Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Long and the Short of It... Part 4

Well this is it. We're down to the last of the near misses as I run through my longlist of 2008 albums that didn't make the Top 20. If you missed it, you can still check out Parts 1, 2, and 3. You can also skip ahead and check out my Top 20 which is listed on the UMFM website amongst the lists of other programmers at the station.
Truthfully I'll be glad to put '08 behind me so I can resume writing about new albums that have crossed my desk - I've already got a couple doozies lined up - as well as a new recurring feature I'm going to do discussing albums that were foundational in my listening library. Some are outright classics, but a few are personal and peculiar. For now, let's get down to the last of the long...

Hilotrons - Happymatic (Kelp Records)
Kudos to Cokemachineglow for including Happymatic in their Top 50 Albums list (at #18 no less). I haven't seen this record on any other year-end lists (though it did make the Polaris long list) and that's a shame because this Ottawa band have produced a very solid effort. Synth-driven pop music that's dance-able but also rewards a dedicated listen, Happymatic isn't so much new wave revivalism as it is a return to blissful pop that captures sunshiny feelings.
Check out "Dominika" for proof.

Castlemusic - You Can't Take Anyone (Blue Fog)
At one point, I had really hoped to write an entry about this record but procrastination set in and I never got around to it. That's a shame because this is another one of the overlooked gems of 2008. Castlemusic is the brainchild of Toronto multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Castle, who drums in Everybody Get Sick and shreds guitar in Fox the Boombox. With Castlemusic, she reveals a softer side. Her wispy, shaky vocals aided by solo guitar, piano and other subtle instrumentation; the songs smoldering with emotion, threatening to catch fire.

Here's "Heaven" from You Can't Take Anyone.

Alice Russell - Pot Of Gold (Six Degrees Records)
One of the highlights of the past year for me was not only getting to see Alice Russell perform live as part of the Jazz Winnipeg Festival in June, but also the opportunity to introduce her performance. I can't believe how nervous I was to finally see this phenomenal UK songstress live and my intro is a blur in my memory, but the show - thankfully - is etched into my memory. Russell previewed some of the material from Pot Of Gold but I had to wait until the very end of '08 to hear the record as a label change delayed its release. Leaving Tru Thoughts for Six Degrees the album doesn't suffer from the move as Russell's inimitable voice and producer TM Juke are both present. Curiously, Russell revisits what I've always felt was her strongest tune, "Hurry On Now" and turns it into a horn-fueled funk number instead of the languid torch song it was on Under The Munka Moon. She also tackles Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," which carries the languid torch song mantle for Pot Of Gold. No offense to Cee-Lo but I think she outbelts him.
Now perhaps if I'd had just a little more time with this record it wouldn't get the short end of the stick in appearing on my long list.

Here's "Turn And Run," mislabeled as "Turn & Round":

The Matthew Herbert Big Band - There's Me And There's You (!K7)
Following up 2007's Score - an album of soundtrack work - Britain's Matthew Herbert returns to the big band format he first explored on 2003's Goodbye Swingtime. Reworking some of his more experimental material, Herbert's arrangements reveal the melodic elements of his musique concrète compositions and transcend the novelty of the idea. There's Me And There's You lacks the eerily beautiful vocals of ex-wife Dani Siciliano, and suffers somewhat for this loss but Herbert has enlisted Eska Mtungwazi, whose voice is decidedly different from Siciliano's with its brassy, forceful tone.

I couldn't find a video from the new album, but here's a solid live performance of "Foreign Bodies":

Samuel Jackson Five - Goodbye Melody Mountain (Differential Records)
Another late-year discovery, this one a phenomenal post-rock outfit from Oslo, Norway who apparently have two prior albums (though I've yet to hear Easily Misunderstood or Same Same, But Different). I get the sense from the band's bio on their website that the genesis of their material is rooted in improvisation:

We let each individual explore and push their own limits, without losing focus on the melody. The outcome is ever changing but often leads to ethereal, experimental, improvised, dynamic music.

If you're a fan of Explosions In The Sky, dredg, or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, then you'll want to check out Goodbye Melody Mountain.

For now this is as close as North American artists are going to get to seeing SJ5 perform live:

Al Green - Lay It Down (EMI Music)
The Right Reverend Al was back in full effect in 2008, thanks in part to producers Questlove from the Roots and James Poyser (does anyone else miss the Soulquarians and wish they'd do more?). Green's also aided and abetted by Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and the Dap-Kings Horns among others. How could an album featuring a collaboration between a Legend in name and a LEGEND in reputation go wrong? It couldn't and it didn't - this is an album of sweet soul music and it hearkens back to Green's Hi Records era recordings.

Instead of a video from Lay It Down, here's a video on the making of the album:

Erykah Badu - New Amerykah, Part

Speaking of the Soulquarians, their sole female member released her first album in half a decade. Five years on from Worldwide Underground, Badu presents her own State of the Union on New Amerykah, Part One. The album's subtitle - 4th World War - certainly gives a clue as to the state of Badu's Amerykah and songs like "Soldier" and "Amerykahn Promise" speak to the social conditions and conscience of the nation. Produced by Madlib, 9th Wonder and the Sa-Ra Creative Partners, the multiplicity of production is offset by the singular vision and voice that Badu possesses and expresses.

Closing track "Honey" is what Malcolm Gladwell might call an outlier when you consider the serious tone set by the rest of the album, but it has one of the most amazing videos of 2008 with its visual references to classic hip-hop, soul and funk records. You can see it here (embedding's been disabled unfortunately).

Blitzen Trapper - Furr (Sub Pop)
Anyone who caught Portland's Blitzen Trapper open for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks at the Pyramid on October 27, 2008 could be forgiven for failing to remember just what Malkmus opened with - the residual buzz from Blitzen Trapper's amazing set had yet to wear off. Much as I enjoy me some Malkmus, I actually enjoyed that opening set more. Blending sun-dappled harmonies, scruffy roots and stoner rock, Furr sounds like the baby that would be born from a CSNY + Grateful Dead + Beach Boys copulation session. Between this record and The Moondoggies Don't Be A Stranger, Portland held a special place in my heart in '08.

Here's the title track as performed live on Conan O'Brien:

M83 - Saturdays=Youth (Mute)
Following the melodramatic Before The Dawn Heals Us with a mixture of blissful pop and cinematic material, Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez pours all the angst and longing he can manage into Saturdays=Youth. The blissful pop comes courtesy of "Kim and Jessie" and "Graveyard Girl," while the cinematic material includes "Too Late" and closer "Midnight Souls Still Remain." Some of the instrumental songs echo Jan Hammer's muscular work, while others make me think of what it would sound like if Vangelis was composing scores for pornos. Saturdays=Youth is a strange and beguiling record.

Here's the official video for single "Kim and Jessie":

Women - Women (Flemish Eye)
The other great record from Calgary label Flemish Eye in 2008 was produced by the best known artist on the roster, Chad VanGaalen, but Women is a very different creature from Soft Airplane, though it does share the lo-fi recording approach VanGaalen has used on his own material. Blending noise, indie-pop and clever band interplay, Women is a distinct and fully-formed record from a very young band. It will be interesting to see them grow and hear what they do next.

While it's best to listen to the album as a whole, check out "Black Rice" from their self-titled debut!

Thanks for reading, now start listening...

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