I said I was going to write up capsule reviews of all the albums I listened to this year. Here’s the first eight. I have a splitting headache now. Maybe I’ll have more in a few days.
Amanda Palmer — Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under
I had to unfollow Amanda Palmer on twitter, and I no longer carefully read her long rambling blog posts in which she updates the entire universe about her life in both terrifying specifics and elliptical vagueries. Which is itself a roundabout way of saying I’ve gotten over the wallop that Who Killed Amanda Palmer inflicted upon me when I first heard it and fell in love. This isn’t a proper album, and to read her missives it seems like another WKAP isn’t in the offering anytime soon, so we’ll have to make do with these cast-off scraps of performance.
Not that there aren’t interesting things here: “In My Mind” is a clever song about the ennui of that I must say I identify with a little too strongly, and “On An Unknown Beach” is just simple pretty piano lines with soulful lyrics mixed just quietly enough to only really resolve if you’re willing to listen carefully. But half the album is live cuts of songs performed to amuse or flatter the Antipodeans she met on her tour there. “Bad Wine and Lemon Cake” is the best of the lot, mostly because The Jane Austen Argument, whom she performs it with, are the Southern Hemisphere’s version of The Dresden Dolls.
Amon Tobin — ISAM
Amon Tobin has come a long way since Bricolage in ‘97, tightening up his sound and moving away from samples of older music to tracks built around his own recordings of environmental noises and instruments that have never existed outside of a computer synth. The result is songs that feel extraordinarily solid when you listen to them. They seem to take up residence in the room you’re in, occupying space with their jagged edges and smooth concavities. I picture a rapid-cut movie set in some modern racecar (or perhaps future starship) when “Surge” comes on, “Night Swim” appearing as a hole suspended in space, the shadow the entire being of the mass, slowly pulsating until it shatters and vanishes into nothing at all.
Battles — Gloss Drop
"Ice Cream" was the first track I heard off this album, piquing my interest after I had finally tired of Mirrored’s (and the earlier EPs the band put out) finely-crafted but very cold rhythms. Lyrics? Even if they were mostly incomprehensible, this was a departure for the group, which had, admittedly, lost Tyondai Braxton due to other commitments.
Whether or not that explains the changes, this is a markedly different album from Mirrored. On Mirrored, Battles was making an album of rhythmic noise. (The EPs were even more dramatically unstructured, and aurally vacant to boot.) On Gloss Drop, they’ve made actual songs. The aforementioned “Ice Cream” and “My Machines” are both standouts, and both feature guest singers, Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan respectively. But even the lyric-free tracks feel stronger, focused, and planned, “White Electric” even breaking into something resembling an actual rock-and-roll structure, near the end of the album.
Beirut — The Rip Tide
How many times will I make the statement that an artist on this list has changed since they released their first album? Here’s number two: Zach Condon (mastermind of the band Beirut) barely sounds anything like his initial releases on new album The Rip Tide. The wide-ranging, Eastern Europe-influenced earlier songs (and electronic experimentations) have given way to a much more traditional indie-rock focused presentation of tracks here. There’s still a worldly eclecticism, but the album is much more predictable than, say, Gulag Orkestar or The Flying Club Cup were.
Still, we’re reviewing the album that was released, not what we wanted to have released. The emphasis here is on the lyrics, which makes the lack of really stand-out tracks all the more disappointing. Check out “A Candle’s Fire”, “The Rip Tide”, and “Vagabond” if you’re curious to know if you’ll like the album, as they’re pretty representative of the whole.
I should mention here that my favorite Beirut song this year was actually released on the Red Hot + Rio 2 compilation, and is in Portuguese: “O Leãozinho” is a gorgeous track that takes all of the world-traveler baggage that Condon’s collected over the previous three albums and melds it with his stronger sense of songwriting. It doesn’t matter that I can’t understand a damn word of it.
Bibio — Mind Bokeh
Where to start with Bibio. This is an entirely schizophrenic album, whiplashing between clubby anthems (“Take Off Your Shirt”), R&B pastiche (“Light Sleep”), and space music (“Mind Bokeh”), all spaced out by dips into the Bibio standby, lo-fidelity sample-based tracks with distorted vocals. It’s a hard album to like, sadly, as much as I wanted to. But the tonal shifts are distracting, and while loopy lo-fi electronic music was somewhat novel in 2004, when Fi came out, it’s less endearing in 2011.
Bjork — Biophilia
Let’s agree to ignore that Bjork thought releasing this album as an iPhone app months before the actual songs became available for mere mortals to purchase was a good idea. These songs are so slight as to barely be there at all. Even at her most subdued, Bjork normally manages to get a good build going within a song and an album, but on Biophilia, she doesn’t even manage that most of the time, instead giving the listener songs that go nowhere, say nothing, and peter out after a few minutes of Bjork singing over minimal instrumental accompaniment. “Mutual Core” is an exception, instead buying Bjork’s voice underneath generic thudding noises for the last few minutes. Biophilia supposedly is a celebration of living things. It’s a shame that the album sounds so dead.
Death Cab For Cutie — Codes and Keys
Ben Gibbard sounds happy, for once, on Codes and Keys. This, in spite of perhaps because of the indictment of modern paranoia on the title track and “Portable Television”. We can probably blame this outbreak of joy from his (now-defunct) marriage to Zooey Deschanel in 2009, as there was little evidence in his earlier discography of any untempered happiness.
Other than a shift in the tone of some of the songs, this is classic Death Cab territory. Clever lyrics, poppy guitar hooks, sone sonic washes here and there to clean the palate. I enjoyed Narrow Stairs more, but this is solid music. If you like Death Cab, you’ve probably already got it; if you don’t, there’s not much here to change your mind.
DeVotchKa — 100 Lovers
I’m a bad Coloradan. This is the first album I’ve listened to by local favorites DeVotchKa, a band that crosses Russian folk influences with indie rock sensibilities (before there was such a thing as indie rock, no less). They sound a little like Arcade Fire, if Arcade Fire were from Eastern Europe and had half as many members. And didn’t worship the ground Bruce Springsteen walked on.
100 Lovers is, I am told, their most accessible album to date. (I received it after it cycled out of in-store play at work, so that’s something.) It’s interesting listening, but a little same-y after a while. If you like Arcade Fire or punk-influenced folk music, you’d probably like it. Me, I just play “The Man From San Sebastian” once in while when I feel like listening to something with an accordion in it.