Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 3

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere

It's fitting that "Crazy" became the first single in history to go No. 1 in the U.K. based on download sales alone. St. Elsewhere is, if anything, a product of the Information Age, the work of young minds steeped for years in technology and pop-culture minutiae.

"Go-Go Gadget Gospel" implies a connection to the cartoon "Inspector Gadget," which itself was preoccupied with gizmos. "Transformer" could allude to any number of animated TV shows: "GoBots," "Voltron," "Transformers." In fact, the "I-yi-yi" part of the hook echoes the exclamation of the robot assistant Alpha 5 from "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Even the duo's name, Gnarls Barkley, would seem to be a contortion of Charles Barkley (though it's not).

Danger Mouse's approach, more "SimEarth" than petri dish, makes full use of electronic breaks and beats, as well as samples, and involves him creating a concept and writing a score for it. Cee-Lo, the actor to Danger Mouse's director, provides the voice that brings the vision to life.

Cee-Lo's soulful tenor sets the foundation for the cinematic vignettes, many of which concern a character's crumbling mental state. "Crazy" introduces this theme in no uncertain terms, starting out, "I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind."

Even if not everybody who downloaded "Crazy" could relate to that feeling, the song was guaranteed to resonate with the masses, thanks to its instantly recognizable low-slung bass run and chorus of ooooooohs in the background that rolls in like fog at a morning funeral.

Similarly, St. Elsewhere taps into related social issues, including suicide ("Just a Thought") and obsessive behavior around belief systems ("Feng Shui"). "The Boogie Monster," a calliope(?)-driven track that begins with a Dracula laugh, is about being so frightened you can't sleep, then realizing you're your own worst enemy because it's all in your head.

And Gnarls Barkley don't shy away from seamier subjects. On "Necromancer," Cee-Lo mixes sex and murder --- just not in that order --- and the result is necrophilia. "She was cool when I met her," he says, "but I think I like her better dead."

In St. Elsewhere, sometimes the heroes are the monsters.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 4

Camera Obscura
Let's Get Out of This Country

Whatever personal matters Tracyanne Campbell and her fellow Scots sowed after 2004's "Underachievers
Please Try Harder," those seeds grew into some beautiful compositions, rich in country sway and Motown rhythm.

Warm, full arrangements frame Campbell's '60s-pop voice as she sidles through rocky relationships and frustration.

"I hope and I pray he'll leave me one day," she sings on "The False Contender," only to bemoan two tracks later, "I won't be seeing you for a long while / I hope it's not as long as a country mile."

"Dory Previn" adds to the subtext: The first husband of singer-songwriter Previn dropped her for Mia Farrow, and the protagonist finds solace in Previn's music, turning it "up to eleven for the band's ears to bleed." Fictional band or not, it's hard to tell, though co-founder and vocalist John Henderson did quit Camera Obscura shortly before the recording sessions for "Let's Get Out of This Country." So co-founder Campbell wrote all the lyrics and performed lead vocals on every song.

Her bandmates, producer Jari Haapalainen and the other players help her give the album the vintage feeling her songs call for. Together, the collective provide the violins and cello, the lazy accordion that wafts through "The False Contender," the choir on "I Need All the Friends I Can Get," the clip-clop cadence of "Dory Previn."

"Razzle Dazzle Rose" is essentially a country song with trumpet and without twang. If Loretta Lynn switched places with Campbell, she'd find herself at home with the shuffle-step of the snare and tambourine.

On the other hand, maybe Campbell has all the country she needs, because she swings through "If Looks Could Kill" (her first name is Tracyanne, after all). To be fair, though, that track, with all its ricocheting, has more in common with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound than with Nashville.

"Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken," the album's finest piece, chugs along care of a Motown-inspired rhythm section. From the peals of the church organ to the earnest choruses to the final unified cutoff, it's magic. It evokes the buzz of a perfect live take in a '60s recording studio. It's easy to imagine the engineers nodding their heads, the vibrations on the wood floor, the producer tapping his foot, the reels turning, the little needles wobbling. Goose bumps, for sure.

Not that they'll go away anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 5

Neko Case
Fox Confessor
Brings the Flood

Once upon a time, there was a singer named Neko. Neko loved animals. Whether eagle or lion or fox or sparrow, she cared not. All were regal creatures, and all deserved songs.

And yet her heart first went out to a girl: Margaret. Margaret worked at the cannery, where she lost three fingers. She once rode a train with a girl who had the smoothest waves of cinnamon hair she'd ever seen. Her name was Pauline. Everything was hard for Margaret, but everything was easy for Pauline. This wasn't fair, Neko decided.

But before she could help Margaret, her heart went out to a woman who's true love died in a car. A 1969 falcon sedan, if you care. The paper didn't. It said '75.

It dawned on Neko as she wrote these songs that she reserved the most tender place in her heart for strangers. And yet she took no stranger home with her the day she left the party at 3 a.m. But she did accept a Valium from the bride.

When Neko thought about recent events --- poor Spanaway, widows toasting at St. Angel, the laughs she had with her friend "holding out for that teenage feeling" --- she had a lot of regrets. So she sang about them.

But soon she met the fox confessor. He distracted her. He shamed her. Neko panicked.

"Who married me to these orphaned blues?" she cried.

"It's not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder," he snapped.

Troubled, Neko sang "John Saw That Number" to take her mind off what the fox confessor told her. But it was no use. The madness came. A man Neko knew thought he saw wolves, so he turned his furniture into firewood.

All this distressed Neko. She felt as if she were in the jaws of a lion until she found a compatriot in a similar predicament: a sparrow perched, preparing to fly.

"The hawks alight till morning," Neko warned, "you'll never pass beyond the gate." But it was too late.

At last, Neko sang about herself: "I can say that I've lived here in honor and danger / But I'm just an animal and cannot explain a life."

And the fox confessor laughed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 6

Asobi Seksu

It starts with 17 seconds of softly chirping electronics. Seventeen seconds for you to prepare yourself.

Not nearly long enough.

The next 47 minutes and 15 seconds fall somewhere between heaven and a head rush. Bells ring; guitars jangle and fuzz; the bass rattles; the drums thunder; Yuki Chikudate's angelic voice sails through the verses and soars through the choruses. With an oceanic pull, the songs swell and crash, only to rush to greater heights, sweeping you away in surge after surge of exhilaration.

Faster, faster, faster! the band seems to urge in the final leg of the first full-length song, "Strawberries," before giving way to a gurgle of guitar. But it's just a prelude to the glory of "New Years," which explodes from the speakers like a solar flare.

Such is the volatile nature of Citrus by New York-based band Asobi Seksu. Songs are studies in elemental intensity, intermittently churning, reacting, combusting.

Album centerpiece "Red Sea" moves from barely audible synths to a taut tom groove and begins layering: a guitar line, a few plucks of the bass, louder washes of keyboard, vocals, another riff, a drum fill. When the chorus hits, so does a mass of popping snare and hissing hi-hats. The sequence repeats, but more rapidly. As wave after fuzzy wave rolls and breaks, Chikudate's voice struggles to be heard above the tempest: "You said the first time was so perfect / but the rest was all just wrong."

At other times, Citrus highlights Asobi Seksu's '80s pop leanings, such as "Goodbye," which features glockenspiel in the intro, a frolicking beat reminiscent of The Cure and an everybody-sing-along refrain.

Whether singing about "deafening strawberries" or a dying relationship, Chikudate suffuses her words with emotion. Two of the songs are in Japanese, but you don't have to understand the lyrics to "Mizu Asobi" to appreciate its giddiness.

The jingle bells and la-la-la chorus don't need translation.

But, overall, the album is about sonics, not lyrics.

With Citrus, producer and mixer Chris Zane might have been aiming to replicate the textures on My Bloody Valentine's landmark guitar album "Loveless." And while Kevin Shields' studio alchemy remains singular, there's something special here.

Apparently favoring treble over bass, Zane captures a crispness of tone along with thin echoes that imply spaciousness, giving the album a feeling of winter rather than summer. The vocals, for the most part, are gauzy. On "Lions and Tigers," they traverse the same distant, echoey territory that deflected Aimee Mann's voice so beautifully on 'Til Tuesday's hit "Voices Carry."

On "Nefi + Girly," Chikudate pleads, "Disconnect the feeling factory."

Too late.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 7

Serena Maneesh

The members of Norwegian band Serena Maneesh are metalworkers, melting down the rock 'n' roll elements of their predecessors and molding them into other fascinating creations.

You'll find pieces that could pass for Spiritualized, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Smashing Pumpkins and many more, but all bear the engraving of Emil Nikolaisen --- along with everybody else who hammered, filed, forged, cast and polished on Serena-Maneesh.

Guitarist and vocalist Nikolaisen recruited his sisters Elvira and Hilma for the project, as well as several friends, including Sufjan Stevens and Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile. At least six people recorded or mixed Serena-Maneesh, among them Greg Norman (at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studios) and Martin Bisi, who has produced Sonic Youth and The Dresden Dolls. Also, this took place in at least three countries.

All participants prove their worth over the course of 11 songs, many of which change direction midway through and exceed seven minutes.

Naturally, with so many venues and musicians and instruments and influences and egos at play, as well as the detours within songs, Serena-Maneesh can be a tricky album to follow. Distorted guitars and processed pianos add to the feeling of disorientation. "Selina's Melodie Fountain," the second song, contains faint crowd noise, though it apparently was not recorded live. The muted rumbling in the final two minutes of "Sapphire Eyes" could have been a field recording from the bottom of a swimming pool.

The Can-like rhythms of "Candlelighted" (a wink in the title, perhaps?) mesmerize while the guitars hallucinate, or get as close as guitars can get to such a thing. "Beehiver II" evokes the full-frontal thrash of Nirvana's "Aneurysm" and the fuzz-storm guitar of Dinosaur Jr. "Drain Cosmetics" is a dead ringer for The Jesus and Mary Chain. Even the Nordic cousin to Billy Corgan's tape-tearing scream circa "X.Y.U." shows up twice on the album.

Impressively, none of these songs clashes or overwhelms, even though several appear back to back. Good sequencing undoubtedly plays a role. "Her Name Is Suicide," with its hypnotic throb, soothes after "Beehiver II," and the quasi-ballad "Don't Come Down Here," which would be leaden if it appeared early in the album, is welcome after the spare closing of "Sapphire Eyes."

Nikolaisen, though, deserves the most credit: The frontman wrote and produced Serena-Maneesh.

As he surely knows, the tools and material get you only so far. The rest is talent and vision.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 8

Lupe Fiasco

Food & Liquor

With a fertile imagination and a nimble, lively flow, Lupe Fiasco dissects urban perils and pastimes on his debut, Food & Liquor.

On "Kick, Push," he sings about a skateboarder who perseveres despite busting his lip, being labeled a misfit and encountering one no-skating zone after another. "Sunshine" recounts finding a love in a club. The spoken-word-poetry portion of "Intro" mentions "prisons packed, bubblin' over in brown sugar."

The instrumentation is top-notch and complements the lyrics. A Curtis Mayfield vibe pervades the early highlight "Kick, Push." The horns surge and ease, the strings slide and glide, the beats bring to mind the clunk of landing jumps. "Sunshine," likewise, uses tiny chimes and a soft keyboard loop to craft its gentle, magical-evening feel. Strong backing vocalists and cameos throughout Food & Liquor, including Jay-Z, Jill Scott, Gemini and Sarah Green, pair well with Lupe's voice and style.

"Daydreamin'" blankets pops and crackles with stately strings and piles on warmth from Jill Scott as Lupe floats into a reverie about what life would be like if he were living in the head of a giant robot. Surprisingly, the track veers into a send-up of rap videos:

"Now come on everybody, let's make cocaine cool
We need a few more half-naked women up in the pool
And hold this MAC-10 that's all covered in jewels
And can you please put your titties closer to the .22s?
And where's the champagne? We need champagne
Now look as hard as you can with this blunt in your hand
And now hold up your chain slow-motion through the flames
Now cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain"

"Daydreamin'," like other tracks at the album's core, showcase Lupe's flair for storytelling.

"The Cool," for instance, follows a dude after his shooting, from his casket to the other side --- except that there's "no heaven for a gangsta," so he's cursed to wander the Earth. Over a menacing synth line and a wicked beat, Lupe describes how the dead man retraces his steps. When he boards a train, other passengers complain that he stinks, oblivious to his zombiefied state. He retraces his steps and bumps into some youths who try to sell him crack, then rob him "with the same gun they shot him with."

On "Hurt Me Soul," Lupe takes a page from author-broadcaster Studs Terkel and gathers anecdotes from his community. But, since he has to fit everything into one track, everybody gets about one sentence. The result is a collage of humanity:

"They say I'm infected
This is what I injected
I had it aborted
We got deported
My laptop got spyware
Say that I can't lie here
But I got no place to go

I can't stop eatin'
My best friend's leavin'
My pastor touched me
I love this country
I lost my earpiece
I hope y'all hear me
'Cause it hurt me soul"

Lupe plays with point of view on the absent-father tale "He Say She Say," too. He starts with Mom asking her man to "be a father" and follows it up with the son's perspective: "You ain't been kickin' it since I was old enough to hold bottles."

In the introduction to Food & Liquor, Lupe pledges us "my heart, my soul, my mind and my thoughts, my feelings, my experience."

What a potent, intoxicating combination to consume.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 9


The Information

Like a groovy alien from a distant star, Beck dissects humanity's past, present and future on The Information. Or he could be describing a parallel universe. Or maybe he's on an Isaac Asimov jag.

And, really, whatever strikes you as true is what matters.

From its blank, graph-paper liner notes and book of 60 stickers to its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation --- and I wouldn't be surprised if some of that percussion was a kitchen sink that went unmentioned --- The Information invites you to explore it, ponder it, make it your own.

Easily the most nuanced of Beck's albums, The Information repeats and reinvents elements throughout. The beginning of "New Round" recalls "Sunday Sun" off 2002's Sea Change. The intro to the final song reincorporates synth squiggles from the third track, "Cellphone's Dead." Beats, bass and programming wizardry disappear and reappear, sometimes in the same song.

Despite the album's hour-plus runtime and overall static feeling, it's never boring. Just when you think you can predict how a tune will go, Beck throws in a harmonica part, or something with glockenspiel, or a Game Boy. Producer Nigel Godrich, renowned for his work with Radiohead, layers the sounds so that none sticks its head out of the mix. He himself contributes tambourine, whistle, background vocals, Speak & Spell, Tote-A-Tune and effects, of which there are many.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect about The Information is its ability to create inertia. While that's not a quality many artists would seek for an album, it works well with Beck's themes of space and time. There's percussion all over the album, yet a haze subdues it. The electronics tether everything, as if by one of Newton's laws.

And then there are the lyrics.

Splitting the album between rhyming and singing, Beck embarks on an odyssey through "civilian jungles with malaria pills" and "up the tin-can mountaintop." Neanderthals figure in, as do robots, the ubiquitous cell phone, a jukebox, soldiers, infidels, ghosts, space ships and the Almighty.

He scolds people on "Cellphone's Dead" who "phone it in like it's unlimited minutes," and he frets about a woman on the sweet and upbeat "Think I'm In Love." On "Strange Apparition," he says a prayer while the music approximates a haunted player piano in an intergalactic saloon.

Then he breaks out some furious free association on "1000BPM": "Consultants revoke their souls with unanimous votes / portions of the proceeds go to chain-store victims / in remission conditions with remodeled kitchens."

But the crowning achievement might be the last track, the dense, ambitious, long-form composition "The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton," which passes the 10-minute mark. It metamorphoses from a tribal soundscape to a vehicle for a wicked guitar riff to ambient noise and trippy dialogue.

Whether Beck's a "seasick sailor on a ship of noise" or "uptight, super-gutted, out of the frame," he can refract the world through his prismatic personality and take you back to the future. Today or tomorrow, it works either way.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 10

The Black Angels

Passover is a brooding, confrontational album. A simmering album. You get the feeling vocalist Alex Maas would reach through the stereo and punch you in the face if he could. But since he can't, he and his fellow Black Angels focus on slowly atomizing you with their existential dread.

Which is a pretty reasonable emotion coming from a band preoccupied with war, weapons and death.

Staring into an ever-shifting void, the Austin, Texas, five-piece dig themselves in and relate stories of conflict through a smoke screen of organ and guitars. In fact, organist Jennifer Raines is credited as playing the "drone machine." Several times on Passover, notes are so sustained they sound as if they're dripping water: most notably the opening guitar on "Young Men Dead" and the tambourine on "The Prodigal Sun."

But no amount of pedal pushing could negate the power of slow-motion headbanger "Young Men Dead." "A-fire at will / Don't you waste no time," Maas sneers as drummer Stephanie Bailey shows no mercy for her kit. Then they pull back, leaving only a tambourine shivering in the silence, before they return to the attack.

In addition to making the most of the tambourine, the Black Angels find just the right times to incorporate harmonica, backward guitar and tribal percussion. And I think I mentioned they like pedals.

With such effective atmosphere at the forefront, it might be easy to miss the winning wordplay in "Black Grease": "You make me realize / I'm not the kindest guy / but I kill, kill, kill, kill / I kill what I can, dear."

Like vocalist Ade Blackburn in the band Clinic, Maas' voice has a nasal keen to it, but he does a lot with it. In "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven," he spouts herky-jerky outbursts. Elsewhere, he produces strangled cries or war whoops. In the stomper "Better Off Alone," he imitates (consciously or unconsciously) the haunting swagger of Jim Morrison and lets his syllables hang in the air.

Aside from "Bloodhounds on My Trail," with its backwoods-boogie feel, Passover reinforces its cadence with forced-march efficiency: The drums somersault into combat on "Black Grease"; "The First Vietnamese War" lopes along despite "Charlies everywhere."

The "first" undoubtedly implies that they have the Iraq war's number, and to ensure that you don't miss the meaning, as well as similar parallels on the album, they've included a hidden track that spells it out for you.

But what to make of the title? The Black Angels go so far as to embed "Exodus 12:12-13" in the album art, but there's not even an oblique reference to Passover on Passover.

Then again, it did involve sacrificial lambs. And a lot of blood.