James Robinson writes Stuff.co.nz’s thrice-weekly Voyages in America blog and is a freelance journalist, slinging his trade across the New Zealand and American market, covering off everything from celebrity interviews, successful Kiwi expats and strange American murderers. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
1 – Louis CK, Live at the Beacon Theater: I’ve listened to this record at least twice a month since it was released a year ago. As a set of comedy, it is as engaging and brilliantly put together as its best musical counterparts. It has a beat to it and a life that reveals new things on each listen. Louis CK’s capacity to slide a joke behind a joke and break down an audience is unmatched. It’s brilliantly paced and endlessly listenable; CK starts off his set with quicker, absurdist cuts. The album’s back half puts CK’s strengths to their best use, self-deprecating longer narrative riffs that break out into universal themes: the disassociations that come with aging, parenthood, sex, nostalgia, masculinity.
2 – Advance Base, A Shut-In’s Prayer: There’s something about Advance Base’s debut record, A Shut In’s Prayer, which is both completely in line with Owen Ashworth’s recently-dispensed with Casiotone for the Painfully Alone moniker, but then developed enough to justify the new name. All ten songs here are undeniably wistful and nostalgic, but the sound has filled out. The drums are still electronic but there’s depth and layers now where there used to be just a thin-beat and sad recriminations. It’s less a bedroom project than an extremely downbeat National record. The new record gets points for cohesion. It’s not one for standouts, but something to wrap up in for a while. I’ve been wearing it like a warm blanket at my desk these past few weeks, staring out at the San Francisco winter rain. (Opening track Summer Music is the most impossibly lovely, if I had to vote.)
3 – Titus Andronicus, Monitor: Monitor, on paper at least, is a massively self-indulgent record: it’s only ten tracks but 65 minutes long, a concept album loosely based on the American Civil War. But any accusations of pretentiousness are pointless. It’s a hugely entertaining, inventive and poignant album. It’s a paean to aggression, escape and personal growth. It is both accessible and mad in equal parts. Spoken word interludes (with well-known indie rock figures reading famous speeches from American history) segue into songs that sprawl over minutes and many different movements. The album is capped in masterpieces; A More Perfect Union and The Battle Of Hampton Roads are somehow the bleakest and most uplifting songs about living in the 21st Century I can imagine. To Old Friends and New, featuring the Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone, is that very rare thing: a good 21st century rock ballad.
4 – Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me: Mike Birbiglia is a rare-breed of comic, having kept a foot either side of the punch line-laden comedy club circuit/This American Life true-story divide. His sets are memoirs in themselves. Birbiglia fits the jokes around the narratives and takes the odd tangent into more typical standup bits. His skill as a storyteller and his relatable empathy only heighten the poignancy and the hilarity. Birbiglia has made hay with Sleepwalk With Me while the sun has been shining: a book was out a while back and a movie adaptation hit screens this year. But the album release of the original one-man show is where the money is. It might not be as openly hilarious as a Louis CK set, but it’s maybe more memorable, with so many parts of it connecting on a very human-level.
5 – Tegan and Sara, Closer/I’m Not Your Hero (from the forthcoming, January 2013, Hearthrob): Okay, Heartthrob isn’t out yet. But I’m so amped for it. I’ve had the two songs released so far on daily rotate: so good… so catchy… so joyful. I wish more people could remember just how much fun music can be. The hook for the new album is this. Tegan and Sara, the Canadian twin-sister act, have always been indie in the sense that they’ve never hit the big time, but their low-key pop-rock tunes have been undeniably steeped in pop tradition. So for Heartthrob, they’re going big: bombastic production, keyboards, soaring melodies. But don’t fear the glittery-sheen, people. These first two-tracks out in public (here and here) are amazing: same great songwriting, newly supersized sound.