Aluminium: 10 Years of The Stage Names

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Okkervil River – The Stage Names

Released August 7th, 2007 on Jagjaguwar Records

Okkervil River may be indie rock’s perennial “mid-level band” (as they refer to themselves on “Unless It’s Kicks”) but The Stage Names, their fourth album, they burst up above the clouds to briefly take their places among the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon.  This is not a reference to any hits – there are no hits, a criminal shame in itself – but instead to pure songcraft, the perfection of a crafted album and the wry, self-reflective poetry of frontman Will Sheff.  Their previous album, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, came close to the indie-rock mastery present here, but they would never again achieve such heights (although 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium comes kind of close).  Unlike Black Sheep Boy there is no explicit concept (that album was an exploration of the life and death of junkie-poet-folkie Tim Hardin); however, there’s some pretty clear themes running through The Stage Names that make it a sort of meta-rumination on Sheff, the band, and the nature of rock ‘n’ roll mythology.  If the album could be said to be about anything, it’s about the cheap theatricality of populist art, and the complicated narratives that we spin around simple people.

We think of our lives as films, with narrative arcs and neat endings; “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” posits that there is no such thing.  Sheff sings that “It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax” and teases here and there that are moments that make one think that their life could be a movie, if you looked at them sideways in the magic hour that begins twilight.  “Unless It’s Kicks” is an admission that the narrative created by the consumer of art bears no resemblance to the author’s intent (and here we go rehashing that argument again); “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s fiction,” he asks, “Unless it’s licks, man, unless it’s lies or it’s love?” and then implores a fan “with their heart opened up” to take warning about believing your own lies.  Those lies – the narrative we impose tyrannically on the anonymous textures of everyday life – are important, because they impart some meaning onto the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, but if we believe in these lies too fully we risk trapping ourselves in an unrealistic narrative that can crush us if it’s revealed to be too much of a lie.  “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene” is about the slick and vicious nature of some of those lies; Sheff buildings the lyrics out of scenes from television shows that Okkervil River’s music has been featured in, including a Cold Case scene where a serial killer picks up a male prostitute, kills them, and buries them in a remote, rocky area.  “Savannah Smiles” shows the flip side, being about Shannon Michelle “Savannah” Wilsey, a pornographic actress who swallowed her own narrative so completely that when she was disfigured in a car accident she killed herself rather than face a life without being her illusory, created self.  “Plus Ones” takes aim at our mad frenzy to keep the story going, to churn out sequels and franchises in order to never end the imposed narratives we’ve become obsessed with.  “A Girl In Port” likens the travelling rock ‘n’ roll band to being sailors with girls in every port, only the girls in port for rock ‘n’ roll bands are acting out the dictates of the (usually false) mythology that builds up around bands.  “You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man” bridges the gap between the narrative of youth and wealth and the reality of age and starvation for artists; “Title Track” tackles the illusion of stardom head-on with an eye to it’s utter absurdity.  The final song, “John Allyn Smith” sets sail, tracks the life and suicide of poet John Berryman, a doomed artist who was something of a muse in 2006-2007 as he was referenced by a number of others, including The Hold Steady on Boys And Girls In America.  It examines the mythology of the poet versus the sad, sordid reality (alcoholism and suicide attempts) and caps it off with a rendition of the traditional “Sloop John B” that feels more like suicide note than the raucous ode to debauchery and hangovers it usually is.

The album that came directly after, 2008’s The Stand-Ins, would be a sort of second half of The Stage Names, but would not be as successful in mining it’s themes for frisson; The Stage Names still remains Okkervil River’s crowning achievement.  I first fell in love with it on a bus trip; I was going north to help close down the family cottage and on the bus ride I had enough time to listen to two albums.  I ended up listening to The Stage Names twice, entranced by it’s lyrics, it’s melodies, and the way that the two combined to run goosebumps up and down my arm.  Ten years later I still sing along to every word and, if pressed, I’d probably place it in my twenty favourite albums.

 

 

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Aluminium: 10 Years of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

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Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Released July 7th, 2007 on Merge Records

There are days – many of them – where I feel like Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga might low-key be my favourite album.  It is, at the very least, an album that I can throw on at any time and be perfectly comfortable with it being on.  It’s hard to pick out a favourite moment, too, since they all seem so great.  Is it the brash horns on “The Underdog”?  Is it the line about doing an airborne and settling in for the night (like there’s any settling after one of those)?  Is it the tube reverb that makes the guitars on “Don’t Make Me A Target” such a delight?  Is it the relentless snare in “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”?  The slinky, blatantly sexual bass line of “Don’t You Evah”?  Being a slut for the New York Times?  Maybe it’s the way the album seems sculpted to perfection, with every string, guitar, horn, and drum beat in exactly the right place.  It exudes confidence and bleeds charisma.

If there were any true justice in the universe, Spoon would be as big a band as the Rolling Stones, but instead they’re as big as LCD Soundsystem, which counts for something.  They would go on to release three more albums, of which only the last (this year’s brilliant Hot Thoughts) comes close to equaling the meticulously grooved music presented on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

China: 20 Years of Perfect From Now On

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Built To Spill – Perfect From Now On

Released January 28th, 1997 on Warner Bros.

BestEverAlbums:  #318

RYM:  #212

Doug Martsch attracted major label attention for his Boise, Idaho band Built To Spill on the basis of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, the group’s second album.  That album was full of light and whimsy, comprised of solid indie pop songs overflowing with nostalgia and good vibes.  Upon signing to Warner Bros. he decided instead to concentrate on squalling, lengthy epics more in line with vintage “Cowgirl In The Sand”-era Neil Young.  While this is not precisely recommended behaviour for a band that just inked a major label deal, Perfect From Now On is the best Built To Spill album by a country mile.   The follow-up, Keep It Like A Secret, was as concise as Perfect From Now On was sprawling, and after that Martsch put out a series of solid enough albums that showcased moments of brilliance but could mainly be described as “workmanlike”.

 

Perfect From Now On, though, is a heady trip.  Gifted with the same deft touch for screaming, grungy lead guitar that J. Mascis put to such good use ten years prior, Marsch and the band hover and strike like stoned professionals.  The leadoff title track is a textbook exercise in how to craft a rock song that seems made to be heard in the moon’s gravity.  “I Would Hurt A Fly” is Built To Spill at their moodiest, turning cliches on their heads and getting close to snapping at that noise you’re making.  “Velvet Waltz” and “Kicked It In The Sun” both glide by on skates in the cloud, built on jams that flirt with singularity and then reform in more solid states.  The closer, “Untrustable,” snaps that dreamy melodies that dominate the rest of the album into solid focus before switching to an almost carnivalesque instrumental jam that closes out the album in a weirdly Elephant Six fashion.

 

The album was actually recorded three times; what you hear is the final form of these songs after being jammed out again and again.  The first time Martsch played everything except the drums but was unsatisfied with the results.  The second time the full band played and while the producer was driving from Seattle to Boise to record some further takes the master tapes were destroyed by the car’s heater.  Thus the album had to be recorded a third time, the end result being that the songs were as good as they were going to ever be.  In 2008, between albums, the band took Perfect From Now On back out on tour, acknowledging the indisputable high point of their catalog.

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

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Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Released May 13th, 2016

During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear.  Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.

Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised:  a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion.  Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid RapColoring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people.  “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole.  It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets.  The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place.  Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails:  he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it.  He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.

Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent.  He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas.  Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape.  It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”:  “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”.  Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive.  Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book.  They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.

Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al.  He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else.  In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.

AND THE REST…

A$AP Ferg

Always Strive And Prosper

04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music

The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.

Wire

Nocturnal Koreans

04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records

Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP.  As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.

Greys

Outer Heaven

04/22/2016 on Carpark Records

Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part.  In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs.  While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact.  Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.

Plants And Animals

Waltzed In From The Rumbling

04/29/2016 on Secret City Records

A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue.  Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.

The Jayhawks

Paging Mr. Proust

The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career.  Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.

White Lung

Paradise

The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album.  It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old.  At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extended Roundup (More April Stuff)

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Because there aren’t any albums in this list I want to take the time to commit more than 300 words to.

Woods

City Sun Eater In The River Of Life

04/08/2016 on Woodsist Records

The veteran Brooklyn lo-fi folk group plays it safe on their latest album – entirely too safe.  Everything here sounds like Woods, even when it’s trying hard not to.

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals

Call It What It Is

04/08/2016 on Fantasy Records

Ben Harper’s first album with his Innocent Criminals backing band since the first Obama election is a solid return to form, a slick and professional amalgam of his styles:  funk, rock, soul, reggae, and old school R&B.

The Dandy Warhols

Distortland

04/08/2016 on Dine Alone Records

The poster children for diminishing returns approach the singularity.  Why even bother at this point?

The Lumineers

Cleopatra

04/08/2016 on Dualtone Records

The band doubles down on their folky Americana tracing, with a graver tone than the first time around.  The best that can be said is that at least they didn’t just go full-on Coldplay like a certain other indie-folk band of saps.

Royce Da 5’9″

Layers

04/15/2016 on Bad Half Entertainment

The veteran Detroit rapper isn’t gunning for radio singles or memorable street bangers here.  Instead, he leans on his top-notch lyrical skills to deliver a solid, message-driven album that also happens to feature some great hooks.

The Liminanas

Malamore

04/15/2016 on Because Records

The French psych-garage band combines a variety of European traditions – Italian giallo soundtracks, French ye-ye music, Spanish guitar melodies – with hard-hitting American psychedelic garage rock.  Features New Order bassist Peter Hook in an obvious cameo on one track.

The Coathangers

Nosebleed Weekend

04/15/2016 on Suicide Squeeze Records

Like Drew Storen, The Coathangers are a once-reliable outfit that has lost its velocity and therefore it’s meaning by 2016.  They try to develop some new tricks but, also like Storen, it remains to be seen whether they can pull that off in the long-run.

Kevin Morby

Singing Saw

04/15/2016 on Dead Oceans Records

The former Woods bassist puts out a lush album of moves cribbed from the Bob Dylan playbook.  Not exactly essential, but not a throwaway album either.

Suuns

Hold/Still

04/15/2016 on Secretly Canadian Records

A sort of lazy-eyed post-punk, like if Thom Yorke fronted an underground band.  There’s nothing here that reinvents the wheel or even improves upon an aspect of their influences, but it passes the time well enough.

Surgical Meth Machine

Surgical Meth Machine

04/15/2016 on Nuclear Blast Records

After putting Ministry to bed with a trio of albums that all said the same thing (“George W Bush sucks”), Al Jourgenson returns in 2016 with a project that blends industrial oblivion with the blurred effect of speed metal.  It doesn’t have the hard-hitting punch of his Ministry days but it’s funnier than anything he’s done in years, and the latter half of the album has more hooks than a bait shop.

Sam Beam

Love Letter For Fire

04/15/2016 on Sub Pop Records

The Iron & Wine frontman teams up with Jesca Hoop to put together an album of rich country-tinged folk ballads that I can’t remember a blessed thing about as soon as they’re over.

Kowton

Utility

04/15/2016 on Livity Sound Recordings

When it comes to electronic music meant to get you moving, Utility is competent.  That’s not really a compliment but it’s not altogether denigrating either.  You could do worse.

Susanna

Triangle

04/22/2016 on Susannasonata Records

An effective blend of the baroque majesty of Joanna Newsom and the cutting-edge mystique of St. Vincent.  It would be a much better album if it wasn’t so overly long.

Dalek

Asphalt For Eden

04/22/2016 on Profound Lore Records

Dense, thick, and lo-fi, the hip-hop group’s first album in six years (with new members) hits all of the right notes from their previous, critically acclaimed efforts.  Noisy without being willfully so, and brief without being truncated.

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 2

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Special Friday Edition!

Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music.  Ha.  Ha ha.  Well, they try, that’s the important thing.

If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist:  I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is.  In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right.  Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above:  it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.

Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.

Anyway…

June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”

Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton.  Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before.  In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.

A

#2:  Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”

Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song.  Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set.  Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.

B+

#3:  Beck – “Wow”

Ah, the new Beck track.  The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album.  Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness.  Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion.  Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.

B

#4:  The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”

The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead.  My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick.  Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.

C

#5:  A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”

Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names?  Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging?  Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth?  Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?

Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.

F

#6:  The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”

Okay, show of hands.  Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback?  Anyone?  Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ.  Wait, this is actually sort of good.  I…I kind of like this.  Noel Gallagher co-wrote it?  I suppose that explains some things.

B+

#7:  Portugal.  The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”

Who gave the indie kids access to the internet?  They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great.  It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act.  You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up.  Good work, Reddit.

C+

#8:  Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”

The rest of the post title literally reads:  “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.

Who are you trying to fool, anyway?  We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.

Decent tune though.

B

#9:  Link Wray – “Rumble”

Link Wray  poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino.  At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .

B+

#10:  Joywave – “Nice House”

Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden.  The outro is rather nice though.

C+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  B- (Not bad, Reddit!)

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 1

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And now for a new sequence, brought to you by the…ahem…”tastemakers” of Reddit’s infamously awful /r/music community.

It’s often said that Reddit has shitty taste in music.  Granted it’s usually 4chan’s /mu/ community saying that, but let’s be serious here.  Whether it’s the constant love of Queen and Foo Fighters that makes me roll my eyes or the circlejerking over how superior they are because of their love of Tool, /r/music is a bottomfeeder in terms of music communities.

Or is it?  I’ve decided to start an ongoing series where I listen to the top ten songs posted to /r/music in a 24 hour period and assign them completely subjective ratings based on my own insane whims and thought processes.  Then we’ll see if /r/music’s taste actually sucks as badly as I’ve always thought.

Without further ado, I give to you:

June 1st, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Rancid – “Ruby Soho”

The most poppy and milquetoast of all of the Clash-rip-off’s poppy and milquetoast songs.  /r/music loves punk rock, but only if it’s from Le Nineties and it’s been beaten to death on the radio since then.

 D+

#2:  The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”

The first time since 2001 that Australian sample-stackers The Avalanches release new music AND it’s fucking stellar?  You win this time Reddit.  You win this time.

A+

#3:  Dethklok – “I Ejaculate Fire”

I’d say something snarky about how the only way metal gets to the top of Reddit is in cartoon form but I can’t hate on Dethklok.  This isn’t completely dildos.

B+

#4:  Johnny Cash – “Rusty Cage”

The best that can be said of this is that at least Reddit took a break from jerking off over “Hurt”.  At least with “Rusty Cage” I don’t have to read about how “REZNOR TOTALLY SAID THAT SONG BELONGED TO JOHNNY CASH NOW BECAUSE THE COVER WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!1!11!”.  In fact, one of the top comments is the exact opposite.  Thank you, Jesus.

C+

#5:  The Distillers – “The Young Crazed Peeling”

Man it has been a long time since I thought of Brody and The Distillers.  It still sounds like Courtney Love fronting Rancid to me, and as the years have gone by that prospect appeals to me exponentially less.  Also, those fucking spikes.  Jesus Brody, how much money did you shell out to get that look down just right?  How punk rock of you.

C-

#6:  Huey Lewis And The News – “If This Is It”

Jesus Christ Reddit, Bret Easton Ellis was being ironic.  What the hell is wrong with you?

F

#7:  Lagwagon – “Island Of Shame”

Apparently it’s awful pop punk day on Reddit.  Lagwagon was that band that was there for you if Pennywise was too edgy for you.  Completely indistinguishable from anything else on Epitaph in the mid-90s.

D

#8:  Grand Funk Railroad – “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”

GFR got a lot of hate back in the day from critics because, well, they’re not really that good on average.  Still, they were capable of moments of brilliance, and “I’m Your Captain” is one of those.  For more on Grand Funk Railroad, consult your local library.

A-

#9:  Men At Work – “Down Under”

Goofy Eighties pop rock from the Gowan of Australia.  I often wonder who posts these sorts of songs.  Kids nostalgic for a time they never had to live through?  Adults putting on rose-coloured nostalgia glasses?  Mouthbreathers who listen to bland Mix FM stations at work?  At least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.

C-

#10:  The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (aka The KLF) – “It’s Grim Up North”

Reddit’s sizeable school shooter community comes through in the clutch.

B+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  C+

M83 – Junk

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M83 – Junk

Released April 8th, 2016 on Mute Records

My wife and I keep Sirius XMU, the “indie” satellite channel, on in the car pretty much all the time.  One consequence of this is that, when the blogger guest DJs come on, things can get pretty random.  One day, during what might have been Brooklyn Vegan’s set but was probably Gorilla Vs Bear’s, the subject of vaporwave was brought up.  Sort of.  Whomever it was referred to what they were playing as “weather-channel-core”, as in “the sort of music that you’d hear played over the weather channel as it flips through various local and regional forecasts.”  This is pretty similar to the concept of vaporwave – where the dulcet sounds of late 80s/early 90s training video music (along with every other uncool musical movement of the era) are reconstructed into something bizarrely post-modern.  Either way, it’s taking the sound of music that was never really meant to be listened to actively and ensuring that the listener has to do so.

The genre has had some limited success, mainly online.  Macintosh Plus (or Vektroid, as she normally goes by) had a lot of people on /mu/ convinced with Floral Shoppe that vaporwave was their life.  Saint Pepsi has bubbled around alt-indie radio and Oneohtrix Point Never celebrated his signing to venerable Warp Records with R Plus Seven, a heavily vaporwave-influenced album.  Still, in a year where everything sounds like Drake (because everything on the charts has Drake on it, natch), it’s hard to imagine people grooving to adult contemporary saxophones, smooth jazz sounds, factory-preset synth voices, and those hollow, echo-laden drums that scream “cheap Eighties power ballad”.  And yet, here is Junk.

Of course, if anyone was going to “go vaporwave”, it was going to be Anthony Gonzalez.  His M83 project may have kicked off with a couple of hard-synth albums that appropriated the bombast of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness for an uncertain new age, but his sound came into its own on Saturdays=Youth, the soundtrack to the dream John Hughes movie that only ever existed in your head.  It was unabashedly influenced by the Eighties, to the point where the person inside you that desperately wants to be cool feels uncomfortable listening to it at times.  Hurry Up We’re Dreaming followed this up with a sprawling double album of synth-rock heroics, dream pop bliss, and more of that Breakfast Club soundtrack vibe.  Junk is not like that.  Junk takes Gonzalez’s love of 1987 and dives in full-force.  This is the smooth jazz-AOR-proto-diva-power-ballad-hybrid album that has been lurking inside of his head since forever.  “Go!” has one of those searing guitar solos that used to anchor pop songs (like Eddie Van Halen’s wailing on “Beat It”); “Walkway Blues” has some texture-treated sax (or synth-sax, possibly); “Moon Crystal” is pure VHS nostalgia – an advertisement for a spa, or some other feature you’d watch on an internal hotel channel.  “For The Kids” is the sappiest family movie ballad that was never released in a glut of bad straight-to-video movies, although “Atlantique Sud” comes close.  “The Wizard” adds in the thin-tape of cheap commercial grade VHS sounds, like a training video that’s been watched too many times over thirty years.  “Sunday Night 1987” closes out the album with exactly what the title promises, a smooth, nearly edgeless bit of calmed-down soulful balladry with those Casio-preset piano noises and reedy late-period Billy Joel saxophones.

Junk has all of the trappings of vaporwave except perhaps for its politics.  The artists that originally started piecing together the disparate parts that make up the genre intended to offer a satire or critique of modern consumer culture and the disturbing habit of throwing away everything that is even the slightest bit old.  It’s meant to reveal the cracks in the golden facade of capitalism by ironically remixing music that was only intended to be a backdrop to sales tools, or to cynically fill in places in art that was only ever intended to make someone along the chain some money.  Does Junk fulfill this?  Not particularly.  It seems to function instead as an homage to Gonzalez’s youth, much as his previous two albums functioned.  It uses nostalgia to make nostalgic art, rather than critique the past and future.  It’s done in such a deft and seamless way, however, that I can’t really count that apolitical status as a fault.  Instead, it’s a tribute to a time and a sound that most people would rather gloss over or ignore.  You can see that reflected in the reaction to the album; most people don’t seem to know what to make of it, thinking that there must be some hidden ironic agenda going on that they’re not in on.  The cheese is sincere, however, and celebratory.

AND THE REST…

Deakin

Sleep Cycles

04/08/2016 on My Animal Home Records

That Kickstarter Josh Dibb did initially to crowdfund this album?  He donated most of that to charity.  Kickstarter is problematic.  Sleep Cycles is a good album though, one that approximates the bare essentials of his Animal Collective day job without getting into the high-flying lysergic excesses.

Peter Wolf

A Cure For Loneliness

04/08/2016 on Concord Records

The former singer for the J. Geils Band tries to pretend that thirty years of history hasn’t happened and that he can still get away with lite-rock AOR music.  It’s always fun when you can guess exactly where each song is going to go from the minute it starts.  Did I say fun?  I mean sleep-inducing.

Ben Watt

Fever Dream

04/08/2016 on Universal Music

Like an actual fever dream, it goes in many strange directions and there’s very little to grasp onto once you wake up.

Future Of The Left

The Peace and Truce Of The Future Of The Left

04/08/2016 on Prescriptions Records

I just want an album that’s as rich, over-the-top, and powerful as Travels With Myself And Another.  Admittedly, this comes pretty close.

Teleman

Brilliant Sanity

04/08/2016 on Moshi Moshi Records

One of those indie albums that sounds an awful lot like all the other indie albums.  Except for “Dusseldorf” and “Glory Hallelujah”, though:  both of those are stellar tracks.

 

 

Parquet Courts – Human Perfomance

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Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Released April 8th, 2016 on Rough Trade Records

Parquet Courts are a lot of different things.  A little bit Modern Lovers, a little bit Guided By Voices, the odd bit of Pavement, some old-world post-punk, the poppier moments of Swell Maps – it all rides a certain smoky nonsense, something borne out of the septic days of the Velvet Underground.  I asked them recently on Reddit if they were kidnapped, locked in a room, and asked at gunpoint to choose between Pere Ubu and Swell Maps who their choice would be.  Frontman Andrew Savage responded that first, this was an odd outlet for aggression, and second that he would have to be a patriot and choose Pere Ubu.

Parquet Courts are a post-punk band, but they’re an updated iteration of that exploration of what punk rock means.  What does Wire and Swell Maps fronted by a deadpan, jittery Stephen Malkmus sound like?  It sounds like Human Performance.  The opening track, “Dust”, extends a Pink Flag era type riff while capturing a narrative out of the anonymous textures of everyday life.  The title track lives on the edge of its own churning emotions, for sure, but it kicks off with one of the most succinct descriptions of love:  “I know exactly where I was when I first saw you the way I see you now, with these eyes.”  From there Andrew Savage tries to figure out exactly where it all went wrong, with regards to his relationship with both girl and city.  Tracks like “Outside”, “Steady On My Mind”, song-of-the-year candidate “Berlin Got Blurry”, and “Keep It Even” tackle the former subject.  More interesting are the songs that wrestle with Savage’s hot-and-cold relationship with NYC:  “I Was Just Here” wonders fiercely where that Chinese restaurant got off to so quickly; “Captive Of The Sun”‘s Dylan-esque word vomit models the bustle and restlessness of the street; “One Man No City” examines the loneliness of the uncaring hordes; “Two Dead Cops” uses a real double-homicide of police officers in Bed-Stuy in 2014 to talk about the seemingly random and impersonal violence that crops up constantly in urban situations.  The loneliness of a failing relationship is thus juxtaposed against the loneliness of the impersonal big city and a constant back-and-forth connection can be established between the two.

Parquet Courts have been on an upward trajectory of, if not maturity, increased awareness of their position as “artists” and of the art that they are creating.  Light Up Gold was a mile-a-minute cross between pop punk, post-punk, and early Nineties indie rock a la Pavement and Guided By Voices.  Sunbathing Animal followed suit, but on Content Nausea they got jittery, angular, and all of those other words we used to describe post-punk inspired indie rock with in the early Oughts.  Monastic Living doubled down on that path, giving us a solid minute and a half of melody before spewing noise for the remainder of the EP.  Human Performance brings it back around to the beginning, but with a heavy dose of that dreaded word I disavowed above:  “maturity”.  The noise terrorism is kept to a judicious minimum and the tempos have lost some velocity, and in this is the structure of a brilliant album.

AND THE REST…

Frightened Rabbit

Painting Of A Panic Attack

04/08/2016 on Atlantic Records

“Get Out” is a great track and having National pedigree on production is promising, so why does this album fall so goddamn flat?

Deftones

Gore

04/08/2016 on Reprise Records

So you can’t go home again, as it turns out.  Gore kind of sounds like the past glories of Deftones, if you take out things like edge and excitement.

PJ Harvey

The Hope Six Demolition Project

04/15/2016 on Vagrant Records

While not being as wall-to-wall brilliant as 2011’s Let England Shake, the veteran’s newest album manages to bring her politics local again, while getting off a few good shots.  “The Wheel” happens to be a particular classic, and “The Ministry Of Defence” brings it all back around to Rid Of Me.

Mike & The Melvins

Three Men And A Baby

04/01/2016 on Sub Pop Records

The gods of Sabbath riffery were supposed to do this album with underground Mike Kunka 16 years ago, and it shows.  Like most Melvins collab albums, it’s only as essential as your sense of completion requires it to be.

Tacocat

Lost Time

04/01/2016 on Hardly Art Records

Breezy, fun pop-punk from the Seattle heirs of the riot grrrl movement.  Doesn’t differ all that much from their debut, but then again it probably doesn’t need to.

Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

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Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Released April 1st, 2016 on Yellow K Records

The dream of the Nineties is alive in more places than just Portland these days.  With every second kid out there wearing a flannel overshirt and a fitted cap, and every second band trading in post-Dinosaur Jr. guitar crunch, one can be forgiven for thinking that they were reliving their memories of 1992.  Unlike their fuzz-pedal worshipping contemporaries – Bully, Speedy Ortiz, Joanna Gruesome, the Crutchfield sisters – Japanese Breakfast takes their cues from a  more esoteric place.  Psychopomp is a little bit Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine, with the airy charm of vintage Asobi Seksu and a bit of the more out-there moments of Guided By Voices.  “In Heaven” is a shoegaze paradise; “Everybody Wants To Love You” is a chug-along lo-fi anthem.  “Jane Cum” and “Triple 7” are the highlights, soaring numbers that focus their attention on the impassioned vocals of Michelle Zauner.

Zauner is the real show here.  The songs on Psychopomp are reworks of some lo-fi stuff she worked on when her old band, Little Big Leagues, was still active.  She and collaborator Ned Eisenberg rebuilt them into something both strongly reminiscent of the shoegaze/dream-pop days of the late Eighties and early Nineties while retaining a vibrant mysteriousness that sets the music apart from the merely derivative.  The fact that it breezes by in a scant 25 minutes only adds to it; unlike a lot of her contemporaries, Zauner knows when to call it a day.  The quick runtime means that each of the songs on Pyschopomp stands out on its own as a strong contender, and lets the strengths of each song shine through, something that might have been lost in a much longer work.  It’s wistful and heavy, pure indie pop at its finest.

And The Rest…

RJD2

Dame Fortune

03/25/2016 on R.J.’s Electrical Connections Records

Self-produced hip hop albums can get quite self-indulgent, and Dame Fortune is no exception.  The producer’s long-standing talent is there, but only in fits and doses.

The Thermals

We Disappear

03/25/2016 on Saddle Creek Records

The Portland supergroup’s strongest album in quite some time.  It’s not The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but then again what is?  Solid, fist-in-the-air power-pop that often edges into punk.

The Range

Potential

03/25/2016 on Domino Records

A deeply human record, all the more so for its electronic starting point.  Brooklyn producer James Hinton used samples gleaned from YouTube for the vocals on this record, which is something I do that I didn’t realize was actually legitimate.  Off to the DAW I go.

Open Mike Eagle

Hella Personal Film Festival

03/25/2016 on Mello Music Group Records

Like his fellow Milo on the (now-defunct) Hellfyre Club label, Open Mike Eagle twists words, scratches out lyrics, courts controversy, and lives in the interstitial zone of the black middle class in America.  Like Milo, he lets his desire for alt-hip hop vibes and out-there production overshadow the songs at times.

Bob Mould

Patch The Sky

03/25/2016 on Merge Records

Another record from a man who seemingly just can’t stop recording them, former Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould may not be Robert Pollard but he’s close.  Patch The Sky is one of the best albums he’s ever released, a stripped-down collection of power-guitar songs that bring to mind what his legendary punk band might have sounded like had they allowed it to age gracefully.

White Denim

Stiff

03/25/2016 on Downtown Records

Solid white-boy funk and soul, Stiff is a breezy, poppy album that sounds like it’s the 1970s that have come around again, and not the 1990s.  It’s the sort of album that invites you to have a great ol’ time, and then helps you get there.

Plague Vendor

Bloodsweat

03/25/2016 on Epitaph Records

An abrasive, jittery album that is secretly formed of big hooks and a lot of punk rock swagger.  Like a serrated switchblade, it’ll stab right into your gut and then stay there.