Seriously, Stephen Ucherek is some kind of crazy pop god genius.
I almost (almost) get tired of having to simply pimp out his music here; I wish I could say “well, this is a mis-step”, or “this record isn’t very good”. I realize that I sound like I’m on the take. Can’t help it. Dude just keeps nailing it.
Ucherek’s first band was called the Blackouts. They put out a debut and won them a Battle Of The Bands sponsored by Little Steven and his Underground Garage. The Blackouts quickly scrapped their garage underpinnings and changed their name to The Living Blue, and put out two amazing records that I’ve hyped to death here. Then The Living Blue fell apart and Ucherek put together a new band in Chicago, this time called Village. Stay tuned to that Best of 2010 list (which I finished tonight, btw), because Village’s debut album figures prominently in the top 5.
So how crazy is it that Village has another album in the can, ready for release? I mean, really now. What’s even cooler is that for about a week perhaps, Ucherek has that entire Village album available to download as individual tracks. He’d like you to download it, even if he’ll be trying to sell it later in the year.
The running order on the album:
…the Days are Gifts
A Bit of Relief
Love on a Whim
Take Your Time
Among the Trees
Close in an Instant
Behind the Rain
Let’s get one thing outta the way right away: I would like very much to be Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan when I grow up. I mean dude has had himself one hell of a year–his label scores a number one with Arcade Fire, and then his band puts out their first album in nearly a decade and it ends up being damn near as good as anything they’ve ever done.
It seemed like Superchunk began this sort of odd slide to nowhere-land sometime around 1998 or so. Oh, Superchunk never got bad per se; they’re like pizza or sex that way. They just got…different. There were strings. Horns. There was Mac’s voice, actually singing instead of the youthful yelp of the “Precision Auto” days. Superchunk still knew how to write an anthemic riff…but they stopped writing them into memorable songs or melodies along the line somewhere. They edged into Dad Rock territory.
Majesty Shredding might well be Dad Rock too, but it’s the loudest and shreddiest example on the block. Making the smart realization that the attempt to evolve their sound over the last half of the 1990′s had rather the opposite effect of painting them into a creative corner, Superchunk comes roaring out of the gate here like it’s 1991 with “Digging For Something” and then doesn’t look back or forward.
The result is a glorious return to form. “Learned To Surf” has all the anthem you could ever want, with the kind of singalong chorus that put us all in the front of the stage back in the day. “My Gap Feels Weird” is every bit the declaration dogged independent belongingness that “My Noise” was 20 years ago, only this time the affirmation is all about still being relevant to an ethos even when the original audience are driving kids to soccer practice in minivans. And when the strings do come in, on the sprawling “Fractures In Plaster”, it would seem that Superchunk learned a little something about how to do that particular trick over the past nine years or so. “Plaster” is a midtempo rocker that builds to a magnificent chorus and driven by just the right splash of viola.
On Majesty Shredding’s penultimate number, Mac rhetorically asks “Are we back where we belong?” The answer is pretty definitive here. This record is the kings coming back to lay claim to a crown they never really abdicated.
7. Smith Westerns, S/T
One of the dirty little secrets of the 1990′s indie rock scene was that Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices never meant to start some sort of lo-fi revolution. For that matter, the band who played Rolling Stones to GbV’s Beatles, the legendary Grifters, never meant to either. In the case of both bands, they recorded lo-fi because that was either all they knew how to do, or all they could afford to do, or both…and when both bands were given real studio time with real producers, both groups abandoned lo-fi about as quickly as you can say “Bee Thousand.” Part of the charm of both bands was that they were clearly creating their own versions of mass-audience-friendly arena rock…but doing so in basements and flower shops because that was what they had to work with.
And so it is with The Smith Westerns, a band of youngsters hailing from Chicago (no one in the band is old enough to drink at the bars where they’re in-demand). They recorded their debut album in guitarist Max Kakacek’s basement, using two external mics and the built-in mic on a digital recorder, and it sure sounds like it. If you listen only to the guitars, the sound can be a bit monochromatic at times…but then they do something interesting with the guitars, or you can hear a glockenspiel plinging away in the background or some Beach Boys-ish piano and you forget that the sound is a bit muddy.
What’s going on here? Apparently SW founders Cullen Omori and Kakacek became fascinated with ’60′s garage rock and decided to start a band based mostly off a belief of “how hard can this be?” In the span of a year they managed to get their own playing sorted out, and also managed an almost gleeful appropriation of a variety of influences that just wouldn’t seem to work well together. As a result, the Smith Westerns can sound punk at times, while at other times sugar-sweet; metal, glam-rock, post-punk…every style seems to play a visit here, even if none of those genres dominates the other.
Delightfully then, these guys have basically decided to gleefully discard notions of what should and shouldn’t work. As a result, a song like the opening “Dreams” sounds like some rare 1979 Tall Dwarfs record unearthed from Chris Knox’s closet. “Gimme Some Time” has all the “Oh-oh’s” to make it a Ramones-y classic, except they turn it inside out on itself and make it so immediately hummable that you can’t help but think of early Undertones instead. When the chorus kicks in on “My Heart”, it’s as if The Sweet decided to go postpunk.
This is a band to watch. They’ve got their second album due out in a week, and this time they’ve recorded it in a real studio with real production and things are all hi-fi and that disc sounds every bit like a contender to be on this list in 2011. For now though, there’s nothing wrong at all with the unfettered joy of this monstrous debut album.
Oh, and here’s where these guys are headed in 2011! (Let this be my first pimpage for Great Music, 2011…)
One of the connections I feel like I have to have with a record or band is lyrical; even when the words to songs don’t make sense, the images they evoke can be as important to me as the music they’re set to. So here we are with a band singing in a language where my vocabulary is limited to a $20,000 Pyramid Category of “Things you might ask for in a busy restaurant kitchen”. Since I doubt highly that Murcia-based Octubre have many songs about lemons, lobster, or dish machines, I’m totally at sea here.
The thing is, while I don’t know exactly what Octubre frontman Jose Esteban is singing about…I know what he’s singing about. There’s an earnestness and longing in his voice on “Nada Que Perder” (“Nothing To Lose”) or “Expreso De Media Noche” (“Midnight Express”) that is universal. In other words, I dunno exactly what John Lennon’s singing on the chorus of “Across The Universe” either, but does it matter?
Octubre is well-aided in this fantastic record by a guy who sort of is the guiding light behind the vibrant Murcia rock scene, a fellow who you ought to know named Juan Antonio Ross. Ross had a band of that name with a few records out here in the States back in the day, and a 2-disc retrospective he put out last year in Europe is one of the best guitar-pop listens you’ll ever have. Ross knows shimmery-but-punchy rock guitar pop production like Bo knows football, and his studio touch can’t help but evoke the best moments from Teenage Fanclub’s career. (And I mean really, “Nada Es Imposible” is so Gerry Love it almost hurts.)
In the end analysis, the triumph of Todo So Lo Lleva El Viento (“Everything Is Gone With The Wind”) all belongs to Octubre. Sure, you could have a field day picking out this Oasis riff or that Big Star chord progression…but to the band’s credit they carry off the entire venture with such uninhibited and palpable joy that they soar beyond the sum of such parts ten seconds into the title track that leads off the record. One of the happiest discoveries of 2010 for me, this is. (Oh, and despite the rather exotic nature of it all, surprisingly this wonderful disc can be had digitally from Amazon and iTunes. Huh.)
9. The Walkmen, Lisbon
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with The Walkmen. I’ve always appreciated their indie ethos, and when they go minimalist and noisy I’ve been greatly affected by their gorgeous and stark melodies. Sadly, when they try to throw on the layers is when they tend to lose me; Hamilton Leithauser’s earnest and always up-front-in-the-mix vocals work so well in the former context, but in the latter he can sound like nothing so much as Bono’s just as insufferable American cousin.
Imagine my surprise at realizing that Lisbon has some of the best uptempo and un-somber rock songs The Walkmen have ever recorded, and that they totally work for my own personal self. Perhaps it’s the way the bright guitar work on songs like “Juveniles” or “Woe Is Me” recalls my favorite moments of Vampire Weekend (indie kid rake fight: which band uses that clean and bright guitar sound first and/or to better effect?), but even when the sound is echo-muted like on “Blue As Your Blood”, it carries The Walkmen into some of the loveliest and most exciting music they’ve ever written.
And Lisbon is by no means a cheerful end-to-end romp. The horns that open “Stranded” give it the feel of an Irish wake as done on Bourbon Street. “While I Shovel The Snow” is even more stark and brittle, a gorgeous little miracle of a song powered by a deceptively simple guitar and Leithauser’s engaging vocal. The album’s closer, the title track, is the Walkmen playing their final ace. “Lisbon” is a 6-minute cinematic and epic closer that builds off both the brighter and accessible feel of the album as a whole, but weds it to some of the most evocative and longing lyrics the Walkmen have written to date.