Eddy Current Suppression Ring, So Many Things (Goner Records)
22 tracks of the best rock qua rock to come my way this year, and wouldn’t you know, all of it was recorded between 2003 and 2009, just singles and B-sides collected in one glorious package, if “glorious” isn’t too grandiloquent a term for an Australian punk band. Four Melbourne ne’er-do-wells who met at a vinyl pressing plant and first put noise to wax at a Christmas party jam, aka their first single, a fumble-fingered organ riff with eventual lead ocker Brendan Suppression channeling every Nuggets reject into four minutes of slop. It could be prime Troggs. But it also brings to mind nothing less epochal than The Fall’s debut single “Repetition,” similarly introducing a band’s aesthetic from the outset, an aesthetic that justifies its crappy fidelity. The influences don’t end there, of course – “Precious Rose” successfully channels Wire, their Pagans cover barfs up a great junk guitar solo, and “Noise In My Head” offers the first bona fide variation on “Psychotic Reaction” since 1966. Perhaps things really do take longer to get to the Land of Oz, or maybe this is the rare gang of throwbacks who couldn’t care less about trends and subcultural patterns. Don’t really sing about much, of course, although the shambolic march “Iraq (It’s On The Map)” would seem to be a protest of some kind (“on the land/ and on the soil/ searchin’ for/ that golden oil”). Elsewhere, it’s mostly girls that seem to both vex and please them, like when “wanna kiss you all over/ don’t know where to begin” leads quickly to “holy cow!”
Greg Ward, Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut (Thirsty Ear)
Young, Chicago-born, New York-based, this alto saxophonist lists a ballet, chamber work, and an “experimental soul band” as his extracurricular activities, but I suspect this stripped-down and relatively straightforward trio setting shows off his strengths best. Mentored by Fred Anderson and claiming Charlie Parker as an influence the way most alto saxophonists do, Ward’s most obvious point of comparison is actually Greg Osby, always a bit of an acquired taste for me. That devotion to airy lightness makes slower numbers like “Velvet Lounge Shut-In” and “This Ain’t In Book 3” less immediately enthralling than others, even if his rhythm section’s use of silence is masterful. Most listeners will probably single out the album’s concluding performance as the highlight, an electronica-influenced take on Andrew Bird’s “Sectionate City,” and with gently echoing reedwork over double-tracked cello and heavily-processed drums, it admittedly sounds like nothing else here. But I keep returning to the sequences in which Ward leans heavily on his secret weapon, drummer Damion Reid, who seems as comfortable showing off his polyrhythmic abilities as he does settling into cold sweat funk grooves. On opener “Above Ground,” he swings hard. On “Leanin’ In,” he muscles into “Go Ahead John” territory.
Southeast Engine, Canary (Misra)
Leaving their Radiohead delusions thankfully behind, a country-ish indie group from Athens, OH embraces the Appalachian music endemic to their general area and the rust belt realities of the ongoing fallout to our Great Recession to assemble a quasi-concept album about 1930s economic hardship. Differences exist between that time and our own, of course, with nonfarm unemployment at 37% then but no WPA now. Yet given the many parallels, one wonders why songwriter Adam Remnant pushed his story back seventy-some years, especially when he feels the need to hold our hand throughout establishing shots like “1933” (“It’s 1933,” he helpfully informs us). So if his narrative is rather literal, at least the music isn’t – horns jostle for space alongside fiddles, banjos twine with electric guitars, and Remnant’s vocals don’t conjure memories of Will Oldham so much as the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. If his voice doesn’t quite sell a line as iffy as “what’s so goddam great about the Great Depression,” his refusal to lose his home and work in a factory suggests a familiarity with such hard choices. And check out that appropriately world-weary corollary to “At Least We Have Each Other” – “sure, things could be better”.
A$AP Rocky, LIVELOVEA$AP (RCA / Polo Grounds Music)
Even for a genre as committed to material pursuits as hip-hop, A$AP stands out, what with his $3 million signing deal to Sony, his interior decorating tips on “Purple Swag,” and his reliance on that literary conceit “countin’ benjamins,” which never sounds as much fun as spending them to me. Luckily, his demanding appetite also encompasses musical form, as one might expect from a 23-year-old named Rakim – from the beat-heavy ambient of Clams Casino to the woozy keyboards of Soufein3000, this mixtape could serve as a backstage tour of contemporary production techniques. Too bad things only really pick up midway through the album, when a four song run beginning with “Trilla” and ending with “Houston Old Head” drops enough strut and snap to highlight just how sluggish proceedings have been. Although it’s not only A$AP’s tempos dragging things down. It’s a steadfast aversion to all narrative and any imagery deviating from his own prowess and cash advances. Maybe “Wassup’s” line about “times is really hard/ I fucked a couple broads” means to laugh bravely in the face of other people’s problems – an acknowledgment that his $3 mil won’t last long. But don’t look to men with dollar signs embedded in their names for intelligent discourse on matters material or spiritual. After all, Jay-Z and Kanye know a thing or two about hoarding banknotes, yet still managed earlier this year to equate their striving for success (financial and otherwise) with the broader aims of the Civil Rights movement without once seeming crass. Here’s A$AP: “Feel the pain/ young Martin Luther King/ with a dream/ that one day that my team/ we could make it with this rappin’/ now we swaggin’/ makin’ money in Manhattan”.
The Strange Boys, Live Music (Rough Trade US)
Any outfit hailing from Austin, TX calling themselves the Strange Boys better be pretty goddam strange indeed, and after three intensive listening sessions, all I can conclude is that perhaps I’ve spent too many hours on UbuWeb to be bowled over by whatever shock of the new these fellas have cooked up. A reliance on fade-outs and harmonica is indeed atavistic, and a soft spot for Tom Petty does seem rather avant-garde in this day and age. But if only “Doueh” had more than a weak echo of the Tuareg group they possibly reference. If only catchy piano-shuffle “Saddest” didn’t devolve into synthesizer “experimental” nonsense. If only the tempos didn’t defiantly drag their way into oblivion. And if only their thematic conceit wasn’t clumsily seizing upon the blueprint offered by The Libertine’s Up The Bracket, only to make sure the guitars and drums got mixed way down. Although that is pretty strange.
The Sea Lions, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The Sea Lions But Were Afraid To Ask (Slumberland)
The thing about Beat Happening that any latter-day tribute band needs to keep in mind is that their self-indulgent eccentricities were revolutionary back in the mid-1980s, when eschewing distortion, speedy tempos, and screamo vocals really did make one stand out from a very male-oriented pack. Even if Calvin Johnson’s shtick was kind of icky and kind of dumb, he and fellow progressives Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford introduced a wholly new conception of “punk” into a still-maturing underground, one that included smart girls and didn’t involve violent moshing. But part of their eccentricity was a direct result of their own limitations – limitations they sought to transcend and rarely wallowed in, ie, bad vocals and sloppy band cohesion. Truth be known, their legacy lies with riot grrrls and the more pragmatic corridors of lo-fi, not so much Kindercore and slavish imitators like Oxnard, CA’s own Sea Lions, who apparently believe they’re penning manifestos by singing ineptly over jangling guitars. At least Calvin had a bit of awkward personality to go with his flat notes. Lead singer Adrian Pillado merely drones on as if reading his unctuous lyrics off notecards – “I eat cereal and I watch cartoons” is about as profound as matters get. They keep things nice and short, though, even if two instrumentals in twenty-nine minutes (instrumentals mainly consisting of chord changes) betrays a bit of desperation.