#6

November 22, 2010

The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat
experimental-rock, progressive-pop
2004

I love the kind of densely layered albums that reward repeat listening and perseverance with exciting new discoveries and previously unnoticed subtleties, albums that just seem to go deeper and deeper the further you dig. When it comes to that kind of product, Blueberry Boat is quite simply the proverbial bottomless pit of all albums released during the 2000s. The Fiery Furnaces showed plenty of creative spark on their debut, but nothing whatsoever could have prepared listeners for what was coming next. This The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boatrabbit hole of an album overflows with more musical concepts, quirks and ideas than many people can keep up with (and it has the divisive critical response to prove it!), demanding multiple plays just to absorb what’s resting on the surface. For the patient and attentive listener, though, there’s just so much with which to fall in love. Matt and Eleanor Freidberger inject their songs with such a degree of creativity and relentless boundary-pushing that uniquely fascinating and surprising moments seem to be hiding around every corner – “Quay Cur” features nursery-rhyme tales punctured by stabs of short-burst garage-rock; “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found”, in addition to playing out as an extended pun itself, features a lyrical gag followed by an almost too-subtle “boom boom” in the background; the massive guitar solo hiding one minute into “Mason City” feels like lost treasure; the chaotic introduction to “Wolf Notes” sounds like it’s raining musical instruments; “Straight Street” features the same melody throughout, but on every verse the instrumentation being used it subtly altered from the one before it; the narrative song “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” has enough content that an entire movie could be made of it; “Birdie Brain’s” warbling, wah-wah melody is one of the most creative riffs you’ll ever hear; and the title track’s tale of pirates invading a boat to steal its precious blue cargo, only to be confronted by a resilient captain Eleanor, is way better than any children’s story, and it’s catchy too. There’s so much more, but I don’t want to reveal all the surprises that lie within Blueberry Boat. They’re scattered throughout the album so generously that it’ll take the average listener ten plays to come close to catching them all. The best part is, it’ll then take dozens more listens to satisfy the insatiable urge to hear them over and over again.

Advertisements

#12

November 12, 2010

Nina Nastasia & Jim White – You Follow Me
singer/songwriter, experimental-rock, folk
2007

With You Follow Me, guitarist/vocalist Nina Nastasia teamed with longtime collaborator, percussionist Jim White (of Australian trio The Dirty Three), to deliver one of the singer/songwriter genre’s most idiosyncratic albums. It’s suitable to see White take half the artistic credit on this one – the first time he’s been credited as such after a number of stints as a session musician for Nastasia’s previous albums – as the skills of Nina Nastasia & Jim White - You Follow Meboth participants are highlighted with equal measure throughout the album, making White’s skittering, semi-improvisational drumming just as prominent and central to the album as Nastasia’s vocals and guitarwork. The juxtaposition between their two styles is endlessly fascinating, a blend of control and chaos, and many of the tracks have White’s rumbling percussion sounding like a brewing storm beneath the relative calm of Nastasia’s contributions. The two musicians ride the line between experimentation and accessibility to perfection and have an undeniable rapport that can really be sensed throughout the album. The songs are touching, attention-grabbing and memorable, and are sequenced in a manner that places the highlights – such as “Odd Said the Doe” and “Our Discussion” – evenly throughout the album. With its brief runtime and unassuming tone, You Follow Me is an understated and humble affair, certainly not the sort of thing that self-consciously brands itself as an important album, yet I cannot overstate the impact which it has had upon me, as it leaves me keenly feeling its lasting presence long after it winds to a close. Few albums display such independently gifted musicians so completely in tune with one another, collaborating selflessly to create something so much better than either could achieve on their own. There’s something truly special about this unique and productive partnership – I sincerely hope it continues to flourish.

#17

November 8, 2010

Deerhoof – The Runners Four
noise-rock, experimental-rock
2005

All three members Deerhoof - The Runners Fourof Deerhoof play a truly vital role in this album’s success – Satomi Matsuzaki’s feather-light vocals are always full of glorious attitude and humour, while her bass gives many of the group’s songs their strong, underlying foundation; John Dieterich’s complex, rapid-fire guitar always make for tunes that are full of fascinatingly idiosyncratic melodies and interludes; and Greg Saunier’s totally unconventional, stripped-back drumming (the man has a kit containing nothing but a kick, a snare and a crash) sees him not merely setting a standard beat, but somehow drumming around that beat to create an exciting style that’s seemingly improvisational and yet so sturdy and reliable (there’s a reason why he’s my favourite drummer in rock music today). This album is, to me, their lofty artistic peak, a noise-rock masterpiece played by a group collectively sporting a mischievous, “we know we’re really a pop band” grin, and it’s crammed with a hugely generous twenty songs. Many of these – I’ll single out “Twin Killers”, “Vivid Cheek Love Song”, “Wrong Time Capsule”, “Spirit Ditties of No Tone”, “Scream Team”, “Siriustar” and “Rrrrrrright” – rank on the highest echelon of their body of work. It’s truly awe-inspiring to listen to a group with this powerful a grasp on pop songwriting combined with such an overwhelming desire to be willfully unusual and keep on pushing the envelope over and over, and that’s exactly what’s presented on The Runners Four. Within the standard confines of guitar/bass/drums/vocals, it stands as the ultimate showcase of creativity.

 

#34

October 20, 2010

Lightning Bolt Wonderful Rainbow
noise-rock, experimental-rock
2003

It’s hard to believe that two people Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbowcan possibly make this much noise. On their second (and most highly praised) album Brian Gibson and Brian Chippendale create such an unholy, caterwauling racket that they make one bass guitar and one drumkit sound more like a sea of basses and a dozen drumkits falling down a flight of stairs. Wonderful Rainbow is pure, manic energy, distilled to its simplest and most stripped-back musical form, as the duo latch onto your brain with infectious guitar lines, firestorm percussion and vocals so twisted and incomprehensible that they sound downright devilish, and then don’t let go until they decide you’ve had enough. The opening moments are just glorious, as “Hello Morning” provides a brief, comparatively low-key introduction of squally, distorted improvisation before the incredible “Assassins” leaps out of nowhere, pins you to the wall – and subsequently blasts you through it – with sheets of pure, unadulterated rawk. “Dracula Mountain” follows in kind, and is arguably the album’s finest track, with plenty of nimble guitar showmanship to keep things ultra-lively, and the remaining tracks cram in enough quality (“2 Towers”, “On Fire”, “Longstockings” and “30,000 Monkies” are all stellar cuts) to keep the album from ever sounding too front-loaded. Wonderful Rainbow is everything a noise-rock fan could possibly ask for – appealing melody, adrenaline-pumping percussion, boundless energy, a gleefully sinister outlook and a loose, rough playstyle, all delivered with the sheer force of a bulldozer.

 

#48

October 5, 2010

Charming Hostess Sarajevo Blues
avant-folk, experimental-rock, Jewish music, a cappella, beatboxing
2004

Charming Hostess are a Californian group, consisting of Jewlia Eisenberg, Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor, who describe themselves as “nerdy hippy commie folk.” Active since the mid-90s, they used to be part of a strong avant-folk, genderfuck, performing arts movement located out of Oakland. 2004’s Sarajevo Blues is their second studio album, and is an adaptation of a book of poetry (of the same name) by Semezdin Mehmedinović, which was first released in 1992 and detailed Mehmedinović’s day-to-day life, hardships and extraordinary experiences during the Bosnian siege. The music here is a fascinating, idiosyncratic brew of traditional Jewish songcraft, contemporary rock music, a cappella and eastern-European folk, and draws strong influences from Balkan, African and Sufi musical styles. Comparison points are really hard to come by, although the group cite Meredith Monk as an influence, which is evident from the experimental, diverse and extremely dynamic vocals employed by the trio, all three of whom sing. Throughout Sarajevo Blues, they touch on classical, syncopated funk, frantic breath-heavy delivery and even attention-grabbing beatboxing, something that initially seems sharply out of place, but starts to really enhance the album the more you hear it. The vocals are gorgeously executed throughout, and I especially love the moments in songs like “Viva Orduenya”, “War” and “Death is a Job” where they adjust key to take a more bluesy turn. The nature of the album gives way to some very candid and forthright lyrics, with powerful verses on everything from the nightmare Charming Hostess - Sarajevo Bluesof entering Sarajevo by an underground tunnel (“There’s not enough air. I lay in a wide spot made to put aside dead, so the live can pass through”) to a striking commentary on wartime photographers (“If a bullet hit me they’d get a shot worth so much more than my life that I’m not even sure who to hate: the sniper or the monkey with a Nikon”). It’s a constantly fascinating album – and a surprisingly catchy one – that sounds quite unlike anything else I’ve heard before.

#50

October 4, 2010

Oneida Each One Teach One
noise-rock, experimental-rock, psych-rock
2002

“You’ve got to look into the light light light light light light light light light light light LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT…” With those words begins (and continues, and continues some more) “Sheets of Easter”, the noise-rock behemoth that opens disc one of Oneida’s mind-bending double album Each One Teach One. Oneida - Each One Teach OneThroughout the first disc, Oneida simply pummel you into submission, gleefully destroying your reality and replacing it with a wallpaper of looping soundbites that eventually becomes all you know. After prolonged exposure to “Sheets of Easter” and the equally devastating “Antibiotics” – which between them comprise the entirety of the first disc – your brain is melted down and rebuilt in preparation for the onslaught of disc two, synapses prepped to fire when and how Oneida want them to, limbs reprogrammed to flail on cue. When you’re finally reduced to a drooling vegetable, you shamble your way to the stereo and throw in disc two, and along comes “Each One Teach One”, countering the extended cerebral-assault of the first disc with a short and sharp sonic barrage that tosses you about like a freaking rag doll. And so it goes, until half an hour later “No Label” brings the whole thing to a close and your body is finally released from Oneida’s vice-like grip, assuming it hasn’t turned to dust in the interim.

#51

October 1, 2010

The Fiery FurnacesWidow City
experimental-rock, indie-pop
2007

The Fiery Furnaces - Widow CityCall it Blueberry Boat’s slightly less accomplished little sibling, if you want. While the classic-rock influences and somewhat retro-focused approach certainly infuse Widow City with an identity all of its own amongst the Fiery’s body of work, it definitely stands as the release most similar in style to the duo’s breakout second album. The sprawling, genre-hopping, relentless creativity of Blueberry Boat is in full-force here, meaning that the album covers an awful lot of ground during its lengthy runtime – Eleanor makes her first attempt at old-school hip-hop, juxtaposed against blazing noise-rock and flourishes of harp, on “Automatic Husband”; the group’s trademark narrative-based story-songs are delivered on “The Philadelphia Grand Jury”, “My Egyptian Grammar”, “Cabaret of the Seven Devils” and a few more tracks besides, and they’re just as engrossing, unique and highly unusual as ever before; “Clear Signal From Cairo” is a hard-rock track that’s heavier than anything the Friedberger’s have created before or since; “Wicker Whatnots” features some subterranean basslines and drums so skittish they border on Squarepusher; and the title-track is perhaps the strangest of all, being made up of fractured bursts of upright piano and fluttering effects-filtered percussion. Importantly, there are a number of more accessible, relatively straightforward cuts to offset all this mayhem, with tunes like “Duplexes of the Dead” (which features some great wah-wah), “Ex-Guru”, “Right By Conquest” and “Pricked in the Heart” keeping proceedings from getting too out of hand. All this makes Widow City an incredibly charming effort, with enough great songs and clever ideas packed into its sixteen tracks to thoroughly satisfy any fan of exciting, forward-thinking rock music.

#77

August 5, 2010

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
psych-rock, experimental-rock
2009

The Flaming Lips - EmbryonicThis one might be the biggest surprise of the decade. After playing it disappointingly safe with the sub-par, Yoshimi-retread of 2005’s At War With the Mystics, a lot of people had written The Flaming Lips off, placing them firmly in the “past their prime” basket. A few years passed with little in the way of band activity, before finally Embryonic came out of nowhere in 2009 to be the group’s most daring album in over a decade. Beyond being merely a comeback, I’m seriously tempted to call this the best thing The Lips have ever released (you can toss a coin on that one, because it’s down to this and Clouds Taste Metallic). The insular sound, the cosmic production, the jarringly vibrant instrumentation, the labyrinthine sequencing and the double-album format – all of these things constituted pretty bold steps at a time when everyone was expecting Wayne Coyne and Co. to once again maintain the status quo and make another album that fell into the (now thoroughly tapped) “life affirming” niche of their previous 2 or 3 releases. Instead they put everything on the line by creating perhaps the darkest album of their career, and the payoff has been tremendous. You can colour me very surprised – I just didn’t think they were still capable of making something this original and flat-out great.

#94

July 7, 2010

Frog Eyes – The Golden River
indie-rock, experimental-rock, psych-rock
2003

One of the more overtly unusual albums to fall under the very expansive umbrella known as “indie-rock”, The Golden River is a trip quite unlike any other. Frog Eyes’ lead singer andFrog Eyes - The Golden River principal songwriter, Carey Mercer, carries the image of something of an indie elder statesman or mentor, notable for having taken critical-favourite Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) under his wing, and his passionate, deformed-Bowie delivery is going to be the first hurdle most listeners encounter. If his all-over-the-shop whimper-hollering and bizarre lyrical imagery aren’t enough to scare you away, then all that’s left is to get a feel for the haunted fun house on acid instrumentation and totally unpredictable song structures that blur and creep and wind through the album like hallucinations. If you manage all this, then you’re all set to experience and enjoy one of the genre’s most truly unique groups. This isn’t quite their creative peak – that came with the 2007 song “Bushels”, which is just devastatingly good, although this album’s “One in Six Children Will Flee in Boats” comes close – but as far as I’m concerned it’s their finest album overall.

#95

July 6, 2010

Racoo-oo-oon – Behold Secret Kingdom
experimental-rock, free-folk
2007

There’s an almost shamanistic quality to Behold Secret Kingdom, the 2007 release by psychedelic freak-rockers Racoo-oo-oon. Blending together a combination of druggy basslines, guitars that bounce from melodic lines to seeming random clashes (there’sRaccoo-oo-oon - Behold Secret Kingdom definitely some early Sonic Youth influences in there), nonsensically chanted vocals, krautrock rhythms and hazy, primitive production, and then channeling it all through a lost-in-the-woods-at-night-but-quite-happy-to-be-there kind of vibe, the group manage to achieve a sound that feels ritualistic and quite Earthy. It’s the type of sound that free-folk and New Weird America groups like Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherfucker would produce if you were to push their free-flowing musical aesthetics to their logical extremes. While the album sports a bit of a crazy, untamed sound, to the listener’s benefit it all falls on the accessible side of sheer madness, and there’s even some nice segments like the crescendo at the end of “Visage of the Fox” which feel like clever twists on the familiar post-rock playbook. It’s a must-hear for any fans of instrumental, guitar-based music who’d like to try something a little stranger than the norm. Face paint, bonfires and howling at the moon are optional, but recommended.