Bandcamp Favourites of 2011 - Bandcamp Hunter

Albums

5. No Coast - Wild Ghosts

You’ll notice many of my picks are somewhat…..glum. Introspective. Lurking in this genre some call “ambient folk”. Well that sort of music resonates with me, ok? But I am by no means a miserable sod. I like a good time as much as the next fella. ‘No Coast’ by Wild Ghosts is real damn good fun. What gets me here mostly are the guitars-booming, monolithic fuckers of guitars. Throw in the off-kilter wailing vocals and we’re in for some kickass indie rawk, a big old messy party that’s attended by all your favourite US rock bands from the past 20 years. Yes it’s yet another “Ghost” band but more importantly it’s droney, it’s surfy, it’s loose, it’s pounding rock ‘n roll straight outta Minneapolis.

4. Hawk Moth - Water Music

Our old Melbourne town has a fondness for dark country, for stout musical melancholy to be consumed in our grimy parlours. I’ve been attending live music regularly in Melbourne for over four years now and-not to blow my own horn-thought I had a pretty good grasp on who were the best musicians in town. Then along comes Hawk Moth. Mathew Barker had been a writer of sorts for a time before taking to music, and his listing of John Fante and Hank Chinaski as influences on his Facebook may give an indication of the lyrical content on Hawk Moth (other influences: cigarettes, the ocean). These are simple acoustic songs that I grew very fond of, songs that lament loss and celebrate friendship. Barker’s voice has a lovely high reediness, flavoured with nicotine and Coopers Pale Ale. Since discovering this record I’ve had a bit of contact with Matt-seems he’s been out of town but is playing a few local gigs soon. He reckons he’s going to buy me a beer. I’ll be returning the favour.

3. Fold in the Wind - House of Wolves

For a collection of such gentle music, this album hit me like a thunderbolt. From the opening strains of ‘50’s’ it’s completely apparent this is something very, very special.

Kiss me like it’s the 50’s; And pull your hands from the ground..

The goosebumps and the spine tingles set in and, remarkably, do not relent for the entire 11 songs of ‘Fold in The Wind’. Rey Villalobos has a pristine voice, an instrument of quiet elemental beauty that pushes through your ribcage and takes a firm but caring hold upon that pulsating, pathetic muscle within. To me, these songs evoke the image of a tiny leaf wavering on a branch-about to break free but not quite able to; part of something large and powerful yet utterly vulnerable. There is loss and pain here, no doubt, but more so there is beauty and there is hope. Mountains of it.

It’s the bitter side of life that I like too, Rey.

2. Place - Yes Know

This is an album that resonated within me; in its lyrics, in its ideas and its sounds. Sandy Gilfillan is another one man band-but my, hasn’t the image that phrase evokes changed? No more horns attached to knees and gigantic drums upon backs; no, listening to Gillifans songs we can envisage him in a lair of electronic and acoustic equipment, constructing these deep, reflective songs. ‘Here’ opens with what sounds a lot like a Neil Young riff and openly borrows lyrics from Dylan, Bjork and Animal Collective, giving a good indication of the diverse range of influences Gillifan draws from. The closing refrain of We’re all just simply here is one of my favourite lines of the year, neatly capturing one of my own mantras : “This is This”. It’s not exclusively existential pondering though, elsewhere Gillifan sadly and softly dwells on heartache in ‘These Waiting Years’ and the folky ‘Somehow Together’. Perhaps my favourite track though is ‘Balance’, a song that I listened to often on my recent travels through South East Asia. It’s a minimal piece (like all these songs) that would never fail to provide me with a glow and somehow enhance the glorious things I was seeing. I’ll close by quoting some lyrics that I found especially touching:

patterns only shaded 
words to go unheard 
in curiosity 
sneak across your globe 
into your spine 
adjust it to your surroundings 
enlightening and staying 
a comfort in balance 
contentment in balance

nb : Yes Know released a second album Over Under in 2011, which is also well worth your time.

1. Wide Awake LP -  Arches

When compiling an end of year list the music released earlier in the year is inevitably at an advantage over that released in the latter stages. For while there is undoubtedly music that that floods into your life and immerses you-convincing you in a very brief period of time it is The Greatest-it’s the music that you live with over time and that soundtracks your trials and triumphs (or your nothings-at-alls) that becomes ingrained in you, that reaches parts of you that are unreachable in a short period.

Arches are a two piece? Really? In spending many, many hours listening to music on Bandcamp this year I’ve been astounded by the amount of brilliant music being created by two pieces and solo artists (“the bedroom artist” - this always sounds a little…juvenile to me somehow). Philly’s Arches have a big sound for a two piece (occasionally swelling to a three piece on this record) and upon repeated listens the working behind how this sound is generated becomes more apparent. Guitars are looped, layers build in a seemingly organic manner and reverb is applied, though never excessively. So it’s brilliantly played and produced, but-as so so so many bands do not seem to realise-all this adds up to sweet F.A if the songs aren’t any good. Gladly, Julien Rossow Greenberg and Tom Herman Jr are badass songwriters.

Wide Awake is billed as a concept album, though the concept seems vague. The gist being : a lonely character living in a city, possibly thinking too much, leaving the city and in the process losing his grip on reality (it’s written by dudes so let’s say the protagonist is a dude). There is a certain literary feel to the album, in it’s poetic lyrics and existential probing (the Yes Know album struck me in a similar way-you can just tell these guys are well read). Themes of the disquieting effect of modern urban life are abundant throughout-the corrosive monotony of working life and the lack of purpose that leaves us lost, stumbling through the dark. ‘This Isn’t a Good Night for Walking’ (itself a fine candidate for a short story title) commences the album with the sound of steady rain and an approaching acoustic guitar before rearing into life with lulling piano, crashing drums and…

Strange cold wind; breaks from the west; got my hood on; to protect my ears. 

Like most songs on this record, ‘Walking…’ superbly balances the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, without reaching for extremes at either end of the spectrum. Simply put, it is extremely listenable. I have found myself listening to this song walking through cold foggy nights alone, blaring it at boozy gatherings on balmy summer nights and losing myself within it’s noise and melody on long bus trips. It never gets old.

'Every Moment of the Day' follows but does not reach such wide screen proportions. It also shimmers into existence and evokes sunshine on a summer lake, reminiscent of Real Estate at their most cruisy. The subtle gear drop towards the end is very clever indeed, timing itself with the lines:

What will I have left? When I’m leaving something every moment of the day?

Here, through the banality of every day life, our hero has become all too aware of time dripping away moment by moment, and he does not care for it. This gives way to the albums highlight.

Guess we’ve grown but I still feel like a child; scared of the night

'Behind Closed Blinds' is a magnificent song. Swelling with quivering keys and subtle guitar, we learn of the narrators fears and restlessness in what is a near perfect 4:13 of pop music. It articulates an intangible feeling of yearning, perhaps akin to what the Germans call Sehnsucht, which C.S Lewis identified as “the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what”. There is fear in this song too, a fear of the unknown and of change. Many can relate to this conflict : the conflict of security over pursuing one’s dreams, of seeking discipline though not wanting to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it. I know I can.

From here the story takes us away, through cobblestone paths and ‘Over the Hill’-the song of this name has a clear feeling of messy catharsis, as well as a suggestion of rural life in the amiable harmonica part.

Where did this all go; all the ways I used to know?

Like the album as a whole, the song is about embracing change and aching for the romanticism of urban escape. Our lives in the city are hollow, devoid of meaning. Wouldn’t it all be better in the country? But has our narrator left on that train or is he merely dreaming? 

Wide awake; or so it seems

How many of our days are spent thinking about what we want to do and how much of our lives do we actually spend doing it? Many questions, and this record does not attempt to resolve them. Rather, it tells a story that is common to many disenchanted 20-to-30-somethings who are free and so are lost, who love their city life and all it offers yet are repelled by the banality and monotony that goes with it. These paradoxes have been explored many times in art throughout the ages, and this is by no means a revolutionary record. However the album goes some way to capturing this cognitive dissonance-our confused modern wondering-both in the vague reflective lyrics and hazy soundscapes that accompany them.

'It Won’t Take Long' is a raucous closer, that reflects 'Walkings..' powerful dynamics (concept album 101: the bookends should reference each other in some fashion). It seems the singer has reached some sort of settled state: 

No more waiting for the time; we can call our own

It has been a disorientating experience, but now we have found a kind of contentment, realising that time is our own and we are not at it’s mercy. Perspective has been gained. These may seem weighty philosophical issues for a pop record but they are not presented as such, rather they emerge after repeated listens. And this is what the great albums do-present ideas and feelings gradually through a collection of songs. Arches have achieved this on ‘Wide Awake’ and more-the cohesive meeting of concept and superb music make for an indispensable record, and without doubt my favourite of the year.

Other favourites

Sleep Education - Jewellers
American Artist - Still Blue Still Turning
Single Twin - Single Twin
Veils - The Oscillation 

EP’s

5. Mystic Places EP - Woodsman

Woodsman haven’t put a step wrong for a long time now, and this EP sees them further refining their unique psych rock sounds to new, exhilarating heights. After an intensity building intro, we’re flung into ‘View From The Vison Hand’ (great live take here) and Woodsman take flight-all high pitched guitar riffs and dual drumming, layer upon layer upon layer of complex musical variation creating a killer psychedelic rocker. Elsewhere, ‘Parallel Minds’ takes us back to the earlier, more minimal Woodsman sound. Always fascinating, always arresting, this EP is a tantalising bridge to the next full Woodsman album.

4. Into Clear EP - Glass Vaults

Again we have a two piece casting staggering aural soundscapes-Glass Vaults are an intriguing New Zealand outfit whose evocative, ethereal songs seem well matched to their homelands own geographic majesty and cloudy mystery. The EP is seamless-the songs do not feel as if they a have beginnings or ends, instead they offer misty corridors for you to lose yourself within, corridors that echo with hymnal intonations and haunted guitar. Darkness and light interplay throughout, the tribal beat underlaying ‘Gold Star’ is brilliantly contrasted with warm, shining synth. A mighty release of tremendous, hallucinatory vision.

3. Mountains + Valleys - Michael Beach

Michael Beach is a former Melbourne resident who plays in psych-rock out fit Electric Jellyfish and now resides in San Franciso (and, disclaimer: once taught my younger brother guitar). Since being overseas he’s pumped out this gem of a tape for Twin Lakes. ‘Straight Spines’ is one of my favourite songs of the year, a dark and frenetic little thumper of a tune that is at once discomforting and uplifting. Our hearts are slowed after this with a moment of semi-ambient guitar noise and then it’s a brace of gorgeous coutnry rock songs. I love ‘There Is No Edge Of The World To Run To’ more than I can say, it’s a superb lament. The other highlight is ‘Mountains + Valley’s, a song of great depth and lyrical complexity that reminded me of Leonard Cohen. Beach is emerging as one of Australia’s premier songwriters. Hope he makes it home for a visit soon.

2. Via Flamina - Futurebirds

St Valentines killed a bear; On the fourteenth day of February

Is that the worst misheard lyric ever? Perhaps. Thats what I hear. 
Futurebirds were probably the band I listened to most in 2011 and ‘Via Flamina’ was my introduction to them. Two originals, two covers, all killer. Their sound immediately appealed to me-expansive country rock and roll infused with potent strains of psychedlieca, an exhilarating sound. The title track is the sort of mid tempo rock epic that almost makes you feel the wind in your hair as you fly along that highway, leaving it all burning down behind you. From there ‘Millstones’ is somewhat more subdued though no less uplifting, and then we are into the covers. From what I can tell, ‘Wicked Game’ has been the most covered song of 2011 and this is definitely the greatest version I heard. Oh, Isaak you smooth old cad. Then we have this rendition of Stevie Nicks’ ‘Wild Heart’. Oh my. I imagine this is the musical equivalent of the energy hits the old timers sold out of their medicine vans back in the wild west, a concoction of alcohol, caffeine, snake venom and cocaine that would transport you instantly into the clouds, and beyond. Bravo. I’ll have another hit.

1. The Alabama Shakes EP - The Alabama Shakes

What’s exciting about this EP from The Alabama Shakes is that it feels like something arriving. A statement of intent. This, as far as I’m concerned, is The Next Big Thang. Of all the music I played at parties and pubs and whatnot over the year, none has had such a universal reaction as this EP - “hey man, what the fuck is this?” It’s appeal is obvious and doesn’t require dissecting:its blues, rock and roll and it’s soul, played with immense passion and power. Brittany Howard is an absolute vocal powerhouse, these songs contain the finest vocal performances I have heard in recent memory. This EP is also a reminder-rock and roll ain’t dead, it’s as vital as ever. You think I’m gushing too much? Too much hyperbole? Bullshit. Words can’t express how good these cats are. I’ll be donating every body part I can spare to see them live in 2012.

Other favourites

Le Podium #3 - Holstenwall
Wild Vibes EP - Wild Vibes
Terrible Truths 7” (2011)  - Terrible Truths

Songs

5. Tip of Your Tongue  - Porcelain Raft

Infectious is the word here. Something highly infectious on the tip of your tongue. Ew. I dug all of Porcealin Raft’s music this year (prolific chap) but this was my favourite. A delicious little sugar bomb of a song that will have you skipping through the streets before you know it.

4. Cacophonous Vibes - Harmony

One of my favourite live bands of 2011, you ain’t seen or heard nothing like Harmony before. Punk and folk melds with those soaring female vocals to conjure a totally unique sound-often emotional, always cathartic. The album was one of the best Australian releases of the year and this is is it’s brilliant centre piece.

3. Behind Closed Blinds - Arches

As suggested above, this is my favourite song from my favourite Bandcamp album of the year. It is a song with great emotional impact yet the lyrics concern isolation and detachment-being dead inside doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate beauty. It borders on the anthemic but remains understated, a subtle beauty glowing from the seams of this tremendous song.

2. Straight Spines - Michael Beach

Oh man this is a straight up full body assault of a song-delivering flurries of blows before letting you catch your breath, leaving you all asunder, then ploughing back in for more. I can’t help but be reminded of Melbourne’s Eddie Current listening to it, not in the delivery but in the tangible feeling of pent up energy it creates. However I think this song from Beach captures that edgy anxiety better than ECSR have been able to. This is the sound of hyper mania and, amazingly, it’s fucking good fun.

1. Everlasting Everything - Guilty Ghosts

I wrote about this song earlier in the year and one word has stayed with me from that rambling review-colossal. This is a song of great scope; it evokes something enormous, something titanic. It shortens your breath and fascinates, though it’s greatest quality is how it engages the listener. This is no background music : you cannot play this without devoting your entire self to the song and being led to where it wants you to go. A towering achievement.

Other favourites

Family Portait - Other Side
Magnetic Hill - Pompeii 
Pony Face - Holly Said

Non Bandcamp albums

5. In Love With Oblivion - Crystal Stilts
4. I Am Very Far - Okkervil River
3. Whole Love - Wilco
2. Terra - Julian Lynch
1. Slave Ambient - The War on Drugs

Other favourites

Hit After Hit - Sonny and The Sunsets
Apocalypse -Bill Callahan
Days - Real Estate

Believers - AA bondy