Monday, December 31, 2012

The year's favorites! 2012 is finally over.

I haven't pulled together a "top albums of the year" list in a while because it's been a couple of years since I've gotten altogether excited about new music. I'm a bit of a luddite and though I'm fortunate enough to see all sorts of music come to me via email, there's something about the anticipation of a new record's release when you're responsible for finding your own entertainment, and it's easy to take music for granted when it's coming to you in droves each week, all sorts of publicists throwing Bandcamp links at you and saying, "Check out this single! Best single of the year!"

This year I was largely underwhelmed by music, but the records I loved, I really loved, and kept on repeat until year's end (and counting). That said, it felt ridiculous to narrow down to a top five or ten, so there's an arbitrary number of favorites here.

Grass Widow - Internal Logic

Grass Widow is at once a pre-AIDS B-52s and a pre-Christianity/motherhood Raincoats. They're an all-female trio from San Francisco who'd sound perfectly at home in London in 1979, but they don't bear the weight of sounding trendy and repetitive. And they harmonize.

Bry Webb - Provider

It was a bit devastating when Constantines took an indefinite hiatus after celebrating their ten-year anniversary; as it turned out, frontman/guitarist Bry Webb had just become a first-time father to Asa (for whom this album's opening track is named), and separately, could no longer handle the strain of touring. Webb has been a phenomenal lyricist and all-around songwriter since the Constantines' first record, and it seemed to me a waste that he'd disappear into domestic life, even if family is, sort of, you know, worthwhile. He took up construction, and then Feist made him come out of hiding. Thanks, Feist.

In 2011, his debut solo record was born, and in October 2012, it finally saw an American release. Provider is stunning, and unfortunately received a really, really quiet release; while songs like "You Are a Conductor" and "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song" usually got pushed to the conclusion of those otherwise hard Constantines records, Provider is a tribute to the side of Webb that is all heart and empathy. It had me weeping on first listen, and it's the ideal record to fall asleep to. (Also have a look at Webb's gorgeously written blog and read about his European travels here.) If I could tell you to buy one record from 2012, this would have to be the one.

Will Stratton - Post-Empire

I'm actually going to put this in a category quite similar to Bry Webb's Provider; Will Stratton released Post-Empire several months prior to a cancer diagnosis (and much like Webb, is an excellent writer even outside the context of music, a skill well-documented on his website). Though he was healthy during its release (and is expected to fully recover), there's an enormously melancholy tone throughout Post-Empire that hadn't entirely been realized on his previous records. It sounds very much like the changing of seasons --  "When You Let Your Hair Down To Your Shoulder" is the friskiness of the first falling leaf, while "Colt New Marine" leads the record into a cold, cold winter, and "At the Table of the Styx" sees snow melting for the spring. And he accomplishes this much as an aside to his voice; he's the rare songwriter who captures a complete mood through music alone.

When Lhasa de Sela wrote her final record, it was largely about her acceptance of death -- she was losing a battle with cancer and knew it, and the record conveyed that devastation. Stratton is obviously faring much better than she had, and Post-Empire is not about illness. But a complete listen to Lhasa would leave me heartbroken and sapped of energy; it had stopped me in my tracks and forced me to listen, and I left the record feeling all the weight of the world. And that's how I feel when I listen to Post-Empire. It is an experience, and it's his best to date.

(Also, his treatment is nearly complete, but if you appreciate his music, please buy one of his records or make a donation to his medical fund.)

Is/Is - III

This Minneapolis band shares its bassist with Gospel Gossip, and I'm always a bit surprised when I see photos of them, because they look like young adults in their late teens but play with the confidence of, and sing like, properly-aged women. This record is the perfect soundtrack for the quintessential bad girl, and is dark, smoky, and grungy. They also like Mazzy Star, as they should. One of the only rock records I loved this year.

Jherek Bischoff - Composed

I became a big fan of Seattle trio the Dead Science while living in Washington nearly a decade ago; singer/guitarist Sam Mickens eventually wandered off to Brooklyn and started his own projects, and drummer Nick Tamburro got married (sure, I e-stalk). But Jherek Bischoff, previously off in the background with his standup bass, made a BIG ASS DEBUT this year with an orchestral performance in Manhattan, featuring all sorts of guests, like Mirah and David Byrne and Carla Bozulich. A recorded version just happened to follow. Composed is a big, beautiful springtime record, and the songs themselves have such lasting potential that, while the vocalists chosen did a marvelous job, new vocalists could be switched in, and the songs would sound equally as grand, as though they were selections from a classic musical.

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel [...]

It feels like something of a copout to name a favorite in something that's sold at every Whole Foods checkstand. Fiona's nothing new to discover, and sure, she's tried very hard to make herself sound like a nutter and then dispute such in the press. But the once-moody singer has evolved into a brilliant songwriter; she's no longer precocious, as she was on Tidal, and The Idler Wheel didn't feel like the major production that Extraordinary Machine seemed to be. She's finally found herself, and she's become a wholly relatable lyricist who no longer dwells on her heartbreak and lack of social skills, but accepts what she is. She no longer exercises her vocabulary in her lyrics -- she merely means what she writes and writes what she means, even if it's to say Fuck you, Jonathan Ames, for adding me to a list. And hell, she'd make a great jazz singer, and this record might be the closest she's gotten to realizing this.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Aimee Bobruk plays Swanson and Valentino.

Also downloadable. From her album /ba.’brook/, out January 29.

Ty Segall - Twins

Admittedly, I miss the Ty Segall I was first introduced to in 2008: a fuzzed-out one-man band somewhat recalling Hasil Adkins or Mark Sultan, screaming his head off and instinctively keeping time on his kick drum. His eponymous release from that year, released on Castle Face, quite effectively grasped the energy of his solo live sets, and perhaps not coincidentally, would kick off a span of releases whose styles and frequency would nearly mimic the evolution of various projects by friend and label mate John Dwyer. 

Segall quickly adopted a backing band and began to organize his songs a bit. And not only has his name since become synonymous with the word “prolific,” but his insatiable need to write and release new music has led him to release records with White Fence and the Ty Segall Band in 2012, in addition to Twins, his first solo release since 2011's marvelous Goodbye Bread. While Slaughterhouse, his record with the Ty Segall Band, was more along the lines of the sped-up garage rock to which he'd become accustomed, his collaboration with White Fence helped push his current release, Twins, toward a direction of psych rock that was ever-so-popular throughout the Los Angeles music scene in 2006 and 2007, and though a good record in its own right, is a couple years behind the bandwagon.

Twins is somewhat scattered, demonstrative of the variety of music Segall seems to have floating about his head, and his need to spit it all out in the form of frequent releases. “The Hill,” on which Oh Sees token lady Brigid Dawson lends introductory vocals, is Segall's best impression of the Beatles' “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Thank God for Sinners,” “Who Are You,” and “Gold on the Shore” are extensions of his work with White Fence from this past spring, slow and psychedelic, a bit more chill than I'd like from Segall. But “Would You Be My Love,” quite possibly a highlight for the record, is a retro love song, simple and sloppily performed, a welcome bridge between the Ty Segall of four years ago and now. Twins is neither Segall's best record nor a throwaway collection, but a realized desire to draw out everything released prior. And it wouldn't be fair to ask more of him at this point – he set his own bar, quite high, early on, and he'll have many opportunities to release his best work.

Purchase Twins

Daughn Gibson - All Hell

As Daughn Gibson, Josh Martin has drawn comparisons to Stephin Merritt, Bill Callahan, Arthur Russell, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood [...][...][...]. He is at once all of these and none of these, and while he brings the old country up to date via Apple (see “Tiffany Lou,” which cites television’s Cops and, musically, resembles cLOUDDEAD’s “Pop Song” quite strongly), what separates him from the aforementioned list is a baritone teetering on cartoonish, a voice he toys with now and then, as with “The Day You Were Born,” which, embarrassingly, sounds like nothing more than a didgeridoo over falling rain.

It seems unlikely that he’d fall into friendship with and get signed by childhood friend Matt Korvette, of Pennsylvania sludge band Pissed Jeans (and label White Denim), at least until finding that Martin once drummed for stoner rock band Pearls and Brass, a group somewhat well-aligned with Pissed Jeans. As Daughn Gibson he has been taken for a musical mastermind, and though certain points of All Hell would appear to place him as a musician who sees the fun in sound for sound’s sake, it is only upon watching him perform that he in fact appears completely humorless; he is not so much the brilliant innovator as he is the man who discovered his capabilities somewhat late in his career and now, quite intentionally, seeks to be perceived as the dry genius. 

The title track on the record is, in spite of all said, a highlight, and finds Martin snarling his way through somewhat macho lyricism layered over a musical noir - were he to stay on this route, he might find himself a junior Mike Patton, capable of toying with sound for sound’s sake and crooning in a way that is unthinkably male, but perhaps more genuinely him. As he stands, however, Martin sounds an ambiguous parody, best embodied by a line in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “Is [s]he or isn’t [s]he?”

Purchase All Hell

Sunday, December 2, 2012

An Interview! With Juval Haring of Vaadat Charigim.

After a bit of dialogue back and forth with Juval Haring of Tel Aviv's Vaadat Charigim (translation: Exceptions Committee), Haring offered to participate in an interview regarding the current conflict between Israel and Palestine and its relationship to the music scene of which he is a part. After an eight-day period of airstrikes over Gaza, a back-and-forth between Israel and Hamas, Egypt announced a ceasefire; however, Ahram Online reports that twelve rockets were fired into Israel mere hours after the declaration of the ceasefire. CNN reported on Nov. 25 that more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis had died during the period of conflict.

Interview questions were submitted to Haring on Nov. 24, while Egypt and the U.S. were still in the process of developing a ceasefire agreement.

Choir Croak Out Them Goodies: Last week, we had spoken a bit, and you said that there were threats of bus bombings, which was frightening to you because you commute to work on a packed bus. Three days after you told me about these threats, Tel Aviv experienced a bus bombing, the first bombing there in six years. How close were you and your friends/bandmates to that explosion? Most of the violence has been centered around Gaza but has last week's Tel Aviv bombing created any new fear for you at home?

Juval Haring: I was far away but my sister was a few hundred meters from it. It definitely makes you think about things. I was sitting at work on some project, in an office, you know, with office stuff...then someone said there was a bus bombing. I kinda didn't wanna sit there anymore. I wanted to be somewhere else, with people I love.

CC: There is a lot of debate in the U.S. about whether the Israeli airstrikes over Gaza are acts of terrorism against Palestinians, or retaliation/self-defense in response to Hamas rocket fire. Since you are in Israel, can you explain the violence between Hamas and Israel for the U.S. audience? We only know what we read in newspapers and online, but it might be helpful to understand from the point of view of someone who lives in Israel, closer to the violence, even if you are not a part of it.

You have to understand that there are "regular people" who would really just like to go on with their regular lives, and there are politicians/organizations of sorts who have bigger agendas they are trying to promote. Me and everyone I know, Jewish or Arab, are regular people. A lot of people get carried away into other people's "agendas," thinking those agendas are their own, but I stay away from all the noise and just keep with the regular folk who try to lead a normal life. For us, the violence is a terrible thing because it ignites "big" ideas in people's heads. Those ideas turn into more violence and more rationalizations. You've seen the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey...I don't think I need to explain.

CC: You seem to be against violence on both sides of the Gaza conflict, and it should be pointed out that not everyone who lives in Israel is in favor of airstrikes on Israel's behalf. This is similar to the way many liberal Americans did not support the U.S.'s war in Iraq and do not wish for the rest of the world to view us poorly because of the violence our government has prompted abroad on our behalf. Israel and Palestine have civilians creating violence or protesting against it, just as America has civilians supporting or protesting against our wars. From what you know, are people in Tel Aviv mostly attempting to stay out of the violence and remain neutral, or are they generally pro-Israel?

JH: I, and many other people I know, try to be pro-people, which basically means that underneath all these political powers conflicting in the middle east, there is a wide variety of suffering, be it Tel Avivians afraid of a missile, Israelis from the south who suffer regular missile attacks, or people in Gaza who are also bombed on a regular basis. I think being attentive to what is humane and caring for your fellow man is more important than being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. These are metaphysical concepts. Your concern as a human being should be to this world, and the people who live and suffer in it. There is so much trouble in the sphere of everyday life, why should I worry myself with ideals? 

CC: Your band, Vaadat Charigim, has a single out called "Odisea," and the lyrics remind me very much of the Smiths' song "There is a Light and it Never Goes Out." Except your song is much more tragic because it looks for something meaningful outside of the violence that really is occurring around you. How has the violence around you generally affected your lyrics or your band's style of music?

It was written during the first wave of social protests. I was living in Berlin and was feeling far away from it all. From what my friends had told me it sounded like some kind of "Summer of '69" sort of thing. A youth utopia. Odisea is like a journey in the other direction. Like a fast forward from the love generation to the grey eighties. It's a song about an imaginative world's end, using local Tel Avivian symbols as a point of reference. Shopping centers collapsing into themselves, Central Bus stations turning into a black cloud that swallows the "White City" (Tel Aviv's alternate name). 

CC: There are bands in countries like Sweden, where the musicians speak both English and their native language, but choose to write songs in English to make themselves more marketable outside of their home country. You speak both English and Hebrew but your songs are all in Hebrew. What made you decide to stick with your native language?

I sort of feel like English is embarrassing for me to sing in. It used to be like a mask for me, I think. Now this mask feels silly. I don't need it anymore. I don't need to be successful abroad. I don't need to be understood.  I only need to remain free and focused and full of passion.

CC: Your previous band, TV Buddhas, had moved to Berlin for a couple of years. What caused you to move to Berlin and what caused you to return to Tel Aviv? Is TV Buddhas going to be on hiatus while Vaadat Charigim sees the release of its debut record, or have you broken up?

We might go on tour with [TV Buddhas] end of spring [2013]. TV Buddhas is my wife [Mickey Triest], and me, and her brother [Uri Triest]. This will live for as long as we do. We are living back in Israel because this is what we need to do right now. We might go back to Europe. Then again we might not. I dream of a house with land. We'll see where we end up.

CC: A lot of fantastic music has come out of terrible political events or conservative leadership -- much of the best British and American punk rock, for instance, came from England being led by Margaret Thatcher, and the U.S. being run by Ronald Reagan. A great deal of protest music came as a response to the wars begun by George W. Bush. If there is a successful ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, do you think there will eventually be less music and art in Israel to be inspired by the need for protest? 

Israel is a shitty and exciting little place 24/7. This war is ongoing. This is our life no matter what's currently on the news. Anywhere thoughtful people live, they will be a minority, and they will make great art, because they will feel like outsiders. 

CC: Your band is part of a community of peaceful protesters in Tel Aviv. What bands or poets or artists should we know about in the U.S.?

JH: You should check a great poetry magazine called Maayan. Also, a few great bands like Ashkara Metim ("totally dead"), Love Grenade, and Bela Tar.

CC: Thank you, Juval!

JH: Thanks!

Vaadat Charigim will be performing in Tel Aviv on Dec. 22. Tickets can be found here.