Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2009: Number 1

Well, it's Veckatimest, of course. It felt like some sort of moment of high stakes gold immediately before the tipping point, a crossing of the American alt rubicon. But it was always meant to be so, from when two tracks made their way into the ether during 2008, While You Wait For The Others on a radio session in February, Two Weeks on Letterman in July (on Letterman! A brand new debuting song! By a band who wouldn't necessarily be at all known to its viewers!), bolstering anticipation to what for more fragile bands might have been untenable levels. Those songs in their nascent single take forms seemed as detailed and as careful as the best of Yellow House but that tiny bit more approachable, not quite pop but more accessible while still painting itself in vivid colours. When the full album arrived it was clear that, quite against the prevailing winds of online fandom, this was not an album to experience as a transcode. Chris Taylor's own production work is too multi-layered, too lush and microscopically detailed for flat 128kbps to do justice to. And that's what makes them what they are, and this album what it is in a sea of post-Fleet Foxes new semi-weird American college radio music. Precocious and precious, sonically attached while still sounding organic, it sounds like a record for hazy late summer evenings by the lake but works just as well on knackered headphones in a British back room in December. Comparisons like the Beach Boys are pat at best, but taking the harmonies and the misleadingly sun dappled melodies into consideration there's something here that seems to belong to that great American lineage.

These songs don't just stick in a hook and some harmonised backing vocals and hope for the best but unspool in their own time, marking out their peaks evenly and carefully and then making sure they don't come across as predictable. The surges and washes of sympathetic, occasionally fingerpicked acoustic guitar and drums that ease Southern Point in and recur a couple of times later might be recognisable from Yellow House, but the mid-section takes it somewhere completely different, starting in a propulsive ride and the repetition of "you'll find me now... will I return to you", marking out the distance between dreams and memory, before a bouncing piano loop is bisected by arpeggiating guitars and a sudden rush of percussive bike chain-esque rattling. All We Ask meanders around its own radio signals with no vocals for the first minute, and when Daniel Rossen does arrive he's content to think about what might have been and might still be (key lyric: "I can't get out of what I’m into with you") before marching Beatles strings arrive, the drums steadfastly to go widescreen and it turns out not to be so much an explosion as a muddying up of the patches to "lead us on". Ready, Able answers that call, perambulating round the edge of a stately, lilting waltz even flow of progressive bass, pattern forming organ and a dirty guitar sound that is never allowed to get going.

When they do dial it up a bit, it's still far more about the texture and the subtlety than the anthemic. Two Weeks, the big radio hit as such, works itself up on staccato piano and Ed Droste's heartfelt if slightly lugubrious lead vocal before letting loose a few crescendos of choirs of BV doo-wop angels. The little touches round the end, a handful of squiggles, clatters and arpeggios around the edges, make it all the more sumptuous. Cheerleader's stuttering drums act as leverage for Droste's wandering, wondering vocal and layers of choir, slow walking bass and occasional morse code guitar, all feeling dialled down without slowing the song down from a stately march before an appopriately woody, bongo frenzy fade. The closest we come to a proper hook comes in While You Wait For The Others, which could be the vibrating downsized riffs or the wordless choral fills in what passes for a chorus, almost masking what turns out to be a bitter breakup sway before breaking out into a huge seeming exposition of existing themes which fades into more harmonic gorgeousness leading into I Live With You, which over its five minutes starts with Disney strings, turns into Rossen's minimal single chord call to the heavens and gathers and drops off strings, brass, female backing vocals, synths, Christopher Bear’s storming cymbal/bass drum runs and a massive Spiritualized/Flaming Lips aura of invincibility through size along the way. It's very un-Veckatimest, but simultaneously makes perfect sense before the cracked, ruminatively introspective torch song Foreground brings the curtain down on a perfectly pitched record as complete album. And who knew the world still had one of those in it by 2009.

Some things are meant to be couched in greatness terms. A great album can be many things; a truly magnificent album is one content to reveal extra wonders and levels with every listen no matter how many listens you are down the line. Other albums detailed here over the last few days may provide sharp immediate shocks, but the superior albums by and large will retain some of their mystique and mystery while magnifying and ekeing out moments of wondrousness. Baroque chamber pop has a new standard bearer, and the decade has one of its defining classics.

Two Weeks

The full list

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