Monday, January 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Threads" by Now Now

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Now Now
Title: Threads
Released: 2012
Genre: Nerdy female indie alternative


I was smitten with the song Thread from the first listen, so I went to check out the rest of the album, and it turns out that the album Threads is largely built around the song of almost the same name. A deconstructed and abbreviated version serves as an intro track called The Pull, and lyrical motifs are repeated throughout, mainly about breaking patterns, pulling threads, and running away from problems and relationships only to get sucked back into them. The final lyric of the album in the song Magnet is "Can you still feel the pull? Can you?"

Common themes notwithstanding, apart from the intro, every single song stands on its own. If you liked the track above, the next two I'd recommend are Wolf and Lucie, Too. And for an album with some potentially mopey subject matter--frontwoman Cacie Dalager sings a lot about sleep on this record--it's surprisingly up tempo. The fastest song is probably Dead Oaks, which is also one of the most stripped down.

I love the production of the album. It's ambient and dreamy, but still guitar-forward. It's not a traditional rock setup; there is no bass, so the guitars have a little more low-end hum and there's a saw-wave synth pad sitting under almost everything. The lead guitar sounds are super shimmery. Dalager and Jess Abbott have a gorgeous vocal blend, even when they're slathered with reverb. Bradley Hale's drums are up-front, crisp, and clear, instead of sitting in the back. Whoever recorded him wants to make sure you hear the stutter-snare thing he does.

Further listening: Threads Remixed has a fantastic version of Separate Rooms, but there's not much else to recommend from this band, unfortunately. The previous albums, released under the monicker Now Now Every Children, just aren't that memorable, and after Threads Abbott left the band to work full-time on her side-project Tancred. Now Now's follow-up Saved is much more of a straight-forward pop affair, and in a way it feels like Dalager is being remade into an off-brand Hayley Williams (of the band Paramore), even down to the pink hair. Tancred has a solid following, but none of it's suited to my taste.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

100 Albums: "Automatic For The People" by R.E.M.

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Automatic For The People
Released: 1992
Genre: Sadness


1991's Out Of Time was R.E.M.'s biggest success after over a decade together, propelled by the mega-hit Losing My Religion, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The band wanted to get back to their dance-hall, rock-and-roll roots with the follow-up, so they put away the mandolins and started writing.

And when that didn't work out for them, they got the mandolins back out and wrote an album about loss and mourning. According to guitarist Peter Buck, the main inspiration for AftP was just the feeling of turning 30. Perhaps that's why it resonates with so many people. Or perhaps it was just the product of a group of craftsmen hitting their peak--the albums released on either side were also great, and this stretch of their career was their most commercially successful. And it couldn't have hurt that the mid and slower tempo broody-but-oddly-hopeful album fit nicely with the emerging early 90s alternative scene. In an era dominated by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, R.E.M. was something you could listen to with your parents.

AftP is probably best known for Everybody Hurts, a song (and music video) that absolutely revels in its own melancholy before turning wistful in the last twenty seconds or so. It's not the best song--that would probably be Nightswimming--or even the saddest--Sweetness Follows, embedded above--but it was emblematic and cemented the idea of R.E.M. as a "sad" band, a label that would follow them for basically the rest of their careers. And that's kind of a shame, because an overarching theme of AftP is that emotions are tempered and dealt with maturely. As noted above, Everybody Hurts is sad, but it ends on a feeling of positivity and almost whimsy. Sweetness Follows is explicitly about burying family members, but look at the title of that song.

This plays out in a number of different directions across the course of the album. The opener Drive has the prominent lyric "Hey, kids, rock and roll" (yes, lifted from David Essex's Rock On) but the song lurches back and forth from a low-tempo rocker to a stripped-down acoustic ballad. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight is so light it's almost silly, but if you dig into the lyrics you find a story of someone trying to keep in touch with loved ones while on the road. It also has my favorite lyrics of the album:

Baby, instant soup doesn't really grab me
Today I need something more sub-sub-sub-substantial
A can of beans, some black-eyed peas, some Nescafe and ice
A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss

Monty Got A Raw Deal resolves to a chorus of "You don't owe me anything." Raging political rocker Ignoreland admits to the listener "I know that this is vitriol... but I feel better having screamed, don't you?" Even the closer, Find The River, is woven-through with optimism, leaving the album with a final lyric "all of this is coming your way" delivered without even a trace of cynicism.

And I suppose I have to also mention Man On The Moon and Star Me Kitten. Great songs with fantastic titles. If nothing else, R.E.M. knew how to write excellent titles.

There's not a bad or wasted track on this record, and even though it doesn't have the band's best song, it's almost without question their best album (this is a trend you're going to see a lot of over the course of this list, I think).

Further Listening: Out Of Time is largely overshadowed by Losing My Religion, but it's a very good album in its own right, containing love-it-or-hate-it Shiny Happy People and fan-favorite Country Feedback. I'm also a big fan of the album that followed, Monster, wherein R.E.M. were successful in their attempt to write a rock record without mandolins.

Monday, January 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Dulcinea" by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Toad The Wet Sprocket
Title: Dulcinea
Released: 1994
Genre: 90s-alt contemporary college-rock

The 90s were a weird time for fashion.

As evidenced in the above music video, Toad The Wet Sprocket have a bizarre sense of humor that is completely out of sync with their musical aesthetic. They took their name from the opening line of the Monty Python sketch. In interviews, singer Glen Phillips comes across as the kind of guy it'd be fun to have a game of Scrabble with. In fact, it's easier to think of them not so much as rockstars, but rather as nerds who happen to be really good at music.

Fittingly, there's an undercurrent of intellectual curiosity to their music. Of the twelve tracks on Duclinea, only Something's Always Wrong feels in any way like a love song. Instead, we get tracks like the opener Fly From Heaven which is about the rift between Paul and James after the death of Jesus. The album title, as well as the song Windmills, are references to Don Quixote. Begin and Reincarnation Song explore the ideas of death and the afterlife. And then you have these delightful little turns of phrase in the lyrics, such as the opening line from Nanci: "I can't believe you. You bend your words like Uri Geller's spoons."

None of this would matter if the music weren't any good, but from start to finish Dulcinea is easy to listen to and compulsively singable, from heartfelt ballads like Crowing and Stupid to--especially--rockers like Fall Down and Woodburning. This is an album I can put on at basically any time and enjoy from a band I will see in concert any time they come through town. It's the ultimate comfort food for me.

Further Listening: fear is uneven but has Walk On The Ocean, one of their best songs. Coil is a great album but it doesn't have any true standout tracks.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

100 Albums: "Trouble Will Find Me" by The National

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The National
Title: Trouble Will Find Me
Released: 2013
Genre: indie baritone adult contemporary rock


I love, love, love Matter Berringer's voice. It's smooth, emotive, resonant, and right there in my range so I can sing along without straining. Seriously, I grew up in the era of Nirvana knock-offs who all screeched into microphones, so the idea of someone growling from his chest instead still feels novel to me.

The National are definitely a rock band, but compared to their earlier albums, Trouble Will Find Me is more atmospheric, with guitars and swoop and sparkle instead of crunch and drive. When a song does rush along at a good clip (Humiliation, Sea Of Love), it's being propelled by the drums more than the guitar. The standout track, though, is the ballad I Need My Girl whose video is embedded above. I love the little storytelling vignettes that show up in the lyrics:

Remember when you lost your shit and drove your car into the garden. You got out and said "I'm sorry" to the vines, but no one saw it.

Moments like that are scattered throughout the album, whose lyrics are generally much more about feel than meaning. I mean, if you can understand what the line "I was teething on roses, I was in guns and noses" from Humiliation is about, you're a smarter person than I. It's nearly an hour and it's fairly mellow, so it's an album you'll want to settle in for.

Further Listening: Nothing else in The National's catalog quite lives up to this. The record that preceded it, High Violet is decent. The successor, Sleep Well Best is kind of a mess.

Monday, January 7, 2019

100 Albums: "Evil Friends" by Portugal. The Man

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Portugal. The Man
Title: Evil Friends
Released: 2013
Genre: indie alt-rock (as produced by Danger Mouse)


As one might guess from a rock group who put a period in the middle of their name, Portugal. The Man are big on weirdness for its own sake. For this album, the Alaska-natives collaborated with art-house mega-producer Danger Mouse, best known (probably) for being the member of Gnarls Barkley who wasn't CeeLo. Did this collaboration work?

Reader, it did. Danger Mouse's hip-hop-but-vintage sound and sensibilities temper PtM's more out-there impulses to great effect. What results is an album that is off-kilter and driving, but still catchy and groovy. The sparse arrangements give the music room to breathe--much more so than you typically associate with a rock act--and every single song on this record is an ear-worm, none so much as the infectious title track.

There is not an ounce of fat on this record. There are no extended outros; there aren't even unnecessary measures to get a break to four bars. Even at nearly fifty minutes--long by 2013 standards--the album still manages to feel tight and taut. It never meanders or kills time. It's just a great listen from start to finish.

Further Listening: The much-delayed follow-up Woodstock contains PtM's only other (to my knowledge) collaboration with Danger Mouse, the monster radio hit Feel It Still. The rest of the album is good, but veers more into dreamwave and wall-of-sound territory. It took a few spins to really get under my skin, whereas I was in love with Evil Friends from the first chorus. They have maybe half a dozen albums before EF, but nothing I've heard from those records stood out.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

100 Albums: "Dreaming Through The Noise" by Vienna Teng

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Vienna Teng
Title: Dreaming Through The Noise
Released: 2006
Genre: piano singer-songwriter mellow pop


I heard the song Feather Moon from 2004's Warm Strangers on one of those indie acoustic radio shows that play on Sunday mornings and I was immediately enchanted by it--so I went to the record store to purchase it (this was before iTunes). They didn't have it, but they did have 2002's Waking Hour, so I purchased that instead and was, you guessed it, immediately enchanted. I've followed Vienna Teng's career closely ever since.

Teng describes her music as "chamber folk." Rooted in straightforward piano-pop, DTtN weaves together jazz arrangements, a dollop of bluegrass, and middle-eastern melodies to create a collection of fascinating stories. Topics range from renting a shitty apartment (1 Br / 1 Ba) to a dutiful housewife blowing the whistle on her husband's sketchy accounting (Whatever You Want) to couples lining up to get newly-legalized marriage licenses (City Hall). The album closer, Recessional, has what are in my opinion the best lyrics ever written. A sample:

She dreams through the noise, her weight against me, face pressed into the corduroy grooves. Maybe it means nothing... but I'm afraid to move.

And while I still dearly love her first two records, Dreaming Through The Noise is the first Vienna Teng album that feels completely whole. It has just enough production to give it a nice layer of polish and cohesion. By happenstance, I've heard her speak about this and she thinks some of the songs suffered by being forced to all share the same sonic space and mood. Her follow up Inland Territory was a reaction to this, in which she explicitly set out to write a "mix tape" of an album. By further happenstance, I was living in LA when this album came out and got to see her play it twice. I saw her do a preview show where she played the whole thing solo on piano and then a regular tour show as a jazz trio--both in an intimate little club setting.

Teng's music is intelligent, nuanced, impeccably precise, and astonishingly beautiful, and DTtN is her at her absolute best. It's hopeful and heartbreaking all at once, and full of little surprises that will catch your attention even after a dozen listens.

Further listening: If not for my pesky one-album-per-artist rule, Inland Territory would certainly be on this list. It's more experimental and more sonically diverse, and while it's damn near perfect, it's not quite as damn near perfect. Her previous albums mentioned above are great, but they feel a little underproduced, and her final album Aims is a little overproduced for my taste, but still quite good.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

100 Albums

Hello all!

In an attempt to keep the old blog from atrophying, I'm going to try out a project a friend of mine did a few years ago and spend the year writing about some of my favorite albums. So over the next 50 weeks, you can expect a couple entries a week until we get to 100. Or until I run out of steam and give up. Whichever comes first.

The only rule I'm giving myself here is to limit things to one album per artist. If that would preclude other favorite albums from making the list, I'll note it, but I don't want the list to be completely overrun by Radiohead and the Beatles. I'm going to start at the top of the list (that is, with my #1 favorite), but the ordering is not super rigorous--especially beyond the first twenty or so.

I'll put a master list on a page that's easily accessible from the front and I'll probably throw in some supplemental stuff, like albums I loved as a child but can't really listen to anymore for various reasons or albums that I find fascinating(ly weird) even if they're not great.

My tastes skew towards "alt-rock you can dance to" so expect a lot of that, but I get into some eclectic and moody stuff as well. Hopefully you'll find something you've never heard of before.

Should be fun,
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