Best albums of 2020: #3 Phoebe Bridgers “Punisher”

In 2017, the debut album by a young singer/songwriter I had never heard of just eked itself into the final position on the list of my top ten albums for the year. Yes, that singer/songwriter was named Phoebe Bridgers and yes, I fully admit that “Stranger in the alps” might place higher on said list if I had to do a recount someday.

Since that year, the young Ms. Bridgers has become much more well known and with good reason. She’s talented, intelligent, and because of this, others want to work with her. She’s collaborated with the who’s who of the indie rock world, including a one-off self-titled EP in a supergroup (of sorts) called boygenius, that she concocted with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. She also put together a group with Mr. Indie rock 2000 himself, Conor Oberst, called Better Oblivion Community Center, and released an eponymously named long player, which found itself at number one on my Best Albums list for last year.

So to say her sophomore album was eagerly anticipated (and not just by me) is an understatement to say the least. Nevertheless, “Punisher” is that rare animal that doesn’t underwhelm under the heft of expectations heaped upon it, rather it leaps out from under the huge shadow manufactured by its predecessor and surpasses it. Recorded in multiple sessions over a year and a half period and with the help of a number of her, by now, many musician friends, the album’s eleven tracks appear exactly in the same order as they were completed, which just once more proves the honesty in her approach.

Indeed, “Punisher” is just as open and personal as “Stranger in the Alps”. Listening to her words, you get the feeling that you know Phoebe Bridgers. There’s no hiding or subterfuge here. It’s quiet but it’s also loud and full, our storyteller letting everything that influences her to find its way into the mix. Yet her voice never gets lost. In fact, there’s no escaping her soft touch, her frail yet confident delivery, her learning and learned experiences informing everything. It makes you wonder at the expansiveness of what her 10th or 12th album will sound like a couple of decades from now.

The whole of “Punisher” is definitely worth your time if you have it but if not, at least give your attention to my three picks for you as preview.

“Garden song“: Track two is the first proper song on “Punisher” and the first taste of it that we received back in February. It is fingers brushing and dancing over acoustic strings, distorted and blurred by haunting synth washes and just the hint of a drum beat. Bridgers sings frailty and strength, emboldened by rumbling shadow vocals provided by her tour manager, Jeroen Vrijhoef. It’s a song that riffs on memories but in typical Bridgers fashion, it is not quite as simple as that. It is memories looking forward to the future looking back at the memories. “Someday, I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill.” And that house will have a garden that will remind her of her unhappy family home, her hometown, jumping fences as a teen, her favourite movie, romantic encounters, and how they all add up to her hoping she’ll grow up right.

“Chinese satellite”: “Took a tour to see the stars but they weren’t out tonight, so I wished hard on a Chinese Satellite.” This chorus line of track six reminds me of the line from the iconic Billy Bragg track, “A new england”, where he also wishes on a satellite instead of a falling star and wonders if it is wrong to wish upon “space hardware”. And if I continue to draw comparisons, both songs are about loss, but Billy seems to be a bit more upbeat about it and Phoebe, though she hasn’t lost her sense of humour, is heartbreakingly dark. Finally, Bridgers soups up her solo guitar work with a load of effects for a fuller and oddly, more claustrophobic and haunting sound. It’s hard to tell whether the loss in her case was death but it certainly feels that way.

“Kyoto”: This last track, the second single to be released from the album, is definitely my favourite and it’s likely because it’s also the most upbeat. It sets a completely different tone, almost rocking with a bashing beat and horn flourishes, underneath Bridgers’ still maudlin and sad and pained vocals. “Kyoto” feels a little like “Lost in translation” to me. It’s like a world apart, not real life, a vacation, like being pulled outside one’s consciousness and looking down at oneself and the recognition not being there. “Day off in Kyoto. I got bored at the temple, looked around at the 7-11.” Lyrically and at its most platonic level, the song feels like jotted notes to try to remember the trip, but the music feels like a journey, a fish out of water for Bridgers and shows that she’s got this in her. So exciting to hear what comes next.

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Strokes “The new abnormal”
9. Venus Furs “Venus Furs”
8. Bright Eyes “Down in the weeds, where the world once was”
7. The Beths “Jump rope gazers”
6. The Rentals “Q36”
5. Secret Machines “Awake in the brain chamber”
4. No Joy “Motherhood”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2012: #19 Great Lake Swimmers “Easy come easy go”

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If you’ve never heard of Great Lake Swimmers or listened to their poignant indie folk, you’re indeed missing out. In the past, I would often say about them that when listening to them, they were an amazing experience, but would then go long periods without listening to them and forget about them, until a new album was released and I would fall in love with them all over again. But now that I’ve seen myself amass a bunch of their records as a part of my vinyl collection, I can honestly mark them down as one of my favourite bands, not just a standout amongst the indie folk greats.

Great Lake Swimmers have always been the project of singer/songwriter Tony Dekker. He started out using the name back in 2003 and recorded the self-titled debut in an abandoned grain silo in his hometown of Wainfleet, Ontario. Over the years, he has brought in a number of different musicians to augment his quiet and honest musings on life and the world around him. It felt there was a shift, though, with the band’s fifth album, 2012’s “New wild everywhere”. To his long time collaborator in Erik Arnesen (banjo/guitars), Tony Dekker added fiddler/vocalist Miranda Mulholland, upright bass player Bret Higgins, and Greg Millson on (gasp!) drums.

Yes, the drums were a somewhat new fixture and almost automatically picked up the tempo and mood by default. But I really think it was the addition of Miranda Mulholland that breathed new life into Dekker’s compositions with her backing vocal harmonies and her rollicking fiddle work. Just take “Easy come easy go”, my favourite tune on the album, as an example. Of course, it still features Dekker’s literate and hefty words but it’s more upbeat than anything he had produced up to that point.

“Call it chance, call it choice
Words escape on the breath of your voice
Spinning a magic as they arrive
It’s not fail when it’s a shallow dive”

But don’t get the wrong idea. It is still subdued, classy, and understated. You can almost see Tony and his band just nodding and tapping their toes, performing in button up shirts, done all the way up, sleeves rolled to the elbow, hair slicked or tied back, everything prim and perfect and no-nonsense. Meanwhile, the crowd gathered to watch them, in my mind’s eye, in a broken down barn, on a quiet and warm summer’s night, surrounding the band from an appropriate distance, swaying in abandon on top of hay bales, stomping their feet, and swinging and dipping their partners in love.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

100 best covers: #63 Colin Meloy “Everyday is like sunday”

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Morrissey is quite the polarizing figure, perhaps one of the most polarizing in the modern rock era. Like many, I love the part he played leading The Smiths, much of his early solo work, and even some of the later music he released under his own name. However, with every comment and miscue and cancelled tour, it’s getting harder for me to separate the artist from his art. And knowing what I know of Colin Meloy, having an inkling on his political stances, and my general feeling that he is an excellent human being, I sometimes wonder what his own thoughts are on Morrissey, one of his heroes and huge influences on his own music. But perhaps that mental leap happened too quickly, so let me backtrack.

The year following the release of The Decemberists’ third album, “Picaresque”*, frontman Colin Meloy self-released his own first solo recording. It was a six-song EP of covers of songs, the first of a series of similar EPs, each shining a spotlight on one of his favourite artists, that Meloy would issue and sell only at his solo shows. These EPs were aptly called, in reverse order from the date of release: “Colin Meloy sings The Kinks”, “Colin Meloy sings Sam Cooke”, “Colin Meloy sings Shirley Collins”, and of course, “Colin Meloy sings Morrissey”.

The six songs on this last were made up mostly of B-sides or lesser known singles by the master of maudlin but the final track was a certain very well-known single. Indeed, “Every day is like sunday” was the second ever single released by Morrissey after the dissolution of The Smiths and appeared as the third track on his solo debut album. It is one of my own favourite tracks, out of all of his solo output, and yet I can’t seem to help but love Colin Meloy’s cover just that much more.

The original is quite polished, full band and sweet production, not that there’s anything wrong with that. On this song, however, where there is an inherent sadness and solitude and fear, I think Colin Meloy hammers the nail in further with his stripped down, solitary version. He starts the proceedings sounding lonely and forlorn, just strumming on the acoustic and instilling Morrissey’s lyrics with more passion and precision than his hero, and by the end, you can’t help but feel his angst and moral outrage at the situation hinted at in the lyrics.

Indeed, the lyrics feel almost prophetic now, given the current situation we all now find ourselves in, but really, they only ring true, and don’t feel touristic, if played through the lens of Colin Meloy’s cover.

Disagree with me, I dare you.


The original:

*The now iconic album by the indie folk band is the one that would end up being their last as an honest-to-goodness indie band,

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.