Thursday, February 18, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 2

Nite Jewel
Good Evening

When we're first introduced to Ramona Gonzalez's voice, on "Bottom Rung," it's buried; perhaps it is the rung.

And yet it's all around us, enfolding the sanctuary- or pagoda-suited keyboard, as if she's pulling a curtain of raindrop beads.

Read my review of Good Evening here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 3

Grizzly Bear

On Grizzly Bear's follow-up to the much-praised Yellow House, they again draw inspiration from setting. This time the title is a little island off Massachusetts that isn't even recognized by the Census Bureau. But that's only the start of the mystique.

Read my review of Veckatimest here.

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 4

Speck Mountain
Some Sweet Relief

The sophomore album from Chicago's Speck Mountain is infused with a spiritual energy. Just don't expect mitres and pulpits.

Read my review of Some Sweet Relief here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The top 10 albums of 2009: No. 5

The Flaming Lips

Listening to Embryonic, I can't help but think it was meant to be experienced in a format other than CD. Vinyl, maybe: spread out over two or three records. Or perhaps on cassette, giving it an A side and a B side. Or maybe its songs were meant to be beamed directly into your brain and arranged to match your mood, care of some device to be invented decades from now.

Of course, this is the same band that released Zaireeka, a four-disc curiosity intended to be consumed simultaneously. (In other words, you'd need four different stereos.) Unlike The Soft Bulletin (1999), which came two years after Zaireeka, and unlike Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) or At War With the Mystics (2006), Embryonic scales back the pop melodies and indulges in atmosphere. This atmosphere vacillates from frenetic and clattering ("Aquarius Sabotage," "Scorpio Sword") to peaceful and drifting ("The Impulse").

"Gemini Syringes" is trance-inducing space rock: As German mathematician Thorsten Wörmann deliberates on an equation, the slow throb of Michael Ivins' bass sways us into a haze. And there's an intermittent clacking, too. It sounds reptilian (but is later revealed to be ... Karen O[!]).

In quiet ballads "Evil" and "If," which could be parts I & II of the same song, Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd examine the good-vs.-evil duality of human nature. They show considerable sensitivity in these, Coyne wanting in the former to spare someone pain, and in the latter Drozd weighing which human motivation is stronger. Bad news: They conclude it's evil, although they do preface that by implying we have more than a small choice in the matter. Drozd sings, "They can be gentle, too / if they decide."

In that spirit, Coyne and Karen O collaborate, almost flirtatiously, on "I Can Be a Frog," with her providing imitations of whatever animal he mentions. There are moments when the two nearly break out in laughter, but Coyne's sincerity sells it. You can bet that even as he throws O a loop, like tossing in "helicopter" before "wolf," he has the underlying message in mind, which is that the woman in the song can be anything she wants to be. (Perhaps coincidentally, O did the soundtrack for the 2009 big-screen adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are.") It's remarkable how tickled and carefree she is here, given how cold she can come across in her Yeah Yeah Yeahs material.

With another cameo --- this one an uncredited David Bowie (or if not, an amazing likeness) --- Coyne picks up the thread of good and evil and loops it around the stargazing theme. After Bowie/pseudo-Bowie counts up to 10 (signifying blast-off?), he gives voice to the dark side ("Free to eat the fruit / from the evil tree"). Also, it seems that those sticky-palmed heathens grant their bodies and/or their souls to "the silver machine" in exchange.

Planets and stars, whether astronomy or astrology in nature, fit the Lips' proclivities; after all, they did spend the better part of the past decade working on their eccentric sci-fi venture, the film "Christmas to Mars." Yet there's a Pink Floyd-esque vastness about Embryonic. Wonder how it would sync up to "The Wizard of Oz." Or would "2001: A Space Odyssey" be more appropriate?