Monday, January 03, 2005

 

And I'm back. Happy New Year! Thanks again to Sleeve for posting last week. That Half Japanese song Zombies of Mora-Tau is just amazing, on so many levels. I mean, it's funny, but it really is kind of scary, in a funny sort of a way. And that ending!

I wanted to do a top 10, but as of today I still don't have ten albums that I could honestly put on a pedestal. My general sense about 2004 was that there were a lot of good or very good albums, but I didn't hear many that struck me as the sort of thing I'll be reminiscing about in ten years. In ten years, I'll probably have some vague memory of a band called The Tom Tom Human Annie who released a hit called My Fascinating Boyfriend's Chewing Gum, and that's how I'll remember 2004. It also occurs to me that the fact that The Arcade Fire ranked so highly this year kind of goes to my point. It's perfectly nice, but it seems awfully boring to think of it as the musical artistic acheivment of the year. At least to me. Kind of like naming "bread" the food of the year.

But let's face it: my favorite album of last year was the Mystical Beast mp3 reissue of Skyband.

So instead of a top 10, I'll do my usual bitchfest about overlooked albums that aren't likely to get more than one Pazz & Jop vote. Last year I whined about Laptop and The 88 and Magic Dirt, if memory serves. This year let's talk about Thou, a fairly long-running project by Bart Vincent and Does De Wolf.

As best I can tell, this blog is the only English-as-a-first-language source of info on Thou's current activities that can be easily found via Google. How things got so dire, I have no idea.

I've written about them many times before, so longtime readers might want to step outside for a cigarette for the next paragraph or so.

For everyone else, Thou are a band from Belgium. They've been around for years, and had a US label at one point in the early 00's. Their producer is John Parish, the same guy who works with PJ Harvey (and whether you love or hate PJ Harvey -- I'm kind of on the fence -- you have to admit she's got pretty great production). They're tight with Portishead, and once released an album recorded on top of spare Portishead backing tracks. As best as I can tell they're fairly big in the part of Belgium that doesn't speak French, which is annoying because I can read French and I can't make the slightest bit of sense of Dutch. They sing in English, with a minimal accent. If you've heard the Moonbabies song SloMono, that's pretty much how the vocals sound, with a fair amount of boy/girl unison going on. I sort of think they might appeal to fans of the Moonbabies, though Thou don't gaze at their shoes.

And what do Thou sound like? Well, they cop to being influenced by Sonic Youth (i hear Goo-era, especially when Bart sings) and Portishead (especially when Does sings) and I hear a fair amount of post-Great Escape Blur (and we all know how unpopular those bands are in the English speaking world). Unlike Sonic Youth, Portishead and post-Great Escape Blur (ok, maybe post-Blur Blur, but that's a confusing way to put things), Thou retain the ability to write a catchy two-minute pop song. On earlier albums, there was a pretty sharp divide between the rock songs and the trip-hop songs, but lately the two sides have been pretty well-integrated.

So, in 2004 they released an album called I Like Girls In Russia which, if I had a top 10, would probably be ranked first or second. Incidently, the album gets its name via the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida route. Drink a bunch of whatever they drink in Belgium and then say "I Won't Go To Nashville" five times fast. Ok, six times. Anyway, Allmusic never heard of it, but of course, and I don't think it got reviewed by any of the normal outlets, internet or otherwise. I'd be surprised if (not counting readers of this blog) more than 100 Americans know it exists. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's my understanding of how things stand. The only way I know that you can buy it is to order it from Belgium, and it took my copy about a month to arrive.

Given all this, I'm going to post a huge chunk of the album. My sense is that the band needs exposure in the US more than anything (if they disagree I'll take the tracks down...I don't usually post more than one or two songs from new releases). I'm not saying you have to love this album, but I hope that you'll agree that it's something that would appeal to a reasonable number of people, and that it's kind of a sad commentary on the laziness of US critics that you're probably reading about it here for the first and last time. Just to pound the point into the ground, this is a band with connections to some extremely popular bands/producers and a good bit of history. It's not like they're some obscure local group from Abu Dhabi who released a limited edition cassette. It's just that Thou don't currently have a US or UK label.

So, here's the majority of the album, with minimal comments. It's ripped at 128, and I've got to tell you that it sounds much better via CD. Motivation for you to send some $ to Belgium!

Can't Get: first song on the album and pretty typical of the Thou sound: keyboards and electronics fight it out with late-Blur guitar work.

I Won't Go To Nashville: I think of this is the hit song from the album (it was the first track that they made available on their website). On first listen it sounds like they're ripping off the Raveonettes, but you'll quickly noticed that the song is a lot more complicated than that, esp. w/reference to key changes. By the end, all the little simple bits have kind of locked together into one massive hook. I definitely underestimated this song on first listen.

Scotty: I guess I'm slightly uncomfortable with songs that reference Star Trek, but otherwise this is really pretty. The flange-y, wah-wah-y guitar solo is especially trippy and cool.

Kickin': this is one of a couple of tracks with an unexpected 1950's influence. Even though the song doesn't sound overtly strange, I'm not sure I've heard anyone else do something like this. Elvis meets The Pixies (or something like that)?

Love Passion: another weird 1950s fusion, this one sounding almost like it could have come off of the soundtrack of a Belgian remake of Grease. At first I thought it was kind of dumb, but it's awfully catchy. Might have been better as a B-side, if only because it doesn't fit in well with the rest of the album.

No Love: the trip-hop side of things resurfaces here. If you like Portishead or the Beth Gibbons album, this is the track to download.

Dizzy Daydream: and the Blur side of things bounces right back...if you share my taste, this is the track to download.

Affection: last track on the CD, with an especially great chorus. Nice mix of the band's two styles.

I Like Girls in Russia came out early in the year, but I dug it out recently just to doublecheck my impression, and it still sounds pretty fantastic to me. Lots of variety in the songwriting, great production (headphones reveal a lot) and I just don't hear too many bands today working this territory (in contrast of the alarming number of bands who seem to have decided that late period Mercury Rev/Flaming Lips represent the pinnacle of musical achievement. I'd like to buy everyone a copy of In A Priest Driven Ambulance some day, when finances permit.). Enon springs to mind, but as with early Thou, Enon haven't yet managed to combine the boy songs and the girl songs, so their albums can sound a little schizophrenic. And, well, their last album Hocus Pocus was kind of underwhelming... I'm hoping they'll bounce back this year.

I'd like hear what people think, but in my book this is one of the more significant "pop albums you didn't hear in 2004" that isn't going to make most (any?) "pop albums you didn't hear in 2004" lists.

Thou's website, much of which isn't in English, is here.



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