Five Notable Releases of the Week (2/16)
So the news of the week is that 3/4 of the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup is reunited (no D’Arcy Wretzky), and that they’re going on a massive tour that will pull exclusively from their first five albums. Are you excited about it, or has Billy tarnished his legacy too much (slash continue to tarnish it thanks to this messy public back-and-forth with D’Arcy)?
In addition to reveling in Smashing Pumpkins nostalgia, there is also TONS of worthy new music out this week. Before I get to my picks, here are several honorable mentions: the first Fischerspooner album in eight years (produced by Michael Stipe), I’m With Her (aka Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan), Loma (Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg + both members of Cross Record), Laurie Anderson + Kronos Quartet, the third and final installment of Belle & Sebastian’s EP trilogy, the Ride EP, a Young Dolph EP, Polica + s t a r g a z e, Everything Is Recorded (XL founder Richard Russell’s album with Damon Albarn, Kamasi Washington, Peter Gabriel, Sampha, Ibeyi, Wiki, Syd, Owen Pallett, and more), Car Seat Headrest’s re-recorded version of Twin Fantasy, the Windhand / Satan’s Satyrs split, Nipsey Hussle, American Pleasure Club, Runaway Brother, Ought, The Low Anthem, and Itasca. Also, the 10th anniversary reissue of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is out today.
With all that said, check out the five albums I picked below. What was your favorite release of the week?
When the onetime screamo band Pianos Become the Teeth decided to stop screaming on their excellent, career-changing 2014 album Keep You, it didn’t just help widen their fanbase; Kyle Durfey’s more discernible vocal approach also made what he was singing about a lot clearer. It’s a devastating album about the death of his father, with eerily specific attention to detail. Four years later, it’s still one of the most heartbreaking rock albums to be released in recent memory. They’re now finally following it with Wait For Love, and if Pianos Become the Teeth sound a little happier this time around, it makes sense why. Kyle’s father’s death still looms large over the Wait For Love songs, but so does new life. “Would you believe it? I’m a family man now,” he sings on the album’s goosebumps-inducing closer, “Blue.” As Kyle revealed in the poetic preface to the album that he wrote, he became a father before writing this album, and the birth of his son was a major inspiration for these songs. It doesn’t sound like it happened free of roadblocks (“It’s an ectopic pregnancy. It’s allowing time for more tries,” he writes), so Wait For Love is still loaded with heavy, difficult life moments. But if Keep You is the death album, then Wait For Love is the birth album. The albums are two sides of the same coin — both rooted in a similar type of atmospheric yet sturdy rock music, though appropriately, the new album is a little lighter than its predecessor. The aggression that once fueled Pianos Become the Teeth’s vocals and guitars is toned down significantly, and their influence from quieter bands like The National is more in the forefront than ever. (Impressively, drummer David Haik still finds ways to work in his pounding, complex style, even when the songs are at their softest. You can probably count on one hand the amount of current indie rock drummers with more talent than hiim.)
Kyle’s words are also more abstract this time around. He was mentioning exact dates and reminiscing about brief moments in excruciating detail on Keep You, but on Wait For Love he leaves his words more open for interpretation. When he sings “pulled from her, pulled to me” on the driving, post-punk-ish “Charisma,” you can read it as the first moment Kyle held his son after he exited the womb. When he sings “See the fingers? They’re starting to bend / We can’t move, we can’t miss out” on the slower, ringing “Bitter Red,” it can be taken as the desire to be there for all of his son’s life milestones. When he sings of having “nothing to show” on “Forever Sound,” it’s tempting to assume he’s singing about his child that was never born. The entirety of “Dry Spells” reads like an ode to his love for the mother of his child. Maybe Kyle intended these lines to mean different things, or maybe they mean more than one thing, but that’s what’s so beautiful about words like these. They roll off the tongue, drill into your brain, induce vivid imagery, and they have the power to affect one thousand different people in one thousand different ways.
Because Wait For Love‘s musical backdrop is often softer and more minimal than Pianos Become the Teeth usually are, it allows for the focus to frequently be on Kyle’s words. But it also allows for the few louder moments that do exist to really hit hard. Even as they get increasingly lyric-centric, Pianos Become the Teeth’s music has always shared a lot in common with post-rock, and that really comes through on album highlight “Forever Sound.” It starts with just a clean guitar, and then marching band snare comes in, and the song builds and builds until it gets to the album’s most satisfying crashes. That song is followed immediately by “Bloody Sweet,” which pairs some Built to Spill-esque guitar bends with a fidgety, tricky drum pattern, and reaches a moment of pure catharsis in the chorus, where Kyle gives one of his most soaring vocal performances over an earworm chord progression. It’s those larger-than-life moments where Wait For Love becomes an album that you stop thinking about critically and just feel the butterflies.
Though the name U.S. Girls might make you think it’s a band, it’s always been the solo project of the uniquely talented Meg Remy. She’s brought in collaborators before, like on 2015’s excellent 4AD debut Half Free, but even that album was still heavily built around electronics and samples. Meg is still in the director’s chair, but for the first time in U.S. Girls’ career, she’s made a “band” album in the most traditional way. In A Poem Unlimited was recorded with eight-piece Toronto supergroup The Cosmic Range, which includes Meg’s husband/frequent collaborator Slim Twig on guitar, and this music is about as “live” as a live band gets. They’ve got a groovy rhythm section, freeform wah-heavy guitar solos, lively embellishments from a sax or a keyboard or a backup singer, and more. It really sounds like they got in the studio and jammed this thing out with the spontaneity and the chemistry of a seasoned jam band. It’s about as far from loops and samples as you can get.
They hop between various styles of music from various eras with ease. Opener “Velvet 4 Sale” is a fuzzed-out dose of psychedelic soul, “Rage of Plastics” marries a Motown bassline to a screaming sax line, “Mad As Hell” channels late ’70s/early ’80s Blondie, “Rosebud” puts melodic spoken word over jazzy guitar chords and disco strings, “Pearly Gates” offers falsetto R&B harmonies over ’60s rock organ, “Poem” gets a little more modern with its hypnotic arpeggiated synths, and on the nearly-eight-minute closer “Time,” Meg steps away from the mic to let the band go off into a total psychedelic space-rock jam. Meg and her band make this concoction of sounds work by presenting it in such a way where, though the styles of music are so disparate, the songs never sound like anyone but U.S. Girls. Meg and co-producer Steve Chahley’s production style really isn’t like much else. They take elements of music from the past 50+ years and make them all sound timeless, and there’s a very particular aura to these recordings that separate them from any of U.S. Girls’ influences. It’s kind of similar in spirit to Deerhunter or LCD Soundsystem; a record collector’s approach to musical diversity, all tied together by a singer that’s full of personality and charisma, and most importantly, has something to say.
Like Half Free, In A Poem Unlimited succeeds largely in part for its strong and tragically realistic feminist themes. Meg opens the album by singing, “You’ve been sleeping with one eye open because he could always come back, ya know? And you’ve been walking these streets unguarded waiting for any man to explode,” and it resonates because there’s such command in her voice and her storytelling is so powerful. Later, on the rhythmic, fuzz-heavy “Incidental Boogie,” she sings from the perspective of a woman living with an abuser, “Life made no sense without a beating, you see? Life was just too quiet with no one screaming at me,” and it’s not hard to feel the grim sarcasm in her words. At the end of the penultimate track “Poem,” Meg asks, “So what are we gonna do to change?” And even though there’s one song left (the one with that aforementioned jam), it feels like the conclusion to the album. Meg sings about repeated patterns of abuse, oppression, and lack of freedom, but In A Poem Unlimited doesn’t just want us to acknowledge these problems, it wants us to do something about them. Especially in the era we’re in now, where it feels like a new feminist revolution has been stirring, change feels more necessary than ever. In A Poem Unlimited can’t bring change on its own, but it’s a pretty brilliant soundtrack for the revolution.
American Nightmare were initially around for just two albums and a few EPs in the early 2000s, around the time their Boston neighbors and Equal Vision labelmates Converge were leading the way for a whole new pack of forward-thinking hardcore bands. American Nightmare shared Converge’s goth darkness and metallic edge, but while Converge explored spastic complexity, American Nightmare favored the brevity and simplicity of early ’80s hardcore. Their songs were short, fast, and to the point, almost always without breakdowns, post-rock interludes, or whatever other added features that hardcore bands were experimenting with at the time. Their approach proved to be very influential — it’s hard to imagine New Wave of Post-Hardcore bands like Touche Amore, Defeater, and Frameworks sounding the way they do without the influence of American Nightmare — which made it perfect timing for American Nightmare to reunite as that wave was taking shape, and even more perfect that they now finally have new music. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that American Nightmare’s new album is good, as frontman Wes Eisold has continued to churn out quality music with Cold Cave, Some Girls, and other bands in the time since the last American Nightmare album, but I didn’t expect it to rival their first two albums or anything. And it does. I might even like this one a little more. Their metallic side is toned down a bit, with their rock/punk side a little more in focus. Wes has more of a raspy yell these days compared to the bark he had in 2001, and the production is a little warmer. It makes for an ever so slightly more accessible record, and one that more accurately represents where Wes’ musical career is currently at than a total rewrite of their first two albums would have. This album is a little more digestible for any fans of lighter music that may have found American Nightmare through Cold Cave, and Wes even does a little Cold Cave-style goth singing at the end of album closer “Crisis of Faith.” It’s just the right balance between sticking to the melodic hardcore sound that they helped shape and paving themselves a new path. A lot of hardcore/post-hc bands made killer comebacks lately (Quicksand, Glassjaw, At the Drive In), but none of them looked forward the way American Nightmare does.
If rock music has stopped evolving, the upside is that classic influential bands don’t have to change their sound much to still sound relevant today. That’s very true for Superchunk, whose new album What A Time To Be Alive doesn’t sound very different than Superchunk’s 28-year-old debut, yet it still feels totally fresh. Their influence truly never died. They helped write the blueprint for popular ’90s/early ’00s bands like Jimmy Eat World and The Get Up Kids, and their touch can still be heard in tons of today’s indie rock bands like Japandroids, Beach Slang, Swearin’, Waxahatchee, Joyce Manor, and countless others. Waxahatchee (who is signed to Superchunk’s Merge Records) sings on the new Superchunk album — along with Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, and others — and it would be reasonable to assume that she is turning some of her fans onto them. They are simultaneously elder statespeople and peers of basically any indie rock band that uses fast, distorted guitars. They unite young music fans and older ones, and their ability to do what they do so consistently well is what makes really any Superchunk album a good starting point, including this new one. What A Time To Be Alive is a fucking blast to listen to. It’s got 11 songs that fly by in under 33 minutes, and replay value is very high. The guitars are always fuzzed out, Laura Ballance and Jon Wurster’s rhythm section is always rock-solid, and Mac McCaughan still has the same, fired-up, nasally, punk rock delivery that he had in his early 20s. Lyrically, the album takes on the tough political climate that we’re currently living in, and a song like “Reagan Youth” makes comparisons between today and the outrage-fueled era of punk that helped raise Mac McCaughan. The album is full of anger and seasoned wisdom, and rarely do anger and seasoned wisdom sound this joyful and ageless.
Portland, OR’s Johanna Warren has been releasing haunting, dream-like folk music for the past five years or so and she’s now on her fourth album, Gemini II, the followup and sequel to 2016’s Gemini I. (Each track is “linked conceptually and/or musically” to a track on its predecessor, and they’re also being released as a double LP.) If you’re unfamiliar, Johanna’s music is cut from a similar cloth as early Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake (who she’s covered), Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs, etc, and it’s also got a dark side that made it make sense when she opened black metal artist Xasthur’s acoustic tour. It’s melancholic, delicate-sounding stuff, the kind of thing that you picture her writing and recording long after the sun has gone down. I haven’t seen her live, but I imagine you can hear a pin drop in the audience while she’s playing. If you’re going to perform music that sounds this sparse, you need to come prepared with gripping, attention-holding songs and Gemini II is filled with those. Johanna herself and producer/collaborator Bella Blasko flesh out the songs with various non-rock instruments like flute, harmonium, mellotron, vibes, synths, and organ (and they brought in cellist Jane Scarpantoni on the gorgeous album closer “Was It Heaven”), but often it’s just Johanna’s voice and her guitar. Even when the songs are a bit more layered, they still sound intimate and fragile. And even though they sound fragile, they don’t sound weak. Johanna is a truly powerful songwriter, and her ability to turn just the right phrase or land on just the right chord is evident after just a few listens.