The Complicatist : Sleigh Bells, Joanna Newsom etc.

So far, so good – the best new music from 2010

by Gordon Campbell

It being past the three quarters mark for 2010, here’s a stock-take of five of the best albums released this year. This stuff lasts, though. Its not as if the Tune-Yards album Bird Brains isn’t still worth checking out from last year, either.

Sleigh Bells – Treats

Sick of Auto-tuned bogus perfection? Well, climb aboard. This one came out a few months ago amid blizzards of hype, most of it entirely justified. Everything (except the vocals) is projected here in messy, exhilarating overload. As someone said, this album sounds like Rick Rubin fell asleep over the console board and pushed all the faders up to eleven. As a result, Sleigh Bells are not low fi as we’ve known it from grunge or post-grunge outfits like Times New Viking a few years ago. This is loud fi, to the point where every sound is breaking up under the strain, except for the female vocal that wafts on through the storm.

Sleigh Bells are a Brooklyn NY duo, comprised of Derek Millar on guitar and bass, and vocalist Alexis Kraus. Together, they manage to straddle several genres at once – poppy bright melodies, huge punk/metal riffs that sound like Varese’s fire sirens and spacious rhythms that owe more to hip hop than to the usual indie antecedents. The songs are like wraiths of airy white noise, heavily compressed but also supple and springy…This is big, bright ear candy for all the family.

The band’s signature tune ‘Crown On The Ground’ in particular, has been pushed so far into the red zone of distortion that mainstream radio (if they ever played it) would probably insist on a disclaimer. “Rill Rill” is slower but inexorably catchy, and samples Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” to good effect. ‘Crown On The Ground’ has quickly become part of the cultural furniture, and I’ve chosen to feature it (far below) along with the album opener “ Tell ‘Em” and aa track called “Kids” – but really, there’s barely a dud track on the entire album.

2. Joanna Newsom : Have One On Me

A lot of people still see Joanna Newsom as some kind of fey folk princess singing about rainbows and unicorns. Don’t see why – given that on this album, she likens going through a relationship meltdown to a pair of jackrabbits with their necks broken. That’s a pretty tough image, and not a new stance either. On the flipside of her first single in 2004, in a song called “What We Have Known” she wrote an extremely angry song about the cultural amnesia that makes American wars in Iraq – and soon possibly, Iran – possible.

Newsom’s albums have kept getting better. Her voice, in the wake of an operation last year for throat nodules, is also firmer and stronger. Stylistically, there was a huge leap from the folk lyricism of The Milk-Eyed Mender to the ornate orchestration of the Ys album and another major progression is evident on this sprawling triple album (three hours of new music !) that was released in February. Months onwards, even fans are still coming to grips with the array of lengthy songs, given that only the catchy seven minute ‘Good Intentions Paving Company” offered any easy returns.

For now, “ Esme” and the aforementioned “Jackrabbits” seem like the standouts. ( Other people I know make a case for “ In California ” and “Kingfisher ”) On the surface, “Esme’ is a generous observation of a lovely young girl, expressed in the verse melody with a lightness and delicacy that matches its subject. By the time Newsom gets to the main melody though, it sounds so strong that Newsom can make a sentiment like ‘May kindness prevail’ seem like an achievable goal. It’s a great song, about benevolence and hope.

As for ‘Jackrabbits’ the biographically inclined will probably see this as a product of her break-up with Bill Callahan. As they say, Callahan may well be a bit of a creep but – as others have also noted – his romance with JN did kindle a ‘redeemed creep’ storyline that had a certain attraction. Somehow, I can’t imagine her current relationship with Andy Samberg – he was the gay brother in the Paul Rudd film I Love You, Man – will inspire much in the way of good music. It looks like a mismatch.

3. Li’l Wayne / My Sick Uncle – 500 Days of Weezy

My Sick Uncle’s mash up of Li’l Wayne with the soundtrack from 500 Days of Summer was an act of genius, because the fusion really works – mainly because the juxtaposition of Wayne with Regina Spektor, the Smiths and Simon and Garfunkel takes the sugar out of the originals, while giving Wayne the tight pop framework that he lacked on that misbegotten ‘rock’ album he did last year. The entire album can be downloaded for free from here, but here’s a couple of sample tracks, one being a musical setting of the Mumm Ra single ‘She’s Got You High’ – used here as the setting for Wayne’s interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric.

4. Various Artists : Fire In My Bones

Another triple album, this time a wildly diverse collection of post-war gospel music, brought together by US music journalist Mike McGonigal. The styles that McGonigal has thrown together here range from a few throwbacks to country blues styles (eg. ‘I Know I’ve Got Religion’ by two convicts called Andy Mosely and Hogman Maxey) to shimmering, unearthly church gatherings (eg ‘Prayer/I Love the Lord”) to incipient rock’n’roll (eg, Flora Molton’s “I Heard It Through the True Vine”) to a group of senior citizens at the Madison County old folks’ home singing a spellbinding number called “Wasn’t That A Mystery.” Track by track, there’s no telling what’s coming next.

It is an endlessly fascinating collection, mainly because McGonigal has ranged so far beyond the great professional gospel groups of the 1950s and 1960s, like the Swan Silvertones or Mighty Clouds of Joy. This is far rougher stuff, but it also sounds more modern than the two terrific collections of country gospel music from the 1920s ( Half Ain’t Never Been Told Vols I and II) issued on Yazoo a few years ago. Ultimately, the fact that there is no linking thread whatsoever between this wild collection of styles gives the album a perverse strength. Truly, people worship their God in the most personal of ways.

I’ve selected one of the more conventional Fire album tracks, an uptempo song the Reverend Steward and Family called ‘I Made A Vow To The Lord’. Unfortunately the best track a sermon/song called “Power Is In The Heart Of Man” by Brother and Sister W. H. Grate, from North Carolina is not available online. So for extras here’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s terrific version of “Precious Memories”, which among other things was the theme song for the 1990 Charles Burnett movie To Sleep With Anger.

5. Fang Island : Fang Island

Positivity is a hard thing to pull off in music, much harder than heartbreak, pessimism and anger, which come fairly easy to all of us. (The fate of Andrew W.K. is a warning of how quickly good time party music can run out of gas.) Fang Island are a five piece band from Rhode Island that have managed to combine high energy and supreme good times without bringing say, a Christian vibe along to spoil the party. (If there is a god-like influence evident here, it comes from Animal Collective. In the vocals in particular.) An early Youtube clip of Fang Island playing a gig for what looks like a classroom of kindergarten kids, is particularly endearing.

To my mind, ‘Careful Crossers’ is the best cut from their debut album but ‘Daisy’ has been the closest thing to a hit that they’ve managed – and the video of the song incidentally features the best use of presidential face masks this side of the movie Point Break.

As an extra, here are Sleigh Bells again doing ‘Crown on the Ground.’ Plus a real oldie from 2007 – the Mountain Goats doing a live version of John Darnielle’s finest song “Going to Georgia.” Only this time, they perform it as a joyous crowd singalong. Really touching. Hope you enjoy the rest of 2010.