Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Morrissey - Greatest Hits (Polydor, 2008)

Greatest Hits

5 pointless compilations out of 10

I am a man of mixed emotions here – giving anything Morrissey puts out a low score is close to blasphemy, but I simply cannot back this choice of top songs in any way, shape or form. Read this rating as an average of a perfect score of 10 for the music with a big fat zero for the decision to call this group of tracks “Greatest Hits”.

To someone who has followed this man for, well, decades at this point, a quick look at the track list told me things were off – of the fifteen tracks, nine were from the last couple of records and two were new, leaving a whopping four songs to cover his previous sixteen years of stellar recordings. For me personally, I'd buy the record anyways for the two new tracks...but what of the casual fan, or the young kid just looking to get into Morrissey's music? This would be an awful choice (or as awful as any comp of the Morrissey's material could possibly be).

I'm quite certain nearly every fan of this fine artist would come up with a different track list for a “Greatest Hits” record (me personally, any comp not including “Speedway” or “Sing Your Life” needs to be sent back to the presses), but I'm positive we would all agree that overloading it with new songs is not the way to go. For those seeking a much better “Greatest Hits” album (but still far from perfect in my book), check out the album titled “The Best Of” released in 2001. It's obviously missing songs off his newer albums, but it does a much better job of sampling his entire catalog up until that point.

Destroyer - Trouble In Dreams (Merge, 2008)

Trouble In Dreams

8 eccentric Canadians out of 10

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about how Destroyer is pulling a reverse T-Rex...Marc Bolan started out all folky, some of the original “freak folk” stuff really, but slowly T-Rex morphed into a rock band over their last few records. Destroyer is going the opposite route – Dan Bejar really made his name off of earlier upbeat glam rock albums like “Thief” and “Streethawk: A Seduction”, but his last couple of offerings, this record included, have mined a more delicate territory. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just different, and it isn't universal of the entire record – stand-out track “The State” really gets amped up in the most perfect Destoyer-like way, a testament to the melding of glam and noise in all the right ways.

I might not point to this record as a starting point for folks interested in seeing what the fuss is about behind Destroyer (see the earlier mentioned records), but it's still a very good listen and no doubt a release that will see a lot of air time on my stereo.

Blowback - Morning Wood (Self-Released, 2008)

Morning Wood

7 Swedish fish out of 10

I know this isn't anything new to most people, but let it be said: Sweden and heavy metal go together like peanut butter and jelly. Strawberry OR grape jelly, your call. And I'm not just talking black metal with it's church burning, face paint and general goofiness...there has been a real push lately towards what I call “rehash metal”. By this I mean bands that adhere closely to the very first metal bands from the seventies, before it was even called heavy metal really. Two of the greatest bands of this style, Witchcraft and Graveyard (both Swedish of course), have already been getting some recognition Stateside. Now you can add a third member to this group...Blowback. If you like Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, heavy riffs, pounding drums, and straightforward, high quality metal like many of us grew up on, you'll be hard pressed to do much better than this band.

Black Mountain - In The Future (Jagjaguwar, 2008)

Black Mountain
In The Future

7.5 small mountain towns out of 10

The phrase “stoner rock” has been getting used way too much over the last couple of years; god knows I've been guilty of throwing the phrase into a review every now and then. My first gut was to call Black Mountain's sophomore effort a good stoner rock album and leave it at that...after all, this is most certainly the first impression you get from the record. But it only takes a few more listens until you realize this record is so much more than a simple two-word descriptor could ever display. Sure, there is no shortage of heavy guitar power chords, but this band of Canucks manages to pair that at various times with synthesizers, harmonized pop-like vocals, power name it, they drag bits and pieces of nearly every style of music into their oeuvre. Crap, they even manage to get a little prog-rock from time to time and it kills (as opposed to making my ears want to fold in on themselves like most prog-rock). Highly recommended.

The Constantines - Kensington Heights (Arts & Crafts, 2008)

The Constantines
Kensington Heights
Arts & Crafts

7.5 CN Towers out of 10

When I first heard the Constantines via their self-titled album in 2001, my first impression was their sound came mostly from post-punk idealism ala Fugazi, with a hint of heartland ideals not unlike Bruce Springsteen. Now, seven years later and four albums in, that comparison could probably be flipped – mostly straight forward anthemic rock, with just a hint of that early-nineties DC sound that characterized their early work (and especially their live shows, though that may not have changed much).

But if their sound is growing a little more mainstream, it's coupled with skilled songwriting and musicianship that is reaching higher and higher with each successive release. Honestly, there is only one reason these songs shouldn't (and won't) take commercial radio by storm – Arts & Crafts doesn't have the A&R budget to buy airtime and compete with the big labels. I guess I'm OK with that – I don't have to share one of my favorite bands with the goons of the world, though at the same time this group of Canucks deserve much wider attention than they get.

M83 - Saturdays = Youth (Mute, 2008)

Saturdays = Youth

8.5 berets out of 10

So I now equate France with three things: giant metal towers, tasty cheese, and M83. But the man behind the plan, Anthony Gonzalez, ain't no French stereotype, and this ain't your father's Serge Gainsbourg. His previous album, “Before the Dawn Heals Us”, is one of the very best records released this century as far as I'm concerned...and this follow-up ain't no slouch either.

This record is damn near perfect, a mix of electronica and 80's nostalgia that somehow manages to sound like the soundtrack to a John Hughes film but still completely new and fresh at the same time. And like previous M83 releases, it works the best when listened to through headphones – you really pick up on all the little nuances and layering that Gonzalez puts into his songs that might go missed listened to out loud on your stereo. Like all of his albums, it's a grower...the more you listen, the more it seeps into your head and the more you want to hear it. I keep waiting for Gonzalez to slip up and make a stinker, because this type of electronic-rock music walks a razor edge between cheesy and choice, but so far the dude is batting 1.000.

Super Furry Animals - Hey Venus! (Rough Trade, 2008)

Super Furry Animals
Hey Venus!
Rough Trade

7 sheered sheep out of 10

The greatest Welsh pop band of all time, Super Furry Animals, returns with their 8th album, and it's a of their best maybe, certainly my favorite since the stellar “Rings Around the World” of 2001. Their prototypical sound, that of modern version of the Beach Boys, gets infused here with hints of electro-pop – a move that would typically turn me off but somehow really works. Mostly because they understand the concept of restraint, and that overusing a new sound or gimmick is a sure bet to turn folks off. Their pop sound is still king here, with each song catchier than the next, but their sonic explorations do a dandy job of heightening the overall feel of the record. It's a rather short effort, just a little over half an hour, but I've always been a less-is-more kinda dude anyways and it really works with this material.

The Rosebuds - Life Like (Merge, 2008)

The Rosebuds
Life Like

Rating: 8 silky jumpshots out of 10

North Carolina duo The Rosebuds may not be putting records out at a Robert Pollard-type pace, but four records and an EP in five years is nothing to sneeze at. And on top of that, each and every one of them has been a great slice of indie pop music...not a weak platter in the bunch.

This newest outing, “Life Like”, finds the band retreating slightly from their last album of upbeat, electronics heavy dance tracks to a more subdued pop sound. There is a fair amount of synth layering in these new tracks, but it never crosses over into full “electro-pop” territory. This album continues the trend of Kelly Crisp contributing more in the lead vocal category - and where her voice would sometimes come across as tentative in previous releases, it is now a strong addition to the album (especially on the track “Another Way In”). My favorite songs on this record are “In The Backyard”, a song that has been floating around in various forms for a while and finally got the proper full-length treatment; and “Border Guards”, which isn't just my favorite song of this release but one of the best songs The Rosebuds have put out, period. If you are in a catchy, sometimes mellow pop kind of mood, you'd be doing yourself a favor to pick up this gem.

Danielson - Trying Hartz (Secretly Canadian, 2008)

Trying Hartz
Secretly Canadian

Rating: 8.5 nurses uniforms out of 10

Danielson aka Danielson Famile aka Brother Danielson aka Daniel Smith – he seems to be a musician you either love or you hate. Me? I'm heavy on the present me a band or artist that sounds like the Pixies playing crazy religious freak-folk music after sucking on a helium balloon, and I'm one happy camper. This double disc release is a compilation of some of their prize tracks from 1996 to 2004 (which is roughly around the time he retired the “Danielson Famile” moniker and began changing his performing name with each album ala Will Oldham). They managed to get pretty much all of my favorite Danielson songs on this compilation, and the rest of the tracks are pretty swell too. Along with normal studio recordings, you'll also find live tracks and alternate versions to soothe the super-fan palate. There may not be a lot new here for fans that already own all of their releases, but having all these great songs in one spot is a nice option. And for the newbies out there who haven't been witness to this brilliant brand of music, this is a great place to start. A lot of people won't like it, but the handful that do will have a new favorite band.

The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me (Domino, 2008)

The Notwist
The Devil, You + Me

9 electrorock Germans out of 10

The last record the Notwist released was “Neon Golden” in early 2003 (though most everyone was actually listening to the European import of the album for a good chunk of 2002). That was a perfect record – one of my favorite records of all time, easily. I have hemmed and hawed for years, waiting for that next record; and while I'm not happy it took this long, “The Devil, You + Me” is about as perfect a follow-up album to that masterpiece as anyone could hope for. Not a bad track in the bunch – in fact, it would be tough picking out a favorite song as there were so many worthy recipients. Their unique electro-glitchy-indie-pop sound is still there in spades, though somehow lusher and more full, and I'm not sure I would have thought that possible for them.

U.S. Christmas - Eat The Low Dogs (Neurot Recordings, 2008)

U.S. Christmas
Eat The Low Dogs
Neurot Recordings

7.5 surly hillbillies out of 10

This isn't your father's metal. Or shit, maybe it is, I don't have a clue what your dad listens to, he might be cool. What I do know is this isn't the straight-forward cookie-cutter crap that gets passed off as “metal” these days, And maybe you already assumed that, knowing this record was released by the legendary Neurot Recordings, home label of the one and only Neurosis. In fact, I'd be hesitant to even really call it metal, though it does it get heavy at times.

It's a clusterfuck of a sound really, that somehow works itself out into a glorious listenable noise...if you were to combine Neil Young's “Dead Man” soundtrack, a heavy dose of Hawkwind, and a shitload of psychedelics (without crossing over into hippie territory) you'd be getting close to what U.S. Christmas sound like. This music is the brown acid you were warned not to take.

You know that movie “The Postman”, where Kevin Costner is riding around on a horse in a snow-covered desolate wasteland, dressed like an extra from “Mad Max”? That's kinda the visual equivalent to this album, only not crappy like that movie, if you catch my drift. And even if you don't catch my drift, it's just plain awesome and you should do yourself a favor and listen to this band.

David Vandervelde - Waiting for the Sunrise (Secretly Canadian, 2008)

David Vandervelde
Waiting for the Sunrise
Secretly Canadian

Rating: 6.5 fancy last names out of 10

David Vandervelde released one of my very favorite records of 2007, “The Moonstation House Band” - a modern glam-pop masterpiece that strongly reminded you of David Bowie and T. Rex without actually ripping them off. For this sophomore follow up, David has toned town the pop sheen a bit and replaced it with a slightly rootsier edge, but still firmly looking to the past – try to imagine the Byrds or the mellow side of the Rolling Stones producing modern pop songs and you're in the ballpark. And while I don't love this at the level I loved his debut, it's still a very good record and certainly worth seeking out if you have a hankering for catchy pop songs with a classic feel.

Nobunny - Love Visions (Bubbledumb, 2008)

Love Visions

Rating: 7.5 sweaty rabbit masks out of 10

Sometimes, music don't have to be of high quality to be awesome. Take Nobunny for example – poorly recorded, sloppy “party rock” might be the best description of this guy (or maybe band, I've seen him perform in both incarnations), but I'll be damned if these aren't some of the catchiest songs I've heard in ages. Think of a Ramones-like simplicity with a tinge of old school garage and R&B thrown in for flavor. This album is chock-full of short songs that are all over the map, but somehow coalesce into a fantastic set of slop-rock that I can't stop listening to. There was a point when this was kind of a tough record to find, but it's since been re-released on another label. That is if you're not just stealing it online, in which case who cares what the label is.