Album Review – The Abigails: Tundra

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When someone tells me that they like all kinds of music “except country,” or that country is for uneducated people who know nothing about music, or that “old country is good, new country is just stupid,” I show them The Abigails. More than mere revivalists, Warren Thomas & Co. manage to make outlaw country – the kind of music made by ex-cons on an acoustic guitar about heartbreak and existential exhaustion – seem fresh and relevant to even the most urbanized of youth. Their first album, Songs Of Love And Despair, was a gritty, pained, and grossly underappreciated album that stands as among the very best in their label’s, Burger Records, canon.

Tundra, the album that’s been semi-available on cassette for roughly a year but is only just now getting an official release on vinyl and digitally, is a logical step forward for the band. Less gritty, tragic, and dangerous, more streamlined and goofy, songs like “Ooh La Lay” and “Medication” are sure to be favorites among the inevitably newly-acquired fans for their easygoing charm and meandering melodies. Opening track “Twenty Nine” is another highlight, featuring some of the more complex song structuring and instrumentation, as well as a few well-placed gunshots. It also has some of the more compelling  lyrics on the album, detailing exploits like fucking a hundred daughters and crossing 50 states by the time Thomas reached age 29. It’s a classic rambler which naturally belies some philosophical ruminations about growing old being “just a pretense.” “No Jesus” is a tender ballad about a decayed relationship between two people who bond over their mutual disregard for Jesus.

On the other hand, there’s no “Black Hell,” with its deceptively clever wordplay and shockingly serious imagery; there’s no “Nobody But You,” with its slightly menacing swagger underpinning what is supposed to be endearing affection; there’s no “The Waiting Game,” which sounds like the theme music for a drunken brawler cowboy who just caused a bar to fall silent upon his entry. Essentially, Songs Of Love And Despair was the sound of a messy night at the bar, followed by the effects of the morning after. Tundra is more about the rest of the next day, just moving along through the desert singing songs and passing the time. Not to say that the record itself is merely passing the time or filling space – it’s a great, worthwhile album. It’s just a lot breezier and less gritty; less like Clint Eastwood in The Unforgiven, more like Jeff Bridges in True Grit.

I’d be tempted to say that this is probably the best country album to come out all year, and if there’s one album that I’d point to for rock fans to get into country, it’d probably be this one – more so than The Abigails’ first album. It’s accessible, approachable, and free from the complex moral quandaries of Songs Of Love And Despair (not that those are a negative, they just take a few listens-through to truly appreciate). If this album doesn’t get the band the acclaim they so rightly deserve, they may just have to spend their days wandering through the desert from one milestone to the next, outlaws of the Southern California music scene. This, however, might not be the worst thing in the world, if it means more music like that featured on Tundra.

Recommended Tracks: Twenty Nine, No Jesus, Medication, Ooh La Lay

GRADE: 7.9/10

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Album Review – Joyce Manor: Never Hungover Again

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As much as their influences are obvious and clearly displayed, and as much as they are indicative of a trend that they are more or less leaders of, there’s no one quite like Joyce Manor. Having altered course fairly dramatically on 2012’s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, the band set out to distinguish themselves from the average pop punk Tumblrcore band, with which they were seemingly associated after the release of their first album. Baring influences from all over the alternative rock landscape, that album was highly divisive among fans. On Never Hungover Again, the band purports to be returning to form ala their self-titled debut. This, however, is misleading. Like their debut, it’s longer than Of All Things…, coming in at just under 20 minutes rather than a mere 15, and as tempting as it is to write this review proportional to the length of the album, there is simply too much to say about this – and I cannot stress this enough – important band. It is, however, not exactly like either of their previous records. It is neither deliberately inaccessible like their second album, nor is it exactly what the Defend Pop Punk crowd wants, which is probably a clone of their first album. As a result, they find themselves courting a rather different crowd – they did an interview with Noisey – Vice magazine’s music blog – recently, they’ve been featured on Pitchfork, and are, bewilderingly, playing alongside lo-fi magnates The Growlers this fall at that band’s annual Beach Goth party, along with another band rising in prominence among hipsters from their sphere of the punk world, Andrew Jackson Jihad (although Wu-Tang Clan’s Gza is also playing there, so maybe this means nothing in context).

But I digress. This album has no equivalent to “Constant Headache,” nor does it have an obvious analog to “Video Killed The Radio Star” – but it does have excellent tracks that are legitimate triumphs rather than simple reaction to their past successes. In the aforementioned Noisey review, they asserted that, to the outsider, Joyce Manor is essentially the same as The Wonder Years. This isn’t to say they’re admitting defeat and gearing up for a lifetime of playing Warped Tour -it’s simple fact, and this because they share obvious influences. However, one listen to Joyce Manor shows that they’re an infinitely more mature band than Dan Campbell & co, who sing about how mature they’re getting. This maturity stems from the fact that Joyce Manor exists outside the purview of niche geographical tendencies or supposed genealogies. Yes, they share influences, but that’s because Joyce Manor’s influences are, well, everyone in pop punk – everyone from Screeching Weasel to TTTYG-era Fall Out Boy, from Jawbreaker to Blink-182, from Descendents to The Get Up Kids. Then add in a healthy dose of Weezer, Pavement, The Smiths, and The Cure, and you’ve got Never Hungover Again.

For your consideration – “Heart Tattoo,” which has a coda that I’m not entirely convinced doesn’t feature Tom DeLonge doing background vocals; “Victoria,” which would be utterly dominating 120 Minutes if it were 1994; “Schley,” the characteristically deceptive lead single which Trojan-horses us into thinking the rest of the album will be the by-the-numbers sequel of their first album, all the while containing all the elements of change that Hungover truly represents; “In The Army Now,” a sonic homage to their hardcore roots with some of the most serious lyrics on the album; and of course, “Heated Swimming Pool,” the sentimental epilogue that will leave you already nostalgic for an album that came out last month.

If this album doesn’t affect you in some way, you’re not paying attention. If you’re bemoaning this album because it was released on a label not run by Mike Park, and therefore hate all the twinkly guitars or the guitar leads or the keyboards on “Falling In Love Again,” you’re taking this too seriously. If you don’t get what it’s about or think it all sounds the same, don’t worry, you won’t hear the end of it from your friends. If you’re just getting turned onto this band by this album, you could go back and listen to their old albums, but this wouldn’t really give you much more than some historical context, because this is by far their greatest achievement.

Recommended Tracks: Schley, Heart Tattoo, In The Army Now, Heated Swimming Pool
GRADE: 8.9/10

Interview – The Aquadolls

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Melissa Brooks is the leading lady of The Aquadolls, LA’s own ragtag band of eternally teenage bubblegum punks. Ever ambitious, she’s got her own solo project in the works and works closely with garage-rock harbinger Burger Records. It’s clear to anyone who’s ever checked out their Tumblr page that The Aquadolls are all about the fans and make every opportunity to bridge the gap between performer and audience. I got in touch with Ms. Brooks to get an even closer look into the sugary-sweet psychedelic world of The Aquadolls.


 

I remember when Stoked On You came out, my friend Max texted me and was like, “you have to listen to the new Aquadolls album – it actually uses distortion!” Do you think your last album is an improvement on the We Feel Free EP?
 
Totally!! We Are Free is a collection of demos that Ryan and I recorded for fun. We never expected that anyone would actually listen to it. Stoked On You is our first studio album, and it’s also the only collection of songs that’s performed by an actual band. All the other demos are usually me playing most of the instruments and Ryan adding guitar. 
 
Is Stoked On You going to see an official release soon? I can’t seem to be able to find a way to get it through Burger just yet.
 
Yes! It should be out later this summer.
 
Was anything different about the writing process for Stoked On You as opposed to We Are Free?
 
Not really as I write most of the songs on my own. Stoked On You, however, was more collaborative with the rest of the live band because we all had to vibe with each other in the studio sessions, rather than me playing all the instruments. Stoked On You was more fun to record!
 
I bought a poster from you not too long ago and you wrote a really sweet letter too! Sorry for not writing back, but that was really sweet of you. Do you think it’s important to have a close interaction with fans like that?
 
I write notes to everyone who orders from my online store. I am blessed to have such awesome fans that want to be a part of my weird mermaid world, so I have to thank them! I love my fans so dearly 🙂
 
What’s your favorite place to play in LA?
 
The Smell!!
 
You’re very active on Tumblr. Do you think Tumblr in particular has contributed a lot to your success?
 
Somewhat, yes! We mostly play in Los Angeles and Orange County, so anyone who lives outside out that probably found us on the internet. Social media has been a huge factor towards discovering new artists, as I myself am constantly stumbling across awesome musical acts on the internet every day. 
 
You’ve got a solo project that you’re working on. When can we expect more from that?
 
Yes! I’m working on my debut album right now with Hollywood-based producer Aaron Greene. I don’t have any official music out yet, but I am playing my new songs at shows! Expect it to be out later this year. Finishing up this album is my main focus right now.
 
How does that differ from the sound of The Aquadolls?
 
It’s psychedelic pop. Electro, dance, carefree good vibes, hallucinogenic ear candy. I’m focusing more on my songwriting for this project lyrically, as well as pushing myself with my voice. It’s going to be more grown-up, yet it will be a dance record. I’m really excited about it!
 
I’ve seen a few pictures of you posing with Sky Ferreira. Do you guys hangout a lot?
 
I wish! I just ran into her at the DIIV concert in Los Angeles last week. She’s a really cool girl. 
 
What band or songwriter do you think you have the most in common with?
 
I feel like I really get Lana Del Rey right now.
 
Since you’ve started to get into cassette culture and everything through Burger, what is the rarest tape you’ve gotten your hands on?
 
I don’t really play cassettes, but the most vintage tape I have is my Britney Spears Oops I Did It Again… cassette. It still has all the dust from 1999. 
 
If you could accomplish one world changing thing through your music, what would it be?
 
I would want people to be able to express themselves and not fear judgment.
 
When do you think you will finally have “made it”?
 
When I hear my song on KIIS FM!
 
Slurpees or Icees?
 
Blue slurpee.
 
Beavis or Butthead?
 
Butthead! He’s cuter.
 
Nachos or French fries?
 
Nachos.
 
Pastel goth or beach goth?
 
Totally soft grunge. Ha!

Review – Thee Oh Sees: Drop

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Drop

Thee Oh Sees have returned from hiatus to churn out another heaving lo-fi brain melter. Drop builds, if ever so slightly, on last year’s Floating Coffin in that it tends to eschew the incomprehensible psychedelic jams in favor of more accessible, pop-oriented fare, bearing much in common with fellow San Francisco exile Ty Segall’s most recent release with Fuzz, albeit with more whimsy in place of Segall’s requisite menace and anxiety. Not to say that this is a pop album – “Penetrating Eye” is the sound of someone smashing not through the door, but the ceiling to crash your shitty party – but the songs, more often than not, have an identifiable structure, and on one or two of them it’s vaguely possible to sing along.

Keeping to the form of having the first track on the album be, if not the strongest, then at least the most accessible, Drop opens with “Penetrating Eye,” a quasi-metal stomp, is as focused a mission statement as you will get from the band about what the album is about. It’s loud, it’s shrieking, and it’s visceral, but it’s also got a chorus that goes “la la la” and – you read that right – it’s got a chorus. And like most of what Thee Oh Sees try to do, the experimentation with pop song structures pays off spectacularly, in a sort of blustering, inelegant way. But just so we know this is still a Thee Oh Sees album, the next two tracks are drones, full of noodly guitar, random instruments like mellotrons and a saxophone played by Mikal Cronin, and a lingering sense of unease, with “Savage Victory” in particular managing to bring the jam down to a level of accessibility while still managing to feel incomparably strange.

The rest of the songs on the album reveal just how short and spasmodic this album is. “Put Some Reverb on My Brother” is a pleasant jaunty thing that has simple, repetitive lyrics and palatable instrumentals. On a past Thee Oh Sees album, this might have seemed like little more than a transitional, intermission-esque track. Here, though, it takes up almost 10% of the album length. “Drop” is a pretty straightforward rocker reminiscent of The Black Keys, and as unassuming as it might seem, that kind of makes it stand out within the context of a band that is almost defined by eccentricity. And it helps that the guitar solo is among the best in the Oh Sees canon. Meanwhile, “Transparent World” is a slow-burning track that plays around with a variety of instruments and dynamics, but despite appearing at first glance to be kind of an afterthought, in truth it contains a lot of insight into the thought process the band must have had writing the rest of the songs, and it’s a great listen by that right.

While I may not be giving this album an amazing score, that doesn’t stop Thee Oh Sees from being one of my favorite bands of the last ten years, and that this album, while not among their best, does nothing but improves on what the band has done, because even though it may at times seem like the band is just screwing around and making up mindless garage-psych goop, the truth is they never sit on their laurels. They are always working much harder than anyone expects them to, and the fact that they put out at least one new release every single year attests to that, like a bizarre union between Guided By Voices and The Stooges. The fact that they’re always willing to take chances, even if that means experimenting with pop song structures and melodic coherence, is what makes them so perpetually interesting.

Recommended Tracks: Penetrating Eye, Savage Victory, Drop, Transparent World

GRADE: 7.5/10

Review – Curtis Harding: Soul Power

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Soul Power

Why would punks like soul music? Curtis Harding, strangely enough, did not release Soul Power through any conventional means, as far as soul music is concerned. Instead, he released it on cassette via the increasingly eclectic, ostensibly garage rock label Burger Records. Which, given that it sounds more like Curtis Mayfield than it does Frank Ocean, isn’t such a strange decision on his part. Stranger and riskier it is for Burger, whose biggest acts are, among other, street punks like FIDLAR and twee slackers like Cherry Glazerr. But his triumphal success seems to suggest that the risk paid off, not only paving the way for bigger and more interesting things for Burger, but huge opportunities for Harding, and the possibility that burnout teenagers all along the west coast might diversify their tape collection with something other than disgruntled white kids. And Harding certainly has a niche made out for him in the scene. Burger has already been known to associate with hip hop artists like Kool Keith and The Pharcyde, who at least dabble in soul and R&B, and if the music video for Soul Power’s lead single “Keep On Shining” is any indicator, Harding is able and willing to appeal to the alternative crowd, and being from the same town as Burger alumni Black Lips certainly doesn’t hurt his credibility.

But the music speaks for itself really. “Surf” sounds like it could have been on the Lips’ last record if not for Harding’s unique and charismatic vocal presence, even including a totally shredding guitar solo played by Lips frontman Cole Alexander, no less. In fact, rock instrumentation seems to dominate this album, even when their arrangement is more suggestive of classic soul. Even on the more straightforward R&B tracks like “Keep On Shining” and “The Drive,” the horns are quite subdued and play more of a supporting role than they already do in the genre as a whole. That is, perhaps, what makes this album so much more than simply an experiment in retro style. It may not be Cee Lo Green (with whom he worked as a supporting vocalist), but it’s certainly not the sound of someone who buries their head in the sand when it comes to music newer than 1979.

The album contains its fair share of experimentation. “The Drive,” in addition to an irresistible backbeat and the aforementioned horn section, has ethereal synths that recall space rock and perhaps as a contemporary touchstone in the work of labelmate Gap Dream. “Heaven’s On The Other Side” dabbles in disco, and “I Need A Friend” features an infectious falsetto that reveals Harding’s vocal talents to be impossible to deny.

This record is by all measures, adventurous, and a worthy victory out of left field for soul music and the underground in general. Splitting the difference between classic R&B and modern alternative, things seem more promising than ever for alternative music, injecting a much needed variety. Soul Power is as much punk rock as anything that King Tuff or Pangea might be doing, rejecting everything traditional about the territory that it treads and succeeding in spite of itself. Music media tends to paint Burger’s target demographic as slumming hipsters, but if my observations about the crowd at Burgerama (including the kids grooving to Harding’s set) say anything, it’s more accurate to say that a huge proportion of the fanbase here consists of teenagers who have yet to discover “Irony” in its most pernicious form. And, if Calvin Johnson’s observation that rock music is a “teenage sport,” then this bodes extremely well for the future of Curtis Harding’s career and the scene that gave it life. Turns out, punks would listen to soul music because it’s not that alien a concept, really.

Recommended Tracks: Next Time, Keep On Shining, Surf, The Drive

GRADE: 8/10

Interview – Isaac Rother & The Phantoms

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Isaac Rother is an imposing figure. On stage, he commands a unique and mystifying attention from the audience as the Phantom and his band revive the sounds of rock n roll’s nativity in a majestic and awe-inspiring sonic assault. With all the intensity of punk rock and the heart and soul of what first made rock n roll such an exciting movement, Issac Rother & The Phantoms are here to frighten mere mortals with a formidable groove and terrifying ferocity, reminding us all that rock will never die – like the host of the undead, The Phantoms won’t stop until they’ve conquered the world.

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I picked up a tape at one of your shows, Rockin’ With The Phantom, which was a recording of one of your playlists from Phantom Radio. What came first, the love of classic rock n roll which compelled you to spread it to the masses, or your interest in radio, which guided you towards the forgotten sounds of yesterday?

The love of rock n roll came first.  The sound has always moved me.  When i was a little kid, too young to be consciously listening to “old” music, my favorite songs were Wipeout, Chantilly Lace, Great Balls Of Fire, Johnny B. Goode and stuff like that.  I thought that was what everyone was into. 

 

Radio is cool but it’s hard to find radio stations that are consistently playing groovy stuff.  In Olympia, there is an AM station called K-BIRD that only plays music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.  They play everything; jazz, pop, country, blues and anything else.  You see, that’s interesting.  I wish there was more radio like that.  

 

Apparently I was the first person to buy that particular tape. Have you moved any more of those since then?

I sold one to you and one online.  As you can see it’s a pretty hot item…  

 

Is your on-stage persona an extension of your on-air personality?

 

It’s one and the same.  Both are The Phantom.

 

Why is it important to resurrect the sounds of rock n roll’s formative era? Are the Phantoms merely here to haunt us, or is there unfinished business they have here on Earth?

I’m not sure if it is important.  To me, listening to a forgotten rock n roller like Screamin’ Joe Neal is infinitely more interesting and exciting than listening to anything I’ve seen or heard in modern music.  Early rock n roll is a big influence on my life so thats why that sound is so strongly reflected in my music.  

 

The Phantoms are here to haunt the world with our music and live shows.  The unfinished business is rising to the top.  We’re just starting to get recognition and its a long way to the top if you wanna rock n roll.  And i’ve got a whole lotta rockin to do before I’m through.  

 

How have kids reacted to your particularly primal strain of rock music? 

Kids dig it because its raw and fun and we dont sound like anyone else around.  We’ve gotten everything from dancing to slam-dancing. 

 

Do you think Los Angeles is particularly susceptible to the sounds of The Phantoms?

 

Yeah LA is a good city because its a huge frustrating mess.  You can let loose when we play.

 

You finished The Unspeakable Horror of… late last year and put it up on Bandcamp earlier this year, but so far it hasn’t seen an official release here in the States. Still shopping around for labels?

 

Yeah we’re waiting for a label that can do it justice.  

 

You have a fondness for rock n roll’s past, but are there any current bands you think are carrying the torch alongside you?

 

I think any band playing rock n roll music in any form is carrying the torch.  But nobody does what we do. 

 

How do you think the band’s sound has evolved from The Wild Sounds of… to The Unspeakable Horror of…?

 

We had only been a band for a few months when we recorded The Wild Sounds (which has been released by Slop Bop records on cassette).  Our sound wasn’t fully formed yet.  I think of that as demo quality.  The Unspeakable Horror is a much more thought out and deliberate statement.  It’s more representative of what we’re about.  

 

This being for Burger Radio U, who’s your favorite Burger band?

 

There’s a lot of cool stuff on Burger.  So much that I haven’t had the time to check out a lot of it.  Of the stuff I’ve heard I really like the first NoBunny album, Love Visions. I’ve been into that for awhile.  Glitz from San Fransico has a cassette on burger called Itz Glitz.  Thats amazing.  I recently heard some stuff by Habibi and Gravy Drop that I liked.  Is Shannon and The Clams on Burger?  Their new album is pretty on point.

 

Is there any future collaboration with Burger in the works?

 

Not that I know of.  Maybe you can put in a good word for us?

 

If there’s any one episode of Scooby Doo that you would say is most influential on your persona, what would it be? Follow-up: are you more Scooby, or Shaggy?

 

The original Scooby Doo Where Are You? series, which only aired from 1969-1970, is flawless.  However, Don’t Fool With A Phantom is a standout episode.

 

Like zoinks I guess im more of a Shaggy.

 

Frankenberry, Boo-Berry, or Count Chocula?

All are impeccable ways to start a day.  But nothing will ever beat Count Chocula.

 

Support Isaac Rother & The Phantoms by heading to their bandcamp and downloading The Unspeakable Horror of Isaac Rother & The Phantoms.

Review – La Dispute: Rooms of the House

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 In 2008, La Dispute proved that post-hardcore was not a genre that had become the debased lingua franca of the mall-walking millions, and that there was an arty, intellectual alternative to what horror Taking Back Sunday had wrought on the first decade of the 21st century, even if it touched on pretty much the same themes that that band did (breakups), if in a much more macabre fashion. In 2011, La Dispute showed that post-hardcore could once again reach the heights and depths of the genre’s Golden Age with bands like Drive Like Jehu and The Jesus Lizard by capturing the very essence of what makes the genre what it is: spontaneity and unpredictability. In 2014, La Dispute have apparently decided that they don’t really feel like doing that, and are content with stalling in the same artistic space that they created on their last album, ‘Wildlife.’ Well, maybe not stalling, but they certainly haven’t changed direction. In a number of ways, I suppose the band have progressed, tightening things up here, refining things there, but ultimately, while the jump from their debut to ‘Wildlife’ was dramatic and exciting, the transition from ‘Wildlife’ to ‘Rooms of the House’ feels more like a confused bunny hop.

Since Jordan Dweyer’s heavily wrought emotional landscapes are perhaps the defining characteristic of the band’s legacy, let’s start with where they succeed and where they fail on this album. ‘Wildlife’ was so poignant and intense because at some point in the years following their debut, Dweyer realized the world didn’t revolve around him, and took on a kind of Man-In-Black persona, offering scenic pictures of both the depressingly mundane and the heartbreakingly tragic, tackling such themes as cancer-stricken children and gang violence.

Here, though, it seems like Dweyer’s lyrics tend to be more introspective. While on ‘Wildlife,’ the lyrics presented you with the scene, raw and as it is, and let you draw your own conclusions about the emotional intensity (albeit with obviously dynamic vocals to help you along), on ‘Rooms,’ it’s essentially still a presentation of scenes, but the conclusions seem a bit more forgone. For instance, on “Scenes From Highways 1981-2009,” there’s a particular set of lines that stood out as being a bit more premeditated than anything on ‘Wildlife,’ reading; “I let the wheel go over center lines/Inside a place without time, a loop through history/Eye you in periphery now prone in the passenger seat/It’s a mystery the ways you can sleep.” It feels almost likes it’s a director’s commentary over the scene, rather than letting the scene speak for itself, and while the line probably wouldn’t seem out of place on ‘Wildlife,’ that may be part of the problem. We’ve seen what the band can do when they turn from inward reflection to outward observation, but more meditations on outward observations doesn’t seem all that innovative. Had they gone from these very visceral scenes of the human condition to less literal and perhaps even more stripped down emotional outbursts, then this album would probably pack more of a punch, but as it stands, it feels like ‘Wildlife – Now With More Melodrama!’And if there’s anything I don’t miss from their first album, it’s the melodrama.

Musically, there is still a ferocity that keeps this album from being merely average. On album highlight “For Mayor In Splitsville,” the song moves from upbeat melancholy that would feel at home on one of Braid’s later albums to plaintive chiming that seems almost like it could have been taken from American Football, to suddenly taking the listener from a kind of resigned contentedness to an uncomfortable anger, with Dweyer building up his delivery over time from a whisper to his characteristic scream, shouting “I’d rather run for mayor in Splitsville/than suffer your jokes again,” which is probably my favorite line on the whole album, expertly capturing resentment, bitterness, rage, and even humor, just when I had thought that all sense of sarcasm seemed to be beyond, or perhaps beneath, Mr. Dweyer.

While the album most certainly has its moments, and I would hesitate to call a disappointment, the album falls short of establishing La Dispute as any kind of torch-bearer for post-hardcore. While the legacy of ‘Wildlife’ still looms large both in the band’s career and in the context of the genre as a whole, if the band ever hope to attain the recognition of Brand New’s ‘The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me’ or Trail of Dead’s ‘Source Tags and Codes,’ their potential seems to have been firmly squandered.

Recommended Tracks: Scenes From Highways 1981-2009, For Mayor In Splitsville, Stay Happy There

GRADE: 7.8/10

Review – Black Lips: Underneath the Rainbow

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I had the good fortune of seeing the Black Lips at Burgerama recently (my primary motivation for putting off this review for so long), and the experience of being at the front of that crowd as teenyboppers elbowed and jostled me around to the band’s extremely solid back catalog has greatly informed my experience listening to ‘Underneath the Rainbow.’ It becomes extremely evident that the Lips have settled into their niche as something of a Grateful Dead figure for the garage rock crowd. In many ways, they, along with the late Jay Reatard, sowed the seeds of the recent garage resurgence, and the fact that the scene is so varied and creative lends a lot to the credibility of the band as a subcultural entity. Essentially, they’ve peaked, which is not a bad thing at all. This allows them the freedom to enjoy their status as elder statesmen, free from the responsibility of making a Big Artistic Statement. As such, ‘Underneath the Rainbow’ is not any kind of artistic breakthrough, but it’s a good companion to their live show, if not a perfect reflection of it. It’s rowdy, gritty fun, which, being what we’ve come to expect from the band, takes away some of their edge, but ten or so years on from their first album, that’s ceased to become a problem. Really, it’s just an excuse to hit the road again, which is as good an excuse as any, and one that makes me more than happy to listen to the album several times through on a drunken Friday night.

Run-ins with the law are a recurring theme on the album, and the title of the most prominent ode to troublemaking, “Smiling,” encapsulates the band’s approach to music. It doesn’t feel dangerous or threatening like an encounter with an outlaw usually would, but scrappy and charming like the toothless drunk who is yet again getting the cops called on him. The account offered here of incarceration feels like just another day in paradise, and that’s where the Lips hit their sweet spot. It’s the outlaw lifestyle that’s run through its initial excitement but hasn’t lost its liberating appeal for those dedicated enough to follow the path. So while songs like these might not win any new fans, the hardcore fans who’ve been with them since ‘Let It Bloom’ will not be at all disappointed.

“Boys In The Wood,” the lead single, while catchy enough, almost captures everything that there is to dislike about the band. It’s loud and obnoxious without feeling edgy or dangerous, and it sounds like it was going for a rootsy feel, but the production value is so high as to make the whole effort feel forced and, frankly, kind of unwelcome. And as I noticed when they played it for the crowd at Burgerama, it’s kind of hard to dance to, which is a very bad sign for a Black Lips song, since they’re usually quite good at translating the boogie rhythms of rock n’ roll’s early history for a contemporary audience. The album as a whole contains a mix of successfully executed garage numbers and processed forays into territory reminiscent of the Black Keys, which is no surprise since Patrick Carney of the Keys produced more than half of the tracks on the album. Those tracks, among them “Dorner Party” and “Waiting,” sound like pretty by-the-numbers filler tracks. They don’t make this a filler album by any means, but it’s unfortunate to see that perhaps the band is not entirely comfortable with their cult status, and hope to reach something approaching the mainstream success of the Keys by cloning their sound pretty much to the letter.

While it is not any sort of smash success, I can attest as a huge fan of the band that it’s pretty much just as enjoyable as anything the band has released since ‘Good Bad Not Evil,’ if not more so. It’s got some pretty boring lows, but it’s got some sweaty, exhilarating highs as well. If the band can learn from their successes and mistakes with this album, I’m confident they could hone in on something that could very well award them the cult status of which they’re so deserving, their current legion of devoted fans notwithstanding. There’s no doubt about their authenticity as a garage punk standard – it’s when they try to move outside it to grow their already colorful audience that they seem painfully, awkwardly disingenuous.

Recommended Tracks: Smiling, Boys in the Woods, Dog Years

GRADE: 7/10

Review – St. Vincent: St. Vincent

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St. Vincent

In theory, St. Vincent is not my cup of tea. My bread and butter is chaotic, at times bratty, at others dangerous, no-nonsense garage-punk ala Together Pangea or Diarrhea Planet, at least this month anyway. My first intimation of Annie Clark’s work was with the ubiquitous “Cruel,” which, while catchy and indicative of sincere pop craftsmanship, smacked a bit too much of the contemporaneous chillwave phenomenon, which I had grown disillusioned with. But the stirrings and the praise continued for St. Vincent, and come time for her self-titled fourth album, I was more than willing to bite. The result is nothing short of absolutely impressive. Clark does everything that I’m usually highly suspicious of with such finesse, what would usually come off as pretentious and repetitive land as endearingly precocious and altogether smart.

Opener “Rattlesnake” makes me think of “On Sight” from ‘Yeezus’ in that it seems intentionally angular and tortured, but with a kind of curiosity that escapes Kanye’s more aggressive manifesto. More than that, there’s no way you could dance to “On Sight” like you could let loose to “Rattlesnake.” And impressively, from the very start of the album, St. Vincent makes guitar safe for pop music, which is a welcome respite to the “rock is dead” chants that tend to accompany such experimentations into electro-pop. “Birth in Reverse” builds on the momentum of “Rattlesnake” while zooming in on subjects like taking out the garbage and masturbating, zooming through the panorama of “an ordinary day” at a schizophrenic pace, highlighting the madness of modern living, coming to a head at the segmental guitar solo that feels like the embodiment of a mind-numbing daily routine.

“Prince Johnny” follows this, juxtaposing classic pop starlets like Nancy Sinatra with church choir backing vocals and a futuristic electronic drum beat. While it seems as though the goal here was to make an intentionally bloated testament to the bloated ego of the titular character, at times it seems like the substance seeps out of it, and comes out of the oven a bit overcooked around the edges. It’s all made up for, though, on the excellent “Digital Witness,” which is regimented, straight, and to the point. It’s witty without being overwrought, tackling the iGeneration’s preoccupation with being seen by anyone and everyone, preferring the simulated to sometimes disappointing reality. “I Prefer Your Love” takes a sharp turn towards the deeply personal, addressing something as grand as deity, only to reject it in favor of the worldly. It’s a tale of love, in this case for Clark’s mother, whose earthly presence is so much more than anything that could be promised by a savior, preferring her love to Jesus.

The rest of the album softballs things a bit until the end, but it’s not without a worthy amount of intrigue. “Regret” recalls lighthearted new wave, and “Bring Me Your Loves” is a funny caricature of manic, unfocused desire so typical of reality TV drama and the youth it inspires. “Psychopath” flits along on a jutting beat and a dreamy chorus, and “Every Tear Disappears” works out all the kinks in Clark’s system before setting up for the stunning closer. “Severed Crossed Fingers,” apparently delivered under the duress of tears, is reminiscent of David Bowie in a beautiful, almost understated way. Clark’s account of the song is that it’s about the ability of the heart to hold out hope even when things are utterly hopeless, and she does a damn fine job of capturing that, from the caustic opening chords to the final bow.

While ‘St. Vincent’ occasionally overshoots its trajectory, every song on this album nevertheless sounds nothing less than intentional. What I mean by this is that when Clark wants to be grandiose and decadent like on “Prince Johnny,” she never seems unsure or insecure. When she wants to reign herself in and hold a microscope up to her always pertinent subject, as on “Birth In Reverse,” suddenly we realize the finer details we’ve missed at first glance. When she wants to get sentimental, as on “Severed Crossed Fingers,” the irony is kept on a short leash and the heartstrings are, in fact, tugged. When she wants to be quirky and immediate, as on “Regret,” it never feels forced, and despite all the arty glam she’s picked up over the time it took to make this project a reality, it manages to be relatable and epic at the same time. While I may have taken one look at that regal album cover and thought twice about bowing, after giving ‘St. Vincent’ a fair shake, it’s obvious that the throne is well deserved.

 

Recommended Songs: Birth In Reverse, Digital Witness, I Prefer Your Love, Severed Crossed Fingers

GRADE: 8.4/10

Review – Elder Brother: Heavy Head

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If you’re a fan of The Story So Far, you might like this album, but you might also like it slightly less than The 1975’s debut album, to which Elder Brother bears many similarities but without the polish or the focus. If, however, you’re a rabid devotee of The Story So Far who posts their lyrics on your Tumblr to describe your #feelings and have a framed picture of Parker next to your bed, you will probably love this album as much as I loved all of Rivers Cuomo’s ‘Alone’ albums despite them obviously not holding much musical value for anyone who doesn’t geek out over Weezer (which is to say, I loved them a lot).

The side project of TSSF’s guitarist Kevin Geyer, and Daybreaker’s Dan Rose, presumably Elder Brother was conceived as an outlet to allow Geyer to express a softer side, which means a lot of noodly guitar leads and plenty of reverb, and for Rose to let his full vocal range to shine, an opportunity which doesn’t seem to arise quite as often in Daybreaker. You can pretty much tell on album opener “Pennsylvania” exactly what to expect from these guys. It starts out with a steady drumbeat that sounds fit to get a crowd pumped at Coachella before revealing some not-so-subtle influence from Into It. Over It. From then on, it sounds basically as if Evan Weiss was fronting The1975 after listening to nothing but Matchbox Twenty after a 3-hour road trip. The change-ups in the emo revival formula, from the distorted yet conservative guitar solos to the radio-friendly vocals make ‘Heavy Head’ something a bit more than just another example of the influence the Kinsellas have had on indie rock over the past 15 years.

“Throw Me To The Wolves,” while probably not upbeat enough to actually get radio play, especially since it lacks a clear chorus, it is the catchiest song on the album and hard not to bob your head to. The largely acoustic “Any Sort of Plan” is pleasant enough, but it’s an example of how when the band really gets down to it and tries to be vulnerable, they deliver clichéd and cringeworthy lines like “I wanna go to heaven but I don’t wanna die,” which sounds even more corny when played to music than it does on paper. This is a huge weakness considering the type of project this is, and ultimately, the festival-ready rock of TSSF is more relatable than this experimental effort will ever be.

‘Heavy Head’ certainly has its moments, but after hearing a description of the band and its sound, you can pretty much decide if you’re going to like it or not before you even listen. While it can meander at times, this is ultimately just a project for a couple of guys to try out some musical variation that they normally wouldn’t be able to in their primary projects, and if you’re a fan of either of those bands, then you’ll most likely find something to appreciate about this album.

Recommended Tracks: Pennsylvania, Throw Me To The Wolves, Lightning Bug

GRADE: 6.5/10