Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Best of 2010 (Local)

And now it's time for a list of my favorite Portland albums from 2010. As with last year, I believe many of these albums are as good, if not better, than the stuff that made yesterday's national list.

1. Dead Songs - Big Blood

Dead Songs is definitely the best album of the year bar-none. After 9 incredible self-released CD-R's over the last 4 years, not to mention their contributions to Fire on Fire, Big Blood's Caleb and Colleen put out their first official vinyl release. The album was released by Time-Lag and the packaging and artwork (by Colleen) is exquisite. They had originally planned to release a vinyl of the best songs from the past releases, but in their typically prolific style they decided to write a whole new album instead. Nonetheless, Dead Songs ends up sounding like a greatest hits record anyway. "Dead Song", the first track, alone makes this album a must-buy. What follows is just an orgy of amazing music from "A Spiral Down" (apparently the "Everybody is screaming! From across the water I can hear them" lyric was inspired by the shouts of triumph on the night of Obama's election victory) to "Lay Your Head on the Rails, Pt II", culminating in Caleb's joyous "Daughter" and Colleen's deep rumination on family in "the Architect & the Archeologist". If you haven't heard of Big Blood before, I'm not even going to bother to try to explain their sound, you just need to get this album and listen.

2. Narrow Gauge Quad Trains / Don't Peel Your Bloomers Off Just Yet - Wesley Hartley & The Traveling Trees

Wesley Hartley & the Traveling Trees put out Narrow Gauge Quad Trains in 2009, but it was reissued this year by the Portsmouth label burst & bloom. And I'll be goddamned if it's not Maine's best country music since the heyday of Al Hawkes. Wesley is one helluva a songwriter and the Traveling Trees always know when to step up the shuffle or pull on the heartstrings. This album is also perfectly paced between quick country rockers ("Ol Texas", "Slow Shards", "El Gusano Rojo", "Outside Get Out") and slow burning ballads ("Jet Fighter", "Acreless"). This year's follow-up, Don't Peel Your Bloomers Off Just Yet, is not quite as immediate, lacking Ron Harrity's always impeccable recording prowess, but still has plenty of great songs, including my personal favorite, "Dream House".

3. We Left the Roadside - D. Gross

Krister Rollins is at Blue just about every time D. Gross and Samuel James are there swapping songs, so I'd like to quote his review of Dana's album:

"I’m going to go ahead and say that I think Portland’s extremely fortunate to have one of the Country’s best singer/songwriters living and working here. Dana Gross’ sophomore album We Left The Roadside is some crazy masterpiece. He’s hit a wonderful balance, blending allegory, parable, virtuoso guitar work, deft lyrics and good old American song structures. We Left The Roadside shows remarkable growth since his first album, Pirates. The album as a whole is tighter and the songs show more restraint and artful use of structure."

I couldn't agree more. Also, after hearing D. Gross play these songs solo for the last year, it is great to hear the full band arrangements. The tablas on "Hummingbird" are a stroke of genius, and "Sunset Mountain" is just about the happiest sounding takedown of religion I've ever heard. The whole album was recorded at Acadia Studios and sounds fantastic throughout.

4. The Ongoing Ding - Cerberus Shoal

Well, one of the best Portland albums released in 2010 was recorded in 2004 and is only available through a Japanese label. The album in question is Cerberus Shoals' full-length sequel to their masterpiece "The Ding" from the Vim and Vigour of Alvarius B and Cerberus Shoal EP. It is also turns out to be Cerberus Shoals' best album of their overflowing discography. Most Cerberus Shoal albums are just brimming with so many ideas, energy, and experimentation that the genius and adventure is undeniable, but the core is often impenetrable. The Ongoing Ding boils down Cerberus Shoal to its essentials, without losing any of their magical weirdness. It kicks off with the champagne burst of "Tailor of Graves" (which Eternal Otter Records' had the honor of releasing as vinyl single this year - available here) and then gives way to the metaphysical debate of "Should we give the earth a word", and the journey takes many more strange and wonderful turns from there. Cerberus Shoal went on hiatus in 2006, but its many members are still making incredible music today (Big Blood, Chriss Sutherland, dilly dilly), but this album is a great opportunity to appreciate once again the vim and vigour of Cerberus Shoal.

5. La Perla - Olas

To drive home my point about the enduring legacy of Cerberus Shoal on Portland's music scene, here is Chriss Sutherland's latest project Olas at #5. Chriss Sutherland flirted with a few Spanish lyrics on his excellent debut solo album Me in a "field", and went one step further on his follow up Worried Love. Now he takes lead vocal duties on the debut album from Olas, a collaboration of very talented musicians and dancers reinterpreting flamenco music through a prism of rock, folk, and Arabic sounds. Chriss sounds great singing in any language, and the Spanish tongue seems to draw out his most passionate growl. You also won't find an album this year with better hand clapping and foot stomping, and the band build to an ecstatic climax on nearly every song. Olas revisits two songs from Worried Love, "El Tiempo" and the traditional "Volando Voy", with superior results. There are also a number of other standouts, including the title track and "La Luz En Mi Vida". Ron Harrity does typically awesome, crisp production work, and the album packaging is a stunner (and comes with translations of the songs). Olas are best experienced live as the dancing is as key a component to the band as anything else, but La Perla is just about as great a representation of Olas as could be captured on CD.

6. Lady Lamb the Bee-Sides - Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

A cassette only release made available at Aly Spaltro's October farewell show. This collection is a smorgasbord of rare and unreleased Lady Lamb songs, ranging from Aly's earliest recordings, made when she was 17, to recent demos. Highlights include the myspace-favoite "Almond Colored Sheets", the live on radio take of "Dear Erin" (written for dilly dilly), and "The Nothing (Part 2)" demo. As with almost all Lady Lamb songs, the immediacy and lyrical splendor of each tune is breathtaking, and they put most artist's "A-Sides" to shame. Along with the recent series of self-released CDs, this cassette tape suggests that Aly has enough great songs in her that she could potentially pull off a triple LP for her next album with no decline in quality. It goes without saying that Lady Lamb's next album is one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2011, and I hope that it will top next year's national list.

7. Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Waters of Agartha - Herbcradt

Herbcraft is the latest psychedelic pseudonym for Matt Lajoie, owner of the l'animaux tryst label (an inspiration to Eternal Otter Records) and one of the friendly freaks from Planets Around the Sun. Although I believe Herbcraft discovers the Bitter Waters of Agartha was recorded completely sober, it definitely ranks as this year's 2nd best stoner album (the best being The Ongoing Ding). You can follow along to the plot of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's journey to the Domain of the Arianni with the printed lyrics on the back of the (awesomely retro) album sleeve, but the best part of the Herbcraft experience is just getting lost in the wash of guitar tones. This is a vinyl only release, and the crackle of the needle against the wax is just one more great found sound on this oddball gem.

8. Ice Is War - Dead Man's Clothes

Dead Man's Clothes won "Best New Act" in the Phoenix Music Awards this year despite the fact that Ice Is War is the band's third release. Nonetheless, the award was justified not only because original members Don Dumont and Elliot Heeschen have been joined by Ian Riley (formely of Anna's Ghost) and TJ Metcalfe (formerly of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper), but also because they have now arrived at a distinct signature sound. For lack of a better word, Ice Is War is the most "mature" release of their career (and not just because they are no longer singing about Zombie Love). Although the songs are clearly built around Dumont's excellent songwriting and expressively dead pan vocals, every member fills an essential component in crafting the overall sound. The slow burning "A Fire" and the super catchy single "Moving Mountain" show the breadth of their range while still sounding like nobody else. Some complaints have been voiced with the sound quality of this recording, but the songs shine through. That being said, I would happily plunk down some serious cash to hear Dead Man's Clothes in 5.1 Surround Sound. Also, in a year of great record packaging, Ice Is War is one of the most artfully designed albums.

9. Heavy the Mountains, Heavy Are the Seas - Jakob Battick

This EP could have easily been a complete failure, but it proves to be a startling and challenging release by an exciting emerging artists. Jakob Battick reaches for the grand ambition of Scott Walker and Nick Cave at their darkest - not an easy task for an art student without access to expensive studio equipment. I would love to know more about the recording process for this album, because it creates a serious monolith of sound. This album takes patience, and some parts are just overlong, but when Battick's unsettling growl, cryptic lyrics, and dark atmospherics all fall into place, the results are truly captivating (best observed on "Nine Brothers & the Wolf"). Jakob Battick is definitely an artist to watch in 2011.

10. Treble Treble Vol. 2 - Various Artists

There are far too many great albums from this year to fit on a Top 10 list, so this compilation does an excellent job of picking out some of the choice cuts of 2011. Picking up from Joshua Loring's first installment, Bryan Bruchman of hillytown curates the latest edition in the Treble Treble series, chronicling Portland's rock scene. In this case, all 10 tracks are taken from bands that participated in the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. Standout tracks include a new song from from Foam Castles, Marie Stella's "1985" (from this year's Trust EP), and Phantom Buffalo's "Radio Signal (from Cement Postcards with Owl Colors). Of particular note is "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure", the A-Side from Jesse Pilgrim & the Bonfire's 7" vinyl single released by Eternal Otter Records.

Treble Treble Vol. 2 is available as a free download here, so why don't you give it a listen?

I know a lot more great Portland albums came out this year, and I am sure I missed a few, so let me know your favorites in the comments. Much respect to everyone making music in this little city of ours.

1930s Night + Dark Side of the Rainbow

This is a brief intermission from the "Best of 2010" lists to remind you to get your tickets for "1930s Night" at the State Theatre taking place this Friday, December 3rd. Doors open at 5 pm and Over A Cardboard kicks off their performance at 5:30 pm. They will be playing classic vaudeville tunes, complete with cardboard scenery, and puppets!

The screening of The Wizard of Oz starts at 7 pm. Put on your finest bowler hat, stick the family in the Model T, and head on down to the State. A photographer's booth will be setup to take your family portrait with tin-type film.

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA! There will be a second screening of the Wizard of Oz that night at 10 pm synced to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

Tickets to both screenings are $5, and available at Bull Moose Records. More information here.

Also, did you know that the Deli Magazine has nominated Over A Cardboard Sea as "The New England Band of the Month". Today is the last day to vote for them. Vote here.

You can also order their 7" vinyl singles "Down in the Subway b/w Brother, Can Your Spare A Dime?" from Eternal Otter Records here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Best of 2010

Well, so it's time for Eternal Otter Records' picks for the best albums of 2010. I know there is still a month left to go in the year, but perhaps you'll find some good gift ideas here. I'll be covering national albums today, and covering local releases tomorrow.

1. Brothers - Black Keys

Destined to become a Rock 'n' Roll Classic. The album that convinced me that Black Keys are more than just a pretty good garage rock band. The most startling revelation on this album is Dan Auerbach's voice, which shows previously unknown range, shifting from the Marc Bolan-esque falsetto of "Everlasting Light" to the clipped aggression of "Ten Cent Pistol". It goes without saying that the music rocks, and "Everlasting First", "Next Girl", and "Tighten Up" are an unstoppable opening trifecta. I used to think the album was a little too long, but I always end up going all the way to the end. It helps that the first track on Side 4 is "Unknown Brother", one of the most moving ballads ever put to wax.

2. The Suburbs - Arcade Fire

I think this album underwhelmed a lot of people, but I'll defend it as one of the best albums of the year. I recommend listening to it on vinyl, which allows you to digest the album in 4-song bites - I could imagine that the album could start to sound a little overlong and same-y without the occasional break to flip the record. That being said, The Suburbs is full of great songs, and if even if it doesn't have a "Wake Up" or "No Cars Go" on it, it does have "Rococco", "We Used to Wait", and "The Sprawl (Part II)". Also, every time I listen to the record it reminds me of the book "The Girl Who Owned A City", which was about an epidemic that kills everybody on Earth over the age of 13. I read it in 5th grade, and it's the first book I remember really liking.

3. Homeland - Laurie Anderson

This is one of the most interesting, diverse, and dark albums of the year. It starts with the beautiful "Transitory Life" assisted by Tuvan Throat Singers, then goes into the caustic "Only An Expert" (with Lou Reed on guitar), and ends with a violin solo. The centerpiece is the 11 minute "Another Day in America", Anderson's harrowing and hilarious state of the nation address, which she delivers in a ridiculous baritone through tape manipulation. A sample lyric:

"And another way to look at time is this: There was an old married couple and they had
always hated each other. Never been able to stand the sight of each other really.
And when they were in their nineties they finally got divorced and people said: Why did
you wait so long? Why didn't you do this a whole lot earlier?
And they said: Well, we wanted to wait until the children died."

Laurie Anderson's best album since Big Science.

4. I Learned the Hard Way - Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have a formula down - they make funky music with a lot of soul, and they do it well, probably as good as anybody in the last 20 years. So, it's no surprise that they open their fourth album with two instant classics, "The Game Gets Old" and "I Learned the Hardway". However, the closing track "Mama Don't Like My Man" is one of their best tracks, and showcases a more stripped-down style that I really dig. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings also gave one of the best concert performances I saw in 2010, and I'm looking forward to seeing them again in 2011.

5. Bright Bright Bright (EP) / Wild Go - Dark Dark Dark

One of the best finds of 2010. Hearing the 5-song Bright Bright Bright EP is like being shocked out of an afternoon nap into a strange day of setting suns and rising tides. Although the full-length Wild Go is stylistically very similar, built around Nona Marie's brightly melancholy voice and the band's sparse but evocative instrumentation, it has the opposite effect of the EP - luring the listener into a sad but hopeful reverie. The best song from either album is the summer jam "Make Time", in which the bands other songwriter, Marshall LaCount steps up to steal the show. Dark Dark Dark also treated Portland to two memorable concerts this year

6. Have One On Me - Joanna Newsom

I'm curious what the reaction to this album would have been if it had been released as three separate albums over the last three years, instead of as one big magnum opus. But I guess grand ambition is kind of the point. In any event, each of the 3 LPs is great and I still can't bring myself to pick a favorite, although the song "Good Intentions Paving Co." is an obvious highlight, as are "In California", and "Esme". The album also proves that Joanna Newsom is nearly as interesting on the piano as she is on the harp. My one complaint is that in an album this sprawling, I wish she would have included a few more off-kilter pop songs in the vein of such Milk-Eyed Mender gems as "Sprout and the Bean" and "Bridges and Balloons".

7. Rough Travel for a Rare Thing - Bill Callahan

I didn't discover Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle until this year, but in retrospect it should have been near the top of my 2009 list. Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, a vinyl and digital only release, is a live album that captures Bill Callahan playing songs mostly from his late-period Smog era. As would be expected, Callahan is low-key throughout, but each song is so beautifully crafted and skillfully arranged ("Diamond Dancer", "Held", and "The Well" are just a few of the great songs played) that the album is fully engaging from start to end.

8. Made the Harbor - Mountain Man

A short little folk album by a trio of young women. I don't have much to say about it, except that it sounds timeless in the best way - it would sound great to human ears at any point in our history. Best of all, it never tries too hard, just nice harmonies, an easy going charm, and simple songs. The track "How'm I Doing?" sums it up well: "Now I'm not braggin' but it's understood, that everything I do I sure do good."

9. Contra - Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend writes terrible lyrics, but that makes them even more fun, as you can just make up your own words as you dance along to their catchy tunes. I can't help but smile and shimmy across the floor every time I flip the record over to "Cousins", and that is reason enough for this album to be considered for the list. Throw in an M.I.A. sample, a few more summer jams, and a great album cover (even if it got them sued), and I'm sold.

10. The Happy (EP) - Bearkat

A wonderful new EP from the Austin-based Katy Pearson, who performs as Bearkat. I first heard Bearkat when Katy was briefly living in Maine during the summer of '09, and ended up totally crushing on her debut LP Suitcase Swimmers (highly recommended!). This EP doesn't have many stylistic changes from that album, but why change a winning formula? Wonderful instrumentation, which includes banjo and ukulele among other delights, mixes with a voice brimming with personality to create perfect little love songs. "Girl with the Broken Heart" also has a nice section near the end that flirts with some Tom Waits-esque darkness. My main complaint with most EPs is that they are too damn short, but The Happy is beautifully sequenced with 3 charming interludes that give you time to digest the song you just heard - the physical copy of the album even ends with a little surprise. But as great as this EP is, I am still waiting in great anticipation for Bearkat's next full-length! The Happy is available to listen to on bandcamp, so go do that now.

Ten Songs Great Songs from Albums that didn't make the list:
1. "Real Live Flesh" - Tune-Yards (Tune-Yards performed one of the best concerts I've seen this year, and Bird Brains should have topped my 2009 Best of List. This song was released as a single, and is as good as anything from her debut album. Can't wait to hear what she comes up with next.)
2. "Dance Yrself Clean" - LCD Soundsystem (LCD Soundsystem albums usually bore me by the end, but the highlights always turnout to be among the best songs of the year. I love how this opening track from This Is Happening starts super catchy and then gets super big.)
3. "Ambling Alp" - Yeasayer (Odd Blood was a little hit-and-miss overall, but this song is dynamite. "O.N.E." was pretty excellent, too. Looking forward to these guys releasing a killer singles collection.)
4. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" - The National (Everything good about The National in one song.)
5. "Right On" - The Roots (Have One on Me is great, but the best Joanna Newsom song this year was actually by The Roots, who sampled "The Book of Right-On" for this track.)
6. "Some Kind of Nature" - The Gorillaz (In 2010, Lou Reed turned in a great guitar part on Laurie Anderson's "Only An Expert" and a great guest vocal on "Some Kind of Nature". I'll take these two stellar contributions over an album about Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven anyday.)
7. "Ain't No Grave" - Johnny Cash (The Man in Black singing from beyond the grave. Even in death, no one can compete with Johnny Cash.)
8. "Black Vessel" - Pearl & the Beard (One of Brooklyn's finest bands, and friends to Portland released a nice little EP this year. The title track is a little slower than my favorite Pearl & the Beard songs, but I'm always game for a song about pirates).
9. "Got Nuffin'" - Spoon (Spoon's Transference was probably the biggest disappointment of 2010 after MGMT's Congratulations, but this song almost rises to the heights of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.)
10. "American Troglodyte" - David Byrne (Unfortunately, David Bryne and Fatboy Slim's too long album about Imelda Marcos is mostly a waste of time, but Byrne manages to pull off at least one great spazzy social critique.)

Looking over my Best of 2009 list, I realized that I discovered enough albums from that year in 2010 that it is due for a revision.

Best of 2009 (Revised):

1. Bird Brains - Tune-Yards
2. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle - Bill Callahan
3. Two Suns - Bat For Lashes
4. What Will We Be - Devendra Banhart
5. Down with Liberty ... Up with Chains - Chain & the Gang
6. Preliminaires - Iggy Pop
7. Sunset/Sunrise - The Dutchess & the Duke
8. Actor - St. Vincent
9. Merriweather Post Pavillion - Animal Collective
10. Embryonic - Flaming Lips

10 Great Songs from Albums that Didn't Make the List-
1. "Stillness Is the Move" - Dirty Projectors
2. "Crane Wife 3" - Marianne Faithfull (amazing Decemberist's cover)
3. "Another Reason to Go" - Vetiver
4. "Home" - Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes
5. "Further Complications" - Jarvis Cocker
6. "Out of the Blue" - Julian Casablancas
7. "The Fear" - Lily Allen
8. "Oh, Death!" - Pearl & the Beard
9. (tie) "Well-Alright" - Spoon / "Tightrope" - Yeasayer (both from the Dark Was the Night compilation)
10. "The Butcher" - Larkin Grimm

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Don't worry dear friend, you will find time for sleep.

I was running through a bad dream, now I'm waking up.

Tonight I had trouble sleeping, and so I listened to some songs by Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. The first track to come on was "Almond Colored Sheets", followed by her cover of "These Days".

The third track was "The Nothing". This song is familiar to most as the rap stuck in the middle of "Pennylicks" (We will crane our necks...). However, the version I was listening to was a particularly unique take recorded live at One Longfellow Square. On the recording, Aly introduces the song as follows:

"This next song is called "The Nothing". This is usually in rap form with some percussion. I slowed it down just a tiny bit."

Accompanying herself only on banjo, Aly then proceeds to translate her rhymes into a hopeful and honest plea to face the darkness and challenges of life without fear.

Now there is something
Like a needle in our ears
But we are not fearful
This is, you know, This is the way that it is
This is the only way
You must harness that pain
Just rip it out
Toss it away. Toss it away.
You'll amount to something
You won't wash away
If you just get out of bed
If use your legs
Whether you choose to leave
Whether you choose to stay

Listening to this song in bed, soft tears started to run from my eyes. And when that first tear rolled down my cheek, I remembered that I had been at this performance, and I had cried then, too.

It was the first show that Aly played following the departure of TJ from the band. It was like no Lady Lamb show I had seen before or since. It was clear that Aly still carried the weight and pain of the band's separation, but what I most remember from that performance was her incredible courage.

Her songs were not only intensely emotional, but also physically daunting - on many songs she looped multiple instruments on top of each, or literally stretched her body across the stage to play a keyboard part while stomping a floor tom. The final song found her bashing on cymbals while screaming of a plane crash over Guatemala.

In short, she went for it. Her lyrics are poetry, her music is magic, and her voice sounds touched by the divine, but what I admire most in Aly is her fearlessness. People stop to listen to Lady Lamb, because they can tell she is showing the world her heart. It's powerful enough to start making you feel braver yourself.

I will miss Aly while she is away from Maine, but I know she is guided by her courage. And I hope everywhere she goes, she will leave a legacy that inspires people to believe in their talents and pursue their own best ambitions. I know that she has left that legacy here. But like all beautiful women, she can't help but leave you a little brokenhearted when she goes.

Goodnight, my friends.