The Year in Local Music
Take it from the new guy in town, there's something in the water in Baltimore. Maybe it's that first glassful of orange-rust funk that gives our elderly rowhouses their charm, or maybe it's the ubiquitous hydration substitute, Natty Boh, but our gritty little burg has a whole lot of something on any other city in this country. Opening the mail at City Paper every day, I simply can't risk not listening to everything that comes in.
The breadth of albums is astounding--from compulsively compiled club and hip-hop mixtapes to MT6 brand clatter `n' howl and Wham City nerditry to soaked-through folk and trapped-in-their-head songwriters--and not just because it's there but because people listen to it. Whether that means finding God--several gods?--in Daniel Higgs seventh-dimension folk; sweat slicked, grinding dance communion with Dan Deacon or Blaqstarr; blissing and buzzing to Wzt Hearts; or quietly singing along to the graceful, wise-beyond-its-years indie-rock of Monarch. There's a lifetime of music here, already made. And people here know it, know that Baltimore music isn't a trend; this isn't a place to be seen, this isn't a place for a musician to "make it." This is where people come to let their music do the talking for them. What else could explain the diversity, the rabble rousing, the sheer fuck all of this list?
And never forget: it's the fuck all that makes music move forward, anywhere.
Someone laughed at me--a snotty, exaggerated laugh--when I said I was moving here from Portland, Ore.--you know, the revolving-door center of the universe for twentysomethings--trading in the comforts of the Northwest for a raw little city where, jeez, the buses don't even have bike racks. A look at the following list, and think I should be so lucky to be here, to say nothing of having the privilege of being the dude that keeps tabs on the music here. This is Baltimore laughing back.
The following is based on suggestions from primarily three people, Bret McCabe, Al Shipley, and Raymond Cummings. Votes for local artists that showed up on the ballots for the national top 10 were factored in here where applicable. For the most part, I kept my hands off things--I am, after all, still the new guy in town. (Michael Byrne)
1 Dan Deacon Spiderman of the Rings (Carpark)
What happens when the Magic the Gathering lunatics take over the INA-GRM asylum. The veritable soundtrack for the maximum ultra-everything shooting out of the Wham City collective, Spiderman of the Rings offers low-tech versions of high-minded information overload that totally bridges the snarky divide between cultures low and high. Take two parts cartoon sounds and add equal measures of electronic composition and childishly weird noises. Stir with a homemade electro whatchamacallitthingymadoodle. Let it sit, covered by an old Fred Flintstone T-shirt, beneath a disco ball until the dough rises. Add day-glo, sparkly sprinkles, and some tubes of edible puffy paint. It would all sound like too much cheeky nonsense were not for the final production touches of maestro chef Princess Danny himself, who not only has the best dance face since Alfonso Ribeiro but a perfectly pitched pop ear for untangling intoxicating joy out of the musical chaos. (Bret McCabe)
2 Wzt Hearts Thread Rope Spell Making Your Bones (Carpark)
City dump clusters of hard-to-identify stuff crowd Thread Rope's digipak artwork, as if centers of gravity somehow willed themselves into being and sucked pieces of junk into dense, unbreakable clumps. That's fitting, since WZT Hearts goes all Iron Chef here on the unlikely ingredients that make up its sound--guitars, laptops, tapes, and more pureed into warm, humming buzzes or glitchy, clamorous clatters. Shaun Flynn's drums can be heard clearly at points, but every other instrumental component--including Flynn's vocals, if the liner notes are to be believed--is absorbed into the foursome's gnashing, shifting din. Close your eyes, strip off your winterwear, and leap in there: You won't wanna emerge. (Raymond Cummings)
3 Blaqstarr The King Of Roq (JB Starr Productions)
Blaqstarr's unique brand of club music has been ruling local dance floors for years. But in 2007, he became ubiquitous out-of-town: On the nationally released Supastarr EP, in Rolling Stone magazine, producing tracks for critical darling M.I.A., and on hundreds of YouTube videos of teens dancing to his propulsive beats. But while the rest of the world was catching up, Blaqstarr kept pushing his sound into strange new places with a locally released mix CD that occasionally abandons the rigid tempos and loops of traditional club music for a whole new style that the producer has dubbed "Blaq music." Plenty of musicians claim to be in a category by themselves, but Blaqstarr might actually get there. (Al Shipley)
4 Daniel Higgs Metempsychotic Melodies (Holy Mountain)
Daniel Higgs traveled to the fifth dimension again and all we got was this four-song soundtrack. You know the kind. One song Saturn-ring encircles the brain with guitar strum and pick until you sprout Shiva arms and try to grab the visions flitting before the eyes. Another song takes one of your four hands and leads you into a forest of waltzing drone and jaunty buzz until you're dervish whirling above the trees. The hypnotic, raga-like paean "Love Abides" hypnotizes over its entire 14 minutes courtesy the snake-charming dance of Higgs vocals and guitar. And that album closing celebration kinda makes you want to go back to church--but only to one willing to resurrect armed warrior popes willing to fight for shit that really matters. She will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and her kingdom will have no end. (BM)
5 Monarch If Children (self-released)
A consistently lovely surprise, the sky-gazing If Children is an enormous thing--at times swelling with the orchestral grandiosity and funereal drama of, say, the Arcade Fire (courtesy of a duo no less)--filtered through an intimate Chan Marshall/Jeff Tweedy/Kim Deal sieve into one of the most alluring, melancholic packages we've heard anywhere this year. When Jenn Wasner sings over and over again "I don't feel young" in a voice recoiling, in slow motion, with betrayal, and suddenly shifts to "if you feel young/ and feel ready/ or feel alone/ and just need slee-ep/ you know your secret's safe with me" as the song crests into hopeful, skygrazing climax, something just feels right with the world. (MB)
4 Snacks Natural Snacks (Ehse)
Peppered with wonky beats that skirt arrhythmia and improvisations that play with live electronics like globs of tapioca tossed in a crowded cafeteria, Natural Snacks offers seven tracks from the electro-acoustic romper room, music that defies description more aggressively than most. A chorus of table saws beatboxing over a drum kit being tossed down an elevator shaft one piece at a time? Hip-hop made of ham radio noise and grimy industrial fans? Snoring your way through an emergency broadcast klaxon announcing the end of the world? Random cymbal splats and Slinky sproings harmonizing with the slackest slap bass ever? All that plus knowingly goofy-ass song titles and a full-color vinyl picture disc that may leave you salivating? Yes, please. (Jess Harvell)
7 Celebration The Modern Tribe (4AD)
Captured on this second release by Baltimore's most sophisticatedly danceable indie-rock trio are bright-laced love songs full of soulful vocal melodies, reggae bass lines, layers of retro organ and Rhodes, and hip world music drumming. Like the Flaming Lips or Animal Collective, Celebration has found a way to write pop music that is as experimental and intriguing as the best noise compositions in town. Burt Bacharach would approve the sweet lovemaking hook and wash of disco keys and high-hat on the ballad "Our Hearts Don't Change" that ends in a crescendo of primal drumming. "Pony," a dark, galloping gypsy jam is total fun, especially when Katrina Ford and Sean Antanaitis match note and beat, his distorted organ meeting her vocal range peak. (Jared T. Fischer)
8 Arbouretum Rites of Uncovering (Thrill Jockey)
If the course of his life had taken him in a slightly different direction, Arbouretum frontman Dave Heumann might've been a philosopher, a guru, a shaman. Anything's possible; it could still happen--but let's pray it doesn't, at least not before he and his band of cerebral massagers lay their hands upon us a few more times. Rites is like a Grateful Dead disc you don't need drugs to vibe to: glow-stick guitar grooves gently slipstreamed and steady, Heumann's deep, deliberate vocals and musing ushering one gradually into a state of relaxed, contemplative hypnosis. Smoke it if you got it while you commune with the passing clouds, of course, but don't feel obliged. (RC)
9 Needlegun The End of August at Hotel Ozone (MT6)
Needlegun refuses to be contained within any single genre. Noise and avant-garde electronics bump `n' grind against sampled NPR promos, gang shout-alongs, and assaultive bursts of static. At any given moment, any given track could spin off in any given direction. Ozone is a brilliantly distressed mess that clocks in at less than 30 minutes and somehow manages to perpetually surprise, mirroring the short-attention spans and cultural insanity of this gilded Information Age. When and if Needlegun re-up, they'll have a heck of a debut monument to top--assuming listeners haven't migrated to whatever else's hip, heavy, and hedonistically hurly-burly at that particular moment. (RC)
10 Thank You World City (Wildfire Wildfire)
Brevity aside, World City's a witty and intensely polyrhythmic workout. This debut's nine tracks of percussion, guitar, bass, and clattering miscellany clocks in at around 30 minutes and, in that time, you're treated to a seamless stream of no wave-y instrumental rock that's at once dissonant and delightful. It begs pairing with almost any cinematic pleasure; Man With a Movie Camera and Modern Times come immediately to mind. Even without the visual balance, the sense of humor and adventure which pervades World City makes for an engaging and endlessly repeatable listen. (Rahne Alexander)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201