Beer and Pavement

Early Favorites Records of 2015

Posted in Records, Review by SM on July 31, 2015

A hiatus means that one misses a lot of opportunities to write about all kinds of things. For me, beer is one and records are the other. With the epic bender to empty my cellar, I don’t know that I have the time to tell you all the beers I missed blogging about. (Really, I’m a little embarrassed how much high-ABV I’ve consumed recently.) So, I’ll stick with my favorite records of this year so far. Some may still be there when I inevitably do a year-end list, but I’m not there yet. Be sure to scroll to the bottom for the Spotify playlist.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

I actually reviewed this record in this calendar year, proving that I was alive as late as late January. Additionally, we took our older kid (6.5 years at the time) to her first real concert when S-K hit middle Missouri. (I really should have returned to blogging then as there were so many Carrie sightings by my family and friends. Alas, I was not feeling it.) And nothing has changed how I feel about this band or their latest album.

While it is up to debate whether or not this is S-K’s best effort (I prefer different S-K releases for different contexts), it is hard to argue that this isn’t their most complete album. From the first fat notes (“Price Tag”) to the anthemic ending (“Fade”), this record never lets up. Riding themes of feminism and activism (“New Wave”, “Surface Envy”), the rush from performing (“Fade” again), the evils of capitalism and debt (“Price Tag” again), life on the road (“No Cities”), and being an aging rock star (“No Anthems”, “Bury Our Friends), etc., No Cities does the whole “personal as political” as well as or better than any other S-K record. And the instrumentation (guitars, drums, vocals – gawd, the vocals) are just a whole other level hinted at in The Woods but never quite realized. No Cities to Love hits all the notes…no, more like pummels all the notes only to build them back again into something new and inspiring.

Viet Cong – S/T

Viet Cong are this year’s Joy Division, but that somehow seems limiting. Nah, this band is this year’s Joy Division as blended with a bunch of other Canadian bands. Take the raw power and energy of Japandroids, the anthemic dissonance of Godspeed You Black Emperor, the acidic take on modern life a la Ought, and maybe the awareness of Broken Social Scene and then toss in some lazy Joy Division bits and you’ve got yourself a review for Spin!

Twerps – Range Anxiety

I feel like Twerps just sounds like every band I liked from the 90’s as played through a filter of The Sundays. There’s lazy afternoons and meeting strange, exotic love interests, and even a bit about getting married. This is a nice, easy record to like. It’s pleasant, has a good pace, and hits all the right spots. I want every summer drive to have this album as the background music.

Krill – A Distant Fist Unclenching

Ever had a dream that goes at a persistently fast pace and no matter how you wish to take the controls and change the direction it’s going, it continues to move in a direction you’re not completely comfortable with. Then, you realize that’s how your day is actually going and it’s no dream. To me, that’s what Krill sounds like. It’s bluntly honest and downright immature at times, but it gets at that helplessness when your life is a runaway train and somehow you just reside yourself to sit back and enjoy accept the ride.

Yowler – The Offer

This year’s quiet, earnest, female singer-songwriter seems to be Yowler. It doesn’t hurt that Maryn Jones is from my old stomping grounds in Columbus, OH of course, but this little solo record (Jones is in Saintseneca) was a pleasant surprise. Quiet and haunting, Jones knows what contemplative first-year college students want to listen to alone in their dorm rooms. Or so I’ve heard. Anyway, the production is stripped down but not exactly lo-fi. It feels less experienced than Cat Power did 17 or so years ago. It’s quieter than, well pretty much everything. The only drawback is that Yowler is not yet available on vinyl. So, it’s all Spotify for me until someone imprints this on a black circular piece of plastic with crackles in between laments.

Radical Dads – Universal Coolers

Steve Keene covers (multiple!) don’t hurt, but this band fills my need for jangly 90’s guitar rawk to a t. Like many of the bands on this list, Radical Dads would have easily fit on a bill in the mid-90’s. What can I say? I’m a one-trick pony. The band continues its egnagingly feedbacked guitar onslaught I first discovered in 2013’s Rapid Reality. Additionally, it’s yet another example of the effect women in rock bands of the 90’s have had on modern performers. There’s just a better, richer space for women to occupy and I believe (well, probably a lot of people believe) this is directly due to the bands and performers of that era. Where am I going with this? I mean, Rad Dads just happen to have a woman fronting the band, but they are a powerful, 90’s indie-esque rock band and now I’ve pigeon-holed them. Whatever, the band works and Universal Coolers is a fun romp through my college years. (I feel a little cheap for that description. Just know that if you like what I like – 90’s indie rock – you’ll appreciate Radical Dads who will surely not quote any of this on their Facebook page. Of course, they just became actual rad dads and a mom or something. So, the bump they are certainly going to get from this awful write up is for nothing.)

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Sometimes I Just Sit

It’s Courtney Barnett’s world and we just live in it. Somehow, after two impressive EP’s, Barnett has followed up with a record that should be on many, many year-end lists. She’s somehow Evan Dando, Bob Dylan (yeah, you read that right), Curt Cobain, Ben Lee, and Sheryl Crow (you also read that right) all rolled into one. Look, she’s fun and hits all the right notes while maintaining some personality. The record is solid from beginning to end. This is your album of the year. Next.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Or this is your album of the year. It feels as if Sufjan Stevens is back to doing Sufjan Stevens type things. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Age of Adz, but it wasn’t about a state and it wasn’t all whisper-y and/or whimsical with the most gut-wrenching lyrics about Jesus. This is record is that and maybe Stevens’ most personal record. There’s some things one would only expect to hear as Sujan Stevens’ therapist, not anyone with an iTunes account. As usual, the record is immaculately arranged and recorded. There are so many stories so personal, I’m almost surprised he released this album. I get the sense SS has been sitting on this album for years, waiting for the moment he was ready to put these songs to tape. And if you don’t feel it when listening to Carrie & Lowell, you are soulless or a cynic.

Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

Another female-fronted band that sounds like 1995, but this one is different than the others and this record is really good (as well). Katie Crutchfield nails that indie, cowpunk, alt.country thing that kept slipping into rock music and she lets on the feedback and heart-on-sleeve lyrics to boot. Crutchfield continues with that formula as perfected on the excellent Cerulean Salt with a few interesting interludes (in particular, opening track “Breathless” and “La Loose”). All that said, “Summer of Love” is the obvious choice for song of the summer.

Built to Spill – Untethered Moon

I bought Built to Spill’s latest on Record Store Day when it was released out of a sense of loyalty. When you buy a Built to Spill record, you know what you’re getting. And that’s fine. I loved early Built to Spill gems like There’s Nothing Wrong with Love and Perfect from Now On, but everything since has been hit or miss – certainly more hit, just not what those early records meant to me. That said, Untethered Moon is a look back at those years in a way in terms of both subject matter and music. This record is more than just the same old from a cherished band. It’s a reward for sticking around and buying yet another release.

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

 

All I read about is how Alabama Shakes don’t sound as good on record as they do live. Well, if that’s truly the case, their live show must kill every single night. There’s so much range on this album yet it’s so precise in its delivery. I don’t get what people want Alabama Shakes to be. Do they want more blues, punk, jam band, throwback, southern, etc.? Well, those people are wrong. There’s nothing wrong with this record and there’s nothing wrong with Alabama Shakes.

Don’t believe me? I encourage you to buy all these records or go see these bands when they hit your locale.

I’ll write something about beer soon enough, but this needed to be posted.

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Reviewing Early 2015 Releases: Sleater-Kinney, Viet Cong, and Belle & Sebastian

Posted in Records, Review by SM on January 20, 2015

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Yeah, I’m still here. I’m drinking all the beer and listening to all the records, but how are you to know this? Time to share what I know.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

No Cities to Love might be the most anticipated album I have… er… anticipated in a long, long time. That’s why it was a little disappointing it didn’t strike me upside the head on the first listen. What is this? I thought. I didn’t know what to make of it. There was already the commitment of a preorder to the deluxe version, so I needed to give it a chance. Thank god for streaming.

After maybe five or six listens, this record is starting to make sense to me. It opens fat and heavy with “Price Tag”, but this is also where I first had questions about the keyboards/organ. But those riffs and the development of the vocals from their screaming in the nineties… I came to realize that this just happens to be the most ambitious album of the band’s 20+ year run. The songs are fleshed out with the aforementioned keys and add the dance thing they were doing on All Hands and the power they instituted on One Beat and The Woods. Throw in side projects with Quasi, The Jicks, Wild Flag, and a solo gig and what you have is a band with history and chops to make a pretty great rock record. That sharp bite that was always part of Sleater-Kinney remains, but now there’s some distance and perspective and some kind of reverence for an arena rock anthem. Sleater-Kinney can still kick some ass.

I mentioned the first track as a great opener, but the album doesn’t let up from there. All of these songs are big and full of attitude. Sleater-Kinney doesn’t record bad or timid music. What they have done is accumulated all kinds of depth over the years without losing any of the angst or urgency they had as young riot grrrls. They sing better. They play better. They write better. They are actually better than what I once considered one of the 3-5 best rock bands of the nineties.

“Fangless” follows “Price Tag” and I’m now ready to dance. The control Corin Tucker has over his voice is really evident and the back-and-forth with Carrie Brownstein’s voice is classic Sleater-Kinney. The only difference is that both women know how to use their voices, complimenting contrasting aesthetics like few others can. This is what hardcore and riot grrrl co-screamers wish they could do with their tired, ragged vocal chords.

Then there’s “Surface Envy” with its steady drive and beat, leading to one of the better S-K choruses in their catalog. “We win/We lose/Only together do we make the rules!” The infectious title track follows with its own catchy chorus. “A New Wave” sounds like it could have been pulled from the never-happening Wild Flag follow-up. My god. Is there a bad song on this record? What was I thinking on those first few listens?

“Burry Friends” is a hit if the title track doesn’t catch on. (I say this with tongue planted in cheek. I mean, what’s an indie hit, really?) Again, there’s another solid chorus and some ambitious, big-sounding production. “Hey Darling” is almost as straight-up a classic rock song as I’ve ever heard from the band. It really reminds me of a Pearl Jam song I can’t place. Weird, but Tucker’s vocal performance carries it. The record closes with a slow, heavy rocker appropriately named “Fade.” I think this last sonically matches the majesty of The Woods.

There’s so much more I could tell you. For one, I’ve mostly written about the vocal prowess, but all instruments are as polished as ever. Janet Weiss is as amazing as ever on the skins. She can pound and subtly keep the beat like few others. I would differentiate between Brownstein’s and Tucker’s guitars, but that’s pointless. They are both amazingly aggressive and loud players. The production as with the remastered albums in the box set bring all this to life. I don’t know how much staying power the songs will have, but this record as a whole just sounds great.

Viet Cong – S/T (video is NSFW for a second, but mostly okay)

So, I stumbled upon this band and knew I had to buy their… cassette tape. Wait. I don’t own a working cassette player anymore. Luckily, I knew this album was coming out in more consumable formats and that day has finally arrived.

Viet Cong is a band for me that sort of takes over and fills my speakers constantly with urgency and feeling. There was that year I discovered Japandroids and last year was Ought’s year. Viet Cong is different by repeating what’s been done before from distant drones, lo-fi production, and a youthful energy I only see in my children, not adults playing music.

The opener is all messy and amateurish, but it promises something cohesive and purposeful. I hate underground and lo-fi acts that just fuck around. Sure, the sound and execution don’t have to be perfect, but I just forked over some cash for this here record. At least act like you care. And to be clear, there’s the definite impression Viet Cong are not fucking around and maybe care a little bit about what they’re doing.

Those tinny drums come back and a groove sets in with “Pointless Experience.” At this point, I feel like this must have been what Joy Division sounded like in their bedrooms on 4-track. “March of Progress” is all over the place and you feel as if you’re off to the races. “Bunker Buster” does a stripped-down rocker thing and “Continental Shelf” is all 80’s/John Hughes anthemic. The pace picks up again with “Silhouettes” before “Death” ends the LP too soon with some jangle.

This was the record Interpol should have recorded instead of going all polished after their masterful Turn on the Bright Lights. Lou Barlow should have produced their follow-up and this record would have happened 15 years ago. Don’t leave the room or you’ll miss the meat of these seven, beautiful recordings. This record will be somewhere in my top-3 for sure. It’s that good and that much fun.

Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

I don’t know if we’re in peacetime, but this might be the most danceable album of the Belle & Sebastian oeuvre. That’s good and bad. Still, of the three albums here, this is the one I’m most ambivalent about. On one hand, it’s much better than the previous 2-3 records. On the other hand, I don’t think B&S will ever recapture the magic they had pre-Storytelling.

(Side note: I often debate whether or not U2 went downhill with the release of The Joshua Tree or after it. Could Storytelling be Belle & Sebastian’s Joshua Tree?)

To be honest, this album is split into thirds with all the tracks sticking fairly close to the idea of girls dancing through peacetime. If I had time, I’d piece together the imagery and themes, but this review is done on the quick, but I digress.

I’ll start with the third that gives me hope for B&S. I loved, loved those first four albums. They are full of old-school folk wonder and some stripped-down, recorded in a church kind of shit. The songs were smart and as forlorn as anything Joy Division ever attempted to vocalize. “The Cat with the Cream” is a bit more embellished with strings than these early records, but the muffled vocals and sad lyrics scream early Belle & Sebastian all the way. “Ever Had a Little Faith” is classic even with a tiny nod to Velvet Underground. (I love it when B&S go into Velvet mode even when it’s brief.)

A third of these songs certainly fit the 80’s dance vibe B&S seem to be going for. Tracks like “The Party Line”, “Enter Syvia Plath”, “The Power of Three”, etc. are fairly synth-heavy and really danceable. Of course, some of the best B&S moments are danceable (see “Women’s Realm”) but they rarely venture into New Order territory.

Another third represent the pristine pop Stuart Murdoch has been striving for over the last few records (post-Storytelling). I’m not gonna lie. I don’t normally like this part of the B&S oeuvre, but tracks like “Nobody’s Empire” and “The Book of You” (a little T Rex-y with female vocals) combine some of the witty songwriting of those early albums with the band’s sonic expansion.

Overall, I like this record, but I don’t know if I love it or not. I might have to Spotify it for a week or two before breaking down and just buying it.

Reviewing 2014: Tracks

Posted in Records, Review by SM on December 29, 2014

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I will skip the pleasantries and get to what is typically the easiest of easy blog posts: lists of videos. These videos are of the 20 best tracks of the year according to me. Most are found in my favorite albums, but a few outliers are there as well. Also, keep in-mind that I typically like to keep these lists to one-per-artist/band. So, here are 20 separate efforts by 20 separate entities.

Taylor Swift “Shake It Off”

Let’s just get this one out of the way right now. Look, that beat is killer and my daughter loves her some Taylor Swift. Plus, it’s a good message for my kid. So, I stand by it.

Viet Cong “Continental Shelf” (Warning: video NSFW)

Mark these dudes as my most anticipated full-length debut of 2015. It’s dark, dank, foreboding… Reminds me of a ridiculous black IPA. Man, I’m thirsty.

Ought “Today More Than Any Other Day”

I could have chosen so many songs from my band of the year, but I went with the one that has everything. There’s the stripped-down, slow build. Metacognition. Disillusionment with modern society and commercialism. A rousing chorus. Danceability. Da-da-da’s. Entropy. Everything.

Parquet Courts “Instant Disassembly”

A sloppy rocker – almost Pavement-esque – with a touch of faux Britishness, “Instant Disassembly” is the best kind of ear worm. Not only does the melody stick, but the singer’s problems aren’t too far from the listener’s own.

Your Friend “Tame One”

I almost went with “Bangs” for this one, but I don’t think I could go wrong with either. The voice, the drone, the build all make Your Friend a band/solo artist to watch this coming year.

Alvvays “Archie, Marry Me”

I like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura, but while the former messes around with pop music and that latter has somehow fallen off my radar, Alvvays will have to do. “Archie Marry Me” is all kinds of John Hughes angst and is a standout for the year.

Angel Olsen “Forgive/Forgotten”

SO MANY SONGS. I could list all the songs off Angel Olsen’s excellent Burn Your Fire for no Witness, but I will stick with my arbitrary rule to only list one song per artist/band. For this list, you get a rocker.

The War on Drugs “Red Eyes”

I honestly did not like the direction The War on Drugs took this year. It’s way more Springsteen than Vile, but they’re still a pretty good band as evidenced by the moving “Red Eyes.” That Springsteen-esque “woo” is pretty nice, but I sorta wished there was more of this on the entire record.

Sharon Van Etten “Your Love Is Killing Me”

I sort of lost touch with Sharon Van Etten this year until the above video for “Your Love Is Killing Me” crossed my path last month. It’s sprawling and Van Etten’s voice holds up as a powerful accomplice.

Ex Hex “Don’t Wanna Lose”

When an album kicks you in the teeth, it should do it from the first moments of the first track. Congratulations, Ex Hex. This album rawked like we all rawked in 1984 at a drunken high school party in a corn field. Thank god for Mary Timony finding her muse.

Sun Kil Moon “War on Drugs Suck My Cock” (NSFW)

The most interesting thing Sun Kil Moon and The War on Drugs did this year was to have a pseudo-feud. I actually appreciate Mark Kozelek’s crankiness as we are misunderstood curmudgeons. The song is actually quite funny despite its dark tone.

Caribou “Can’t Do Without You”

I know all the words to this song and they just repeat over and over in my head. Hit play and you’ll understand. It will cause you to either love or hate me.

Future Islands “Seasons (Waiting on You)”

One of the moments of the year for indie music was when Future Islands debuted this song on Letterman. The official video is good as well, but you needed to see why Future Islands broke this year and “Seasons (Waiting on You)” will land on many, many year end lists, often at the top.

New Tongues “El Condor Pasa”

The best covers are usually covers of misappropriated songs. I have no other evidence of this fact outside of this track. New Tongues flat-0ut destroy Art Garfunkel’s afro and strip the blood diamonds from the soles of Paul Simon’s tiny shoes.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks “Lariat”

“We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever. Talkin’ ’bout the 80’s!” All kinds of nostalgia in this one and it perfectly summarizes Mirror Traffic.

Swearing at Motorists “Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role”

Love, regret, drugs, faking it are all common themes Swearing at Motorists squeeze into every 2-minute anthem.

Tweedy “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Misunderstood”

I could have pulled several tracks from the Tweedy record, but I liked how this one encapsulated the project’s effect on the elder Tweedy. It’s not quite a punk rock banger, but it’s certainly a step back toward the cow punk of his past. Spencer’s work on the skins is pretty impressive as well.

Peter Matthew Bauer “Latin American Ficciones”

I like a good stripped-down rocker now and again. I had no idea that the dude playing keys and bass for the Walkmen had this sort of frontman, guitar-licking persona inside him. This track alone made the record a must-buy for me.

The Afghan Whigs “Algiers”

A nice take on the “Be My Baby” drum beat opens The Afghan Whigs return. I don’t even mind the auto-tune.

Hospitality “Inauguration” (Merge 25 version)

Trust me. The version they released via the Merge 25 Or Thousands of Prizes is superior IMHO to the LP version. I couldn’t find it online, so I give you the version above.