Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

Tag: 2012 (Page 1 of 2)

#1 Album of 2012: Motion City Soundtrack – Go / Making Moves Vol. 6

#1 – MOTION CITY SOUNDTRACK – GO [spotify] / MAKING MOVES VOL. 6 [spotify]

(feat. track – “Circuits And Wires” [spotify] from Go)

This year was the hardest I can remember for picking my Number One album; as I sorted and rearranged and rethought my list throughout December, each of the albums in my top three spent some time in this slot. As it is, I’m still not sure I’ve made the right choice. I’m not even sure Go is my favorite Motion City Soundtrack album – I dither between its mellow vibe and My Dinosaur Life’s fidgety aggression on a regular basis. But if Go wasn’t my clear-cut favorite this year, it’s certainly the most interesting of the three albums that are more-or-less tied for the top spot.

I wrote about the thematic threads running through Go when I reviewed the album; the more I listen to it, the more I become convinced that it’s a concept album. I’m not sure that was Motion City’s intent – it’s probably more likely that the songs that comprise Go are merely reflective of their frames of mind at the time they were writing, rather than the result of some concerted effort to make a cohesive statement – but if books belong to their readers, well then albums belong to their listeners, authorial intent be damned, and Go is what it is regardless of intent. It’s certainly better-crafted, more thematically precise and more consistent than any recent concept album I can recall. So what if it doesn’t exactly tell a linear story? If you were to assert that it did, I’m not sure I could prove you wrong.

And as a concept album, it’s incredibly brave. Coming from the pop-punk world – a scene and a style built on the live-fast-die-young ethos and the big “fuck you”; one where youthful folly is not only accepted but encouraged, as though fucking up is the only proper way to live; one where the only regrets are supposed to be the crazy things you didn’t do – an album on giving up isn’t just unusual, it’s anathema. An album about acceptance: that some of our dreams we will never achieve; that ties to our friends are tenuous, at best; that our time with our loved ones is surely limited; that our bodies and our minds will both slowly fail us; that death will happen, unavoidably. An album about acquiescing to all the things we are supposed to rail against, to ignore, to deny and to disbelieve.

Go addresses all these topics with a stunning level of maturity and depth. These are the best set of lyrics vocalist Justin Pierre has written, full of the sort of specificity that engenders universality. Pierre has always been an incredibly honest, open songwriter, but Go reaches to even deeper places than the soul-bearing of tracks like “Everything Is Alright” and “L.G. FUAD”, tracks that made his reputation in the first place.

It needs to. Because the dirty secret is, sometimes supposedly “brutal” honesty is actually easy honesty. The idea of exposing yourself seems hard because you’re pointing out your flaws, and that’s supposed to be painful. But if you feel like they’re obvious flaws – like the whole world knows your failings already – addressing them doesn’t require nearly the courage it might seem to take. It’s self-aggrandizement couched as behumblement; it’s the pride of the martyr. Self-excoriation is old hat for Pierre by now; on Go, he looks beyond where he should ostensibly be vulnerable, drilling down to where he actually is vulnerable.

And that’s real bravery. Because ultimately, it’s much easier to admit we’re shitty people sometimes than it is to admit that we’re going to grow old and die. And it’s one thing when that message of inevitability is coming from the decimated shell of Johnny Cash or an ailing Glen Campbell or the inescapable prognosis of Warren Zevon. They’re not like us; we can see death painted on their faces. They already straddle that divide; not a person staring down the end, but a ghost singing back to us from across the Styx.

But there’s nothing “other” about a bunch of dudes in their early 30s, still in their prime, or at least, there’s not for me. I can’t write them off, dismiss them, disconnect them from myself. They are me. And because of that, Go effects me on each listen that a way no other album in 2012 did, or could.

Finally, a word on the Making Moves 7″. When I initially decided to lump each band’s entire output for the year into their entries on my year-end lists, it didn’t occur to me that a band might put out material that would detract from my overall opinion of their year. I’m not going to rehash my thoughts on Making Moves – I still feel the same as I did when I reviewed it. But if I’m going to dock the band points for Making Moves the 7″, they earn just as many back for Making Moves the project. Motion City Soundtrack’s decision to spend their year not just on their own music but curating (and producing) a series of 7″s for up-and-coming acts led to some excellent music being made (I particularly enjoyed the releases by The Company We Keep and A Great Big Pile Of Leaves), but more importantly, it was the sort of selfless act that keeps scenes vital and interesting. I don’t think acts have a duty to give back, but I definitely give them extra credit when they do.

review of Go (published 6/18/12)

review of Making Moves: Vol. 6 (published 11/10/12)

The Best of the Rest 2012

(feat. track – The Forecast – “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts” [spotify] from Everybody Left)

Tomorrow, I’ll unveil my #1 album of the year.  In the meantime, here’s a whole lot of stuff that didn’t quite make my Top Ten Eleven, but still left a big impression in 2012.

I listened to less new music this past year than in any year I can remember, and yet at 34 albums, this year’s Best Of The Rest is the biggest I’ve done yet (arguably too big). I’m not sure how that works out; I suspect it’s because, in limiting my listening time, I mostly keyed in on the stuff I thought I would enjoy the most, for better or worse. Every album that made its way onto this list has merit and, on the right day, could have slipped into the final spot or two on what proved to be a unusually-hard-to-pin-down Top Ten.

Reviews I’ve written on any of these albums are noted. Spotify (or other streaming source) links have been included, where available.

All Time Low – Don’t Panic [spotify]

Are they ever going to live up to their potential? Probably not. But if the All Time Low we’ve got now isn’t the best one imaginable, well that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the one we have for what it is. Lay aside the lofty expectations set by Put Up Or Shut Up and So Wrong It’s Right (which is more flawed than you remember); tracks like “If These Sheets Were The States”, “So Long Soldier” and “For Baltimore” are packed with exuberance that’s matched only by their soaring harmonies. Don’t Panic isn’t perfect  – it’s lacking a killer single, for one – but it’s the most consistently enjoyable collection All Time Low have pieced together in a long time.

Bob Mould – Silver Age [spotify]

Silver Age isn’t the “return to form” it’s been pegged as (that would be 2005’s exceptional Body Of Song), but it’s shot through with an electric energy that’s been missing on Mould’s last few albums – Bob sounds refreshed, revitalized, in the way that playing with new collaborators frequently seems to make him. It’s also not the near-flawless album some have been made it out to be (“Angels Rearrange” is prototypical Bob-by-numbers; lead track “Star Machine” is essentially a rewrite of the better “I Hate Alternative Rock”), but it’s the most substantive and adventurous one he’s crafted in quite some time. It doesn’t hurt that “Keep Believing” and (especially) “The Descent” rank among the best songs Mould has ever written – a bold statement considering his Bobness now has 20+ albums worth of material under his belt, but a true one nonetheless.

Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss [spotify]

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was so massive in 2012 that it seemed to take on one-hit-wonder status before a second single had even been released, as though it was such a perfectly suited song for the category that Jepsen’s future (or lack of it) was preordained. I wasn’t as over-the-moon for Kiss as some other critics (for one, a number of its beats feel really dated to me, and not in a retro way), but it’s still a super solid (and super enjoyable) pop record, one that seems to have not received a fair chance.

Circa Survive – Violent Waves [spotify]

Violent Waves, bookended as it is by a pair of seven minute monsters, feels like a reaction to 2010’s more single-oriented Blue Sky Noise. Personally I preferred that album’s concise songwriting to Violent Waves’ spacier sonics, but the band is clearly adept at either style, and in the right mood, I connect to Violent Waves in a way that I wish I did with space metal and post-rock. Those genres, I appreciate; Violent Waves, I enjoy.

Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory [spotify]

Coming from an indie background rather than a “scene” one, Dylan Baldi’s grunge revivalisms have garnered him a heck of a lot more attention than that of bands like Basement and Balance & Composure. Which is not to say that attention is unmerited – tracks like the epic “Wasted Days” and scorching “Stay Useless” recapture the righteous spirit of the early 90s without feeling wholly derivative.

Dads – American Radass (This Is Important) [bandcamp]

Dads aren’t just a band, they’re a movement, or at least they seem to have become unwitting figureheads for one. Partly, credit their facility with in-jokes that seem to catch like wildfire (see: the week everyone on the Internet was suddenly talking about ‘Twinkle Daddies’) and a snarky, fuck-it sense of humor (see: song titles like “Grunt Work (The ’69 Sound)” and its follow-up, “Groin Twerk”) that belies their music’s ragged earnesty. But none of it would matter if American Radass’ combination of mathy leads, scruffy sonics and heart-on-sleeve lyrics weren’t so damned compelling.

Dave Melillo – Eskimo Kisses [free download]

Dave Melillo’s been dabbling in contemporary R&B for some time now, but Eskimo Kisses is the first time he’s fully committed himself to the sound, and while not every track here is a winner (what mixtape is?), the best here rank among the finest work he’s done. Melillo may not have roots in R&B, but he’s clearly no dilettante – there’s no irony in Eskimo Kisses, just a sincere love for the genre that shines through.


The Early November – In Currents [spotify]

Of the many bands to stage comebacks in 2012, The Early November managed it the best. The band may have spent the last six years on the shelf, but In Currents brings the sort of desperate intensity and world-weary passion you’d more likely expect from a band that had spent the decade actively slugging it out in the trenches. There’s no rest for the weary here, and no concession to age.

Enter Shikari – A Flash Flood Of Colour [spotify]

Enter Shikari’s chaotic mix of aggro agit-prop metalcore and spoonbending dubstep presaged both a generation of clue-deprived Risecore acts and the seemingly-overnight ascent of EDM to youth culture dominance; only three albums in and Enter Shikari already feel a bit like elder statesmen, though their politics remain strictly freshman year. A Flash Flood Of Color uses that flaw to its advantage – the reductionist sloganeering of frontman Rau Reynolds makes for a youthful burst of energy that fuels the band’s turbulent fire.


For The Foxes – The Revolution [spotify]

For The Foxes are, for my money, the band most likely to repeat fun.’s rise from out of the “scene” to the top of the pop charts. The Revolution trucks in the same sort of mainstream-indie that’s succeeded so well for acts like Neon Trees and Foster The People, with the radio-friendly hooks to match. This one was a near-miss for my Top 10; I suspect I’ll grow to regret that decision, partly because I really do love it, and partly because I’ll have missed an opportunity to look like a genius when they break big in a few years.


The Forecast – Everybody Left [spotify]

Sometimes a band is so consistently good at what they do that everyone stops paying attention. Which is a shame, because Everybody Left doesn’t just stack up with The Forecast’s back catalog; it’s a fair step better.  It’s easily the most consistent outing of their career, with not a single skipper in the bunch, and its highs (“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts”; “Take Me Down”) rank among the most compellingly passionate tracks the band have released. There are a bevy of acts nowadays trucking in a mix of punk and Americana – The Forecast did it first, and they’re still doing it best.


Further Seems Forever – Penny Black [spotify]

It’s been an awful long time since Chris Carrabba helmed Further Seems Forever, and at times their reunion album feels more like Carrabba’s recent Dashboard Confessional output than anything FSF did in the post-Carrabba years. But if this isn’t the Further Seems Forever that you’ve come to know, the reunion still seems to have reinvigorated all involved – Penny Black is the best album either half have released in years.

G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer [spotify]

Yes it’s uneven, yes some of these tracks are duds, yes some of the features and collabs should never have been released. Which is to say, this is a mixtape, just as it was advertised to be. A mixtape with a few absolutely essential Kanye tracks, including one that even managed to catch Big Sean at his best. Big Sean – who knew he even had a “best”? Really, if this album was just “Mercy” 16 times, it would have made this list; everything else is just gravy.

Happy Body Slow Brain – Sleepy EP [spotify]

Happy Body Slow Brain’s densely orchestrated, proggy debut LP, Dreams Of Water, didn’t really do it for me. Sleepy strips away much of the extraneous bullshit that bogged that album down; what remains is sweet and beautiful in its simplicity. And the positively sublime cover of Roland Orzabal’s “Maybe Our Days Are Numbered” that caps off the album (which, sadly, isn’t available on Spotify) might be my favorite track of 2012.


Japandroids – Celebration Rock [spotify]

To my mind, Japandroids split the difference between Husker Du and The Hold Steady; naturally, then, I half-love and half-hate them. Ultimately, though, Celebration Rock’s bristling mix of adrenaline and acceleration overcome the shortcomings in Japandroids’ rosy-tinted teen-steam confabulations.

Joyce Manor – Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired [spotify]

On Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, Joyce Manor took the leap from raggedy-but-straightforward punk band to something entirely unclassifiable. With a brevity befitting Guided By Voices, Joyce Manor leap from Los Campesinos-style rave-ups to glitchy Casio-core to vaguely Anglican jangle-pop. The centerpiece, a giddy, near-unrecognizable rewrite of “Video Killed The Radio Star” perfectly captures the band’s tunefully sloppy, infectiously reckless gusto, if not their unpinnable sound.

Justin Bieber – Believe [spotify]

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Believe isn’t a great album. It’s overlong, it turns shmaltzy in the middle, some of the beats feel rewarmed. But when it’s good, it’s great; “As Long As You Love Me” rates as my favorite pop radio hit of 2012, by a longshot. Bieber is a singles artist, and Believe is packed with them.

Kevin Devine – Matter Of Time: KD&DGB Live EP [spotify]

Matter Of Time isn’t really an EP; its nine tracks include a twelve minute-long number that incorporates three different songs, and the entire collection weighs in at a hefty 49 minutes. It’s not really live either; rather it was banged out in the studio with Devine’s touring band. The result is the perfect mix of sonic clarity and raw performance; it’s the best of both worlds, and the best Kevin Devine has ever sounded on record.

mewithoutYou – Ten Stories [spotify]

Ten Stories splits the difference between the folky mewithoutYou of It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright and the yelp-y post-hardcore of their earlier work, integrating them in a way that’s more seamless than would seem possible. The most fully-rounded mwY album to date is also one of their best.


Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream [spotify]

Miguel may have titled his album Kaleidoscope Dream, but while the record doesn’t shy away from the hazy experimentalist thread that seemed so integral to R&B in 2012, those modes never come at the expense of rock-solid songcraft. Kaleidoscope Dream is proof that you can make the game fun and exciting without throwing out the rulebook entirely.

Misser – Every Day I Tell Myself I’m Going To Be A Better Person [spotify]

This collaboration between This Time Next Year’s Brad Wiseman and Transit’s Tim Landers might have begun as a side project, but the resulting album is as compelling as anything its constituent parts have released on their own, blending their affinities for (in turn) pop-punk and late-90s emo into something that resembles a gruffer take on early Taking Back Sunday.

MOD SUN – Happy As Fuck EP [spotify]

The King of the New Hippys was a little quieter this year than usual, focusing on kingdom-building projects like the release of his first book and a collaborative record under the group name Gordon Bombay. But the titular song of the lone EP he released as Mod Sun is also his most contagious track to date, an irresistible burst of sunshine and spirit(s). (It also bears an uncanny similarity to Miguel’s “Do You…”; Mod got there first).

Moving Mountains – New Light EP [spotify]

New Light is comprised of acoustic rerecordings of previously released Moving Mountains songs, but it’s far from perfunctory. Each of the four tracks here is changed significantly from it’s original recording; a few feel wholly reinvented. Moving Mountains’ last full length, Waves, was the band’s most aggressive record; New Light flips that script, with lots of open air and warm strings. It’s not at all what I’d grown to expect from the band, and I think it’s my favorite recording of theirs to date.


Owl City – Shooting Star EP [spotify] / The Midsummer Station [spotify]

As much as I loved Owl City’s 2009 album Ocean Eyes, I was equally disappointed by its follow-up, the uninspired, same-y All Things Bright And Beautiful. Fortunately, it seems Adam Young was too; The Midsummer Station finds him taking more chances with his sound, alternately cranking up the dance beats and the guitars. The resulting album is fresh and loose.

[review] [review]

Pentimento – Pentimento [bandcamp]

Pentimento’s brand of pop-punk includes tinges of Brand New, Transit, Make Do And Mend, Hot Water Music, and surely plenty of others I’m forgetting. But if they’re not doing anything original on their first LP, Pentimento understand that what made their predecessors successful had as much to do with their songs as their sound. Pentimento is derivative; that it reflects the best parts of its influences makes it enjoyable nonetheless.

R. Kelly – Write Me Back [spotify]

R. Kelly’s retro-tinged Love Letter seemed to garner a lot more attention in 2011 than the sort-of sequel Write Me Back did last year, but for my money the latter is the better of the two.Looking more to the 80’s and 90’s for inspiration than its 60’s soul-oriented predecessor, Write Me Back shies away from R&B’s increasingly heavy indie/experimental influence, offering instead a master class on tuneful traditionalism. “Feelin’ Single” ranks among my favorite tracks of 2012.

The Rocket Summer – Life Will Write The Words [spotify]

Bryce Avary’s one-man band The Rocket Summer have been a personal favorite for a long time now, but while Life Will Write The Words fits comfortably into the band’s canon, the old dog has a few new tricks up its mixed-metaphoric sleeve. Avary’s vocals, in particular, have never sounded so mature and full as they do here; the resemblance to Andrew McMahon is uncanny at times. Meanwhile, the songwriting remains as strong as ever.


Set It Off – Cinematics [spotify]

At a time when straightforward, no-frills punk is in vogue, Cinematics calls back to the entertainingly over-the-top dramatics of early My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco. I caught Set It Off live a few times in 2012; one of their sets at SXSW ranks among the best I saw all year. Frontman Cody Carson’s got the theater-kid act down; fortunately, he’s also got the pipes to match.


Sharks – No Gods [spotify]

I’m not sure why No Gods seemed to get lost in the shuffle this year, but Sharks’ profile (in the US at least) seems near-invisible. That’s a shame – Sharks might not be reinventing the wheel, but their brand of no-frills heartland power-pop has tuneful appeal for miles. Perhaps it’s the lack of a killer single to hook people in; I’m happy to settle for a full album’s worth of great songs instead.


Sparks The Rescue – Sparks The Rescue EP [spotify]

Sparks The Rescue returned to independence in 2012, and the EP they released is a flashback to the last time they were label-free, with some of their heaviest, most emotionally charged tracks to date. As someone who loved the band’s poppy, melodic side, the weighty EP took a little time to cotton to, but beneath its amped-up sonics lie songs as hooky and compelling as anything Sparks The Rescue have done, and in time, the release won me over.


This Providence – Brier EP [spotify]

After three years caught in label limbo, This Providence made their escape in 2012 and released their comeback EP, Brier. No one noticed. That’s unfortunate – Brier ’s retro rock-and-roll vibes might have been a new look for the notoriously chameleonic act, but the songwriting and hooks that undergird it all were as strong as ever. Undeservedly ignored.


Thrice – Anthology [spotify]

This career-spanning live double-disc is more than a document of Thrice’s farewell tour, it’s a lasting testament to an act whose mastery of dynamics and irrepressible passion translated beyond the studio confines. Thrice were long one of my favorite acts to see in concert; Anthology makes it clear why.

Title Fight – Floral Green [spotify]

It’s been obvious for a while that there was more going on with Title Fight than with your run-of-the-mill pop-punk band, but I don’t think anyone was expecting this. Floral Green’s mixture of 90’s proto-emo, ripping post-hardcore and tuneful shoegaze-y noise refines the formula from the band’s debut LP Shed, stripping away anything that felt extraneous the first time through. Floral Green is the sound of a band coming into its own.


With The Punches – Seams & Stitches [spotify]

Seams & Stitches’ speedy, scrappy take on Rufio-esque melodic skatepunk isn’t anything novel, but in a year in which so much of the pop-punk scene seemed to be writing subtle variations (imitations if you’re feeling less generous) on the same song (I love The Wonder Years as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean I need ten more of them), With The Punches get points for bucking the trend, and bonus points for doing what they do so well.

#2 Album of 2012 – Steven Padin – Out of the Silent Nest


(feat. track – “Down Under And Out” [spotify])

When I included Steven Padin’s “Two Little Lovebirds” on one of our PropertyOfZack Staff Playlists, I had this to say about Out Of The Silent Nest:

The Reign Of Kindo’s drummer steps out from behind the kit, playing every instrument on his shockingly wonderful debut solo album Out Of The Silent Nest. Supplementing Kindo’s jazz-rock influences with a heavy dose of Revolver-era Beatles, Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and a dash of bossa nova and tropicalia, Padin’s penchant for complex, whimsical composition and unexpected chord changes never overwhelms a collection of songs which, at their core, remain beautifully simple.

I’ve long been a fan of The Reign Of Kindo (who made my Top Ten in 2010), and Padin’s inventive stickwork is a crucial component of their sound, but his skill as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist here are real revelations. His melodies never take the predictable path from point A to point B; the unusual progressions feel purposeful, not noodly, and always resolve beautifully, but there’s real magic in how they get to that resolution.

The recordings on Out Of The Silent Nest generally come in two varieties: gently lilting acoustic Gilberto-esque balladry, full of bright melodies that couch inner turmoil, doubt and melancholia; and more fleshed out, darker-toned rockers that brood rather than rage. The alternating effect makes for a balanced, easy listen despite the heavy content.

At Out Of The Silent Nest’s center is a cover of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, and while I won’t say it matches the transcendent beauty of the Beach Boys’Pet Sounds masterpiece, it succeeds in capturing the shadows – the fear of fucking up, the certainty of collapse – hiding inside the song’s moony placidity. It’s a gutsy move, taking a hack at a song which’s initial recording is so undeniably unimpeachable, but for Padin it’s also a necessary one: the track serves as a signpost to the emotional heart of the originals which make up the remainder of the album – the Wilsonesque paean to love in all its tenuousness.

And ultimately, it’s that emotional aptitude that’s made Out Of The Silent Nest such a compelling listen for me this year; the sonics may have drawn me in, but it’s Padin’s clear-eyed grasp of complexity that keeps me coming back.

#4 Album of 2012 – The Maine – Good Love: The Pioneer B-Sides


(feat. track – “I’m Leaving” [spotify])

I don’t think I’d ever call The Maine my favorite band, and yet I seem to fall in love with everything they release. 2008’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop features the most consistent songwriting and catchiest melodies of the many neon pop albums which broke through that year. That December’s …And A Happy New Year featured “Ho Ho Hopefully,” a solid candidate for second-best holiday song to emerge from the power-pop-punk world (Fall Out Boy’s “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out” is #1, inarguably), one that’s endured in the years since as a fan (and scene) favorite. 2010’s transitional Black & White made my Top Ten for the year; the exceptional, experimental In Darkness And In Light EP would have ranked even higher, had it not been released in the last week of December. Similarly, it was only a December release that kept 2011’s mature Pioneer off of that year’s chart (it still managed to sneak its way into the Best Of The Rest). I’m fairly well convinced at this point that I’m The Maine’s biggest cheerleader (at least among folks who aren’t young enough to be actual cheerleaders), and yet I still somehow consistently underrate – and underestimate – the band.

I’ll have a lot more to say on why that might be in the fairly near future; I find The Maine fascinating not just for what they are but also for who they are, and why they are, and for what they represent. Until then, there’s plenty I’ve already written on them out there (see: every hyperlink in this post). Or better yet, just go listen to them; even without all the interesting context attached, the music speaks for itself. Good Love is as fine a rock and roll album as any released this year.

review of Good Love: The Pioneer B-Sides (published 10/09/12)

#5 Album of 2012: William Beckett – Walk the Talk EP / Winds Will Change EP / What Will Be EP


(feat. track – “Dig A Hole” [spotify] from Winds Will Change)

When William Beckett, late of The Academy Is… (whose Fast Times At Barrington High made my Top Ten list back in 2008), launched his solo project this past March, he opted for the unusual strategy of releasing a trio of EPs rather than an LP. The first EP, Walk The Talk, was accompanied by a something of a media blitz. Its reveal was also the announcement of the entire trilogy’s existence; alongside it came the announcement of Beckett’s first ever solo headline tour. The video for lead single “Compromising Me” was featured on MTV’s online properties; there were a bevy of articles and interviews surrounding the unveiling of the project.

The release of the second piece, Winds Will Change, was preceded by lyric drops and weekly videos of Beckett playing the as-yet-unheard tracks acoustic, publicity that felt a little more DIY and fan-targetted but still fairly substantial. But by the time final-third What Will Be was released, it felt as though the promotional efforts had largely fizzled out*. I’m not sure if Beckett was tapped out financially, or emotionally, or if it was merely his audience’s (read: my) attention that was spent. Or maybe it was just that Beckett and/or his team agreed with me that What Will Be feels a little slight in comparison to its predecessors, and decided to squeeze their budgets a touch in turn. Beckett was on the road still, but touring behind an EP, when you’ve already been grinding the asphault for the past six months behind your previous two EPs, has no chance of generating the buzz that a “first ever solo tour” does. It’s like a long airplane trip: eventually your ears adjust to the noise of the jet engines, until you’ve nearly forgotten their continual thrum. (There’s also less heat to be generated from a supporting-act gig like the ones Beckett moved on to opening for The Rocket Summer and Relient K, even though he was playing to much bigger crowds as an undercard than he was on his solo jaunts).

Of course, had Beckett opted for a more traditional LP release, and issued it back in April when Walk The Talk hit, it’s unlikely there would have been much chatter about the album six months later anyway, so perhaps even minimal PR over What Will Be was an improvement on the status quo. Then again, maybe a long-player would have benefited more greatly from the sort of end-of-year jabber I’m engaging in here – (great) singles and albums find a second life each December, but (and this could just be my own myopia) it doesn’t seem to me that EPs are often afforded that same consideration. The poptimist vanguard are all about the power of the single; the rockist massive still sees the great-and-mighty album as the height of the “meaningful” statement; perhaps the EP falls in the cracks between. And when you’ve issued three of them, it’s triple the mess.

(None of which is to say that music should be packaged to cater to reviewers rather than the mass audience. Except that, if you think tastemakers might help attract you an audience, maybe it should be?)

I don’t have answers to any of this. The questions are, to some degree, beginning to work themselves out in the Lab Of Real Life, as more and more artists experiment with less traditional release models: singles clubs, occasional LPs with frequent mixtape drops between, eight-song LP/EP hybrids, bonus track-laden “reissues” of relatively new albums. Beck released sheet music; Bjork released an app. Skrillex has climbed to the top of the Mt. MoveAny without having ever recorded a full length (his audience isn’t counting the screamo years and I’m not either).

Yet each artist, each piece of music, each audience is so different that I’m not sure that, even if there is a true ideal (debatable at best), we’ll ever find it – for all the experimentation happening, there isn’t, and can’t be, a control group. There may not be an answer forthcoming, just a whole lot of ideas that work for some people and not for others. I’m not even sure I can say whether releasing three EPs worked for William Beckett, and I’ve just spent paragraphs picking the strategy apart.

Of course, I wouldn’t have bothered to delve into any of this if I wasn’t looking for answers – not for “what works?” and “why” (though those are both interesting questions to me) but “what might have worked for William Beckett?” and “why didn’t it” and, ultimately, “how did this marvelous music by a relatively well-known, well-positioned guy merit so little lasting attention?” Because the audience is still out there, somewhere.

Beckett’s EPs display a ton of personal growth, but it’s all growth toward greater accessibility; of the twelve tracks between the three releases, there are probably seven that would have made for great singles in an earlier time, and probably in one shortly to come as well – if anything, we’re finally hitting the turnaround from a decade’s worth of shrinkage in the mainstream-music-played-on-guitars market, thanks to folks like Gotye and fun. and (for better or worse) Mumford. Maybe it’s just the dreaded Scene Stigma, but in this case it feels like there’s something more (or, rather, less) at work, and that’s really a shame. Some albums that make my Top Ten list do so because their idiosyncrasies pair well with my own, but Walk The Talk, Winds Will Change and What Will Be achieve greatness in the most broad-appeal way imaginable. I’m confident that there are plenty of ears that would fall for Beckett’s 2012 EPs, if only they had the chance to hear them.

*For what it’s worth, Beckett is now preparing for the release of an acoustic album featuring the songs from all three EPs, and that dynamo seems to be powering back up.

review of Walk The Talk (published 5/23/12)

review of Winds Will Change (published 7/17/12)

review of What Will Be (publication pending)

#6 Album of 2012 – Our Lady Peace – Curve

#6 – OUR LADY PEACE – CURVE [spotify]

(feat. track – “Fire In The Henhouse” [spotify])

As with all the albums I include on my year end list, I’ve spent a few days revisiting Our Lady Peace’s Curve this week – to spur my thoughts along, to see if I hear anything new in the music that hadn’t hit me the first time through, and also, as Curve was released in April and it had been a few months since I’d given it a full listen through, to see if it held up like I thought it did.

Well for one, it does hold up, absolutely; I think I actually enjoy it more now that I did six months ago, even. The quieter tracks are hitting me more deeply, the album’s long denouement feels appropriately paced (downtempo but inspired; I felt it dragged on early listens), and the album still crackles with the creative fire that made Curve such an intriguing (and surprising) listen at first. Even though I’ve heard it dozens of times through now, it still catches me off guard regularly; the nuances are still emerging for me.

As for ideas, I came up with plenty. Then I went back and reread what I wrote about the album upon its release, and it turns out that it’s pretty much exactly what I was planning on saying now. So so much for that!

Ultimately, though, it just feels good to be able to put an Our Lady Peace album on my Top Ten; it’s somewhere each of their first four albums would have landed, had I been making lists at the time, but moreso, it’s somewhere I never imagined they could return to. Our Lady Peace had become the sort of old favorite whose new albums merited a cursory courtesy listen, like it was a favor to an old friend; I had long ago given up any pretense that I might find their new material compelling.  Curve isn’t going to return Our Lady Peace to commercial stardom, but I think the band realizes that; in letting go of that chase, they’ve revitalized themselves as a creative concern.

#7 Album of 2012 – Now, Now – Threads

#7 – NOW, NOW – THREADS [spotify]

(feat. track – Thread [spotify])

I’ve probably written more about Tancred, the side project of Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, that I have about any other act in the last few years, and yet I believe this is the first time I’ve addressed her main concern. Perhaps that’s because, prior to Threads, I was never quite sold on Now, Now as a band; the miniscule Minnesotans traded primarily in a sound as diminutive and unassuming as their appearance, always pleasant but rarely (to my ear, at least) gripping. With Threads, they’ve got my full attention.

By my memory, I’ve seen Now, Now five times since the release of Threads this past March (the true number might actually be higher), and it really took seeing the material played live a couple of times for it to blossom for me. Partly, that’s due to the amped-up energy of the live performance. Drummer Bradley Hale, in particular, has been a revelation; his use of syncopation and his creative, off-kilter patterns play perfectly off his precision timing, and he’s a sight to behold when he’s locked in.

But beyond the band’s musicianship, hearing the music in the live context brought out for me hooks that hadn’t really sunk in while casually listening to the record. Though I’ve enjoyed it from the first play, I don’t think I’d have described Threads as “catchy” six months ago. Now, I regularly find snippets of “Oh. Hi.” and “Dead Oaks” and “Thread” and “Wolf” emerging from my subcortex at odd moments. That’s part of what makes it such a great album: it works on two levels effectively. Threads feels, at first, like it’s designed for background listening – 42 minutes of enveloping mood music that operates impressionistically, much like shoegaze or post-rock – but it rewards close listening as well with a series of what are, at their core, marvelously catchy pop songs.

That it operates on dual levels is no coincidence. Threads isn’t exactly a concept album, but it’s full of motifs, both musical and lyrical. Certain phrases and snippets of melody pop up repeatedly, taking on new meaning as the context around them changes; foreshadowing becomes action becomes denouement. The name Threads itself is a reference to these ties; they weave their way through tracks with titles like “The Pull” and “Thread” and “Magnet” until the album is bound tightly together, just as they weave their way through the lives of the characters within, drawn toward each other by forces they can hardly fathom: lust, suspicion, jealousy, even enmity. The end result of all of this is something like a photomosaic, an image in macro, rendered from even-more-compelling snapshots in micro.

But if Threads is like a photomosaic, it’s also a like a Rubin vase; an album about love that arrives at its topic by addressing everything but. Now, Now color in all the emotions that surround love until its image emerges in the negative space which remains. That technique is even reflected in the cover art: up close, a detailed topography in near-black and white, dominated by bright sky so that the landscape only seems to exist as absence-of-light; from a step further back, a picture of daytime that appears, from distance, as a moon.

With its ever-present duality, the multi-layered Threads teases (and pleases) brain, ears, heart and gut in equal measure, and often all at once. That’s quite an accomplishment, but then, Threads is as accomplished an album as any released this past year. It’s a listen as rewardingly revelatory as it is enjoyable. Call it a big step forward for three small people.

#8 Album of 2012 – fun. – Some Nights

#8 – fun. – SOME NIGHTS [spotify]

(feat. track – “All Alone” [spotify])

What is there to say about Some Nights that hasn’t been said? It was one of 2012’s most successful albums, racking up Grammy nominations like they’re going out of style (which, well…) and moving units for almost a year; even now, it’s still selling a steady ~20k/week, and should go platinum shortly after receiving the Grammy bump (not to mention the additional 8 million+ singles it’s sold), all in an age where nothing much sells and nothing sells much. Both “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” have been near-ubiquitous on radio, TV, the internet, and probably your toaster oven if it can hum a tune.

If anything, I think what’s maybe gotten lost under the endless hype is that Some Nights is a legitimately interesting record, one that embraces pop by pulling the center toward it as much as it pushes toward the middle, an album with not only great songwriting but also the sort of little quirks that only bloom on repeated listens. Pop requires a degree of immediacy; Some Nights delivers, while still leaving bits for the listener to untangle.

Most of the chatter around the (not huge, but big enough) shift in sound from 2009’s Aim And Ignite (which made my Best Of The Rest that year) to Some Nights has focused on either 1) Nate Ruess’ artistic growth or 2) the introduction of producer Jeff Bhasker into the fold. And it’s probably fair to presume that the hip-hop beats and liberal use of autotune are the result of #2’s encouragement of #1.  But to my ear, much of what’s new here (especially on the album’s first half, i.e. the part with all the singles) actually sounds like it was injected directly from guitarist Jack Antonoff’s one-time main focus Steel Train, specifically their last, self-titled, album (whose lead single “Bullet” made my Best Of 2010 Mix).

To that end, the anthemic, non-verbal chorus hook of “Some Nights” might have been cut from lost tape of the “Bullet” sessions; the unhinged tones of its chaotic solo, from “Children Of The 90’s”. (Also, any live version of “Kill Monsters In The Rain”, from 2007’s Trampoline. Try this one on, for starters.) “All Alright” and “Behavior” basically share an intro. The skittering refrain of “It Gets Better” is some distant cousin, twice removed, of “Touch Me Bad”; the jaunty perk of its verses echoes the herky-jerk of “You Are Dangerous”. More than any individual track, even, it’s the experimental mood of Some Nights as a whole, the instinct to push what, at their base, would be very straightforward (and radio-friendly) songs, to a slightly weird place. Ultimately, if you’re looking for sonic precedents to Some Nights, I think you’re more likely to find them in Antonoff’s prior work than in Ruess’, or in Bhasker’s.

Regardless of from whence its inspiration derives, the end result is the best work either Ruess or Antonoff have produced yet (come at me, Format bros). Some Nights’ perfectly balanced mix of pop melody and creative whimsy has kept the album from turning stale over the course of the year for me, and while I admit to being burned out on “We Are Young” (which, frankly, I never quite loved to begin with), I’m at the point where I think I can pretty well state that I will never get sick of “Some Nights”, or “Carry On” (not to mention non-single cuts like “It Gets Better” and “One Foot” and the excellent bonus track “Out On The Town”) – if it hasn’t happened yet, the odds have got to be pretty good, no? Ten months after Some Nights’ release, and I’m not only still enjoying it, I’m steadily enjoying it more and more.

#9 Album of 2012 – Vacationer – Gone

#9 – VACATIONER – GONE [spotify]

(feat. track – “Be With You” [spotify])

Vacationer were born of a collaboration between members of disco revivalists Body Language and Kenneth Vasoli, late of emo-punks The Starting Line and Radiohead apostles/impressionists Person L, but Vasoli doesn’t want you to know that, or at least he didn’t for a long while. At the band’s inception, info on the group was, well, hard to find, at best; even today, their Facebook page makes no mention of the band’s members. It’s understandable; emo casts a long, ugly shadow, and Vacationer needed a moment in the sun if it was going to blossom. With Gone, they’ve bloomed into something truly gorgeous.

The band couldn’t be more aptly named. The Vacationer tincture finds Vasoli’s loping basslines swirled with hip-hop beats, tinkling steel drums, looping snippets of digitally manipulated guitar, and distant echoes of strings and horns, all dusted in a coating of crackly dirty-vinyl static. The production is hazy, with lots of dense, swampy space enveloping the clean instrumentation. The end result is something akin to staring at an oasis through the gentle distortions of squiggly desert heat. It’s a sound all its own – less 80’s-indebted than chillwave, more beat-driven and less thickety than shoegaze, bubblier than trip-hop. It’s the sound of dream-pop transmissions from an intergalactic Polynesia; the band has dubbed nü-hula.

It’s a sound that works well live, too. I caught Vacationer twice this year, once opening for Danish indie-pop act The Asteroids Galaxy Tour in the 1,200 cap Irving Plaza, once at (of all places) a Lomography shop during SXSW that fit maybe 50. The music and atmosphere translated in both rooms, intimate but enveloping, and whether astride a big stage or huddled together atop a small riser, the band’s interplay was as captivating as their obvious, and contagious, joy in playing together.

Gone is an album designed for album listening – Vacationer’s greatest charms lie in their skill at setting a mood. The recordings work together to establish a mindspace, a tiny bubble-universe paradise to escape into for a half-hour at a time, before it fizzles away in a snap. But while it’s best listened to en totoGone also happens to be composed of some truly great songs, among the best of Vasoli’s multifarious career. The breezy falsetto fantasies and meditative undergirdings of “Everyone Knows” and “Trip” make for layers of hook on hook; the five-note cascade – first from guitar, later echoed in vocals – that punctuates the end of each stanza of “Be With You” drills down into a chorus and an earworm simultaneously. Gone is packed with tight, if creative, song structures, and they keep the album grounded; it manages the tricky task of being both breezy and compelling.

I’m not sure if Vacationer are breaking through, but they’ve certainly gotten themselves in front of the right audiences – 2012 saw the band out on extended tours with The Naked And Famous and Tennis, among others, and they’re currently on a run opening for the buzz-y Niki And The Dove – and that’s a big accomplishment in itself, considering the baggage Vasoli’s name carries. I’m not sure if it’s due to his cloaking efforts, a booking agency and label with deep ties to the indieverse, or the fact that Gone is an undeniably great record, but something they’ve done here is working where it hasn’t for folks like Patrick Stump. Hopefully, there’s a blueprint here to follow; if so, as wonderful an album as Gone is, it will prove to be the least of Vasoli’s accomplishments.

#10 album of 2012 – What’s Eating Gilbert – Cheap Shots EP / The Nashville Sessions 7″


(feat. track – “I’ve Got You” [spotify])

What’s Eating Gilbert, the solo side project of New Found Glory guitar-slinger / occasional Shai Hulud shouter / Paramore paramour Chad Gilbert, issued their first tracks back in 2010, but in 2012 the project really came into its own, settling on a sound inspired by doo-wop, rockabilly and early rock ‘n roll, all tied together with a wit, sincerity and goofy charm that seem intrinsic to Gilbert’s personality. Gilbert might rep punk, but he’s got a pop songwriter’s heart, and the intentionally-retro vibe that What’s Eating Gilbert has taken on might come off as novelty – if the songs weren’t so damn good.

The combined seven tracks on these two releases run a grand total of 17 minutes; each one is streamlined and efficient, full of compressed hooks that pack a wallop, with maybe a brief solo for flair – precision songwriting at its economical best. Lyrically, Gilbert possesses a great instinct for when to break apart his own rhyme schemes, sometimes packing extra words into tight spaces, abandoning end rhyme, or simply letting a syllable breathe for an extra beat, all to consummate effect. Musically, he keeps things simple and clean; the lack of frills means the songs shine through.

That said, mastery of technique can make music interesting, but it’s certainly not a surefire recipe for greatness (see: something like 90% of prog). Ultimately, these two releases made my year end list not for the skill that went into them, but for the pure joy I get out of them every time I listen – for the big goofy grin I break into every time I hear “Run For Your Life” or “Complaining”, the way “Babe” makes me dance in my chair at work, the way I get jazzed when Gilbert shouts “1 – 2 – 3 – GO!” as the drums stutter just before the scorching guitar solo kicks in on “Sit And Stare”.

With New Found Glory now on the quieter end of their RadiosurgerySticks And Stones 10-year-anniversary touring cycle, Gilbert has promised to turn What’s Eating Gilbert into a fully fleshed-out live act; he’s even dangled hints of a horn section, background singers and a dappered-up dress code. If the show proves to be even half as much fun as the music he released in 2012, it’s going to be the can’t-miss party of the year.

review of The Nashville Sessions (published 6/19/12)

review of Cheap Shots (published 9/03/12)

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