“The Bluest Star” is an Indie Pop Throwback With Lots of Heart

One of my favorite albums from 2016 was Free Cake For Every Creature’s Talking Quietly of Anything With You, a charming little 22-minute home recording that was a welcome throwback to heart-on-your-sleeve indie pop artists like Rose Melberg. Katie Bennett’s band is back with The Bluest Star, which expands on her songwriting vision while maintaining its winning, genuine appeal.

“Genuine” is the word I always come back to with Free Cake, and it’s a bit of a subjective thing that not everyone even cares about. When I listen to Bennett’s music, I feel like she believes everything that she says and it’s coming from a real place. This isn’t just because it’s lo-fi home recorded music, but because of how she writes and performs: her lyrics are peppered with little details that help insert the listener into her world, and she sings them as if she’s whispering secrets in your ear.

Compared to the brevity of her last album, The Bluest Star almost feels sprawling with its 14 songs and 38 minutes. It mostly stays true to the style she established on previous efforts, but the extra space lets Bennett develop something of a universe of her own, complete with a roster of rich characters and small moments of pathos. While not strictly connected in a single linear story, there is a sense of a narrative woven together by all of the songs, which look back on long car rides, romances, and friendships.

While many artists focus on small details in their lyrics, Bennett likes to look at the littler things within the little things. “Be Home Soon” is about a ride home from work and starts with a perfect character moment: “eating Clementines on the  subway/put the peels on my blue jeans.” Another highlight, “Sunday Afternoon,” needs fewer words to describe a perfect lazy day where she is “washed in the nothing, happily.” Those blissful songs are matched by sadder tunes like “Goodbye, Unsilently” which describe the other end of friendships as they fade away.

The focus on smallness also applies to the music, which is mostly a humble mix of reverbed guitar and light percussion (as well as that nice banjo part on “In Your Car”). It isn’t overly ambitious, but it is another step forward for Bennett, who has found the right sound to showcase her lyrics instead of burying them beneath a bunch of musical tricks. Everything in her music just fits together really well, and it’s why The Bluest Star feels so honest and real compared to a lot of contemporary indie pop.

“How You Remind Me” is a Perfect Song

For as long as I’ve been interested in music, Nickelback have been a punching bag for people who want to feel superior in their taste to others. Part of this makes sense: Nickelback are a very bad band who make atrocious music that deserves to be mocked at every turn, yet are irritatingly popular, making them an easy target and emblematic of Everything That is Wrong With Music. On the other hand, I started to almost feel bad for Chad Kroeger and co., who have never really professed to being more than a dumb rock band that makes big loud noises for people who don’t really want to engage with music on a deeply intellectual level.

The way I see it, there are a lot of awful bands deserving of mockery out there, and Nickelback’s crimes against music don’t really rate to me. It’s easy for me to just not pay attention to Nickelback, but there are bands who I don’t think are much better who are often shoved in my face as an example of “real music.” One of these is The Black Keys, and their drummer Patrick Carney went off on Nickelback in a Rolling Stone story a couple years ago:

Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world… So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it’s like, ‘Fuck you,’ honestly.

You can hear the superiority and condescension coming from this guy whose band is a fourth-rate White Stripes knockoff. The Black Keys have every bit of Nickelback’s cynicism and lack of originality while sounding even worse. Every song is like one garbage guitar riff played 100 times in a row. And yet he has the temerity to classify his band as “real rock and roll” — this is what is worthy of scorn, not Nickelback minding their own business with their crummy rock music (thanks for your contributions to the Bojack Horseman soundtrack, though).

He does make a decent point about post-grunge, which is like the Mariana Trench of music — it goes lower than humans can possibly fathom, and at the very bottom there are hideous things that we can’t even comprehend (Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” comes to mind). But within this foul genre of music, Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” holds up as a landmark work that is perfection of a specific aesthetic, much in the way that Loveless and Pet Sounds are.

The style of “How You Remind Me” happens to be one that I don’t really enjoy — this grunty, faux-masculine, whiny brand of rock where every element of the music sounds like it’s been run through a garbage disposal. I prefer listening to women sing about dreams. At the same time, I’m a man who can appreciate the very best of a specific thing, and “How You Remind Me” is indisputably Nickelback’s magnum opus and the high-point of this type of rock music.  While the rest of post-grunge is truly offensive and makes one wonder how centuries of human evolution reached this point, “How You Remind Me” reaches the level of being borderline tolerable.

“How You Remind Me,” is, at its core, a song about not wanting to be reminded of who you really are. Its lyrics are a key part of its success because of their relatability: who among us hasn’t cut it as a wise man or as a poor man stealing? Kroeger’s goat-like voice conveys a man who has reached rock bottom and has nothing left to lose. The repeated lyric, “are we having fun yet?,” asks a potent question to the listener, who is left to decide for themselves whether or not Kroeger is, in fact, having fun yet. I personally think he isn’t, but the beauty of “How You Remind Me” is in its ambiguity.

The song’s sound is a bracing mix of many varied influences: Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, and also Pearl Jam. It’s loud in a way that is typically associated with rock music, but the guitar sound lacks any kind of edge or meaning. This emptiness is, intentionally or unintentionally, a vital part of its status as the definitive crappy adolescent post-grunge song. It captures a certain angsty youthful state where you have extreme feelings and frustrations that feel real in the moment but are really just idiotic and pointless. It spawned many imitators, but none were ever able to do it this well, partly because Nickelback have an undeniable ability to craft a hook or they never would have gotten on the radio.

Am I saying that “How You Remind Me” is the greatest song of all time? Of course not. I think The Beatles have a few songs that are better, and others would point to songs by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Mozart, etc. But I maintain that it is a perfect song in the sense that it achieves everything it is trying to do. It has a certain bleakness and impotence that makes it the quintessential post-grunge song, ahead of even Scott Stapp’s impressive body of work. I don’t quite classify it as “so bad it’s good” — more like it’s so good at being bad.

Infinite Void’s “Endless Waves” is a Perfect Farewell

In what is becoming a disturbing trend, I’m in love with a band that doesn’t exist anymore. Australia’s Infinite Void have already broken up prior to the release of their second full-length, Endless Waves, which casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings. On the other hand, there is some value in breaking up at the top of your game. Endless Waves is such a perfect distillation of this band’s style and such a strong set of songs start to finish that it would have proved difficult to improve upon if they tried.

Out of all the subjective elements of music, maybe the biggest one is what makes a great rock song. Lately, I’ve been really into bands that sound a lot like Infinite Void: aggressive yet ethereal with a bit of a goth tinge coming from the rumbling bass lines and reverbed guitar. Alicia Sayes’ vocals sound more withdrawn and distant, which leads to the band’s distinct sound that falls somewhere in between punk and dream pop.

The lyrics don’t feel like a major emphasis of this album that is really about the sound, but they focus on the types of motifs that fit music that is dark and dreamy — for example, the opening song “Dark Dreams” is about dark dreams. “Face in the Window” is another highlight, and the titular image is one that is a bit unsettling and creepy. That leads into an instrumental, “The Long Night,” followed by “Reflection,” which hypnotizes with its spacious sound and rolling bass. It’s one of my favorite sequences on an album this year.

It can be a bit tough to convince anyone to listen to an album by a band that is already broken up — it can feel like you’re inviting people to a party that already happened. And there is the sad reality that other music writers won’t be incentivized to write about or promote this album, which is going to keep it obscure. It’s too bad, because none of that has any impact on the actual music, which is so solidly written, thoughtfully sequenced, and has all these compelling tensions in it. Infinite Void deserve a wider cult following that they may never get.

“Bon Voyage” is the Sound of Melody Prochet’s Imagination

There are many elements in Bon Voyage, the new album by Melody’s Echo Chamber, that I should dislike. There’s the Ron Burgundy flute section in “Cross Your Heart,” the scat singing in “Cross Your Heart,” that autotuned part in “Desert Horse,” the out-of-place metal guitar riff in “Desert Horse,” the screeching vocals in “Desert Horse,” that guy randomly shouting in a different language in “Desert Horse,” and all of the other things in “Desert Horse.”

This album is an absolute mess and I love it. After years of listening and writing and being kind of fatigued with music at times, it is so refreshing to hear an album that is so different, so unexpected, so creative. Bon Voyage is the follow-up to Melody Prochet’s self-titled 2013 album, and it definitely feels like she is cramming five years of kooky ideas into a relatively short (seven songs, 33 minutes) album. The closest comparison I can think of is Blueberry Boat by the Fiery Furnaces — that was another album that was cryptic and baffling and left the listener unsure if the creators were geniuses or just incoherent musicians.

Bon Voyage is even more remarkable because Prochet’s last album, while enjoyable, was fairly safe and predictable. It was classic shoegazey dream pop, like the noisier side of Broadcast, and the songs all went the obvious way and sounded like a lot of other bands. On this album, the songs never go the way you expect them to; they careen back and forth between different melodies, rhythms, genres and tempos, never settling in one place or on one idea. This makes it jarring and disorienting, and as hinted in the first paragraph, it’s unlikely that any one listener will enjoy every single thing Prochet throws at them on this album.

But isn’t that how it should be? The sound of someone’s imagination shouldn’t always be exactly what we want or expect — that would be excruciatingly boring, which is one word that can’t be applied to Bon Voyage whether you love it or hate it. This is a purely forward-thinking album in the shoegaze/dream pop realm that is too often about worshiping the past.

Here’s a weird thing about Bon Voyage: the parts I mentioned in the first paragraph, all things I normally hate in music, might be my favorite parts of the album. While initially off-putting, after several listens I embraced this album’s eccentricities because it was so fun to hear an artist just try everything and not care. Instead of turning the album off, they made me want to keep listening to hear what she would do next.

People who enjoy doing such things can try to psychoanalyze Prochet and figure out why she made an album like this. There was the relatively high-profile break-up with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala (who produced her last album) and a vague serious accident that left her with broken vertebrae and a brain aneurysm. With six years in between albums, there was obviously a lot of pent-up creativity. It all came out in a gloriously scattered way, and I think the music largely speaks for itself without needing any narratives attached to it.

All of the quirks of this album are the obvious talking points, which can overshadow that Prochet is still very good at traditional singing and songwriting. The back half of Bon Voyage chills out a bit and is more the straight-forward dream pop that she was previously known for, and even its weirdest songs have addictive hooks in them. This is a lot more than some random hodgepodge of sounds: there is a real internal logic to what Prochet is doing, and every second of this album is imbued with the intoxicating spirit of freedom and creativity.

Oh Right, This is a Music Blog

When I’m not complaining about social media and the state of our society, I occasionally do find time to indulge in the expressive artistic medium commonly referred to as “music.” This art form uses sound to convey messages about the artists themselves or the world they live in, and it is easily accessible via websites like Bandcamp or Spotify — or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even see it be performed in a live setting. Given my enjoyment of the medium and the artists who practice it, I realized this could be the type of thing I could share on this website, with the understanding that other people who love music could find my posts and share in my enjoyment of it.

Here are some of the releases from this year (2018) that I’ve been listening to recently, along with some incisive and articulate commentary explaining to you why I enjoy them.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

The genre of “pop-punk” is often either bad pop or watered-down punk. In a Poem Unlimited finds a nice sweet spot between those two genres — its sound mixes pop hooks and vocals with the occasional burst of abrasive noise, while its lyrics have the sharp confrontational edge of punk. Mentally, I began thinking of this album as “punk pop.”

Meghan Remy’s lyrics are politically charged, but not in the way that feels like she’s talking down to you or telling you what you already know. The key is that she grounds her politics in narratives, like the revenge fable “Velvet 4 Sale,” which is just classic storytelling with a message attached to it instead of a strident scream at the listener that demands them to feel a certain way. “M.A.H.” is another highlight that serves as a scathing critique of the Obama administration and a personal story of losing faith in your country and the people who run it.

On “Incidental Boogie,” Remy whispers “I gotta tell you something you don’t want to hear; it’s the truth and that’s never easy to hear.” That is kind of the mission statement for In a Poem Unlimited, which is pop music that isn’t content to just be pleasant to listen to.

Beach House – “7”

Beach House remains a uniquely vexing band. Skeptics rag on them for making the same song over and over, while many of their fans will say they’re happy to hear the same Beach House song forever. Meanwhile, I argue that this band has evolved and changed in a subtle way that hasn’t really been noted by the general public.

A couple years ago, I went nuts for their previous album, the grievously underrated masterpiece Thank Your Lucky Stars. It just had a different feeling than their other music to me, and 7 has a similar intangible quality, where it sounds only like Beach House, yet conjures up completely different emotions than a lot of their previous work. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it shows the band continuing to evolve and experiment with their tried-and-true sound.

As someone who loves to laboriously explain why I enjoy things, this band has frustrated me because it’s been hard to come up with satisfying reasons for why their music is so effective. Now I’m starting to understand that not being able to explain why they’re so good is what makes them so good.

Wax Idols – Happy Ending

This is the somewhat delayed follow-up to American Tragic, which was one of my favorite albums of 2015. In the lead-up to this album, I found myself listening to all of Wax Idols’ albums and realizing that this is one of the best rock bands going today. Frontwoman Hether Fortune is charismatic and has constantly progressed as a songwriter, and their sound has evolved into a smooth mix of goth, pop, punk and shoegaze.

Happy Ending is the most poppy effort by the band, but it doesn’t back off from dark subject matter. “Mausoleum” turns the feeling of loss and memory into a catchy pop jingle; “Too Late” is a chipper song about suicide and realizing that you’ve wasted your entire life. This is rock music that is enjoyable to listen to and also packs an emotional wallop.

Lithics – Mating Surfaces

The rhythm-centric punk sound and jittery deadpan vocals of Lithics make for an easy comparison to The Fall if their singer were a woman who was less racist and dead. They’ve channeled a lot of different punk groups into a sound that feels unique enough, mostly because of the nearly spoken vocals and abstract lyrics.

I’m sure many listeners will find this band to be unlistenable nonsense, but that’s what makes it feel more like genuine punk, the kind that alienates closeminded people. Music that is this unapologetically weird and energetic doesn’t come around too often, and it’s always something I’ll embrace.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I’m a pretty stereotypical anti-country guy and have a healthy skepticism for any pop album that I feel is being graded on a curve by indie fans, like where they praise it to the heavens just because it isn’t an active assault on the senses (see: Lorde’s Melodrama). I also just really hate the city of Nashville. So I’m not exactly the target audience for this Kacey Musgraves album.

But there is an appealing simplicity to Golden Hour that makes me kind of understand why people like country music. Musgraves being a great singer helps, but it’s her lyrics that stand out: they’re basic and unpretentious, capturing every-day life while also not falling into the typical country tropes of talking down to the audience. There are some awkward half-hearted attempts at country radio songs on this album, like “High Horse,” that detract from the proceedings, but if you just ignore those this is a strong album that transcends genre stereotypes.

Musgraves is at her best on songs like “Slow Burn” that are gentle, simple, and oddly psychedelic.

An Explanation For Why I Quit a Bad Website

Since I deleted my Twitter account a couple weeks ago, many have been wondering why I chose to walk away from the website at the height of my fame, abandoning my nearly 300 adoring followers who read all of my tweets in rapt admiration. I’ve had people approach me on the street and ask me: “Why, Josh? Why did you do it?” So even though I had no plans of making the cliché post about my departure, I figured I owe it to all the fans and kids out there who look up to me.

My reason had nothing to do with any individual people, except possibly Kanye West, but more to do with how the site was starting to function due to changes Twitter made to its service. I’ll focus on the two big ones that I feel fundamentally altered Twitter and turned it from a Reasonably Good Website into an Actually Quite Bad Website.

The Character Limit

Recently, Twitter doubled its character limit from 140 to 280, in order to allow people to “more thoroughly express themselves and engage in the discussions they love” or some nonsense like that. This was met with mostly anger, but the outrage largely subsided after a few weeks as I guess most people got used to it. I never did, though.

A moment of over-analysis: I feel like the 140 character limit was important not just because of brevity and readability, but because it made people think about what they were saying and how best to say it. Now even with 140, Twitter was not necessarily a beacon of intellectual conversation, but tweets were often funny, incisive, and it felt different from other social media and writing.

Right after 280 was installed, there was a noticeable downgrade in tweet quality. Now tweets often took up twice as much space on the timeline, and it’s not like the extra words actually accomplished anything. Tweets didn’t have more clarity, they weren’t funnier, and they didn’t provide more information. All this change did was give people the freedom to write poorly.

So that change was part of why I quit, since it made my timeline into a mess, but it wasn’t the complete dealbreaker that reason #2 was.

Our Algorithm Thinks You Might Like This Algorithm

No, the change that nearly singlehandedly destroyed Twitter for me was the switch to an algorithm timeline, which was unrolled a few months ago by a company that seemingly has no idea why anyone uses its service. This was the single biggest reason I found myself looking at my timeline and getting actively irritated, because the entire point of Twitter was that you got to curate your own timeline and choose who showed up in it.

Messing with the linear timeline and inserting tweets from people you don’t follow or care about was bad enough, but the way Twitter chose which tweets showed up in your timeline was the truly offensive part. Much like Facebook, it decided it based on how many “engagements” and retweets and likes a tweet had, which meant you were always getting garbage memes or popular tweets by famous people shoved into your timeline.

More over-analysis: part of what I (and I suspect others) enjoyed about Twitter is that it was an egalitarian medium. For a long time, a tweet from some nobody like me would show up in your timeline and look exactly the same as a tweet from a celebrity with 10 million followers. The cool implication here is that my thoughts and opinions are just as worthwhile as theirs, or at least just as worthy of consideration.

This change destroyed that concept of the site. Pretty much overnight after instituting the algorithm, the site turned into a popularity contest (well, more than it already was) and a place that became disproportionately dominated by celebrities who aren’t actually interesting or intelligent. And I’ve gone off on this subject before, but the assumption that the best tweets you most want to see are the ones with the highest RT/fav numbers is the opposite of correct. The stuff that gets RT’d is usually pandering, hysteric, or obvious, and people began to tweet more in those tones to get high engagement numbers.

A sentiment I used to see about Twitter vs. Facebook is that Facebook was where you were stuck with boring people you knew and Twitter was where you could meet cool strangers. The algorithm timeline turned Twitter into the worst of both: a site where you were stuck with strangers you don’t like. It’s worse than Facebook. It might be the worst site on the entire internet. I haven’t even mentioned Trump yet.

It’s all a bummer because Twitter was an enjoyable place for a long time. I met (kind of) some people there that I liked talking to, and I think I even became a better writer through crafting tweets and almost developing a character in a sense. But the site has turned into something dark and ugly and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I realized one day that I was spending a lot of time looking at this thing that I didn’t even like when I could be reading a book.

The decision to quit entirely was maybe excessive, but I’m a firm believer in giving up when things get tough or unpleasant. Knowing when to quit is one of my few real life skills. In this case, it just felt like the site wasn’t doing anything positive for me anymore. I was thinking about it too much (in case that’s not obvious by now) and it stopped being fun.

And on some level, I began to feel like maybe we’re not meant to have a constant stream of people’s opinions running on our phone at all times, and I was tired of spending so much time just reacting to things and reading other people’s reactions. So I deleted my account while everyone was yammering about the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and haven’t really missed it much since. I haven’t seen anything about Trump in weeks. I don’t know what Kanye is tweeting about. I barely know what that “Laurel and Yanni” thing was. I read a book last week and enjoyed it.

“The Man Who Knew Too Little” Might Know More Than We Think

A couple days ago, the New York Times published “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” a story about Erik Hagerman, who has withdrawn completely from hearing about the news since the election of Trump. There were a variety of responses to this, mostly negative about either the article or its subject. Some felt it was a waste for the Times to use precious article space on this doofus. Others felt that the man’s method of complete ignorance and withdrawal was loathsome, a luxury afforded by his privilege and total lack of regard for others.

I found the article fascinating for a variety of reasons. I was amused at the lengths Hagerman went to in order to avoid hearing the news, and the article approaches his grand experiment with a proper “look at this guy” tone, particularly when he tells a friend “I’m now officially cross with you” when she breaks his self-imposed “blockade.” But beneath the chuckles at his eccentricities, there is some real insight here into privilege and the way people use it.

The prevailing opinion on Hagerman is that he is privileged and his blockade is the workings of a selfish man who wants to shut off from the world instead of confronting problems head-on. This is true to an extent, but also an oversimplification that doesn’t draw a key distinction: that following the news is not the same thing as actually being politically active. In fact, following the news passively and commenting on it — while also being fully aware that it only minimally affects you — is its own form of privilege that Hagerman has opted out of.

It is hard to call Hagerman’s blockade admirable, but there is an element of self-awareness to it that I respect. For various reasons, not everyone is cut out to be a political actor, but many people (including me) continue to comment on politics on social media and in real life as if it makes any difference. Hagerman, on the other hand, acknowledges his limitations, plainly stating that he never did anything productive in his years of following politics. While this isn’t the type of attitude that will win person of the year awards, his awareness of his shortcomings is something that others can learn from and I am sort of envious of it.

So this article caused some self-reflection, in that I’m a privileged guy who follows the news a lot and have really been no more productive in terms of creating actual change than Hagerman has been while obliviously listening to white noise in his headphones at the coffee shop. I’ve had an internal struggle lately over whether I should be doing more or less. As much as part of me wants to be the type of person who really makes a difference, there is also the truth that I can’t really stomach a lot of politics, am deeply cynical about the way the system works, and frankly just lack the networking ability to really make anything happen. My contributions have been limited to random donations, which is something that can be done independent of plugging into the gross news cycle.

Hagerman has figured something out here: that shutting up and going away is possibly more valuable than the counterproductive patterns I and many others engage in, of treating politics like entertainment and spending so much of our day reacting to circumstances outside of our control. Even though he likely reached this conclusion through self-preservation, there is real value in shutting off the 24/7 news faucet. Of course, those who have the passion and drive to make a difference in politics should do so. For the rest of us, sticking our head in the sand might be an improvement.