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Originally posted on On Your Mark, Get Set... Review!:
What a day we have when friendly neighbors Andrew, Erik and Josh praise Tommy Wiseau’s The Neighbors, eviscerate the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, brainstorm remakes, and throw down with some freestyle rapping. Shut up and deal. What a day.
Originally posted on Talkin' 'Bout Turtle:
Join seasoned Entourage watchers Andrew and Erik as they begin their journey through every season of HBO’s popular adaptation of a Mark Wahlberg thing. Learn about about the lead characters, only become endeared to Ari, and imagine if Turtle was a sentient bag of garbage. Wait, you mean he isn’t?
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.
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.
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
QuestLove referred to Black Messiah as the black Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. Both were long-awaited, long fussed over offerings from artists that seemed to have disappeared from the planet. Like SMiLE, Black Messiah has some unexpected, dark, straight-up weird ideas that upend what we previously knew about the artist. The comparisons to There’s a Riot Goin’ On are apt as well. Bumped up to a 2014 release in light of recent social upheaval, this is a soul album with a bit on its mind, sonically and lyrically. D’Angelo takes on a soldier POV in “1000 Deaths”, speaks on racial uplift in “Til It’s Done”, and most pointedly on systemic racism, media, and untimely death in “The Charade”(“All we wanted was a chance to talk / Instead we got outlined in chalk”). Even through the relationship-centric tracks, the prevailing mood of the collection is one of doped-out paranoia rather than the babymaking R&B of his earlier releases. Still, this isn’t necessarily as gloomy an affair as Sly and The Family Stone’s masterpiece. The wobbly lead riff on opener “Ain’t That Easy” seems uncomfortably at odds with D’Angelo’s shaky higher register. But the song churns and builds, with D’Angelo exploring his entire range, and turns out to be a deeply satisfying funk moment. Ditto for the walking bass, horns and keys on “Sugah Daddy”. And yet while this thing lacks the icy, breathy detachment or the neo-soul and EDM heard in so much contemporary R&B, this album feels surprisingly of the moment. This is one of those releases where the artist, seemingly with no interest in what’s currently in vogue in its respective genre managed to tap into something even more vital than its contemporary exemplars.
Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
So, I didn’t get into that Angel Olsen record at all. I really tried. But in the end, where people were hearing “wrenching” and “visceral”, I was hearing a promising but uneven set, and one of the more sonically uninteresting albums I had heard all year. Luckily, though, it seems that most of the acclaim people were raining down on that record turned out to be absolutely appropriate for Are We There. Van Etten’s third LP finds her handling production entirely by herself and the sonic results are apparent immediately. This is a more rich record than Because I Was In Love and a more confident and consistent collection than her still-excellent Tramp. Sonically, some of the songs here are some of the most widescreened that she has worked with(the horns behind the quivering chorus on “Trafira”; the Ennio Morricone-style guitar giving way to a messianic vocal refrain on “You Know Me Well”). But the sonic richness does not sacrifice for intimacy. This is a beautiful record, with a sadness that borders on uncomfortable.
Sia – 1000 Ways of Fear
For years, Sia has lurked in the shadows, penning bangers for Rihanna, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Celine Dion, and so on. My introduction to her was in the form of “Breathe Me”, a song from 2004’s Colour The Small One, which appeared during the closing moments of the Six Feet Under series finale. The song and artist is forever associated with me sitting on my bed at a kind of weird time, smack dab in the middle of a quarterlife crisis, bawling my eyes out at a piece of television. So despite never really engaging with any of her albums as a whole(either the bouncy We Are Born or the more dour pop of Some People Have Real Problems and Colour The Small one), that Sia seemed to save a bunch of radio-ready bangers and ballads for herself turned out to be a horse that I didn’t realize I had been long rooting for. From the polished, messianic chorus of “Chandelier” to the almost-punk “Hostage”, which is throaty to the point of losing the plot, this is a smart, diverse, and extremely satisfying pop album.
White Lung – Deep Fantasy
Punk, purists say, is supposed to be messy and imperfect, and more about emotion and anger than technical proficiency. The other thing that punk purists say is “fuck rules lol”. To that end, this album is by all means punk in style and spirit. It’s fast, pummeling, and short(22 minutes). It’s angry as fuck, attacking things like identity and rape culture in its lyrics. And yet while you’ll probably feel beat up by the time this thing is done, it’s not a messy or sloppy experience whatsoever. The production is crystal clear without feeling sanitized. There are sharp, bright guitar harmonies all over every song with the driving bass and drums pushing everything forward. And Mish Way’s vocal performance is impassioned and pissed, yeah, but completely comprehensible. This dichotomy between aggression and clarity is the album’s strongest asset.
Forever Came Calling – What Matters Most
Pop-punk is basicallythe gay, red-headed step child of the rock scene. It might even be in lower esteem than the Nicklebacks and Creeds, because rather than occasionally get utilized as low-hanging mockery fruit, pop-punk seems to have been told very sternly to stay in its room until company leaves(Hell, the most prominent tastemaker of this “movement” laughably ignored this album, to further my point). And it’s pretty hypocritical of the indie establishment and their flock, since the building blocks that make for good pop-punk are comprised of the same stuff as whatever iteration of pop is currently in vogue*: sonic dynamics, infectious hooks, big choruses. I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with the style myself. In the middle to late 00’s, I’m pretty sure I disliked about 99% of bands in the scene. And every once in awhile, there was a Wonder Years or a Story So Far that rewarded me for continuing to sort of pay attention to the genre, delivering a sharp, defined sound using established tropes. Forever Came Calling’s Contender LP was one of such slot-machine hits, a blistering but catchy-as-hell 22 minutes of Nothing Gold Can Stay-indebted bangers.
Their sophomore effort finds them hanging on to just about everything that made their debut great: hooks for days, soaring choruses(see “August Is Home” or “Mapping With A Sense of Direction” or “Indebted” or “Rather Be Dead Than Cool”, seriously, the whole thing), an urgent, aggressive vocal performance from Joe Candelaria and adds some cleaner production. What’s lost in the raw immediacy of the debut is made up for in the details added: sharper guitars, more potent background vocals, tighter songwriting. For my money, I have these guys pegged as next in line for The Wonder Years’ crown.
*Seriously, you assholes made Best Coast popular. Eat a dick.
The Lawrence Arms – Metropole
Punk, like hip-hop, is a game that is dominated by youth. In their most vital incarnations, these are styles that viscerally engage with life for the fleeting thing that it is. So punches, whether they come in the form of political “fuck you”s or hedonistic excess, are rarely pulled. To that end, the chorus of “Seventeener(17th and 37th)” contains the lyric “My heart got kicked out all its homes / And dying young just didn’t work out so well, guess I’m dying old”. It reminds me of a similar sentiment delivered by Against Me’s “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” only much more resonant. The scrappy punk veterans are nodding to the “leave a beautiful corpse” romanticism of the young punk ethos and attempting to figure out what being punk and nearing 40 means or stands for. The line functions as a good mission statement for the album as a whole, which bluntly deals with aging and mortality with the band’s gruffy, blue-collar catchiness and snarling sense of humor. Vocalists Kelly and McCoughan sharpen some earworm choruses with painful detail in the verses(“Outside my window the train / Is a friend just zipping by/ I’ll catch you when I catch you man/ Maybe we can go for a ride”; “Yesterday I woke up to find/ The black in my beard had turned to white”). But they contrast with cutting moments of self-deprecation: “Cinematic, I was cynical on the city bus/ Literary, I wrote lyrics like I thought I was” on Beautiful Things, or nodding to Guns N’ Roses on Paradise Shitty: “So take me down to the city where the girls just look okay”. It’s a great balance and the net effect is one of two wisened, self-deprecating bartenders(even though Kelly and McCoughan are only in their mid 30s). The record as a whole is an anthemic collection of bangers, with the sobering introspection there for those who are ready to hear it.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata
There’s no denying that Gibbs is a skilled and versatile craftsman behind the mic. His Achilles’ Heels have always been some inconsistent production on his longer projects and a kind of one-dimensionality to his lyrical concerns. So even if he’s bringing his A-game for a full mixtape, the hard head, gangster shit talk can become fatiguing, especially if the production begins to sag in the rear half of a record, no matter how cleverly or impressively Gibbs’ switches up his flow. On Pinata, one of those issues is eliminated altogether as Madlib provides a rock solid collection of beats drawing heavily from 70’s blaxploitation soul(“Scarface”, “High”), RZA inspired kung-fu jams(“Real”, “Pinata”), sci-fi inflected Dilla cuts(“Uno”, “Bomb”). Gibbs sounds reinvigorated working with the elevated material. Even if he’s still talking about the same shit — gang banging, hood life, his enemies– he’s frequently bringing a hungrier diversity to his flow, hooks are tighter. Additionally, none of the guest spots feel wasted, with Danny Brown, Scarface, Domo Genesis & Earl Sweatshirt delivering solid verses. And then the title track is a great posse cut tucked away to close the album out. This album would be a serious contender for my Top 40 if it was simply an instrumental hip-hop record, but the fact that the music on display here comes as a package deal to a peaking Freddie Gibbs makes it one of the best hip-hop releases in years.
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
I was really put off by the sci-fi, glam-rock goddess, Zuul The Gatekeeper persona that Annie Clark seems to be dealing in with the release of this record. It felt like such a stiff, self-important move for an artist that has always felt, for all her weirdness, incredibly down to earth. Matched with the equally icy production of the record, I was pretty sure that my interest in St. Vincent would be temporarily suspended until this phase passed. I stuck with the record, because the songs(the important part of all of this) were very strong. The bouncy “Birth In Reverse” might be the catchiest song Clark has ever done. The wandering synth on “Huey Newton” gives way to a prog-like guitar interlude that gradually beefs up the distortion to the point where it almost feels like a metal track. Clark is showing an increasing tendency towards Krautrock/Brian Eno aesthetics, with spacious instrumentation, an increased incorporation of synth, and cutting guitar riffs and/or solos deployed in moderation. When I stopped to consider the thematic throughline of the album(many of the songs dealing with social media, our need for validation, narcissism, our increasing detachment from our fellow man), the cool, pristine detachment of the album’s production, the brittle arrangements(and Clark’s new wardrobe) makes sense. This might not be the warmest work from St. Vincent, but it’s definitely her most sharp, cutting, and consistent collection. I’m glad I stuck with this one.
Behemoth – The Satanist
I didn’t really expect one of my favorite albums of the year to open “I saw the virgin’s cunt spawning forth the snakes”, but here you have it. This album is unrelenting and dark, with an abundance of tight drumming(great fills all over this thing) and riffs that alternate between doom-laden and speedy. Nergal’s vocal performance finds him hoarsely growling and screaming through some diverse and pummeling tracks with his raw, if a bit overblown, heretical invective. There is a theatricality to the whole thing, though(think a much darker Amon Amarth or something). Like, yeah, these are serious songs in their composition, but their lyrical content is meant to be digested with at least some consideration to the conventions of storytelling. This isn’t a 100% dark affair. For all of the album’s raw(but crisp as hell) production and bleak posturing, there are deeply, broadly satisfying rock moments on this thing. The solo on the back end of “Messe Noire” feels more classic rock or cock-rock than anything. “Ora Pro Noris Lucifer” has a galloping drum beat and some groove-laden triple-time riffing before delivering a deeply satisfying bass drop and breakdown on the back end. Some clean acoustic riffing and a saxophone behind some spoken word poetry opens “The Absence Ov Light” before the track explodes in its second half. These touches make this an engaging, diverse listen that never really sacrifices its extreme metal teeth. This is easily the best heavy album I’ve heard this year.
Bane – Don’t Wait Up
Bane, like most good hardcore, has always managed to imbue their thematic concerns(perseverance, friendship, and, in this case, closure) with a stone-faced “life or death” gravitas. They’ve been ranting about insider baseball of the hardcore scene, relationships, crushes, mixtapes, as if nothing ever was or ever will be more important. This is a band that has built a career on words and music that they truly and deeply mean. Their final record, Don’t Wait Up, deals in the same trademark earnestness, only this time, the ubiquitous weight that “this is the end” lingers over the whole thing. The results are predictably grand and urgent, but also sad(much of the album feels like a hardcore version of delivering a speech at your own funeral, with all of the gravity that might bring with it). On “Lost At Sea” Bedard openly expresses doubt as to what his post-Bane life is going to look like(“I look at me and I can’t see me/ Without this, it scares the fuck out of me). But the album is also invigorating in that wide-eyed, positive way that the band is known for(“I will never be alone / All because we wrote these punk rock songs / And goddamn that’s pretty crazy/ So fucking amazing”). Sonically, there aren’t really any surprises here. This is a Bane record. For the uninitiated, that means driving, tightly played hardcore with shouted lead vocals and lots and lots of gang vocals. But there are no half-measures here either. This is not some neutered, whimpering limp into the forest. This is a note-perfect swan-song that stands up to any of the band’s LP’s for rawness, catharsis, and vitality.