2007 Beggars Banquet
2007 was filled with anticipated records and Internet-leaked albums. Radiohead found a way to beat the latter, while Wilco and Stars endured it. Those bands listed created critically divisive work, though I luckily stood on the thumbs-up side of the division. The National’s album, Boxer, was both long-awaited and leaked in advance, though the difference between Boxer and other anticipated records was that most people agreed that it was excellent music.
A songwriter is a lyricist when they create timeless beauty with their words, while instigating the listener to wonder what aroused such storytelling. Singer Matt Beringer gives his audience an incredibly subjective experience with each spin and never have I tried to translate lyrics with such intent uncertainty. Well, not since their previous opus, Alligator. Boxer is a gem because my favorite track changed multiple times over the course of this year. It is much mellower than its predecessor, but the melodies are just as dark and seductive. With this record, The National have realized their sound, between their folky, Americana roots and their recent indie rock credentials. Play this album and repeat “Green Gloves” and “Slow Show,” over and over. “You know I dreamed about you for twenty-nine years before I saw you. You know I dreamed about you. I missed you for twenty-nine years.” -Revaz Ardesher
No Age – Weirdo Rippers
2007 Fat Cat Records
On this raw little debut, barely over a half-hour in length, No Age has mastered the massive fog of sound that seemingly every other new band has been going for—that stoner fuzz of a gazillion effects pedals—but shredding through it is Sunshine State bubble gum skate punk, complete with slightly snotty boy-on-boy vocals. Think: Beaches & Canyons-era Black Dice shot-gunning a joint with Times New Viking while blasting a third-gen dubbed cassette of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless on a tinny tape deck. Weirdo Rippers both opens and closes to the sound of waves breaking, a nice bit of framing for an album steeped in an aquatic-like mutability. If No Age could be said to have a formula, it's that of sudden upsets: psych-out surf riffs melt into washes of wavering noise only to be rent by a tempest of thrashed drums and spazzy guitar that shakes the nails right outta Joey Ramone's coffin. And it's precisely this instability, the ebbs and flows, which first compelled me to hoard the numerous EPs and 7 inches No Age dropped last year—much of which is collected here. Only after repeated listening did I finally realize the true joy of Weirdo Rippers: the whole glorious mess is deceptively upbeat. Under the posi-sheen of jangling guitar and lo-fi haze is a constant melancholy, as in the cooing chorus of "Loosen this Job": “It's colder in your house than you think / It's colder in your bones.” At the core, Weirdo Rippers is the ultimate party jam for sad sacks. -Raven Baker
PJ Harvey – White Chalk
2007 Island Records
White Chalk is the sound of horrible things happening to the most loving person you know. There is a grace on the surface of these songs that just barely masks the devastation underneath. It is at once both the most beautiful album of PJ Harvey’s lauded career and quite possibly the most haunting. What it is not is the thin collection of introverted folk ballads it was presumed to be upon release. The instrumentation is exquisite, with production to match. The upright piano—taking center stage away from Polly’s electric guitar—is mic’d so closely you can hear the hammers striking the strings. The dynamics rise and fall as harps, zithers, and percussion weave in and out of the arrangements. Lyrically, the artist pulls from her most frequent inspiration sources: literature and landscape (specifically Tolstoy and Dorset). But the delivery is what separates White Chalk from its predecessors. PJ presents her versatile voice at its least mannered and the results are truly affecting. From the hushed tone of “Dear Darkness,” to the complex harmonies of “Silence”; from the desperation of “Grow Grow Grow” and “The Piano,” to the sad resignation of “To Talk to You” and the final wail in “The Mountain”—the voice is so emotive it’s searing. Few albums are as fully realized as White Chalk; even the cover art is strangely unnerving despite its simplicity. After 15 years, PJ Harvey is still finding new ways to metamorphose her sound with amazing results. -Koye Berry
Marnie Stern – In Advance of the Broken Arm
2007 Kill Rock Stars
One summer night in 2007, when friends of mine were saying that they were going off to see Marnie Stern play at the Ottobar, I thought, "Pish! Can't take another singer-songwriter"—but then I read some City Paper review saying that she shredded… and oh how she did. Oh my goodness, yes. After the Marnie Stern show, I became a HUGE Yes fan (I already loved Rush, and it goes without saying I became a huge Marnie Stern fan as well). Here was this girl about my size dressed up in white-people mall clothes with a face like that hot middle-school French teacher, playing guitar lines that sounded like Uli Jon Roth playing the solo from "The Sails of Charon" sped up and looped. Some dude named Zach Hill, from a band called Hella that hipster kids at my old college liked a lot, was playing drums pretty well behind her, but honestly, you're paying to watch her scribble-scrabble fingers. Her live show translates as well to the studio recordings as can be expected, though "Patterns on A Diamond Ceiling," an Adrian-Belew-Japanese-guitar-ad-style quest jam (like an abridged "Gates of Delirium" by Yes) is a golden ice-cream cake live. Buy the record and listen to it while jogging down by the river at night—but more importantly, go send Marnie a MySpace message telling her to come back to Baltimore and scrabble at us some more. -Ann Everton
Solace – The Black Black EP
2007 Underdogma/Land o’ Smiles
I have a theory.
Some bands opt to carve out their own unique space in the sonic spectrum, others, all too often, fear to tread unworn paths—wallowing in mediocrity and failing to contribute anything meaningful to music. Some bands, however, can make seemingly stagnant genres relevant again without adding anything new.
I admit it—I didn’t have this theory until I found myself attempting to analyze Solace’s The Black Black. Why do I put this EP on repeat and headbang my way around my apartment making the horns of the beast sign? I realized that, in order to review this release, I had to first find my metal self. After much soul-searching and the donning of my black hoodie, I found what I perceived to be enlightenment.
Solace’s parts sound like the distillation of thirty years of metal. The quintet plays rollicking, sludgy, crushing, palm-muted pentatonic rock. Over the course of The Black Black, Solace wrings the genre of metal for all that its worth without overdoing it—screams, dark imagery, wah’d guitars, twin leads, swing beats, and lots of hot double bass drum action. Amazingly, and this is a good thing, nothing stands out on this disc—these guys are incredibly consistent; each track is as solid as any other.
Most successful journeys of self-discovery end with a “happily ever after” moment, but mine ended with “Who cares about my theory? I need more discs like this so I can stage dive off the couch and onto my bed while playing some wicked air guitar.” -Beau Finley
Battles – Mirrored
2007 Warp Records
Battles' previous EPs fulfilled its initial promise: Ian Williams' warped melodies over John Stanier's punishing post-hardcore beats. Obviously, this wasn't enough for the outfit-once-known-as-a-“supergroup.” The enlistment of Tyondai Braxton for Mirrored pushed the band into new sonic frontiers. Braxton's piercing Elf-Speak "vocals" provide an inexplicably arresting lead line to the previously all-instrumental quartet. The creative dynamic has perhaps pushed the instrumental side in turn; before hearing "Rainbow," I always pondered how it felt to be a pinball being slammed back and forth within a game machine (now, thanks to that rapid-fire snare drum, I think that I do). Mirrored does err at times; the band (as it did in its EPs) cushions its brilliant tracks like "Rainbow" in between brief filler tracks (i.e. "Prismism"). Yet the full-length is couched by the exhilarating "Race: In" and "Race: Out," which once again prove Stanier's brilliance in producing killer rhythms in addition to those sick-ass fills. Given the filler, occasionally wankery, and inside-joke song titles, I'm somewhat baffled at Mirrored's critical success; however, it's not that the emperor has no clothes. To mix our metaphors: these boys are waving their proverbial dicks in the wind, with utmost glee. -CJ
Karl Blau – Dance Positive
2007 K Records/Kelp Lunacy
Karl Blau has been doing his proverbial thing for quite some time now. In fact, his contribution to the music and art world of the Pacific Northwest is almost immeasurable, with Blau moonlighting as guest musician, vocalist, and handyman with everyone from the Microphones/Mt. Eerie to Your Heart Breaks. On top of all that, his “periodical CD label” Kelp Lunacy has released tunes from the likes of Calvin Johnson, Johana Kunin, and LAKE, to name but a few.
On Blau’s latest effort, Dance Positive, his listeners find him more, well, positively danceable, than ever. The record features 10 tunes originally penned by Bret Lunsford (Beat Happening, D+) that are given a fantastic and dubbed-out going-over by Blau. The undeniably catchy “Kill the Messenger” is sure to be an instant favorite, jam-packed with horns and Blau’s ever-present croon-y drawl. “Heatherwood,” which features Karl’s brother Eddy on trumpet, delves into the record’s dark side with spaced-out vocals and a throbbing, repetitive backbeat.
If anybody other than Blau made this record, it would run the risk of feeling like a disconnected series of exercises in genre. However, when considered alongside the rest of his discography, Dance Positive is right at home. Hit up the folks over at Marriage Records (Portland, OR) for your very own copy, and please—for the love of God—get out and see Karl Blau play live. The experience is worth far more than the fiver you’ll drop to get in the door. -Bob Kielsun
The Most Serene Republic – Population
2007 Arts & Crafts
Among Population’s liner notes—the typical shouts out to friends, family, and fellow musicians—the Most Serene Republic includes a thank-you for “ears that need silence as much as sound.” It’s an odd afterword for a band best known for its manic layering of voices and instruments: frenetic percussion, threefold guitars, throbbing bass, melodic piano, trombone, sampled recordings, and ever-shifting vocal threads that interweave solos and call-response duets with full-band choral cries. It’s especially odd when you consider that Population’s overzealous aggregation of sound leaves little room for the very silence (rather, the appreciation thereof) for which TMSR seems to be so thankful. Beginning with the symphonic swell of “Humble Peasants” (courtesy of Toronto’s Etobicoke School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra) and the bombast of “Compliance,” TMSR show little apparent interest in the absence of sound. Inter-track bleeds are commonplace, and atmospherics, like those leading into (and out of) “The Men Who Live Upstairs” and “Sherry and Her Butterfly Net,” work to stop the gaps where silence threatens to seep in. Yet there is a quiet certainty to all this noise, a secret calm hidden behind the Latin beat of “A Mix of Sun and Cloud,” nestled in the barely-there improvised piano leading into the harmonies of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” kept safe in the infinitely miniscule voids that separate the fervent “Solipsism Millionaires” and the shifting rhythms of “Multiplication Desks.” Strange as it may seem, there is a lovely silence in this mess of sound; you need only listen to hear it. -Tom Körp
American Steel – Destroy Their Future
2007 Fat Wreck Chords
Let me start by saying that, with very few exceptions (Lifetime, 108, Dinosaur Jr.), when bands get back together and write a new album after years apart, the results are usually pretty abysmal. So I had my reservations when I heard that American Steel would be picking up the reins again and releasing a new record. 1999's Rogue's March was a favorite of mine at the time, but their next album, 2001’s Jagged Thoughts didn't quite live up to my expectations. Shortly after that, they changed up their sound and their name and released some records of not-so-interesting dance-y pop as Communique. So I must admit that, while I was looking forward to catching them on tour with the Lawrence Arms, my expectations were pretty low. Imagine my surprise when they completely stole the show that night playing a set consisting of almost all new material. The punk anthems were back and bigger than ever. Of course I picked up their new album, and it has rarely left my turntable since.
Destroy Their Future is loaded with dark melodies and raucous choruses along the lines of Avail, Hot Water Music, and Against Me!, marrying social criticism with big hooks while steering clear of the dry political analysis that many political punk bands trap themselves in. Lyrically, they refrain from beating you over the head with useless data and instead offer up a selection of stories cut from every day American life. Those most filled with angst must not fear though, as the rage and contempt for those in the cockpit of our country is seething and filled with bitterness.
American Steel also realize the importance in making protest music you can party to. They easily surpass Against Me!'s finest attempts at making anarcho punk rousing and fun to sing along to with this album. You can't help but ball up that fist and raise it with pride while belting out these songs. This is the finest batch of socially critical anthems I've heard in quite some time. I didn't think any band would be able to knock the Ergs out of my number one spot for 2007, but American Steel have managed that great feat. Consider my mind blown. I can't stop listening to this record. -Mike Riley