Favorite 2000s Albums: #1 – Life Without Buildings – “Any Other City”

For some, the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard is an exquisite sensation. Dentists’ drills provide a satisfying tingle. Animals dying in agony make a heavenly choir. And Sue Tompkins, ‘idiosyncratic’ frontwoman of Life Without Buildings, makes a beautiful noise. Whether or not someone has a good voice is one of those subjective arguments that isn’t usually worth even starting. But really, only mad people and immediate family could warm to Tompkins.

That’s John Mulvey of NME, reviewing my favorite album of the last decade, Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City. For the record, I don’t enjoy the sound of dentists’ drills or animals dying in agony, and I’m not related to Sue Tompkins. But maybe I am a bit mad to feel so strongly about an album that has been heard by so few people.

Mulvey’s criticism of Tompkins was a common one when the album was first released in 2001: “The band sounds good, but what’s with the singing?” The thing is, Mulvey isn’t exactly wrong. I totally get why the singing style of Tompkins could be torture on the ears of some listeners, who hear what she’s doing and attribute it to pretentious artsiness or put-on quirkiness. However, for a few listeners like me, what Tompkins does on Any Other City is nothing short of pure magic.

Tompkins instantly stands out to anyone who listens to the band due to her high-pitched voice and talk-singing style, which forsakes traditional music lyricism for repetition, seemingly nonsense phrases, stutters and squeals. Love her or hate her, what’s undeniable is that Tompkins has a completely unique presence with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and charisma, and along with her lyrics it makes her a strangely endearing figure. There’s never been a singer quite like Tompkins, or an album quite like Any Other City.

On the surface, Tompkins’ lyrics would seem to be free-form and improvised, random words that she just threw together to go with music. In fact, the opposite is true: according to other band members, the lyrics were labored over endlessly, and realizing that there’s a method to all of the craziness happening is crucial to understanding the genius of the band. Her lyrics strike a perfect chord between being abstract and accessible: they’re just connected enough for a listener to gather some sort of meaning, but are also impossible to fully pin down. And even the meaning you figure out can change depending on what mood you’re in when you listen.

The band behind Tompkins is also a big part of Any Other City‘s success, as they play tight, melodic instrumentals that are the perfect match for her unpredictable style. The band plays a lot of different tempos over the album (and many of the songs have abrupt tempo shifts), but they’re able to keep a steady backdrop to go along with the organized chaos that Sue provides. An incredible gift Tompkins had was an ability to always be at the right place with her non-stop lyrics, which allows them to never sound disjointed or out of sync.

People talk a lot about desert island albums, ones that you could picture yourself replaying over and over for the rest of your life. Any Other City is a desert island album full of desert island songs. “The Leanover” is one of those, with a laid-back atmosphere created by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar that is fronted by one of Tompkins’ most jittery vocal deliveries. She cycles through phrases endlessly over the song’s five minute length, tossing in pop culture references and exclamations. This song is basically why I love the band so much: I feel like I can listen to it forever, never get sick of it, and yet still never be entirely sure what it means. It isn’t frustrating, but rather perfectly ambiguous and interpretive in the way that I feel only applies to truly great art.

Most of the songs on Any Other City have that same feeling and can be endlessly dissected or quoted but never fully understood. “PS Exclusive” is an up-tempo, danceable number with plenty of Sue repetitions (“the right stuff!”). “Juno” is the album’s most accessible song, as the ringing guitars and a more toned-down performance from Tompkins make it more of a traditional pop song (although still one with many tempo changes). The inherent likability of Tompkins and her off-the-wall sincerity goes a long way in making the lyrics feel genuine and poignant instead of annoying and art-school.

Life Without Buildings have maintained an aura of mystery that is increasingly rare these days. The band broke up shortly after Any Other City was released, as Tompkins wanted to pursue her art. The live album Live at the Annandale Hotel surfaced in 2007, and its faithful renditions of the songs on Any Other City provide a perfect footnote to the band’s brief career. The live album also hints at why the band broke up, as Tompkins is charmingly uncomfortable in the spotlight (the album is worth listening to for her awkward stage banter alone).

Any Other City was briefly hyped when it was initially released, but now is largely ignored and difficult to find (there’s currently one used copy on amazon.com available for 40 dollars). In a decade that would later see the boom in file sharing, music websites, and blogs, that makes it part of a dying breed of albums: the buried treasure that is loved by a small cult of people while largely being unknown to everyone else. Its obscurity is partially by design, as Tompkins remains an acquired taste that could never be embraced by most listeners. However, those mad people that appreciate her unique charms will find Any Other City to be an entirely singular album, with a style and beauty that is found nowhere else.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #2 – Sleater-Kinney – “The Woods”

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On One Beat, Sleater-Kinney showed signs of expanding their sound from their previous basic punk framework to something that could almost fill an arena. But nothing (and I mean nothing) could have prepared anyone for what would come on The Woods. After six albums and over ten years as a band, Sleater-Kinney completely reinvented themselves with a loud, gigantic rock album that sounds like the band’s take on Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. It was a massive risk, but one that paid off tremendously: The Woods is, for my money, the best rock album of the last 15 years or so.  In fact, it’s so ambitious, aggressive, and just plain awesome that it makes other attempts at rock albums from this time period look inconsequential and stupid.

The first thing most people note about The Woods is that it is very loud. Usually it comes to their attention after they start playing the raucous opener “The Fox” and nearly have their ear drums destroyed before they check to see if their speakers are broken.  The band hired Dave Fridmann, who had previously produced albums for The Flaming Lips and others, and he opted for the controversial production on The Woods that pushes every sound into the red. On the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein said that Fridmann wanted the listener to think something was wrong with their speakers at least once on every song, and he pretty much pulls that off by producing what might be the loudest album in the history of music this side of Raw Power.

The loudness isn’t just a gimmick though, as it helps bring Brownstein’s classic rock riffing and Janet Weiss’ drumming to unforeseen heights. Singer Corin Tucker also pushes her always abrasive voice further than it’s ever gone before, launching it to Robert Plant levels but still sounding like no one else in music. The distorted sound on The Woods functions as both an homage to and a subversion of 1970s cock rock.

Beyond the noise and distortion, what’s really striking about The Woods is how the band uses completely different song structures than they did in the past. Their previous albums had few songs more than 3 minutes long, but The Woods revels in its glorious excess, with guitar solos and breakdowns sending songs down unpredictable paths. “What’s Mine is Yours” starts out normally enough but gives way to a psychedelic section where Tucker chants against Brownstein’s squealing guitar and the thudding drums. But no song represents the new Sleater-Kinney more than “Let’s Call it Love”, an 11 minute (!) song about sex that is unabashedly dirty and features a nearly six minute guitar solo that careens all over the place. It transitions into another experiment, the improvised jam “Night Light” that closes the album (and the band’s career).

The album has a more accessible middle section that is expertly paced, beginning with the suicide fable “Jumpers” that combines poignant lyrics with the rest of the album’s guitar hero swagger. Things quiet down with the Brownstein-sung “Modern Girl” with its sly, satirical lyrics. On “Entertain” the band mocks the backwards-looking indie rock scene with some of their most cutting lyrics: “you can drown in mediocrity, it feels sublime” Brownstein sings on the bridge. It’s a cocky song, but with this album the band had earned the right to look down on others.

The new sound seems like it freed Sleater-Kinney from the conventions they were stuck in before, and it leads to maybe the most energized, vital music of their career.  Seven years later, The Woods still sounds more fresh and relevant than any rock album of today. I think it’s close to being unparalleled in its combination of craziness, ambition, and just pure rockage — The Woods is a colossal, badass hurricane of an album that leaves a sea of lame indie-rock dopes trembling in its wake.

It also ended up being the ultimate swan song for the band, as they went on indefinite hiatus after touring for the album. In retrospect it makes sense, given the go for broke mentality that The Woods exudes, and perhaps the band feeling burned out from music (and possibly each other) is what led to this album reaching such insane heights. The Woods caps off what I think is one of the greatest runs by a band in rock music history, and it does so with an incredibly loud bang.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #3 – Broadcast – “The Noise Made By People”

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I think the reason I liked so much electronic music in this decade is that it’s a genre that has a unique ability to bring two seemingly opposite ideas together. Usually it’s technology and humanity, like on Fever Ray or any Portishead album. Broadcast’s 2000 album The Noise Made By People might have more examples of this than any other album I can think of: it has the technology/humanity duality in spades, but it also combines accessibility and experimentation, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future.

Released in 2000, The Noise Made By People is a quietly revolutionary album. It’s influenced largely by Stereolab and 60s bands like The United States of America, but it ends up being its own thing, an album with a distinct and original feel. On the surface, the band doesn’t do much to blow the listener away, so it naturally doesn’t get the attention that more obviously game-changing albums get. The band’s ability to stay under-the-radar matches their music, which is subtle and uses space and electronics to create musical landscapes that impress me more and more with each listen.

The linchpin in Broadcast’s sound was late singer Trish Keenan and her magical voice. She doesn’t have a huge range or many other elements typically associated with amazing singers, but she’s always been one of my favorites. Mostly because she sounds so human, but at the same time is able to fit the retro-futuristic sci-fi sounds that her bandmates are playing. She usually floats just above the arrangements, sounding detached but never fully separated from her surroundings. Keenan’s presence elevated Broadcast in the sea of electronic bands that emerged in their time because she had a special ability to forge a human connection with listeners, even if the music was eerie or strange.

The eeriness that was always a part of Broadcast’s music has become more pronounced since Keenan’s tragic death of pneumonia over a year ago. The songs on The Noise Made By People now have a different context, for better or worse, and the meanings of some of them have changed radically for me in the past year or so. “Until Then” went from being a song about imaginary worlds into one about life and death, as Keenan sings “there’s a place I have never explored/another world I have yet to conquer/and until then none of us have anything” and her lyrics eventually give way to a layered shoegaze-style crescendo. It’s probably the most heartbreaking song an album that is now sadly full of them.

But even after her death, The Noise Made By People can still be an uplifting album and a testament to Keenan’s art and talent. The instrumental coda of “Look Outside” is still as blissful as it was before she died, and poppier songs like “Come On Let’s Go” and “Papercuts” are still catchy and fun. The album smartly balances it’s more straight-forward moments like those with bewitching moments of exploration, like “Echo’s Answer” which rides a lonely old keyboard and Keenan’s vocals to become something elegant and mysterious. The band behind Keenan also steps out on instrumental tracks like “Tower of our Tuning” which add to the atmosphere and mood of the album.

Broadcast never made an album that was less than great, but The Noise Made By People stands above the others for me because of its underlying warmth and humanity. A lot of dream pop type bands have followed in Broadcast’s footsteps, but I don’t think any have made music as thought-provoking and moving, and a lot of that is because Keenan is such a singular presence. Her death left a void in the hearts of many fans, but albums like this one ensure that her music will live on.