Yes, it's February; quiet, you. I have been doing these slowly and irregularly at my blog, but all along my intent was to collect them here at the FF7 when I had enough done. I just posted the sixth, so here is the first quarter of my 2006 albums-in-review.
#20: Mogwai - Mr Beast / Excepter - Alternation
This is the list I submitted to Stylus, with one addition in this entry, and I don't even pretend this is still what I'd put down as my twenty favourite records of 2006; but it is twenty good ones, mostly not too terribly overexposed, and I certainly don't feel any regret.
So, to begin with, my #20 and the one that narrowly got bumped off the list once I realised I'd forgotten Phoenix (that would be Excepter). I went back and forth quite a bit on which of these I liked more, but ultimately Mogwai is the one I'd rather listen to for pleasure. Because I don't quite get "pleasure" from Alternation, even if what I do get might be more valuable.
But one at a time! Mr Beast may not have the best songs Mogwai has ever done (or at least, not all of them - although I'd make a case for "Travel Is Dangerous," "Glasgow Mega Snake" and the deceptively swooning "Friend of the Night") but it is resolutely their best album,* one where even the weaker tracks make perfect sense as parts of a whole, where brevity and power and nuance manage to collide perfectly. They pull off the same trick here that Constantines did on the underrated Tournament of Hearts, making their best record without quite hitting the heights they did before - maybe because they don't aim that high? Or maybe because both albums are so obsessively cohesive that it's harder to see highlights. "Team Handed" and "Emergency Trap" may not be songs I'll be putting on mixtapes, or even ones I can remember real well, but in context they, bluntly, work.
It doesn't hurt that Mr Beast manages to be both the hardest and the softest Mogwai have ever been on an LP; it avoids the absurd excesses of their first two records, the oddly unsatisfying sheen of Happy Music For Happy People and barely outshines the great Rock Action by dint of better sequencing and the fact that it turns out that a lack of epics suit the band. This is the first Mogwai album I love where I'd like to see them build on this sound; Come On Die Young and Rock Action felt more like they'd gone as far as they should and it was time to try something new.
As for Excepter, I'm just going to go ahead and post a conversation we had about it on the Stylus staff message boards.
Derek Miller: [Alternation] is a rather odd space for the band after their first few releases, more in the vein of Sunbomber.
Jeff Siegel: Yes. I quite like it actually. It's literally the most basic, fundamental thing they could possibly do. Ennui in a bottle. Yeah.
Mike Powell: Yeah, totally agreed. They're officially one of the most bored-sounding bands ever.
Jeff Siegel: Bored, but not boring. That's the key isn't it--how Uncle Andy put it?
Mike Powell: (The sound of our brains humming in unison, shattering the fragile champagne flute of mediocrity)
Jeff Siegel: Great minds.
I didn't think it was possible, but I've somehow managed to get "Ice Cream Van" stuck in my head.
Mike Powell: Because it is so awesome
Jeff Siegel: This is the fucking weirdest, most out-of-the-blue thing I've come across in a long time.
Mike Powell: Do you really think it's out of the blue? It makes perfect sense to me... and I'm not saying that to be weird or anything.
Ian Mathers: I won't be able to tell whether I like this or not for, oh, another ten or so listens. But I can tell I'm going to enjoy the process.
Stewart Voegtlin: Excepter certainly enjoys the process. The only other band who's patient enough to let songs "develop on their own" is NNCK. I think Excepter is stunning, and they ain't gettin' as much love as they should be. Dada dance band? Angst ridden disco? Coil meets LFO? All the above, yo.
Ian Mathers: Okay, I don't think I've been able to go a day without listening to this since I last posted (24 days before) in this thread. And that's fucking bizarre for me. Alternation is pretty severely eating/rewiring my brain.
Mike Powell: I find this admission both disturbing and laudable.
Stewart Voegtlin: That's funny, Mike. I felt the same way when I read it this a.m.
Ian Mathers: I finally managed to delete the damn thing off of my iPod (although not, of course, my hard drive**) tonight. My coworkers were, seriously, beginning to complain. They said it was "creepy". I find myself listening to it and half the time enjoying it without thinking, and the other half of the time sort of listening with part of my mind removed from the experience, asking the rest of me "and what are you getting out of this, exactly?" "The Rock Stepper" is pretty much the only song I know that I wish was an hour long.
*My favourite Mogwai album is Come On Die Young (absurdly long running time and all), so if you're one of many who thinks they stopped being good after the over-rated Young Team, go fetch some salt. **Yes, I bought a real copy.
#19: The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off
Except for "The Rat," I never liked these guys before. I hated this when I downloaded it. And then I got a hangover. A Hundred Miles Off is a headache, a blearily bawling pain behind the eyes, an almost determinedly ugly record from Leihauser's yowl on down. I mean, "Always After You ('Til You Started After Me)"'s main hook is the sound of the drummer trying to kill you after the title is wearily intoned.
And like a real hangover, it winds up being richer and more complex than you'd think at first. It helps that Leithauser is, no shit, one of the few great vocal personalities in modern indie rock (I love Chutes Too Narrow to bits, for example, but Mercer is basically a cipher). What's he actually saying? Who can tell? Who cares? Making something like "Emma, Get Me A Lemon" not only tolerable but a highlight is real yeoman work, in frontmen terms. This record, from the quietus of the far-off storm in "Lousiana" to seething spit, sweat and raw ache of most of the rest, reminds me of too many late nights out and too much of the texture of my actual life in 2006 to be ignored. I'll be unpacking what I love about it for years.
#18: Espers - Espers II
"There are shocks to the system hidden within II, but they're so pleasingly cushioned you never notice until afterwards. It’s an album that leaves you both soothed and disturbed, lulled and shaken by the group’s masterful blend of the comforting and the uncanny, slightly dazed as if returning from time travel or a knock on the head." (Me)
Space-age crystalline sludge-folk about deceased royalty, magick, storms, visions, hypnosis, living nightmares and the fugue state. Uses everything from an Omnichord to a dholak. Their publishing company is called "gonedarkside." This should be insufferably twee and/or goth but is instead strangely touching and genuinely weird. If Joanna Newsom was into writing songs with actual choruses and lovingly exploring the varieties of drone in the context of popular song from the Elizabethan era on down, she might sound a little like this. Only one of the strengths of Espers is that they very much sound like a collective instead of a person or group of people, and while the rugged individualists have long been lionized in music criticism, maybe we should be paying a little more attention to the gains made by groups that have more fully mastered the seeming mind-meld. It's probably just planning, but on the slow motion waltzing drift of "Dead Queen" and the almost schematic (in a good way) "Children of Stone" it seems more like telepathy.
#17: Mates of State - Bring It Back
One of those albums I'm surprised to see on one of these until I put it on again. But then I remember; I love pretty much every setting on Kori Gardner's keyboard (especially the ones that sound like organs or anything else that buzzes), "Think Long" is a strangely rousing opener, and I've never heard any of their other albums so I don't (can't) think this is any sort of a let down.
But mostly, I just love the way she and Jason Hammel yell. Not at each other - with each other. Whether it's the "Think long, think think long, think think!" from the opener, "And you will surely find this news pleasing to your ears!" in "Fraud in the '80s," "I've been thinking it's an afterthought!" in the ridiculously great coda to "Punchlines," "Nothing! And everything!" in "So Many Ways," or a bunch of other examples scattered across the punchy, hooky but tightly-plotted Bring it Back, it's one of the most willfully exuberant sounds I've ever heard. They really are like the anti-Low, where their voices don't go together at all and it does sound like two people, always, instead of one other... thing, but it's still amazing and alive and wonderful. And the record is perfectly paced (yes, I even like the ballad-y "Nature and the Wreck"); the closing "Running Out" is a bravura change of pace. A massed group of voices all yelling "Ooooh, tired of singing!" out of the ashes of the good-but-stark song the duo was playing somehow fills nearly 7 minutes without getting bored or boring.
I don't want them to add more people, or more instruments, or anything else. Just more albums of sugarbuzz surprisingly complex drum-and-organ-and-yell pop, please.
#16The Goslings - Grandeur of Hair
This is definitely the right time to talk about the Goslings; my head is clogged up by the tail end of a cold, and my working life is swiftly becoming a nightmare. In my review (too late, as is customary these days) I compare them to blood bruises, dull metal scraped on stone, and Aristotle's notion of catharsis. And a man who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, Bryan Berge, was "pleasantly surprised by just how heavy and harsh it is. Usually when people talk about finding beauty through the noise, they don't REALLY mean noise. Here it seems like a legit description." That's the problem/greatness of a record like Grandeur of Hair; it's so far off from what most people consider music that it can be hard to talk about without seeming pretentious, but this really is the real deal.
Like scrubbing yourself with sand, it's almost unpleasant but also cleansing; while plenty of music should be listened to loud the Goslings make sounds that demand the needle be edged over into the red. When you do, the noise is like a physical, prowling thing, and you're never sure if it's going to hug you or kill you. "Croatan," "Overnight" and "Dinah" alone deserve to inspire legions of imitators, but instead you can barely find Goslings material unless you take to the internet. At least they have a label now.
There's this thing comedians like to do: they find a dumb American, interview them, and claim the subject represents the entire nation. It's a pursuit equally beloved by non-Americans (Borat) as it is by Americans (Jay Leno), and admittedly, it can be pretty funny (Borat, not Leno).
It works because America is such a large, diverse country that you can, without too much difficulty, find someone somewhere who will not only hold a mindblowing ridiculous belief, but will also be entirely willing to elaborate this belief on camera. You can't do this style of comedy on Europeans, though, because the entire continent of Europe is utterly batshit insane. You interview an insane European, and the only response you could provoke from your audience would be, "Yeah, what's your point?"
Don't believe me? Look, here's a brief history of Europe:
1. Every European nation takes turns fighting one another, in some cases multiple times, over the course of a thousand years. 2. Eventually, they all have a gigantic fight that leaves millions of them dead. 3. Europe decides to hold an annual popular song contest.
This European insanity is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Since World War II, Europe has (mostly) avoided fighting itself and has instead been devoted to pursuing three main goals, which are, namely, making money, promoting public nudity and attempting to shorten the working week without reducing their capacity to make money and promote public nudity. That's not so bad. (America, for its part, has spent the time making money, restricting public nudity and trying to lengthen the working week without interfering with the pursuit of its first two goals. Australia has been pursuing the American goals, while telling itself it is pursuing the European goals.)
Come May, Eurovision will have been nobly stopping Europeans from killing each other for 51 years. I've only watched one full Eurovision contest, and that was last year's, which I helped profile for Stylus. I had seen bits of previous years, in those cases because I wanted to laugh at it, and I watched the year Russia entered tATu, in that case because of lesbians. But I've seen enough Eurovision to know one thing: it isn't all that good. It is better, however, than the other two major occasions for Europeans to gather together and not kill each other; unlike the UEFA Champions League, Eurovision actually offers contestants the chance to score a reasonable amount of points, and unlike the European Union parliament, Eurovision has decent costumes.
But before Eurovision starts, each individual nation needs to work out who is going to represent them at the festivities. Norway, for instance, holds a contest called Melodi Grand Prix, and if only them Norwegians vote properly, MGP 2007 has every possibility of launching the year's Eurovision champion. The MGP finalists have by now got through the gruelling semi-finals, and the clear standouts (i.e. the only ones I've bothered to check out) are a fantastic act who go by the delightful moniker Dusty Cowshit.
Dusty Cowshit are a Norwegian country act half way between "Rawhide" and Cowboy Troy (not that there actually is a lot of difference between those two). Germany tried to take out '06 with some Euro-country, and it wasn't half bad by Eurovision standards, but it was unfortunately played very straight. Dusty Cowshit solve this issue with their absolutely absurd song "Chicken Rodeo." Quite reasonably, Scandinavians are apparently rather impressed with these dudes. As the official MGP Web site says: "Norge liker cowboylukt!"
Let's face it: Eurovision is pretty shit. The reactionary end of pop music journalism tries to talk it up, but the rest of us can see that 90% of it is bullshit. I will admit that Kate Ryan, Belgium's failed '06 entry, had a decent enough song in "Je T'adore," but by normal pop music standards, even that was only average. The vast majority of Eurovision acts are comically bad, and the best ones are comically brilliant. Dusty Cowshit fall into the latter category, and I fully support their bid for MGP victory this year. With these guys and the possibility that Morrissey will represent the UK in '07, we have the makings of a first class cheese-fest on our hands.