Recs

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2016

Today is April 18, and while the rest of the nation trudges through another Tax Day (a few days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to return from the dead and release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.  Also, we have reviews for nearly all of these albums, so for those of you seeking a more detailed analysis all you need to do is click the appropriate tag above.

10. Alcest – Kodama; Angel Olsen – My Woman; A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service; Bon Iver – 22, A Million; Pity Sex – White Hot Moon; Summer Cannibals – Full of It (7 plays)

Garage rock is still a dominant trend in indie circles these days, and Summer Cannibals with their fiery energy and Pity Sex with their peppy melodies represent the best of the scene.  As for Tribe, who knows what was more surprising–that the group reunited or that its comeback effort was so good, able to call back to their 90’s heyday without sounding like retreads.  Many have pointed out the influence that Alcest has had on Deafheaven (frontman Neige even appeared on the latter’s groundbreaking Sunbather for a spoken-word contribution), and it looks like the tables have turned–after going in a softer direction in Shelter, Alcest brought some edge back (and a few shouts) to their melodic mix of shoegaze and metal.  Bon Iver continues to experiment with loops and vocal effects (in the vein of his work in Volcano Choir) moving further and further away from the delicate acoustic of For Emma, Forever Ago; however, the result is still some gorgeously moving music.  Angel Olsen was one of the artists that we picked up on after reading year-end lists, and we quickly became fans of her versatility, with an album that ranges from classic retro numbers to sweeping epics.

9. Chance the Rapper – Colouring Book; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (8 plays)

If you were looking for inspiration or a quick pick-me-up, the best place to look last year was the ebullient Chance the Rapper.  His mix of gospel and hip-hop helped create some of the best songs from last year, but the album as a whole seemed to run a little to long.  Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age helped Iggy Pop stun audiences and critic with a great comeback album, mining the sounds of Pop’s landmark solo efforts Lust For Life and The Idiot.  The new songs mixed seamlessly with the classic material when they were out on tour, and together they put together one of the best shows we saw last year.

8. Dinosaur Jr. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not; Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine; Mitski – Puberty 2; Parquet Courts – Human Performance (9 plays) 

With their latest, Dinosaur Jr. has now put together more great albums in their reunion years (four) than in their original golden era (three-ish).  Parquet Courts rebounded with an album that stood up to repeated listens much better than the at-times grating Sunbathing Animal, and songs like “Berlin Got Blurry” stuck with us long after the fact.  Hamilton Leithauser formally teamed up with Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend) for his second solo effort (after collaborating on a couple of tracks for Black Hours), with the result being a record that effectively matched Hamilton’s remarkable and unique voice with doo-wop, old country, and soft ballads.  Mitski was another find from the critics lists, and we only wished we had come across her inventive explorations of identity and depression sooner.

7. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition; Deftones – Gore; M83 – Junk (10 plays)

We continue to be amazed at the ability of the Deftones to continually put out great new records in a genre where bands can quickly grow stale; perhaps more impressive was how Gore did not have any big singles but was still able to hold your attention from beginning to end.  A lot of people dismissed Junk when it first came out, but we quickly grew to love it once we realized the truth in the title; the complaints about the sequencing of the album have some merit, but we enjoyed the detours into what seemed like theme songs from lost 80’s French TV shows.  Plus, Anthony Gonzalez deserves all the credit in the world for his ability to use a Steve Vai guitar solo effectively.  Danny Brown’s voice can grate on people, but if you can accept his B-Real-style vocals, then it’s easier to plumb into one of the most musically adventurous hip-hop albums in years.

6. The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum; Radiohead – A Moon-Shaped Pool; The Thermals – We Disappear (11 plays)

This is the part of the list where old favorites take up residence.  The latest from the Besnard Lakes was a bit of a disappointment, though it ends on an incredible high note that makes one wonder why they didn’t build the whole album out of this song.  Radiohead returned with a much better version of what they previously attempted with the forgettable The King of Limbs, though the best song from the sessions comes only on the deluxe edition (the rejected version of their theme to Spectre).  However, we don’t need any caveats to explain how The Thermals ended up this high on the list, as we enjoyed how they were able to meld the better parts of their recent work (the energy of Desperate Ground, the insight and thoughtfulness of Personal Life).

5. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial; Operators – Blue Wave (12 plays)

Come for the lo-fi guitar rocks, stay for the incisive wit and deep explorations of the young psyche with Car Seat Headrest.  Teens of Denial is an album that grows with each listen, and amazingly never feels as long as its 70-minute runtime.  Dan Boeckner never lets us down, and we were big fans of his latest side-project Operators, which brightens the sound of his previous drum-machine and guitars outfit Handsome Furs.  The man effortlessly comes up with great melodies, and the new wave keyboards are a nice touch.

4. LVL UP – Return to Love (13 plays) 

We were excited to find a new band that apparently loves the classic Elephant 6 sound as much as we do, with the song “Hidden Driver” especially reminding us of On Avery Island-era Neutral Milk Hotel.  However, the band switches between three different songwriters, and the result is a more varied record that one might expect, though all hitting in that sweet spot of classic alternative/indie rock.

3. The Avalanches – Wildflower (14 plays)

Another comeback album that a lot of people seemed to have forgotten, we immediately fell in love with Wildflower.  Yes, Since I Left You is now a classic in some circles, but this was another brilliant mix of countless samples and original music that we kept revisiting over and over again.  Also, we might argue that “Because I’m Me” was the song of last summer and of many summers to come.

2. Preoccupations – Preoccupations (15 plays)

We initially were underwhelmed by the announced name change, but we were much more impressed by this sophomore effort from this Canadian foursome.  The band built on the promise of the second half of Viet Cong and released a post-punk masterpiece.  This time the centerpiece of the album comes right in the middle, with the epic three-part “Memory”; the middle section with Dan Boeckner might be some of the most gorgeous music we heard all of last year.

1. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years (17 plays)

We still believe that LOSE should be considered the band’s masterpiece, but we became serious fans of the band’s followup to that incredible album after repeated plays in our car.  It may be a step back in terms of ambition, but there are plenty of hooks throughout the record, and you may find yourself humming different songs each day of the week.  The band is still capable of packing an emotional punch as well, and the layers reveal themselves after multiple listens.  At the end of the day, this is the album we always would default to when deciding what to play, and that may be as good a reason as any to make it our album of the year.

Best of the Rest: Other Highlights from 2015

Even with our expanded Best-Of list courtesy of The Process, there were still a ton of great albums released last year that were worthy of recognition.  Since we here at Rust Is Just Right are big believers in spreading all good music, we’re going to put a spotlight on some other great records that you may have overlooked from the past year.

Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful

His big-league debut was hit-and-miss, but when Action was on his game, it made for some of the most fun hip-hop of the year.

Baroness – Purple

These guys should be viewed as more than our token metal pick, since this was a truly enjoyable album with absolutely monster hooks.

Beach House – Depression Cherry.

The band has begun to reach the point of diminishing returns with their trademark sound, but there are still undeniably beautiful moments to be found, like in the gorgeously stunning “PPP.”

Built to Spill – Untethered Moon

One of our all-time favorites returned with a workmanlike effort.  No extra-long solos, just good solid rock.  And it seems to have rejuvenated the band in their live show.

Lou Barlow – Brace the Wave

The Dinosaur Jr. bassist is famous for being a member of possibly the Loudest Band in Rock, but his solo work explores the opposite end of the spectrum.  A haunting, delicate work.

Pusha T – King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude.

If this is the prelude, I can’t wait for the main course.

The Sonics – This Is The Sonics

One of the original garage rock bands reunited to create one of the most improbably awesome comeback albums fifty years after their initial heyday.  Pure rock’n’roll, no bullshit.

Tame Impala – Currents

If only the rest of the album was as awesome as its amazing opening track.  Unfortunately, the efforts to incorporate soul influences led to some rather unmemorable results.


Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool

They were able to switch between a wide variety of styles on their debut album, but it was their post-grunge single “Moaning Lisa Smile” that got our attention.

Also Worthy of Praise

Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars; Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man; Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; Death Grips – The Powers That B; The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet; Eagles of Death Metal – Zipper Down; Moon Duo – Shadow of the Sun; Pfarmers – Gunnera; Ratatat – Magnifique; Wavves – V; Wire – Wire.

All Albums That Were Considered

In the interests of full disclosure, here are all the other albums that we listened to last year, in full.  Most of these were quite good and worthy of repeated listens, but they just could not crack the previous lists.

The Arcs – Yours, Dreamily,; Coldplay – A Heart Full of Dreams; The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn; Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi; Death Grips – Fashion Week; Deerhunter – Fading Frontier; Destroyer – Poison Season; Destruction Unit – Negative Feedback Resistor; Dr. Dre – Compton; Ducktails – St. Catherine; Editors – In Dream; Elvis Perkins – I Aubade; FFS – FFS; Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket; Fuzz – II; The Go! Team – The Scene Between; Helvetia – Dromomania; Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?; J Fernandez – Many Levels of Laughter; Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Going Down; Martin Courtney – Many Moons; My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall; Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper; Refused – Freedom; Reptar – Lurid Dream; Silversun Pickups – Better Nature; Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – The High Country; Surfer Blood – 1000 Palms; Swervedriver – I Wasn’t Born To Lose You; Tyler, the Creator – Cherry Bomb; Wavves x Cloud Nothings – No Life For Me; !!! – As If.

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2015

Today is April 18, and while the rest of the nation celebrates Tax Day (an extra three days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.  Also, we have reviews for nearly all of these albums, so for those of you seeking a more detailed analysis all you need to do is click the appropriate tag above.

10. Deaf Wish – Pain; Disasterpeace – It Follows (Score); EL VY – Return to the Moon; HEALTH – Death Magic; Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer; Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (7 plays)

A very interesting mix at the bottom of the list, including our token electronic choice as well as our first pick of a film score in this site’s history.  Deaf Wish broke through with one of the best noise-rock albums of the year, showing a surprising amount of depth for such a narrow niche, and EL VY proved that side-projects don’t have to be boring.  The debut album from Tobias Jesso Jr. is the star of this particular slot, as Goon shows that the world may have found a true heir to the rich musical legacy of Harry Nilsson.

9. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf; Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy; Vaadat Charigim – Sinking as a Stone; White Reaper – White Reaper Does It Again; Wilco – Star Wars (8 plays)

Another eclectic group at the number nine slot–there’s the ambitious rock opera from Titus Andronicus sharing space with the keep-it-simple garage rock of White Reaper, the joyous jazz-inflected Surf project featuring the exuberant Chance the Rapper sliding up next to the brooding and intense personal meditations of Earl Sweatshirt, and the veteran purveyors of Americana in Wilco sitting comfortably by the Israeli shoegaze group Vaadat Charigim.

8. Blur – The Magic Whip; BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul; Ghostface Killah – Twelve Reasons to Die II; Joanna Gruesome – Peanut Butter; Low – Ones and Sixes; Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (9 plays)

Most people seem to have forgotten that not only did Blur come back this year, but they did so with a brilliant album that recalls their peak during the mid-90’s BritPop era, with the group showing that they learned a few things during their downtime.  Similarly, Low once again suffers through the Spoon Curse of being consistently great, with little love being shown for their latest excellent release.  Waxahatchee broadened her sound to great results this year, while Joanna Gruesome solidified their style.  But it is Ghostface who deserves special recognition this year for releasing two separate fantastic records this year.

7. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color; Foals – What Went Down; Ought – Sun Coming Down; Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love; Viet Cong – Viet Cong (10 plays)

We are glad to welcome back Sleater-Kinney into our lives, as No Cities to Love fits in comfortably with the rest of the other great punk records in their back catalog.  Viet Cong’s debut album and Ought’s second record were challenging post-punk works, but there were enough intriguing elements to be found in both to inspire continued listening.  Alabama Shakes improved immensely from their debut album, showing off a broader range than what had been expected from their previous blues-rock groove.  However, we once again wait for Foals to break through into the mainstream, even though they did their part by releasing this great arena-ready album.

6. Beach Slang – Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us; Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves; Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (11 plays) 

A lot of people may be surprised by the high ranking of the new Modest Mouse album, but we feel that there was enough on this sprawling effort to reward repeated listens.  While it may not appear as seamless as classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, there are several tracks that different eras of fans can enjoy–even the notorious “Pistol” gets better each time you hear it.  Meanwhile, Protomartyr’s brooding post-punk serves as a great contrast to Beach Slang’s exuberant beer-soaked punk.

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (12 plays) 

A worthy recipient of many accolades this past year, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus brilliantly pushes the boundaries of what many thought hip-hop could do.  It is often a difficult and uncompromising listen, but there are still many joys to be found throughout the album.

4. Bully – Feels Like; Royal Headache – High (13 plays) 

Both of these records are thrilling half-hours-of-power, and frankly I am wondering why they did not receive more publicity.  There were few albums as fun as this duo.

3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (14 plays) 

Amazingly enough, Godspeed You! Black Emperor seem to be improving with each new release, with Asunder being possibly their most accessible work yet.  There were few moments as powerful as the climax of “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” or the bombastic ending of “Piss Crowns are Trebled”.  At the other end of the spectrum, Sufjan Stevens may have finally made us converts with the quietly devastating and deeply personal Carrie & Lowell.

2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (16 plays)  

Deafheaven successfully met the challenge of following up their genre-bending breakthrough album Sunbather, returning with the powerful, if more conventional, New Bermuda.  However, the amazing thing about this album is that not only does it stand on its own, it somehow enhances their previous work; each listen of New Bermuda inspires an additional listen of Sunbather, and somehow that album gets better every time we hear it.  Still, New Bermuda stands on its own as a brilliant album, with each of its five tracks jockeying for position as best song on the record.

1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (17 plays) 

We had a feeling at the beginning of last year that Father John Misty would place high in our list, but even we were surprised that our favorite shaman ended up in the top slot.  I Love You, Honeybear is a gorgeously lush record, filled with swelling strings and ebullient horns, but there is a dark undercurrent lurking below much of the album.  The record works on both a superficial level and with a more critical approach, which helps explain its surprising ranking.  But in the end, it is just a damn good record, and we cannot wait to see one of modern rock’s great showman return to Oregon later this year.

!!! (Chk Chk Chk), Live at the Doug Fir

If you have never been to a !!! show, then you are truly missing out on one of the best live acts of the past fifteen years, and should take immediate steps to correct this oversight.  Every performance is a blast, and Wednesday night at the Doug Fir was no exception, as !!! turned the basement lounge into a bumping dance club.

With backup singer Meah Pace

With backup singer Meah Pace

The show marked a complete 180 from the last concert we saw at the Doug Fir, as !!! and Low are about as diametrically different as can be, though it was just as excellent.  !!! has always made catchy, hook-filled dance-punk, but the music takes on an added dimension when performed live.  The band does a remarkable job of establishing fun and infectious grooves, providing the groundwork for frontman Nic Offer’s stage antics and wise-cracking vocals to help loosen up the crowd.  By the end of the night, even the notoriously dance-phobic Portland crowd loosens up and shows off a move or two.  After all, when you watch Nic perform some of the corniest moves possible up on the stage, it really takes away all the pressure of trying not to embarrass yourself.

The crowd was glad that backup singer Meah Pace made the trip out west for this string of dates, as her vocals added an extra dimension to a lot of the new material, and the interplay between Pace and Offer was quite entertaining.  The setlist was a mix between old and new, with their latest album As If blending in well with the old standbys.  The show even ended on a new song, a stretched-out version of “I Feel So Free (Citation Needed)”, complete with audience interaction.

The band opened for themselves as a Stereolab tribute band, "Stereolad".

The band opened for themselves as a Stereolab tribute band, “Stereolad”.

Though not everyone was in on the joke at first, !!! opened up for themselves as “Stereolad”, a Stereolab tribute band that included Offer sporting a dress and a ridiculous French accent.  It was a nice segue from the opening act The Lower 48, who kicked off the show with some infectious straight-ahead garage-blues rock.  Hopefully we will see them at more local shows.

Low, Live at the Doug Fir

Before we went on our holiday break, we were fortunate enough to catch one of our longtime favorites at Portland’s best venue, when Low came to town to play the Doug Fir basement.  It is always a treat to see Low play a show, but we were especially eager to witness one of the best albums of the year performed live.  The band indulged us by performing a setlist that heavily featured their latest album, Ones and Sixes, and we are glad to report that the new material sounds just as great live as it does on record.

Taking advantage of a break in the crowd.

Taking advantage of a break in the crowd.

The show started off with the one-two punch of the glitchy “Gentle” and the deliberate “No Comprende” that kick off their latest release, which segued nicely into the menacing and electric “Monkey” from The Great Destroyer.  While it seems that most critics had forgotten about Low’s previous album, it was nice to see that the band had not.  The main set included a run of The Invisible Way tracks that showed off many of the band’s best assets, from Mimi Parker’s gorgeous vocals on “Holy Ghost” to the distorted dissonance of Alan Sparhawk’s fiery guitar on “On My Own” to the group’s sense of irony and humor in “Plastic Cup” (with Steve Garrington ably shuffling between bass and keys throughout, a key if underrated part of the band’s sound).

The group held off from any stage banter for most of the night, before Alan praised the city near the end of the show.  At one point, the crowd began to clap when only the slightest shuffle could be heard from Mimi’s drums, and those close enough to the stage could hear her remark to Alan that “they don’t even know what song it is yet”, but on the whole the band let their music speak for itself.  The main set ended with the epic “Landslide”, just as we had predicted from our review of the album, and it was just as amazing as we had hoped.  Though the encore did not end up including a couple of our old favorites, many in the crowd were ecstatic to hear “Words” from their early album I Could Live In Hope, while “Murderer” from Drums and Guns proved to be a perfect closer.

A colorful view of the band

A colorful view of the band

Unfortunately, we missed nearly all of opener Andy Shauf’s set, due to Portland’s complete stupidity when it comes to creating a reasonable parking system.  It is difficult enough parking on the East Side on a Friday night, but with many spots blocked off for the shooting of the television show Grimm, it made it impossible to find a spot anywhere near the venue.  However, from the one song I heard, it seems that Shauf’s spare and haunting sound was a good fit for the main act.

Everclear, Live at the Wonder Ballroom

There needed to be the right set of circumstances to drag my ass to Portland to see an Everclear show, and Wednesday night at the Wonder Ballroom provided those exact requirements.  The group returned to their hometown to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough album, Sparkle and Fade, and would play the record in its entirety.  Though I have ignored Everclear’s more recent output for a number of years, I still have fond memories of listening to Sparkle and Fade in my high school years, and continue to insist that it is one of the best top-to-bottom alternative rock albums of the 90’s.   I was more than glad to relive those days, aided by the guarantee that I would see all my favorite songs performed live.

Sparkle...

Sparkle…

This was more of an “Everclear” performance than an Everclear performance, with Art Alexakis having long shuffled out the “classic” lineup of Greg Eklund on drums and Craig Montoya on bass for a rotating cast of supporting players.   To be fair, the band was always the manifestation of Art’s vision, and one would be hard-pressed to come up with many memorable contributions from either former member (though I have always loved Eklund’s signature drawn-out single-stroke rolls).  As long as it is Art singing and playing his songs, fans are going to be happy, as they were on Wednesday night.

The band threw a number of curveballs in the usual Album Anniversary show, including opening with “I Will Buy You A New Life” from Sparkle and Fade‘s follow-up, So Much for the Afterglow.  The choice initially threw the crowd for a loop, but soon they were singing along to every word; Art explained the decision at the conclusion of the song, noting that it was the success of Sparkle that would allow him to promise that house “way up in the West Hills” from the chorus (and to which many fans recognized, pointing in the direction of that part of town during the performance).  The band then launched into the familiar strains of “Electra Made Me Blind”, and the crowd went wild.

You might actually be crazy for leaving Nehalem

You might actually be crazy for leaving Nehalem

It was not a perfect performance, with the band often dragging through some of the slower parts, and Art tending to give off a frustrated vibe when the crowd failed to remember all the lyrics for sing-along portions.  However, the highlights made up for any perceived shortcomings, including rousing versions of “You Make Me Feel Like A Whore” and “Heartspark Dollarsign”, and a touching performance of “Queen of the Air”.  The decision to insert the old favorite “Fire Maple Song” from their debut World of Noise in a mid-set break to mark the divide between Side A and Side B of the album was brilliant, as was giving the crowd a brief taste of their huge hit “Santa Monica” before saving it for the last song of the night, ending the evening on a high note.

There were many who questioned what kind of reaction Art would receive in his hometown show, since there was a significant subset that never accepted Everclear as a true Portland band.  It was an uncertainty that even Art acknowledged early in the night, but the Wonder Ballroom was packed with fans who showed their love for the band with great volume throughout the show.  The snide hipsters were unable to get a ticket to the sold-out show, and the night was the better for it.  We loved Sparkle and Fade and the man that created it, and we did not need to hear any dissenting opinions that night.

...and Fade

…and Fade

Openers Hydra Melody had to be the slickest opening act I have ever seen, an impressive feat since I understood that they were touring in support of their first full-length album.  There was a confidence to their performance that was admirable, as they often acted as if the crowd had paid their tickets to see them instead of the headliner (though this is not to say that they dismissed the presence of Everclear, when in fact it was quite the opposite).  Their style did not quite align with my preferences, though they never bored me.  However, I am sure at least one of our readers will enjoy the fact that they featured a cover of Toto’s “Africa”–perhaps this will cause him to almost buy their album!

Review: EL VY – Return to the Moon

Side-projects are best experienced with an open mind, with little-to-no expectations based on the previous work of its members.  They are often useful for musicians, in that they provide an outlet for previously unused musical ideas or allow them to express different aspects of their personalities, but they can prove disappointing to the audience when the work does not match the quality of previous results.  So while it may be initially tempting to have high hopes for a collaboration between members of The National and Menomena, two of the best bands in indie rock from the past decade, it is probably in the listener’s best interests to approach their work with caution.

Then again, EL VY’s Return to the Moon is a thoroughly enjoyable lark, and fans of the other bands of Brent Knopf and Matt Berninger should find plenty to love with this project.

In many ways, Return to the Moon is a side-project that lives up to the expectations of a supergroup, since in many ways it does sound like a more experimental Menomena record with guest vocals from The National.  Knopf brings the cut-and-paste approach of his former group, offering up hundreds of quick musical ideas over the album’s eleven tracks; careful listeners may be able to pick out variations of the piano riff and acoustic guitar chords from “Wet and Rusting” sprinkled into a couple of tracks.  The music generally sticks to that intimate indie rock style, but there are quick forays into funk and other left-field genres that keeps the listener guessing.

Berninger seems to relish the chance to step outside the seriousness of his regular gig, and reveals a more playful part of his personality.  This is most apparent in the playful and profane “I’m the Man to Be”, which includes a line in the chorus about his “person”.  For the most part, Berninger is content to deliver his vocals with that trademark soothing baritone, which fits in nicely with Knopf’s compositions.

The album tends to lose momentum as it progresses, though the blend of the harder-hitting “Sad Case” and “Happiness, Missouri” is a highlight of the second half.  However, the opening title track is one of the catchiest singles of the year, and had me humming along for the past few weeks, and there are several other pleasant songs that are nearly its equal.

EL VY, Live at the Doug Fir

The show on Tuesday night had the atmosphere of a homecoming, even though it was only EL VY’s second show.  Even the tickets reflected the casual nature of the evening, as it described the group as “a collaboration between The National’s Matt Berninger and Me.”  The “Me” of course refers to local musician Brent Knopf, who has previously delighted Portland music fans with his previous work in Menomena as well as his solo effort as Ramona Falls, and now makes up the other half of this indie rock “supergroup”.  While there were a couple of issues in making the transition from recording project to a functioning live act, they were only minor speed bumps during an otherwise entertaining show.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

The band’s debut album Return to the Moon had only been released on Friday, and I am sure there were many in the crowd that had not been able to listen to it in its entirety before the show (my copy only arrived the afternoon of the show, so I was only able to get through it once).  Nevertheless, the audience remained enthusiastic throughout the night, even if they had no idea what to expect.   The crowd did show their appreciation for the few songs that they did know, with a few even having learned enough of the lyrics to sing along for a bit.  Songs like “Return to the Moon” and “I’m the Man to Be” had an extra pop to them and were highlights of the set, and one could easily see why they were shared in advance of the album.

The tone of the evening was very light and informal, and one could see that Matt enjoyed the break from the usual seriousness associated with his main gig.  Matt had fun with Brent as he spent some time in-between songs trying to diagnose what exactly went wrong for a couple of measures, citing his own inability to remember his cue to sing for one and playfully arguing with Brent about how one of his chords caused him to overshoot on a vocal jump in another (and in the process showing the difference between recording alone to a track and singing with a live group).  But for the most part, everything went as seamless as one could expect from a brand new group playing one of their first shows.

EL VY also enjoyed the opportunity to play with some of their friends, as local musician Ural Thomas joined in to help fill in some of the background vocals he provided on the album, along with opening act Moorea Masa.  But perhaps the best moment of the night was when the group selected an out-of-leftfield cover, the massive Fine Young Cannibals hit “She Drives Me Crazy”.  Matt opted to bring Roland Gift’s falsetto down a couple of octaves, but otherwise the band captured the song perfectly, to the delight of many in the crowd.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

Opening act Hibou were quite impressive, veering from the quiet and languid music that recalled Deerhunter to more epic, bombastic rock that would fit in perfectly fine at an arena and not a basement club.  Moorea Masa has a beautiful voice, and the delicate harmonies that she produced with her fellow vocalists brought to mind a female version of Fleet Foxes.  I am looking forward to seeing both of these acts swing through town again.

Review: Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

With The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr have crafted one of the most alluring and captivating albums of the year, one that provokes visceral and thoughtful reactions in equal measure.  Joe Casey’s straight-forward vocal delivery and the gloomy atmosphere produced by the rest of the band are an unusual combination that nevertheless leads to songs that are undeniably catchy, if unorthodox in nature.  The propulsive drive of the songs as well as the air of mystery in the lyrics help make The Agent Intellect one of the most gripping and entertaining albums of the year.

That is not to say that you should expect to see Protomartyr battling for a spot atop the Billboard charts.  Casey’s vocals are closer to the spoken-word screeds of Mark E. Smith of The Fall than traditional singing, and will probably turn off some of their potential audience.  Casey is more concerned with delivering his lyrics with just the right touch of dramatic flair, and he easily succeeds on that count.

The other members of the band provide an intriguing contrast to the vocals, often locking into melodies and patterns that do not necessarily line up with the vocals.  Instead, the focus is on creating a suitable ambiance, and it is here where their take on post-punk matches up with Casey’s work.  Greg Ahee’s guitars often bear the same trebly and reverb-soaked quality of The Walkmen, while Scott Davidson on bass and Alex Leonard on drums help drive the songs while also creating intriguing countermelodies and rhythms.  Together, they create a furious yet wonderful racket.

Protomartyr has solidified the promise that was present on last year’s Under Color of Official Right, and crystallizing many of that record’s ideas.  Each listen of The Agent Intellect reveals new standout tracks, but the album really works best as a cohesive whole, with one song leading into the next, with natural rises and falls.  Its best quality may be the fact that the record works great as both the subject of devoted listening as well as mere background music, which means you can enjoy repeated spins of the album without ever getting in danger of tiring of it.