willie Nelson's own album To Lefty From Willie, which was Nelson's own tribute to the great Lefty Frizzell.

Read more about Phosphorescent's To Willie here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2009: The Round Up

#6. Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move Or I'm Gone
(Atlantic, 2009)

Two artists you wouldn't necessarily think of together. Farrar coming from the americana world of Uncle Tupelo and later Son Volt. Benjamin Gibbard from the indierock of Death Cab For Cutie. Still the two found common ground in their love and/or fascination for the poet Jack Kerouac. What was supposed to be a couple of songs for a documentary suddenly became a full album. The main songwriter behind the project is Farrar although it is Gibbard who takes the lead as the singer for the most songs. Gibbard even took it as far as living in the cabin in Big Sur where Kerouac wrote the book by the same name. The first fruits of the labour came on Death Cab For Cutie's latest album Narrow Stairs where the opening cut "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is about Gibbard's time at the cabin.

For me, a big fan of Death Cab For Cutie and all things country-ish, this album is a dream Just think of that great soothing voice of Gibbard in a veil of pedal steel and acoustic guitars. The most of this album is stunningly beautiful. Although I like Jay Farrar and his songwriting for both Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt the real gem for me here is to hear his songs sung by somebody else. In my opinion that takes his songs up to another level. It's not that I don't like his voice it's just something that I can't quite explain. So my favourites on this album is mostly the songs sung by Gibbard with the exception of for example "Sea Engines" where Gibbard's high harmonies and the pedal steel almost melt into each other.

Lyrically the album is based on texts by Kerouac from the novel Big Sur. They have in some places been just the inspiration, other places they are just reinterperated and other places again you get direct quotes.

This probably was a once in a lifetime collaboration and maybe the album will be better for it. Because this really works on every level, both as an album and as a soundtrack for the film. Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard is a great duo. Maybe we will see more collaborations in the future, but if we don't I will continue to be a very happy guy with this album.

2009: The Round Up

#7. Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More
(Gentlemen of the road/Coop, 2009)

These folkrockers formed a band for just two years ago in London. They have sprung out of the same folkscene as Noah & the Whale, Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling. The band started out as Laura Marling's backingband both live and in studio. Sigh No More is a pretty impressive debut. Rooted in more the american folk tradition than the british, at least to my ears it sounds that way. You can clearly hear the bluegrass influences on the album, but still I would say that the band are more a folkrock band than a country band.

Sigh No More was released in October and a February release is been set for the United States. I think I first heard this album in late November and wasn't that impressed at first, but this really is a grower. Soon you'll find yourself humming the stunning melodies. Maybe you'll be singing a long to the lyrics as well, good as they are.

"As the winter winds litter London with
lonely hearts
The warmth in your eyes swept me into
your arms
Was it love or fear of the cold that led us
through the night?
For every kiss your beauty trumped my

As you can see, the lyrics mostly focuses around matters of the heart, but isn't that sort of the point with what we call popular music and pop-culture. In this song, "Winter Winds" the heart has the last word.

"And my head told my heart
Let love grow
But my heart told my head
This time no, this time no"

The only real negative thing I could say about this album is that the songs maybe are a little to similiar to each other. You have a slow build up and a big crescendo towards the end. Compared to The Avett Brothers, another band in the same genre and kinda similiar in sound, Mumford & Sons perhaps have a little way to go in terms of writing more diverse songs. That said, you really shouldn't worry about that - because the songs Mumford & Sons do write are very good. The very best and my favourite being "Dust Bowl Dance".

Mumford & Sons - "Thistle & Weeds" and "Dust Bowl Dance"
live at Rough Trade East, London - 2008.

Monday, January 11, 2010

2009: The Round Up

#8. Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
(Jagjaguwar, 2009)

Spencer Krug may very well be sneaking his way up to the top of my favourite songwriters. In 2008's round up the second album of Krug's main band Wolf Parade snatched a fourth place and this year his other band Sunset Rubdown is home safe in the round up's top ten. The main difference in the two bands is that Sunset Rubdown is more of a kind of art-rock almost prog-ish band. Both in melodies and lyrically.

Don't be alarmed by songs about dragonslayers and other elements that would be out of place in most of today's indierock bands. Both music and lyrics are inspired to a certain degree of fantasy as a genre. The music definitely has elements of progressive rock. Not that it is what we now call prog-rock and frown upon, but in the true sense of the term. Songs that changes tempo and are made up of several different parts.

Songs like "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh" and "Dragon's Lair" goes through different styles and they tell a whole story. Still they both builds up to big fantastic climaxes that you just have to love.

Sunset Rubdown may just have started as a sideproject for Spencer Krug but has slowly but certainly grown into a band of its own. I still like Wolf Parade a little bit better but if this bunch comes up with songs like "Idiot Heart" and albums like this it may change the whole thing.

2009: The Round Up

#9. The Black Crowes - Before the Frost... Until the Freeze
(Silver Arrow Records, 2009)

This album has been issued as a single album on cd, with a download code to a bonus album, and as a double album on vinyl. My review or more exact, the one I have had in concideration for this round up is the double vinyl version. The single cd is called Before the Frost... and as a whole double album it is called Before the Frost... Until the Freeze. Well, there we have that little issue out of the way. Onwards, to the music.

The brothers Robinson took their band and went of to visit good ol' Levon Helm up in his studio-home in Woodstock, NY. The thing they did was that they had a bunch of new songs, some finished, others just started and they played them for a live audience in Levon Helm's studio. So this album is a kind of live in the studio album. It may sound like a hassle but for the Black Crowes I believe it was just what they needed. Although they have made many a good album in their time I have always looked upon them as a better live band. Sort of like the Grateful Dead in a way. That they really come up with their a-game when there are an audience in place.

The Before the Frost... part of the album consists of the more typical Black Crowes songs. The barroom rocker "Good Morning Captain" and the great americana-like "Appaloosa". Still the feeling is that the Black Crowes are coming more into their own now, they embrace the more rootsy songs in a away they only sort of has done earlier. And that's what the ..Until the Freeze part of the album really shows off, with more acoustic songs. Some even straight forward country songs.

That said, I really think you should get the vinyl copy of this album On the vinyl the two albums are mixed together instead of being two entities of their own.

Standout tracks for me are the already mentioned "Appaloosa", the CSN-ish Rich Robinson sung "What is Home?", "A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound" and "And the Band Played On".

The fantastic pedal-steel on several tracks are courtesy of the great Larry Campbell who has been playing with Bob Dylan the later years.

Did I mention that Chris Robinson sounds as good as ever and still is the coolest guy on the planet.

2009: The Round Up

#10. Vetiver - Tight Knit
(Sub Pop, 2009)

Andy Cabic's Vetiver has been one of my favourite bands for some years now and this album may very well be their best. Following the cratediggers paradise covers record Thing of the Past, Tight Knit is the strongest collection of songs this bunch has come up with to this date. It could be that this is the first Vetiver release were Vetiver really has been a band. Maybe they just are a bit tighter knit together this time.

Tight Knit is a kind of early evening or early morning for me. You can put it on and just sit around doing nothing. The album has a reflectionistic, (is that even a word), feel to it. I sort of picture my self sitting on a front porch somewhere listening to songs like "Rolling Sea" and "Through The Front Door" just watching either the sunrise or the sunset. Just letting life be life and taking a break from it all.

Vetiver has always had this kind of laid back approach to music and it sooths me just fine. The music are laid back with rays of the sun just shining through every strum on the acoustic guitars. On "Down From Above" you hear that Andy Cabic and Devendra Banhart never stray that far from each other in the way they make this soundscape songs. The kind of songs that you just have to really listen to or they will just disappear.

A big favourite of mine on this record is the dangerously catchy "More of This" with it's "Motown/Lust For Life" rhythm and feel good melody. A song that should have been a big indiehit. My feel good hit of the summer at least.

"Another Reason To Go" is also a somewhat surprise on this album, a funky little ditty with both clavinets and a horn section. I was a bit skeptical to it at first but it has really grown on me.

"Strictly Rule" is another great song, with The Fruit Bats' Eric Johnson guesting on keyboards.

2009: The Round Up

#11. Richmond Fontaine - We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River
(Decor/El Cortez, 2009)

Hands down, the best album title of the year. One of the best ever, even. The album also has a under title too, 14 songs written around and about the Pacific Northwest. That, though ain't something new coming from this band. The last album, Thirteen Cities, were written in well yes, thirteen different cities and places around the western United States. Now it seems the band and songwriter/novelist Willy Vlautin is back in Portland, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Do that make them sound any different?

Well, both yes and no. Thirteen Cities were made with some help from the guys in Calexico, so that album had some desert twang and Mexican mariachi to it. Those things are a bit toned down in this one and the sound is more similar to the one the band had on their masterpiece Post to Wire. That said, the most important thing with Richmond Fontaine has always been and probably always will be Willy Vlautin's lyrics. Vlautin also has written a couple of novels and that is fitting, because his lyrics are short stories that would stand their ground even without the music. So the lyrics doesn't necessarily need the music, but the music make the lyrics even better.

"And the over pass where the endless miles of cars would pass, it hummed night and day and night and day. We used to think the freeway sounded like a river, but all that slipped away that day."

"You Can Move Back Here" may be one of the best songs the band has ever written. With its catchy melody and the chorus that tells the person that the song is written to that even how bad things get that you can always move back here and that you will always at least have the Western sky.

All the songs here are stories of their own, stories that has to be told and stories that should be heard. The song "Maybe We Were Both Born Blue" with its line "..You were bleeding when I first saw you. I didn't tell anyone but I could tell you were falling apart.." or maybe "Two Alone" with the lines "..She's got religious candles burning on the sill. And my records are sitting in boxes still. My head's pounding and I have an hour 'til the old men give me shit 'cause I don't like sports and I never will..".

Musically my favourites on the album are "Maybe We Were Both Born Blue" with its haunting pedal-steel melody, "You Can Move Back Here", "Lonnie", which almost could have been a Hold Steady song and the instrumental "Walking Back To Our Place At 3 A.M."

Although I liked both the sparse The Fitzgerald and the more catchy Thirteen Cities this album is my favourite Richmond Fontaine album since Post to Wire. Better than they were on that one they probably never will be but still. Amazing band and outstanding lyrics.

Richmond Fontaine - Lonnie (Live at the Academy 3, Manchester, UK, 16/09/09)

2009: The Round Up

#12. Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band
(Sub Pop, 2009)

This is a band that I had no knowledge of before this release. I can't really remember what made it stick out of the list of new releases. It could have been a review I had read somewhere or just the simple fact that it was released on Sub Pop. Sub Pop is a label I am a big fan of, both era's I might mention. Back to the band at stake. The Fruit Bats is a vehicle for songwriter and singer Eric D. Johnson who has been a hired hand for fellow Sub Pop'ers The Shins on some of their tours. You can hear some of The Shins in the band. To explain their sound I guess they could be a mash up between The Shins and Vetiver.

I do get some of the same feel of this album as I do when I listen to Vetiver, but The Fruit Bats are less laid back and have more of the 70's AOR/MOR to them. Remember, I say this with love. I know some are real sceptical to the MOR/AOR tag, but for me that only means good melodies and ear-friendly music. The Ruminant Band is without a doubt a album I would pack before a road trip to wherever, but it is perhaps tailor-made for driving down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Just think about it, the wind wind in your hair and the Fleetwood Mac meets the Allman Brothers "Ramblin' Man"-ish duellin' guitars on "The Ruminant Band" and the following "Tegucigalpa". Nothing short of perfection.

It's fitting that this band now resides in San Francisco, though their sound may be more of the early seventies Laurel Canyon. I, for one, would love to wake up to the sound of the "Beautiful Morning Light" and look out over the sundazed fog of Los Angeles.

Other favourites on the album are "Being On Our Own" and the closer "Flamingo". Well, really the whole album is a favourite.

"The last thing I'll do before I call it quits
Is probably dream a little bit
But nothing too hard on my sweet fadin' mind
'cause everything is gonna be just fine.."

2009: The Round Up

#13. Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
(Rough Trade, 2009)

Lucky number 13. The merry gentlemen in Monsters of Folk, M.Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Yim Yames aka Jim James, got the lucky thirteen spot in my 2009 round up. The quartet's debut album is a good debut but almost never better than these artists are on their own. At least until you really get this album under your skin. Because the members of this group are known from other bands and releases you really get your hopes up. That this album is going to be some life changing masterpiece. That it isn't, but it is more than decent.

First single and second song on the album, "Say Please", sets the standard and tells us what we can expect from this group. For me they are kind of a 2000's indie-scene version of the late great Travellin' Willbury's. Some other reviewers have mentioned CSNY but I feel the Willbury's are a more accurate band to mention. Both "Say Please" and the following "Whole Lotta Losin'" are examples of this. The vocalists, Oberst, Ward and James trade of verses and back each other on the choruses. Another thing that seems to be like the Willbury's is the fact that you can hear that these guys had a really good time recording this.

The standout tracks on this album comes from Jim James and Conor Oberst in my opinion. Especially James seems on a roll these days with a lot of songs in different genres that all hold a really high standard. His best on this album are the kind of down-home porch sing-a-longs "The Right Place" and "Magic Marker" and the rocking "Losin' Yo Head". The latter is the only song on the album where the band really lets off some steam and really just rock out.

My favourite Oberst songs on the album are also my favourites on the album as a whole. "Map of the World" is Oberst at his best with great lyrics and an outstanding performance. My other favourite are "Ahead of the Curve" which is a song that has some of the same feel as his 2005 Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. The song also has one of the best lines on the album.

"..I had shoes to fill
Walking barefoot now.."

I think that line says a lot about where he is in life, at least musically. He's just taking his time and doing things the way he sees fit.