In case you missed our introduction to the P.I.E. series and this tournament bracket, please see https://computernewspaper.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/2007-a-year-in-review-2
Sweet 16 Results
Yeasayer All Hour Cymbals
The Arcade Fire Neon Bible
Obituary: If we were today to take a poll amongst hipsters–which for sample size purposes, would be likely best conducted outside of a Buffalo Exchange store–we would probably elicit about an 86% high-five rate amongst our subjects if asked the question “So how do you feel about Yeasayer?”. With that in mind, we can celebrate 2007 for giving us this Brooklyn outfit’s debut.
While their more recent album Odd Blood had big audience-expanding hits in “Ambling Alp” and “O.N.E.,” they certainly made their presence known five years ago with the release of All Hour Cymbals, which start-to-finish, is a revealing, steady string of psychedelia in contrast to the more-disjointed Blood. The closest thing to a standout in Cymbals would probably be “2080,” which opens with the numbing line of ‘I can’t sleep when I think about the future I was born into,’ a lyric that embodies the spirit of this song and Yeasayer in general–cautious optimism about life even though the world a half-century from now seems so vaguely bleak, if not dystopian. Give hipsters (read: people born in the 80s) a “things are kinda fucked up, but let’s dance” attitude and they’ll suck that teat dry. The Computer Newspaper, it should be noted, is included in this litter. We finally realized the charm of Yeasayer when seeing a performance of “2080” on La Blogoteque http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8llsiEIvvM0 . If you make it all the way to 3:50 in, you have our very prestigious Goosebump Guarantee, presuming you like it when a dozen unsuspecting Parisians try to chant rebelliously alongside the band, saying things like ‘we can pickle the pain into blue ribbon winners at county contests!’
All Hour Cymbals is good, just like their follow-up was, but Yeasayer may just be the type of band that never has that full earthquake of an album, just small seismic activity for a decade that eventually creates an A+ mix CD. Listening to Yeasayer’s records, on the other hand, can be an ambivalent experience. While their good songs arrest you in their originality, their filler material sometimes forces you to really be patient for that genius to emerge. From where we’re standing, this band will soon release that oh-so-telling third album, which should either oar them into the mainstream or instead keep them (thankfully, for some) buried in indie lore. Their talent is undeniable, combining experimental instrumentation and percussion with floating gospel harmonies and nature imagery. If Fleet Foxes is what you listen to on your way to a hike in the mountains, Yeasayer is what you listen to when the afternoon storm sends you running from the woods to your car.
Tegan & Sara The Con
Aesop Rock None Shall Pass
Loser: Tegan & Sara
Obituary: Canadian, lesbian, twins?!? The Computer Newspaper doesn’t even know where to start. It’s a shame that Tegan & Sara have become been somewhat dismissed by music snobs as a novelty, because they’re a long way from T.a.t.u. Let’s address these three things:
-Canadian: 2007 was a good year for Canada, at least when it comes to relevance on the The Computer Newspaper’s wildly popular P.I.E. Music in Review segment. Along with The Con, Canadians gave us In Our Bedroom After the War, The Reminder, Challengers, and Neon Bible. Chances are we would have to play both national anthems before our Finals match-up. These Canadians (along with Broken Social Scene, and Godspeed You Black Emperor) have given our strange northern neighbor some real clout in the indie scene. What’s strange about the Canadian music scene is that we tend to lump it into a single movement, regardless of where in Canada these bands are actually from. Perhaps they were able to learn from that sticky Tupac-Biggie pickle that musical segregation does us little good (evidenced by the surprising fact that Tegan lives in Vancouver and Los Angeles, and Sara lives in Montreal and New York). There’s not a lot of downside to being Canadian (other than the obvious mental limitations) — let’s move on.
-Lesbians: Both Tegan and Sara are lesbians and have become champions of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. Fifteen years ago, it was a dangerous thing to be adopted by this (or any) movement, as it often ended up defining an artist or band, as our culture attempts to find neat, clean ways to think about something (ask Melissa Etheridge: BedroomWindow@aol.com). When a celebrity came out in the late 90s/early 2000s, either they would be chastised as sexual heathens, or asked to become a spokesperson for the LGBT community. It was nearly impossible to become quietly (or privately) gay. Ian Mckellen is pulling it off now, but it took a long time. After Ellen came out, she all but disappeared from the public eye until the rest of the country matured (almost reminiscent of James Cameron waiting thirty years for technology to improve before filming Avatar). When Rupert Everett came out he insisted that he would only play gay characters in films, and his career began to fizzle out immediately (despite giving completely charming performances in films like My Best Friend’s Wedding). Obviously, things have improved recently. When Lance Bass and Clay Aiken came out a couple years ago, they were greeted by a collective shrug – a far cry from the culture explosion that Ellen received. Tegan & Sara is an example of how we’ve progressed – they are active advocates for equality in the LGBT community, but they’re also just a band. Most people that choose to listen to Tegan & Sara (or not) make their decision based solely on how much they like their music, and not whether or not they think it’s ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ It might not sound like much of an accomplishment, but we’re pretty sure it is.
-Twins: Our country has come a long way in how we treat twins. In the 1890s, identical twins were seen as the devil’s progeny and were executed at birth. In the late forties, Joseph McCarthy convinced us that identical twins were the frogspawn of a communist contagion, and were executed at birth. Seventy years later, we understand that it may not be natural, but it’s an inevitability that we might as well accept.
The musical world has had lots of sibling and father-son duos, but there aren’t that many twins. Years ago, when Good Charlotte was preaching to the world about the ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous,’ we remember being told by a lady-fan of theirs that what she liked so much about their music was how the twin brothers had the same exact singing voice. It’s true, that both Benji and Joel Madden have very similar (and unfortunate) voices, and we see that appeal with Tegan & Sara. They’ve been playing together as long as they’ve been playing music, and it shows. They’re always in sync. The Con isn’t super innovative and won’t seem all that significant in The Computer Newspaper’s 2017 P.I.E. segment on 2012’s look back on 2007, but it does seem to showcase the best of what Tegan & Sara offer. Songs like “The Con,” “I Was Married,” and “Call It Off” are good, simple pop sings, and once you understand that Tegan & Sara aren’t trying to do a lot more than that, you can appreciate it for what it is.
Josh Ritter The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Lupe Fiasco The Cool
Loser: Josh Ritter
Obituary: The guy that filled Bob Dylan’s Americana-folk’s shoes before there was a The Tallest Man On Earth, Josh Ritter, is surprisingly obscure. After this album, The Historical Conquests of…, Ritter performed on shows like David Letterman and became a darling of NPR Music (see the Tiny Desk concert, the opener “Temptation of Adam” comes from this record http://www.podcast.tv/video-episodes/josh-ritter-14502040.html). However, his success has never merited the more-selective stage of Saturday Night Live or a Grammy nomination like someone of say, singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne’s stature.
What fatally separates an artist like Ritter from LaMontagne may indeed be his greatest asset–he is, in fact, a true writer (he penned a novel in 2011), which means that his lyrics matter, which means that his songs are harder to sing-along-with. The opener on this album, “To The Dogs or Whoever” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4aBD0z0iaY is one of his most accessible songs, but like 2006 standout “Thin Blue Flame,” probably has a ‘word count’ well over 500 . There are references to Joan Of Arc, Casey At The Bat, and Florence Nightingale– wait….literary and cultural allusions… in music? Settle down, James Joyce.
Not many albums start out as strong The Historical Conquests does– “To The Dogs…,” “Temptation of Adam,” and singles “Mind’s Eye” and “Right Moves” load the bases with ease in just the first four tracks. Then, there are ten more songs, each one less interesting than the first batch. Nonetheless, this 2007 record escalated Ritter’s modest ascent in folk and remains his most defining work to date. Fortunately for anyone that cares, this accolade may be temporary; singer-songwriters, especially those whose success is not based on a sonic trend or inherent sex appeal, age far better than their other contemporaries– Ritter’s masterpiece may still be yet to come.
Feist The Reminder
Band of Horses Cease to Begin
Loser: Band of Horses
Obituary: We, at The Computer Newspaper, don’t know a lot of people who were happy with Band of Horse’s 2010 release, Infinite Arms (even though it’s apparently their best selling album – though album sales are becoming increasingly less representative of quality in the downloading era). They’ve always had a tenuous hold on the balance between drama and melodrama, but part of their appeal was how they seemed to say ‘fuck it, let’s go for it.’ They belted out choruses with lines like “the world is such a wonderful place,” and we gave them a pass because they brought big swooping distorted guitars, easy bouncing drum beats, Ben Bridwell’s voice was stuck in a nice place between Wayne Cohen and Neil Young, and hell, the world can be a wonderful place, why shouldn’t he be able to say that? Infinite Arms sounds like Band Of Horses were reading their own reviews. They lost a lot of their nerve, all of a sudden sounding too self-aware. They took very few chances and left us with what was already a shaky musical and lyrical foundation. Luckily for them though, P.I.E is all about nostalgia, and that’s something Cease to Begin is able to conjure effortlessly.
Band Of Horses’ first album, Everything All The Time, was released in 2006, and in many ways, Cease to Begin is just a continuation of what they started. There are more slow moments on Cease to Begin, some of which are successful (“Cigarettes Wedding Bands”), some of which are mostly just boring (“Detlef Shrempf”), but it’s when Band Of Horses get loud that they’re at their most compelling. “The General Specific” and “Ode To LRC” are big, sprawling songs that best accentuate Bridwell’s high-pitched voice. When Band of Horses slows things down, they become vulnerable to scrutiny. Their lyrics are hardly complex and often simplistic. They might be good musicians, but they certainly don’t show it off. Still, it’s obvious that Band of Horses has something, and though they might have just been the band that led us to Fleet Foxes, that’s still an accomplishment. Cease to Begin would have been a more interesting album if it came before a great record, but if P.I.E. has taught us anything, it’s that an album cannot be fully understood until it’s sandwiched between a precursor and a follow-up.
Spoon Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Amy Winehouse Back In Black
Obituary: It is with great trepidation that we send Spoon packing at this juncture. This album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, is a coast-to-coast, 36-minute showcase of what the Austin quartet does best. And what exactly is that– well, Spoon has described what they do as ‘rock ‘n’ roll.’ Which, upon first glance, seems like a stupid response to a likely-stupid question, but there is something about their style that fits such a obsolete category. Maybe it’s the panache in frontman Britt Daniel’s voice, maybe it’s the use of guitar riff breakdowns to end songs (see bad-ass opener “Don’t Make Me A Target”), maybe it’s just because they have yet to buy themselves a synthesizer. They want to rock you, and very much in the traditional sense.
So…..good for them…. in fact, so good for them, that Metacritic, a review aggregator that does for music what Rotten Tomatoes does for movies, ranked Spoon as the “Top Overall Artist of the Decade” based on their consistently-high reviews in the 2000s. Let’s ignore the fact that they were awarded an honor so fraught with interpretations, but focus on that criteria rarely found in music: consistency.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was their sixth album since the mid-90s, and their third well-received top-seller in just five years, following Kill The Moonlight (2002) and Gimme Fiction (2005). While Kill and Gimme gave Spoon the airplay to become audible in popular culture–most notably the song “The Way We Get By” and the soundtrack for Will Ferrell’s movie Stranger Than Fiction–this 2007 album was their opportunity to capitalize on that buzz and become a ‘big’ band in the public’s mind. They would just need a hit to validate those expectations.
Without further ado, enter single “The Underdog,” which you have heard in countless film and television shows, even a movie like Horrible Bosses, which came out last year, four years after the song was released. The song is a light-hearted rallying cry that bounces happily without ever trying too hard. As the one-take music video shows http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1hZVDLkJDc, all they had to was add some maracas, some tambourines, even a mariachi horn section– you get a classic.
Beyond the aforementioned songs, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is full of consistency, but does feel as if they are playing it too close-to-the-chest (we should watch what we criticize here– have Spoon step out of their wheelhouse and you get blah-fest Transference in 2010). But when you consider their entire catalog and the songs that aren’t on this album (“Paper Tiger,” “Stay Don’t Go”), it’s arguable that it is not their best work, and even less equivocally, their worst album title yet. As “The Underdog” proclaims, “it can’t all be wedding cake.”
St. Vincent Marry Me
Iron and Wine The Shepherd’s Dog
Loser: St. Vincent
Obituary: St. Vincent (Annie Clark) is really good and she’s really well-respected by musicians. Before venturing off on her own, she went to Berklee School of Music (and later gave the required, “With music school, at some point you have to forget everything you’re taught” response when asked about its importance), then took a back-up role with Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. She is described first as a multi-instrumentalist and then as a singer, which is more of a tribute to her skill as a musician than a criticism of her ability as a singer or songwriter.
Marry Me is described as a bunch of things, but mostly an Art Rock album, a term which makes The Computer Newspaper roll its eyes. It’s in the same family as Prog Rock and Math Rock. Really, labels like Art Rock are just meant to tell you that the artist uses strange time signatures, shifts keys often and abruptly, and are probably better at the guitar than you are. This is all true with Annie Clark. If Art Rock is a term that St. Vincent resents, she’s not doing herself any favors. She named her band after Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center where Dylan Thomas died; she said “It’s the place where poetry comes to die. That’s me.” If experimentation is St. Vincent’s greatest strength, it may also double as her greatest obstacle. Listening to St. Vincent (though this is truer with her later albums) is a challenge. It shifts and twists its way around, finding ways to surprise you, even when you’d rather it didn’t. Marry Me is full of ideas and textures which makes listening to it an adventure that can be repeated many times, but sometimes you find yourself wishing she would have fully realized one idea before moving to the next.
The Shins Wincing The Night Away
Bright Eyes Cassadaga
Loser: The Shins
Obituary: With this 2007 album, Albuquerque band The Shins put the success of their first two albums, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow behind them for (seemingly) good. While their earlier work is better-reviewed, Wincing The Night Away continued their maturation as a band to try some different arrangements, trading in tight acoustics for a more layered, synthetic feel. Without value judgment on whether or not that was a wise mutation, we can still say that it was a significant moment for the band.
For all intent and purposes, this is the biggest album they’ll have– it premiered on the Billboard charts at #2, whereas the highest the others did was #86. Tracking that leap is easy. Up until 2004, The Shins were still a relatively obscure delicacy in indie rock. Cue Zach Braff and the cinematic decision to let The Shins pervade his Garden State world, including when the undeserving protagonist wins the heart of the Most Beautiful Woman On Earth, Natalie Portman, by cowardly letting her give him headphones and promise ‘you ever heard The Shins, it’ll change your life.’ Also, for the record, The Computer Newspaper is really good at harboring grudges.
In terms of their career, it is just very easy to pinpoint 2005 as the precise time that the American public became aware of The Shins–they should probably send Braff a fruit basket or something for the exposure Garden State provided, just as long as the gift is not as lavish as the chocolate-fountain-with-strawberries Frou Frou owes his Scrubs-y ass. After letting these ingredients simmer for a few years, The Shins released Wincing The Night Away to enormous demand and did not disappoint.
[Aside: In terms of enduring the instant-gratification era of music in the new century, The Shins have figured out the ideal spacing for releasing albums. The debut comes out in 2001, they do the right thing by immediately following it up in late 2003. As we have already covered and will cover further down the line, two years is the safest distance between freshman and sophomore records-just ask Vampire Weekend how that worked out (and not, say, MGMT). Sit on the third album for three years (Wincing in 2007) and make sure it’s of good quality but just different enough from the earlier stuff. Now, here we are in 2012, a little after James Mercer’s side project Broken Bells, and The Shins are releasing their newest LP this month, which is jusssssst enough time to ensure we almost forgot about them, but not long enough that it doesn’t deserve a “oh sweet, new Shins” reaction.]
Contrary to what Garden State thinks, The Shins actually are not the kind of band that changes your life, and accordingly neither is this album. That being said, it’ll sure as hell improve your day. The first two tracks “Sleeping Lessons” and “Australia” point the Wincing The Night Away vessel in the right, peppy direction, and it stays the course admirably with interesting songwriting and perpetual melodies. The challenge for this band will be to show what cards remain up their sleeve at this point in their career, having thus far proved themselves as certifiably professional musicians.
Menomena Friend and Foe
LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver
Obituary: Cool things are happening in Portland. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that cool things are continuing to happen in Portland. Strip clubs, microbrews, and humidity-induced mold must be good for creative types, because they seem to thrive in Portland. It’s sort of the indie-rock equivalent of Hollywood, since musicians who have made an impact on the indie scene often move to Portland (three of the P.I.E. contestants have re-located there). It seems to cradle the wounded, and offer stability to the rickety character of those who create for a living. More importantly, perhaps, it surrounds them with opportunities for collaboration and inspiration.
As previous residents of the Pacific Northwest, we both understand and resent the reputation it’s developed as a bleak, rainy motherland for nerds and hipsters (a term The Computer Newspaper is stubbornly refusing to learn the actual definition of). It’s true that you’re more likely to see there calf-length denim shorts, Professor Mcgonagall-style glasses, and weary twenty somethings rolling their own cigarettes, but it’s a silly reason to write Portland off. Those who are susceptible to the ailments of seasonal depression might do well to avoid it for three-quarters of the year, but those of us who have lived or visited Seattle or Portland can’t help but wonder what the Cullen family does during June through August, when the Pacific Northwest offers ninety days of consecutive 80 degree sunshine — they would be sparkling all summer like Zooey Deschanel’s eyes. Maybe it’s the junction of dreary fall/winter/spring with sunny, perfect summers that attracts people who think and write in extremes. What is strange about the Portland music scene is that there is no real Portland Sound. The city is full of bands and musicians who may be swept under the Indie umbrella, but there is no real common sound. Musically, there isn’t a lot that The Shins, Sleater Kinney, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, or Pavement have in common. Even if they might not share a collective sound, Portland bands seem to be united in that they share a creative environment, which must be part of the reason musicians keep moving there.
Aside: When James Mercer from The Shins moved to Portland, he bought the house that Elliott Smith owned.
In case we’re being unclear, Menomena is from Portland. Friend and Foe is the band’s third release, and second full-length. Those who reject Menomena are turned off by how much they experiment; those who are drawn to them appreciate their innovation. Their song-writing process relies on creating loops (on a program that guitarist/keyboardist Brent Knopf created), and adding bits and pieces until a dominant melody stands out. Each member plays multiple instruments in each song, which creates a pretty incredible experience to re-create live. It’s a process that would sound sloppy and poorly thought out if they were lesser musicians, but Menomena manages to create a real sense of stability through their process. Friend and Foe doesn’t always succeed, but when it does, it really succeeds. When Menomena is at their best, they manipulate the quiet/loud dynamic differently than anyone else does; creating space with sparse instrumentation (they’re surprisingly pretty at times), and using big crashing drums, distorted guitars, and often, a baritone saxophone, which is mostly used as an additional source of percussion. You always have the sense that they’re building to something, and upon first listen, you really don’t know what that something is going to be. Because there is so much texture to their music, their album holds up upon further review; like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, there’s always something that grabs your interest, no matter how many times you’ve consumed it.
Unfortunately, Friend and Foe doesn’t fulfill the promise it makes with its first handful of songs. “Muscle N’ Flo, “The Pelican,” “Wet and Rusting,” and “Weird” are probably enough for most people. The bottom half of the album is still quite good, it only suffers because the first half is so good. The Computer Newspaper decided not to push Menomena past the first round, but we wanted to give it the due it deserves by bringing it to the sweet sixteen.