2012 is gonna be looked back on as an especially great year for music. It had good kid, m.A.A.d city! Channel Orange! Visions! The list goes on and on. The two best rock albums that came out that year were the breakthrough albums from Japandroids and Cloud Nothings, Celebration Rock and Attack on Memory, respectively. They'll always be linked in my mind and I see them as a turning point for indie rock. In the years since those albums dropped, we've seen an increasing demand for indie rock that actually rocks and no lack of bands meeting those demands. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece wonders if rock is truly dead (guilty), but if you're looking in the right places, it seems obvious that rock is thriving. Today, Japandroids finally release a followup to Celebration Rock, and it's the same damn day we get a new Cloud Nothings album. Both are fantastic. Rock is alive.
Japandroids' new album, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, is bigger in every way than Celebration Rock. It's a clear attempt from Japandroids to reach new levels, and to do things they've never done before. Their distorted-guitar/drums/vocals formula isn't gone, but now they added in bass, acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and slower tempos on a handful of songs. Celebration Rock may have been a breakthrough, but this aims to be an even bigger one. Cloud Nothings' new album on the other hand, Life Without Sound (which follows 2014's Here and Nowhere Else), is the sound of a band ignoring trendiness and commercial appeal and staying in their own unique lane. The approaches differ but one isn't better or worse than the other. NTTWHOF and Life Without Sound are both the kind of hard-hitting, unselfconscious rock albums that a lot of us need right now.
Cloud Nothings and Japandroids established themselves years ago, but today is also the day we get a debut album from a fresh young rock band who have the potential to reach the heights that those two bands did: Sinai Vessel. Their first full length Brokenlegged is out on Tiny Engines, and if you like the Cloud Nothings and Japandroids records I really hope you give this one a shot too.
To round out this week's Five Notable Releases of the Week, there's the first solo album (and Merge debut) from Allison Crutchfield (who has written some of the most vital underground rock of the past ten years though this new album is something different for her), and -- because diversity is good -- the new LP from folk singer Julie Byrne.
A few honorable mentions: the high-energy psychedelic rock of Ty Segall's self-titled LP, the political post-punk of Priests' Nothing Feels Natural, the wordy indie rock of Fred Thomas' Changer, and the new Migos LP Culture (home of one of the year's biggest rap singles).
Streams and reviews of my five picks are below. What was your favorite release of the week?
When Japandroids released their sophomore album Celebration Rock in 2012, they managed to condense classic rock imagery, Replacements-y abandon, and pop punk catharsis (and a Gun Club cover) into one high-spirited blast of a rock album that Brian King and David Prowse made with nothing more than their guitar, drums, and voices. As just a two-piece raw indie rock band, they made music so towering and anthemic that the Vancouver Canucks chose Japandroids over Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" for their entrance music the following year. This from a band who almost broke up before making a second album. It feels possible to assume that not even Japandroids knew what they were capable of before Celebration Rock came out. You couldn't say the same for Near to the Wild Heart of Life though. This time they sound like they want to take over the world.
The opening title track (and lead single) feels like Japandroids' attempt to one-up themselves on the sports arena anthem side of things, and it's a success. That song sounds like the summation of everything they did on Celebration Rock (down to the massive whoa-ohs in the chorus), with overdubs, cleaner production, and bigger punches. After that, it's not until the heartfelt penultimate track "No Known Drink Or Drug" that NTTWHOF ever repeats its predecessor.
As soon as track two, "North East South West," kicks in, it's clear that Japandroids are in new territory. It's a jangly acoustic rock song that still has some trademark Japandroids dual-shouting, but is mostly something much more mannered. The next song, "True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will," gets even slower. When Japandroids toured Celebration Rock, they used to apologize for playing its closing ballad "Continuous Thunder" before they realized it's actually one of their biggest singalongs. On NTTWHOF, they're in ballad mode just about as often as they're in attack mode. "True Love..." might even be sappier than "Continuous Thunder" and the next song, "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)," is covered in a lo-fi filter but it's no faster or less sentimental. That's followed by the album's lengthy centerpiece, "Arc Of Bar," a seven-plus minute mid-tempo jam driven by gooey synths that bears almost no resemblance to prior Japandroids songs other than Brian's unmistakable voice. It's the most noticeable example that this album covers new ground for Japandroids, and one of their more unforgettable songs yet.
"Arc of Bar" is followed by the soaring alt-rocker "Midnight To Morning" and then it's the aforementioned "No Known Drink Or Drug." New territory is great but familiarity is necessary sometimes too, and if you're looking for another dose of classic Japandroids, this is your best one. It starts out with a downstrummed riff that simultaneously recalls "Younger Us" and "Wet Hair," and explodes into a chorus where Brian strains his voice to tell a woman that there isn't a drink or a drug in the world that could hold a candle to her love. If Japandroids sometimes get called emo, songs like this are why. It all wraps up with "In A Body Like A Grave," a song that finds the middle ground between Japandroids' cathartic rock side and their new, more diverse sound. It's perfectly placed on the album; it's the kind of song that would sound like a closer no matter when you heard it, and it's lyrically a conclusion to all the unrest on the album. "Christ will call you out / School will deepen debt / Work will sap the soul / Hometown haunts what's left / Love will scar the heart / Sun will burn the skin / Just the way it is / And way it's always been," Brian sings. It's kind of his way of saying "that's life."
If there's a downside to their new approach, sometimes the punk speed and the unhinged delivery of their first two albums is missed, even on the songs that recall those records. But punk bands slowing down and cleaning up is almost as old as punk itself, and Japandroids are about ten years into their career and it's a perfectly fine time to switch things up (even if they've only released like, 35 songs in those ten years). If the album is jarring at first, let it sink in. It feels like time is gonna treat this one well.
Attack On Memory didn't just reshape Cloud Nothings' career (which started as Dylan Baldi's lo-fi pop punk solo project), it really shook up the indie rock world. Here was a noisy, abrasive, Steve Albini-recorded dose of post-hardcore that really penetrated popular indie rock in a way that music like that hadn't done in years. 2014's Here and Nowhere Else was cut from a similar cloth but sped things up for the majority of the record. On Life Without Sound, Cloud Nothings are a little slower than Here and Nowhere Else and a little less abrasive than Attack on Memory, but still making a type of hard-hitting rock music that stands out from the rest.
Like Attack on Memory, the album starts with an ominous piano, but this one quickly leads into a traditionally structured song. That's a theme on Life Without Sound. There's no extended jam or instrumental track on this one. If you think Cloud Nothings are at their best when they're making verse-chorus-verse pop songs, Life Without Sound has a very high success rate. They haven't necessarily simplified their sound though. Cloud Nothings have always had a more adventurous instrumental side than some of their peers, and they still find interesting ways to flaunt that on Life Without Sound. The best example of this might be "Darkened Rings," the album's most aggressive song, which has a bendy riff that brings back memories of late-period Sonic Youth. The next song on the album, "Enter Entirely," has a classic-style guitar solo that could simultaneously impress both J Mascis and Rivers Cuomo. The jamming might be toned down on this record, but the lead guitar work is some of their boldest. Even on the songs that make the musical tension less obvious, there's something explosive bubbling beneath the surface.
Like the last two Cloud Nothings albums, Life Without Sound gives you darkness and brightness in almost equal measure. To balance out that moody opening track and the muscular "Darkened Rings," there's the ('90s rock) radio-ready choruses of "Internal World," "Modern Act," and "Things Are Right With You." The album's most intense moment, though, might be the brooding closing track "Realize My Fate." It's the closest thing the album has to a "No Future, No Past" type song, a song that gets heavier and heavier as Dylan repeats the same few lines: "I believe in something bigger, but what I can't articulate / I find it hard to realize my fate," he begins. "An eternal seeing clearer, a mind, a fear of being blank / I find it hard to realize my fate / And when it comes? I won't be going straight." The last time he sings it, he hits "straight" with a scream as throat-shredding as he's ever gotten, and the band ends things in an unorganized clash of sounds. It's not a neat, satisfying ending, and with a song like this, that's probably the point.
Sinai Vessel first debuted in 2013 with the Profanity EP, which started building them a fanbase and caught the attention a few labels, including Tiny Engines, which the band eventually settled on for their debut LP. After spending the past three years honing the eight songs that would become Brokenlegged, recording the entire album, scrapping it, and recording it again, it's finally here. With that kind of patient work ethic, you'd expect an album with no filler and a lot of attention to detail, and that's exactly what you get. Brokenlegged is one of those albums where it feels like every song could've been the single. It's fleshed out with a bit of gorgeous strings here and there, and you can hear a weariness in Caleb Cordes' voice that wasn't there on Profanity. They sound like a young, hungry band, but not an inexperienced or naive one.
Not to romanticize too much about where a band is from, but Sinai Vessel are an indie rock band with members based in both North Carolina and Tennessee. They're not from a huge indie rock scene like NYC or LA or London, or even Philly or Western Mass. You can picture the Sinai Vessel guys driving through the middle of nowhere with the windows down, or taking a walk alone through the woods, the kind of mini adventures that are best soundtracked by the spacious sounds and inward-looking lyrics that are heard all over Brokenlegged. Even the album artwork puts you in that headspace. They also sound like devotees of the strains of rock that dominated suburbia in the mid-2000s when Sinai Vessel's members were growing up. They've got hints of Transatlanticism-era Death Cab on "Looseleaf" and "Laughlin," Kevin Devine-style folk on "Died On My Birthday," and '90s grunge by way of Manchester Orchestra and latter-day Brand New on album closer "Cork Of Worry." Like all of those artists, the whole album sounds battered and unpolished, but still gorgeous and clear as day.
It's hard to imagine the past decade or so of indie-punk without Allison Crutchfield's music. She had a handful of worthy bands with her twin sister Katie like The Ackleys, Bad Banana, and PS Eliot, the latter of which recently reunited and released a career-spanning compilation on Don Giovanni. That label tweeted that the comp would be this generation's Cap'n Jazz discography, which feels like a pretty apt comparison. Katie and Allison split after PS Eliot's breakup, forming Waxahatchee and Swearin', respectively, which elevated them both to higher levels of recognition than either had seen previously. Swearin' are now sadly broken up, and Allison has spent time touring as a member of Waxahatchee in support of Waxahatchee's 2015 Merge debut Ivy Tripp. Ivy Tripp introduced clearer production, bigger-sounding arrangements, and synthesizers into Waxahatchee's sound. Tourist In This Town, Allison's own first album for Merge, takes a similar approach.
Allison worked with one of the Philly scene's go-to producers, Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, Nothing, etc), on the record, and his collection of synthesizers is part of what took Allison further down that path. "His arsenal and knowledge of analog synths, along with his ear for spatial addition and subtraction within a song, really sculpted this album and impacted me artistically forever," Allison said when the album was announced.
The result is the biggest and best sounding album Allison has done yet, and her level of songwriting matches the in-studio ambition. The sparkling synths of opener "Broad Daylight" kick off the album brilliantly and let you know right away that this is a departure from Allison's earlier work. The synth-rock of "Dean's Room" kinda connects popular mid-2000s indie with crunchy '90s alternative. "Mile Away" is basically full-on synthpop, while the next song ("The Marriage") is a 57-second fuzz punk ripper that should please anyone missing Swearin'. My favorite song is probably "Charlie," a quiet, simplistic acoustic song that might be the best Plans-style Death Cab For Cutie song since Plans itself. There's a lot of sadness in these songs -- Allison says the album was inspired by a big breakup -- but so much of it sounds uplifting too. It's been a cold, rainy week here in New York, but a lot of these songs sound like songs I want to blast at summer BBQs. With such happy-sounding songs born from a sorrowful part of life, Tourist In This Town is an album that just might give you some hope.
Back in 2014, Julie Byrne released her debut album Rooms With Walls and Windows, a hushed lo-fi folk album that quickly established her as someone worth paying attention to. Three years later, it seems like a lot more people are paying attention. She's now on Ba Da Bing Records (home to Sharon Van Etten's Epic, Lady Lamb's Ripely Pine, and the first two Beirut albums), and the buzz surrounding her is getting louder every week. Not Even Happiness is her first album for Ba Da Bing, and it certainly warrants all the attention it's been getting. It's slightly cleaned-up compared to its predecessor, but the somber, introverted sound and the late '60s / early '70s influences are the same. (Take your pick on who you think she sounds like. Her deep voice reminds me of Sibylle Baier and I hear some early Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen in the songwriting, but it never feels like she's channeling anyone in particular.) At this point, there might be more music like this now than there was in the '60s, but there's a really gripping quality to Julie's music that puts her up there with the best of the modern torch carriers. Jessica Pratt and Weyes Blood fans, this album is for you.
She's rarely accompanied by anything other than her own voice and her gently strummed acoustic guitar, but the few embellishments on Not Even Happiness work wonders. The flute on "Melting Grid" is as arresting as Julie's singing, and the light strings in the background of some songs add an ethereal effect that pairs well with her songwriting. As with a lot of music like this, the lyrics are often Julie's biggest sell. She's poetic but conversational, and she sounds wise beyond her years. On "Sleepwalker," she sings about growing so accustomed to solitude that she did not know how to give it up for love. On "Follow My Voice," she again sings of love, but this time uses imagery of death and nature. "Follow My Voice" also has my favorite line on the album: "I've been called heartbreaker, for doing justice to my own." It's something that anyone who's been on either side of a heartbreak already knows -- that breaking someone's heart may be painful at first but it's something that you need to do for yourself, and ultimately, for the other person too. It's a simple truth, but it really resonates when she sings it.