September 6, 2012

2009 Strikes Back

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Ah, I remember 2009. Perhaps nostalgia is getting the best of me here, but it was a very good year, especially for music. Animal Collective gave us the brilliant Merriweather Post Pavilion, Dirty Projectors put out the singular Bitte Orca, The xx delivered its sexy self-titled debut, Grizzly Bear pumped out the meticulously crafted Veckatimest and Japandroids reminded us that ragged rock and roll could still be a lot of fun with Post-Nothing  (this is not to forget excellent releases from Phoenix, St. Vincent, Raekwon and Real Estate, among scores of others). As a budding young music fan, it was a time for expansion, open-mindedness and, of course, excellent concerts. It was the first time I truly felt that the time we were experiencing was musically important; that some incredible things were going on and I could be a part of it. So, overall, it was a kickass time to be a high school music nerd.

2012’s release list, though, was eerily familiar. Bands whose best work had been released in 2009 were coming back with a vengeance. Hiatuses had ended and it seemed like we were due for another crop of grand releases that pushed boundaries and changed the musical landscape as we knew it. Consider this something of a progress report, giving a succinct then and now for 2009’s premier acts and releases. We’ll see which groups aged like a fine wine and which aged more like, say, two percent milk.

Band: Animal Collective.

Then: Merriweather Post Pavilion was released on January 6, 2009. Even so, it was immediately dubbed by the blogosphere as the album of the year. This was far from unwarranted: Merriweather was a masterstroke, a meditation on familial themes combined with sonic exploration amidst beautifully reverberating drums and vocals. It evoked comparisons to Pet Sounds and featured perhaps the greatest song ever written about the joys of home ownership, “My Girls.” Moments of quiet were followed by chaotically cathartic tracks like “Brothersport.” It was Animal Collective expanding on the pop mastery they had shown only in glimpses before; it was phenomenal.

Now: Astute readers of  The Sun’s Art and Entertainment section know exactly how I feel about Centipede Hz, but, for those who missed it, here’s a brief summary: loud, noisy, busy, meandering and, ultimately, underwhelming. Gone are the danceable jams that made Merriweather so transcendent. Instead, we got overcrowded sound collages that will still be super fun to take drugs to (if you’re into that) in a live setting.

Band: Dirty Projectors.

Then: Following an experimental release where songwriter and musical director Dave Longstreth attempted to recreate Black Flag’s epochal hardcore release Rise Above from memory (admittedly a very, very challenging listen), Bitte Orca was an unexpected stroke of genius from Dirty Projectors. Combining West African rhythms, Jimmy Page guitar leads and dense-as-hell vocal harmonies, it was a unique synthesis that garnered comparisons to everyone from Talking Heads to Beyonce. While Bitte Orca avoided easy categorization, it still offered some easily digestible hits. “Stillness is the Move,” propelled by a star turn by vocalist Angel Deradoorian, was the perennial favorite, inviting booties to shake verily, and “Two Doves” was the tender ballad that reminded us that, oh yeah, Dave Longstreth is classically trained.

Now: Swing Lo Magellan does not disappoint whatsoever. The songwriting and performance is decidedly looser, but this allows songs like “Offspring Are Blank” and “Swing Lo Magellan” to breathe. There are still the requisite left turns, but Longstreth and company essentially refine and relax their unique sound and methodology. It’s a refreshing release that features plenty of Longstreth’s guitar acrobatics and compositional cleverness without getting overly ambitious. Take note, Animal Collective.

Band: The xx.

Then: Sparse and delicate, xx was notable for how damn sexy it sounded. Songs like “VCR” sounded like really great pillow talk: somewhat vague (“you just know, you just do”) and delivered with a sense of longing that convinced most of us that vocalists Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sims were banging (unfortunately for indie rock tabloids, they aren’t and aren’t likely to start anytime soon). Jamie xx’s production emphasized space and economy (Who needs two guitar lines when there could be one? Why can’t two quarter-notes on a hi-hat be a suitable fill?). Every track felt measured in the best way possible, allowing the entire record to boil over with an almost unstated emotional (and sexual) tension.

Now: Given Jamie xx’s excellent solo and remix work, Coexist ran the risk of becoming the Jamie xx show. Luckily for fans of xx’s sensual vocal interplay, Jamie once again eases on the throttle and allows for the romantic leads to do their thing. Lyrically, they seem to be focusing a little more on L-O-V-E rather than getting freaky, so it takes a little bit of the sex and danger out of the proceedings. It’s still impeccably crafted and, after only a couple of listens, has already begun to grow on me.

Band: Grizzly Bear.

Then:  Veckatimest was a very good record that was pushed over the top by what can only be described as impeccable production. Snares rattled, guitar strings buzzed and pianos sounded as if they were being pounded next to your head. Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen traded vocal turns on songs padded with gorgeous string arrangements contributed by none other than indie’s favorite contemporary composer Nico Muhly. A triumph of design and execution, this was indie pop taken to its intellectual extreme.

Now: Shields, Grizzly Bear’s follow-up to Veckatimest, has, unfortunately, yet to be released, but preview singles “Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again” hint at greater psychedelic overtones and a little bit more drive, giving us all reason to get excited for the upcoming weeks. Veckatimest with more rock? Yes, please.

Band: Japandroids.

Then: Post-Nothing was the scrappy little album that could. Despite its seeming brevity (just eight songs?) and sparse instrumentation (“Just guitar and drums? What is this White Stripes shit?”), it was an excessively charming debut that stood out because of its shagginess and its penchant for not over-intellectualizing things. Instead of lyrics, these guys had repetitious mantras that embraced youthful topics like leaving town, sunshine girls and staying “crazy forever.” In a year where critical darlings were pushing boundaries, it was invigorating to hear something so simple and wonderful.

Now: Celebration Rock is a statement of intent, a grand rock album in an era where we usually make fun of grand rock albums. “Nights of Wine and Roses” is the soundtrack to that first shotgunned beer, “Younger Us” is an ode to prolonging immaturity and “Adrenaline Nightshift” is a memorial to every night out ever. An album about being on the cusp of adulthood and not yet having anything to live for, Celebration Rock is what you should be listening to right now. Right. Now.

Original Author: James Rainis