2014 Mid-Year Roundup

“Seasons (Waiting On You)” by Future Islands is my favorite track of the year so far, and I only first heard it a month ago (I missed the band’s career-making Letterman performance from early March); unlike last year, I’m not as quick to pick a single favorite album (it’s not Singles…yet), although I could’ve easily added five more to the shortlist below (I’m limiting it to ten). As for movies, I do have a clear single favorite of those I’ve listed here–looking forward in seeing how well it holds up to a second viewing during its theatrical release later this month.

In alphabetical order:

ALBUMS

Ben Watt, Hendra
The Both, The Both
Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine
Emm Gryner, Torrential
Future Islands, Singles
Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
Neneh Cherry, Blank Project
Owen Pallett, In Conflict
Suzanne Vega, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentacles
Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

FILMS

Boyhood
God Help The Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ida
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Mood Indigo
Only Lovers Left Alive
Under The Skin
We Are The Best!

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When I Knew

I never got into The Fiery Furnaces (though lord knows I tried with Blueberry Boat)–siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger seemed like some warped academic’s idea of an indie rock duo, deflating any discernible hooks with a soupçon of meandering song lengths, unwieldy tempo shifts and bursts of cacophony. It almost comes as a relief, then, that Eleanor’s solo albums forgo all this foofaraw for classically elegant melodic pop.

I first heard last year’s Personal Record too late in the year for it to make my top fifteen; now it would likely sneak in. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking on it, but Friedberger’s a good lyricist and more often than not she hits that feminine-but-tough, cool and poised sweet spot which the likes of Aimee Mann and Liz Phair regularly did in the ’90s. “When I Knew” is the standout, not only for being catchy as hell and immensely likable but also for its unique gender-fluidity–is Friedberger singing from a man’s perspective, or is it just a lesbian love song? And in the end, who cares when the words and their wit command your attention so well? Particularly when she puckishly rhymes Halloween with the title of a Dexy Midnight Runners song…

Dirty Paws

Occasionally, a song won’t register right away, but sneak up on me without any expectations. Icelandic collective Of Monsters and Men’s album My Head Is An Animal came out two years ago, with “Little Talks” oh-so-gradually becoming a crossover top 40 hit. Album opener “Dirty Paws” belatedly began receiving some radio airplay late last year when it was memorably used to score the trailer for the Ben Stiller flop The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is tremendous and a perfect introduction as it contains everything one may love or hate about the band–dramatic crescendoes, twee lyrics carrying more than a hint of folklore in them, propulsively shouted “HEYS!”, and chiming orchestral hooks. I love all of it, and “Dirty Paws” takes me to my happy place whenever it comes up on my mp3 player.

Many Happy Returns

Should I worry that my three favorite new albums of the year are all by artists returning after exceedingly long hiatuses? First up is Cibo Matto, the Japanese-American female duo who broke up after their second album in 1999 but reunited for a tour in 2011. I saw them then at the Brighton Music Hall, where they teased a few tracks from “their new album”. 2+ years later, Hotel Valentine has finally arrived and I’m liking it almost as much as their classic debut, Viva! La Woman. Whereas that was a loose concept album about food, the new one’s a (somewhat less) loose concept album about a hotel for ghosts. It’s pretty wonderful, unmistakably Cibo Matto but also fresh and unique, not at all stuck in a late ’90s time capsule. “10th Floor Ghost Girl” is the immediate standout, a catchy, loopy dance floor fixture with a guitar riff swiped straight from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.

After putting out four discs of re-recorded versions of her old songs, Suzanne Vega has finally crafted a true follow-up to 2007’s Beauty and Crime. Despite its unwieldy, pretentious title Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles, it ranks with her best, most lucid work; oddly enough, it’s also possibly her hardest rocking effort to date, and if you scoff at the idea of describing Vega that way, give “I Never Wear White” a spin and get back to me.

Finally, Neneh Cherry, of all people, has a new album out. Apart from her recent collaboration with avant-jazz group The Thing, she hasn’t put out anything in 18 years, and that last record, Man, was never officially released here. Remarkably, she doesn’t sound a day older than she did on 1992’s Homebrew. I only just listened to Blank Project for the first time yesterday, but its minimalist grooves already seem both up-to-the-minute and timeless. “Out of the Black” is a sharp collaboration with Robyn, whom I hope doesn’t wait too much longer to release a follow-up to her own last LP, 2010’s Body Talk.

The Beatles, “Cry Baby Cry”

Possibly the least “obscure” band of all time,The Beatles initially seem an awkward fit for this series. Even beyond the singles, dozens of their album tracks have burrowed their way into the collective unconsciousness of 20th Century pop music (“I’ll Follow The Sun”, “Here Comes The Sun”, “Helter Skelter”, “Drive My Car”, “When I’m Sixty Four”–none of them singles). I really had to think for a minute as to what, exactly, would constitute a lesser-known Beatles song.

Slotted between “Savoy Truffle” (a catchy George Harrison trifle) and John Lennon’s infamous sound collage “Revolution 9” on side four of 1968’s The Beatles (more commonly referred to as The White Album), the Lennon-penned “Cry Baby Cry” could be a highlighted on any other band’s album. Here, towards the end of a behemoth containing 29 other tracks (a majority of them far flashier), it gets a little lost. Low-key, mid-tempo and driven by a pounding piano that’s synonymous with late period-Beatles, it’s an understated gem, full of neat little filigree: the accordion at 0:06,  the three whimsical piano chords (as if a cat strutted down the keyboard) at 0:27, the sudden guitar riff at 1:27. Throughout, the volume gently surges and pulls back, lending the recording a dynamic that the band pulls off almost effortlessly.

As embedded above, the track concludes with a somewhat ghostly 30-second snippet of an untitled, unfinished Paul McCartney song, presumably intended as a bridge to “Revolution 9” or perhaps just included on a whim. The contrast between the two compositions is present, but musically, they’re also complimentary to a degree–a preview of transitions within the medley on side two of Abbey Road, perhaps.

Alison Moyet, “Solid Wood”

The only real criteria for coverage in my “Obscurity Knocks” series (lesser-known songs by well-known artists) is that the artist has to have been popular, i.e.-having charted in the top 40 at least once.  Although she’s had many hits in the UK, Alison Moyet just squeaks by where the US is concerned (1985’s “Invisible”,# 31). Granted, she’s better known here for her work with synth-pop duo Yaz(oo) (“Only You”, “Situation”, neither of which made the top 40, inexplicably).

Just as it was refreshing to hear Moyet delve back into electronica with last year’s The Minutes, in 1995, it was an unexpected delight to discover her commanding, soulful vocal on a primarily guitar-based track. “Solid Wood” was one of two new songs included on Singles, a superb greatest hits collection (the other was a lush cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” set to a hip-hop beat). Both songs flopped when released as UK singles, “Solid Wood” only reaching # 44 and the Roberta Flack song not charting at all (the album, however, went to # 1).

Anticipating the direction she’d take on her next (and in my opinion, best) album Hometime, “Solid Wood” has all the drama and urgency you’d expect from Moyet, but the arrangement (produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds), heavy on guitars and soulful organ is the warmest-sounding she ever attempted to that point. The lyrics reference a past lover that Moyet purposely let slip through her fingers with a mix of defense (“Who ever I was then / she won’t be back again so let her go”) and acceptance (“I wouldn’t change you if I could”). As usual, it’s the singer who gets this complexity across, expressing joy, wistfulness, sorrow and resolve towards the situation. It concludes with the instrumentation fading away until all we hear is Moyet’s voice stretching out the song’s title–one of the more poignant and affecting moments in her discography.

Abba, “Love Isn’t Easy (But it Sure is Hard Enough)”

About a year ago, I began posting videos from YouTube under the heading Song of The Week, occasionally with commentary, more often without much. Going forward, I’d like to try out a series of these under a new heading, Obscurity Knocks: lesser-known singles and album tracks by well-known artists.

Beginning chronologically naturally means kicking it off with Abba. Although few could deny the fearless foursome’s worth as a singles band, their catalogue contains a lot of hidden gems–not necessarily consistent albums, mind you, but surely enough to produce a compilation at least half as great as Abba Gold (Abba Silver?). Take this single from their first album, Ring Ring, released about a year prior to their international breakthrough “Waterloo”. Although as grating and cheery as a chewing-gum commercial and containing a grammatically clumsy title that will appease the band’s skeptics where their “English as a second language” lyrics are concerned, the song still showcases Benny and Bjorn’s way with a hook. Actually, multiple hooks: the ladies’ commanding bridge to the chorus, the BOOM! right before the title (wonderfully accentuated by the ladies in the video above), xylophone precisely highlighting each note of said title, and the lovely “sweet, sweet, our love is bittersweet” harmonies immediately following it.

It would all teeter towards an excess of dopey aw-gosh bubblegum love song-ness if it weren’t so tightly constructed. In hindsight, knowing that within the next decade each couple in the band would split makes the song a little more perceptive than it initially seems. According to Wikipedia, it didn’t seem to chart anywhere; although not nearly as sophisticated, it’s almost the earlier, happier flipside to “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.