Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Underdog Albums of 2009: Part II

[This is Part Two of a Two-Part post. Part One can be found here.]

Today's post continues on where yesterday's left off, highlighting two more of 2009's best records from lesser-known artists.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Loyauté / Glassnote / V2]

Of the five albums on my "list," this is the one that doesn't quite fit the theme of "underdog albums." Veteran French pop-rock group Phoenix are indeed garnering a good deal of praise for this, their fourth full-length release in their ten-year history; a much blogged about appearance on SNL, an 8.5 from Pitchfork, and a #37 spot on the US Billboard 200 are certainly not indicative of "lesser-known artists." Still, few would have predicted Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would be the album to bring the band the global fame they seemed to be made for.

Back in 2006, after Phoenix released one of my favorite albums of the decade, It's Never Been Like That, I wrote in a year-end retrospective, "It's utterly shocking that French alt-pop band Phoenix hasn't been plastered on billboards, commercialized to no end, and replayed thousands of times on US radio stations." Pitchfork placed that album at #13 on their top 50 of the year, doing their part to boost the group's cred, but still it seemed no one would take them seriously.

What changed? First, they went bigger. Lead single "1901," which rivals their best tracks (and they have some absolute monsters), adds giant electro-flares to their trademark guitar/kick drum rhythms. Second, they finally nailed the consistency/flow thing. While Never got the former right, without a dud in the bunch, it still somehow felt weighed down. Wolfgang, however, is more carefully ordered. Some critics have claimed it's frontloaded, when in fact, the last four tracks, particularly the momentous closer "Armistice," make up a better stretch than the middle chunk. Last, they took an admirable risk with "Love Like a Sunset," a near-eight-minute, two-part behemoth that acts as an album fulcrum, that paid off immensely. Simply, Phoenix may be my favorite singles band of the decade, but this is pretty easily my favorite album of 2009.

Visit Phoenix's official website here.
Watch Phoenix play "Lisztomania" & "1901" live on SNL here.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit [Lightning Rod]

In 2007, much fuss was made about Jason Isbell's exit from Southern/alt-country band the Drive-By Truckers. Credit Isbell, formerly one of the group's three lead singer/songwriters, for two of the band's best tracks in their final two albums together, "The Day John Henry Died" and "Daylight." As such, I wasn't all that surprised that his debut solo record, 2007's Sirens of the Ditch, was pretty damn tight. "Dress Blues," in particular, which told the story of US Marine Corporal Matthew Conley who died in the Iraq War, was the type of tune that makes grown men cry.

I was surprised, however, to find his 2009 follow-up, named in honor of his new backing band, the 400 Unit, was twice as good. Even casual fans of alt-country -- say, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, earlier Wilco, or My Morning Jacket -- will be drawn to the sound of this album, which is more consistent than the scattered recordings of Sirens allowed for. More importantly, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit manages to do what so many of the Truckers' albums have failed to: remain balanced from start to finish. From the uptempo "Good," to the beautifully simplistic guitar lick in "The Blue," to one of the best closing tracks of the year, "The Last Song I Will Write," this is such a listenable record, I often find myself playing it two or three times in a row.

Visit Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit's official website here.
Listen to the band perform on World Café Live here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Underdog Albums of 2009: Part I

[This is Part One of a Two-Part post. Part Two can be found here.]

Today is June 30th, the year's halfway point. Dave and I have agreed that we need to post more than we have been of late, so let's kick things off with some of my favorite records of 2009. Instead of regurgitating information you're likely already privy to (yes, the Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear records are top notch), here are a three excellent releases (I'll post two more tomorrow) from artists who mostly continue to float under the radar:

Bat for Lashes - Two Suns [Parlophone / Astralwerks]

Try as she might, Natasha Khan seems destined to not be taken seriously. Perhaps its the gaudy album art, the lazer shooting wolf videos, the regular exaggeration of the "concept" behind Two Suns, or the fact that Kate Bush is referenced in every single review of her work. It is true that like Bush, Bat for Lashes transforms what might otherwise sound like cheesy electronic music into majestic songs, but Khan's voice is much closer to Chan Marshall's of Cat Power. Khan's vocals on Two Suns are at times shockingly good (see: "Glass"), an enormous step up in range and ambition than what she displayed on her debut record, Fur & Gold. But more than the mere technical craft that went into this album's creation, the most impressive aspect of its 45-minute runtime are its eleven songs. If Fur & Gold hinted at Khan's talent as a songwriter, Two Suns announces it loud and clear from its kickin' first single "Daniel" to the crescendoed "Siren Song," her most ambitious track to date.

Visit Bat for Lashes' official website here.
Watch the must-see performance of "Daniel" on the Late Show with David Letterman here.

A-Trak - FabricLive.45 [Fabric]

A-Trak release reviews almost always mention his tenure as Kanye West's tour DJ, among his many other impressive credentials (e.g. youngest ever winner of the DMCs at age 15, and first ever to win all three major DJ competition titles). As they should; A-Trak should first and foremost be appreciated for his proficiency with his instrument. But where artists like DJ Shadow and The Avalanches pushed the envelope of what people thought turntables could be used for, A-Trak is simply doing what DJs have been doing for years, better than just about anyone else.

His Dirty South Dance mixtape was probably the record I listened to most in 2007. Despite consisting almost entirely of the most over-used and tired technique in the business, mash-ups, his layering of hip-pop and crate-dug electronic gems improved on every song in the bunch and flowed seamlessly from beginning to end. His newest mixtape, commissioned by London's Fabric nightclub, is as simple as they come: save for a single mash-up to start the tape, FabricLive.45 is just 25 killer tracks and remixes, perfectly beatmatched and mixed. Even if you're clueless as to the technical skill required to mix records as well as A-Trak does, his selection of bass-throbbing electronic jams will interest anyone hunting for the year's best summer driving album.

Visit A-Trak's official website here.
Preview tracks from FabricLive.45 here.

Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies [Bloodshot]

The way I see it, music lovers can hope for two types of records, those that push boundaries or explore new territories and those that execute a style to a tee. Justin Townes Earle, son of prolific country musician Steve Earle, has perfected the latter technique. Eight months ago I posted about The Good Life, his debut album and one of the finest releases of 2008. Less than a year later comes his sophomore effort, Midnight at the Movies, which continues on down the "traditional but damn good" road. The thing is, "traditional" country music is pretty hard to come by these days. So when Earle's twang takes front and center on "Walk Out," or when the harmonica on "Halfway to Jackson" mimics a southbound train, I guarantee you'll be more pleasantly surprised than you expect. Most impressive are the record's early stand-outs, "Mama's Eyes" and "Can't Hardly Wait." The former is a brief but sobering account of his dysfunctional relationship with his father, while the latter is a straightforward countrified cover of one of my favorite Replacements' tracks. Both succeed because they're exemplary of Earle's forté: uncluttered, perfectly-executed, memorable country.

Visit Justin Townes Earle's MySpace page here.
Watch the KEXP interview and performance, which includes "Mama's Eyes" here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Last Two Months of My Life... and the Next 12

I can't speak for Dave, but personally, I've been a bit too swamped these last couple months to worry about the blog. Here's a snip-it of what I've been up to, and what the next 12 months of my life will be dedicated to:
Curiously, history provides concrete evidence that the world’s most capable democratic states do not respond to instances of genocide with consistent behavior.  The principles of nonintervention and sovereignty, a state’s self-interests, and an array of internal and external pressures, can cause action, or be completely ignored.  The primary puzzle to be investigated is thus, ‘What motivates advanced democratic states to politically commit to genocide intervention?  This project will investigate the argument that states have made calculated responses to recent acts of genocide based on national self-interests, internal and external pressures, and their normatively influenced identities.  Contributions will therefore be made to the existing literatures of genocide research, humanitarian intervention, and international relations.
Being a grad student has its perks, but it can also be quite frightening. I envy those with stable 9-to-5s and a family life. What if my research turns up nothing? What if no one even reads the damn thing? How in the hell is this going to help me get a job?

For me, the easiest answer to the above questions is another question: 'Who cares?' There are few things in life more gratifying than committing yourself 100% to a goal and seeing it come to fruition. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. For now, I'm taking things one step at a time, which means I've got just one more week in England before my first year is kaput. Then: iced coffee, sand, sunshine, music, and Lake Michigan.