Don’t be Frightened by the length. Grab the deluxe edition.

Frightened Rabbit’s latest offering is a collection of brooding, generally pretty songs acutely aware that decay is an inevitable conclusion and atrophy is the natural order of things.

This could easily turn into a slog, but Painting of a Panic Attack is a fine album and sometimes even a fun one. There’s a peace to the universal nature of the bleakness that permeates the record and somehow makes songs about existing in the face of inescapable decline seem triumphant.

The idea of resigning one’s self to disappointment and eventual demise, but realizing the intervening years still have to believed and approaching them with something resembling optimism is a theme in just about every song on the album.

And when that optimism is explicitly expressed, it feels particularly earned because everything else is so dire.

This is why I would recommend the deluxe edition, which includes 3 extra songs and vastly upgrades the closing track.

“Die Like a Rich Boy” is a class conscious spin on “Thantatopsis” and honestly a bit boring.

“Lick of Paint” which closes out the deluxe version is an earnest seesaw folk song with some really lovely harmonizing. It concerns the patchwork, ultimately cosmetic  improvements that go into refurbishing self and relationships without making fundamental change.

It’s also much catchier, and on an album that can sometimes be a bit strapped for hooks, is very welcome.

The extension makes structural sense, as well. The lively “Break” becomes a halfway-point and a respite from gentle, dour noises, and “Lump Street” provides enough of a jolt to carry the next three tracks straight through to the better closing song.

 

 

Still, even the standard version is a solid collection of glum tunes, acerbic observation and tales of questionable sobriety that I’d recommend.

Of course that means in other words, it’s a Frightened Rabbit album, but it does have some distinguishing features.

Painting of a Panic Attack finds the Scottish indie rockers in gentle, restrained form.

Not that Midnight Organ Fight was a stomping guitar album, but this  album is particularly docile. Even the songs that prominently feature guitar don’t exactly rock. Instead, spacey shimmers generally supply a sense of texture.

The sense of distance is underscored at points by John Carpenter-esque icy synths that show up throughout the album– to particularly strong effect on the standout”Lump Street”.

Aaron Dessner of The National who handled production also provides some sonic flourish. The cresting guitar-strumming, piano-twinkling intro to the excellent “An Otherwise Disappointing Life” is unmistakably out of The National’s playbook. Painting… sounds rich and fully realized throughout which helps keep things interesting.

Overall, I didn’t love Painting of a Panic Attack, but I absolutely love some tracks on it, and even when it isn’t great  its attempts to grapple with some weighty topics are still admirable. Definitely worth a listen.

 

 

Get a Life (of Pablo)

After months of buildup that included Twitter beefs, constantly evolving tracklists, Fashion Week previews and last second studio tinkering, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West’s seventh studio album is finally out.

After a couple of listens, it’s clear West was right when he said via Twitter TLOP wasn’t the greatest album of all time. It’s almost certainly not even the best Kanye West album of all time.

 

 

However, it is a thoroughly entertaining and interesting album. There’s a handful of songs that can go toe-to-toe with anything in the canon of Kanye, but despite the final version of the album being an 18-song behemoth, it somehow TLOP still feels kind of slight. It’s jumbled, not entirely cohesive and the whole seems to be just a little bit less than the sum of its parts should be.

Of course, this album is still quite good.

In defense of the seemingly lower stakes, it does seem being free of the thematic weight of his last two releases allowed West to be a person instead of a capital-A Artist or hedonistic, industrial God.

“Real Friends” and “Wolves” sound like genuine introspection and thoughts about the human condition, and while “I Love Kanye” is both a total goof off and the logical endpoint for West’s egomania, it’s tongue-in-cheek, actually funny and displays a self-awareness that’s always a little surprising. The First Family of E! is also all over this album. Kim, North and Saint all get plenty of mentions, and it seems like being 38 and having a growing family genuinely occupies a lot of West’s head space in a good way.

It’s not the epic scope of a show businesses orchestral tragedy, an album full of bangers or a meditation on being an English professor’s son in the Southside of Chicago, but it is interesting to get more of a glimpse into the day-to-day and mentality of a larger than life and occasionally cartoonish superstar.

As always with a Kanye release, thinking about the production choices is half the fun of a first listen. TLOP uses familiar Kanye West tools: soul samples, gospel vocals, vocal manipulation, but in a way that still seems alien to his body of work. This sounds fresh and different

Although it’s kind of an odd duck, TLOP definitely sounds like a Kanye West album. It’s tough to imagine any other artist creating what sounds like a combination of Late Registration and Yeezus–exactly as odd of a marriage as it sounds, but more functional than expected. Cold, angry industrial tones and gospel vocals share a lot of space on this album, and it makes for a really interesting moments.

It might not be a statement, but it’s a collection of solid songs with a couple classics thrown in. Nothing sucks, and despite being 18-songs long, the album doesn’t drag. It might not be West’s absolute best, but it’s among his most interesting, and I’m sure sometime in the near future, I’ll improbably be hearing a whole lot of tracks that sound like “Father Stretch My Hands” on the radio, because no one spurs popular hip-hop quite like West.

Wilcoast to Coast: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

A couple of American aquarium drinkers, took a break from assassin-ing down the avenue to discuss Wilco’s crowning achievement.

As always, I’m going through Wilco’s body of work with the aid of my friend, Jimi, who actually knows things about Wilco, why certain production decisions were made, whereas I have a passable familiarity with the band and their antics.

It took about three months to complete this edition, and boy, is it not in anyway reflected reflected by the actual content.

Still, without further ado, here’s our Yankee Hotel Foxtrot analysis, enjoy.

 

Ben: We’re here!

It’s peak Wilco. The band’s non-debatable high water mark, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

It’s one of the most critically fawned over albums of the first decade of the 21st century, and it was made by our milquetoast boys from Belleville.

As we’ve noted in previous rambles, Wilco was not a money-maker for their record label. The band had their champions within the label, but when AOL and Time Warner merged, there was a shakeup, and when the dust settled, things were decidedly non-friendly to a certain gently experimental power pop band.

Still, Wilco pressed on with making YHF, and ironically, as the AOL merger would eventually end Wilco’s deal with Warner, the band work-shopped their ideas online, and after a buyout, an online release to thorough adulation would be the first indicator that Wilco had finally created a commercially successful album.

And what an album it is.

To me, this album is The White Album, but shrouded in a gentle, electronic corona. From open to close this album contains some of Wilco’s best melodies and obtuse lyrics that find a surprising emotional resonance.

I adore this album, and I know you do too.

I’m sure my introduction skipped some pertinent information about Jay Bennet and Jeff Tweedy’s Spider-Man v. Venom-like struggle for control of the album, while they collaborated more closely than ever before and popped opiates like Tic Tacs, so feel free to fire away your own opening salvo, and share with me your biggest takeaway from YHF.

 

 

Jimi: Holy shit, what an album this is. I know I’m using my characteristic tact with that statement, but when confronted with an album this good, it cannot be overstated. This is the cornerstone on which Wilco’s legend is built, as well as possibly the greatest album to ever come out of Chicago.

I’m not quite sure I would characterize this as their White Album, which was built on the Beatles fracturing their psyche into four distinct parts. Rather, this is the sound of a band pulling together and collectively firing on all cylinders. Special attention should be paid to the friction between Bennett and Tweedy, however. Sam Jones’s excellent documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” had the good fortune of capturing the recording of the album, from inception to tour. In one of the movie’s most potent scenes, Bennett calls a migraine-ridden Tweedy to the recording studio to work on the mastering of “Ashes of American Flags.” Bennett in particular is obsessing over the orchestral squall that closes the song and the amount of split-seconds that should happen between the end of that section and the piano chords that introduce “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Tweedy just wants the problem solved. The tension between the two is key to the magic of the album: Tweedy writes the killer pop songs, while Bennett’s obsessiveness leads to the level of detail and craftsmanship. Without Tweedy, we wouldn’t have the country-power pop mashup of “Kamera,” while we wouldn’t have the perfectly calibrated climaxes of “Poor Places.” The album simply cannot work without either of them, or the stellar production of noise musician Jim O’Rourke.

My first impression of the album is one of an album that paints an impressionistic portrait of Chicago. People enjoy this album practically everywhere, but for us Chicagoans, these songs can’t help but bring up sense memories. “Jesus, Etc.” is a late-night walk downtown with a lover; “Kamera” cruises down Lake Shore Drive on a spring afternoon; and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” is a killer concert at Lincoln Hall.

At least that’s what struck me on first listen. Does the Chicago connection work for you? We both know there are a multitude of great tracks on this album (and I’d like to give every one of them at least a passing mention), but are there any moments that don’t work for you?

Ben: First, I’m going to defend my White Album stance. “Radio Cure” has a sudden feudal setting that reminds me of “Cry Baby Cry”, but it goes deeper.
While, Bennett and Tweedy sequestered themselves and collaborated, the two men fiercely fought for control of the album, and that unwillingness to compromise is what makes me think of The Beatles’ most fractured album.
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s my bizarre matriculation about the South that lasted for five years, or some personal failing, but aside from knowing Wilco is a Chicago band and the occasionally reference to the city in their work, I don’t know if I would have drawn the connection organically.

I love, love, love “Heavy Metal Drummer”, but I sometimes wonder if it would’ve been better as a standalone lark. It’s tremendous on its own, but as a piece of this album, its always seemed odd to me.

Also, worth noting, but I’ve probably listened to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” at least once a week every week since I was 12.

Any personal connections you’ve made to this album? What works the best? What comes the closest to not working for you, because I suspect there is nothing you find completely without function?

Jimi: I feel this is more like Wilco’s Sgt. Pepper’s, where they use sonic space to conjure up physical space, but that’s my personal opinion.

I understand some of the hate towards “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which has a bifurcated reputation as both one of the band’s most reviled “early” songs and as one of their most underrated. In “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, the band talks about how, with this album, they would take each song and deconstruct it until they ended up at the most “interesting” result. You can see this in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which starts as a folk ballad in the movie to become a noise-pop epic (before finding second life as a soul standard, courtesy of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound), and in “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” which seemed destined to transmute into the arena rock stomper that Wilco eventually turned it into. “Heavy Metal Drummer” never seems to have gotten this treatment. However, for me, this is what I like to call the “mask dropping moment,” where we’re reminded that Wilco, for all their formal experimentation, are a band that genuinely likes playing together. It gets the details of local bands in the Chicago suburbs right. Plus, on a sentimental note, it’s the first Wilco song I ever heard, while you and I were driving through Canada as high school freshmen.

For me, the highest moments of this album are among the best in 2000s music. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is shambling, so it takes a few spins to realize how well constructed it is; each seemingly improvised moment is constructed to hit at the right emotional level. The whole thing makes sense when it shouldn’t. “Jesus, Etc.” is a song that by all means shouldn’t work, a country-pop lament with neosoul touches that make it sound like something the Doobie Brothers or ELO would’ve recorded at their most understated. Instead, it’s one of the best songs on the album, philosophical and heartbreaking. “I’m the Man Who Loves You” teases you with a serrated guitar into before turning into a sweet folk jam. “Poor Places” has a slow build to a jaw-dropping moment of realization: “It makes no difference to me.”

As far as things that don’t work, the ballads on the album took me much longer to get into than the other songs. I wasn’t sure when I was first getting into the album at first if this was due to the somewhat alienating nature of the album or if it was what I call “the ballad problem” that most young bands have. That is, unlike faster songs, slower ones can’t pull you in with their energy so they have to pull you in some other way (for illustration, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary, Queen of Arkansas” from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and then listen to “Racing in the Street” from Darkness on the Edge of Town). But the more I listened to this album, the more I realized how much the ballads pack into such a small space. “Ashes of American Flags” is a power ballad changed into something far more interesting: a hazy summer lament. “Radio Cure” is only five minutes, but packs enough in there for repeated listens.

What do you think this album improved on from Summerteeth? Why do you think this album resonated in a way their previous albums had not?

Ben: On Summerteeth a lot of the experimental audio flourishes seemed purely cosmetic. The buzzing frequencies on “I’m Always in Love” seem like a weird but enjoyable add-on to a gentle pop song.

On YHF, the sonic weirdness does some serious heavy lifting for songs’ melodies. The chiming and whirring on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” establish the song’s hook, they aren’t just there for texture. Quick sidebar: I’ve always though Miss Havisham was undoubtedly a huge fan of that track.

And, of course, like all good, great and above average Wilco albums, YHF‘s success is largely determined by its hooks. For all the oddball sounds on the album, almost every song can be hummed absentmindedly.

Wilco simply married some of best songs with some of the band’s most interesting instrumentation and had painstaking production preside over the union. It really is as simple as a good band hitting all their marks, I think.

What’s your theory for the band’s unexpected transcendence?

Also, picking the 20 best Wilco songs seems pretty easy until we come to this album, but hacking away at YHF is daunting. What tracks make your 20?

I’ve always heard this album is what gave major labels more patience with experiment art-rock bands in the mid-aughts. Do you think we really have this album to thank for some of the stronger entries into the Flaming Lips’ oeuvre? Aside from that, does this album have a legacy outside of it being Wilco’s best-loved album? I don’t recall it spamming a wave of breezy, experimental Americana-pop imitators.

Is there any way we can protract discussion of this album for a few more months? In my opinion we’re about to see a pretty steep decline for our next chat.

Jimi: In “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, Rolling Stone critic David Fricke notes that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had to scare Reprise Records when it was delivered because it doesn’t say, upfront, who exactly it is for. Turns out, it appealed to practically everyone. The optimism present in even the darkest songs worked like comfort food at the dawn of an uncertain new millenium. The band really tapped into something elemental about living in America at the dawn of the Bush years. There’s a reason that certain conspiracy-minded listeners claim that the album predicted 9/11 (the album’s intended release date).

In terms of my 20, I could definitely see “Jesus, Etc.” and “Poor Places” having reserved spots on the list. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is certainly up there too. The skewed noise ballad “Ashes of American Flags” only seems to get better with every listen. And if there’s one song I pull out to listen to on its own, it’s “Kamera.”

In terms of this album’s influence, I think it was more important for what it signaled rather than the imitators it spawned. It’s hard to overstate how dire the indie rock situation seemed in the early 2000s. Pavement folded in 1999. Neutral Milk Hotel was just beginning to build up their huge cult, but they had quit years before. Respected alternative groups that had broken big the previous decade (Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) had already started a depressing slide into irrelevance. The White Stripes hadn’t hit it big yet. The Strokes were just gearing up Is This It? for release. Radiohead seemed to be the only 90s holdover that seemed to continue growing with each new release. Then this album came, and it proved that bands could still make money while making mature, difficult albums. And I believe we’re both shortchanging the sonic influence of this album, considering that it led to one of last year’s best albums, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. Both are lushly orchestrated folk albums, with 11 structurally similar tracks.

What songs go in your 20? How do you feel this fits into the indie rock scene of the early 2000s? Any final thoughts on this album?

Ben: I think you’re overselling how dire 2001 was for music.

Jay-z’s best album, The Blueprint, came out on Sept. 11, White Blood Cells was released in July of 2001 and both “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” would become massive hit, a truly strange but gleeful of Montreal album came out on famed indie label Elephant 6, Daft Punk released their best album, Discovery, as well.

There were also albums by Modest Mouse, The Avalanches, God Speed! You Black Emperor, The Microphones, Drive-By Truckers, New Pornographers and Outkast that all came out in either ’00 or ’01.

Still, you’re point that a lot of radio-friendly alt bands were yielding diminishing returns. After a locust-like dormancy, my beloved Weezer released their self-titled green album. (And yes, there is going to be a ‘ I barely know ‘er feature where I dive into all the Weezer albums).

Two years earlier, Beck released Midnite Vultures, and while it is hands down the best Beck album, oh man, was it ever not received that way, and he wouldn’t rehab his reputation until ’02s Sea Change.

There was definitely a changing of the guard feeling, and Wilco’s warm poptimism was definitely a retreat for a lot of people who considered themselves musically in the know.

As far as songs that would crack my top 20 Wilco tunes, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Radio Cure” and “Jesus, Etc” are my no-brainers. “Kamera”, “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” are all delightful, but probably don’t quite make the list.

 

I think this album had a profound effect on the immediate music landscape in a couple of ways.

One, albums like Sea Change and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots both got made and received studio support. Bands such as Spoon and Band of Horses were able to find their audience and labels could rest assured that slightly experimental Americana had an audience.

Two, the Internet played a huge role in the genesis of this album. Radiohead promoted Kid A with an internet leak, and in my opinion use of the Internet is a big part of the bands’ indelible link.
Wilco sort of leaked this album online, but they also used the net to workshop their songs and provide sort of progress reports on how the album is coming along. It seems damn prescient in 2016, when teasers, studio photo instagrams, Twitter and surprise album streams are a major part of how music is consumed.

I’m a little upset we’re done talking about YHF, because I’m not as wild about what comes next, but hopefully your enthusiasm will carry the day.

 

…or Grimey, as she liked to be called

I’m a little late in getting this post up, because I’ve probably been listening to the new Grimes record in high frequency for the past two weeks, but this is my blog, and I’ll articulate my love for music whenever I feel like it.

Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes, broke through in 2012, with the album Visions. It was a weird, ethereal but undeniably catchy take on EDM.

It’s success also allowed the not at all reticent Boucher to develop a bit of a cult of personality.

Almost four years later, Art Angels is finally out, and it’s a wildly different album.

The best way to describe it as the Yeezus of girl-pop albums. It’s aggressive, weird pop made entirely to the artist’s whims.

 

 

Of course, critics of the album might knock it for cribbing some obvious pop influences, but with lyrics about butterflies coping with deforestation, an entire song without English lyrics, and the catchiest reference to eye laceration since “Debaser” it’s hard to see this as a shameless bid for mainstream success or as being anything other than Boucher making art that pleases her.

Besides there’s fluctuations between genre country, EDM, rock and Taiwanese rap all enjoy moments.

This album finds Grimes pushing her music in new directions, with Boucher singing in ways I had no ideas she could.

Boucher produces her voice as another instrument in the mix. She bizarrely channels Chris Cornell on “California”, she beys like a hound to provide structure to “Flesh Without Blood” and simply sings some inimitably catchy hooks on songs such as “Belly of the Beat”.

The eclectic vocals are exemplified on “Kill v. Maim”. There’s bubble gum cheerleader chants, screams, chipmunk hooks and a conspicuous gender fluidity to the lyrics that makes for a truly singular listening experience.

It’s nothing like the slow-building, dreamy synth pop that came before it, but Art Angels is it’s own extremely dense, extremely enjoyable pop oddity.

Grimes bats 1.000 on this album, as there is not a single unenjoyable track.

This is quite possibly my favorite album of the year.

 

Titus Andronicus’ newest is a most laudable tragedy

Titus Andronicus’ newest album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, is a 29-song, 93-minute behemoth. As most double-albums of this scope are wont to be, it is a rock opera.  It tells the story of a man who meets his exact double, and discovers his double is of the opposite disposition. Also, for the most part, it’s a damn fine album.

As with most rock operas, I’m not entirely sure it’s imperative to fully grasp the machinations of the plot to enjoy the album, but I’m definitely eager to see the sometimes murky plot cohesively diagrammed.

A more succinct, detailed summary–along with a ton of insight into the circumstances of what could be one of the last decade’s best rock group’s swan song — can be found in this Grantland piece.

The moribund doppelgänger plot is naturally a way for Titus Andronicus’,principal singer/songwriter, Patrick Stickles, to explore the opposing highs and lows of his depression.The dichotomous nature of the album is further reinforced by the presence of both typical Titus Andronicus guitar-anthem-shout-along songs and more ornate arrangements.

In interviews, Stickles has compared the more baroque tracks to Lou Reed’s Berlin and the straightforward howlers to Zen Arcade.

However, instead of Hüsker Dü or Lour Reed, this album’s kindred spirit is really Brian Wilson, because as are eggs to Danny DeVito, mania v. depression is just The Most Laudable Tragedy’s jumping off point. Titus Andronicus’ latest offering is a sprawling, spiraling effort, which draws elements from every one of the band’s past releases to create something close to punk rock’s SMiLE.

Instead of Wilson’s muses, beaches, morality, love, America and the passage of time, Stickles draws from New Jersey, Shakespeare, “Seinfeld”, Terrordomes and eating disorders. Also, whereas Wilson’s grapples with wellness were whispers that gradually became more evident, Stickles places his mental health in the forefront of the songs, which include a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind”.

Interestingly, SMiLE and The Most Lamentable Tragedy both repurpose standards–“You Are MY Sunshine” and “Auld Lang Syne” respectively– in interesting ways.

Even with cover songs and standards in the mix, this album is still definitively a Titus Andronicus album. I predict much will be made about the growth and audacity on display, but, for me, this album seems like a natural progression.

While it may seem odd for what is ostensibly a punk rock band from New Jersey to record a grandiose, concept album, it’s important to remember this is a band named after a Shakespearean play, and their debut album contained an almost 6-minute suite called “Arms Against Atrophy”. Plus, the previous two Titus Andronicus albums have been concept albums of sorts.

The strings and brass which punch up a few songs are definitely a change of pace, but considering they’re sometimes backing a man absolutely caterwauling in utter despondency, it’s not a particularly jarring change of pace.

While I have nothing but praise for the execution and ambition, which created The Most Lamentable Tragedy, it’s tough for me to pinpoint exactly how strongly I should endorse this record. It’s sheer size is almost an obnoxious novelty.

There are certainly a multitude of catchy songs, which find triumph in the universal nature of humanity’s dark feelings and dread, which is always a plus, but when I reach Track 14’s intermission, the 78 seconds of silence are appreciated. Titus Andronicus’ brand of music is intense and emotionally draining.

While Titus Andronicus’ music is almost always a joy to hear, 93 minutes might be too much of a good thing. Plus, with an overarching plot and a multitude of heartfelt themes The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a ton to take in.

Still, in smaller doses, this album is much more manageable. I probably can’t unequivocally recommend it to everyone, but ultimately, I suppose The Most Lamentable Tragedy is good album aiming for great things.

For anyone, who has been following Titus Andronicus for a while, or to anyone who is interested in ambitious projects for the sake of shaking the status quo, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is definitely required listening.

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.

A theory about band names

This is a link to a column I wrote for work. In a rambling, semi-coherent way it explains my theory that if a band is named after a place, the population of that place affects a band’s quality. As population increases, the band’s quality decreases.

Although the premise is spoiled, it’s still a sort of funny column and sort of worth reading. I provide several examples, ignore a lot of counterexamples and relied solely on Google for population figures.

Obviously, it’s a modern masterpiece.

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:

 

 

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/q-p7URVUNeQ” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

 

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.

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.

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/pFVdc1K1aSQ?list=PL5jyahL7x5OYnsAJ3EFk-TMd4DGUmwPxe” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

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.