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December 31, 2003

Top Ten of 2003: #1

1. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
[play it on Rhapsody]

Here it is — in my opinion, the best album of 2003. Unlike The New Pornographers’ 2003 outing, Chutes Too Narrow is a brilliant pop record that foregrounds the lyrics. James Mercer’s tenor floats over even the wickedest changes on “Saint Simon”, spilling forth words that match the music: “After all these implements and texts designed by intellects so vexed to find evidently there’s so much that hides.” That’s the line that gets quoted in every review of this record, it seems, but it encapsulates the loose-though-intricate feel of the album. Some other moments of lyrical perfection come in “Turn a Square” when Mercer sings, “Just a glimpse of an ankle and I / React like it’s 1805″ and in “Those to Come” with “Eyeless in the morning sun you were / Pale and mild, a modern girl / Taken with thought still prone to care / making tea in your underwear”. It seems hopelessly wordy, but Mercer pulls it off; the melodies fit the words so well that you don’t notice the verbal complexity.

December 30, 2003

Alarming Journalistic Docility

This piece in the New York Press is a fairly scathing attack on the White House press corps’s docility in the face of the Bush administration’s strong-arm demands of positive coverage. An excerpt:

Reporters argue that they have no choice. They’ll say they can’t protest or boycott the staged format, because they risk being stripped of their seat in the press pool. For the same reason, they say they can’t write anything too negative. They can’t write, for instance, “President Bush, looking like a demented retard on the eve of war…” That leaves them with the sole option of “working within the system” and, as they like to say, “trying to take our shots when we can.”

Top Ten of 2003: #2

2. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador)
[play it on Rhapsody]

This could be the perfect pop record. It’s catchy, it’s smart, and it keeps up the pace right through its last track, “Miss Teen Wordpower.” But though the lyrics are crisp and occasionally witty, this album is great not because of its “wordpower,” but because of how great this music is. The words serve the melodies, and even gorgeous, evocative lines like this fly by, melding completely into the monolithic sound: “Somewhere in the system there’s an open-ended list of all the lies we tell unblinking, thinking, ‘What could we be living?’” The words that make this album great aren’t words at all; they’re the meaningless, uniquely pop-rock “ooh”s “aah”s that Neko Case adds to the ends of phrases on songs like “The New Face of Zero and One” and “Electric Version”. This is probably not great art — this is the band, after all, that began as a fun side project for a group of Vancouver indie rockers. But it’s a pop masterpiece, and a self-aware one.

December 29, 2003

Top Ten of 2003: #3

3. Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Sanctuary)

This is Scottish indie pop group Belle and Sebastian’s first album since 2000′s Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. Since then, the band has undergone some changes, adding violinist Sarah Martin after losing Isobel Campbell (whose lovely solo debut, Amorino, was released the same day as Dear Catastrophe Waitress) and bassist Stuart David. They also scored Todd Solnodz’s most recent film, Storytelling, last year, putting out a soundtrack album that can’t stand on its own. Dear Catastrophe Waitress was produced by 80s studio god Trevor Horn, responsible for ABC and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, as well as, um, Tatu. You can hear his influence on the album, with much heavier use of horns than on past albums, particularly on tracks like “I’m A Cuckoo”, which flirts with Huey Lewis-like horn glossiness. The wall-of-sound arrangement on the album’s title track is definitely more Trevor Horn than Stuart Murdoch, and none of the tracks could really be called old sad bastard music. But the brighter side of albums like If You’re Feeling Sinister is still here, with the old B&S melodies, progressions, and instrumentation pulled out for “Asleep on a Sunbeam” and “Piazza, New York Catcher”. The album’s climax comes with “Lord Anthony”, perhaps the ultimate anthem of smart-sissy self-pity: “When will you realise that it never pays / To be smarter than teachers / Smarter than most boys? /Shut your mouth, start kicking the football.”

December 28, 2003

Top Ten of 2003: #4

4. American Analog Set, Promise of Love (Tiger Style)
[play it on Rhapsody]

Restraint is the watchword of this Austin-based group. They play quiet indie rock scored for guitar, bass, drums, vibraphone, and keyboards (ususally farfisa organ). Promise of Love is somewhat poppier than AmAnSet’s earlier efforts, like 1997′s From Our Living Room To Yours (which I just got for Hanukkah, and which is also awesome). Pensive but always in motion, the songs on Promise of Love sow the oft-tilled ground of human relationships, from aching (though hooky) loss in “Come Home, Baby Julie, Come Home” to the slow, shimmering bleed of “You Own Me”. Listen to the drums, keyboards, and guitar lock in together while the vibes cast clouds of slow chords over them — it’s enough to soothe a broken heart, or to remind you what it’s like to lose, making possession the sweeter.

December 27, 2003

Bad Pizza, Creaking Robots, and Battery

Police have been called to a single establishment in Milwaukee more than 40 times in 2003, for offenses ranging from assault to robbery.

That establishment? Chuck E. Cheese.

“Milwaukee: Where We Can’t Even Play Skee-Ball Without Punching Somebody In The Nose.”

Top Ten of 2003: #5

5. Sean Watkins, 26 Miles (Sugarhill)
[play it on Rhapsody]

Sean Watkins is, above all else, a flatpick guitar virtuoso. On his first album, 2001′s Let It Fall, most of the tracks were instrumental, showcasing some amazing flatpick fireworks but leaving me pretty cold. On 26 Miles, Watkins does away with the flashy stuff, bringing out his skill as a pop songwriter. What makes this album remarkable is the way its disparate influences blend. You can clearly hear melodies from Elliott Smith, acoustic bass work that Ron Carter wouldn’t be ashamed of, bluegrass violin and guitar solos, and John Mayer-like confessional tenor lead vocals. There is also, it must be said, the occasional gorgeous-but-trite harmonic move reminiscent of Christian rock. The bluegrass and Christian rock infuences come from Watkins’ other project, the pop-bluegrass group Nickel Creek. But Watkins’ songwriting on 26 Miles is much more adventurous than the songs he writes for Nickel Creek, letting pop songwriting and the jazz backgrounds of his sidemen lead him to brew a perfect, tasty blend.

December 26, 2003

Top Ten of 2003: #6

6. Groovelily, Are We There Yet? (self-released)

It is utterly unfathomable that Groovelily remains unsigned. They may owe their independent status to the fact that they’re not readily categorizable; they play smart, funky, friendly pop-rock that owes debts to Steely Dan, the Beatles, and (gasp!) Stephen Schwartz. Or maybe labels just can’t deal with a band fronted by a really good electric violin player. But this is really great music, and it deserves a wider audience. The arrangements are perfect, the vocal harmonies subtle and tasteful, the solo violin and keyboard work really hot. Violinist Valerie Vigoda and keyboardist Brendan Milburn trade off lead vocal duties; Vigoda sings with passion and intensity, while Milburn is more detatched and witty, though still soulful, in his delivery. Drummer Gene Lewin takes over vocals for one track, “Diva Girl,” and he gives it a perfect, sardonic reading, analogous to Walter Becker’s single vocal outing on Everything Must Go in its cool wit. The only downfall of this album is the occasional lyrical clunker, like the “longer” / “wronger” / “stronger” and “sunshine” / “one mind” / “punch line” rhymes in “Live Through This.” But such moments are rare, and on the whole Are We There Yet? is an excellent album, full of equal parts wit and soul. Go to their site, give some tracks a listen, and buy a copy; bands this good deserve all the support they can get.

December 25, 2003

Cory Doctorow’s Statements for 2004

Author and EFF activist Cory Doctorow has these wise words for the coming year. An excerpt:

On that note: I have a special request to the toolmakers of 2004: stop making tools that magnify and multilply awkward social situations (“A total stranger asserts that he is your friend: click here to tell a reassuring lie; click here to break his heart!”) (“Someone you don’t know very well has invited you to a party: click here to advertise whether or not you’ll be there!”) (“A ‘friend’ has exposed your location, down to the meter, on a map of people in his social network, using this keen new location-description protocol — on the same day that you announced that you were leaving town for a week!”). I don’t need more “tools” like that, thank you very much.

Top Ten of 2003: #7

7. Rachel’s, Systems / Layers (Quarterstick)

Rachel’s is an experimental instrumental ensemble, playing pieces usually scored for piano, viola, cello, drums, and laptop. This album, like 1996′s Music for Egon Schiele, was composed to accompany a performance work. In this case, Rachel’s collaborated with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company to create “a multi-disciplinary dance/theater piece that follows eight characters through one day of their life in a city”. Rachel’s music stands well on its own, without lyrics or dialogue text; I found out just how well in 1998, when I used a number of pieces from Egon Schiele in my sound design for Shogo Ohta’s The Water Station, an evening-length play with no text. As in Systems / Layers, they imbued even everyday movements with beauty and emotional resonance. “Systems / Layers follows an international tourist through a city as she is swept by the tide of humanity. Through her eyes, we see the interior lives of the faceless crowd. We magnify the hopes, fantasies, frustrations, and madness of people on their way to work, at the office, on the subway, at a cafĂ©, or in their homes.” But such magnification is not limited by the bounds of the performance; music like this reveals the interior life of the listener, as well.

Disclaimer Haiku:
West wind seems to say,
"This is not legal advice;
I'm not your lawyer."

(And if you're a client with whom I have a preexisting attorney-client relationship, this still isn't legal advice.)

In case you're wondering, this blog is also not intended as advertising, as a representation of anything but my personal opinion, or as an offer of representation.

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