Sunday, December 25, 2011

Huh... Xmas has been and gone and I didn't even get to post anything about it. But hey, you don't need some blogger schlep wishing you well: that's for family & friends. Haven't been here for 2 weeks because the lead-up to Xmas - being in the wholesale business - is non-stop chaos, the last thing I care to do in the evening being contributing to this blog, but the year's nearly up, and so I must give some sort of a half-arsed appraisal to the year that it was.

I'll leave political and world events to those who wish to comment on them (I usually do, but not here), so let's just cut to the chase and give a listing of some releases from 2011 which floated my boat. It was a bumper year for Australian music, and you'd better savour that remark, as I don't believe I've ever uttered it before (and may never again). There were the albums by Melbourne outfits, Dick Diver and Twerps. The former released New Start Again on the Chapter label and it developed into what one likes to call a sleeper, a grower and all things between. Featuring Al Montfort from The UV Race and Total Control (and others... and believe me, this is hard to write coz I work with the guy!), DD mine a relaxed, VU-damaged pop/rock sound which to me incorporates all the best elements of 3rd-LP VU, Marquee Moon (particularly the twin-guitar interplay), The Feelies, early Yo La Tengo and the 3 or 4 Go-Betweens songs I actually like. It's distinctly Australian in sound, though I doubt foreigners would have a hard time placing it in the scheme of things. It took a good half-dozen listens to take hold, but once it did, its sublime, subtle hooks and observational lyrics grabbed me and haven't let go yet. Twerps are DD's "brother/sister band" of sorts, being on the same label, playing shows together, etc., though their sound borrows heavily from the NZ/Flying Nun school of sound. In fact, if their self-titled debut had been released on Flying Nun ca. 1987, you wouldn't have batted an eyelid. Ace songwriting, too. One which came right out of left field and bowled me over is Lost Animal's Ex Tropical, released on the Sensory Projects label. This is probably my fave Australian release of '11. Lost Animal is basically one dude - Jarrod Quarrell - who was one of the prime movers in indie supergroup St. Helens a couple of years back. I never saw nor heard 'em (despite the presence of several friends in the line-up), but Lost Animal's approach to sound is a kind of sparse, dub-influenced and dramatic art-rock which to me brings to mind early '70s Eno, Berlin-period Bowie, primo Serge Gainsbourg and the kind of scattered, suit-wearing junkie-rock perfected by Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard. Ex Tropical possesses a decadent sleaze which, if it wasn't done so damn well, I'd be prone to dismiss as one big pose, but the strength of the material is astonishing. "Lose The Baby": that's the track you need to hear. Total Control, featuring Mikey from Eddy Current (and more) and Dan Stewart from The UV Race, Straightjacket Nation, etc. also put out a fine, fine release. It took me a while to come around to this. I'd seen them live a few times and been kind of underwhelmed by the obviously late '70s post/electro-punk sound they were aiming for (heard it too many times), but on their Henge Beat album (Total Control/Iron Lung), it coalesced into something more than the sum of its parts. Again, I'll throw around names like Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, Screamers, Suicide, et al, but TC are better than mere imitation. The songs, the riffs, they come together to form a whole - one which sways from the purely electronic to honest-to-Pete rock & roll - which makes sense. It sounds like 21st-century music I could actually give a damn about. Lastly, there was The Necks' latest, Mindset. There's not much more I could say about The Necks which I haven't said before (and I've said plenty about 'em before if you care to peruse this blog). Mindset has two 20-minute songs (and for the first time ever, in fitting w/ the song format, they've also released it on LP) - "Rum Jungle" and "Daylights" - the former being the noisy track, all hammering organs and beating drums, whilst the latter is the sound of sparse piano tinkles and light brushes. This band can do no wrong - they have done no wrong - so you need this one to complete the set.

Internationally, the UK's Trembling Bells put out a killer I reviewed here earlier in the year. The band possess an obvious reverance for British folk-rock of yore ('60s Fairports, in particular), but mesh up ye olde stylings w/ Brit psychedelia of the Syd's 'Floyd/Soft Machine variety, as well as the occassional bombastic sense of harmonic expansion one would usually gild from a Dirty Three platter. A great combo, and they have the songs to prove it. I finally came around to San Fran psych-rock quartet, Wooden Shjips, in 2011, and you can probably thank my line of work for finally alerting me to their sounds. Their critics would dismiss them as a one-trick pony - take a hot riff semi-stolen from the Velvets or Roky or Neu! or whoever - and run it into the ground, mumble something over the top and repeat until finished. Perhaps that is an accurate description, and my only retort is that, judging by their West album (Thrill Jockey), released earlier this year, it's a formula which could still do w/ some more milking before I get bored with it. Both Trembling Bells and Wooden Shjips are unashamedly retro in approach - they make few concessions to the sounds of today as we know it, and it's for that reason I can stand, nay, enjoy, listening to them. Michigan-born brassman, Colin Stetson, put out a puzzling, difficult and rather amazing disc earlier in the year, New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges, on the Canadian Constellation label, one which I only bought recently but which must be mentioned. Stetson is mostly known for his voluminous session work, with everyone from Tom Waits to mega-selling indie-rock nudniks The Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his solo work is something else. He plays mostly baritone sax in a circular, atmospheric and repetitive fashion, one not too dissimilar to some of Evan Parker's solo works on the FMP label, the result being a kind of deep and dark industrialism far removed from the world of jazz. New History... also features the vocals of one Laurie Anderson on several tracks - a woman I loathe for reasons too detailed and petty (and possibly unjustified) to go into here - though even she can't spoil the good times to be had. This one's "difficult" but ultimately very rewarding. Speaking of Anderson, I must give special mention to her, ahem, "better" half, Lou Reed, and his collaborative effort w/ mega-selling manchildren, Metallica, Lulu. I procured a freebie of this 2CD set a month or more ago, and for me, regardless of what anyone on planet earth says, it stands as one of the most bizarre, awful, brilliant and utterly unique releases of the past 12 months, if not the past 10 years. The Wire magazine rated Lulu as # 9 in their Top 50 releases of the year, and David Keenan's review in their November issue stands as the only sober and well-reasoned summation of its contents I've read of it in print thus far. Metallica will likely never record another great album in their lifetime (I highly rate their first 3, which I only belatedly came around to about a decade ago), and Reed's chances aren't particularly great, either, but the meeting of these two seemingly incongruous forces of egos, bullshit and bravado has created an entirely different beast. Sure, it rambles, and yes, James Hetfield often comes across like an embarrassing kid trying too hard to impress his grouchy uncle (that's Lou), but anyone w/ an interest in left-field music needs to give this a listen w/out prejudiced ears. The fact that it seems to go on forever (two discs totalling near a 90-minute mark) - as if editing out 10 minutes to make it fit a single CD (something I'm sure the record company was praying for) would spoil its grandiose plans, only makes it even better. It's a startling and absurd mixture of barely-together grunt-metal, raging speed/thrash and extended drones (mostly on disc 2), all laced together w/ Reed's drunken, croaky "poetry". Lulu is a great Lou Reed fuck-you platter, and I'll also give Metallica credit for being just smart/dumb enough to go along w/ it all.

I only watch TV that comes in DVD box sets, and my vote goes to Breaking Bad, a series I've only been exposed to in the last few weeks, despite nagging from friends for the last couple of years. I have now witnessed the first 3 seasons, and for me it stands up there in the Great Television Of The 21st Century pantheon, that select group of shows inhabited by the likes of The Sopranos, The Shield, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood and Six Feet Under. Curb Your Enthusiasm is essentially just a smart and very funny sitcom, but like the others mentioned, Breaking Bad unfolds and reveals itself like a good novel, each episode playing like a chapter in a book as you slowly watch the show's main anti-hero (all these shows possess an anti-hero: it's the formula for good TV as we know it today) steps deeper and deeper into a world of shit. The main protagonist is the highly intelligent yet similarly under-achieving high-school science teacher, Walter White. He's just been diagnosed w/ terminal cancer and has a pregnant wife and disabled son to take care of. Seeing possible financial troubles for his family in the near future, he goes into the crystal meth trade w/ a deadbeat ex-student of his, his brilliant scinetific mind cooking up the best batch of the stuff the southwest has ever seen. He soon learns that once you dip your toe into the drug trade and make an impression, it's hard to get out. On paper, the storyline sounds potentially awful and unrealistic (or just plain awfully unrealistic), but the clever writing and ace performances, and the way the story slowly and convincingly unravels and begins to involve larger forces beyond White's control (or even knowledge) make it absolutely gripping. Folks, they're still very occasionally making TV for people w/ grey matter between their ears, and Breaking Bad is one of the best of them.

Movies? Books? I have no idea what happened this year. I'm the last person you should be asking. I'll be back before the year's out for more blather.

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