While the Christmas, er, holiday season seems to creep earlier and earlier into the fall each year, for most the day after Thanksgiving marks the official start of the mayhem. Black Friday is that special day synonymous with mobs of shoppers hungry for a good deal at those massive big box retail stores. But what if you’re like me, and unwilling to line up in the bitter cold before midnight, take an elbow to the gut rushing through the doors, or get clawed in the face over a giant TV or gadget? Maybe it’s a good time to visit that local record store instead.
The story goes that Annie Clark jumped right from touring in support of St. Vincent’s last album — the 2011 masterpiece Strange Mercy — to working with David Byrne on Love This Giant, their horn-centric collaboration. And from there, she went right back to work — a mere 36 hours after the tour ended — and began writing new material.
That bit of information is instructive in demonstrating Clark’s whirlwind work ethic, and a seemingly unending supply of creative drive. But the story also helps decipher Clark’s musical evolution, leaving breadcrumbs in song form that leads us from her dystopian Disney aesthetic to this End of the World dance party of her brand-new fourth album, St. Vincent. The self-titled album effortlessly marries Clark’s unique trademarks — her equally mannered and seething voice and her precise yet snarling guitar playing — with the buoyant, funked-up pop she made with Byrne.
I spend a lot of time listening to music throughout the year, making my lists of favorite records, the best songs and so on and on. But in the process I cannot help but look at and think about the album artwork and how that accompanies this music. Increasingly, in this digital age, album art is relegated often to postage stamp-sized icons on our screens and iPhones, already downsizing from the pretty small size of CDs. Maybe people do not think about album covers as much, yet I still love to stare over them like I did as a kid. And I still tend to buy albums in LP format because I like seeing that cover nice and big.
In lieu of a best albums of the year list, I decided to curate this list of my favorite album covers of the year. Below is but a sampling of some of the excellent artwork from 2011, some of which point to a few of the thematic trends in imagery, typography, illustration and intricacy.
Sometimes there are bands that I’ve heard of, and read things about, but never actually heard much of. This is the case with The Pop Group, a late 70s, early 80s post punk band that falls in the same wheelhouse as bands I already love like Joy Division, Gang of Four and Talking Heads. I kept seeing their name but strangely, it took another artist covering their work to finally get me to dig in and see what their all about.
On their recent tour, St. Vincent has been playing The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil,” an all-out assault of guitar noise and seething and sexy, if not disturbing vocals. St. Vincent played this song last night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a ballsy move for the talk show crowd who just want to hear something off the new record. But for singer and guitarist Annie Clark, it’s a perfect song to cover.
Clark has perfected this juxtaposition between alluring image, silky voice and stunningly beautiful melodic arrangements with fucked up lyrics of pain, loneliness and violent thoughts. And her guitar work is both skillfully dexterous and intensely loud and explosive. I recently caught St. Vincent on this Strange Mercy tour at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club, where she showed off her sweet, witty side and her under-the-surface boiling turmoil that manifests itself with her bursts of guitar feedback and killer riffs. Mid-show, Clark busted out The Pop Group song and it enveloped the entire room with white hot distortion.
Clark showed early signs of this newer, rawer direction during this year’s Our Concert Could Be Your Life show, Clark and a rotating cast of great indie rock bands paid tribute to the previous generations of indie rock that were depicted in the exceptional Michael Azzerad book Our Band Could Be Your Life. There, Clark pulled out “Kerosene” by Big Black, a song that first made a lot of people rethink how Clark could own the stage.
Seeing St. Vincent cover The Pop Group sold me and made me want to finally dig out that band’s 1978 album, Y, and I’m glad I did. It’s a masterful and weird record mixing post punk and funk grooves with avant jazz and experimental noise. They’re brasher, noisier, more experimental and atonal than many of the bands from this era. And they play with angular melodies and off kilter rhythms that at times feel in the pocket and other times completely sprawl out into washes of noise. It’s great, great stuff, even if it IS over 30 years old.
Been awhile since I’ve dumped some links in for things I’ve done. Away we go…
— Song of the Day: School Of Seven Bells: A Spacey Dance-Pop Hymn
— All Songs Considered blog: Five Great Cover Songs From 2010 (So Far)
— Jason Moran: Finding Sound, Then Making It His Own
— A Blog Supreme: More Moran Motion Pictures Please
— A Blog Supreme: Where Was The Jazz At Bonnaroo 2010?
Lately, I seem to have gotten back into the routine of watching late night talk shows again. Not sure if it’s because of Conan taking over the Tonight Show, the Roots serving as house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon or just a recent string of good musical guests, but there have been some incredible bookings of late.
Here is a quick rundown of a few from just the last week:
The Dead Weather on Conan O’Brien:
Elvis Costello on Conan:
Wilco on Conan:
Sonic Youth on Jimmy Fallon:
St. Vincent on Letterman:
and even The Roots themselves debuted a new song on Fallon: