Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Tracks & Singles Of 2011

1. Girls - “Alex.” Only a band with such a love of classic rock as Girls could make “Alex” as effective as it is. Girls (a second-time topper of the Best Singles list) know how to harness the feelings that the best classic rock songs are famous for, and “Alex” epitomizes this by turning the emotional power up to 11 and plugging it in. Even more beautiful than the forlorn, howling guitar fills during the song’s second half is the instrumental breakdown, which begins with an almost homey guitar pattern before ever-so-briefly speeding up and concluding in an impossibly perfect drum fill. But that is not to say the song is without subtlety--above the turbulent background, Christopher Owens’ voice remains as sad, soft, and smooth as tear tracks down a mud-caked face.

2. tUnE-yArDs - “Bizness.” Merrill Garbus means bizness. Less experimental than the songs on bIrD-bRaInS, but miles ahead of anything she’s done before, “Bizness” is an exhilarating blast of rave-up Afro-soul--over African drums, oily bass, and a digitally manipulated scat vocal arpeggio, Garbus roars in a voice that’s half Odetta, half Hugh Masekela, and all wild beast. The background is extremely well-crafted, but it seems to devolve into manic wildness as soon as Garbus lets her voice loose. Organized chaos has never felt this good.

3. Girls - “Vomit.” “Vomit” sounds unmistakably like a Girls song, but at the same time, it sounds like nothing we’ve heard from them. This six-and-a-half-minute, classic-rock-inspired epic starts out as a tender acoustic ballad before exploding into a harmony-driven chorus and climaxing with an organ solo and a full gospel choir--all to satisfyingly un-ironic effect. Though there’s plenty of grandeur to get lost in on this song, the central focus is Chris Owens’ wounded croon, which traverses the wash of sound like a lonely loser wandering the streets of Shibuya at night.

4. Tycho - “Hours.” A thrilling intro segues into a rainstorm of droplet synths that drop out, come back in, and are a bit different each time. The power of “Hours” and its aquatic atmosphere lies in the way it crashes against you rather than enveloping you, carrying you, or setting you afloat. The song never does regain the power of its intro, but that only enhances the song--its atmosphere is about making the listener comfortable, even as it rushes by, and all one needs to do to feel that surge of power again is hit the replay button.

5. DaVinci - “D.R.E.A.M.” 2011 has seen the growth of a new, left-field form of hip-hop, and some of the best new rappers hail from the Bay Area. Though less well-known than Lil B or Main Attrakionz, DaVinci carries in his music a sensitivity that is not uncommon in contemporary hip-hop but is rarely so upfront. On “D.R.E.A.M.,” a reworking of Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” DaVinci tells a tragic tale of life in the ghetto that manages to be touching without losing any of its grit or razor-sharp edge.

6. tUnE-yArDs - “My Country.” I don’t know if Merrill Garbus actually participated in the mayhem that was Occupy Oakland, but there’s enough riot and political chaos in her music to smash the windows of every building in the country. “My Country,” a highlight of her excellent W H O K I L L album, is a furious protest song that almost predicts Occupy, especially with lines like “We cannot have it/Well then why is there juice dripping under your chin/When they have nothing, why do you have something?”

7. Handshake - “Other Eye (Right).” I admit this one, a radical reworking of an earlier tune, took some time to grow on me, but I can’t deny it’s one of the best songs of the year. The original’s slow build and fancy-restaurant vibe have been replaced with idiosyncratic funk rhythms, swelling guitars, and a riff that stretches out across the surface of the song rather than driving it along. Yet the song’s greatest moment is a truly epic guitar solo which almost seems like a collection of hooks strung together--at least one lick from the solo will stick in your head after the tune is finished.

8. Hunx & His Punx - “If You’re Not Here.” It’s upbeat, it’s silly, it’s goofy, it’s danceable, it’s romantic--it’s a Hunx & his Punx song. “If You’re Not Here” is a swinging highlight of the East Bay bubblegum-punks’ latest album, Too Young To Be In Love, that has everything the best rock songs have--sexual energy, lyrics you can sing along to, a catchy call-and-response chorus, and above all, great guitars.

9. Andrew Campbell - “You Can Count On It.” While Handshake were busy primping their long-awaited debut, former member Andrew Campbell was cranking out solo work at a prodigious rate. He’s slowed down since, but of his singles, “You Can Count On It” is a standout--a slow, jazzy tune as crisp and nostalgic as a walk down an old pier.

10. Sonny & the Sunsets - “Reflections on Youth.” Though Sonny Smith is a veteran of the San Francisco music scene, his music manages to sound more youthful than that of the garage-rocking contemporaries (The Fresh & Onlys, Thee Oh Sees) with whom he is often associated. “Reflections on Youth,” with its upbeat chord progression and affable-stoner vibe, could have easily been written by a teenage garage band. This is the closest the new wave of San Francisco garage rock has gone to capturing being a teen in the grooviest city on Earth.

11. The SHE’s - “Fabian.” With its surf-pop rhythm, flawless vocal harmonies, and lovesick lyrics, “Fabian” is, to date, the ultimate distillation of what the SHE’s do best. Though they certainly sound better than they did when they released their first EP, primarily due to the upgrade in production values and the band members’ technical skills, they still sound as youthful as ever on “Fabian,” and despite having chops that rival those of bands twice their age, they still sound 16 and happy to be so.

12. Eyes Like Oceans - “For What It’s Worth.” Miles Atkins spent the better part of 2011 releasing copious amounts of lo-fi emo that ranged from regrettable to sublime. “For What It’s Worth,” a highlight from his full-length June, is an example of the latter. Atkins pours out his soul to a girl with the same mix of confidence and hesitance as one who has resolved to take a leap of faith. After the second chorus, we hear that gorgeous riff ride onwards into the sunset and wonder how Atkins will resolve the situation. Finally, he drops the question: “Your place or mine?”

13. Sam C. Rocker - “Untitled (Inspired By True Events).” This modest solo demo from former Madders singer Sam Crocker demonstrates the power of simplicity. The lyrics are minimal to the point of being blunt, as is the playing, but Crocker’s voice, a tough yet tender croon with more than a trace of punk awkwardness, gives the lyrics a striking depth. A minute-and-a-half in, an unexpected spasm of echo interrupts Crocker’s voice, like a sob being held back, before the release comes in the form of a painfully beautiful electric-guitar solo.

14. Romance of Thieves - “Closer.” Though his recent work has taken a considerably more pop angle, Nick Martin released quite a bit of quality left-field R&B early in his Romance of Thieves career. “Closer,” his best song, is raw and sensual quiet-storm soul powered by dream-pop organs, creeping drum machines, and a three-pronged vocal attack; a disembodied robot mantra, Martin’s own vocals, and rapper Ea$way. Like the best R&B, it’s steamy, sexy, moody, a bit dark, and infinitely listenable.

15. The Heretics - “Perfect In The End.” “Perfect In The End,” a tune by relatively unknown teenage band The Heretics, is a refreshing throwback to the short-lived wave of laid-back, melancholy garage rock that every teen band in the Bay Area seemed to be making in late 2009 and early 2010. With its major-seven chords, (mostly) steady backbeat, and lo-fi production, “Perfect In The End” is like a romantic stroll through a scrapyard.

16. Comodo Complex - “Night Light/Rain Dance.” One of the stranger recent additions to George Rosenthal’s Complex camp, Comodo Complex can boast to be San Francisco’s only psybient rock band. “Night Light/Rain Dance” could be their definitive track, an ambient, blissed-out tune that makes great background listening but is also hooky enough to stay with you.

17. Tumbleweed Wanderers - “Take It Back.” An update of a solo track by Tumbleweed Wanderer Jeremy Lyon, “Take It Back” finds the Oakland duo drawing on Motown soul and early-‘70s Dead for inspiration, mixing the former’s drive and abundance of hooks and the latter’s laid-back folkiness--while still manage to sound as fresh and modern as anything out there.

18. Rin Tin Tiger - “Ghost Door.” While all the tunes on Rin Tin Tiger’s self-titled debut EP are excellent, “Ghost Door” stands out the most. All the tracks on the EP are reworks of tunes the band’s Sullivan brothers recorded as Westwood & Willow, and “Ghost Door” is the best rework, keeping the original’s folky charm while adding just enough extra spice to make the song sound fresh and exciting.

19. Handshake - “Lemon.” How do these well-dressed Marin kids, who play quietish art rock and never take their shirts off onstage, win battles of the bands? Because while they play emotional music, their songs also satisfying for the listener--not necessarily in a cathartic way so much as on the basis of Handshake and their songs just being really awesome. (Oh yeah, and their voices can probably cure sterility.)

20. Kreayshawn - “Gucci Gucci.” How could we forget “Gucci Gucci?” We heard it everywhere this year--school dances, shops, bar mitzvahs, our own headphones. If you’re from the Bay Area, you felt a sense of pride every time you heard the song, no matter how much you hated it, for the first few months it came out. All that fog in San Francisco? It’s all from Kreayshawn’s swisher blunts.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last "Real" Post Of 2011


“Lady Wisconsin”

* * * 1/2

“Lady Wisconsin,” the first Local Hero tune to feature their new four-piece lineup (multi-instrumentalist Maya Laner has been added; Max Hirtz-Wolf of Rikoché has stepped in on bass), is an unlikely choice for a single. It’s incredibly simple, consisting of little more than some clacking percussion, gentle piano, a sparse guitar arrangement, and the dual voices of Laner and singer-guitarist Alex MacKay. While much of the appeal of their previous singles came from how the evocative lyrics and the complex musical textures never threatened to overwhelm one another, “Lady Wisconsin” is all about the lyrics--which are, thankfully, more than up to scratch. It’s a neat little love story--boy meets girl, girl isn’t that interesting, boy meets another girl--delivered in uncharacteristically blunt but effective language (“I kissed her once, but it wasn’t that great”). MacKay’s singer-songwriter persona seems capable enough, but by stripping the Local Hero sound down, much of what made the band’s earlier recordings (particularly on their Aldgate EP) so great is also absent. The layers of Afropop guitars, the faint psychedelic tang to their lyrics, their seamless blending of disparate influences--these elements are nowhere to be found on “Lady Wisconsin.” If this is an indication of a new direction for Local Hero, it might take me some time to get used to it, but this is as good a start as any.


Carrion Crawler/The Dream

* * * 1/2

Thee Oh Sees’ previous album, Castlemania, was fun as a avant-rock novelty, but Carrion Crawler/The Dream, the veteran SF garage-rockers’ second album of 2011, is nothing more or less than Thee Oh Sees at the height of their powers. As opposed to his largely solo work Castlemania, John Dwyer has assembled a killer backup band to help realize his songs. This is a great group capable of keeping a solid groove up for however long or at whatever tempo or volume suits Dwyer for maximum yelping-and-shouting potential. However, many the songs on side one of Carrion Crawler are basically really, really long garage-rock songs that remind the listener that most rock actually played in garages does not come in the form of 2-minute pop tunes but rather aimless jams from which effective musical ideas are later cherrypicked. However, this particular garage band is ridiculously skilled and willing to stray outside set grooves and vamps, and were this particular incarnation of Thee Oh Sees any less skilled, Carrion Crawler would be far less effective an album.


“White” (feat. Watsky)

* * 1/2

It was destiny that Frak and Watsky would eventually come together and record a song about why God should allow middle-class white people anywhere near a microphone. While there are more skillful or experienced rappers than either of these two, they make a fairly convincing argument with lines like “I love words, I love music, so why the hell can’t I combine ‘em?” or “Maybe I don’t understand Wolf Gang or Wu-Tang/But the spirit of the lyrics made my mood change.” How do they pull this off? Well, “White” is hardly a serious song, rattling off the punchlines one after another and thus falling into the truth-disguised-by-joke category of rap of which Watsky is a proven master. And as a rap song, it’s nothing remarkable--neither really bothers to flow, preferring to focus on the stereotypically “white” voices in which they deliver their verses. Still, one has to give credit to Frak and Watsky for writing what could be a definitive white-privileged-rapper manifesto without tripping over the sociopolitical pitfalls that come with any discussion of the issue. (Oh, and the beat is awesome.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

DaVinci, Handshake, Tycho


Feast or Famine EP

* * * * 1/2


Feast Or Famine, the new EP from Fillmore District rapper John “DaVinci” DeVore, is a sentimental album. Not sentimental in the mushy, namby-pamby way, but sentimental in that it is driven by nothing if not feeling, and almost fearlessly emotional without losing any of its edge for a millisecond. Opening cut “D.R.E.A.M.,” a reworking of Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and one of the best Bay Area songs of the year in any genre, is a sympathetic depiction of life in the ghetto that finds DaVinci reflecting on the tragic outcomes of his neighbors’ desperation. “Nothing Like Home” is an ode to the Fillmore that extends beyond mindless “repping” and is actually a touching tribute to his home. DaVinci’s raps are permeated with his sheer love of the art form, and even on tracks with names like “Where My Dough At” and “Beer, Bitches, & Bullshit,” he sounds like he’s rapping primarily out of love for doing so. DaVinci’s style is as gritty as the Fillmore itself, but just as the Fillmore claims to be the “Heart and Soul of San Francisco,” DaVinci has more heart and soul than just about any other rapper out there.


“Other Eye (Right)”

* * * *

Handshake’s first single proper from their upcoming album, a remake of an older tune, may come as a shock to longtime Handshake fans who are familiar with the original and its distinctive, classic-film-invoking acapella intro. The original’s slow build and fancy-restaurant vibe have been replaced with idiosyncratic funk rhythms, swelling guitars, and a spidery riff that stretches out across the surface of the song rather than driving it along. Devin Clary’s syllabic yet soulful vocals neither flow with the song nor cut through it, instead merely traversing it like an airplane in turbulent skies. Yet the song’s greatest moment is a truly epic guitar solo from Tyler English, which almost seems like a collection of hooks strung together--at least one lick from the solo will stick in your head after the tune is finished. The only reason “Other Eye” has been denied a Best In The West tag is because the song is a grower, and I enjoy it more every time I hear it.



* * * *

Tycho is Scott Hansen, a graphic designer who makes accessible, upbeat, aquatic electronic music on the side. His music is not terribly original--the synth presets and smooth hip-hop beats often suggest Boards of Canada, and the tunes on which he pairs synthesizers and acoustic guitars are even reminiscent of Adam Young’s pre-Owl City work as Port Blue. What’s remarkable about his latest album, Dive, is how well everything fits together--Hansen knows when to deploy certain rhythms and presets, and the sequencing of the album allows the tracks to flow together. The music is ambient, but it is neither underwhelming nor overwhelming, and it is suitable for either background ambiance or a focused listen. However, Hansen’s tendency to extend his pieces until they are up to two times too long makes the album generally more suitable for the former.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holidays Are Here Again


Local Icicles: A Special Rock Hop Holiday Release

* * 1/2

It’s that time of year when the “nice” contingent of Bay Area musicians comes out with holiday albums (good luck getting Ty Segall to put out Goodbye Gingerbread). So here’s arguably the movement’s four most famous members doing a holiday EP. These musicians clearly understand what makes good holiday music, and there are few moments here that dip into typical holiday-turkey territory. Finish Ticket’s version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has Brendan Hoye slurring as if drunk off a bit too much eggnog (or love?) over a background that could have been penned by AB & the Sea; Please Do Not Fight’s “It Never Snows In San Francisco” features some fine guitarwork but some less-than-convincing exhortations of holiday cheer from Zen Zenith; Rin Tin Tiger keep it simple with a 94-second “Let It Snow”; and Picture Atlantic throw a curveball with a cover of one of Nick Drake’s saddest and most beautiful songs, “Place To Be,” which somehow leads into “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The main flaw here is that this is not a very cheerful album. Strangely, Zen Zenith does not make the best Santa, and why Picture Atlantic decided to cover “Place To Be” is beyond me. “Let It Snow” is by far the most satisfying moment here, as expected from a band who released one of the best holiday albums I’ve ever heard as the Sullivan Brothers a few years--it’s warm, comfortable, catchy, and cozy, everything holiday music should be.


A Kinder Winter EP

* * *

Here’s another member of the contingent. Brooke D.’s third EP of the year, the three-track A Kinder Winter, is mostly acapella with light percussion. “Hibernating” is a bit too heavy on the sleigh bells, but the vocals balance it out; the title track is almost a jazz ballad; “New Year’s Blues” is one of Brooke’s best tracks yet, a warm bath of lush self-harmonies that is ultimately more tribal chant than blues. If the songs here are “wintery,” they do not evoke the meteorological aspects of the weather so much as the feeling of returning to a warm, quiet, and cozy home after being stuck out in the cold.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The SHE's, Lil B


Then It Starts To Feel like Summer

* * * *


It’s been over two years since the SHE’s released their self-titled debut EP, and unlike the vast majority of seemingly even more promising teenage bands I covered during SF Rebirth’s early years, they’ve remained together long enough for their sound to grow. Their debut full-length, Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer, has all the attributes of their early recordings--unabashed poppiness, garagey but fuzz-free guitars, simple lyrics that are at least a third nonsense vowel sounds, and, of course, those harmonies. Their production values have skyrocketed, and their chops have improved immensely as well, but they have not exactly “matured”--these songs could have easily been written for either of their previous two EPs, but they sound so much better, and there isn’t a bad song in the set either. The band’s best pre-Summer song, “Kids Of Rock,” finds its place here; live favorite “Hey Boy” is finally recorded; and there is a little tune called “Fabian” that is the perfect distillation of everything great about the SHE’s--lovesick lyrics, rolling guitars, beach references that manage not to bring to mind last year’s slightly annoying surf-pop trend, and awesome vocal harmonies. With this combination of influences from girl-group music, beach pop (both classic and contemporary), and garage punk, Summer should be so trendy as to be irritating. But the SHE’s are not an “indie rock” band but a pop band, and the best kind of pop band as well--one that writes timeless songs to go with timeless hooks.


BasedGod Velli/The Silent President

* * * 1/2 / * *

Well, Lil B has released yet another new mixtape, and it’s called, um, BasedGod Velli. The title says pretty much everything about Lil B--not that the new mixtape has anything to do with Makaveli or even Flockaveli, just that it willfully makes absolutely no sense and doesn’t even bother to flow. BasedGod Velli falls into the category of “serious positive” Lil B, much as his unexpectedly brilliant I’m Gay mixtape did (I refuse to refer to it as I’m Gay [I’m Happy], much as I refuse to refer to the Sears Tower as the Willis Tower). It has the half-coherent yet surprisingly powerful rants (the civil rights meditation “King Cotton”), a soon-to-be-controversial anchor track (“I Got Aids”), the why-is-this-so-beautiful piano ballad (“Let Shit Slide”) and a bunch of really good beats. While “King Cotton” certainly achieves the level of outsider-rap glory that made I’m Gay one of the year’s most interesting and bizarre listens, the rest of the album works primarily on the strength of its production, and “I Got Aids” fails nobly but hilariously. The Silent President is nothing special, containing a song called “Beat the Cancer” that’s almost as ridiculous as “I Got Aids” but otherwise containing pedestrian beats and unremarkable ranting.