Monday, January 24, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2010

I used to live with this German guy. He was originally a friend of my twins, a connection which made the transition easier for him - he could poke fun at me for all of the things my brother did. He kept to himself mainly, darting around the apartment, muttering about the German religious deity Obama. As a result, not much of his conversation made sense to me, but a few things stuck. The first was that life was a waste of money (curiously, he was very frugal - so maybe the afterlife wasn't). The second was that a successful life required a careful management of one's expectations.

It's this second idea which hovered over my listening experience this year. To me, what made 2009 such a special year for music was that I wasn't expecting much. It was an off-year for many of indie's main movers and shakers as somewhere in Brooklyn, Sufjan prayed that the south would finally secede, thereby cutting his 50 states project in half; and Matt Berninger, complaining of a hangover, pulled his duvet covers over his head and tried to sleep it off. Unbridled from the burden of expectations, everything became a surprise, and many were very good - from the Scottish Krautrock of the Phantom Band (who released a solid follow-up this year) to the arrival of indie poet laureate Al Joshua and his folk band, Orphans and Vandals. The only bands I really expected anything from - the Veils and the Drones - both exceeded expectations, getting the 3 and 1 spots, respectively, on my year-end list.

In 2010, however, the slumbering giants awoke, and with them a host of high standards and unrealistic expectations. I had a my doubts. Was it technically possible Arcade Fire to top the one-two punch of Funeral and Neon Bible? Could the National make an another great album that didn't sound exactly like the last two? Where these bands capable of surprising us anymore? For fear of hearing them fall short, I was tempted to not even listen to them. But in most cases (sorry, Interpol), I was pleasantly surprised.

But before we start, an honorable mention:

Elf Princess Gets a Harley, Only animals eat animals
I have no idea what the deal with this band is. I'm not sure why they'd give themselves this name - surely not commercial appeal. It seems like it could be an anime reference, but my desire to research it is non-existent. Pretty much all I know about them is that they're from Portland, Maine. And that's a good start.

Their formula is simple: a guy and a lady alternate singing unembellished, slightly off-kilter love songs. Let say they're a cross between The Flaming Lips and The Magnetic Fields and see if that gets us anywhere. They sing a song dedicated to Gael Garcia Bernal, the Spanish heartthrob from Y Tu Mama Tambien, whose chorus reiterates the simple notion that the singer wants to have "like a million" of his babies. This naive perspective works even better when juxtaposed by more serious topics, say the apocalypse; on "Ballad", they sing, "in my fatigue, I could have swore I heard a bird singing / but it was just the air raid sirens ringing / and if we should be bulldozed into the same mass grave / may heaven let our fingers at least momentarily graze." It's funny, but also sort of nice. For me, the real standout here is "Make a Noise", a unassuming anthem which subsides halfway through to reveal the band's m.o. "everything I know I learned from my little sister, she eats ice cream with her hands / everything I know I learned from my little sister, and when I get younger, I hope she lets me play in her band."

Their album can be downloaded using the Radiohead payment scheme here, which I'm pretty sure puts the band's 2010 taxable income at $1.00. Let's make 2011 a better year for this small Maine band.

Yeasayer, Odd Blood
This is not a band I ever thought I'd like, but when my brother got me a ticket to their show, I realized I'd at least have to try. I'd always assumed they were the archetypal hipster band and the video for their single "Ambling Alp" pretty much confirmed this thinking. In it, a hooded, faceless figure on horseback gallops toward a shiny pyramid, as two fighters with mirrored gloves and faces box each other. Pretty normal so far, right? Well, it turns out there are a bunch of naked people in the pyramid. And when they wake up, they get chased a la sigur ros' gobbledigook by the hooded figure to the statue of a fist. 

But so what if their symbols were devoid of significance, or that some of the lyrics sounded like they were penned by a 10th grader ("the world can be an unfair place at times, but your lows will have their compliment of highs"), the song was catchy. As were a lot of the others. Plus, they were catchy without sounding like anything I'd heard before: primal sounds reverberating from the future. At the end of they day, they were just big fat pop songs hiding under weird hipster jumpsuits, more Lady Gaga than Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Songs not intended for your head, but your feet. And in the indie world, where the norm is to stand with your arms crossed and a look of mild disappointment on your face, that's a welcome change.

Medications, Completely Removed
It's a little strange that the new release I listened to as background music more than any other this year comes from Dischord Records, an independent D.C. label home mainly to hardcore/punk/post-punk bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi. Dischord was never a label I was particularly crazy about, although Fugazi's perfectly executed 2001 album, The Argument might be on my top 50 list. The Dischord sound is evident in Medications' tricky time changes, unusual arrangements and angular guitars - but none of these elements ever come at a cost to rhythm or melody, which is the primary focus here. The interplay between the two band-mates vocals (lyrics take a back seat to sound) and the sophisticated, relentlessly engaging guitar work creates a gorgeous, sometimes psychedelic, musical joy ride. It's the kind of album that one might put on repeat on a sunny day and lose hours to, until broken from the spell and reminded of their simple existence by the seraphic twittering of a passing, summer tanager.

Parlovr, Self-titled
The only reason this album isn't on my top ten is that it was officially released in 2008. I suspect that part of the reason it slipped through the cracks is because the band hail from Montreal, where you can't round a corner without bumping into an Arcade Fire member. Plus, their name has a v followed by an r, which renders it pretty much unspeakable. But as the old equation goes: Great Album + Little Initial Fanfare/ Critical Respect + Time = Cult Following + Re-Release + Immense Fame/Sacks of Money...

Not quite. Still the album is quite good. I stumbled across it on the outskirts of the internet, a random music blog with infrequent posts (much like my own) which compared them to two bigger Montreal bands: Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. Bold words. So I checked them out. Thirty seconds into the opener, "Pen to the Paper", I bought the album from Amazon. They sounded like an unhinged version of the Unicorns, or a shoutier, bass-less version of dare-I-say Pavement. What really caught my attention though, was that they sounded like they didn't care much for what you thought of them. Not all that common I know, but something about it made you think they actually believed it.

The good news about this being a re-release is that maybe Parlovr have been working on something in the meantime. So keep your ears open in 2011, and you might just hear someone slaughtering the pronunciation of this band's name.

Gareth Liddiard, Strange Tourist
Goddammit, this guy is talented. He's not well known outside of Australia, where his song "Shark-Fin Blue" was just named by a panel of musicians polled by Triple J (the radio station the kids listen to) as the greatest Australian song ever written. But he really oughta be. He can compose a couplet that would have made Robert Frost green with envy. Take a look at how he describes the differing perspectives that he and his love interest's father hold on "Did She Scare All Your Friends Away":

I viewed life like a bedroom through a keyhole on a door,
while he saw it like a pantry through a window on a wall,
we never got on well, were never friends at all.

Not impressed? Well how about if he does it a hundred more times on the album. Now you're listening. Given the nuance and complexity displayed in these songs, it's not surprising then that one of the reviews I read described Liddiard as a novelist who doesn't know it yet. And that designation works both for and against him on Strange Tourist, a sparse album recorded in an dilapidated mansion in remote Australia, with only a guitar, a microphone and bottomless supplies of whiskey and coffee. It's an album that, like a good book, you can spend a lot of time with, as you get pulled into it's world of alcoholic tight-rope walkers, lonely mailmen, world war two sympathizers, "harakiri weirdos", burgeoning terrorists, and god knows who else. But also like a novel, it's long. It has five songs that run over seven minutes, and one that clocks in at over 16. Despite this, I kept on finding myself coming back to it as inevitably, tucked within each of these songs are moving and fascinating moments that you won't hear anywhere else - the pummeling assault that marks the end of "The Radicalisation of D" is the best six minutes of music I heard all year - but I understand that this can add up to a somewhat draining listening experience.

On Strange Tourist, Liddiard does his best to capture the contradictions and dizzying claustrophobia of a century where the world's population is exploding at the same rate that Facebook reins it in, where crowded cultures pursue change through never-ending conflict. The album falls short only to the extent that such a goal is impossible for a single man to achieve. Strange tourist indeed.

Editor's Note: on subsequent listens over the years, this album would most likely make the top three, and could even take the 1 spot.

And now for the good stuff. I tried to keep it at ten, but I couldn't. Without further adieu, my top 11 albums of 2010:

#11) The Mohawk Lodge, Crimes; Fourth of July, Before Our Hearts Explode
The Mohawk Lodge:
It's pretty clear that at some point before the release of Crimes, Ryder Havdale, the lead singer of this Toronto band, got his heart ripped out. From what the blogosphere informs me, his girlfriend left him for one of his best friends. On Crimes, Havdale wants to let you know as loudly, passionately, and with as many power chord-powered choruses (+2) as possible, that what happened was definitely not cool.

When asked what kind of music his band plays, my friend Dave, eager to avoid the indie signifier, describes it as "straight rock." While I give him a hard time about that being the opposite of "queer rock," I think it provides a good description of the Mohawk Lodge's sound. They're indie only in the sense that they write great songs that won't ever see the static of radio. (I mean, how many indie songs end with the sound of motorcycle driving into the distance?) Their most clear musical influence is the swaggering, stadium-sized songs of Bruce Springsteen, although one review compared them to another Springsteen-aping Canadian band, Constantines, who were my favorite re-discovered band this year. (Check out Shine a Light, Tournament of Hearts, and the Adam Roux endorsed Self-titled, if you haven't already.) In short, if you've ever found yourself cursing your ex-girlfriend as you cruise down the highway on the back of a motorcycle (or aspire to such a thing), this is the album for you.   

Slay Tracks: Cold Hearts, Done Fighting, Roll with the Punches, Wicked Nights (Canadian Girl)

Fourth of July:
The sophomore album from this Lawrence, Kansas band signed to the Pavement-referencing Range Life Record was the one I kept removing to get to nice, round ten. It's an album I would have loved in my younger days: playful, observant, slacker vocals capturing the contradictory feelings of failing/failed relationships over sprightly guitars and ooh-ooh-ooh back-up vocals. (Great lyrical example: "she's on a blind date / he's blind to the fact I ever had her.") But six years into a relationship, it's a perspective that's a bit harder to connect with. Still, I can't fault the band for that, can I?

While break-ups mark the perfect occasion for Morrissey-type moping or the kind of angsty, naval-gazing that Conor Oberst perfected in his teens, Fourth of July wisely sidestep the melodrama, crafting sprightly, up-tempo numbers that you'll want to sing along to. Trumpets blare over jangling guitars as singing shifts to shouting and songs reach their climax. While there are a few slower songs here, the contrast is welcomed, a reminder that break-ups are serious affairs. You could call it an album of hipster heartbreak anthems, but you'd run the risk of being called a hipster yourself. One review called it a "break-up record that provides the perfect accompaniment to playing frisbee," so lets leave it at that.

Slay Tracks: Bad Dreams (are Only Dreams), Providence, Tan Lines, L Train, Crying Shame

#9) Secret Cities, Pink Graffiti
I've heard talk that the the transition to online media will kill, or has already killed, the "album." Personally, I don't think there's much truth to this. From what I can tell, it has only revealed the large, and in this case, relatively untapped monster, that guides most things - the passive consumer. In the past, the passive listener had to rely on the radio to hear the catchy song from last night's episode of Hellcats, the gripping cheerleader law school drama on the CW. Now that access is only a click away. While it's true that music's unit of currency has shifted to the "single," birthing a number of bands seeking to make a quick, and now seemingly easier, buck, it obscures another truth: that great albums are still, and always will, be made. The internet hasn't killed the "album" more than twitter has conquered the novel, or facebook the friendship.

Which brings us to Pink Graffiti, the debut album by the Fargo, North Dakota band, Secret Cities. While I don't know that much about the technicalities of music, I know that Pink Graffiti checks off a lot of the boxes that are sometimes found on"albums" I like: the use of a guiding idea (nice, but not always necessary); the repetition of musical ideas; and a general cohesion of sound. So what's the theme here? From what I've read it's "Brian Wilson and his work as a prism through which we view youthful things." Pretentious I know, but it guides you to a set of lyrics which unlock the key to understanding the album. Against the hazy soundscape of "Boyfriends", the lead singer sings, "Brian Wilson and me / he smokes pot, I watch tv," before revealing that Wilson "never taught me anything... those good vibrations never came." Bummer. In summary, Secret Cities filter Wilson's pop flourishes and neatly orchestrated harmonies through a layer of  reverb and end up with an album so effortless it might, at first, seem lazy.

Slay Tracks: Boyfriends, Pink Graffiti Pt. 2, Pink Graffiti Pt. 1, Vamos A La Playa.

#8) MGMT, Congratulations
MGMT returned this year with an album sure to confound expectations. Congratulations replaces the big, infectious hooks of Oracular Spectacular with dense, psychedelic tunes. One review compared it to early Syd Barrett helmed Pink Floyd. While this is the one era of Pink Floyd I know the least about, I think the shoe fits. This an odd-duck of an album, content to follow it's own musical meanderings, even if it leads the band from limelight back to their mom's basement (as it did with Barrett).

On Congratulations, NESCAC-educated MGMT pay homage to their inspirations. There's "Song for Dan Treacy," an ode to the lead singer of influential English band The Television Personalities, whose debut featured it's own dedication song, entitled "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives." And "Brian Eno", a song extoling the impact of the the famed musician/producer on their musical development: "When I was stuck, he'd make me memorize elaborate curses / tinctures and formulas to ditch the chori and flip the verses / my whole foundation came unglued." (They also note his tremendously huge name: Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno). While the album's influences are clear, the entryways aren't. Lyrics alternate between opaque and non-sensical ("the hot dog's getting cold / and you''ll never be as good as the Rolling Stones / watch the birds in the airport gathering dirt / crowd the clean magazine chick lifting up her skirt"). And just when a song gathers steam, it changes direction. This isn't a problem, if all the parts are great - see The Unicorns Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone, and "Flash Delirium" here. However, MGMT's ambitions occasionally outstrips their knack for memorable melodies and some of these songs seem to exist only to hold the wildly varied ideas together. But that's the kind of album this is - a free-wheeling affair keen to pay homage to, and to take the same chances as, the pioneers that inspired it.

Slay Tracks: It's Working, Flash Delirium, Siberian Breaks

#7) Pomegranates, One of Us
One of the first things you learn in Mitch Cote-Crosskill's eight-week seminar, "Music as Motivation for Daily Life," is of an indie band's general trajectory. On their debut, the band scores attention for a noteworthy single, while the remainder of their songs only "hint" at further potential. For a follow-up, the band has two options: 1) compose an album of thinly veiled copies of their hit, or 2) release an ambitious album overstepping their technical prowess (see the MGMT review above). In the first case, the band will disappear or receive heavy radio airplay and lose it's indie status. In the second case, the band, which has a fifty percent change of unknowingly just releasing it's "seminal" album, will ditch the heavy-handed experimentation and studio gimmickry, and release a doozy of an third album.

So it goes with One of Us, the third release from the Cincinnati, Ohio band, Pomegranates. The album cover - a menacing skull set against a none-too-scary pink background - conveys the result of this honing process: perfectly composed, dreamy songs with a naive, but no-less-meaningful, take on death. (I guess I use naive here to mean to draw the distinction that it's not self-conscious and ironic like a lot of indie). And even though One of Us is heavy on atmosphere, it's not somniferous (the GREs turned me into a monster, I know). Mellow instrumental tunes are always paired with bouncy songs that sometimes become downright frantic. On "Anywhere You Go," the lead singer's playful insistence of "I like you. I really like you!"becomes far more urgent as shouts all the places he'd follow: "Across the river. To the top of the mountain. Through the holy fire." 

This is an album that changes pace and transforms with a learned subtlety, builds and releases in all the right places, and might truly live up to a comparison I read: "the sounds of Modest Mouse, Flaming Lips, Deerhunter, and MGMT -- all in one." A hell of a third effort.

Slay Tracks: One of us, 50s, Prouncer, Create your own reality, Anywhere you go

#6) Wolf Parade, Expo 86
It's impossible not to view Expo 86, the third (and final?) Wolf Parade album through the same three-album framework as above. While I loved Apologies to the Queen Mary, I thought At Mount Zoomer (my 2008 album of the year) gave a better indication of what Wolf Parade was all about. Isaac Brock was gone (not in a good riddance kind of way, just a well he's not actually in the band kind of way) and it seemed like Dan and Spencer were doing their damnedest to marry their unique sounds, styles, and song-writing skills, which were concurrently being revealed through the success of their respective side-bands, Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown. To me, the top of Mount Zoomer was their pinnacle.  

Not that there's anything wrong with Expo 86. The songs were still written by two of indies most talented figures. It just seems a bit clearer that this was the case. (I've had to switch to past tense because of the recent announcement that Wolf Parade were on "indefinite hiatus.") Wolf Parade seemed less unified on Expo 86, as if the chains which held the two resident genius' together during At Mount Zoomer had snapped. Even the sequencing showed it: a Dan song followed a Spencer song and so on; and while the majority of the songs were really good - although Dan's songs were stronger - it seemed like there was a fundamental separation which a similarity of instrumentation couldn't hide. Dan keyed in on his Soviet Springsteenisms (Yulia), while Spencer followed his keyboard down whatever freaky little alleyway it would lead (Cave-o-sapien). I can't say I called it, but I can say I'm not surprised by their dissolution. Still, a spade's a spade, and in the case of Expo 86, it's a very, very good spade.

Slay Tracks: Palm Road, Little Golden Age, In the Direction of the Moon, Ghost Pressure, Yulia

#5) PS I Love You, Meet Me at the Muster Station
This band is sweet. Honestly, check out their video for Facelove. The lead singer, Paul Saulnier, a husky man to say the least, is dressed like a poor second-grader from the height of the grunge era. He wears a raincloud headband with lightening bolts that fall past his eyes. Over insanely tight percussion (courtesy of Benjamin Nelson), he sings - like a cross between Frank Black and Frog Eyes - about a failed romance: "Your love is like a giant strawberry thrown in my face / your love is like a delicious glass of wine thrown in my face / your love is like these naive dreams of mine thrown in my face." The whole thing teeters on the verge of comedy. Then the guitar momentarily stops, a pedal is hit, and this funnily dressed man with no-doubt pudgy fingers rips into a guitar solo that would make J Mascis jealous.

That's how the whole album works: ten hyper-kinetic songs featuring two dudes channeling the spirit of fuzzed-out early nineties bands like Dinosaur Jr. And despite the limited supply of band mates, the songs are never dull -- unstructured distortion-heavy soundscapes and high-paced axe-wielding come in equal measure, while bass lines get played simultaneously on an organ pedal. This is indie rock in the original sense - talented outsiders trapping catchy songs in walls of noise, and lyrics of the wry or self-deprecating variety. Take those on "Get Over," where Saulnier sings, "what you got, you know I want it / what you don't want, you know I got it." It's simple, to-the-point, and it works. It all does. After all this, you might find yourself asking, "what is the 'muster station'?" Well I'm here to tell you. It's the place on a ship where you'd meet in case of an emergency, usually near the lifeboats. I'll meet you there in 5. 

Slay Tracks: Meet Me at the Muster Station, Breadends, Butterflies and Boners, Facelove, Get Over

#4) The National,
 High Violet; Arcade Fire, The Suburbs; Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz 
High Violet:
What I was expecting: Matt Berninger's intonated baritone reciting that familiar mix of melancholic  nostalgia ("I was a comfortable kid / but I don't think about it much anymore") and middle-age anxieties ("I still owe money to the money to the money I owe"), over intertwining guitars and the complex, near-militaristic drums - starting restrained, slowly rising, eventually cascading, and then catharsis. 
What I got: Pretty much just that.
How I was surprised: As the National perfect their respective instruments, their sounds become deeper and more nuanced ("I'll try to find something on this thing that means nothing enough"). But they aren't trying to overstep each other, they're out to get it right: adding a squiggly guitar line or spooky backing vocals, or putting pillowcases on the snare drums. At this point, they know who they are and how it all fits together. The problem with being this tight a band is that even though there are frequent crescendos, you never have the complete breakdowns found in some of the older, less technically proficient songs like "Murder Me Rachel" or "Available." Watching Berninger walk off the stage, through the crowd, and onto the bar, you can't help but think that he might be missing these earlier, more spontaneous and revelatory moments too. Here's hoping they do something to bring them back.

Slay Tracks: Terrible love, Sorrow, Anyone's Ghost, Afraid of Everyone, Bloodbuzz Ohio, England

The Suburbs:
What I was expecting: Stadium-sized anthems about suburban malaise.
What I got: I remember putting this album on before going on a long run, expecting it make the time pass more quickly. An hour later, with a few songs to go, I remember half-heartedly thinking "maybe they're trying to capture the ennui of modern, middle-class life with boring songs." 
How I was surprised: Turns out, it just needed time. Some songs hit the bloodstream immediately (Rococo, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II), while others take three or four listens (Wasted Hours, Deep Blue). That's partly what makes The Suburbs such a satisfying listen - not every melody is instantly recognizable; some you've gotta get to know (although there are a few songs - Half Light I, Month of May, Sprawl I - that, I suspect, aren't capable of being known). The theme here is pretty evident and Win even alludes to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - the quintessential plight of the modern man poem - on "We Used to Wait." T.S. Eliot he is no though. In this regard, Arcade Fire might be the opposite of The National. Matt Berninger dissects day-to-day minutiae with a surgeon's precision, while Win - to continue the Prufrock reference - is more of an anesthesiologist, gassing his listener with symbols, key words and phrases. Still, with such a clear thesis and enough listens, the thematic elements add up, imbuing every passage with meaning, and bringing the listener along for a drive through the sprawl, albeit one that's more emotional than intellectual.

Slay Tracks: Ready to Start, Modern Man, Rococo, Suburban War, Deep Blue, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The Age of Adz:
What I was expecting: Sufjan's shifting narrative perspectives and feather-light, emotionally devastating vocals over orchestral arrangement now populated by techno blips and bleeps.
What I got: a chaotic, bombastic electronic odyssey inspired by the apocolyptic art of a schizophrenic.  
How I was surprised: Sufjan got a ton of attention (deservedly) for 2005's Illinoise. I remember reading an article a year or so after that release (and the 21 b-sides collected on The Avalanche) where he said he was getting pretty sick of his sound, and I could see why. The guy had the market cornered. So he shifted gears, composing an orchestra about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway - a passion project with limited widespread appeal. And as the years started to add up, he started saying that the whole fifty states project had been a joke and what exactly was a song anyway. Suffice it to say, he was undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. 

It's this confusion that he masterfully explores on Age of Adz. Don't be fooled by the gentle guitar plucking which opens the album, this isn't your older sister's Sufjan (after seeing the stage show - with it's neon-lit-break-dance-friendly-costume-change-encouraging-dual-projection-screen-theatrics - this might be your gay cousins Sufjan). There are less point-of-view changes here, and the vibe is decidedly less intimate (although more personal) than it's predecessor. For 75 minutes (again, he could use an editor), we are pinned inside Sufjan's head, seeing the world as he sees it, facing the pressures he faces. On "Too Much," he bemoans the challenge of making choices when faced with so many expectations, singing "there's too much riding on that." On "Vesuvius," he starts singing to himself "Sufjan, the panic inside / the murdering ghost / that you cannot ignore" - surely a sign that he's cracking up. On the title track, he goes as far as saying he's "lost the will to fight." But the tables turn on "I Want to Be Well," my favorite song on the album, and my favorite song of the year, as quiet, mild-mannered Sufjan let's loose, hollering "I'm not fucking around" - finally taking ownership of his decisions and coming to terms with his fears. (I don't know what to say about the album's final song, a 25 minute, auto-tune enhanced boy-and-girl call-and-response epic, other than to say that it works.) So even though it took a while, Age of Adz is a dazzling album not to be missed.  

Slay Tracks:  Too much, age of adz, Get real get right, Vesuvius, I want to be well, Impossible soul

#1) Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Without a doubt, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is the sound of Frightened Rabbit stepping onto the main stage. Their previous album, 2008's impressive break-up inspired The Midnight Organ Fight won me over with skillful song-writing - the bridges were as memorable as the choruses - and lyrics that were scruffy, cheeky and a bit sordid (take a second look a the title). Plus, it was all being filtered through lead singer Scott Hutchinson's Scottish brogue, and everything sounds better with some kind of British accent - that's scientific fact. Everything that I liked about that album is ramped up and improved here. 

If The Midnight Organ Fight put Frightened Rabbit on my radar, The Winter of Mixed Drinks sunk my ship - which brings us to the theme. While a number of songs refer to the ocean, this album is nautical only to the extent that Gattaca is. It'll sound dumb, but this album is be more about how being pushed to your limits reveals what truly matters. After all, one's character is only revealed by the decisions one makes when there are real stakes. It might sound trite, but it's the truth, and on The Winter of Mixed Drinks it comes across as nothing less than completely refreshing. 

On "Swim Until You Can't See Land"- I can tell it's the key track because it has a reprise in the second half  - Hutchinson "comes to the coast to disappear." He steps in and swims to the point at which "land is a marker line." As the chorus swells, urging him onward, he swims even farther. The stakes aren't just death, but worse - meaninglessness. On "The Wrestle" he reminds us that "this is the test I left land for" - he needs to know if he's a "man" or a "bag of sand." If it's the former then this swim will transform him, giving him the fresh start he wants: "let's call me a baptist, call this the drowning of the past." 

Each song deals with this fundamental challenge - how to find meaning in life, especially if death renders the whole pursuit futile (on "Things," he opines "at the front gate, what reward awaits? one bit of loaf from a holy ghost, an eternity of suffering the company of all those Christian men?"). This age old challenge is never presented in the same way twice. On "Yes I would," he notes "the loss of a lonely man never makes much of a sound," and then on "The Loneliness and the Scream," as he updates an old adage, he wonders if he is that lonely man, singing "I have fallen in the woods / did you hear me?"

But it isn't enough to just ask the questions, no matter how well-dressed and nice sounding they are - and with the rousing choruses and compelling counter-melodies insulating the more contemplative, quiet moments - they are all very nice sounding. What elevates the songs is what he answers the questions. After noticing "a splitting binbag next to damp boxes," Hutchinson wonders what kind of proof they offer of his existence ("they hardly show that I have lived"). But it's what he does next that matters: "I shed my clothes, I shed my flesh / down to the bone and burned the rest." Only at this point can he see what matters, realizing that "things are only things and nothing brings me up like you bring me up." 

While it might sound like sad sack music, it's not. I'm reminded of something that fellow FR-lover Jake Berkowitz said about The Winter of Mixed Drinks. It's an album you can listen to at any time, whether you're happy, sad or somewhere in between. And I think, in part, what makes it an album for all occasions are the redemptive, transformative aspects of the lyrics. Hutchinson isn't just whinging and moping about - there's optimism here. Soul-searching doesn't always have lead to sorrow and self-pity, sometimes it leads to liberation. On "Skip the Youth," he captures this notion perfectly, singing "if you don't stare at the dark/ You can never feel bleak / Life starts to lose its taste."

So does he get there? Like any good writer, the answer isn't a simple yes or no. On "Not Miserable," he sings that "most of the misery's gone," pauses momentarily, allowing us the time to think it's passed, before finishing, "gone, gone to the bone." A fucking brilliant twist. Then we get to the chorus, where Hutchinson sings "I'm not miserable anymore" against an uplifting angelic choir repeating over and over: "I am." So is he or isn't he? Perhaps the climax of "Living in Colour," which features a dazzling string arrangement, provides the best answer. Using the metaphorical language of the previous album, Hutchinson sings "I dreamt with a rapid eye, by day I hoped to rapidly die / have my organs laid on ice, wait for somebody that would treat them right / but as the night started swallowing, you pulled the blood to my blue lips / forced the life through still veins, filled my heart with red again." Again through his relationship with others, he seems to found at least a momentary peace.

This is a bittersweet album for all kinds of reasons, but the one that lingers with me the most one that has less to do with the band or the album than the simple human psychology espoused by my german friend. After releasing an album as incredible as this, how can I not be a little disappointed by their next release? If you've reached the top where else is there to go? What grand themes are left once you've mined relationships, life, death and meaning? While Frightened Rabbit have risen to lofted heights and should be applauded for such, the road ahead of them isn't by any means an easy one.

Slay Tracks: Things, Swim Until You Can't See Land, The Loneliness and the Scream, The Wrestle, Skip the Youth, Footshooter, Not Miserable Now, Living in Colour

1 comment:

Elf said...

That's an interesting and thorough list you've got there. Glad you liked the album and thanks for including us.
-Elf Princess Gets a Harley