Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sometimes It’s Hard To Stay Objective…

 

Nominee #3 – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, SourMash/Mercury Records

Anyone who knows me — well, anyone who’s known me since the mid 1990s — knows that I’m a bit of an Oasis fan.

They still manage to occupy the most space on my CD shelves!

I might take it one step further and refer to myself as an “Oasis Apologist.” That could seem harsh, but, truth is, that band has a serious legion of haters. And they exist in different degrees. Some loved “Wonderwall” but hated the egotistical ramblings of the Gallagher brothers. Others think they’re derivative trad-rock, unworthy of being lumped in with any credible English rock outfit, and were the pricks who introduced the lunkheaded, English version of douchebag to the world: The Lad. There are others who actually liked the band, long ago, but watched with detached amusement as they imploded and became a band that released mediocre album after mediocre album, before breaking up exactly how we’d all expect that they would: Gallagher vs. Gallagher.

There’s a bit of truth to any of the reasons mentioned above. (Truth be told, those three are a small sampling. I’ve heard more than that in one night at the bar.) The Gallaghers were/are egotistical loudmouths. As they should be, damnit. Anyone who gets into a band — a ROCK band — and says that they don’t want to be the greatest or most respected so-and-sos in the history of whatever are either nuts or liars. Anyone with a friend in a band will marvel at that friend’s confidence and balls to get up on stage and potentially make an ass of themselves in front of a bar full of drunks and morons. I sure have. I wish I had a tenth of the cojones that some of the fine folks I’ve called friends have who are able to play a show. “Bigger than the Beatles?” Fuck yes! Go for it! Rock and roll is about tearing down the heroes. It’s about energy. I also like John Lydon.

And yes, “lad culture” got pretty out of control there for a while. Hell, even I read Loaded Magazine for a bit. But the lunkheads moved on as soon as Oasis slipped, even a little. Those of us who stuck by aren’t morons. At least not all the time. And yes, Morning Glory WAS a great album, and Be Here Now was simply okay. And the ones that followed had some dud moments. But, they were still more gratifying and memorable than most (if not all) of the bands influenced by the first two Oasis full lengths. (I’m looking at you, Travis… “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” Christ.)

And then…

To the relief of many, Noel walked out. And while most of us figured that he would be the one who would be first out of the gate with the obligatory solo LP (Shit, he’d been talking a possible solo album for years.) it was Liam (the under-achiever, supposedly) who struck first — with the rest of Oasis MK 2.4 in tow — with the Beady Eye album, Different Gear, Still Speeding release early in 2011. (And I will talk about that one later, but it’s Noel’s turn now.) Meanwhile, Noel went silent. Well, quiet, maybe.

Finally, late in the year, Noel Gallagher’s Flying Birds arrived. Reviews for Beady Eye had been strong, so things were ripe for comparison. Some were quick to claim that Noel’s foray into solo-hood was lacking in experimentation and depth, that it was Liam — of all people — who proved to be the real fire of the Oasis legacy. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I got into Oasis because of Noel. I had heard Definitely Maybe and thought it was pretty weak. (I should add here that, at that time, I was insanely anti-English rock. I was drowning in a sea of American hardcore, Bob Mould, Rollins spoken word, and anything Dischord.) I liked the “Morning Glory” track and “Wonderwall,” but I couldn’t get over that voice of Liam’s. I didn’t understand the swagger of the frontman role he was displaying. One night, however, I stumbled upon a MTV showing of the Undrugged performance (I think that’s what it was…) with Noel on lead vocals and Liam up in some balcony nursing a sore throat with cigarettes, booze, and Patsy Kensit. (All items that might chafe you.) Suddenly, it hit me. Ah ha! This is the guy that writes the songs, and he can sing them! Without having to poke his chin out and walk around like a thug. Okay, I’ll try again. The story gets complicated from there, but suffice it to say, by 1998 I was sold. The final knockout blow was finally hearing “Acquiesce.” I was all, like, best band of the Nineties! Mad fer it! Etc., Etc., Etc., I spent much of the next few years listening to Oasis and getting drunk. They go well together.

But I digress…

I picked up Beady Eye. I listened to it. I reserve my comments for later.

I waited for Noel’s response. It showed up at the store on a big enough week that it could have gotten lost in the shuffle of all I had picked up that day. But after one listen, then another, I was convinced. It was Noel that had moved away from what had become Oasis. High Flying Birds is less over-baked Beatles and more… Noel. It’s considerably less cluttered than the last two Oasis albums, leading one (me) to think that perhaps it was Liam’s need to seem like the “Lennon” of the group that the band was pushed into rather lackluster sonic territory, sacrificing songs for sound. And not pulling it off. Yes, it’s a subtle record. But this is the guy who wrote some of the better ballads in 1990s English rock. He’s still writing catchy tunes, no matter what tempo, and while his “descendants” get lost in over-wrought melodic patterns, Noel keeps it simple. He’s no dummy, this is what made the early Oasis such a force. It wasn’t about experimentation, per se, it was about building up from great songs. That was the failing of Be Here Now — great songs slathered in a thick layer of Caddyshack sized piles of cocaine-addled, uh… “creativity.” This is the document of an artist comfortable with his own legacy, and willing to be influenced by it.

“Everybody’s On the Run,” the opener, is classic Noel. It’s that whole “you against them” vibe, simply done, well produced, and — if possible — gently anthemic. “Dream On” manages to erase the bad feelings that “Mucky Fingers” gave me on Don’t Believe the Truth, and if there’s one criticism that might pop up, it could be that that “gentle anthem” trend, further exemplified by track three, “If I Had a Gun…” is Noel not trying hard enough. But how many times have we, as music critics, hailed some troubled — or newly solo artist — when they release their “freedom” record, which is packed to the gills with anthems, both gentle and bombastic? Come on, this is Noel, free of the constraints of the Oasis “brand,” free to explore ideas without a certain detractor — who would probably shoot down any good idea if his vitriol against his older brother was at critical mass.

The fun side of Noel is here too. “The Death of You and Me” is pure English rock/music hall straight out of his musical education. Yeah, there are strings on the album. Yes, there are painfully obvious peons to the Kinks, Beatles, and… Oasis. If you had a strong musical pedigree surrounding you, wouldn’t you let yourself be influenced by it? Seems natural to me. Even those that “fight the system” have influences. To be fair, the only time Noel explores the bombast of his former guise is on the closer, “Stop the Clocks,” which originally saw the light of day as an Oasis tune.

The standout on High Flying Birds, is the side two opener, “Aka… What a Life!” Fact is, the best Noel Gallagher tunes were NOT straight up Beatles (if one takes a moment, it’s important to remember that it was Liam that was hell-bent on hitching his legacy to the Fab Four) rip-offs, they were the tunes that made you walk with your chin held a little higher, the ones that gave you the gumption to chat up that girl at the bar, the one you sang along with with your friends (probably at that same bar.) It’s probably the most “Noel” track and the least of what you’d expect from him, all at once. Funky guitars, a danceable (!) beat, additional guitars that don’t sound quadruple-tracked, this is the song on the record that proved — to me — that this was the album that best explained how Oasis happened.

What’s next? Who knows. It would seem that Noel has a lot less to lose than Liam. Noel can assemble any band he wants. (Hell, I’d like to see him do a show with Bonehead and Guigsy, but that’s not gonna happen.) Since Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, I’d been enjoying Oasis albums, but not loving them. I love this album.

Score: 9 out of 10. No prizes for guessing that Beady Eye won’t measure up to this.

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Back Again. Gotta Be Some Sort Of Record. (Get It?)

When you got a chance to get some work done, and there’s an EP in the running, might as well keep moving… So here we go again.

Nominee #2 – He Gets Me High EP by Dum Dum Girls, Sub Pop Records

In the running for #1?

Easily one of my new favorite bands. There I go again, giving away the ending. I spend a great deal of my time at work looking at endcaps featuring new releases in little plastic cases. Last year, I found myself being stared back at by a woman on one of the covers of said new releases. Actually, last year (2010) seemed to be a big year for old photos of women staring out at you. (I’m talking to you, Vampire Weekend.) This time around, it was an album called I Will Be. Having been burned by the aforementioned Vampire Weekend (Who apes Paul Simon’s Graceland, for fuck’s sake? Yuck.) I thought little of the woman staring out from her closet.

A few months later, over at the vinyl side of our little retail jungle, I was hard pressed not to give an EP entitled He Gets Me High — with an admittedly gorgeous woman on the cover (who turned out to be the leader of the Dum Dum Girls, Dee Dee (Kristen Gundred)) and  a cover of The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” — a chance. I did a little research, and found that these (so-called) Dum Dum Girls were similar in style (a bit) to another band I had surprisingly fallen for, Best Coast. Only this time, the reverb-laden, girl-group, wall-of-sound(esque), west-coast buzz was a LOT less perky and worthy of videos featuring kittens. This was a tad darker, a bit more moody and brooding. Fucking perfect, if you know me at all…

The opener, “Wrong Feels Right,” is melodic, longing, dark, and all the rest in just about perfect order. “He Gets Me High,” on the other hand is muscular, brooding, and – at times – euphoric. Side B opens up with the much more vintage “Take Care of My Baby,” which – if done by any other band – would probably come off sounding maudlin or drippy. But Dee Dee and her cohorts make it sound so damned… I’m not one for the slow tune such as this, but this is regret, longing, and lost hope captured as it should be. It’s hard not to imagine one’s self in a cafe on a rainy day, staring off into space… wondering… hoping…

And then, there’s the Smiths tune. I’ve shied away from most covers of their songs, as I don’t really think anyone has managed to capture that sound like the original players. (Kirsty MacColl’s “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” comes damn close, but Johnny Marr is on the track!) This re-interpretation comes about as close to perfect as one can get. (I’ve used the word “perfect” a lot on this one, eh?) For a band from California, this sure sounds like England. Cold, rainy, northern England. Teen English angst and everything.

Score: 10 out of 10. Yup. Perfect. Have I said that already? Let’s not forget that this is an EP, and that means less chance for a dud track. But, truth be told, Dee Dee knows when enough is enough. It’s hard to argue with the notion that this band is seriously going places. (After this came out, I ended up getting my hands on everything available.)

Introductions Are Bullshit. Let’s Get This Show On The Road.

The “Pile.” This is 29 of the 30 I’ll be sifting through.

I am utterly fascinated by our desire as culture junkies to list and categorize, especially at fortuitous occasions, such as the “end of the year,” or “death of so-and-so.” Most years, I find that my ability to stay firmly rooted in the past prevents me from cobbling together a workable, relevant list that isn’t made up of mega-reissues or musings on what’s been lost since the glory days of Shoegaze or the last time the Cure put out a coherent, listenable album. Thanks to my status as a music retail schlub, however, the last couple of years have yielded not just an expansion in my pile of vinyl, but in my ability to keep up with current bands, trends, and sounds.
So, to celebrate what I felt was a pretty damned good year for music in general — it really hasn’t been this consistent in a really long time — I’m undertaking a multi-faceted, look back at the year, which will (hopefully) culminate in that most typical output of the over-analytical music nerd with time on his hands: a Mix Tape.
While most of my contemporaries and colleagues will either forgo the process of compiling their list, I find that it may be the last gimmick left that makes this kind of narcissistic, navel gazing endeavour worth reading. That is not to say that I am criticizing others’ methods for putting forth what they deem “necessary listening,” as such. Everybody’s got their thing. This is mine. Besides, I need some motivation to write and start using that silkscreen kit I’ve got sitting in the basement.
Let’s get spinning, shall we?
Here’s how it’s gonna go: I have 30 “nominees” for my top 20 albums of the year. These are the albums I bought this year that were released this year. Sure, only shaving off ten from the list seems pretty petty, but I don’t think a top ten really captures the spectrum of sounds I latched onto in 2011. Like I said, it was a good year. Also, the end result, the Top Tracks Mix Tape would seem pretty anemic if it were only ten songs long.

A whopping three pages of notes! On very small paper!

So what I’m going to do is listen to each of the nominees (in no particular order) and review and score (out of 10) each title. Hopefully, I will be able to get through all 30 by the end of the year, but who knows…
As stated, 30 full lengths, 29 of which are vinyl releases. Only one, Blood Ceremony’s Living With the Ancients is on Compact Disc. Yes, I know it was pressed flat-black-circular, but it was out of my price range at the time. I ain’t no fancy music writer who gets free shit. I gotta do what I gotta do.
After assigning a score and a review, I will then toss the crap out of the running, and compile the final 20. While the scores may generally determine how an album stands up as a work or against other works, it may not determine placement in or on the list. If something is a “9” but I just plain love it, it may trump a “10.” Silly to be sure, but it’s my list and my project.

Nominee #1 – Wild Flag by Wild Flag, Merge Records

Eddie waits with great angst for the hipster supergroup to find their groove.

I can’t think of a better example of wasted hype. Does that give away my final opinion too quickly? After all the hype (this is a supergroup for heck’s sake) and the coverage that Wild Flag garnered (streamed live on NPR!) pre-release, the first track showed some promise, as did the limited 7″ that hit stores on Record Store Day in April, but.. Talk about petering out.
Yup, that’s Janet Weiss on the drums. And the Mary Timony tracks are solid. (I would make judgments on Rebecca Cole, but I know little about her, or the Minders, so I won’t.) But it feels that when Carrie Brownstein is in the forefront, there’s no control. It’s Carrie Brownstein aping Carrie Brownstein. Sure, she was the frenetic energy in Sleater-Kinney, lighting up the live shows with her windmill moves and airborne theatrics. But here it just feels… Forced. I want to like it, I should like it, but it leaves me feeling… Disappointed.
I guess in the end, I’ve found out that I’m a Corin Tucker fan when it comes to the S-K aesthetic. Her debut was more subdued, her approach more organic. While this is the party record that S-K never really made, Wild Flag really lacks the depth of The Woods or Timony’s Golden Dove. And to be sure, I’m not one who thinks that an artist necessarily has to change with every release or mood swing. We are who we are. But so much of this record smacks of the past glories of Brownstein, it’s hard to shake the feeling that – regardless of the pedigree of her colleagues — this is her band.
Perhaps I was too hopeful. I had actually purchased this when it came out, but it — for a number of reasons, I’m a busy guy — it never made it to the turntable. When I realized that it was on the shelf, I automatically assumed it would make the list. I was wrong. I’m hopeful that they’ll stick together, and try something a bit more… something. It has warmed a bit for me on re-listens, but unlike S-K records, or some of Mary Timony’s solo work (not to mention her time in the brilliant Autoclave) nothing sticks in my head. And the herky-jerky vocals are getting under my skin.

Score: 5 out of 10. Sure, it’s harsh. But it’s more a reflection of my disappointment and reaction to all the damned hype.