Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite Albums of the Year

My choices for albums of the year. Go to for the full list.

13. Dinosaur Jr.
At least one indie reunion didn't destroy the band's legacy in the process. If 2007's Beyond demonstrated that the trio could reunite without wrecking its reputation, this year's Farm proved it was no fluke. Whereas other bands have tried to recreate their classic sound and failed miserably, Dinosaur Jr. didn't even attempt to rehash its past on Farm; those expecting a redux of You're Living All Over Me or Bug were surely disappointed. Instead, the album played to the band's strengths while still sounding original and unique: the intricate guitar workouts, bass and drums of songs like "I Want You To Know," "Plans," "Over It" and "Pieces" couldn't be mistaken for any other band, and never felt forced or redundant.
J. Mascis won't ever be confused with a smooth crooner, but his vocals and lyrics were as evocative as anything from the band's back catalog, especially on slow burners "See You" and "Said the People." Myopic listeners may have tended to zero in on the band's instrumentals - and really, who could blame them? - but Farm contained some of the strongest lyrics and vocals to grace a Dinosaur Jr. album. In a year that regrettably saw too many ill-conceived and poorly executed band reunions, Farm proved such efforts can result in something more than a shitty single and even shittier album. For once, a reunited band didn't simply mail it in; with Farm Dinosaur Jr. created an album that came damn close to matching their best work. -

4. The Antlers
The Antlers created one of this year's - if not this decade's - most complex and profound albums with Hospice, an elegy to loss and remembrance as well as a statement of hope in the face of tragedy. Regardless of the actual events that inspired the record - in interviews lyricist Peter Silberman has downplayed much of the mythology now attached to Hospice - the album is most notable for its dense and varied musical template and richly poetic lyrics. Built around inter-connected storylines of a terminal cancer patient and a disintegrating relationship, Hospice remains a deeply moving album whose standing as one of indie's most fully realized works is assured.
Its songs are alternately devastating and uplifting; empty cancer ward beds, childhood nightmares and dissolution of relationships are contrasted with hopeful defiance and to an extent, guarded optimism. Events are mentioned but the story's complete picture remains elusive and dreamlike, as perspectives and timelines shift to the point that most songs are left open to the listener's interpretation. Silberman's voice and the band's layered instrumentals hold the songs together, never settling on one style for very long but still giving the album an overall tone and consistency.
The world of Hospice is one of transience and fragility, but also one of devotion and, however tentative, optimism. Its characters down mortality and separation squarely and honestly; the album doesn't bullshit and never gives in to resignation. With Hospice, The Antlers managed to take something deeply personal and shape it into a truly universal album. As 2009 ends, the album still is quite simply that type of rare work that serves as a reminder of just how powerful, heartbreaking and comforting music can be.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Album of the Decade....

More at

Andrew Bird

The Mysterious Production of Eggs

[Righteous Babe; 2005]

Nearly five years after its release, Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs remains one of the few albums from this decade that sounds unlike anything that came before it. Three years in the making, the record marked a dramatic stylistic shift for its creator; instead of repeating or even refining the mostly pastoral sounds of Weather Systems, Bird instead created a sprawling album of layered instrumentation, evocative arrangements and expert lyricism. Addressing predominantly dark subject matter with a mixture of sympathy, defiance and dry humor, the record managed to sound both timeless and timely, a quality that has only increased in subsequent years.

Though Bird's vocals still draw mostly inaccurate comparisons to everyone from Paul Simon to Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley, Eggs' instrumental foundation is still difficult to categorize. Restrained songs like "Sovay," "MX Missiles" and "Masterfade" are defined by images of mortality and childhood memories as they bend and sway against Bird's careful arrangements, while the blasts of instrumentation that begin and end the morbidly humorous "Fake Palindromes" are largely unlike anything Bird had recorded up to that point. Violin, glockenspiel, guitar and other instruments are applied throughout, yet the album never sounds overly manufactured; even Bird's frequent whistling never feels self-conscious.

Eggs forgoes linear narratives in favor of striking images and clever wordplay. Though it's a bit dicey to call the album prophetic, its relevance to this decade is immediately recognizable: greedy bastards cash in at others' expense, soldiers march off to war, the economy and its financial institutions crumble. Yet even if the world Bird depicts throughout Eggs is markedly bleak, most of its fatalism is tempered with optimism or, at least, benign acceptance. In this way, the apocalypse of "Tables and Chairs" is greeted not with despair but instead with a celebration, complete with dancing bears, a band, Adderall and, of course, snacks, while "Opposite Day" envisions a new social order where society's grunts take charge and the powers-that-be find themselves incarcerated or in hell.

Andrew Bird released a string of outstanding albums this decade - the idyllic Weather Systems, the expansive Armchair Apocrypha and this year's solid Noble Beast - and while each effort demonstrated a different side of Bird's musical vision, none of these records matched The Mysterious Production of Eggs in both depth and ambition. A nuanced album whose charismatic lyrical vagaries and instrumental flourishes never deteriorate into excess or pretentiousness, it stands as one of this decade's most singular, focused and inscrutable releases. - Eric Dennis

Andrew Bird - Effigy

Go to for the full list of our choices for this year's best songs.

Built around layers of looped violins eventually fading into an acoustic guitar and one of Andrew Bird's most striking violin instrumentals, "Effigy" is a song of loneliness and isolation. Whatever the song's specifics exactly are - ostensibly it's about a lone drinker at a bar who's short on companionship but long on existential laments, but with Bird, how the hell can anyone be sure? - it is simply one of this year's most powerful and relevant songs.

On paper the song's lyrics are dark enough, but its understated instrumentation and Bird's vocal delivery make the character's situation seem that much more tragic. A few key lyrics add to the track's poignancy; specifically, Bird's reference to "fake conversations on a nonexistent telephone," suggests that communication and social interaction are not among the man's strong suits. Perhaps as bleak a song as Bird has recorded, it offers little sense of resolution or hope. Time isn't on anyone's side and there's nothing romantic about a solitary life for a "man who's lost his way/ Slips away." It's not the first time Bird has written about such things, but the song is among his most direct and moving. "Effigy"'s arrangements, lyrics and vocals fit together perfectly, resulting in one of this year's most touching songs.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Jawbox: For Your Own Special Sweetheart (reissue) is a great website. go there. tell your friends. tell your enemies.

Such was the fury and self-righteous outrage when Jawbox left fabled indie label Dischord Records and signed with Atlantic, that some fans - exhibiting the type of reactionary lunacy that still surfaces every time an indie darling makes the major label jump - boycotted the group's albums and dismissed the band as corporate sell-outs. Probably most of those principled punks and humorless DC-scene elitists have come around by now; the band's Atlantic debut, 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, remains both Jawbox's finest hour and one of the decade's defining releases. How in the hell this album went out of print is unexplainable, and it's both ironic and fitting that Sweetheart has finally been reissued by the label that lost the band to the majors in the first place.

Though Jawbox's major label output was minimal - the band managed just two albums before Atlantic dropped them - Sweetheart still demonstrates that a band can indeed do its best work under the auspices, watchful eyes and stuffed wallets of a major label without having to sanitize and neuter its sound. While the mid-1990s had its share of indie bands whose edges were softened and polished before the ink on that major label contract could even dry, Jawbox isn't one of them. True, Sweetheart is far more accessible and polished than the Dischord-issued punk blasts Grippe and Novelty, but in this case the sheen applied throughout still works: the songs' lyricism, vocal quirks and precise arrangements easily offset any alleged commercial concessions. J. Robbins' singing alternates between the menacing snarls of "FF=66," "Cruel Swing" and "Cooling Card" and the mostly straightforward alt-rock vocals of "Savory," "Breathe" and "LS/MFT," while Robbins' and Bill Barbot's guitars and Zach Barocas' drums each form essential pieces of the songs' composition. Such arrangements can sometimes sound overly studied and rehearsed - and without question Sweetheart is the band's most meticulously produced record - but the band retains enough of its abrasiveness and tension to render such potential pitfalls non-existent. This tension likewise extends to the songs' content; though the album's lyrics have routinely been overlooked in favor of their structures, the lyrics are as integral as any of the album's guitar bursts or pounded drums. "Motorist," for example, takes the familiar rock motif of a car crash and manages to capture its impact in only a few simple lines: "When you examined the wreck what did you see/ Glass everywhere and wheels still spinning free."

Unlike many such reissues, this version is worth a purchase for both fans that have the original album as well as those who have yet to hear Sweetheart. Purists might object to the album being tinkered with at all, but Bob Weston's remastering job is mostly welcome. Barocas' drums in particular are more pronounced in the mix, giving the songs more muscle without entirely altering their overall makeup. The volume is also a bit punchier and louder than the original release, which is good news for an iPod generation that will likely be deaf by the age of 40 anyway. The Savory EP is tacked on after "Whitney Walks," and though none of its songs surpass anything from the album proper, it's nice to have a more complete picture of the band at its best. The only misstep - a minor one, to be sure - is that the cover art was bafflingly changed from the album's original image of a blow-up doll to that of a marble sculpture. Some things are better just left alone.

The majors may have devoured plenty of bands throughout the 1990s, but Jawbox won't ever be counted among them. However briefly, the group managed to refine their sound and still retain the characteristics that originally endeared them to the DC music scene. If it came at the price of alienating some indie fans who would by default piss on anything even remotely mainstream, so be it. Some people can't be told, but for the rest of us, this reissue of a true landmark 1990s album solidifies Jawbox's place as one of that decade's most inventive and singularly focused groups.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Concert Review: Lucinda Williams

The Pageant, St. Louis, MO 10/17/09

It took exactly one song for the intoxicated requests to start. After Lucinda Williams opened her St. Louis concert with a soulfully garbled solo acoustic take of "Motherless Children," a rather forceful demand for "Drunken Angel" was shouted from the pit area. Other requests punctuated the breaks between songs throughout Williams' mesmerizing two and half hour performance at the Pageant - "Lake Charles," "Joy," "Are You Alright?" (a glutton for punishment, there) - and even if such things are standard and expected for a Williams show, it still doesn't make them any less annoying or unnecessary.

Perhaps such fans were unaware of the approach Williams and her expert backing band (a Doug Pettibone-less Buick 6) have taken on their current tour. Featuring a chronologically arranged setlist, these shows have the feel of a career retrospective, with Williams digging into her back catalog for songs that have been in her repertoire for years as well as a few rarities. If the crowd's expectations and what Williams had planned didn't always jive - especially in the concert's mostly down-tempo first hour, it was clear that more than a few fidgety and vocal concertgoers were expecting a full-on rock concert - the show was nevertheless memorable, with the singer turning in her most assured and confident performance in St. Louis since her 2003 stop at the same venue.

Although any such chronological format runs the risk of disintegrating into a mere nostalgia trip or Kumbaya community sing-along, there were enough surprises in song selection and wrinkles in the arrangements to keep things interesting. The first hour or so emphasized the musician's folk and blues roots: Williams' Folkways years were represented by the aforementioned opener, Robert Johnson's "Rambling On My Mind" and "Happy Woman Blues," while her self-titled Rough Trade debut was revisited with a pitch-perfect full-band version of "Crescent City," a country-inflected "Big Red Sun Blues" and a stripped down take on "Side of the Road." Only a scant two songs from the underappreciated Sweet Old World were offered, neither of which were particularly inspired; if there's an additional complaint here, it's that both songs - "Little Angel, Little Brother" and "Pineola" - were again performed with little deviation from their album versions and have grown a little stale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most generous selection of songs came from Williams' three best albums:Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence and, despite the occasional dud, World Without Tears. Weeper ballads like "Greenville," "Lake Charles" and "Blue" were intermixed with the muscular, aggressive blasts the band applied to "I Lost It," "Out of Touch" and "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings." Guitarists Chet Lyster and Eric Schermerhorn and bassist David Sutton played masterfully across the board, while goateed monster drummer Butch Norton was particularly savage, pounding away at his drum kit as if he'd just discovered that it slept with his woman.

The main set somewhat limped to the finish. Recent songs "Unsuffer Me" and "Tears of Joy" sounded as lifeless in concert as they do on record, with both lazy blues crawlers standing in sharp contrast to the mocking and nasty tones the band applied to the vitriolic "Come On" and set-closing "Honey Bee." Still, such missteps were rare, and, after a three-song encore, the curtain closed on a fitting end to the band's tour and one of Williams' most engaging and least predictable St. Louis concerts.

With only a few exceptions, the performance itself was almost always flawless, with both Williams and her superb backing band breathing passion and energy into both the reliable standbys and lost gems from her back catalog. Though Williams' standing as a critics' darling has taken a hit with the dual disappointments of West and Little Honey, she still knows how to translate her songs to a live setting and there is a power to her ragged voice live that isn't always captured on record. If this chronological show confirmed anything, it's that most of Lucinda Williams' songs have aged well and rightly continue to find an audience based on the strength of their content and the often wrenching and conflicted emotions they express.

by Eric Dennis
[Photos: Lindsey Best]

1. Motherless Children
2. Rambling On My Mind (Robert Johnson)
3. Happy Woman Blues
4. Crescent City
5. Big Red Sun Blues
6. Side of the Road
7. Little Angel, Little Brother
8. Pineola
9. Greenville
10. I Lost It
11. Lake Charles
12. Still I Long for Your Kiss
13. Blue
14. Out of Touch
15. Essence
16. Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings
17. Righteously
18. Unsuffer Me
19. Come On
20. Tears of Joy
21. Honey Bee

22. Nothing in Rambling (Memphis Minnie)
23. Joy
24. It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Interview: Peter Silberman of The Antlers

There are lots of good interviews at

Few albums in recent years have elicited such visceral responses from both fans and critics as Hospice, the stunning full-length debut from The Antlers. Currently on tour in support of the album, guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Peter Silberman was kind enough to spend some time with us discussing the album's origins, what the "self isolation" back story that surrounds the album actually means and whether he's comfortable with the various interpretations Hospice has received.

SC: Thanks for taking some time to talk today. By now it's been well documented that the narrative in Hospice centers on the relationship between a hospital worker and a girl/woman dying of cancer. Do you consider this a concept album, or are you hesitant to define the album in those terms?

PS: I'm hesitant to call it that but I'm not sure why. The album's a story, and the story's about a concept. Sure, it's a concept record. I think the songs can exist on their own, independent of the record, but they don't necessarily make sense that way.

SC: Was this storyline already defined before you began the record or did it only start to take shape as the songs were being written?

PS: It was a little of both. The real sequence of events had just wrapped up before the album was started. Turning it into a different kind of story happened alongside the writing.

SC: Most reviews have mentioned that you wrote these songs after a couple years of social isolation. Is that just the type of interesting footnote critics love or did it influence the songs?

PS: I don't even know anymore. I wonder what people think "isolation" actually means. I wasn't in a sensory deprivation tank or in a cabin in the woods. It's gotten out of hand. What happened: I stopped talking to my friends. Why that happened: that's explained in the record.

SC: Perspectives and timelines shift from song to song, and certain events are mentioned but it's sometimes difficult to piece the story together.

PS: Well, Hospice is sort of told like a dream, where things are constantly transforming and confusing, time is arbitrary and illogical, locations become different locations. The record's about life becoming indistinguishable from a dream, or in this case, recurring nightmares.

SC: Various reviews have offered different interpretations of exactly what's happening in Hospice. Are you concerned about these songs being misinterpreted?

PS: People are totally free to call it however they like. I don't want to dictate what this album means to someone else. I only worry when people get carried away with the truth behind the record's events and decide something as concrete as "Hospice is about Peter Silberman's dead girlfriend." Not necessarily true.

SC: While there's a heavy sense of loss throughout the album, it never becomes oppressive and hope isn't necessarily lost.

PS: I never wanted to create something hopeless. I was trying to work through something by making this album, and nothing would have been fixed had it ended at the bottom.

SC: The album is pretty layered and the arrangements and vocals never settle on any one style for very long. What was the recording process like?

PS: The vocals were the last to be recorded, and were recorded frustratingly over the course of one weekend upstate. The rest of the time, the record was being recorded in my apartment with two microphones and very little space for a little over a year. It was actually a lot of fun, though it felt like a failure throughout a good deal of it.

SC: Are you surprised by the attention the album has received despite having very little publicity behind it?

PS: I'm surprised every day that things have reached the point they have. I never expected this record to get to this many people. I'm really happy about that.

SC: What considerations come into play when you try to translate these songs to a live setting?

PS: We're pretty much constantly on tour right now, and we've adapted most of the songs to sound different than they do on record. That keeps us going and engaged, to be changing these songs and sounds, making the live show bigger and washier.

SC: If there's a single takeaway theme to Hospice - something to cut through all the various interpretations - what is it?

PS: The end of guilt.