February 7, 2012

24 More Unmissable Records from the Pacific Northwest in 2011

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Remember when we said we’d share our list of 25 other unmissable records the first week of January? Whoops. Thing is, the first month of this new year, we were still listening to and falling in (and out) of love with records from 2011. Discovering albums we should’ve shared months ago and finding out what sounded good in summer, didn’t survive snowmageddon. We added and whittled and debated and listened and when it comes down to these 24 albums, all released in 2011 by bands from the Pacific Northwest, we loved.

Here’s what you won’t find on here: records we wrote about in 2010 (The Head and The Heart, Beat Connection, Joseph Giant, Baltic Cousins), just okay releases from bands we’ve loved before, collections of 7’’s made into best of EPs, EPs in general and plenty of records that you loved with your whole heart and we just, didn’t. But, after hundreds and hundreds of hours of listening and seeing these bands live, slightly fewer spent talking about the albums amongst ourselves, we’re confident these are 24 records you’d be remiss to miss from 2011.

Here’s what you will find on here: bands from Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Boise. Psychedelic symphonies. Menacing metal. Four-Eyed Soul. Modern R&B. Party Punk. Folk confessionals. Hip shaking hip hop. These albums are self-released, funded by fans and put out by labels big and small. They are debuts and albums that defied sophomore slumps and career defining work. Albums that have been loudly lauded and others who’ve been mostly ignored. Its a sample of what makes being a music lover in the Pacific Northwest right now so exciting, there’s a little something for everyone and we hope you find something you love too.

 

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AgesandAgesAll Right You Restless (Knitting Factory)

Agesandages fills up a room. With no fewer than seven people adding harmony to the airtight, country-funk rock that spins off Alright You Restless, the debut record enthralled me with the desperate joy that permeates its entirety. Playing with the bog of loneliness and defeat, and inviting the world into that dark fold to find comfort in each other, it’s music that offers salve in stomps and hope in runaway choruses. (Kathleen)

Allen StoneS/T (Self-Released)

“I’m sick and tired of soul music looking so clean and proper! Cause my soul… my soul… my soul is just a little big greasy!” This is how Allen Stone introduces himself to the crowd from the stage. Obviously steeped in tradition but not married to its dictates, Stone’s four-eyed soul is unrepentant in both its influences and its willingness to disregard them entirely. Repping the Northwest he’s more than likely on stage in a flannel or Sonics jersey instead of any Detroit mandated button-up uniform like most of his current peers. This un-buttoned attitude extends to the dynamic mixture of straight R&B ballads and kinetic pop and funk on display in this record. If nothing else, just like the live show, Allen Stone represents Stone being unapologetically himself. (Excerpted from Josh’s full October review.)

 

 

 

Case Studies – The World Is Just a Void to Fill the Space (Sacred Bones Records)

It’s plausible to say that every music fan in Seattle cried a tiny tear when Jessie Lortz and Kimberly Morrison decided to end their tenure as The Dutchess and The Duke a few years back. Yet, if any and all knew that Lortz would take the new found freedom and put an album as poetic and gorgeous as Case Studies’ The World Is Just a Void to Fill the Space, I wonder, how sad would we all of been?

I discovered Case Studies during a two week period where I was living out of a hotel room in Dubuque, Iowa. My girlfriend was in the midst of a two-week intensive dog-training course and I’d signed out to drive out there and then “focus on my writing” for two weeks in a thrifty Day’s Inn a few blocks from the Mississippi River. To say the least, the smell of old cigarettes and scratchy linens inspired nothing in me and I found myself grabbing my keys and drifting through the Midwest in a chrome-green Honda Element. The Midwest is a strange, lonely place for a city dweller, and with no destination in mind I’d pick a spot on the map an aimlessly cruise towards it. It was on one of these roads with the green blur of farmlands speeding by in the background, the thin snake of the Mississippi my only landmark, that I not only discovered Case Studies but fell wildly in love with it.

It starts with “You Folded Up My Blanket Like We Were Already Lovers,” a deceptively upbeat story about love in a car, on the stairs, in a garden. The road will numb you, and my musical selections weren’t cracking the shell, but “You Folded Up My Blanket…” with it’s beautifully simple lyrics slipped in and I played it on repeat, memorizing every word like a smitten teenager. From there “My Silver Hand” squeezed in to the gap, Lortz’s deep, whiskey-soaked voice rising above the simple violin and guitar, the words full of heartbreak and the need for redemption just peppering my emotional core. Somewhere between Dubuque and Hazel Green, Wisconsin, I fell wholeheartedly in love with the album as a whole. I pulled over the car and sat and stared out in to an endless stretch of green and felt lonely and a bit sad and completely won over by everything Lortz was crooning, every simple beat that stretched out from the door behind me. (Noah)

Cave SingersNo Witch (Jagjaguwar)

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why or how, but every moment on No Witch seems suffused with joy. Maybe it’s the way Derek Fudesco’s guitar notes dance like afternoon sunlight on the living room wall, or maybe it’s the honest, folksy feel of the foot-stomping energy. Whatever the case, No Witch has become my go-to cheerup album, my foolproof impetus for dancing around the kitchen with gleeful abandon. It’s not that there’s no darkness – “My mind wakes me up every night sir, see devils in my backyard,” Quirk sings on “Black Leaf,” but the bleak and the bright are bundled up together in little boxes of hope. Weather moves in dark patterns, but as Quirk espouses in “All Land Crabs and Divinity Ghosts,” “It’s too big of a world to give up now.” (Brittney)

 

 

 

Constant LoversTrue Romance (self-released)

When Macklemore said “My city’s filthy,” this wasn’t quite what he meant, but as its cover art indicates, True Romance listeners are in for a low-down dirty ride. This album is a tribute to sybarite pleasures of all kinds, from the warm burn of whiskey in your stomach to the red memory of teeth marks on skin, from the hip-thrust of the drums to the thrust of, well, other things. Conveniently, it’s also the perfect soundtrack for the unbridled enjoyment of these recreations. (Brittney)

Dan ManganOh Fortune (Arts & Crafts)

I recently turned thirty. Not long after, I found myself looking back on the 20s version of me and thinking, “What an ass.” 28-year-old Mangan (who, incidentally, is incredibly polite and charming) seems to be going through a similar process a couple of years early, and has done us all the favor of turning it into a delightful album. With endearing honesty and trademark wit, Mangan crafts carefully textured odes and confessionals that reward with every listen. (Brittney)

 

 

See the rest of our 24 unmissable records from 2011 after the jump (more…)

January 16, 2012

Bargain Bin Beauties: My Favorite Finds of 2011

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2011 was the year of the record for me. Not a single collection of songs, but rather a physical entity and a format. When 2011 started, my record collection fit in a corner of a bookshelf. As 2011 ends my collection fills three full shelves, three empty boxes of cat food for 45s, organized by loose genres and alphabatized within collections: Pacific Northwest, Pre-War Blues & Jazz, Country and Folk, Post-Genre (New), Dance Party and my “Most Played” section so I didn’t have to debate what a “classic” was (and if a bad Ringo Starr record was a classic, because he’d been a Beatle). Last time I tried to count the records, I stopped near 400, having not even begun to touch my crammed 45s, and I realize this is just the beginning.

These are ten of my favorite finds over the last year of crate digging. What was your favorite find of 2011?

10. Dillard and Clark – Through The Morning, Through The Night Found: Sonic Boom – Ballard

Here’s why taking the time to comb through your local record stores is better than the instant satisfaction of buying your holy grail record online, beyond the whole supporting a local business. This out of print Dillard and Clark record goes for over $40 on sites like discogs and ebay, if you can find it, but if you patiently thumb through used bins, you might find an impeccable copy for $8. You also might yelp in excitement and frighten Sonic Boom browsers around you … but for this little known classic, it’s totally worth the embarrassment.

If it weren’t such an obscure record, I’d think it was seminal listening for anyone playing Ballard Avenue twang today. Featuring the duo of bluegrass banjo virtuoso Doug Dillard and original Byrd and country rock forefather, Gene Clark. At the forefront of what we now call “Americana”, Through The Morning, Through the Night is full of great original songs, traditionals like “I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy” and “Rocky Top” and perhaps my favorite Beatles cover ever, a down-tempo twang rendition of “Don’t Let Me Down.”

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09. Numero Group #17: Eccentric Soul – The Deep City Label Found: Mississippi Records – Portland, Oregon

I’m kind of cheating on this inclusion, as I bought it brand new … but it is cover-to-cover all-killer, no-filler and if you ever see it at a record store forsake all other purchases and pick this one up. The price tag may seem a little steep, as most Numero Group releases do, but remember it is a double LP and it is worth every penny spent. Put this record on when you’re alone and its an instant, soul and booty shaking party. Put this record on when you’re not alone and its a make out soundtrack extraordinaire.

08. Arthur & Yu – Don’t Piss in the Fire Found: Everyday Music

With Grant Olsen’s latest project Gold Leaves being one of my most listened to albums of 2011, I was giddy to find this dreamy creamsicle colored Sub Pop single from his last project Arthur & Yu in the used bins. My find was confirmed as victorious by the nodding approval of the guy behind the counter, followed by a grumbling, “Damn, I wish I’d seen that first.”

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07. Gene Clark – White Light Found: Twist and Shout Records – Denver, Colorado

After Greg Vandy recommended picking up this record on his excellent blog American Standard Time, I wasn’t the only vinyl lover who went looking for it in Seattle. Store after store, a perplexed clerk would tell me that I was the third or fourth person coming in to look for Gene Clark’s stellar second solo album and that no, they didn’t have it. So I was delighted when a gorgeous copy stared back at me in Denver’s cavernous Twist and Shout Records. White Light is a hidden classic and on it Clark helps invent what is known and loved now as “Americana” and cosmic country. It rambles at all the right places, like the cover of Dylan and The Bands “Tears of Rage” and the original songs that have inspired local bands like The Moondoggies and Sons of Warren Oates leave you wondering why Clark isn’t recognized as one of his generations finest songwriters. An album like White Light is ripe for a reissue and however you get your hands on it, even if it takes leaving the state, I recommend you do.

06. S – I’m Not As Good As You Found: Sonic Boom Records

Coming in at #7 on our 25 Favorite Northwest Records of 2010 and #4 on my personal list, finding a copy of the import only I’m Not As Good As You was a bit like discovering unicorns exist by stumbling on one in the wild. I had no idea this beautiful bummer was ever pressed to wax and while $18.99 was a bit steep for the reality of my bank account, there was no way this record wasn’t coming home with me. Because I’m Not As Good As You has only gotten better with time, more devastating in its honesty, more lovely in its loneliness. And were I writing that Best of 2010 list today, I would fight for it to be ranked much higher. Since her days with Carissa’s Wierd Jen Ghetto has been writing the best sad songs in all of Seattle, if not the country. She continues to do so solo as “S” and I’m Not As Good As You is equal parts heartbreak and stunner.

See my top five vinyl finds of 2011 (more…)

January 3, 2012

The Daily Choice: San Francisco’s Best of 2011

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If I can speak in broad blanket statements for a moment, I believe that San Francisco is putting out the best music of any scene in the country right now.  I know, I know, you’re reading a Seattle-based blog, and I certainly know, my bias is completely out of control as I wake and live in this fine city each and every day and am engaged in the scene in a way that I can’t be in any other city. That said, I’m a national music reviewer. I scour the internet day after day trying to find music to populate my brief little column with and only a small fraction of it derives from The Bay Area. It says a lot to me that this small fraction makes up such a enormous part of my musical listening space and for that reason alone I thought this The Bay Area deserved it’s only little Top 10 write-up.

As always, I’m a failure at even numbered lists and as always I’m not one to rank. These are ten bands I thought unmissable, and I’ll admit it’s not a hugely different list than what I’ve composed before, but the bands that were good in SF last year, we’re just as good if not better this year.

Hope the New Year is already giving you cinnamon-scented massages. Thanks for reading.

Thee Oh Sees

I’m a little bit obsessed with John Dwyer and his merry band of musical pranksters. Their live show, their prolific release schedule, their unstoppably energetic sound – I am a buck-tooth, scab-lipped groupie of Thee Oh Sees. 2011 may have been their best year yet with two original releases and a singles comp all beamed to the world amidst an exponential growth in their national popularity. John Dwyer’s record label Castle Face continued to pummel the Bay with some truly great releases (one or two that appear on this list) and I found myself chomping at the bit for 2012 just for the fruit of that labor to make it’s way in to my records stack. Lets be honest, Thee Oh Sees are probably going to be perennial favorites on this list, so get used to it.

Thee Oh Sees – Carrion Crawler

The Mallard

The Mallard was almost silent in release this year, but her live show became something to behold with the addition of a drummer and a bassist. From gimmick-laden (but still amazing) solo performer to, behold to believe, rock and roll frontman, Greer McGettrick gets the nod for growing from one of my favorites, to one of everyone’s favorites.

I listen to Lyrics Last by The Mallard

Burnt Ones

I’m iffy on the current trend in rock ‘n’ roll to imitate the tight pants and feathered hair of glam rock precursors, but Burnt Ones still managed to melt me a new one this year. I don’t know if I had a better time at a show than the late night dance fest that was Burnt Ones at The Knockout this year, and their record, Black Teeth & Golden Tongues, is on constant rotation. It’ll make you want to pull on the tight tights, let your hair grow out, and booty shuffle your way to the liquor store.

Burnt Ones – Bury Me In Smoke

Wooden Shjips

Not a better song was released this year than “Lazybones” off of Wooden Shjips West. Fast paced, psychedelic as fuck, everything you want from a Wooden Shjips’ release plowed in to a four minute shred-fest.

Wooden Shjips – Lazy Bones

Manatee

Late entry on to the list, but Oakland’s Manatee is well deserved. I’ve felt the hints of early 90s punk touching on the edges of music for a while now, and though it’s scary to think we might be rolling in to a world where ska and Buck ‘o’ Nine are making a comeback, bands like Manatee take the raw energy and combine it with the artistic sensibility I’m loving right now. If this is the future, sign me up for a one-way ticket on a spaceship made of chrome.

Manatee – Mr. Super

Ty Segall & Mikal Cronin – Fame/Sufferage City

Say what you will about the new records from Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin but their collaboration on the Castle Face Flexi-Disc were two of the best songs of the year. Both Bowie covers, both grimy and hard and all sorts of sonic ass-kicking, both not-so-subtle reminders of what these two gentlemen can do when paired together.

Sic Alps

I almost didn’t put Sic Alps on here after their cross-country meltdown and Mike Donovan’s sort of egoed rise from band leader to band unto-himself. But the hits just keep coming. Sic Alps have managed to take experimental noise and meld it with pop harmonies and nods the stranger corners of the 1970s and it is, well, fantastic. I miss the Sic Alps of yore, but am curious to see if the future holds anything.

Sic Alps – Breadhead

January 3, 2012

Abbey’s Favorites of 2011

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I’ve already shared my favorite songs with you and told you a little bit about my personal MVP, but here are a few more of my favorite things from 2011.

My Favorite Albums of 2011:

1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues 2. Zoe Muth and The Lost High Rollers – Starlight Hotel

3. Charles Bradley – No Time for Dreaming

4. Dolorean – The Unfazed

5. Bryan John Appleby – Fire on the Vine

6. Gardens & Villa – s/t

7. Other Lives – Tamer Animals

8. Radiation City – The Hands That Take You

9. Alabama Shakes – s/t EP

10 (tie). Quiet Life – Big Green

10 (tie). Gem Club – Breakers

My Favorite Musical Moments of 2011

1. Mavis Staples Singing “The Weight,” “You Are Not Alone” and “Freedom Highway” back-to-back-to-back at Bumbershoot

 

Mavis Staples at Bumbershoot ::: photo by Abbey Simmons

2. Kelli Schaefer and Her Mom Singing “Gone in Love” at Cathedrals II

 

Kelli Schaefer and Mom ::: photo by Abbey Simmons

3. Being Front Row for Charles Bradley at the Aladdin Theater During MFNW

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Charles Bradley ::: iphone photo by Abbey Simmons

4. Pickwick Performing (and performing with Pickwick) at our 5th Anniversary Show

5. Slack Fest (all of it)

 

Whalebones at Slack Fest ::: photo by Josh Lovseth

My Favorite Videos of 2011:

 

 

 

 

My Favorite Thing I Forgot to Include on the Appropriate Best of List: New Carissa’s Wierd

 

 

These new Carissa’s Wierd and the subsequent 7” out on Hardly Art this year, definitely should have been on both my favorite songs and favorite EPs / 7” / cassette of the year list, but absolutely slipped my mind. This is not acceptable.

My Favorite Thing Sound on the Sound did in 2011: Written Here with Bryan John Appleby

December 31, 2011

Our Favorite Photos of 2011: Flaming Lips

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Flaming Lips ::: photo by Josh Lovseth

See ya later 2011!

Thanks to all of you for taking the time for making Sound on the Sound a part of your year and a part of your lives. We’ve got big things planned for 2012 and we look forward to sharing the new year and the front row with you.

December 30, 2011

Our Ten Favorite Local Records of 2011

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Now that we’ve reached the top of our favorite local records countdown, we wanted to have links to all the reviews in one convenient place.

While yes, all these albums were released by either Portland or Seattle bands, we hope you don’t get stuck on “local” as the important part of the descriptor. Because no one outside of the Pacific Northwest released records we loved more than Fleet Foxes, Shabazz Palaces or Zoe Muth and The Lost High Rollers. So please, focus instead on “favorite.”

It was such a rich year for albums from the Pacific Northwest we couldn’t possibly only share ten records we loved, nor could we enumerate what our 31st or our 23rd favorite records. So next week we’ll be sharing 25 more local records released in 2011 you shouldn’t miss, in much more manageable alphabetical order.

 

 

#1 Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

#2 Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

#3 Zoe Muth and Her Lost High Rollers – Starlight Hotel

#4 Cataldo – Prison Boxing

#5 Bryan John Appleby – Fire on the Vine

#6 Radiation City – The Hands That Take You

#7 My Goodness – s/t

#8 Wild Flag – s/t

#9 Kelli Schaefer – Ghost of the Beast

#10 Gold Leaves – The Ornament

December 30, 2011

Our Favorite Local Records of 2011: #1 Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

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We’ve counted down our 10 Favorite Local Records of 2011, see what made the Top 10. –

#1. Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Since the release of their critically acclaimed self-titled debut album and EP Sun Giant in 2008, the Fleet Foxes have been credited and blamed for a lot in Seattle. The resurrection of a new Sub Pop. The resurgence of folk music, locally, nationally and internationally. A reinvigorated international interest in the music being made in Seattle. They’ve been heralded and hounded for their contributions to what it means to make music and listen to music in Seattle.

That’s a Sisyphean load for a 20-something (or anyone) to bear, and facing a world that was watching, a city and Internet full of opinions and the words “sophomore slump” hanging in the air, Robin Pecknold struggled. For years. Entire albums were scrapped in the making of Helplessness Blues. And while I would never wish it on someone, I am thankful for his struggle. Because from it came an album about the existential angst of what it means to be a success, not just as an artist, but as a human being. Pecknold’s angst may have been magnified living under a microscope in a way that few are, but this personal album is made a masterpiece by its universalism.

Yes, a masterpiece. Sixty listens in, I still hear something new every play of Helplessness Blues and when I say in sixty years I think I will too, it’s no exaggeration.

The material and the musicality is stormier, the lyrics starker and the orchestration unsettling. Zither, Moog, bass clarinet, mixed with skillful picking and Yeats inspired prose show what studious students of both traditional and modern folk the Fleet Foxes are. In the ‘60s you would have said the band had created a wall of sound on Helplessness Blues, but today I’d say its more of an ecosystem rich with detail. An immense album of varied landscapes and climates: the windswept hillsides of “The Plains / Bitter Dancer,” a teeming marketplace of smells and sounds in “Bedouin Dress,” the warm white paved streets of “Sim Sala Bim.” These places are never described, they are never named, but the music takes you there vividly.

Helplessness Blues, in the themes it tackles and in the geographical journey it takes, is huge. But life isn’t all big questions and forever vistas, and the play between the immensity and tininess of our lives grounds the record in a beautiful humanness. Pecknold examines life’s largest questions by attending to the smallest details: the scruffing of a dog’s neck under the table, a geometric patterned dress.

Most listens of Helplessness Blues leave me feeling overwhelmed. Not just by the scope and beauty of what I’ve heard but of the world around me, of what it means to live a fulfilled life. Or as Pecknold puts it himself in the album’s title track, “If I know only one thing it’s that everything that I see of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak.” Existence and the world around us are dumbfounding if you spend any time sitting and thinking about it all, look in the mirror too long and the form that stares back looks barely human, much less like ourselves. Helplessness Blues is that long look in the mirror where you’re not sure if what—or who—is staring back, whether it is beautiful or monstrosity or both.

For an album made with worry in its DNA, Helplessness Blues shows Fleet Foxes having made leaps thematically and musically and it shines with confidence as these songs play on the stereo or a live stage. Yet on “Someone to Admire,” Pecknold’s sparkling clear voice, a lithe vibrato quivering in its self-doubt, worries “After all is said and done I feel the same, all that I hoped would change within me stayed.” This dichotomy, that the strongest album of the year is at its heart deeply self-conscious of its very existence, is as fascinating to this listener as the lyrics or orchestration.

But as much self-conscious doubt there is, Helplessness Blues isn’t preoccupied with the struggle of existence, but the wonder of it, and in between the questions there are gratitudes, humble thanks for purpose, for success, and even, for failure. Most of all, for the chance to say and sing anything at all.

Helplessness Blues is a huge record. Sonically, commercially, philosophically. And its scope and impact, grand. But for me, Helplessness Blues is so much more than a skillfully made album or a sonic leap forward for a band or the pinnacle of music being made in the Pacific Northwest. These are songs I have gone to and used to understand and explain my own emotions at life’s largest moments, at passings and births. I have used them to help say goodbye forever and hello for the first time, to look in my own mirror and ask if I am content with what—or who—looks back and to move boldly forward to change when the answer was—or is—no. Helplessness Blues is more sage than song and I suspect I’ll be tapping into its wisdom and sense of wonder as long as I’m lucky enough to be part of this big, beautiful, overwhelming world.

“In that dream I could hardly contain it. All my life I will wait to attain it.”

December 30, 2011

Our Favorite Photos of 2011: Doe Bay Fest

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Doe Bay Fest 2011 ::: photo by Josh Lovseth

Hope your New Years Eve is as fun as a slip’n'slide and your kiss as idyllic as the one above appears.

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A Helping Hand ::: photo by Josh Lovseth

December 29, 2011

Our Favorite Local Records of 2011: #2 Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

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We’re counting down our 10 favorite records released in the Pacific Northwest in 2011, follow along!

#2 Shabazz PalacesBlack Up (Sub Pop)

“Just another….” review of Shabazz Palaces critically acclaimed, seminal demiurgical creation entitled Black Up.

What can I possibly say about this album that hasn’t already been offered up to the blogosphere universe in the most hyperbolic, inquisitive, sometimes misguided, corner office with a nice view of a city park, “Can Ishmael Butler’s third eye see my innermost thoughts?” analytical, tooth and comb way imaginable?

I have no idea. That’s why I’m going to be as direct (doubtful) and brief (you’re kidding right?) as I can possibly be. Gentle readers, good luck connecting the dots.

When I was a pre-teen I saw an interview with Thurston Moore on a television program that I can no longer remember. During the interview Mr. Moore spoke of how he looked to find melody in ordinary, everyday things, because there are melodies all around us. Items such as the creaky sounds from a wheel barrow, lawnmowers cutting the grass and windshield wipers defending your windshield against trying precipitation. I tried my best to accurately ride the jock of Thurston to emulate Thurston’s words and write songs based on microwave sounds and people falling down/up the stairs (this didn’t happen often). However, I did not have the mental capacity then (and arguably now) to be inspired enough to compose and craft anything that anyone would wanted to be bothered to listen to.

As soon as I hit play on Black Up, Thurston Moore’s words awoke in my mind after a cicada-like slumber and it all made sense.

Hear me out.

This album is based on melodies you don’t hear but feel. It’s a pretentious, vague sentence but one that is totally applicable. Sure, you hear the rhythm and melody in an audible fashion. Yet, when you think of the creation of this music as a listener (ie. the accusatory synthesizer chanting of “An Echo From the Hosts…”), it’s extremely hard to understand how one arrives at the end point when you’re starting from thin air radio silence.

If I could choose a solitary word to define this album (impossible) it would be “otherworldly.” There are celestial/outer-space references littered throughout almost every song. When I listen to Black Up, I think of George Clinton fronting Parliament-Funkadelic. I am reminded of the autonomus, uplifting groove of Sly and the Family Stone. Even though the aforementioned imprints are a bit obvious (in my opinion), I may be alone in reminiscing about my love fo Radiohead’s Kid A or Bjork’s Vespertine while Black Up is emerging from my sound-system. For me, it’s all there in plain view, Afrocentric spaceship funk.

I’m not going to explain what this album sounds like if you haven’t heard it. It’s not out of laziness, it’s because it’s not really possible…

Screw it. I’ll give it a shot.

“Endeavors for Never….” sounds like heroin inspired android jazz in the throes of Harlem in the 1930′s 3030′s. At first listen I could not fit all the elements of this song into a cohesive structure, but upon further review this might be the most “normal” back-beat on this album. Keys operating close to conventional timing, smooth as silk female vocals, a stirring sample of a lazy jazz drum fill, “forever and ever.” I don’t mind if you do, play it again Sam.

“Are you…” has an intro that reminds me of the greatest album of all-time! has an intro that sounds like a Kid A/Amnesiac b-side. The mantra “it’s a feeling,” takes over the song, reiterating that this album is much more than just sounds, it exists purely in the way that your body responds to the rhythm.  Those verses paint a story and trick your hips into a predictable lull. However, by the end of the song you’re grooving to beats that would not be out of place on Of Light or the self-titled release. Finally, the line “That’s why, I won’t be back a long time….” is placed conveniently in the apex of a dance hall collapse. No smoke, no fire or panic, just a clear-cut explanation.

The words on this album carry more weight than before (and they were already on the shoulders of Atlas to begin with). “A Treatise Dedicated..(1000 Questions, 1 Answer)” is an example of the interpolation (very literal when you hear the story told within the song) of a theme that was largely absent on prior Shabazz Palaces releases, love. When I first heard this song, I thought of another unconventional “love” song in Outkast’s “Toilet Tisha.” The music, the story, the promises that are made are spectacular, but what really makes the song are the unanswered questions at the of composition. Internalized and all too real, whether posed from across a crowded room or while you’re lying in bed alone at night. It’s amazing how little things make a song.

But what about the meaning behind the album’s title, Black Up? Is there any meaning there or is it something that I’ve imagined after dozens of listens?

The theme of being genuine is a consistent one throughout the entire album. Butler asks the listener who they think they are on the album’s second track and does not stop asking until the album is over. “Youlogy” serves as a curtain call for materialism and the feigned. “Yeah you” is a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for artists and industry personalities that have made a living off of posturing. “My hand’s so flush/You’ll have to fold/The played out rhthyms that you told/For all the priceless things you sold..you corny nigga.” You can’t tell if that sample is money being dropped into a piggy bank or slaves’ chains are clanging in unison. Either way, there might not be a difference between the two.

But what does this have to do with being black per se? When Butler says “…Things are looking blacker but black is looking whiter,” is he talking about how corporate America is attempting to adopt hip-hop culture in order to push product (nothing new)? Is he refering to the fact that many of these hip-hop artists are running around wearing skinny jeans and starring in wholesome family movies? Or maybe he’s speaking about Obama and the fact that blacks are “more accepted” by American culture across the board?

I’m not sure, I feel it’s up for the listener to decide. One thing I do know is this, there is really nothing more infuriating, agitating, aggrevating, insert many other unfavorable synonyms here than when someone questions your blackness. If you’re black, it’s happened to you more times than you can count unfortunately. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you’re going, someone is going to level those systemic accusations in your general direction. It might arise from your educational background, your demeanor or a myriad of cultural factors that may be mired in preconceived stereotype or ignorance. The worst part is, not just black people question your blackness, everyone feels like they are entitled to express an opinion on how black you are or aren’t. I could write a thesis on this topic (again) but this is an album review and I’ve already said too much. I’ll leave you with this….

Black Up is saying, “Black folks, be you, whatever ‘you’ that may be. You are beautiful.” Many, many albums have expressed this type of sentiment before, but I can’t recall any that presented it in the type of fashion Shabazz Palaces have done so on Black Up. Just think, the fact that I thought of Thurston Moore, Bjork and Radiohead (I could have even said some Boards of Canada as well) during the initial moments of this album and none of those artists have ever had anything to do with being black or black empowerment, is a remarkable achievement in itself.

You don’t have to listen to the last minute and a half of “Swerve…” to comprehend what is going on here.

(Writer’s note: This applies to listeners of all races but, hey, I’m black so……)

December 29, 2011

Our Favorite Photos of 2011: Damien Jurado

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Damien Jurado ::: photo by Josh Lovseth

As we impatiently wait for his new record, Damien Jurado showed Seattle a new side of himself in 2011. Damien Jurado the hype man. Damien Jurado the band leader. Damien Jurado the mystic. These are a couple of our favorite photos of those incarnations.

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Damien Jurado / “Jacket Summer” finale ::: photo by Abbey Simmons