Intense, surreal, remote, dynamic. Come along with us as we chronicle the adventures of the soul through psychedelic, drone, noise, experimental, pop music based around Chicago bands in particular and local bands everywhere.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010: Back Catalogs and New Releases

As year-end lists are beginning to roll in, I've encountered one of the issues that I faced all year: what on earth was I trying to do with my record collection this year? This year was the first year that I've had a record player for several years, due to a series of moves and circumstances that made collecting records impractical for a time. Subsequently, I had the pleasure of buying all of the new releases I wanted on vinyl for the first time in ages, but I also had the sometimes daunting task of determining which aspects of my back catalog I wanted on wax.

I frequently asked myself, "why am I doing this?" My urge to buy records often turned into a curatorial ideology, whereby I followed specific trends in new music with loads of records that were released decades ago. Perhaps where others have inherited record collections from various people or parents, and therefore had some pre-existing classic template to work from, I had no such template, which resulted in a year in which I built my collection from the ground up.

While I was working on this unruly beast, I revisited various phases in my music history, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My wife and I invested in a series of records that we both really liked over the past decade, picking up most of Nada Surf's eccentric pop catalog as well as the brand new Tegan and Sara boxed set. "Turn of the century" collectible pieces also showed up, such as the first two Capitol releases by the Dandy Warhols, which were in fact released by independent labels in their vinyl format.

As my music listening habits gravitated between heavier psychedelic music, as well as ambient and more experimental shades, following my obsession with the Implodes cassette in the previous year, I indulged in reissues by My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized. Late in the year, I stumbled upon the Acid Archives guide, which truly opened my mind to various fronts of homemade psychedelic and folk records, as well as bizarre major label traditions that sit firmly under the radar of the mainstream pop canon -- the Capitol "psych monsters" were perhaps the most-mind-blowing discovery in this regard, and I learned that I do not need to purchase independent labels exclusively in order to find independent music.

More than anything, I embraced the local bands of Chicago in 2010, buying records from my favorite psych bands here and listening to them almost non-stop at points.

I learned throughout the year that no matter how coherent my musical vision, my purchasing habits will often be completely random, spurred by the fact that when you're rifling through the record store bin-by-bin, you will friendly find records that you had completely forgotten about, or at least forgot that you were looking for. At the end of the year, my first year of record collecting, I can say that I learned an awful lot, and really, I am looking forward to years of discoveries and the excitement of placing a perfectly new piece of wax on the turntable.

The Common People Of..., by..., for.... Although I truly enjoyed the Spiritualized reissue, and the Black Math reissue by Permanent Records was welcome and done well, the orchestrated suite that opens Common People's "lost" Capitol Records release is stunning in its beauty and orientation to the psychedelic years that passed prior to the record's late-1960s release, and before the progressive/psychedelic years that would follow. While the remainder of the record can be hit-and-miss, propelled by a grab bag of sometimes unfocused folk and garage styling, the psychedelic passage that opens the record is completely on the mark, and it opened my mind to a time when psychedelic music was not necessarily fuzzy, but could also be orchestral.

Kaki King, Junior. There are a number of releases that I was completely surprised by this year, including Darker My Love's Alive As You Are record, but I keep coming back to King's tuneful record of broken-hearted songs. The production is dark enough to convince the listener to become introspective while listening to King's voice, and the often dense-but-direct instrumentation conveys that mood even further. Emotional without being exploitative, cheesy, or whiney, King evokes strong moods in their truest form (in this regard, I find it to be a perfect sequel to Tegan and Sara's The Con. I have to admit, I picked this one up on a whim after reading an intriguing review in the Chicago Reader, and I really wasn't expecting this release to win me over, and despite my knowledge of King's guitar virtuosity, I had no idea she possessed such a wonderful sense of songcraft. I will carry this release with me for a long time.

Thee Oh Sees Warm Slime. Gaaaaaahhhhh, it never stops with these guys, and honestly, if they put out one record a month I would buy it without any questions asked because this group absolutely owns the "garage psych" tradition and they have a severe knack for making completely familiar records that you've never actually heard before. Frankly, I think they're better than the Beatles, given that they evoke the raw energy of straightforward pop song structures and psychedelic atmosphere in a manner that is as direct as the Fab Four, but without all the decades of mainstream consumerist bullshit and cultural theory. Months ago, I told a friend that the Beatles are to Thee Oh Sees as Bill Haley and His Comets are to Big Joe Turner re: "Shake, Rattle, and Roll." The Beatles are undoubtedly one of the greatest rock bands ever, but their version of rock is primarily built upon a critique or interpretation of the culture of rock'n'roll itself, and it is no longer an immediate experience of rock. In the same way that Big Joe Turner will always be more immediate and relevant than Bill Haley (no offense), Thee Oh Sees are more immediate and relevant than the Beatles, who nevertheless are championed as cultural masters of rock. I don't want any more cultural theory of rock. No! No! No! And that doesn't mean that I won't go out and buy 100 more copies of the new "Paperback Writer" b/w "Rain" single whenever I find them, it just means that I am finally able to separate the theoretical and consumerist gains that the Beatles have made from their actual songwriting contribution -- great, of course, but no longer the greatest. You can take anyone other than Ringo, I'll take Dwyer any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Lumerians Burning Mirrors. What on earth is going on in San Francisco? As if it wasn't enough to host Thee Oh Sees and the Wooden Shjips, there seems to be characters like Ty Segall and The Fresh and Onlys and Darker My Love (sometimes) emerging every couple of months or so with exceptionally raunchy, raucous, or just plain fun records. As much as I enjoyed the Bitchin' Bajas/Moon Duo split released by Permanent on Record Store Day, and as much as I enjoyed the first Beatles wax in a very long time (Paaaaaperback Writer!), this here 7" by Lumerians is my favorite of the year, for no other reason than that nasty fuzz tone and drums intro, and freaky sounds that follow. Just as fun as Wooden Shjips and with all the calories, too!

The Fresh and Onlys "Who Needs a Man." While we're on the subject of exceptional San Francisco releases, I have to say that of all the songs I've heard buried within all the sides I've heard this year, this song is absolutely my favorite mid-side song this year. First off, the band completely deconstructs a portion of the riff for Metallica's "Seek and Destroy," improving on that one by making it cleaner, more precise, and waaaaay more groovy. Cool intro, percussive rhythm guitar, hypnotic vocals, marry me! This record honestly surprised me, too, and crisp pop songs such as this one really get me going. Fresh and Onlys are the Reigning Sound of 2010.

Offstrings compilation. File this under, "records you probably have not heard but should." Dan Burke, a veteran of the experimental/noise scene in Chicago over the past three decades under the moniker Illusion of Safety, works with my close friend Travis Bird in a guitar duo that worked on the experimental circuit around Chicago this year. He curated this compilation with other notable Chicago guitarists, including Daniell and Shippy, other veterans of Chicago's experimental avenues. The result in this package is a series of ethereal instrumentals, diverse according to the individual playing styles of the artists, thematically linked through their textures and theoretical approaches. I know that there are heavy hitting experimental records by others in Chicago this year, including Bitchin' Bajas and Ken Camden on the guitar front, and many more I have not named, but this is one compilation I keep returning to due to its timbre, textures, and room for emotional reflection (one of my favorite features of good noise music).

Frankie Rose and The Outs; Deerhunter Halcyon Digest. Needless to say, I was excited to hear the new Deerhunter, waiting for months in anticipation to hear the new one, which had hype that matched the songwriting output. Production on the new record seems more direct than past Deerhunter records, suggesting that the band learned their lessons from Rainwater Cassette Exchange, and moved forward from that release rather than the layered passages of Microcastle. Many sources seem to cite this record as some type of generational signpost, hyping the record as the best of the decade thus far, and here's where I get lost. First, I am not sure that we can justifiably place such a title on an album and then subsequently judge all other albums against that -- and that's what we're doing if we mark Deerhunter's latest as the best of its class; second, I am not sure that Deerhunter's sound is the sound of the generation.

If you take Deerhunter's ambient and krauty interpretations of girl-group pop or doo-wop to be the sound of the generation, the new album from Frankie Rose and The Outs provides just as strong a generational signpost as Halcyon Digest, with equally direct and varied songwriting and crystal clear production, creating dwellings for surprising and fun pop songs. At its best, Frankie Rose and The Outs is majestic, spanning between pop interpretations with ease, providing brief, blissful nuggets that invoke the best of the girl groups, Phil Spectre's wall of sound, and straightforward rhythm and blues/pop.

Darker My Love, Alive As You Are. Yet another surprising 2010 record, Darker My Love flip the coin and show the other side of The Pretty Things, providing a cruising and shuffling entry into the catalog of paisley psychedelia. Reviews of this record that call it a nostalgic replication of a broad spectrum of 1960s psychedelic pop are misguided; the record, written in the wake of personal tragedy and personnel shifts in the band, provides one of the best answers to death that I have ever heard. Instead of providing untamed, layered expanses and fuzzscapes from which to reflect on mind, psyche, and soul, the band embrace direct production and allow the vocals and energy to lead you through a path that is completely new but also perfectly familiar. I couldn't stop laughing, smiling, and reminiscing while listening to this record during my first listens, and instead of nostalgia, I heard an album that perfectly summarizes the importance and complexity of memory. While every sound was familiar to me, it was also revealed in a corner of the universe that I had never visited, but seemed friendly and welcoming anyway. That's quite an accomplishment for a rather brief pop record, and when the dust settles, I see no reason why this album won't be one of the hallmarks of this generation, as well.

Running. This trio suckered me in after a blistering set at Empty Bottle in support of Cacaw -- their rhythmic shifts, frenetic vocals, and feedback help to create some of the best punk songs I've heard in years. Specifically, the regenerative-flanging of the guitar, creating nauseating feedback cycles, is the trademark that best sticks in my mind. Easily the guitar sound of the year, I simply cannot get the chaos out of my mind. I managed to get my hands on a copy of their #2 cassette, and I was thrilled about that release, but their debut LP on Permanent Records presented a full package of punk songs without breaks and phenomenal artwork.

Travis Bird and Daniel Burke, Negentropy. Over the span of several months in 2010, this experimental guitar duo provided thoughtful and dark passages that forged both eerie and dreamy landscapes. From their debut WNUR show to this cassette on Notice to their peaceful contribution on Offstrings, Bird and Burke display a versatile approach to their instruments, and an unwillingness to be pinned down by one single identity or technique. This duo is probably one of Chicago's most underrated gems, and if they flew under the radar with their developments in 2010, I hope they gain notoriety in 2011 for their industrial/pastoral contradictions and challenges.

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