Ah, the holidays. This is the time of year when my addiction to so-called "Christmas" music is briefly viewed as normal behavior. Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and Vince Guaraldi's soundtracks to the "Peanuts" television specials are some of the most popular year-round tunes on my playlist, but they have caused raised eyebrows among friends when I've put them on out of season.
Somehow, this season I've had too much else in my headphones to flip on "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" more than a couple of times. This year's music scene has surprised me with a few titles I hadn't been expecting, but have now become essentials that I can't live without.
"Big Echo" by The Morning Benders
My introduction to this group was via a friend's recommendation to view an online video of a live performance of the album's first track, "Excuses." In the video, the four-piece became an orchestra directed by lead singer Christopher Chu, in his attempt to create the "wall of sound" he felt the piece deserved. In the video, violins open the tune, playing the part that is just as excellently played on guitar on the album version of the song. Each recording captures a composition that is everything I've ever wanted in a song; dynamics, instrumental variety, balance, emotion and thought. It's lyrically strong as well, with lines like "I made an excuse / you found another way to tell the truth ..."
I haven't yet bonded with the rest of the album as much as I have with "Excuses," but it's all worthy of dedicated listening time. The ratio of upbeat to mellow numbers is satisfying, and the momentum builds to the end with a grand finale on track ten, "Sleeping In." This album is one to keep on the top shelf for a while.
"Penny Sparkle" by Blonde Redhead
Given my general pickiness in female vocalists, I'm surprised how much I have enjoyed the music of Blonde Redhead over the years. The voice of lead singer Kazu Makino is unique; its range is broad and sounds overstretched in the higher registers, even - dare I say - whiny at times. Normally, this would drive me to delete an album from my library, but there's something about Makino and her bandmates that instantly drew me into their sound from the beginning and have kept them on my list of favorites for some time.
The feel of "Penny Sparkle" is both familiar and new in comparison to their past work. On first listen, its first five tracks brought me abreast to the modifications they've made to their sound since their last couple albums - smoother instrumentals, more mellow vocals and more of a spacey feel, for lack of a better term. Then, upon hearing track five, "Oslo," I was instantly taken back to the first time I heard their 1997 release, "Fake Can Be Just As Good." Until "Oslo," it seems as if Makino had been holding back a bit on the vocals, waiting for the perfect time to get back to her basics. The rest of the album continues in this vein, as if the band felt they needed to try something new for a bit to get it out of their system, but then get back to their raw signature sound, contemporized as it may be.
Blonde Redhead's individual songs stand well on their own, but this isn't the type of group I'd recommend buying singles from unless you want to miss out on the big picture they create with their full-length releases. It's obvious there is a large amount of thought put into their albums as a whole, if not also in the progression of their entire catalog. There isn't a single song they have released that I wouldn't recommend for purchase.
"Let Me Come Home" by Broken Records
This is Broken Records' second album, yet the first time I've heard of them. The seven-piece band is based in the UK, where "Let Me Come Home" was released in October; the album is scheduled for release in North America in January.
Even though I've never heard Broken Records' music, there is a familiarity that makes it easy to listen to from the beginning. If you like Arcade Fire, you'll find a similar progressive sound in Broken Records. Lead singer Jamie Sutherland also bears a striking audible resemblance to Will Oldham (better known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy).
There are more instruments involved than you may realize at first - accordions, cellos, trumpets and pianos compliment the traditional guitars, bass and drums to create a sound that's not too full and not too sparse, but just right. Goldilocks would be proud.
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