It speaks to the strength of the bands in the Triangle that a few LPs we'd considered shoe-ins for this list—Spider Bags' barnstorming Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World; Cesar Comanche's brazen Die in Your Lap; Ryan Gustafson's broken-dream Donkey LP—appear nowhere here besides this paragraph. Competition was tough, and the choices surprising. Below, we present our critics' picks for the Top 10 Triangle Albums of 2009.
First, a note about the voting process: The Independent Weekly's nine chief music writers and two guests—Rick Cornell, Grayson Currin, Spencer Griffith, Brian Howe, Chris Parker, Bryan Reed, Kelly Reid, Andrew Ritchey, John Schacht, Chris Toenes and Eric Tullis—cast ballots containing a list of their favorite five to 20 albums released by Triangle bands in 2009. Each rank was assigned a point value. More than 70 albums received points. Of those albums, the 22 with 9 or more points were named finalists, and voters were given a chance to listen to all of the albums. Voters ranked those albums numerically in order of preference. Each voter's No. 1 album received 12 points. The second received 11, and so forth. Albums outside of each voter's top 10 received one or two points, depending on whether or not the voter ranked the album. The totals for each album are reflected below in parentheses, beside the name of the label that released the album.
With their tender ballads and gentle experimentalism, Raleigh's DeYarmond Edison was a fine next-generation alt-country band. In retrospect, its 2006 dissolution was the best thing that could've happened to its members—and to us. Justin Vernon went on to discover a unique voice (and a wide audience) as Bon Iver. Meanwhile, brothers Brad and Phil Cook, along with Joe Westerlund—all of whom met at a Wisconsin jazz camp as teenagers—reconvened as Megafaun and were immediately free to push a synthesis of traditional and experimental music to new extremes, away from Edison's safer middle road. If their 2008 debut, Bury the Square, cleared ground, album two, Gather, Form, & Fly, consecrated it as Megafaun's own—an America of constantly shifting borders, where titans like Dock Boggs and David Tudor cast equally long shadows.
Bury the Square still holds up well. But now that we know they've got an album like Gather, Form, & Fly in them, the debut feels undigested in retrospect. Chaotic and energetic, those songs seem a bit uncentered. And you can still detect a slight buffer between trad music and out music, some evident grafts. Gather harnesses those same energies and contrasts them in seamless form, with coequal musical and emotional richness. As on the debut, the songs mutate constantly and subtly, although you detect more process-music deliberation than free-jazz bedlam. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Impressions of the Past," a condensed treatise on the tension between clear harmony and murky dissonance in American musical idioms. Moving in flawless quicksilver currents, it's like a Charles Ives pastiche in five exuberant minutes. "Solid Ground" is on just that, pairing a simmering blues with ruggedly spiritual group vocals and then upsetting the apple cart with an overdriven harmonica. "The Fade," about the death of the Cooks' grandfather, is as forthcoming as "Darkest Hour," a musique concrète sculpture, is obscure. While Bury the Square established Megafaun as a unique entity, Gather establishes them as a formidable one—a world-class band whose nascent powers seem destined to mature in interesting, unforeseen ways. After all, surprising development is the engine of Megafaun's music.
Gather earned acclaim from Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone alike—which is to say, it was equally adept at looking forward and looking back. It earned them prized tour slots with bands like old pals Bon Iver, The Dodos, Bowerbirds and Akron/ Family. And at a time when the North Carolina sound was nationally synonymous with The Avett Brothers, it proclaimed that the academic has as strong a foothold as the rootsy here.
But most important, it commemorated Megafaun's successful transition from promise to realization. The title of the album describes that precarious, inspirational process. After Edison's dispersal, the Cooks and Westerlund congregated, began to shape their unruly collective vision on Bury the Square, and then, less than a year later, fulfilled it—gather, form and fly. —Brian Howe
⇒ Polvo is in Europe ... interview coming Friday (stream album now in the player at the top of this page)
Perhaps you'd think that with a dozen years between albums, those geezers in Polvo would need some kind of warm-up lap. Fair warning: While you're waiting for the sweat pants to drop, In Prism will hit you wherever it might hurt the most. "Right the Relation" unleashes with a gnarly guitar strike, a thick, distorted chord swiveling along a fat, wobbly axis. And exactly 10 seconds in, Brian Quast, the band's third drummer, rips through with bashed cymbals and floor toms. "Math rock? Us?" his beat seems to ask, questioning the reputation the Triangle legends fostered with a decade of shifty rhythms and dual guitars that treated standard tuning like the suburbs. Quast does the same for "The Pedlar," a blitz of concision that pounds directly from one end to another. Ash Bowie shouts the words, too, his voice high in the mix, overstepping the cobwebs of enigma that shrouded Polvo's '90s output.
It's not all jock jams. Rather, In Prism presents a finessed force, balancing the guitar smarts of one of indie rock's best tag teams with a rhythm section that doesn't mind playing bad cop. Dave Brylawski's "D.C. Trails," for instance, exits on a rock-god, solo-driven coda, but its first five minutes are more of a patient drift, guitars snaking around drums that slink. The brawny "Right the Relation" sports a convoluted instrumental midsection where Steve Popson's bass break dances its way through pirouetting guitars. Quast jumps from one beat to another, letting the obvious next hit fly by, ratcheting tension until he rolls out of the break like Keith Moon's next of kin. "Beggar's Bowl" slings doubled and tripled Middle Eastern riffs and counters around a rhythm section that pumps back and forth—a hydraulic cylinder decorated with precious stones.
There's been too much worry as to whether or not this is Polvo's best record. For my money, it is, but the real talking point is this: What other four-piece made a rock record this propulsive, evolved and challenging in 2009? Well, I guess there's two more weeks left until 2010 ... —Grayson Currin
Listening to Upper Air, the second LP from Raleigh's Bowerbirds, is a multisensory experience. It's the rare nose-friendly record, for instance: "Bright Future" smells like high-mountain evergreens and "Chimes," a primordial forest. "Northern Lights" carries traces of a lover's shampoo left on a pillow. The song tastes like cinnamon toast.
And, of course, there's hearing: Upper Air is a great headphones record, but not in a sonic-tricks way. Actually, the sound's rather simple—smart acoustic guitar parts, gilded accordion accompaniment, some upright bass and violin, a few simple drum tracks. Rather, these songs play out like urgent whispers ("I know it's careless, but darling you look like you're fearless," entreats Phil Moore), and you want them delivered as close to your ears as possible. You're eavesdropping, and secrets aren't shouted—they leak out in shared-heart harmony. True to the band's naturist rep, it's a cocoon of a record, best listened to while you're fully zipped into a sleeping bag, headphones and all.
Best of all, though, might be the aforementioned "Northern Lights," which sounds like a Band song in slow motion. Think the late director Sam Peckinpah producing a single, but instead of using slow motion to turn violence into ballet, he freeze-frames notes to turn quiet emotion into a waltz. The musical hook isn't demonstrative. But what's there—a soft-shoe stutter step—is even more insistent because of it. To quote "This Day," it's a slow gesture. And "Northern Lights" is the one song that will be somewhere—in most cases, the closing slot—on every "Favorites of 2009" mix CD I make as this year ends.
I might have listened to Joe Romeo and the Orange County Volunteers as often in 2009. But after midnight, that time of deepest connection, it was always Upper Air. —Rick Cornell
The music of Chapel Hill's The Kingsbury Manx—gentle but intricate, smart though charming—has always just missed the sweep of national trends. Too pop-oriented for the skewed folk movement that took root earlier this decade but too subtle for the bombastic orchestration of ostentatious bandleaders like Sufjan Stevens that followed, The Kingsbury Manx's previous four records have landed only with nominal audiences more attuned to songcraft than fad-heavy surroundings. And so it goes with Ascenseur Ouvert!, the fifth and likely most meticulous and best effort in The Manx's distinguished oeuvre. While this year's trend chases the tails of lo-fi tunelesssmiths, The Manx constructed careful songs in layers of dignified electric leads, restrained rhythms, florid keyboards and a mix of banjo, sitar and harmonies. As full of puns and phraseology as emotional depth and admission, Ascenseur Ouvert! is the sort of at-dusk record you want to settle down with. And forget that 20-minutes-and-done business: Ascenseur Ouvert! spins through 14 tracks in 45 minutes. Each pass counts, no matter who's listening. —Grayson Currin
Red Collar often refers to its debut full-length, Pilgrim, as a flyer for its shows. That's awfully dismissive for an album over three years in the making—including months of sporadic recording sessions with veteran producer Brian Paulson. But the Durham quartet needed something to entice unfamiliar ears during a year that found it shifting jobs and relationships to the back burner while touring the country for months at a time. You can't send a journalist or coffee shop a concert, after all.
While the band's fierce live act will likely always be its calling card, Pilgrim indoctrinates listeners into the shouted chants and fist-pump moments the band duplicates among sweaty throngs in dark clubs. Frontman Jason Kutchma's punk-informed rabble-rousing incites working stiffs by casting rock 'n' roll as the savior from the drudge of an 8-to-5 world. The music feeds off of Kutchma's passionate diatribes, the crackle of twin guitars racing against pummeling drums and beefy bass. You can practically hear strings break and drumsticks shatter when "Tools" goes full throttle, even if you haven't yet watched guitarist Mike Jackson fling himself around the stage and into the crowd during one of the band's indefatigable sets. Now that Red Collar has picked up solid distribution, this flyer should go even further. —Spencer Griffith
In July, Durham quartet Bombadil prepared a party for the release of its second album, Tarpits and Canyonlands. Propelled by a longtime deal with Ramseur Records, the label that advanced The Avett Brothers, and a voracious touring appetite, the anticipation and expectations were high. This could be the band's moment to break into the spotlight. But that night, there was only a listening party, an art show, some snacks—no celebratory performance, no standing ovation. Supporting tour dates didn't follow, and only faint buzz arrived. Thanks to extreme tendinitis in the hands of multi-instrumentalist Daniel Michalak, Bombadil's career remains on indefinite hold.
It's a good thing, then, that Bombadil's music espouses wisdom beyond the members' 20-something years. Their heartfelt, carnival-folk songs dive into the darker sides of life—a stale marriage, the suicide of a close friend, a fearful notion of love. But the album's residing belief in perseverance leaves no songs at a dead end, and its exuberance for sounds—horns, drums, harmonies—leaps for glory, balancing whimsy, joy and reflection in a dynamic dance. Tarpits and Canyonland is Bombadil's prescient interpretation of life as a whirling duel. Let's hope it's not their last. —Kelly Reid
For Stuart McLamb, the language of love sent so many contradictory, coded messages, he needed to translate them into three-minute pop songs—and the result is The Love Language, a sparkling homemade pop debut that's charmed cognoscenti and casual listeners alike and earned the band a deal with Merge Records. Using a recent breakup to decode previous wrecked relationships, McLamb wrote all the songs and played nearly everything. He committed it all to an old-school four-track, mixing in enough tape distortion to turn the Spector textures into a post-bender haze. The murky sonics suit his ruthless vignettes, where questionable late-night decisions and little white lies breed perennial psychic hangovers. "I could have died in your arms/ now I'm back at your feet," he sings on the lovesick, cabaret-flavored opener, "Two Rabbits," enunciating a sentiment whose emotional weight comes from the unspoken transgression in between. In lesser hands, these nine songs might have been mere dour notes of despair. But set in 29 minutes of sunny, epic-pop melodies, hop-along twang and romantic waltzes, McLamb's distant, ragged vocals and clever wordplay read like nightclub-napkin apologies to himself and his exes. Forgiveness is a lot easier when it sounds this fun. —John Schacht
The journey leading to Horseback's masterpiece in adventurous metal, The Invisible Mountain, has been that of a confidently patient artist. From the epic, blissful drone of Impale Golden Horn to the winding improv of Approaching the Invisible Mountain and the burnt timbres of MILH IHVH, Jenks Miller—frequently Horseback's only member—develops his ideas with an assured, deliberate pace. Here, Miller unites those previous quests, using the first three of four tracks to turn calming drones into ominous storm clouds, meandering riffs into lightning streaks and blackened noise into stinging rain. But heavy, hypnotic riffs and grim, buried growls aren't resolution. Rather, that would be The Invisible Mountain's 16-and-a-half-minute finale and real reward, "Hatecloud Dissolving Into Nothing." The tension turns into a prelude, evaporating into lighter, nearly redemptive shades of gray. —Bryan Reed
Maybe you remember Midtown Dickens, the Durham duo of BFFs that got by on silly or sad songs delivered, between 2005 and 2008, with cute casualness. They'd miss a note, laugh and keep going. But the steady drum march that heralds Lanterns opener "Just Like Me" suggests a sea change: This band, now a quintet, knows it's capable of real craft. And so, the accordion moans majestically, and the banjo and electric guitar—bright and precise—wrap like intertwined hands beneath two-and-three-part harmonies. Two years ago, this would have been a Midtown disaster. Now, it's perfect—professional but comfortable, accomplished without being polished. "I'm scared of the night," the band sings on the early-album piano bellow "The Road Pt. I." Eight tracks later, on closer "The Road Pt. II," they exalt their battened hatches: "We're not scared of anything/ Although it's dark, we have let our lanterns go." A lantern is just another crutch, another way to shield inability. But this magnificent next step is a tender-hearted, attitude-filled proclamation—of self-reliance, of new challenges, of burning fears for fuel. —Grayson Currin
⇒ Interview coming Friday (stream album now in the player at the top of this page)
The burden of being an iconoclastic musical legend is continuing to upturn expectations. By that logic, Dex Romweber's more sedate, contemplative turn for Ruins of Berlin shouldn't be surprising, especially since it was preceded by a disc of moody piano instrumentals. Rather than the rugged rockabilly, surf and country-blues that characterized the Flat Duo Jets and his last duo disc, 2004's Blues That Defy My Soul, Romweber springs into suppler waters with a jazzy late-night saunter, suggesting the smoky drama of Roy Orbison. While not bereft of upbeat tunes ("Picture of You," "Lookout"), this one's shaded by darker emotional tones, from the title track to the gypsy swing of "Polish Work Song" and the laconic ballad "Love Letters," featuring Cat Power's Chan Marshall. Indeed the album's most extraordinary aspect is the presence of collaborators like Marshall, Exene Cervenka and Neko Case, a tacit acknowledgement of Romweber's broad influence and fitting counterparts for this crooner-centric vibe. —Chris Parker
Looking For Bruce—the follow-up to Hammer No More The Fingers' promising self-titled EP—builds on the strengths of its predecessor, cleaning up the rough edges with the production help of Jawbox's J. Robbins. The power trio manages to be both precise and playful, with chunky riffs and rubbery bass grooves adorning airtight beats. One immediate melody follows another as Duncan Webster's irreverent lyrics—he tackles American Gladiator Nitro and psychotropic mushrooms here—match the band's warped pop sensibilities. Guitarist Joe Hall is given ample space to shred between choruses chock with harmonies. Hammer doesn't reinvent indie rock. But on these windows-down college radio jams, the band proves that such wheel-making isn't necessary. —Spencer Griffith
The debut from Raleigh-via-Greenville quintet Lonnie Walker, These Times Old Times, sprints ahead, collapses from exhaustion and hits "repeat." Relentless percussion and acoustic guitar barrel into the angst of post-adolescence, fueling frontman Brian Corum's rapid-fire reflections on location, relationships and whatever else is at hand. In "Compass Comforts," he's not just singing "far away from you." Rather, he repeats "far" 57 times. When the five finally take a breath, Lonnie Walker's country-indie-punk aesthetic dissolves to a supple Neutral Milk Hotel core (complete with short, instrumental interludes). Poetry and pubic hair, worries and zest, roil and grace: The rattling energy of this debut has pushed Lonnie Walker into a strong local spotlight and across state lines to growing audiences. —Andrew Ritchey
Don Howland, another great bard of gutbucket snarl, once said, "Some people just don't fit in. And they need rock music." Like Dan Melchior, Ohio-born Howland eventually landed in North Carolina. Melchior grew up in Chertsey, England. When he moved to Durham, he was ecstatic. He's been mega-prolific ever since, producing fistfuls of 7"s and blasts of static, like this double LP.
Blues roots are the tangles of Melchior's work, and, here they're plugged into some rudimentary tools, tweaked like variants from Chrome to The Twinkeyz. You'll see very few signs of his garage punk days alongside Billy Childish, especially on torch-burners like "Sang Froid" and his eased-back ode to his favorite town, "Dear Old Durham." —Chris Toenes
Soul isn't the first thing many people associate with electronic music, but some of the best producers in the form have been making pensive, groovy tracks all along: This 12" split between North Carolina producers $tinkworx (J.T. Stewart) and Kinoeye (Zeke Graves) is a hot slab of evidence.
Stewart's not new to the scene: He runs his own label, DownLow, and releases his own work on European labels like Delsin, selling most of it across the pond. His track, "MKB," chugs with a piano hook that, throughout its 10 minutes, flourishes like phosphorescence at neap tide.
Graves first dipped his foot in the water under his Datahata techno guise, but "Mean Old World," with its minor-key ambience and bluesy vocal sample, took off earlier this year in European underground circles and became a critic's favorite. Didn't think there was a Southeast/ Euro deep-house connection? Well, now you know. —Chris Toenes