Low

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.

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.

Over the Weekend (Oct. 12 Edition)

New music, new videos, and other fun stuff to help you get through the week…

After some rumblings and hints in the past few months, the music press was quick to pounce on the news that Gorillaz are working on material for a new album to be released next year, as per an interview with Jamie Hewlett in DIY.  There was not much more confirmation beyond a simple statement, but fans have long been itching for a follow-up to 2010’s Plastic Beach.

Considering that it was only a few weeks ago that Depression Cherry came out, the news that Beach House is set to release another album this Friday came as a shock to fans and journalists alike.  The duo stressed that Thank Your Lucky Stars is not a B-Sides collection or remnants from previous sessions, but its own full-fledged album.  Stereogum has an interesting piece talking about the various clues that the band had hidden away in their website.

Foals released the video for their song “Give It All” today, and the video is a rather cinematic tale of a a doomed romance.  There is even a director’s cut available with a different ending available.

Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney is releasing his debut solo album Many Moons at the end of the month, and today shared the single “Airport Bar” from the record, a laid-back and easy-going affair that would have fit in quite nicely with the past couple of albums of his main gig.

Low released a video for the gorgeous Ones and Sixes track “Lies”, and the heartbreaking depiction of the struggles of a day laborer is a perfect fit for the melancholic beauty of the song.

“Over the Rainbow” is one of the most popular and recognizable songs of the twentieth century, and PBS takes a look at the composition of the song and how it captured the hearts of so many people.

Hutch Harris of The Thermals talked to Baeble about his entry into the world of standup comedy, and if you follow @thethermals on Twitter, you would not be surprised that the man behind one of the most consistently funny accounts in music has decided to jump into those waters.

In a post that is sure to delight some and anger many more, Deadspin takes a look at fourteen different times that Jay Z has been “owned” by another rapper on one of his tracks, though many of these selections have Jay occupying a guest spot.  We are disappointed that Ja Rule did not make the list.

We have long failed to provide an adequate number of cat videos on this site, and locally Run The Jewels is helping us out in fulfilling our quota.  They have released a ridiculously goofy video for “Oh My Darling (Don’t Meow)” from Meow The Jewels, which should fulfill all your Laser Cats fanfic desires.

Catching Up On The Week (Oct. 9 Edition)

Some #longreads that have been carefully selected for your reading pleasure…

We have spent the week blasting Deafheaven’s excellent new album, New Bermuda, over and over again.  Before you read our review of the album next week, we recommend you check out this interview with the band from VH-1, which goes into great detail about the making of the follow-up to the universally-acclaimed Sunbather.

Before Elliott Smith became a beloved solo artist, his music career began as a member of the up-and-coming Portland rock band Heatmiser.  Though the group is largely seen as a footnote to Smith’s career, they had a solid career in their own right, and are set to be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame this weekend.  David Greenwald of The Oregonian catches up for a rare interview with the other members of Heatmiser for a look back at their career.

Alan Sparhawk from Low talks to The Skinny in a deeply personal interview, and reveals among other things the meaning behind the title Ones and Sixes.  For the record, we were on the right track with our guess about minimums and maximums in our review of the album, though we were off on the specific reference.  Another follow-up worth checking out is this Vox interview with John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, which provides additional anecdotes about the mysterious mega-successful songwriter Max Martin.

Next week sees the release of Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier, and Bradford Cox once again provides an entertaining interview, this time with Observer.

Finally, we have our usual anniversary pieces.  First, Allmusic interviews singer Ed Kowalczyk about his former band Live’s massively successful Throwing Copper, and about his current solo acoustic tour in celebration of the album.  We are guessing that many of you did not realize that Ed had left the group, and to be honest, we did not know this either.  Then you can finish up with this look back at another huge album from 1995, Tragic Kingdom from No Doubt.  If anything, this gives you a chance to sing “Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak” in your bedroom as loud as you can.

Over the Weekend (Oct. 5 Edition)

News, new music, and other fun stuff to help kickoff your week…

We linked to multiple articles about Radiohead’s Kid A on Friday, so naturally we have another piece related to the band today.  Diffuser has a slideshow attempting to come up with a suitable American version of Radiohead, and to their credit, they think outside the box of “a few dudes with guitars”, though we are sure their choices would cause some amount of debate.

Bloc Party is set to release a new album entitled Hymns next year, and today they released the first track from the record.  Since Four, the band has shuffled their lineup a bit, including adding Justin Harris of Menomena to the group, and the electronic-influenced “The Love Within” is our first glimpse at the result.

Run The Jewels released a new single this week, sharing the gritty track “Rubble Kings Theme (Dynamite)” from the documentary Rubble Kings.

The title for Best Example of Clickbait from last week was the announcement that scientists have determined Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the most iconic song of all time.  Certainly there is more to the story, but feel free to argue among yourselves as to whether or not the result makes sense.

There are a couple of great interviews that we recommend for your perusal this week.  First, Alan Sparhawk of Low talks to The Quietus about the band’s career in a serious and insightful discussion, and then you can lighten things up with the always entertaining Jesse Hughes from Eagles of Death Metal, who opens up to Consequence of Sound about his various personal contradictions.

We linked to a couple of clips of this show a couple of weeks back, but now feel free to rock out to the full concert footage of the supergroup performance of The Stooges’s iconic album Raw Power, featuring Mark Arm, Mike McCready, Duff McKagan, and Barrett Martin performing on the rooftop of Pike Place Market.

Finally, we recommend you check out this Tiny Desk Concert from our newest favorite Greek musician, Lianne LaHavas, who possesses a gorgeous voice that should help brighten up your week.

Review: Low – Ones and Sixes

What Low has accomplished over the course of their two-decade-plus career is truly astonishing.  Not only have they never come close to releasing a mediocre album, but they still sound as vibrant as ever, with their creative spark still burning bright.  Though as pioneers of the “slowcore” genre they are known for their minimalist tendencies, Low still is finding new sounds to explore and ideas to develop, which makes Ones and Sixes an excellent addition to their brilliant discography.

Ones and Sixes is an excellent summation of the different paths the band has pursued since the release of Things We Lost In The Fire.  The band alternates between the warmer milieu of their recent work (C’mon and The Invisible Way) with a dip back into the icier moods of albums like Drums and Guns. The influence of that often-overlooked album really shines through with the incorporation of electronic drums on tracks like “Congregation” and “Gentle”, the latter of which evokes a more downbeat version of With Teeth-era Nine Inch Nails.

These dark, mysterious tracks fit perfectly alongside soaring guitar-based ballads, like the dazzling “Lies”, which may have one of the most gorgeous climaxes that the band has ever recorded.  This sublime moment is immediately followed by the epic “Landslide”, which is possibly Low’s heaviest work to date.  With its heavy distortion and extended dissonant outro, it is sure to be a highlight of the group’s upcoming live show.

There are other intriguing subtle production touches on Ones and Sixes, most notably the use of some natural distortion in the recording and mixing process that gives a rawer feel to certain moments, providing a nice contrast to the otherwise pristine tone found throughout the record.  In addition to their inspired instrumental experimentation, Low once again makes great use of the harmonies of the husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, with each also given their own time to shine.  Their hauntingly alluring vocals are perfect complements to the exquisitely constructed melodies, and that combination together should be more than enough to draw in new listeners.  Of course, this should come as no surprise to old fans, since Low has been consistently excellent for a number of years, but they will certainly be pleased to hear that the band has created an excellent capstone for their fine work of the past decade.

Random note: I have not seen an explanation of the title, but my guess is that “Ones and Sixes” is a reference to dice, and the minimum/maximum that one can get; therefore, the record might be seen as an exploration of highs and lows.  Just a theory.

Covered: “Africa”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

No one should have to listen to Toto’s “Africa” for any reason whatsoever in the year of 2015, so I apologize for the embedded video above.  It is a song that exists purely as a punchline, whether it be from digs by amateurs like you or in the hands of professionals like Patton Oswalt.  The only reason why anyone from my generation would have anything besides ill will for the song is due to a misplaced sense of nostalgia, from the time when you would catch a snippet of the chorus for one of those 80’s compilation discs on those commercials they would run on a daily basis.  Which makes sense, because if you cut the song down to about three seconds, it is tolerable.

I would not bring the song up if it were not for the release of Low’s brilliant new album Ones and Sixes last week (of which you should expect a review in the near future).  However, this provides the opportunity to bring up the time that Low covered “Africa” for the AV Club’s Undercover series.  As mentioned in the video, the song was not really the band’s choice, but that did not stop them from doing an admirable job in creating a memorable cover.  True to their style, the band does an elegant, mournful take on the original, giving the song far more weight than otherwise necessary; were it not for the recognizable chorus or the unusual organ tone in the keyboard, it would seem to be a natural fit in the band’s traditional setlist.  Their spare version provides a nice contrast with the bombast of the original, while also emphasizing the strength of the melody.

I also learned that there are a lot of people out on the internet that take Toto VERY SERIOUSLY, as evidenced by many of the exasperated YouTube comments.  I suggest that instead of getting worked up in a rage because someone did not apparently muster enough respect that the great musicians of Toto apparently deserve, that they sit back and relax by listening to one of Low’s slowcore masterpieces, like Things We Lost In The Fire.  Maybe then they could understand the full range of what “musicianship” entails.

Catching Up On The Week (Aug. 14 Edition)

Some #longreads as you plan a trip to Burma

The big event this weekend will be the release of the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, but before you hit the cineplex you may want to brush up a bit on your knowledge of the legendary group.  Pitchfork has an extensive feature documenting N.W.A’s relationship with “reality”, as well as a behind the scenes look at the creation of Dr. Dre’s comeback album, inspired by his work on the film.

Stereogum published an essay this week taking a look at the way hip-hop’s relationship with classic soul music has evolved over the years.  There are many sections where the explanations are obvious, but the piece is still worth checking out for the occasional nuggets and background information on production techniques that may not be so obvious.

We are still a few weeks away from the release of their new album Ones and Sixes, but nevertheless this Stereogum profile of Low is worth reading if you are not already hyped for the return of one of the most consistently great rock bands of the last twenty years.

For those of you who need your oral history fix, the Washington Post has an extended look at the story behind the 1995 version of the Lollapalooza festival.

Finally, we have linked to interviews with frontman Stephen Malkmus and guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, and now we can link to an interview with Pavement bassist Mark Ibold conducted by Noisey.  And because you surely have not had your fill of discussing the career of Pavement, Consequence of Sound has a comprehensive look at the band’s entire catalog, EPs and all.

Over the Weekend (July 13 Edition)

New videos, new music, and news as you get over the fact that the European Union is anything but that

Well, it looks like the crew is back from their sojourn down in LA, so let’s dive right in and attempt to cover at least some of the stuff you may have missed since our last update.

We had been teased with a couple of glimpses into the making of this video, and Kendrick Lamar did not disappoint when he released the video to “Alright”, his latest single.  “Alright” features some nifty effects and a strong political message, offering a nice rejoinder to the idiots who complained about his “controversial” performance of the song at the BET Awards.

In the lead-up to the release of their stellar album They Want My Soul last year, Spoon shared a strange animated video for the track “Inside Out”.  Apparently, that was not the official video for the song, because the groups has now provided a more “conventional” video for the song, though by no means does that indicate that what you will see is entirely “normal.”

And because Spoon are a bunch of cool dudes, here is a story about the band showing up at a house party in Maine where a Spoon cover band was playing, and the real thing decided to join in on the fun.

Dream-pop purveyors Beach House are set to release their latest album, Depression Cherry on August 28, and have kindly decided to share the lead single “Sparks” to help build up anticipation.  The video even features a visual representation of the title!

Low has announced that they will be releasing their new album Ones and Sixes on September 11 of this year.  If you click the link, you can check out the new song “No Comprende”.

And finally, one of the most highly-anticipated albums of the year is set to be released this Friday, as Tame Impala’s new album Currents goes on sale.  If you are on the fence (or just want an early listen), NPR has the album available for streaming.

Feats of Strength: Low

Yesterday we ran a piece in which, among other (legitimate complaints), we knocked a band for being “repetitive.”  But we want to make it clear that “repetition” itself is not necessarily a problem in music, and in fact in many instances can help enhance a song.  For example, repetition can help create a rising tension in a song, as the listener patiently awaits any change that would signify a resolution to the chord progression or drum pattern to which they can finally experience some relief.  With “All My Friends”, LCD Soundsystem accomplished this by expertly employing a simple progression of two chords and a relentless drumbeat to keep the listener’s attention over its seven minute running time.

Low also uses repetition in their song “Nothing But Heart”, a highlight from their stellar album C’mon, but in a manner that differs slightly from the traditional purpose outlined above.  Musically speaking, Low uses a single descending progression repeated several times over the course of the song, but uses this as a foundation on which they can layer on top several other instruments and melodies and musical ideas.  That sounds similar to what most other bands do, but the added wrinkle is that Low also does this through repetition in their lyrics.  The entire song is only four lines, with the last line repeated endlessly.

I would be your king,

but you wanna be free.

Confusion and art–

I’m nothing but heart.

As the listener realizes that the band is not going to deviate from this pattern and instead have fallen into a sort of endless loop or repeating this last line, the phrase “I’m nothing but heart” begins to take on different meanings.  It at first appears to be a sort of mantra, but as the repetition continues without fail, the phrase begins to take on different tones.  The band plays this up with their vocal performance, embellishing it with different dynamics and points of emphasis.  As a result, the band is able to convey several different meanings from the same phrase–over the course of the song, it appears to be hopeful, conciliatory, regretful, bitter, even defiant.  Though the band sings the line over thirty times, one can sense that with each utterance that Low intended the listener to feel a different emotion each time.  It’s an extremely powerful performance.

Oh, and it allows the band to really rock out with some gorgeously jagged guitar solos over the top of it as well.