Disappears – Irreal (Kranky Records)

If you’re keeping stats on Disappears you’ll know that Irreal is the Chicago band’s fifth full-length album since 2010, and their second consecutive release which sheds the rock influences like The Stooges, shoegaze and Spacemen 3 which were so prominent on their first three albums. As someone who writes music reviews, Irreal presents me with a pretty large problem, because I can’t draw any conclusions on if it’s any good or not. It’s certainly an impressive record, and I can’t think of another album in recent memory that captures the sound of modern life quite as well as Irreal does. The songs are discomforting and largely detached from human emotion or warmth, which is probably a good description of what life in 2015 feels like for many people. Brian Case’s vocals rarely ever venture beyond sinister spoken statements, drummer Noah Leger is practically allergic to standard time signatures, and the guitars are usually a series of slow-drip clangs and scrapes. It’s a hard album to place into the continuum of music history, but if I had to draw connections to other bands I’d say the Disappears are mining similar territory to Miles Davis’ electric band from the ’70s, but only if they were thrust into the art-damaged world of early-80s No Wave acts like Sonic Youth and The Swans. Now here’s the rub: While Irreal is an impressively constructed album, it’s so “post-human” that it’s almost impossible to get any enjoyment out of it. Its probably not an album the band meant to be enjoyed either, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. So, at the end of the day, I don’t know how to define the album. Is it a great work of art? Is it unlistenable? Is it an achievement? Or is it something you would only listen to for self-punishment? Is it all of these things? I don’t really know. Maybe its inability to be easily defined and understood is the album’s real accomplishment.

Soccer Mom – Soccer Mom (100M Records)

Soccer Mom’s debut album is also their last, as the band announced they were calling it a day in September 2014. It’s one of those albums that sounds really intriguing off the bat, but further listens reveal limitations that ultimately kill that initial burst of enthusiasm. Sonically, the Boston foursome stay firmly within the confines of the alt-rock sound of 1988-91; specifically Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. That’s a great set of influences but after a few listens you realize that Soccer Mom’s only admirable attribute is their ability to sound a lot like those bands. Sticking so close to your influences can make a band seem unimportant, but it doesn’t mean they’re automatically unappealing to listen to. Soccer Mom score some points as tight musicians, but all they had to do was find a unique angle or have a definable personality, and I’d be gushing over them. Lord knows we could use some strong guitar-driven rock bands these days. Without a shred of originality, I’m content to forego Soccer Mom and simply give Daydream Nation, Bug and Isn’t Anything another spin.

Acid Baby Jesus – Selected Recordings (Slovenly Recordings)

I don’t know who your favorite Greek psychedelic band is, but mine is the mighty Acid Baby Jesus. Selected Recordings is their second full length album, and it’s a pretty goddamn wild trip. Where a lot of modern psychedelic bands are content to simply work within the genre’s preconceived boundaries, these guys seem legitimately weird which makes a huge difference. The band’s first album had a garage rock vibe that reminded me of Ty Segall, but Selected Recordings is almost uniformly dedicated to drugged up drone-rock damage. Songs like “Diogenes”, “Night of Pan” and “Ayahuasca Blues” have me thinking of The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” but with a modern production and Spacemen 3-like dedication to achieving some kind of noisy nirvana meant to replicate (or enhance) the drug experience. “Who’s First” represents a sonic outlier, sounding like an obscure single from the early days of California punk. Oh, and the lyrics have something to do with a gay cop looking to give someone oral sex. You certainly won’t hear that on the next Foxygen album! Two songs later “Troublemaker” blasts your brain with a Sabbath-y heaviness that’s always welcome. Selected Recordings has cool sounds and cool songs, so check it out.

Top Albums of 2014

Pre- (r)amble: Well, 2014 wasn’t such a great year for music, was it? The problem with this year is the same  from recent years – the bands I like from my late-’90s/early-’00s young adulthood are largely slumping and there aren’t enough high-quality young bands arriving on the scene to take their place. If I’m correct, ten of the fifteen albums listed below are from artists in their forties, or beyond. That said, there were still a lot of really good releases, and here are my Top 15. Enjoy!

1. Mark Lanegan – Phantom Radio (Vagrant)

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I like all of Mark Lanegan’s solo albums, but Phantom Radio is perhaps his best one yet. Using Kraftwerk-esque electronica is the key to getting the most out of Lanegan’s dark and introspective musings.
2. Death Of Samantha – If Memory Serves Us Well (St. Valentine)
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Somehow new rehearsal room recordings of this Midwestern punky rock’n’roll group’s underground tunes from more than 20 years ago is the 2nd best album of the year. Why can’t younger groups do this kind of stuff?
3. Brian Jonestown Massacre – Revelation (A)
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While I’ll always miss the wild psychedelia of their late-’90s albums, Revelation is an aptly titled release for The Brian Jonestown Massacre and their most consistently engaging batch of song in over a decade.
4. Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham (Double Feature)
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Dean Wareham’s (Luna/Galaxie 500) is quietly having a really good solo career. This self-titled nine song album may not offer much in the way of surprises from the veteran, but do you need surprises when you’ve got great songs like “Holding Pattern” and “Babes In The Woods”?
5. Parquet Courts- Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture)
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A small step down from 2013’s victorious Light Up Gold, Sunbathing Animal is still further proof that this Brooklyn band is one of the few young acts out there giving me hope for the future of rock music. Recalls The Feelies, Modern Lovers, VU, Sonic Youth and Pavement, but with a current flavor all it’s own.
6. The Socks – The Socks (Smallstone)
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The best album of 2014 by a heavy rock band, The Socks brought back the early days of Sabbath in a big way. Though they’ve since changed their band name to Sunder (I guess socks aren’t metal enough), I hope their mastery of proto-metal remains.
7. The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions – Axels and Sockets (Glitterhouse)
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The third and final release in this excellent series whereby a tremendous cast of musicians pay tribute to the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce, by making songs out of recorded fragments or unused lyrics he left behind. Any album that boasts Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan and Thurston Moore (among others) will probably be found on my year-end Best Of.
8. Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours (Ribbon)
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The Walkmen may be on an extended hiatus but Leithauser’s voice is so singular that listening to his solo album makes it much harder to miss them. He and his bandmates continue to be the only NY band that came up in the early-2000s to age respectably.
9. Jimi Goodwin – Odludek (Heavenly)
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I don’t think anyone bought it, but for me the former Doves singer’s first solo album is a success. Opening track “Terracotta Warrior” ranks up there with anything he ever did with Doves.
10. Sultan Bathery – Sultan Bathery (Slovenly)
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Full-throttle garage punk with intense performances and fuzz guitars galore from these young Italian upstarts.
11. Acid Baby Jesus – Selected Recordings (Slovenly)
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Really evil sounding psychedelic drone rock from Greece. Selected Recordings sounds like a great example of what Spacemen 3 referred to as “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”.
12. Spoon – They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
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Spoon can always be counted on for a solid album and They Want My Soul is no different. “Inside Out” and “Do You” are especially strong entries into the band’s growing catalogue of indie hits.
13. Proper Ornaments – Wooden Head (Slumberland)
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Mid-tempo fuzz pop that strikes a perfect balance between darkness and sweetness. Informed by VU, Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands and ’60s harmony singing.
14. Walking Bicycles – To Him That Wills The Way (Highwheel)
Post-punk Chicagoans score again with their latest long playing platter of inventive sonic claustrophobia that mixes the visceral with the atmospheric.
15. Sharon Jones – Give The People What They Want (Daptone)
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The weakest Sharon Jones album is still the best example of retro soul from 2014. Opener “Retreat!” is one of the band’s best songs to date.

Sound Man by Glyn Johns (Blue Rider Press)

If you grew up listening to music before the digital age made packaging obsolete, you’ve probably seen the name Glyn Johns on the back of some of your favorite records. He’s recorded, mixed or produced music from just about all the big names in rock like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and The Eagles, to name a few from his 50 year career behind the boards. Based on his accomplishments and the characters he’s crossed paths with, Johns’ autobiography should be an indispensable treasure trove of great stories and anecdotes from rock’s most vital period. Instead I find it kind of dull. Yes he was there, and yes, he played an important role in shaping the sound of classic rock. But his retelling of events is so dry and emotionless that all of the vitality gets sucked out of them. Johns wrote Sound Man – the title perhaps a play on his “normalcy” in a field dominated by insane characters – by himself, which was probably a mistake. It won’t take readers long to figure out he’s not a professional writer and that using a co-writer could have added some crucial spice to an otherwise bland read. They also could have suggested a normal-sized font instead of the squint-inducing font we’re left with. Johns also errs by only focusing on his most well known musical activities, condensing the last 35 years of his career down to just 40 pages. True, his output during that time is weak compared to the albums he worked on in the ’60s and ’70s, but this is supposed to be a biography and not a selective ‘greatest hits’. It might have been interesting to hear what it was like for him emotionally, given his extraordinary resume, to be working on albums by forgotten C-level bands like Summerhill, Jackopierce and The Warm Jets. Unfortunately he doesn’t let us in on that…or much else.

Brian Jones: The Making Of The Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Viking Press)

Capturing a unique and multi-dimensional personality like Brian Jones in a definitive biography isn’t an easy task, and a look through Amazon tells me that many authors have tried.However Paul Trynka is definitely the right guy for the job, having already penned great biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, two similarly larger-than-life figures from the world of music. I can’t say I’ve read any previous Jones bios, but Trynka claims to have unearthed some new important details in Jones’ life story, which makes the book unique. Plus he avoid getting caught up in the cheap “was he murdered?” sensationalism that previous books have leaned heavily on – in fact he doesn’t think Jones was murdered at all and even debunks some of the more popular theories on Jones death in 1969. Trynka also paints a tremendously vivid portrait of Jones’ life leading up to the Stones’ including his fractured relationship with his parents, his pre-Stones musical activities (which included years of performing live), and the circumstances which gave him four children with four different women – three before he was even famous! There’s also a tremendous amount of insight into life in the Rolling Stones camp during The Rolling Stones’ formative years, when Jones was their leader – the guy who had the creativity, the musical experience and the life experience to drive the rest of the band (who were relative amateurs) forward. He paints a pretty ugly picture of the band’s interpersonal relationships with one another, with sexual one-upmanship, constant jockeying for position in the press and a myriad of petty barbs all a part of daily life. He even suggests that Mick and Keith’s eventual dislike for Brian may have stemmed from him making a measly 5 pounds more per week than the rest of the band during their early days. Lastly, he illustrates quite well how that ugly side of the band caused Mick and Keith to push Brian to the sidelines once they became more confident in their own abilities, and how they treated him rather cruelly, a practice which continues to this very day as they regularly minimize his considerable contributions with a series of misremembered facts and outright lies. It’s an interesting and often revelatory read.
Seemingly mandatory rock-bio fact-checking oversight: Trynka mentions that in 1967 Jones recorded a soundtrack to German director Volker Schlondorff’s  Mord un Totschlag, which he calls Schlondorff’s follow-up to The Tin Drum. The Tin Drum wasn’t filmed until almost a decade after Brian Jones died.

The Proper Ornaments – Wooden Head

If your favorite Jesus and Mary Chain album is Darklands. If your favorite Velvet Underground album is their self-titled third. If your favorite Creation Records band is Teenage Fanclub. These are some of the potential reasons why you might love The Proper Ornaments and their debut album Wooden Head. The band are actually a duo of Max Claps and James Hoare (the latter also plays in Veronica Falls) handling the singing, songwriting and guitars, with bass and drums rounding out the sound. To be honest their songs are good, but nothing special. You won’t turn to them for jaw-dropping walls of sound or aching vocals to pull at your heartstrings. You will however look to them for unpretentious mid-tempo fuzz pop with good melodic sensibilities and ’60s-styled harmony singing that you don’t hear enough of these days. The band also throw the listener a few musical curveballs to keep things fresh over the course of 14 tracks, like “Ruby” and “Tire Me Out” which are both heavily steeped in the melancholic sound of New Zealand indie acts like The Bats and The Clean. My favorite song on Wooden Head is also the one the rips the hardest, “Step Into The Cold”, which may not be much more than an amped up version of The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” with added vocal harmonies, but is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.