Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave is getting old. All of the press surrounding his twenty-first century output wants to make sure you remember this. Especially if you’re talking about Grinderman, a project whose entire aim appears to be re-creating Cave as a sort of Tasmanian Devil of depravity, a maniac raging and sputtering at the twin wells of pathos and weakness inherent to his character. But, as usual, the standard critical discourse on an artist fails to take into account anything that would call the prescribed narrative into question. Grinderman has been much perceived as an unforeseeable, utterly shocking turn for the now fifty-five year old rocker to make. There is certainly some truth to this. 2001’s No More Shall We Part was a turn towards a more baroque, folk-influenced sound, one particularly suited to drawing out the poignancy and tenderness the irascible Cave has always been capable of. This tendency began even earlier, with his record The Boatman’s Call, one of rock’s all time great break-up records, and perhaps Cave’s most human work. Of course this step towards tenderness was also regarded at the time as a sign of aging. In fact, it seems more or less everything Cave has done since the Birthday Party has been tied up, in one way or another, with his maturing process. Obviously we’re all beings in time, but perhaps its the sense of Nick Cave as an almost Biblical personality that we look for signs of him growing as ancient as he has always seemed.
What this narrative fails to take into account is that the Grinderman style depravity has been there since the beginning. Sonically, the group falls far closer to Cave’s old project, the singularly outrageous and debased post-punk of The Birthday Party than The Bad Seeds. Nick Cave has made a career out of putting the basest and most frightening aspects of the human experience under a microscope. His career then, is maybe better understood as a constant push and pull between the sort of dignified tenderness of records like The Boatman’s Call and the raging, unstoppable id of Grinderman, rather than some strange arc that sees him constantly evaluating the process of his own aging. To attempt to understand Cave’s music in that sort of autobiographical sense is in the end an unproductive exercise, because that’s not how he writes. We can take the Grinderman project as a genuine expression of Cave’s mental state, but this gets us nowhere. Rather, the ideal way to understand Nick Cave’s output is as being obsessed with the various sorts of decay inherent to the human condition, and aging is perhaps the greatest and most powerful of these. None of it has really been about Nick Cave feeling his age, but rather using his improved understanding of that aging process to add to his arsenal of weapons with which his characters inevitably find themselves cut down.
So why then, did I take the first half of this review to give an overview of Nick Cave’s career and attempt to refute the standard critical discourse around him? Well, because this time, the ravages of aging do indeed seem to be central, in a way that they never have before. Sure, advanced age was indeed a factor in Grinderman, but there was so much else in it, so much violence and lust, sex and terror, that to reduce it somehow to being simply a document of the aging process sold the album woefully short. Cave’s work, despite often being frighteningly direct in its method of conveyance, revels in complexity. His finest albums have been the ones where his sad humanist and rampaging monster sides are in some degree of balance (see: mid-decade masterpieces Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and Dig Lazarus Dig). However, on his newest work, Push the Sky Away, the man crazy enough to give his vicious libido its own side project, the guy who could spend the nineties dating one of the few music personalities as intimidating and mercurial as him and then, upon the dissolution of their relationship, write a career-defining album out of it, doesn’t really show up. Push the Sky Away is mostly the moody, scene-setting Nick Cave, the Nick Cave that shies away from pyrotechnics and moves instead further into esoterica.
The most genuinely frightening fact about Push the Sky Away is that, for perhaps the first time in his career, Nick Cave is making music that could perhaps best be described as “tasteful.” For any longtime Cave fans, this is about as disturbing an adjective as could possibly be ascribed to the man. Sure, there are plenty of albums that don’t rely on Grinderman’s buzzing onslaught, but even at his most restrained, there’s typically something immensely darker just beneath the surface, an obliteratingly powerful rage or lust or despair. Push the Sky Away seemingly does away with that, Cave’s perspective the most distant it’s been in his entire career. So missing all these quintessentially Cave touches, it must be one of his weaker efforts, right?
Well, no, not really. Considering the incredibly deep catalog the Bad Seeds have, not even considering albums by The Birthday Party, Grinderman, and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack work, I can’t see this rising above the middle of the pack, but that’s right now, and the pleasures of this album have only just begun to reveal themselves. It certainly isn’t the best album with which to introduce someone to The Bad Seeds, but it’s also anything but weak. It’s clearest recent antecedents are songs like Abattoir Blues’ “Cannibal Hymn,” Lyre of Orpheus’ “Spell,” and much of the more downbeat material on Dig, Lazarus, Dig, especially the dreamy post-apocalypse of “Moonland.”
That song is perhaps the key to understanding the material on Push the Sky Away. Where “Moonland” takes place in a surreal postapocalypse, Push feels like an album-length hazy fever-dream on the night before the world ends. Burning trees reaching towards the sky recur lyrically throughout the album, and there’s a pervading sense of encroaching doom. Miley Cyrus is dead in a Toluca Lake hot tub, Nick Cave is walking a fetus on a leash, and the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that things are horribly not right, and our days are numbered. Anything that makes half a gesture towards the surreal ends up labeled “Lynchian,” but the descriptor truly applies to this album, with its numerous damsels in distress, inscrutable but vivid imagery, and a pervading sense of something being off, the way it only can in a dream. The only escape seems to be at the bottom of the ocean, another recurring motif. There’s a humidity to this album, rolling in off an ever present ocean.
Musically, there’s none of the raging that has appeared at least sporadically on much of Cave’s work over the last decade, and the tempo is decidedly relaxed. But the crawl of “We Real Cool,” anchored by a growling bassline, evokes the same nocturnal menace of the famously minimalist poem after which it is named. “Mermaids” uses a similarly dragging tempo to create distance, loss, and in addition to the ever-present oceanic imagery, contains a classic Cave line in “I believe in the rapture/for I’ve seen your face.” Mermaids and a rolling ocean appear more in the quiet, intimate, aptly named “Wide Lovely Eyes” and the lascivious, hazy “Water’s Edge.” It seems Warren Ellis has stepped up to the position of Cave’s right hand man following the departures of original Bad Seeds Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, and his violin is everywhere, hallucinatory and droning on “Water’s Edge” and melodic and ascending in “Jubilee Street.”
“Finishing Jubilee Street,” a meta narrative of the sort Cave has recently favored, is the album’s only real misstep, it’s shambling repetition fairly effective in itself, but after a long series of slow songs, is a little exhausting. However, it’s followed by the astounding “Higgs Boson Blues,” an epic that takes place at the literal crossroads of fading cultural legend (Robert Johnson and the Devil) corrupted pop ephemera (the aforementioned Hannah Montana) and terrifying and incomprehensible science (the song’s narrator is driving to Geneva, the location of CERN). It is in this song that the album’s themes of nightmarish pop culture apocalypse are made most clear, and it’s a Cave song for the ages.
The album closes with the elegiac, gorgeous, incredibly subtle title track, and where some Cave albums leave an impression like a boot to the face, this one is more ephemeral, just like the dreams that populate the record. Will it be remembered as a defining album for Cave? Probably not. And, with all the slow tempos and lyrics full of distance and death, one could certainly take it as confirmation of all that “getting old” talk. But there’s a better truth out there, and that’s that Push the Sky Away is simply further proof that Nick Cave is endlessly inventive at exploring the myriad manners in which all things decay.
Review by Ben Klibaner.
Jamie Lidell – Jamie Lidell
What exactly is Jamie Lidell’s place in music today? Back in 2005, around the release of his breakthrough LP, Multiply, he seemed like a world-beating maverick, an irreplaceable artist with the highly unique aim of integrating avant-garde electronic music, exemplified by the artists’ on Lidell’s venerable, groundbreaking label, Warp, with half a century’s worth of soul and R&B. When he released Jim, in 2008, he asserted his real-world chops with a decidedly more retro sound, one that more subtly inserted the discordant synths and impossible-to-replicate-without-a-drum-machine beats of the Warp IDM he traffics in. So has Lidell found a way to create a more complete sound? A sound that will propel him past the level of “that Warp guy who does soul?” Is there anything in particular to make him continue to stand out as a real innovator in today’s musical landscape? Well, in a nutshell, sort of, probably not, and not really.
That’s not to say, however, that his recently released self-titled LP is truly lacking, but more that the uniqueness it once might have carried has been minimized by today’s popular music landscape. The years since Lidell’s last release (2010’s Compass) have seen R&B become arguably the dominant paradigm in pop music, from the BillBoard charts all the way to the avant-garde fringes. This has caused a tremendous degree of artistic cross-pollination, with oddballs like How to Dress Well filling his albums with choruses lifted from such relatively obscure subgenres as New Jack Swing and Top 40 giants like Usher taking cues from James Blake. James Blake himself is as perfect an example of this new tendency as there is, a pale Londoner doing work that draws immensely from the classic R&B and soul wells, but just as much from cutting edge bass music to create an entirely cohesive, defined sound, a near-flawlessly executed aesthetic.
Jamie Lidell doesn’t seem to value that sort of focus as much in his music. He’s always been something of a musical gadfly, jumping from sound to sound, style to style without creating an aesthetic that means a whole lot. Sure, the line on him is that he fuses IDM and R&B, but much of the time, that involves repurposing numerous styles and sounds and dropping electronics in. This can make for music that gives you one hell of a dopamine rush, but it never feels quite like something Lidell completely owns. Where an artist like James Blake (and I use him as an example simply because he’s the first to come to mind, numerous others would fit just as well. These could include, but are in no way limited to: The Weeknd, How to Dress Well, Autre Ne Veut, Miguel, Frank Ocean, Purity Ring, Rustie, etc.) can take sounds built on radio-pop and, with their own expertise and personality, create a sound that’s part of that R&B lineage, but also unmistakably new and progressive. Lidell, while a strong technician and an equally strong personality, makes music that rarely rises far above the level of pastiche.
So that answers the second two questions I posed, but what about the first one? And, for that matter, what of the most important question of whether or not the thing’s actually any good, regardless of such overly critical concerns? Well, there is undoubtedly a high degree of cohesiveness to this record, more than any of Lidell’s records other than Jim. It’s rather remarkable how much you can tell about Lidell’s albums thus far by their titles. Multiply and Compass are far-ranging, eclectic collections that bounce from genre to genre, sound to sound at will. Jim and Jamie Lidell, however, are closer to being one-sound albums. Where Jim strove for the classic, buttoned down sort of soul-pop sound of the sixties and seventies, Jamie Lidell is firmly rooted in the neon spandex eighties.
The album is made up of eleven cuts of prime Reagan-era roller-rink Funk with a capital F, and lest these last few paragraphs have led you to assume that Jamie Lidell’s man-without-a-country status has somehow hampered his ability to get down on it, please allow me to reassure you that even if this guy might not be the most innovative man in the world, might not be the guy who’s going to take IDM or R&B to their next evolutionary step, he’s got a serious talent for steamroller funk songs. “What A Shame,” the record’s first single, is also probably its most effective and effectively integrated track. It’s got a slithery funk backbone with strobing synth hits that verge on dubstep, the original, somewhat more minimalist (read: has some purpose beyond the beat-drop) English variant of which has had an absolutely profound effect on all of modern R&B. “Big Love” has a massive chorus as archetypical and elemental as its title, the sort of chorus that grabs you by the throat (or perhaps some more sensitive body part) and forces you to ride out the adrenaline rush. In keeping with his IDM leanings, there’s a brittleness to some of Lidell’s electronic affectations, maintaining an edge, a menace, a nasty little swagger on songs that might otherwise feel bloated with excess.
In addition to this however, there are defiantly retro touches like the synth burps that power “You Naked,” a touch that cannot help but leave you wanting for the vocoder that would normally accompany such sounds on a Roger Troutman song. “So Cold” is a space-y respite from the aggressively dance-y tempos of the rest of the record, and in melody and composition is so reminiscent of the work of Andre 3000 that only the addition of Lidell’s comparatively unimpressive voice keeps it from being a Love Below outtake. Lidell’s voice, on this song and on a number of others, serves as the album’s biggest identifiable weakness. He’s not a bad singer, not exactly, but he’s also certainly not much better than “workmanlike” and it seems he’s aware of this as well, stacking overdubs and vocal effects until his relatively flat voice is almost unintelligible. It’s not until the last song, “In Your Mind,” that we hear anything that could maybe be put down as Lidell’s signature sound, a sound that works on a level beyond entertaining pastiche. At once cacophonous and highly melodic, funky and brittle, and working perfectly in favor of Lidell’s own voice (both literally and figuratively) “In Your Mind” works on nearly every level, and if Lidell could effectively continue on with this aesthetic, he may once again fit more easily into a role in pop’s modern era.
Review by Ben Klibaner.
Pissed Jeans – Honeys
Listening to Pissed Jeans newest release, Honeys, I am taken to a place where tight jean, tight shirt, tattooed ire-clad boys and girls are sweaty as all hell, moshing in their tiny garages or basements, just completely solemn, wild and sold on the noise. Chock full of all the screaming rage that the eighties punk movement had to offer with a twenty-first century polish, Matt Korvette continues to belt his angry little heart out. As a rule, bands typically grow as they age and when they do, they sometimes struggle to keep the freshness, the fresh wrath that got the kids so damn excited in the first place. Pissed Jeans holds onto the fuel and adds a spark of aging sentiment this go round.
Honeys keeps with the enduring fury-filled notes, but lightens the lyrics with raw honest emotion, Korvette expressing his tears in lyrics and inviting us to see a more slushy side to hardcore. He lets us know he “cries red, angry tears that no one sees.” In “Loubz,” he addresses his depression and in “Bathroom Laughter” and “Romanticize Me,” we feel a relationship building with an unknown subject. To reflect the more somber mood of its vocalist, the album is a little slower in beat as well. By slow, I mean like a starving Sasquatch cooing to his lover; it’s still pretty rough, just a tad more sensual, holding the notes longer when necessary. It’s an apathetic scene that is highly reminiscent of the nineties kids shaking their heads like wet mutts. They are still completely consumed with rage only it’s now suppressed deeper in their pits. Violent guitar riffs and intense drum sets balance Korvette’s mundane complaints and semi-romantic prose to cloak any real emotion or minor irritation he is feeling.
The older albums, Hope for Men and King of Jeans, embodied more sped up and spewed out anger with horrific guttural yells and while “Bathroom Laughter” sticks to the loud, fast paced jump all over the sticky soda floor, the bulk of the songs are in slower motion. It is still nothing like the terrifyingly rough “People Person” or “Dominate Yourself” from their earlier albums. Even the guitar riffs loiter in space for a second while the drums haunt us with a rhythmic tribal chant. “Cathouse” reflects a slowing down but with short punchy lyrics, a story described in incomplete sentences: loose fur-cat house/can’t take it-internal systems. Korvette tries his hand at aggressive beat poetry in several of the songs, using the technique in “Vain in Costume” and “You’re Different (in person)” as well. “Loubs” is my absolute favorite; it is the calmest on the album and reminds me of my father’s rock and roll. It sounds like a combination of Danzig’s “Mother” and “Illegal Tender” by Louis XIV, which I’m not sure was intentional by any means but it absolutely works. Returning again to their spooky roots in “Cafeteria Food,” the group again channels the great basso Danzig who seems to be a major influence in a lot of the songs on this album. To rewind a little, Pissed Jeans took a few notes from an earlier, and particularly haunting ditty, “Spent,” from Kings of Men. The group uses the slow and long intensity of Korvette’s cries, deliberate and very heavy guitar chords and a steady drum beat to take their time creeping into your brain. Much like the majority of songs from Hope for Men or Shallow, Korvette continues to throw out guttural yells to match the vehement instrumentals. However in Honeys, they took the good from all albums; the lingering rage and the long, eerie coos and melted them into a gooey, spiky and catchy combination.
Honeys is a slightly more effeminate version of all their other albums, written for the honeys of hardcore. Foregoing songs like “Afraid of My Cum,” the group melts…but only a little. The sentiment is subtle, and don’t be mistaken, the clangorous instrumentals and macho bleating are still very much center stage. Honeys is hardcore’s teeny weeny soft spot allowing Korvette to focus on the annoyances of growing up without forsaking his rocker roots. Their songs occasionally hit me the way Dramarama’s “Anything Anything” hit me when I use to secretly smoke cigarettes before Young Life wrapped uncomfortably in my leather jacket outside of school crying over some untouchable boy I had just met; rebellious, but not really. Of course, Pissed Jeans spits in my face more directly and with much more quiet fervor than Dramarama ever could. Honeys is a tad more wistful, a tad more grown up in its complaints, and only as sad and pensive as screaming hardcore can sound. Although “Cafeteria Food” and “Health Plan” return to punk’s gritty fuck-the-man roots banishing any mental health fix or aristocracy, the rest of their songs, specifically “Teenage Adult,” seem to celebrate the growth they have achieved in their movement. A softening occurs around the group’s edges. They very much maintain their grit and gravel sound but it’s topped with a shimmer of hopefulness and age that was lacking before. The screams are still echoing, the guitar is still shredding, and the drums are still pounding but there is now a different longing being realized. It’s hostile in its presentation but it’s got a creamy center.
And you know punk: it’s just never loud enough.
Review by Sarah Gawricki.
Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
Good albums can be likened to infinite spectacles we have grown familiar with inside the human experience. They are vehicles, yes, they take us somewhere new and unexplored: some are trains, from point A to point B the scenery is displayed in a panorama while the soft hum of the wheels rapidly careening along the tracks lulls you into a peaceful trance; some are airplanes, unpredictable, the pilot’s voice invading the stuffy cabin telling you in that muffled tone you may hit turbulence, in a moment you feel serene but in the next perhaps you’ll be nauseous from the motion; yet some are your high school friend’s old shitty Volvo, with your feet on the dashboard and the blinding sunlight filtering in through the spotty windshield from coast to coast, morning to night, you are hurtling toward the horizon in a daze where the interior and exterior marvels of being alive blend into an indeterminable spectrum of colors and lights and sounds. In all cases, the journey we embark on when deciding to listen to an album is undeniably more significant than the destination.
It is also true that the deepest value of what music can be exists in a specified fusion of time and place. While certain songs are meant to be blasted into a throng of sloshed teenagers during raucous Friday night house parties, others are destined to be contained in a pair of headphones for an audience of one. There are worlds of music meant for sunny afternoons, and there are planes of sounds fated for bleak rainy mornings. It seems as if the latter of these sentiments is a less sought out corner of music in a broad sense of today’s scene, although the inherent worth of compositions that rouse introspect is one cemented in our understanding of the importance of personal bonds to music. The social aspect of music culture (songs that are intended to unite people rather than detach them) is the side that appears to be prevailing. However, this does not mean that albums catered to inner exploration are not being made. Grouper’s The Man Who Died in His Boat is a glowing reminder of why it is necessary to experience the profound austerity of the haunting hours, where light is replaced by black and you can feel the absence of other souls stirring; it is a collection of the darkest feelings balanced by the purest beauty and how this arrangement is really what it is to be human.
Liz Harris released the first album (Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill) under the Grouper moniker in 2008. Whereas Dragging a Dead Deer was more straightforward in terms of sound (focusing on the simple structure of folk-esque acoustic guitar and vocals), the essence of Grouper has transfigured into the marriage of ambient static as a backdrop with Harris’ minimalist guitar chords and distressed vocals hovering above like a withered, tattered ghost too tired to disturb the mortals walking below. Every track resonates with a pervasive hiss, as if Harris recorded these shadowy ballads on a dusty and forgotten 8-track she found in the attic, a relic of a time simpler, sadder. The Man Who Died in His Boat is not about love. It is also not about hate, or disdain. It is not about white or black, but rather the deepest chasms of grey found in between.
While each song is inextricably threaded to one another, the cloudy drone of the instrumental tracks (most notably “Vanishing Point” and “STS”) effectively separate Harris’ forlorn vocals and lengthen the circumference of the record as a whole. However, the strongest distinction on the album is the contrast between Harris’ breathy, completely indecipherable falsetto timbre and more conspicuous choruses, the former comprised of cuts “Cloud in Places,” “Cover the Long Way,” and the title track stand as the strongest and most symbolic of what Grouper represents at its core. Even though most of the lyrics are lost in Harris’ trademark sonic fog–which leaves the meaning of each song up to the listener rather than forthright being about a definite theme–the rare occasions where Harris’ poetry can be heard are striking, understated, and effective. On the ninth track, “Towers,” the repetition of the phrase, “Let it rise” is delivered in a manner more figurative to being let down. It is this exact quality that makes The Man Who Died in His Boat a heartbreaking and brilliant album: the idea that there is hope, but it is buried in the most cavernous doldrums of your heart and you must be willing to wade through mucky chambers to find rest.
The Man Who Died in His Boat is not a train or a plane or a car (or even a ship); it manifests itself inside you, making your legs the only vessel. If it were a soundtrack, it would play as you walked through a ghost town while snow fell gently above and around you. Through the feeling of inexplicable dread and loss crushing the gutted shells of buildings around you, you have been here before, it is the physical embodiment of everything you once loved and understood from a time washed away by grainy sorrow and fear. It is the alarming occurrence when you feel hollow, yet your heartbeats are rapid and sharp. It is a subtle cue that beauty and pain are often the same thing.
Although this record will most likely not be remembered as an important or relevant fragment in the zeitgeist of the 21st century, it is a culmination of feelings and ideas that are timeless. The last song on The Man Who Died in His Boat is called “Living Room.” At under two and a half minutes, it is the second shortest song on the album (behind abstract, muddled opener “6”). It is composed of a single stanza of poetry, and is one of the affecting closing tracks to an album I’ve come across in a long time. An unadorned, fuzzily fingerpicked guitar pattern accompanies Harris as she gravely croons, “I’m looking for the place where the spirit meets the skin, can’t figure out why the places feel so hard to be in.” Living is simply a giant puzzle, and all the pieces are impossibly scattered around; naturally, the only constant we experience is uncertainty. As the last notes fade into silence, into oblivion, she murmurs, “It’s getting harder and harder to fake, acting like everything’s in its place.” And then we are left alone, staring at the ceiling. Reminded for a final time that we came into consciousness and will leave it the same way: not with a flash, but with a flicker.
Review by Sigmund Steiger.
Iceage – You’re Nothing
Around every February, the largest summer festivals in the world begin to announce line-ups of everyone’s favorite musical acts. But a strange trend has happened in 2013 for festivals from Coachella to Bonnaroo: reunions. The major headliners are a rehashing of bands that peaked way before Y2K. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love old music. Records from The Stone Roses, Blur, as well as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds/Grinderman are crowning jewels in my record collection, but in all honesty they hold more sentimental value than newer records I can really sink my teeth into. With these reunions playing the cherry on top of the delicious musical sundae extravaganzas that are summer music festivals, we must ask the question: are these reunions what the music world needs to flourish and stay strong? Bands like Iceage would disagree.
Iceage is a Danish quartet that embodies everything youthful and angsty that true punk music should possess. Iceage brings together driving punk rock, depressed post-punk, and frantic hardcore in a collection of songs that could easily fall apart in a fit of anxiety. You’re Nothing is Iceage’s sophomore effort on Matador Records, which follows their debut record New Brigade. Upon the release of their first LP, the group received critical praise from Spin Magazine, Metacritic, and Pitchfork (not to mention nabbing the number 34 spot on their 50 best albums of 2011). What these critics saw was a group of four young musicians who were fed-up with the apathetic state of modern music. The opening track of You’re Nothing, Ecstasy,” starts with guitar feedback much like the strike of a match before arson. The guitars are picked wildly as the drums drive the song in a cacophony of cymbals and snares. The centerpiece of each song lies in the vocal chords of the lead singer. One might compare his delivery to the likes of a fidgety Ian Curtis or a pissed-off Robert Smith, but the singer brings his own brand of Danish cynicism and fury that is his own creation. The vocals are delivered sloppily through a mouth full of marbles and a belly full of whiskey, but when you are least expected it, can turn one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and be sharp, angry, and short-fused. At any point in this collection of twelve short tracks, the listener is expecting to see the band collapse mid-song, setting their guitars on fire as the singer howls while convulsing on the stage. From the opening track the listener can already tell that the group are full of angst and, ultimately, youthful.
Oh, and did we mention that they are all 18 and 19 years old?
This group of youngsters wrote, produced, and recorded twelve stellar tracks that will make many older punk musicians envious upon first listen. While many thirty to forty-year-olds try to recreate the punk sound and atmosphere of their youth, this group of teenagers have done enough research and spent enough time and effort to make You’re Nothing not only ground-breaking in its musical ideas, but also stay true to punk-rc roots. By the time you reach the track “Morals,” you start to notice the groups’ more melodic side and subtle harmony. The army-march drums accompanied by piano sound wonderfully powerful and ominous. As pointed out by Pitchfork, Iceage dove deep into musical history and paid homage to the 1960 Italian pop track “L’Ultimate Occasione” by Mina. The track hits hard emotionally and adds a new dimension to the album of a whole, and you begin to notice more subtle dark harmonious complexity within the musical chaos that the album possesses throughout.
Modern music needs more artists like Iceage. They bring enough to the table on their new LP that it might blow some of their older contemporaries right out of the water. This group brings a strong argument that challenges the trend of reunion-filled, revivalist, rehashing of older music that has dominated the music world in these past years. These young punks prove that music in 2013 is not saturated, shallow, and emotionless. You’re Nothing by Iceage is a challenging record filled with fire, emotion, youth, and creativity well beyond the band’s years.
Review by James Calvet.
Foals – Holy Fire
Hailing from Oxford, England, indie rock group Foals has just released their third album, Holy Fire, on Transgressive Records. Though a primarily guitar-based sound, Holy Fire takes advantage of sonic variety, both within different sections of the same song as well as across the album as a whole. Frequently implementing rhythmically-driven leads over distorted riffs, plucked highs, and reverb-soaked vocals, Holy Fire oozes melancholy rock and dreaminess in perfect unity.
Founder, guitarist, and lead vocalist Yannis Philippakis exudes a strong presence throughout, from the heavily layered vocals on “Everytime” to the bare-bones but still full-bodied sound of “Late Night,” resonant of the likes of Matt Berninger (The National), and Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio). Despondent yet punk, Philippakis touches on themes of human weakness: “I’m a bad habit, hope that I change” (“Bad Habit”) and strength: “We don’t need the city / the creed or the culture now” (“My Number”). Contrasting vocal allegories continue: “I hoped that you were somebody / someone I could count / to pull me to my feet again, (“Last Night”) and “I know it’ll be okay / come this way,” (“Everytime”). While upon a first listen, such themes appear to be in contradiction, with further consideration it seems that Holy Fire’s anthem can be summarized: we’re human, we make mistakes–and that’s okay.
Drummer Jack Bevan takes a firm stance on tracks like “Inhaler” and “My Number,” laying down locked-in one-two beats that drive the sound and keep a steady, traditional rock groove. Elsewhere, such as with “Stepson,” Bevan exhibits a more experimental sound, the likes of the percussion on Thom Yorke’s Eraser, which provides an enjoyable juxtaposition to that rock sound as well as a pleasant backtrack to Philippakis’ vocal blues. Furthermore, the snare-heavy drive of “Providence” morphs gracefully into a well executed 7/4 groove–relief from the monotonous 4/4 that perpetually grips the reins of modern popular music. From the heavily syncopated distortion guitar rifts that structure “My Number”s upbeat punk to the soft and smooth sentiments of “Late Night”, Foals demonstrates their capacity to create a viable and evolving indie rock record.
Review by David Riott.
Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
As I walked around campus today, headphones stuffed underneath my hat, I listened to Frightened Rabbit’s newest musical contribution. It didn’t take long for the album to prove itself worthy of the title Pedestrian Verse. The upbeat, driving sound the band has produced motivated me to keep moving through the cold air and first flakes of snow. Since The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit’s 2010 release, they’ve demonstrated a knack for keeping us warm in cold weather. The band’s full sound, primarily propelled by lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Scott Hutchinson, is rich with energetic rhythms and a sort of comforting familiarity, not so different from drinks by the fire on a cold day.
While still similar to The Winter of Mixed Drinks and Frightened Rabbit’s earlier music, Pedestrian Verse establishes the evolution of the band to a new level. The tracks seem more refined and resonant, but still maintain a sense of familiarity. In most ways, this album particularly contradicts the band’s name, for their music certainly does not sound “frightened” at all. For me, the new album represents their boldest, most developed sound yet. Piano opens the album in “Acts of Man” with confident and cheering chords that progress into the lyrics, guitar and percussion accompaniment. Highlights of the album include “The Woodpile,” also released as a single, “Housing,” recorded twice in electric and acoustic versions, and “December Traditions,” which follows the band’s bent towards winter themes. Each shows Frightened Rabbit’s experimentation and growth as well as the familiarity and comfort in their sound.
At times, however, I find Frightened Rabbit’s sound a bit too familiar. As I listened, I realized I spent more time trying to figure out what artist I was reminded of rather than actually hearing the music for what it was.While I enjoyed Pedestrian Verse, I deducted that snippets from it reminded me somewhat of Mumford and Songs, or Of Monsters and Men. Of course, it’s not necessarily bad for Frightened Rabbit to be reminiscent of these bands, but perhaps the reason I find their music so familiar is that it reminds me of music I’ve already heard. Despite this, on the whole, the album was impressive, leaving a sense of satisfaction similar to that of coming inside to warm up from the snow.
Review by Kate Gregory.
CUI: My Bloody Valentine – m b v
Originally posted at the CU Independent. | 2013 is a confusing time to be alive. The future snuck up on us before anyone had time to seriously appreciate how effortless it made our lives, and the only things left to be upset at in the world immediately surrounding us are meaningless. As far as 20-year-olds go, I have a million things to be thankful for, and yet the things that upset me bring out a genuine anger in me. When reviews I’ve written get printed without album art, I don’t just get slightly miffed — I get pissed off. It actually seems like there’s so few legitimate things to be upset about as a 21st-century American that what bothers me most is how deeply affected I am by minute offenses.
Kevin Shields also seems like an angry guy. I don’t think it would be possible to create sounds as towering and destructive as the folks in My Bloody Valentine do without having some sort of deeply aggressive edge. And yet none of the connotations I associate with My Bloody Valentine are angry. Though they’ve certainly earned their volume badges, even the most blistering Valentines songs up until this point have betrayed a clearly sensitive soul lying underneath.
So how does one even begin to approach the 22-years-in-the-making follow up to “Loveless?” “mbv” is an album that deals entirely in extremes, and standing high above all the emotional poles mapped out on the record is Shield’s seething rage at the universe. Of course, there are distinct moments of inspiration and bedroom melancholia explored as well, but there’s an arc to “mbv” that’s perplexing on first listen and on revisits is almost alarmingly grandiose.
The first movement on “mbv” deals mostly with revisiting the My Bloody Valentine we’ve grown to cherish, and surrounding our ears with that sweet bleeding tone Shields has spent his entire life sculpting. “She Found Now” plays like the thumping heart at the center of the “Loveless” track “Sometimes,” all feeling with minimal form. The depth between guitar lines and vocal harmonies is truly the kind of production that justifies the cliché of the Valentines being a headphones band; you can’t just put music like this on in the background.
“Only Tomorrow” kicks down the door like some lost Dinosaur Jr. track back from the dead, but as the anthem grows crunchier with each repetition of its groove, the realization sets in that Kevin Shields really is a one-of-a-kind guitarist. The aesthetic established on “Loveless” has been repeated so many times that even muttering the phrase ‘shoegaze’ evokes more images of teenagers tinkering with guitar effects on Garage Band than those of sentimentally charged punk rockers. But “mbv” crackles and sears in all its analog glory, with Shields’ soaring guitar lines feeling ancient and familiar, yet surprisingly up to date. His smoky songwriting style hasn’t suffered either, as showcased most excellently on early highlight “Who Sees You.” The progression ventures through territories both victorious and mysterious, carried along on those unfuckwithable jet-engine guitars before the unbearably moving guitar solo at the end make the band’s two-decade absence instantly feel like an acceptable price to pay.
As the opening act comes to a jolting halt, “Is This and Yes” welcomes the stranger tone to come for the remainder of the record. Fluctuating between different modes of ambiance, rock and dance music, the middle section of “mbv” is perhaps the most seeped in the album art of any section of the album and also unfortunately the weakest stretch. Musically, “mbv” is largely concerned with repetition and the slight changes in texture that come with each cycling phrase, but compared to the constant one-upmanship of the beginning and ending sections of the album, the middle seems to ride certain ideas just a little past their prime. Still, 14 minutes essentially spent in the Star Haven level of Paper Mario isn’t a bad deal by any means; it’s just not as awe-inspiring as the best moments on this record.
What follows this pleasant interlude, however, is what truly sets apart “mbv” from every other My Bloody Valentine record. The sinister “In Another Way” leaps between fits of violent pursuit that recall the more industrial side of the ’90s and a fractured guitar lick that would make Joey Santiago smile. The final one-two punch of “Nothing Is” and “Wonder 2” build to an impossibly cathartic and terrifying finish, and the line between how much of this album was recorded as is and how much was spliced together in the studio becomes a complete enigma.
It’s this final image that’s left me completely floored by the completely satisfying return of My Bloody Valentine. Thinking about Kevin Shields alone in his studio, slaving night upon night over a record that he surely knew could never meet the expectations built over the course of 22 years, deciding that the only way he could end his album would be with a holocaust of shrieking waves seems like the only way one could really retaliate against such overbearing pressure.
Make no mistake; “mbv” is the most perfect follow-up anyone could’ve asked for from the sacred beast we call My Bloody Valentine. These songs ache with the same melting dolefulness that formed “Isn’t Anything” and “Loveless,” but constantly surprise with ideas and directions no one could have predicted from an artist who’s been as silent as Shields has. It’s a record that requires time but provides visceral rewards and above all speaks to a force that resides within all of us that Shields has finally put into sonic terms. It’s only human nature to feel anger at the world for disappointing you, but it’s only My Bloody Valentine that can turn that anger into pure euphoria.
Review by Sam Goldner.
Crystal Castles - III
I still remember my very first experience with Alice Glass’s legendary melodramatic bellowing and the chip-tune infused electronic sound that immediately drew me out of the backseat of my girlfriend’s car to the energetically palliative stage of Crystal Castles. The song was “Love and Caring” from their self-titled album. As I listened to the ping pong oscillating drops and Glass’ raspy raucous words, I was transported into the episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?: Tale of the Pinball Wizard. You know the one where the kid gets trapped in the pinball game and has to play his way out to rescue the girl of his dreams. The entire album felt like I was swaying in the middle of some imaginary arcade. Crystal Castles was hypnotic and grand and novel. Their second album, II, highlighted even more of Glass’ angelic voice often cut with a robotic male presence and strayed further from the verbal eruptions so present in their debut (with the exception of “Fainting Spells”). Kath paired the lullaby lyricist with a fairy tale magic-carpet ride background to guide us on what seemed like our own personal quest. Most of us were excited to find something that spoke for our eternal ennui and isolation; a place we could drum our console blistered fingers to or float on with quiet violent sighs.
Disenchanting was most of III, the pair’s latest album, which wanted so badly to be a more kinetic version of IIbut missed the mark. Alice returned to her soft, childlike vocals which stunned and melted me into a puddle of pining girl in “Tell Me What to Swallow” off the self-titled but now left me bored and patiently waiting for more. Yes, Alice still hollers her heart out in some songs like “Plague” and “Wrath of God” but in most of them she seems tired. Maybe her locomotive stage presence has finally gotten the best of her. A good example is “Kerosene”; pretty lax with its only saving grace being the sudden rush of tempo and odd Daffy Duck vocals spit intermittently throughout the track. It lacks courage and sounds like typical sway-hop. Alice’s ability to channel a ghost-like quality in her vocals really presents itself in “Pale Flesh,” which would be my favorite ballad if not for the high pitch peculiar fingernails-scrape-the-board break that sounds like an instrument of serial horror. The lapse in the screech does provide a great glimpse into her beautiful ability to conjure us closer with anticipation and continue to echo in our brains. “Sad Eyes,” their surprising single, sounds a lot like an updated version of Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life” but of course, much more devastating. Her voice floats in and out like a specter bouncing off the walls across the room. It’s great they can take such manufactured music and churn out a more heartrending number but this album concludes, for me at least, that Castles yearns to be pop without being pop. They want to be dance without being dance. Unfortunately, sometimes, you’re just moody dance music and nothing more.
There’s plenty I do like from III. “Wrath of God” returns to more of Glass’ infant roots offering high energy vocals with a melodic beat that gets your heart pounding to an amphetamine degree and then sedates you with its mesmerizing thump. It’s a story in itself: intro, climax and resolution that ensnare the eardrums. This is my absolute favorite spooky muse of the album. “Affection” also beguiles me bit by bit although I am thrown off by the chosen beat which has the uncanny stop and start rhythm of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” (seriously, go listen to it) with a throwback to the beginning of “Baptism” from II. Oh, but finally “Insulin” and “Violent Youth” inject me with the old school Alice Glass that my jumping up and down, angry bang-bobbing self craves. Even her lyrics in “Insulin” reflect her elegant despair: “perfume in my blood/nails grow through the glove/bruise my embryo.” “Violent Youth” invites some unknown small girl to “show up in your lace” as Glass has seemed to have done in this album. The former highlights the rage Glass can’t seem to contain in her pretty, tomboy self for too long and the latter allowing her to express her effeminate side. My only complaint: not long enough! The last track, “Child I Will Hurt You” parallels the tenderness of the duo in “Tell Me What to Swallow” and, in my eyes, is sort of the last punch by Glass. It’s as if she is saying, ”Listen, I’m older, wiser, and less hostile, and audience I will crush you with a coo.” Hits my heart a bit, and still, I want a little more kick in the vocals, a little more bass to go along with the rock-a-bye listener feel. Again, I think there’s a sharpness and smartness to the lyrics that is over our head, although, I could be reading too much into it. When she purrs, “taught them with solace/they know a soft caress/to lower your defense” I feel as if she is talking about herself and how she has grown as a performer. Maybe her earlier years were just explosive temper tantrums recorded for eternity and this is her unstiffening and expanding of her temperamental wings.
III plays like a horror movie starring some eerie nine-yea- old girl where you’re just itching to get to the climax. Glass plays a haunting heroine throughout and while I miss the rambunctious hissy fits so indicative of her debut, she does a nice job roping me in with her anesthetized essence. And I do get the howling, rage-filled Glass I fell in love with a little bit, like in “Insulin.” “Plague,” “Affection,” and “Mercenary” (which sounds a bit like Timbaland and Bassnectar) sound recycled from each other. This comes across as lazy and not stylistic. However, thematic instrumentals are true to the duo’s form. One of the reasons I like their first two albums so much is because both played like a tripped out video game, every track just being a level to get to until I faced my devious nemesis at the very end of the journey. Oddly, III is more club-bumper than I am used to as well and this really shines in “Telepath.” The tracks offer a good kick your feet or take off running in the sewers vibe to it, but there are no vocals and all that’s left is barroom background noise. I wouldn’t even recognize this was Crystal Castles had I not been told. Without Glass’ whispers, they lack identity.
Yet, Glass’ feminine vocal qualities do shine through, and my same criticism about the occasional clichéd pulse, allows her talent to actually soar leaving us longing for her personal triumph. II was a more palatable album which combined the juvenile anger of Glass, the pliability of Glass, and Kath’s superior pace and production. III is the pair still finding their chilling groove. Castles’ “Violent Youth” states, I will always let you down, and Glass may be playing with us more than we think. The lyrics are often muffled and we miss these hints of sarcasm and self-deprecation that charm us all the more. Is she really asking us to forgive her for being human? And as she says in “Child I will hurt you, hide all that you could/done for the greater good/later it’s understood.”
We’ll keep listening and trying to understand you, Glass.
Review by Sarah Gawricki.
Yo La Tengo – Fade
Never judge a book by its cover, or, in other words, never judge an album by its cover. But in the case of Yo La Tengo’s 2013 effort Fade on Matador Records, the glossy and serene album cover is a perfect match for this collection of peaceful and meditative indie rock anthems. Yo La Tengo is a New Jersey indie-pop trio fronted by husband and wife Ira Kaplan (guitar/vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums/percussion) that made a large impression on the underground music world with their seminal 1997 release I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Much like every Yo La Tengo release, the trio tip-toes from genre to genre every song. Most bands would shy away from this idea and try and find a cohesive sound, but Yo La Tengo has such a potent personality and style that each song sounds familiar but not like a novelty. The band jumps from folk (“I’ll be Around”), fuzzy shoe-gaze rock (“Is That Enough”) and even drone and noise pop (“Before We Run”). Ira Kaplan also keeps the songs interesting with the experimentation of guitar effects, one of which sounds a lot like a didgeridoo in the song “Stupid Things”. “Ohm” opens up the album with a strong beat and a jangly guitar riff that sounds much like a sunny afternoon in the park. The lyrics are understated but well crafted to where the mantra-type phrases are repetitious but not annoying. The style is very serene and beautiful to where “Ohm” could be used for some indie-rock meditation. Where Yo La Tengo thrives is in their ability to make beautiful, simple, and endearing songs. “I’ll Be Around” is a fingerpicked acoustic folk track with circular vocal melodies and bass rhythm that intertwine with one another. The vocal harmonies and swirling ambience in the backgrounds makes this track the emotional core of Fade. Even though this album may be living in the shadow of the group’s more celebrated releases, each track is beautiful, calm and interesting with each listen. Yo La Tengo makes simple and charming music but provides enough quirky-ness and personality to make this album memorable. If you are looking for a perfect pairing with a quiet Sunday morning and a warm cup of tea look no further than Yo La Tengo’s Fade.
Review by James Calvet.