Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Best of 2009 (Local Albums)

Now for the local albums of 2009. Although you would think that it would be difficult for a local scene to compete with the breadth of releases on the National Scale, I strongly believe that Portland is responsible for some of the greatest music in the world right now. I realize I might be biased but I've long been a lover of music and have lived in many different cities, and simply no place has ever compared to the talent and creativity of Portland. I would place at least half the following albums above my #1 national choice. Anyway, read what I think and please get your hands on anything that sparks your interest.

1. Of Art and Intention - Dilly Dilly

Dilly Dilly's debut LP reached new sonic and emotional heights only hinted at on her 2007 EP (Akidleadivy), and it became one of Portland's most talked about albums of the summer. Then Dilly abruptly called an indefinite hiatus on her music career. Thankfully she left us these 12 amazing songs- including new takes on Akidleadivy's "Doo Write" and "Rival" (now fleshed out by Alias' precise production), the anthemic "Come What May", the emotionally devastating but strangely uplifting "AlossAlone", and the interplanetary electro come-on "Alien Dance Queen". This album still doesn't exist in physical form, but can be downloaded for free (or by donation) at dillydillymusic . Let's hope this isn't the last we hear from Dilly Dilly.

2. Anna's Ghost - Anna's Ghost

Yes, I'm plugging a release from my own label, but I wouldn't have put this album out in the first place if I didn't think it was one of the best artistic statement of the year. Like many others, I was a big fan of Anna's Ghost debut EP, and this follow-up was well worth the wait. In a city full of great female vocalists (Aly Spaltro, Colleen Kinsella, Erin Davidson, Sontiago, etc), I think Gabrielle Raymond's vocal delivery might be the best and most underrated. Her voice can both wrap around your heart ("Magdalene") or rip out your spine ("Good Enough"). Of course, she is also joined by her dark lieutenants, Ian Riley on drums, Chris Moulton on guitar, and Jake Pike on bass. They alternately sound like a four-member death squad ("He is in the Walls") and a demented carnival of skeletons ("After the Snow"). Sometimes they just sound skeletal, like on the haunting closing track "Comeback" ("when you come back we'll all be dead..."). An album to take to your grave.

3. Candy, Cake and Ice Cream - Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia

After spending a year regaling our city with his brightly-colored ensemble of masterful musicians, Spencer Albee finally released this collection of absolutely perfect pop songs. This man has clearly studied the Kinks and the Beatles well, and it is simply amazing how many of the songs on this album immediately get stuck in your head: "The Way of the World", "Come Back Monday", "So Good", "Nobody Got Off Easy", and "Glad You Came Back Home" just to name a few. My only complaint is that live highlight "Opportunity Knocks" can't seem to reach its full potential in its studio form. But really, that's hardly reason to complain. In a just world these songs would be playing on radios (and iPods) across the country.

4. Worried Love - Chriss Sutherland

On his second solo album, Chriss Sutherland takes a sonic leap from the sparer folk rock of his debut (strange to call an album a debut since it was preceded by almost a dozen albums from Cerberus Shoal), and incorporates the electric guitar textures of Ron Harrity (who released this album through his Peapod Recordings), more fully embraces his Spanish influences ("El Tiengo", Volando Voy"), and gives us the closest thing we got this year to a Fire on Fire reunion ("Hey Justice"). At first, I wasn't sure if I entirely appreciated the change as I was a fan of the cohesive melancholy of Me in a "field". But this is a truly great album that perfectly showcases Chriss' songwriting, musicianship, collaborative ability, and skill at turning his influences into a singular vision. This album received a well deserved mention in the New York Times and should be heard by all serious fans of music.

5 + 6. Already Gone Pt. 1 + 2 - Big Blood

With a band as prolific as Big Blood it can almost seem like a slow year when they only release a Double Album (sold separately but as connected as the beautiful cover art implies). As always, the "phantom four-piece that performs only as a duo" make each album count. Caleb turns in two of his best songs in the BB catalog ("Well Water" and "So Old Again"). Meanwhile, Colleen proves herself to be one of the preeminent interpreters of alternative classics, performing two cover songs that easily outshine the original versions (Captain Beefheart's "Beatle Bones-n-Smoking Stones" and The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary; her version of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" though good is a little too languid for my tastes). And less you balk at having to pay separately for both albums (although it's worth it for the art alone, especially at $5 a piece), you should know that the entire Big Blood catalog is available online for free. Go familiarize yourself with one of the greatest bands that has ever walked this strange planet.

7. For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen - Samuel James

The main problem with all three of Samuel James' albums is that none fully captures the force of his live performances. But how could they? There is just no way to perfectly translate his train engine stomp and incredible guitar work to a shiny plastic disc. Fortunately, the albums, particularly this latest, do a great job of presenting Mr. James as a first-rate storyteller. The album opens with "Bigger, Blacker, Ben" a hilarious sequel to "Big Black Ben" from his last disc. It's the kind of song that makes me wish more artists did sequels about their lyrical characters (perhaps Paul McCartney can do a song about Rocky Raccoon's son). Samuel James also continues the adventures of Sugar Smallhouse and pays homage to the titular women (this album also wins cover of the year). I just wish their was a bonus disc of the cover performances from his cd release show- I would love to hear Sontiago singing "Wooden Tombstone".

8. Pecos Bill is Dead - Jesse Pilgrim

This EP heralded the end of Pecos Bill and the emergence of Jesse Pilgrim as a true songwriter. His songs are short and sweet and cover all the essential topics: booze ("Whiskey"), injustice ("Trial & Error"), and death ("Lead Me Down"). He capitalized on the success of this self-released EP by gathering up a strong backing band, kicking off the Tower of Song Festival, and turning in one of the best [dog] and [pony] performances yet to be seen. I can't wait to hear what he comes up with for a full length. Pecos Bill is dead, long live Jesse Pilgrim!

9. Decension - Meghan Yates

Another one of Portland's great vocalists. Meghan Yates simply sings from an otherworldly place that I can only describe as delicate trembling thunder. In fact, her voice is so arresting that the lyrics often seem like they're being sung in some long lost tongue. But careful attention reveals the lyrical beauty of songs like "if the devil is 6" and "Lay Your Weary Head Down". However, the undeniable highlight is the vocal maelstrom of "Man of Sorrow". Seeing her perform this song at Slainte with the great Moses Atwood and her fiance (now husband) Mordecai was a truly memorable night.

10. Apsis - Dead Man's Clothes

The elaborate yet off kilter packaging of this album does a good job of summing up the music inside. Dead Man's Clothes meanders through a number of topics and sounds, taking in both overweight ghosts, rocking zombies, spaceships, and relationships. Not every track works, but overall this is a hell of a ride, both funny and rocking, and full of wonderful and often unique instrumentation. Lead singer, guitarist and saw player, Don Dumont, has recently reconfigured the group with the addition of TJ Metcalfe (formerly of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper) on guitar and Ian Riley (Anna's Ghost) on bass, so I'm excited to hear what they come up with next.

Album that hasn't been released yet, but I'm sure will make the list:

Lady Lamb the Bee-Sides - Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

Monday, September 28, 2009

Best of 2009 (National Albums)

Well, it's that time of year when National Publications start publishing their list of best albums of 2009 (and the decade) with 3 months left before New Year's Eve. Well, I'm impatient too- so here is my list of the best albums of 2009 (I'll do national releases today and local releases tomorrow):

1. Two Suns - Bat For Lashes

I thought Bat for Lashes' debut, Fur & Gold, was a good but uneven album with two amazing highlights- "Trophy" and "What's A Girl to Do." Two Suns manages to be much more consistent throughout, held together by a loose but effective theme of dual nature. I love when artists indulge in their dark sides and "Sirens Call" is a perfect ballad for a femme fatale. The guys from Yeasayer also bring their shamanic bass and drumming to songs like "Sleep Alone". But Two Suns truly earns it #1 placement on the strength of its bookends - opener "Glass", which sounds like the movie theme to an unmade Fantasy Epic. On the closer, "The Big Sleep", Natasha Khan holds her own with the godlike genius of the reclusive Scott Walker.

2. Preliminaires - Iggy Pop

Most people grimaced at the idea of Iggy Pop making a jazz album when information first leaked about this peculiar release. The truth is that Preliminaires is far more influenced by French Chanteuse, and Iggy Pop takes his place among the United Nations of gravel-voiced lotharios like Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen. The songs also incorporate the sounds of New Orlean Jazz ("King of the Dogs" - a worthy sequel to "I'm Your Dog"), spoken word (Iggy Pop turned me onto French writer Michel Houellebecq through "A Machine for Loving" in which he quotes directly from the authors' novel "The Possibility of an Island"), and the token hard rocker ("Nice to be Dead"). Iggy Pop's best album since Lust for Life.

3. Actor - St. Vincent

A more accessible (and overall more satisfying) take on the Dirty Projectors off kilter beats and arresting female vocals. This is a fun and sonically interesting album, but its Annie Clark's ability to write immediately catchy but enigmatic lyrics that make this sophomore effort so winning. All the tracks are great but I particularly love "The Strangers", "Marrow", and "Laughing with a Mouth of Blood". Good year for second albums by female artists.

4. Merriweather Post Pavillion - Animal Collective

I've had a difficult relationship with Animal Collective- I usually love at least one song from each of their albums, but taken as a whole they are just too sonically relentless. In fact, up until Merriweather Post Pavillion, my favorite Animal Collective related release was Panda Bear's Person Pitch. However, Merriweather Post Pavillion manages to be both sonically adventurous and a great pop album (highlights including "Summertime Clothes", "Lion in a Coma", and "Brothers Sport"). I think it also helped that I first experienced the album on vinyl in manageable 3-song portions. The psychedelic optical illusion cover art is also best experienced in this large format.

5. Bitte Orca - The Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors is another band that often works best in small doses, but managed to pull off a great, cohesive album in 2009. They got off to a good start this year by collaborating with David Byrne on the kickoff song from Dark Was the Night (which would probably be my album of the year if I was including compilations). They then updated Talking Heads' epileptic funk for the 21st century with the incredible "Stillness is the Move". They also managed to rewrite "These Days" ("Two Doves") and create a future a capella classic (Cannibal Resource).

6. Down With Liberty... Up With Chains! - Chain & The Gang

I never heard of Ian Svenonius until my band, Panda Bandits, was invited to open for his latest project at SPACE. This "D.C. Legend" manages to be rocking, stylish, funny, and political in equal measure. But most of all, this is just plain fun music. My favorite is "Deathbed Confession"- a great concept, a great story, and a great chorus all rolled into one. In concert, Mr. Svenonius would stretch out the songs with long commentaries, observations, and witticisms, but the songs on the album still holdup without their in-the-moment preludes. Definitely my favorite new discovery of the year.

7. Tight Knit - Vetiver

So far Vetiver's best album has been last year's covers album, Thing of the Past. When Andy Cabic isn't interpreting other people's songs, his own songwriting can sometimes lack variety. But I can't complain too much when that style of writing creates so many awesome, laidback tunes, and he always manages to pull off at least one full blown classic (in this case, "Another Reason to Go"). The band is also consistently tight and Cabic has a killer voice. A great album to listen to while driving around and looking at the autumn foilage. Vetiver's show at SPACE in 2008 was a concert going hightlight, and I'm sad that they skipped Portland on their latest tour.

8. It's Not Me, It's You - Lily Allen

My guilty pleasure, I suppose. I've fucking loved Lily Allen ever since downloading "Smile" as iTunes free "Single of the Week". Perhaps its my innate love for rebellious girls and most things British, or just because Allen's songs are really catchy and fun. Sure, her lyrics are sometimes beyond terrible, but I can't resist the overall impact of "The Fear", "Everyone's At It", and "Fuck You". I also like that she believes God's favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival- a good guess.

9. Further Complications - Jarvis Cocker

Speaking of things British, the former lead singer of Pulp released his second solo album this year. I don't like it as much as his first (simply titled Jarvis) or pretty much anything he did with Pulp, but I love this man and can't be objective. All in all, I wasn't a fan of Steve Albini's production which buries one of my favorite voices in too much alternative rock sludge. But Mr. Cocker's famous wit is still there on songs like "Leftovers", "Fuckingsong", and the title track.

10. Veckatimest- Grizzly Bear

I'm still not sure if I've listened to this album enough to fully appreciate it. I didn't get into any of Grizzly Bear's previous releases (although I do like their contributions to Dark Was the Night), but this is an undeniably beautiful album. I also have the feeling that if I keep listening something will suddenly click into place and its full majesty will reveal itself to me. Don't disappoint me Grizzly Bear!

Album that hasn't been released yet, but will almost certainly make the list:

What Will We Be - Devendra Banhart

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Panda Bandits Photos

Sam Cousins, one of Portland's great photographers of the local music scene, took some great shots at the recent Panda Bandit performance at SPACE. There are also photos of Boxy and headliner, Chain and the Gang. You can see them all here.

Chain and the Gang is the latest project by D.C. punk legend, Ian Svenonius. Before this show I didn't know anything about him, but after his incendiary, hilarious, and just fucking rocking performance I am now a big fan. Definitely check out their album "Down with Liberty... up with Chains."

Panda Bandits will probably be going on hiatus for a few months, but you should expect a return in 2010.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


The Panda Bandits return to SPACE Gallery tonight as the opening act for D.C. legend Ian Svenonius and his band Chain and the Gang.

There will be gun fights, flowers, feathers, mayhem, magic, singing saws, bird calls, and disco breakdowns. Don't miss this show!

Doors open at 8:30 pm and the show starts promptly at 9. You better be there or the Panda Bandits will hunt you down.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Anna's Ghost CD Release Show! Tonight!

Eternal Otter Records proudly announces the release of Anna's Ghost debut self-titled LP. The band will be performing live tonight at the EMPIRE with guests Dead Man's Clothes (with new band member, TJ Metcalfe, formerly of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper) and EverySmithEver. The cover is only $3 and copies of the album will be on sale. In keeping with Eternal Otter Records' aesthetic of creating lovingly packaged albums, each CD case is but one piece of a giant splatter painted canvas. Consequently, the artwork on each package is unique, dark, and mysterious- like the music contained within.

The Portland Phoenix gave a great review of the album in this week's issue, writing, "The band have retained the dark carnival atmosphere of their debut [EP], but moved beyond it, developing a disturbed and disturbing indie rock that is both operatic and bare-bones, enchanting and repellent... they've created a sound that's so painfully close that you feel every note in your gut."

You won't be able to get any closer than the EMPIRE tonight, so I hope to see you there. You can read the full Phoenix review here.

The album is also currently available at iTunes and will be appearing shortly at Bullmoose and other local record stores.

Before the show, I also encourage you to check out Frock 'n' Roll at SPACE starting at 7 pm. Local fashion designers (including Pinecone + Chickadee, who exhibited at the Tower of Song Festival) will have their clothes modeled by some of our town's finest musicians, who will also perform. Acts scheduled to appear include Spencer & The School Spirit Mafia and Samuel James (both of whom have released excellent new albums in the past 2 months), and Eternal Otter Record's own Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (who I believe will be performing a song that was written specifically for the event).

Friday, September 4, 2009

First Friday Art Walk

Tower of Song it taking the day off- but there is plenty to do during this month's First Friday Art Walk.

As always, I recommend you that you check out Mr. Bryan Bruchman's definitive Portland blog, Hilly Town, for a list of suggestions.

I also believe that there will be a 15-piece steel drum band in Congress Square. So, look out for that!

Tower of Song will return in October at our temporary location in the Arcadia DesignWorks Studio.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Johnny Fountain & The Manes LIVE! TONIGHT!

Want to see a great show tonight?

Head down to the EMPIRE at 9 PM to catch Johnny Fountain & The Manes tearing it up on the upstairs stage. The cover is a recession-proof $2.

As an added bonus, you'll get to see a high concept music performance from Christian Cuff and Amanda Gervasi. Both are incredibly talented musicians, and they are also former lovers! They will go back and forth, trading 3-4 song sets, that chronicle their move to Portland and subsequent breakup. It will be way better than that Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston movie!

Hope to see you there!


Also, I have to mention that there was a great show at Slainte this Tuesday! The newly engaged Meghan Yates and Mordecai Rosenblatt started things off, capturing the room with Meghan's inimitable vocals backed by her guitar and Mordecai's jazzy bass. They both glowed with love throughout the entire set. They finished with an incredible version of "Man of Sorrow", my favorite cut from Meghan's new album, "Decension". For this a capella jam they were also joined by the one and only Moses Atwood, on leave from his hometown of Asheville.

Moses ended up taking the stage next to perform solo and then joined his band, Johnson's Crossroad, on dobro. A truly great performer who should never be missed during his all too infrequent trips to Portland. I hope he releases a new album soon! Check out his self-titled release from 2006 if you have never heard it, it's a real treat (and features Meghan on backing vocals).