Best Of 2010 (Almost, almost)

February 13, 2011 at 1:47 am (Uncategorized)

6. Beach House, Teen Dream
I could populate a list to fullness by listing the things about Baltimore’s Beach House that I am put off by, things that range from uncomfortableness-making to actual loathing-causing. Let’s just put it this way: there are a lot of elements of the Beach House whole that others adore that I simply do not get. For instance, on this album they kick things off with a song called “Zebra” that I find to be melodically threadbare, built on a preciousness that does nothing for me (as opposed to, say, Belle & Sebastian or obviously The Leisure Society, who do preciousness that absolutely works for my taste.) Even the final and worthwhile melodic payoff of “Any way you run, you run before us/Black and white horse arching among us” doesn’t deliver enough to make me want to sit through the first three agonizing minutes of the song to get there.

And so I’ll be frank. For my personal tastes, that album starter is one of the weakest album-opening tracks on a record I’ve ever valued as highly as Teen Dream. By itself it kept me from diving in to this record with both feet. I was all done. I’d “heard the new Beach House”, by way of meaning that I’d sat through “Zebra” and wasn’t eager to sit through 35 minutes of more of that.

Funny thing happened though.  A guy you don’t know (Gabe Lewis an unabashed Beach House fan of the first order) heps me to a video clip  from Beach House playing a mostly-acoustic set in an apartment in Paris at night in front of a very small audience.  (I’ve got that clip linked elsewhere on the site here.) All the hype and pretense is stripped away; it’s singer Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally looking not at all precious or waif-ish. They command that small room, and they rip out a version of “Silver Soul”, the second track on the record here, and it might be one of the most captivating live performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

And so that’s when I finally “got” Beach House. Listening to a song like the glorious “Walk In The Park”, you can hear Scally taking the long way home on the melody lead, unhurriedly spinning out a gorgeous guitar figure over an almost percussive Smiley Smile organ bed. Here, and on “Silver Soul” and “Used To Be” and “Lover Of Mine” and “10 Mile Stereo”, both he and LeGrand take their good sweet time completing gorgeous melodies, so confident are they of the coming payoff (and so skilled at leaving us listeners the breadcrumbs that I don’t find in “Zebra”).

The real story and revelation for me is Legrand’s voice, though. Every promo photo I saw of Beach House leading into the release of Teen Dream, Victoria looked like she ought to be selling apples on a street corner in a Chaplin film. What I realized watching that unplugged apartment performance was just how big her voice is, how brilliantly it suits to her material. It is a marvelous instrument that can certainly do a frail vulnerability well…but it can also do brassy and almost swaggering–think Shirley Bassey doing torch. When she deploys her entire range of vocal weaponry as on “Silver Soul” (as when she stretches out in full quaver for “It’s a quick turn to let it figure out” before roaring onward like a firetruck through an intersection on “It is happening again”), my petty quibbles and personal peccadilloes head for the hills. This is magic, this.

“Silver Soul”
“Used To Be”
“Walk In The Park”

At this point, things fall apart.  Longish write-ups for numbers five back through one don’t pass muster for being interesting or particularly witty or worthwhile for anyone with a pulse to read.   I trimmed them down and post them just to get them out of the way.

5.  Village, Local Moves

Louder and more punched-up than their self-released debut album from 2009, Local Moves arrived close enough on the heels of that debut that there’s a temptation to think that these songs might have been outtakes, but 30 seconds into the crunch of “Villagers” dispels that notion, and the insistent and hooky “A Bit Of Relief” chases that notion right out the window.   While this record is a more densely-packed and louder guitar rock album, its two best songs are a little more loose-limbed and point an interesting direction for where this band is headed.  “Close In An Instant” has a terrific backwards-sounding jagged melody on the verse that coalesces into a thrilling dreampop chorus.   “Behind The Rain”, the song that closes the album sounds like nothing else in the Village catalog.  With bright guitars strumming a stupidly catchy two-chord melody, Village layers in country honking slide guitars, twinkling keyboards that hint of electronica, and top it off with Stephen Ucherek’s best yelping vocal of the entire album to make for a song that will have you punching repeat the second it ends.

A good chunk of Village’s music can be sampled and downloaded for free by clicking this link to their Soundcloud site.  The songs that comprised Local Moves can be found starting at page 2.

4.  The Len Price 3, Pictures

These 3 lads who hail from the “Medway Delta” in Kent where garage rock apparently lies embedded in the very bedrock and groundwater itself, will always be judged by the masses for who they sound like more than for what they are.  Yes, the huge Who/Kinks/Beatles/Hollies reference points are up front and on the sleeves.  You’ll hear snippets of melody that are dead ringers for licks  lifted whole cloth from those reference points.  There are a couple of things that elevate the Lens above what could be rote retro-popping.  For starters, one listen to a song like “Mr. Grey” or “After You’re Gone” tells you that these lads can absolutely write a fantastic song on their own; “Mr. Grey” in particular shows them as not just wearing a Ray Davies influence, but actually stepping right up alongside him for three minutes as an equal.  Songs like the brooding “If You Live Round Here” and “Jack In The Greens” show them expanding their palette beyond the 2-minute smash and bash pop hook.   Some pop records grab you immediately and then reveal nothing but the capacity for listener fatigue after repeat listens.  Others require effort of multiple listens to get to the point of the listener realizing a payoff.  The neat trick the Len Price 3 pull here is to give you the instant satisfaction on those first listens…but then enough depth to reward repeat spins over the long haul.

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3.  The Cute Lepers, Smart Accessories

A few years ago I lamented the deaths of the 3 members of the wonderful Exploding Hearts and wondered what great music those lads might have managed if things were different.  Hanging a sign on the Cute Lepers that says that they’d have maybe made a record as great as Smart Accessories probably doesn’t do much good for Steve E. Nix and Stevie Kicks, the two dudes (both of whom were in the Seattle pop-punk band The Briefs) mainly responsible for the songwriting chores here.  Still…you’d be deaf if you didn’t notice the influence of the Undertones, Buzzcocks, and 1976 Costello/Graham Parker that shoots through this record.  It is no small miracle that the Lepers come up with nearly an album’s full of material worthy of those influences; if the last third of Smart Accessories was as good as the first 6 or 7 songs (and let’s be sure to give a shoutout to “What Happens Next”, one of my faves as well) you’d have a contender for record of the decade status here.  As it is, there’s a lot to love there–the three song move from the title track to “Thanks For Not Showing Up” (which has THE guitar riff of the year, period, and I will not brook discussion of the matter) on into “You Don’t Have To Belong To The Religious Right” is absolutely thrilling, the kind of stuff that can’t help but induce spontaneous pogoing when played at proper loud volume.

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1 (Tie). The Parting Gifts, Strychnine Dandelions

Here’s 2010’s reason to claim Greg Cartwright as the King Of Rock And Roll.  Cartwright, along with some of his musical cohorts enlist Coco Hames of the Ettes as equal-part co-conspirator to continue the exploration of a hypothetical universe where The Shangri-La’s were leaner and tougher and Phil Spector made garage rock.  The results are spectacular.  You’d maybe expect the two leads here to hold back their best material for their own bands, but that notion trembles in the corner when confronted with a duet like “Bound To Let Me Down” or Cartwright’s amazing vocal take on “Shine” or Hames’ stunning work on “Born To Be Blue”.    With this release, what was a blasphemous thought of mine a few years ago seems now like a ridiculously obvious truth now:  rather than a guy who is influenced by certain rock and rollers of the past, Greg Cartwright has surpassed them;  1965 Phil Spector would’ve drooled all over the chance to produce a song like “Shine”.  1966 Mick and Keith would kill for a song like “Staring” (and Coco’s smokey reading of the Stones “(Walking Through The) Sleepy City” pretty much ends the argument right there, as she effortlessly destroys the original.)  You can almost hear Dusty Springfield taking a serious run at the title track.

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1 (Tie).  Women, Public Strain

What to make of this amazing, exhilirating record?  There’s so much wonderful going on here, but let’s get the obvious out of the way:  there’s as much noisy and dischordant here as pretty and hook-filled.  A song like “China Steps” sounds like something you’d hear between sets at a 1978 PiL and Joy Division double bill.  The record’s opener, “Can’t You See”, waits nearly a minute to reveal a monstrous hook buried under feedback and whispered Brian Wilson-ish vocals.  “Heat Distraction” builds off a guitar feed that sounds like it would’ve fit quite well with the 1980’s version of King Crimson.  So yeah…there’s noise here.  But there’s also astonishing beauty.  “Venice Lockjaw” is delicate and pretty even if its diminished chords veer the melody all over the map.  Perhaps the best example of why Women are such a great band is the final song here, “Eyesore”, which is probably the Popnarcotic Song Of The Year.  Building off a disjointed and jagged post-punk opening melody, the song finds a quiet meditative bit in the chorus…and then comes the final 2 and a half-minute coda of the song when the song becomes this waterfall of the most beautiful sounds made on guitars, bass, and drums all year.  The effect is astonishing; throughout “Eyesore”, Women threaten to have the song completely fall apart, but then they pull it all together and a song that began noisy and became this delicate frozen snowflake of sound suddenly supernovas into a musical moment that makes the hair stand on end.   Sadly, Women went on hiatus at the end of 2010 after the two brothers in the band had a bust-up at a gig.  Here’s hoping they patch things up, because Women made the most interesting and adventurous album of 2010.

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