Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Greatest Albums of 2011: #41: The Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts

So, after filing through a bunch of useless adjectives to describe why I love Rolling Blackouts so much, I just decided to post this link of the “Heat” episode of Hey Arnold. That probably best encompasses my feelings on the album better than anything I could write. Enjoy.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #42: Mark McGuire - Get Lost

The best moment of Emeralds’s last album, 2010’s excellent Does It Look Like I’m Here? was when the ambient trio strayed slightly away from the synthetic glow of their arpeggiated synths and polyrhythms to let guitarist Mark McGuire create the backbone for the beautiful “Now You See Me.” Where the group had already amassed a formidable collection of impeccable drones up to that point in the record, placing McGuire’s clean strums and playful pull-offs center stage put the group’s talents in an unexpected but rewarding context.

Get Lost, Mark McGuire’s 29th album since 2007 (ambient musicians are quite prolific) is like that transcendent moment in “Now You See Me” stretched over forty minutes. It takes the shimmering grace that made Does It Look one of the best electronic albums of last year and incorporates a new layer of depth that improves upon McGuire’s mainstay’s strengths.

McGuire is an excellent guitarist, but not technically so. Rather, he just knows what sounds good in an arrangement. He knows that fingerpicking goes fantastically over the synth drones of “When You’re Somewhere,” and that letting a bass take the forefront on the title track would bolster his plaintive strums. He knows, as in “Another Dead End,” that incorporating duel guitar harmonies sounds fucking awesome and that his singing works for the spacious “Alma” and its reprise. McGuire’s techniques are subtle, but all their resultant musical choices are exemplary. Even his singing is unobtrusive, creating a fine reverb-addled mist through which his guitarwork can subtly blaze in the distance.
The result is an ambient record that is soothing but not complacent. Its quiet comfort is not the result of tried and true cliché served to you as if it were new. Instead, Get Lost fascinates you with innovation, however indirect it may be. The best example of this is the twenty-minute closing track “Firefly Constellations.” I’d be lying to you if I said that I haven’t fallen asleep to it a few times before, but every time I have, I have regretted missing what treasures lie within its countless tunnels and crags. Sure, they might be too small to bother looking for, but it’s a relaxing experience in and of itself to just pick at the atmosphere. And that’s the difference between Get Lost and a lot of the other downtempo electronic releases of this year. A lot of records will soothe you in 2011. Only a few will melt you. 


Greatest Albums of 2011: #43: Prefuse 73 - The Only She Chapters

Making an electronic album with only female guest vocalists in which all songs begin with the words “The Only” is a gimmick to be sure, but the only real connection that The Only She Chapters has to humanity, let alone the female side of it, is that it’s incredibly sexy. It slinks along on imperfect machinery with chains stirring constantly as they’re dragged behind. It’s lumbering but awe-inspiring, and, when the vocals do come in, they’re disorienting, like a human countenance emerging from the cascades of wires and circuits. The Only She Chapters is less homage than imitation, mimicking seduction as if programmed to do so. Whether the album succeeds at that I will leave to your interpretation, but it is nevertheless fascinating in much the same way it is to watch robots perform the simple tasks we take for granted; so authentic it’s creepy. And yet, the funny thing about that and The Only She Chapters is that you won’t be able to look away until it’s over. 


Greatest Albums of 2011: #44: Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers - Teenage and Torture

A part of me wants to dislike Teenage and Torture, mostly because it sounds exactly how I thought it would. That band name, that album title, that album cover. This isn’t polka, let’s put it that way. This is dirrrty rock ‘n roll made for dank basements with shitty acoustics and a buttload of outlets sung by a chick as scuzzy, devilish and horny as the basslines. One track in, she’s the voice of a milieu of Internet prostitutes; six and she’s fucking the guy who’s fucking your wife.  Teenage and Torture mines the same territory of blooze rock that has served many bands well, but Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers go so hard all over this thing that it’s hard not to put them in a profane class of their own. Ray is hell bent on causing a ruckus, and, based on track names like “Dames a Dime a Dozen” and “Stick It to the Woman,” she doesn’t care what team she bats on to do it. A lot of rock records this year got a lot of mileage out of expanding upon the minutia of life’s mundane, but Teenage and Torture is sprawling and shallow and damn proud of it. I’d say for you to put that in your pipe and smoke it, but it would probably be more effective if SR & HHH did it for me.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #45: Insomnium - One for Sorrow

Dear Progressive Death Metal,
Where were you this year? We had gotten so close in 2010, what with you taking me by surprise and introducing me to some of my favorite metal albums of all time. I never thought I could get used to growls and screams on records, but with records like Barren Earth’s Curse of the Red River, Enslaved’s Axioma Ethica Odini, and Deathspell Omega’s Paracletus (Not quite PDM but close enough), you showed me the nuance of texture and dynamics, and I came out of the year with a new favorite genre of music.
And then you pretty much disappeared. There were those Omnium Gatherum and MyGrain records, which were pretty good, but they didn’t nearly compare to the wily bout of melodic aggression you had served me just months before. Then, months upon months went by with fewer and fewer metal records to rave about, let alone that of the progressive death metal genre, which was so dumb because I knew, in the back of my mind, that if you were to just show up one more time, I would have some excellent metal to recommend to my readers.
More and more months passed, and I must admit, I felt betrayed by you, PDM. I was smitten with you, but my love was unrequited, and so I was forced to slog through bland progressive rock records and whatever the fuck Lulu was. “What a tease,” I thought. “I can’t believe I ever let it use my iTunes.”
And then One for Sorrow came out, and it was as if your yearlong absence was nothing. The sweeping melodies, the beatific guitarwork, it all returned to my eager ears. It was essentially Curse of the Red River redux, but I didn’t care. It was great! And I ended the year thinking there was still hope. And I still believe that, PDM. I believe in you, but you have to reciprocate, you know? I have and probably will continue to love everything you do, so get off your lazy ass and commission some of your artists to release more stuff. I’m sure it ‘ll be great. 
Humbly yours,


Greatest Songs of 2011: #41: Tyler, the Creator - "Window (feat. Domo Genesis, Frank Ocean, Hodgy Beats & Mike G.)"

Within the storyline that pretty much goes to shit on Goblin, “Window” is Tyler, the Creator’s intervention, in more ways than one. The idea of a posse track spelled trouble this far into an already shaky album, because, if you’ve been paying attention, the second tier members of Odd Future aren’t exactly Hemmingways. But, when Domo Genesis begins the track with a play on the first line in “Juicy” and that syrupy synth drone fills up your speakers, those doubts don’t really matter anymore as, for the first time in over 10 tracks, Goblin swallows you whole. Frank Ocean actually gets in the best lines, but all the track’s guests perform admirably before Tyler comes in and murders the competition (literally). After their effervescent verse, each guest asks the cosmos “Where we at?” which makes sense considering the track is a monster at eight minutes long. But you’ll wonder it too, as the track transports you to a place where image only holds so much clout and vulgarity is sometimes justified. Within the context of Goblin, you’ll wonder what could have been.


Greatest Songs of 2011: #42: Cunninlynguists - "Murder (Act III) (feat. Big K.R.I.T.)"

In my opinion, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. made a lot of mistakes this year that dulled the impact of his excellent debut mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. One was that Return of 4Eva, this year’s follow-up, was a bit of a letdown, and the other was that The Last King 2: God’s Machine, his collection of guest spots over his career, did not feature Cunninlynguists’s “Murder.” I mean you couldn’t find a better example of the aesthetic Big K.R.I.T. was pushing for this year than that track. It puts the man’s gruff instincts in a plush setting, but doesn’t sacrifice the power of his penchant for thoughtful lyricism. Here, he raps of Machiavellian foreign policy and social Darwinism while bass bubbles below him and synths envelope the empty space around him. With just one other verse afterwards and a chorus that goes, “If I could get away with murder / I’d take my gun and I’d commit it,” the track settles into a groove that frustratingly dissipates too soon into the ether. Nevertheless, leave it to Cunninlynguists to give K.R.I.T. his best chance to shine this year. It’s good to know at least one thing he’s done since K.R.I.T. Wuz Here has left me wanting more.


Greatest Songs of 2011: #43: Patrick Wolf - "The City"

How naïve. The city’s huge, Patrick Wolf, you think singing a song will stop it from getting what it wants? It will bear upon your love with full force until all that’s left is dust. If the city wants to destroy your love, it’s going to do it; neither a song nor anything else has a hope of stopping it.

However, as that infectious chord progression picks up and that tinkling piano comes in and those toms that I can’t help but air drum to lay in and that chopped and screwed vocal line comes in and somehow works despite all that I just described, I might make an appeal to the city that Wolf could actually do it. He could actually fend off the pressure from the city with the power of pop, an accolade reserved for the likes of luminaries like Bowie and Mercury. I doubt Patrick Wolf fends off the city with this showstopper, but dammit if I won’t root for David over Goliath every time. Perhaps the goals could be set a tad lower. Perhaps Williamsburg can’t destroy your love. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #44: Pistol Annies - "Hell on Heels"

For a mainstream country song, “Hell on Heels” has a pretty irregular structure. It features three verses and three choruses, but its three verses are all performed in succession. The conventions of pop music will tell you that putting three verses next to each other like that will make a song fatally drag, but pop music conventions don’t have a stipulation for the personalities Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe bring to the table. The harmonies are perfect and the verses about taking advantage of men for their money are hilarious. “I got a GTO from one named Joe,” Presley brags. “And a big piece of land down in Mexico.” It’s fun stuff and you can’t help but root for Presley’s escapades as she lists them off. The same goes for Lambert’s verse as well.
But of course the third verse steals the show. Ashley Monroe’s been on the country circuit since 2005, but her performance here makes her sound like the newcomer to the golddigger brigade. “Then there’s Jim, I almost forgot,” she sings, as if unintentionally interrupting the proceedings. She trills her notes like she’s innocently cracking her voice, but she reveals herself to be just as devious as her comrades. “Poor old Billy, bless his heart,” she muses over smooth drum fills. “I’m still using his credit card.” It’s an incredible hit to the gut that makes the last two iterations of the chorus a powerful battle cry. Even though I’m a male who would experience direct disadvantages from the actions portrayed in “Hell on Heels,” I’d like to think I’d feel a little better if a song like it was inspired as a result. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #45: Battles - "Ice Cream"

Somebody get this guy some ice cream! This man is clearly mentally ill and in such desperate need for ice cream that he keeps repeating it to everyone in English and Spanish. “Give me melting ice cream!” go his screams. Somebody should help him! Oh god look, he’s assembling a band. He’s got a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist and a keyboardist. This can’t be good. Somebody quickly find some ice cream before they start-- Oh god they’ve already started playing. This song is going everywhere guys. It’s a savage cry for help don’t you hear? Somebody stop this! WHERE’S THE ICE CREAM GODDAMMIT?! These people are performing the music of the insane for ice cream and you can’t oblige? Monsters, monsters all of you! These innocents will die for your negligence! Die I say! Oh thank goodness finally someone’s brought some ice cream.
…You know, on second thought, let’s just keep the ice cream away and let them play for about four and a half more minutes. Jeff, turn on the tape recorder.  I have a great idea.