The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
I still don’t know what the hell happened with the production of this record. It’s not like The Hold Steady has ever had a very complex sound: guitar driven bar-rock with punchy riffs, Thin Lizzy solos, and the hungover street prophet vocals of Craig Finn. And still, the whole affair is almost single-handedly tanked by a shitty production job from Nick Raskulinecz(he admitted to never hearing the band before working with them, but still, we’re not talking the fucking Cocteau Twins here). Once you reconcile the fact that this is easily the worst sounding album in The Hold Steady’s tenure, you can hopefully hang around long enough to recognize that this is the band’s strongest set of songs in years. After a solid but spotty “off record” with 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever, The Hold Steady return with their most consistent collection of tracks since 2008’s Stay Positive. None of the singles reach the singular, anthemic perfection of “Hurricane J” or “The Weekenders”, but “Spinners” and “The Only Thing” get close. “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, the Infinite Jest- referencing “On With The Business” and “Big Cig” are the type of reliably satisfying barnburners that are the band’s bread and butter. The steel guitar flashes of Americana that occasionally popped up on Heaven Is Whenever are almost absent here, but they’ve perfected their brand of slow burner. “The Ambassador” uses light keys and ringing guitar to inch toward a wall of noise climax. “Oaks” might be the best closer in a catalogue filed with fantastic ones. It’s the longest song in the band’s catalogue, that doubles down on the coiled menace of “A Slight Discomfort”, pushing it into an even darker place before lifting it up in the second half. It reminds me of the last few pages of The Great Gatsby, with its soaring, wide-screened scope that I didn’t know the band had in them. Now about that production…
The Antlers – Familiars
My first reaction to this record was “Well this lovely… I doubt I’ll listen to it again”. I threw it on during my final descent into LA over the summer because I wanted something mellow and things just started clicking. This is probably the most unassuming album the band has released. There are no Grey’s Anatomy-ready torch songs like “I Don’t Want Love” or “Putting The Dog To Sleep”. The closest comes tucked into the middle of side two with “Parade”. Sparse guitar and cymbal hits ground a vocal delivery that’s the most narratively active on the album(the AABB rhyme scheme and constant references to “the mess we made” unmistakably evokes “Bear” off of the band’s debut). But the closest thing to a cinematic catharsis is a subtle increase in drum activity and a trumpet melody. The album is full of gorgeous payoffs like this. Familiars is in the same sonic ballpark as Burst Apart(though the implementation of horns does wonders for the arrangements here). But where that album began to show its rust in its middle third after a handful of listens, Familiars has only grown stronger.
Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
This is the first time that I’ve managed to be able to get on board with an Ariel Pink release fully and without reservation(since The Doldrums, I’ve found him alternatingly gripping and kind of bland). On Pom Pom, he is in full-on Frank Zappa mode, cheekily breaking the album’s fourth wall and barreling through genres like a bull in a china shop. When he’s not directly channeling Zappa(“Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade”, “Jell-O”, “Negativ Ed”) or 60’s California sunshine pop, he’s invoking Sabbath seen through droney synths with a Bowie mouthpiece on “Four Shadows”. “Lipstick” sounds like island/dub New Wave(Men at Work meets The Cure or something). “Put Your Number In My Phone” winds up sounding like the best Magnetic Fields song since 69 Love Songs. “Goth Bomb” sounds like an elevated version of something that would be tucked onto a Halloween monster-pop compilation. “Sexual Athletics” sounds like if Black Sabbath recorded “N.I.B.” to be put in a 70’s porn flick. I can go into the apparent influence behind all of these tracks and the net effect they had on me as a listener and believe me, I want to, but there’s 17 of them. “White Freckles” takes some playful synths and, what I’m hearing as, a 7/8 time signature and somehow manages to make it incredibly catchy and fun. If I’m making this thing sound too batshit, that’s not my intent. There is a strong and approachable pop-sensibility running through this entire album, it’s just filtered through a shitload of different genre lenses, often in one track. Ultimately, this is an incredibly satisfying album with a strong sense of humor and a deep reverence for vintage rock and pop. And despite being over an hour long, it sports one of the strongest track ratios I’ve heard all year.
Trophy Scars – Holy Vacants
Even in the early to mid 2000’s, when they were still playing some variation of mathy screamo, Trophy Scars showed flashes of ambition and potential well-beyond the niche genre trappings they were toiling in. They fully realized it on Alphabet. Alphabets, a Derridean concept record that was unapologetically bipolar in its mining of hardcore and emo conventions alongside EDM, ambient noise, hip-hop and whatever else they saw fit to throw in there. After reaching the heights of that style, they pivoted on 2009’s criminally overlooked Bad Luck(and some subsequent EPs) into a slower, booze-soaked post-hardcore. Holy Vacants represents the band’s apex of this particular sound thus far. For starters, I’m not even sure you can consider the band post-hardcore anymore. Their arrangements are firmly in classic-rock territory, with bluesy riffs, metal solos, an abundance of horns, Gospel background vocals creating a rich sonic palette that remains consistent throughout. Occasional explosions into heavier passages are delivered seldom and for maximum impact(the drum stomps and gospel shrieks that punctuate “Hagiophobia” are tits-out awesome). Front man Jerry Jones continues to be a compelling mic presence, occasionally using his decent(but limited) clean register, but yelling, growling and screaming through every track. The lyrical concept is expectedly batshit, chronicling a couple that finds the Fountain of Youth in angel blood. The record opens, “At 6AM I was counting large stacks of cash / You were feasting on the body of an angel in a taxi cab”, conjuring a noirish filthiness from the word go. It’s fun and worth following the lyrics for, but the songs functions just as well as ruminations on love or mortality or anxiety. This is a nearly flawless rock record indebted to hardcore. Or is it a hardcore record indebted to Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, and gothic horror comic books? However you have to tag it, don’t be another person who slept on this gem.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
As a whole, Benji is sonically in line with most of Mark Kozelek’s output, in that a fingerpicked guitar and his lower/half-spoken register are the primary sounds heard across the eleven tracks here. So why is this the most enamored and satisfied I’ve been with a Sun Kil Moon album since 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway? A lot of it has to do with the quality of storytelling here. Kozelek dispenses entirely with metaphor and abstraction and instead opts for naked bluntness. No detail is too banal or mundane to wind up on the cutting room floor. Rather than do what most singer-songwriters are “supposed to do” and distill the essence of life or death or heartbreak into relatable and digestible bits, Kozelek is leaving it all in here(or at least creating the sense that he is), rendering these memories or vignettes in minute, specific detail. Kozelek will begin ruminating on the death of a serial killer and follow is stream of conscious to what he was eating when he found out James Gandolfini died. On “Micheline”, he begins relating a story about a mentally challenged childhood neighbor before talking about the untimely death of a friend who had an awkward way of playing barre chords. The sedate, noodling quality of the music combined with the literary realist’s eye toward detail makes the emotional gut punches hit harder when they do arrive. On “Carissa”, Kozelek expresses disbelief towards the death of his young cousin(“You don’t just raise two kids, take out your trash and die”). “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” has him openly anticipating and dreading his mother’s eventual passing. And while there is a ton of death on this record, it remains an approachable and compelling listen. Like with most of Kozelek’s best stuff, there’s a warmth here, with the delicate guitars and Kozelek’s disarming delivery(and restrained but nice flourishes like the strings at the end of “Carissa”). And there’s humor here too, if you can catch it through Kozelek’s deadpan(the unflinching depictions of awkward sexual encounters in “Dogs”; trekking to a Postal Service show to hang out with his friend Ben[Gibbard] in “Ben’s My Friend”: “There’s a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass/And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass”). This is as heavy and as life-affirming of a record you’re likely to hear, from this year or any.
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
“You’ve got no cunt in your strut / You’ve got no ass to shake”.
Against Me! have always displayed a chip on their shoulder toward the altar of masculinity. Jocks and alpha-douches are antagonists on par with the most corrupt politicians. Similarly, lead singer, Laura Jane Grace has openly engaged with doubt, insecurity, and identity in her lyrics. So while Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the band’s first album since Grace has come out as a transexual woman, is lyrically at home with the rest of the band’s catalogue, the biographical details give the message purpose and teeth. The execution is unmistakably more pointed; the abstraction all but removed. Much has been made about stark, inflammatory declamations of the title track: “You don’t see me like you see every other girl / You just see a faggot” or the contrasting envy/hatred in “Drinking With The Jocks”(“All my life, wishing I was one of them”). But the unassuming moments are just as moving. “FuckMyLife666″ has Grace second guessing her choice as she contemplates how it will affect her marriage(“Silcone chest and collagen lips / How would you even recognize me?”). “Two Coffins” mines similar territory while also tackling mortality. Sonically, it’s not as speedy as some of the band’s older stuff, but it’s a far cry from the inconsistent, arena-ready White Crosses. Nor is it as bouncy as New Wave. These are angry but hugely infectious punk songs, with a biographical arc that should have no problem appealing to anyone who isn’t an asshole.
The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There
These guys are probably the most obvious benefactors of the renewed quasi-mainstream and critical interest that the “emo revival” has wrought. Sporting a glowing Pitchfork review, an equally glowing Metacritic score, a co-headlining tour over the summer with Foxing(with more headlining dates in 2015 on the way) they’re enjoying a level of visibility that may not have been possible without the renewed attention to the niche. And that’s great, because hopefully that means I don’t have to chastise you for sleeping on Home, Like Noplace Is There, a punchy but moving slice of emotional punk rock. This record has the same literary narrative quality that places firmly at home with The Weakerthans’ best stuff. And while many of the songs have that folksy approachability(not to mention the emotional punches to the gut), they are far more likely to explode into punchy guitars and shouted vocals. The twangy guitars on “An Introduction To The Album” ring and repeat until the song snaps with a release of gang vocals and screaming. “Life In Drag” is essentially a straight-up hardcore song. The big choruses here are no less cutting. “Your Deep Rest” follows the sonic template of a bouncy rock song, but the lyrics are about a friend losing a battle to depression: “You said ‘Remember me for me’ / I watched you set your spirit free /I called in sick to your funeral / The sight of your family made me feel responsible”. “The Scope of All This Rebuilding” turns “You cut our ropes/Left the umbilical” into some anthem of alienation. There is a throughline that links this album with the aforementioned Benji, LOSE, and Dark Comedy. Despite the canyons of difference that separate all of them sonically, these are all deeply engaging, vividly rendered, painfully human portraits of life and loss. Home, Like Noplace Is There is right there with them.
Swans – To Be Kind
To Be Kind finds Michael Gira and company operating on similar terrain as was found on 2012’s The Seer. Like that record, To Be Kind finds the band dealing in increasingly diverse rock styles(drone, ambient, folk, post-rock, doom, whatever else you got) and instrumentation with songs that are tense, bleak, and darkly beautiful. I frequently said The Seer is a good approximation of what the soundtrack to Hell might sound like(if it weren’t so enjoyable). It was an exhausting affair, clocking in at around two hours. To Be Kind actually beats that album’s length by a few minutes and is equally as tiring. But this is a slightly more accessible affair. Guitars are brighter, drums are tighter and more crisp, and the songs are more varied. The album is as likely to lock into a satisfying groove as it is to pummel you with funeral procession marches of sound(though there’s no shortage of that). For as rich and daunting as this record is musically, it doesn’t feel like a cerebral experience. The songs here are equally driven by and mean to incite our most basic and primal responses. They are deceivingly simple, often beginning barebones, beating a sonic idea into the ground and turning it inside out before ambling along, acquiring momentum, richness, and force. Being such a complete, diverse, and deliberately exhausting sonic experience, it’s difficult to recommend isolated songs from the album. The seedy, Delta groove of “A Little God In My Hands” sounds a little like Mike Patton scoring a track for the True Blood soundtrack. “Oxygen” takes an infectious riff and repeats it ad nauseum, piling layers of sound on it until the whole thing crescendoes into this carnivalesque nightmare. What begins sorta funky becomes some cacophonous hybrid of David Lynch and the creepy tunnel from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. And those are perfectly fine, almost-catchy entrance points. But they don’t do full justice to experiencing this album as a whole, with its glacial pacing and tectonic song transformation and climax. These songs are muscular beasts that both tiptoe and barrel through phases of noise and melody. And even if this thing wasn’t so awesome and sonically adventurous, Gira’s vocal performance is worth checking out on its own. His clean register isn’t so much tuneful as it is sinister. But then he’ll incorporate hoots, shouts, straight-up barking. Grab a decent pair of headphones, turn the lights off and give this one your time.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
I remember reading a [glowing] review for this record that began something like, “Indie rock has become the language of the oppressor”. While that’s a little histrionic and more than a little dismissive, I understand where that sentiment is coming from. “Indie rock”, as an aesthetic style and as an identifying tag has been co-opted by the mainstream with greater frequency. Bands that existed in your insular circle of flannel and dive bars are now a phone call away from cracking into a Grey’s Anatomy montage or a car commercial. And that’s fine. The “us vs. them” lines between “indie” and “sell-out” are not as rigid as they were when, say, a band had a fighting chance at selling some records. But still, describing something as “indie rock” in 2014 inevitably risks giving it a neutered ring. Cymbals Eat Guitars have always been a band that taps into the marrow of the tag, invoking titans of the style: Pavement, Built To Spill, among others.
“Jackson” opens the record, with its 50’s slowdance bassline that builds steam, eventually exploding in a huge chorus, before fully rocking out on its back end. “XR” is a stomping, shouty harmonica number that sounds like the greatest Titus Andronicus B-side. The opening bassline to “Chambers” flirts with sounding like an alternate take of “Billie Jean” before transforming into a driving rock song whose synth flourishes and guitar licks vaguely evoke the more meat and potatoes incarnations of 80’s radio rock. The production is punchy and a little imperfect, which suits the songs beautifully. What truly elevates the album for me is the clear-eyed regional and biographical specificity of D’Agostino’s lyrics. He cathartically screams, “I don’t wanna die at the hands of the Jackson Whites” on “Jackson”. “Child Bride”, while recalling a childhood friend from an abusive family, pauses to remember that he left behind his Dreamcast. On “Chambers” his parents buy him and his siblings a dog so they can learn about mortality. This whole album is jammed with this sort of pained and observant detail. If the band’s music calls to mind the aforementioned indie rock giants, D’Agostino’s lyrics remind me of the best material from The Wrens and The Mountain Goats. At only 9 tracks, this album manages to be sprawling and dramatic, but concise; huge and intimate; broadly relatable and painfully specific.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
While stylistically cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, Run The Jewels 2 smoothes out its edges and manages to be even more compelling. The beauty of this project is that it excels on so many levels. You want two of the best lyricists in modern hip-hop at their absolute peak just giving you straight-up bars? You got it, just get RapGenius ready. Maybe you want to hear what is a goddamn clinic in aggressive, dystopian hip-hop production. El-P has got you. Or maybe you just want a bunch of vicious quotables to deploy at the first sign of fuckboy antagonism: “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks”; “Fuck you fuckboys forever / I hope I said it politely”; “I’m a New Yorkian, I’m fucked from the jump/ I wear my Yankee so titled, I actually walk with a hunch”). The album is as effective as a distillation of post-Michael Brown fury as it is a fun, headbanging hip-hop record. The simmering “Jeopardy” give Mike and El equal opportunity to begin their verses in relaxed temperament, gradually increasing in venom until their respective verses climax. The beat on “Close Your Eyes(And Count To Fuck)” is comprised largely of a Zach De La Rocha vocal loop(a fantastic production touch on an album that is absolutely teeming with them) which would have been satisfying on its own, but De La Rocha delivers an absolutely killer verse at the end of the song(complete with a Phillip K. Dick reference!). I guarantee you that you know people decrying “the state of hip-hop today” who are still utterly clueless about this record. That shit is on them. There’s a reason that just about everyone — built-in fans, hip-hop zines, indie blogs, backpackers, and whatever — has been singing this album’s praises since October. If you’re still in the dark on it, stop being a fuckboy and get on it.