The Antlers

Round Three.

It was an odd year. With music a less dominant part of my life these days, what I came into contact with tended to be directly related to what I was writing or talking about for DIY or FFS. I heard about a a heap of great albums (I will never tire of great music writing), but the amount of pure listening I did was far than it has been. Which is why, as I sit with headphones over my ears and a full pack of chocolate buttons melting in my mouth, I’m finding it hard to decide. When the albums you’ve loved in a year have been far less listened to, the amount you can critically discern between them is a lot less than it might otherwise have been. But here we go.

Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams

After ‘Coming Down’ swept across the blogs, many, notably myself, were somewhat jazzed about the idea of a epic-scale, anthemic gloom-rock approach from the L.A. four-piece. We didn’t get it. What we got was an album that embraced a true idea of evolution in sound – a step along the girl-group, surf-punk, fuzz-friendly Ascent of Man chart if you will. It refined, retuned and ultimately improved in every way on the group’s debut and, with ‘Coming Down’ as centrepiece and ‘Hold Your Hand’ as finale, indicated what the next image of Dum Dum Girls might look like too.

Dum Dum Girls – Coming Down

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo

This was a grower, and by “grower” I mean that I was completely unimpressed, put it aside in some distant corner of my iTunes library, lost the CD copy and forgot it had been released at all. Then, four months later, it was played at work and I realised how brilliant it is. I mean just great. That there is a grower. Mixing experimental ambience with the drive of classic rock, Smoke Ring… is a wonder, a beautiful comedown. The whole thing envelops you like warm rain, Vile’s voice soothing as drums pound and guitars chime all around you. Easy listening in the best possible way.

Kurt Vile – Baby’s Arms

Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever

There are some certitudes in life that we must be aware of. Examples: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; Alan Rickman is the best; any Future of the Left release will make it onto my end of year list. EP though it may be, this is still one of the best collections of music this year. Maniacally leaping between styles (even within songs) throughout and even more maniacally approaching lyrical output (relationships, Joe Pesci, international relations) this is everything I could want from a FotL release: ferocity, insanity, hilarity.

Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – Come on Board

I promise I’m not being (too) wilfully obscure with this one. Yes, it may only have been available from the pair’s live shows, and yes it might have taken me a month to find the album artwork, but you can find it online. Somewhere. Whatever the difficulties, this is most definitely worth its placing. This the sound of two kindred spirits separated only by their particular decade of musical popularity. Each complements the other’s own brand of weirdness spectacularly, with Stampfel’s gurgling squeals and Lewis’ croaky drawl mixing to make the best set of badly sung anti-folk tales I’ve heard all year.

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – He’s Been Everywhere

The Antlers – Burst Apart

I don’t like this much as Hospice. But that was never really going to happen, was it? Frankly, the best complement I can personally give Burst Apart is that it isn’t Hospice and it still ended up as one of my albums of the year. A definite step away from the “concept album”-as-concept album, The Antlers treated this one as an experiment, simplifying into indie-rock (‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’), playing at being their heroes (the Kid A/Amnesiac-isms of ‘Parentheses’) or messing with new genres (the distorted soul of ‘Putting the Dog to Sleep’) and succeeding at each and every one. This doesn’t need to be Hospice anymore, it’s brilliant in and of itself.

The Antlers – Parentheses

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

I genuinely can’t understand the backlash against this one. I know, I know, I’m a Radiohead douche but seriously, how can this be a bad album? “Not as good as In Rainbows,” fine, but a bad album? Nah. This is complex, beautiful songcraft with a spectacular generic twist halfway through – what introduces itself as a beat-heavy album, some naturalistic iteration of the aforementioned Kid A/Amnesiac era, between ‘Feral’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ becomes a more vocal affair, and with a hilarious non-sequitur punchline for the more desperate of us fanboys (that line in ‘Separator’) to boot. Time will prove people wrong on this one.

Radiohead – Separator

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Smog and Bill Callahan have been skirting around the peripheries of my music collection for years now, but have always seemed too revered, and perhaps too obscure, to simply dive into without a useful introduction. How kind of Bill to do that for me. Apocalypse is simultaneously traditional and experimental in its take on country-folk, sounding unmistakenly American, but in a distinctly literary fashion – this is more exploration (hence the experimentation) of a sound rather than a retreading of it. It makes for an album that’s as intriguing for its context as its overt content, and, by association, Callahan’s back catalogue looks just as enticing to me now.

Bill Callahan – Drover

Other Lives – Tamer Animals

There haven’t been many new bands in recent years that have grabbed me, shaken me awake and metaphorically said ‘LISTEN TO HOW AWESOME WE SOUND!’ like Other Lives did for me in 2011. Their music sounds so magnificently grand, so all-encompassing in its earthiness that it seems paradoxically unearthly (captured beautifully in their video for ‘For 12’). Clutching at the heady ambitions of classical music and expressive soundtrack work and roping it together with grounded, traditional folk sounds should simply not be this effortless, but they soar together somewhere in between in wonderful fashion. I need more of this in my life, and quickly at that.

Other Lives – Dark Horse

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On

If Kurt Vile was a grower, this was a revelation. I was actively irritated with this album at first. Where were the folk creaks and strains I loved so much from before? Why was Taylor Kirk crooning? And what THE HELL was a saxophone doing there? It can’t be overstated that I’m an idiot. As Kirk himself sings on ‘Black Water’, ‘All I need is some sunshine.’ Once I saw that light, there was no turning back. Timber Timbre’s exercise in creepifying the sounds of old-fashioned pop is remarkable, showing the talent they have for subtly twisting the familiar into unsettling shapes in a completely new way.

Timber Timbre – Woman

Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

This started at the top of my list and never left. It’s simply one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard – and I’ve put enough thought into that to say it without pretence. I could expend mountains of hyperbole to explain that, but since Pearson himself kept it so simple, it would seem false to do so (that and I’ve done it elsewhere). What I will say is that this album can take your breath away, such is the depth of the emotions, it can drain you, such is the starkness of Pearson’s troubles, and it can (if I’m any example) completely affirm any pretentious belief you may have in the transcendent power of music. It may not be straightforwardly enjoyable, but by fuck is it satisfying, beautiful, devastating and incredible.

Josh T. Pearson – Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell…

The Antlers’ Hospice was, like, totally awesome. It seems both useless and passé to go over just how wonderful the “concept” of the album was, not only because people have put it better than I could hope to elsewhere, as well as the fact that I refer to it more than once in the review of their new album, Burst Apart, that you’re (I say presumputuously) about to read. But, basically what you need to remember is that The Antlers had a lot of now-emotionally devastated fans’ expectations to live up to with their newest offerings (Spoiler: It’s well good, and I get a bit excited about that fact).

The Antlers’ last release, 2009’s Hospice, was many things – a story of love and loss, a tragedy, an allegory, a (say it softly) concept album – and could be described in many ways – emotional, heartwrenching, shattering, beautiful. To put it simply, Hospice was incredible, a masterpiece of sensitive, intuitive songcraft that very few have managed to emulate in the years preceding or following it. With that in mind then, it is very hard to listen to Burst Apart, The Antlers’ fourth album, without comparing it to its predecessor – we all want to know if the new album will be as good as the last – but to do so is to do it a disservice. This might still be The Antlers, but don’t go searching for the same meanings or hallmarks, because they’re not what you should be looking for now.

Opener  ‘I Don’t Want Love’ makes this clear from the outset; gone are the breathtaking highs and lows, the experiments in expressive electronic noise, and in come simple guitar strums, measured drumbeats and a more stable set of vocals than we may have come to expect from bandleader Peter Silberman’s keening falsetto. This appears to be nothing more than gentle (albeit expertly crafted) indie rock. And, whilst the tone fluctuates throughout, the message is clear from the very beginning: don’t expect more than what we want to give to you. With Burst Apart, the all-encompassing despair has lifted, and along with it the level of sonic experimentation has dropped, allowing a more melodic, straightforward band to emerge.

‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’s rollicking chorus is The Antlers at their most coherent, with a standard quiet-loud verse-chorus interplay leading to an even louder outro – a rock standard. In ‘Rolled Together’, the band tackles a more ambient approach, with a steady twinkle of synth carrying slumberous guitar and chanting background vocals building to an almost soundtrack-esque quality. ‘Parentheses’, with its jittering mix of clattering beats, siren-like guitars and Silberman’s indistinct wails channels Radiohead circa 2000-2001, with all the paranoia and power that invokes. Yet, despite these seeming travels into other, alien soundscapes, the band always pull it back to a familiar place, a core of definitively ‘Antlers-like’ sounds, usually rooted in Silberman’s unmistakeable tones. This is Burst Apart’s greatest trick – whilst never indulging in the successes of the past, the listener is never disappointed at the change.

Final track, ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’ seems the ultimate outcome of this attempt at dualistic songwriting. The track adopts the comforting, repetitive structure of soul music, but augments it with distorted stabs of guitar, as Silberman intones, ‘Prove to me, that I’m not gonna die alone’. This alone could quite easily be an outtake from Hospice, and yet as the song progresses, this becomes less and less the case. As the gentle swell of organ-warble synth increases, Silberman replies to his own question: ‘You said “I can’t prove to you, you’re not gonna die alone, but trust me to take you home”’. This is as good an example of a musical progression as you’re ever likely to see, an acknowledgment of what came before and a realisation of what comes next. Burst Apart should not be compared to Hospice in as much as it is a product of it; a wilful attempt (and success) at diversifying without losing track. This album can be described in many of the same ways as Hospice – this is emotional music, this is heartwrenching music, this is beautiful music – but it adds new terms that could never have been employed before – uplifting or multi-talented for example – and in adding these new terms you just start to forget the comparison with Hospice. Burst Apart is an incredible album for many reasons, and only one of those is that it makes you forget just how brilliant the last album was. Paradoxically enough, that should be enough reason for every one of you to listen to it immediately.

The Antlers – Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out (YSI)

This was originally written for For Folk’s Sake, my favourite website with a quilt as its background.

End of year lists get a lot of bad press. A lot of them (mine included) just validate each other, offering very few differences between each other (*cough*AnimalCollective*cough*), and some clearly suffer where the person involved has simply chosen an order they think will be cool without offering any reason why it should be that way. On the other hand, they can give you a reason to check out a band you’d never thought to explore before or simply just provide a bloody good read (check out the lists by Song, By Toad and Pop Headwound for this category). Or, as I’ve found out, they can reveal truly brilliant bands that you’ve never heard of before.

If I’d heard ‘Two’ by The Antlers before Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, I might not have been so quick to declare ‘Buriedfed’ one of my favourite songs of the year. Both are dark, folk-based laments that crescendo in an unimaginably wonderful way. Both make me question why lyrics aren’t always be rooted in soul-crushing depression (well, this band answer that, I suppose, but let’s ignore that). Both give me faith that there’s a whole lot more to music than is sometimes apparent. The only difference is, I’m not sure I’d have heard The Antlers if it wasn’t for an end of year list (specifically, this one, thank you!), so I for one toast the weird human compulsion to turn everything into a hierarchy. Hoorah!

The Antlers – Two (YSI)
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson – Buriedfed (YSI)