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Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Jennifer Przybylski's Fave Albums (And Book) Of 2004

n. Lannon, Chemical Friends (Badman): There is no getting away from Nyles Lannon's similarity to Elliott Smith and his unstudied acoustic silhouettes. Stirring ghosts, like taking your medicine and endless love, are paired with the half-toned electronics of, say, American Analog Set. Chemical Friends is an affecting, plaintive meantime for Lannon, who is probably better known for his alter n.Ln (not to mention membership in San Francisco's band-on-the-verge Film School). Here the heart breaks cleanly open, and it's beautiful.

French Kicks, The Trial of the Century (StarTime): Just what to think of this less rock and more sleek French Kicks? Dashed (new) romantic vocals brushed up against cool synth and attendant hand claps in a record that didn't easily fit into the scene comparatives everyone was making (or even their previous releases). Punchy guitars layered in '80s keyboards didn't sound like blind nostalgia, but an exultant, after-hours retrofit.

Comas, Conductor (Yep Roc): Limning heartbreak with starry motes and robot armies is one way to go. The Comas emerge from interim label hell with one of the best — indie or otherwise — releases of the year, as well as a silvery concept film to go with it. Television starlets ascend into the air and buildings consume the night sky. While the imagery is a bit darker than the lyrical content, it's a gambit that works. Sensual guitar lines, big rock and silvery electronics. Now Conductor is not just any release; it becomes an event, like the shortlist of artists who release two albums on the same day. The Comas are good for it, owning their biggest sound yet but still aware of the softly lit corners.

Le Concorde, Le Concorde EP (Spade Kitty): This release was the first recording I reviewed for Neumu, but putting that aside, I just love this EP. The arrangements are perfect reminders of other favorites in my record collection (and most likely Stephen Becker's own). Prefab Sprout. Aztec Camera. OMD. Rather than simply sounding like a record that was made during the early '80s, Le Concorde imparts the same delicacy with a contemporary sophistication. A full-length is scheduled for 2005. I can hardly wait.

Tracy Shedd, Louder Than You Can Hear (Devil in the Woods): While song craft was never in dispute, Tracy Shedd makes the most of new beginnings on the Devil in the Woods debut Louder Than You Can Hear. The band seems to have realized that the best complement for vocalist Shedd's smart-fragile delivery is a wall of Loveless guitars and excitable percussion. Titles like "If You Really Cared About Me You Would Have Kept in Touch All These Years" suggest that despite the controlled distortion, the diary-style reflections are what matter. Imagine Lois with swirling noise-pop guitars, no less intimate, just more daring. Here those references sound like a revelation.

Camera Obscura, Underachievers Please Try Harder (Merge): If your record title sounds like the instruction of a dutiful prefect, you should expect comparisons to Belle & Sebastian (and double that if Stuart Murdoch produces "Eighties Fan," a perfect single for your 1996 debut). Underachievers Please Try Harder reminds me of what made Belle & Sebastian so remarkable on first listen — the gorgeous arrangements, the storytelling. But here it is a girl's romantic diffidence, among other matters, that gives this album a similar luster. Vocalist Traceyanne Campbell is appealing and real. Her vintage microphone delivery on "Teenager" is just what any wrongheaded boy deserves: "You're not a teenager/ So don't act like one." Those who say this music is too nostalgic for the times really don't have a clue.

Junior Boys, Last Exit (Kin): Rarely has an electronicscape been so of the evening. The Junior Boys, a Montreal duo whose singles include remixes from both Manitoba and Fennesz, enfold the halting detail of Vini Reilly into two-step into Talk Talk into glimmering dance music. Jeremy Greenspan's see-through vocals will send you. The tensile firings of early electronics, with its unfeeling bonk and synthetics, don't sound nearly as remote here. Besides, you swayed to Yaz and Marc Almond, didn't you? Last Exit exudes not only synth-pop gloss but a supple, forward modernity.

Ken Stringfellow, Soft Commands (Yep Roc): Informed by classic pop arrangements, Ken Stringfellow's Soft Commands is a burnished, mature collection. The diversity of song styles represented here appears to number the postcard locales in which they were written: Paris, Los Angeles and Senegal among them. Golden piano ballads ("You Drew") alongside Spector-like comets ("When U Find Someone") and dub forays ("You Became the Dawn"): it's easy to see how such range may read as pretense elsewhere. But Stringfellow is so good at what he does, and with such an unerring reach. Soft Commands is a gorgeous example of intricacies and awareness.

The Go-Betweens, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane (Jetset): A cheat, with three titles, but these are the Go-Betweens, after all. Literate pop broaching thoroughly adult conversations, articulate and full of longing. Songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan wrote of love and apartments and coy remainders. It was the other '80s. To that end, the Jetset label added the band's biggest selling — and out of print — titles to their list of Go-Betweens reissues (with extras). The music sounds just as good as it did when you first heard it, maybe even more rarified. There really aren't bands like this anymore, and if you didn't already know that, these titles are a great place to start.

Courtney Eldridge, Unkempt (Harcourt Press): These stories connect with such a charged rapport, I had to include them in this list. Unkempt is a rather startling, baring even, debut. Rarely do you see what you think is inside someone else's head — the watery dissolve of daily lists and friends with irrational, yet riotous, but also obstructive fears (like sharks in public swimming pools). Most appealing is the ease in which it's delivered. The whole is so conversational — this happened and then this happened — but told exceptionally well. That ease belies a hold much like Carver, who took even measure of frailty, reconnection and choice. And again, it follows. If it suddenly turned out OK, you wouldn't trust it. Same goes for the ignobleness of retail. Unkempt splits it all so honestly, you never doubt the life inside.

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