Top 19 Things I Didn't Review in 2001
by Ian Koss
Forgive me reader, for I have sinned.
If writing is my religion, then this is my confession. For in 2001, while I listened to many -- even hundreds -- of records with the best intentions, somehow, for one reason or another, many (okay, most) never had a word written about them, though just about all of them were criticized and appraised and generally banged out in the typewriter of my mind.
Why the year-long writer's block? I rationalize that it's a matter of transition. For almost a decade previous to January 20001, Ink 19 existed as a monthly printed magazine. The steady beating of each issue's production deadline served to keep the reviews coming on a regular and timely basis. Each month would see a frenzied weekend of writing where I would attempt to catch up with the month's review tasks. The print deadline was inexorable -- either the reviews were written, or they'd have to wait a whole month, something which in many cases was just not acceptable. It was a schedule that was grueling, unforgiving and damn effective. As we moved from a monthly print schedule to a daily online one, I found myself floundering in the unexpected ease. If I didn't write a review that day, why there was always tomorrow. Or the day after, or the one after that, and honest-to-God, I'll write at least five reviews this weekend... right.
Looking back at the boxes and boxes of discs fills me with realization of the inefficiency of this thinking and with guilt. All these wonderful records, which I think are top-notch and yet which you, dear readers, never heard about, or at least not through Ink 19. This year-end list is my feeble attempt to regain some sort of reasonable grip on the fabled review stack, and grant myself a sort of amnesty for the many, many things I didn't review and which I don't want looking back at me with sad, unreviewed puppy dog eyes. So, without further ado...
Apparently, Barcelona is slumming with Cameron Crowe, as can be deduced from his sequencing the tracks on here, and the Barcelona name-check in Crowe's Vanilla Sky (though sadly, they were not on the soundtrack). Barcelona's retro-future sound is immediately identifiable, with its '80s-scented synth riffs, pop song perfection, and futuristic crystal-clear production (in this case, courtesy of Trevor hollAnd). If you're in your 30s and you spent nights dancing until dawn in your school days, listening to Barcelona is like slipping on a favorite worn T-shirt. http://www.pulCec.com http://www.barcelonadc.com
2) Big Ass Truck, The Rug (Terminus)
Impossible to pigeonhole, this band is a rare blend of funk, psychedelia, soul and more...basically, if it has a groove, it somehow makes its way into Big Ass Truck. The Rug continues a fine evolving tradition, as the band tackles ambitious tracks like "Locked In," which uses fuzz bass and piano chording in ways Ben Folds Five never thought of. "The Me" could be Brian Eno's remix of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," if it weren't for that scenic guitar riding on top of everything. All in all, a vast and reaching (but never overreaching) opus. http://www.terminusrecords.com http://www.bigasstruck.com
3) Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo (Motel)
The follow-up to Dan the Automator's Bombay The Hard Way, Bombay 2 has a more diverse roster (including DJ Me DJ You, Kid Koala and Mixmaster Mike) but still lives up to its predecessor's heady concoction of samples from Indian film scores and dialogue run through cutting-edge remixing techniques. Spicy! Sprinkled liberally are bits of unaltered film scores given punny titles that are liable to give you heartburn: "TJ Hookah," "Chakra Kahn" and "Theme from Twin Sheiks" to name a few. http://www.motelrecords.com
4) The Busy Signals, Pretend Hits (Sugar Free)
A magical mix, the Busy Signals (whose sole permanent member is Howard W. Hamilton III) play no favorites, bringing in digital, analog and acoustic elements to their songs as they're needed. More than that, they do it without resulting in a "look at how clever we are for bringing in digital, analog and acoustic elements to our songs" attitude to their sound. This is the soundtrack to endless stretches of road, or the record that single-handedly gets you through a nasty break-up. Avoiding the solipsistic trap, guest spots from Har Mar Superstar (on "Buckle Down") and Robert Schneider (of the Apples in Stereo, on "The Freeway") pepper this album with even more unexpectedness. http://www.sugarfree.com
Score major points for truth in labeling. This 3-disc set of rarefied noise is the musical equivalent of a physicist's search for subatomic particles. All the artists here seem to have the ability to obsess over the least picosecond, composing songs in painful microtime, one thin click and cut at a time. In the end, the sounds in here make sense not for the existence of its indivisible segments, but for the whirling looping trails they leave behind. Rarefied and hypnotic. http://www.mille-plateaux.com
6) Eat Static, Crash and Burn (CyberOctave)
This one is a double whammy, as Crash and Burn was released in the UK about a year prior to CyberOctave's US release... and then it waited some time more for this exculpatory list to be assembled. Needless to say, there's already a newer Eat Static album available for those willing to brave import waters. However, this is still worth highlighting. Featuring collaborations with members of Propellerheads and Tangerine dream, Crash and Burn is a whirlwind tour through all manner of musical genres and ideas, funneled through Eat Static's powerfully inventive panglobal mind. "Love Truncheon" is a bit Latinesque, while "Mondo A Go Go" is somewhat Arabesque. Regardless, every song, up or downtempo, features a relentless groove amidst the many layers of sound that await your decoding. Check out the band's website, it's highly recommended. http://www.cyberoctave.com http://www.eatstatic.co.uk/
This may be merely a four-song EP, but damn, it covers some territory. Each song on here takes on a particular cliché and magnifies it to the point at which it stops being unbearable and starts becoming simply magnificent. "Disco Party at the Castle Of Love (Tonight)," is a synthy dance number (sort of). "Echoes of Pumford" is close to six minutes of prog-rock doomage, anchored by a buzzing synth ostinato. "Neighborhood Watch (We Call Police)" is a dub nightmare of community surveillance. "Wizard Dude" is stoner fusion at its finest... dude. Drenched in the analog sounds of yesteryear, Damn is a strange offering, but one which makes me grin every time. http://mypalgodrecords.com http://welcome.to/emperorpenguin
8) Heavenly, Heavenly Versus Satan (K)
Heavenly was one of those bands whose longetivity was disproportionate to its influence. With lilting pop melodies, a chiming set of guitars, and a clear, strong female lead vocal, Heavenly carved out a wonderfully comfortable niche in music which continues to reverberate more than a decade later in places like the Elephant 6 collective and the whole ineffectually-named "twee" movement. I got an advance, which is sort of a bummer as the full release version features new cover art and liner notes from Lois Maffeo. Still, I can't complain, as two bonus tracks (from the "She Says" single) are present here. http://www.kpunk.com
9) The Immortal Lee County Killers, The Essential Fucked Up Blues! (Estrus)
Well, if the band name and album title don't say it all, the label does. Those familiar with Estrus' hopped-up nitro-charged riff-rock would find this a worthy addition -- nay, a highlight -- to the illustrious organization's catalog. The Killers are a guitar/drums duo, but that doesn't stop them from sounding like a runaway freight train. If you could strip down Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion to the core of what makes it great, you'd end up with something less than The Immortal Lee County Killers. With a howl like a malfy turbine engine and a thump-clatter like your blues 78s hitting the floor, the Killers do just that: kill. http://www.estrus.com http://www.leecountykillers.com
This is ambitious, to say the least. Smith is a double CD, a rock opera, a mix of music, spoken word and sketches that tells the strange and haunting (and often hilarious) epic of an unwilling but semi-competent secret agent, a renegade drug-addled artificial intelligence that discovers music and just wants to party, and... hell. If I don't have you by now, I never willl. http://www.mocrecords.com
11) Ted Leo/Pharmacists, The Tyranny of Distance (Lookout!)
This one hurts, because it's so good -- it deserves more than the one-paragraph blurb it receives here, but more than that, it just deserves to spin in your stereo and percolate in your ears. Ted Leo carved out a solid reputation with a stint in Chisel, but as a solo artist (with the aid of the constantly changing Pharmacists), his unerring melodic sensibility and heart-wrenching lyrical prowess fully comes to fruit. Leo easily qualifies for a throne in the songwriters' Olympus, with tunes and lyrics of a deceiving beauty that sound fragile but are in fact diamond-hard. Produced by Fugazi's Brendan Canty and highlighted by a multitude of spot-on musical performances from many illustrious guests, The Tyranny of Distance is one of those rare albums which you can place on repeat and never tire of. http://www.lookoutrecords.com
12) The Manatees, Snackin' With The Manatees (Orange)
Don't let the name fool you. These Manatees are about as far from warm Caribbean waters as it gets, hailing from Seattle. With a surfy sound, a sure hand on the theremin, and more than enough twists and turns to keep the whole thing from degenerating into twang, reverb and bash, the Manatees join the short list of identifiable surf bands. Hey, they even cover Kraftwerk's "The Model"... http://www.orangerecordings.com
13) My Morning Jacket, At Dawn (Darla)
There is no band that fits the word "mournful" better than My Morning Jacket. Jim James' distinctive vocals are the desolate sound of wind blowing through mountain pines, or an unmanned foghorn warning away brightly-lit ships from a rocky coastline; at the same time, the music wraps around it like a goose down comforter. No doubt about it, My Morning Jacket is a bit of an acquired taste, too angular for the alt-country crowd, too doleful for the indie rock clique. Still, it's a haunting sound that calls me back again and again. The copy I received contains a second CD of demos; I'm not sure all of them are packaged like this, but it's worth tracking down for the contrast value alone. http://www.darla.com http://www.mymorningjacket.com
Subtle and tinkling, Raczynski's music seems to be composed more of the spaces in between the notes and words than the events themselves. All the songs on here (17 of them) share the album's title -- my favorite here is #13, where Raczynski's by-now-familiar synthetic tone poems take on a wandering cast before culminating in a gracious but triumphant oddly-metered refrain. http://www.rephlex.com http://www.bogdanraczynski.com
This is a reissue of Señor Coconut's first album. Originally from Germany and transplanted to Chile, Señor Coconut splices frantic Latin percussion with obsessive Teutonic precision, with results not unlike fast-forwarding through a Buena Vista Social Club CD. It's also worth noting that this album marks my young daughter's first review: "Daddy?" "Yes..." "The music is broken." http://www.emperornorton.com
16) Sunset Valley, Icepond (Barsuk)
Pop mastery is something that many bands reach for but few attain. It's not just a matter of composing delectably catchy tunes, but of doing so in a way that's unique to not only the band but each individual song. Sunset Valley makes it sound easy, with each album showing not only the band's improving skills but also further refinement of their particular style. "Wired Nights" powers out with a dipsy sliding riff worthy of '70s Camaro rock (something the band seems particularly adept at), but other tracks, like "Janey O'" and ""Help Me Babe" are gentler and sweeter, reminiscent of some of the Kinks' mellower moments with an unmistakable whiff of psychedelia. Killer die-cut artwork, too. http://www.barsuk.com
It's hard to find the right combination of digital wizardry and musical vision, as evidenced by the infrequency of acts like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Telefon Tel Aviv. As delicate electric piano traceries compete for attention with stuttering soundbites, you get the feeling that Telefon Tel Aviv exists more as a surface than a volume, a constantly undulating boundary layer that separates two different worlds without committing to either. Quite an intellectual journey, but one well worth taking. http://www.heftyrecords.com
The last couple of years have seen a wave of mutilations, at least three or four albums paying homage to the Pixies, who I consider the late '80s equivalent of the Velvet Underground. While I bear a personal grudge against Martin Atkins and Invisible Records for taking out ads in Ink 19 and not paying for them, I must note that this particular tribute is the best I've heard so far, leaning heavily towards the band's earlier work and unafraid to feature two versions of "Debaser," separated by a single song no less. What makes it work is the crazed diversity in interpretation and clear commitment towards preserving the band's original teeth-on-edge blend of melodicism and gritty noise. http://www.invisiblerecords.com
19) The Who, The Kids Are Alright, Tommy, Quadrophenia (Universal)
This trio of Who soundtracks should be familiar to most. I'm saying "should" not in the sense of a statistical probability, but as a direct mandate. Dammit, if you want to know rock, you need to know the Who. Should you need to pick only one, I'd say go with The Kids Are Alright, as that will give you a pretty comprehensive overview of this band's career, the corresponding film being a sort of bio-pic. No, wait. Tommy is probably the best example of what defines a Rock Opera, bombastic, carefully plotted (in both a musical and narrative sense) and completely self-contained. I changed my mind. The majestic music behind Quadrophenia perfectly complements the tale of conflict and modern woe behind the corresponding film, and features some other, non-Who goodies like Booker T's "Green Onions." Ah, what the hell, get all three. http://www.umusic.com
There. I feel better now.