Tuesday, December 26, 2023

2023 in Review

Well, it’s been another year without a lot of activity here. Seeing live music and writing about music have continued to be low on my list of priorities. I had to travel quite a bit for medical reasons and then spent a month in the hospital. I saw a few friends’ shows in addition to the two I reviewed here, but the real musical highlight for me was performing with my choir and with my band (Soltero/Anfängerfehler). Both shows were a lot of fun and quite successful, and I’m looking forward to more shows next year. Soltero also put out two new singles, both excellent. I didn’t contribute directly to the studio versions, but I have played the latter live with Tim.

I haven’t quite kept up with new releases as much as I’d like, but I still of course found plenty to enjoy. Here are my favorites of 2023:
  • Big Thief - “Vampire Empire” / “Born for Loving You” - This double single is as good as the best parts of last year’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. The first song is strong and angry, the second sweet and rolling. Some people were mad that “Vampire Empire” wasn’t as good as the version first heard on Colbert’s Late Show, and while the studio version did cut the line “I’m the fish and she’s my gills”, it flows better, has bigger dynamic range, is much tighter, and stays in tune.
  • boygenius - the record and the rest [EP] - Three talented singer-songwriters team up for a collaborative album and another EP? I’m in. They remind me of case/lang/viers or, yes, obligatorily, CSN. Honestly about half the album drags a bit, but the other half is so good I don’t mind it. The EP appears to be leftovers, but “Afraid of Heights” is one of their best. The harmonies are outstanding, the production good but predictable.
  • The Church - The Hypnogogue - Album #26 is the concept album? Why not. It’s not really as proggy as sole remaining founding member Steve Kilbey claims, but it is as good as his and the band’s mysteriously psychedelic best. It isn’t a pop album like Of Skins and Heart (1981) or Starfish (1988), but nor were any of their albums in the last 15 years or more. The concept is farcical and vaguely sci-fi, yet if you didn’t know what it is, you could easily mistake it for prescient social commentary, which is exactly what Kilbey claims it’s not. I don’t believe him. In any case, it’s great.
  • Cup Collector - assorted releases - This has been Cup Collector’s busiest year so far, and the six releases (totalling 11 tracks at just under two hours) reveal a wide reach of experimental instrumental music. He’s either started using synthesizers or he’s perfected the technique of simulating a synthesizer via guitar effects, layers, and reverb. The Hourglass, “Life Form”, “The Fourth”, and Your Shining Heart are calming, warm, and pleasant. “A Shephard’s Howl” starts off like the extended acoustic improvisations released under his birth name (James David Fitzpatrick), but then switches to his classic electric guitar tones. “‘Love’ Spray Painted on a Tree Trunk” (from The Fourth) is a blend of synth exploration and field recording, which also recalls his “solo” work, albeit more abrasively. The Elder EP is the real surprise, featuring three pieces ranging from (what sounds like) noisy sequencers to melodic layers of arpeggiated guitars.
  • Low Forest - Entrovert and Ambivector - Old friends Josh King and Brad Schumacher (with drummer Halston Rossi) have made a high-concept space rock double-album, in which one album is the rock and the other is the space, and of course they’re synchronized such that they’ve created an interactive listening experience in which you can try mixing the two parts together yourself. Separately, both albums stand on their own, but their combination is spine-tingling. I hear a lot of Hum’s Inlet, creative use of synthesizers, and concern for political, social, and environmental catastrophe.
  • Pale Blue Eyes - This House - This trio have mastered the art of turning grief and sadness into propulsive, upbeat synthpop. There are bits of goth rock and shoegaze in the mix, but the genuine lyrics of working through loss and difficult emotions to embrace community and make the most of what’s available are what seal the deal. It’s even better than last year’s Souvenirs.
  • Perlee - Speaking from Other Rooms - I enjoyed the Slow Creature EP (2020) and they’ve grown considerably since then. Now they really sound like early-era Beach House or even Slowdive at times. They’re not just a derivative of dream pop masters, though; they bring their own folky touch, Saramai Leech has a great voice, and instead of just melancholy, I hear optimism in their belief that love is more powerful than whatever divisions the pandemic created within us. Cormac O’Keeffe’s voice ain’t bad either, and it’s especially lovely when they sing together.
  • Slowdive - Everything Is Alive - We can now celebrate that their reunion was not just a fling with one new album (too bad about Lush) – it’s for real, and this album is just a hair behind 2017’s self-titled album. It seems they’re starting to acknowledge Pygmalion (1995) again in that there are more electronic elements. They shifted the balance more towards atmospherics over crafting pop appeal, and it gels beautifully.
Here are a few honorable mentions:
  • Beach House - Become EP - These five songs are outtakes from last year’s Once Twice Melody, and while I often joke/admit that their songs tend to sound the same, I agree that they didn’t fit the album. They’re all fairly good, but they’re a step back in the direction of Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015). As with Once Twice Melody, though, I really miss the full power of Victoria Legrand’s voice. She can still bring it on stage, but why is it absent from the records?
  • Elk City - Undertow - Some parts feel dry and formal, but on half the songs they cut loose and build up some great jams. The weird synth parts and the bits that remind me of Stereolab (often occuring simultaneously) are the highlights. Is it just me or do I see a lot of commentary on social media in the lyrics?
  • Ian Fisher - Ghost Father - A collection of songs written for a production of Hamlet at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, mostly featuring just electric guitar and voice. The songs are weighty and reflect a suitable obsession with death. The instrumentation is stark, but the vocals are strong and nuanced. This isn’t a standard album, so to speak, and it was only released via Fanklub.
  • Mitski - The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We - An abrupt change of pace wherein Mitski goes orchestral and to Nashville. There’s less power and drama but more directness and emotional clarity.
  • Sufjan Stevens - Javelin - Sufjan has a knack for delivering emotional wrecking balls without hitting you over the head with them. Without context, these songs sound like his typical wistful acoustic-synthetic fare, but the resemblance to Carrie & Lowell (2015) is more than just superficial. On the day of the album release, Sufjan dedicated the album to his partner, Evans Richardson, who died in April. Musically, the album doesn’t cover new ground, but the lyrics are personal and piercing. It’s certainly better than The Ascension (2020), which I didn’t get at all. I wish he would sing again with more dynamics instead of this breathy, hushed voice, but he somehow managed to get Pleasure Activism author adrienne maree brown to sing on most of the album, which certainly adds texture and novelty.
  • The Veldt - Illuminated 1989 - This is their original debut album, produced by Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins. How was this shelved!? It’s not quite as heavy as Afrodisiac (1994), and maybe the guitars are a little too indebted to the Cocteaus, but is that really a complaint? This would’ve been a shoegaze classic, and maybe it will be yet.
And here a few other 2023 releases that I have opinions about:
  • Belle & Sebastian - Late Developers - I know that these songs are supposedly more than just outtakes from A Bit of Previous (2022), but that’s what they sound like. That album was fine, but this album has all the same faults and just about nothing else. Their steady march into clichéd dance-pop is completely boring. Even Murdoch’s lyrics are getting stale.
  • John Cale - Mercy - As weird as ever, but this time with notable collaborators on almost every track. It kind of works, but also sounds really formless and directionless. It’s too similar to his other latter-day work and I’m finding myself less and less excited by his bizarre stylistic mashups.
  • Love & Rockets - My Dark Twin - This double-disc companion piece to Sweet F.A. (1996) is broadly split into three sources: early and alternate versions of album tracks (all inferior and superfluous), extended jams (good vibes but absurdly overlong; I’m amazed that two of them were actually released back in the day on the Glittering Darkness EP (1995)), and actual outtakes (mildly enjoyable). Ash’s outtake songs could’ve easily fit on the album, but J’s are an entirely different style, much more similar to his solo album Urban Urbane (1992). I get why they didn’t make the cut – they don’t fit the mid-90s alternative guitar groove – but I like most of his usual socio-political commentary anyway. And hearing the band jam with Genesis P-Orridge is honestly pretty cool.
  • Wilco - Cousin - Mostly notable for being coproduced by Cate Le Bon. (A woman! Gasp!) She did seem to bring out an exploratory, experimental approach to sound design, but the songs themselves are a bit too drab and plodding, much like the run of albums before last year’s Cruel Country. “Evicted” is the only song with enough of a melody and pop sensibility to stand out above the crowd.

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