#4

November 24, 2010

The Microphones – It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water
lo-fi, folk, psychedelic-pop, singer/songwriter, noise-rock, experimental-rock
2000

The Microphones - It Was Hot We Stayed in the WaterWarm, lo-fi instrumentation, intimate vocals, creative songwriting, some delightful guest-appearances by Mirah and exceptional analogue production wizardry by head-Microphone Phil Elverum all come together flawlessly to make this aquatic-themed effort the best Microphones/Mt Eerie album (yes, better than The Glow, Pt 2), and one of the finest albums of the decade. It stands as an eclectic tapestry of sonic concepts that constantly evades easy categorisation no matter how much you try to pigeonhole it, and is emotionally gripping to boot. Elverum is one of modern music’s true visionaries, and this album is littered with such a degree of fine detail and enigmatic character that you can spend weeks in its company and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Meanwhile, when it comes to the album’s production, his bag of tricks is quite awe-inspiring, my favourite example being a point at which he utilises microphone-smothering techniques to make it sound convincingly like his band is gradually sinking underwater while playing. The album has a conceptual sweep that makes it best listened to as a whole, but there’s some amazing individual highlights as well – the strummy, acoustic opening to “The Pull” makes great use of panning to create a lulled atmosphere before unexpectedly launching into a distorted guitar and drums finale, with the two halves of the song being a better fit for one another than you’d expect; the easily overlooked “Ice” is a great little noise-rocker that gives way to an unexpected ambient coda; the reimagining of Eric’s Trip’s “Sand” is a display of gorgeous minimalism; “Karl Blau” is a nod to the titular musician, a label-mate on K-Records, set to the melody of a slow-dancing serenade, which sounds simply beautiful; and “Between Your Ear and the Other Ear” is a cheerfully charming singalong I’d be happy to have circling around my campfire anytime. Then, of course, there’s “The Glow”, the album’s gloriously moving and relentlessly experimental ten-minute centrepiece. Covering an assortment of terrain including singer/songwriter, 60s vocal-pop, lo-fi, post-rock, field-recordings, 90s indie-rock and psychedelia, I’ve simply never heard another song even remotely like it, by The Microphones or anyone else, and it holds a special place amongst my most highly treasured music. It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water is a marvel, an album that appeals not only as an inviting work of deeply human art, but also an awe-inspiring network of musical ideas. On either of those levels, very few albums can match it.

 

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#10

November 16, 2010

Broadcast and The Focus Group – Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
electronic, psychedelic-pop, found sound, musique concrète
2009

Imagine you’re standing at the entry to a very long hallway, lined with doors stretching out before you farther than the eye can see. Behind each door is a small room containing the sound captured from a certain time and place. It could be an instrument, a song, a concert, a TV show, a telephone, a conversation, a radio transmission, a nursery rhyme, a piece of machinery, a childhood memory, a waterfall or some other ambient environmental noise. Imagine that, as you stand there, the entire hallway is tilted ninety degrees, transforming it into a seemingly bottomless tunnel, and you’re falling into it in slow motion, Broadcast and The Focus Group - Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Agedrifting endlessly further down (at this point, you have to forgive me for the blindingly obvious Wonderland parallel, but bear with me). As you fall, the doors floating past you begin to open and close, seemingly at random, revealing snippet after snippet of disparate sound, emerging, overlapping and disappearing again before they can fully take shape. Barring a few brief forays into more fully realised musical exploration, that rabbit-hole-esque scenario is precisely what it feels like to listen to this album, the first joint-effort between UK art-pop group Broadcast and electronic musician Julian House a.k.a The Focus Group. It’s essentially 3 or 4 brief psych-pop songs with hundreds of slices of musique concrète scattered about them, neatly divided into 23 tracks, many of which don’t reach the two-minute mark. It’s surreal, disorienting and occasionally unnerving, but mostly it’s just really, really dreamy. If it sounds challenging, that’s because it is, but far less so than you’d expect, thanks to the meticulous degree of care and craftsmanship displayed by both parties in piecing together this wonderful collaboration. I’ve often heard claims of albums with hypnagogic properties – I’d argue that Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age comes closer to genuinely fulfilling those claims than any album I’ve heard before.

 

#44

October 10, 2010

Beck Modern Guilt
psychedelic-pop, alternative-rock
2008

Upon its release in 2008, it was so nice to have another album by my favourite artist that I could unreservedly say was just all-around great. I definitely enjoyed Sea Change, Guero Beck - Modern Guiltand The Information, but there were always little nitpicky things I wanted to change about them – overlong runtimes, occasional filler tracks, poor sequencing and the like. Not so on Modern Guilt. This is Beck’s most consistent, well-structured, infectious and replayable album since his 1990s prime, and boy have I gotten a lot of mileage out of it. “Replayable” is the keyword, there – Beck, along with producer Danger Mouse, whose contributions are invaluable, is so to-the-point and economical in the way he delivers Modern Guilt’s gauzy retro-pop that it’s often hard to resist restarting it right after it concludes. Through sticking to conventional song structures, focusing on melody and concise lyricism and keeping his artistic indulgences firmly in check, he manages to completely avoid any misguided errors of excess for the duration of the album. The songs rate amongst his career’s best, too – whether it’s the blissful psychedelia of “Orphans” and “Chemtrails”, the chugging guitar lines of “Gamma Ray”, the blasting energy of “Profanity Prayers”, the jaunty strut of “Modern Guilt” or the mellow, contemplative drift of “Volcano”, Modern Guilt delivers again and again. After a few minor stumbles (but, I must say, no falls), it was the shot in the arm Beck’s career had been waiting for.

 

#91

July 8, 2010

of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
indie-pop, psych-pop
2007

At the time of its release, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? really surprised the hell out of me. of Montreal were a band I’d come to consider reliable for releasing solid, “B+” albums year after year, so for them to drop such an awesome album this far into their career was something I would never have expected. Kevin Barnes has earned a place amongst this decade’s best songwriters, with a conceptual magnum opus of depression, fear, confusion, anxiety and post-relationship meltdown, expressed through witty, striking lyricism and of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?bouncing-off-the-walls vocal delivery. The switch to a jittery electro-pop aesthetic was another surprise, and the group deserve kudos for creating their best work under the risk of a major stylistic shift. Sprawling centrepiece “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is deserving of special mention – the 11 minute cathartic outpouring is easily the most ambitious song the group have ever recorded, and it’s arguably their best.