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A Swanky 2012: Part Two

29 Dec

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[For an Introduction to A Swanky 2012, go here.]

Part Two

 

The Bowl:  Outback Bowl – South Carolina v. Michigan 

The Pick:  South Carolina (-5.5)

The Album:  Confess by Twin Shadow

Bringing a full-fledged commitment and earnestness to the pop/rock musical styles of the 1980s, Twin Shadow delivered one of the more passionate and assured albums of the year.  Confess sounds as if the brooding, bookish introvert from down the hall has been spending all of his time listening to Top 100 rock radio mixes from 1979 – ’89, and now wants to impress that Hot Girl In The Denim Whitesnake Jacket.  That is a very good thing.

The basic, familiar elements are all there on Confess – the shiny and clear guitar chords, the chiming synthesizers that drench everything in a fluorescent haze, the yearning, balls-out, Auto-Tuned yawp of unrequited love.  This is much more than just a tired retread of an old Journey album, though.  There’s a vitality and urgency to every song, as though front man George Lewis Jr. absolutely needed to get these things down on vinyl.

There’s a lot going on here, musically, underneath the flashy veneer that screams “Retro.”  There are different sonic touches and melodies swirling and enmeshing everywhere, marking this as the work of a true music aficionado who knows his way around the creation of big, bold, and flashy hooks.

Those hooks, and the overall adeptness with creating pop songs, make Confess compulsively listenable, particularly if you’ve got the top down on a sunny day, or you’re dreaming of such a scene as the rain trickles down outside.  The songs sound tight and sleek like any well-oiled pop machine should, and various lyrical and melodic hooks will get stuck in your head long after your first hear them.  The true strength of Confess is that Lewis delivers these pop goods without losing any of his vibrant, bleeding, music-loving heart.

 

The Bowl:  Capital One Bowl – Nebraska v. Georgia

The Pick:  Georgia (-9)

The Album:  Lonerism by Tame Impala

It had been two years since Tame Impala’s last album, Innerspeaker, and for fans of that record, the wait for Lonerism was a long one.  Innerspeaker was a constant treat for the ears, with warm guitar feedback loops and vintage electronic touches flying under and around the melodic, Lennon-esque vocals of front man Kevin Parker.  The group set the bar high for themselves, and in their follow-up, they generally managed to hit the same top marks while pushing their sound into new territories as well.  While Lonerism may not have been able to best Innerspeaker, it’s worthy of standing on its own as one of the most unique and high-quality rock albums of the year.

Lonerism features the same melodic characteristics that are now familiar to listeners of Tame Impala – the fuzzed-out halo around every sound effect, the echo-y and airy vocals, the propensity to leap off into a psychedelic groove tangent when the opportunity presents itself.  The album, and the band itself, sounds like a transmission beamed here from a recording studio in 1971.  As they’ve proved before, Tame Impala doesn’t rely on their vintage sound to become a gimmicky crutch – instead it is something that is wholly unique and wholly their own.  They know what they like and they make great music with it.

Lonerism marks some different approaches for the band, particularly in that it features some more open-ended songs and sonic arrangements.  Tame Impala have proved they know how to lock into tight grooves and rock out hard with the best of them, and while there are some excellent hard-driving moments on Lonerism such as “Elephant,” there are also a lot of songs that spread out all over the musical spectrum and take their time getting to wherever they happen to be going.  Vocal effects, spare synths, guitars, and various other chimes and squiggles caterwaul around tracks like “Music To Walk Home By” with a joyous abandon, and it can be overwhelming at times.

The strength of Lonerism, and of the maturing Tame Impala in general, is that they are in control of their free-wheeling grooves at all times, no matter how out-there and exploratory they may seem to be.  Just when you think things are going to spin off into the ether, a well-timed bass and drum combo locks into a deep groove and reminds you that these guys are first and foremost a great rock band.

 

The Bowl:  Fiesta Bowl – Kansas State v. Oregon

The Pick:  Kansas St. (+9)

The Album:  R.A.P. Music by Killer Mike

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other release this year, hip-hop or otherwise, that seethes with as much pent-up vitriol and passionate energy as Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music.  Producer El-P creates spare, pounding beats with menacing synth lines that perfectly match the tone of the lyrics and draw out the essential elements of Mike’s behind-the-beat flow.

For listeners only familiar with Killer Mike from his “All Day I Dream About Sex” days, it’s probably a surprise to hear the bombastic rapper getting serious throughout R.A.P. Music; there’s a refreshing sincerity to his lyrics and delivery as he tackles social and emotional issues through the record.  Mike and Co. aren’t holding anything back on this one.

Things aren’t all somber and preachy, however, as Mike finds plenty of time to toss in off-color jokes and vibrantly ridiculous imagery, much like his fellow Southern hip-hop counterparts, OutKast.  Even as the beats and spat-out lyrics are knocking you flat, R.A.P. never stop being entertaining as hell.

When R.A.P. Music hits its high points, it’s an exhilarating call-back to the days of early Public Enemy and Straight Outta Compton.  There’s an incendiary, almost subversive feeling to the record, and there wasn’t much else like it this year.

 

The Bowl:  Cotton Bowl – Texas A&M v. Oklahoma

The Pick:  Texas A&M (-3)

The Album:  Nocturne by Wild Nothing

Whether they set out to do it or not, Wild Nothing’s Nocturne sounds like a perfect distillation of every summer night you had from age 14 to 21.  Like many of those nights, it wheels between feeling wistful, blissed-out, and restless.  There’s a laid-back vibe over much of the album that evokes the haze of summer; that slow, dreamy feeling deceptively covers up the prolific and deft musicianship going on just under the surface.

Under that sleek surface, Nocturne is filled with layers of sound that are intricately pieced together, and as each track progresses, the layers often build upon each other, building momentum before cresting in powerful and well-earned climaxes.  These are expansive soundscapes largely dominated by delicate yet striking guitar chords that loop around each other and create an immersive atmosphere around bits of drums, synths, and airy vocals.

The album’s tracks flow into each other and create a hazy, seductive mood that borders on the dreamlike – it can make you feel nostalgic for a period of time or singular moment that you can’t quite place, and maybe never even experienced.  It’s a striking and poignant listening experience.  This is sunny music flecked with melancholy, both in the lyrics and in the chiming, mournful chords that fall like rain out of the speakers.

 

The Bowl:  National Championship – Alabama v. Notre Dame

The Pick:  Alabama (-9.5)

The Album:  Port of Morrow by The Shins

The Shins’ last album, Wincing The Night Away, was a strange yet fascinating record, marked by feelings of mystery and a slight menace, that saw James Mercer choosing electronic territory more so than the strummed-guitar chords of Chutes Too Narrow.  In the five years since the release of Wincing, Mercer had reshuffled the band around him, and it wasn’t clear which version of the Shins would be appearing in 2012.  Or if they would be able to sustain the quality of albums’ past.  Port of Morrow answered those questions, and showed that the Shins’ future is bright.

One of the great things about Port is that it takes all of the sonic elements from the group’s earlier records and puts them together into a confident and propulsive new sound.  There are electronic flourishes, there are quiet moments of acoustic beauty, there are eloquent, strange and esoteric little catches of lyrics and phrases, and there are surges of momentum that unmasks Mercer’s rock and roll heart.  It’s an album in which you can see how the band has grown, and it feels both refreshingly new and professionally mature.

The ultimate triumph of Port may be that it shows of Mercer’s ability to remain immediate and impactful with his musical themes.  He may not be an angst-y young songwriter anymore, but he can still combine melodies and lyrics to create moments that connect on deep emotional levels.  Port hits upon some universal, hard-to-eludicate themes of life in a way that few other artists could duplicate this year – without sacrificing any musical enjoyment in the process.

 

TwinShadow

Hot Routes: Week Two

7 Sep

Editor’s Note:  This is the Swanky roundup of our top picks and songs of the week, running every week of the 2012 Year of Football.  For a primer, check out the Introduction.

Week Two

The second week of Hot Routes welcomes the National Football League into the mix.  Making game predictions for the first couple weeks of football season is a dicey proposition, at least for the way I approach things, because the lack of in-game action makes it hard to get a good feel for the makeup of teams.  Every year, there are some teams that just don’t have ‘it’ – despite whatever hype they’re getting from the national media, you know they’ll crumble when it counts, or will get roundly beaten by a team no one saw coming.  And on the flip side, there are some teams that do have ‘it’ – an edge, a confidence, maybe just an overall feeling that things are going to break in their favor this year.

When you can find teams on both ends of the ‘it’ spectrum, whose true selves are preferably under the national radar, then that’s when you can start to build up a successful wagering run.  To find those teams, you need to pay attention to games.  Which we are currently in short supply of.  So let’s do the best with what we’ve got:

Oklahoma  State (1-0) @ Arizona (1-0)

The pick:  OK State (-11)

The track:  Clique by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Big Sean

The latest hard-hitting banger from Kanye’s upcoming G.O.O.D. Music album features a menacing beat underlying verbal boasts from Big Sean, Jay and ‘Ye.  As is becoming the norm, Kanye steals the lyrical show with his all-over-the-place third verse.  Mr. West covers being neighbors with Tom Cruise, muses on his own depression, and even dips into national security with a George Tenet name-check.  This particular clique offers a lot of entertainment value.

Also looking to provide some entertainment value is the match-up between Arizona and OK State in the desert.  OK State’s dismantling of Savannah State in their opener should be kept in perspective, but it at least serves as a reminder of the Cowboys’ ability to maintain their offensive firepower in 2012 even after the departure of QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon.  On the other side, Arizona has some offensive tricks of their own behind their enigmatic head coach Rich Rodriguez.  The problem for Arizona is that they still have a ways to go in the Rich-Rod era to match the explosiveness of OK State, and their defense most certainly won’t be able to contain the Cowboys for very long.  Arizona might score some points, but I don’t think they can come within two touchdowns.

 

Nebraska (1-0) @ UCLA (1-0) 

The pick:  Nebraska (-5.5)

The track:  Angels (Shiny Objects Rework) by The xx  

The xx are favorites for remix artists, and that’s been especially apparent in the run-up to their new album Coexist.  The new tracks are great, and assorted artists have rushed out to put their own spins on minimalist slow-burners like “Angels”.  One such artist is Shiny Objects, who made a play-date with “Angels” and brought their synthesizers along with them.  The result is a funky, pounding groove straight out of a 1980s teen slasher flick.

On the game side of things, it can be tough to get behind either team in this one.  You’ve got QB Taylor “Tribal Tat” Martinez with Nebraska, and then the overall ‘bleh’ factor that is Jim Mora, Jr. and recent UCLA football history.  I’ll take the Cornhuskers – Tribal Tat Martinez looks like he’s a much-improved player this season, and Nebraska looks like they can make a decent amount of noise in the Big 10 this year.  UCLA is getting way too much credit for beating up on Rice, and Nebraska should be favored by at least a touchdown here.

 

Wisconsin (1-0) @ Oregon State (0-0)

The pick:  Wisconsin (-7)

The track:  Lyrics To Go (Tumblin’ Dice Remix) by A Tribe Called Quest

Wisconsin smashed on Oregon State early last season to the tune of 35 – 0.  And yes, that was in Wisconsin, and they had current NFL phenom Russell Wilson behind center.  But Oregon State is still Oregon State, and Wisconsin is still too good of a team to not put a hurting on the Beavers.  Wisconsin will also be coming in to this game with the extra motivation of proving that their underwhelming performance in the season opener was just a fluke.

After a (presumably) rough beating at the hands of Wisconsin, Oregon State players can at least look forward to a nice little Saturday/Sunday relax sesh.  They can rehab their various bumps and bruises, burn some of that Oregon green, and vibe out to the jazzy goodness of Tumblin’ Dice’s take on “Lyrics To Go.”

 

Georgia (1-0) @ Missouri (1-0)

The pick:  Missouri (+110)

The track:  Earthforms by Matthew Dear

Taking a bit of a chance with this game.  On paper, Georgia should be the favorite, and since the spread is only 2 points at the time of this writing, that should appear to be the best pick.  Georgia, however, seems to be a bit overrated this year.  For whatever reason they’ve been given a lot of respect despite not having a great track record in tough games over the last couple of years.  Missouri, on the other hand, is going to be incredibly fired up at home, in their first game as a member of the SEC.  Things are going to get straight bananas in that stadium on Saturday, and Georgia is going to have to step up and handle it.  I’m putting my (fake) money on Missouri riding that home-field emotion.

If Missouri is in need of some extra half-time entertainment on Saturday, they could always turn to Matthew Dear.  “Earthforms” sounds as if Dear has been going through some of his old Fatboy Slim records lately.  The track rides a tight little bass line and could soundtrack a dance scene in any number of teen comedies from the mid-90s.  Just get some high schoolers, some choreographed dance moves, and you’ve got yourself some mid-game entertainment.

 

Arizona Cardinals (0-0) @ Seattle Seahawks (0-0)

The pick:  Seahawks (-3)

The track:  Disappear Always by Wild Nothing

Moving over to the first week of the NFL, this first game up between the Seahawks and the Cardinals looks almost too good to be true.  The Hawks are riding a lot of momentum from a preseason in which they looked good on both sides of the ball and found themselves a breakout star QB in Russell Wilson.  The dark horse contender buzz around Seattle is steadily building.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals dragged their feet in deciding to go with John Skelton as the starting QB over Kevin “party ‘stache” Kolb, giving a clear signal to everyone that either option is not ideal.  The rest of the team doesn’t look very promising either.

The NFL picks this week are going to be tracked by two songs from Wild Nothing’s recently released album, Nocturne.  This album is a great collection of blissfully rocking tunes.  A standout section comes with the two-track swing of “Disappear Always” and “Paradise.” “Disappear” starts things off with a shimmery electric guitar line that propels itself forward into an instrumental breakdown before giving way to “Paradise,” an expansive track that features a strummed guitar hook distilled from the pure essence of Sunny Beach Days.  Nocturne looks to be a welcome weekend soundtrack choice.

 

Miami Dolphins (0-0) @ Houston Texans (0-0)

The pick:  Texans (-13)

The track:  Paradise by Wild Nothing

It’s normally a risky move to go with large spreads in the first week of the NFL season.  The 2012 Miami Dolphins, however, have a had a pretty rough preseason and have had most of it played out on Hard Knocks.  The leaders of the organization did not look particularly effective in their TV appearances, and the poor team performance in preseason games only emphasized the downtrodden vibe surrounding the team on the eve of the regular season.  When Chad Johnson, the mouthy receiver who just got arrested for a disturbing domestic violence incident and who is no longer on an NFL roster, comes across as one of the more compelling characters of your franchise’s preseason, you’re in trouble.  The Dolphins are in for a rough season.

Still shimmying to Wild Nothing.

Last Week’s Record:  2 – 2

Overall Record:  2 – 2