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James Blake is smart enough to know that if you’re going to reshape bass music in your own indie-influenced image, including a few R&B samples might be a good idea. Hence, CMYK didn’t just win over the Boomkat brigade’s headphone patrol, it also detonated more than a few dance floors, reshaping Kelis and Aaliyah’s vocals into a jilted lover’s anthem that rode seasick synths and off-kilter drums into experimental territory that doubled as incredibly fresh pop. Grabbing onto the “art-weirdo experimentalist” spot abandoned by Aphex Twin a decade ago, Blake’s CMYK EP somehow turned G-Funk synths and vocal samples into alien-sounding gurgling that sounds like a robotic Christmas party after someone gave the photocopier too much champagne and eggnog.
Meanwhile, he twisted and turned his own piano playing and vocals into sad-sack anthems for his Klavierwerke release, an EP with a German title so serious I’m half-convinced Blake is joking. Hinting at the potential of his full-length album, Blake mostly abandons the dance floor in favor of weird nocturnal maneuvers, drawing on Burial but substituting urban angst for a college kid’s whimsy. That such unconventional sounds managed to grip the dubstep massive is a testament to both Blake’s skill and the scene’s surprising willingness to keep absorbing new styles and influences. –Sach O
The review shorthand for At Echo Lake held that Woods were the jam band for indie kids. A Bushwick-based bunch prone to guitar filibusters and indebted to both the Grateful Dead and Pavement (presumably, Blitzen Trapper lurk in rainy Portland shadows plotting their revenge). But the parallels are more psychological than sonic. Though it’s engendered Workingman’s Dead comparisons, nothing here remotely resembles “Casey Jones” or “Dire Wolf.” Though Woods claim residency in the borough of Brooklyn, their aesthetic owes allegiance to the territory upstate — hence, the title reference to a lake in the Catskill Mountains and a corn-cob pastoralism redolent of hayseed Neil Young, The Band, and yes, the Dead.
While lead singer Jeremy Earl favors third-degree burn psych-rock for his Woodsist releases, his own songs pine for escape — from death, suffering, the corrosive car-alarm nights of the city. At Echo Lake feels like an attempt at reconciliation. The guitar lines wind like lazy rural roads and the controlled improvisation feels loose as campfire punchlines. But the attempts at levity feel like an attempt to ward off encroaching darkness. Their last album was called Songs of Shame and Earl’s falsetto fails to conceal the scars. The sunflowers and rolling hills of the album cover contrast with the foul omens of the “Suffering Season” and “Death Rattles”–the latter with its necrotic metaphors of torn-up shoes, cut-up roots, and “the town getting away from you.” Despite being one of the flagship bands on one of the most hotly tipped labels in indie rock (a label run by Earl), Woods give few interviews, maintain no online presence, and cultivate an alternative worldview of tapes, campfire hymns, and creaky limbs. Like the Dead, they’re after the creation of their own self-sufficient eco-system, rustic structures antithetically opposed to the illimitable abyss of Internet amusement. So much the better that they don’t sound like Uncle John’s Band — Woods understand how to summon their spirit.– Jeff Weiss
MP3: Woods – “I Was Gone”
In an interview with the BBC, Vladimir Nabokov once declared that “[he] was not one to provide much sport for influence hunters.” Wild Nothing, aka Jack Tatum, provides little sport for influence hunters, but for vastly different reasons. Upon first listening to his record Gemini, reviewers spring to their MacBooks, rabidly invoking the bands the album clearly draws on: “4AD, Elephant 6, Factory, The Smiths, Slumberland, New Order, COCTEAU TWINS!!” It’s true. They’re there. We get it. Let’s move on.
Influences aside, Gemini‘s effectiveness lies in its perfect distillation of mood, experience, ennui, and hope into a coherent, dreamy group collection. Much talked about opener “Live in Dreams” is the best of these, the melancholy acceptance of romantic entropy belied by the track’s gorgeous melody. Even the seemingly emotional monotone of “Bored Games” is made tolerable by pulsing synth and guitar fuzz — with the beauty of the song lending credence to otherwise saccharine sentiment. “The Witching Hour” is powered by frenetic sweetness, a song about long night drives that’s better listened to when those drives are finally over. The sounds that powers these songs may be cribbed from a who’s who of sensitive bands from the eighties, but Tatum combines identifiable elements into something singular: a record cribbing yesteryear’s methods to communicate the modern mood. --Jonah Bromwich
For the most part, Beach House’s third album (and first for indie titan Sub Pop) sounds like a logical extension of their first two albums. The instruments are clearer, and there are more of them (Pianos! Real drums instead of tinny drum machines!). The songwriting is as sharp as it’s always been, and Alex Scally’s weepy guitar lines are still intact. The thing most striking about Teen Dream is how much differently Victoria Legrand’s voice sounds. That’s not to say that her once-trademark sad-girl alto has become a Joanna Newsom-like whinny or something, but the change is noticeable.
Excepting Devotion single “Gila,“ Legrand’s vocals have never been so commanding, so from-the-gut, so… powerful. Exploring her near-telepathic musical bond with Scally in fresh new ways here, every song finds Legrand expanding as a singer, rendering herself sultrier on “Walk in the Park” and “Better Times,” unnerved and desperate on “10 Mile Stereo,” and belting out the chorus of “Silver Soul” as if her life depended on it. And when Legrand sings the refrain at the end of “Take Care” during the coda while the tension built up during the first-half of the track is released, her voice intensifies after each passing bar, making for the most arresting moment on the entire album, and an incredible climax to their best album to date. –Douglas Martin
MP3: Beach House-”Zebra”
In a thoroughly good year for dance music full-lengths, London duo Mount Kimbie stood against the increasing “bro-ey” reputation of dubsteppers by embracing the field-recording pastiche pastorales of their ambient forebears. As such, Crooks & Lovers could just as easily have been called Big Naturals, and not just on account of the cover model. On “Mayor,” the rhythms of a deep house party are paired up with back-and-forth of a ping-pong match. A hazy sound-check gets deconstructed into an Eno-esque set piece “Between Time” that, considering the dearth of room noise relative to the rest of the record, was attended by exactly no one.
As a result, Crooks & Lovers seems inauspicious, yet uniquely seen. It’s walking in imperfect light behind a fat lady past what appears to be the rubble of a run-down city street. The scene hints at decay, of an eye straining for recognition amidst a purportedly Londonian but ultimately disorienting landscape. Unlike London contemporaries such as fellow 2010 standout Actress, who by comparison lends an air of space-age sheen to his elliptical R&B sound-scapes, Crooks & Lovers succeeds because it’s as simple as it sounds: Mount Kimbie throwing shit against a wall for thirty-five minutes and finding that a surprising amount of it sticks. –Mike Orme
Something is awry with Ty Segall. You’d think that a blonde-haired, babyfaced, ex-pro-surfer would be recording sub-Jack Johnson singer/songwriter dreck instead of the vibrant, paint-peeling garage-rock he’s offered over the past few years, but Brushfire Records’ loss is our gain. Though not of the bland acoustic variety, Melted finds Segall nestling into his own pocket as one of America’s brightest young songsmiths. “Girlfriend” is a garage anthem detailing the adrenaline rush from dating someone new, while “Mrs.” is a murder ballad set along the banks of the Mississippi River, so rife with dejection that it could have been written by Skip James. He wails powerfully on “My Sunshine“ and “Finger,” strums the hell out of an acoustic guitar to make way for an old-school piano solo on “Caesar,” and is gentlemanly enough to invite you to drink Coca-Cola with him on “Mike D’s Coke”. Something tells me that soda is spiked, but if it’s what helps Ty Segall deliver records as endlessly replayable and satisfying as Melted, then sign me up for a couple glasses. –Douglas Martin
MP3: Ty Segall – “Caesar”
The musicians in The National provide an excellent counterpart to their singer. The two sets of brothers, Dessner (Aaron and Bryce) and Devendorf (Bryan and Scott), are hyper-musical, well-taught and disciplined in their musicianship. Singer Matt Berninger is a different story, a dusky baritone whose untrained, solemn voice has been compared to every variety of brown liquor available. The group’s strength lies in their ability to couple the stringent musical focus with Berninger’s songwriting persona, a top-shelf drunk who stumbles around the downtown New York streets in his tailored suit, feeling around for the guardrails before he blacks out and stumbles down the steps.
From the lo-fi fakeout of opener “Terrible Love” to the divebombing strings toward the end of closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, High Violet captures the band in its element, enhancing all of the band’s individual and collective strengths to create the high-water mark of their ten-year career. “We don’t win if we don’t fight,“ sings Berninger on emotional centerpiece “Runaway,” which is an accurate synopsis of the creative struggle between The National‘s instrumentalists and their vocalist, the crystalline arrangements versus the blurry, half-drunken observations. With a palate so rich, so thoughtful yet so universal, it’s no surprise that High Violet is the record that catapulted the band into the mainstream spotlight. –Douglas Martin
The Roots deserve all the success in the world. No one in Hip-Hop has worked harder for longer without mainstream success. Sure they’ve always had their devoted legion of college fans, but do you think Questlove sleeps easy at night knowing his audience’s knowledge of rap music is mostly limited to “The Humpty Dance” and his own material? I doubt it. So when the band accepted their Jimmy Fallon gig, the critical consensus was that they’d slowly fade away, deservingly eating off of NBC while fading into easy-listening territory, which incidentally they did with John Legend…that covers album is terrible.
What the world didn’t expect however is that the band would also regroup and release a world-weary rap album about living in America and coming to term with one’s place in the world. Featuring more organic instrumentation than any of their albums since the 90s, “How I got Over” felt like a gift to the fans and the sound of the band finding its truest, purest sound after a decade of relentless experimentation. Any fears of indie-crossover were proven false, despite a trendy guest list, the band kept on as they always did, incorporating their guests into the mix but keeping the focus squarely on good songwriting, the sharpest production in Hip-Hop and keenly critical lyrics that actually have something to say. Plus, this album made me enjoy, nay, LOVE a song featuring Joanna Newsom: that’s gotta count for something. –Sach O
MP3: The Roots ft. Blu, Phonte & Patty Crash – “The Day” (Left-Click)
Best known for his work with D.C. rap supergroup Diamond District, rapper/producer yU put together one of the strongest 90s hip hop albums of the aughties. Before Taxes is built upon carefully selected samples and smart songs which link hip-hop to Native American culture (“Native”) and family life (“Memory”, “The Rock”). The mournful horns and thumping drums of “Corners” complement yU’s back and forth with EyeQ, a song that could have come out on Wild Pitch in ’93. It helps that yU is a thoughtful, honest writer with a molasses-thick D.C. accent that manhandles syllables and pitches bars like fast balls. He finds strength in contemplation, from wishing life could slow down on “Break Down” to deconstructing society’s deceptions over a metronomic guitar sample on “Brainwash”. The record is a purposeful throwback, but it works because Y understands what made 1990s hip hop great — highly recommended even if you didn’t own a pair of Zubaz. –Aaron Matthews
I didn’t review “Return II Space” for this site because quite frankly, anyone who was going to buy this record was going to do so with or without my words of encouragement. Sticking to his guns (and frustrating this reviewer) by dropping the year’s single most anticipated Dubstep release on vinyl only, Digital Mystikz don Mala simply crushed the competition with this album, providing incredibly deep and heavy vibes while the competition was stuck in the midrange. Reminding the world that Dubstep’s greatest gift to the world was its sense of space and heaviness rather than aggression, “Return II Space” is in turn, stunning, beautiful, awe-inspiring, terrible, thundering, frightening and most of all overwhelming. It’s the handcrafted masterpiece of a man who simply makes music because he wants to and for whom the thought of compromise is simply impossible. Mala’s peers may have moved onto the world of pop stardom but “Return II Space” still sounds like it was made for the empty room at FWD>> in 2005: cavernous sub-frequencies, meditative menace and unnerving percussion collide to form combative collages of sonic warfare, dance music in name only that quite simply overpowers every other sound. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Return II Space” was this list’s lowest selling release but when it comes to that awe-inspiring, goose-bump causing feeling you get when you realize you’re listening to something special…it may just be the year’s strongest. –Sach O
See also: Deep Medi Releases Vol 1-2.