You should know me better than that.
Revelations come to us in the strangest of ways. I was furiously sucking on mints, battling flight fatigue somewhere near the southern hemisphere, when that song came on; and I finally understood exactly why one particular album would remain at the top of my list for 2013. (See lists for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.)
Tunnel vision lights my way.
Trouble Will Find Me #1 #2 #3
A proverbial slip, skeletons in the closet, another knife in the gut. Soaking still in past rejection, rejoicing again in newfound nostalgia. Heartbreaking details of our everyday lives have always been laid bare for all to see, and no one understands this better than The National. Frontman Matt Berninger may employ the same modus operandi as in previous albums – his earnest insights are always ruminative, never unimpressive – but in the brilliant Trouble Will Find Me specifically, it is his signature warm baritone hitting newer ends of both registers that mirror the fragility of some of our greatest hopes and deepest fears. This, when complemented with shimmery strings from the Dessner twins, and the intense drumming and unrelenting guitar licks courtesy of the Devendorf brothers, make the Brooklyn-based band’s latest outing more than an affair to remember, forever etching a place even in the hardest of hearts. If trouble sounded half as good as this, then the world would indeed be a happier place.
The National plays at the Hostess Club Weekender, Fort Canning Park, Singapore, on 22 February 2014.
Favourite tracks: “Humiliation”, “Pink Rabbits”, “This is the Last Time”, “Graceless”, “Sea of Love”
All my silver dreams lead me to you.
Hummingbird #1 #2
Local Natives has successfully steered clear of the possibility of a sophomore slump, making a strong comeback early in the year. The Los Angeles quartet’s toned down approach in the introspective Hummingbird may have been a startling contrast to the louder sounds of their debut album, but the meticulously-crafted melodies and delicately-arranged falsettos still speak volumes, as the band stretched their creative capabilities and built on emotional climaxes never attempted before. It shows just how far they have come, their new brand of music leaving your spirits soaring long after the last note has played out.
Favourite tracks: “Ceilings”, “Breakers”, “You and I”, “Heavy Feet”, “Mt. Washington”
Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze #
If ever there was something made for a slow day by the beach, Kurt Vile’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze would be it. The wonderful concoction of dreamy tunes, paired with Vile’s trademark slacker drawl, easily entices your mind to wander to a place that knows only sun, sand and summer whole year round. Despite its length, the almost 70-minute-long album still feels immensely satisfying and reassuring, the gorgeous closing track drowning you in a series of urgently tinkling staccatos but hardly leaving you in a daze by the end of it all.
Catch Kurt Vile at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, on 25 January 2014.
Favourite tracks: “Goldtone”, “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day”
We’ve come so close.
Ambience is everything. Washed Out is, for me, this year’s Wild Nothing. After having acquired an inexplicable penchant for chillwave and dream pop thanks to the latter’s Nocturne (which had topped last year’s list), Paracosm feels like a natural progression, sailing in breezily with its eclectic choice of beach-friendly tunes and feel-good summer melodies. The tracks are effortlessly catchy and tend to blend and weave together as one, making it play like a soundtrack fit for a fun-filled day spent on the road catching rainbows and unicorns of your own imagination.
Favourite tracks: “Don’t Give Up”, “Great Escape”, “It All Feels Right”
No more doubt about it.
Man Alive (2010), Arc (2013)
Everything Everything has the privilege of being the only musical education attempted for the year. The Mancunian band’s latest effort, Arc, is a mixed bag of goodies, made up of plenty of fist-pumping tunes, infectious kicks and sudden sputters, with the occasional slow ballad thrown in (as in the 90s vibe of “Armourland”, which may have been channelling too much Rick Astley for me to take it seriously the first time). Nevertheless, subsequent listens peeled away those layers to reveal the mark of a band that revels in orchestral complexity, triumphs in melodic grandiosity, and makes no apologies for it.
Favourite tracks: “Armourland”, “Kemosabe”, “Choice Mountain” (Arc)
Reflektor, Arcade Fire
AM, Arctic Monkeys
Holy Fire, Foals
Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit
6 Feet Beneath the Moon, King Krule
The Messenger, Johnny Marr
Empty Estate EP, Wild Nothing
Fade, Yo La Tengo
Also listened to:
The Third Eye Centre, Belle & Sebastian
Mala, Devendra Banhart
Desire Lines, Camera Obscura
You Gots 2 Chill, Brendan Canning
The Flower Lane, Ducktails
The Terror, The Flaming Lips
Ski Mask, Islands
Damage, Jimmy Eat World
Mechanical Bull, Kings of Leon
Lines, Julian Lynch
Paradise Valley, John Mayer
mbv, My Bloody Valentine
180, Palma Violets
Where You Stand, Travis
Modern Vampires in the City, Vampire Weekend
The only thing constant in life is change. It may have been one turbulent year, but no surprises can be found here.
The side effects that saved us.
I am not one to care for love ballads or odd time signatures, but I would not have missed this for anything.
Trouble Will Find Me
21 May 2013
I pressed the button “Play” with much trepidation; music began filling my laptop’s built-in speakers. Here I was, waiting to be carried away in a swarm of bees, hoping to gracefully disappear into the basement of my brain.
Fifty five minutes later, absolutely nothing happened.
I sat up slowly, baffled by the lack of impact after my first full listen of the new album. I felt thoroughly dejected. I remembered when the unattractive cover art and uninspiring song titles were first unveiled a full two months before, all I had were goosebumps… paired with the distant chirping sounds of crickets.
Had it all really come down to this? Did the album cover not possess that smart, smug look – one capable of proclaiming itself as album of the year? Would the tunes within suffer from a fate worse than this? Was I witnessing the beginning of the end? It was hard to tell, and I started to worry incessantly, like how a ferocious tiger mother would annoyingly fuss over her overachiever of a child.
So I decided to utilise my earphones instead, and promptly accorded the album another spin. This time, I felt a hint of a smile coming upon me – and it has not let up since then. A month later, I read again those unabashed thoughts that was written during that crucial second listen made of pure unadulterated bliss, and I knew this much is true:
The National will never, ever, let me down.
The band’s latest outing, Trouble Will Find Me, gets off rather unconventionally to a slow start – it opens to the delicate strumming of acoustic guitars in “I Should Live in Salt”, in which frontman Matt Berninger practically slurs and sings words seemingly tinged with a million misgivings in this personal ode written of his brother, Tom (also director of the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which was conveniently released in the lead-up to the new album).
This is then followed by a few relatively restrained tunes, among which include the first promotional single “Demons”, a rather haunting melody whose only purpose is to reinforce the brand of darkness and despair that the band is usually associated with (“When I walk into a room / I do not light it up / fuck”); and “Fireproof”, a slow burn of a song that unfortunately seems to serve more as filler than killer. Sandwiched in between, however, is the curiously-titled “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, a foot-tapping pop tune that sees the band’s passable efforts at attempting vocal stacking and wry humour.
So at first glance, the tracklisting to Trouble Will Find Me did not feel as cohesive as in their previous albums, coming across as being patchy at times. Thankfully, the momentum well and truly picks up midway through. “Sea of Love”, contrary to its romantic connotations, is actually a catchy rock anthem that hearkens back to the fondly remembered The National sounds of the old, hinting at the fevered energy of those critically-acclaimed Alligator (2005) times and reminding us that the band can indeed still be a force to be reckoned with – and perhaps with some surprises up their sleeves, what with the ingenious addition of harmonicas by guitarist Aaron Dessner. Another highlight is the immediate and raw “Graceless” (codename: “Prime”), which never fails to pack a visceral punch in the gut with the line “There’s a science to walking through windows without you” when complemented with Bryan Devendorf’s intense drumming abilities.
However, the most memorable part is undoubtedly the trifecta of successes that come near the end of the album. Having “I Need My Girl” subtly merging with “Humiliation” (codename: “Sullivan”) and then gently leading into “Pink Rabbits” is simply – for a lack of a better word – sublime.
“I Need My Girl” sees a marked improvement from its debut at the Beacon Theatre show in late 2011, the new needly guitars and velvety vocals turning the song into an incredibly poignant and sincere ballad; whereas it has been interesting to witness the smooth, rising tension in “Humiliation” blooming into a shimmery wonder of epic proportions as compared to its ATP counterpart.
But it is perhaps the uplifting “Pink Rabbits” that has the most potential in adding to The National’s history as an instant band classic, in the vein of notable regulars such as “About Today” or “Fake Empire” – here, Berninger’s signature tender and warm baritone probably hit a higher register than he has ever been given credit for, but it is especially the lyrics (“So surprised you want to dance with me now / I was just getting used to living life without you around”) that come across as the most varied in his career and will tear you to pieces with its aching melancholia every single time.
So on hindsight, perhaps it is the stark reality and vivid imagery accompanying Berninger’s heartfelt confessions in Trouble Will Find Me that easily trumps that of its predecessor’s, the excellent High Violet (2010), in so many ways. No longer content with just defending his family with an orange umbrella (“Afraid of Everyone”), he ponders arriving in heaven alive, presumably to continue even in the afterlife his roles as a responsible father and dedicated husband (“Heavenfaced”).
Words such as those might just ring hollow in the hands of others, but not when they pour forth like divine truth from the enigmatic Berninger, master of rhyme and reason. We can but only imagine how immensely lucky his wife and daughter are. And somehow, we feel assured and all the more richer in life and spirit, too. Who would have thought that trouble could actually sound as good as this?
A careful fear.
As bad habits are wont to do, there may be no good in beginning anew. I can but only try.
29 January 2013
Any one would have thought it a disadvantage to have an album released that early into the new year, and especially in one potentially populated with the most comebacks and returns. Big names are still being feverishly bandied about at the time of writing, with expectations looming higher than ever, but fans of the Local Natives are quick to make confident declarations that the Los Angeles quartet’s latest release, Hummingbird, will have no problems at all scoring a spot in many of the year’s best-of lists.
The band’s return to the fold was celebrated with the unveiling of a few new songs – while the catchy lead single “Breakers” still had the signature sound of the Local Natives, it was the lonely, soaring vocals in “You and I” and the gently pulsating “Heavy Feet” that seemed to set off alarm bells. Gone were the clap-happy tunes and gleeful shoutouts that made up their loud and boisterous debut album Gorilla Manor; in contrast, Hummingbird can best be described as the soft-spoken second sibling – a quiet achiever forever reminiscing about lost loves, cold sunrises and silver dreams.
Sure, there is still the occasional fun little ditty like in “Ceilings”, a brief and simple track that is as sweet as honey on a warm summer’s day – but it is in special moments such as the affecting “Mt. Washington” and heartwrenching “Colombia” that the band seemingly lay bare their souls, building emotional climaxes with thin, fragile falsettos and sad, poignant lyrics that will put a crack to even the hardest of stones.
Admittedly, Hummingbird may not be as easily accessible as its sunnier predecessor, but it is still an album destinied for keeps, and there is no doubt that the Local Natives will continue to set hearts aflutter in years to come.
Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
9 April 2013
One would balk at the idea of having to listen to a 70-minute-long album from start to finish, but Kurt Vile has apparently found one easy solution to this: he has conveniently bookended Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze with two of the loveliest – though longest – tracks in the album.
And so it is that we find it easy to forgive the co-founder and former band member of The War on Drugs for swaggering by so casually in the almost title track and opener “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day”, his trademark slacker drawl and addictive guitar riffs urging you to tap your feet to the music before long, injecting a generous dose of optimism to kickstart your day.
Well, perhaps there is some truth to what they say: the destination matters not at all, for it is the journey that makes it more than worthwhile. Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze may be full of jammy and lengthy outros, but they are there not just for show: every single note seems to be perfectly placed, unerringly matching with the mood of the moment, your attention wavering not at all. This formula is successfully employed throughout the album, including in the punchy yet graceful lead single “Never Run Away” and the urgent strumming of strings present in “Snowflakes Are Dancing”.
As if to demonstrate what a pretty daze really feels like, Vile rewards us with the dreamy closer “Goldtone”, which seems to paint a lone picture of him silhouetted at sunset, mulling over life’s biggest mysteries with a cool pina colada in hand. We watch on, equally as fixated, as the great ball of fire slowly disappears over the horizon, its graceful descent punctuated by a series of ascending notes that eventually leads the album to a triumphant finale. Simply sublime.
Upcoming releases for 2013:
The National. And The National only. I make no apologies, because nothing else matters anymore. See Metacritic’s release calendar here.
No wrong, no right.
So this almost did not happen due to some last minute family commitments. In the end, the highlight of this trip turned out to not be the reason I was there in the first place; rather, it was that a very sheltered me had finally become confident enough to move around in a foreign country all alone and by myself, though credit must certainly be given to Singapore’s planning authority with their ever-efficient signboards that had unerringly guided my way throughout my entire time there.
So yes, there goes another feather in the cap. Now, if only I could stop short at feeling that I could take on the world next…
Besides, who would have thought that Grizzly Bear and James Bond actually have something in common?
But to be honest, I think it did take quite a while for all of us – the band inclusive, maybe – to warm up. When Grizzly Bear first came onstage at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the crowd slowly rose and swayed in their feet to thumping opener “Speak in Rounds”, but the effect did not last very long as most ended up standing quite still and seemingly out of place during the one-minute instrumental “Adelma” that followed soon after. This probably continued until the fifth or sixth track for the night, when the rousing “Yet Again” came on and people finally started behaving like they were at an actual concert again; this was also when the lighting effects began to pick up on their intensity and feature more prominently in their set, almost blinding us in the process (for otherwise, the band played mostly in the dark under spotlights made up of shades of blue and violet – alas, such is the mostly subdued nature of their music).
The setlist that night was primarily heavy on their latest album Shields, and occasionally Veckatimest – and rightly so, as material from the band’s older albums had failed to sufficiently rouse up the crowd. Ironically, I thought the musical arrangements for the older songs were much more intricate than that of their more recent releases – older gems like “Knife”, “Lullabye” and “Shift” seemed to sound more uplifting than their dreary album counterparts, having been given a modern lease of life. But it was the little additional tweaks on “Gun-shy” and its flawless transition to “Ready, Able” that served as one of the highlights of the night for me.
The sound system did not seem fantastic at the beginning – frontman Ed Droste’s vocals was at times drowning out the music, and the intentional echoes employed and his many thank-yous in Mandarin (“Xie-xie!”) made me giggle (an unfortunate reaction), but this and a few other technical glitches were thankfully ironed out as the evening progressed.
Stage banter was limited, as Droste himself admitted, though we were treated to some spontaneous R&B jamming courtesy of guitarist-keyboardist Daniel Rossen (“We have just three more songs to play, and one of them is 15 minutes long…”) and drummer Chris Bear to fill up those awkward silences that punctured the air whenever they switched instruments in between songs. “We’ve travelled so much that we now have more stamps on our passports than James Bond, but… nah, that’s probably not true since he’s a secret agent and all that,” multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor quipped.
I think this is as close as it gets to watching a band play mood-setting ambient music in a concert hall for a little over 90 minutes; while it was overall still an amazing experience, sadly, it left me feeling somewhat shortchanged by the end of it all. Granted, Grizzly Bear’s music is not quite something that you can sing along to easily: I cannot remember the lyrics myself to do a decent sing-along, and had mentally lost track of the setlist halfway through, but personally, I still believe that a better live rendition of “Cheerleader” would have made this one perfect night to remember. Perhaps next time.
Totem in motion.
It seems that this year’s list is no exception: as usual, it is miserably mediocre and as joyless as a matinee viewing in a cinema hall full of screaming toddlers and sneaky schoolchildren. But it also has a lot of Tom Hardy, which I must say I mind not one bit at all. (See also lists for 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy // Christopher Nolan
Cobb: Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange.
At some point in our lives, there will always be a movie that has to be filed into a must-watch list. With a star-studded cast and crew and an intriguing plot line, Inception falls into this category easily. The story, which revolves around a team that pulls off intelligent heists that take place within the mind, simply has to be seen to be believed. The dream scenes are tastefully done although not overly fantastical, thus creating an illusion that is still grounded to reality. Add to that an ambiguous ending that calls for additional hours of noodle baking, what else could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, by the end of the movie, I, too, was somehow exhausted at having to climb through the many layers to be jolted back to reality.
Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte // Gavin O’Connor
Tom Conlon: You had a choice, okay. You had a choice.
I have never been interested in gritty fighting movies, but then I was reminded of my favourite mistake that is The National’s Boxer. The tough, pugilistic notions of that album title was misleading at best and shed absolutely no clue to the timeless tunes that lie within. Similarly, Warrior offers not just a tale of triumph brought about by shiny medals and MMA rings; it tells of champions that are made by walking on the road to redemption and forgiveness. Plus, it did not help at all that the movie was bookended by music by The National; the band’s “About Today” that came on at the end was such an emotional punch to the gut, that box of Kleenex nearby would soon be empty before long.
Knight and Day
Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz // James Mangold
Roy Miller: Nobody follow us or I kill myself and then her!
Knight and Day is an entertaining action flick that works mainly due to the brilliant chemistry of the two leads: one sometimes cheesy yet always charismatic thanks to his super megawatt smile, the other ditzy and sufficiently spunky but with a lot of heart. Add in a dash of mystery, hints of romance and plenty of humourous banter, and you get a mindlessly fun ride from start to finish. I think it works on so many levels because the two key players make it all seem so believably sincere and real (despite some over-the-top acting), so much so that this has become one of my guilty pleasures of the year.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Never Let Me Go
Win Win #
X-Men: First Class
Playing catch-up with my favourite TV series proved easier this year, thanks to the long-awaited installation of fibre optic broadband at home. Strangely enough, it still was not quite as speedy as I thought – but at least my attempts to binge on episodes of The Amazing Race (season 21), Fringe (season 5), Modern Family (season 4) and Sherlock (seasons 1 and 2) online went relatively smoothly. Did you think I would omit to mention Game of Thrones (season 2)? I will never forget those chilly goosebumps that lingered long after the song “The Rains of Castamere” had faded out at the end of the credits to the penultimate episode of the season. Thank you as always, Mr Berninger.