Archive for December, 2012


My Top 10 of 2012 (with reviews of the top 3)


1. John Maus – A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material

This is a compilation of tracks John Maus apparently didn’t originally think albumworthy. That “A Collection” is so enjoyable is a tribute to the strength of his output. On its face, the material draws heavily from bygone eras.  It sounds stylistically derivative of classical, new-wave, and (intentionally or not) 80’s pop. And the recording techniques are not cutting edge, even for the times in which they were originally employed (the collection goes back to ’99).

Strange then, that listening to “A Collection” should be like looking at an arrow pointing toward the future. Not a fanciful retro-future. Our future. On opening track “North Star”, the title is the thing at which we are directed to “look up”. It’s a fitting start for a collection that – even in its disparateness – seems so singularly intent on guiding us somewhere.

With these sometimes barely fleshed out songs, it can feel as if we are being goaded into doing something important with our little lives. Lives filled with stories of people we knew “just for one night” but by whom we were changed (as Maus recounts on the beautifully crooned bridge of “Bennington”), lives in which we are sometimes utterly frustrated and adrift (as embodied by the hauntingly discordant “Lost”), or lives in which we while the time away with silliness (as Maus seems to do on the christmassy “This is the Beat”).

This is music of the people. It seems well within the means of the average person to obtain the gear necessary to make recordings in a similar style. There are even moments on “A Collection” when you may not be sure whether you’re hearing a high-end synth or a thrift store Casio ringing out through the layers of reverb, delay, and tape artifacts. Maybe the future Maus’s music foresees is one in which such distinctions aren’t all that important. Anyway, the message of his chosen medium seems clear enough: don’t be a casualty of “planned obsolescence”.



2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young has spent his career with Crazy Horse perfecting the art of getting the right performance on tape and then not fucking with it too much afterward. Whenever he strayed from that formula, as on some of the Crazy Horse albums of the 80’s, the results – with few exceptions – had less impact than the material from, say, ’69-’79.

More than any of the post-70’s Neil Young and Crazy Horse albums, Psychedelic Pill feels like an affirmation of a process that just works. And while the lesser moments in the Young discography are sometimes recalled here (“Ramada Inn”, “For the Love of Man”), mostly what we get are lovely reminders of a certain magic that seems only reproducible by this particular combination of frontman and band.

Opening track “Driftin’ Back” so well conjures the hypnotic spirit of the long jams on “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere” that eventually we are convinced 27-plus minutes is a totally reasonable running time. About 20 minutes in, Neil takes a moment to vent his frustration with the mp3 format: “When you hear my song now, You only get five percent, You used to get it all”. The over 16 minute closer “Walk Like a Giant” may be the closest Neil Young and Crazy Horse have ever come to capturing their live essence on an album without actually using concert recordings.

Country-rock tunes “Born in Ontario” and the charmingly hokey “Twisted Road” would feel easily at home on “American Stars ‘N Bars”. Even down to the effects, the resemblance to that album is uncanny. The title track, with its unusual use of flange on the entire mix (think “Cinnamon Girl” meets “The Loner” meets jet engine), works as a brief interlude between jams. And in case you don’t like the flange effect, the album includes an alternate mix without it.

None of the similarities between this and earlier releases undermine Psychedelic Pill as a distinct work. It feels of the moment. On “Walk like a Giant”, when Neil sings, “Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream”, it’s clear he hasn’t quite made peace with his new place in the world. You get the sense he values being honest above all else, and he’s extending a little trust that you won’t assume an aging rocker is an irrelevant rocker.



3. Symmetry – Themes for an Imaginary Film

Italians Do It Better label cofounder Johnny Jewel and Chromatics drummer Nat Walker are Symmetry. The 37 tracks of “Themes for an Imaginary Film” were rumored to have been intended as the score/soundtrack to the movie Drive, but a post on the label’s site says otherwise.

The fact that this is a score for an imaginary movie may be a good thing. The work becomes like a blank canvass onto which you can paint a world you’d like to escape to. That there is at least some kind of narrative to “Themes” is interesting in and of itself, regardless of how immediately clear that narrative is.

As the artwork would suggest, there is plenty of 80’s going on here. From the meticulously honed synth patches, to the musical motifs and arrangements so common to that period’s television and movies, to the beats that sometimes seem to pay homage to old-school hip hop (or perhaps to the krautrock that had influenced it).

There is a kind of brilliant minimalism to “Themes”. Sometimes we get little more than a melody, maybe with an added drone. The sounds are punctuated liberally with refreshing doses of silence. The lack of lyrics (save for the guest spot from Chromatics vocalist Ruth Radelet on the last track) makes it well suited as an accompaniment to reading or writing. Or driving.


4. Mississippi Records – Hasabe (Ethiopian R&B compilation)

5. Grass Widow – Internal Logic

6. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon

7. Gary War – Jared’s Lot

8. Peaking Lights – Lucifer in Dub

9. Fabulous Diamonds – Commercial Music

10. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes