2014’s 10 great records, including a rare masterpiece by Amen Dunes
December 29, 2014
More than ever this year Independent Ethos has drifted toward film over music. Even the “Miami New Times” and “Pure Honey” magazine, which in the past, usually have tasked this writer with music writing, has assigned more film writing over music. Also, save for a particularity unforgettable performance by Mogwai at Grand Central, this year saw a dearth of live shows from visiting bands. But that did not mean I have ignored new music in 2014. This year was especially remarkable because it also included a type of album that comes by every five to seven years: a masterpiece from an unknown band. This blue moon belongs to Amen Dunes’ Love.
From when I first heard this album, months ago, in the spring, there was no doubt Love would top this list because not only is it the best album I heard in 2014, but one of the greatest albums I’ve heard in the 21st century. As usual, with such bold statements, it’s personal. But I cannot help but marvel at the microscopic musical moments within the album that make it otherworldly and gorgeous.
The instruments are so subtly handled on Love some are hard to recognize sonically. Was that a flute shimmering through the extended, sustained squonk of saxophone in the fade out of opening track “White Child”? Is the rumble in the distance a trumpet? Could there be lightly bowed violin mixed into the quiet strumming of follow-up track “Lonely Richard”? I prefer not to know because the spectral quality of many of the songs on Love weave a transporting tapestry of atmosphere simply unheard of on many modern rock albums.
Musicians, especially pop artists, are so full of self-conscious awareness nowadays that it’s refreshing to hear an album as remarkably luscious as Love while maintaining a mysterious distance of relatability. It’s more impressionistic than expressive, a seeming throwback to Brian Eno’s Another Green World in the vividness of the songs. It helps that there is a beautiful photograph of nature on the cover art. It appears to have been taken at dusk, the moon fading into the early light of day next to a massive puffy cloud and a tree line shrouded in fog. There’s a woman in the corner, baring her bosom to the scenery, looking away from the camera and toward the landscape. You don’t picture this music coming from a studio in Brooklyn, where much of this album was recorded, the music flows out from the earthy branches of trees like a mist.
These songs are auras of ghosts. But it’s not a record fixed in ethereal atmospherics turned to mush, like the Cocteau Twins. It’s more the grounded residue of Meddle-era Pink Floyd with a minimalist touch and the vocals of a rustic Bryan Ferry or Tim Buckley. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Damon McMahon strips down his style on “Sixteen” with only his fluttering voice so drenched in reverb, it’s not always clear what he’s singing. “My love, you’re gone” stands out, but not every line of the lyric. The piano line that makes the music of the song at most has two phrases with two notes each. But it’s not the melody so much as the echo that bounces from one speaker to another that creates the song’s dreamy quality.
That’s the simplest song on the album. Some songs on Love, the second album by Amen Dunes on Sacred Bones Records, have a country feel like the ramble of “Rocket Flare” or a Latin jazz vibe, like “Lilac In Hand.” But genre skipping is only in the shadows of this music. A distinct ghostly style defines the record. The opening of “Lonely Richard” sounds like that moment of slipping out of consciousness into a tranquil slumber. The song begins with a light strum of an acoustic guitar above the echoing end of bow on a string instrument. Opening the song with the reverbing luster of a note’s end upends how the listener considers something like a violin or viola that’s not there and defines this record’s quality. It’s probably guitarist Jordi Wheeler’s fingers delicately touching an electric guitar’s strings, playing the reverberations of the strings instead of the strings themselves. Below the luscious drone of the lightly strummed acoustic with that delicately bowed reverb, drummer Parker Kindred plays a light beat on his snare augmented by the soft rumble of a tom-tom that he must be hitting with a padded timpani mallet. As McMahon sings “know yourself … known yourself for all time” the shimmering drone does not break but creaks along while a quietly tapped piano fades in from nowhere to add to the melody and another vocalist adds some lower-end “deh, deh, deh…” as the song fades away before growing too complicated.
Amen Dunes creates musical miracles with voice and instruments. It culminates with the album’s epic title track, which begins with an ambling piano and some softly tapped hand drums. Occasionally there are misplaced notes, but they add a human character that trumps anything made by a computer. McMahon sings of dreaming and lost love, as a few more instruments join in, like a shaker and then the distant exhalation of breath through a French horn, but mostly McMahon piles on vocals, from an extended single note, to some unclear, simple scat singing over his lyrics that have become too obscured to make out, but it’s OK, it’s a terrific jam that never overwhelms and maintains the record’s wonderful mood.
Love undoubtedly stands out as the best of the year for this writer. It was one of the few vinyl records purchased this year, and I was happy to find an early clear vinyl edition at Sweat Records, my local Miami record shop. There were only two other records I found worth ordering as imports after streaming them on Spotify because they just were not available in the U.S. at the time. Those two records top the beginning of the rest of this writer’s 10 great albums of 2014. The first was The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Revelation, which came as a beautiful dual-toned blue vinyl on two LPs. As great as the packaging was, the best thing about it is the music. On first listen, I thought the songs were minimalist Kraut-rock-like drones, but then repeated listens reaped more rewards, as the complexities of the tracks began to stand out. Favorites are the opener and closer, two songs that rock and drone in their own lusciously layered, melodious manners. The first harsh and aggressive, the final buoyantly pretty.
The third vinyl purchase was the original motion picture soundtrack of Only Lovers Left Alive with music primarily by the film’s director Jim Jarmusch and his band Sqürl with accompaniment by lute master Jozef van Wissem. Again, great gatefold packaging featuring colored vinyl, in this case clear blood red. for this soundtrack of a terrific film on the existential malaise of immortal vampires. The film features a couple of great musical moments, a dizzying opening featuring twirling camerawork surely based on 33rpm vinyl and a visit to a bar in Tangiers out of a Win Wenders movie. It’s a film that will rate high on my list of the best films of 2014 only because it all works so well together: the acting, writing, cinematography and of course the music (read my review).
The bottom of the list are records I did not buy (except for one weird exception) but enjoyed repeated listens via Spotify (follow us here), including one I reviewed. I’ll list them in descending order with appropriate links to my writing. Also, as above, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the specific link, you will be financially supporting this blog:
- Ty Segall – Manipulator (A link to my review)
- Owls – Two
- Broncho – Just Enough Hip to be a Woman (A link to a preview of the album)
- Gov’t Mule – Darkside of the Mule
- Dylan Howe – New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin
- Jozef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch – Concerning the Entrance Into Eternity
- Guardians of the Galaxy – song soundtrack on cassette (just because the format is so cool and the songs are great selections from the commercial radio I grew up with)
Tomorrow: part 1 of the 20 best films of 2014.