Lewis and his Blog July 2012 Mix
I returned from Spain a little too late last night to write this up yesterday, but late is better than never. Here is the latest installment in my Monthly Mix series — a 10 track recap of last month’s best new music. Stream this month’s installment below via 8tracks, and check out last month’s mix, as well as all the other mixes from this year, at the “Monthly Mix” tag.
1. The Mountain Goats - “Cry For Judas”
Just over a year after the release of their last album All Eternals Deck, The Mountain Goats are gearing up to release their new full length Transcendental Youth on October 2nd via Merge. Boasting a boisterous horn arrangement recalling Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Love’s “Alone Again Or,” lead single “Cry For Judas” is an exuberant exultation of self confidence in the face of doubt. “We are the ones who don’t slow down at all,” John Darnielle sings. With 15 studio albums under his belt as of October, Darnielle seems to be speaking the truth.
2. Fang Island - “Seek It Out”
Although Fang Island’s new album Major bears a more traditional sound than their mathy, intricate 2010 s/t, it’s no less joyous and resonant. Long standing live show favorite “Seek It Out” finally saw a release on the new record, and it stands out as a clear highlight, with distinctively brash guitars and a great singalong chorus. Major is out now on Sargent House.
3. Frank Ocean - “Sweet Life”
Frank Ocean has had quite a month, and it all kicked off with the surprise release of the “Sweet Life” single in early July. Upon its release, channel ORANGE proved to be something much bigger than any one single (or two, counting the lengthy “Pyramids” released in June) could suggest. Still, “Sweet Life” stands out in retrospect as the album’s singular summer jam, a cool, buttery slice of retro-futuristic R&B that is irresistibly fun on the surface but deeply troubled underneath.
4. Passion Pit - “Constant Conversations”
In his own awkward white boy way, Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos explored similar territory to Frank Ocean on a handful of tracks from his emotionally wracked new LP Gossamer. “Constant Conversations” is one of the very few moments on which his creative approach succeeds, mostly because his forced lyrics and awkward overshares are covered up by the track’s silky smooth R&B atmosphere. On the whole, Gossamer has turned me from a passive Passion Pit fan to someone who’s not really much of a fan at all, but moments like “Constant Conversations” make me wish it hadn’t. Gossamer is out now on Columbia.
5. Wye Oak - “Spiral”
Baltimore duo Wye Oak veered from their well-hewn brand of guitar pounding on their new single “Spiral,” instead venturing into some disco-influenced electronic territory. True to its name, “Spiral” twists and twirls around over a looping guitar line, anchored by electronic beats and livened by Jenn Wasner’s reverberating vocals. This is the sound of a band having fun with a new sound, and it’s a pleasure to experience. “Spiral” is out now as part of Adult Swim’s singles series.
6. Aesop Rock - “Crows 1”
Aesop Rock’s new album Skelethon is excellent largely because of its intimate and personal nature. Aesop produced it himself, and the album features almost zero credited features. Still, even though I like the DIY approach, I can’t help but think that one of the album’s best tracks is the one that does feature another artist. Kimya Dawson’s rambling hook on “Crows 1” perfectly contrasts with and complements Aesop’s visceral flow, and adds a dark atmosphere to this highlight track. Skelethon is out now on Rhymesayers.
7. SpaceGhostPurrp - “The Black God”
In the bizarre and entertaining world of 2012 cloud rap, SpaceGhostPurrp exists as something of a villainous character. His beats are cheap, hollow, and tossed-off, while his raps are slow, dark, and mysterious. His image is similarly eerie. Even though there is a lot to dislike about the guy, I still find myself oddly compelled by his work, specifically the chilling, mantra-like track “The Black God,” which appears on his new record Mysterious Phonk. That album is out now on 4AD.
8. Daughn Gibson - “Ray”
Daughn Gibson’s debut album All Hell is a curious affair that probably couldn’t have come out at any other time. It’s part synth pop, part folk, with a heavy dose of country influence. He doesn’t always pull it off, but when he does, the results are fascinating. “Ray” recalls The Magnetic Fields’ country experiments on The Charm Of The Highway Strip, but with updated production. All Hell is out now on White Denim.
9. Samuel Bass - “The Gritty Smoke”
Samuel Bass is a teenaged singer/songwriter from Connecticut, but to unknowing ears, he could be a grizzled old man from the Yukon. His new album The Gritty Smoke is a shockingly mature debut, perhaps best represented by its haunting title track, which opens the record. For Bass, folk music is just as much about atmosphere as it is about lyrics, and “The Gritty Smoke” crafts a dark and dusty world of its own with eerie electric guitar, harmonica, and an omnipresent train whistle sample. Pick up The Gritty Smoke for free on bandcamp.
10. Joie De Vivre - “High School Me Would Have Been Pumped”
Joie De Vivre’s tale is a familiar story: Emo band puts out a great record (2010’s The North End), starts to get recognized, breaks up, and then reunites shortly thereafter. The only part of their story that is unusual is that they released another great record post-breakup. We’re All Better Than This is the name of the album, and of the many great songs present, the melancholically titled “High School Me Would Have Been Pumped” is probably my favorite. Of all the bands aping American Football these days, Joie De Vivre might be my favorite, just because they’re so unapologetically misanthropic. We’re All Better Than This is out now on Count Your Lucky Stars.
That’s it for this month! Check out all previous Monthly Mixes HERE and stream July’s mix above.
WYE OAK live at The Space. Hamden CT. 7.5.12
The best live shows are those which radically change an audience member’s perspective of a band’s recorded music and redefine the context in which he or she views that particular band’s creative output. I gauge the shows I see by this definition because I think it helps me rate more clearly and be as objective as possible — a tricky thing to do when dealing with an entirely subjective art form. By this definition, a lackluster performance by my favorite band would be worth less to me than a surprisingly great performance delivered by some local act of which I didn’t think much before. Ascribing to this live show philosophy discourages potentially harmful idol worship and opens one up to pleasant surprises — surprises very much like the one that I received last night at The Space.
To be honest, I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about Wye Oak prior to the show, nor did I expect much from them. The Baltimore duo has released three records since their founding in 2006, but I’ve only spent real time with Civilian, their 2011 breakout LP. Civilian never exactly gripped me, but there was something oddly captivating about the record. Frankly though, I decided to go to the show last night largely out of obligation to acknowledge their critical praise, and because it provided a good excuse for a date. Although I was only a passive fan at the time that I arrived, I was impressed by how many people seemed to be genuinely excited to be there. Even with only two bands on the bill, the show drew one of the most impressive crowds that I’ve seen at The Space in a long time. The venue seemed thoroughly packed throughout the entire show, and murmurs of excitement drifted through the audience in anticipation of the 9 PM start time.
The fellow Baltimore act Other Colors opened the show with a lucid, beach rock sound that even they seemed to recognize was a little played out. This show was their first on a string of tour dates with Wye Oak, and since they evidently lack a following outside of the Baltimore scene, they seemed very grateful to be playing with such an established band. Watching their set, it was clear that they were self-aware about their relative lateness to the game; their complacent, reverb-heavy pop sound was nice enough, but they were clearly straining to stand out through the use of instrumental backing tracks and unusual guitar tunings. Frontman Will Ryerson managed to get some pretty interesting sounds out of his 5-string Fender Jaguar by essentially playing it upside down and left-handed. The highlight of their set came in the middle, when the band brought none other than Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner herself onstage for a moody duet piece that got the crowd psyched up for the headlining performance afterwards.
When Wye Oak’s two members took the stage, they placed themselves relatively far apart from each other, taking up much more stage space than any duo normally would. This turned out to be rather appropriate in a way, as they managed to sound both better and more expansive than many bands twice their size. Multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack spent most of his time on drums and percussion, but also tried his hand at electric bass and synth during the set, occasionally all at the same time. Wasner herself was armed with a formidable arsenal of effects pedals and an array of sexy Reverend guitars, the same rare brand used by Greg Horbal of The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die.
With a mere glimpse at the band’s impressive live setup, I could already feel my perception of Wye Oak starting to change as they began their set. I had never been sure how to classify the group other than as an “indie rock band,” but as they powered through their lengthy and varied setlist, I soon began to formulate an idea of who Wye Oak really was. They opened with two new tracks featuring a hard-edged guitar sound and fleet-fingered riffing that called to mind the work of St. Vincent, both of which blew me away. Following the new material with a rousing performance of “Holy Holy,” a rollicking standout from Civilian, was an inspired move that absolutely cemented that track’s indie rock anthem-status in my mind. Soon after, the band performed their new single “Spiral,” introducing it as a “disco song” and demonstrating even more versatility as they eased into the song’s jerky new wave rhythm. A well-sequenced assortment of Civilian tracks, new songs, and some older material (including an impromptu performance of “Take It In” from 2009’s The Knot) comprised the rest of the setlist.
The highlights were numerous and varied, but many centered around Wasner. Her guitar and voice worked in tandem, complementing each other and creating a stark sonic contrast when the moment called for it. Towards the end of the set, “Dogs Eyes” veered wildly from bubbly power-chord pop to droney, distorted blues, while their set closer “I Hope You Die” mixed singer/songwriter overshare with atmospheric guitar melodies and synth inflections. Also towards the end, the title track from Civilian came across as a heartbreaking mid-tempo anthem that may or may not have made a large contingent of the male audience members fall in love with Jenn Wasner. (Editorial note: If I’m trying to avoid sullying my esteemed critical perspective with subjectivity, I really do need to stop falling in love with so many talented female artists at shows…)
The band returned for a brief encore, which is always kind of pointless at The Space since there is no backstage area. After walking awkwardly through the crowd and back again, Wye Oak played two more tracks: the upbeat “Prayer” from The Knot and the gentle, subtly crushing Civilian closer “Doubt,” which Wasner performed solo, evoking the melodramatic folk of her collaborator Sharon Van Etten.
Earlier in the show, the band acknowledged that this was their first traditional live performance since February, which is a relatively long time for a band powered by internet buzz to go without touring. But in that time, some of which they probably spent recording the new material that they debuted last night, it’s very possible that Wye Oak discovered a part of themselves that was not conveyed on Civilian or on their past records. Maybe it’s been there all along, and I just had to have it forced into my eyes and ears to recognize it. Either way, this live show was a truly special event. I may have been missing out on Wye Oak earlier, but I certainly won’t be anymore.
Setlist - 7/5/12:
- 1. “Too Right” (unreleased)
- 2. “Better” (unreleased)
- 3. “Holy Holy”
- 4. “Plains”
- 5. “Spiral”
- 6. “Dreaming” (unreleased)
- 7. “Take It In”
- 8. “Hot As Day”
- 9. “My Creator”
- 10. “Dogs Eyes”
- 11. “Civilian”
- 12. “That I Do”
- 13. “I Hope You Die”
- 14. “Prayer” (encore)
- 15. “Doubt” (encore)
Wye Oak - “Spiral”
The Baltimore indie rock group Wye Oak is stopping by Hamden’s favorite all ages venue The Space tonight for a show, and I’ll be in attendance. I’ve been interested in this group ever since I heard their frontwoman Jenn Wasner contribute her distinctly forlorn guest vocals to one of my favorite tracks on Titus Andronicus’ landmark 2010 LP The Monitor. Although Wasner’s music with Wye Oak bears little commonality with that of Titus Andronicus, the former group certainly does have an interesting sound. In its best moments, their refreshing 2011 record Civilian brought a restrained vigor back to the traditional guitar-based indie rock sound, thanks in large part to Wasner’s husky vocals and surprisingly lofty falsetto.
At the end of June, the band shared their first taste of new music post-Civilian — a track called “Spiral,” which was recorded for and released by Adult Swim’s Singles Program. This track is decidedly more groove-oriented than anything on Civilian, featuring heavy use of guitar looping and delay pedals. Wasner’s vocals are heavily processed as well, producing a disorienting echo effect that overlaps and interferes with the guitar in exciting ways. A steady electronic drum beat keeps the whole piece from careening off the edges, while synth inflections and a funky bassline give “Spiral” a stuttering new wave feel that almost reminds me of that excellent Destroyer LP from last year. This is a direction that I didn’t necessarily expect Wye Oak to go in, but given the 80s-worshipping trend that has pervaded indie rock in the past few years, it makes a lot of sense. It will be interesting to see how this track translates live.
Stream “Spiral” above and download it for free from Adult Swim.
Hallelujah The Hills - “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire”
I just got a message on facebook from Ryan Walsh, the lead singer and songwriter for the Boston-based power pop band Hallelujah The Hills, a group that I first discovered while interning at WNHU over two years ago. Turns out that he’s a reader of Lewis and his Blog! How cool is that!
Anyway, on a less personal but more generally exciting note, Hallelujah The Hills have a new record coming out. No One Knows What Happens Next is the title, and it’s currently slated for a May 22nd release date. They’ve already set up a bandcamp page for it, so feel free to check that out HERE. Two of the album’s tracks are up there now, including this lovely gem “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire.”
With slow, plodding percussion and soothing strings that seem to evoke the scores of Ken Burns’ documentaries, this track is calmer than most of The Hills’ tracks, but Walsh’s introspective lyrics and vocals make it great. These lyrics are classic Walsh, blending evocative, occasionally absurdist imagery in the vein of Robert Pollard’s lyrics with wonderfully simple but poetic turns of phrase — “What they say about me is true,” he admits, “but what they say about you is too.” I’m not sure exactly what ‘they’ say about Walsh’s so-called “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire,” but I can bet that it’s worth singing about.
No One Knows What Happens Next will be the first major new music from Hallelujah The Hills since the release of Titus Andronicus’ landmark 2010 album The Monitor, my favorite album of that year, which the members of Hallelujah The Hills played on. I got to see this band on tour with Titus Andronicus in support of that record in 2010, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen to this day. One of the real highlights was when Titus performed “To Old Friends And New,” with Walsh filling in on the vocals that are handled by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner on the record. I can only hope that I’ll be able to catch Hallelujah The Hills again when they tour in support of the new record.
Sharon Van Etten - Tramp (2012)
Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s rise to prominence in the national independent music scene happened to coincide almost perfectly with when I started my blog. Right around November 2010, her sophomore record Epic began to gain the attention of big name music blogs like Pitchfork and NPR Music, and she was perfectly poised to catch my attention as well, although that probably doesn’t matter to her very much. Nevertheless, I followed her throughout 2011 on the strength of Epic. Despite my love for it, I always found the album’s title to be somewhat misleading, or perhaps purposefully ironic. With just seven songs in 32 minutes, Epic is not nearly long enough to live up to its grandiose title. Furthermore, the record’s sound, which predominantly features Van Etten’s gorgeous and understated vocals with acoustic guitar and minimal extra instrumentation, doesn’t evoke anything “epic” either. Her previous record’s title may have been something of an in-joke, but on her new album Tramp, perhaps “Epic” would have been a more appropriate descriptor.
If Van Etten wasn’t striving for “epic” on Epic, she certainly is now. Tramp is everything that her previous record wasn’t. It’s lengthy (over 46 minutes), stacked with songs (twelve of them), and simply bigger in scope than anything she’s done before. She largely shies away from the singer/songwriter acoustic guitar formula on the record, replacing the intimate and simplistic arrangements of her earlier work with lush, dense instrumentation, heavy drums, and occasionally searing electric guitar, as exemplified by the opener “Warsaw” and the stellar single “Serpents.” In the past few years on the indie rock circuit, Van Etten has made a lot of friends in the scene, contributing vocal work to the music of well known bands like The National, Beirut, and The Antlers. On her new record, she enlists a number of these friends and more as collaborators, and it shows. Tramp’s liner notes read like a who’s-who list of upper-tier indie rockers, featuring (take a breath) Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National and Zach Condon from Beirut, in addition to Julianna Barwick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, and Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett. They all contribute to the record’s pumped up aesthetic in some way or another, sometimes separately (Condon contributes ukelele and vocals to the jaunty “We Are Fine”) and often together. “Serpents” alone features Wasner, Barrick, Bartlett, and both Dessner brothers.
Her sound may have been inflated and her guest list stacked on Tramp, but her overall approach to writing songs remains consistent. Van Etten’s formula of songwriting consists of using vague and rather broadly applicable lyrics that somehow retain a biting sense of realness and unbridled honesty. Epic employed the same formula, but with Tramp, Van Etten trades the previous record’s inwardly personal lyrics for raw, occasionally bitter lines directed at someone else. On “Give Out,” she sings to a second person lover, “In my way I say / you’re the reason why I’ll leave for the city / or why I’ll need to leave.” Tramp is especially hard to listen to at times because of its subject matter; Ven Etten sounds like she’s breaking up with you on each song.
Tramp is not strictly a breakup album, but rather an album that explores the tenuous, uncertain, and uncomfortable period between when a relationship stops working and when it finally gets put out of its misery. Van Etten constantly straddles the line between preserver and destroyer, effectively toying with her lover although certainly not intending to do so. The emotional rollercoaster that she experiences throughout the record is captured beautifully on the album highlight “Serpents.” She admits that she “feel[s] safe at times,” but in the very next line, cryptically asserts that “certain emblems tell me it’s time.” The feelings she has while wrestling with what she knows she will have to do are the “serpents in [her] mind” that she describes in the song’s electrifying chorus. As someone coming out on the other end of a breakup myself, lines like these are difficult to stomach. Honestly for me, the best lyrical moments on the album are when Van Etten admits her own fault in the inevitable outcome of the relationship that she describes. On “Leonard,” she exasperatedly sings, “I am bad at loving you.” On “All I Can, she’s desperately exclaiming, “I do all I can / We all make mistakes.” The sentiment is certainly simplistic, but it’s also powerfully articulated and expressed by Van Etten’s unique voice.
The real problem with Tramp is not in its songs, which are uniformly well written and certainly on par with her others, but in the way that the songs are presented. The dense aesthetic that characterizes most of the album is not inherently unsuited to her music, but it occasionally feels a little forced. The passionate “All I Can” starts out nicely, but feels a little overwhelming by the time it reaches its guitar-heavy climax. “Magic Chords” begins with anomalous bullet drums and dubby synths, and features a male guest vocalist whose low voice clashes harshly with Van Etten’s ethereal coos. Furthermore, although the list of guest performers on Tramp is certainly exciting on paper, I’m not sure if Van Etten is quite ready to enlist such high brow names on her own music yet. To me, it often distracts from Van Etten herself, who obviously deserves to be the central focus of Tramp. For instance, “We Are Fine,” the song featuring Zach Condon, actually feels like more of a Beirut song than a Sharon Van Etten song. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, because Beirut is pretty good, but I wish it felt like a Sharon Van Etten song, because it is one. Tramp occasionally comes across like an indie rock version of an upstart rapper’s overwrought debut album, bloated with big names and lacking coherence because of it.
This isn’t a universal problem, thankfully. The record does have its moments of uncluttered beauty, and these are among the best moments on the album. Aside from the fantastic “Serpents,” which really hits the mark with its heavier sound, my favorite song on Tramp is “Kevin’s,” a mournful and minimalistic folk song that would have fit in nicely on Epic. Van Etten also does occasionally find harmony in the album’s dense sound, at least when she tempers it somewhat; the last two songs “I’m Wrong” and “Joke Or A Lie” evoke Epic’s more dirge-like numbers with their slow tempos and primarily keyboard-based atmospheres.
It’s difficult to knock Sharon Van Etten for being ambitious, because she certainly deserves to have ambition. However, Tramp is indicative that some of her ambition should be put on a leash, at least until she learns where she really stands as a musician.
Tramp is out February 7th on Jagjaguwar. Pre-order the record HERE on CD or LP.