The Best of 2011: Part Five

Rounder Records

The Jayhawks – Mockingbird Time

Firstly, this is not a Jayhawks reunion album. Sure, it’s been eight years since their last one (Rainy Day Music), but so many bands have gone even longer between albums without formally breaking up that it seems counterproductive to call this a reunion. Secondly, this isn’t even a reunion album for original Jayhawks songsmiths Mark Olson and Gary Louris, since they released an acoustic album together last year. So then, what is Mockingbird Time? Well, it’s just another really good Jayhawks album. Though it sounds at times like the band are grasping at the straws of the effortlessly classic tunes of their early years, Mockingbird Time is vastly more assured than last year’s Olson/Louris collaboration, and leaps and bounds beyond Louris’ horrid 2008 solo outing Vagabond. Songs like the title track and lead single “She Walks in So Many Ways”, with those patently intricate Olson/Louris harmonies, already sound like Jayhawks standards. In fact, it seems as if the majority of these tunes were litmus-tested for worthiness, rather than existing as a bunch of scraps haphazardly thrown together for the sake of releasing a new Jayhawks record. After being burned by band after band delivering half-assed albums over the last several years, we should all know better than to accept one. Fortunately, since The Jayhawks have a near-perfect back catalog to maintain, it’s in their best interest to kick some ass.

Secretly Canadian

The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

Imagine you are leaving for a long road trip, and you are just entering the highway. You look out the windshield – despite your increasing speed, the scenery isn’t too different from looking at a picture hanging on the wall. Even as you feel your automobile moving faster and faster, all the things you see in the distance – trees, fields, buildings, animals, etc. – just seem to stand still. This is what it’s like to listen to Slave Ambient, the newest album from The War on Drugs. Everything from its blurry, sun-stained photography depicting random small town structures or outdoor festivals to the propelling, unrelenting nature of the songs makes this album a prime candidate for road trip tune-age. The simply-themed songs are elasticized to their fullest, and find front man Adam Granduciel utilizing samples and loops and other techniques often used in electronic music – though it’s all done with a tasteful, classic rock sensibility. Kurt Vile used to be in this band, and fans of KV will note stylistic similarities on some Slave Ambient tracks (particularly “Your Love is Calling My Name” and “Black Water Falls”). But this should not be held against anyone; after all, Granduciel played music with KV for a long time, so it’s to be expected that their styles would be similar. But TWOD’s past personnel has nothing to do with the greatness of Slave Ambient. Its real success lies in the feeling its songs impeccably convey – a feeling of travelling without moving.

Polyvinyl Records

Owen – Ghost Town

This is one of the most somber albums of 2011, yet it’s somehow not at all boring. Mike Kinsella (also of seminal indie bands American Football and Joan of Arc) has spent the better part of ten years perfecting the art of crafting sad bastard music that won’t put listeners into a coma. His early albums are introspective almost to the point of alienation, but Kinsella has gradually found a way to be more inviting with his tunes, while still coating them with enough left-turn hooks and oddball poetry to keep people guessing. Ghost Town, the sixth full-length from Owen, finds Kinsella in a less self-conscious and more expansive mode than previous albums, which makes for an experience that reads as simultaneously tossed-off and premeditated. The intricate instrumentation of the songs makes them seem meticulously composed – for instance, the syncopated vibes on “No Place Like Home”, or the carefully arranged strings that appear on nearly every track. However, the central band dynamic is one of a group of musicians who have played together for years and are used to each other’s technical nuances. Thus, at the core of all these expertly arranged tunes is a tight-knit, road-worn group that could very well play the song differently with each pass. Every classic album has a dichotomy of this nature, and with Ghost Town, Owen may have finally brought one to the world.

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