Slow Warm Death - Slow Warm Death (2013)
It’s about time that you came to terms with the fact that emo revival, as we once knew it, has been dead for a while. Most of your favorite bands have broken up, reunited, and broken up again already. I think we can agree that it’s been over at least since The A.V. Club started calling it “twinklecore,” and that was more than six months ago. When Snowing broke up in November 2011, I wrote a lengthy and personal piece that essentially forecasted the end of the movement; that was nearly two years ago and no emo band since then has affected me to the extent that they did.
Now it’s 2013, and frontman John Galm has just unveiled Slow Warm Death, his radically different post-Snowing band whose debut self-titled album is out now on bandcamp. It is definitely fitting that the person leading the charge away from the late-2000s emo aesthetic is one of the revival movement’s chief forebears. With his work in Snowing and his previous band Street Smart Cyclist, Galm both typified that aesthetic and exemplified its potential for greatness. Now, with Slow Warm Death, Galm and his band have challenged themselves to taking on an entirely new sound, while preserving the visceral aspect that made his emo records so ‘emotive.’
Credit where credit is due; making this kind of record was a particularly admirable challenge for these guys to take on. If you had told any of the emo kids I knew two years ago that by 2013, Snowing would have broken up and the frontman would have started a blues rock band, they would have laughed in your face. And yet, through sheer force and brutish grit, Galm and co. succeed in redeeming the genre perhaps most maligned by the fans of his former bands. I see a parallel in the way that indie rock bands have co-opted the sounds of 80s sophistipop in the past few years; in terms of its redemptive ability, Slow Warm Death is a lot like Destroyer’s Kaputt or Bon Iver’s self-titled LP. Expect ‘post-emo blues’ to be big in 2014.
Musically, Slow Warm Death takes a scorched-earth approach to the band’s deliberately brash aesthetic. The levels are almost uniformly maxed-out throughout its brisk, 24 minute runtime, and even the occasional moments of quiet (the beginning of “Sleep,” the shoegazy “Blood 2”) sound primed to explode into the blistering fury that characterizes the surrounding tracks. The album sounds lo-fi, but it’s actually terrifically mixed, featuring a truly overpowering collection of reverberant, fuzz-everything instrumental tones. Its touchstones are pretty evident, — “Alone” sounds like White Blood Cells-era White Stripes, the irresistibly catchy “Sunburn” evokes Ty Segall — but due to these guys’ background in punk rock, Slow Warm Death is leagues heavier and more aggressive than any of the source material it draws from. The result is a true marriage of noise punk and blues rock, something that I honestly don’t believe anyone has been able to pull off as well as Slow Warm Death does on this record.
Beyond the splintering guitars and thundering percussive heft, there is a lot more to love about this record than it initially gives away. Galm is a terrific lyricist and singer, and although much of what he sings is masked by the sonic hurricane that perpetually surrounds him, his brilliant melodies make up for that. On “Liar,” he spits words out at a clip that matches rhythmically with a spindly, dynamic guitar and bass riff. It’s a great effect, even if the speed at which he sings makes it hard to hold onto the words. Working in a much more traditional songwriting mode than before, Galm’s knack for earworm choruses shines especially bright on Slow Warm Death. If this album takes off, the chilling, desperate “Crack” will be sure to elicit massive singalongs. Likewise, “Sunburn” is a straight up power pop anthem with a bright chorus that winkingly obfuscates its depressing lyrics. Despite these moments, the band occasionally veers into gloomier, heavier territory that relies on sound more than songwriting. “Kill You” is the best example of this— over a crushing minor-key riff, Galm moans with more hatred and vile meanness than he did on any Snowing or Street Smart track.
Although now a dynamic four-piece, Slow Warm Death originally started as a humble solo project of Galm’s. He passed around a self-recorded demo album last year, which leaked to the internet and surprised a lot of Snowing fans. I caught wind of it, and although I didn’t love the collection as a whole, I named the track “Sleep” my 15th favorite song of last year. Ironically, although the opening track “Sleep” was far and away the best cut from the demo album, the Slow Warm Death version doesn’t distinguish itself amongst the rest of the album’s tracks nearly as much. In contrast to every other song that was re-recorded for this album, the cavernous “Sleep” actually loses something in the translation to a full-band sound. That’s the lone disappointment on this record though; the rest of it is thoroughly terrific and convincingly pummeling. Snowing is dead, long live Slow Warm Death.
Stream Slow Warm Death at the embedded link above and download it for whatever you wish to pay at Slow Warm Death’s bandcamp page.
Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt (2013)
If you have spent any significant amount of time tracking the progress of independent, underground artists in the past few years, Katie Crutchfield’s story is one that you have likely heard before. It goes like this: beloved underground rock band breaks up, frontwoman strikes out on her own with a radically different aesthetic, transcends her original fanbase, and develops a small but engaged cult following. Then, she puts out a new, “higher-fi” album to widespread critical acclaim and everybody who wasn’t in the loop previously attempts to play catch-up. Last year, the latter portion of this story played out on at least two notable occasions; Perfume Genius‘ Put Your Back N 2 It was a much more ambitious, better-produced followup to his 2010 LP Learning. Likewise, Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp displayed a newfound grit bolstered by a full band presence that much of her subdued, previous work lacked. Even though these two records were ‘bigger’ than their predecessors, and despite the fact that they were both very good, they lacked something that both artists’ preceding records had in spades. It was frustrating to listen to them, even while I enjoyed them a lot.
Of these two stories, Katie Crutchfield’s is closer to Van Etten’s. With American Weekend, the first solo record that Crutchfield released under the name Waxahatchee, the former PS Eliot frontwoman tapped into a fragile vein of heartbreak that Van Etten mined to great effect on her early albums. It was a pained record, but a surprisingly easy listen; though exceptionally lo-fi and mostly acoustic, Crutchfield’s melodies were memorable and her voice cutting enough to stick in the back of your mind for hours and even days after listening. American Weekend was issued in a limited vinyl run on Don Giovanni Records, and the people who managed to hear it loved it almost universally. I was among that cadre; American Weekend placed at #3 on my Top Albums of 2012 list.
Just over a year later, Crutchfield has followed up her modest cult success with Cerulean Salt, a ‘bigger’-sounding record that differs from American Weekend in exceptionally predictable ways. For one thing, Waxahatchee is no longer a true solo project, as Cerulean Salt features bass and percussion contributions from Swearin’ members Kyle Gilbride and Keith Spencer, the latter of whom is Crutchfield’s boyfriend. I only mention this fact because I believe it may have influenced the songwriting on Cerulean Salt in a critical way, but I’ll elaborate on that later. Rather than adding any true weight or dynamic depth to Crutchfield’s songs, Gilbride and Spencer mostly just plod about on their respective instruments, adding occasional melodic flourishes but mostly leaving ample space for Crutchfield to do her thing. Only on a handful of tracks does the 3-piece Waxahatchee sound like a ‘real band,’ ala PS Eliot, and these tracks themselves are a mixed bag. “Coast To Coast” is a grit-laden, noisy rock song with a great hook and some fun, multi-tracked vocals, but it’s ultimately too short to be satisfying at 1 minute and 46 seconds. Later on, the penultimate track “Peace and Quiet” alternates deftly between solo ballad and classic rock-indebted anthem. Elsewhere, though, “Waiting” trudges forward with a complacent pace and a dated-sounding fuzz guitar tone, and the otherwise solid “Dixie Cups and Jars” outwears its welcome as the record’s longest song with pointless instrumental breaks between verses. The lack of dynamic energy that Crutchfield’s haphazardly assembled full band displays is puzzling, considering how loveably sloppy and unified PS Eliot always seemed.
Of course, the fact that Cerulean Salt still makes so much room for Katie Crutchfield the Singer/Songwriter speaks volumes about the intentions behind it. Despite the new manner of presentation and the increased production budget, these songs are primarily meant to be heard for their merits as songs, in the same way that American Weekend’s fragile anthems were. And yet, with that in mind, it’s difficult not to see Cerulean Salt as lyrically deficient by comparison. There is nothing on here as cutting, as intimate, or as breathtaking as any of the previous album’s highlights, and that seems to stem from an evident change in subject matter. It would be reductive to blame Cerulean Salt’s ambling lyrical mediocrity and lack of evocative emotion on the fact that Crutchfield is in a committed relationship now, but it’s hard to overlook that fact with lyrics like “If you think that I’ll wait forever you are right” standing in place of American Weekend’s heartbroken confessionals. On that album, she feared internal emptiness and an inability to connect with anyone on a meaningful level. Here, Crutchfield adopts a kind of ‘us against the world’ mentality. On “Swan Dive,” she bemoans a significant other’s suicidal impulses while unconvincingly comparing them to her own issues. He’s dreaming about “a swan dive to the cold asphalt,” while the scariest thing that Crutchfield fears is “loveless marriage and regret.” The song itself is one of the high points of the LP, but I remain unconvinced by the prevalence of this attitude throughout the rest of Cerulean Salt. Frankly, it seems that she just has less to be upset about now. By her own admission on the anomalous country jaunt “Lips and Limbs,” she “never had too much to say.” She continues: “I can’t feel a thing.” Well, neither can I.
If I may be allowed one instance of cynical metacommentary in this review, let me just say this: Cerulean Salt would be getting none of the heavy praise that has been laid upon it if American Weekend had not been so terrific and so unfortunately overlooked by the critical public. It would be so convenient for bloggers and music critics if this album were good, since Crutchfield’s adopted narrative is one that has produced countless terrific albums in the past. I, however, will not lower myself to the level set by many unnamed others; to me, this album is on par with American Weekend only in its ability to break my heart, not due to any crushing sadness within it, but rather due to the profound disappointment that it procures.
Key Tracks: “Swan Dive”, “Peace and Quiet”
Cerulean Salt is out now on Don Giovanni Records.
JOYCE MANOR live at Bethesda Lutheran Church. New Haven CT. 2/25/13
I remembered that Joyce Manor existed two days ago, when a series of tweets and tumblr posts indicated to me that, at one of their recent shows with Desaparecidos, Conor Oberst’s punk band played a cover of “Constant Headache,” the anthemic midtempo closer from Joyce Manor’s self-titled album. My eventual reaction was surprise; it prompted a tweet the next night about how something like that could only really happen in 2013, when the Oberst-indebted Joyce Manor and Oberst’s own reunited band stand on virtually the same level in terms of the sizes of their respective fan bases. And yet, my immediate reaction to the news was not one of surprise but rather one of fuzzy, warm acceptance. Mostly, I felt like I was living vicariously through frontman Barry Johnson. I don’t think it would surprise anyone reading this that I would probably be able to die happy if Conor Oberst covered one of my songs. Still, the thought of something so crazy happening to this band worried me somewhat. Considering the possibility of a major ego boost to a band that I have already documented extensively as being egocentric, I was hesitant about their show at New Haven’s Bethesda Lutheran Church last night.
First, a word about the space: I wasn’t familiar with this church by name, but as it turned out, it’s in an affluent neighborhood of New Haven with which I’m very familiar. It was kind of adorably hilarious to see scuzzy punks and Tumblr kids (of which there were many) wandering about cluelessly on St. Ronan Street, directly across from the imposing hill of Yale’s Divinity School. Also, the church’s representatives, who were present throughout the night to sell snacks and oversee the whole affair, made a point to mention that they were worried about “the flying thing” (known to us punks as ‘stage diving’) that everyone started doing during TWIABP’s set. The Arc Agency, who booked the show, jokingly updated the facebook event as a “No Fly Zone.” Cute!
By the time that I arrived around 7 PM, I had missed a good majority of the wrestling-inspired post-hardcore outfit Enzuigiri’s set. What I heard was enjoyable though — heavy, bass-driven punk rock with alternating, dual vocals and a surprising amount of sonic heft for a power trio. Soon after they finished, an early highlight of the show came in the form of a terrific performance by SUNY Purchase indie kids LVL UP (pictured above). I’ve caught LVL UP nearly every time they’ve been to Connecticut in the past year, and each show has been tighter and more enjoyable. They remind me of how The World Is… was a couple years ago; this band is on an upward trajectory towards something great and the release of their forthcoming Extra Worlds 7” should aid that surge. From the Real Estate-aping “Bro Chillers” to the hilariously mosh-inducing performance of “*_*,” there was a lot to love about LVL UP’s set last night, but one of their unreleased songs proved to be the true highlight, with a jaunty power pop progression and multiple unique vocal parts. I can’t wait to hear their new studio material.
The next band on the bill was a New Jersey emo duo called Dads, with whom you’re probably familiar. Of course Dads played this show. Frankly, the experience would have felt incomplete without their mere presence, to say nothing of the performance itself. Having never seen them live before, but having paid attention to their presence on the internet for about three years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, I don’t enjoy their music much at this point; it feels too passé — too aesthetically and conceptually linked to a revivalist era of emo that has run its course a few too many times. What bothered me, though, was the manner in which the group presented itself to the crowd, mixing deadpan sarcasm with what occasionally scanned as genuinely self-important conceit. “We’re just going to get right into the hits,” drummer/vocalist John Bradley said, cloyingly, at the beginning of the set. It was a little off-putting, but their fans seemed to enjoy it extensively. Their enthusiasm was lost on me, sadly.
Dads’ set was followed by a high profile performance from locals The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, a band that never truly disappoints live despite occasional, frustrating issues that impede the perfection of which I so thoroughly believe they are capable. Last night, though, they were tighter than ever. Settling into his relatively new role as lead vocalist for the third time that I’ve seen him, David Bello seemed unprecedentedly comfortable onstage. The band as a whole has swelled to 8 members in size, and their collective sound is truly something to behold. Yet despite the intensity that their arsenal of guitars, drums, keyboards, trumpet et. al. can provide, the best moment of their set was also the most tempered and gentle. They closed with a new song, featuring lush, four part harmonies that ended the performance on a powerfully subdued note.
In my experience seeing this band so many times, I’ve realized that to listen to The World Is A Beautiful Place is to give in a little— to a embrace some pretense and allow oneself to experience a certain profundity that may or may not actually be there behind the passionate screams and intertwining melodies. That said, when a couple hundred kids gather in a literal church and sing along as the band’s 8-member orchestra plays their transcendent brand of emotive post-rock, it’s hard not to feel like some kind of pseudo-religious experience is occurring. These guys should consider starting a full-on cult when their new album drops; I hear that’s a terrific promotional strategy.
When Joyce Manor took the stage, I had resigned to relative passivity, although I won’t deny that I was a little intrigued. Within seconds of the opening surge to the front, as the power chords that signal the beginning of “Beach Community” rang out, I found myself buying into it to an extent that I never thought I would. I’ll be honest— I don’t think I had listened to Joyce Manor’s music at all in the five months since they headlined The Space in August, but I actually think that my lack of immediate familiarity made me enjoy the experience more. Their songs (particularly those on the 2011 self-titled record) have a particular way of sticking in one’s brain; hearing them last night amongst the peripheral moshing and communal revelry ignited a welcome feeling of celebration within me, to the point that I actually found myself quite moved. Part of it definitely came from the extent to which the band seemed genuinely happy to be there, rocketing through some peppy new songs and grinning ear to ear during the older cuts. Although the crowd was certainly energetic, no one seemed to get hurt and there was no mean-spirited aggression present at Bethesda Church last night. It was rather cute, really. I received a small scrape on my right arm during “Call Out (Laundry)” and considered it my Joyce Manor mosh injury.
In a night that displayed a fair amount of pretense, some entirely welcome (particularly TWIABP) and others rather unexpected (Dads.. what was going on there?), it was nice to see that Joyce Manor seem to have come to terms with their own identity, with which they previously seemed confused. For a long time I’ve held the belief that there is nothing special or revelatory about their music, but more than ever before, I saw last night how little this matters. Tracks like “Derailed,” which set off a particularly heavy flurry of stage dives, may not be uniquely good, but they certainly are good nonetheless. Joyce Manor knew this, and it seemed as though everybody at the Bethesda Lutheran Church last night knew it too.
Keep up with The Arc Agency on tumblr to find out about more shows like this. Thanks for reading.
GILES COREY live at Enemies List Home Recordings Warehouse. Meriden CT. 2/25/13
In press photos for his solo project Giles Corey, Connecticut singer/songwriter Dan Barrett can be seen wearing a Voor’s Head Device, a mysterious burlap hood with ties to the conceptual roots of his ghostly folk music. Similarly, earlier photos of his renowned shoegaze band Have A Nice Life often feature him covering his face or obscuring himself with foliage. Based on the way that he presents himself, both on the internet and in the mysterious writings that accompany a number of his musical releases, it would appear that there is a disconnect between Dan Barrett the mysterious, ostensibly suicidal genius, and Dan Barrett the regular human being from Connecticut. This disconnect made itself almost shockingly evident last night, when Giles Corey put on a show at a certain warehouse space in Meriden, out of which Dan and his friends run their modest, cult-followed record label Enemies List Home Recordings.
On the facebook event page, the performance was billed less as a show than as a “house party where some guys play depressing music,” establishing a relatively lighthearted tone for Barrett and Co., who have run Enemies List since 2005. When I arrived, the twenty or so people present were sitting on couches, speaking in hushed tones as ambient folk played over the PA. Enemies List veteran Planning For Burial opened the show with a fittingly harrowing solo performance, incorporating a hearty helping of drone and shoegaze into his act. I didn’t manage to catch the entirety of his performance, but the small amount that I did witness was intriguing to say the least.
Tucked away on the second floor of a massive industrial warehouse, the small room in which the show took place seemed to be the only one not whitewashed by garish industrial lights. Throughout the night, Barrett lurked in the ample shadows of the eerily isolated room, trading words with fans and friends and occasionally selling one of his winkingly self-aware “No Fun. Not Ever.” t-shirts. I wasn’t sure what to make of him or whether I should approach him before his set, but as the night wore on, Barrett’s human side quickly revealed itself. As recent ELHR-signee I Do Not Love worked his way through a shaky and frustratingly amateurish set, Barrett was there by his side the whole time, offering words of encouragement and resounding applause after every song. It was heartwarming to see someone so invested in his work and so trusting in those with whom he associates; I couldn’t help but feel inspired to start my own independent label after witnessing Barrett adopt this remarkable paternal role.
When he took the stage afterwards, Barrett displayed humility and candor that belied his remarkable abilities as a musician. He spoke about how privileged he felt to work with such talented musicians at ELHR and how happy he was that people cared enough about his music to come out to a show of his, especially since he plays live so infrequently. Frankly, his onstage demeanor stood in stark contrast to that of another certain singer/songwriter whom I saw recently, and given that they both performed solo, acoustically, and in a relatively relaxed setting, I could not help but make the comparison as I listened to Barrett perform last night. One thing is certain; both he and Mangum are consummately brilliant musicians capable of creating profound beauty from relatively humble means.
In contrast to Planning For Burial’s pedalboard, a shoegazer’s wet dream, Giles Corey’s setup was considerably less grand but no less effective. Barrett performed with a simple footswitch that activated the reverb and overdrive on his amplifier, through which he ran a black Takamine acoustic guitar. As soon as he began each song, all of which seemed nearly equal in their ability to rend hearts and procure tears, the unexpectedly jovial and easygoing side of Barrett that he displayed offstage faded away abuptly. When he entered his mysterious, dark, performing mode, the results were nothing short of bone-chilling. Setlist opener “Blackest Bile” hummed along in desperate resignation, while “Grave Filled With Books” — apparently adapted at the request of Barrett’s wife Thao — took on the 6:8 pulse of a mournful 1950’s slow jam. On the heels of the release of his new EP Hinterkaifeck, Giles Corey performed two tracks from that album, including the surprisingly heavy, overdriven “Guilt Is My Boyfriend,” which could have easily been a Have A Nice Life song 5 years ago.
Although rumors of a new HANL album have been circulating for the past year, I have yet to hear anything concrete; that said, when Barrett performed a handful of tracks by his old band last night, I could definitely feel that his spirit was still present in them. Unfortunately, without the post-punk backbeat of the Deathconsciousness version, “Deep, Deep” lacked persistence. Similarly, his performance of Deathconsciousness closer “Earthmover” could not come close to capturing the truly earth-shaking heft of the original. That said, his version of HANL’s “The Icon and The Axe” — a studio recording of which he released on Enemies List’s 2011 Christmas album — had just the right mix of tempered grit and emotive folk gentleness. That performance was a particular highlight, along with his closing play-through of “Spectral Bride” (my 11th favorite song of 2011). Before introducing his final song, Barrett took a moment to humorously gripe about bands that leave the stage at the end of a show, knowing that in a few minutes they will come back out and play an encore. Barrett did not give in to this conceit, even though his performance was more deserving of an encore than almost any such bands that I’ve seen. Perhaps this is where the two sides of Dan Barrett find common ground; neither his personality nor his music (aside, perhaps, from his Deconstructionist EP…) display any unnecessary pretense. As unflinchingly honest as his music is breathtaking, I hope to see Dan Barrett continuing with this for a very long time.
Giles Corey Setlist - 2/24/13
- 1. “Blackest Bile”
- 2. “Grave Filled With Books”
- 3. “Guilt Is My Boyfriend”
- 4. “The Icon and the Axe”
- 5. “Deep, Deep”
- 6. “Earthmover”
- 7. “Wounded Wolf”
- 8. “Spectral Bride”
JEFF MANGUM live at the Great Hall at Union Station. Hartford CT. 2/19/13.
(photo by Will Deitz at ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror, 2011)
“No photography or video recording allowed at any time during the show”
Thus read a bold-font note taped to the door of Hartford’s Great Hall at Union Station, where former Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum played a highly anticipated concert last night with Tall Firs and The Music Tapes. The universal photography ban has been in place for nearly all dates on each of Mangum’s three solo tours since his highly publicized return to the stage in December 2010.
I had seen Mangum perform twice before last night, first in Boston in September 2011 and again in New Haven in January of last year, and at both of those shows, the rule made sense. Boston’s Jordan Hall and New Haven’s Shubert Theater were both ornate, seated venues; within these storied theaters, which had in the past hosted philharmonics and operas, Mangum’s music felt almost saintly. Attending each felt like witnessing a musical performance as religious experience — to defoul such a private, holy moment with camera flashes and cell-phone video recording would be like photographing the Pope during Easter Mass in the Vatican City. I’ve never experienced that, but I imagine that such activity is frowned upon there.
Last night, however, was different. For the occasion, the central hall of Hartford’s primary train station was transformed into a massive, standing room venue, complete with a four foot high stage, lighting fixtures, and a large and perpetually crowded bar serving alcoholic drinks. It was a radically different setting from the two shows I had seen Mangum perform previously, and at first I was excited at the prospect of seeing him in a relatively more traditional ‘rock concert’ setting. As I soon discovered, though, the more ‘traditional’ setting of the Union Station Great Hall provided more than I had bargained for.
The night began, after doors were postponed from 7 to 7:30, with a frantic rush to the front of the stage. Along with a handful of others, I staked my claim to the very front and center, nervously eager at the prospect of the show that was to come. Tall Firs began the opening set as a solo act, having temporarily lost a member due to a family obligation. David Miles’ moody, blues-inflected folk would have likely caused some tears in a more intimate setting, but the nuances of his restrained voice and skeletal guitar work were lost on much of the audience, who frustratingly talked throughout the entirety of his set. The Music Tapes fared considerably better, amplifying the tinny twee-folk of their records to a dizzyingly high, full-bodied level. Although not as whimsically majestic as their October 2012 performance in Hamden, The Music Tapes’ set was certainly the most sonically engaging performance that I’ve seen them play. Along with his band of horn blowers, key-ticklers, and pipe-pounders (and, of course, the Seven Foot Tall Metronome) Julian Koster looked and sounded like the last thing I would have pinned him as: a rock star.
Thirty minutes after the Tapes closed with a rousing, evocative performance of “Takeshi and Elijah” from last year’s Mary’s Voice, Jeff Mangum took the stage. Heavily bearded and wearing his distinctive flannel, Mangum looked hermetic and rustic, as if he had wandered out of the Connecticut woods and stumbled into Union Station just minutes prior. Exhibiting a cluster of grey at its center, Mangum’s beard was aesthetically questionable, but effective in making him appear older that he is. I don’t blame him — if I, at Mangum’s age of 42, were known exclusively for work that I did in my 20s, I would try to distance myself from appearing young as well. He sat down and, with a brief, mumbled introduction, launched into a seamless performance of “Two-Headed Boy” and its companion piece, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” As with the two previous performances that I’ve seen, Mangum’s setlist yielded few surprises. The vast majority of songs were gleaned from Neutral Milk Hotel’s two full lengths On Avery Island and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, both of which are terrific records, and both of which hold unique nostalgic significance for me and countless other fans, many of whom were present in Hartford last night. In the opening set, Tall Firs’ David Miles positively noted how many young fans had been present at all the shows on this current tour, and although the extent to which Neutral Milk Hotel’s legacy has been preserved in the 15 years since Aeroplane’s release is certainly admirable, the presence of so many young fans at the show last night was not without its detriments.
I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly (as I, at seventeen, am quite a young guy myself), but it was frankly difficult not to be annoyed by the level of immaturity that certain crowd members set during Mangum’s performance. A friend described it as “a bunch of six year olds trying to impress their dad,” and I’m inclined to agree with his assessment — it was cringeworthy. I don’t know if half the crowd had just spent their first afternoon on /mu/ earlier that day, but the number of “Jesus Christ” jokes and inane, pointless interjections that the crowd shouted at Jeff in between songs approached an insufferable level. He handled it well enough, but there was a look of weariness on his face by the end of the show that even his thick beard could not cover up.
Mangum encouraged singing, and the crowd unhesitatingly obliged, matching nearly every word and strained vocalization. During the more heavily orchestrated songs, such as “Song Against Sex” and set closer “Ghost,” the audience filled in vocalized versions of horn parts and harmonies atop Mangum’s sparse guitar strums. It was occasionally moving; if the previous shows had been akin to a solemn service at the Vatican City, last night’s show was more like a Baptist spiritual. Still, even as I passionately sang along, I could not shake the impression that something sacred was missing from this strange, communal celebration. For my own peace of mind, I’ll place the blame on the audience rather than on Mangum himself — for one thing, some of the crowd members really could not sing, and the warbled bleats of the immediately post-pubescent boy near me grew increasingly grating as the night wore on. But more importantly, I think the issue was one of familiarity. We all knew the songs so perfectly that there was no potential for surprise or spontaneity at any moment during the show. Even Mangum’s alternate/live version of “A Baby For Pree,” which usually throws some fans off at his shows, failed to startle anybody present last night. Similarly, when former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster came back on stage to play singing saw on “Engine” and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” it felt trad and predictable, though still entirely welcome.
In a word, the concert experience felt cheap — worth the $30 that most fans paid for their tickets, certainly, but perhaps not entirely worth the hastily-arranged flight that I booked back from Washington, D.C. when I learned that the show had been postponed from its original date due to snow. From a certain perspective, it was a perfect show, featuring two especially great performances and a smattering of some of the best folk songs I’ve ever heard, and yet, it was also painfully hollow and lacking in the urgent, vital essence that made all those Neutral Milk Hotel songs so great in their original incarnations. To put it plainly, I was conflicted in a way that I have never really felt before. After the full hall sang along to “Aeroplane,” with Koster conducting the crowd to match Scott Spillane’s absent horn solo, saw-bow in hand, the two former bandmates bowed and calmly exited the stage.
In my pocket I held a Kodak disposable film camera, which I kept there, primed and full of film, for the entire duration of the show. I considered saving it until the very end, allowing myself minimal possibility of punishment, and justified its potential use by virtue of the archaic quality innate within a disposable camera. Surely there were kids wielding Kodaks at Neutral Milk Hotel’s shows in the ’90s, right? Ultimately, I decided against using it at all. After nearly three hours of terrific, powerfully familiar songs, overwhelming waves of nostalgia, and some fundamentally cringe-inducing crowd involvement, I considered it my obligation to preserve whatever dignity remained in Union Station that night. After meeting up with the Music Tapes once more and thanking them for their particularly stellar performance, I walked out into the rainy Hartford night, left with a frustratingly mixed, thoroughly exhausted impression.
Setlist - 2/19/13
- 1. Two-Headed Boy
- 2. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
- 3. Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
- 4. Song Against Sex
- 5. King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
- 6. King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2-3
- 7. Oh Comely
- 8. A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You
- 9. Oh Sister
- 10. Holland, 1945
- 11. Naomi
- 12. Ghost
- 13. Engine (with Julian Koster) (encore)
- 14. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (with Julian Koster) (encore)
Watch: Jeff Mangum & Julian Koster play “Engine” in Ithaca, NY - 2/13/13
Stream: The Guru - Go Easy (2012)
There is a moment on Go Easy, the new LP from The Guru, in which the precocious Connecticut four-piece seems to transcend their particularly infectious brand of Modest Mouse-indebted psych-pop, simply by lampooning it. It arrives within the first minute of the title track, as an agonizingly smooth saxophone line introduces itself and proceeds to bleed out all over the sunny array of guitars and Eddie Golden III’s surprisingly detached vocals. As the sax plays on throughout the track, the mood changes from comedic to self-fulfilled. It adopts a kind of self-aware attitude not unlike Destroyer’s last LP, through which disco tropes and smooth jazz aesthetics aren’t inherently detrimental to the ‘seriousness’ or quality of a band’s music.
Unfortunately, that moment fades, and the rest of the album fails to pick up the slack as it continues on. True to its name, Go Easy is a gentle, relaxed album, free from the manic energy and forceful, consummate positivity of Native Sun, the band’s excellent LP from last year. Although the record benefits from the change in style, its apparent motivational deficiency is often stifling. If Native Sun could be described as positively forceful, like a good friend who drags you to a show on a night when you’re feeling down, Go Easy feels forcefully positive. After the stellar opening track, the band plods along without much urgency or direction, twinkling through the country-ish twang of the previously released single “Indian Day” and the stuttering noodles of “Tony Waves.” In between, “Foreign Moon” drags on slowly and without purpose, as does the lo-fi, experimental dirge “Pyramids.” Many of the faster cuts feel like lesser-quality holdovers from Native Sun, while the slow jams strain to hold the listener’s attention.
It’s not all bad of course — “Guacamole” features some really interesting distorted guitar, for instance, and “Cow” has one of those earworm choruses that so many of the songs on Native Sun could also lay claim to. The title track, too, is among the better songs I’ve heard this year. And yet, Go Easy is a frustratingly limited album that suffers most from feeling under-developed. Native Sun was the result of years of songwriting, touring, and recording. Those songs were birthed, developed, and honed over a lengthy period of time and finally released in their best possible form. By contrast, Go Easy feels rushed and lacking focus. It’s clear that there are some truly great new ideas in the mix, but that’s all they are — ideas in dire need of full realization and development. If you listen closely, you can hear that development happening, but it’s incomplete. In other words, this is the sound of a young band growing up, shaking its wings, and losing some of its charm in the process. Thankfully, though, they’ve always had plenty to spare.
Stream Go Easy above and buy it now on bandcamp for $3 or more. If you’re in the Connecticut area, you can catch The Guru live tonight at their record release show at The Space, with Tigers Jaw, Brian Stankus, and Disco Teen ‘66. More information about that show can be found HERE.
Sidewalk Dave - Hard On Romance (2012)
Stream: “Wait Forever”
David Van Witt — aka Sidewalk Dave — is at the very least enigmatic, if not a downright paradox. The ponderous, lanky 20-something has spent an number of years living the unpredictable troubadour’s life, travelling the country and cranking out volumes of thoughtful, solid folk rock and alt-country under his humble pseudonym. Then something changed. He sojourned to Brooklyn, and somewhere along the way, created a record that is qualitatively leaps and bounds ahead of any of his other work. It’s a record that bears conceptual unity the likes of which I have not witnessed in any other record this year — an album displaying the songwriting chops of a grizzled veteran much Van Witt’s senior, but with the attitude and grit of a rambunctious, sexually frustrated teen. It’s an album so fully realized in its production and execution, and yet so utterly (and purposefully) immature in every other facet of its existence, that it can’t help but come across as paradoxical. It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard in 2012, and it’s called Hard On Romance.
As its title suggests, Hard On Romance is profoundly and explicitly sexual. Dave wastes no time with subtlety and tact regarding this subject; rather, he embraces it like a voracious, perpetually unsatisfied lover. And yet, despite more sexual references-per-minute than even the most explicit Lil Wayne single, Hard On Romance never uses sex for purposes of braggadocio or self-aggrandizement. On the dirgey psych-gaze opener “2k Girls,” Dave moans about sleeping with the titular number of women as if it were a form of punishment. “I am my father’s mistakes,” he sings. To Sidewalk Dave, the concept of “hard on romance” — that is, romance fulfilled only by physical stimulation — is an elusive and dangerous beast that yields short term satisfaction and long-term trauma. In a way, it’s rather like an addiction.
But that’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy it. Dave may recognize the inherent problems with a relationship built only on copious amounts of copulation, but he also recognizes the benefit. In the guitar-crunching chorus of the Pixies-like highlight “Wait Forever,” Dave sounds like a tortured beast demanding sustenance, alternately howling “I want you here now” and “I want you out of here.” The contrast between pleasure and pain is dizzying, and often it is the musical tone that determines the side on which each song comes down. For instance, despite the insecurity that its lyrics reveal, the stuttering second track “Something About Me” is probably the most outwardly happy track on the record. Likewise, the chugging, penultimate track “Soft Portal” exudes swagger despite opening with the revealing line “Baby, please understand that this ain’t love” and ultimately unraveling into a Titus Andronicus-level chorus of yonic philosophizing. Meanwhile, the atmospheric buzz of “Honey Bee” and the moody synth swells of the closing track “Wake Up Baby” take on a more dour tone. Given the sexual energy that courses through Hard On Romance, perhaps it’s fitting that the album ends on a rather limp note.
It’s fitting and understandable that the most successful songs on the album are those in which Dave’s ratio of enjoyment to suffering is most even. “Cayenne” — the song that owes the most to Sidewalk Dave’s country roots — lilts slowly underneath lyrics that describe the complicated longing that remains for a former lover. Later on, the Classic Rock indebted “Climbing Out The Window” finds Dave caught “in between staying young and growing old” — a crucial moment in a man’s life that much of Hard On Romance attempts to reconcile. Far and away, the best track on Hard On Romance is the supremely bittersweet “Happiness Is An Art: We Must Learn While We’re Apart,” which is not only most morally complicated, poetically developed lyrical work on the record; it’s also probably the catchiest and most singular song. Although these tracks may be more pensive than the rollicking, cock-out garage rock numbers, they pack enough musical grit and shoegaze-influenced guitar textures into their slower tempos to maintain a formidable bite.
On “Honey Bee,” which serves as a reflective intermission in the middle of the record, Dave describes the surreal combination of agony and ecstasy with which a male worker bee copulates with his queen, letting her use him for her pleasure only to rip out his innards and let him fall to his death. It’s a powerful metaphor for a concept that Hard On Romance as a coherent unit explores so well. And yet, even without that context, this work still stands up on its own. In all, Hard On Romance is an inimitable collection of some of the best garage rock songs 2012 has had to offer. From any perspective — lyrical, musical, or conceptual — Hard On Romance is unapologetically and unassumingly fantastic.
Hard On Romance is out now via The Telegraph Recording Company. You can stream it via Bandcamp and purchase it on CD for $8. The CD comes with liner notes, including a brief essay regarding the album’s concept called I Am A Virgin - Please Give Me The Sex Talk, and a set of (censored) nude photos of Dave himself because what else would you include in the packaging of an album like this?
THE MUSIC TAPES live at The Blank Canvas. Hamden CT. 11/3/12
It’s hard for me to put into words what the past 24 hours have been like for me, but I will do my best. It was, to put it briefly, an utterly surreal experience. As soon as I walked into The Blank Canvas (a temporary warehouse space owned and operated by The Space), it was as if I had transcended this drab, material plane of existence and entered something entirely transmundane. On record, The Music Tapes are at best capable of merely alluding to this exo-world, giving fuzzy and brief glimpses into it through the nostalgic hiss of old magnetic tape and the gentle bleat of a bowed banjo. Although their recorded music has come to occupy a very special space in my heart, their live show — especially on this tour — is completely incomparable.
I first saw The Music Tapes nearly a full year ago, when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. It was an appropriate pairing, given that Mangum and The Music Tapes’ frontman Julian Koster were once both members of Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Tapes certainly brought that Elephant 6 Collective whimsy and pyschedelia to the show last night as well. The difference between the New Haven show and this one was as much a matter of intimacy as it was of scope. Along with the previous night’s show in Massachusetts, this show was a preview of the band’s boldest live vision yet. It’s called the “Travelling Imaginary” tour, and it involves the Music Tapes bringing a giant rectangular circus tent to every show and allowing the attendees to come in and sit inside it, inviting them into a dreamlike, musical world for the duration of the night.
Although the band was still working out some logistical kinks (it was, after all, a preview show), the Travelling Imaginary experience was delightfully playful and, at times, soberingly beautiful. It was also surprisingly interactive, featuring film projections, a carnival-style beanbag toss, and a silly Romanian ball game (played with red balloons) that Julian Koster curated and played with the raptly attentive audience of approximately 75 people. When the band was actually playing, they sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, on record or otherwise. Koster was joined by longtime collaborator Robbie Cucchiaro, who played various horn instruments, along with a keyboard player and a multi-instrumentalist who occasionally found himself playing three instruments at once. The four piece was supplemented by an accoutrement of Music Tapes members of the inanimate variety, including a “mechanical organ tower” and a 7-foot tall metronome that stood ominously and obelisk-like behind the group. Koster himself frequently switched instruments from orchestral banjo (which he played with a violin bow) to singing saw, and even to heavily distorted bass guitar, which he used on “S’ Alive to Be Known (May We Starve),” much to the audience’s delight. No matter what instrument he was playing, a wide-eyed smile never left Koster’s perpetually youthful face, which filled the iridescent tent with enough warm energy to staunch the cold air from outside.
Much of the setlist was culled from the band’s newest and best album, Mary’s Voice, which is out now on Merge Records. Album opener “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South)” made for a wonderful highlight in the middle of the show, with Cucchiaro’s muted trouble accenting Koster’s pining vocals, while “Spare The Dark Streets” found Koster’s banjo waltzing in time with Cucchiaro’s valve trombone. The setlist also included standout tracks from the band’s other two LPs, including the metronone-assisted “The Minister of Longitude” from 2008’s Music Tapes For Clouds and Tornadoes. Although the show was filled with evocative instances of beauty both great and small, there was one moment in particular that stood out as truly moving and memorable. When Julian Koster solemnly stood in the center of the tent for the last time to play “Takeshi and Elijah,” surrounded by his bandmates and their various eccentric instruments, it was akin to when I saw Jeff Mangum close with “Ferris Wheel on Fire” in Boston last September. As “Takeshi’s” forlorn banjo chords rang out amidst the hushed, cross-legged crowd, the room assumed the kind of indescribable energy that many of Julian’s endearingly imagined folk stories are about. It’s as if there was an abstract understanding reached amongst everyone packed into the tent last night — some profundity so immaterial that it could only be conveyed through music, specifically that of Julian Koster The song’s last, lone banjo note seemed to last forever, as if in an eternal solipsism, as a testament to the timelessness of Koster’s legacy. By the time the full band came crashing in at the very end, keyboards and horns blaring, it seemed more like a celebration than a requiem. The Travelling Imaginary may have ended for us that night in an objective sense, but it nevertheless left an indelible mark on everybody who was there.
Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been posting in the past day, you know that my experience with The Music Tapes didn’t actually end at The Blank Canvas that night. When I drove home with Julian Koster in my car, ate veggie burgers a diner on Dixwell Avenue with seven of the loveliest people I now know, and eventually made breakfast and drank coffee with them this morning, I saw a human side to a group of people who just last night had made a pretty good case for idolization. It made me realize a truth about modern music culture, specifically with regards to The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Elephant 6. There are no rock stars anymore — just people who are creative and/or crazy enough to survive this kind of musical existence. Julian Koster and the Music Tapes do that and more; they thrive in their lifestyle and inspire others to do the same. When Julian signed my copy of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before we all headed back to Hamden to take down the tent today, it felt oddly anti-climactic, but the truth is, he had already left his mark on me. That mark — the mark of influence, respect, and hope for the future — was more permanent than any autograph could ever be.
Titus Andronicus - Local Business (2012)
“Okay I think by now we’ve established / everything is inherently worthless”
With those opening words from “Ecce Homo,” thus begins Local Business, the highly anticipated third LP from New Jersey punks Titus Andronicus. It’s a kicker of an opening line, and one that should resonate with anyone who has followed the band over the past five years. This is, after all, a band that named the closing track on their first LP after Albert Camus, and that proudly proclaimed on 2010’s The Monitor that “nothing means anything anymore.” And yet, despite the existential leanings of frontman Patrick Stickles’ lyrical pen, Titus Andronicus’ music has often flown flagrantly in the face of nihilist ideology. The band’s first two records, the previously mentioned album-of-the-decade contender The Monitor and its older, lo-fi cousin The Airing Of Grievances, were thoroughly life-affirming albums at heart. By sheer virtue of their conceptual depth, unbridled ambition, and fully-realized orchestration, they suggested the possibility of transcendence from the meaningless void of existence that Stickles’ lyrics described.
Now, with Local Business, that possibility has dissipated into the same void from whence it came. On the first listen, that opening line seems like a sarcastic jab at the band’s trademark lyrical aesthetic, which I don’t doubt was Stickles’ intention. By the end of the record, however, it feels more like an admission of defeat. This is not for a lack of capability, but it does seem to be due to a lack of effort. For a record by a band in their creative and commercial prime, Local Business feels frustratingly hollow and undeveloped, particularly on a musical level. From the opening one-two punch of “Ecce Homo” and “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter” to the three-song suite that surrounds the eight minute epic “My Eating Disorder,” Local Business retains the compositional depth that the band has become great at, but without the instrumental flourishes, shoegaze-influenced production elements, or pace-keeping samples that made their past two records great. In other words, on a musical level at least, Local Business is a straightforward rock album.
Titus Andronicus’ intentions are understandable, given their circumstances. Since 2010, the band has lost members including their violin player/guitarist Amy Klein, who brought a much-needed female energy and accomplished musicianship to their brash and boyish sound. Now that they’re gone, the album feels much like what one might expect five post-adolescent men with guitars to sound like if you put them in a room, sans any semblance of grit. This approach works if you view Titus Andronicus among the lineage of no-bullshit guitar bands like The Replacements and The Hold Steady, but if you’re like me and you appreciated Titus Andronicus’ occasionally pretentious musical tendencies, this record will let you down. And yet, precisely because of how ambitious their previous material was, the decision to work in a simpler musical format is understandable, if not entirely forgivable.
The larger issue is the production on the record. Local Business sounds far too clean and scrubbed-down to correlate sonically with the populist lyrical themes that Stickles plays with. On an aesthetic level, Local Business feels like a fancy new chain that just opened up in your town and is marketing itself to people who shop at real local stores. In the record’s worst moments, the souped-up production contrasts with the downgraded musical ambition, making Local Business seem like a high cost, low value investment. And yet, at its best, the lack of noisy guitars or lo-fi percussion accentuates the album’s catchiness. The third track “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus,” which was released in demo form on Titus Andronicus’ “mixtape” earlier this year, benefits the most from this; its Cock Sparrer-reminiscent chug simply begs to be shouted along with.
The record’s greatest strong suit are the lyrics, which is why I knew I had to withhold my official judgement until my copy of the record arrived with a lyric sheet. Free from the conceptual rigidity of The Monitor, Stickles experiments more as a writer on Local Business, opening up about his struggle with Selective Eating on “My Eating Disorder” and reaching a near-hip hop level of verbosity and vocal dexterity on “Ecce Homo.” His rhetorical ability is in top form, and he manages to spit potent one-liners on nearly every song. Occasionally, he dips into that Oberstian overshare territory, snarkily stating that his “authentic self was aborted at the age of four” on “Hot Deuce” and cringingly admitting that he’s been a “drug addict since single digits” on “My Eating Disorder.” Elsewhere, he’s lambasting himself and his entire lyrical style. “I heard them say the white man created existential angst when he ran out of other problems,” Stickles admits on the opening track. All of it is delivered through a comfortable sheen of self-awareness; he never lets himself be truly vulnerable as a writer, even when he’s singing about struggling with an eating disorder or feeling insignificant after moving to New York on “In A Big City.”
Local Business comes to a head on “In A Small Body,” a mid-tempo song towards the end of the album that, in a remarkably understated way, makes a strong case for the record’s best track. Stickles is completely in command from the powerful opening line (“Don’t tell me I was born free / that joke has been old since high school”) through a tempo change that welcomes insider lyrical references to The Monitor and Titus’ pals Diarrhea Planet. It also bears one line that distills the crux of Stickles’ existential issues down to a thesis — “What do you know about being no sort of slave? I know some kids who’d kill for this kind of cage,” he sings to himself in his impassioned, nasal sneer. This reserved self-criticism, coupled with Owen Pallett’s gorgeous string arrangement, makes “In A Small Body” a rare moment of greatness on the otherwise simply solid record. It suggests a direction that Titus Andronicus could have explored more on this album, and that perhaps they will explore again.
Local Business is very frustrating because, despite its glaring flaws, pointless joke songs (“I Am The Electric Man”), and one-line filler tracks, it’s still a very good record that I can’t help but feel compelled to listen to near-constantly. I’m biased because The Monitor means more to me than just about any other album, but part of me also really wanted to hate this record simply for not being like its predecessor. Ultimately, I have to reconcile the way I feel about Local Business on a primal level. It’s simply, annoyingly solid, but by no means should it be anyone’s entry point into Titus Andronicus’ otherwise near-perfect body of work.
Key Tracks: “Ecce Homo”, “My Eating Disorder”, “In A Small Body”
Local Business is available for purchase now from XL Recordings.
INTO IT. OVER IT. live at Webster Underground. Hartford CT. 10/21/12
“Cherish it,” said a sweaty and bespectacled Evan Weiss, reflecting on the topic of DIY music in the state of Connecticut. If there were any audience members packed into the Webster Underground last night who didn’t heed his advice before the show, there certainly aren’t any now. As any reader of this blog will know, punk music in this state is very near and dear to my heart. I have come to cherish it due to the kindness, acceptance, and occasional musical brilliance that has defined so many of the shows I’ve seen since I first entered The Cookie Jar as a precocious young high schooler years ago. For me, along with probably many others, last night’s show was a sustained moment of validation that proved why Connecticut DIY — and DIY at large — is worth cherishing.
For Weiss, the show also represented a more specific validation: it was the only Connecticut date on a lengthy tour across Europe and America — the first tour in which he is bringing his long running Into It. Over It. project into full band fruition. On stage, Weiss described at length his relationship with Connecticut and the acceptance that he had found here over the years, but one thing came through more clearly than anything else: he was nothing short of ecstatic to be playing his music the way he had always envisioned it.
This show actually marked the fortuitous convergence of two important tours, as openers Slingshot Dakota and The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die are currently touring the East Coast as well. Having seen the former band perform once in the past, at the final show of CT legends My Heart To Joy, I was not particularly excited to see them again. Nevertheless, I was won over by their new material, which bolsters their effervescent piano pop/punk with stronger melodies and more developed lyrics. Their mix was somewhat off, however, and the propulsive drums often overpowered the quieter keyboard parts and vocal nuances.
The World Is A Beautiful Place played next, and in spite of some rather last minute lineup changes and other issues, they managed to deliver a suitably goosebumps-inducing performance. Frontman Tom Diaz had recently fallen under the weather and was unable to perform with the band, so Greg Horbal took over lead vocal duties during the set. The communal feeling of the songs and the typically diminutive nature of Diaz’ stage presence at most of their normal shows made this potentially crippling issue not much of a detriment; it actually seemed to encourage more crowd participation, and Horbal was an adorably geeky substitute. The band also featured a new cello player and One Hundred Year Ocean’s Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak on keyboards, as well as Chris Zizzamia, who delivered spoken word in the ambient introductions of a number of songs for the third time that I’ve seen The World Is. Zizzamia provided a powerful highlight at the very end of the set, delivering a gut-wrenching poetic tirade against ignorance and casual racism that came to a head just as the band launched into “Victim Kin Seek Suit.” It was, at once, a moment that made me consider how far Connecticut and this wonderful band have come, and how much further we all still have to go in order to make DIY a truly welcoming environment.
If there’s any band leading the charge for that cause, it was the subsequent group — Wallingford’s own Hostage Calm. Fresh off the release of their new album, the perfectly-titled Run For Cover Records LP Please Remain Calm, these hard-charging power pop rebels are currently touring with Into It. Over It. and seemed particularly excited to be playing a home state gig. Their set was heavy on new material, but the crowd devoured it nonetheless, lending credence to the immediacy of tracks like their set opener “Brokenheartland” and the album highlight “Woke Up Next To A Body,” the latter of which incited the night’s most spirited series stage dives. Although the setlist was somewhat sparse with respect to songs from their 2010 self-titled album, they hit all the necessary marks; “War On A Feeling” was as life-affirming as ever, and the marriage equality anthem “Ballots/Stones” seemed particularly appropriate during this election season.
Maybe it was just the amount of bruises and head batteries that I had sustained during Hostage Calm’s set, but once they finished, I could scarcely believe or even really articulate to myself that full band Into It. Over It. was playing immediately after. The atmosphere seemed almost dreamlike. To me, Into It. Over It. had always been just Evan Weiss, and the concept of anything more felt fantastical — even imagined. In truth, the full band has been a long time coming. The three other members of the touring group are all actually members of Stay Ahead Of The Weather, one of Weiss’ other songwriting outlets, and they announced their plans to tour as a four piece a number of months ago. And yet, it was not until they had all taken the stage and launched into the sputtering sonic cave-in of “Embracing Facts” that I could fully appreciate what that meant. This was a shockingly tight punk rock band playing some of the most lyrically developed songs that punk has born witness to since at least the 1990s. Whether they were tackling the melodrama of “Where Your Nights Often End” or the riff-laden burst of “Humboldt,” Into It. Over It. played with vigor, energy and intensity. Despite Weiss’ quips about being “too old and fat” for the touring experience, the band’s newfound sense of empowerment was palpable. At one point, Weiss played a deep cut after asking the audience how many of them had been listening to him since his ambitious 52 Weeks project came out in 2009. As someone who has, seeing Weiss live out his dreams and manifest his music the way it was intended to be played was nothing short of revelatory.
After a lengthy set that included a slowed-down, teary-eyed performance of “Connecticut Steps” and a lot of other tracks from last year’s Proper, Evan Weiss and Co. exited the stage. The headlining act, a Hartford group called Make Do And Mend, assumed it shortly thereafter and delivered a rather middling performance that lacked in heart and tightness. To me, along with others who stood off to the side during their set, they are a band that represent Connecticut punk’s old guard — remnants of a less refined scene that could never quite match the DIY community in its current state. In a way, the show represented a symbolic passing of the torch and a transition from old to new. In that respect, it made me hopeful for the future of DIY here in Connecticut and beyond. With terrific young bands like these supplying the scene, it would seem that the best years may still be ahead.
MORRISSEY live at The Palace Theater. Waterbury CT. 10/6/12
As somebody who has seen a handful of artists who released their most acclaimed material in the 1980s perform in the past few years, it was hard not to immediately notice how different the atmosphere at Morrissey’s show last night felt. This was not like The Feelies’ show at Daniel Street in 2010, filled with lanky 50-somethings with thick-framed glasses and cheap beers, nor was it like the English Beat show I saw a few months after that, at which I watched an unknowingly past-their-prime band perform to an audience full of equally unknowing middle-aged women. Although both of those demographics were appropriately represented at Waterbury’s opulent Palace Theater last night, what set this show apart was the diversity of the rest of the crowd; bespectacled hipsters were seated next to mallcore scenesters, and tattooed punk dudes rubbed elbows with Apple-indie teenage girls. Morrissey fanatics, as it turns out, come in all shapes and sizes. With that in mind, it was appropriate that my whole family went to the show — my parents, who saw The Smiths during their 1980s heyday, my sister, who liked 500 Days of Summer a lot, and myself, who inherited my love of Morrissey from my father’s record collection.
This diversity spoke to a trans-generational appeal of Morrissey’s perfectly relatable commiseration anthems. His intensely self-obsessed moroseness has garnered him a healthy share of haters since the 80s, but it’s also the reason that his following has remained so devoted in the 25 years since The Smiths’ bitter end. More than just about any other songwriter, Morrissey’s work is an extension of his persona — a persona that is practically archetypical in the way that it has been imitated in the past two decades.
But this show was more than a celebration of Morrissey’s many achievements as a singer and lyricist. Although it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels, Morrissey brought the fire and energy of a much younger performer to Waterbury last night. Backed by a competent but nondescript band of similar-looking men clad in matching outfits, Morrissey had no trouble of establishing himself as the center of attention. Whether he was dusting off an old Smiths classic like “Shoplifters of the World Unite” or belting out the winsome chorus of his 2009 single “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” Morrissey was as painfully open and sincere as he has ever been. This was not a man living in the shadow his former glory, but rather a glowing star, unendingly convinced of his own brilliance and utterly captivating in his ability to render it on stage. In between songs, however, Morrissey was less transparent: “Every song, written in blood,” he said, teasing the adulating audience after the final notes of “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” had faded away. “Not mine…”
There were, of course, moments in which Morrissey’s age began to show, particularly when he tore off his shirt after covering Frankie Valli’s “To Give (The Reason I Live).” I can only hope that he was going for a humorous reaction, because that is what the audience gave him as he strode off the stage to find another deep v-neck. Nevertheless, as he and his band launched into the jaunty beat of The Smiths’ “A Rush And A Push and The Land Is Ours,” it was once again hard not to be won over by Morrissey’s charm, energy, and especially his voice.
One of the reasons that Morrissey continues to pump out solid solo albums so many years into his career is that his voice has held up remarkably well; there was virtually no noticeable difference in vocal quality between Morrissey’s performance last night and his singing on record, and he actually sounds stronger and more in control than he did on The Smiths’ live LP Rank. The highlight of his vocal performance came towards the end, when he broke into a rendition of “I Know It’s Over” so passionate and evocative that I was brought back to the very first time I heard The Queen Is Dead. I tried not to show it, but I nearly shed a tear in front of my parents.
By the time he and his band closed the show with “Still Ill,” eager fans had jumped out of their seats and were storming the stage to hold him in an embrace. He welcomed it, not only accepting but reveling in his role as indie rock’s greatest commiseration provocateur. Last night, Morrissey demonstrated that he is not only still a terrific showman and performer, but an eternally vital and relevant voice in a musical climate in which gauging those qualities has become increasingly difficult.
Morrissey Setlist - 10/6/12
- 1. “You Have Killed Me”
- 2. “The Youngest Was The Most Loved”
- 3. “You’re The One For Me, Fatty”
- 4. “Shoplifters of the World Unite”
- 5. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
- 6. “Ouija Board, Ouija Board”
- 7. “Maladjusted”
- 8. “Spring-Heeled Jim”
- 9. “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”
- 10. “People Are The Same Everywhere”
- 11. “Fantastic Bird”
- 12. “Meat Is Murder”
- 13. “To Give (The Reason I Live)” (Frankie Valli cover)
- 14. “A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours”
- 15. “Speedway”
- 16. “I Know It’s Over”
- 17. “Let Me Kiss You”
- 18. “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell”
- 19. “I’m OK By Myself”
- 20. “Still Ill” (Encore)
Waxahatchee - American Weekend (2012)
Whenever a beloved band breaks up, embittered fans look to the inevitable post-breakup solo record to fill the void that the band’s absence has created. Often, such solo records pale in comparison to the albums made when the band was together, or seem too inconsequential to amount to more than tossed off experimentation. In rare cases, however, that yearned-for solo record turns out better than anything the band could have made collectively.
When the delightfully nostalgic punk band P.S. Eliot broke up last year, frontwoman Katie Crutchfield quietly began recording solo acoustic work under the pen name Waxahatchee, which refers to a creek in her home state of Alabama that appears in some of her songs. The resulting album, recorded in the dead of winter in Crutchfield’s bedroom and released earlier this year, is among 2012’s most evocative and emotional singer/songwriter debuts. Entitled American Weekend, this album calmly and gracefully eclipses everything that Crutchfield’s old band made during their four year tenure.
American Weekend is the kind of drastically wounded breakup album that could only have been made by a solo artist, and although being alone may not be healthy for Crutchfield herself, it certainly benefits her music. Despite American Weekend’s lo-fi, home-recorded scrim, Crutchfield’s voice resonates boundlessly, cutting through the messy mix like a vein of meltwater through a glacier. Meanwhile, her punchy guitar strums take on a percussive quality that evokes the early chord-pounding of John Darnielle. Although one can draw stylistic parallels between American Weekend and The Mountain Goats’ early tape recordings, Waxahatchee’s lyrical subject matter is notably more personal than Darnielle’s.
“We stick to our slow motion memory,” Crutchfield sings with a sigh on the opening track “Catfish.” On other songs, she’s more blunt — “Take my word for it / I’m not worth it” she admits on “Bathtub.” Throughout most of the record, the lyrics are focused on the past. Crutchfield divulges tales of past romances, failed relationships, summer trips to Waxahatchee Creek, and an allegorical story of a 15 year old bride (“Rose, 1956”) with shocking personal openness, and somehow remains graceful and largely composed throughout the record. Her recounting of this “slow motion memory” is nothing short of heartbreaking, and on the album’s title track, it reaches its most feel-worthy: “You’re a figment,” she sings with a cracked hint of bittersweet nostalgia “I believed it.”
Because of the thoroughly miserable landscape painting of her past that Crutchfield paints for the listener, American Weekend becomes even more bleak when it looks into the present and future. Crutchfield conveys herself like a close friend whom you want to take out one night, but she doesn’t want to go because she knows based on her past experience that she won’t have a good time. On the double-edged aloneness anthem “Grass Stain,” she admits that she doesn’t care about her ex, but slowly finds herself being drawn in again as she contemplates the ways in which she will attempt to make herself feel better. On the catchy highlight “Be Good,” one of the rare songs on the album that features percussion, she imagines a romantic encounter and almost pines for it, before asserting to herself that it’s “probably for the best” that she is alone. In terms of capturing the utter emotional deadness that results after a traumatic breakup, American Weekend handily surpasses even Sharon Van Etten’s excellent and similarly-themed Tramp.
After the previous ten tracks of hushed singing, mournful guitar playing and lyrics that read like pages torn from a tear-stained old diary, the jaunty piano closer “Noccalula” feels out of place, at least musically. And yet, like The Velvet Underground’s 1969 album closer “After Hours,” American Weekend’s closing track reaffirms just how crushing the rest of the album is through simple juxtaposition. On a brighter note, it does offer a faint glimmer of hope for the otherwise morose LP. “I’m going to New York,” she declares, “And I’ll be much better there, or that’s what I’m hoping for.” There is doubt in her voice, but there is hope in those words. Whether we should take her word for it remains to be seen, but the story of Waxahatchee has yet to be completed.
American Weekend is out now on Don Giovanni Records. Watch the arresting black & white video for “Grass Stain” below:
THE ANTLERS live at Center Church. New Haven CT. 9/23/12
As the sun began to set on the New Haven Green yesterday, a legion of pale, shivering couples huddled close to each other outside of Center Church, waiting to get inside. Fall was in the air, and The Antlers were in town to ring in the new season with their emotional brand of atmospheric pop. Although the band’s music has become increasingly dreamy as they have evolved, seeing them at the onset of autumn provided concertgoers with the opportunity to nostalgize the cold months of 2009, when I and so many others clutched our copies of Hospice and sobbed until long after the final acoustic plucks of “Epilogue” had faded into the ether.
But just as the seasons change, so too must bands develop. By the release of last year’s visionary full length Burst Apart, Peter Silberman’s pet project had solidified into a full band, and with this development came a profound stylistic shift. Garish bursts of lo-fi shoegaze gave way to lucid guitar lines, and pining acoustic elegies were replaced by mournful dream pop. The Undersea EP, released earlier this year, marked the completion of this shift; it was utterly (and disappointingly) aqueous in both form and concept.
Even though their earlier work will always be most dear to my heart, it’s clear that the Antlers’ new direction has struck a chord with some younger artists. This was undoubtedly evident during the performance of Port St. Willow, who opened the show around 8 PM to a raptly attentive audience inside the colonial-era church. Much like The Antlers once were, Port St. Willow is officially a solo project; however, frontman Nick Principe is being joined by a keyboard player and drummer on this tour. Together, the power trio created a remarkably expansive sound that reverberated through the walls of the church. They opened their set with a continuous 30-minute suite that channeled the post-rock catharsis of Sigur Ros and the atmospheric qualities of The Antlers’ own records. Principe’s voice in particular — a lofty coo with seemingly limitless upward range — strikingly recalled that of Peter Silberman. The band performed music mostly from their new full length album Holiday, which is available to stream or purchase now from Bandcamp.
Port St. Willow’s meditative, restrained energy provided a perfect introduction to The Antlers’ headlining performance, which began shortly after the openers left the stage. Despite operating with the same four-piece lineup that they had when I saw them play at The Space in June 2011, it was remarkable to me how immediately different the atmosphere of this show felt. Part of that was due to the venue — a beautiful old church built in the 1600s — which added a gorgeous amount of natural reverb to the band’s collective sound. This effect was demonstrated rather by accident during the opening song “Drift Dive,” when the PA cut out towards the end and the band went on playing without vocal amplification or microphones until the song was over. In the final few seconds, Peter Silberman set down his guitar, and with his hands cupped around his mouth like an emphatic preacher, he projected a wordless wail down the old church’s central aisle. It was a surprisingly audible moment that, for a moment, felt nothing short of miraculous.
Once the PA began working again, the band settled into a set that leaned heavily on newer material, from the slow burn of Burst Apart’s “Rolled Together” and “No Widows” to Undersea’s dragging “Endless Ladder,” which built itself up in its Pink Floyd-reminiscent first half only to dissolve into a sonic puddle in the final four minutes. Thankfully, the rest of Undersea (which they played in full) sounded much more convincing at high volume. Although there was something oddly jarring about hearing the moody, sexualized throb that pervades Undersea’s “Crest” and most of Burst Apart in such a sanctified setting, it would be hard to describe the breathtaking climax that the Antlers brought to “Rolled Together” last night as anything but divine.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show for me was the way in which the band amended and changed the older material that they played. A three song suite from Hospice occupied the middle of the set, and although the songs themselves had not changed, the live arrangements were drastically different in some respects from the recorded versions. “Kettering” was slowed down to a sludgy, glacial pace that made it seem frustratingly aimless, as did the final verse of the anthem “Sylvia,” in which Silberman traded the subtlety and nuance of the album version for Burst Apart-reminiscent vocal theatrics. Despite these disappointments, it was a treat to hear the Hospice deep-cut “Shiva,” which was brought to life in a dream-like waltz. The band wrapped their set up shortly afterwards, and returned for a two-song encore set that closed with the Burst Apart closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep,” a fear-of-death anthem that topped my Favorite Songs of 2011 list. With its doo-wop chord progression and gospel-influenced harmonies, it was a fitting closer for a rather heavenly night.
The Antlers Setlist - 9/23/12
- 1. “Drift Dive”
- 2. “Rolled Together”
- 3. “No Widows”
- 4. “Endless Ladder”
- 5. “Kettering”
- 6. “Sylvia”
- 7. “Shiva”
- 8. “Crest”
- 9. “Hounds”
- 10. “Zelda” (Encore)
- 11. “Putting The Dog To Sleep” (Encore)
Spook Houses - TRYING (2012)
Dave Benton in a man of ambition. As a student at SUNY Purchase, he balances his academic work with running an indie label called Double Double Whammy, producing and mixing music, booking shows, and playing in at least two bands: LVL UP, who released the excellent SPACE BROTHERS LP last year, and Spook Houses. With SPACE BROTHERS, Benton helped create a bizarrely infectious pop/rock oddity — 23 minutes of brief, stylistically varied pop. With Spook Houses, Benton seems to have a wider vision. On the appropriately named new LP Trying, he and his band attempt to actualize that ambition. In no uncertain terms, Trying is Spook Houses’ pitch for the next Great American Indie Rock Record.
Did they succeed entirely? Perhaps not, but you have to give them credit for trying. On the surface, at least, all the hallmarks of such a record are present on this album. At 32 minutes, it’s still brief, but it’s significantly longer than anything Benton has been involved with in the immediate past. It’s got the multi-part mini epics (the introductory “Try Pt. 1 / Pt. 2” and the closer “July ‘09”), the acoustic asides (“Old Folks”) and a reckless guitar smash of a lead single called “American” that kicks ass in all the ways a punk song bearing that name should. It’s even got a classic four-chord song (“Bad Sound”), which hammers that tried-and-true progression back into relevance out of sheer distorted rock catharsis. Sonically, Trying worships past Great American Indie Rock artists, incorporating guitar theatrics from Modest Mouse, vocal sensibilities from Built To Spill, and that indomitable New Jersey grit from their fellow Jerseyites Titus Andronicus. “Whoa” choruses are shouted. Horns, harmonica, and heavily layered guitars are incorporated. On ”Search For,” Benton drops lines like “Nothing makes an asshole out of one more than love” with nothing but raw, sincere conviction. For better or worse, this album scans like the latest edition of Anthemic Indie Rock By Numbers.
But you know what? That’s really not such a bad thing. Indie rock at large is in a lyrical lull right now, with bands like DIIV espousing insubstantial and lazy lyrics and shrugging it off as “atmospheric.” Even in Spook Houses’ home state of New Jersey, bands like Real Estate (whom I actually quite like) are hiding genuine lyrics under a veil of reverb. I’ve been craving for someone to shout “this dream’s all I got to keep me going” at me like Benton does on “American” for the better part of a year. 2012 needs a jolt of votive sincerity, and this album offers it up, spade after revivalist spade.
On the worst days, Trying sounds like a rushed attempt by a very young cadre of musicians to purposefully make something beyond their means and years. But when Trying is at its best — when the fall air begins to nip and you’re driving up the Garden State Parkway blasting “Bad Sound” at full volume — it’s hard not to buy into the pitch at least in that moment. There is deeper meaning here, along with individuality and creativity, but it’s hid under an enjoyable sheen of well-performed idol worship.
For instance, although many of the songs on Trying appeal to that same feeling of uneasy nostalgia that Built To Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love so perfectly captured in 1994, Dave Benton doesn’t actually sound much like Doug Marsch. However, like Marsch, he does have a unique voice that listeners will either love or hate — an nasally tenor that frustratingly spends too much time on tracks like “Try Pt. 1” in its lowest possible register. When he’s singing quietly like he does on that song, Benton’s lethargic voice has the ability to suck any trickle of emotion out of everything. When he raises it, though, wrenching himself up amidst crashing cymbals and blaring guitars in the shouted chorus of the album highlight “Witching Hour,” the listener feels compelled to rise up with him.
That particular moment in “Witching Hour” is indicative of a truth that Benton spends some time grappling with in the lyrics of Trying: effort, though innately difficult, begets more effort. Although Benton plainly lays out exactly what he’s trying to do on this album at the beginning of “Try Pt. 1,” Spook Houses seem to be trying in a more general sense throughout the record, as if the effort to live a more productive life and “search for a new kind of light” inspired the whole band to invigorate themselves musically. That vigor comes through on Trying, and even though they never quite find resolution in his efforts, the band’s hard work does pay off. Though flawed, Trying is an impressive and well-realized piece of work. If Spook Houses can sustain their ratio of ambition to effort, their future work could be even stronger.
Edit: I inaccurately credited Dave Benton with singing on “Try Pt. 1/ Pt. 2”. Band member Colin Alexander is responsible for singing on a number of tracks on Trying, in addition to Benton himself.
Serengeti - C. A. R. (2012)
Stream: “Geti Life” (feat. Yoni Wolf)
Serengeti deserves an album like this. It’s been a long time coming, and frankly, I wasn’t sure if he’d get there. Although he has been a prolific and uniquely talented figure in the alternative hip-hop scene for a decade now, he’s never had a great LP, which is frustrating because I would definitely call him a great rapper. Unfortunately, Serengeti (aka David Cohn) has been dogged by poor production choices, misguided collaborations like the bizarre s / s / s supergroup, and general lack of focus for the majority of his career. Despite its lackluster production and proclivity for hooks that didn’t quite fit, last year’s Family & Friends LP showed promise that ‘Geti was on the right track. Now, with the release of his new album C. A. R. (and its recent predecessor, the Kenny Dennis EP), it seems that Serengeti is finally fulfilling his tremendous potential.
So what changed this time around that distinguishes C. A. R. from virtually everything Cohn has released in the past? The most immediate improvement is the production, handled by Anticon labelmates Jel and Odd Nosdam, both of whom have a seemingly preternatural ability to make stellar beats for the kind of artists that Anticon tends to sign. Their production is dense, blocky, and very synthetic — a strong contrast to the live sound of Family & Friends. Sonically, C. A. R. feels almost like hip-hop retrofuturism; Nosdam and Jel throw in plenty of modern production elements, but the album still feels like a boom-bap record at its core.
The production on C. A. R. is so stellar that one could probably listen to and enjoy the album for its beats alone. The opening track “Greyhound” lilts with the spasmodic loop of a broken keyboard before giving way to an infectious synth squelch. “Amnesia” features a chopped up soul sample and broken, tired-sounding beats that help fit the sarcastic joy of its lyrical message. Meanwhile, the humorous and self-deprecating “Geti Life” features a bouncy, spindly beat that recalls the funnier moments of Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP. Production elements like these make C. A. R. a very entertaining and even fun album to listen to on the surface.
There is, of course, more to this LP than the production and instrumentation, although the excellent beats might be able to take credit for why Geti sounds so invigorated here. ”Greyhound” provides a calm and reflective introduction, with Geti sliding in over the beat and dropping lines like “I’ve burned every bridge I’ve ever owned,” as if to distance himself from his past musical efforts. By the time the second track “Talk To Me” rolls around, Geti is fully engaged, namedropping (and purposefully mispronouncing) Bon Iver with a wink and romanticizing a life as a chauffeur and a scuba diver. Traditionally, Geti’s raps have the depressing, retrospective quality of a conversation with an old man at a bar, and although there is enough humor here to balance that, his sad-sack storytelling has never sounded better than it does here.
“Geti Life” balances the two rather deftly, offsetting the shock value of lines like “Let me get drunk as fast as I can / so I can fall asleep and pretend I’m a different man” with humorous references to WHY?’s Yoni Wolf, who pops up to deliver some hilarious banter of his own. Later, on “Cold,” he paints a miserable picture of adulthood punctuated by sarcastic interjections — “Everything is great / stolen license plates / dandruff everywhere / kids got colds / dishes in the sink / place smells like mold.” The the album’s best and most heartbreakingly sad track comes in the middle, in the form of a lengthy, propulsive centerpiece called “Go Dancin’”. At over four minutes, “Go Dancin’” occupies a solid chunk of C. A. R.’s 29 minute runtime, but it justifies its length with one of Serengeti’s most powerful and evocative lyrical statements. Over a slowly building standout beat, Geti raps through a mild distortion filter, describing an idyllic vision for a failing relationship that slowly morphs into a passionate and emotive reality check. Geti has never sounded as emotionally invested in his music than he does on “Go Dancin’”; by the end of the song, he’s practically screaming “We’re not immortal.”
That passion turns out to be short lived, but its brevity only makes “Go Dancin’” stand out more. Quickly, the visceral pain fades away, covered up once more by Geti’s pointed sarcasm, and by the time the chilling closer “Uncle Traum” rolls around, he’s describing his wife being shot and killed without even an ounce of emotion. It’s a powerful contrast, and it speaks to Geti’s versatility that he can pull off both extremes with nearly equal effect.
C. A. R. is a validation for Serengeti, and a very strong highlight in a year that has been great for underground hip-hop. Although his label has admittedly definitely seen better days, C. A. R. is easily the best release to come from the Anticon camp since at least 2008, when WHY? dropped the near-perfect Alopecia. In his cool, collected, and admirably subdued manner, Serengeti has, with this LP, established himself as Anticon’s rising star — and perhaps its saving grace. Beyond that, he’s proved that neither shock tactics nor 2kNext relevance are essential qualities to making great rap. Sometimes a great hip-hop album is just that, and that’s exactly what C. A. R. is.
C. A. R. is available for purchase now from Anticon Records.