Thursday, March 1, 2012

Catching Up With 2011: Music

The increasing ease of hearing new music, whether through streaming services, legal or illegal downloading, or CDs burned by friends or bought in stores has made it relatively easy to keep up with the state of the art.  Still, so many releases come out every year that even the most devoted Pitchfork columnist can’t possibly hear everything that’s worth hearing.  Here are some of the most interesting 2011 albums that fell through the cracks for me until I caught up with them in the early months of this year.

Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
Cass McCombs sets himself apart from the singer-songwriter pack with his unique nasally voice, his predilection for dense productions, and his willingness to let his songs run as long as they need to in order to make the loneliness and despair of his lyrics physically palpable.  Wit’s End finds the singer evolving from a relatively conventional broken-hearted troubadour (opener “County Line”) to a bored, debauched libertine straight out of Edgar Allen Poe (closer “A Knock Upon the Door”).  B

Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape
Some of the high-end praise for this collection of hip-hop beats has gotten out of hand.  New Jersey producer Clams Casino’s debut solo project doesn’t revolutionize instrumental hip-hop the way that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing did, nor does it flow as elegantly as J Dilla’s classic Donuts.  Still, while the modest title of Clams Casino’s album sums up its content accurately, it doesn’t hint at its cohesiveness or polish.  Without the vocals of regular collaborators like A$AP Rocky and Lil’ B, Clams Casino’s eerie minimal beats reveal him as one of the most promising producers working today.  B+

Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. 2 (Judges)
Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson has worked with everyone from avant-garde jazz conceptualist Anthony Braxton to arena rockers Arcade Fire, yet his music is so distinct from anything happening in modern music that it’s hard to even determine what genre it belongs to.  Stetson uses a circular breathing technique that allows him to create swirling, impressionistic loops of sound, and he puts the microphone close enough to his instrument to turn the sound of his fingers tapping the keys into percussion.  The periodic attempts to vary the sound of Stetson’s extremely specific aesthetic have mixed results – a creepy take on the traditional spiritual “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” with vocalist Shara Worden works better than most of the poetry readings by Laurie Anderson – but even if the tracks do become a bit repetitive, this is still undeniably one of the most distinctive albums of last year.  B

Four Tet – FABRICLIVE 59
Motor City Drum Ensemble – DJ-Kicks 37
DJ mixes are minor works by definition, and the fact that these albums are, respectively, the 59th entry in the FABRICLIVE series and the 37th DJ-Kicks would seem to highlight their inessentiality.  But the tracks on each disc are so smartly chosen, and the flow from one track to another is so seamless, that these mixes are at least as compulsively listenable as the best of 2011’s electronica “artist albums.”  Each mix has its own strengths – Four Tet’s, which focuses on obscure European house music, has a pair of excellent originals by the British producer, while the Motor City Drum Ensemble set boasts an impressively varied mix of soul, jazz, disco, and R&B.  (Grade for both albums):  B

Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
Frank Ocean has somehow simultaneously maintained a position as the singing member of shock-rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang and a ghostwriter for pop artists like Beyonce and John Legend.  Idiosyncratic perversity and undeniable pop smarts share equal space on the singer’s debut solo project, which wound up being self-released after Def Jam dragged their feet on sample clearances.  Nostalgia, Ultra is a mixtape rather than a proper solo album, with original songs sharing space with tracks where Ocean puts new lyrics over famous backing tracks (from a surprising group of sources, ranging from The Eagles to MGMT), but the curious mix of decadence and sensitivity belongs to Ocean alone.  B

Iceage – New Brigade
On their debut LP, Danish quartet Iceage take the arty songwriting style of Wire and Gang of Four and drag it, kicking and screaming, through a bruising instrumental assault that would make most thrash metal bands wince.  The results are viscerally exciting; aside from noise specialists Lightning Bolt, it’s hard to think of another band whose sound is this consistently ferocious.  It’s possible that Iceage is a one-trick pony, and that the 24-minute length of this album is designed to disguise their limited range as much as it is to avoid filler.  But even if Iceage never expand their sound or fully live up to their promise, New Brigade will stand as one of 2011’s most impressive debuts.  B+

Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
The Magic Place’s gorgeous soundscapes are as haunting and otherworldly as anything released in recent memory.  Julianna Barwick’s music sounds dense and detailed, despite being made up almost entirely of loops of her wordless vocals (with occasional spare piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment).  There is something rough and ghostly about Barwick’s style that keeps her music out of Enya territory and puts it more in line with what Werner Herzog would call “the ecstatic truth.”  A-

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
Kendrick Lamar is an ambitious, visionary MC with a smooth, elastic flow and an eclectic taste in beats.  Unfortunately, on his official solo debut (after an EP and a few mixtapes), Lamar keeps getting in the way of his own talent, smothering many of the tracks with ill-advised choruses or subpar guest verses, and giving the album a conceptual structure that is too muddled to be interesting.  While Lamar’s ambition is laudable, he tends to be at his best when he sticks to nimbly rapping over smooth productions, as on “Rigamortus” and “HiiiPower.”  B-

Moonface – Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped
Spencer Krug has received a lot of acclaim for his work with Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, but he won’t be winning any points for originality with his solo project Moonface.  It’s impossible to imagine the lengthy, keyboard-heavy tracks on this album existing without the influence of Joy Division and Gary Numan, but the lyrical and musical quality of tracks like “Shit-Hawk in the Snow” justify Krug’s theft from the darker side of ‘80s New Wave.  B

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
With Taylor Kirk’s lonely croon and swelling strings sitting on top of eerie midtempo ballads, Creep on Creepin’ On sounds like it was somehow recorded in black and white.  But Timber Timbre’s debut LP is not a nostalgia trip, and it also doesn’t sound particularly indebted to any current indie rock.  The band has a few kinks to work out – the modern classical instrumental interludes are impressive in their own right, but seem to belong on a different album than the more conventional songs – but Timber Timbre seem like they are on the verge of a monumental breakthrough.  B

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