Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Greatest Albums of 2011: #36: Richard Buckner - Our Blood

Think Jamie xx remixing Bob Dylan, Washed Out covering Bill Callahan. While Our Blood, Richard Buckner’s first album since 2006’s Meadow, contains some of the most precious folk songs of 2011, what made it so interesting to me upon first listen were the times in which Buckner placed electronics alongside his skeletal folk songs. Buckner’s voice is gentle and smoky, and he uses it to excellent effect on spare, acoustic jaunts like “Escape” and “Confession.” But it’s something else entirely when Buckner’s melancholy is bolstered by a synthetic mist, as is the case on “Collusion.” Album highlight “Thief” begins with a strobe light-like throb, drawing images of Gil Scott-Heron’s use of “Flashing Lights” to begin his 2010 album, I’m New Here. Here, however, the electronics elevate Buckner’s depressive grace, providing an accompaniment to his tales of the callous and amoral that is actually callous and amoral. All of Our Blood is welcoming, but the times in which those leaps are taken are the most rewarding. They make one of the best folk albums of the year one of the best unclassifiable albums of the year. 


Greatest Albums of 2011: #37: The Psychic Paramount - II

I guess it makes sense that it took The Psychic Paramount took five years to write II. An album like it isn’t just made when a couple guys get in a room with some riffs and beats and play around with them until they get a product. What’s so interesting about II is that it has no riffs and it has no structure. The feeling one gets from listening to it is that of being numbed by genius. Music like it only comes from years and years of hammering out the most basic tenets that emerge from the primordial swamps of psychedelic rock and committing to disk that version of… that. But anyone who’s listened to II will tell you there’s an end; hell, it feels like it’s evolving right in front of you. Its frantic pace and professionalism complement each other like the best instrumental bands can’t help but do. And just as it’s constantly evolving, it feels incomplete. Its forty minutes feel like a snippet of something much larger. Put it on a loop and you might never turn it off.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #38: Killer Mike - Pl3dge

“I want this to be more than good music to you. I hope it’s inspiration for you.” And with that, on the second to last track of his fifth album, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike expresses an important message to not only his listeners but to the rap community in general. Yes, struggling rapper. You too can write a song about following your dreams and have it not sound hopelessly mawkish. You too can unapologetically inject ideology into your songs, give honest and thoughtful criticisms of politics and religion and still have people listen to you. And you too can place those songs next to club bangers like the T.I.-helmed “Ready Set Go” and make it sound fluid. You too can tailor your beats to your featured guests and keep your identity intact. Hell, even you too can emulate a Lex Lugar beat, have Gucci Mane rap over it and still have it be a good song. And you too can do all these things and still overcome the blatant double standard of featuring a song that glorifies wives cheating on their husbands. You too can make an excellent album as sprawling as Pl3dge. You might not do it as well as Killer Mike does, but there’s certainly no harm in trying.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #39: Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

The other day, I fell asleep at 5pm and woke up at 11pm. After that rest, I had this weird feeling in my stomach; like I was trying to throw something up that wouldn’t budge past my abdomen. It wasn’t painful, just unsettling; I didn’t feel well, but not bad enough to do anything about it other than wallow in my yuckiness. Queasy. That’s a good for it. Perhaps another would be the opposite of how I feel when listening to Smoke Ring For My Halo. Whatever I feel leave my stomach while listening to that album stays trapped behind my six-pack (heh), from which it clearly wants to be freed. I ended up drinking some ginger ale to remedy my situation, but listening to Smoke Ring for My Halo probably would’ve worked just as well. With the added bonus of hearing “Jesus Fever,” which is a really cool song. 


Greatest Albums of 2011: #40: St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

The legacy of St. Vincent will be forever fraught with contradiction. This is a good thing. In fact, this is integral to the understanding of what makes St. Vincent such a fascinating artist. Beautiful but ugly, gentle but menacing, everything Annie Clark has done over the past four years has been exhilarating because it has taken images of splendor and perverted them, crippled them, until they’re just barely recognizable. Think of Dren from Splice. What is that shit? A bird, a human, an artist, a fallacy? Why does it exist and why am I so attracted to it?

Strange Mercy is St. Vincent’s best album simply because it takes the dialectics incumbent in Clark’s music to the highest point that can be achieved. The album’s cover shows a face, presumably hers, obscured by latex Goat’s Head Soup style, the first time that an album of Clark’s hasn’t directly displayed her attractive countenance. Throughout the album, skid marks of discordant guitar tones undercut angelic choirs, electronics snicker at Clark’s voice as it tries to continue the recital. No pleasant melody goes unpunished on Strange Mercy, and it’s fun to see how this irreverent conflict plays out. That the results are some fantastic songs is an added bonus.

Lyrically, Clark is just as incongruous. Her voice is delicate, giving the impression of frailty and vulnerability, traits that are often reflected in her lyrics. The best example of this is on the title track, the climax of which sets the stage for Clark to assert her dominance. “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up,” she asserts. “I, I don’t know what.” It’s a sad admission, but one unsurprising given the tracks that precede it. “I spent the summer on my back,” she sings submissively on “Surgeon.” Clark largely portrays herself as a victim in the foibles that populate Strange Mercy. She’s dragged along either by the characters in her story or the music, itself.

But, then again, she isn’t. One of Strange Mercy’s highlights is final track “Year of the Tiger,” in which Clark plays a guileless banker looking to make a quick buck. “Italian shoes / Like these rubes know the difference,” she scoffs, drawing up middle class ire for Wall Street but humanizing her foil to something just short of likeable. In “Cheerleader,” Clark confronts an abusive lover, and the music thumps along with her as she stutters, as if revving an engine. Then, the timid track blooms in a catharsis of hazy electronics as Clark proclaims, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.” In these and many other moments of Strange Mercy, Clark is a force to be reckoned with. Armed with an axe-full of scuzzy solos, she cannot be ignored… except of course when she is at other points in the album.

Unsurprisingly, the music also can’t help but conflict with itself. Clark unleashes a corrosive guitar solo halfway through first single “Cruel” and “Neutered Fruit” builds with a snare drum run juxtaposed with eerie choir vocals. Strange Mercy is unequivocally successful in its goal to never make the listener too comfortable. But its most rewarding moment is when all the music falls away and Clark’s power standing is arbitrary. “Champaign Year,” the album’s focal point, floats on ambience as Clark delivers her best lyrical performance to date. “I make a living telling people what they want to hear,” she sings with a vocal melody reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” “It’s not a killing, but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear.” Clark’s pessimism is daunting, but, for three and a half minutes, you feel like you’re listening to the real her. Then again, a case can be made that the “real” Annie Clark reveals itself quite fantastically on the album’s other ten tracks. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #36: The Go! Team - "Buy Nothing Day"

“And I would never lose my head tonight.” Yeah, whatever, Bethany Cosentino. On her main group Best Coast’s debut, Crazy for You, Bethany was totally optimistic. Yeah, she didn’t brush the dust off her shoulder on that record so much as add it to the dust sculpture of the guy a couple houses over who would not pick up his fucking phone. So is her guest turn on “Buy Nothing Day” a little unconvincing? Sure. But there’s no denying the unbridled pep it exudes, a brilliant summation of all the other unbridled pep The Go! Team supply throughout Rolling Blackouts. Cosentino’s dour tone is the exact amount of cynicism needed to humanize the track before it’s off like clockwork for three glorious minutes of verses, pre-choruses and choruses that seem to one-up each other in rapid succession. Every time I play it, I’m as bouncy as the bass line. Put it on while I play hopscotch and watch the sparks fly. 


Greatest Songs of 2011: #37: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - "Belong"

Let’s cut to the chase, folks. When I say that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart emulate The Smashing Pumpkins, you best believe they know exactly how to play music so faithful to 90’s wimp rock that it’s not long after listening to them that you start vomiting VHS tape and your nipples start flowing Clear Pepsi. “Belong” is the most Smashing Pumpkin-y song TPoBPaH have ever written, plain and simple. This is their apex, and they milk it with power chords loud enough and drums that pop enough to make me forget what the greatest form of flattery is and bob my head like my Ferby did when I asked if it was hungry. Or how the crowd would act at a Beets concert or how Chucky was like when he was hypnotized in that episode of Rugrats. Also, I’m gonna just throw in Pelswick. You get what I mean.