J Mascis - Several Shades of Why (Sub Pop)
Two of grunge’s elite frontmen released solo acoustic records this year — Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore with Demolished Thoughts and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis with Several Shades of Why. While both albums proved captivating deviations from both artists’ usual repertoires, Mascis’ album is undoubtedly the better of the two. Hauntingly stark and expertly crafted, Several Shades would certainly take the top spot in my album rankings (if I were to do such a thing).
Mascis’ signature sludge makes the occasional appearance on Several Shades — most notably on the exquisite ”Is it Done?” — but despite the noise, these accents manage to compliment the album’s contemplative, reserved nature. Occasional flute and string lines appear alongside Mascis’ guitar arrangements (“Several Shades of Why,” “Make It Right”); live, Mascis performs tracks off Several Shades armed with only a handful of pedals to recreate the album’s sound.
The characteristic nasal drawl of Mascis’ voice lends a palpable honesty to the album’s tracks — meandering reflections on family life, love and moving beyond past transgressions. It’s a far cry from the angst of Dinosaur Jr, but Mascis makes it work; here’s hoping there’s another J Mascis solo LP on the horizon.
FIDLAR - DIYDUI EP (White Iris)
I’ve sung the praises of Los Angeles-based punk outfit FIDLAR from the moment a friend passed along a link to the band’s debut EP earlier this year. Delightfully raucous with hints of post-teenage crassness, DIYDUI proves that LA’s underground punk scene is not dead — it’s just been incubating in suburban garages and underage circles, much like the hardcore movement of yore.
Mosh pit inducing party anthems like “Wake Bake Skate” and “Max Can’t Surf” possess the same tongue-in-cheek humor and imagery as Black Flag’s “TV Party”; it’s an apt connection for a band that lists “El Pollo Loco” and “Cheap Beer” as its interests online. The instrumentation begs a serious look, too, as FIDLAR skillfully blends surfy drums and sing-along hooks with raging, sludgey guitar riffs.
A touch of “angry young male” ennui peppers FIDLAR’s tracks just as much as references to marijuana and skateboarding — but the band’s California boredom feels less like a marketing ploy and more like an authentic manifestation of FIDLAR’s observations on Southland living. If you want to know what living as a 20-something in Los Angeles feels like, look no further than DIYDUI.
Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High EP (Sub Pop)
At four songs long, He Gets Me High seemed a bit of an over-indulgent move for Sub Pop’s Dum Dum Girls; how much could a group’s sound morph just a year after releasing a solid debut LP?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Abandoning lo-fi noisy recordings for a refined, sophisticated “wall of sound” aesthetic, High marks a significant shift in the DDG lexicon. The catchy hooks and gritty vibes remain — but the songs feature more complex arrangements and Dee Dee’s voice displays a rich, haunting clarity unheard on previous DDG releases.
The high point of the EP? An amazingly on-point rendition of the Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” Normally, a Smiths cover would appear a pretentious add-on to any band’s repertoire — “Look how much we know about music!”. However, the dramatically maudlin nature of “There is a Light” both enhances and compliments Dee Dee’s emotional explorations on High; it hardly seems an out of place inclusion.
He Gets Me High wasn’t Dum Dum Girls’ only 2011 release; their sophomore LP Only in Dreams hit shelves in late September. Unfortunately, the album suffers from an over-indulgence of emotion, too often straying into explicitly autobiographical territory that does little to service the refined, pointed studio sound that made High so captivating. Had the band stayed on the same lyrical trajectory as the EP, perhaps Only in Dreams would have made my list as well.
The Babies - S/T (Shrimper)
Full disclosure: The cassette label I run released The Babies Live at the Smell in October 2011, but that has no bearing on my opinions of this release. Moving on.
While many of the songs on the Babies’ full-length debut LP were previously released as 7” singles (“Meet Me in the City,” “All Things Come to Pass”), experiencing the Brooklyn-based band’s creative output as a collective whole revealed an aesthetic strength and continuity unseen in many contemporary garage pop ensembles.
Fronted by Cassie Ramone (Vivian Girls) and Kevin Morby (Woods), the band’s brand of ramshackle pop carries subtle tones of mid-century Americana fused with the gritty stylings of the duo’s other musical endeavors. Ramone and Morby tend to split singing duties — but when the two join together for a vocal pas de deux on tracks such as “Breakin’ the Law,” the result is an endearing one that services the Babies’ sound without appearing cutesy or forced.
Among the Babies’ best tracks: Jangly album closer “Caroline” builds slowly before exploding into an anthemic singalong chorus; the punk-tinged, distortion-driven “Personality” blazes by in just over a minute’s time.
THE LAMESTREAM’S FAVORITE RELEASES OF 2011
For someone who supposedly “cares a lot about music related things,” I am slightly ashamed to admit I did not do a whole lot of “new music” listening in 2011. A large part of this does revolve around the fact that 2011 was an extremely busy, roller coaster year; forcing myself to explore music that had no immediate emotional relevance to my life never seemed to be an appropriate response to combat the myriad ups and downs the now-finished year brought me. 2011 was my year of musical regression — playing musical connect-the-dots with genres and bands that most critics cite, but rarely discuss out of academic contexts.
The other answer (the lazy one) involves a general lack of excitement for much of 2011’s musical output. Call it elitist, contrarian, ignorant — but no matter how many rave reviews a buzzworthy album received, I found much of the music writing world’s favorite 2011 releases to be uninspired and largely boring. (See: Bon Iver, M83, tUnE-yArDs et al.) Long story short: I hated mostly everything you probably loved in 2011. For this, I apologize in advance.
But let’s be real here — there were a handful of 2011 releases I absolutely adored. Some people (blogs, writers) share my sentiments on these handful of albums, EPs and singles; others ignored most of these when “end of the year list time” came around. This is where I give these works that little moment in the spotlight — in alphabetical order, because I hate ranking things.
Will be rolling these out over the course of the week.
- Video Games
Born to Die
Live blogging the P4K Top 20 “Songs of 2011”: Part 19
Del Rey, as we have since discovered, is the empty shell of a young woman once known as “Lizzy Grant.” Now, lips plumped with more collagen than you’d find on an episode of Real Housewives of Orange County, she is Interscope’s poseable nymphet — flooding the blogosphere with a series tracks bent on invading the wet dreams of 20-something males across America.
There’s little to appreciate here artistically with “Video Games” — unless, that is, you want to classify the song’s mish-mashed video filled with washed out clips of hipster-approved imagery as “art.”
Rather, “Video Games” is nothing more than Del Rey’s half-hearted attempt at fusing the unsettling orchestral grandeur of Joanna Newsom with the overly maudlin, nasally vocalizations of your high school’s resident musical theatre geek. Del Rey flirtatiously pouts her way through the track — something countless male critics have sophomorically interpreted as “palpable sex appeal,” but instead is nothing more than predictable, prefabricated major label constructs of “the male ideal.” There’s no hook, no radical deviation from established genre conventions, no demonstrated existence of earth-shattering talent — just a bland, forgettable track that bloggers latched onto because it was wrapped in conventionally attractive packaging. Here’s to hoping in 2012 we’ll all be scratching our heads saying, “Lana Del Who?”
- Glass Jar
Live blogging the P4K Top 20 “Songs of 2011”: Part 20
Oh, that’s right! Gang Gang Dance released a new album this year. (Everyone will soon find out that I, somewhat purposefully, did not listen to a majority of the buzzworthy albums of 2011. Comments and insults will be accepted; I am quite aware of how terrible this revelation makes me.)
All that aside — this Kraftwerkian 11 minute superjam has all the makings of everything I loved in 2008: Flittering, icy loops; indeterminate vocals bathed in layers of delay and reverb; cheesy steel drum patches likely swiped from a vintage MIDI bank. And while the song’s aesthetic qualities are indicative of a delightfully refined shift in GGD’s sonic explorations, it’s exactly these “nostalgic” undertones that push me away from fully enjoying “Glass Jar”; tastes change, and mine have changed so drastically within the past five years or so that it’s really no wonder why I had not heard any of GGD’s new material until now.
Although my semi-autistic, minimal electronic jam days are behind me, this is not to say I find “Glass Jar” unlistenable. GGD uses the track’s daunting running time to their advantage, endlessly building upon layers of intricate melodies before exploding into a kaleidoscopic whirl of carefully constructed cacophony. It’s the lost soundtrack to a bootleg Sega Genesis cartridge — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.