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The End of the End

Not quite a year in review

By John Brodeur

As we draw near the close of another year, those of us in the criticism “biz” are beginning to make our hyper-important, all-encompassing, cannot-be-argued-with best-of-the-year lists. The following are some recent releases that may or may not make my own year-end list, and a few shorter recordings that don’t quite qualify as albums—but might make it if they did.

 

The Hold Steady

Stay Positive (Vagrant)

Brooklyn’s answer to the E Street Band is back for another round of indie anthems. But on the follow-up to 2006’s critically dry-humped Boys and Girls in America, Craig Finn and company take a step back from the outright Springsteen-isms of that record (though lead single “Sequestered in Memphis” certainly pumps the horns and gang vocals to those same anthemic heights). On Stay Positive, their fifth record, the Hold Steady push out their boundaries without collapsing the overall formula completely. That is to say they’re trying on different influences—Springsteen and the Replacements are still obvious touchstones, but there’s more old-school punk-rock, and maybe even some Billy Joel in there.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Stay Positive is a better record than the rather one-note Boys and Girls. There’s more nuance here, with different instrumentations and sparser arrangements scattered between the fist-pumpers; tracks like “One for the Cutters” and “Both Crosses” take on a darker tone than we’ve heard from the band thus far, and it suits them. Of course Finn is still a manic and unrepentant lyricist—how the man remembers all those words from night to night is beyond me—but even he shows some restraint this time out, particularly on the wistful “Yeah Sapphire,” which favors stanzas over paragraphs. But back to the punk: It’s called on often here, no more directly than in the title track, where Finn spits, “The Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons.” One of those lessons might be “Don’t forget your roots.” Finn wears his like merit badges, much to our benefit.

One Day as a Lion

One Day as a Lion (Anti-)

Zack de la Rocha promised a post-Rage Against the Machine project for eight years after that band broke up. So is it a disappointment that the debut from One Day as a Lion, his project with ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, is A) not exactly a departure from his former band’s highly profitable rap-rock hybrid, or B) awfully brief, considering the gestation period, at five songs? Well, no, and maybe a little. Theodore is an exciting and lyrical drummer, and his beats are, as in good hip-hop, the heart of the songs. De la Rocha, meanwhile, offers more of his trademark howl-rap, while expanding on his palette with some interesting keyboard-noise riffs, and even singing (check out the EP’s best track, “Ocean View,” for an example). Rage fans obviously will dig this (especially “If You Fear Dying,” which could pass for a Rage outtake); anyone who’s into hearing some seriously impressive drumming should also give it a crack.

Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)

This reverb-drenched beauty seems to be gunning for the title of coolest record ever to be sold across a Starbucks counter. And I’ll give it to ’em—it’s an exquisite recording, full of pristine vocal harmonies and yearning leads, set to a modern-folk backdrop that aligns them with contemporaries like Band of Horses, the Shins, and My Morning Jacket. There’s an if-it-ain’t-broke attitude to the compositions here; for all of the quintet’s “indie” leanings, there are palpable and necessary ties to the past. Which is to say, this is music that defies time or categorization. Highly recommended.

Be Your Own Pet

Get Damaged EP (XL)

At three tracks and barely six minutes in length, does this even qualify as an EP? Well, kind of—the three songs on this, the swan song for the Nashville garage quartet, were removed from the U.S. release of the band’s early-2008 Get Awkward disc by Universal lawyers for being “too violent.” Which is odd considering the nature of some of the other things Universal companies have put their name on, but this miniature pop-punk teen-girl party piece stands up just fine on its own. High-school knife fights haven’t sounded this exciting in years.

Mercury Rev

Snowflake Midnight/Strange Attractor (Yep Roc)

For their first album(s) in almost four years, Mercury Rev have more or less ditched the idea of trying to sound like a band and dove full-on into the psychedelic-electronic rabbit hole. The results are really something—if you played Snowflake Midnight next to one of the band’s early-’90s guitar-noise workouts, you’d think the two were recorded centuries apart. (Technically they were.) In a way, these tracks have more in common with those early blasts than with their well-regarded attempts at Americana, in that song structures have been thrown out the window in favor of high drama, and a whole different kind of noise. Snowflake marks the beginning of the third act for a band who have been defined by change throughout their perplexing career.

Companion piece Strange Attractor, available as a free download from the band’s Web site, is the Amnesiac to Snowflake’s Kid A . . . sort of. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Made up of 11 instrumental pieces and experimental soundscapes, Attractor at points recalls Dots and Loops-era Stereolab and Eno’s ambient works, both favorably. Tune into Snowflake Midnight; drop out to Strange Attractor.

dEUS

Vantage Point (Phantom Sound & Vision)

Speaking of experimental, how about dEUS? Man, I hadn’t heard anything by this Belgian troupe in years, and their latest record nearly slipped by unnoticed as well, having not been officially released stateside. (It came out overseas in early 2008. Back in the day, I would have had to order an import CD. Thanks, Internet!) On the second full-length dEUS album to follow a five-year hiatus in the early part of this decade, Tom Barman is still following his art-pop quirkiness in and out of the dark and smoky corners of popular music, dabbling in alt-rock, dance music, and even something approaching hip-hop along the way. Vantage Point features contributions from Elbow’s Guy Garvey and the Knife’s Karin Drejer Andersson, and one of the best songs of the year in album closer “Popular Culture.”


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