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Spoon

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Joel's Favorite Records of 2014

Happy new year, everyone! With less than two hours left in 2014, here are my favorite records of 2014:

Jo Johnson — Weaving :: Lately it's been rather unusual for me to find a favorite album by an artist I've never heard of solely on the basis of a review. However I have to credit my discovery of Weaving to a writeup by Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne—whose comparisons to the likes of Klaus Schulze, William Basinski, and Selected Ambient Works II had me rushing to the iTunes store. The parallels made by Sherburne are well-suited: Johnson's subtle compositions made from synth arpeggios and looped drones are very much in line with early '70s synthesizer music, however her use of studio manipulation and digital effects help prevent Weaving's five songs from being a simple nod to the past.

Damon Albarn — Everyday Robots :: Fans of Blur tend to point toward Parklife, an album made more than 20 years ago, as a kind of early pinnacle and slow fade of Albarn's career. I think that's an unfortunate read on his back-catalog—partly because I think he's made more interesting if not better records than that one—but also because the progression of his career looks more to me like a sine wave than a mountain, marked by several peaks and troughs from one decade to the next.

Everyday Robots, the latest high point in Albarn's discography and his first solo LP in 25 years, manages expand upon the best things about Blur's last record, Think Tank, an album loved by seemingly no one but myself. What I appreciate here is that he's taken all of the melancholy from his first band's final recordings and stripped out the unnecessary dance club embellishments. What's left are twelve simple, artful tracks of longing and loss, all emotion laid bare with nowhere to hide.

Eno & Hyde — Someday World :: In spite of the attention piled upon the other excellent Eno & Hyde collaboration of 2014, I actually prefer Someday World as the better of the two releases. The excellent hooks and off-kilter arrangements remind me a little bit of Eno's early-'90s collaboration with John Cale, which might point to the only thing working against Someday World: it does sound a little bit dated. And yet, it also contains some of the best melodies put to record this year, including one from a favorite song of 2014,"Daddy's Car."

Godflesh — A World Lit Only By Fire :: When I was sixteen I spent almost an entire winter listening to nothing but Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Swans, so my excitement over the existence of A World Lit Only By Fire is tinted with more than a little bit of nostalgia. Godflesh's decade plus of inactivity seems to have diminished little of their viciousness; in fact, this might be their toughest-sounding record since 1991's Slavestate EP, if not their debut (which is probably the most similar-sounding record in their catalog).

Plaid — Reachy Prints :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) Of all the great albums that Warp Records released this year (including Aphex Twin's excellent Syro and Clark's self-titled LP), this one might be my favorite. This record sounds weirder and more melodic than past efforts, and also feels like the most human record they're ever made.

Aphex Twin — Syro :: I can't imagine there being a fan of '90s electronic music who wasn't absolutely floored by the out-of-nowhere release of Syro. Personally, his 1994 landmark Selected Ambient Works II is about as important of an album as I can imagine, and given the fact that Richard D. James seemed to have retired the Aphex Twin moniker for good made Syro's quick announcement and subsequent release all the more shocking.

What we're left with after picking our jaws up off the floor is one of the most focused albums of RDJ's career. James seems to bargaining on the notion that playing to expectations without pushing the envelope too hard is the safest way to make a comeback, and to that end Syro's straightforward beats can play a bit like Aphex-by-numbers. But this solid collection of techno tracks, which emphasizes melody in a way that's jazzier and proggier than almost anything he's done before, still feels like a new variation on his core body of work.

Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 :: For the second year in a row, Killer Mike and El-P craft an absolute stunner. RTJ2 manages to tread the line between peculiarity and accessibility to a wonderful effect, tinting the boom-bap of early '80s hip hop with hints of oddball sci-fi, electroclash, and '90s techno; the result is one of the most thoughtful, funny, and strange hip hop albums I've heard in ages.

Beck — Morning Phase :: It's unfortunate that so much that's been written about Morning Phase has to do with its parallels with 2002's Sea Change, not because the similarity isn't accurate, but because it set up unreasonable expectations for Hansen's latest album to deliver upon. The bad news here is that it doesn't and probably couldn't live up to Sea Change's near-perfect balance of melancholy orchestral folk and retro-future studio trickery. However, I've still managed to listen to Morning Phase more than just about anything else I bought in 2014, and have found its simple melodies strangely captivating and surprisingly comforting.

To Rococo Rot — Instrument :: One of my all-time favorite groups, TRR sadly just announced their split after a near 20-year run. Though I'm disappointed that I'll no longer be hearing records from these guys, I'm glad that Instrument saw the light of day. It's one of their most distinctive records in that it's the first to prominently feature vocals (from the legendary no-wave guitarist and songwriter Arto Lindsay); it also feels a lot more natural, making greater use of live drums than on their last few.

I sort of feel like To Rococo Rot fell under a lot of people's radar in the U.S., which is a shame—their hybrid take on post-rock and techno would surely appeal to anyone who loves Tortoise, or Battles, or The Notwist—but at least we got 8 excellent records out of them before they called it quits.

Golden Retriever — Seer :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I spent about two weeks listening to nothing but this album back in April, a duo whose strange combination of saxophone and analog synthesizer bring to mind Terry Riley, John Zorn and early Kraftwerk. Though the melodies on this record are excellent, however it's the long, drawn out moments of abstraction that I find most breathtaking.

St Vincent – St Vincent :: With her fourth, self-titled release, Annie Clark makes her most accessible record yet, dialing up the hooks and pairing back the more progressive moments of her first three recordings. There's something to be missed of St. Vincent's move away from the sideways orchestral pop of Actor (perhaps my favorite album of the last decade). But Clark's wonderfully bizarre guitar work on her fourth album—which simultaneously conjures the avant-jazz abstractions of Marc Ribot and the trebly, razor-sharp post-punk of Big Black—is a welcome twist for a batch of such tuneful songs.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I think it's safe for me to say that Wild Beasts are probably my favorite band of the last 5 years, and their latest doesn't disappoint. Here they've streamlined the melodies even further from 2011's Smother, making for an album that's more ominous than somber. And as much as I love Hayden Thorpe's theatrical croon, drummer Chris Talbot is their secret weapon; it takes a lot of guts to play drums as minimally as he does, and I think his restraint is a big part of why this album is so spectacular.

 

Here are some other records I enjoyed:
Xiu Xiu - Angel Guts, Red Classroom
Clark - Clark
The Notwist - Close To The Glass
Sisyphus - Sisyphus
Warpaint - Warpaint
The Antlers - Familiars
Fujiya & Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners
Fennesz - Becs
Spoon - They Want My Soul
TV On The Radio - Seeds
Thee Oh Sees - Drop
 

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Map Ref 01: False Start

Hey Friends:

As mentioned in my last blog post, I'm going to be spending some time in the next few weeks working through a song-by-song breakdown of Geography, referencing favorite songs that influenced the making of the record. Personally, I love when artists talk process—discussing the origins of a lyric, or what he or she may have been listening to at the time of a track's conception—so I thought it might be fun to write about about how my record came to be. And since Geography's aesthetic theme is rooted in maps, I'm naming this post series accordingly with a not-so-subtle nod to my favorite Wire song. Here we go!

"False Start," the opening track to Geography, is one of the oldest songs from the record, demoed back in 2011 when I was working on our Resolution EP; in fact, I believe that the first two songs I wrote were the opening and closing tracks ("State of the Union" dates back to 2008), and I knew early on that "False Start" and "State" would start and end the record's sequence.

That heartbeat bass pulse, which underpins the entire track, is a straight-up pull from Spoon's "Small Stakes." I've long thought that this is one of the best album openers of all time—gripping and emotive despite the spareness of its design. Spoon's bluesy moments don't really resonate with me as a songwriter, however their commitment to making strange production choices have provided a lot of inspiration to me over the last ten years.

Earlier demos maintained that "Small Stakes" minimalism throughout, featuring only vocals, bass pulse, and some synthesizer run through a timed delay, however once I knew what the theme of the record was going to be about, I realized that some additional melody might be needed. That's where the piano came in. As a side note: all but two songs from Geography contain piano—an instrument which was featured only sparingly in earlier City States songs—and my use of it throughout the LP really did help bring out the emotion I wanted to convey.

But back to "False Start:" that persistent 8th note piano phrasing, running in parallel with the bass pulse, is borrowed from LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," which, in my opinion, may be the finest song written in the last 15 years. This isn't the first time I've tried to mimic James Murphy's crowning achievement: on Resolution I attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a similar move with the EP's closer, "Reverse Slow Motion." Could one suggest that the former song naturally flows into the latter? Perhaps. I do think that "False Start" is more successful.

About two weeks before going in for mixing at Soma, I knew that the song still needed something more—movement? progression?—and that's when I added the extra drum machines, synth arpeggios, and live drums that slowly fade in throughout the song's second half. During the last 6 months of writing and recording I listened to Stereolab and Tortoise (two bands I've written about before) maybe more than any other groups, and when "Olv 26" popped up in an iTunes playlist one day, I heard a stylistic parallel that made a lot of sense to me. Strangely, those electro-snare inclusions remind me a bit of Hot Chip, but once the live drums and arpeggios fade in, I hear an awful lot of Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Those final edits, for me, make the song, and I'm glad I decided to make some last-minute additions.

Next time, I'll talk Dismemberment Plan, Walkmen, and the death of the universe with "Endless Sunlight." Thanks for reading!

Joel

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The Collector: Part I

This weekend, Michelle and I got rid of my 850-capacity CD shelf, and built a new set of shelves along the wall of our living room. Here’s my collection hanging out on our dining room table.

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Top 50 Songs :: 2008-2013 (So Far)

Inspired by similar lists made by Scott Tennant and Mark Richardson, I thought I’d create my own best of from the last 5.5 years.

I’m actually a bit surprised at myself over how many of these tracks are non-singles; (or maybe I should be surprised that more of these songs weren’t released as stand-alones). A few of these are also concretely linked to specific places and times:

  • The School of Language and Week That Was singles, as well as Sea & Cake’s “Weekend,” were three that I had on repeat right around the time that we started City States—you could call them inspirational.
  • I listened to “Out Go The Lights” in my car about two dozen times during week after my dad died (which I was drawn to because of its overall notions of loss, and because it was a band we both enjoyed together, not because of any darkness=death metaphors that can be extracted from the lyrics).
  • "Holcene" was a song I remember specifically having to turn off at work—I heard it for the first time while contracting at a fantastic studio downtown called GravityTank, and the song’s lonely guitar intro was so affecting that I found myself getting misty-eyed while sitting at my desk.

And perhaps it’s just a current fascination, but “Art of Almost” is the easy winner for me. Full-disclosure: it’s a strong reference point for the opening track on the album I’m making. But in addition to the inspiration I’m taking from it as a musician, I’m also generally fascinated with way that the song seems to occur in movements, the way that instruments seem to bubble up, take command, then eventually drop out over time. Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy the shared language that emerges between the traditional and electronic instruments, as if the divide between the “real” and “synthetic” is arbitrary or imagined (this is a continuing preoccupation for me as both a musician and as a listener). For me, “Almost” feels very rooted in the here and now, yet also otherworldly and strange, like looking at the planet from 100,000 feet.



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Selections are in rough order of ranking (a one-song-per-band rule is mostly followed, save for the arguable Field Music / Week That Was / School of Language overlap):

Wilco - Art of Almost
Portishead - Machine Gun
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!
Eno / Byrne - Strange Overtones
Low - Murderer
Bon Iver - Holcene
Bobby Womack - Please Forgive My Heart
LCD Soundsystem - All I Want
The Week That Was - The Airport Line
Spoon - Out Go The Lights

Meursault - Crank Resolutions
Radiohead - Separator
School of Language - Rockist Part 1
Walkmen - Heaven
Deerhunter - The Missing
St. Vincent - Marrow
Field Music - Precious Plans
The National - Sorrow
Hot Chip - Slush
Antlers - I Don’t Want Love

Serengeti - PMDD
Matthew Dear - Deserter
Wild Beasts - Invisible
Grizzly Bear - Sun In Your Eyes
Dirty Projectors - Impregnable Question
Destroyer - Blue Eyes
Swans - A Piece of the Sky
Santigold - L.E.S. Artistes
Bear In Heaven - Lovesick Teenagers
Björk - Crystalline

No Age - Things I Did When I Was Dead
Kanye West - On Sight
Merzbow & Richard Pinhas - Tokyo Electric Guerilla
Akron / Family - Sometimes I
Tame Impala - Be Above It
PVT - Shiver
Mannequin Men - Flyin’ Blind
Radian - Git Cut Noise
Blur - Under the Westway
Here We Go Magic - How Do I Know

Mountains - Choral
Tune Yards - Bizness
Sea & Cake - Weekend
Magnetic Fields - Too Drunk To Dream
Vampire Weekend - A-Punk
13 & God - Old Age
Coldplay - Chinese Sleep Chant
Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook
Animal Collective - My Girls
James Blake - Limit To Your Love

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To Remember: Part I

Just before moving in with my girlfriend at the end of last month, I put the finishing touches on a song that’s very important to me. “To Remember” is song about my father’s guitar, which is to say that it’s also about my father, and about the relationship that I had with him. I’m not ready to share the song just yet, however since it’s themes are so integral to the work that I’ve been doing, I thought that it might be healthy for me to open up about how and why I wrote it.

Some backstory: about a year ago, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 58. As one might expect, the last 14 months have been fairly confusing and at times really difficult, but as always I relied on music as a way to help me through the rough days. And given the fact that I was already knee-deep into the album I have been making when he died, the writing process very quickly absorbed many of my feelings about his passing. 

What makes my particular method of healing all the more complicated is the fact that music was always the central device that connected me with my father. Admittedly, my relationship with my dad was not exceptionally close, but music drew us together in ways that helped us understand one another. 

***

When I was a teenager, my father gave me his guitar—a cream-colored 1962 Fender Jaguar with a tortoise shell pick guard, which had belonged to my dad since he was 14. As a boy I’d only seen it on the handful of occasions when he took it out from under his bed, its classic look and sound fascinating to my young mind. By the time I was old enough to play it, Kurt Cobain had further extended the model’s mythology by playing right-handed Jaguars upside down (as a lefty, I do the same thing).

At the time, I’m not sure that I could have claimed total ownership over the instrument—my brother and I had effectively acquired it on a semi-permanent loan—however I felt an increasingly strong sense of confidence over the music I made with that guitar. I have a vivid memory of writing one of my first songs with the Jaguar: I must have been fifteen, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom next to a washing machine-shaped amplifier, laboring over a riff that mimicked Jawbox’s “Chinese Fork Tie.” I can still play that melody today. It’s not bad.

After graduating college I was lucky to bring the Jaguar with me to Chicago. Given the fact that I was almost entirely broke, the physical possessions I could call mine were few and far between, save for a rapidly expanding CD collection, and my two guitars. As time passed, I continued to write songs on it—”Negative Space”, an early song by a band I once played in called the Modern Temper, was crafted with the instrument.

Most of my early years were spent at a considerable distance from my father—in hindsight, I think that he might have struggled with how to relate to my sensitive disposition; perhaps he just didn’t have a lot of patience for kids and teenagers—but by the time I had grown into adulthood, things had become easier for the two of us. Our conversations, once awkward, had turned affectionate and cheerful. In our semi regular-yet-brief phone calls, he often told me how proud he was of me—how much he liked the new song I just released to the public, or how cool he thought it was that my music had been played on a radio station he once listened to when he had lived in Chicago. On the rare occasion that he visited, my dad would set up his laptop on my apartment’s coffee table and pick out CDs from my shelf until he had stacks of them waiting to be burned to his computer drive. Ever the classic rock fan, he and I found plenty of common ground in revivalist groups like The Walkmen, The White Stripes, and Spoon.

A couple of years ago, my father asked for his Jaguar back. As his career had lightened up a bit and responsibilities softened, my dad had slowly felt the desire to re-introduce his teenage fascination with the electric guitar into his life. I gladly returned it to him, and in response he continued to provide me with updates on the latest Rolling Stones song he was learning, or how he had finally honed in on the best sounding flat-wound strings.

The last time I was alone with my dad was on the day after Christmas, 2011. I had intended to sneak away for an hour while visiting my parents’ house to work on a song, and about 10 minutes later, my dad had quietly shuffled upstairs to see what I was up to. With a gentle knock at the spare room’s door, he asked if he could listen in. 

Sitting down in a chair adjacent to me, my father lifted his Jaguar off of its stand and placed it in his lap, and asked me to replay the guitar riff I had been rehearsing before he had arrived. I obliged, running through a simple finger-picked phrase made of descending chords while he watched intently. We talked for a while, discussing the Gastr Del Sol and Wilco albums which had influenced my most recent batch of songs, and about how he had always tried, unsuccessfully, to master the finger-picking style I was using. I don’t exactly recall how that encounter had ended, but I remember feeling both surprised and glad that he had joined me in a moment that I expected to be a solitary one.

***

There are plenty of ways to remember people after they’re gone: through the stories we tell, the objects we hold dear to us, through our behaviors, interests, and values. I remember my father most vividly through the songs he used listen to: the family vacations set to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; the blaring, repeated plays of “Money For Nothing” that filled our garage on nights and weekends; hearing John Fogerty’s “Old Man Down The Road” as we drove in my dad’s wood-paneled station wagon through small-town Illinois.

The love of music that my dad helped instill in me is so deeply a part of who I am that I simply can’t imagine what my life would be like without it. And in that sense, the songs that I write—even the ones that aren’t about him—are about him. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the time that we had together than to share with the world the thing that made us closer.

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