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Ten Best LA Recordings 2009 (So Far)

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Fri, Aug 14, 2009 at 10:00 AM

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Last week as we were sorting through our piles of CDs and accumulated MP3 files, we started to notice how big the stack of recent excellent LA music was. It became apparent that we're in the middle of a pretty great year for Los Angeles releases, and decided to give mid-year props to our faves. With the fall approaching, a whole new batch of notable LA sounds will arrive, so the good news is that our year-end list may look very different than this one.

Here's a complete list of our faves. Though this is in a specific order, we already regret putting Foreign Born's Person to Person in the ninth slot; we listen to it all the time, and should be in the top five. But any sort of numerical categorization is somewhat silly, so basically ignore the numbers.

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10. Audacity - Power Drowning (Burger Records)

You'd think that this shit would get tiring by now -- raw punk rock that trades in weirdo chords, snare pops and basement screams. You'd have thunk that raw two-minute bursts of denial and rage communicated with guitar and pleading woulda been played out -- "I love you in the morning, but I hate you in the evening" -- but when Audacity lead singer Matt Schmalfeld breaks down and weeps in at the end of "Mode," from Power Drowning, it sounds like they cracked the punk code all by their lonesome in a garage in O.C. It's loud and fast, yes, but what separates this killer record from the rest are the hairpin-turns and loopy stops and starts that arrive out of the blue and transform basic structures into odd Buckminster Fuller-type constructs. Punk? Uh huh. But so much more. Plus, they do a great version of the Weirdos'Dicks' "Hate the Police."

Audacity - Teenage Town (MP3)

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9. Foreign Born, Person to Person (Secretly Canadian)

The highly anticipated sophomore album by Foreign Born, Person to Person, is drawing rave reviews, and with good reason. Writes Jeff Weiss in his recent feature on the band and its affiliation with Bloomington, Indiana label Secretly Canadian: "With newfound patrons, the quartet (which stretches to a seven-piece onstage) rented a plush pad with a balcony and a Jacuzzi up in the hills around Mulholland Drive. The result, Person to Person, offers brass-inflected guitar pop that earns that rare distinction of sounding the way Los Angeles feels: full of saffron sun and streaks of sadness, with fluid interplay between the exotic and the occidental -- the blithe buoyancy of a place filled with "vacationing people," as its lead single intimates.

"We were hoping to embody L.A. in the same manner as David Hockney," says Popieluch, a former art student and sometime visual artist. "Music filled with bright colors, masking a darker façade underneath."

Foreign Born - Winter Games (MP3)

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8. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Up From Below (Fairfax Recordings/Community)

The first time we saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, we were a little baffled. It was their first show, at the Troubadour, and the dozen or so members, a ragtag group of Topanga-lookin' musicians looked way more like Dexy's Midnight Runners than they did Edward Sharpe's/Alex Ebert's other band, Ima Robot. It seemed contrived, honestly, felt as though they'd seen the Arcade Fire writing-on-the-wall and chased the "spirit" of "community." Plus they looked (and look) like some sort of cult.

We've seen them any number of times since then, and each time the skepticism has dropped a notch. Yeah, Edward/Alex gets up there acting like the Chosen One, which is equal parts intriguing/annoying, but at least he fucking does it. Stands up there onstage and sings and sings, and poses and dances and acts like a lead singer should. And the Magnetic Zeros? In the two years they've been together, the eight or so Zeros have gotten so tight and, er, magnetic that they're a joy to watch.

Even better, though, the band's debut, Up From Below, sounds great, with solid songs and way less hokum than the band suggested in those early shows. Expertly produced by Nico Aglietti and Aaron Older with Alex Ebert at Woodrow Hideway beneath their Laurel Canyon compound**, the album is rich, varied, and constantly surprising; handclaps never sounded so great.

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7. Frankel - Anonymity is the New Fame (Autumn Tone)

Anonymity is the New Fame, indeed. Frankel, the recording name of one Michael Orendy, is little known in LA (or anywhere). He doesn't really play the gigging game too often, hasn't had a residency (to our knowledge), doesn't pound the pavement flyering for his record release. He just makes beautiful bedroom pop songs that draw from Paul McCartney, Elliott Smith, Emmit Rhodes, Jon Brion and all those other classicists who appreciate the notion of crafting the perfect song.

The obvious connection among aforementioned writers is the love of the piano, and Orendy weaves pretty piano melodies through a cloth of acoustic and electric guitar and drums, draping it all over the structure of the song like a handmade tapestry. Have we mentioned Nick Drake yet? Good, because Frankel just released a cover of the late Irish singer's "Know."

Frankel - Know (MP3)

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6. Mika Miko, We Be Xuxa (PPM)

It's funny to call Mika Miko "veterans," but four albums and countless singles and eps later, the punk band is hitting its peak. Short song bursts and smart, surreal songs about turkey sandwiches, wild bores, and lots of shit we can't understand because vocals are buried so far below the guitars. Which is a good thing, because MM uses great guitar sounds.

Only two of the eleven songs (and one remix) clock in at longer than 2 minutes, but these songs roam as though they were epics. Will We Be Xuxa change music? No, this stuff's been done way too many times before to be truly revolutionary. But revolutions begin in the head, and these songs are strong enough to wander around in your head for weeks on end. There's a good chance they're in there plotting some sort of insurrection.

Mika Miko - Turkey Sandwich (MP3)

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5. The Long Lost, The Long Lost (Ninja Tune)

The frustration of the year is that The Long Lost's eponymous full length hasn't gotten nearly the attention it's deserved. This beautiful make-out album should be drawing raves akin to last year's She & Him record -- because this is better than that, though it drinks from the same fountain. The Long Lost is electronic composer Alfred "Daedalus" Darlington and his wife, the artist Laura Darlington. They worked on this record for years, and you can tell: it's lush, perfectly produced and sequenced for maximum effect. Touchstones include the beautiful Getz/Gilberto records, the aforementioned Zooey Daschenal and M. Ward She & Him project, Serge Gainsbourg's cocktail pop and countless romance-inspired long players. We've listened to this record often this year; it's helped us get to first base on a couple of choice candlelit occasions, and has offered melodic tenderness in the mornings. In a word: keep this in a strategic spot near your bedroom stereo.

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4. Nite Jewel, Good Evening (Human Ear)

Call it mumble disco. Nite Jewel's Ramona Gonzales is a detached presence, the kind that you want to dismiss because of her casual demeanor; if she doesn't seem to care about any of this, then why should we? Plus, she's pretty, and in her video for "Artificial Intelligence" she rides around in the back of a fancy limousine. She wears big round sunglasses, squirms and lounges and barely lip syncs to the camera. What's not to be annoyed by?

She eventually ends up at a photo shoot (of course). She and her two angel minions vogue for the camera. It all seems so ... silly, something you've seen 1000 times before. Behind her, the music offers synthetic hand claps hit on beats no. 2 and 4. A robo-bassline bumps along. Weird space sounds seep through here and there. She's no Billie Holiday. Not even a Donna Summer. Barely even a Paula Abdul.

Covering the deliberate beats, however, is a transformative layer of tape hiss, courtesy of the cheap analog recording technology that she records all of her music on. It's an interesting decision, doing this not the easy way (computer), but the deliberate way (analog building blocks, and weird rhythm guitars), and transforms the potential dumb cheese into something thick and rich: Is this a put-on? Is the fake disco, slow and syrupy, something she's making because she wants you to boogie, or because, well, it's so simple to do, and maybe she'll get famous or something. That hiss. Those robotics. Those bridges. What is she doing here? When, while mugging for the lens at a mansion, she starts puking up neon green goo and then rolls around in it, mussing her hair and clothes and face, the whole thing collapses. What?

Throughout Good Evening, released by the Human Ear collective, confusion reigns. There are beautiful songs on it that sound like Young Marble Giants tracks recorded on qualuudes in an echo chamber. There are noisy swaths of half-songs that illustrate some sort of search, a question asked. What is artificial? Can you build artifice piece by piece, like gluing reflective tiles onto a mirror ball? Is the end result fake because of your intent, or is real because of that same intent? Hard to tell. But it sure does groove, weirdly.

Nite Jewel - Weak for Me (MP3)

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3. Tom Brosseau, Posthumous Success (Fat Cat)

It's a 40 minute rush-hour drive from West Coast Sound's Hollywood branch by the Hollywood Bowl to the Weekly's Culver City bunker, and one particularly scenic route is to take Sunset Boulevard all the way to Sepulveda, hang a louie and head south. Last month we listened to the entirety of Tom Brosseau's new album on that ride, and had a Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz moment. The first couplet is "It's hard for me to know where to begin/Everything is caving in," which arrives just as you pass Hollywood High. Head westward toward West Hollywood, and Brosseau's singing about his recurring dream of a chained up Dave Grohl drumming with Hole. Pass the Roxy, we're on "Big Time," in which the singer, whose soft, plaintive voice on the new album is backed by sturdy, wildly inventive rock and electronic flourishes (and mouth harp) courtesy of dueling producers Ethan Rose (Small Sails) and Adam Pierce (Mice Parade), is declaring, "I'm ready for the big time."

The thing is, he's right. Last year's Cavalier, also released on Fat Cat Records, was a gorgeous folky record that was smart, funny, honest, and mostly acoustic (and a little too sentimental at times). Posthumous Success is a deeper, wittier and way more ambitious record. We've listened to it all day today, and can't wait to listen to when we jump into the car later tonight. It's very Californian: beautiful, melodic, with rich harmonies and a lot of electricity.

Oh, and "You Don't Know My Friends" is one of the best rock songs of the year, which begins with the sorrowful opening couplet, "Walking around with a hole in my heart/Thinking about how great thou art." The song moves around lyrically from there as thoughts rolling around in Brosseau's head pour out of his mouth and a chunka-chunka Ragged Glory-era Neil Young guitar guides it along as the singer tries another ploy in filling said hole with said Thou: "That sweater that you're wearing is starting to pill/I can scrape all off if you'd just sit still." On it goes, this beautiful album, through the pricey Beverly Hills as Brosseau moves into "Love to New Heights."

And so on until the end, and then it loops back again. It's a mystery why this record hasn't gotten more attention. It's going to be one of my stocking stuffers in a few months.

Tom Brosseau - You Don't Know My Friends (MP3)

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2. Sunn O))), Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord)

We've written too much on Sunn O))) in the past week; they gigged the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts on Tuesday night and melted eardrums. Greg Anderson spoke to West Coast Sound and we published the whole interview. New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones has the band's ninth album, Monoliths & Dimensions, on his faves of the year so far. It's a critical success, yet a majority of West Coast Sound's readership who plug into the four-song, 54-minute album might quickly wonder WTF. It's dark, filled with guitars tuned below the ninth circle of hell, deep, thick chords that move like glaciers through the frozen songs. Things happen in Sunn songs, but they are not choruses and they are not verses. Melodies are there, but more in the Mahler sense than the Bach sense. They're more like patterns, or, to jump disciplines, more like Rothko than Picasso.

As we wrote in an earlier post, the unsung hero of Sunn0))'s recent work is Eyvind Kang, who arranged the entirety of Monoliths & Dimensions. The Portland-based composer released a series of searing solo works on John Zorn's Tzadik label in the 1990s (the best of which is 7 Nades), and has done time with the Sun City Girls, Bill Frisell and Zorn. Though it's tough to tell where Sunn0)) begins and Kang ends, the combination feels seamless. Other guests include brass player Julien Priestler, who was a member of Sun Ra's Arkestra, and Stewart Dempster (a member of Pauline Olivieros' Deep Listening Band).

This is not simple music. It's drone metal. You will not exit Monoliths humming one of the songs. But you might be stricken by something somewhere, be it the gorgeous chorale arrangement for "Big Church," one of Stephen O'Malley's explosive guitar shifts, or, as is the case for us, a single, church bell struck once within the heart of a silence.


Sunn O))) - Agartha

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1. Nosaj Thing, Drift (Alpha Pup)

LA has never been in the top tier of electronic music hubs. Cities like London, New York, Detroit and Chicago have gotten most of the ink as places where innovation rises. Out here, we've mostly harnessed the 808s and the bass to make hip hop beats. But a recent outpouring of oddball rhythms and sounds -- along with the thriving nu electro scene -- has put Los Angeles at the epicenter of something. What that is, exactly, has yet to be determined, but a few months ago when LA Weekly scribe Chris Martins wrote about Nosaj Thing, he attempted to capture it.

"To paraphrase the work of Low End Theory devotee Shepard Fairey, Nosaj has a posse. They've got handles like the Gaslamp Killer, Free the Robots, Samiyam and Ras G, and ties to the Plug Research label, Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder imprint, and Alpha Pup, founded by longtime L.A. producer Daddy Kev. But within this well-pedigreed crew, Nosaj Thing stands out.

"For one thing, Chung is the quietest guy in the group. He's sweet, fresh-faced and exceedingly calm under a well-formed cap of dark hair, like a LEGO man ... Mostly, [he] allows his songs to do the talking, and instrumental though they may be, they're the main reason for all the chatter currently surrounding him. He's garnered comparisons to his friend Flying Lotus, but while FlyLo coats his compositions with record static as primer and gets his texture from overlapping percussive imperfections, Chung takes the holistic approach of a sound designer. In headphones, this translates to a 360-degree arrangement around the listener's head, bouts of almost disorienting synth surges, and moments where the rhythmic intricacies subside and something ghostly arrives. FlyLo emits warmth and flow, while Chung deals in cleanliness and creep. The former is bass boom; the latter is that sucking feeling that happens just before the boom hits.

"We just call it beat music," says Chung. The futuristic qualities of their sound, created primarily with software and synthesizers, have inspired names like "lazer-bass" and "blap" (presumably "bleep" plus "rap"). It has recent roots in dubstep, and deeper, disparate ones in Boards of Canada, Cornelius and DJ Shadow, and while the electronic music does have a home at Low End Theory, it's difficult to determine its exact place in the Los Angeles underground."

Nosaj Thing draws from Aphex Twin and Burial, likes as much melody as bass in his wildly inventive riddim tracks. Though instrumental, each is constructive with just enough consistency to wonder what an MC would do with this stuff. There's only one way to find out.

Nosaj Thing - Coat of Arms (MP3)

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Editor's note: The original version of this post included an error regarding the production of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros' Up from Below. It was produced by Nico Aglietti and Aaron Older with Alex Ebert. We've corrected the information in the above post, and apologize for error.

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