Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part One

Here's the first of five installments running down my favourite 25 albums of the year. I decided not to assign numbers this year, but let's understand that the stakes get higher the further we move along, okay?

Neil Young with Crazy Horse—Americana (Reprise)
Another kooky idea from Neil Young, wherein he tackles the songbook from my Grade 4 music class, and cranks up old chestnuts like "Oh Susannah" and "This Land Is Your Land" with that familiar Crazy Horse churn. It's sort of funny at first, then the spirit of the project asserts itself. It's enjoyable—Neil Young and band certainly sound like they've got some lead in their  pencils—and not a little clever. Actually, recording these public domain songs opens up a lot of very modern issues concerning copyright, fair use, the sanctity of recorded artifacts and the monetization of songs. The album opens up a wormhole where one era in which music was shared freely flows into another era where music is shared freely. Neil Young's notes detail each song's history and describe which arrangement Crazy Horse used for the album. Some of the details he digs up are fascinating. Who knew that "Gallows Pole" probably originated in Finland?

Royal Thunder—CVI (Relapse)
"That wasn't metal!" complained a friend after Royal Thunder's set opening for Pallbearer and Enslaved earlier this year. Well, no, Royal Thunder aren't metal, but I'm here to celebrate their magnificent otherness, not complain that they don't fit in. What they are is hard to pin down. They rock, yes they do, with lashings of Led Zeppelin and the blues and Mlny Parsonz's voice launching the whole package skywards. The way songs like "South of Somewhere" flex and breathe is absolutely thrilling. Yet they avoid power chords and most other stoner rock trappings. I hear a lot of early '90s indie rock in their sound, like they're exploring an alternate universe where Throwing Muses bought Marshalls and ended up on AmRep. CVI is a bold, successful statement, and I'm betting their next album will be a major event.

Mark Lanegan Band—Blues Funeral (Sub Pop)
Mark Lanegan albums live in the bad part of town, and dwell on the dark side of life. He's one of the greatest singers of my generation and, as with PJ Harvey (his peer and equal, to my mind), whenever he releases an album you know it's going to be a heavy trip. What does a blues funeral sound like? Well, the songs take many forms, from the raunchy stomp of "Riot In My House" to the despondent dancefloor beats of "Ode to Sad Disco." The sparse arrangements sidestep obvious rock moves and defer to Lanegan's gloriously musty voice. "These tears are liquor, and I've drunk myself sick," he intones on "St. Louis Elegy." I wouldn't wish a life of misery on anyone, but for as long as Mark Lanegan keeps making records, I hope he never cheers up.

Baroness—Yellow and Green (Relapse)
A couple schools of thought arose over Baroness's two-toned double-album. People decided that it was either as a daring collection of melodic, almost mainstream rock, or a lightweight, unmetal bag of shite. Although I found "Little Things" similarity to The Northern Pikes alarming, the rest of it gave me no problem at all. The band certainly aren't as heavy as they once were, but they're every bit as musicianly. None of the 18 songs sound tossed off, and the guitar tones throughout are damn tasty, especially on disc two's opening "Green Theme." It's like a roomful of boutique pedals battling it out for wicked tone supremacy.

Pixel—Reminder (Cuneiform)
Jazz doesn't usually equate to instant enjoyment or accessibility, but this Norwegian quartet's debut album is great fun. Bassist/bandleader Ellen Andrea Wang anchors this collection of tidy instrumentals and catchy vocal numbers with strong, inventive bass lines. Actually, it's the songs with vocals that really make the album for me, especially the sassy "Call Me" and "Wake Up," whose main melody reminds me a bit of White Willow, for whom Wang also plays bass. I imagine Pixel make a lot of new friends every time they play in front of an unsuspecting jazz fest crowd. This isn't music for a stuffy club; it's more suited to an outdoor stage on a brilliant summer day. Aw, now I'm wishing it was Jazz Fest season. I don't want to be that annoying Facebook fan, but here goes: Pixel, come to Vancouver!

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