Hop aboard the Hop Along bandwagon

Painted Shut, Hop Along’s most recent offering, is absolutely phenomenal. It will populate the upper reaches of year-end lists. Go pre-order it from Saddle Creek Records right now.

It’s also a fairly odd album. Painted Shut is excellent from its opening seconds, but those opening seconds are a misdirection. “The Knock” starts off with jangly guitar blasts and the type of cool, detached female vocals Katie and Allison Crutchfield employ to great effect in their respective Waxahatchee and Swearin’ projects.

Frances Quinlan’s voice and a tuneful riff hint at large, shout-along choruses, but they never really come. Painted Shut is all the better for their absence.

While Hop Along deviate from expectations, they don’t entirely subvert genre. Painted Shut evokes elements of ’90s alternative rock, but instead of Shirley Manson, Quinlan tends to dial up an intense scream reminiscent of early Nirvana recordings.

Instead, short compulsive thoughts then to percolate out of Quinlan repeatedly until they’re also lodged in the listeners brain.

This means punchy, phrases consisting of mostly monosyllabic words such as, “The witness just wants to talk to you,”, “None of this is gonna happen to me,” and “I just though he looked like a powerful man,” generally constitute the hooks of these songs.

However, stilted delivery, throat-shredding intensity and odd rhythm keep the repetition from being rote. It’s really difficult to guess whether a proceeding phrase will be delivered in a breathy falsetto or yowled.

These simple, repeated sentences also stand in contrast to verbose, detail oriented lyrics that set the scene for howling, emotional climaxes, which make them all the more infectious.

Obviously, my big takeaway from this tremendous album is that Quinlan’s voice is incredible, but Painted Shut would be a kickass rock album with less outstanding vocals.

Album opener “The Knock” builds tension before expertly exploding. Elsewhere, a variety of differently stylized, memorable guitar licks abound.. Sometimes, this variance takes place in the same song. For example, on standout  “Texas Funeral” verses are accompanied by a twangy southwestern sound, but collapse under crashing waves of reverb noise, which ultimately recede and allow for a genuine guitar solo.  he audible intensity results in a sort of palpable catharsis.

Painted Shut is a fairly short album, consisting of 10 songs and clocking in around 40 minutes, which makes it perfect for compulsive re-spins, which are absolutely necessary, because it’s almost impossible to dislodge Hop Along’s music from your brain.

While the songs on this album often focus on characters with some degree of moral reprehensibility or who are grappling with pain (either physical or emotional) they are always an absolute joy to listen to.

It’s all fun and games until Chance the Rapper lobs some uncomfortable emotional truth

“Baby Blue” is the fourth single from Action Bronson’s solid debut major label effort, and for the most part, it’s a breezy kiss off to an unpleasant ex. Despite a chorus referring to Bronsolino’s old flame as a bitch, the song mostly eschews misogyny in favor of emphasizing a disconnect between Bronson’s sense of self-worth and the mistreatment he suffered through.

Despite the subject matter, “Baby Blue” is never morose. Over jaunty piano, the large, Albanian MC from Queens creates a snapshot of unrequited and unappreciated acts of affection, and captures the sense of satisfaction striving for self-improvement after a breakup provides.

“Baby Blue” features a brief verse from Chance the Rapper, who I generally find phenomenal. At first, the 20-something rapper seems to be entirely vindictive, wishing non-sequitor ill will on his ex. However, shortly after expressing a desire to see rats defecate in his ex’s kitchen, Chance provides a painfully salient look at the emotions involved with electing to remove someone from your life.

“I hope your tears don’t hurt, and I can smile in your face
Cut my losses, how Delilah changed my locks to a fade
I hope you happy, I hope you happy
I hope you ruined this shit for a reason, I hope you happy,”

It’s interesting enough that the a song, which includes a joke about, “white snake in underwear sauce” includes a biblical allusion, but it’s even more interesting that the emotional climax of a mischievous diss track is a desire for a mutually beneficial break up, so Chano doesn’t feel the guilt that comes from hurting someone. It also adds a poignancy to the everything preceding it, because it establishes that the relationship was something of value to be ruined and the only justifiable reason to cause its ruin would be true happiness.

This song is hardly overlooked or under-appreciated, but I think it displays an amazing amount of pathos for a song built around a Mark Ronson-produced, Billy Joel-esque piano groove that dares the listener to imagine Action Bronson nude in a Lamborghini.

Panda Bear- “Mr Noah”

“Mr Noah” is the standout track from the pretty darn good Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. It is a stupendously weird song, and it announces its oddness immediately. Bestial squeaks precede hypnotically looped guitar, which sounds ripped from the ’90s Spider-Man intro. A woozy, off-balance atmosphere is established before Noah Lennox’s spacy vocals are even present.

Surrounded by aural oddness, repetitive, hyper-literal lyrics concerning an injured, lazy dog  seem perfectly at home. It helps that the song’s chorus is made unbelievably catchy courtesy of a stuttered vowel in the word leg.

“Mr Noah” is a strange track, but it’s disparate parts coalesce to make a wonderful, soupy earworm.

I love I Love You, Honeybear

I Love You, Honeybear, the latest offering from Father John Misty is absolutely incredible.

J. Tillman, formerly released morose solo efforts and drummed for the Fleet Foxes, but since adopting the Father John Misty moniker, he has penned pseudo-shamanistic, sarcastic and tuneful music, and while I Love You, Honeybear could accurately be characterized as folk rock and acts on some melancholy impulses, it’s a stark departure from anything Tillman has made before, including his last release under the Father John Misty name, Fear Fun. 

Despite having an intentionally sophomoric title, I Love You, Honeybear is a deceptively mature album. Luckily, even with mature themes and a mature sound, Tillman’s humor remains in tact.

Honeybear mines the singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s for its sonic cues. There are elements of baroque pop and folk music. There are a few ballads, notable “Bored in the U.S.A.”, and one stomp-along rocker, the scathing “The Ideal husband”. Still, the common through line is that almost everything could be described as well-crafted  baroque pop.  “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow” moves effortlessly from steel guitar to boozy clarinet and feels perfectly in place on the same album as the mariachi horns present in”Chateau Lobby #4(In C for Two Virgins”

The lyrics are sharp, funny and sometimes poignant. Tillman recently married, and I Love You, Honeybear captures a sarcastic cynic, who imagined marriage as, “a passionate obligation to a roommate,” reconciling his identity with sincere love and the happiness his recent marriage has brought into his life. Feeling transcendence through love while also acknowledging occasional creeping feelings of futility and ennui, while admitting he’s suddenly the type of person, who believes in transcendent love is, for the most part, the album’s major theme.

Of course, there are still a few diversions, including “The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apartment”, which mostly exists to hilariously skewer a certain type of millennial, but some of the totally out-there batshittery found on Fear Fun is totally absent here. In my opinion, a little grounding grants I Love You, Honeybear some emotional heft, which is entirely appropriate for an album so interested in exploring classic love in a modern setting. Also, after “The Ideal Husband” wraps up it’s brutally self-effacing and confessional spew, it’d be an odd change of pace to hear about talking dogs or ass-to-face skin grafts.

I Love You, Honeybear certainly does not suffer from daring to be different from its 2012 predecessor.

The pretty good, often goofy artist who made Fear Fun has crafted one of 2015’s best albums so far.

Father John Misty blends wry humor with an honest portrait of a relationship and excellent, mature pop music in a fantastically winning way on what will probably be a strong contender for the best album of 2015.

Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

I just canonized my favorite Of Montreal album, but I had far more to say about it than the punchier blurbs I prefer.

Here’s the extended cut explaining why Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer is an all-time, stone cold classic:

 

 

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This is a well-regarded album, and it’s generally considered the best of Of Montreal’s later, electronic-tinged work . However, after certain listens, I thing Hissing Fauna… might be my favorite album of  all-time. Musically, it’s excellent, but there’s far more to it than pleasant indie electro-pop. This is an album that tackles the emptiness left by the disintegration of a monolithic relationship, references Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and name drops George Bataille–in the same song.

I’ve always felt the cult surrounding this album should be massive. It has traits, namely its background, confessional air, cohesive nature, the appearance of an alter ego and grandiosity, which tend to serve as hallmarks of albums considered to be classic.

Aside from interesting influences and well-crafted pop songs, Hissing Fauna… boasts an emotional rawness and honesty that borders on uncomfortable. It’s extremely similar to Pinkerton or your Joni Mitchell album of choice in exhibiting squirm-inducing reliability.  Almost all vocals and instrumental performances were handled by Kevin Barnes, while in seclusion in Norway, and the album captures his emotional and mental state as he contemplates the possible end of his marriage. It is not a particular stable snapshot, even if the music belies the weighty sentiments being tossed around. This is an album with a jaunty number in which Barnes pleads with his brain chemistry for happiness.  

The wounded artist retreating to lick their wounds and create a bold, personal artistic statement is a time-honored tradition stretching from Brian Wilson to Kanye West, and it’s always struck me as off Hissing Fauna didn’t pick up a little more clout for sharing a similar genesis.

Hissing Fauna… deals in very real emotions, but is also a bit of a concept album as the (relatively) mild-mannered Barnes morphs into the soulful, black and sexually fluid Georgie Fruit, Barnes’ musical alter ego, who is credited with performing the album’s funkier cuts. There’s really no delineation between Fruit and Barnes, because despite being a fictitious, androgynous black man, Fruit seems to be grappling with a lot of the insecurities and problems in Barnes’ life. Also, the last song on the album, which is absolutely gorgeous, “We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling” seems to come entirely from Barnes, and serve as a statement that while a relationship can die the connection that once existed between husband and wife is innate, and was at least a truth for a poignant stretch of time.

Hissing Fana… can be played as one continuous peace of music, as can many classic concept albums; however, a lack of a clear thesis or goal might be responsible for why this album is considered an excellent release by a pretty good band, and not a complete masterpiece.

Admittedly, the proximity of an entirely off the wall identity break and analysis of the permanent effects of matrimony convolute the album, but it’s nice that a grand statement can be made without a totally dour atmosphere.

For me, this album is the perfect mix of strong tunes, excellent production, heart-felt sentiment and humor. I truly cannot recommend finding the time to devour it in one sitting strongly enough.

 

Kind of young, kind of now: Charli

First and foremost, let’s appreciate that headline reference.

OK, moving on.

Charli XCX, Charlotte Aitchison, released her second full-length album, Sucker, recently, and it’s pretty good with flashes of greatness.

Of course, a lot of three-star pop albums get released during the year, but this record stands out, because it’s a breathe of fresh air into the rote nihilism of the popular music landscape.

Pop is an incredibly reactive genre.

When everything on the radio sounds the same, it’s because of intentional assimilation.

Large surges in genre popularity such as the British Invasion, Disco, Hair Metal, Grunge or the recent EDM boom are a direct result.

Sometimes, the next popular thing is a direct reaction to the last popular thing. Nirvana was antithetical to Poison, so grunge begat hair metal.

Still, the influence of past works is pretty easy to trace. Buddy Holly can be linked to Jay Z in three steps.

The Beatles loved Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Kurt Cobain loved the Beatles and Jay Z re-purposed the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a hit single.

One of the biggest songs of the year uses the non-catchy part of an old Wham! song for its chorus.

Charli XCX doesn’t operate outside a sphere of influence, but Sucker shows she’s synthesizing more interesting sources.

Title track, “Sucker” establishes the expectations. The song’s conceit wasn’t new when Alice Cooper did it. Youth culture is in favor of rule breaking and against school. What’s interesting is the song’s structure and influences. It follows a loud-quiet-loud format, with pregnant, quiet moments, which owe a debt to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The backing drum machine also smacks of “Song 2” by Blur. Of course, it’s no surprise that a self-proclaimed ’90s bitch would be aware of alt-rock anthems, but it is a surprise to hear them employed in something legitimately expected to gain traction on pop radio.

It further subverts expectations by building to a drop that never comes. At the moment most other pop songs would turn up the club-rattling bass, “Sucker” takes a slithery turn to a sound approaching a sped-up version of J.Geils Band’s “Centerfold”. Of course, it’s less surprising in its context, because Sucker is a rock album in spirit and sometimes practice.

References to guitars, rocking and sunglasses abound. Many of the tracks actually feature guitar. Homage is even paid to The Ramones, in the song, “London Queen” when Aitchison enunciates baseball bat in an instantly familiar way.

Elsewhere, “Body of My Own” serves as a spiritual successor to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”, “Famous”, which is driven by a wonderfully guitar riff straight out of ’83 that channels Tom Tom Club, Fine Young Cannibals and Prince, “Hanging Around” sounds equal parts latter-day Weezer and Joan Jett, and “Need Ur Luv” even sends up Phil Specter-era girl groups.

Some of the disparate influences can be chalked up to collaboration. Rivers Cuomo receives a songwriting credit for “Hanging Around” and Ariel Pink produced “London Queen”.

However, it’s clear the intention was to create a sound outside of  the Top 40’s current parameters.

While thoroughly enjoyable, Sucker is not perfect.

Some songs on the album don’t quite work, but there’s more hits than misses, but aside from “Die Tonight”, most of the songs operate above or at least outside the current pop fray.

Also, when the unifying theory behind an album is the blending of a myriad of oddball styles, cohesion is lost.

Coupled with an energy which almost never flags, Sucker can be a bit exhausting in one sitting.

Still, consumed in chunks, it’s wonderful ear candy.

Sucker‘s influences are always fairly apparent, so it wouldn’t be accurate to call it groundbreaking or even unique.

It is, however, a well-made album from an aspiring pop princess, who is willing to think outside of the box.

Modern pop music’s big hooks and nihilistic exuberance is present, but they’re cut from a slightly different cloth.

Sweet tune by Ex Hex

Ex Hex releases their self-titled, third album this year, and it rules.

Shockingly, I fully endorse an album of well-made, glossy guitar-driven power pop album.

To me, the standout track on the album is “Hot and Cold”. It is an absolute jam with a great, silly music video.

The title evokes thoughts of Katy Perry, but the guitar riff that pushes the song along strongly resembles the iconic riff from “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground.

It’d be annoying if “Hot and Cold” wasn’t so thoroughly excellent.

Besides, most power pop is derivative nihilism anyway.

It doesn’t matter that the phrase, “Snake-like eyes,” is meaningless but repeatedly sang with contagious venom. It’s a fun word cluster to shout.

Nothing about “Hot and Cold” matter besides the smile it will slap on the face.

Promise not quite delivered

Some albums seem seasonal. 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West is a cold winter album. Most of the indie rock released around 2010 is summer beach music. We Were Promised Jetpacks newest release, Unravelling, fits its Oct. 14 release date perfectly.

It’s brooding without being too glum, dark without being morbid and ambient without ever becoming boring.

However, unless you count the band’s name, the perfectly coordinated release date is the most sublimely executed element of this album, because much like someone who was only promised a jetpack, it never really takes off.

Unraveling is not a bad album. In fact, it’s incredibly far away from being a bad album. It’s not only listenable, a handful of songs are actually compulsively re-listenable. This is a solid three-star indie rock record. When looking back at 2014 best of lists, you’ll see Unravelling in the honorable mentions section and remember it fondly.

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Unfortunately, there are hints of a much better album present on Unravelling, which sour a solid entry into a solid body of work into a slight disappointment.

Album-opener, “Safety in Numbers”, serves as a perfectly fine mission statement. It’s sleek, moody, well-crafted and just interesting enough. I love a brooding,  slow-burner as much as anyone else, but it’s a damp autumn leaf smolder that never ignites.

That’s Unravelling in a nutshell. It’s technically proficient, enjoyable , mildly cerebral and fantastic at invoking a mood, but it refuses to build toward anything. In this case, it actually works to the album’s advantage, because track no.2 instantly bails out the anti-climactic opener.

“Peaks and Troughs” is an instant standout, because it actually the buzzy peak hinted at in the beginning of the song. When the song hits the three-minute mark and We Were Promised Jetpacks commit themselves to producing loud noise it feels absolutely cathartic, because more than six minutes were spent coiling before the release. The prolonged windup absolutely works.

This momentum is immediately lost on “I Keep it Composed”, which is entirely inoffensive but plodding. Eventually it gets louder in the last 30 seconds. The next song,”Peace Sign”, adheres to the exact same formula. “Night Terror” could have been the fourth best song on fellow Scotsmen, Franz Ferdinand’s, self-titled debut, and it would have made more sequential sense.

After demonstrating solid execution on an opening one-two punch, Unravelling just trots out midtempo song after midtempo song. The whole album is a very warm pot that never quite boils over, and yet track 10, “Peace of Mind” is a supremely pretty instrumental track that manages to build pressure, explode and decompress in a completely satisfactory manner.

Absolutely check out Unraveling. It’s a serviceable, highly competent example of modern rock music, but it could have been great. These individual tracks should be all over any seasonal playlists, they pair excellently with cool weather, warm coffee and changing leaves, and they work incredibly well when plucked from the frustrating mire.

Unravelling is fine, but it could have been great with just a few more moments of urgency.

 

 

 

Irish power pop band seem like Big Stars

The #1s(pronounced number ones, not hashtag ones) are a power pop band from Ireland, and their eponymous album is one of the best rock releases of the year.

The Number Ones, is one of 2014’s most re-listenable albums, as it rapid fires hook after hook after hook and never sounds less than exhilarating.

These are bite-sized pieces of bubblegum about girls and heartache, not groundbreaking adventures, but they’re well-executed and seem self-aware of the tropes their mining which keeps things from getting rote.

The #1s’ name is reminiscent of Big Star’s debut album, Number 1 Record, but their music seems more influenced by Cheap Trick, The Strokes, The Ramones (The 1,2,3,4! countdown on “Sixteen” in particular) or even the Alex Chilton-adoring Replacements than Big Star.

While the songwriting and hooks are polished, the #1s’ sounds is decidedly fuzzy, and it gives the album an early Smith Westerns-type charm. Many of the songs on the album last less than two minutes, Each song is present to bludgeon you with a hook, then politely move on so the next song can take its turn.

These catchy, pared-down tunes are particularly welcome in 2014’s sonic landscape. 2014 is a year when the esoteric FKA Twig put out one of the most well-regarded pop albums of the year, and reliable garage-rocker Ty Segall put out an excellent, but sprawling double album.

Ultimately, The Number Ones‘ thrills are surface-level but substantial and make for one of the year’s finest guitar pop albums.

New album is kind of a Tuff listen.

King Tuff’s new release boasts increased quality of production, but it is fairly lacking in terms of quality overall.

Black Moon Spell,King Tuff’s follow-up to 2012’s awesome, eponymous release is a sizable disappointment, especially after the extremely enjoyable King Tuff.

Whereas, King Tuff seemed to draw aural inspiration from ’60s garage rock and British Invasion bands, Kyle Thomas, King Tuff’s government name, seems to have taken the primary inspiration for Black Moon Spell from hair metal.

The guitar sounds on this album sound crisp, clean and beefy, which isn’t an inherently bad thing, but King Tuff opened with the cheekily titled “Anthem”, and the slop was part of the charm. Black Moon Spell opens with “Black Moon Spell”, which does an excellent job of aping the sound of an arena-shaking anthem, but without the requisite hook.

However, it isn’t just a new sound that makes this the weakest album in King Tuff’s body of work, Black Moon Spell is equally marred by what hasn’t changed. Thomas’ lyrics have always skewed toward the humorous or absurd, but on this album the jokes fall flat.

“Headbanger” is an ode to a headbanging girl accompanied by headbanging music. It doesn’t come across as funny, it comes across as sub-Tenacious D genre pastiche. With sophomoric humor intact, but fleeting songwriting chops, it is incredibly hard to enjoy parts of this album.

This album is also done a disservice by its self-referential nature. “Beautiful Thing” would seem to be a sequel to the previous album’s thoroughly excellent, “Bad Thing”. “Bad Thing” is an excellent song that managed to make a sentiment of self-loathing into a fist-pumping earworm, “Beautiful Thing” celebrates an object of affection, but manages to sound hollow and listless.The songs on King Tuff are just so thoroughly better that I have no idea why Thomas would intentionally compare and contrast his two most recent albums.

Black Moon Spell briefly meanders into familiar sonic territory with “I love you Ugly”, but doesn’t spend the time there doing anything worthwhile. Things are pared down to King Tuff‘s production values, and the virtues of some ugliness are extolled, but it’s more of a simple jingle than a song, and after its 61-second duration it’s on to the next big, glossy track.

It’s clear this album was intended to be funny, tuneful and, most importantly, RAWK! With its burly guitar sound it definitely does one of those things exceptionally well. Unfortunately, Black Moon Spell captures the brainlessness of the genre it apes, but none of the catchy choruses.

This album would be an underwhelming joke metal album, like a much worse version of the Eagles of Death Metal, but knowing how much more King Tuff is capable of makes it regrettable.