Rural Alberta Advantage- Hometowns


Do you remember in the early 2000s when everyone was gaga for Neutral Milk Hotel? Nothing really touched Aeroplane Over the Sea, and they pretty much dropped out of public view.

The Rural Alberta Advantage, for better and for worse, is reminding a lot of people of those years. RAA has the sonics and raw energy of a lot of NMH's songs and almost captures that magic. The singer is often described as a "non-singer," someone who puts energy over phrasing, or other things that "singers" apparently think about. Seems a little bit like a derisive complement, to me. But then again, I like Fugazi as much as i like Nina Simone.

 Their lyrics aren't quite as jarring or imaginative, but there is something very immediate and punk about the simple delivery of each song. Imagine AOTS without the horns and religious reference, and you'd have a pretty good idea of what they sound like.

Definitely worth a listen.

Women- Public Strain


A friend turned me on to Women's "Group Transport Hall," which i covered for a performance about jeggings. The song is really great-- weird, wobbly, beautiful, and catchy.

Public Strain could be described that same way. It has that uncanny element to it, where you recognize and don't recognize the music. It goes from sounding strident to blissful, and makes me feel like i'm underground looking at cathedrals when i listen to it. I read that it felt more like an "album" than most cds, and sounds best (*surprise surprise) when listened to on headphones. If you play it through speakers at work, like i did, people will just glare at you.

Recommended for fans of Deerhoof and Slowdive or Aaron Martin. *A disclaimer: it took at least 3 listens for me to really like this, which I think is a sign of a great album. One of my favorite discoveries of this new year.


St. Vincent- Actor

Probably a commonplace name at this point, but I am still really impressed by this album. I was especially impressed to learn that Annie Erin Clark (aka St. Vincent) wrote and arranged the CD, right down to the drum beats (which is contrary to the average singer-songwriter who simply writes tunes on a guitar, then has the pros come in and flesh them out until they sound like solid songs). She's more of a composer, in the classical sense, than a songwriter. But she's still composing songs.

There is an other-worldliness to some of her melodies, and they are sung in a delicate, lilting voice that is really strong. When singers like Bjork or Janelle Monae are able to impress by their sheer range and emotional range, St. Vincent does the opposite-- she impresses by possessing an incredible voice but refusing to show it off.

She's pretty theatrical, which turns a lot of people off. But i definitely appreciate the comprehensive approach: music, image, lyrics, production, execution. One could also call her narcissistic, but eh... what singer-songwriter isn't, really?

Definitely worth listening to, and recommended for fans of left-of-center indie pop songwriters, or fans of Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond, Neko Case, et al. 

Juana Molina- Un Dia

The whole "single artist making a huge sound by using a looping pedal" phenomenon is pretty big, made popular by Andrew Bird, Zoe Keating, and Imogene Heap. And they're all pretty good at it in different ways. But one of my favorites is Juana Molina.

Her first two albums often get described as sounding somewhere between soft Brazillian bossa nova and Brian Eno, which is intriguing enough of a description to make me want to listen to a record. But Un Dia, her third, pulls out all the hush and slaps you in the face with weirdness: layers and layers of noises, vocal ticks, instruments, keyboards, and horns. It's just great, dense, weird, and beautiful. And most importantly, it really kicks-- all solid driving beats, so you don't have to sit and sip yerba matte in your yoga wear with your pretentious yuppie friends while you listen to it on your fair-trade hand-woven area rug. It's acid trip approved, crazy kids!

I was able to see Molina live at the Southgate House in Kentucky. She played loops with a live bassist and drummer, and of course, it was incredible. Her live set actually blew this recording out of the water, because I was able to see that all these loops on the CD were happening live-- I wouldn't be surprised if this CD had no overdubs.

I heard through the grapevine that Molina is Argentinian and had a previous career as a comedian?! Even if this is untrue, I love that idea.


Thao- We Brave Bee Stings and All


Get ready to throw rocks at me, but i'll go ahead and say it: i have never liked Cat Power. Ever. Besides being pretty inconsistent and self-absorbed, she is responsible for spawning a whole army of singer-songwriters who think that singing off-key and writing boring songs is somehow charming.

So, let me introduce you to Thao Ngyen. She's often compared to Cat Power, and i guess the vocals have a similarity, but she's far superior. She has personality, a sense of humor, writes great songs, and can rock when she wants to. Plus-- and say what you will about this-- the people who rule the singer-songwriter indie world tend to be white. So to see a Vietnamese American coming in and kicking ass in this genre makes me feel pretty elated.

She has a follow-up which is good as well (and has Andrew Bird on it! Oooo!). But for my money, i'll take We Brave Bee Stings and All.

(By the way, i will admit that i like Cat Power's "The Greatest." But mostly because the musicians on it are so accomplished that they could play even MY songs and make them sound amazing.)

Neil Young- After the Gold Rush

At this point, Mr. Young is more likely to appear in a tepid Rom-Com about high school friends falling in love than a rowdy bar. But so many people like it, that it doesn't seem to matter too much.

After the Gold Rush is a nice often-overlooked LP that kind of bridges a gap between his quiet folky moments and harder Crazy Horse rock. The first few listens made me think it was really unspectacular. But like a lot of Neil Young's records, it really grew on me.


The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

It must have been exciting to be a music fan in the 1960s, as there was an "anything-goes" mentality with record pressing. I have found records with yodeling, honky-tonk, children's choirs, puppets, and cricket recordings and they all seem to have been released willy-nilly into the atmosphere with no idea of sales, target audience, or financial concern.

One of these funny experiments was made by Wendy Carlos, an accomplished pianist who had an unusual curiosity for the emerging Moog keyboard. Unlike the average wanker, she approached it as a legitimate instrument and made layered recordings of classical compositions, in which she played all of the parts on a differently-styled Moog patch. Surprisingly, they were such a success that she was able to make four different albums.

The Well-Tempered Synthesizer may be one of my favorites since she had honed the process at this point. There is a bit wider range, so that she was branching out from Bach to include Scarlatti, etc. They somehow sound timeless ("classical") and futuristic at once. I can't think of anything happening today that still sounds this fresh.

Avey Tare & Kria Brekkan - Pullhair Rubeye {REVERSE-REVERSED}


Animal Collective singer Avey Tare and his wife Kria Brekkan (of Mum) put out what should have been an incredible album of mind-blowing weirdness. Instead, they made a pretty understated, intimate record that is surprisingly gorgeous. But, then they watched a David Lynch movie and, probably while they were high, decided it would be so great to reverse all the tracks so that the entire record was backwards. Amazingly, they still released the cd like this.

It's an exercise in patience to listen to the cd all the way through. However, any average joe with a knowledge of Audacity can easily thumb their nose right back and just flip it back to its original direction. Which is what i did.

Ladies and gentlemens, i present you with "Pullhair Rubeye {Reverse-Reversed}." Please enjoy.

Lift to Experience - The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads

This is the stuff legends are made of.

A hugely-bearded cowboy who shovels horse shit for a living in north Texas has a thing for shoegazer music. He plays giant spacerock through two amplifiers. One of those amps has a cow's skull drilled onto the top. He enlists another bearded cowboy and a large jazz drummer with big cymbals to create the largest live sound you have ever FELT, let alone heard. Think My Bloody Valentine, only they are all Texan cowboys. And the singer sounds like Jeff Buckley. And their lyrics are a semi-fictional fantasy about Apocalypse where Texas is Mecca.

They famously signed to Bella Union (run by ex-Cocteau Twins members) and release a double album. Absolutely incredible quality, predictably poor sales. They tour like crazy until a huge tragedy rips them apart (involving a sudden brutal death of one of their wives). They don't reunite, and have dropped off the face of the planet.

The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is their double album that deserves a few listens. It is so well laid out that even the titles of the songs spell out two beautiful sentences:

"Just as was told/ down came the angels/ falling from cloud 9/ with crippled wings/ waiting to hit/ the ground so soft"  and "these are the days/ when we shall touch/ down with the prophets/ to guard and to guide you/ into the storm."


Mahsha & Marjan Vahdat - Songs From a Persian Garden


This CD caught my eye for whatever reason, and the music ended up being an incredible surprise. Two Iranian sisters recording with a live ensemble of musicians from different countries. Musically, it nearly sounds like two Sade clones singing side by side, with a subtle and sensitive group of musicians. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it's really intoxicating, and the songs oscillate between major and minor keys, which yields an amazing push-pull effect.

The liner notes were interesting:
"As a part of the attempt to localize the evil of the world, a reduction to a state of stupidity, the US administration has burn marked Iran as an enemy to the West, and a deliverer of terror and fear. This distorted picture of a rich culture bearing people is rarely corrected. It is a paradox that Iran, this garden of beauty and poetry, this pressure cooker of love, is regarded as the most dangerous enemy of the West."

It also criticizes Iran's policy of forbidding women to sing in public, but also notes that women in this country of "70 million people will not stop singing whenever they can."

Them singing live:

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