Articles posted in December 2009

A new year, a new format

I stole this image. Sorry.
As alluded to in my lists of the best songs and best albums of 2009, I’ll be changing the format of Chipped Hip in the new year. I’ll be giving the site a trial run as an MP3 blog, posting links and downloads to songs and writing accompanying track reviews. I’ll try it out for at least a month and if I like it, I’ll keep doing it; if I don’t, I’ll switch back and resume business as usual.

The reason for the change is mostly because of the amount of writing I’ve been doing for other publications. I’ve been writing for the Georgia Straight, Exclaim! and BeatRoute (where I’m also a contributing editor), plus publishing the odd thing in The Tyee and Discorder; needless to say, my schedule has been pretty hectic. And it tends to get a little redundant, publishing on the same things over and over again. If I’ve covered an album or concert for another paper, it’s not much fun to write a second review.

Changing this to a MP3 blog will give me the opportunity to relate back to my other writing without repeating myself. Also, the narrower scope should mean I’ll be able to update more frequently, so I can hopefully get back to the daily(ish) updates.

Let the great experiment begin!


 
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Top Ten Albums of 2009

Chipped Hip
As promised, the year-end madness continues with my top ten albums of 2009. In the next couple days, I’ll be writing about a change of format here at Chipped Hip. In the mean time, here’s what rocked my stereo/laptop/iPod over the past year.

Japandroids got all of the glory, but there were lots of great albums released this year in Vancouver. And although only three managed to make the top ten cut, there are plenty of other amazing releases that were highlights of the last twelve months (Prairie Cat, Lightning Dust, Dan Mangan, the Zolas, etc.).

10. The Flaming LipsEmbryonic

Sprawling chaos, with distorted drums competing for space with barbed guitars and spiky keyboards. The album could have fit onto a single CD, but by spreading it over two, the Flaming Lips show that there’s a method to the mayhem.


8. Atlas SoundLogos

Logos has all of Bradford Cox’s usual tricks: swirling guitar fuzz, looping synth ambience and echoed, alien vocals. But this time around, there’s enough straightforward songwriting to remind us that, behind the atmospherics, he’s just another dude with a guitar.


Matt & Kim Grand8. Matt & KimGrand

As well as referring to a street in Manhattan, the title acknowledges the album’s lush production and weighty arrangements. Of course, with Matt & Kim, such terms are all relative, since they still sound like a couple of kids thrashing away in their living room.


Pink Mountaintops - Outside Love7. Pink MountaintopsOutside Love

Stephen McBean has a reputation as Vancouver’s preeminent Sabbath-loving riffmonger, but Outside Love favours acoustic guitars and baroque strings over bombastic hard rock workouts. It turns out that he’s just as good at chamber folk as he is at ’70s rock.


Apollo Ghosts - Hastings Sunrise6. Hastings SunriseHastings Sunrise

A 27-minute sugar rush that sounds like it was written on the spot, without rehearsals or second takes. In the case of Apollo Ghosts, that’s a compliment. Slapdash brilliance and buoyant energy made this one of the most instantly likeable albums of the year.


Little Girls - Concepts5. Little GirlsConcepts

In a year of reverb-heavy, lo-fi fuzz pop, Concepts is the grimiest of the lot. Distortion reduces the vocals to a distant, robotic moan while guitars crash against tinny drum loops. And yet, the whole mess sounds completely beautiful.


4. Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion

Once a cult band enjoyed almost exclusively by bloggers and record store employees, Merriweather turned Animal Collective into the everyman’s indie band. And it’s not hard to see why, with its plentiful hooks and universal themes of love and domesticity.


3. Said the WhaleIslands Disappear

A boat whirs as Islands Disappear kicks off with a gentle tour ballad followed by a rocker with shouted group vocals. Half an hour later, it’s bookended with more group vocals and another tour ballad. The year’s most symmetrical album then ends with the whirring of a boat.


2. HolleradoRecord in a Bag

Now we can all stop complaining about how Weezer has gone to shit, since Hollerado has taken up the power pop torch, delivering timeless hooks with party rock gusto. The bad news is that, if the comparison holds, Hollerado is going to suck in fifteen years.


1. The Pains of Being Pure at HeartThe Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The grit of the Jesus and Mary Chain. The big-hearted wit of Belle & Sebastian. The soporific sheen of My Bloody Valentine. And the pop quirks of a legion of obscure cult icons (the Pastels, Rocketship, etc.). With songwriting this good, no style ever sounds played out.
 

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Top Ten Songs of 2009

Chipped Hip
2009 is the year everyone ran out of adjectives to describe fuzzy, reverb-soaked pop. To compensate, we started describing it using a bunch of obscure sub-genres—glo-fi, shitgaze, chillwave, hypnagogic pop—and tried to ignore the fact that two years ago, we would have probably called it all “dream pop.” But who cares? I was a sucker for it as much as anyone, and many of the years best releases fell under the dream pop umbrella.

I’ll be changing the format of Chipped Hip in the new year, which will allow me to offer more downloads as well as update a little more frequently. But just to wipe the slate clean for this past year, here are my top ten songs of 2009. My top ten albums will follow tomorrow. Interestingly, the two lists are fairly different, as some of the top songs came from albums that I didn’t otherwise care for.

Washed Out - Feel It All Around10. Washed Out – “Feel It All Around”

With sighing harmonies and woozy synth bliss, “Feel It All Around” is the sonic equivalent to a slow motion montage (or, as I previously wrote, a Polaroid picture). If you know of a song that better evokes hazy summer nostalgia than this, I’d like to hear it.


9. Matt & Kim – “Lessons Learned”

Matt & Kim scale back the usual piano punk madness for a delicate, textured song that could be a ballad if only the drums weren’t moving in double time. The centrepiece of Grand, its droning synths and layered vocals sound positively, er, grand.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Young Adult Friction8. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Young Adult Friction”

It turns out that this Brooklyn outfit is just as good at jangle pop as it is at fuzz rock. “Young Adult Friction” is a punny ’80s throwback that’s the second best library-based love song of 2009 (spoiler alert!).


Atlas Sound - Logos7. Atlas Sound – “Quick Canal”

Stereolab‘s Lætitia Sadier offers sublime, echoing vocals to this dreamy nine-minute electro vamp. I still can’t tell if she’s singing “wisdom is love” or “wisdom is learned,” but either way, it sounds like a revelation.


Hannah Georgas - The Beat Stuff6. Hannah Georgas – “The National”

I find the National fucking boring, but this song is folk pop at its most affecting. Over a plucking banjo and barely-there harmonies, Georgas reminisces about a defunct relationship, half-hoping and half-fearing that she’ll run into him at a National concert.


Girls - Hellhole Ratrace5. Girls – “Hellhole Ratrace”

The song that plays after the lights have been turned on and everyone’s gone home, while the bartender stacks chairs and mops up beer. Mopey self-pity gives way to sublime euphoria, repeating on and on into infinity (okay, actually for about seven minutes).


4. Said the Whale – “Camilo (The Magician)”

Between the version that appeared on The Magician EP and the one from Islands Disappear a few months later, I listened to “Camilo” more than any other song in 2009. And still I never tire of the grungy guitar riffs and stuttering chorus of this power pop gem.


3. God Help the Girl – “God Help the Girl”

This portrait of a reclusive romantic is so vivid that it provided songwriter Stuart Murdoch with the inspiration for an entire musical based on the same character. And although it describes a girl going into reclusion, witty lyrics mean that it’s as funny as it is poignant.


2. Animal Collective – “My Girls”

My friend Colin invented a dance to this song, which involved lots of clapping and hopping from side to side. Now try imaging him doing that same dance to anything off Here Comes the Indian. That’s how far this band has come.


1. Camera Obscura – “French Navy”

Swooning, orchestral soul pop with a timeless complaint: “I wanted to control it / But love, I couldn’t hold it.” But it’s the details that really make it come alive—the “dusty library,” the “dietary restriction”—and gives it the personal touch needed to become a breakup classic.
 

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A human beast with a brain and a mind

Mental Beast - The Eggnog Experience
Last week I attended Mental Beast‘s Christmas party (read my review over at Exclaim!), a charity show featuring thirteen Vancouver indie bands. For those unfamiliar with Mental Beast, it’s a twelve-part web series about a failing radio station, featuring guest appearances and soundtrack contributions from a wide array of local bands (many more than performed at the concert). It’s a funny and touching series, and is well worth watching—even for those unfamiliar with the Vancouver music scene.

Mental Beast recently issued The Eggnog Experience, a 29-song Christmas soundtrack featuring many of the songs from the show. It’s a mixture of originals and holiday standards, with each track performed by a different band (which must have been a massive organizational undertaking to say the least).

Interestingly, the highlights of the compilation come from the bands that fared worst at the concert. Nick Krgovich & Rose Melberg‘s “Coldest Night of the Year” is a gorgeously twee ballad, the pair’s soft harmonies supported by a click-clacking electro beat and tinkling bells. Equally touching is Brasstronaut‘s “Diwali Time,” which isn’t exactly seasonally appropriate (Diwali was in October this year), but the sitar-laced ditty is good enough to make up for that oversight; the song will be especially interesting to those (such as myself) with little knowledge of the holiday, as it explains, “Diwali is a time for love and care / A celebration for the gods who fought for us to be here.”

The collection’s most high-profile contributor is Lightning Dust, as Black Mountain‘s Amber Webber and Joshua Wells offer up “Ho Ho Ho,” a hushed mixture of acoustic guitars and buzzy synth ambience. Also notable (at least around these parts) are Apollo Ghosts, who offer up a stomping take on Chuck Berry‘s “Run Run Rudolph.”

As you’d expect from a grab-bag compilation such as this, the collection has its share of duds. Comedian Paul Anthony’s take on “Silver Bells” isn’t funny, but its weak vocals and hokey samples mean that it doesn’t work as anything other than a novelty. Elsewhere, Basketball‘s Eastern-infused “Zima Dodje (Winter’s Come)” contains an out-of-tune piano that’s downright painful.

Then again, perhaps I’m being too critical; after all, this is a holiday compilation with all proceeds going to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. It can be downloaded for free from Mental Beast’s website, with the option to make a charitable donation.
 
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A Christmas gift from Said the Whale

Said the Whale
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a holiday EP from Said the Whale. Each year since forming in 2007, the Vancouver band has released a new installment in its West Coast Christmas series, featuring songs that dwell on the gloom and rain of December in Vancouver. This year is no exception, as the band has issued two new songs that draw on the usual anti-Christmas themes of greed, cold and darkness.

“Wanting Like Veruca” exhibits more of the stylistic breadth that the band showed off on this year’s Islands Disappear, making a foray into dramatic emo pop. A thundering, distorted waltz, it sounds nothing like the band has ever done before. Halfway through, it suddenly changes time signatures, transforming into a moody, syncopated dance groove with harmonized guitar leads. Next, it briefly shifts into a barn-burning country stomp before returning to the original rhythm. The lyrics are similarly difficult to pin down, mixing complaints about the weather (“It’s cold as fuck,” “The chappedest lips”) with comforting nostalgia (“My mother’s meals”). It’s a strange and ambitious song, but it still offers the usual hooks you expect from Said the Whale, especially during the “They want, they want, they want” refrain.

Impressive as it is, the real treat here is “The Weight of the Season,” a Ben Worcester-fronted ballad about the bleak loneliness of December. It’s familiar territory for Worcester (he also penned the single “This Winter I Retire”), and this home recording is haunting in its sparse reverence. Featuring nothing other than layered vocals and chilly guitars, its gentle melody makes the sombre lyrics seem almost hopeful.

MP3: “The Weight of the Season”

Download West Coast Christmas 2009 from the band’s website, complete with digital liner notes and lyrics. Also be sure to check out the 2007 and 2008 installments.
 
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Santa’s gotta make it to town

Apollo Ghosts
Pro Tools, Schmo Tools. Apollo Ghosts‘ recording philosophy is simple: hit record and go. The group’s two previous releases—the full-length Hastings Sunrise and the EP Forgotten Triangle—both sound like they were laid down in a single take, and this spontaneous energy is their greatest strength. Witty lyrics and catchy hooks abound, and the imperfect recordings only add to the band’s quirky style.

The band’s latest recording is perhaps its goofiest yet: a cover of the Chuck Berry Christmas classic “Run Rudolph Run.” The band apes the 12-bar chug of classic rockabilly, with frontman Adrian Teacher firing off blues leads while the rhythm section provides a steadily chugging backdrop. His echoing vocals add to the retro, Sun Studios vibe of the track.

The song is part of Mental Beast‘s Eggnog Experience compilation, a free Christmas album that’s being released for free via the web series’ homepage. The entire thing will be available as a free download on December 17, but you can stream many of the tracks now. The album features an excellent selection of Vancouver-based indie bands, including Brasstronaut, Lightning Dust, No Gold and others.
 
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Future obscurities

Animal Collective - Fall Be Kind
Most bands save their best material for full-length albums, meaning that EPs are often cobbled-together collections of songs deemed unfit for LP-inclusion. Not Animal Collective, however. The title track of last year’s Water Curses remains one of the catchiest and most accessible songs the band has ever written, although the fact that it’s not on an LP means that’s it’s doomed to be ignored by most casual fans.

Now, Animal Collective is repeating history on Fall Be Kind, a five-song collection that features “What Would I Want? Sky,” which is easily one of the group’s career highlights. A two-part suite, it opens with three minutes of swirling synths, start-stop beats and wordless vocal chants. Then, halfway through, it changes completely, as a Grateful Dead-sampled vocal hook takes over and the percussion eases into an almost-but-not-quite-danceable groove. The real treat is listening to the way singer Avey Tare interacts with the vocal sample, playing off its melody and even borrowing its lyrics, finishing his verse asking, “What what you want? Sky.”

Although it’s the clear standout, it’s hardly Fall Be Kind‘s only treat. “On a Highway” is a riveting description of life on tour, its echoing keyboards and dark, bubbling ambience transforming the mundane details of a long drive (motion sickness, needing the bathroom) into a haunting daydream. “Graze” starts off with three minutes of shimmering synth washes, sounding a bit like a futuristic version of the score to a Disney film (with Avey Tare singing over top). In the last two minutes, it suddenly explodes into a goofy flute jig, similar in tone to Spinal Tap‘s “Stonehenge.”

Of course, since it’s only EP, Fall Be Kind is unlikely to reach the same audience as Merriweather Post Pavilion reached earlier this year. It’s a shame, since these songs are worthy of the same attention as “My Girls” or “Brother Sport.” Still, knowing Animal Collective, there will be more brilliance right around the corner.

Fall Be Kind is available now as a digital download. It will be released on CD and 12″ vinyl on December 15 via Domino.
 
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The Parkas’ last hurrah

Parkas - You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance
Clearly, the Parkas are followers of Neil Young‘s maxim that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Despite breaking up this fall, the long-running Toronto outfit chose to release one final album, the aptly-titled You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance. Of course, this strategy makes no fiscal sense, since these days it’s next to impossible to make money from record sales; what’s more, without a tour to promote the album, it’s unlikely to reach much of an audience outside of the Parkas’ existing fanbase. Still, there’s something noble about a band releasing one last album in the face of financial loss and inevitable obscurity.

In keeping with its defiant title, You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance delivers muscly rock ‘n’ roll, sounding like the work of the quintessential bar band. This is best captured by the thundering “Isolation Pay,” which sounds a bit like Mick Jagger fronting in the E Street Band. On “Muscle Memory,” a heavy groove provides the backdrop for organ and slide guitars flourishes, evoking any number of bluesy classic rockers.

Despite the band’s gritty sound, there’s also an undercurrent of sadness running through the album, most notably in singer Michael Brown’s slurred drawl—check out his echoed emoting on “The Gang’s All Gone.” This melancholy comes to the surface on the album’s ballads, which are unexpected forays away from the Parkas’ usual hard rock sound. “Bad Comedian” strips away the distortion in favour of a bossa nova-infused groove, its bleak tale of alienation building up to a refrain of “I finally got the joke / Was on me all along.” Even more affecting is “Lie to Me,” an ultra-lo-fi recording consisting of little more than buzzing feedback, a chiming electric guitar and the lyric “And I / Can’t lie / To you anymore” repeated over and over. Halfway through, it stars playing in reverse, before switching back for the final minute. The fact that it sounds nothing like the rest of the album only increases its emotional impact.

MP3: “The Gang’s All Gone”

The album doesn’t contain an obvious single, and it’s unlikely to provide the commercial breakthrough that might encourage the band to reunite. Still, it’s a solid slice of old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, and a worthy last hurrah for the Parkas.

You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance is out now via Saved by Radio.
 
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The stillness is a burn

the xx - xx
If you’re looking for arena-sized bombast and cathartic rock ‘n’ roll fireworks, the xx probably isn’t the band for you. The group’s debut album, xx, never rises above a slow simmer, its eleven tracks made up of slow tempos and sparse arrangements. It’s all buildup and no payoff, lacking an obvious hit and scarcely even containing any memorable hooks

What the album does have, however, is atmosphere. The chiming guitars are soaked in cavernous reverb, tracing minor key melodies against a haunting backdrop of keyboard swirls and sparse electro beats. The arrangements rarely feature anything other than what can be easily replicated live, meaning that negative space factors heavily in nearly every song.

With so little to distract the ear, the focus falls upon singers Oliver Sam and Romy Madley Croft, whose erotically-charged boy-girl duets carry the album. Their chemistry is smoldering, and their sultry, R&B-infused crooning means that even the most oblique come-ons sound downright pornographic. Their vocal lines overlap on the breakup lament “Heart Skipped a Beat,” the refrain of “Sometimes I still need you” sounding poignant and sensual in equal measures. The echo-laced “Infinity” is similarly heart-wrenching, Sam’s complaint that “the stillness is a burn” acting as a mission statement for the band’s less-is-more approach.

The mood lifts slightly on the single “Basic Space,” but even this song would be a ballad by most bands’ standards, its verses containing little accompaniment other than a strangely clicking beat. It’s this restraint that makes the xx so refreshing, and the band’s “next big thing” status such a welcome surprise.

The group shot a fittingly minimalist video for “Basic Space,” featuring lots of back-lit closeups and woozy lens effects. Check it out below.



xx is out now via Young Turks.
 
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Hannah Georgas looks to fulfill her potential

Hannah Georgas & Mark Watrous - The Quarter EP
Whenever I’ve talked about Hannah Georgas, it’s always been in terms of her enormous potential. This isn’t to devalue what’s she’s already done, as The Beat Stuff is an excellent debut, containing two bona fide show stoppers (“The National” and “All I Need”). But while the EP rarely strayed from pleasant folk pop, her explosive live show showed that there was much more to her than just another songstress in the vein of Sarah Harmer or Kathleen Edwards.

Georgas recently issued The Quarter EP, a split 7″ with New York-based rocker Mark Watrous, previewing two songs from her upcoming full-legnth, This Is Good. Both tunes break the mold of her previous recordings, suggesting that her potential may soon be coming to fruition.

The spiky “Chit Chat” bears the stamp of Mother Mother‘s Ryan Guldemond, who co-produced the album with Howard Redekopp. Setting fiery post-punk rock outs against a shimmering bed of strings, Georgas verbally eviscerates an ex-boyfriend, her singing alternating between a whisper and a manic yell. “Deep End” is breezy, banjo-driven pop with a group-sung chorus that’s bound to get stuck in your head after only one listen; with lyrics that describe a conversation across a fuzzy pay phone line, it evokes the intimacy of her EP with grander production and catchier melodies. Both tunes bode well for This Is Good, which is due out sometime early next year.

The Mark Watrous side of the EP isn’t quite as compelling as Georgas’s, lacking the same memorable hooks and unique vocals. Still, “Pull Your Train” is a pleasingly atmospheric take on backwoods blues rock, while “The Cellophane Ceiling” is a strange fusion of distortion-soaked punk and jittery prog.

The Quarter EP is out now via Hidden Pony.
 
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