31 March 2010

AMG review round-up, volume XVII: the second best of 2009

carrying on down the list...

{#26} Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport [CP concert preview]

Fuck Buttons have a way with paradox, an uncanny aptitude for smoothing over uncomfortable juxtapositions. Just check that improbably cuddly band-name, for instance (or is that just me?) On last year’s majestically visceral Street Horrrsing, the U.K. duo made borderline-abrasive swaths of droning, monotonous electronic noise feel downright warm and cozy, yet also awesomely epic. Their nifty new Tarot Sport replicates that trick and adds a few new ones too, toning down the demonic shrieks and amping up the tribal/triumphal drumming, for maximal adrenalized pummeling hypnotic techno-bliss.

{#28} Fool's Gold: Fool's Gold [+ bio]

In a similar spirit to artists like Extra Golden and NOMO, the music of L.A.'s Fool's Gold is fundamentally rooted in – not merely inspired by – international (and more specifically, African) sounds and styles, even if they essentially emerged within the context of American indie rock (for one thing, three of the band's members overlap with the more straight-ahead indie outfit Foreign Born.) This self-titled debut finds the group – a twelve-strong cohort led by bassist/vocalist Luke Top and lead guitarist Lewis Pesacov, featuring a pair of saxophonists and a full four members devoted to percussion and chant-like auxiliary vocals – delving energetically into eight spicy, polyrhythmic, highly danceable compositions whose emphasis is firmly on groove and riff, as opposed to song per se. Top's curiously resonant, commanding vocals do provide a focal point (he sings primarily in Hebrew, a significant personal distinction for the Israeli-born vocalist, but one which non-Hebrew-speaking listeners will find merely adds another subtle layer to the general ethnic ambiguity at play here), but they are interspersed throughout to give equal weight to the rest of the ensemble, and especially to Pesacov's deliciously nimble fretwork, which is central to the album's idiomatic credibility (cementing, in particular, the buoyant opener/lead single/instant standout "Surprise Hotel.") To some listeners, the stylistic accuracy and pan-ethnic eclecticism of the group's highly informed cross-cultural homages/borrowings (an Ethiopiques-styled number here, a Tuareg blues-informed one there) may come off as somewhat glib and generic, and indeed the album has a bit of the faceless feel of, say, a Putomayo: Africa compilation. But that in itself is, all things considered, an impressive feat for a motley crew of Angelenos; the fact that, far from dry mimicry, Fool's Gold offers up an abundance of joy and soul makes it both a significant statement – further testament to the limitless potential of global musical cross-pollination – and, much more importantly, a hell of a party record.

{#29} Anna Ternheim: Leaving On A Mayday

For her third album -- which would become her second U.S. full-length, following the compilation release Halfway to Fivepoints -- Swedish songbird Anna Ternheim enlisted the assistance of Björn Yttling, best known as one-third of Peter Bjorn and John but increasingly prominent in his own right via production work for Lykke Li, Shout Out Louds, Primal Scream, and others. It was a savvy move -- for one thing, the collaboration netted Ternheim a Swedish Grammy for Album of the Year -- and the results were a modest but significant step away from the accomplished but slightly faceless and overstuffed jazzy lounge-folk of her earlier work, toward an edgier, more distinctly pop direction. While hardly as gritty as Yttling's work on Lykke Li's Youth Novels, or his own band's 2009 album Living Thing, Leaving on a Mayday shares with those records an inventive sparseness -- achieved more through a spacious openness in the sound than a reduction in the number of instruments, per se -- and in particular a relative paucity of guitars in favor of, among other things, surprisingly prominent percussion. That's especially true of the album's first half, where the pulsing, stripped-down grooves are colored by majestically thick string arrangements (penned by Yttling, who also contributed his multi-instrumental talents throughout.) For all its sonic distinctiveness, though, this is still fundamentally a singer/songwriter album -- the arrangements may sometimes be more initially striking than the songs they are designed to serve, but with further listening, they emerge as well-conceived if unconventional complements to a fine slate of lyrical compositions steeped in the autumnal melancholy favored by so many Scandinavians (Ane Brun, Stina Nordenstam, Britta Persson, Sarah Assbring,etc.), with an especial tinge of romantic desperation (Ternheim sometimes seems just as distraught and unsettled by the prospect of an actual romantic connection as she is over the absence of bygone and unattained lovers.) That said, several of Mayday's finest and most striking moments are at least musically upbeat, as with gloriously harmonized choruses of the sweeping opener "What Have I Done" and especially the thundering, Fleetwood Mac-ish "Make It on My Own" (one of two Yttling co-writes, and a key track added to the album for its U.S. release.) The tail-end of the disc finds Ternheim in a folkier vein, with the simply, sweetly strummed "Summer Rain," the tense, fingerpicked "Off the Road," and the foreboding, folkloric dirge "Black Sunday Afternoon" offering a nice reminder of her stylistic breadth.

{#31} Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens: What Have You Done, My Brother? [AMG review]
{#36} El Perro Del Mar: Love Is Not Pop [CP Interview]

{#38} Hynotic Brass Ensemble: bio and Hynotic Brass Ensemble review

"Hypnotic" may be somewhat misleading: the word suggests something lulling and gently soothing, but the music made by this band of brothers is fiery and dynamic, anything but sleepy. While occasionally reminiscent of more established brass band traditions (Balkan, New Orleans), with a hint of soul and a dash of Afro-beat's frenzied intensity, their music is best described as jazzy instrumental funk: compositionally sophisticated, highly contrapuntal, and infused with thorny harmonics undoubtedly picked up from their father -- avant-jazz notable Kelan Phil Cohran -- but always rhythmically direct and unfailingly tight. Anchored by sturdy, simple drum parts and Tycho Cohran's supple, syncopated sousaphone basslines, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble blow dense chord clusters, indelibly soulful unison melodies, and tuneful interlocking counterlines, with only occasional focused soloing and emphasis on accessibility and groove. The album -- their first widely released full-length, which features re-recordings of many selections from their earlier self-released CD-Rs -- is consistently strong though fairly stylistically homogenous, containing mostly upbeat, party-ready tunes with either straight-ahead funk or Afro-inflected grooves, but there are a couple of curve balls in the lush, languorous (and yes, plausibly hypnotic) "Jupiter" and the especially manic, Balkan-esque Moondog cover "Rabbit Hop" (which reappears at the end with the addition of some spacy, wobbly electronic sounds). The only notable flaw in the flow comes toward the end of "Party Started," with some crowd-hyping chants that come off as moronically fratty -- though the group shouldn't necessarily avoid vocals altogether: by contrast, the street-corner scatting that closes the slinky "Ballicki Bone" is a special highlight. As a whole, it makes for an exceedingly spirited and largely unique listening experience.

{#39} Hot Leg: Red Light Fever [AMG review]
{#41} Hess Is More: Hits [AMG review]
{#43} Jill Sobule: California Years [CP concert preview]
{#44} Kikumoto Allstars: House Music [AMG review]

{#46} Two Fingers: bio and Two Fingers review

Through the late '90s and beyond, drum'n'bass cut-up maestro Amon Tobin was widely hailed as one of electronica's most exciting and innovative artists. His popularity and critical cachet have waned somewhat since the early '00s, as his output slowed and electronic trends drifted elsewhere, but the late-decade collaborative project Two Fingers should shoot him right back to the center of attention for anybody interested in forward-thinking, urban-inflected electronic beats and pieces. Working together with U.K. producer Joe "Doubleclick" Chapman, the now-Montreal-based Tobin has crafted his most thrilling and visceral work in ages, if not his entire career, freely borrowing elements of grime, dubstep, dancehall, and Dirty South hip-hop, among other styles, to fashion a sound that, while often only tangentially connected to his earlier output, ultimately sounds like little else out there. Two Fingers interpolates jittery, junglesque beat programming, a junkyard barrage of unpredictable percussive sounds and textures, and a sly, omnivorous approach to sampling ("Straw Men" opens the album with a woozily distorted riff that sounds like a refraction of the Turtles' "Happy Together," while "Jewels and Gems" coasts atop a slew of blazing sitar licks), all combined in a whirl of dark, edgy intensity -- evoking dubstep's curious ability to sound simultaneously spacious and impenetrably dense -- with relentlessly gritty, kinetic energy. Equally crucial to the album's impact are the solid contributions of several MCs; most prominently the London-based rapper Sway, who graces seven of these twelve tracks. Mostly setting aside the waggish wordplay and somewhat mawkish tendencies of his own recent work, Sway is a revelation here, sounding thirstier than ever and imbuing his typically breakneck delivery with a markedly tougher stance, without entirely excising his wry wit. The sparser, slinkier cuts tend to be the domain of female MCs, with dancehall diva Ce'Cile adding the requisite ragga flava to the simmering "Bad Girl"; Philly's Ms. Jade turns up for some stone-faced tough talk on "Better Get That," and coyly coos over the Neptunes-style minimalism of "Doing My Job." And the pair of instrumental cuts -- the eastern-tinged "Keman Rhythm" and broodingly twitchy, blasted "Moth Rhythm" -- are menacing and compelling, easily among the album's highlights. If there's a relevant contemporary reference point for Two Fingers, it's probably the Bug's London Zoo, another broadly synthesizing opus helmed by a veteran electronic producer whose post-industrial urban soundscapes draw on a similar array of styles and make comparably vital use of guest MCs, but whereas Zoo was often oppressively, crushingly bleak, hardly a party record despite its insistent dancehall riddims, Tobin and Doubleclick (and Sway) inject enough glimmers of levity and spirited playfulness -- rhythmic, sonic, and verbal -- into their often foreboding murkiness that Two Fingers should manage to engage a wide swath of movers and listeners.

{#48} Permanent Vacation records: Selected Label Works Nº 1 review

This lavishly abundant selection -- two and a half hours over two discs -- of prime modern disco and lush Balearic house represents the cream of the first few years of output from the Munich-based Permanent Vacation label. The focus is entirely on the imprint's original offerings rather than its laudable reissue efforts. Of the 22 tracks here, half of them remixes (three are also included in their original form), the vast majority are culled from the label's 2008 12" releases, and most are appearing for the first time on CD. Simply put, this is a treasure trove, not only for DJs and collectors (who should be glad to note that the compilation is unmixed) but for listeners of any stripe whose tastes run to fluid, funky, slightly spacy disco-doused grooves. The whole affair is remarkably consistent in terms of both quality -- singling out favorites is a daunting proposition -- and sound: plenty of languid acoustic strums, free-floating synths, buzzy melodics, and the occasional bit of low-grade prog-lead pyrotechnics, with an assortment of tasty vocal turns, always tethered to cozy midtempo 4/4 cadences ranging roughly from torrid to torpid, strutting to sultry. A star-studded list of contempo-disco remixers (among them Aeroplane, Todd Terje, Holy Ghost!, Superpitcher, and Hercules & Love Affair) work their distinctive brands of magic to typically lovely effect without deviating terribly far from the prevailing vibe, while the original tracks offer plenty of their own delights, from the quirky-jerky Italo-squelch of Bostro Pesopeo's "Communquis" to the slow-building, woozily anthemic filter-disco of Good Guy Mikesh & Filburt's "Someone Told Me" to the wispy acoustic noodling and dubby phasing of Dølle Jolle's "Balearic Incarnation" (made only all the more lavish in Terje's electro-kinetic Extra Doll Mix) to the classic congas'n'piano vocal house of "Tic Toc," an exclusive cut laid down by label heads Tom Bioly and Benjy Frölich with assistance from the ever-winsome Kathy Diamond. You could fault Permanent Vacation for their lack of range, or perhaps for their excessive generosity, but taken on its terms this is one solidly classy offering, right down to the intriguing, thoughtful package design, and nigh-on impeccable.

{#49} Obi Best: Capades review
L.A. singer/songwriter Alex Lilly, Obi Best's frontwoman, also tours and records as a backing vocalist for the Bird and the Bee, whose retro-inflected sophisti-pop makes an almost too handy reference point for her own work. It's an apt one, though, both in terms of Lilly's light-spirited, keyboard-based songwriting and, especially, her jazzy, mellifluent, and playfully nuanced voice, which is uncannily reminiscent of Inara George. But she's got her own distinctive style to offer as well, an infectious, wide-eyed freshness particularly evident in her curious approach to writing melodies. Fluid but quirky, swooping and sauntering with conspicuous pleasure through unexpected intervals and off-kilter rhythms, her melodic lines sometimes take on an otherworldly, vaguely oriental cast, as on "Origami" (fittingly enough) and the bouncy, carnivalesque "Swedish Boy" (perhaps more incongruously -- though the song is about "a made-up country" -- but to superbly catchy effect). The melodies mostly connect up well with Lilly's similarly ruminative, charmingly colloquial lyrics: the merger isn't always completely natural, as the words can come off clunky and half-formed (like on the somewhat perplexing rant "It's Because of People Like You"), but her beguiling voice and prevailing sweetness go a long way toward smoothing things over. Elsewhere, along with some touchingly ambivalent relationship songs, "Days of Decadence" and "Green and White Stripes" deal quite nicely with, respectively, nostalgia and ineffability. Songwriting aside, plenty of Capades' appeal lies in its playfully inventive soundscape. Lest one forget, Obi Best are, at least ostensibly, a band, comprised of L.A. studio vets (whose credits include work with Beck and Jenny Lewis) who adorn Lilly's guitar and piano stylings with all manner of fizzy, dreamlike sounds and lush, offbeat electronic effects, underscoring the warmth and whimsy that make this such a welcome, winsome debut.

{#52} Hervé: Cheap Thrills, Vol. 1 review

Beneath the suitably massive, trashy-looking, superhero-sized letters of the title -- which create the somewhat misleading if perhaps not unintentional impression of a disposable mass-market club comp -- Cheap Thrills, Vol. 1 promises to provide "The Sound of the U.K.'s Leading Dance Label: A Mix of Ghetto Bass, House, Dubstep, Electro, B-More Club and Bassline." The accuracy of the first claim may be up for debate, but there's no question that this compilation is every bit as wide-ranging, heavy-hitting, and fist-poundingly, well, thrilling as advertised. Offering no shortage of sirens, fidgety electro breaks, and gloriously corny vocal interludes, and veering wildly (sometimes within a single track) from the grittiest, rawest throbbing dubstep bass to the glossiest, unabashedly poppy stadium-trance synths with no regard for the niceties of subgenre demarcations, the only constant among these tracks -- apart from their compulsive, beats-forward danceability -- is their utter lack of restraint. It's an approach to dance music that's been sorely underexploited since the big beat heyday of the late '90s, and the lack of subtlety here is marvelously refreshing, particularly since it never comes at the expense of accessibility and tunefulness. Effectively a showcase for the imprint of the same name headed up by DJ/producer Joshua Harvey (aka Hervé, the Count, Action Man, Speaker Junk, etc., etc.), who has his hand as producer, remixer, or otherwise in nearly half of these tracks, Cheap Thrills is culled from the label's first two years (2008-2009) of output, with eight additional exclusive cuts thrown in. Only ten tracks overlap (sometimes in remixed form) between the two discs (the first is unmixed, the second a relentlessly high-energy DJ mix by Hervé -- obviously each has its place and purpose, but the mix is unquestionably the best way to experience this material), which means there are a generous 25 distinct tracks included across the 35 cuts. The quality remains impressively high throughout (though even the considerable variety may not stave off listener fatigue over two-plus hours of both discs), but definite standouts include Fake Blood's bouncy, pouncy "Fix Your Accent," Jack Beats' cannily deployed dubstep wobbles on both "U.F.O." and "Labyrinth," the pounding filter-house of His Majesty André's "Puppets," and the cartoonish "tribal" drums and incessant builds of Hervé and Jack Beats' "Rainstick."

{#56} Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: Under The Covers, Vol. 2: The 70s [CP live review}

{#59} Etienne Jaumet: Night Music review

Despite having one album of Kraut-horror-disco (as half of the duo Zombie Zombie) and one well-received 12" (Repeat Again After Me) under his belt, Etienne Jaumet came to his debut solo full-length still a relative newcomer and a self-described outsider to the world of electronica. Perhaps that explains why it stands out as such a fresh and distinct piece of work, well removed from any obvious contemporary electronic trends. Historical reference points for the album, sonically and structurally, include early Detroit techno, the "kosmische musik" of Manuel Göttsching and Klaus Schulze, and perhaps, on a more fundamental, conceptual level, the minimalism of Steve Reich -- of course, these are seminal and inevitable touchstones for all electronic music, certainly including the entire minimal techno wave of the 2000s and especially the late-decade revival of cosmic (neo-)disco and the like. But Jaumet manages to incorporate these influences in a refreshingly pure, direct way, crafting a sincere homage to oft-elided originators while avoiding the pitfalls of mere stylistic mimicry, in part, through his unusual use of organic instrumental sounds and elements of free jazz. Night Music is a significant title, appropriately evocative yet non-specific: this is unquestionably dark music, redolent in particular of urban and somewhat seedy nocturnal activity, and it would lose much of its power and cogency if exposed to sunlight.

The track names do suggest a more precise programmatic conceit of a single night's journey through sleep and dreams, but this is hardly a restful affair. As hypnotic as it is, "For Falling Asleep" -- the album's 20-minute opener, centerpiece, and statement of purpose -- would be nearly impossible to actually sleep to, and would seem to portend, at best, highly troubled dreams. The track, built on a constant yet constantly shifting arpeggiated analog synth figure, sometimes accompanied by hissy, wobbly beatbox percussion, glides through a gradually evolving soundscape populated by unobtrusively ominous synth pads, eerie wordless female voices, and a haze of noodly saxophones -- only giving way in its final minutes to a curious, beatless liminal space where, of all things, a deftly plucked harp crops up, coexisting somewhat queasily with still-menacing synth swells. It's a small moment of repose after an exhausting but majestic journey of seemingly endless unfolding, but it's a necessary palate-cleanser, because from there we plunge directly into "Mental Vortex," which rides a sturdier, robotic Detroit groove and a taut, entrancing four-note synth riff into progressively squelchier territory. The album grows marginally calmer, if not necessarily gentler, as it proceeds -- the briefer "Entropy" once again features an insistent synth bass ostinato, but it's more spacious, almost funky, while "Through the Strata," a disquieting drone-based piece dominated by the unexpected and not entirely harmonious sound of a hurdy-gurdy, is propelled only by an intermittent kick drum pulse. Finally, "At the Crack of Dawn" is beatless but throbbing, a study in vague but unremitting tension generated primarily by a clutch of dense, sleazy saxes. It's striking stuff -- definitely not easy listening, but well worth the effort, even if it feels like a slightly lopsided affair, with the final four tracks overshadowed by one terrifically effective and truly inventive epic.

{#62} Here We Go Magic [CP concert preview]

Part breakout debut, part third-times-the-charm rebranding for indie-folkster Luke Temple, Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl) swirls a kinda-'90s lo-fi approach with a whole host of late-'00s hipster-hippie tropes: hazy electronics, ethnic-y polyrhythms, submerged platitudinous chants and sunny Afro-pop guitar lines, along with a generous side helping of blank drone.

{#63} Nosaj Thing: Drift [AMG review]

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