Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

Album: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Artist: Yo La Tengo
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #8 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #4 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #14 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Our Way to Fall, You Can Have It All, Cherry Chapstick, From Black to Blue
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (4/5), NME (9/10), Pitchfork (8.1/10), Robert Christgau (B+)
My Grade: 86%

I like to think I can trust my intuition. But sometimes, I know I have to go against my gut. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is another record I can add to my list of albums which bored the living shit out of me the first time I listened to them only to reveal their charms more and more with each listen. Since that list includes In Rainbows, Boxer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Animal Collective’s entire discography and more of my now-favorite records, it’s become something of an intuitive impulse to know which albums I should keep listening to in spite of my initial desire to throw on some song I know all the words to instead.

Like those other albums, this one has a few songs which perked my ears right off the bat, as I’m sure they did and do for others. I knew “You Can Have It All” would go on the first mix CD I make for whoever my next girlfriend ends up being from the first “ba ba ba ba baaaa ba ba” and that “Cherry Chapstick” was as good a YLT rocker as my favorite song of theirs, “Tom Courtenay.” But the slow-paced minimalism of album opener “Everyday” threw me off my groove. Getting your record going with what sounds like a funeral dirge is a risky move and one I’m starting to appreciate more now I’ve sat through the entire service a few times.

Besides “Cherry Chapstick,” all the songs on here sound like the cover would make you think: blue, quiet and haunted by fog and mysterious light. Your eyes need to adjust to that kind of dusk just like your ears need to adjust to this kind of music. Once they do, you start to wonder how you could’ve missed the quiet, shadowy beauty of songs like “Our Way to Fall” or “From Black to Blue.” I’m glad I learned my lesson about not giving up on a record just because it isn’t immediate long before listening to this one. The rewards I’m reaping from repetition and reflection on it are already turning me inside-out with delight. While I’m not ready to say I think all 18 minutes of closing song “Night Falls on Hoboken” are all necessary, I can at least say the whispers before it are sounding a little more clear and comforting.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)

Lift Your Skinny Fists

Album: Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #5 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #16 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: the whole damned thing
Their Grades: Pitchfork (9.0/10)
My Grade: 96%

Though it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to actually listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the spellcasting hands adorning the front of this album stood out to me for years as proof of magic within. Suffice to say, the music contained herein is not the stuff of illusion but of purebred, actual wizardry.

Each of the four twenty-or-so minute tracks here come complete with miniature movements anchored as much by string instruments as they are by guitars and drums. Lift Your Skinny Fists is more comparable to your favorite symphony than it is to your favorite rock record. Over the course of these songs, I felt sadness, happiness, abject loss and triumphant hope but, above all else, reverence and awe. Like Beethoven’s Ninth or Stravinsky’s The Firebird, this is the kind of music packed not only with its own supply of emotional and spiritual meaning but which points beyond itself to an even greater source of beauty in the universe.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that an instrumental record (the only voices you’ll hear are samples of a grocery store announcer, a crazed Christian preacher, a nostalgic old Coney Island resident, etc.) is as philosophically and emotionally evocative as this. The lack of lyrics never caused me to become disengaged because I was so in the presence of sublimity that the music spoke for itself. This is the kind of record which could bring on your darkest hour and get you through it at the same time, the kind which’d sound perfect being played at the origin or end of the universe alike. It raises questions about the beyond without ever vocalizing them.

Lift your skinny fists like antennas to Heaven, they suggest. If this is the signal coming through on the radio, maybe there is someone out there after all.

Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump (2000)

The Sophtware Slump

Album: The Sophtware Slump
Artist: Grandaddy
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #27 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #6 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #12 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: The Crystal Lake, Chartsengrafs, Broken Household Appliance National Forest, Miner at the Dial-A-View, So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky
Their Grades: NME (9/10), Pitchfork (8.5/10), Robert Christgau (A-)
My Grade: 90%

Even Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s frontman, agrees with me: this is not the “next” OK Computer. Besides residing under the same nondescript, wide-reaching “alternative rock” umbrella and its preoccupation with themes of technology and loneliness, the two records don’t really share much common ground. Jason Lytle’s sheeny, crystalline indie pop is more akin to Wayne Coyne’s work than anything else. But (ready your flaming lipped arrows) even better.

Don’t let anyone tell you a record can’t be good when the main adjective you should use to describe its sound is “nice.” The Sophtware Slump is politeness personified. Nothing here is offensive or unpalatable. It’s all clean, stylish and coiffed for your consumption, just like any product Apple’s ever released. Jason Lytle’s “niceness” brings him alongside of you as a friend. Even this record’s most melancholy and teary-eyed moments don’t go for your gut, looking to slice up your innards with despair. That’s why this album is so wonderful.

Usually, the kind of despair alluded to here comes through in music as harsh and aggressive. You sing along with Billy Corgan or Kurt Cobain not to identify with them specifically but because they gave you the words to vocalize your only feelings of isolation. At that point, the partnership ends. But your Grandaddy wants to go through it with you together.

Even if this may be one of the least provocative records I’ve reviewed on the blog so far, it’s still one of the most thoughtful. If OK Computer documents, The Sophtware Slump illustrates. Images of air conditioners in the woods and drunken robots pop up here and there amidst the perfectly fuzzed guitars and merry-go-round, galloping keyboards. The panoramic view proffered here of the world as Lytle sees it is as beautiful as it is sad. The precision of the music is only counterpointed by the imperfections of modern living Lytle details here. Leave it to an album called The Sophtware Slump to find the definitive algorithm for how indie pop bands like The Shins and The Decemberists would be making pop music in the new millennium this early on.

The Microphones’ It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water (2000)

It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water

Album: It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water
Artist: The Microphones
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #7 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: The Pull, Ice, Karl Blau, Between Your Ear and Your Other Ear
Their Grades: Pitchfork (9.2/10)
My Grade: 88%

Phil Elverum, mastermind behind The Microphones, is a rather straightforward experimenter. If he wants to indulge himself instrumentally, he comes right out and tells you so. “Drums” and “Organs” are just that, exclusivist forays into what he can do with those instruments. On top of that, his quiet-loud/loud-quiet dynamics are established early on with album opener “The Pull” starting out as a soft acoustic strummer before going full-bore brassy Jeff Mangum and second track “Ice” starting out a cacophony and quickly warping into a fingerpicked ballad. He wants you to know what you’re in for before you jump in his water but, by the time you’re done, you’re left wondering who wouldn’t want to cool down at the end of a long day with his homespun, postmodern folk songs.

As I was listening to It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, I couldn’t help but think of it as a sort of companion to Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs, sans the latter’s occasional inaccessibility. You get all of mid-period AC’s Beach Boys harmonies, quirky instrumentation and boyish warbling but it goes down much easier on the first go-round here. It took me six years to get into Animal Collective (yes, I’m serious) and only one listen to really like The Microphones. That may be a weakness to some but it’s a clear strength to me.

If there’s any criticism I can level toward It Was Hot, it’s a problem with length. “The Glow” is eleven minutes long and that’s mostly justified by the ornate harmonies and instrumental diversions. But sometimes, there just isn’t enough going on to warrant extended attention. Likewise, Elverum has a habit of just shutting down songs abruptly when they could’ve been left running for some time (ex: “Sand”). These are paltry complaints in comparison to the record’s strengths though. It’s old-fashioned enough to be familiar (“Karl Blau,” “Ice”) and odd enough to be foreign (“The Glow,” “The Gleam”) in a way that’s both surprising and cohesive. When he gets to strumming his acoustic like the sun’s going to fall out of the sky on “The Pull” or “Between Your Ear and Your Other Ear,” it makes you appreciate the musicianship even more. His simplest songs are more engaging than a lot of other people’s most ornate compositions so anytime he dips into more decorated arrangements, it’s just an added bonus for us.

All to say: if you’re a fan of indie folk, whether produced by the Elephant Six Collective or Robin Pecknold & co., you’ll find something to like and be surprised by here.

Les Savy Fav’s Rome (Written Upside Down) EP (2000)

Rome (Written Upside Down)

Album: Rome (Written Upside Down) EP
Artist: Les Savy Fav
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #8 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: I.C. Timer, Asleepers Union, Hide Me From Next February
Their Grades: Pitchfork (8.7/10)
My Grade: 91%

Anyone looking for a template establishing what makes for a good EP can stop their quest at Les Savy Fav’s Rome. Long playing albums can be permitted moments of meandering and still come out sounding perfect but every second on an extended player needs to count. You only get five songs here, less than twenty minutes of music, but every moment matters. There are upbeat highs and emotive lows not just throughout the short time it takes for the entire thing to play but even within the tracks themselves. When dynamism like that comes into play, you don’t just have to pay attention. It’s impossible not to.

The first lyrics you hear from Tim Harrington are: “On a plain / In a storm / There they played / And there we got born” (I.C. Timer). So speaking of birth, Rome sounds most often like the lovechild of Stephen Malkmus circa Slanted & Enchanted and Isaac Brock circa The Lonesome Crowded West. It’s got Pavement’s sarcastic, clever and profound-almost-by-accident lyrics mixed right down the middle with all Modest Mouse’s shrieking angularities.

“I.C. Timer” invokes God to bless the cyborgs at your door and before the song’s even half over Harrington’s talking about hanging a jury and stringing up a judge. This kind of weirdness and smirking violence is conveyed as much by the wild guitar shifts as it is by the lyrics.But “Hide Me From Next February” is bar none the standout track on Rome. It’s packed with pop philosophical turns of phrase, crunching guitar stabs and a verse devoted to any given tyrant’s immediate family members. On the other songs, the words sound cool but cryptic. On “February,” they carry a Dylanesque sense of mystery matched with meaning. But still, every song on here bleeds calculated intensity and we’re talking for words and music.

Even world leaders have twenty minutes a day to spare. Not spending those minutes with Rome would be a mistake.

Not available on Spotify but check out this awesome video for “Hide Me From Next February”

Clinic’s Internal Wrangler (2000)

Internal Wrangler

Album: Internal Wrangler
Artist: Clinic
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #9 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #43 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: The Return of Evil Bill, Internal Wrangler, Distortions
Their Grades: NME (6/10), Pitchfork (9.3/10)
My Grade: 85%

For a band hailing from Liverpool, Clinic sounded to me at first like a group who had to be from Brooklyn. There’s something so New York City about their sound, so urban in its anxieties, strengths and diversities. The opening drum slaps on “Voodoo Wop” make you think David Byrne before any of The Beatles come to mind. In their execution, they’re clinically precise, as you would expect, but also untameable and unpredictable. Beethoven melody lines show up alongside harsh beats (“DJ Shangri-La”) and classicism wrangles constantly with chaos.

The guys from Clinic dress in surgical scrubs and masks when performing. Ade Blackburn’s singing is, thus, masked and muffled but you still want to hang on to every mumble. Whether he’s frenetic (“The Return of Evil Bill,” “Hippy Death Suite,” etc.) or collected (“Distortions,” “Earth Angel,” etc.), you know he’s got just the medicine you need. Not to mention, the keyboards herein are some of the most unique pads you’ll find and, particularly on “Distortions,” some of the most calmingly anesthetic. This is the kind of record you think you’re dreaming of the entire time, complete with rapid eye movements and rejuvenating rests and pauses.

I’ve known about Clinic since discovering them on MySpace back in high school. Back then, I found them intriguing and original and my opinion remains the same. For some reason though, they’ve never become a band I return to on the regular for the alternating soundtracks of solaces and freakouts they so admirably provide.

Smog’s Dongs of Sevotion (2000)

Dongs of Sevotion

Album: Dongs of Sevotion
Artist: Smog
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #10 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #27 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Dress Sexy at My Funeral, Distance, Permanent Smile
Their Grades: NME (8/10), Pitchfork (9.3/10)
My Grade: 83%

Bill Callahan (i.e. Smog) brings up teeth a lot in his lyrics. Teeth smiling, biting, etc. Considering this is the kind of record you’ve really got to chew on to enjoy, the dental metaphors work. This meal may not be the spiciest, adventurous offering on the indie rock menu but, like that fabled banana on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, it’s nourishing, bruised, ripening, organic and natural.

On the first track, “Justice Aversion,” Callahan sings, “I could stay up all night talking / About animal nature / And a universe hesistant / To grant us grace.” That’s precisely what he does for the next hour. His baritone singing and lyricism are as colored by Lou Reed’s smirking portraits of the more streetwise members of our species as they are by Leonard Cohen’s romanticized spirituality. Case in point: “Dress Sexy at My Funeral,” where you get an honest, funny ode to the powers of love, sex and death all at once. If that wouldn’t make Leonard and Lou proud, nothing would. But with all the benefits of their style of songwriting come their weaknesses too. Smog can head too deep into monotony and meaninglessness as the songs just go on and on and on. Ironically, the longest song on here “Distance” is also one of the most engaging.

The record closes with “Permanent Smile,” wherein Callahan deadpans, “Oh God, I never, never asked why.” For a record so caught up with talking about animal nature and a universe hesitant to grant us great, it seems like a weird signoff. Until you realize Dongs of Sevotion isn’t about asking why, it’s about standing back and letting it all be. If that’s what you’re looking for, Callahan’s a great conversation partner.

Not available on Spotify.

King Biscuit Time’s No Style EP (2000)

No Style

Album: No Style EP
Artist: King Biscuit Time
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #11 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: I Walk the Earth, I Love You, Time to Get Up
Their Grades: Pitchfork (7.2/10)
My Grade: 85%

The Beta Band’s been on my must-hear list for a really long time but if this spin-off solo project is any indication, they probably deserve all the acclaim they get. Upon researching Steve Mason (frontman of both aforementioned projects), it surprised me he’s something of a depressive. The music on this EP is triumphant and quirky, pointing toward someone with a starry-eyed lease on life.

“I Walk the Earth” hit me right in the gut for mashing up Peter Gabriel/Paul Simon/Sting’s best moments of secular spirituality with Beck-style slacker production. It’s an anthem for early mornings, as old-fashioned inspiring as it is lazy, the perfect way to get yourself out of bed. Songs like “I Love You” and “Time to Get Up” prefigure the style of lethargic folk which’d become more popular as the aughts went on (Sea Change, Oh, Inverted World, Jose Gonzalez’s first couple albums, etc.). Plus, the former’s chorus is as basically pretty as any of Noel Gallagher’s self-sung melodies.

The only problem on this EP is a common one: the conventional songs are all beautiful but the experimental moments seem like they’re reaching beyond themselves when they don’t even have to. If you’re going to release an EP, you don’t need any filler. Luckily, none of the less impacting songs on here are just plain bad and most are actually pretty alright. Mason’s echoing voice is enough to carry just about anything and even the instrumental tracks (“Untitled” and “Niggling Discrepancy”) are interesting enough. Closing out with the accessible Yes sounding “Eye O’ The Dug,” (I can’t be the only one thinking of “I’ve Seen All Good People” when I listen to this) King Biscuit Time’s first EP is a great way to spend half an hour.

Gas’s Pop (2000)

Gas Pop

Album: Pop
Artist: Gas
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #12 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Untitled #4
Their Grades: Pitchfork (9.0/10)
My Grade: 66%

Brief confession: as Gas’s Pop came to an end, “Turn It On Again” by Genesis was next on my iTunes tracklist and I enjoyed it more than anything on the record. All to say, if you’re sold out for ambient music, you can now consider me an unworthy opponent in the field of musical debate. I am, after all, a fan of some post-Peter-Gabriel Genesis songs so how could I be expected to understand the sonic swim sessions of Wolfgang Voigt (recorded here under the name Gas).

The album title is, of course, ironic. There’s not a pop element in sight here. Take “Treefingers” off Kid A, extend it out to 65 minutes and you have Pop. To say it isn’t soothing would be a lie but to say I’ll listen to this again would be too. All the tracks here are untitled and nondescript in their sound. It’s over an hour of synth pads which’ll give you the same ethereal buzz as hearing rain fall or waves crash. But, if that’s what you’re looking for, why not just listen to the many, many recordings of rain falling and waves crashing?

I don’t want to write this off too harshly. Far be it from me to suggest Voigt is devoid of talent or ingenuity. Music doesn’t have to go anywhere so my rating of this has less to do with objective criticism as it does with personal preference. I like music which allows me to wander and wonder but this just isn’t where I’d go for it. Some of my friends refer to me as “the shoegaze guy” so it’s not that I have a problem with music which emphasizes soundscaping over singalongability. Additionally, I love Brian Eno and Sigur Ros, both of whom dabble often in the ambient, but I’ll always enjoy their more structured wanderings. Perhaps it’s just the way my brain functions. I like things solid, others like Gas.

Not available on Spotify.

Crooked Fingers’ Crooked Fingers (2000)

Crooked Fingers

Album: Crooked Fingers
Artist: Crooked Fingers
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #13 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Crowned in Chrome, Man Who Died of Nothing At All, Juliette
Their Grades: Pitchfork (8.4/10)
My Grade: 71%

Let’s start with the good news. The first track on here, “Crowned in Chrome,” is awesome. The delicate guitar harmonics (or is that a keyboard?), wanderlust lyrics, staccato pairings of violins and guitars all prime you for the great things to come next. The bad news is: nothing great does come next. And then you start wondering if the first song was even that good in the first place.

This self-titled debut frustrates me because it sounds like an album Eric Bachmann (who made his name fronting the very different and awesome Archers of Loaf) wanted his listeners to be able to cling on to in times of strife. But the inner tube he throws out to the drowning masses is deflated and useless. Hence all the attempts at bar-side Bukowskian pithiness which end up coming across as boring platitudes, the adoption of a Tom Waits/Jakob (not Bob) Dylan kind of grizzled voice to give these songs more “feeling,” the incorporation of emotive strings, etc. For a record which keeps returning to drink as a means for inspiration, all of its edges are straight, narrow, predictable and stiffly sober.

Besides the opener, “Juliette” stands out in its blurry storytelling about a girl burning to death on her living room floor. It’s haunting in its instrumentation and lyricism, traits which don’t join hands with many other tracks here. The bouncy cadence of “Man Who Died of Nothing At All” is intriguing enough to make it less of a slog. But, as a whole, it’s really hard to stay focused on this album. Eric Bachmann split off from one of the defining nineties indie-rock bands to record an album which sounds like Sun Kil Moon for Dummies as sung by  the world’s most noncommittal Tom Waits impersonator. I can’t say I think that was a good career move.

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