Mystery Jets | Bowery Ballroom | 2.24.2009

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Last we saw Mystery Jets, circa 2006 at Mercury Lounge, they were crusty youth who weren't sure whether they wanted to be Dexy's Midnight Runners or King Crimson. Fast forward two years and we're at a mostly packed Bowery Ballroom and a lot has changed for the band. Gone is 50-something Henry Harrision, singer Blaine's dad who played with the group and probably said thing's like "That's not how Rick Wakeman would've done it!' at practice. With him went Mystery Jets proggy tendencies, replaced by soaring hooks and a love of Big '80s pop. 

Their look has changed too, an unfortunate sparkly fashion sense seemingly inspired by Blanche on Golden Girls, complete with Prom Pearls. But we all wore some regrettable things when we were 20, as evidenced by the very young crowd many of whom looked like they'd just come from Neverland. (The island, not Michael Jackson's former ranch.) But I digress.

i'm bedazzled
The weird time signatures and other whiffs of the '70s might be gone, but that love of Pentangle and Yes has paid off. Mystery Jets know how to play. They are tight, the harmonies are spot-on and generally sound great. And the eccentricities come out in some genius arrangements. The band stuck mainly to their second album, Twenty One (my #2 album of 2008), which doesn't look like it's ever going to come out in the U.S. (Having just signed to Rough Trade, though, pretty much assures that the next one will.) We also got one new song, "Lady Grey," and the three singles off their debut, Making Dens.

The album's best singles — "Two Doors Down" and last year's best song, "Young Love" — made the least impact live. I didn't mind so much that Blaine Harrison sang Laura Marling's part on "Young Love," but guitarist William Rees, who sings lead on this one, his mike was still set at "backup singer" so it really didn't pop the way it should've. "Two Doors Down" is the kind of song that probably just shouldn't be played live, it's so over-the-top '80s it should just be heard on the radio. And with the songs's saxophone coda being replaced with guitar, it went from sounding like Whitney Houston to Big Country, which is actually okay by me. The night's best songs were the sweeping, more ethereal ones: "Veiled in Grey," "First to Know" and a show-stopping, goosebump-inducing "Flakes" which seemed to lift everyone a couple inches off the floor.

SETLIST: Hideaway | Half in Love with Elizabeth | The Boy Who Ran Away | Young Love | Lady Grey | Flakes | Hand Me Down | First to Know | Alas Agnes | Two Doors Down | Behind the Bunhouse | ENCORE: You Can't Fool Me Dennis | Veiled in Grey

MP3Mystery Jets – First to Know 

You can get the import of Twenty One from Amazon fairly cheap, but there's no legal digital option for us here in America, unfortunately. However, Mystery Jets just signed to Rough Trade which bodes well for us getting future releases.

Also at the show: The Music Slut, Music Snobbery, Sentimentalist, and my cohorts at Brooklynvegan.

Soundbites Best of 2008 | Singles, Tracks + EPs

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So here's my list of best singles, album tracks, and EPs from 2008. Unlike my Best Albums List, songs that were from a 2007 album but were released as singles in 2008 are eligible. But single reissues are not. (Which is why "Time to Pretend," Friendly Fires and Pacific are absent from my list.) With the concept of the "album" diminishing in this world of digital downloads, singles are becoming more important. I'm not calling the death knell for the Album, but if groups whose music leans toward the poppy and immediate side of things wanted to just release singles or EPs every couple months instead of a full-length, I'd be okay with it. As I've said before singles are ephemeral in nature, and though I've hit my yearly limit on a few of the songs on this list, there was certainly a period of time in 2008 where all 50 of these were stuck on repeat.

1. Mystery Jets feat. Laura Marling – Young Love (MP3) (Video)
The most inventive, deceptively simple (but actually kind of crazy complex; listen to all the little flourishes), repeatedly-rewarding pop song of the year. Great video too.

2. Metronomy – Heartbreaker (MP3) (Video)
Fantastic bassline + creaky doors + whistling = my second favorite song of the year.

3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You (MP3) (Video)
A great big hug wrapped in a fuzzy indie pop sweater.    

4. Violens – Violent Sensation Descends (MP3
Loud Quiet Loud as has never quite been done like this before. I can't wait for their full-length.

5. Dizzee Rascal w/ Calvin Harris – Dance Wiv Me (MP3) (Video)
I've never been much of a Dizzee fan, but add Calvin's '80s-style production and you've got a dancefloor killer.

6. Sam Sparro – Black and Gold (Video)
The rest of this album does nothing for me but "Black and Gold"'s glammy throb is irresistible.

7. TV on the Radio – Golden Age (Video)
2008 was the year of Change and TVotR made the perfect soundtrack. This is the sound of hope with a good beat.

8. Sexy Kids – Sisters Are Forever (MP3)
Just try not to bounce 'round the room while listening to this slice of Scottish pop perfection a la Altered Images.

9. Esser – Headlock (MP3) (Video)
Effervescent single, ridiculously catchy, like superballs set free inside a perpetual motion machine… yet loaded with downer lyrics like "I've got a problem, it's called living." Perfect.

10. Summer Cats – Lonely Planet (MP3) (Video)

Like the Rosebuds backed by Stereolab, Australia's Summer Cats put a sunny coat of paint on the krauty VU groove. 

11. Metronomy – A Thing for Me (MP3) (Video)
I could put almost all of Metronomy's Nights Out on this list, but restrained myself at two. Be sure to check out the video to this one.

12. David Byrne & Brian Eno – Strange Overtones (MP3
Too bad the rest of the Byrne/Eno album didn't deliver on the promise of this great single.

13. Sky Larkin – Fossil, I (Video)
Old school indie rock done with vim and vigor by this Leeds, UK trio. Vim and vigor? Really. Just listen to the song. It rocks. 

14. Lykke Li – Little Bit (Video)
Lykke Li's coquettish delivery slightly disguises just how hot this is.

15. Ida Maria – Queen of the World (MP3) (Video)
One of the most joyous songs ever about being smashed on whiskey.

16. MGMT – Kids (Video)
Hate their fashion, hate their friends, hate their rich hippie-ness, but MGMT have some great songs. The hooks are undeniable!

17. Girls – Lust for Life / Morning Light (MP3) (MP3) (Video)
There are too many "Girl" groups right now, but I've got room for San Francisco's shoegaze folk rock wunderkinds. Especially on this double A-side.

18. Animal Collective – Water Curses EP (MP3) (Video)
Animal Collective have finally started to get poppy enough for me to genuine like them. Bring on Merriweather Post Pavillion!

19. Late of the Pier – Heartbeat (MP3) (Video)
One of the many "this shouldn't work" songs on LotP's great debut Fantasy Black Channel. Yet it does, brilliantly.

20. Vivian Girls – Tell the World (MP3) (Video)
Every time these girls open their mouths to the press, it's a disaster, but give 'em instruments and hard
to hold it against them. So many things in that sentence could be construed the wrong way.

21. Casiokids – Grønt Lys I Alle Ledd / Togens Hule (MP3) (Video)
You don't need to speak Norwegian to dig this double A-side. I imagine it would help, though. But not that much.

22. The Last Shadow Puppets – Standing Next to Me (MP3) (Video)
Alex Turner and Miles Kane seem a little young to already be going through their Jacques Brel/Scott Walker period, but that's also probably why it's as good as it is.

23. The Wild Beasts – The Devil's Crayon (MP3) (Video)
Not since the days of the Associates and the Triffids has pop attempted to be so grandiose… and successful at it. I must say I can't really stomach the resto of them album, but but "The Devil's Crayon" is a bullseye.

24. Adele – Cold Shoulder (Video)
I'll take Adele over Duffy any day… "Cold Shoulder" perfectly-produced soulful pop. Ronson-produced, natch.

25. Amazing Baby – Infinite Fucking Cross EP (download EP) (Video + Video)
Hated by Brooklynvegan commenters, loved by me. Harder, more-rocking Roxy Music? About as close to a good description as you can get with there pigeonhole-adverse Williamsburg residents.

26 – 50 after the jump…

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I could’ve directed it: New Mystery Jets Video

I’ve waxed enthusiasic about the new Mystery Jets album, including the ’80s-sax-laden "Two Doors Down" which will be the album’s next single, and probably huge summer UK hit. But the video’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? The "Young Love" video was really clever, I thought, and this was just puts the band in dayglo shirts, skinny ties, pastel jackets… plus other vintage MTV trappings. Yawn. But the song remains irresistible, with one of my favorite lines of recent memory: "I hear she likes to dance ’round the room/to a worn-out 12" of Marquee Moon." I’d just better not see them wearing a graduation cap and a Beat t-shirt when you make a video for "MJ."

MP3: The Mystery Jets – Two Doors Down (Buy Twenty-One from 7 Digital)

Twenty-One with a Bullet

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If you’d told me two years ago that The Mystery Jets would make one of the best pop albums of 2008, I think I would’ve scoffed. Here was a band who claimed King Crimson to be a primary influence, and who never met 17 disparate musical ideas that they didn’t like and want to put all into the same song. Not that they didn’t have some good songs ("You Can’t Fool Me Dennis" made my Best Singles of 2005 list) but The Mystery Jets were just too damn inclusive.

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But dammit there’s no denying the pop smarts found all over their new album, Twenty One, where nearly every song could be a single. It’s been a long time since I listened to one album repeatedly, nonstop, like this. It’s all I listened to on the way too and and from SXSW. I listen to it in the shower, while doing the dishes, on the way to work, just about everywhere I have control of the music, and it would probably still be in prime rotation if it wasn’t for the new Shortwave Set album.

So what happened? Was it the exit of the dad? I’ve joked that his response to hearing any new song brought to the band was "That’s not how Yes would’ve done it!" But I doubt that’s really the case. Something tells me he probably just bowed out, letting them be a truly young band. (More on this in a minute.)

My guess is a combination of producer Errol Alkan bringing his pop sensibilities to the group, as well as a maturation of songwriting. Certainly those sirens that kick off album-opener "Hideaway" were his idea. And probably the saxaphone on the soon-to-be-a-single "Two Doors Down" which I’m guessing is the song drummer Kapil Trivedi is talking about when he said "If the song sounded like an ’80s Whitney Houston song, [Alkan would] go for it and bring out the keys to make it top-line."

MP3: Mystery Jets – Two Doors Down

As someone who suffered through the ’80s Sax Nightmare firsthand, I must admit I cringed the first time I heard the sax fadeout of "Two Doors Down" (straight out of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody"), an otherwise near-perfect pop song with the kind of massive chorus that you’re singing along with before the song is half over. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to it so much, but I’ve come to not even notice it. There’s more sax on the album, though thankfully most of it is more of the kind that Duran Duran or the Beat used — more of a sexy bleat (is that possible?) the kind you can’t trace back to "Baker Street." The kind that doesn’t immediately grate on your nerves. You can hear it on "MJ," which follows "Two Doors Down," and sounds more than a little like the Police’s "Don’t Stand So Close to Me" though filtered through DD or General Public.

But enough about saxaphones. We’re talking really focused songwriting here, to the point seems like they were trying to write Big Pop Hits. That’s not a bad thing, if done right, which I think they mostly did. Taking a page from the Glen Ballard/Aerosmith late-80s approach to chart success, nearly half the songs start with the chorus. Or in the case of the current single, "Young Love," I’m not exactly sure what the chorus is. Here’s the charming video:

The "If I only knew your name…" part starts off like it’s just a verse, but then they come back to it over and over… which kind of makes it the chorus. But it doesn’t sound like a chorus the way that "Two Doors Down" or "Half In Love with Elizabeth" do, but nothing else is really chorus-like, either, though… I’m still not sure. But it’s a great song and maybe a good example of what works on the album. It’s got a killer bassline (how often do you hear that about a pop song anymore?) and guitars that never settle for just strumming. Lead guitarist William Rees, who actually takes lead vocals on "Young Love," is a really inventive player (doesn’t use a pick, not that that’s inventive, just hard on the fingers) sort of in the same way Johnny Marr was in the Smiths. The second time the chorus come in, Alkan adds this shimmery little keyboard thing which pulls you along, then halfway though in comes Laura Marling who adds a whole new element to the song.

"Young Love" is also a good example, lyrically, of the album which really seems to be about what it is to be young. Most of it dealing with matters of the heart, but just also that fearless, youthful spirit we all have before responsibility kicks in. "Please don’t turn me into a man," Blane Harrison sings on the Dylan-esque "Umbrellahead." "I Don’t want to see my skin fold. Please won’t you keep me as a I am / People look so lonely when they’re old." Which might have been a bit hard to sing with your dad on stage next to you.

I think I could go through song-by-song, dissecting all the cool little touches on Twenty One but this post has become rambly enough. The album doesn’t seem to be coming out in America anytime soon, I’m not even sure they have an American label at this point (Dim Mak’s page doesn’t seem to have been updated in over a year). Every record store I’ve been to in New York has given me blank stares when I ask about it.** But you can get it digitally — high quality, DRM-free MP3s — via 7 Digital. This will definitely be in my Top Ten of 2008… how high remains to be seen. One more taste of the album, plus a remix, for you:

MP3: The Mystery Jets – Half In Love with Elizabeth

MP3: The Mystery Jets – Hideaway (Switch Remix)

Mystery Jets | Mercury Lounge | 3.25.2006

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It’s bands like The Mystery Jets that make a music writer’s job easy. With all the kooky factoids associated with them, a person could almost write a whole review about them and not even get around to mentioning the music:

They live somewhere called Eel Pie Island! The singer’s dad is also in the band!

OK, so that’s just two things, but I’m sure someone like Rob Sheffield could stretch that out to 200 words. Luckily there’s lots more to write about in regards to their show at Mercury Lounge on Saturday (they also played Friday night). First, they had the most gear ever. Poor Kelley Stoltz and his band were forced to play on the right side of the stage (though it didn’t phase him, he was just great) thanks to all their guitars, keyboards, trash can lids, jingle bells, oompahdoozles and flazzerapans. It took them a while to set up all their junk — and I mean junk, their keyboards were held together with duct tape — but eventually they took the stage to a prerecorded chant of "Zoo time! Zoo time!"

The Mystery Jets are a nutty band. Wild-haired singer Blaine Harrison sat on a padded stool (more on this later), surrounded by said keyboards, trashcan lids and other bangable things. He also had a cowbell on a rope around his neck. Lead guitarist Will Rees was dressed like a cricketer. The bassist seemed to think he was in Franz Ferdinand, and tended to pose a lot. The drummer, apart from being smaller than any member of Battle, seemed fairly normal. Lastly, there was Blaine’s dad, Henry, in a sort of collarless pirate shirt.

The music is just as schizo. It’s proggy, poppy, retro, Kinksy… you know, whatever they feel like at the time. I like but don’t love their debut, Making Dens, but the band’s relatively short set kept to the best bits. I’ve read other reports saying they were just noise, but that’s not true. It may have been a little cacophonous at times, but there were pop songs, hooks, close harmonies and skilled playing underneath it all. I ended up watching Rees for most of the show, he’s a fascinating guitarist. He’s from the Jeff Beck "I don’t need a plectrum" school of playing. He wasn’t just finger-picking, but also strumming pretty hard. While I’m sure he plays a big part in the band, Henry seemed like a bit of an afterthought: pushed to the left of all his son’s equipment, away from the kids.

It was a good, spirited show. The crowd seemed genuinely into it, as did the band. "The Boy Who Ran Away" and "You Can’t Fool Me Dennis" ("This is a song about a man named Dennis" – Henry) were particularly good. There was so much going on, I never even thought to wonder why Blaine sat on a stool the whole time. Turns out — after a fair amount of web research — he suffered from spina bifida as a child and now needs some help walking, and must sit while playing. It didn’t hamper the band’s energy one bit. Of all the curious minutia associated with the band, I like that this particular bit has so far been the most trivial of all.

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Switching slots from the previous night, The Noisettes headlined on Saturday. Fronted by Shingai Shoniwa, who looked liked something out of 1983 — kinda like Grace Jones via the Belle Stars, lots of dayglo — the trio was certainly spunky but I grew tired of them after about three songs and went home.

Photo (actually from Friday’s show) swiped from The Modern Age.