Ear in review

1. Department of Eagles
In Ear Park


2008 was all about exciting, next-level shit, a year full of electronics-enhanced envelope pushing (the Bug, Flying Lotus, Gang Gang Dance), neo-globalist ass-shaking (Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit), revisionist disco (Hercules and Love Affair) and hardcore (Fucked Up). And, thanks to Auto-Tuned robo-voice overload (God will judge you, T-Pain), even some of the biggest failures sound spectacularly space-age. So selecting In Ear Park, a creaky Brian Wilson knobjob by some bedheaded white boys, as top album feels like a retreat into the safe, familiar, and outdated. In many ways, it’s because that’s exactly what the album is.

The sophomore release from Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen and former roommate Fred Nicolaus is a soft-focus throwback to an indeterminate past. The plucked acoustic swirl, layered piano, and echoing vocals on the opening title track — named for the park frequented by Rossen and his father, who died last year — universalize a personal tragedy with a timeless haziness. But rather than offering smeared-lens reminiscences, Rossen describes returning to the park after his father has died, to sit in his spot in the grass, an indentation Rossen can’t hope to fill.

The tellingly titled “Phantom Other” and “No One Does It” further eulogize the dad-shaped vacuum with lo-fi pocket symphonics and tin-throated ghost choirs, while the mock-cheerful handclaps and lilting Cole Porter deadpan purposefully antiquate flashback sequence “Teenagers” beyond its singer’s lifetime. The mock-orchestral banjos and dazed warbling in “Floating on the Lehigh” envision a Meet Me in St. Louis starring a late-period, drug-damaged Judy Garland.

In Ear Park ultimately functions as amber casing, preserving not so much Rossen’s father but the mourning of him, a sepia-toned snapshot of the gaping wound un-nursed, before callous time has a chance to scab it over. Entering 2009 with a failed economy, ill-defined energy plans, and indeterminate exit strategies for two unwinnable wars, this fetal-position freakout seems a more reasonable response than any hope-fueled dance-floor burn-down.

2. The Walkmen, You & Me (Gigantic)
3. Portishead, Third (Mercury)
4. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)
5. Nick Cave, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti-)
6. Marnie Stern, This Is It … (Kill Rock Stars)
7. GZA, Pro Tools (Babygrande)
8. Beach House, Devotion (Carpark)
9. Okkervil River, The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
10. Emmy Lou Harris, All I Intended to Be (Nonesuch)

Jeremy Martin

Oracular Spectacular


For what it’s worth, two of the most intriguing releases of the year — Oracular Spectacular and Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut — were the results of northeastern college art projects that somehow broke out of their campus cocoons.

While Vampire Weekend’s meticulously manicured combination of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads and 2 Tone British ska is suffused with an earnest, preppy exuberance, Oracular is a stranger, more discombobulating work.

The album plays like a stoner’s lab experiment, with a winning lack of regard for how its mix of space-rock, Studio 54 disco, ’80s electro-pop, and avant-folk might go down. Comparisons to Ween, Beck, and early champions the Flaming Lips are logical but don’t hit the mark. MGMT doesn’t have the lo-fi perversity of early Ween, the poetic pretensions of Beck, or the interstellar showmanship of the Lips. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser just want to amuse themselves, above all else.

VanWyngarden and Goldwasser immediately set their agenda with the album’s conflicted opening line: “I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life.” They manage to capture that fragile moment of early adulthood when world-weariness sets in and childhood memories of playground slides and digging up worms become irresistible. It’s hard to think of another rock album with as many fond references to the band members’ moms.

Their approach could easily lead to insular self-indulgence, but the hooks never let up, from the pulsating disco of “Kids” to the mock-soul of “Electric Feel.”

“The youth is starting to change,” they repeatedly assure us in a song Barack Obama might want to adopt. I’m not so sure, but this album makes me wanna believe.

2. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)
3. Jay Reatard, Singles 06-07 (In the Red)
4. Beck, Modern Guilt (Interscope)
5. The Old Haunts, Poisonous Times (Kill Rock Stars)
6. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL)
7. Al Green, Lay It Down (Blue Note)
8. Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal (Manhattan)
9. Sam Phillips, Don’t Do Anything (Nonesuch)
10. Estelle, Shine (Homeschool/Atlantic)

Gilbert Garcia

1. TV On The Radio
Dear Science


I groaned a little when I found out that Rolling Stone also picked TV on the Radio’s Dear Science as its 2008 Album of the Year. It’s not just because they didn’t even have the balls to put the band on their cute, newly miniaturized cover (the mag bravely opted for a mugshot of a porn-mustachioed Brad Pitt instead), but the fact that TVOTR shares the top 10 with Metallica and John Mellencamp (what is this, 1983?) makes their top choice — and mine, by extension — seem suspect.

Whatever — Dear Science deserves any and all accolades it receives. After reaching the rocky, foreboding peak of 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, TVOTR decided to plant their freak-flag and climb even higher, only to end up zooming into the stratosphere. Science sounds like music from another planet, or from some future, utopian Earth where conflicts are settled by dance-off.

The celebratory vibe asserts itself from the first second of album opener “Halfway Home,” as frontman Tunde Adebimpe joyfully scats over a pulsing, polyrhythmic drone that morphs into a half-time feel and back again with impressive ease. Every genre the group tackles, from the snarling, percussive dance groove of “Red Dress” to the gauzy, sweetly aching ballad “Family Tree,” sounds effortless, honest, and innovative. Guitarist-producer Dave Sitek must take a bow for the group’s signature sound. Science is brilliantly mixed, ranging from delicate to dense — sometimes in a single song — but never overpowering Adebimpe’s or Kyp Malone’s impassioned vocals. Dear Science would be a high point for any artist, but what makes TV on the Radio
special is that it’s just one more pitstop in their mission to go where no band has gone before.

2. Okkervil River, The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Deerhoof, Offend Maggie (Kill Rock Stars)
4. Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl)
5. Deerhunter, Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (Kranky)
6. Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours (Modular)
7. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL)
8. Hot Chip, Made in the Dark (Astralwerks)
9. Beck, Modern Guilt (Interscope)
10. Foals, Antidotes (Sub Pop)

Chuck Kerr

1. Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty,
Jefferson Starship

(The Lab/Fuel Records)

One of the greatest musical heroes of the ’60s comes back with new relevancy as Paul Kantner hits the rock goddess jackpot again with Cathy Richardson, the band’s dynamic new vocalist. Richardson delivers the range, power, and charisma needed to fill Grace Slick’s very large shoes, and the results are most compelling.

The key is Kantner thankfully giving up on the poppier sound that Jefferson Starship pursued in the’ 70s and ’80s and getting back to his roots with an album that’s mostly acoustic-oriented covers of ’60s tunes that inspired Jefferson Airplane back in the day. This might sound like a strange formula for 2008’s album of the year, but the soaring harmonies between Richardson, Kantner, and David Freiberg are simply majestic, adding a revelatory new flavor to tunes such as Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” the Weavers’ “Santy Anno,” and other traditionals. Those without appreciation for the folk rock of the early ’60s may not see the merits, but Kantner reminds us how that music informed the San Francisco rock revolution of the late ’60s.

Richardson dazzles further on Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Imagine Redemption,” a clever mash-up of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” She brings a true presence to the stage as well, where her live skills solidified her as one of the breakout stars of the year.

The freshest track on the album is the stunning new Kantner original, “On the Threshold of Fire,” perhaps the song of the year — no other gave me chills like it did. It’s incredibly rare for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist like Kantner to deliver an album that approaches the classic flavor of his most acclaimed work from 40 years previous, but Kantner has done just that with Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty.

2. Susan Tedeschi, Back to the River (Verve Forecast)
3. Michael Franti & Spearhead, All Rebel Rockers (Anti-)
4. Guns n’ Roses, Chinese Democracy (Geffen)
5. Blue Turtle Seduction, 13 Floors (Azul Tortuga)
6. Sound Tribe Sector 9, Peaceblaster (1320)
7. Alanis Morissette, Flavors of Entanglement (Warner Bros.)
8.Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Cardinology (Lost Highway)
9. The Watson Twins, Fire Songs (Vanguard)
10. Anti-Flag, The Bright Lights of America (RCA)

Greg M. Schwartz

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