Archive for The Vacant Lots

Fenne Lily’s “BREACH” is Tulip Frenzy’s 2020 Album of the Year

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2020 by johnbuckley100

2020 was a year that hurt to the touch. It was bewildering to go from winter’s bright promise to the abrupt Covid lockdown, and for all too many it was utterly devastating. Calendar years are not supposed to bring their own set of terrors, but this one did, from fears of a stolen election to worries about the health of loved ones. Sitting at home those first few months, I found myself listening to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” over and over, as if repeated listening under teeth-grinding home confinement would lead to figuring it out, finally. In the weeks — in the months — that followed, I could listen only to music with a melodic, jangly aspect, which could account for why the 12th Tulip Frenzy Top 10 list might be, for the first time, satisfactory to people in my age cohort. It was not a year for punk rock.

There were some great re-issues this year. Wire was the last band we saw before the lockdown — crazily going to see them in March in a small club the week their U.S. tour was canceled and, on the home front, we shut down our office, but I was so glad to hear them play “German Shepherds” from their 2011 Strays E.P., which in May was released as part of the 10:20 collection of loose ends. An absolutely unexpected joy was discovering Anthony Moore’s Out, recorded in the mid-70s, released only in the mid-90s, and finally brought to my attention in September — an album that could live side-by-side with John Cale’s Fear and Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, with a band comprising Kevin Ayers on bass and a pre-Police Andy Summers on guitar. It is astonishing, and I urge you — with that same tone of voice that one suggests wearing a mask until the vaccine arrives — to quickly find it. Speaking of Eno, his Film Music 1976-2020 was filled with delights, particularly the track “Beach Sequence,” recorded with the four members of U2. And just last week came a 40th Anniversary release of Young Marble Giant’s Collosal Youth, which hasn’t aged a bit.

I feel compelled to call out an album that did not make it on this year’s Top 10 List. Over at Uncut, they list Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways as Album of the Year, and we get it. It was a great work of Late Phase Bob, worthy of official recognition. But while we yield to no humanoid when it comes to our belief that Old Man Dylan is at least the equal of Young Man Dylan, our actual listening to his 21st Century albums, at least more than a few times, culminated in Tell Tale Signs, that 2009 alternative-arrangement epic our team voted Album of the Year. So, we are not going to honor the 79-year old Nobel Laureate here. But just you wait til we tell you about this year’s winner, the 23-year old Fenne Lily.

On to the list…

#10. S. G. Goodman Old Time Feeling

I listened to S.G. Goodman’s debut album with the same astonishment and wide-mouthed joy that I greeted Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac more than 20 years ago — the last time an alt.country rec seized me like the slow disorienting rush of ingested windowpane. If, like me, you think of modern country as the battle between smug, faux outsiders and the still-wonderful real McCoy, then a lesbian classicist from rural Kentucky could pleasingly harken to memories of ’70s Outlaw Country leavened by the brilliant insights of a Resistance poet in Mitch McConnell’s backyard. The title song was one of the best rock’n’roll rippers of the year. Maybe when the political scientists try figuring out the 2020 election, they can parse these lyrics which kicked it off:

Oh, and my soul can’t afford those city lights
Not with the sickness in the countryside
Not with the wound that we’ve left open wide
Oh, believer, you be the healer
Can’t hear the peace train with that coal train gunning
To keep the peace you’ll keep that coal train running
Or find a way to keep those paychecks coming, ah-ah

One of the fiercest debates we had to moderate in the Tulip Frenzy HQ’s rec room was whether Goodman or Waxahatchee should round out the list, but while we loved the latter’s St. Cloud, the sheer grit of Old Time Feeling captured the final rung of the ladder and would not let go.

We’re not living in that Old Time Feeling, the remarkable S.G. Goodman sang on an album at once sympathetic to the land of her birth without ever falling into simplistic Hillbilly elegies. An astonishing country album by an artist going places even as she refuses to leave home.

#9. Vacant Lots Interzone

By the advent of summer, we were able to listen to things more adventuresome, harder edged than our springtime quest for melody had allowed, but even as Vacant Lots use electronica to establish the mood, they are brilliant and tuneful songwriters, and we welcomed their dark vision, their Blade Runner mise en-scene. In the spiritual rainy day weather of 2020, starting an album with a song called “Endless Rain” hit the spot. They’re the only band I can think of to mix rockabilly, disco and drum machines in a single song, and I find them irresistible either as foreground or background music, which is saying something.

While perhaps a little less gripping than Endless Night, which hit #5 on the 2017 Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List, the Vacant Lots showed on Interzone that they’re just hitting their stride. While their more recent release of odds and ends (November’s first rate Damage Control) revealed just how powerful an influence Anton Newcombe has had on the duo from Burlington, Vermont, Interzone shows just how well they’ve perfected the interplay between guitar and synths, and between dystopia and bliss.

#8. The Proper Ornaments Mission Bells

James Hoare’s band, The Proper Ornaments, rose from the ashes of the incredible Ultimate Painting, which sadly split in a messy divorce. While Jack Cooper recuperates with Modern Nature, who put out their own E.P. of bucolic music early in the summer, Hoare’s Proper Ornaments released another perfect example of quiet British pop. Mission Bells is an album that met the moment, gorgeous, a peaceful interior that occasionally raged with an undercurrent of angst. We listened to it so often during the early Covid lockdown that we began to associate it with sweatpants, sleeping through our anachronistic commuter’s alarm, and drinking coffee while avoiding the news. As pretty a homemade pop album as you will ever find, if you’re one of those people who like to follow up Nick Drake’s Pink Moon by putting on Rubber Soul, then Mission Bells is for you — and the antidote to the year’s disturbing headlines.

#7 Coriky Coriky

Ian Mackaye — he explains to non-Washingtonians — was Fugazi’s leader, co-singer, co-guitarist, co-songwriter. We credit him with quite deceptively keeping the whirlwind tightly controlled: it’s perhaps only in retrospect that the craftsmanship of his songs fully resonate with pop sensibilities — particularly the verse, chorus, nuclear war song structure also embraced by ’80s/’90s acts like the Pixies and Nirvana — revealed underneath the more obvious hardcore armor. Subsequently, with wife Amy Farina on vox + drums, Mackaye followed the breakup of Fugazi with The Evens, a band deliberately constructed for quiet mayhem — nearly as propulsive as his earlier bands, but with the duo able to play in the basement corner of a church, shunning the clinking bottles and boozy talk of bars and clubs with big stages. It has been eight long years since The Evens released The Odds, and so Mackaye and Farina’s return would be news enough. Yet their enlisting Fugazi and Messthetics bass player Joe Lally to join the fun just ensured that Coriky would be absolutely fucking brilliant.

From the opener, “Clean Kill” — which could easily have been on *both* Fugazi and The Evens’ set list — the quiet, understated poignancy of Mackaye, Farina and Lally’s playing blooms into something far more dynamic, and it clutched our heart and brain. When the song explodes, you’ll be forgiven for believing it to be a time bomb from Fugazi’s brilliant exit album, The Argument.

You don’t have to be from D.C. to grasp Coriky’s greatness, though it helps. This is an album that should rank high on every critic’s 2020 list, because like Mackaye’s earlier bands, we’ll be playing their music forever. And yet one of Mackaye’s most admirable traits is ambivalence about stardom, which is a reason you probably didn’t hear of The Evens or Coriky til we just told you about them. Confound Mackaye’s desire to remain subversively unnoticed: seek this album out.

#6. Death Valley Girls Under The Spell of Joy

It’s really hard to do what the Death Valley Girls accomplish on their magnificent Under the Spell of Joy. Since the earliest days of New Wave, or at least since Blondie, literally thousands of bands have tried grafting Girl Group sensibilities onto garage rock, with mixed results. On this album, though, the LA band has created a Phil Spector + garage band richness, even using a children’s chorus to round out the sound of sax, organ and riffing guitar. Like singers in the best Girl Groups, Bonnie Bloomgarden doesn’t have a classically great voice, but she gets the job done. Fans of First Communion Afterparty will recognize some of the psych song structures, and I can imagine Jason Pierce and his Spiritualized bandmates nodding their heads to this ‘un. From dance songs like “Little Things” and “Hold My Hand” to the cosmic verities of “The Universe,” Death Valley Girls are equally catchy and deep — again, hard to pull off. The music is familiar and original at the same time, beautiful and thrilling. The late Alan Betrock, who in addition to founding New York Rocker and producing Richard Hell’s Destiny Street and the first dBs album was a Girl Group aficionado, must be smiling in Heaven. In 2020, a miserable year, we are so glad we fell under the spell of joy.

#5. Kelley Stoltz Ah! (etc)

If any artist could thrive under Covid lockdown, it would be Kelley Stoltz. After all, he’s released 12 albums under his own name (and several others under pseudonyms) with nary a guest backup singer — Stoltz plays every instrument himself* — so adapting to an at-home environment would seem to be easier for him than, say, Wilco, or the far-flung New Pornographers. And sure enough, while earlier in the year he released a hard-rocking gem (Hard Feelings, recorded in 2019), November saw Ah! (etc), and this album recorded under semi-confinement is a delight.

Since 2008, when Tulip Frenzy was spawned, few are the years in which we did not feature one of Kelley’s albums in our Top 10. History has proved there are only two kinds of Kelly Stoltz albums — good ones and great ones. Ah! (etc) is a great one.

What’s the difference? Well, the best Kelley Stoltz albums make ample use of Kelley’s songwriting influences (Ray Davies, David Bowie circa ’70-’83, Echo and The Bunnymen), compounded by his genius for song arrangements, and most importantly his ability to stitch together multiple instruments into what sounds not just like a band, but a great band. Like, a Rolling Stones great band. He is sui generis, nonpareil, a complete original operating inside the confines of the kind of pop music that has always twanged our woogie. While Que Aura shared album of the year honors in 2017, several of his best works have, due to intense competition, just missed the highest mark, as this one does. But give him points for consistency: no artist has been on our list more often (we had an intern check.)

Listen to “Dodged a Bullet” from Ah! (etc) and you’ll instantly see why Kelley’s claimed his customary spot in our Top 5. It sports an Enoesque processed guitar sound, inventive drumming, a solid bass track, and Kelley’s voice. That’s all you need! He never lets you see him sweat even as he casts his hooks deep into the surf. You never know which instrument is going to reveal itself as Kelley’s favorite (on this ‘un, the drums, though pretty often it’s the bass.)

We’re happy to discover that the fella who operates out of Brookyn Vegan‘s Indie Basement shares our mania for all things Kelley. Isn’t it time you did too?

*On Ah! (etc), Stoltz pal and sometimes bandmate in Echo and the Bunnymen, Will Sergeant, plays lead guitar on one track, and adds spoken words to another, thus breaking up, so far as I know, Stoltz’s perfect record of solo album performances.

#4. Woods Strange To Explain

In the early days of the lockdown, there was something weirdly reassuring to hear songs from Woods’ wonderful Strange to Explain, which returns one of America’s cultural gems back to the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List. It wasn’t just that Jeremy Earle’s songs were beautiful and inventive, it was his thematic exploration of dreaming — and particularly, the dream life of his infant daughter. Not just the sound, but the lyrics met the moment. I dunno, it’s strange to explain.

The last outing for Earle and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Jarvis Traveniere was on last year’s release by Purple Mountains — the band Silver Jews leader David Berman formed around the nucleus of Woods to record what turned out to be his final songs. Their album entered the world to accolades — and Berman promptly committed suicide. To go from such trauma to such a gorgeous, beguiling album as Strange To Explain is a testament to Woods’ enormous courage, not to mention talent.

Look, we loved the Woods of Bend Beyond, but by the time they got to Love is Love (2017), it seemed like their need to showcase, maybe even show off their musical growth took them to playing different idioms at the expense of revealing their heart. It would seem the twin events in Earle’s life — becoming a father and losing a friend to suicide — shook them hard. The result is an album at least as satisfying as anything they’ve done before. It still shows off their growth, their enormous collective talent — utilizing synths and mellotron, playing Mexicali music as well as Calexico — but this is an album that works as a whole, from beginning to end.

Given the regrets we have for 2020, we’re grateful to have Woods return, like an old friend, with a new batch of primo, weirdo songs.

#3. Angel Olsen Whole New Mess

Last year, when we put Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors in the #9 slot on our Top Ten List, we wrote, “We don’t think there has ever been an album that has made the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List (c) that we have played less. Some of its absence from our car stereo speakers is that Mrs. Tulip Frenzy is not a fan, but mostly it’s that Olsen’s album, like her voice and the string arrangements on it, is so intense, one has to lash himself to the car’s hood ornament in order to glide past the Sirens’ Songs contained herein.”

We meant it: All Mirrors had great songs, incredible performances, but there was something about it that was so over the top, we could recognize its excellence without loving it. So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that, as she had promised when All Mirrors came out, Olsen really did intend to release into the world the original version of the album that she had recorded, before going back into the studio to add what amounted to a bucket of gloss.

Whole New Mess isn’t a reissue – it’s an album in the same spirit as Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks, in which the artist allows the world to see the earlier, unadulterated vision. As with Dylan’s release of a less adorned version of his classic Blood on the Tracks, Angel Olsen’s giving us these songs in this form is like walking into the Sistine Chapel fresh from its restoration.

On a song like “(New Love) Cassette” (which on Whole New Mess was called “New Love Cassette”), not too much has changed. But on the very next song, the standout of last year’s album, “All Mirrors” (here called “We Are All Mirrors,”) the absence of varnish, the more understated approach is, to these ears, so much stronger. “Lark Song” minus strings sounds like it could be a cover of a track by the Velvet Underground, so great is the transformation, or I guess we should say, restoration.

We wish more artists had the courage to show us their faces without their makeup. To trust fans, as PJ Harvey just did with the demo release of To Bring You My Love, with the knowledge that sometimes the rawer version of a recording is better than what the record label dictated should go out into the world. Dylan regularly gives us alternative arrangements of songs long since deemed classics. That a comparatively young artist such as Angel Olsen is doing so shows the kind of vision that can make an artist’s career last every bit as long as our Nobel Laureate’s.

#2. Oh Sees Protean Threat

We said that 2020 was not a year for punk rock, so obviously we must have been in a better place — psychologically, if not physically — when, in August, Oh Sees released their brilliant Protean Threat. While it’s not exactly punk — John Dwyer’s combo, whether you call them Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, OSEES or OCS, have settled into very much their own gooey puree of jazz fusion, Krautrock, metal, noise rock and psych — Protean Threat was the hardest, loudest album we listened to this year.

We were glad to do so, though admittedly, we didn’t get it at first. Unlike others who fell down as drooling supplicants before Oh Sees’s 2019 Face Stabber, we didn’t much like it. And longtime readers of this list surely know, that was strange since Thee Oh Sees are one of our favorite bands. So of course we gave Protean Threat a serious listen, and while it took a few tries, once we accommodated ourselves to its complex structure, all the magic of John Dwyer leading the tightest progrock combo on the planet hit us hard. You might even say it stabbed us in the face.

Now, just a few weeks ago, the good folks at Levitation in Austin released a show — originally streamed live — of Oh Sees playing in Joshua Tree (see: Levitation Sessions Live: Thee Oh Sees & Oh Sees), and you can get a sense of just how tight these guys are in the wild: double drummers playing with polyrhythmic perversity, with just a bass player and keyboards behind Dwyer on vox + guitar. In the studio, they are welded.

Just before Protean Threat came out, Dwyer gave us an album by Bent Arcana, his actual jazz-fusion band, with an entirely different set of players. No vocals on that one, just a more reverent take on the genre. It’s so calm and polite compared to the wildness contained herein. Even in Covid year, I guess, we needed an outlet, and the return of Oh Sees to our earbuds gave it to us.

##1. Fenne Lily BREACH

We’re willing to bet boatloads of cryptocurrency this is the one and only time that Fenne Lily and Oh Sees will ever appear back to back — in print, on stage, or anyone’s playlist. For as loud as the latter is, Lily’s music is quiet, tuneful folk pop, catchy as a certain flu from Wuhan, emotionally magnetic.

I dunno, maybe the raw knuckled disorientation of 2020 brought out a latent need to watch romcoms, to care about a young woman’s heartbreaks. All we know is that we’ve never been so drawn into an album where our dominant emotion could be classified as parental concern. When you hear lyrics like, “I gave up smoking when I was coughing up blood/And when I felt better I took it straight back up,” you want to do something about it. With so many of the biting, beautiful songs addressed to an unnamed “you,” we found ourselves wondering whether it was all the same guy who treated her so badly, or a series of guys, and — like any clueless parent — we didn’t know which was worse.

All we know is that this 23-year old from Bristol, England has produced a pop album that is an instant classic. With a quiet, breathy voice — in a completely different weight class to Angel Olsen’s — you strain to hear it. And yet it packs an emotional wallop. In a chorus that goes, “You’re telling me I’m in your head like it’s a good thing/Telling me she’s in your bed like it was nothing,” the vocal tone, melodic impact and devastating words come together like a sealed indictment.

She can rock, too. “Solipsism” is one of the best garage pop songs of this or any era, a softer version of what Courtney Barnett did so effectively on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Our only wish here is that two of the singles Lily released in 2020, “Hypochondriac,” and “To Be A Woman, Pt. 2,” had been included, as they’re clearly part of the same song cycle.

“I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Just Hate You” may be the album’s summary statement and most effective moment.

“I read all of the books you recommended/I listened to your friend’s band all of the time/You justify and satiate my hunger/For not feeling alright,” she tells her ex.

But later, when she gets to her biggest putdown, she reveals more about herself than him: “I heard you live at home now with your parents/It doesn’t satisfy me like it should/I still see you as some kind of reassurance/That someday I’ll be understood.”

If quoting such lyrics seems out of character for Tulip Frenzy, Breach is that kind of album, and 2020 was that kind of year.

SHOCKER: Tulip Frenzy Jurors Deadlock, as Kelley Stoltz’ “Que Aura” and Wand’s “Plum” *TIE* for 2017 Album Of The Year

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2017 by johnbuckley100

 

Dateline WASHINGTON — For the first time in the more than 10-year history of Tulip Frenzy’s annual Top 10 List of the year’s best albums, jurors were unable to reach a decision on the #1 Album Of The Year.  

Deadlocked between Kelley Stoltz’s Que Aura and Wand’s Plum, the publication’s editorial staff emerged from an all-night session that left Tulip Frenzy World HQ’s rumpus room as wrecked as Keith Richards’ teeth, pinned two album covers on the bulletin board, and collapsed in the lobby. Deliberations were so heated that hours later, when it was suggested that Kelley Stoltz should be listed before Wand — because both K and S precede W in the alphabet — new skirmishes broke out, until finally it was decreed that while alphabetical order would rule, readers should be informed that this ordering in no way implies Plum was any less stellar than Que Aura.  So, this ordering in no way implies Plum was any less stellar than Que Aura.

#1 Album of 2017 (tied): Que Aura by Kelley Stoltz

After having provided us with such immense pleasure over the past decade, and twice landing records in our Top 10 List, Kelley Stoltz triumphed in 2017 with possibly the best music of his career.

In October, when we caught up to Kelley Stoltz’s magnificent ninth album, Que Aurawe wrote:

“The songwriting as a whole is stronger than on any album since Circular Sounds.  ‘I’m Here For Now’ ranks with Double Exposure’s ‘Still Feel’ as among the most infectious rockers of his career.  ‘Tranquilo’ is the closest thing Stoltz has produced to a hit you could see coming out of the Motown basement, and it has all the quirks and charms of his greatest songs before culminating with psychedelic panache.  On ‘Same Pattern,’ it’s clear that Kelley has had a conversation about synths with his label master, Mr. John Dwyer.  Out of 11 songs, there are but two we don’t think we’ll be listening to a decade hence.  This is a glorious clutch of songs, rendered with enough analog guitars, bass, and drums to prevent the electronic keyboards from ever smearing the delicacy like a surfeit of Hollandaise on poached eggs.”

We concluded, “We already have raved about Kelley Stoltz a time or two, given his records received high marks on our 2010 and 2008 Top Ten Lists.  Somehow, even with all our raving, we have failed in getting him to perform at Madison Square Garden.  We’re not done trying.  And based on Que Aura, Kelley Stoltz is not done appearing at the top of Tulip Frenzy’s annual Top 10 List.”

We did not at that moment know how moved the Tulip Frenzy staff would be, insisting that Que Aura should take home all the marbles (tied).

Anyone who ever grokked the Beatles, was transfixed by Echo and Bunnymen, fell for David Bowie, or adored the Kinks should instantly adopt Kelley Stoltz as a cause.  Happily, Que Aura is an excellent place to start and it is Tulip Frenzy’s #1 Album of 2017 (tied).

#1 Album of 2017 (tied): Plum by Wand

On their fourth album, the young Angelinos who make up Wand recast themselves entirely.  A band whose first record was produced by Ty Segall, and sounded like it — raw guitar with metal roots, drums like rhinos escaping fire, Sabbath fuzz-tone bass guitar punctuated by the occasional acoustic hoedown — has grown enormously in the three years and three albums since.  In fact, we’d go so far as to say that in 2017, Wand have made the leap from being the little bros of Ty, Thee Oh Sees, and White Fence, emerging as the fourth leg of a sturdy West Coast table set for a long and glorious banquet.

After seeing them play an incredible set at DC 9, we wrote:

“We feel like Wand has grown up before our eyes, from their 930 Club debut in 2014 opening for Ty Segall to their stunning show at the Black Cat in 2015.  From the release of Ganglion Reef to Plum, they’ve grown from songs with titles like ‘Flying Golem’ and ‘Reaper Invert’ to becoming surely the only rock band extant to write a poignant song called ‘Charles De Gaulle.’”

We concluded, “Wand is at the height of their powers, but writing that we know they still have plenty of room to grow.  Some strong albums have been released this year by both Ty Segall and West Coast giant John Dwyer, whose Oh Sees made our August.  But among the West Coast’s finest, Wand’s come out on top, the best young band working today.  We stand back in awe at the prospect of what they’re capable of.”

With Plum, Tulip Frenzy’s #1 Album of 2017 (tied), Wand has cast its spell. We expect the world will be transfixed for a long time to come.

#3 Album of 2017: Orc by Oh Sees

In Orc, the 19th album John Dwyer has released under a rubric somewhere in the vicinity of Thee Oh Sees, he produced nothing less than a masterpiece.  Which is pretty good, since once again Dwyer is threatening to mothball Thee Oh Sees and go off hunting new whales in distant far-flung seas.

In August,we wrote:

“Here’s all you need to really know, if you are not someone whose large ganglia have twitched to Dwyer’s yips and the propulsive drumming of his 100-horsepower twin tyros lashed to the back of his guitar work.  The big question about punk rock was always what it would turn into when the primitives learned to play.  You know, not every band could be the Clash and by Sandinista be playing Mose Allison covers and pushing at the forefront of what then was called rap.  But at least three recs ago, Dwyer showed he could play guitar like Jimi Hendrix.  That he could compose complex rock songs with a power and beauty that rivaled anyone who’s ever admitted to participating in the genre.  That he seriously could, on the same album, mix punk, prog rock, garage, psychedelia, and pop.

“Last year, on the matched pair albums of An Odd Entrances and A Weird Exits we really could see adding jazz and Krautrock to that list. He is the magpie’s magpie, but that implies a lack of originality and in fact he’s the opposite.  A guy who as recently as 2011 was playing punk rock at high speeds is now capable of anything.  Here’s an example: on Orc‘s ‘Keys To The Castle,’ we start out on a light jog, John Dwyer singing harmony with (we hope) once + future Oh Sees singer Brigid Dawson, and ‘fore ya know it we’re traversing a steeper pitch with some classic punk chords as the song intensifies.  And then there is a pause… and we come back at slow mo’ speed with cello and organ and synth, in a lovely electric piano chordal half-walk, the sounds of space wrapping your face, and for the next four minutes, you are in a dream.”

We’re still dreaming, and listening to Orc as much as any Thee Oh Sees album not called Floating Coffin.  (It’s their best rec, and we listen to it weekly.). Orc is in that special category of albums we know will be copied from hard drive to hard drive all the way down to the iPhone LXV, the iPad Pro Invisible and beyond.

#4 Album of 2017: Robyn Hitchcock by Robyn Hitchcock

More than 35 years since he left the Soft Boys and released his first solo album, Robyn Hitchcock introduced himself to the world as Robyn Hitchcock, his most satisfying album since the Reagan Administration.  And when we say that, no one should think he’s been hiding under a rock — he’s placed high on the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List (c) at least three times since 2008.

Last spring, when his eponymous umpteenth record was released, we went to see him play a solo set at nearby Jammin’ Java and had this to say about his new record:

“Hitchcock makes his home these days in Nashville, and thank Heaven he does, because his neighbor, Brendan Benson, was inspired to produce his newest record, requesting that it sound like The Soft Boys.  Robyn Hitchcock, released in late April, does sound like The Soft Boys’ two ’70s records, as well as his first solo album, Black Snake Diamond Role, which came out in ’81. Truth be told, it also sounds like the 19 studio albums he’s released since then.  That is the purest of compliments. Few are the artists who have changed so little over 40 years — and thank God for that.

“To the uninitiated: if you want a good entry point to Hitchcock’s work, at age 63, his new album provides it. From the hard rocking opener, “I Want To Tell You About What I Want,” to the gorgeous closer, “Time Coast,” it touches every base.  When rock critters describe Hitchcock’s influences and antecedents, Dylan, the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds are the first references, with those looking to score points throwing Captain Beefheart in — not because he sounds like Don Van Vliet (though they do each possess multi-octave voices), but because of his absurdist sense of humor.  On the new record, Hitchcock sounds like… Dylan, the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds, which is to say, after 40 years of record making, he sounds like Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who should be in their ranks, but somehow isn’t, except in our house, and those of uplifting gormandizers.”

You can probably tell from how that Tulip Frenzy piece ended just how much we have invested in Mr. Hitchcock: “Robyn Hitchcock is a national treasure — and he’s ours now, fuck Britain.  His shows should be performed at the Verizon Center, or at least he should be able to tour, like his hero Bob Dylan, minor-league ballparks.  At Jammin Java Wednesday night, he began his two sets with Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” and concluded it with “Visions of Johanna.”  In addition to covers of songs by Nick Drake and The Doors, he played 20 originals spanning 40 years of our devoted fandom, 40 years of pleasure. His body of work is so rich he could play 19 songs not on our list of his greatest ones and the evening still was glorious. That he is hilarious and eccentric is his charm and his undoing.  No one and nothing, not even time and commercial neglect, can take away his greatness.”

#5 Album of 2017: Endless Night by The Vacant Lots

This is the first time the Burlington-NYC duo of Jared Aurtaud and Brian MacFadyen have landed in our Top 10 List, but we doubt it will be the last.  Endless Night is one of those very rare perfect records, every song listenable, the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Last spring, we wrote:  

“It might be easy to categorize The Vacant Lots as a sophisticated art project, given their album covers are as distinctive as their sound.  But from the very start, Jared Artaud and Brian MacFadyen proved their mix of garage psych and synth-driven pop was aimed at pleasing aural canals.  They have aimed to become a great band, associated with the likes of Dean Wareham, Anton Newcombe, Sonic Boom, and Alan Vega, and their debut album Departure has stayed on our playlist since the summer of 2014.  And yet none of this prepared us for Endless Night, which from its start to its historic finish is astonishing.

“Take the opener, “Night Nurse,” which has Artaud pick out a sinuous rockabilly lead above a disco beat, and quickly transports you into the demimonde of a tiny club, hermetically sealed against outside influences.  We’re going to be in for, well, a pleasurably endless night.  ‘Pleasure & Pain’ is not the first of these songs to call to mind progenitors Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized, and in fact, ‘Dividing Light’ has the power of Jason Pierce’s most compelling work.  Throughout Endless Night, the hitherto unappreciated juxtapositions of disco and techno, psych and soul,  rockabilly and garage, make the blood pulse like Molly just arrived.”

Looking back on our conclusion, we were downright prescient: “With Endless Night, The Vacant Lots serve notice that they’ve entered the front ranks, and we anticipate that when the story of 2017 is told — musically at least — and Top 10 lists are fashioned, The Vacant Lots will be among the last men standing.”

And so, of course, they are.

#6 Album of 2017: City Music by Kevin Morby

Ever since Kevin Morby wandered out of Woods and essentially grew up from his role in The Babies, he’s been a Top 10 threat.  Last year’s gorgeous Singing Saw was a contender, but in a competitive year didn’t quite make it.  But City Music was so good, it likely would have made our list if it had been released in 1968, or ’72, or even that banner year, 1997.

When it came out, we wrote:

“Morby’s voice isn’t particularly expressive, but his songwriting and storytelling more than make up for it, and his ambitions seem to be growing.  On Singing Saw, songs like ‘Dorothy’ and ‘I Have Been To The Mountain’ were so strong that they masked weaker material elsewhere on an album that was pretty universally acclaimed, including in these here parts.  There’s no such problem on City Music: every song, even the cover of the Germs’ ‘Caught In My Eye,’ will make you want to play this album loud enough to bug the neighbors in your stifling apartment building.

“A year ago, when Morby was able to tell the story of how he picked up and moved from Kansas City to Brooklyn, landing a few weeks later in Woods — then and now, a highlight of modern New York bands — the notion of the Bright Lights, Big City luring him from the midwest placed his narrative in familiar terms.  In City Life, he’s made it, he’s gone from the periphery to the center, like Dylan, like Jimmy Reed of Dunleith, Mississippi, who wrote the song, and Jay McInerney of Hartford, Connecticut, who wrote the book.”

Kevin Morby has fully arrived, able to make it in New York — or anywhere, really.  City Music made us appreciate city life in the heat of summer, no small feat in any year.

#7 Album of 2017: Ty Segall by Ty Segall

Ty came back from Emotional Mugger with a self-titled record that some compared to a greatest hits album.  There were tuneful pop songs, Lennon-esque rockers, trademark punk scrawlers — any of which could have found a home in his cornucopia of self-recorded, self-produced records released into the wild since the last decade.  But a compendium of familiar styles is not really a fair description, as there were new twists and turns that made us clutch the handle, lest we get flung into distant space.

When it kicked off the year, we were moved to state:

“On Ty Segall, the young genius has pulled together a collection of songs that are remarkably different from one another, but they don’t pull apart, they spin with centripetal force.  The most astonishing song of the lot is the 10:21 suite, “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)”, which in five movements takes in the whole of Segall protege Wand’s prog, the Santana-influences of the Stones’ ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,’ and two or three of Mr. Segall and his pal Mikal Cronin’s modern Power Pop’n’Punk flavorings.  It’s a tour de force.  But the whole album is, really.

“Since Segall’s advent at the beginning of this decade, rock’n’roll has been revived, and he’s the biggest reason.  Yes, we would still have Thee Oh Sees if Ty had not burst upon the scene.  But for at least seven years, Segall’s influence on other artists, and his own great output of self-produced, largely self-created records has added up to a movement.  He’s Shiva, creator and destroyer, making rock’n’roll relevant again.  With Manipulator a couple years back, he seemed to cast his lot with commercial success, and produced one of the catchiest collections of radio rock this side of the White Stripes or the Black Keys.  With Ty Segall, he’s gone for some thing bigger.  An *album* you mention in the same sentence as Sticky Fingers, Imperial Bedroom, even Sandinista.”

His acolytes, Wand, have leaped to the top o’ this list, but Ty is like a mid-career ballplayer who still hits with power, is still dominating the middle of the order, and can still take your breath away with his pure athleticism, when he wants.

#8 Album of 2017: Whiteout Conditions by The New Pornographers

They’ve been consistently so good for such a long time that you might take the New Pornographers for granted.  Listening to the superb Whiteout Conditions, we realized the New Pornographers are still capable of recorded greatness, and still occupy a special space in our hearts.

At the time, we went to see them at the 930 Club and wrote:

“Whiteout Conditions is the best New Pornographers’ album since the by-now classic Twin Cinema.  It’s hard to remember that when that record came out nearly 12 years ago, it was bemoaned for how the band had lost the oddness and caffeinated sheen of their first two astonishing albums.  Now, of course, we recognize Twin Cinema as a high point in Western Civ (and given how 2017 is going down, we’re increasingly worried that 2014’s Brill Bruisers might be seen by future historians as our civilization’s peak.)  Whiteout Conditions is a mix of everything we love about the band, bright and bouncy, profound when needed.  With songs like ‘High Ticket Attractions,’ which we can’t get out of our head, and new approaches like ‘Darling Shade,’ which sound like Martha and the Vandellas updated for the 21st Century, this Bejar-less edition of the band  flows like a lava tube off the edge of a cliff, powerfully smoking in the creation of new earth.

“That the New Pornographers are one of our very favorite bands defies certain logic.  Ordinarily, we treasure the analog sound of Fender guitars played by punk bands and The New Ps feature keyboard-driven synthetic sounds polished to a high gloss.  They’re not exactly a guilty pleasure or a secret passion, for we play their recs all the time, but the pleasure we get from listening to them is a bit like wearing only natural fibers in everyday life, while enjoying the chance to dress up in polyester.  Carl Newman clearly loved songwriters like Brian Wilson and bands like ELO, and us, not so much.  But last night at the 9:30 Club this band — capable of the most intricate studio albums — played a wonderfully organic set with four-part harmonies intact, the songs building and building so that by the time we got to ‘The Bleeding Heart Show’ encore, we could emerge from the club’s doors with a smile on our face, ready to face anything, up to and including all the laws that have changed.”

#9 Album of 2017: Damage And Joy by Jesus and Mary Chain

We never expected to hear new music again from Jesus and Mary Chain, even as the Reid Brothers reformed their act and hit the road.  While 1998’s Munki sat atop our list during that great year, we thought it would be their last recording session ever.  So when Damage And Joy came out this summer, we were filled with the latter even as our ears — after hearing them live a few times since 2012 — were still recovering from the former.  Maybe we’re saps for thinking this album is as good as we are convinced that it is — maybe this is like an old love who returns and you just can’t resist, even if she’s not right for you.  But no, this was a really great album, one of the year’s highlights, and deserves its place here.

When it came out, we wrote:

“In the time since they metaphorically burned their guitars, a lot has happened, and we’re not talking about all of the nasty changes in our world since the boom days of the late Clinton Administration.  Jim Reid got sober.  JAMC’s festival shows led to semi-regular touring, and despite — or because of — they way they turned the amps to 11, a new generation of fans for whom Psycho Candy was as distant, in some ways, as The Velvet Underground & Nico, saw them as the masters that they were.  It became inevitable that they would release new recorded music.

“We were unprepared for how great an album Damage And Joy is.  Purists may not like it because it’s not Finnegans Wake, it’s not difficult, it’s Dubliners: simple, easy to absorb, damn near perfect.  By the time December rolls around, we are certain it will remain high on our list of the year’s best albums.  It’s the Jesus and Mary Chain album we have waited for, somewhat anxiously, for a long, long time.

“We confess that we never loved Psycho Candy all that much.  The juxtaposition of Beach Boys’ songs, Sterling Morrison guitar, and Ramones’ propulsion against an industrial squall was interesting, but in many ways unlistenable.  Darklands was where we fell in love, with its spaciousness and gorgeous songwriting coalescing into a sound we could embrace.  Through those early ’90s hits, we hung on as they created a machine that was an early precursor of EDM while maintaining its linkage to real rock’n’roll.  For us, Stoned and Dethroned was the keeper, the classic, the songwriting at a peak, the wrestling match between melodies and riffs, between Jim’s hoarse whisper-singing and William’s guitar textures becoming not only one of the ’90s highlights, but an album for the ages.  When Munki came out in 1998 — perhaps rock’s greatest year — it was the culmination and the end of the line, Jim and William’s ambivalence — and conflict — were captured in the songs that began and ended the album: ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ followed by ‘I Hate Rock’n’Roll.’  But now they are back, and for the moment the ambivalence is gone.  Whatever happens from here, The Jesus and Mary Chain have returned from the dead, and the Hallelujah chorus is awesome to behold.”

#10 Album of 2017: Modern Living by The Living Eyes

We’re not going to quote an earlier review of Australian punks The Living Eyes’ magnificent Modern Living.  There isn’t one.  See, we just learned about them in the last 10 days — from the wonderfully comprehensive website, Raven Sings The Blues  — and while ordinarily it’s as dangerous to put an album this new on a year-end list as it is to march someone you’ve just met on a casino floor to the Vegas Chapel o’ Luv, we’re certain about this one: this is the Punk Record Of The Year, and a worthy way to round out our 2017 list.

Named for second best album by our favorite Aussie punk band, the legendary Radio Birdman — the equivalent of young British punks calling themselves The London Callings — The Living Eyes sound like they just took on the Undertones in some 1979 Battle of the Bands. With explicit nods to Birdman, and implicit nods to other Aussie forebears like the Saints and the Vines, maybe even The D4, Modern Living has the formula that has worked for bands as disparate as Rancid, Elastica and the Leaving Trains: all their songs have melodies! Even as they’re kicking in your stereo speakers, every song we’ve heard by The Living Eyes is hummable.  And the reason we are ready to walk straight from the initial spin of this album to this eternal coupling — they are forever joined to us by our putting them on our Top 10 List — is because we can’t get their songs out of their heads.

Full confession, we were tempted to have Brix and The Extricated take the final slot for Part 2, the wonderfully named album signaling the resurfacing of former members of the Fall 30 years after their Golden Age.  But as good as that record is, Modern Living blew us away. This isn’t Part 2 — this is the band’s initial foray into history and greatness.

 

 

 

We Wish The Vacant Lots’ “Endless Night” Lasted Forever

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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It might be easy to categorize The Vacant Lots as a sophisticated art project, given their album covers are as distinctive as their sound.  But from the very start, Jared Artaud and Brian MacFadyen proved their mix of garage psych and synth-driven pop was aimed at pleasing aural canals.  They have aimed to become a great band, associated with the likes of Dean Wareham, Anton Newcombe, Sonic Boom, and Alan Vega, and their debut album Departure has stayed on our playlist since the summer of 2014.  And yet none of this prepared us for Endless Night, which from its start to its historic finish is astonishing.

The duo, co-located in Burlington and New York City, gave us a fresh glimpse of greatness when their Berlin EP, a collaboration with Newcombe in his adopted hometown, came out last November.  It simultaneously sounded like the best of recent Brian Jonestown Massacre albums and the apotheosis of that swirling, disorienting sound The Vacant Lots had contributed to our permanent playlist.  But just a few months later, Endless Night shows that Artaud and MacFadyen’s vision has become realized.

Take the opener, “Night Nurse,” which has Artaud pick out a sinuous rockabilly lead above a disco beat, and quickly transports you into the demimonde of a tiny club, hermetically sealed against outside influences.  We’re going to be in for, well, a pleasurably endless night.  “Pleasure & Pain” is not the first of these songs to call to mind progenitors Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized, and in fact, “Dividing Light” has the power of Jason Pierce’s most compelling work.  Throughout Endless Night, the hitherto unappreciated juxtaposition of disco and techno, psych and soul,  rockabilly and garage, makes the blood pulse like Molly just arrived.

We said the album’s finish was historic, and by this we mean that Alan Vega of Suicide, who died last July, brings his final growl to “Suicide Note.”  What a way to go.

With Endless Night, The Vacant Lots serve notice that they’ve entered the front ranks, and we anticipate that when the story of 2017 is told — musically at least — and Top 10 lists are fashioned, The Vacant Lots will be among the last men standing.

The Vacant Lots’ “Departure” Updates Spaceman 3 For A New Generation

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 27, 2014 by johnbuckley100

Since 2010, we’ve been tracking the Burlington, Vermont duo The Vacant Lots, whose status as opening act for Dean Wareham and the Brian Jonestown Massacre tells you a lot.  Their sound is really a cross between Spaceman 3 and Suicide — electronic drones generated by machines, with guitar and vocals riding atop the Fritz Lang concoctions.  Departure isn’t exactly what its title promises: it’s much of what you’d expect from the band’s earlier work, and is for this reason excellent, occasionally thrilling, and one of the summer’s highlights.  If you heard “Never Satisfied” on the radio, you really might think that Jason Pierce and Sonic Boom had run into each other at an insta-studio and cranked it out — that’s a high compliment!  We intend to listen to this one ’til our hard drive fails.

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