Lykke Li – I Never Learn
The most archetypally pop moment on I Never Learn is the chorus of “Gunshot”, which has Li belting, “And the shot goes through my head and back/Gunshot, I’ll never get you back”, if that gives any indication about how unremittingly sad this album is. Written after a breakup that found Li moving from her native Sweden to LA, this is a classic torch album. If there’s not a coherent story told here, there’s certainly an emotional arc adhering somewhat to the Kubler-Ross model. Sonically, for an album so intimate and so reliant on standard singer-songwriter tools(acoustic guitar and piano), the album’s production remains expansive and cinematic(check out the synth washes on “Gunshot” or “Just Like a Dream”. Even the completely stripped down and crushing “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” manages to imbue Li’s voice and a softly strummed guitar with the gravity of singing to an empty church.
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Listening to the first two Perfume Genius records was sort of like listening to an utterly compelling presence speak very quietly. The airy, piano/voice arrangements were unassuming variations on similar ideas. Even when you were invested in what you were hearing, you still had to learn forward and force yourself to pay attention to it. Too Bright finds Mike Hadreas delivering his haunting falsetto with the same trademark vulnerability, but the arrangements here are more full and confident. “Fool” is the closest thing to a pop track, with its doo-woppy bassline and finger snaps. The weeping violins on “I Decline” would feel at home on Put Ur Back N 2 It. The brittle synths and staccato drums on “Grid” are not far off from a Joy Division track. The warped drones on “My Body” are straight menacing, sounding lifted from the Swans The Seer LP. Hadreas clearly has the voice and career trajectory to be primed for a pop crossover sooner than later. On Too Bright, it’s exciting seeing such a singular artist making moves to expand himself, sonically.
Pianos Become The Teeth – Keep You
Stylistically, Pianos Become The Teeth have traditionally been firmly at home next to bands like La Dispute and Touche Amore; jagged post-hardcore bands who are putting out solid albums with ambition and scope to match the aggression. The kicker for Pianos Become The Teeth’s first two LPs(especially The Lack Long After) was Kyle Durfey’s screamed vocals, made up from lyrics largely about his late father succumbing to a battle with MS. Keep You finds the band making a sonic and lyrical shift. Sonically, just about any traces of post-hardcore are gone here. These are mostly mid to low tempo numbers that hang on delicate, textured guitar work and spacious, restrained drumming. The crawling tendencies toward climax bring to mind post-rock acts like Caspian or God Is An Astronaut. The balance of restraint quietly building towards emotional catharsis calls to mind some of The National’s more recent stuff. Some have written the songs on this record off as “samey” sounding. At first listen, that’s a reasonable observation, but this is a grower. The mini-catharses present on each track here may not differentiate and reveal themselves for a few listens. While every song here is still about the death of Durfey’s father, he’s further along in the phases of grief. Rather than the blunt and voyeuristic look at suffering we were subjected to on TLLA, Keep You is more about the quieter moments of coping with a loss. On “Ripple Water Shine”, he reflects that he’s “Still waiting for that drink at Ottos”. On “Enamor Me”, he admits to no longer coming to his fathers grave because it begins to feel like an empty gesture that doesn’t invoke his dad’s presence. When you lose someone and the visceral ugliness of that loss has subsided, you still have to continue existing with that absence in your life. This record bottles that emotion with painful detail and gorgeous songs.
Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
So on this record, Cloud Nothings basically doubled down on many of the elements present on Attack on Memory: frenetic, buzzing guitars, a rough but engaging vocal performance from Dylan Baldi, and some goddamn insane drumming. Structurally even, the band doesn’t deviate from the formula of that record too much. The bulk of the album consists of ferocious, scrappy punk tracks that were tight but weren’t afraid to meander. As far as indulging their noisier, post-hardcore side, “Pattern Walks” is this album’s “Wasted Days”, beginning as a loud, fast jam that has this really discordant Wire-inspired bit of noise in the middle, before shifting into a speedy, noisy climax with heavenly synths, all of it clocking in at over seven minutes. And I really can’t emphasize the drumming performance by Joe Gerycz enough. He pounds his way through this songs, occasionally slightly ahead of the melody, providing this hungry, raw urgency. And his fills toward the end of “Psychic Trauma” tho! There’s nothing as pop-friendly as “Fall In” or “Stay Useless”(though “Now Here In” and “No Thoughts” get close), but it doesn’t seem to hurt the album. I’m not sure which album I prefer, but Here and Nowhere Else definitely rings as louder and more immediate.
Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy
On the first verse in the first track of Dark Comedy, Mike declares that he’s “on that ‘laugh to keep from crying’ tip”. The rest of the track has him delivering lines like “There’s mad shootings on the news unless it’s in the Chi/ Cause blacks and Mexicans can die” punctuated by a hollowed out laugh track. It’s an apt tone setter for the rest of the album, which finds Open Mike Eagle delivering a shitload of narratives and quotables that are either deadpan hilarious, cutting, or uncomfortably sad, and often more than one. Vocally, he invokes the laid-back, pop-culturally astute venom of Das Racist(Kool AD gets one of the few features on “Informations”) mixed with the tuneful, sobering observations of Alopecia-era Why? The production is pretty diverse (“Thirsty Ego Raps” reminds me of a Tronic era Black Milk beat, “Dark Comedy Morning Show” is comprised almost exclusively of clean guitar and light percussion, “A History of Modern Dance” has these discordant and nerve wracking string blips against some click-clacking percussion and sinister bass) but it never really comes close to threatening the lyrical performance which remains utterly compelling, funny, and insightful regardless if Mike is dropping socially conscious punchlines(“I’m president of rappers who don’t condone date rape”) or bizarre non-sequiturs bout Jonathan Lipnicki.
Copeland – Ixora
There’s this whole idea that music that finds us and hits us when we’re younger is likely to affect us more than any other music we’re likely to come by in our lives. Our brain chemistry associates the relative newness of life and experience to the sounds we relate to that experience(or something – my girlfriend explains it better). Their debut album Beneath The Medicine Tree was a beautiful but rough(I didn’t realize this until a recent listen) mix of piano-rock and 90’s emo, driven by Aaron Marsh’s angelic vocals. I doubt I was the only self-absorbed 18 year old who filtered these songs(largely about his sick girlfriend and dying grandmother) through the lens of self and used them to fuel many a hour of lovesick, dick hurt bellyaching. Their sophomore effort In Motion, found the band upping their musical game combined with thoroughly rich production to match Marsh’s vocal performance. This progression continued with Eat, Sleep, Repeat and You Are My Sunshine. But while I could acknowledge the progression of the music and the restraint exercised by Marsh, I failed to be hooked by the songs. I continued to root for Copeland from a distance, but I was convinced that they were likely to go the way of many a band from my youth: one of a specific time and place, that I’d still go back to occasionally, but would be unlikely to grab my attention ever again.
Ixora, released after a six year hiatus, manages to shatter all that. It wasn’t obvious immediately. This is a gorgeous and delicate collection of songs that, for how innocuous it is, resists easy payoffs throughout its runtime. There aren’t any choruses as driving as “Love Is A Fast Song” or as soaring as “When Paula Sparks”. That turns out to be fine because this album doesn’t need them. Lead single, “Disjointed” is comprised of a 4/4, a simple piano melody, and Marsh’s voice. But then these looped cymbal taps are thrown into the mix, along with fluttering electronics, and swelling strings. The arrangements here are gentle and patient, using extremely sparse percussion, if any at all. The twinkling guitars on “I Can Make You Feel Young Again” sound like they’re floating in space somewhere. “World Turns” is driven by Marsh’s voice, an acoustic guitar, and a sax solo. These are songs with scope and drama in spades, but these moments of catharsis are rarely found within the choruses. Marsh shines as a producer as well, using enough reverb to create an icy space around the glassy arrangements, but the warmth of the instrumentation and the vocals make this one of those rare records that are as likely to evoke late spring as they are dead of winter. This ends up being the most lush and cohesive collection in the band’s catalogue.
Iceage – Plowing In The Fields Of Love
In purely reductive, career trajectory terminology, I guess this is Iceage’s “transitional” record. The one where the vicious punk band slows things down and expands their sonic palette(or some other such signifier of “maturation”). And while none of these things are untrue, this is easily the most satisfying statement in the young band’s catalogue. Iceage has always owed a certain debt to Nick Cave, largely due to Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s vocals. On Plowing In The Fields of Love, the Danish quartet mostly leaves behind the chainsaw buzzing punk of their first two albums opting for soundscapes that straddle some line between dusty western and gothic(or Your Funeral…My Trial era Cave). What’s truly impressive is that there were no half-measures taken here. Every song finds the band playing with richer instrumentation, incorporating more melody, space, and atmosphere into their compositions. Even the songs that wouldn’t be out of place on previous Iceage records in terms of tempo are just bigger here, containing longer runtimes and more sonic ideas. Lead single “The Lord’s Favorite” is basically a Jim Carroll meets The Gun Club slice of snotty cowpunk. “Abandoned Living” rests on a lead guitar buried way back in the mix, while string washes and a plucked viola provide the primary melody. Their playing is the tightest it’s ever been, while still possessing a discomfiting wobbliness. I did not expect an album this sonically rich and defiant of what the band had done previously, so early in their run. And that’s not even addressing the consistency of this record as a whole.
Prawn – Kingfisher
Kingfisher isn’t so much a game changer for Prawn as it is an immediately identifiable upgrade of their sound. They’re still melding noodling guitars and emotive vocals with the spacey arrangements that meander with purpose(their most immediate sonic kin, for my money, is The Appleseed Cast). Kingfisher draws from that same well, with production and songwriting that is tighter and more defined than You Can Just Leave It All. While the band has always dabbled with the elongated and progressive tendencies of a post-rock band, Kingfisher is as likely to prompt comparisons to Explosions in the Sky(“Prolonged Exposure”) as it is to the Jade Tree roster(“First As Tragedy, Second As Farce”). The songs here are a beefed up, muscular version of what the band was already doing. Previously, their jangly guitars and progressive leanings had a rough edge, as if they were impressively winging it, or on the verse of losing the plot. The songs here move with a verve and confidence. “Scud Ringing” opens with a repeated guitar note that is layered and inverted throughout, all through it’s noisy, horn and drum driven peak. “Absurd Walls” feels gorgeously sedate, with its glacial, reverb soaked guitars before shifting entirely into an upbeat, Graceland inspired bit of guitar pop in it’s final third. Closer “Halcyon Days” is driven by procession drumming, swirling guitars, and swelling synths before some droning, sinister bass insinuates itself on the back end. This is another criminally slept-on album.
The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
You might say that this record plays like a hazy collage of classic/heartland rock conventions and melodies. Obvious touchstones include but are not limited to: Springsteen(The River and Tunnel of Love-era), Tom Petty, Bob Dylan,(frontman Adam Granduciel’s voice frequently sounds like a dead ringer veering between the two), and Rod Stewart(the synths on “Burning” basically plagiarize “Young Turks”). And that’s a perfectly fine level on which you might enjoy this album. This is a deeply satisfying rock record that appeals to the flannel-wearing and the dinner-jacket/coke-in-the-bathroom sensibility. But to condense this album as the sum of its influences is selling it short. The songs here are beautifully layered, hazy, and lush. If the melodies and grooves evoke warm summer days, the kiss of haze and synth bring an icy melancholy The songs are dynamic, breathing, evolving, and shifting. This is a “windows down on the highway” record and a headphones record. This is a record peppered with moments that will use your history and experience with classic rock to evoke nostalgia, all the while working its own spell on you to induce completely new emotions.
New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
I always thought many of the complaints towards Challengers and Together were a bit overblown. These are good albums containing some of the band’s best written songs. I suppose coming on the heels of an almost-perfect three album run(Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and Twin Cinema), I guess I can empathize with the people who felt underwhelmed. Brill Bruisers is a busier affair from a production standpoint. There’s a greater incorporation of synth and electronics. Check out the arpeggiated synths on the Neko Case driven “Marching Orders” or the blippy flourishes on Bejar’s Bowie-channeling “War on the East Coast”(and that drop when the chorus hits tho!). These moves could have risked rendering the band too sweet or cloying. Instead, the tasteful implementation has beefed up the band’s sound. The broad recipe of artful but hugely catchy power pop is still present here, but the band’s songs haven’t sounded this muscular in years, if not ever.