Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It's been a good run...

But between a full class load, a job, a radio show and various other endeavors, I really don't have the time to make this blog what it should be. So, unless I stumble upon some more free time in the future, this will be the end of Tall Buildings Shake. I may do some updates here and there if the mood strikes me, but there won't be regular posting. This has been a fun little project and a great creative outlet for me, but all good things must come to an end.

Oh, and as far as 2007 goes, Menomena's Friend And Foe is the album of the year so far. Listen to it.


Friday, January 12, 2007

#1- The Hold Steady- Boys And Girls In America

Big surprise, huh?

I listened to this album two times before I burned copies of it for all my roommates - and that was before a good copy even leaked to the internets. And then I structured a vacation to New York City around seeing these guys at Irving Plaza. And then I bought a copy just so I could turn it up loud in my car without losing any sound quality on that staccato guitar line that begins "Stuck Between Stations."

There probably isn't anything I can say about this album and/or band that hasn't been said yet, so I'll just say this: This record is so fun it's ridiculous. In an age when being earnest is a mortal sin in the "indie" world, these guys perfectly walk a line between the snivelling indie kids and suburban soccer moms that you didn't know existed. Is this band really serious when they put "First Night" on this album? Don't they know that "Southtown Girls" could easily be a Bruce Springsteen track? I can't like Bruce Springsteen! In it's own way, this album is surprisingly disconcerting for the listener. It's a constant battle to figure out when this band is being tongue-in-cheek and when they're not - until eventually you give up trying and just dance around in your underwear playing air guitar in a fit of childish joy.

There's no pretense here. There's nothing to struggle to understand. It's, hands down, the most "simple" album on my Top Ten. But sometimes things just sound right - speaking to something we miss in ourselves or are struggling with. As I look out over my future of turning 23, graduating college, figuring out where to live and moving into a career, I realize I am in the "twilight of my youth." I'm reaching the point where it is no longer socially acceptable to have the crazy, youthful shenanigans that the characters in lead singer Craig Finn's have.

Luckily I'll have this band, and this album in particular, to remind me of what it feels like to be young, dumb and living for the moment. Finn's characters embrace that youthful zest, living lives of debauchery that, while being much worse than anything I did when I was young, make me nostalgic for the times when I let loose and enjoyed simply being alive.

In a year when TV On The Radio made us feel like we were in the year 2050 and Joanna Newsom made us feel like we were in Narnia, The Hold Steady made us feel like we were 12 years old and had just pulled out our father's record collection and discovered that ageless, unifying force they call Rock N' Roll. Buy this, knock back a few and see what happens - you won't regret it.

#2- Neko Case- Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

With the possible exception of Ys, no album released this year sounds like it had as much time and effort put into it as Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. Of course I have no way of knowing that, but just listen to this thing - every single lyric moves Case's prose forward, every single instrument was recorded beautifully and no instrumental lick sounds out of place. With the help of longtime collaborators The Sadies along with members of Calexico, Garth Hudson of The Band and Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, Case has carefully crafted her most impressive album to date - a beautifully dark piece of Americana and one of the year's best albums. Case's lyrics occasionally outshine her angelic voice - something completely unthinkable prior to this album's release. Even when she does explore the upper registers, she does it tastefully, purposely coupling the intensity of her performance with the emotional climax of her songs' characters ("Go on, go on, and scream and cry..." on "Star Witness" and "Those who will not hear the words" on "Maybe Sparrow").

The album's short length has drawn criticism that Case never fully develops her musical ideas, but I see it another way. No breath is wasted on Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. Efficiency is lacking from music these days. Case gets in, says her peace and gets out without stuffing her songs with unnecessary fluff to get them to the four-minute mark.

Neko Case- Maybe Sparrow
from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

#3- Destroyer- Destroyer's Rubies

Put simply, Destroyer's Rubies was the album of my summer. Couple some of Dan Bejar's best lyrical work with a whole slew of classic rock "la la la" choruses, and you have what may go down as Destroyer's most accessible, yet most impressive work. Previous albums, though notable, tended to lose direction - awash in Bejar's impressionistic wordplay without the framework of memorable melodies that Destroyer's Rubies has. Though his literate yelping may turn some off, Bejar has never quit being one of the more unique voices in today's "indie" crowd - inviting comparisons to greats like Bowie, Dylan and Reed. Like those greats, analyzing his slew of obscure references for some overarching meaning often proves to be frustrating. With Bejar, it's more about appreciating the intricacies of his alliterate couplets, dry wit and stuttering-yet-relaxed lyrical flow - not many could pull off starting out an album with something as seemingly inane as "Dueling cyclones jackknife/ they got eyes for your wife/ and the blood that lives in her heart."

Destroyer's Rubies has a memorable quality that is missing from the band's earlier work. Sure it's still esoteric as hell - I have no clue what "Felt some mercurial presence, hitherto unknown/ It was the sun. It was a stone falling through blank space/ It was that jewel-encrusted roan getting in my face" means, but I'll be damned if it ain't fun to roll down the windows and sing along to.

Destroyer- Rubies
from Destroyer's Rubies

Friday, January 05, 2007

#4- Joanna Newsom- Ys


Seriously, what the hell is this thing? Where do I even begin? Five tracks, most of which are over 10 minutes long, of surreal harp-based music embellished by a full orchestra full of counter-melodies. Who sits down and decides to make music like this?

And then you gradually get over the shock of comprehending what you're listening to and realize that this album is stuffed to the brim with some of the more beautiful pieces of lyrical imagery you're likely to hear all year. After 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom's unconventional vocals (like a 12-year-old girl, some would say) have been accused of being a crutch and her music called pastiche "freak-folk." But with Ys Newsom transcends any genre she belonged to and asserts herself as one of the more talented and unique songwriters of our time.

Newsom's way with words is incredible. Though she has years of classical training on harp, she's always a poet first and foremost. She blends Dylan-esque alliteration-full impressionism (The cities we passed were a flickering wasteland/ But his hand in my hand made them hale and harmless/ While down in the lowlands the crops are all coming/ We have everything/ Life is thundering blissful towards death/ In a stampede of his fumbling green gentleness) with Colin Meloy's penchant for ancient storytelling. And the lyrical gems never stop - every line serves a purpose in crafting Newsom's surreal prose.

Though the orchestral parts seem overbearing at times, the way they weave in and out of Newsom's vocal melodies makes more sense the more you listen. Newsom uses the strings (arranged by Van Dyke Parks of Beach Boys fame) to carve brilliant counter-melodies throughout the album.

This is a complex album that takes a several listens to fully digest. But give it time, because it isn't often you can point to an artist truly forging their own path through the musical wilderness, and there are few artists who sound this beautiful doing it.

Joanna Newsom- Emily from Ys

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

#5- TV On The Radio- Return To Cookie Mountain

I resisted it for a while, mostly to spite the slew of hyperbolic reviews that would make you think that God himself constructed this album from one of Adam’s ribs on the seventh day. But it was only a matter of time before I, too, was hypnotized by TV On The Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain.

From the very beginning, you know it’s something special. It’s as if someone threw every major style of music into a big pot and made this beautiful, post-modern musical stew. (How’s that for hyperbole?) There’s a mechanical quality that stems from hip hop and electronic music, there’s guitar noise that recalls Sonic Youth, there’s tribal drum circles, there’s barbershop quartet harmony, there’s a punk rock flare in Tunde Adebimpe's vocals – but none of those things really begin to describe it. And while the band still has a problem with putting musical innovation (and there’s a plethora of that here, moreso than anything else released this year) in front of emotional resonance, they sound pretty emotive on the refrain of “Hold your heart courageously, as we walk into this dark place” on “Province”.

It’s hard to predict what from this year’s crop of albums is going to be looked back on as a musical guidepost from the year 2006 – what we’d put in a time capsule if we had the chance. But Return To Cookie Mountain is a safe bet. We can trace the influences of most albums we hear, and comment on where we see each album’s aesthetic going in the future. Not with Return To Cookie Mountain. This album came out of nowhere – Adam’s rib may be as good of an explanation as any after all.

TV On The Radio- I Was A Lover from Return To Cookie Mountain

TV On The Radio- "Wolf Like Me" (music video)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

#6- Camera Obscura- Let's Get Out of This Country

We put a premium on originality and ingenuity in music, and for good reason – we can only hear the same story so many times before it becomes boring and cliched. But every once in a while, an album comes along that pulls off the old tricks so well, we give it a pass. Let’s Get Out of This Country follows the same formula that Belle & Sebastian and The Softies have many times before – wistful, precious indie pop. This is not the kind of album I’m predisposed to liking. This brand of indie pop tends to go from quaint and pleasant to saccharine sweet very quickly.

But from the beginning, Let's Get Out of This Country is different. Maybe it’s the vintage production – from beginning to end, it sounds like some sort of recently-unearthed Motown or 1950’s pop gem, complete with majestic strings and horn sections, sing-a-long choruses and a certain swing you don’t hear very often anymore (“If Looks Could Kill,” in particular). Tracyanne Campbell’s earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics find the perfect balance between heartfelt and overwrought. There are tons of times this record could take a turn for the sickeningly fey, but it always maintains its subtle charm. It’s not flashy, it didn’t break any new artistic ground, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t grow on you like cancer.

Camera Obscura- Let's Get Out of This Country from Let's Get Out of This Country

Monday, January 01, 2007

#7- Grizzly Bear- Yellow House

The problem many, myself included, have with most modern Top 40 pop music is the inherent inorganic quality of it all. Even when a pop star finds a shtick that isn’t rife with cliché (some would tell you Justin Timberlake this year), all the sound is compressed and digitized past the point of recognition. Turn on the radio – most of it doesn’t even sound like it came from a living, breathing human being.

Grizzly Bear’s epic Yellow House is the antithesis to this. Forget coming from a living and breathing being - this thing lives and breathes all on its own. Organic doesn’t really describe it - there is a sense that these guys played the part of Mickey Mouse stealing the magician’s wand in Fantasia. They created something bigger than themselves, and are constantly trying to guide it and control it, with varied amounts of success. Hyper-organic, maybe?

It’s a beautiful mess of Animal Collective’s spooky, atmospheric folk and Brian Wilson harmonies, and the next natural progression of that ever lovable "freak-folk" genre. Layers of chanting vocals, electronic blips and an assortment of orchestral instruments weave in and out of hypnotic guitar and banjo lines. The effect is absolutely haunting in "Marla," as layers of lazy piano arpeggios bring the song to gentle but sweeping crescendos, only to disappear.

It's not like this sort of album hasn't been attempted before - this is essentially a "prettier" version of Animal Collective's Feels, or a more focused version of Akron/Family's self-titled debut. But Grizzly Bear sounds so god damned natural while those bands can sound forced at times. This is a beauty of an album that bears repeated listens with headphones, and one of the more impressive albums of the year.

Grizzly Bear- Knife
from Yellow House

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Year-end lists

The rest of TBS's list might have to wait for vacation and work, but it will be done in the near future. Quality > speed. In the meantime, here's a round-up of other (better written) year-end lists from around the internets.

Coke Machine Glow
Tiny Mix Tapes

#8- Howlin' Rain- Howlin' Rain

As the year came to an end and the weather started getting colder, I put off revisiting this - psychedelic country rock just isn't winter music. But the minute I did put it on, I was instantly transported back to that three-week period in June when I couldn't listen to anything but Howlin' Rain.

Think CCR or the Grateful Dead with Sonic Youth-ian distortion freak-outs. And for as much as that sounds like it shouldn't work, it sounds strangely natural coming from Comets on Fire side project Howlin' Rain. My Morning Jacket toyed with this sound at times during their steady evolution from backwoods jamband to alt-rock superstars, but they never fully realized its potential - Howlin Rain sounds like a long-lost album that band made during a whiskey and hallucinogen-fueled weekend between the release of The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn.

It's pretty much necessary that I mention mind-altering substances with this album - the thing bridges the gap between stoner rock and Southern rock you didn't know existed. Some will no doubt be turned off by its loose, stupid sloppiness, and lead singer Ethan Miller's raspy croon, but the next time you're looking to throw back a few beers and enjoy the summer sun, very few albums sound as good as this. It's a no-frills party album to its core - like Weezer's Blue Album if you grew up in Smokey Mountains instead of the American suburbs.

Howlin' Rain- Calling Lightning With A Scythe
from Howlin' Rain

Monday, December 18, 2006

#9- Yo La Tengo- I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

A Yo La Tengo album that is pretty average as far as Yo La Tengo albums go. But Yo La Tengo on autopilot is still pretty damn engaging, as the band switches from the tried-and-true (Shoegazey psychadelic rock and hypnotic, Velvet Underground-inspired pop) to new experiments (the Brian Wilson-esque "Beanbag Chair," the Belle & Sebastian-ish neo-funk of "Mr. Tough" and whatever the shit "Watch Out For Me Ronnie" is) on just about every track. Although they've spent most of the years since the release of their magnum opus, 1997's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, perfecting the understated, mature side of their sound, this album: A)is titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and B)Opens with almost 11 minutes of the best balls-to-the-wall noise and guitar shredding you're likely to hear all year. It's actually refreshing to see Ira Kaplan step up the rock star bravado ("The Story of Yo La Tengo" is about as epic as rock music gets), as his band - which formed the year I was born, mind you - is one of the most consistently interesting and talented groups in this crop of musicians we label "indie." I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is a great primer for those uninitiated to Yo La Tengo, and it held my attention and warranted repeated listens for a lot longer than most 2006 albums.

Yo La Tengo- Mr. Tough from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Yo La Tengo- The Story of Yo La Tengo from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Buy I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Saturday, December 16, 2006

#10- Sparklehorse- Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

The best "sad bastard" artists aren't the ones that turn out album after album of pure "bottom-of-the-barell" pieces of self-loathing and depression, it's the artists that know how to take a nice, cheery pop tune and tweak it slightly, giving it a bittersweet vibe that leaves the listener guessing as to the artist's intentions. Subtlety and moderation are key in the "indie-singer-songwriter" mold. It's what separates an Elliott Smith from a Bright Eyes. Even Smith followed up a grisly "2:45 AM" with an absolute upper in "Say Yes," or "Waltz #2" with "Baby Britain."

Enter Mark Linkous, or Sparklehorse. Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain perfectly balances Beatles-esque power pop with some of the deepest sadness you've heard on tape this year. Working with the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd and Dave Fridmann, Danger Mouse and Tom Waits gives each track a different genre twist. But one thing remains the same - Linkous, like Smith or Jason Molina or Will Oldham or Bill Callahan or Daniel Johnston or other low-fi American bards before him, has a distinct voice that is both instantly recognizable and has an innate bittersweet quality that just defies explanation. With Linkous, you can even hear it through the layers of studio effects on "Getting It Wrong." And you can damn well hear it in "See The Light"'s refrain of "I can't see the light/ for the trees." And you can sure as hell hear it in his whispered tenor on "Return To Me."

The album didn't really kick in for me until it got cold out. For those that love any of the artist mentioned above, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain is an understated masterpiece and another gem from a guy that deserves his name mentioned a lot more often. Stunningly beautiful, uniquely produced and one of the year's best albums.

Sparklehorse- Don't Take My Sunshine Away
from Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

Buy Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain

Monday, December 11, 2006

And we're back...

So now that all but one final is over with, I can blog again. Sorry about that. To make up for it, I'll be listing my favorite albums of the year, in order, on a semi-day-to-day basis.

First, the runners up. The following albums made valiant efforts to get into my top ten list, but ended up falling short for one reason or another. To their credit, there are some absolute gems on here that deserve recognition.

Califone- Roots & Crowns
This is the most definitive, complete statements from one of the best "experimental folk" bands around. While weaving trippy electronics and cacophonous noise into plaintive folk songs is certainly not a new bag, very few bands do it as tastefully or effectively as Califone.

Califone- The Orchids from Roots & Crowns

Jason Molina- Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go
Molina, without his rootsy backing band, at his dark, desperate and mournful best.

Bob Dylan- Modern Times
A collection of paint-by-the-numbers blues and folk rambles that remind us just how good this guy is.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy- The Letting Go
This really should have made my list. Will Oldham perfectly balances the creepy with the precious and makes the BPB album both you and your parents can enjoy.

The Walkmen- A Hundred Miles Off
After my honeymoon period with this album wore off, it didn't hold up as well as the band's previous work. But "All Hands and the Cook" ranks with the band's best, and the fact that a pretty solid effort from these guys didn't live up to people's expectations is more evidence that Bows & Arrows was one of the best albums released this decade.

The Walkmen- All Hands and the Cook from A Hundred Miles Off

Shearwater- Palo Santo
This one never got its fair share of attention. Majestic folk-rock and Jeff Buckley vocals from a band that includes Okkervil River's Will Sheff.

Shearwater- Red Sea Black Sea from Palo Santo

Beach House- Beach House
Reverby vocals and hypnotic organ like a one of those well-executed dream sequences from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Heartless Bastards- All This Time
Awesome, anthemic, female-led roots-garage rock.

Howe Gelb- Sno' Angel Like You
World-weary folk music and angelic choirs need to be mixed more often.

Sunset Rubdown- Shut Up I Am Dreaming
Wolf Parade co-leader Spencer Krug's side project further cements his place as one of the more promising indie rock songwriters around.

Brightblack Morning Light- Brightblack Morning Light
A "freak-folk" take on groovy rootsy R&B. One of the more unique records to come out this year.

Loose Fur- Born Again In The USA
Who gets together, throws together some classic rock tunes and makes an album this good? Jeff Tweedy, Glen Kotche and Jim O'Rourke, that's who. "Hey Chicken" could have been a Let It Bleed-era Rolling Stones tune.

Loose Fur- Hey Chicken from Born Again in the USA

Human Television- Look At Who You’re Talking To
Jangly guitars and echoy vocals recalls mid-1980s R.E.M.

Peter Bjorn & John- Writer's Block
Endlessly catchy Swedish pop with a Broken Social Scene vibe.

Peter Bjorn & John- Amsterdam from Writer's Block

The main list will appear one by one in the coming days.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Brooklyn-based Pela play an enjoyable mix of early, anthemic U2 (before they got shitty) and The National. It's all fairly simple stuff, but the band pulls it off without sounding too epic and earnest (like U2 now). "The Trouble with River Cities" in particular has been stuck in my head for several weeks now. The band has a couple of EPs out now and is planning a full length next year.

Pela- The Trouble With River Cities from the Exit Columbia Street EP

Oh, and Pitchfork has an interview with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady Apparently the guy from The Killers is apeing Craig's style.
Pitchfork: Did you see the "Saturday Night Live" when the Killers were on, and some people have claimed Brandon Flowers was impersonating you?

Craig Finn: I did not until someone told me to go look it up on YouTube. I don't know what that guy looks like normally, but someone told me he doesn't wear glasses.

Pitchfork: No, he doesn't wear glasses. A year ago, he was totally doing the whole David Bowie dinner-jacket thing.

Craig Finn: I don't know. He discovered Springsteen or something, so a lot of press I've seen has combined reviews of our two records. So that's one thing. But if I had to guess whether that guy from the Killers knows who the Hold Steady are, my guess would be no. But a lot of people said that: "Hopefully, he wasn't making fun of you." That was the thing, like maybe he's trying to dis. But still, my guess is that he has no idea who we are or who I am. I think that if I was Brandon Flowers from the Killers, I would be concerned about a lot more things, mainly just being a rock star and buying things.
Youtube took down the video of the Killers' SNL performance, sadly. If anyone knows where to find a copy, post it in the comments. As much as I love Finn and The Hold Steady (and I do - some might go as far as calling it unhealthy), if anyone has a trademark on those glasses, it's Elvis Costello.
But Costello (nor the Killers, mind you) never renewed my faith in rock music like The Hold Steady have this year. If I come upon a large sum of money sometime soon, I'm taking a quarter off classes, buying whiskey by the box and following The Hold Steady around on tour, Grateful Dead style. Go and buy Boys And Girls In America.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tom Waits Week!

In honor of Tom Waits crawling out of his cave to do some publicity this week, it's Tom Waits week on Tall Buildings Shake.

Tom Waits- "The Piano Has Been Drinking"

David Letterman this week- "Lie To Me"

And a beautiful performance of a masterfully written song ("Day After Tomorrow" from Real Gone) on The Daily Show last night:
Tom Waits on The Daily Show

Monday, November 27, 2006

Just a reminder...

Tom Waits is one of the finest American songwriters ever. Orphans is out now. Awesome interview in P4K today:
Pitchfork: You have a fine reputation for haunting California's salvage yards and pawn shops. What attracts you to certain objects?

Tom Waits: I'm interested in things when I don't know what they are. Like "Hey, Ray, what the hell is this?" Oh, that's lipstick from the 1700s, that's dog food from the turn of the century, that's a hat from World War II. I'm interested in the minutiae of things. Oddities.

Pitchfork: Do you collect anything?

Tom Waits: Like little ceramic dogs? I collect instruments. It's ongoing.

Pitchfork: There's a blues singer in Clarksdale, Mississippi named Super Chikan who makes the most beautiful-looking guitars out of oil cans and other bits of hardware that he paints and strings. He has a guitar made out of a toilet seat that he calls the Shit-tar. Do you ever make your own instruments?

Tom Waits: I have friends who are builders who make instruments. "Alternative sound sources" is the technical way of saying it, which could really be anything-- maybe something you found along the side of the road. I think hardware stores can be fascinating if you go in there with a mallet! I look for things that are left of center, something you've only seen your whole life, but never heard. Hit it! With a stick! I have a guitar made out of a 2x4 that I bought in Cleveland. You know, in Iraq, you can't have a guitar in the window of a music store because it's too sexy. You know, the curves. So I could go over there with these 2x4 guitars and really take the country by storm.

Pitchfork: Do you keep a notebook?

Tom Waits: Oh yeah, everybody does! Life is too confusing. Monkey wrenches, pocket knives, dog food, instant coffee, lipstick. You gotta get it organized somehow.

Pitchfork: Thanks so much for talking with me.

Tom Waits: Oh! OK. Alright. I'll leave you with a few little things out of my book here. In Los Angeles, it's illegal for a man to beat his wife unless he's on the courthouse steps. In Tulsa, it's against the law to open a soda bottle without the supervision of a licensed engineer. In Texas, the Encyclopedia Britannica is banned because it contains the formula for making home brew. In Claradon, Texas, it's illegal to dust any public building with a feather duster. In Washington, it's illegal to paint polka dots on the American flag. There are only two things you can throw out the window of a moving car, legally. Do you know what they are?

Pitchfork: Um…

Tom Waits: Water. And feathers. Everything else you can get in trouble for.

Tom Waits- Bottom Of The World from Orphans.

If I could sit down and have beers with anyone on this planet - or others - it would be Tom Waits.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cowgirl In The Sand

How come bands don't play like this anymore? Live at the Fillmore East is a perfect example of how good Neil Young and Crazy Horse were in 1970 - pre-Danny Whitten's unfortunate passing. There's a sense of raw passion here - like everything is teetering on the edge of chaos without ever quite getting there - that is far too rare these days.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse- Cowgirl In The Sand
from Live at the Fillmore East

No postings for a bit. Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend.