Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before  five bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies, Van Morrison ‘Astral’ meditations and meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists Mumford and Sons, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect- earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, these songs were recorded, scrapped and rerecorded a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes the just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” to the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a remendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many who will grow to love it more with each passing year.

The Bestest 2010 – Tunage

This year everything old seems particularly new again. Perhaps that is because I am now officially over forty, and I have been paying more attention to what is in the past than I ever did before.  There was a time not so long ago that bands were empowered to communicate directly with fans through a short lived (in retrospect) juggernaut called MySpace. Flash forward a few short years, and a few companies (Twitter and Facebook) have enabled bands to speak directly to fans without interference from the advertising littered, corporatized chaos that MySpace had become.  In an age where musicians rely on touring more than ever before, the portability of music on phones, tablets, Pandora, and wifi connected TVs and stereos has finally made listening to anything and everything, whenever and wherever, as easy as we thought it would be when we first started imagining a new paradigm a decade ago. For me Sonos, Spotify and my iPhone are the paraphernalia that hold my drugs of choice. This year I fell into an entirely new crop of retro soul, folk and power pop. With countless hours logged on airplanes and in airports, it’s hard to imagine what I would have done without the persistent soundtrack blown through headphones, on moving walkways and 747s. In a world without record stores, live shows fill the void, and the universal language of music is never more tangible than experienced from right in front of the stage at Fillmore, Coachella and the Greek, and this is what I listened to:

1) Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)

There are moments in life when the joy of the unexpected trumps the predictably incredible. This is rarely truer than when your first real exposure is watching a band you know very little about play live. This is how I first experienced Local Natives. I caught them early in the day at Coachella, not far from their LA home, and watched them rip through 50 of the most joyous moments of the festival. The blogosphere refers to the band as a kind of “Weekend Foxes,” but to me they are more percussive and with the anthemic intensity of a much bigger band. You can hear bits of “English Settlement” era XTC mixed with the rootsiness of Blitzen Trapper and the emotion of the Frames.

With all festival and internet buzz bands, there is a chance to outgrow the hype and really build an audience that extends beyond the tiny clubs of Austin or Indio. In an age where many bands can make a great recorded piece of work, the real skill shows in playing live and delivering contagious energy and authenticity. Local Natives are young, but their songs are big. On “Shape Shifter” think Coldplay, and perhaps My Morning Jacket on “Wide Eyes.”  I listen to them as I write this and can’t help but smile. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Silverlake, CA.

2) Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill (Rough Trade)

It took perhaps thirty seconds for me to know that “Beachcomber’s Windowsill,” the debut from Stornoway, was something rare and special. It reminded me immediately of how I felt when I first heard Belle & Sebastian well over a decade ago – a kind of pure happiness usually reserved for children, best heard on songs like “Boats and Trains” and “We Are Battery Human.”

Stornoway makes perfect pop music, theme music for a fairy tale, innocent yet cool. Musically the band mixes strings, banjo, and piano into a more traditional indie pop structure like their thematic and instrumental soul mates, The Decemberists (see ‘The Coldharbour Road’).  But ultimately Stornoway soars on the wings of infectious vocals and harmonies, part barbershop quartet part orchestral hipster. Every year there is one record that seems miles out in front of the next.  I hope this band can make as prolific a career of this as Belle and Sebastian have done. We all could use a little piece of our childhoods back, even if only for three or four minutes at a time. [Read more…]

The New Pornographers – Together (Matador)

TogetherFor five records now, indie rock’s most shameless optimists have been pushing the same wonderful pop boulder up and down a most lovely hill. To the unexposed, the Pornographers are one of the rocks most accomplished super groups featuring leader A.C. Newman, of early Zumpano fame, Neko Case the great alt-country goddess, and Dan Behar from the lesser known but incredibly accomplished Destroyer. Together the band creates infectious pop classics, where vocal duties alternate between the angelic Neko, the boyish A.C., and the warbling Behar, with almost “Glee-like” harmonizing throughout.

It is rare for band to make it this far into a career without a record that even remotely resembles a miss. Almost every song on “Together” has the potential to get under your skin, and with “Moves” an anthemic opener, “Crash Years” which already seems like logical soundtrack music, and the ten other addictive epics. Mass success or not, this is a band who has made me smile for years, and “Together” although not in any way groundbreaking is perfect just the way it is.

Midlake – The Courage of Others (Bella Union)

Product DetailsIt took me a month to listen to and process the latest Midlake record before I felt qualified to speak objectively about “The Courage of Others.” I would have to go back to Buckley’s stunning “Grace” fifteen years ago to find another record as important to me as Midlake’s predecessor “The Trials of Van Occupanther.” That record was immediately captivating both musically and emotionally, lifting the best bits from Fleetwood Mac-  a band I never really considered as deeply as perhaps I should have, and combined it with the indie folk I have grown older gravitating towards.

It is rare that I read the reviews of others before attempting my own, but in the case of Midlake my three years of eagerness for the follow-up to left me in some ways too biased to resist the urge. What I found was a massively polarizing reaction to a record that I took longer to fall for than I would have expected. “Courage” is in some ways as satisfying as I could have hoped for, but also perhaps more somber and precious than it needed to be. That said, with every listen, and I have found myself doing so more and more often, I am increasingly drawn into this reflective and emotive masterpiece.

They have grown closer to new influences this time around, but they tend to go further back than Fleetwood Mac, settling into the mid-sixties Brit folk of The Fairport Convention, than they do west coast Americana. Vocalist Tim Smith, has a voice a pure and urgent as anyone making music today, and like previous efforts is bathed in impeccable production. Songs like “Rulers, Ruling All Things” and “Winter Dies” represent the closest approximation to singles or pop songs, but to describe them as such would be to miss the point – this record is takes some getting used to. There is much emotional acclimation, but below the surface where initially there seems pretension, there is joy and hope. The songs build to a triumphant crescendo, and in the end with headphones this is an epic voyage that is both uplifting and contemplative. Just surrender yourself to something truly special, and use the music to help express emotions often to hard articulate.

Loney, Dear – Dear John (Polyvinyl)

loney-dear.jpgI love the Scandinavian folkies: Kings of Convenience, Sondra Lerche, Jose Gonzalez and Nicoli Dunger. But Loney, Dear’s latest effort transcends the genre and morphs into something quite different and special. Think The Postal Service, but stronger, much more urgent and less shallow-synth sounding. If the older Loney records were sparer, more acoustic seeming, “Dear John” is a gusher of both optimistic energy, much needed some days, and vocal melodies that just tend to find their groove and travel. With this big sound it is a combination of beats and percussion that lift off quietly and then burst like fireworks.

Perhaps I am getting carried away, but to listen to this record with headphones flying over the melting snowcaps of the Northern Sierra’s you can’t help by feel somehow liberated by the songs “Airport Surroundings” and “Everything Turns To You.” Although Loney, Dear is largely the brainchild of Emil Svanangen this record is a fully realized, impeccably orchestrated pop opera. There is no doubt this is already one of the year’s best, and will remain so.

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