Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s The Blue Trees (2000)

The Blue Trees

Album: The Blue Trees
Artist: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #50 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Lady Fair, Face Like Summer
Their Grades: Pitchfork (7.7/10)
My Grade: 67%

One of the most interesting things about doing this 2000 series has been seeing the amount of folk music which was hanging around before the mid-2000s revival established by people like Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam. The first thing I thought about Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci was that their band name sounds like a track title from Sufjan’s Illinoise. Upon further research, it seems they’re more known for psychedelic pop but they’re somewhat adept at recording old-fashioned Canterbury Tales folk music too.

The pastoral songs on here are sometimes instrumental, sometimes sung in English and sometimes sung in Welsh. All of it is calming and delicate but nothing grabbed me to the point where I’ll be listening to this on the regular. Folk, perhaps more than any other genre, is easily lost within itself. Troubadours fingerpicking their acoustics are struck with a hard bargain: maintaining a working relationship with music that’s inherently unoriginal while finding enough of a unique voice to perk any given person’s ears. Does this work as the kind of music which could soundtrack a montage of green valleys and grazing cows? Certainly. But I’m not a grazing cow.

The main thing this album does is remind me how wonderful those more prominent folk revivalists were and are. They breathed fresh life into a genre which was still pretty bland when Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci took it on. This really is a pretty zygotic record, an embryo from which you can detect hints of the healthy newborns to come in the ensuing years.

Sigur Rós’s Ágætis Byrjun (2000)

Ágætis Byrjun

Album: Ágætis Byrjun
Artist: Sigur Rós
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #33 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #2 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000, #35 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000, Winner of the Iceland Music Award and the Shortlist Music Prize
My Favorite Songs: Svefn-g-englar, Starálfur, Flugufrelsarinn, Olsen Olsen
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (4/5), NME (7/10), Pitchfork (9.4/10), Robert Christgau (B)
My Grade: 95%

I owe my introduction to this band to some disgruntled YouTube commenter. Back in my freshman year of high school, In Rainbows by Radiohead came out and I’d just discovered the eminent Oxfordians a year prior. When they released the socially conscious video for “All I Need,” someone whose username is now lost to the annals of time brought up how it sounded like a Sigur Rós rip-off. While I still don’t know if I agree with him/her, I’m thankful it inspired me to listen to Agaetis Byrjun for the first time with my dad on the way back from a Radiohead concert in Chula Vista. Because of these Icelanders, the car ride home was as cathartic an experience as the concert.

After all these years, this is still my favorite of their records. New things surprise me with every listen. As I was revisiting it this time around, I marveled at how many elements are included which are so non-emblematic of what the band’s come to represent. There are harmonicas, jazzy Rhodes keyboards and plodding indie rock guitar riffs all in the midst of the oceanic post-rock symphonies they’re most known for.

The sonar beeps at the beginning of “Svefn-g-englar” are a mood setting mechanism for what comes as the songs start rolling in. Sounds this transcendental put you in mind immediately of either the unreachable depths of the ocean or the immeasurable heights of space. Where their later albums (Takk…, in particular) draw their inspiration from earthiness and nature, this one remains their most exploratory. From the strings on “Staralfur” to the repetitive guitar plucking of “Olsen Olsen,” you never know what’s going to come next but it always feels like a better home than wherever you’re from. A brief look at the album cover gives you all the adjectives you need to describe what’s here: angelic, womblike, prayerful, innocent, melancholy. People may argue about the existence of the supernatural till the end of time but heaven’s right here if you’re looking for it.

Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica (2000)

The Moon & Antarctica

Album: The Moon & Antarctica
Artist: Modest Mouse
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #49 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #3 Album for Pitchfork’s Top Twenty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Gravity Rides Everything, Perfect Disguise, Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, Paper Thin Walls
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3.5/5), NME (7/10), Pitchfork (9.8/10), Robert Christgau (A-)
My Grade: 85%

For all its spaciness, The Moon & Antarctica is primarily a record about what it means to be alive on the third planet. The album’s title may come from a newspaper headline in Blade Runner but it also works as a reference to two of the most foreign territories which influence the earth. The moon controls the tides and Antarctica possesses a pole which keeps the world turning on its magnetic axis, just as Isaac Brock is fond of writing music which crashes like waves, chock full of repetitive, rotating guitar riffs.

I’ve always had a hard time connecting with Modest Mouse but can easily see why other people get them more than me. The lyrics contained here are abstract but rootsy, trafficking in the kinds of questions which get philosophers’ eyes to open every morning. The stuff on here isn’t as angular as the songs on The Lonesome Crowded West, nor is it as accessible as what would come on Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. But Brock’s depth as a songwriter is hinted at here in spades, capable as he is of writing a mournful ballad like “Perfect Disguise,” an apocalyptic funk groove like “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and a super-fun indie rock song like “Paper Thin Walls” over the course of the same record.

Their originality is always impressive, even if it’s never been quite the coffee I drink to kickstart my morning. It’s the same with The Moon & Antarctica as it’s been for me with all their other records. There are some songs here I love to immerse myself in but I’m just as fine being outside their ocean.

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.