There’s nothing to make you feel so powerless as complaining about the weather.
I really want it to be spring. It seemed like it would be a few times already, when the temperature and the sun have collaborated together to make a March day lovely, once or twice. And then, to my utter dismay, we’re back to the bite of winter.
It’s not that I don’t like winter. Winter can be great. And I realize that hoping for an early spring feels like hoping for global warming, which much smarter people than I say will doom us all. But in this early April, I am just so ready to sit on my porch, and ride my bike, and look up at the expanse of blue without having to wear a jacket, because for the past few days, I’ve been listening to exmagician’s excellent debut album, Scan The Blue, and dammit I just want to be outside all the time.
It’s not very nice for me to write about a band that people have barely heard of, that is just now releasing their first album with a proper record label, by talking about how lonely their sound is. I’m sure that the Montclair, NJ natives that make up Pinegrove would love to have many more fans and be making much more money, and to my ears, they surely deserve to.
But the best thing about Cardinal, Pinegrove’s short-but-sweet 8-song album, is the feeling that you might be listening to it alone, because the emotion it delivers is hand-wrapped in your own special package. The lyrics are conversational, direct in their words if not always their intentions. Singer Evan Stephen Hall has a nice voice, but he
never seems completely sure if he’s singing, letting an ache trespass into the musicality, along with a slight drawl that seems somewhat at odds with the band’s New Jersey roots.
The band’s sound feels that way as well, with a slight twang that betrays a deep American-ness, without being placed in any specific part of the country. There’s an almost country-ish sound in their music, differentiating their indie-rock with a little wistfulness. Though the band is relentlessly electric in their instrumentation, letting guitars crunch and drums smack while the bass thuds along, the structure of the songs can make them seem so very sparse, almost acoustic.
On no song is this feeling of sparseness used to better effect than on the second track, “Cadmium,” starting out with just a few weak ringing notes on the guitar and Hall’s voice, letting that ache do the work for a whole band, before coming together as the band that complements the sound of that wistful voice. Restraint is used to the best effect in the instrumentation—even when the sound becomes full enough to fill a room by the chorus, it never feels anything less than intimate, and no sound feels extraneous.
Pinegrove are starting to have a moment, moving out of Montclair to tour the country, and getting applause from critics with much more impressive resumes than mine. I imagine that people will soon start having heard of them. It makes you wonder at the power of intimacy, whether the band that sounds so great for their loneliness and their individuality can keep it up when playing to the largest of rooms.
It’s this feeling of restraint that makes any such worry absurd. Their music is beautiful in its solitude no matter how many instruments are playing. Pinegrove is able to be direct and close, imminent and personal, no matter how big their audience may become. Rather than sounding like a band you have to seek out, they sound like a band that’s singing specifically to you.
Release Date: February 12, 2016
Run Time: ~30 minutes
1. Old Friends
3. Then Again
7. Size Of The Moon
8. New Friends
Money’s Jamie Lee is certainly not a stranger to self-doubt.
The band’s second album, Suicide Songs,
wears it on its sleeve. Literally—the album cover is a picture of the band’s
singer with a knife stabbing into his forehead, not to mention its overwrought
title. But despite lyrics that reflect the Manchester native’s neuroses, the
band’s work shows a confidence that outstrips any worries Lee or his mates may
have about their own worth. They take an ambitious swing, and it pays off.
had a debut album in 2013 that did an impressive job of sounding as epic as an
indie band of Money’s stature (and, *ahem*,
with their lack of actual money) could. They sounded like a normal-sized band
with the kind and amount of instruments fledgling indie rock bands normally get
their hands on, playing them with a bunch of studio tricks to make them sound
bigger and more momentous than they are. They fit into a trend that’s not uncommon but definitely not unfortunate—rock bands that use digital studios and artificial reverb to create a wall of sound instead of through the cramped recording style that Phil Spector and other analog wizards worked hard to make.
Money brought talented songwriting to the formula, elevated
with spacey textures that reached for magnificence. But for all the enormity of
the scale, their first album ends up feeling almost safe. It certainly had good
songs played well, but it fell short of true greatness, lacking a sense of intention
and immediacy that could have really pushed it ahead.
Two and a half years later, Suicide
Songs builds on the best parts of the band’s debut with the kind of
maturity that allows the band to revel in youth. They continue the sense of a
vast landscape that made their debut work, but they fill in the gaps of immense
space in between the reverb, building with energy and vitality in the places
that had before become inert. The instruments still echo—a single note on a
high guitar string will do the work of six for most of a verse, playing on and
sustaining until it melts into the background; the vocals call from across a
distance, like shouts to a microphone too far away.
But in between the standard rock instrumentation come more
baroque instruments to weave around the soundscapes—a string section and a
brass one take their part here and there to fill the songs with a substance,
along with a robust percussion section. All of it fades into the wall of sound
anyway, creating an especially full and lively texture. Money proves impressive
at finding the big moments, the crescendos and sudden reversals, building up
and tearing down the energy with excellent precision. It’s a sound rich with
emotion, highlighting the best parts of the song craft.
Lee’s voice becomes overwrought and tortured as he sings about
loneliness and frustration. His pipes are wounded and scarred, belting far
beyond his comfortable range. It brings to mind Patrick Stickles of Titus
Andronicus, a suitable comparison for someone so drenched in mopiness,
ambition, and somehow through all that, hope. On the two more stripped down
tracks—the title song, and the dramatic closer, “Cocaine Christmas and an
Alcoholic’s New Year,” which is exactly as overdone as it sounds but totally
pulls it off—he wails over instrumentation as basic as a piano. His voice
cracks and shatters, and he transforms into a drunken lush, shrinking from the
epic scope of the album’s biggest sweeps into a solitary moment.
It’s this mastery of scale that is the truly impressive feat of Suicide Songs. It masters the bigness
of Money’s previous album, and it masters these smaller bits as well. But most
importantly, Suicide Songs is an
album that understands the vast expanse between.
Release Date: January 29th, 2016 Rating: 4.5/5 Run Time: ~43 minutes
Track listing: 1. I Am The Lord 2. I’m Not Here 3. You Look Like a Sad Painting on Both Sides of the Sky 4. Night Came 5. Suicide Song 6. Hopeless World 7. I’ll Be The Night 8. All My Life 9. A Cocaine Christmas and an Alcoholic’s New Year
There’s a passage at the end of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs’ 1977
Elvis obituary in The Village Voice,
“Where Were You When Elvis Died?” that always comes into my head when I see the
outpouring of love from friends and critics and strangers after the death of a
truly Great artist.
“If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe,
then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more
contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it
was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to
speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and
few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism
holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s.
But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we
agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say
good-bye to you.”
I don’t think Bangs was right, after all. One could just as easily have
written an essay entitled “Where Were You When Michael Jackson Died?” or
written the sentence “We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Robin
Williams.” And now, I can see it happening again with one of my all-time
favorite musicians, David Bowie.
But for all the ways that every conversation I have, everything in the
media, and everything in my Facebook news feed has been monopolized by a true
and wonderful outpouring of love for the man who was born David Robert Jones, I
don’t think that one could write the same thing about him that Bangs did about
We did not agree on David Bowie. We never could. And that is absolutely
Oh sure, it seems like everyone loved the man and his art. There is
almost definitely a David Bowie song, or a David Bowie album, or a David
Bowie movie or even a weird
appearance at an award show that meant something to you. But I’m
gonna guess it wasn’t “Be My Wife,” which is one of the dozen or so
Bowie songs that I became truly obsessed with over the course of my love for
him for the majority of my mature life. It’s a strange, almost soulful,
ultimately unsuccessful plea to Angie Bowie not to leave him after his battle
with drug addiction and subsequent move to Berlin, drenched in Brian Eno’s
warm-yet-distant synths and Robert Fripp’s mosquito-buzz guitar.
Or, in simpler words, it’s most definitely not “Space Oddity.”
“Space Oddity” is totally awesome. So are “Changes” and “Under Pressure”
and “Ziggy Stardust,” or whatever song it is that you think of when you think
of Bowie. “Heroes” is a goddamn masterpiece, a perfect distillation of the
beauty of something not only despite it is fleeting but because it is. And you know what, songs that weren’t hits like
those, like “Cracked Actor,” and “The Width of a Circle” and “Station to
Station,” are all masterpieces as well. I love all of those songs, but none of
them for remotely the same reason I love “Be My Wife.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find two people who love David Bowie the same
way. I think that if you did, it would be almost an insult to the most
relentlessly innovative, hardest-to-pin-down musician of the past half a
David Bowie was not the first person to realize that rock and roll had
the potential to be anything. But he was the one to prove it.
It’s strangely fitting to me that news of David Bowie’s death hits us
the day after Lady Gaga wins a Golden Globe for acting. Lady Gaga is exactly
the kind of artist that David Bowie created, not just for her outlandish
costumes, or her larger-than-life personae, or even for her bizarre way of
taking all of that into acting, making the pop culture image she has cultivated
into a character. David Bowie invented** all of that, but more importantly, he
invented the idea that that musician could then take off all of her makeup and
go do an album with Tony Bennett instead. He drew up the blueprints for being a
pop star, and somehow he managed to still be idolized by Kurt
Cobain, who hated being a pop star more than anyone.
In death, Cobain quoted Neil Young, saying “it’s better to burn
out than to fade away.” It’s a long-discussed concept in rock hagiography—so
many rock stars of a bygone age (like, for instance, Neil
Young himself) turn into a form of self-parody by the time they hit
Bowie’s age. But Bowie destroyed both concepts. Ziggy Stardust got to burn
out in 1973, and the real David Bowie got to do the same in a public
struggle with drug addiction. He got to fade away in a decade or two
when he released music few people cared about and hung out at fashion weeks in
But better than any musician ever, David Bowie found a third way, a way
to say goodbye.**** On Friday (his 69th birthday) he released his last album, Blackstar, accompanied by a video
that pretty explicitly shows Bowie dealing with the spectre of oncoming death.
From what we can tell, he knew he was close to the end, and he used this
knowledge to make one last gift to the world. His twenty-fifth album is good, really good. It’s among the weirdest
and most adventurous things I’ve ever heard, up there with Bowie’s
own Low in 1977.
Bowie tried to exit gracefully, and he truly did. But now, the day after
he’s gone, I can’t help but thinking that, after almost 5 decades of making
music, after countless reinventions and personae, after becoming an icon of the
fashion world, acting in David Lynch and Christopher
Nolan films, keeping us guessing and somehow being at his absolute
weirdest when he did completely ordinary stuff, it feels
like David Bowie burnt out, dying far too early. We didn’t get nearly enough.
It’s fitting that David Bowie’s farewell was title Blackstar. His star keeps shining, even when the light has gone
*I realize that when I’m no longer mourning the death of one of my
heroes, I will probably remember that T. Rex’s Electric Warrior is actually better than Aladdin Sane. But the fact that I can even argue with myself over
whether my third or fouth favorite Bowie album is better than the album that
defined an entire genre is a testament to his greatness.
**Here’s where I talk a bit about Labyrinth,
because I have to fit it in somewhere. Labyrinth is an absolutely insane movie, involving future Oscar-winner Jennifer
Connelly navigating a bizarre maze in search of her lost baby brother that got
kidnapped by goblin puppets, a sheepdog named Ambrosius, and whatever Ludo is. And somehow, the most memorable thing
in that movie, more than any of the trippiest ideas of Jim Henson and Terry
Jones, is David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. And
it’s not because he’s wearing a weird costume—by David Bowie’s costume
standards, it’s pretty tame. I’ve often wondered if Bowie just showed up to set
wearing whatever he had lying around and Henson just looked at him and said
“Sure! Why not?” It’s just that David Bowie is fucking crazy, even compared to
a maze full of goblins.
***Of all the things that get to me about David Bowie being gone, the
fact that he’ll never be photographed at the side of a runway in Milan might be
Our writer, Jon Hecht, has
put together a list of his top albums of 2015 – featuring albums from Kendrick
Lamar, Neon Indian, and HEALTH among others. Check out his full list below!
20. Pusha T, King Push: Darkest Before Dawn I’m not going to claim any
objectivity on this. Pusha T could cough up a ball of phlegm from his throat
and I would probably love it (and if you’ve listened to how many times he
randomly screams “Yechh” in his raps, one could argue that he has and I do). I
love his stuff in Clipse and Re-Up Gang from the mid aughts, I love his guest
verses on Kanye/GOOD Music songs, and I actually really liked…some of his
first solo album, My Name Is My Name in 2013.
The hit or miss aspects of
that album are addressed pretty clearly on this one. Whereas that album had
three songs (that encapsulated the absolute best of Terrence Thornton in
full-on attack mode (”King Push,” “Numbers On The Board,” and “Nosetalgia”), Darkest Before Dawn showcases what he does best, with foreboding,
dangerous beats, and Pusha T spitting furiously on the mic. Surprisingly
enough, he doesn’t seem to be rapping exclusively about cocaine, which is very
surprising indeed. It’s also got “Sunshine,” which is the biggest departure
from Push’s normal style, a righteous polemic in the vein of Black Lives
Matter. It’s a weird fit—conscious rap from a guy who’s usually rapping about
putting other rappers in caskets—but when it comes down to it, I can’t make
nitpicks about the King. He’s Untouchable.
19. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife I made a mistake this year. I heard this album last spring when
it came out, and it didn’t really register. I checked out, and I missed out on
what could have been an incredible summer. I could have stood on sun-drenched
rooftops and screamed out “Safe
Sex Pay Checks” like god intended. I did that once, when I had
finally realized how great this album was, but by that point it was a chilly
fall, and the roof was under a cloudy night sky. It was fun and all, but it
could have been so much better.
Party rap is one of the
most constantly evolving forms of music. It’s always looking for the next fix,
a new hook that lets people get even more down than ever before. These kids are
scarily young—young enough to make me feel like a grandfather at just 24. They
bring with them the best part of youth, the impossible innovation that the
older generation just can’t keep up with. The blend of rapping and singing,
backed by Mike Will Made It doing his best beats.
I missed this the first
time. When there were friends getting obsessed with these kids, I missed it.
Don’t make my mistake. This could be us.
18. Carly Rae Jepsen, E MO TION I kind of love the fact
that Carly Rae Jepsen is 30 years old. She has the voice (and look) of a
teenager, and sings songs that lose all semblance of self-respect and maturity
under layers of cheesy synths. She is pop star artifice at its best, ignoring
the real version of herself, the Canadian musical-theater geek Idol
winner, in favor of a wholly created, almost doll-like persona, afraid of
maturity and enraptured by just the thought of love, built in a factory to
deliver the most perfect version of manufactured sugar.
Yeah yeah we’re all sick
of “Call Me Maybe,” which entered our ears and hearts for a whole summer and
never let us forget it. But that’s not on this album, and in its place is a
series of songs that manage to recapture the unabashed
glee without the oversaturated memes. Everything shines and
everything gleams, with the best Swedish (and this
guy) production that all that one-hit-wonder cash can buy. I
really really really really really really really like this album.
17. Jamie XX, In Colour This is dance music for
people who don’t like dance music. Drum hits and bloopy synths that ease their
way into your heart more than your hips. No track exemplifies this better than
the opener, “Gosh,” which starts out as a thumping club banger and surprises
you, letting a small tone in the upper register, that seems like just a minor
detail, take over the song and turn it into a haunting and beautiful melody,
pure in its simplicity even if it started from much dirtier origin.
The whole album
exemplifies this feeling, that through the sheen of electronic music, of
crowded rooms of dancing people, late at night with energy that won’t let them
sleep, there’s still just you, surrounded, but just a stranger in a room. Jamie
can still make you feel the good times, getting something earnest and almost
adorable out of Young Thug in the process, but he never lets you forget the
human that builds these textures on a laptop and blasts them out to rooms full
of people trying their hardest to lose themselves for a night.
16. Future,Digital Sprites 2 To be honest, (zing,
though that was the previous album) I can’t really handle Future a lot of the
time. His beats are rough, and sometimes his autotuned barks just make it feel
like I’m being yelled by a robot. His raps are so devoid of the deft lyricism
that defines most of my favorite rap. When it comes down to it though, I think
the biggest issue I often have with him, and also the reason why this is
nevertheless so high on my list, is that I have absolutely no clue what he is
this rapping? Is this singing? Hell, is this even music? Did
Nayvadius Wilson choose his stage name based on him actually being from the
future? I try not to make predictions about the future of music (because really
how disappointing would it be if we weren’t surprised) but I can imagine that
in ten years from now, Future is either seen as a genius or completely
forgotten. He’s changing the world of rap as he conquers it, with the best
up-and-comers ripping him off (especially the aforementioned Rae Sremmurd and
Young Thug, but also Migos, who are maybe
better than the Beatles) and the elder statesmen are playing
catch up. In a decade, his influence will be so widespread that we’ll either be
shocked at how ahead of his time he was, or just treat him as a forerunner to a
completely new style that other people perfected way better than he could.
In the meantime, what a
time to be alive.
15. Joanna Newsom, Divers It’s difficult for me to
write anything tangible about this album. This is not because this album is
anything less than tangible. It is so tangible. It is powerful and
intimidating. It’s a Himalaya, and I’ve maybe made it to camp two. It’s an
album that demands the kind of attention that I haven’t been able to fairly
give it. It’s full of lyrics that call back to history and
poetry and life, and require more examination than any amount of Genius entries
can handle. It loops upon itself, ending with Newsom’s voice trailing off on
the word “trans…” and connecting back to the opening track starting with her
singing “send.” Surrounding her is this beautiful classical instrumentation
that accentuates her impressive harp skills, and sounds like music from a
Joanna Newsom has never
made things easy. She was once a girl with a harp and a nails-on-chalkboard
voice, before she married Andy Samberg,* and started getting voice lessons and
symphonic arrangements to turn her still-weird vocal chords into an
otherworldly miracle. There was a time when she seemed slight, even cutesy,
singing about “Sprout and the Bean.” She spent the two intervening albums
exploding with ambition, releasing one of five epic
poems averaging in at above 10 minutes each, and another that
almost hits 4 hours of playing time. Arguably, Divers is her most
straightforward album since her debut (11 songs lasting just over 50 minutes),
but it also shows more ambition and maturity than anything she’s done so far.
She’s always seemed like a fairy princess, but in releasing an album that is so
powerful, so heavy, and so much smarter than I am, she has without a doubt
proven that she is the queen.
*I had to mention this
because it is without a doubt my favorite celebrity marriage of our time. The
rule that I have is that one spouse should be more famous and the other more
interesting, and this works for that perfectly. There was a while where Ryan
Adams/Mandy Moore was the gold standard, but then they got divorced, and I felt
way sadder than is reasonable about two people I’ve never met. Keep up the good
work Joandy Samson! Continue to be such a weird pairing that I can only imagine
you got together for no reason than because you legitimately love each other! 14. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens is really impressively good at stuff. He made
his name for recording double albums full of gorgeously
orchestrated songs with endlessly memorable melodies (and some
occasional weird wordless segments). He plays what seems
to be a dozen and a half instruments, far better than I can play anything. He
writes surprisingly heartfelt lyrics that he draws from the most arcane trivia
But on Carrie &
Lowell, he trades all that in, writing lyrics about the least trivial thing
imaginable—the story of his mother abandoning him as a child, and his struggle
as an adult to forgive her as they reunited shortly before he died. Just as he
did with his 2010 album, The Age of Adz,
Stevens shows that he’s at his best when he
lets go a little of the tight control and perfectionism of his albums about
states or Christmas. This isn’t to say that the songs aren’t perfect—he
definitely hasn’t lost an ounce of his talent for these exacting arrangements
or beautiful melodies—but they ache with the haunting voice of a man dealing
with more emotion than one person can live with. “Did you get enough love, my little dove/ Why do you cry?/ And I’m
sorry I left, but it was for the best/ Though it never felt right/ My little
Versailles,“ he sings from the perspective of his mother on a hospital
bed on “Fourth of July,” and my heart
*Which, as someone who makes part of his living through writing
trivia questions for bars, is actually very appreciated
13. Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs I’m noticing a trend over the past three albums on this list. I
guess for me, 2015 was a year full of veterans of indie rock baroque
arrangements, maturing after a decade of lush instrumentation to focus and
strip down their ambitions to their core, with albums that are at least
partially about saying goodbye to the more childish bombast they had had
before. I’ve talked about how great that is with Joanna Newsom and Sufjan
Stevens, but of this trio, my favorite has to be Jim O’Rourke.
Unlike, Newsom and Stevens, Jim O’Rourke (who actually did work
as a mixer on Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album, Ys)
doesn’t have the same pedigree as a songwriter. His claim to fame (or whatever)
is mostly as a producer, most notably working as a full-time member of Sonic Youth for a few of their
critically-acclaimed albums in the early aughts, and lending lush
instrumentation and mixing duties to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He also
has a few solo albums, which stand out with some
pretty astounding textures more than for their songcraft.
Which is part of what makes the excellence of Simple Songs really shine through. This
is O’Rourke running away from the full-bodied sound that he’s perfected in the
studio to instead mostly stick to a basic band, led by his straightforward
acoustic guitar. As the album’s title suggests, this is Jim O’Rourke focusing
on the songs, and, you guessed it, keeping them simple. It’s an album that
reeks of the maturity and confidence of someone letting go of their flashiest
toys. The lyrics mostly reflect thoughts on time
and aging, and they do it so well. 12. IGLOOGHOST &
MR. YOTE,YOTEGHOST MILK EMPIRE This album is nuts. It’s barely even really an album. It’s two
songs, each 12-minutes long, but each consisting of dozens of segments that
warp, stop abruptly, change into each other, and worm their way into your head
just before disappearing for something new. As a producer, Iglooghost’s beats
skip and syncopate, full of drum kicks that whiz by too fast and at unexpected
moments, and synths that fizz and crackle, throwing you off guard.
This would all be hard to latch on to if Iglooghost hadn’t
found such a winning collaborator in the bass-voiced rapper Mr. Yote. Yote’s
voice is like a broken bass synthesizer in its own right. He changes flows
within a bar, speeds up and slows down, and manipulates his voice with any
manner of effects to match the production backing him up. Together, the pair
make a schizophrenic and deeply synthetic piece of music that gets through to
something human after all. The shifts and glitches make Yote’s voice, and
Iglooghost’s music, reveal a truer version of themselves than organic sounds
ever could. 11. The Weeknd, Beauty Behind The Madness This has been a hell of a year for Abęl Tesfaye. It’s been the
year of not one but two number one singles, of the Fifty
Shades Of Grey soundtrack, of
being profiled in the New York Times. It
was, pretty explicitly, the year that The Weeknd sold out.
Selling out has a long history in pop music. We’ve seen, in the past decade and change,
as it’s become harder (read: impossible) for musicians to actually make any
money through selling albums, we’ve begun to accept artists brazenly and honestly saying that yes, they want
money, and yes, they are willing to compromise some of their artistry for the
sake of getting it. If it’s not selling out for you to work for your money,
it’s not selling out for your heroes either. Beauty Behind The Madness
manages to somehow take both sides of the argument on selling out. The Weeknd
first came up as a bedroom-produced, insular misanthrope, playing the most depressing songs to ever have incredible sex to.
His music has always evoked the numbness that comes with hedonism, the darkness
of a club, the drained-out feeling of drugs, the emptiness of casual sex. And
on this album, he takes that even further, out of his bedroom and onto the biggest stages. Whereas before his music
indulged in earthly delights, it’s now moved past earth completely.
There’s a case to be made that The Weeknd has lost something
since his debut in 2011, the radical newness
that came from House of Balloons, and
has left its mark on R&B since, even taking
over the mainstream version of the genre at
this point. But where that mixtape was The Weeknd changing the world, Beauty Behind The Madness is Abęl
Tesfaye letting himself get changed back. This is the soundtrack of selling
your soul for fame, money, sex, and drugs, and of course that leaves him
hollowed out and empty. But if you don’t have a soul, then you probably don’t
care about that nearly as much as the hedonistic pleasure.
10. Fred Thomas, All Are Saved The effect of technology on music cannot be understated. We’ve
stopped cutting and pasting analog tape, and figured out how to digitally mimic
the kind of reverb people used to have to rent out concert halls to get. You
can do all of this on your laptop, in your bedroom, with a program that costs just $200 to
This is such a good thing in so many ways. I am so very glad
that money, or connections, or any of the things that kept artists from
recording their masterpieces, have become so much less relevant. But I also
hold some nostalgia for the sloppiness that came with bad recording, for dive
bar bands that made albums that sounded like dive bars, for blown out and
distorted speakers, for albums that didn’t sound like they were trying to
recreate the sound of a factory. Of course no one has tape hiss anymore—it’s
not like anyone uses tape.
Fred Thomas is my favorite answer to this weird little
aesthetic issue. He’s not lo-fi in the way that those
90s indie bands were. He’s got a distinctly modern sound of
sloppiness, the well-manicured recording of a computer program in a small room,
by someone who cares about the songs more than the post-production. The synths glitch
like they’re from a laptop that needs to be taken to the shop but isn’t really
urgent in its issues. The whole thing sounds like a wall-of-sound
for the multi-track age, each of these radically different tones blending
together into one background mess, leaving nothing identifiable but the skill
of the songcraft. And the songs are great. Not quite all of them. Some
of them stand out. But the whole album feels of a piece with itself.
The highs and lows work together, because this album isn’t about perfection.
It’s a celebration of the true beauty that comes from a mess, the emotion that
can’t be sanded off with powerful weapons of technology.
9. Kamasi Washington –
The Epic Yeah, guilty. I don’t know much about jazz in 2015.
I only really know about this album because Kamasi Washington is friends with
Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus and Thundercat, because this album is three
discs of orchestral jazz released by Brainfeeder, crazily enough. But listening to
this album makes me want to fix that, and reminds me why I haven’t checked in
on developments in jazz since fusion became a thing.
Somewhere along the line, jazz became nice music to listen to.
That’s great in a lot of ways. I love nice music. But the music that once was
dirty, and dangerous, and shocking in its newness and broken conventions, at
some point became the music of a cocktail party. And that’s great, but also,
god I love it when jazz just freaks me out, leaves me confused, and hurts
Kamasi Washington doesn’t hurt my ears. He actually leaves them
feeling pretty adored. But from the drums roll that jab into the striking piano
chords that open “Change of the Guard,” the
34-year-old composer, bandleader, and energetically virtuosic tenor saxophonist
with the crazy hair grabs your hand and pulls you along for almost three hours
of energetic, explosive, incomprehensible pyrotechnics. Epic indeed.
8. Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up I do feel a little weird writing about most of these albums for
this site. We try to be versatile in our tastes, but when it comes down to it,
we know that most of our readership are fans of pop-punk, and now I’ve written
about the past 12 albums that are distinctly not that.
But this one sorta is. So I guess if you’ve been reading this
for a while and thinking that all of my recommendations sound terrible, well,
maybe you’ll like this one.
I personally love this album. It uses pop-punk to its fullest
effect, evoking, as the title suggests, the feeling
of delayed adulthood that hits the American twenty-something. It’s the
sound of watching TV as an excuse for not
doing what you’re supposed to, of wanting something
more out of all of this, but being afraid
that you’re not going to get your shit together enough to reach it. The
lyrics throughout the whole album are bare diary of the most unadorned type,
caring less about rhyming, wordplay or even rhythm than about brutal
directness, and the excellent pop hooks and guitar stabs are stripped down and
rough. It’s a great mix, that feels less like an album by an artist in a studio
than a conversation with a familiar friend about everyday thoughts and anxiety.
7. Courtney Barnett,Sometimes
I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit I feel like there aren’t a lot of “rock stars” these
days—people who convince you that they’re here to save the world by just
playing their guitars loud enough. But the only way I know how to describe
Courtney Barnett (despite her not being especially successful commercially, or
selling out stadiums or anything like that) is that she is a bona fide rock
star. Sometimes I Sit and
Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is an album with a powerfully pervasive
viewpoint, filled in by Barnett’s relentlessly witty and illuminatingly
detailed lyrics, sung in her thick Aussie accent in deadpan delivery. Her voice
is so specific, but it becomes endlessly relatable when her hard-rocking punk
songcraft is backed up by the arguments made by excellent guitar licks.
She hits hard when she wants,
she pulls back without losing the energy,
and she muses on the absurd in the face of extreme
circumstances. All the while she never stops being a personality, and
even more than that, a force. You listen to this album, and you start to think
like her, or at the very least, you try.
6. Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon There was, at some point, a marketing campaign for Cheetos that
advertised them as being “dangerously cheesy.” It was one of those 90’s advertising things
where a product was shown to be “Xtreme” or whatever, and that makes kids like
it. Now, while Cheetos are certainly a health risk
that people should probably be aware of, it’s nevertheless always struck me as
a laughable claim, that eating the most lazy of snacks is frightening. Really
though, when I think of the term “dangerously cheesy,” my thoughts just go to
Tobias Jesso writes piano ballads, with lyrics of the most
straightforward love-song variety. The first, and in my opinion best song on
the album is called, “Can’t Stop Thinking About
You” and features lyrics like “I
lost you in a dream/ But then the dream came true.” From everything I can
tell about the guy, that comes with zero irony.
Who the hell writes lyrics like this in 2015? All I know is
irony! The bubblegum lyrics that once seemed like totally normal things to put
into songs in the 60s and 70s became stale in our mouths, like bubblegum always
does before too long. Jesso’s songs are so insanely retro, evoking the great
pop singer-songwriters of the early 70s—Randy Newman, Elton John, and Carole
King—except even they managed to include a wink and a nod here and there,
understanding the humor in the earnestness.
Now, that itself is enough for me to thoroughly enjoy this
album. I have a pretty extensive obsession with Todd
Rundgren, so anyone making songs that rip him off so well in 2015
gets my love. But it’s especially weird to me that apparently, Jesso isn’t
actually trying to pay homage. He says he’s
never had an especial love of the blue-eyed-soul, instead just trying to
emulate Stevie Wonder (and why shouldn’t he—Stevie’s the greatest—but honestly
he didn’t do that impressive of a job of emulating his style).
I have no choice but to believe him, and slowly start to
realize that Jesso is the most painfully earnest person in history. He has a
soft and heartfelt piano ballad called “Can
We Still Be Friends,” and it’s not at all a reference to the much
more famous soft and heartfelt piano ballad already called “Can
We Still Be Friends.”
In the age of irony that I
was born into and live in, I spend a silly amount of time trying to understand
how to hold on to sincerity. There’s this idea of the “New Sincerity” that
incorporates the knowledge of irony, the belief that seeing the B.S. will allow
for a greater realization of truth. That’s awesome when it works (and it does
surprisingly often), but it’s also hard as hell to get right. Meanwhile, here’s
Tobias Jesso Jr. writing the most dangerously cheesy songs I’ve ever heard, and
seemingly not realizing how unstuck in time they are, and I remember that it
doesn’t have to be. Sometimes someone can just feel emotions and not worry
about overthinking them.
5. Neon Indian, Vega Intl. Night School As an emotionally stunted millennial, I mostly understand life
through movies. And movies have taught me that clubs are way more awesome than they are. I’m not great with clubs. I don’t
even hate them, which would mean them evoking a real emotion. I sorta just find
them boring, which is a shame because movies have conditioned me to think that
the coolest thing a person can ever do is walk into a club
I don’t really know if Alan Palomo is especially into
nightclubs in real life. But this album evokes the version of it in movies from
the 70s, when floors flashed bright colors, people wore shiny suits, and
realized that cocaine and quaaludes screwed with your head but hadn’t really
figured out what they did to your body. It’s the sound of a truly intentional
cool, of a decision that looking good and walking with a strut are worth whatever
bad stuff comes with it. It’s a perfect nostalgia version of
retrofuturism—it’s music that people 40 years ago thought would be the music of
40 years in the future. It drives through the ersatz narrative of the
nightclub, from the ecstatic highsto the foreboding and imperceptible change into a bad trip. It’s what being cool is
supposed to be like, even if it never works that way outside of the movies.
4. HEALTH, DEATH MAGIC I’ve already ranted a bit about the magic of HEALTH in my review of their concert a few weeks ago, so
I’ll keep this brief. HEALTH are a noise band that fell in love with pop, and
didn’t find any contradiction in that. They blast out synthesizers that sound
like modem sounds plugged through distortion pedals, drums that sound like
robotic hammers, all at the loudest and scariest volume. But they do that in
service of melodies that would fit right in on the
HEALTH force sound through your ears with such intensity that
it doesn’t stop there. It echoes through your whole body and fills your soul.
It’s abrasive, but it’s in service of something more. It simultaneously hits
you with the fear and power of awesome loudness,
but also the defense-breaking emotion that comes with the best pop music. They
may be the best synthesis I’ve ever heard between experimental, abrasive music
and the future, and music of now that is just pure joy to listen to. And at
their best, you’re too consumed by the feeling to even notice.
3. Miguel, Wildheart Miguel didn’t have to release an album like this. His previous
album, Kaleidoscope Dream, was a
major hit, and he even managed to get himself a well-earned Grammy for his
excellent single, “Adorn.” He could have
kept doing what it seemed like he was doing best, and made a ton of money as an
impossibly sultry soul singer.
But instead he made Wildheart,
an album that evokes more than anything the desire to be more than what he was.
He hasn’t lost the sexiness that made him famous, or the soulful voice. He
added to it. Now there’s rocking guitar all over this album, choral flourishes,
and a deeper emotional range. He goes straight from the brazenly graphic sex
jam “The Valley” to the ethereal and sweet
morning-after anthem “Coffee.” He brings in
Lenny Kravitz and the rapper Kurupt to help him, not as part of the
commercially-minded feature game, but for something unexpected that they can
bring to the project.
The rawest part of the album comes halfway through the album,
with the song “What’s Normal Anyway?” “Too immoral for the Christians, but too
moral for the cut-throat/ Too far out for the in crowd, what’s normal anyway?/
Too involved in my own life to spend time with my family/ Too concerned about
what others think.” The song focuses on the singer’s feelings of isolation
growing up, of his inability to handle any of the labels he tried to put on
In the song, it’s a lament, a hope that there’s some place he
can find where he belongs, but it’s selling himself far too short. At one
point, Miguel fit perfectly into an archetype. But he understood that he was
more than that. He made this album instead, one that rocks too hard to be soul,
but has too much of a groove and silky voice for rock. It’s wanton lust and
caring love, energetic speed and slow moments. Its greatest strength is that it
doesn’t belong anywhere. It belongs only to itself.
2. Father John
Misty,I Love You, Honeybear There are some geniuses that have a spark within them, a
collection of ideas waiting to get out, a true and powerful musical expression
that just needs to be accessed. They are prolific and consistent, releasing
song after song that open new horizons.
Josh Tillman is not one of those.
The guy has talent, yeah. Lots of it. He can write the hell out
of a folk song, and his lyrics drip with a relatable cleverness. He released
some pretty good stuff when he went by the name J. Tillman, when he was a
sensitive and quiet singer-songwriter, revealing emotion, and then released a
good debut album when he changed it to Father John Misty, and decided that he
was way too much of a sarcastic asshole to pretend to be all heartfelt.
But then he met the love of his life, and married her. He found
a woman that convinced him that there might be something worth being heartfelt
about. He’s still a sarcastic asshole, but he realizes that all his affected
detachment is irrelevant in the face of something so disarming. “People are boring/But
you’re something else completely/Damn, let’s take our chances” he sings on "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins),”
as he lays bare the fear that comes with letting his guard down.
If music is, at its best, an expression of raw emotion, more
unfiltered than any word could ever be, then Father John Misty is a master,
even if he may not be a genius. This is his moment, one that transcends his art
and exists in life. He captures a feeling, one so rare but so real, with
perfection. “For love to find us of
all people/I never thought it’d be so simple,” he says on the beautiful
closer, “I Went To The Store One Day,” and
he follows it with a moan, an aching “ohhhhhhh” that comes from some place much
deeper than his throat. This is his moment, a moment so powerful he can only
share it, and in that moment, he’s better than any genius.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly OK so maybe I’m notverycreative. I’m not the first to sing the
praises of Kendrick Lamar’s bizarre, lyrical, angry, depressed, experimental
masterpiece, and I certainly won’t be the last. It was an album that exploded
the internet’s endless wave of music criticism, but for once, all those think
pieces felt like they had a purpose. They were dealing with a subject that was
so much bigger, and more importantly, so much smarter, so much more complex,
than any amount of dissecting could handle.
In the weeks after this album dropped, I spent enough time
reading hot takes and thought-provoking essays that it might have
gotten me fired from the office job I was supposed to be doing work at. And as
I read novels worth of words written about this nearly 80 minute album, I just
couldn’t help feeling like none of
them got what this album was trying to say. It’s not like I did, of course.
This album is huge. Every now and then I feel like I understand an individual
song, and then recontextualize it within the narrative of the album, the poem
Kendrick writes line by line in the outros of each song, and then realize I
didn’t get all the metaphors and references of that song in the first place.
It would be pretty impossible to point to one aspect of the
current unarguable holder of the Best Rapper Alive that makes him so
incredible, but to me, it’s the chameleon quality of his voice. He takes Biggie’s classic trick of changing up his flow to
depict a conversation and stomps all over it, able to inhabit a dozen or more
voices in one song. He’s proven himself equally untouchable on summer jamz, gratuitous
party raps, plaintive morality plays,
and possibly the greatest diss track of all time.
He used this to such incredible effect on his 2012 album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, creating a novelistic rap opera about the
tragedy of his hometown of Compton, a high water-mark of a modern rap album
that seemed unbeatable.
Months after I first became obsessed with this album, listening
to it while working, listening to it while traveling, listening to it while
running, and trying to reach one more little understanding of the entire world
it contains, I’m afraid that I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s an album
that has already seen its influence on my life and America become real, leading
to the implementation of live jazz into hip-hop (and the rise of jazz
appreciation among rap fans—see my previous love of Kamasi Washington, who
plays the hell out of his sax all over this record), or the growing resurgence
of the political polemic in hip-hop (see my above discussion of Pusha T).
Rap has often been an inward-looking medium. It’s a collection
of life stories, boasts, and personae, first-person accounts that act as verbal
shields for their speakers. To Pimp A
Butterfly blurs that line of selfhood. It’s an album with a deeply personal
song called “u” and a universal statement of love titled “i”. It makes no distinction between history and
the present, between emotion and intellect, between private fears and public
ills, between himself and the population of this country. To Pimp A Butterfly is bigger than the collection of songs it
contains, and bigger than anything else in 2015.
HEALTH Saturday, November 21, 2015 Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY Written by Jon Hecht
What does it take to fill a room with music?
A good publicist can fill it with people, and good equipment
can fill it with noise—loud, aching noise, that bubbles up from your toes and
into your ribs; epic, unsettling noise that you hear in your tongue and your
skull just as much as your ears; angry, throbbing noise that passes right
through you and disturbs the air behind your body. But there’s more to it than
The crowd at HEALTH was into it. They danced. They screamed and
cheered. They let the synthetic feedback being pumped at unholy decibel levels
from the amplifiers on the stage move through them. They did what a crowd does
at a really good show. They turned the noise coming out of the speakers into
HEALTH is a band that understands noise. They come from years
of playing it. They started with guitar feedback and screeches, experimenting
with getting rid of songs and all the things that normally turn collections of
sounds into “music.” They fell into a category of early-aughts experimental
music that made them comparable to Black Dice and Battles, that seemingly
thought that the problem with “noise-rock” heroes like Sonic Youth or My Bloody
Valentine was that pesky rock getting in the way of the screeching.*
Then, in a change that has been better documented by writers better paid than I,
they listened to the pop charts, and after being inspired by the loud
synthesizers on danceable hits, switched from all that guitar feedback to using
computer-generated instruments that they modeled on them. That feeling on
earworms where a well placed bass note from a shiny, expensive sounding
synthesizer just fills you with the reckless abandon that pop does? They do
that kind of thing, except instead of harnessing it for pop’s youth and
vitality, they make it into a really insane gut-punch.
It’s great on a record. It’s better live.
There are three people on-stage, and one of them doesn’t seem
to do much besides play with some pedals and knobs, occasionally pick up a bass
guitar and strum it once or twice, and wave his long, straight black hair in an
exaggerated windmill. Good lord that man can whip his hair. We’ve all shaken
our heads at music, and we’ve all gotten dizzy from it, but this guy has stamina
for the most rock and roll of head gestures that is just invigorating to watch.
Meanwhile next to him is a guitarist/singer, who makes loud
noises with the former and surprisingly sweet-sounding melodies with the
latter, like sugar laced with dynamite. Every note was louder than possible,
played through enough filters and synthetic amplifiers to be unrecognizable as
a guitar sound. The drummer somehow does that too, banging away at normal drums
and making them sound like they’re the weird drum-ish sounds on a Casio keyboard.**
This is an unbelievably impressive thing to do. He hits the normal, acoustic
drum just like a drummer normally does, and what comes out of the speakers is
the sound of a robot. It’s a reverse Turing test.
The whole show is like that. We all become machines, and we
cheer just as much when the amplifiers play disco-y shimmers as when the wretch
out the ear-splitting horror that opens their album’s single, “STONEFIST,”***
periodically through the concert. We sing along when they finally play it like
it’s Top 40, because in its own way, it is.
The band ends on a crescendo. They were loud. They were
intense. Then they got louder. Then they walked off stage, waited the requisite
break before and encore, and then came back.
They played guitars for this part. They played the kind of
noisy screeches that they would have a few albums and years ago, before they
hit this transformation. They played the kind of noises that are supposed to
hurt your ears, and make your parents worried about your well-being and annoy
But for that brief outro, they sounded tame. They sounded like
music of the past, when we could all have our eardrums boiled by nothing
crazier than a six string plugged into pedals, and not the fully artificial
synthesizer sounds they use now.
It was an answer to the question I asked at the beginning of
this review. There’s a sound of the vanguard, a sound of the future, a sound
that changes what you think sounds can be.
I think I’ve made it over-abundantly clear that I think HEALTH
are that sound, and that that sound is incredible. I listened to them on record
and heard a sound I’d never heard anything like before. I saw them live and I
went beyond hearing it. I felt it.
*No disrespect meant by this—Battles is awesome.
**This is 100% a good thing. It may not seem like it, but
HEALTH have reclaimed the Casio keyboard’s badly programmed drums. They play
synthesized snares, scratchy blips and handclaps that have never encountered
human hands like Paganini played violin. I would say that HEALTH should become
the official spokesband of Casio, except that I don’t think that anyone, even
Casio, is still selling those old things anymore, and the loud noises would
probably be bad for selling stuff.
***DID I MENTION HOW EVERYTHING ABOUT HEALTH IS IN ALL CAPS? THEIR ALBUM
IS CALLED DEATH MAGIC, BECAUSE OF
COURSE IT IS.
Blues music is boring. I love it, but that’s kind of the point,
right? It’s crazy that there’s a genre of music where such a big part of the
sound is defined by a certain chord progression and a specific
scale. It’s among the oldest of American music traditions, and somehow we’re
still interested in this down-and-dirty simple ditty that dates back to the
early nineteenth century.
But of course, it’s this consistency that has made blues so
wonderful. The thump works just as well as the stomp, and allows these little
changes to shine through as tectonic shifts that feel revolutionary. Blues-rock
was never that big of an innovation, but rock and roll has continued to be
influenced by the power of Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton for decades. The Black
Keys added Danger Mouse as a producer in 2008, and the shiny-but-distorted
sound of Brothers has become the
sound of not just recent blues, but half of popular modern rock since.
All this talk about the
seminal moments of the blues is probably setting up Courtesy Tier, the New York
City threesome that release their first EP, Little
Rock on November 6, a little too strongly. This is the first EP by a band
that, like the aforementioned half of modern rock bands, sound a lot like the
Black Keys. They have crunchy rhythm guitars, wailing lead guitars, drums with
lots of hi-hats and great little fills at the end of every measure and bass
that has a little extra feedback on it to give it a real thud.
Their lead singer sounds like he’s singing through a very bad
microphone even though it’s probably an excellent studio one with some effects.
They’re pretty good at all these things, which means…they mostly sound a lot
Black Keys and a few other current blues-rock bands.
Mostly. There’s something different here, and I’m going to
speculate wildly as to what.
The second song on the Little
Rock EP, “Green,” which is also their best in a not-even-competitive way,
sounds Israeli. No, that doesn’t mean it sounds like “Hava Negilah” or other
old-timey Jewish music, or even like the
songs that became Israeli folk music to the early Zionist movements.
It sounds like Israeli modern rock.
This makes sense, since singer/guitarist Omer Liebowitz is
apparently from Israel (and also West Africa). I don’t know the guy, so I hate
to speculate on whether there was a deliberate attempt to throw a bit of his
home country into this American music style with his American band-mates, but I
just listen to this song, and I hear Aviv Geffen, and Beit Habubot, and the
other artists I heard on Galgalatz radio for the several months I worked in the
greenhouse on a kibbutz.
I really have no idea what defines this Israeli sound. This
extends beyond my difficulty in writing this review. I noticed it years ago,
and I started to enjoy it, and then could never place what it was. There’s a
minor-key thing, and a rising, almost triumphant melodic style on the short
choruses, and a lot of reverb-y guitar picking, and then there’s something else
I can’t place. It makes for good music, and Courtesy Tier is part of that
The other two songs on the EP sound more like what blues sounds
like outside of Israel and that’s not a bad thing. They too have a little bit
of an edge to them, a little bit of a feeling that this is not just a standard,
a little bit of a feeling that the blues, which has survived since before the
time of sound recording by limiting the changes to I-IV-V, has added another
miniscule little quirk, a small veer in direction by just a few degrees that
could, in the long run, send it a completely different place.
Release Date: November 6th, 2015 Run Time: ~12 minutes Rating: 4/5
Track listing: 1. Little Rock 2. Green 3. Childish Blues
Folk music has always been predicated on a dream. It’s the music of a past that maybe was played by people who didn’t live through it. When the chords are plucked for twang and you get a good ol’ hometown wail out of a voice box that just shot back some terrible bourbon, the dream can invade your waking moments and become beautiful. For a second it feels as real as it wants to be.
Jeremiah Tall looks like a white, flannel-garbed Reggie Watts, and he sounds like the loudest guy at a Brooklyn beer garden. He’s a man who was named for this destiny, and he sings along to music he created with his whole body. He strums a banjo with a jangle, beats a suit-case with kick-drum pedal, and somehow fits a tambourine onto a limb I’m not certain of. His one-man band fills up the studio, and the dream becomes vivid. He has a debut album called Where The Lore Began, which is a perfect bullseye on the nose.
It’s folk music with a laser-like focus on a world before the invention of lasers. Tall builds walls that make you forget for a moment it’s 2015, and lets you imagine that your dad lives in a cabin, which he has to give up for his wife and kids. The sheriff seems like a totally reasonable person to be worried about, and the great challenge of the soul is whether solitude in nature is worth the loneliness or whether maybe
it’s better to go to that barn tonight and get drunk with a bunch of people who smoke pipes.
Tall doesn’t completely remove himself from the passage of time. The album is recorded immaculately; you can almost hear the stomp of Jeremiah’s boot as he kicks the drum pedal into the suitcase. Every now and then someone joins him—an upright bassist, a string section—but they blend in perfectly into the background compared to Tall’s personal force as a musician. It sounds more likely that he somehow bows that cello with his nose more than that there could be another
person in the studio. The solitary style suits him perfectly, because he has enough sound to go it alone.
The songwriting is forgettable in the best way. It’s hard to tell if you’ve heard this ditty before, if it was something you heard an old man playing on his broken mandolin by the freight train tracks*, or on The Anthology Of American Folk Music, or in the soundtrack to a Coen Brothers film that was assisted by T. Bone Burnett. There’s a hint of punk in his songs—”A Heart At War,” the first song after a one-minute intro, has a real hint of “Lust for Life” in its fast-paced drum-and-one-chord stomp, though the lyrics are much more about his troubled soul yearning for love (of course) than whatever William S. Burroughs absurdity Iggy Pop was going on about—but Tall is more likely to drop out of society than burn it down.
Listening to When The Lore Began can feel like the rejection of the strait-laced modern world that Tall’s lyrics can evoke, but it’s a feeling that ends as the last choral chords that close out the haunting finisher “Salvation” cease to reverberate. Jeremiah Tall is an aesthete, and he masters his aesthetic with an admiral precision. But the precision he uses has the trade-off of lacking the depth of a less focused approach. When The Lore Began perfectly encapsulates the hill-country (Bucks County, PA, to be exact) feeling before telephones that it’s going for. But in a world where this album mostly exists as ones and zeroes on your computer, it can become a little thin. It’s a beautiful dream, and extremely vivid one that you can reach out and touch and feel. But eventually you’ll wake up, and you might not remember what it was about.
*I’ve always assumed that all of our readers are hoboes from the 1950s. Please don’t correct me if I’m wrong.
Release Date: October 23rd, 2015
Run Time: ~34 minutes
1. Almost Heaven
2. A Heart At War
3. Hard Working Man
4. I Got A Name
5. Where Dandelions Roam
7. Never Surrender
9. Two Timing Tommy
10. Working For
[Note: In the midst of allegations made against a former member of Neck Deep in regards to unlawful interactions with underage fans, we would like to state that neither Lucy Out Loud nor members of its staff condone any sort of actions of that nature. This
review was aimed to focus on the band and on the album’s merit, though we
deemed it irresponsible to make no mention of the aforementioned issues. The
band’s official statement on the situation can be read here. Thank you.]
Punk doesn’t do intros.*
It’s supposed to start mid-chorus. There’s no clearing of
throat, because the best punk singers have the scratchiest of screeching vocal
chords anyway. You just start in the middle, and don’t worry if the listener
has time to get acclimated. They’re pulled along, and they’re with you, or
they’re against you.
British pop-punkers Neck Deep know this. They know all the
lessons that Punk has been teaching us. They’ve got a few seconds of record
studio leftovers, and we’re in, on the opener of their new album, “Citizens of
Earth.” A few hard-hitting eighth notes that rise in intensity and before long
we’re in the album, and singer Ben Barlow is telling us how “every earthquake
starts with a little shake.”
It’s a great opener. It’s a calling card and a call to arms. It
shoves us right into their world before we have time to figure out what that
world is. This has been the best way to start a Punk album ever since
“London Calling,” but while Strummer and co. were ushering in an
apocalypse to fit their whole political movement, Neck Deep are starting an
album called Life’s Not Out To Get You, mostly about heartbreak and feeling
lonely and stuff like that.
And then “Threat Level Midnight” starts, with another
perfectly executed Punk intro, and you can’t escape from any of those feelings,
or the excellent 90’s-emo guitar work. Over the course of 12 songs, Neck Deep
wrestle with their title, against the unstoppable irrationality of youth that
insists that life is, after all, out to get you, and you specifically.
Sometimes they’re telling us about that girl and how she got away, or about the
loneliness of friends that aren’t worth it, sometimes while on the beach. But
there’s the other through line, the get-over-it reminder of the album’s title,
that infects songs like lead single “Gold Steps” (the source of the title
refrain). The two sides are fighting, and it’s not ever quite clear which is
winning. It makes the emotions of both feel earned, as they argue against each
other from across tracks.
Neck Deep don’t do anything particularly new. They’re not
trying to. There’s nothing to their sound that makes them radically different
from their peers in the pop-punk world. But the band stands out, because
they’re good at what they do. The songwriting is strong, the hooks are soaring,
and all of the elements of the band work together perfectly. By keeping things
straight without too many frills, the band’s strengths are allowed to shine
The lyrics are through the album are inches from a diary, with
enough wit to stand out, but not too much to lessen the bare-hearted rawness.
The band could be described similarly. There is a crispness to every sound,
with a sledgehammer rhythm section and a well-matched lead-rhythm guitar
battle. But there’s just enough rawness there—much of it coming from Barlow’s
voice—to keep it interesting.
And before you know it, the album closes with “Rock Bottom,”
losing energy for just enough time in 36 minutes to fit in a well-executed
ballad called “December.” The album closes like it opens, almost in the middle.
You don’t have time to quite figure out what just hit you, but it was
*Which of course won’t stop me from writing for an
unnecessarily long time before actually mentioning the music I’m supposed to be
reviewing. Punk also hates rules, right?
Release Date: August 14th, 2015
Run Time: ~35 minutes
1. Citizens Of Earth
2. Threat Level Midnight
3. Can’t Kick Up The Roots
4. Kali Ma
5. Gold Steps
6. Lime St.
8. The Beach Is For Lovers (Not Lonely Losers)
10. Smooth Seas Don’t Make Good Sailors
11. I Hope This Comes Back To Haunt You
12. Rock Bottom
A debut EP is basically a gimme, right? When studio time is
being doled by a salt shaker, the idea of coming up with any sound that’s
better than “competent” can seem unfair. The things that make a band matter—all
that junk about a specific sound that no one else has, and an energy and
delivery that makes it work perfectly is probably best judged once there’s a
full album, when being in the studio isn’t quite as much of a luxury.
So it’s especially impressive to listen to Marco With Love,
who apparently is a guy named Marco and his band named Love. Last year they
released the kind of first single, also titled “Love,” that does exactly what
it needs to. With a mix of 60s-reminiscent jangle pop guitars that prove the
band is living up to their namesake, a smooth
rhythm section that sounds much more modern, and an earnest gruff vocalist,
it’s got good style and tight song craft that should make anyone curious for a
full EP. There’s enough confidence and freshness in this lead single that an
entire five songs rehashing it could have easily been an okay start. Which is
why MWL’s Tidal Wave EP is so weird,
and more importantly, good.
Tidal Wave doesn’t
sound anything like “Love.” It sounds like country-fried alt-rock, which if you
want to be annoying about arbitrary genre specifications, differs from
alt-country because the latter pretends that it’s from the country when it’s
really from the city and this one doesn’t bother pretending. It sounds like Ryan
Adams’ most recent album. As someone who is a sucker for just about anything
that Ryan Adams does, this is a good thing. But even if you’re not as obsessed
with Mandy Moore’s ex-husband as I am, Marco With Love doing it is still
definitely a good thing.
The title track starts off the EP with an energy that keeps
the open road moving. “Leave It All Behind” simmers that down to a cocky
swagger, and the closer “Poor Young And Gifted” doubles down on the rough
sincerity in Marco Argiro’s voice for a tough ballad. And then there’s a cover
of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die.” Covering Van Zandt is a smart
idea, since his sound and attitude pervade the best parts of the EP, but it
also highlights quite how not-quite-country the band is. When you’re living in
Brooklyn and considering Westchester to be the countryside, then then a
full-throated country ballad of love, loss, and time doesn’t quite connect.
But the weakness of Marco and his Love’s cover abilities
highlight exactly what is so impressive about Tidal Wave. They sound like themselves. They’re doing it in a
country rock style that should be old and repetitive, and they sound different
than the version of themselves that they were a year ago, but they’ve managed
to create a sound that is self-assured. They’ve done it twice now. To be
honest, I like their jangle-pop start more than the country-twang rock, but I’m
not complaining about either. Mostly, I’m looking forward to what they do next.
Release Date: July 17th, 2015 Run Time: ~16 minutes Rating: 4/5
Track listing: 1) Tidal Wave 2) Leave It Behind 3) Waiting Around To Die 4) Poor Young and Gifted