Admittedly, this blog is quickly becoming exclusively about curious stuff I see at Academy Records in Greenpoint. Trad, Gras & Stenar (Trees, Grass & Stone) is no exception. I saw the anthology for their 70s live albums Djungelns Lag and Mors Mors on the shelf and thought “that looks interesting…” And here we are.
Trad, Gras & Stenar are a Swedish progg rock band from the late 60s/early 70s. They were known for their live show, which had a lot of interesting audience participation stuff. That’s pretty irrelevant for us now listening to their recordings, but luckily they were also known for solid jams, and those you can hear on the recordings (which are also on Spotify). If you’ve ever listened to Dungen (or more likely their semi-copycats Tame Impala), this is one of the bands those guys are imitating. It’s earthy, mysterious, a bit mystical – real old school psychedelia.
The musicians in TGS were ‘men about town’ and played in a bunch of other respected Swedish bands from the period, including Parson Sound and (International) Harvester. As I’m quickly learning, the Swedish underground prog and psych scenes from the period were really something special, so those are all names worth checking out. And if you’ve got any recommendations of underground Swedish psychedelic bands from the 60s/70s that I should look into, let me know in the comments.
I used to think that Phil Elvrum had some ‘meh’ albums. Actually, almost all his albums are incredible, mystical and entrancing. Sauna is as well.
Pitchfork noted that Sauna feels like it completes a trilogy with Clear Moon and Ocean Roar. But I’d say that if anything, those albums were two sides of one coin. Sauna is an entirely new coin, made in the same line. It feels more encapsulated, whole, than the aforementioned albums. Elvrum’s trademark innovatively homespun production is, as always, magnificent in its earthiness.
4. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Fading Frontier would be Deerhunter‘s sellout album except that it is not in any way. The band’s writing is perhaps stronger than ever, and though the songs are a bit cleaner, less punk and/or shoegaze than on previous albums, that actually ends up making them sound more classically Deerhunter than anything else. Six (or seven, if you count Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. as two) great albums in and Deerhunter sound like they’re just hitting their stride.
3. Fred Thomas – All Are Saved
All Are Saved is a minor masterpiece. It’s not minor because it’s not good enough to be a full-on masterpiece, but minor because its a small, intimate album. Its a report from the frontline of indie rock. A ‘caution’ label for those ready to sign their souls away for a maybe-maybe-not satisfying career as a somewhat appreciated indie rocker, forever destined to remain the critics darling and the rest of the world’s “who?”
The fact that nobody really cared about any of the other (seven) albums Thomas put out before this one only makes All Are Saved that much more special. Like he was the dude sitting on the couch playing guitar at a party while nobody listened or paid attention. Knowing all the while that he was onto something good, and eventually, even if it took years and years, some peeps would figure it out. All Are Saved is the album where some of us figured it out.
2. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
2015 was a rough year for anyone on the wrong side of political correctness. If you’ve been living in a cave since December 2014, just watch the last season of South Park and you’ll get a bit of the idea. But what if you just wanted an edgy band name to match the sound of your edgy music?
I’ll admit the name was insensitive – I don’t agree that it’s racist. But it would be a lot easier for me to get on the castigation bandwagon if the band did not make such a phenomenal album that, by a band with any other name, would sound just as astounding. It’s even better on vinyl, where you can pick apart the layers of noise creating a sediment-like soundscape through which spacey synths and harmonic guitars shine like flashlights in a dark cavern.
And really, the album itself has its priorities in order. It stares (without blinking) at how chaotic our ‘organized’ societies are when one dares lift the seal. I also liked hearing a couple guys from Calgary sing the line “fingertips in the fountain fondle liquid gold”.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell, as an album, was such a revelation that it made everyone like Age of Adz and Illinois – perhaps two of the greatest albums of the last ten years – a little bit less. At the time of their release, the aforementioned albums’ elaborate arrangements and compositional backflips made “Sufjan is a genius!” more or less a statement of fact rather than exultation. But by comparison with Carrie & Lowell, both seem overproduced and disingenuous. Carrie & Lowell feels so effortlessly beautiful. So honest in its minimalism. Why would anyone want to hear Sufjan play anything other than an acoustic guitar and quiet synth in his DUMBO apartment?
I’m not sure how Sufjan can top this one. But people probably said the same thing about Illinois.
2015. It was ok year. Not the greatest, not the worst. I’d say that applies both to my life personally, and the albums that came out. Here were some I liked in order.
10. Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire
If I had to say why I liked this album in comparison with other Lightning Bolt albums, I would have to take some more time to diferentiate them. As it stands, this was definitely an album I listened to and liked a lot this year, my first as a resident of Brooklyn. Lightning Bolt, even though they’ve moved back to Rhode Island, are so emblematic of Brooklyn. Like, the good Brooklyn, the cool Brooklyn – basically Bushwick, or Williamsburg ten years ago. It’s scrappy, minimal, badass, tattooed, noisy, young, experimental, ferocious. Don’t ever change, LB. At least not too much.
9. Bjork – Vulnicura
Vulnicura is relatively low on my list because I always kind of lost interest as the album went along. But even so, I can’t deny that this contains a wealth of gorgeous and astoundingly honest music. Definitely one of my favourite Bjork albums. The orchestration is incredible, and Bjork‘s vocal performances throughout thoroughly moving.
8. Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket
Sometimes a great band is rewarded by a lack of success. Whereas mediocre bands may blow up briefly, then spend the rest of their careers trying to live up to the moment in time they’re forever associated with, a great band that exists in relative obscurity, but with a dedicated fanbase, can keep pushing itself and developing over time, untethered to a particular time or sound.
I saw Frog Eyes at the too-cool-for-school venue Babys All Right in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago. It was amazing how honest and real Frog Eyes seemed compared to so many of the other shit hot hipster bands I’ve seen play the same stage in the last year or so that I’ve been living in NYC. I think maybe it had to do with the fact that Frog Eyes was older than most bands that play there. They’re at the age when people have a family and a mortgage and stop caring about looking cool. It was just refreshing.
I always felt like Frog Eyes could (in some alternate universe with more critical discernment) have blown up a couple years ago, but didn’t and have been kind of persisting in that void of disappointment ever since. Listen to how much slower, and less energetic their albums have become – though ultimately I believe that’s been for the better. They’ve made the best albums of their career in that void, including Paul’s Tomb, Carey’s Cold Spring, and this year’s Pickpocket’s Locket. Putting dollars and cents aside, maybe the lack of great, big success for this great, little band has been better for everyone in the long run.
7. Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
Another wonderful Julia Holter album of striking composition and impeccable arrangements.
6. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year With 13 Moons
An album that caught me with its cool title and kept with me its deep swirls of beautiful sound. I spent a lot of hours listening to it while studying.
I’ve written plenty about my favourite record store in the world, Academy Records in Brooklyn. Going there for me is just a given drain on my wallet, because I will undoubtedly see some rare foreign album reissue with a note from the staff on it reading something like “awesome midwestern folk obscurity” or “incredible japanese psych underground classic!” Before I know it I’m out $35.
The other day I was in the neighbourhood and walked in just intending to browse casually, determined not to buy anything. I ended up looking through the Swedish section and saw this weird album cover. As I do whenever I find something that looks curious, I took a picture so I could look it up online at home.
As I soon learned, the album is a vinyl reissue of Joakim Skogsberg‘s rare, mysterious 1971 album Jola Rota. Skogsberg was part of the hippie scene in Stockholm back in the 60s, but as time went on he became increasingly interested in nature and escaping the city. Apparently, Skogsberg would go into the forest and hum into a tape recorder strange melodies inspired by a folkways recording of Japanese shamanist chanting. He later overdubbed cool droning and percussion sounds, building full songs around the forest humming tapes at recording spaces back in the city. The resulting album received a limited 1000 copy print with around 400 selling – the rest were melted down and used to make other records. Shortly after the release, Skogsberg left Stockholm to live in a small, rustic town filled mostly with elderly citizens, the youth having all moved to the cities. It would be something like 20 years before he recorded another album.
This kind of backstory alone was enough to convince me I had to own Jola Rota. It’s the kind of strange and magnificent that record geeks live and die for. Like Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence‘s OAR, it’s got a mystical, ‘heart of darkness’ honesty that’s impossible to fake. Two days later I went back to Academy and shelled out the cash…they got me again…
In the early aughts, Montreal was all about the apocalypse sound.
Between 2001-2006, the albums best embodying the fear, angst, anger and societal disconnect sweeping North America following 9/11 came from French Canada’s largest city: Montreal, Quebec. Even New York’s own revived music scene found itself bested by the likes of Montreal bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, The Dears and The Stills – all of whom released stark, beautiful, despairing albums reflecting the fever of the times. But the album that best captured the era’s feeling of subdued hysteria was Wolf Parade’s 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary.
Although based in Montreal, all Wolf Parade’s members were originally from British Columbia, and their scruffy looks and raucous energy had more in common with BC bands like Ladyhawk and Japandroids than anything from la belle province. Also unlike their popular peers in Arcade Fire or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade were not a collective, nor did their music feature the kind of orchestral sounds then in vogue. Dan Boeckner’s dirty guitars and Spencer Krug’s spacey analog synths defined their aesthetic. Combined with Arlen Thompson’s mammoth drums and Hadji Bakara’s anxious electronics, Wolf Parade’s sound on Apologies conjured up sonic images of a ‘used future’ resembling the one in Terminator movies: desolate, dystopian, and technologically terrifying.
“I’m not in love with the modern world.”
The album’s second track, “Modern World”, is Boeckner’s ironic reply to the Modern Lovers’ song “Modern World”. It is also serves as the album’s mission statement. Far from being in love with the modern world and the USA and driving with the radio on, Wolf Parade’s members were not impressed. On the contrary, Apologies is a litany of Wolf Parade’s issues with the times. In “Shine A Light”, Boeckner bewails the constant treadmill of low-level employment, with its “endless hours in the office tour/on a bus on a bus back home to you/that’s fine I’m barely alive.” In “We Built Another World”, he voices his disgust with the superficiality of youth culture where “everyone’s disguised just a little bit.” Krug, in “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”, borrows an image from Hindu mythology to lament Western affluenza. In “Dinner Bells”, he imagines an impending environmental apocalypse where “there’ll be no more winter/And there’ll be no more spring.” In “I’ll Believe In Anything”, he voices a generation’s desperation for existential meaning.
Anxiety about the end of nature in an increasingly technology-dominated world is another one of the album’s consistent complaints. In a Pitchfork interview from 2005, Boeckner acknowledged the theme, saying,
“There’s this sort of alienating feeling, for me sometimes at least, where I feel like there’s all this technology that is now completely embedded in the environment that we live in– I don’t understand it or I’ve just got to the point that I completely ignore it and that kinda freaks me out. And also, I get this feeling of decay from growing up in a small town and moving to successively larger cities. Sometimes I feel like these cities are built on snarled machines that seem tenuous and not as solid as a huge den of trees outside your house.”
Although it is never addressed explicitly, Boeckner and Krug make subtle references to it in lyrics like “It’s gotta last to build up your eyes/And a lifetime of red skies,” (“Modern World”) and “Said you hate the sound/Of the buses on the ground/Said you hate the way they scrape their breaks all over town/Said pretend it’s whales keeping their voices down/These were the grounds for divorce I know” (“Grounds For Divorce”). Adam Bizanski’s haunting stop-motion music video for “Modern World” also references it, depicting the band being replaced by spindly, efficient machines.
Although Boeckner and Krug’s writing styles have always been distinguishable, their shared sense of crushing despair on Apologies – “Fancy Claps” is basically the musical equivalent of sitting in a dark corner in the fetal position – provided the album with thematic consistency. In subsequent work, however, Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting paths diverged enormously.
With Krug’s Sunset Rubdown and Moonface projects, as well as Swan Lake – his indie supergroup with Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) – Krug would dive headfirst into the fantastical elements of his work hinted at on Apologies. Starting with Sunset Rubdown’s 2006 album Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Krug as the dreamer with fantastical visions of sacred animals, mythical beasts and places where lovers have wings, would henceforth be the definitive one. The political Krug, who so poignantly depicted the neo-conservative, religion-tinged insanity of the Bush era in “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe In Anything”, would for the most part disappear.
Boeckner, on the other hand, became perhaps the closest thing to a protest singer in aughts indie-rock (after Efrim Menuck). Starting in 2007, Boeckner’s band Handsome Furs (with then-wife Alexei Perry) toured many of the places most bands avoid in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The duo’s time in the former USSR inspired the soviet vibe of 2009’s Face Control, the back cover of which features a picture of Putin. Their song “Serve the People” was inspired by the Burmese government’s efforts to block rock bands from playing for the general public. The duo also starred in their own CNN.com vlog series called Indie Asia and blogged about their travels on their website.
Boeckner and Handsome Furs became increasingly political until their breakup in 2012, but the end of the Bush era and the beginning of Obama’s “hope and change” administration saw North American indie rock generally lose interest in writing about political issues. Gone were the days of Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio releasing free anti-Bush digital downloads. Even in Canada, where the current right-wing, Bush-wannabe Prime Minister Stephen Harper ascended to power in 2006, indie rock – at least outside of Quebec – became just as apolitical. Musicians in the United States and Canada voiced support for the Occupy movement, Pussy Riot, and other progressive matters, but few prominent North American indie rock bands and artists explicitly dealt with contemporary issues in their musical work.
Post-ApologiesWolf Parade were, for the most part, no exception to this trend. The songwriting of 2008’s At Mount Zoomer and 2010’s Expo 86 gave the impression that whereas Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs were once considered Wolf Parade side projects, Wolf Parade had become the supergroup side-project of Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs members. Both were still great albums, but the thematic unity of Apologies’ politics was nearly gone, with songs like “Call It A Ritual” (about wars in the Middle East) and “Yulia” (Boeckner returning to his soviet fascination) providing the rare exceptions.
In 2011, Wolf Parade announced it was going on indefinite hiatus.
Listening to Apologies in September 2015 is a strange experience, like opening a time capsule from the first couple years of the Bush administration and post-9/11 world. All the worst memories from the period come rushing back. The World Trade Center attacks. Anthrax in the mail. The Patriot Act. The declaration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the problems of 2015, North America is in many ways a more hopeful place (at least for progressive and liberal types) than it was during the Bush years. Americans elected the first African-American president. Gay marriage is legal in the United States and Canada. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be winding down. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan indicates that at least one political party in the US is finally getting serious about confronting climate change. And although Canadian Prime Minister Harper has tarnished Canada’s environmental reputation and passed his own Patriot Act in the form of Bill C-51, at the time of writing, Canada’s progressive New Democratic Party are leading the federal election polls [update: a recent Star poll found the Conservatives to be in the lead – let’s all hope it’s wrong and if you’re a Canadian reading this, please go out and vote if you haven’t already.]
So could an album as crushing and apocalyptic as Apologies be made in 2015? Maybe not. There’s a wounded passivity to Apologies; a feeling of being beaten down too many times. The album is peppered with lyrics about laying in bed, sleeping and wanting to run away. One can find similar sentiments on other albums from the period, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral (see: “In The Backseat”) and Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief (see: “Sit Down Stand Up”). But there’s a feeling of active hope or at least resilient anger in more recent political music. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band’s most recent album is called Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything. When Arcade Fire sing “Can we just work it out?” on Reflektor’s “Afterlife”, they sound like they believe we actually can work it out. Is the apocalypse sound dead? Or is it just waiting until after election season to make a return?