I realized something a couple of days ago: in 2011, for the first time since 1999, I didn’t set foot in a recording studio1. That makes me a little sad. But not too long went by before I realized that every year I hear more records that I like from friends and people I know. That cheers me up a lot, and I thought it would be fun to round these up, as a celebration of all the talented musicians I’m lucky enough to know. In more or less chronological order, I present: the year in music made by my friends.2
Technically this came out on December 28, 2010, but fuck it, because I really like this and I want to talk about it. This is a new project from Lance Walker of Hands Up Houston, Ojet Records (which is apparently active again!) and whole bunch of Houston bands. This is by far my favorite thing that he’s done; it’s a mix of heavy guitars and electronics, with some really strong melodies. It reminds me a lot of Justin Broadrick’s post-Godflesh “shoegaze metal” band Jesu.
El Camino, by The Gary
The fruit of a trip to the 2010 Electrical Audio summer picnic, this EP was recorded by Steve Albini, a natural fit for the hard-edged yet forthright sound of this Austin trio. Bassist Dave Norwood is one of my favorite lyricists working right now, and drummer Paul Warner, a guitar player who’s only been behind the kit since 2008, continues to improve; this the first record they’ve made where he sounds completely comfortable, I think. Guitarist Trey Pool, late of Sad Like Crazy, has nearly enough treble in his guitar here to rival Albini himself! One of the best rock records from Austin this year.
Constant Future, by Parts & Labor
The second installment of the third period of this Brooklyn noise-rock band features one of the best songs they’ve written (“Never Changer”) and, according to my wife, the best drum sounds ever recorded. P&L announced a couple of months ago that they’re going on “indefinite hiatus” after a show in February; at least they’re going out on a high note (coincidentally, this was also the last record I reviewed for 29-95). I do wish that I’d had a chance to see them in a non-festival setting at least once in the last four years.
Space is a Place, by Western Standards
The sophomore album from Houstonian Major Miller’s one-man ambient project followed its predecessor by less than a year. I quite like both of them. This one seems more concerned with rhythm and movement than the first, and Miller seems to be moving toward longer compositions as well- an impression that is partly supported by the two other albums he released this year, which I didn’t even know existed until 5 minutes ago. Jeez Major what are you trying to do to me here, some of us have lives you know!
Erin Edmister and Three Tons
Found in the Alley described his country-rock band as “of an ilk that, if I were not a part of it, would blow right be me in a heart beat.” To be honest that’s probably true of me too and almost everyone else here. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the craft that clearly went into this project. Well done, Kilian.
Don’t Be So Cruel, by Something Fierce
The third album from this Houston punk power trio is the most self-assured and melodically strong record they’ve made so far, and it earned them the beginnings of some national attention this year. I have to be honest though, there’s something I don’t quite get about it yet; part of the problem may be that I don’t know what box (punk? garage? indie rock?) to put it in. I need to spend some more time with this one.
Get Split, by The Energy
For this Houston punk band’s second album they made the songs shorter and faster, but it would be tough for them to be any meaner, considering the first album’s preoccupation with violence. Rather, vocalist Arthur Bates took a left turn into paranoid delusion, with results that are “off” in a really interesting way. It’s pretty damn hard to do something new and exciting in punk rock, but the Energy manage it somehow. Highlight: Chris Ryan doing an unintentional impression of Matt Freeman from Rancid. I just love this band.
Arabia Mountain, by The Black Lips
Over the course of their last few albums, the Black Lips have increasingly come to seem less like a fun retro-garage band with hilariously unpredictable live shows and more like legitimately good rock songwriters. I think this is the best record they’ve made.
Strong Drunk Hands, by We’ll Go Machete
The first full-length record from this Austin group, fronted by Paul Warner (who also plays drums in the Gary), benefits from the addition of stone cold pro Rachel Fuhrer on drums. WGM sound a lot like Hot Snakes to me, and I think they share some of the same strengths (they rock) and weaknesses (not a lot of variety); it sounds a little like they’re still trying to find their voice a bit, although this record has a lot of awesome, heavy punk riffs.
Summer Panic, by Killdeer
This throwback indie rock quin(?)tet is co-fronted by Mari Pool, formerly of Sad Like Crazy, and also features Chris May of We’ll Go Machete on bass. This debut EP is lovably shaggy and quite tuneful, not unlike SLC. Bonus points for having a song called “Killdeer Fight Song.”
Chris Ryan of the Energy and Black Congress (and a bunch of other bands), proprietor of the late, lamented studio Dead City Sound, played and recorded every track on this epic psych-rock album. I don’t think too many people even knew he was working on it before he announced it on Facebook last summer. I like almost everything Chris has ever done, but to tell the truth I’ve had a hard time getting into TIME. I feel like I can hear some of Austin psych band the Black Angels here- I know Chris is a fan of them, and I’m really not at all, so that may be coloring my perspective a little. I will say that this record sounds awesome, and I do like that Chris threw in covers by Them and Spacemen 3, which I think give the record a little more variety and context. And I have a history of being disproportionately resistant to bands with long, repetitive songs. Perhaps, as a friend used to say, “I’ll listen to it until I like it.”
Excalibur, by The Mathletes
I cleverly tricked Joe Mathlete into sending me a copy of his first non-CDR release by promising to write about it on NAP right before I was about to stop writing completely for four months. Sucker!3 Belatedly, Excalibur, as one of the only fully-orchestrated things that I’ve heard from Joe, is a stellar showcase for his talent for arrangement. I love the variety of styles and sounds that he works with, and the wounded-yet-detached intimacy with which he sings. I would recommend this highly for fans of They Might Be Giants or the Mountain Goats.
American Honey, by Roky Moon and BOLT!
I totally forgot that this came out and never even bought a copy. It’s on my list to get when my eMusic subscription renews later this month. Sorry, Jeoaf!
Phantoms, by Ume
These Houston expats took a big step in the journey of breaking out this year with the release of this dreamy, glossy, propulsive record. It’s quite pretty. The highlight for me is a reworking of “Hurricane” from their first album, featuring Ronnie Barnard of the Kants and Handdriver on drums. Also: translucent pink vinyl!
Snake People, by Balaclavas
In a continuation of the theme of Houston artists being in a hurry to get their music out. Balaclavas’ second LP followed their first by only 18 months. 2010’s goth-rock masterpiece Roman Holiday was one of the best-made and most unique records I heard last year- that I’ve ever heard from Houston, really- and Snake People suffers a bit from comparison, coming off to me as a little thinner than its predecessor, and less considered in production. On its own terms, though, it’s plenty good.
August, by Still Lost Bird Music
Speaking of unique records, August is an Americana record with lyrics drawn from poetry, made by a composer and music professor named Simon Fink, with whom I used to play in a roots-rock band called Gross National Product. Repurposing poetry in this way isn’t like covering a song, for which royalties, but not permission, are requred; it’s necessary to either get permission from the artist or use poems in the public domain. Fink chose the latter option, which means that all of the poems are at least 80 or so years old. One is from the year 1505. Contrary to what some people think, popular song lyrics aren’t even close to being poetry, and using a poem as a song lyric sounds odd, because the language is so elevated. Using old poems sounds even stranger, almost like a song written in a foreign language. But Fink is such a talented and seasoned songwriter that not only does the poetry fit into the music, but listening to the words is absolutely essential to appreciating this remarkable and quite beautiful record. The title track is one of my favorite songs of the year.
Fink played stripped-down live versions of three songs on the Central Standard show on the Kansas City NPR affiliate, and I almost prefer those to the album versions.
Fall Tour 2011 East and Live!, by Indian Jewelry
I kind of think Indian Jewelry’s ad-hoc releases are easier to get into than their major albums, because the arrangements tend to be a little more stripped-down. That’s how I felt about the 2008 odds-and-sods collection Fake and Cheap, and this tour CD hits the same spot for me. Apparently a number of these songs are culled from their VHS release Sufi Headbanger. Sample song titles: “Guns;” “Freak Pride;” “Heart of a Dog;” “Slouchback With Gills;” “Against Nature;” “Headless in Gaza;” “Wallbangers.” Boom goes the dynamite.
An Indian Jewelry live record turns out to be a shaggier, crazier, more aggressive version of the records, which is to say it pretty much kicks ass. For best results play very loud after midnight with the lights turned off.
Lexington 2125, by Dry Nod
Speaking as someone who is not only too young to have seen Dry Nod but too young to even have met more than a couple of people who have seen them, this band occupies something of a mythical position in my idea of Houston music history. I have the live album, but this is something else entirely, some kind of ur-text for the Mike Gunn and LP4 and Dunlavy, etc. I’m guessing anyone who’s reading this has already heard this record so I won’t say any more except that this record is pretty great. Essential listening for anyone who has gone to an indie rock show in Houston in the last 20 years. Well done, Roberto.
Spills Out, by Pterodactyl
The third LP from this Brooklyn trio is more melodic than what they’ve done in the past, but no less strange. While Jesse Hodges (formerly of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and my faves the Tuxedo Killers) was in Pterodactyl when they made 2009’s Worldwild, he’s a much stronger presence on this album, contributing a warped pop sense that I wouldn’t have expected from his previous work. It contrasts nicely with the frantic, overlapping yelp-singing of guitarist Joe Kremer and drummer Matt Marlin. Pterodactyl’s sheer difference from other rock bands makes their music sound absurd, and yet the love of harmony, and of sound itself, that it transmits are so innocent that it pierces me to my core. I love this band so much.
Nine of Clubs, by Good Times Crisis Band
When drummer David Hobizal delivered this LP to me, he went down the tracklist naming the songs that he tracked in 2009. Gutarist and bandleader Bill Corsello manages Emo’s, and the transition that the venerable Austin venue has been undergoing for the last two years prevented GTCB from finishing this record or even playing any shows for a long time. My understanding is that they have no plans to perform even now, rendering the album a true labor of love I suppose, since it’s unlikely many people will even hear about it. It’s kind of a shame, as the dizzying geek-rock of Nine of Clubs blows away their first album, which was pretty good in its own right.
I was theoretically supposed to audition to play bass in this band at one point, and hearing this record, I’m kind of glad I didn’t, because I doubt I could have measured up to the musicianship on display here. Damn but it would have been fun to try though.
Abnormal Vergence, by Brainworlds and Expo ‘70
Guitarist Mason Brown has performed in a wide variety of independent rock bands, but even so, I wasn’t prepared for the starkly avant-garde solo project Brainworlds when he debuted it in 2008. Brown’s take on the guitar-drone genre is maximalist, building layers upon layers of wailing and whooping, and his live shows have steadily become more and more impressive. When I saw him in Austin last summer, it was kind of like the musical equivalent of watching remixed whale song interpreted as a 3D laser light show. And that’s how I guess would describe this album.
On my wish list for 2012: a split LP between Brainworlds and Western Standards.
My brother Colin’s take on black metal has much the same tongue-in-cheek rock geek quality as his take on speed metal, Chopper. This is indicated partly by the name of the band. the cover of the cassette4, and select song titles (“Ancient Ziggvrat,” “Lord ov Pain,” “Alcoholocavst II,” “Black Svpremacy”)(extra piss-taking credit for using the letter V in place of both U and F), but also by his tendency to alternate orthodox scrape-and-screech black metal with midtempo stuff that sounds not all that different from blown-out versions of Chopper or his shoegazey indie rock band, Hollow Stars. I approve, not just because Uberchriist serves as a welcome antidote to the self-seriousness of black metal, but also because I think the riffs are pretty good. And also because the bandleader is related to me.
Roam 4 the Holidaze 3
For the third year running, the winter solstice brought an edition of this Atlanta compilation series, put together by David Matysiak of Jet By Day and Hollow Stars. It’s a mix of warped, ironic Christmas material (“Jingle Bells” on a Casio; “If I Die Before Christmas” by Old King Cole the Younger, AKA Cole Alexander of the Black Lips; a reading from A Christmas Carol on an answering machine) and odds and ends of varying weirdness from various figures in the Atlanta music scene, including Brainworlds, Matysiak’s indie-folk band Coyote Bones, and Hollow Stars. The aesthetic of R4TH is neatly summed up by the inclusion of not one but two tributes to recently deceased indie music superfan Kim Jong Il, one of which is credited (naturally) to CMee and the Selves.
And with that: Happy New Year, friends of mine. Happy New Year, everyone.
1. This and this did come out this year, but both were recorded in 2010.
2. Obviously I didn’t like every record the same, and I don’t have the same amount to say about every record. And of course, I may have forgotten something. Please don’t be offended, guys.*
3. In all seriousness, sorry Joe. I did not do this on purpose, I swear.
4. Tapes: WHY?!?
* Except Jeoaf and Joe, you guys can be offended if you want to I guess 🙁