Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Year in Music: 4th and 5th Favorite Albums of the Year

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
  #9 - Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some
  #8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
  #7 - Cults - Cults
  #6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L 

#5 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
I'll admit to having completely missed the boat on Sleater Kinney.  The Portland trio's back catalog is right up my alley, but I have hard time getting into bands with big back catalogs if I'm not there from the beginning, and when the news came out a couple years ago that they were calling it quits, I didn't put a lot of effort into educating myself.  Post S-K, I became a fan of Brownstein's blog on NPR, and she appeared in videos from a couple of my favorite acts, St. Vincent and the Thermals.  When Carrie Brownstein rejoined drummer Janet Weiss, along with Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca Cole (the Minders) to form Wild Flag, I decided I'd try to get in on the ground floor, and I'm glad I did.

As girl groups go, this isn't the fuzzed out retro pop of Dum Dum Girls, or the honky tonk retro pop of Those Darlins.  This isn't really pop at all.  It's pretty straightforward, in your face rock and roll.  The album alternates almost song for song between Brownstein's more up front grunge ("Boom", "Racehorse") and Timony's psychedelia ("Glass Tambourine", "Electric Band").  They don't leave the pop entirely behind, as evidenced in the hand claps on the title track, "Romance".  And there familiar influences all over the record.  Timony's guitar work in the second half of "Short Version" picks up almost exactly where Bradford Cox left off in Deerhunter's "Nothing Ever Happened".

Admittedly, this is another album that I liked before I saw their intimate Empty Bottle Show in October, but I absolutely loved afterward.  Maybe that's not entirely fair, but there's often something about experiencing a song live, hearing a different arrangement, or performed with different emotion that changes subsequent experiences with the recorded versions.  Either way, this is a great first effort, and hopefully there will be more to come.

Romance Short Version

#4 - Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo

Super Furry Animals have been going strong for the better part of 15 years, but that hasn't stopped front man Gruff Rhys from releasing two of the better solo albums of the past four or five.  It wouldn't be wrong to say that this album is very much a distillation of his contributions to SFA, slowed down, stripped down on the instrumentation side, though nicely complimented with samples.  It's an acoustic, piano, glockenspieled album with a myriad of sounds, but not overproduced.  The type of album he can tour with solo (much like he did for his last album, Candylion), but can also be competently backed up by Welsh surf-rock foursome Y Niwl, who led off his live U.S. tour with a rollicking set of Dick Dale inspired instrumentals before taking over backing duties for Gruff.

The album gets its title from Rhys' (possibly apocryphal) habit of collecting shampoo bottles and other freebies from hotels while on tour, and from the actual model of a hotel that he built from said collection.  Yeah, it sounds eccentric, and it's not surprising.  This is a guy who's band drove to gigs in a techno-blaring blue tank, played entire shows in green fibre-optic jump suits, and have been known to take the stage in head to toe golden retriever outfits to play 2007 single "Golden Retriever".

The album leads off with the first single "Shark Ridden Waters", amply accompanied by the Cyrkle's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", a Bacharach and David number, and you'd swear that Burt Bacharach had a hand in some of the subsequent tracks, like "Space Dust #2".  But turning '60s influences into modern tracks has been Rhys' stock in trade for over a decade, probably most notably on SFA's 2001 album Rings Around the World.  And he proves that you can't complete take the Super Furry Animal out of the man, especially on standout track and second single "Sensations in the Dark".  This album is the perfect way to pass the time between SFA albums, though my Christmas wish is for one more SFA release and tour in the new year.

Shark Ridden Waters

Sensations in the Dark