Posts Tagged ‘Thrill Jockey’

RSTB Best of 2018

So, it seems that 2018 is finally coming to an end. It’s been a hell of a year by most standards, but musically its been damn entertaining. Perhaps its fair that there’s some bright spot in all the chaos. Not to diminish the chaos, but when the negativity is at an all-pervasive fever pitch, its feels good to have something to hold onto. I’ll choose to remember 2018 as a banner year for music and for the birth of my second daughter rather than the year that page refresh politics threatened to give me an ulcer any day. Below are my favorite albums of the year, taking care to highlight some that might otherwise get forgotten. They’re in (quasi) alphabetical order with no other particular weight on the list. Keep your eyes out for a few more year-end features this week before I reset for the new year. As always, thanks for sticking with RSTB for these 12-odd years or so.

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Wooden Shjips

With certain types of recreational drug use, or even meditation for that matter, there’s a point when the subject becomes detached from their current surroundings – a shift in time, an outside looking in feeling of calm introspection that lets slip the boundaries of pressing matters. In this stasis, somewhere between numbness and bliss, exists V the latest record from Wooden Shjips. The band seems to toss around that this is their “summer record” and to be sure there’s plenty here that compliments the staunch humid nights of mid-August swelter – Ripley Johnson’s guitars dripping through layers of wet reverb like condensation down a can, tempos slowed to a molten crawl, and bass that can’t be contained by rolled tight windows. More than merely a seasonal accoutrement, though, this record is a balm, a respite, a state of mind – or in the spirit of summer – a vacation from the current mudslide of daily life that threatens to consume us all.

With V the band has softened the focus on its trademark sounds – the fat, motorik rhythm section that slaps like waves against the breakwater, the sunlight suffused guitars that sparkle and ripple in equal measures and Johnson’s vocals that billow and diffuse in a cloud of vapor overhead. The enveloping warmth of this particular iteration of the band has added a few new moving parts as well. Are those strums peeking out of the haze on “Already Gone?” Were there always this many slinking keys in the Shjips’ universe? The vacation vibes bring on a prog haze that holds over from the lighter half of Moon Duo’s last experiment in duality and it feels like a missing puzzle piece found under the couch, perfectly cut to relieve the anxiety that was created in its absence.

Along with Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin’ Bajas) the band has created a perfect headphone record, adding further to the escape hatch mentality of the album. The aforementioned elements dance across the headspace in sketchbook animation while the bass acts as a barrier to the worries, realities, information overload and creeping dread that’s become a constant weight in 2018. For forty-two blissful, nebulous minutes Wooden Shjips let the listener breathe before the waters rise again. Best to gulp in a few last breaths, drop into the airtight bunker b ‘n b of sound and enjoy because those waters show no signs of slowing any time soon.





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Sarah Louise

Though Sarah Louise has let loose her vocals with her pastoral duo House and Land, her upcoming LP for Thrill Jockey marks a shift away from her typically instrumental trappings under her solo guise. On Deeper Woods her voice is prominent and transfixing, pushing her nimble passages out of the Appalachian blues that she’s been drawing from and into a darker, and as the title might suggest, deeper territory. In addition to her transcendent vocals, Deeper Woods pushes further into the psych-folk trenches than either her previous efforts, burning a bit of cinder and sage at the edges of her songwriting and pulling from the wells of Susan Christie and Six Organs in equal measures.

But to call this simply a folk album is to dismiss the work that Louise is doing here. On “The Field That Touches My House and Yours” she weaves those yearning vocals over a bed of synths and restrained piano, eschewing guitars entirely and pushing her headlong into the realms of somber ‘70s songwriters burdened with a heavy heart and a shadowed soul. She draws out some of the fullest realizations of her shipwrecked croon yet, radiating woe and bolstering songs with sighs of violin, nudges of bass and raindrop keys that all set this album adrift into a sea of sadness.

Up to this point Sarah Louise has been no lightweight, but with Deeper Woods she announces her intent to capture every ear in the room, to snuff any trace of conversation with her gravitational pull. This is a watershed moment for Louise and she’s left us with an album hits like a downpour – heavy, cool, beautiful and beguiling. This feels like just the beginning for Louise but its refreshing to linger in her creation.


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The Skull Defekts

I feel like The Skull Defekts have been a part of RSTB from the beginning. Their early albums floated in and out of the Blogspot years around here and provided a much-needed ragged respite when coverage threatened to get too comfortable. They’ve long been a chasm to shout into and along with, so fuck it, I’m gonna miss ‘em. Once they recruited Lungfish legend Daniel Higgs, it seemed like they were set for permanence among the halls of wrought iron rock – jagged, solid, and corroded beyond the pale of the typical “experimental rock band.” For so many bands who consider themselves under that hood there’s a certain tendency towards pretension, or worse, boredom. The Skull Defekts are a lot of things, but they’re never boring. For that matter they aren’t experimental so much as they’re mercurial. They are the sound of rock’s ideals falling apart, but on their final album, even as they push the elements together into one of their most recognizable shapes, it’s the band itself that splinters under the final blow.

For the last straw LP the band pares down. Higgs and percussionist/electronics bender Jean-Louis Huhta are gone but in their place the band recruits Mariam Wallentin (Wildbirds & Peacedrums). She brings a new energy to the band, a vocal shade that renders their iron hammer approach a little less brutal and a touch less brittle. Whether it’s the lineup change or not, the entire vibe of this eponymous monster feels less armored, less combative. There are moments when the walls crumble for sure, but there are many more that the band seems to be standing in the rubble wondering what’s next. For brutality to meet ennui there has to be a certain amount of defeat, but to channel that defeat into some of the most solid pieces in their long-running discography is worth applauding.

The band’s pinnacle will almost certainly be traced to 2009’s Peer Amid. It’s their crystallizing moment, but they’ve found solace in evolution and, here, a solid sendoff that tempers their rage into something new. If you’ve ever been a fan of the band then it’s a requisite listen and if not, then dive in here and work your way back.




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Wooden Shjips – “Staring At The Sun”

Looks like this year some perennial faves are cleaning up, with Amen Dunes already ditching any trappings of fuzzed psych for a dose of refined pop drippings, and now the cataclysmic scuzz of Wooden Shjips takes a back seat to languid puddles of guitar laced with strums on their latest. Actual strums on a Shjips track, I think that may be a first, but while the fire may not be the focus on “Staring At The Sun” there’s still plenty of psychedelic drip happening here. Between Moon Duo and Wooden Shjps, Ripley Johnson’s always been able to cull from the “Planet Caravan” school of warbled psych, but here he leans in hard. The guitarists can be heard flecking the track ever so slightly with growls of guitar but generally finds himself in the reclining position, going full Spiritualized to create a track that blossoms with bliss.

I’m all for a band’s evolution so this side of Wooden Shjips comes just as welcome as their clear-cut, Earth-mover gyrations. Interested to see if the full album submerges itself in the same cool waters, but for now this one is hitting very hard.


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Colleen – “Winter Dawn”

Perennial Thrill Jockey favorite Colleen is back and sinking deeper into the Kosmiche end of the pool. Ahead of her upcoming album A Flame My Love, A Frequency, she’s released a slow, mesmerizing video to the track “Winter Dawn”. Where before, Cécile Schott had worked through rippling compositions full of strings and built on an abundance of open atmospheres, now she takes as turn towards buzzing synths closing in her world with the rhythmic hum of a mechanical heartbeat. With her cave-echoed delivery, the song feels as vital as she’s ever been, taking a plunge toward analog psychedelics with a composer’s heart. The video, filled with gorgeously composed oil works by Connor R. Burke, is an absolutely engrossing watch that pairs perfectly with her new reliance on paced thrum.



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Upper Wilds

Dan Fucking Friel! Man’s been around the block and back, kicking the dust of distortion in Parts & Labor, who found a welcome space here all those many years ago. Later, Dan’s solo work jumped on a tangent of erratic rock tendencies but Upper Wilds might be the closest he’s come to the crunch n’ punch of his old band’s stomping grounds to date. Along with friends from Pterodactyls and an arsenal of pedals Friel captures the bent metal axis of noise-punk and overdrives it as hard as he can through an aesthetic that drops down and begs for volume – Earth rumbling volume on an eviction-level scale. This is a stripped bare and bleeding version of pop punk as run through the half stack heart attack of old-timey favorites like No Age and Times New Viking. Anthemic, is an overused term but it might just bear credence here.

Friel’s actually coming across clearer, vocally, than either of those two prime examples, but nonetheless he knows how to blend the chaos with a chewy nougat center until it sticks to the ribs. That, my skeptical sourpuss friend, is the beating heart of Guitar Module 2017. It’s an oxygen-chomping monster of a record that just wants to flop down and occupy every inch of space in your apartment until each corner is coated in a layer of noise-caked debris. There’s some sort of space/UFO concept going on in the song titles and samples, but while that’s a fun diversion (and who doesn’t love some good ol’ Easter Eggs) it all ranks second to the punishing, yet poppy, damage raining out of Dan’s amps. Sometimes you just gotta knock the knob right and let the panes of glass fend for themselves. Crunch pop always delivers and Friel’s proving he’s been ensconced in its ranks for a damn good reason.




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Golden Retriever

Portland’s Golden Retriever continue down their rabbit hole of avant garde explorations, again positioning effected bass clarinet against a sea of synths. This time, however, aided with a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council, the band expanded their reach to a full ensemble. The addition of strings, pipe organ, and an expanded winds section gives Rotations a fuller sound than the band has previously explored. Though, the additional heft of instrumentation doesn’t sway the band from their core sound which acts as a focal point throughout. There’s a familiar solemnity to the record that feels at once doused in the emotional spectrum that Golden Retriever often wade.

Emotions seem to be a focal point of the record in fact. The central theme that peeked out of the band’s sessions was the cyclical nature of hardship and endurance. It’s a constant pull between overwhelming escalation and tearful relief. The duo have a knack for the former, that’s for sure. When they want to express the crush of confusion, frustration and strife, the pieces can come on with an intense pressure that’s exacerbated by headphones. The synths buzz like nagging hornets at the mind until, when it comes, relief is welcomed and blessedly tranquil. It’s a record that’s skillfully executed but probably cautiously approached if you find yourself in the pocket of frustration itself. For those looking to scrape the pain away with noise and nourish with ambient calm, this is a worthwhile journey. If you’re only looking to soothe, perhaps look to the last two tracks, which are a decidedly gorgeous comedown.




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House and Land

It’s been such a noisy year, in so many ways, that its nice to sink into the sparse trappings of Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise Henson’s traditional Appalachian folk. Not that they allow such folk to become a place of complacent quietude, rather they’re able to wield solemnity and austerity as fiercely as many would a cracked amplifier through fuzztone. However, their resolve and mastery of traditional instrumentation (fiddle, shruti box, banjo, 12-string guitar and bouzouki) shrouds the record in a layer of acoustic shiver that centers the listener as it unfolds in its own naked strength.

The pair met while Henson was opening for The Black Twig Pickers, of whom Morgan is a member. The two women dig deep into the roots of not only American folk traditions, but the natural drone that permeates many historical musical styles. Both songwriters come from a tradition of not only folk but experimental music and the incorporation of microtonality and drone into the canon seems fitting to their background. While its more subtle here than, say, in a neo-classical composition, the drone and harmonics add a darkness and complexity that separates this from lightweight folk on many levels.

More so, they also use the traditional songwriting as a platform to subtly update the songs’ intent for a new age; either adopting the original male voice and making it their own or changing the song’s lyrics to offer a female vantage. This can only resonate deeper in a year marked by so many presumptuous lawmakers speaking for masses whose voices they’re barely hearing. Traditional folk is a road that’s been visited time and again, but there’s still ways to make it, if not fresh, then resonant. House and Land are certainly making the form ring true.



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E

The year’s not over yet, and there are still plenty of captivating releases slipping in around the edges well worth your time. E is the trio of Thalia Zedek (Come, Uzi, Live Skull), Jason Sanford (Neptune), and Gavin McCarthy (Karate), creating a cacophonous blast of dark shadowed sound that leans into industrial and post-rock for equal measures of inspiration. The band’s debut is littered with craggy outcroppings of guitar, punctured with the lock n’ pummel drumming and an driven by an overt sense of rhythm on their eponymous record. Zedek has long been a force for experimentation within her career and she brings the same willingness to obscure genre boundaries as the basis of E’s backbone.

Though, as expressed by the band themselves, this isn’t just Zedek’s project. McCarthy provides just as much vocal heft as she does here, taking on a frantic tone giving some explosive performances of his own. There isn’t a track that doesn’t speak to the band’s collaborative appraoach, feeding off of one another over the course of E‘s two sides. Still, its hard to ignore Zedek’s guitar work, equal parts crunched aluminum and fluid mercury, mechanical but never without a beating heart. Post-rock may be a dirty term these days to some, but there’s plenty of life to be found outside of the swaying choruses, verses and strums. E is proving that a cerebral approach still knows how to crush.




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