December 21st, 2008
Happy Winter Solstice, everyone. Here are my favorite local albums from 2008 (with summaries! and Honorable Mentions!) for you to peruse and/or scoff at. ‘Twas a banner year, IMHO, for the town’s best record label, Sub Pop, from Fleet Foxes, Sera Cahoone, the Helio Sequence, and Grand Archives to Wolf Parade, No Age, and Foals. Not surprisingly, a number of Portland bands also caught my ear this year—three in my top 5! Without further ado.
10. A Killer of Snakes - The Heavy Hearts (Selector Sound)
The members of the Heavy Hearts have paid their dues, playing in local hard-rock outfits for almost a decade and a half, yet the grunge-punk band with two bassists and a bombshell sound still manages to live below the proverbial radar. A Killer of Snakes is a distinctive, snotty, chugging, blistering, and defiant work of punk that never quite stops its bludgeoning tempo. “Attrition” is a fine example of their vicious dual attack and Brian Burnside’s almost-jangly guitar drives the melody while his wife and cohort, Denise Maupin, bridges the song with an exemplary solo. The militant, deftly scaled “Revolution” is an instance where Burnside’s inspiration from guitar heroes like Thurston Moore and J. Mascis are proudly put on display while the chorus echoes, “I know you know I know you want it!” If there’s one thing this band has gotten down pat, it’s the bratty, insistent vocal repetitions presented in most every song. Who can’t get behind that? [Full Album Review]
9. Mono in VCF - Mono in VCF (Stylomusic)
It’s difficult not to first notice vocalist Kim Miller when listening to Mono in VCF. She plays the stoic songbird passionately layering the jazz-inspired trip-hop emanating through her bandmates. But dig a little deeper and the low-velocity catalogue of loungy, psychedelic soul rock becomes just as clear to the listener as it does hazy. The newish Tacoma band has somehow managed to concoct an intimately grandiose sound, as evidenced by the Kinks-inspired pyschological urban escapade “Escape City Scrapers” or the dramatic musings of “Cinch Ring”. Led by guitarist/keyboardist Hunter Lea, the drums are jazzy and unobtrusive, the bass steady and chilling, and the keyboards emanating with a little drug-induced piano dust. [Live Show Review]
8. She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke – the Dutchess & the Duke (Hardly Art)
The Dutchess and the Duke seemed to wander in on the back end of Seattle’s bearded folk revival scene. But instead of the poppier alt-country tendencies of outfits like Band of Horses, Grand Archives, and Fleet Foxes, the D&D instead focused on true ramshackle folk-rock songs about supersonic jet planes, fuckin’ in the phone booth, carefree Armageddon love, and ships made of stone. The chemistry between Kim Morisson and Jesse Lortz is both amazing to listen to and fun to watch, and their off-kilter lovelorn harmonies and endearingly simplistic tunes set themselves apart with nimble guitar pickin’, sassy maraca shakin’, constant tambourine playin’, flighty flutes, and sparse drumming. You might as easily have your heart strings frighteningly tugged as be caught dancing barefooted in your kitchen. These are songs for both sunny days and troubled times, and most definitely anyone who cares to listen.
7. Only As The Day Is Long - Sera Cahoone (Sub Pop)
Simply put, listening to Sera Cahoone just makes me feel good. Her sultry, plainspoken voice, her lo-fi, homespun guitar, and her honest, humble attitude all worked together in creating one of the more touching and beautiful records to come out this year. And despite the feel-good aspect of her music, the tone and subjects of Only As The Day Is Long tend to the somber and lovelorn, much like the Nashville stars of yore. “Baker Lake”, a love song with foreboding overtones, “Shitty Hotel”, a steel-pedal driven heartfelt plea, and “The Colder the Air”, a grand tune with a steady Americana tempo, are my favorites. And while her friends do quite well in making her visions come true—in particular plucker Jeff Fielder and steel pedaler Jason Kardong—it’s Cahoone’s voice and relaxed persona that draws me in.
6. Strange Symmetry EP - Past Lives (Suicide Squeeze)
The band’s name, they have said, is about friends reincarnate, past experiences dovetailing into something unique and contemporary. As such, you will most likely be reminded of the now-defunct Blood Brothers, the band from which members now make up three quarters of this one. But the addition of guitarist Devin Welch (one of the more intriguing players in Seattle) created an entirely alternate mood that both contained and matured their previous sound. Dark, choppy, and fluid—like an angry sea (or any number of early 80s British bands)—is how Strange Symmetry flaunts itself. “Beyond Gone”, with its chilling guitar and synthetic steel drum backbone, introduces Jordan Blilie’s handsome croon and Mark Gajadhar’s clickity-clack drumbeat. Its sinister tone is quickly blasted away by the 5-song EP’s title track, detonated by a dual guitar chug and Blilie’s familiar urgent yelp. The final track, “Chrome Life” begins with a wonderfully cacophonous guitar squeal behind a wide snare beat. Henderson swells the song with a baritone guitar reminiscent of “Knight Rider” and it quickly escalates to something mysterious and volatile. Here’s to the future of Past Lives. [Full Album Review] [Live Show Review]
Top 5 after the jump.
5. Censored Colors - Portugal. The Man (Equal Vision)
To call Censored Colors a “concept album” would be both an understatement and an affront to the freethinking prog-rockers from Portland. True, there is an unmistakable theme of ‘color’ running through the record, and John Gourley’s authentic and emotive lyrics often tend towards death, the deprived, and the multidimensional, but their efforts to create a well-rounded, socially conscious, downright affecting LP, I’m convinced, were entirely genuine. The band dabbles in tender acoustic rock, vintage explosive metal, harmony-infused folk, jazzy psych-rock, conscious 70s soul, roots reggae, and groggy electro finishes all in concert together to show the world what they’re made of. The soulful jangle of “Salt”, the violin-adorned “Created”, and the weighty standout track “Colors” anchor the first half, while hard rocking tunes like “Hard Times” and “Never Pleased”—a blend of Queen and Pink Floyd that fans of the chuggariffic Black Mountain would find fit for their basement smoke sessions—batten down the back end. Despite the record’s name, there’s certainly no censorship here. [Full Album Review] [Live Show Review]
4. The Grand Archives - Grand Archives (Sub Pop)
Similar to their vocally ambitious Fleet Foxes brethren, Grand Archives too shot spectacularly through the roof, securing an opening slot for Modest Mouse at the Paramount Theater in just their second show. But the guitar-pop quintet remained humble and meticulously crafted a record so refreshingly honest and rustic that it only gets better with age. There are several aspects of The Grand Archives that make it rewarding, and its decidedly Pacific Northwest imagery (“Index Moon”, “Sleepdriving”), its offbeat and retrospective take on peculiar tales (“George Kaminski”, “Louis Riel”), its charismatic and baroque group-effort harmonies (“Miniature Birds”, “A Setting Sun”) and its rowdy, sing-along pop illuminations (“The Crime Window”, “Torn Blue Foam Couch”) are prime examples. Brooke’s voice and pensive attitude even recall the late great Elliot Smith, which should pique any Pac NW music fan’s ears. [Live Show Review]
3. Starfucker - Starfucker (Badman Recording Co.)
I’m not sure what led me to DIY space-pop ambassadors Starfucker, but whatever it was (shooting star? orbiting satellite? UFO?), I’m sure as hell glad it did. As enchanting as it is entertaining, the self-titled debut from these three Portlandians (Josh Hodges, Ryan Biornstad, Shawn Glassford) infectiously wanders in and out of itself with electro-pop symphonies, hand-clap driven ditties, repetitive, synth-heavy harmonies, and bleary-eyed, stargazing bliss. One moment you might find yourself likening them to a bouncy, laser-like version of Air (“Isabella of Castile”), or an electronic, youthful rendering of the Flaming Lips (“U Ba Khin”, “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second”), and the next tapping your toes to a percolating party tune with a captivating chorus (“Pop Song”). Of course, don’t be surprised if you also find yourself up on cloud nine after giving this album a spin. [Full Album Review] [Live Show Review]
2. Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
I wouldn’t say I was necessarily surprised by Fleet Foxes’ meteoric rise in 2008, but I was certainly impressed by it. The good-natured troubadour throwbacks, led by singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold, began the year opening for lesser bands in Seattle-area clubs and ended it playing the Austin City Limits Festival, with spots at the Capitol Hill Block Party and Sasquatch! in between. Talk about a skyrocket. But as their tantalizing Sun Giant EP would indicate, there was very little to dislike about these bucolic folk-rockers. From the rollicking gloominess of “Mykonos” and the jangly springtime stroll of “Ragged Wood”, to the tenderly ominous beauty of “Your Protector” and the avian love metaphors of “Meadowlarks”, there was nary a disappointing tune to be found on either the EP or LP. Don’t look for the voices of these pipe-heavy songsters to be silenced any time soon. [Sun Giant Review] [Live Show Review]
1. Keep Your Eyes Ahead - The Helio Sequence (Sub Pop)
As far as independent (“indie”, if you must) Northwest albums, nothing mesmerized me more in 2008 than the Helio Sequence’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead. From the moment I randomly heard the propulsive title track on the radio, to putting the album on like an old baseball glove in my living room two weeks ago, the pristine and poignant guitar, the colossal pounding drums, the personal and cultural commentary never cease to amaze me. Brandon Summers suffered through some vocal chord troubles prior to this record, but the soft-singing, wide-eyed idealist ignored this little problem to lend an inspiring Dylan-esque quality to his bandmate Benjamin Weikel’s torrid, restrained, and dynamic approach to percussion. Whether it’s strumming a delicate folk tune in “Shed Your Love” or lamenting the overindulgence of today’s consumer in “Can’t Say No”, nothing feels out of place. “The Captive Mind” holds the listener, well, captive, with its incessant marching toms and laptop electro flourishes, while “Hallelujah” ponders mistaken religious tendencies with a robotic drum beat, an ethereal chorus and precise guitarmanship. Keep your eyes ahead, indeed. [Live Show Review]
Year of the Jerk - Partman Parthorse (PMPH) [Full Album Review]
In The Future - Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar)
There Is Loud Laughter Everywhere - Head Like A Kite (Mush)
Glistening Pleasure - Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head (Team Swan)
Mingle – The Saturday Knights (Light in the Attic)
Also, listen to songs from these and other bands in my 21 Excellent Local Tracks Of 2008 post. My opinion’s only the one, so leave us a comment with your favorite local records of the year. C’mon, it’ll be fun!