Monday, December 15, 2008

Three Favorite Albums of 2008

Originally published at Go check that site out, bookmark it, tell all your frends. Good karma for you.

3. J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher -
Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies [Standard Recording]

Authored by musicians J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher, and originally conceived as part of the February Album Writing Month project in 2006, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies was an ambitious effort that explored the mythology and history of the American presidency and the men who have alternately honored or shat upon that office. Ranging from songs of sympathy to those of scathing criticism and satire, and featuring contributions from many indie musicians, it successfully avoided the overindulgence and self-importance that sometimes plagues concept albums.

The songs were often structured as either character portraits or deathbed confessionals, with many of the presidents judged harshly. Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison were dismissed as war profiteers, Chester Arthur was depicted as an egotistical bastard, and George W. Bush was derided as stubborn and uncompromising fundamentalist. Even George Washington reeked of cynicism and Machiavellian expediency, with Kiefer portraying him as a silver-tongued political shyster:

Yet there were still some genuine moments of compassion, sympathy, or praise. Bill Callahan transformed John Tyler into an object of pity who unintentionally fell ass-backwards into the presidency after his predecessor's unexpected death in 1841. Pitcher imagined Harry Truman as a morally conflicted man and a mess of warring emotions. In perhaps the album's best song, the gorgeous and aching "Helicopters above Oakland," U.S. Grant was presented as a tired former soldier looking back in dismay at the ruin caused by the Civil War.

As Americans we tend to mythologize the presidency into beyond-epic proportions. This release looked past that bullshit and instead focused on the nation's leaders as regular, and sometimes very flawed, people.

2. Wilderness - (k)no(w)here [Jagjaguwar]

Conceived as a single musical piece and inspired by a collaboration with artist Charles Long, (k)no(w)here was a foreboding and menacing release from the Baltimore collective. Songs bled into each other without any discernible break; to the listener it created an odd effect of being trapped inside a lunatic's mind. Throughout the album lead singer James Johnson yelped, barked and howled on top of the band's aggressive guitars and drums, his words oddly enunciated and often times unintelligible save for a few repeated phrases or snatches of lyrics. When Johnson's words were understandable, they almost always hinted at some type of upcoming but unnamed disaster, usually with a heavy dose of social or political undertones. Evocative of bands like PiL, Fugazi, and The Jesus Lizard, (k)no(w)here was both difficult to comprehend and yet, in the election year of a country with an economy going into the crapper and an outgoing administration that can't slink away soon enough, also somehow perfectly timely.

1. Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums - Dark Developments [Orange Twin]

An album that combined Vic Chesnutt's ability to craft melodies and darkly humorous lyrics with his penchant for distortion and electricity, Dark Developments was the singer's best effort since The Salesman and Bernadette. Joined by Elf Power and frequent backing band the Amorphous Strums, Chesnutt set aside the plodding vocal arrangements and murky production that plagued Ghetto Bells and the bursts of random noises that made North Star Deserter sound too experimental for its own good in favor of tight songs that relied heavily on background vocals and melodies you could even hum.

The album served up a big helping of anger and cynicism. Chesnutt spat out insults in "Little Fucker;" though the target was never named, it was tempting to view the song as a much-deserved dismissal of any number of people from the outgoing Bush regime. Other songs like "Stop the Horse" and "Teddy Bear" were also fodder for similar political interpretations.
Yet the album never got bogged down in political polemics; the subject matter was specific enough to suggest a certain topic but vague enough to allow music fans and overzealous critics to speculate wildly about each song. Overall the album was a cohesive synthesis of what still makes Chesnutt's music so original and fascinating - a melody that lodges in your brain and won't get out, a disturbing or bleakly humorous lyric and a keen eye for the mundane details of life and death.

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