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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “One Thousand Pictures,” Pete & The Pirates

20th December

You might think you’ve got this Reading, UK quintet figured out from the start when “Can’t Fish,” the opening track on Pete & The Pirates’ sophomore LP One Thousand Pictures, showers you in its theatrical and soaring gush of guitar and percussion. Perhaps you think you hear Band of Horses or even The National somewhere off in the distance of the song, and maybe you do. But when the alternately menacing and supine second track “Cold Black Kitty” mingles the roaring chops of Bloc Party or Interpol with the tender-hearted pop balladry of Ray Davies, the record comes off as a distinctly schizophrenic experience, and the band as one wholly uninterested in settling into any particular mode.

It is only fitting that “Cold Black Kitty” thunders with its driving guitars and pulsing adrenaline. After all, front man Tommy Sanders has just gotten done singing of light bulbs exploding in the streets and people leaping out of their windows on the opening track. Elsewhere, as on standout track “United,” the houses on his block are ugly and “hold meetings in the night time” as they stare him down and laugh. Yes, the houses are laughing. Just go with it.

For a record so replete with hard-bitten themes like violence, suicide and heartbreak, you’d think these tracks are the work of a band that takes themselves entirely too seriously. But then Sanders cracks a joke like “You’re in my heart / you’re in my car as well”  or explores such existential quandaries as “Who needs a train when you’ve got a train track and a motorbike with a girl and the back,” and you find enough emotional wiggle room to laugh off the tough stuff and be glad you withstood it in the meantime.

The video for “Winter 1,” which sports the album’s most memorable beat, exudes the kind of low-budget, geeky greatness of those early-’80s new wave videos we took so seriously at the time but giggle at diffidently today. (Be on the look-out for the wholly ridiculous, glow-in-the-dark-orange ski cap around the 1:20 mark. Glorious.) Check it out above.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Buzzards,” Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos

14th December

 

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“I’m never gonna break your heart, not unless I have to,” Richard Edwards howls over the booming guitars and drums of “New York City Hotel Blues,” one of Buzzards’ highest moments. Clearly Mr. Edwards and the rest of the Indianapolis gang he calls “Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos” has decided he has to, as many tracks throughout Buzzards will split your heart with the fine blade of their chamber pop hooks and blunt one-liners. Some of these songs will scratch your eyes out; others will cry them dry.

The second track, “Let’s Paint our Teeth Green,” sounds like The White Stripes banged heads with R.E.M. somewhere in the halls of the studio it was recorded in. It’s a bruising crunch of guitars and hissing percussion that drips with pop hooks. The whole gorgeous mess drives Edwards’s screeching vocals to the end of the song like a truck crash on an icy road at night, accompanied along the way by backup vocals that sound like a chorus of blackbirds.

It is only fitting that on the first line of the next track, the aforementioned “New York City Hotel Blues,” Edwards declares that it “seems like the only way out’s through the back.” By then you’re three songs deep in an album that’s dug its claws so deep into your imagination you might never get them out, and it does start to feel as if you just paid to enter a black light ballroom where the guy stamping hands at the door will only let you out for a drop of your blood. But what else would you expect of an album whose song titles span a range from hilarity to horror—“Let’s Paint out Teeth Green,” ‘Tiny Vampire Robot,” “Earth to Aliens: What Do You Want?”

An adrenaline that calls to mind Bloc Party or The Long Winters ignites the appropriately titled “Freak Flight Speed,” while “Tiny Vampire Robot” dims the lights with an ethereal little ballad that brings to mind something from a Mazzy Star album you haven’t thought about since you were15 and pissed at your parents for making you take that stud out of your tongue. Other tracks, like “Claws” or “Earth to Aliens” channel the raw and aching beauty of Magnolia Electric Co.’s finest moments (think Songs Ohia).

But the star of the baroque production that is Buzzards happens to be its quietest moment, a spare and harrowing track called “I Do” that brings the album to a close. The stripped-bare ballad offers no more than one man’s dusty vocals and his guitar drowned in the dark matter of the song and resembles Radiohead’s devastating “Exit Music (For a Film)” from OK Computer. Although Edwards’s anguished delivery comes closer to the fragile and lowdown vocals of Jeff Tweedy than it does to the demon that Thom Yorke tickles on “Exit Music.” (And no, Richard Edwards doesn’t hope that you choke.)

Margot and friends are striking while the iron is hot, already prepared to drop their next record,  an acoustic EP called Happy Hour at Sprigg’s, on January 14th.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Filligar: OK, So Maybe “Ivy Rock” DOESN’T Suck

22nd April

Filligar

If the first thing that a label like “Ivy Rock” brings to mind is a group of Dartmouth dorks armed with kazoos, theories of linear deconstruction, and a peculiarly intense affinity for John Cage, you need to listen to Filligar–the latest in Culturespill’s “Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of” series. OK, so maybe they ARE from Dartmouth–well, three of them, at least (twin bros Teddy and Pete Mathias and their un-twin younger brother Johnny)–and maybe they’re named after a pet goldfish, but they’ve already cranked out six albums since 2000 even though their combined age is still younger than your grandmother, with the eldest being a wily 19. That kicks ass in any book; and with more albums in eight years than most bands put out in two decades, it’s hardly surprising that The City Tree and Succession, I Guess, two of their most recent efforts, betray a maturity reserved for the established influences their music reveals–bands like Wilco, The Flaming Lips, or even Hot Hot Heat.

Tempering the incorrigible mania of Bloc Party or The Long Winters with the quirky power-pop of Wilco’s “I Can’t Stand it,” Filligar’s work lacks only the chiseled cohesiveness those more seasoned influences offer–in other words, they’re young. Their erratic sensibilities–at once supine and spastic, mellow one minute and manic the next–occasionally tug their songs in directions that catch even the most experienced listener off guard. They deny no detour and take every foreseeable turn, and if the results are mixed at times, they almost always deliver something you haven’t quite heard before–no rare feat in a market overwhelmed by enough indie bands to invade and conquer several small nations.

Filligar!

The taut and blistering rocker “Yanni Walker,” a tune that threatens to make the grade on our best of the year lists this fall, exhibits a disciplined focus that occasionally eludes 17-year-old vocalist Johnny Mathias (look, the kid’s 17–give him a break), whose initial whispers on “Purple Gum Weather” wander through an occasionally explosive series of vocal peaks and valleys carried home only by the song’s gorgeous and haunting production. Johnny Mathias finds a voice of his own when he settles down to belt a wistful wail and ask “Where are you now? Where are you now?” amid a broken-hearted crash of shuffling percussion and organ.

The ballad, truly one of the album’s most affecting and mature moments, evokes the mastered melancholy of The Eels’ “Counting Numbered Days” and delivers the poetry of a great Flaming Lips dirge, with its “blue wind sweeping away the night.” Johnny struggles just as mightily to reign in his boundless enthusiasm on tracks like “Peppermint” as he yelps his way through in a kind of restrained frenzy, but the band serves up more than the modest helping of charm that saves several songs.

Sparkling with considered melodies and deft musicianship, Filligar’s youth may manifest itself in a few overambitious flourishes at times–where the hell does that chintzy burst of synthesizer come from at the close of “Big Things”?–but, ultimately, this is a band that’s ripening into a sound of its own far earlier that any aforementioned idol. I defy anyone who fell for the Flaming Lips the first time a friend turned them on to The Soft Bulletin to try sitting through more than ten minutes of Telepathic Surgery. And if you think you’re a Pink Floyd fan because you’ve had one of 30 million copies of Dark Side of the Moon somewhere under the driver’s seat of your Jetta for a few years, try surviving the first track of Ummagumma, no less the first ten minutes–just don’t invite anyone over when you do it, and have a barf bag handy.

Plenty of bands stew in their own imaginations well into their twenties before stumbling into the fruition of their promise. But here’s a band whose lead singer can’t even vote yet, and they’re tossing off arrangements like “Fruit Fly” that rival Wilco’s “Pieholden Suite” or McCartney’s epic “Rinse the Raindrops” in their complexity and range. Both Succession, I Guess and The City Tree flash with the developing maturity of a young band that threatens to grab the world by the throat and howl in its face before long–just as soon as they register for Fall classes and submit their senior portfolios. “Right now our education is the top priority for all of us,” Teddy says, “But during our vacations we spend almost everyday writing songs, practicing, playing shows and recording–our vacation time previews what life will be like for us after graduation.” It also previews what life might be like for fans when they can do this full time–and it looks good. Very, very good.