I know In Ghost Colours was their breakthrough, but that album never really caught on with me despite repeated exposure. This album, however, immediately appealed. Maybe if I went back to their previous material I'd be more receptive now. All I can say for certain, however, is that I really like Zonoscope. It's a strong album that only gets better with repeated exposure. A lot of dance bands - and I think Cut Copy are still a dance band despite the fact that they write pop songs - seem to think you don't necessarily need to have good songs if you can have a good rhythm section. Cut Copy, however, have plenty good songs. Very good songs. Although they are definitely still working within the confines of an established genre (80s-inflected faux-glam disco pop, a rich vein these past five or so years), they never let obeisance to their source material dominate their better instincts as songwriters. This is the kind of album that makes you think, y'know, these guys could be one of those bands to whom we're still paying attention in ten or fifteen years.
Although 2009's See Mystery Lights was actually YACHT's fourth album, it might as well have been their first in terms of people actually paying attention. The reason for this is dreadfully simple: on that album the full membership expanded to a duo with the addition of singer Claire Evans. Suddenly the band had a distinctive, very sexy voice to sing its very catchy songs. However, See Mystery Lights didn't fully utilize Evans' voice the way Shangri-La does. She's the singer and - in the most hoary, time-tested formula known to man - a group with good songs and a boring dude singer will always be trumped by a group with good sings and an appealing girl singer. That's life. Pop music without charisma is a dead letter.
Considering how tempting it must have been to stretch this album out to Herculean proportions - it's a concept dance album about political utopias and atheist spirituality - it's really quite a blessing that they managed to keep it reigned in to only 43 minutes. The concision works quite well. There are even a few instances where you find yourself wishing they would actually ease up on the clutch and let some of these grooves expand - this is a DFA album, after all, and if this were James Murphy 2/3 of these songs would clock in over eight minutes. But no, the restraint succeeds because the album never wears out its welcome. Ten tracks, 43 minutes, and when it's over you wish it had been longer. Isn't that how they all should be?
This was a front-runner for Album of the Year from almost the moment of its release, so it might almost seem like something of an anti-climax to once again ratify its greatness. But no: it's still good. Dan Bejar has been bubbling up just beneath the surface of a breakthrough for years, putting out a pile of well-regarded solo albums in addition to his work with the New Pornographers. This album, however, seems to have been the tipping point in terms of transforming Bejar from someone to whom you should be listening and into someone to whom you actually do listen.
It helps that, for all the eighties nostalgia that has dominated indie pop music for these past however many years, Bejar found a relatively untapped vein: the soft-focus glam rock (not the same as "yacht rock") of later Roxy Music and solo Lindsey Buckingham. On paper it seems as if it would be a particularly hard style to adapt - the reason why (for instance) "Avalon" sounds the way it does is that it is the result of painstakingly long hours of exacting technical recording filtered through the studied appearance of languorous disinterest. It's not the kind of sound just any schmuck with ProTools can successfully ape, in other words. But the sound made for an uncanny match with Bejar's own studiously facetious personality, and the result was - strangely enough - the most sincere-sounding record of Bejar's assiduously ironic career. Bejar is enough of a stylistic chameleon that it would be hard to imagine him sticking with this sound for another full album - if anything, it would probably just become a gimmick. Here, though, what should have been a gimmick is merely just a surprisingly powerful and affective pastiche, an exercise in consummate craftsmanship that never descends into mere formal nostalgia.
I know w h o k i l l was Merrill Garbus' second album, but it is still essentially correct to say that she came out of nowhere this year. I still remember the first time I heard tUnE-yArDs, on a tinny YouTube video on my laptop screen: usually not the most auspicious first exposure to a promising new band. And yet there was something so strong and confident in Garbus' voice (the track was "Bizness", as you might have guessed) that it completely surpassed the limitations of medium and lodged itself firmly in my brain. I went out and bought the album the very next day and the rest was history.
There's something about Garbus' songs that almost make me feel uncomfortable listening to them. They're highly personal, but not really in any kind of queasy, autobiographical way - they're personal in that she is really putting herself out there, belting out strange and eccentric lyrics with the authority of someone who has lived every nonsense syllable and scat-rhyme. It seems almost as if we're hearing something we shouldn't be - it's not as if she's saying anything particularly private (most of the time!), but the way she says it seems so intimate, so unguarded and wild, that hearing it seems like a terrible imposition. But we're not talking about some lonely piano dirges or solo sad-girl acoustic guitar music: this is bold, brassy, full-band funk, complete with a horn section and pounding percussion. This is music with muscle in addition to nerve, highly kinetic while never losing sight of its unabashedly emotive core.
I had the privilege of seeing tUnE-yArDs in performance this past May. It was just a few weeks after w h o k i l l had been released, at the very beginning of her tour. She hadn't been on national TV, she hadn't played huge festivals or posted near the top of critics lists. It was a small - a tiny venue - a community arts center in Easthampton, Massachusetts, standing room only, the type of place you usually see local singers or crafts fairs. She's from New England, went to Smith, so it was very much a hometown crowd, filled with friends and family, definitely a quiet moment before the real business of touring and promoting got underway. She ate dinner in the front row of the space during lead-up to the opening act, not four feet away from me while she ate rice from a take-out container. That's an odd sensation: it wasn't a big crowd crowd and there's not a lot to do while you're waiting for the music to start, and wow there's the star you paid to see eating and chatting with old friends right in front of you. That's the type of show it was - so you'll understand me when I say it was an intense performance, joyous and enthusiastic throughout.
I don't go to very many shows but I'm very happy I went to that one. I don't think she'll be able to play many shows like that in the future. No more tiny community arts spaces - she's been on national TV, scored #7 on Pitchfork's end of the year list, basically become a star. And it's hard not to think we won't be hearing much, much more along those lines.