Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 1

Mono in VCF
Mono in VCF

Darkly beautiful, the music of Mono in VCF melds baroque pop with shoegazer and psychedelic ventures, always with a cosmopolitan appreciation for style and nuance.

On their debut album, the Tacoma, Wash.-based band explore a swirl of love, loss, melancholy and death. The clipped guitar, wet bass plucks and undulations of Moog synthesizer set the tone in opener "Escape City Scrapers" as singer Kim Miller imagines liberating herself from rainclouds and concrete. The mood is cool but sensuous and unhurried, like a lucid dream unfolding.

This mood permeates the next two tracks, "Spider Rotation" and "Masha." In the plaintive "Masha," Miller sings, "I thought I felt a feeling / but my daydream hit the ceiling."

The words sprang from the mind of Hunter Lea, the band's principal songwriter. Lea leaves the vocals to Miller, except for on "In Los Angeles," a Nancy-and-Lee-style ballad in which he duets with her. The other male voice, which appears on two songs, belongs to Terry Jacks, who co-founded the '70s band the Poppy Family. Mono in VCF pay tribute to him by covering his song "There's No Blood in Bone," the album's midpoint.

The sequencing on Mono in VCF enhances the song cycle, moving from synths to acoustic guitar and back, taking into account tempo and texture. "In Los Angeles" scuffs out a groove. "There's No Blood in Bone" whips up a froth. And the majesty of "Chanteuse" calms it down before the dire kismet of "Death of a Spark" sets in.

Standout "The Only One" is built to captivate, with its bass tones and a music-box-style piano ascending and descending like Escher's famous stairway image.

"If you wanna rip my heart out, go ahead
Go, get on, get it over with
If the sight of blood should make you sick
I'll do my best to bleed under my skin"

The way Miller's seductive vocals glide through torture suggests a gallows humor, and the lyrics reinforce the track's circularity. In the first chorus, it's "I know you're not the only one for me"; but in the second chorus, that changes to "You know you're not the only one for me." This opens a range of possibilities.

Perhaps it's a lover confronted with infidelity, or a different kind of betrayal. Perhaps the second chorus is her response. Perhaps the first chorus is a discovery or a personal revelation and the second chorus signifies a transference of knowledge. Perhaps she told him; perhaps he came to the conclusion on his own. Perhaps the betrayal is double-sided.

The final chorus is even more provocative:

I know I'm not the only one
I know you're not the only one
You know you're not the only one
for me

It's like a movie with a scene lost on the cutting-room floor.

And all the better for it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 2

The Pipettes
We Are the Pipettes
[International version]

It was a match made in Britain.

Solo artist and promoter Monster Bobby (Bobby Barry) paired singers and musicians from the Brighton scene, hoping to tap into clubgoers' lasting affection for '60s girl-group pop. He ended up with star attractions the Pipettes and a backing band for them, the Cassette.

After a bit of lineup shifting in the early days --- to be expected in any large group --- the Pipettes number Gwenno (Gwenno Saunders), Rosay (Rose Dougall) and RiotBecki (Becki Stephens), and the Cassette consist of Monster Bobby on guitar, Jon (Jon Falcone) on bass, Jason (Jason Adelinia) on drums and Seb (Seb Falcone) on keyboards. Together they write songs that recapture the energy, charm, innocence and moxie of groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals.

"Pull Shapes," for instance, extols the virtue of dancing. "Dance with me and we'll be alright," Gwenno sings, with Rosay and RiotBecki providing harmonies. Their enthusiastic delivery, combined with the steady arm of the Cassette, builds up a feeling of euphoria until it sounds like the string section is doing pirouettes.

"Pull Shapes," in essence, is the mission statement of We Are the Pipettes, an album filled with references to dancing. And the music is designed to get you moving. Out of 16 tracks, 13 are uptempo; three are midtempo. All are catchy and hook-laden, beaming the kind of joy that only love could touch.

Love, naturally, is the album's other major theme. Whether it's two wallflowers finding each other ("A Winter's Sky") or getting fed up enough to cut a guy loose ("Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me"), the emotion shows many of its expressions. In "Tell Me What You Want," RiotBecki scolds a boy for making eyes at her, but only because she prefers people to be upfront rather than mysterious. Her take: If you're going to stare, at least come talk to me. "You could be mine," she teases.

Oh yes, they can and do flirt. It's one of many talents in the Pipettes' arsenal. Gwenno, RiotBecki and Rosay have a chemistry that belies their short time together. The skill and ease of their vocal interplay adds sparkle to every song on We Are the Pipettes.

Strangely, the album underwent a remixing job and repackaging before being distributed internationally in 2007. Greg Wells, who specializes in slick, processed pop, did the mixing job and produced two bonus tracks for the release.

While not on the level of the Beatles' Let It Be and Let It Be ... Naked, the differences in the British version and the international version of We Are the Pipettes are numerous and give each a distinct character. Honestly, the covers tell you a lot about the music inside: The British version is proper and graceful. The international version is bigger and louder.

It's counterintuitive that a band birthed from '60s nostalgia would benefit from a modernistic recording instead of one in the tradition of Phil Spector, which is what the British version follows. Nevertheless, Wells' version has its pleasures. "Judy," a tale about befriending a rebellious girl, benefits from Wells' emphasis on bass and percussion. The horns, too, come across as more robust. "ABC" also gets a shot in the arm from his treatment.

The drawback to Wells' mix job is that Seb's keyboards are significantly muffled and many of the background flourishes are buried. You'll have a harder time hearing the crowd effect on "Pull Shapes" and Gwenno's ba-bop-bop-ba backing vocals in "Dirty Mind," though you can hear both distinctly on the British version. When the Pipettes use a lot of backing vocals in quick succession, the extra compression on the international version smooshes them together. That means if you're listening to "One Night Stand" on the British version, the vocals will have good definition, but if you're listening to the international version, it's tougher to make out the phrases.

Ultimately, however, songcraft and personality are what carry this album. When Rosay sings "I woke up with a smile / Oh, I nearly started screaming / That I love you," the exhilaration is contagious. We Are the Pipettes radiates delight regardless of the version.

Buy them both.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 3

In Rainbows

Just as it takes sun and rain to make a rainbow, it took The Bends and Hail to the Thief to make In Rainbows.

Integrating their live instrumentation with their programmables, Radiohead focus on refinement this time around rather than pioneering. After all, the business model was trailblazing enough.

In Rainbows is lean and brisk, clocking in at just over 40 minutes, and Phil Selway's live drums inject the album with a spryness not matched since their formative years. Whether it's the top-notch snare playing of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" or the cymbals-and-shakers treatment of "Reckoner," he makes his presence felt. On the symbolic album-opener "15 Step," he shares the stage with the sampler, abetting its plips and plops, but by the end of the song, the sampler is overpowered, just one element in a multilayered force.

Here and there within those layers, you'll find breadcrumbs leading to the past. The programming in "15 Step" recalls that of Hail to the Thief's "Backdrifts," although the former jumps around more and the latter had that tunnel-vision synth. "Bodysnatchers" revels in the rawness and guitar skronk of "My Iron Lung." "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" lays slow vocals by Thom Yorke over a fast rhythm in the style of "Where I End and You Begin."

Radiohead's approach on In Rainbows hews more to the straightforward songwriting of the Bends era than to the experimentation of their recent years. There's even a love song or two. "I don't want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover," Yorke sings on the spare "House of Cards," encouraging a woman to put her worries to bed (and climb in with him). It's a surprising sentiment from a man long cast as distant and distracted. Kid A certainly heightened that impression. As Radiohead journeyed into the world of computers, they --- and Yorke, especially --- picked up an asexual frost. "House of Cards" feels like the thaw.

Like "House of Cards," "All I Need" concerns a romantic pursuit, although the warped piano tones warn from the start that this one isn't as benign. Over trip-hop beats, Yorke voices his cravings: You. You. You! But there are signs of peril everywhere, from the classic moth-flame analogy to his second-guessing that "It’s all wrong / It’s all right / It’s all wrong / It’s all right."

Even if In Rainbows has a lighter feel overall than most of its predecessors, its conclusion comes draped in a funeral cloak. "Videotape" takes its inspiration from two places: people's treasured memories and people's widespread fear of death. Or, if you apply them to sayings, it might be a combination of "If the Lord took me tomorrow, I'd die a happy man" and "If you're watching this tape, then I'm already dead."

As piano keys tremble, Yorke plays the role of a dying man who records his final words for someone to witness later, for, as he says, "I can't do it face to face." Backward drum rolls and a chorus of ghostly Yorkes ratchet up the tension. The drum rolls, in particular, add an eerieness to the track, sounding more like a shoe tumbling off a dresser than sticks hitting the skins. But "Videotape" is a complicated thing, for in this dark place the doomed man focuses on what has just passed, "the most perfect day I've ever seen."

Not that any of this fear-and-death stuff should come as a surprise. It is Radiohead. Look how they ended The Bends and Hail to the Thief.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 4

The Arcade Fire
Neon Bible

Can I get a witness?!