Monday, February 20, 2012

2011 - A year in review.

# 4. Bright Eyes - The People's Key
(Saddle Creek, February 15th 2011)

The People's Key, Bright Eyes first record since 2007, was rumoured to be the last record to be released by the group led by Conor Oberst. If it was, has still to be seen, but it's one of the Bright Eyes albums that feels most like one recorded by the band Bright Eyes and not a solo recording by Conor Oberst. Musically it should be seen as a follow up to the album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005) because of its more electronic rather than americana sound.

Like all Bright Eyes albums this one also starts off with a soundcollage, or rather a spoken-word intro. The reason behind these album openers has always been to scare away the casual listener, at least that's what the band has told the media over the years.

The first single "The Shell Games" has lyrics that can be interpreted as a song about the Bright Eyes carreer.

"I was dressed in white, touched by something pure
Death obsessed like a teenager
Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar
I'm still angry with no reason to be."

The album also contains a couple of the most catchy pop songs that Conor Oberst has ever written. The already mentioned "The Shell Games", "Jejune Stars" and "Tripple Spiral". Those three are the first songs that hook you, but songs like "A Machine Spiritual (The People's Key)" and "The Ladder Song" wouldn't have been out of place on a album like Lifted.

The People's Key was one of the albums I played the most throughout 2011, and the concert I saw with them in Stockholm right after the release was without a doubt one of the best concerts I saw the whole year - probably also the best of all the Bright Eyes shows I've been to. So if this is to be the last Bright Eyes album they will at least leave us on a high.

A stunning album.

Bright Eyes - Jejune Stars (official video)

2011 - A year in review.

# 5. Wilco - The Whole Love
(dBpm, September 27th 2011)

The Whole Love is Wilco's eight album, and the third with the current line-up of the band. A line-up I for one think are the best rendition of the group. This album is a natural follow up to the mellow Sky Blue Sky and the more catchy Wilco (the album). That said, The Whole Love is somewhat a return to some of the more experimental nature of the band. Especially album opener, and contender for best song of 2011, "Art of Almost" are very un-Wilco-esque but at the same time the very essence of the band. It starts of with some noise and a mechanic groove reminescent of Radiohead before it changes near the middle of the song and builds into this epic groovy guitar jam.

For the most part, The Whole Love, is a quite mellow affair driven forward by truly amazing basslines by John Stirratt and great production details and layers of sombre guitar melodies. In my mind the album is probably the best produced album of the year, it sounds so good.

The Whole Love is filled with brilliant songs that doesn't jump out at you but rather slowly gets under your skin instead. The first couple of times you listen to the album you'll probably just remember "Art of Almost", "I Might" and the epic album closer "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)", but it's all these mellow songs in between that makes the album great. Let them grow and become the classic pop melodies that they are.

Wilco - Born Alone (official video)

2011 - A year in review.

# 6. Old Californio - Sundrunk Angels
(Californio Records, July 19th 2011)

Sundrunk Angels is the third release by the Californian band Old Californio. Probably unknown for most, and for me as well before this album. A fellow blogger on When You Awake gave me a tip and I have been in awe of this band ever since. There still are some gold in them California hills and songwriter Rich Dembowski certainly has found some.

Think Moby Grape around 1969, American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, some vintage Neil Young and a healthy dose of Dillard & Clark and you get an idea of what Old Californio sound like. The songs are outstanding and the band does rocking tunes just as good as the ballads. This is classic west coast country rock.

One of my favourites on the album "Come Tomorrow" also reminds me of some other favourites of mine that also comes from Los Angeles, the outstanding Beachwood Sparks. It's the perfect blend of classic country rock and psychedelia.

It's hard to pick favourites on the album though, all the songs are killer. Along with "Come Tomorrow" I would certainly pick "Just a Matter of Time", "Allon Camerado" and "Sundrunk Angels", but do yourself a favour - buy the album and listen again and again.

The best new discovery of the year.

Old Californio - Better Yet (official video)

2011 - A year in review.

# 7. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
(Sub Pop, May 3rd 2011)

Helplessness Blues is the follow up to the amazing selftitled debut from 2008. Here we could talk about the difficult second album, but it seems like Fleet Foxes and main songwriter Robin Pecknold didn't want any of that, so they just made another amazing album. This album is a tad bit darker and moodier than the debut, but as an album it's all the better for it. It may not have any "hit-singles", but a band like Fleet Foxes doesn't need hit-singles anyway. This is a classic record. Rooted in late sixties folk and baroque pop and at the same time sounding very now-ish.

Stunning harmonies and brilliant instrumentation throughout the album. From the CSN-harmonies at the end of "Bedouin Dress" to the chamber pop of "Battery Kinzie" and the epic "The Shrine/An Argument" concluding in a free-jazz solo. 

There is a lot of moments on this album that sends my thoughts back to a lot of my favourite albums from the late sixties and early seventies. I've already mentioned CSN, others that come to mind are the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Just like the last album by Midlake, Fleet Foxes takes these inspirations and make them their own. When you hear these songs it can't be anyone but Fleet Foxes. They already have that distinct sound.

I also have to mention the fantastic cover-art. This is a full package, you almost know how the record is going to sound just by looking at the cover.

Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean (official video)

2011 - A year in review.

# 8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest
(Lightning Rod Records, April 12th 2011)

Here We Rest is Jason Isbell's third soloalbum and his second with his backing band The 400 Unit, and it's probably his best yet. Mr. Isbell was my favourite among the magnificent songwriters in Drive-By Truckers, quite a feat, and he has continued to write these amazing songs since he parted ways with the Truckers some years ago now. Just take the song opening this album, "Alabama Pines", an achingly beautiful song about a guy who has lost his way and are dreaming about those Alabama pines of home. A classic Isbell tune. This album is full of those, songs that just feels like they've always been there.

"If there's one thing I can't take
it's the sound that a woman makes
about five seconds after her heart begins to break.
That's the one thing I can't take."

"Codeine" probably is the standout track on the album, a slow but almost swinging country song with great fiddle and outstanding lyrics. Well, the lyrics are great all around with this guy.

Here We Rest isn't all ballads and sad songs, you get the great swinging - kind of classic New Orleans track "Never Could Believe" and brilliant southern soul on "Heart on a String". The album is after all recorded at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and Isbell is a Muscle Shoals native.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit has made a great album of classic american music.

You should definitely buy this album on vinyl, then you get a seven inch with another Isbell original and the band's great take on the Guided-By Voices' "Everywhere with Helicopter".

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Alabama Pines (official video)