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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 9 – Dad Horse Experience and Secret Machines

These are the last two albums in my top 11 of 2008. I should have more to say on Dad Horse, but I’m tapped for right now. I’ll probably revisit it later this year.

The Dad Horse Experience “Too Close to Heaven”

I don’t usually like novelty music, and when I first heard The Dad Horse Experience, I thought it was a joke and nearly skipped past it. A simple description – German guy plays twisted gospel murder ballads on banjo and kazoo – makes it sound just about as unappetizing as a record can be. Something in the music made me listen a little longer, though, and I realized that this is, in fact, a brilliant album. Dad Horse Ottn, who supposedly started playing music at the age of 40 (though I don’t know how much of his story is true and how much is fabricated showmanship), sings songs of sin and redemption and then more sin, for good measure. The music deconstructs old-time gospel folk, updating it and mixing it with folk German sounds and modern melodies. At times I can almost hear a Violent Femmes sort of voice peeking through. Through it all, Ottn’s pleas for redemption and the tales of why he needs to be saved give the album a bizarre, hallucinatory character that makes this by far the most original record I’ve heard this year.

The Secret Machines “Secret Machines”

In 2004, The Secret Machines released their debut long player “Now Here is Nowhere,” fifty minutes of thudding, head-nodding rhythms and spaced-out electric guitar and organ texture. It is wonderfully crafted album, sitting just on the psych-pop side of stoner rock, leaning away from the more metal, Sabbath-influenced style. If I smoked dope, that album would probably provide the soundtrack more than just about any other.

They followed “Nowhere” with “Ten Silver Drops,” an album that lost some of the edge and repetition of the first album in favor of more radio-friendly, more focused songs. Influences not heard on the previous album began to shine through, with scraps of “Joshua Tree”-era U2 floating in and out. Though it features some of their very best songs, like “Daddy’s in the Doldrums” and “I Hate Pretending,” I missed the simpler rhythmic style of the first album.

With their eponymous third full length, the first missing guitarist Ben Curtis, The Secret Machines have split the difference between the earlier two records. Keeping the more polished production and bigger textures of “Ten Silver Drops,” the band has also brought back some of the driving simplicity of the first album. Bowie, U2, Pink Floyd and Zepplin all find voice at various points in the songs, but the album never sounds derivative. The record, like their others, is timeless, fitting alongside the best rock music of the last four decades. The departure of a founding member is always cause for concern for fans of a band, but here The Secret Machines have proven that they can still make a top notch album.

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Top 11 of 2008 – Part 6 – School of Seven Bells “Alpinisms”

Top 11 of 2008, part 6. In this installment: bad metaphors and ineffectual descriptions!

Some time ago, my friend Jason invited me to dinner at Kashmir. I was not familiar with Indian food then, my only taste of it having come in the form of a very bland saag paneer. I’m always willing to try new food, though, and agreed to give it a shot. Needless to say for those that know the joys of that sub-continent’s cuisine, I was in for a treat. I hadn’t realized it, but it had been a very long time since I had tasted anything new. Sure, I had tried dishes I’d never had before, but they were ultimately built around familiar flavors. That night, the baingan bhartha brought me a whole new flavor experience, delicious in an exotic and wonderful way. It was a surprise. I didn’t know I was even missing something until I tasted what I had been missing.

So far, my top records of 2008 have been new twists on familiar sounds. Compared to my list for 2007, I’ve spent quite a bit more time reminiscing and drawing comparisons than describing the album’s sound, simply because the albums have leant themselves to the former. They are new, but they are generally built from familiar parts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I want something different, even if I don’t know what “different” is until I hear it. This year, School of Seven Bells (SVIIB) has provided me my musical baingan bhartha in their album “Alpinisms” (click link to listen at Lala.com).  It is not as exotic as some of my picks from last year, as familiar elements bubble up to the surface from time to time, but the way the various ingredients blend and play off of one another creates a wholly unique musical experience.

Taking their most obvious cues from early 90s dream-pop, SVIIB layer their songs in gauzy electronics and ethereal melodies. Rhythms that move between the dance floor and the after party give the songs structure, and guitarist Ben Curtis, formerly of Secret Machines, adds body and brings elements that will be warmly welcomed by fans of his old band. Everything, though, is only there in support of the band’s main attraction, the voices of identical twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. With voices so similar, they are able to create incredible harmonies when singing in unison, and complex melodies punctuated with moments of dissonance when they part, alternating between dueling with and supporting one another.

Normally I don’t enjoy music that could be described as dreamlike or gossamer, but something in the way SVIIB fits all of their constituent pieces together causes the music to burrow its way into me. The melodies stay with me long after listening, and each new listen reveals new details as my ear searches past the vocals, difficult enough with how much attention those voices demand. This is the band’s first full length album, having been preceded only by a single and an EP. I very much look forward to what this band will give us in the future.

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Top 11 Albums of 2008 – The Short Version

I’m currently working on lengthier writings about my top eleven records of 2008, but in the meantime, here’s the list. In no particular order:

She Keeps Bees “Nests”
Young Widows “Old Wounds”
Disfear “Live the Storm”
Foxy Shazam “Introducing Foxy”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!”
School of VII Bells “Alpinisms”
The Cool Kids “The Bake Sale”
The Gaslight Anthem “The ’59 Sound”
The Dad Horse Experience “Too Close to Heaven”
Earth “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull”
The Secret Machines “Secret Machines”

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