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