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The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

Best Albums of 2012

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Dear faithful LITC readers,

Our favourite post of the year is here!  We apologise that it’s taken so long, but think of it as a late Christmas gift.  As with previous years, we’ve included our respective Top 10 Albums of the year as well as some honourable mentions and some not so honourable ones.  Feel free to share your favourite records of the year in the comments section.  Maybe you’ll even discover some unknown treasures within our lists.  Take care, readers.  See you in 2013.

Love,

Elijah & Greg

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Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Valtari

10.  Valtari  Sigur Rós — Whilst I loved 2005’s Takk…, I found that 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust left much to be desired.  Valtari leans more toward Sigur Rós’ earlier style, a more ambient and reflective record although I’d hesitate before calling it ‘samey’.  Incredible tracks like ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’, some of the finest I’ve ever heard from the Iceland post-rock legends kept me from pushing this record out of the top ten.  For this record the band also came up with they’ve called the ‘Valtari Mystery Film Experiment‘ in which they employed twelve filmmakers to make music videos for the album based upon what the song brought to their minds and without the final approval from Sigur Rós.  See ‘Varúð’ below, created by Inga Birgisdóttir, who designed the album cover and also directed the video for ‘Ekki Múkk':

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Gentle Stream

9.  Gentle Stream  The Amazing — This was the first record of 2012 that really caught me by surprise.  Released in Sweden in 2011, Gentle Stream proves to be just that, a gentle yet wide stream of quality, what I would describe as a subtle mixture between Simon & Garfunkel and Dinosaur Jr.  Like their previous releases, The Amazing and Wait for Light to Come, there are still hints of psych rock (influenced by the presence of various members of Dungen) and classic rock and the finished product it is most satisfying.

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All We Love

8.  All We Love We Leave Behind  Converge — Before I listened to this record, I didn’t want to include Converge in this list because it’s starting to look like whenever a few of my favourite artists make a new album they inevitably end up on my ‘Best Albums’ list.  For those who know how I rate music, it’s unlikely that the top four will come as any surprise this year.  But give me some credit; I can betray bands I love when they make subpar records – like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or my ‘dishonourable mentions’ below.  Or last year when I resisted We Were Promised Jetpacks’ In the Pit of the Stomach, Atlas Sound’s Parallax, David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations, DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers, Danielson’s Best of Gloucester County, etc.  See, so when I include one of my favourite bands in my top ten I really mean it!

All that being said, I didn’t want to include Converge this year, so when I heard the first track, ‘Aimless Arrow’, I was relieved and heartbroken simultaneously.  I would consider the track their weakest opener to date (especially compared to their last record’s first track, ‘Darkhorse‘), and with its hints of ‘screamo’ and melodic hardcore (don’t worry, there’s no ‘singing’ on this track), I was fearful of listening to the rest of the record.  But the eight tracks to follow are all heavy, quality tunes!  The rest of the record features some spoken word, which works on top of the slow, thoughtful guitar work by Kurt Ballou.  But my heart was nearly torn in two upon listening to the tenth track, ‘Coral Blue’.  It’s not all that frightening until the chorus, which isn’t quite ‘screamo annoying’, but more confusing for those who listen to Converge.  Thankfully, that’s the extent of this ‘singing’ charade on All We Love We Leave Behind.  It closes out with the sufficiently epic title track and sufficiently heavy ‘Predatory Glow’.  No, on the whole this was no serious transition for Converge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  They tried that on You Fail Me and they failed me indeed.

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Sweet Heart

7.  Sweet Heart Sweet Light  Spiritualized — I know, great cover, right?  OK, it’s probably one of the worst album covers this year, but don’t let that put you off!  This here is an excellent record.  Jason Pierce, also known as J. Spaceman, the creative force behind all of Spiritualized’s incarnations over the last 22 years, wrote the album whilst undergoing serious medical treatment for his liver, which was left in a sore state as a result of many years of drug use, both prescribed and recreational.  But unlike 2008’s Songs in A&E, which was also inspired by a serious medical emergency (aspiration pneumonia and periorbital cellulitis), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a much more hopeful, inspiring record, somewhat in the vein of 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space.

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Don't Bend,  Ascend!

6.  Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  Godspeed You! Black Emperor — This is the Canadian post-rockers’ first record since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., and whilst I found Yanqui rather uninspiring after 2000’s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, ‘Allelujah! is a return to form and then some.  Godspeed has a rare skill (shared with Sufjan Stevens) for making 20+ minute songs engaging throughout.  The tracks are engrossing and become, as the album title suggests, transcendent objets d’art, ushering the listener into heavy aural ascension.

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America

5.  America  Dan Deacon — I appreciated Dan Deacon’s music before (his 2009 release, Bromst was among my honourable mentions that year), but this record caught me by surprise.  The opener, ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, is a buzzy digital number, which flows into the two subsequent tracks until Deacon decided to change the pace with ‘Prettyboy’, which seems to ruin the rhythm of the album, that is until we’re brought back into the jam with ‘Crash Jam’.  The highlight of the album is the four-part ‘USA’ opus below:

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Lonerism

4.  Lonerism  Tame Impala — Tame Impala’s last record, Innerspeaker, which came to me as such a surprise thanks to Greg’s preaching of the gospel, ranked 6th on my Best Albums of 2010 list, so in my desire to not be let down, I was suspecting that the follow-up wouldn’t be as good.  As with their previous material, Lonerism draws much from the past (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards‘ could’ve been part of Magical Mystery Tour, right between ‘Blue Jay Way‘ and ‘Your Mother Should Know‘, or it could’ve totally replaced the latter and I wouldn’t have minded), but always with a sense of artistic integrity and completeness.  Thank you, Tame Impala, for defying the awfulness of your band name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock!  Oh and isn’t it groovy!

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Bloom

3.  Bloom  Beach House — After their excellent third album, Teen Dream (which ranked 8th in my Top 10 Albums of 2010), I expected Beach House to lose steam.  Every subsequent record was getting better and no band can keep that up.  Well, this loss of steam will have to wait until their next record, because I’d say that Bloom might very well be their best record to date.  Whilst their sound remains distinctively ‘Beach House’ (those keyboard and guitar-driven dream pop soundscapes and that husky female voice), the songwriting in Bloom has taken a step forward.  And even though this record demands more time and attention than their previous releases, the payoff is tenfold.  And how amazing is this Ghostbusters-inspired video for ‘Lazuli’?

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Dept of Disapearance

2.  Dept. of Disappearance  Jason Lytle — This was an exciting year for us Grandaddy fans: the band reunited after six years apart!  And very fortunately for us, the excitement didn’t end there.  Grandaddy principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Jason Lytle, has kept busy since the break up in 2006.  In fact, Grandaddy’s final record, 2005’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, was written and recorded entirely by Lytle.  After the break up, a move inspired by lack of commercial success, Lytle relocated from California to Montana and toured with Rusty Miller in support of Just Like the Fambly Cat.  In 2009, Lytle released his first solo record, Yours Truly the Commuter and followed that with an EP, Merry X-mas.  Lytle and former drummer of Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch, joined with members of Earlimart to form the band Admiral Radley, who released their debut record, I Heart California, in 2010.  Each of these incarnations were superb (I Heart California was an honourable mention in my Best Albums of 2010 list), but none seemed to capture the magic that Lytle’s earlier work possessed in great measure.  Until now.  It’s safe to say that Dept. of Disappearance is a grower, but there was enough of pure goodness present from the first listen to keep me going.  Each track is excellent, and some are among the best Lytle’s ever written, such as the title track, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Last Problem of the Alps’, ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’ (below), ‘Gimme Click Gimme Grid’ and ‘Elko in the Rain’.

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Shields

1.  Shields  Grizzly Bear — I won’t make excuses or defend my pick despite the fact that Grizzly Bear’s previous record was my number one album of 2009Shields is just that good.  Still present are the Grizzly Bear trademarks we know and love, but this record is the band’s most aggressive and coherent to date.  At times it is far darker than their previous material (‘Speak in Rounds’), yet it still takes the listener into the clouds (‘Half Gate’).  In the midst of this more aggressive direction, Grizzly Bear also ventures into the realm of more accessible pop music, music that isn’t as dissonant as their previous releases yet retains its creative bearings.  On top of all of their unique qualities as proficient musicians and songwriters, Grizzly Bear demonstrate a continuing process of maturation, one that solidifies them as—in this listener’s opinion—one of the best bands of their generation.

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Elijah’s honourable mentions

Elijah’s dishonourable mentions

  • Mirage Rock  Band of Horses
  • Silver Age  Bob Mould

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Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Another conflicted year of listening for me:  some of my favorite bands put out albums I thought were shite (Animal Collective, Sigur Rós) and other bands that I expected more from turned out mediocre fare (Passion Pit, The Avett Brothers).  Then there were the albums that had real moments of brilliance on them…but which couldn’t sustain that level of greatness throughout the entire record.   The following albums didn’t break into my top ten, but you should definitely check out the songs indicated:

  • Bloom  Beach House — ‘Myth’, ‘The Hours’, ‘Irene’
  • Charmer  Aimee Mann — ‘Labrador’, ‘Soon Enough’, ‘Slip and Roll’
  • Confess  Twin Shadow — ‘Golden Light’, ‘Five Seconds’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’
  • Lonerism  Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Sun’s Coming Up’
  • Shields  Grizzly Bear — ‘Yet Again’, ‘Gun-Shy’, ‘Half Gate’
  • Time Capsules II  Oberhofer — ‘HEART’, ‘I Could Go’, ‘oOoO'; also did a great cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway

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Young Man Follow

10.  Young Man Follow  Future of Forestry — I don’t mind if I lose all indie credibility for putting a Christian, anthem rock band on my top ten.  This album falls somewhere in between Delirious?/Phil Wickham and post-Pop U2/Snow Patrol (right now, Elijah is raising his eyebrows/giving me a look of consternation/experiencing a slight taste of bile in the mouth).  I know that there’s a strong hint of  songwriting formulae, mixed with sentimental emotionalism, strategic falsetto insertion, and derivative production sleight-of-hand, but I can’t help it…I eat it up.  This is my sonic Kryptonite.  It moves me and I can’t help loving it.  So there you go.

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White Rabbits

9.  Milk Famous  White Rabbits — This was a late addition to the list.  I had loved the track “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” earlier in the year, but never got around to purchasing the whole album.  Two weeks ago, I finally got it and have enjoyed the carefully orchestrated arrangement and production of each song immensely.  As I began reading reviews, many of which were not kind, there was some talk about the band selling out and transforming into Spoon-lite (one of that band’s members produced the album).  I actually can’t stand Spoon, but I love these guys!

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Fiona Apple

8.  The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do  Fiona Apple — I’ll be honest, I’m not such a fan of the craziness that exists inside this woman’s head, but her startlingly stark songwriting, passionate confessionalism, and uncompromising originality make this album a work of undeniable greatness.

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Port of Morrow

7.  Port of Morrow  The Shins — There may be some measure of sentiment and nostalgia in this pick.  The 2001 album Oh, Inverted World was a life-changer for me (a moment captured and corrupted in Zach Braff’s film Garden State) and I can hear echoes of those glorious times in songs like “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” and “For a Fool.”  For those purists who find this a shameless exploitation of The Shins brand (being that only one member of the original band plays on this album), a stance which I myself initially considered, I respectfully disagree.  The magic is still here…

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Adventures in Your Own Backyard

6.  Adventures in Your Own Backyard  Patrick Watson — Watson is one of those artists whose voice alone puts him into a category of talent and beauty that should earn accolades–but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician whose idiosyncratic vision comes into its own on this release.  If you’ve never listened to his work before, his catalog is well worth exploring, including his work with The Cinematic Orchestra.

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Heaven

5.  Heaven  The Walkmen — This band has been loitering in the periphery of my musical tastes for a while–a great song here or there, but no album that absolutely blew me away.  Until now…you MUST listen to this record.

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Tramp

4.  Tramp  Sharon Van Etten — Such fine, delicate songwriting; beautiful, haunting, and frequently spare instrumentation to accompany her striking, melancholy voice; and brilliant production & instrumental assistance from The National’s Aaron Dessner (who better be working on a new album himself!).  I love so many of these songs with an affection that is reserved for a select few artists.  Listen to the song belong and try not to simultaneously smile AND ache:

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Break it Yourself

3.  Break It Yourself  Andrew Bird — I wrote about this album earlier in the year, wondering if it would grow on me more and more.  Boy, did it ever.  As I said before, Andrew Bird cannot make a bad album, but here, he’s certainly made a great one.  I think it really comes alive after the first 1/3 of the album is over, so don’t give up on it if you don’t immediately sense the genius.

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Silver & Gold

2.  Silver and Gold  Sufjan Stevens — I’m considering this a 2013 release, even though it is a collection of EP’s that Sufjan had privately given out to friends and family over the last five or six years.  Of course I love it—I’m a Sufjanite through and through.  But beyond my dedication to the man, this really is a beautiful collection of 58 songs that I think transcend the holiday season itself and act as a meditation on the human condition as a whole, refracted through the hopes and disappointments that we connect to a particular time of year and experience of faith, family, community, and tradition.  There are haunting covers of Christmas & holiday classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Let It Snow!” and “Silent Night”), worshipful church hymns simply arranged and devoutly performed (“Ah Holy Jesus,” “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” and “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”), and Sufjan originals or adaptations that stand up to any of his other records (“Justice Delivers Its Death,” “Christmas in the Room,” “The Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Child with the Star on His Head”) along with a myriad of lovely instrumental meditations (my favorites include “Make Haste to See the Baby,” “Go Nightly Cares,” and “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”), crazy experimental electronica (not my favorite genre but occasionally delightful), and simple fun communal musical merry-making.  It’s also fun to view the collection in tandem with the albums he was working on during these years (The BQE and The Age of Adz).  You can actually download some of the best tracks for free on Sufjan’s Noisetrade page—and that is a truly wonderful gift from the greatest artist of our age.

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Fear Fun

1.  Fear Fun  Father John Misty — One day this year, I was listening to an unbelievably compelling live set of songs on KCRW by a band whose name I somehow kept missing.  I finally went onto the station website and discovered that it was Father John Misty.  This is the first release under this band name by J. Tillman, former drummer from Fleet Foxes.  I had some of his previous solo releases post-FF, which were pretty average folkish meanderings.  But this!  On this album, Tillman discovers some kind of alchemy that turns his melancholy into the rarest kind of beauty and wonder.  His songs sound like they were written 40 or 30 or 20 years ago—any age but now, yet they simultaneously capture the hidden spirit of some mystical contemporary world surrounding us that we may not perceive.  Even the songs I don’t absolutely “like” have a tangible genius to them.  I didn’t want to like this album—the creepy cover, the hipster pedigree, the critical darlingness of it.  But, for me, in 2012, this was it.

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Greg’s honourable mentions (albums)

  • Among the Leaves  Sun Kil Moon — Such lovely instrumentation and melodies; such bothersome narcissistic lyrics
  • Born to Die  Lana Del Rey — I think one is not supposed to like this album due to its contrivances, over-production, other myriad reasons—nevertheless, I found it strangely compelling in a fashion from start to finish
  • Lonesome Dreams  Lord Huron — Quality folk/Americana
  • Strange Land  Yellow Ostrich — This ended up on exactly no one’s top ten—yet really quite a solid indie rock record!
  • Who’s Feeling Young Now  Punch Brothers — Not enough substance to crack the top 10, but some real winning songwriting here, with a eminently listenable sound throughout

Greg’s honourable mentions (EPs)

The Cloud Rank: ANIMAL COLLECTIVE

Sometime in late 2004 or early 2005, a girl whom I barely knew (Annabelle Feeney anyone?) made a mix for me that included a song called “Who Could Win a Rabbit” from a band called Animal Collective.  There have been few times in my life when I’ve been as startled, baffled, intrigued, and delighted by a song as I was upon listening to this collage of idiosyncratically rhythmic acoustic guitars, punctuated by driving tribal percussion and entwined with whimsical vocals and found audio samples.  I knew straightaway that I had discovered one of the greatest and most indelible indie bands of the 21st century.

Of the 8 Animal Collective albums that I have, at least 3 of them would rank on my top 100 albums of all time.  Though the band has moved into a more electronic mode on their last few albums, their experimental songcraft, eclectic instrumentation, earnest, impressionistic lyrics, and the alternately child-like and ecstatic vocals have rarely faltered to produce incredible albums.  That is, until now.

On September 4, 2012, Animal Collective’s latest album, Centipede Hz, was released.  Earlier in the year, the band had issued a double A-side single “Honeycomb/Gotham” that did not bode well for the album with its weak vocal lines and repetitive lyrics.  So as it came closer to the album’s release, my expectations were lowered from the height of anticipation built upon their last album from three years ago, the melodically rich and propulsive Merriweather Post Pavilion.

More like Centipede Zzzzz

As I listened to Centipede Hz, the first few songs gave me some hope—there were new sounds (thick, metal guitar chording; layers of bleeps and bloops) combined with some familiar ingredients (Avey Tare’s distinctive vocal tics; hypnotic synth lines reminiscent of Philip Glass scores), but as the album wore on, it became clear that this was going to be a miss.  After I listened to the album 10 or so times, I then ranked the songs: the first 4 songs were three stars each, then 1 star for the fifth, and two stars for the rest.  My favorites would probably be “Today’s Supernatural” and “Applesauce,” followed by the opener, “Moonjock.”

It breaks my heart to say this, but there were times that I thought I was listening to a more indie version of the rap/alternative rock band 311 (“Amber is the color of your energy”…[shudder]), especially on the song “Rosie Oh.”  It truly is quite sad for me to give this album a negative review, considering how much I’ve loved the work of Animal Collective, but I honestly have to say that it’s not worth adding to your record collection.

After making my assessment of Centipede Hz, I looked up some online reviews and found that the album is actually faring rather well with a variety of critics—I think Pitchfork even gave it an 8 out of 10!  However, I can only credit this to an “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon:  when a band as talented and with as much indie cred as Animal Collective puts something out, it’s hard to believe that it could be this bad, so you praise it so that you don’t find yourself the only naysayer among the sycophants.  I think that Panda Bear, one of the founders of Animal Collective, also had this phenomenon occur with his last two solo works—they were highly praised, but seemed pretty minor works to my ears (his album Young Prayer, however, is one of the most earnest and poignant albums I’ve heard).

In any case, here is my nearly comprehensive ranking of Animal Collectives albums:

  1. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009):  Just because this was their most popular album doesn’t mean that it isn’t their best.  It has its share of flaws (“Guys Eyes”) but the first four songs are beautiful bliss and the rest are consistently strong.  “In the Flowers” has practically become my life motto; even after being tragically overplayed, “My Girls” remains the apotheosis of AC songs.  Cloud Rank = MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
  2. Strawberry Jam (2007):  This album has actually grown on me quite a lot over the years (at first listen, I put it beneath Sung Tongs).  Seeing them perform songs from this release at a show was one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had (if you ever have the chance to see them live, you really must go), so that may have added to its lustre.  The first five songs are genius (a trend that’s become obvious to me is their tendency to frontload their albums with the strongest material), but overall, it is aging terrifically.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
  3. Sung Tongs (2004):  This album represents the heights of joyful creativity and experimentation, not only for this band but in the history of humankind.  Again, first five songs are absolute delight, but the sonic flops here are worse, making for a lesser album altogether.  “We Tigers” and “Leaf House” never fail to make me smile with crazy delight.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
  4. Feels (2005):  My favorite AC song (and among my favorites ever) “Banshee Beat” is found here; other classics include “Did You See the Words” and “Grass” but there’s some real unpalatable music on here as well.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN CERTAIN SONGS
  5. Centipede Hz (2012):  See above.  Cloud Rank:  SHOULD LISTEN TO, PERHAPS DOWNLOAD CERTAIN SONGS
  6. Campfire Songs (2003):  A lo-fi recording from a front porch, this captures some beautiful moments of creativity, youthful exuberance, and natural talent.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN FOR FANS ONLY
  7. Hollinndagain (2002):  Pretty experimental and frequently minimalist with some crazy loud crescendos (one of which startled awake my friend Jess on a plane ride to Honduras!). “Forest Gospel” may give you a heart attack.  Cloud Rank:  SHOULD LISTEN TO, FOR FANS ONLY
  8. Here Comes the Indian (2003):  I don’t like this album.  Cloud Rank: SHOULD AVOID UNLESS A COMPLETIST

Albums I’ve Never Heard/Questionable Whether They are Truly Animal Collective Albums or Just Attempts to Cash In on Later Popularity:

  • Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000)
  • Danse Manatee (2001)

EP/Single’s Rank:

  1. Fall Be Kind (2009): Two strong songs, “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky” with some ok b-side worthy material
  2. Water Curses (2008):  Mostly screwing around, but occasionally of interest
  3. Prospect Hummer (w/ Vashti Bunyan) (2005):  I like “I Remember Learning How To Drive,” but otherwise, her voice was grating on my cochlea
  4. People (2006):  The title song had me for a bit, then lost me.  The rest is painful.
  5. Honeycomb/Gotham (2012):  Avoid.

Thank you Annabelle Feeney, wherever you are.  Thank you Josh, Jess, and Erin for the shared experience of a live show (remember Wizard Prison?  Josh:  Oh, what a prison it was.).  Thank you Elijah, because I always must thank you.

Some thoughts on Detachment (Tony Kaye, 2011)

Last night I had the pleasure of viewing Tony Kaye’s third and most recent ‘talkie’, Detachment.  The film was shot beautifully and acted brilliantly, and for those qualities alone it is worth seeing.  But the content is yet more intriguing.  Detachment follows a few weeks in the life of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary post at a New York state school in decline.  But the film could take place in any school.  In the New York Times review of the film from 15 March 2012, the film is ‘about the failing public-education system [in the United States].’  I would agree with this claim in part – yes, prominent in the film is this portrayal of the dysfunctional education system.  But it’s so much more than that.  I’d argue that the entirety of the film represents a microcosm of society at large.

This isn’t me dropping a shameful reference to my doctoral research, but I think a strong case could be made that Detachment is actually a parable.  By this I mean that the film is using the raw material of every day life to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  Just as Christ told parables the audience in the Gospels, the film is tied together by a loose narration from our Henry Barthes, with close-ups of his unkept face in a dark room (perhaps during a counselling session).  We’ve got representatives from various levels of society and various levels of engagement with and detachment from their current situations.  At the very heart of this parable is not ‘education’, for education is merely an outflowing of the deeper social illness.  The parable takes society back to the most basic social framework, a framework we all encounter by virtue of being born – family.

To quote the oft-quoted Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’, They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  Most of the great conflicts in the film are rooted in family and parenting, just to name a few:

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION TO AVOID THEM

a girl is expelled from the school after she threatened and spat upon Ms Madison (Christian Hendricks) and her similarly-tempered mother storms into the school hurling yet more abuse at the harmless Ms Madison.

Mr Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) takes up an odd stance at a school fence every afternoon hoping to be noticed by anyone as a result of being ignored constantly by his family members when he returns home from work every day.

Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director) is discouraged in her artistic endeavours and told that she ought to lose weight and conform to social norms by her father and ultimately decides to kill herself as a result of her extreme sense of rejection and isolation.

Erica’s (Sami Gayle) lifestyle as a teenage prostitute and her great distress when she is removed from Henry’s care by social workers.

During ‘parents’ night’ at the high school, virtually no parents show up, demonstrating a lack of both the parents’ concern for their children’s education and appreciation of the teachers.

And ultimately, Henry’s sense of detachment from being abandoned by his father as a toddler, losing his mother to a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol when he was a small child and caring for his dementia-stricken grandfather, whose abuse of Henry’s mother led to her substance abuse.

END OF SPOILERS

Like a parable, the characters are universal (as opposed to cliché) in order to open the eyes and ears of the audience to the deeper level of meaning.  In addition to his ‘counselling session’ narrative, at different points in the film Henry also tells the audience (by way of telling his students) the root of these social ills, calling on his students to avoid the ‘ubiquitous assimilation’ of oppressive values being shoved down their throats by a constant barrage of bull shit that has not only broken into media and culture, but has also infiltrated the very fabric of their family lives.

During the opening sequence we are given a quotation from Camus’ The Stranger, concluding with ‘And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.’  Throughout the film Henry is challenged to break down his wall of ‘compassionate detachment’.  The blurb from the official website states, ‘Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect.’  Does that wall ever break down?  Well I’m not going to include any more spoilers – you should see it for yourself.

The aforementioned New York Times review concludes with, ‘Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?’  No, it’s not really this bad – it’s worse.  As I mentioned before, I believe that the film is using the façade of the educational system (severely broken as a result of the deeper problem) to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  In a recent Guardian interview, Kaye states, ‘We live, we go through these realms, we learn, we figure out where we went wrong.  That’s what living is.’  Detachment won’t be tearing down the power structures built up in our society to control, but perhaps it can help inspire us to fight harder with all that we have in hopes that we might chip away at the foundations of such oppression.

A review of Josh T. Pearson live in Glasgow

As is obvious from several posts (mainly from Greg), we here at LITC are huge fans of the musical emanation of the trashy Texan Josh T. Pearson.  Only two years ago Greg happened upon Pearson’s 2001 album (as a member of the band Lift to Experience), The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads.  Soon thereafter the Band Evangelist passed the Gospel of JTP to his disciple Elijah and Crossroads became a mainstay for us two Pearson late-bloomers.  But we’ve determined to never fall behind again!

March marked the release of Pearson’s first record since Crossroads, The Last of the Country Gentlemen (which Greg was evangelising leading up to its release).

On 25 March 2011, Pearson’s ‘Last of the Country Gentlemen Tour’ made its way through Glasgow.  Fortunately for us here at LITC, we were in Glasgow at the time.  In fact, we had booked our tickets well in advance and Greg had travelled thousands of miles from America to meet Elijah at his home in Scotland for a week of adventure leading up to the gig.

Stereo, Glasgow, 25 March 2011

Greg got his hands on this advert from Stereo

At the show Pearson was selling an eleven-track live CD (seven of which are actual songs, while the rest are exclusively stage banter, all on a classy Imation-brand CD-R with a carefully photocopied portrait of Pearson, shown below), To Hull and Back.

(This isn’t shoddy cropping on our part – it came at that angle, cut this way.)

The show’s opener, a British solo act whose name will remain unmentioned here, was dreadful:  faux Americana, interminable roots/’blues’ compositions with lyrics that tried to conjure up images of railroad tracks and the devil at crossroads and all manner of rough & tumble, down-on-their-luck outlaw clichés.  Let us just say that it was ultimately a Bizarro World version of Josh T. Pearson…

The sick taste of that experience was immediately washed away when Pearson shambled onto the small stage in Stereo’s basement, looking like a heartbroken Jesus on methadone and whiskey, nodding and uttering a low ‘How y’all doin’?’  When a local yelled out, ‘Welcome back, Josh!’ Pearson replied, ‘I hope your years were better than mine…’  During his sound check, he told the audience that they’d need to ‘be super quiet or they’re going to go upstairs [to the restaurant]‘ which he reinforced during the show by stopping a song in the middle when some idiots started to talk and only resuming when there was absolute silence.  Though this may seem like pedantry, Pearson’s songs often fell to a bare whisper and light strum, so an absolutely quiet environment was the only way we would actually be able to hear the songs as they were meant to be experienced.

Pearson began his set with what he said was a cover of a song by Boney M (we’d never heard of them, but apparently they were a reggae/disco group from the late 70s put together by Frank Farian, who would later go on to create Milli Vanilli), but Pearson made the song beautifully his own.  At the last second, Greg took out his iPhone and recorded the song, ‘Rivers of Babylon’ onto the voice memos app—here is a link to the recording, which turned out surprisingly polished:

Rivers of Babylon‘ (Boney M cover) – Josh T. Pearson

In this song, Pearson sang, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your eyes tonight’ as he gazed up soulfully.  It was as if he was dedicating the set to God, offering the pain and brokenness and loss that his songs contained not ultimately to us, the concertgoers, but to a divine audience.  Many of his songs speak about God or Jesus:  in ‘Country Dumb,’ he says that his kind of people are ‘failures each and every one, we’re the kind who will always need a savior’ and and in ‘Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ,’ he sings to his woman: ‘you don’t need a lover or a friend, you need a God and not a mortal man.  Woman, you need born again, again–you need a savior and I just am not him.’  Yet many of his songs also speak of his own inability to control outbursts of anger or drinking (‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’) or rein in his adulterous desire (‘Honeymoon Is Great, I Wish You Were Her’).  Pearson is the quintessential sinner looking for redemption while laying drunk in the gutter–if only more Christians could see their own moral failure and need for salvation as clearly as he does…

During his performance, despite several awkward false starts in reaction to the audience’s noise level (space which was occupied with Pearson telling some pretty wretched jokes), Pearson proved incredibly moving.  Indeed, his lengthy and intensely personal tunes demanded the full attention of the audience.  We here at LITC have come to the consensus that Pearson’s performance was in fact the best solo performance we had ever seen (at one point, I [Greg] even found myself choking up and with watery eyes in a mixture of joy and sadness at the beauty and despair of his set).  You really ought to pick up his record from your local record store and catch him live if he ever comes your way.

Time Capsule – 2001

Music has been very close to my heart since I took up violin and heard Weezer’s first record both at age 8.  And my list-making obsession dates back just as far.  In this post (which may become a series if Greg wouldn’t mind sharing his 2001 ‘Time Capsule’), I’d like to reflect upon some of the music I loved according to a list from 2001, embarrassing admissions and all.

The Beta Band’s Hot Shots II, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Ease Down the Road, Andrew Bird’s The Swimming Hour, Björk’s Vespertine, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, Fugazi’s The Argument, Lift to Experience’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, Mogwai’s Rock Music, Pinback’s Blue Screen Life, Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down and Spoon’s Girls Can Tell are just some of the many great records released in 2001 that I was completely unaware of at the time.  I will say that I frankly disliked The Strokes, Modest Mouse and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the time and I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan.  Sorry.

Alien Ant Farm ANThology — Since I’m listing these in alphabetical order, I suppose it’s good that I can get the most pathetic pick out of the way immediately.  Fourteen was a fortunate age for me: I had outgrown Blink-182’s Enema of the State and Incubus’ Make Yourself, and had not yet given myself entirely over to ‘screamo’ (let alone ‘Christian screamo’).  But I was unable to escape a love for Alien Ant Farm.  This record made sense to me at age fourteen for the following reasons:

  • I loved the album’s packaging – great designs and Photoshopped images of the band members in various historical settings, like a historical ANThology!
  • The single ‘Movies‘ captivated my adolescent mind with its catchy chorus and entertaining music video: so many amazing film references (Ghostbusters, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Karate Kid and Edward Scissorhands) and a cameo with Mr Myagi!
  • Singer Dryden Mitchell (whose name I always romantically associated with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center) had an INVERTED MOHAWK.  HOW COULD I RESIST AN INVERTED MOHAWK???
  • I was in love with guitarist Terry Corso’s custom Schecter 006 guitar.

Despite all of these excellent reasons, I do not listen to them now.

Converge Jane Doe — 2001 had its lows, but it also had its highs!  Converge’s Jane Doe represents one of the highest of the highs.  This record revolutionised music for me and remains one of my absolute favourite albums.

Perhaps I found Jane Doe so palatable as a result of conditioning via hardcore and metal bands I was already listening to such as Black Flag, Minor Threat, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Slayer listener.  Along with being my gateway to Converge (who is among my Top 20 Bands), Jane Doe spurned my interest in many other great metal/metalcore acts such as Botch, Coalesce, Curl Up & Die, Unearth, Cave In and Daughters.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

The Hives Veni Vidi Vicious — ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ was the first Hives song I ever heard.  It’s simplicity and raw energy enlivened my spirit.  Upon further inspection I discovered Veni Vidi Vicious, as well as The Hives’ previous record, Barely Legal.

The Hives were able to channel something primal about rock-and-roll while giving us something accessible and new, and they did it with exquisite pomp and style, complete with matching wardrobes and an excellent stage presence.  Their 2004 record Tyrannosaurus Hives demonstrated a great progression, and while 2007’s The Black and While Album proved less strong, it is still a highly enjoyable record.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

Jimmy Eat World Bleed American — ‘Bleed American’ was the first track I heard from this record, and after purchasing the record I found every track to be incredibly enjoyable (especially ‘Sweetness’ and it’s quiet/loud alternation).

After this record (and after seeing the band open for Weezer that year) I developed a great appreciation for their previous records: Jimmy Eat World (1994), Static Prevails (1996) and Clarity (1999).  But alas, by the time of their 2004 release, Futures, I had lost interest.  Do I listen to them now?  No.

Ozma Rock and Roll Part Three — On the coattails of Weezer I happened upon Ozma, a band named after L. Frank Baum’s Princess Ozma from his children’s fantasy novels.  Ozma captialised on Weezer’s pioneering geek-rock style and added some Casio, musical complexity and yet-more-wicked guitar licks (compare Rock and Roll with Weezer’s self-titled record from the same year [also known as The Green Album] and you’ll hear a striking difference).

They have since retained a special place in my heart due to their persistence as a pop-rock goldmine with the release of The Double Donkey Disc (2001/2002), Spending Time on the Borderline (2003) and (after a brief hiatus) Pasadena (2007).  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

Radiohead Kid A/Amnesiac — For everyone who reached adolescence in the late 90s, ‘Karma Police’ from 1997’s OK Computer was the pinnacle of song, yet Kid A somehow managed to blow that all out of the water.  I remember when I first heard ‘Optimistic’ on the radio, which compelled me to buy the record.

I had no idea what I was in store for, considering ‘Optimistic’ would prove to be one of the weaker (though still incredible) tracks on the record.  Radiohead’s production had become more complex and experimental and Kid A would come to completely change the way I appreciate, experience and create music from thereon out.  This record is still a frequent listen and certainly one of my all-time favourites.

Saves the Day Stay What You Are — As with most other albums on this list, my purchase of Stay What You Are was inspired by the single ‘At Your Funeral’.

Saves the Day’s previous record, Through Being Cool, appealed to my emo and pop-punk tendencies, so it seemed like a good idea to investigate their new record.  Upon my first listen I wasn’t very pleased with half of the record, but over time it grew on me and became one of my high school favourites.  Their follow-up to Stay What You Are, In Reverie, proved to be more poppy less ambitious and I began to fall out of love with the band before their return to a more pop-punk sound.  Do I listen to them now?  Occasionally.

Thrice Identity Crisis — Unlike many other albums on this list (the only exceptions being the Converge and Ozma records), I did not learn about Identity Crisis from the radio.  In 2001 Thrice was still very much a local act, and fortunately for me, some of my friends had recently seen Thrice in concert.  I was told that they were ‘melodic hardcore’, and when I purchased this record I fell deeply in love with their music.

My love for Thrice was only intensified with the 2002 release of Illusion of Safety, which I considered a massive step forward for the band.  Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before Thrice would gain radio play, and in 2003 they released The Artist in the Ambulance and my heart was broken upon hearing the single ‘All That’s Left’ on a popular radio station.  Thrice had lost their edge and sounded like a dull rock band (though I want to take care not to lower them to the ranks of acts like Nickelback).  After Illusion of Safety I never bought another Thrice record and have had a difficult time ‘getting into’ their latest records.  While Identity Crisis was groundbreaking to me at the time (and along with Illusion of Safety has a few tracks that I still consider quite good), I no longer consider myself a fan and I do not recall the last time I was hankerin’ for a listen.

Thursday Full Collapse — Ah Full Collapse…thus began my high school interest in ‘screamo’.  What could be better than combining the genres of hardcore and emo?  Well, many things, and while I was an avid listener to ‘cultured’ bands like Radiohead, screamo occupied another place in my heart and mind.  Thursday was at the top of the screamo food chain, and there was certainly something special to me about hearing the screams from ‘Cross Out the Eyes’ playing on MTV in the morning before school.

My fascination with Thursday and screamo didn’t end at Full Collapse.  It wasn’t until some point between 2003’s War All the Time (which I loved) and 2006’s A City by the Light Divided (which I had no interest in) that the genre had totally dropped out of my listening queue.  Do I listen to them now?  No.

The White Stripes White Blood Cells — I recall hearing the track ‘Hello Operator’ from the White Stripes album De Stijl at some point in 2000, but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ that I felt this great compulsion to buy a White Stripes record.

White Blood Cells proved to be an excellent investment, with all of its garage-rock-revival sloppiness (and what Meg White lacked in percussive skill she made up for in keeping time).  Every record they produced (as they have officially announced their breakup this year) contained a bit of this genius, the sort of quality that can give us hope in the future of popular music.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

+++++

I stand by 60% of these albums now – I wonder whether that is a good or bad sign.

What were your favourite bands/albums in 2001?  How have they fared a decade later?

The Only Book I Will Buy This Year…

I have made a commitment/resolution not to buy any non-required books in 2011, being that the number of volumes I bought in the last quarter of 2010 ought to provide me with enough reading material for this entire year (you may find my current reading list here) and I was finding that my ongoing Amazon book purchases were becoming a sort of addictive behavior (experiencing a little dopamine hit at the click of “Add to Cart”.)

However, I am going to break my vow for one book that is coming out in June of this year, entitled God Behaving Badly by David Lamb.  I took a course with David this past summer at Fuller Seminary on the book of Genesis that somewhat revolutionized my view of “the God of the Old Testament” and even my approach to Scripture as a whole.  David has a contagious passion to help people understand Scripture (from his days on staff with InterVarsity), but also open-mindedly engages critical issues and theological tensions in the Bible (from his time at a little school across the pond called Oxford University).

In the course I had with David, we were able to read some of the early chapters from this work and the content is outstanding.  You may check out the many endorsements at the IVP page on the book, including ones from Scot McKnight (who is making this required reading for undergrads), John Goldingay, and Alan Hirsch. I’ve included a brochure for the book below that has a pre-order code for 40% off which can be used from now until April 30, 2011.  If anyone wants to do a reading group on the book, I’m game!  Here’s to breaking my vow!!

Best Albums of 2010

The year is rapidly drawing to a close, which means that it is time for our favourite annual post here at LITC: OUR BEST OF ALBUMS LIST.  This has been a very satisfying year for music.  Not much is needed by way of introduction, so let’s just jump into it.  As may be expected, we (Elijah & Greg) have several albums in common among our top ten.  We will first share our overlap.

Shared entries from Elijah & Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10

  • InnerSpeaker Tame Impala (Greg) — This is a band where every ingredient (vocals, instruments, lyrics, production, etc.)  makes an essential and vital contribution to the final result–remove any element and the entire sound would collapse.  Everything I like about ‘classic rock’ (a hideous term that conjures up images of some white trash hessian screaming out ‘FREE BIRD!’) is to be found on this album, yet, to my ear, it in no way feels dated.  It’s often uncomplicated, but as if the band simply understood exactly what needed to go where to make each song perfectly what it eventually was meant to become (goodness there were a great many adverbs in that sentence!).
  • High Violet The National (Elijah) — The National caught me by surprise this year.  I was not as big a fan of 2007′s Boxer, unlike Greg and many of my other highly revered friends.  But from the first note of the first track, ‘Terrible Love’, I was entranced.  This album is incredible on the first listen, but is also a ‘grower’, with its share of immediately outstanding tracks and tracks that reveal their ultimate reward after a series of faithful listens.  There’s something pure and straightforward about High Violet that seldom makes its way into indie playlists these days.  Also, listen for Sufjan Stevens’ contribution on the excellent track ‘Afraid Of Everyone’.
  • The Suburbs Arcade Fire (Greg) — I admired their first album immensely; their second was a mixed bag.  I assumed that this would be continuing in that downward trajectory.  I was wrong.  This is a masterpiece.  I originally felt like there was something derivative about the genres of various songs (Byrds here, ABBA there), but ultimately, I took this to be part of their apocalyptic vision of a decaying world of garden cities where ‘the music divides us into tribes’.  Win Butler is one of the best living songwriters…
  • The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit (Greg) — My expectations were unreasonably high for this album (their last was my favorite album of 2008).  FRabbit surpassed them.  So much greatness to be found.  Aside from ‘Man / Bag of Sand’ (which was reminiscent of another filler-esque reprise, ‘Extrasupervery’ on their previous record), there is nary a miss to be found.  This kind of material is paving the way for a career that will end up with FR being among the great bands of all time.  (Elijah adds: FR’s principal songwriter Scott Hutchison wrote this record over the course of two weeks in Crail, Fife, near my home in St Andrews, so the tone of the whole record gives me a warm feeling of geographic familiarity.)
  • The Age of AdzAll Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens (Elijah) — Our Sufjan thirst twas quenched this year and our cup runneth over.  Not only did the contemporary musical genius release a surprise EP, but also a mind-blowing full length — a grand total of two hours, fourteen minutes, and eighteen seconds of new and very worthwhile Sufjan material (though among other Adz tracks, a version of ‘The Owl And The Tanager’ from ADP was publicly performed in 2007).  Several months ago, Greg wrote a great piece analysing The Age of Adz.  This album is strikingly personal and apocalyptic, and musically Sufjan is pushing the boundaries of pop, perhaps alienating those who are looking for the ‘older stuff’ (or more correctly, the ‘mid-career stuff’, namely IllinoiseA Sun Came is very much the progenitor of The Age of Adz).  Sufjan has written his best record to date (and Adz‘ ‘I Want to Be Well’ might be my favourite Sufjan song of all time), which has brought about several modifications to our preexistent lists: The Age of Adz has been added to my Top 50 Albums list (displacing Black Flag’s hardcore punk gem, Damaged for the time being) and as an artist, Sufjan has surpassed The Smiths, Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian in my Top 20 Bands list.  (Greg adds: This album is a museum worthy work of art. [Elijah adds: Here, here!])

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of ’10

10.   Belle and Sebastian Write About Love Belle & Sebastian — If the listener is looking exclusively for a return to form, an album resembling Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Boy With the Arab Strap, he or she will be let down by Write About Love.  It is evident that B&S have grown up a bit over the last 1.5 decades and don’t want to keep writing the same albums, something which we cannot blame them for, can we?  But this record doesn’t need to be exhaustively defended – it stands well on its own.  Its slightly less poppy than their previous release, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, finding a medium between 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and The Life Pursuit, as if in the place of 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress (which is also an incredible record).  Ultimately, Write About Love is a success if we are willing to see something that isn’t pre-2000 B&S as such.  It is an excellent record that certainly improves with every listen.

9.   King of the Beach Wavves — For those who have not previously seen this album cover, yes, that is a cat wearing a marijuana leaf-laden hat smoking a joint.  But at least he has an all-seeing eye necklace, right?  Maybe it will come as no surprise that Nathan Williams, leader and creative force behind Wavves, had a serious drug/alcohol-induced freakout during a concert in Spain last year, causing the other two members of the band to quit.  Fortunately for Williams (and for us as listeners), the late Jay Reatard’s backing band (Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope) decided to join Nathan’s group and Wavves was reincarnated to give us the incredibly catchy (I mean, REALLY CATCHY), garage rocky, King of the Beach.  Billy has since left the band.

8.   Teen Dream Beach House — This record is one of a number of surprises for me this year.  Prior to this record I did not find Beach House especially engaging, which delayed my purchase of Teen Dream until Greg included the new version ‘Used to Be’ (the old version was released as a single in 2008 following Devotion) on a mix he made for me.  This is an incredibly original record, superior to Beach House’s previous releases, which are rendered mediocre in light of Teen Dream.  Singer Victoria Legrand’s vocals power this record into the realm of the serene and sublime.  While some tracks are stronger than others (like ‘Zebra’, ‘Norway’, ‘Used to Be’, and ’10 Mile Stereo’), this is an amazing record as a whole.

7.   This is Happening LCD Soundsystem — Much like the case of Beach House with Teen Dream, I never found LCD Soundsystem’s music to capture my interest before this record.  James Murphy has been at it for ages, and while 2007’s Sound of Silver was a critical and commercial success for his LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening demonstrates a finesse that secures his place as a veteran.  This record is both very raw (‘Drunk Girls’) and sophisticated (‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which combine to give us a incredibly interesting, fun, catchy, and pretensionless album.  I also hear a lot of tasteful 1974-77 Eno-esque sound on this record (like ‘All I Want’ and ‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which pleases me to no end.

6.   The Suburbs Arcade Fire

5.   InnerSpeaker Tame Impala

4.   High Violet The National

3.   The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit

2.   Halcyon Digest Deerhunter — Back in September I wrote concerning this record, ‘The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.’  I’m not merely placing Halcyon Digest at number two to save face so that no one can condemn me with, ‘Elijah gives disingenuous praise.’  No, every single track is an amazing audio experience, and as a whole they function as a battering ram made up of all that is good in independent music, breaking down the doors of pretension by merely doing what they love – and doing it well.  Deerhunter makes their last two records (2008’s Microcastle and 2007’s Cryptograms) while brilliant in their own right, sound like mere warm-up sessions for Halcyon Digest.  Bradford Cox—whose solo record as Atlas Sound, Logos, was my ninth-favourite record last year—and Lockett Pundt deliver with their unique sense of melody and lyrical strength (even in Bradford’s stream-of-consciousness manner).

1.   The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens

Elijah’s Honourable mentions

+++++

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10

10.   Contra Vampire Weekend — I’ll be honest…I didn’t want for this album to make my list.  Vampire Weekend has such a hipster aura that I tend to avert my eyes.  In fact, their first single, ‘Horchata’, with its contrived, graceless rhymes (balaclava, Aranciata, Masada) and reek of Paul Simon’s Anglo-appropriation of world music nearly drove me away from the album.  But the melodies…ahh, the melodies are sublime, and the singer (Ezra something?) has a delivery of lilts and arcs that makes me love his intention despite the ostentation of his diction, and, really, they pull off the ethno-musical robbery just as ‘Al’ did so many years before (he said I could call him that).  Recommended tracks:  ‘Run’, ‘Giving Up the Gun’, ‘I Think Ur a Contra’.

9.   Fang Island Fang Island — This is a last minute addition (sadly bumping off Josh Ritter’s album, which has some tremendously lovely cuts).  But this album is so DELICIOUSLY HOOKY and DELIRIOUSLY FUN that I had to include it.  Like a synthesis of early Muse & Weezer playing the old Disneyland Electric Light Parade possessed by the spirit of Brian Wilson.  If you don’t enjoy it, I would recommend a good proctologist.

8.   Heartland Owen Pallett — This guy was a discovery made driving along a dark road one night listening to KCRW.  I used Shazam to figure out who he was, then weeks later remembered to check him out/download the album (at some point, I will need to own a physical copy of this album for the brilliant cover art).  I was a bit put off by some of the dissonance on this album at first…but I could immediately sense a lyrical/melodic/arranging genius at work, so I listened to it many more times.  It’s one of the most stylistically original and creative albums I’ve come across in years & there’s something about his voice and words that reveals a profoundly singular craftsman, in the manner of Sufjan and Andrew Bird.  Recommended tracks:  ‘Keep the Dog Quiet’, ‘E Is For Estranged’, ‘What Do You Think Will Happen’.

7.   InnerSpeaker Tame Impala

6.   Forget Twin Shadow — If you like the Smiths & have any nostalgia for 80’s pop music songcraft, combined with a generally melancholic outlook on life, you will love this album.  If not, you will hate it.  It’s so distinctive, it is sure to have a polarizing effect–it almost has some sort of mystical power over me.  I don’t know what he’s talking about half of the time, but it feels like he is singing my deepest emotions.  Recommended tracks:  I happen to think that ‘Tyrant Destroyed’ and ‘Castles in the Snow’ are two of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

5.   Together The New Pornographers — I’ve followed the NP’s for a while, often finding inspired songwriting/performing genius mixed in with merely human tune smith ‘capability'; however on this album, the genius overshadows the capability by 11 to 1.  There are a number of songwriters in the band–one of whose style I have little accord with  (see ‘Daughters of Sorrow’), but the rest of the songs have enough buoyant loveliness to keep the Titanic afloat.  Recommended tracks:  ALL, except the above track and ‘If You Can’t See My Mirrors’.

4. High Violet The National

3.   The Suburbs Arcade Fire

2.   The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit

1.   The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens

Greg’s Honourable Mentions

Welcome to November

Every once in a while it is suitable to give a brief update on the inner-workings of the blog and its contributors.  November is upon us and autumn is in full swing.  While I failed to publish a single post in the month of October, Greg more than made up for it with several excellent posts (including an amazing playlist of music from 2010 thus far and a very interesting and insightful look at Sufjan Stevens’ excellent new record, Age of Adz – thank you Greg for picking up my slack!).  But if you’re really thirsty for more discussion on the ‘Hipster Christianity’ theme that Greg has featured in two posts in September (‘“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”‘ and ‘Mocking Hipster Faith‘), I have done a book review of Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity for the blog Transpostions which can be viewed here.

Some exciting news from the blog can be found in the address bar of your internet browser: ‘lostinthecloudblog.com‘!  Because we so love this conversation with our readers on LITC, we’ve decided to take this up a notch and acquire an official domain name.  So update your bookmark menu and the links to our blog that you constantly pass around to your friends (who are we kidding – we know none of you do this…).

As Greg has hinted, we are rapidly approaching the end of 2010, which means one thing here on LITC: MORE LISTS.  Concerning music specifically, this has been an excellent year to be an active collector and listener.  I can promise that at the end of this year I will be making several significant modifications to my Top 20 Bands and Top 50 Albums lists.  As we share our favourites with you, we’d love to hear your favourites (please enlighten us).

Thank you to all who regularly visit and contribute to our blog.  It is likely that in our lameness Greg and I would keep doing this blog even if he and I were the only two people who ever looked at it, but all of you really help us to bring these issues—however serious or silly—into a broader conversation, giving us insights and perspectives that we might not have otherwise encountered.  And we love it.

A Portrait of the Artist in The Age of Adz

Sufjan Steven’s new album, The Age of Adz, officially comes out on Oct. 12.  For those of us anxious souls who pre-ordered the CD (myself) or vinyl (Elijah), a link to download MP3’s of the tracks was available this past Tuesday.  So I have listened to the album all the way through a few times and I wanted to post my initial reaction.

First of all, I experienced quite a bit of relief in listening to the album, because I was scared that I might not like it—that it would be too experimental (a la Enjoy Your Rabbit) to satiate my Sufyearning, or that it would somehow mark a decline in his songwriting career (the kind of artistic downturn pointed out in Trainspotting).

Indeed, it is neither of these things—the truth is, rather, that I absolutely love this album.  It is different than his last few LP’s, so beware of your expectations, and it takes us into a new aural and thematic territory, so you will need to submit to the album as a guide rather than following your own map of where you think the work should go (if you’ve listened to his cover of “You Are the Blood,” you’ll know what to expect).  Having said that, I want to share some interpretations of The Age of Adz which may or may not be completely legitimate, but rather represent my impulsive first responses to the work.

I haven’t read any reviews yet, but I saw in some pre-release material from Asthmatic Kitty that this album was not “built around any conceptual underpinning (no odes to states, astrology, or urban expressways).”  However, I don’t believe that.  I think that The Age of Adz actually is a concept album, but the “theme” of the album is quite simple:  it is a self-portrait.  This is no stunning insight, considering song titles like “I Walked,” “Now That I’m Older,” “All For Myself,” “I Want to Be Well,” as well as his self-address in “Vesuvius” (sounding like “Sufi-yan”) and his many references to himself on the album (even apologizing for being so self-critical)  I believe that this album is deeply autobiographical, taking the listener all the way from an external experience of Sufjan’s that causes him to go deeper and deeper into himself, on a tour through his emotions, thoughts, religious impulses, raw desires (“id”), and finally into his “Impossible Soul.”

Somehow, I believe, the figure on the cover of the album represents Sufjan’s self-conception.  All I know about this painting is that it is the work of an “outsider artist.”  Does this reveal something about the way Sufjan sees himself?  An outsider? To what?  The painting is primitive, even child-like, somewhat dark and cultic, but also looking like a kind of  superhero–in a word, conflicted.  There is a possible pun in the name:  “Adz” sounds like “odds”—is he at an age where he is at odds with something (clearly there is some reference to his sense of growing older)?  “Outsider,” “at odds”—these seem to hint at some deep inner tension and alienation…but from what?

The realization of this autobiographical form caused me to reflect on the fact that most of his previous songs from the past decade had been in the form of storytelling (where he used first person description not to tell his OWN story, but rather to take on a fictional persona) or worked within a structural framework of a central external concept.  This is not to say there were no autobiographical songs, which one may have found on A Sun Came or Seven Swans.  However, the majority of his songs were distanced from his own self-expression through portraying a fictional persona, illustrating a Biblical scene, or depicting some historical narrative.  Here we find Sufjan singing straight from his own soul with no personas, no “characters.”  It is a cathartic and desperate work of self-expression.

The first song, “Futile Devices,” sets up some of the formal dimensions of the work.  It begins with instrumentation that might make you think this album would be quite in line with his previous albums (the guitar melody/picking reminded me of the song “A Sun Came” in particular…later in “Futile Devices.” he references that he “sounds dumb” which takes us again back to a track on his first album, “Dumb I Sound”).  He even begins by singing, “It’s been a long, long time…” perhaps alluding to the time span since his last lyrically-based LP.  The song introduces the central conflict of the album in his feelings for a person whom he loves very much, but to whom he cannot express his passion.  In fact, he ends the song by saying “words are futile devices.”  Though this will be a lyrical album, the listener must look past the words to a deeper, more ineffable expression of feeling that runs beneath than the words—I believe the intricate instrumentation and emotional passion (the cracking and stretching of his voice) evident in this album are supposed to convey what words cannot.  This first song helps transition us from his “indie-folk” albums into this more experimental, electronic sound, which we find in the primordial bubbling and scratches of the first 25 seconds of “Too Much,” which felt like a sonic version of the old Disneyland ride, “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” shrinking us to fit into the writer’s inner world.

What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness--can this be the threshold of inner space?

Rather than analyzing song by song, I’ll just say that I perceived a great deal of internal conflict evident in the album in terms of Sufjan’s inability to express his love for someone and the deeper and more comprehensive self-analysis this feeling produces, leading to the exploration of his own emotional and spiritual complexity.  I began to wonder why this was the case?  What is so difficult about expressing his feelings, or why is he such a conflicted person?  He says again and again in the second song, “There’s too much riding on that” in relation to the feeling of “too much love” (there is more repetition of lyrics on this album than he  typically uses—perhaps revealing a hope that somehow what he feels can be revealed through saying the same thing over and over, or is it an exasperation that he can’t say what he feels, even though he says it over and over?)  What is tormenting him?  What is he afraid of?

Various possible explanations ran through my mind to these questions.  I’ll share my intuitions, which sometimes don’t have much evidence, and am quite open to you debunking these theories (and my whole idea of the album as a self-portrait).  When I get the album and lyrics, I would love to spend some more time considering the meaning and significance of this amazing album with many of my thoughtful friends…

So what are my theories to the central conflict I see in The Age of Adz?  With what is he at “odds”?

  1. Does it have something to do with his adherence to Christianity?  Does he feel like an outsider due to his faith?  His religious commitment results in experiences like prohibition of certain activities, guilt, and the need to confess and receive forgiveness that perhaps other friends (and potential lovers?) cannot comprehend.  Perhaps he is finding himself at odds with his faith itself as it impacts his relationships?  His Christian morality also (potentially) results in his celibacy (which I saw evident in the juxtaposition of the lines “I’m not fucking around” and “And I want to be”) which could produce both internal and relational tension.  So then this would mean that his feelings are complex because of his unique status as a high-profile Christian in a post-Christian world.  Perhaps, but this doesn’t seem like the most compelling theory to me.
  2. Is it that he struggles with relational “attachment” (in line with the psychological notion of “attachment theory”) and so finds he cannot commit to someone even when he feels deeply attracted to them?  Many of his earlier songs seemed to reveal issues with parents/family, so perhaps there are some abandonment issues or lack of relational stability in his history?  This theory is more intuitive than it is substantiated by the lyrics…
  3. Is he in love with someone who is unavailable to him?  Perhaps someone who is married or uninterested in him (which I personally would find hard to believe…come on, I have a man crush on him!)?  Unrequited love can be powerfully debilitating, requiring evasions and disguises to remain around the romantic object, which cause considerable emotional torment and inability to outwardly express one’s thoughts and feelings.  There may be potential here.
  4. I hesitate to offer this last theory, because it feels quite personal, but I wonder if Sufjan might be gay?  This may sound sensational and I don’t mean to pry unnecessarily, but to understand this work, I have to be willing to consider this as a possibility, particularly since it would potentially be extremely difficult to experience these feelings as a Christian (consider Jennifer Knapp’s story).  The first song, where the issue of undeclared love arises, seems to be written about a man.  However, there is contrarily the conversation with a woman who seems to be the object of love in “Impossible Soul.”  After listening to Morrissey’s repressed homosexuality for so long, I may simply be projecting this idea on Sufjan.

So those are my theories on the album for your perusal, dismissal, or development.  I hope you enjoy exploring the depths of this masterful work as much as I have and will continue to do!  If you do not have the MP3’s, you should go out and buy this album as soon as it comes out (and don’t file-share it for goodness sake)!!!

UPDATE:  Listening another time around, with all of this in mind…my theories are on shaky ground.  One intriguing song, “Get Real Get Right” contains some cheesy electronic sounds and vocal effects worthy of a segment on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and yet this is one of the more overtly “Christian” songs on the album with talk of seared consciences and getting right with the Lord.  Maybe this plays into theory #1?  There are some other kitschy moments on the album where a vocoder is used (similar to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” or Bon Iver’s “Woods”) along with some other robotic vocal effects (similar to a lot of 1980’s songs).  Is he just having fun, or is there something in this particular choice?

ANOTHER UPDATE:  There are no lyrics in the CD sleeve.  Which reinforces the idea that words are “futile devices.”  Now what the hell do all those paintings by the “Prophet Royal Robertson” mean in the context of this album!?

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