2008 has been a disappointment musically, something I’ve noticed as I’ve struggled to cull together twenty solid candidates for my usual year-end list. I’ve tried my best to stay on top of things, as documented by this list of some of the albums I’ve checked out recently, but it’s hard to say whether many of these will make the final list.
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Festival Thyme EP: To say that the Trail of Dead had lost the plot since 2002’s excellent Source Tags & Codes would be a vast understatement. I remember listening to Worlds Apart and thinking “This has to click at some point, right?” before recognizing that it had three good songs, tops, and suffered from an overblown rock opera fetish. (Is there any other kind of rock opera fetish?) I don’t think I’ve ever heard So Divided in its entirety; simply nothing that I’ve heard from that record appealed to me in the slightest, not even the cred-grab of the Guided by Voices cover. Yet I checked out the ill-titled Festival Thyme EP out of morbid curiosity and was marginally encouraged by the results. They’re still appropriating too much 1970s prog-rock without the requisite spirit of adventure or the sense of danger of their own early material, but at least these songs have melodies and some forward momentum. “Bells of Creation” backed with “Inland Sea” would make a good single, although the four-song picture disc ten-inch is a reasonable alternative if you’re fond of Warcraft. It’s no surprise that the nasal whine of Conrad Keely has wholly supplanted the evil Bono pipes of Jason Reece and the faux-British sneer of former bassist Neil Busch, but I still long for those other voices. Festival Thyme is a minor step in the right direction, but I don’t know if they’ll ever equal the combination of melodic indie rock and barely controlled abandon from their self-titled debut, Madonna, and Source Tags & Codes.
Aidan Baker & Tim Hecker - Fantasma Parastasie: Nadja’s Radiance of Shadows made my top twenty list for 2007, but none of their 2008 releases (that I’ve heard, at least) has equaled the scope or depth of that release. It’s not for lack of trying, with eight releases coming out during this calendar year (including two following their strange penchant for re-recording their old albums), but Radiance of Shadows’ doom-metal Codeine approach still lingers with me. As if those eight releases weren’t enough, Nadja guitarist Aidan Baker also collaborated with fellow Canadian Tim Hecker for Fantasma Parastasie, which combines the electronic drones of Hecker’s excellent 2006 album Harmony in Ultraviolet with Baker’s guitar feedback to great effect. There are hints of Nadja’s signature menace on “Skeletal Dane,” but the crushing waves of distortion that highlight Thaumogenesis and Radiance of Shadows are nowhere to be found. The balance between Baker and Hecker is remarkable; some beautiful moments peak out from the haze of Baker’s guitar during “Dream of the Nightmare” and “Auditory Spirits.” It’s a solid listen, but whether it measures up to the evocative thunder of Radiance of Shadows has yet to be determined.
Benoît Pioulard - Temper: I fully expected this album to be one of my favorites of the year, given my ongoing fondness for his 2006 album Précis, but I keep coming away from it feeling underwhelmed. Sure, “Brown Bess” and “The Loom Pedal” equal the previous album’s highlights (“Triggering Back,” “Sous La Plage” and “Ash into the Sky”), but the novelty of his formula—bedroom singer/songwriter material treated with IDM textures alternating with sound collages—isn’t delivering the same punch this time around, despite more fleshed-out structures for the “real” songs. It’s still plausible that I’ll put it on and it’ll hit me differently, but I’m beginning to doubt the likelihood of that happening. Don’t let this stop you from picking up the 2LP set of Précis and Temper, which invalidated my begrudging CD purchase of the former upon its release.
Lukestar - Lake Toba: I heard “White Shade” on the Flameshovel site and then tracked down their web site since I couldn’t determine if it was a male vocalist or not from my brief, verse-only spin. After finding their astonishing promotional photo (there’s a dead ringer for Jim Carrey in this band, for starters) and confirming my suspicion of “high-pitched male vocalist,” I watched the video for “White Shade” on YouTube and tracked down the Norwegian group's newest album. I can’t say that I understand the post-rock tag that’s floating around in reviews and press clippings, since they’re basically doing catchy, slightly off-kilter indie rock with falsetto vocals—i.e., something that fits in perfectly on Flameshovel, their American label. Closer “Peregrin” and the aforementioned “White Shade” are highlights, but the falsetto wears thin on some of the poppier tracks.
Pocahaunted - Chains: I keep wavering on whether I enjoy the droning, pseudo-Sioux psych-chants of Pocahaunted or whether I simply lose focus after fifteen minutes (approximately a song and a half) of Chains and tune it out. Maybe that has to do with my preference of “The Weight” and “No More Women” over the final two songs on the album, but the intensity of the former and the drifting swells of the latter are compelling enough. The title track is a vague cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” and while I prefer the Silkworm’s gang-vocals version, I’m impressed that I could recognize the original song—its bass line, at least—underneath all the gauze. I don’t have enough of a penchant for psych-rock to explore Pocahaunted’s growing discography or the recreational drug habit to fully appreciate it, but Chains is a good sampler for anyone who can stomach the idea of listening to “The Olsen twins of drone.”
Marnie Stern - This Is It and I Am It…: I view making it through almost all of this record without itching to stop it—after several failed attempts—as a monumental achievement, one I’m unlikely to repeat. This Is It… is nowhere near as spazzy or Deerhoof-derived as her debut, which is a huge step in the right direction, but Stern’s still a highly idiosyncratic artist and too many of those idiosyncrasies irk the hell out of me. She’s made significant progress with her vocal melodies, but it’s easy to overdose on chirpy exuberance. Similar to my dreams of In Advance of the Broken Arm magically reappearing as a four-song EP, I’ll condense This Is It… to “Ruler,” “Transformer,” “The Crippled Jazzer,” “The Package Is Wrapped,” and the verses of “The Devil Is in the Details.” I can’t bring myself to say that I’d prefer an album of comparably more straightforward songs like “Every Single Line Means Something,” since I can appreciate what Stern’s doing in the songs I didn’t mention, but it’s a clear case of appreciation trumping enjoyment. And since I’m not getting paid to review records, I’ll stick with enjoyment and the pared-down LPs.