Tragic Cases of Domineering Bro Disease

An obsession with female singers comes with many frustrations. Primarily, someone who loves female vocals has a much smaller pool to draw from when trying to find new bands, just due to the sheer disparity in numbers compared to male vocalists. This is already annoying enough, but it doesn’t end there: many bands have talented women but will waste their singing skills in lieu of a lame, questionably talented generic indie rock bro.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve decided to refer to as “Domineering Bro Disease,” because I couldn’t think of a better name. As far as I can tell, it’s exclusively a male phenomenon, and it’s plagued bands for decades, frequently worsening their creative output in the process. The main symptom of the disease is the result of the fragile male ego. It infects a guy, often a songwriter who helped to create the band, who – because he is a guy and guys have to be in control of everything – feels that the world needs to hear his uninteresting voice interpreting the songs rather than a talented female singer.

This is obviously frustrating for me, because I’m on the record as finding female vocals inherently more interesting than most male vocals. But in some cases, particularly at the more underground level, it hurt the band as well. A great female vocalist is an easy way to get your band spotted and to instantly stand out from the crowd on the local scene. Unfortunately, far too many dudes who think they’re the next Jeff Mangum have destroyed their chances by insisting that they handle the microphone.

Some bands with both genders have been able to find the right balance — Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine come to mind. But too frequently, the domineering bro asserts himself too strongly (part of why I love all-female bands is that there’s no guys around to screw everything up). Here are some of the many bands that could have used a bit more equality (or in some cases, inequality). Hopefully future bands will learn from their mistakes and work together to find a cure for this horrible, debilitating disease.

Jefferson Airplane

Like most people, the two songs I was first familiar with from Jefferson Airplane were “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” each of which were written and sung by Grace Slick, one of the most charismatic women in early rock. Both of these songs are purposeful and combined the band’s psychedelic aesthetic into a unique pop package. Excited to hear more, I downloaded the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow that both songs are found on, only to find that the entire rest of the album was just pointless noodling with listless male vocals.

To this day, Jefferson Airplane drives me insane, because Slick was so clearly the biggest draw for the band. Her two songs were the chart hits from the album and also are the ones that frequently appear on “best songs of all time” lists. At a time when female-fronted rock was in short supply, they had an opportunity to be something truly unique and memorable, but it was squandered because the dudes in the band couldn’t put the pieces together and were too stubborn to step aside and let her rock. Instead, we’re left with “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and a bunch of forgettable songs that non-hippies don’t listen to anymore.

The Pixies

Rock history is littered with domineering bros, but perhaps none were more domineering with less justification than Pixies frontman Black Francis. He was an undeniably talented songwriter who wrote some extremely influential songs, but his yelpy vocals often straddled the fine line between experimental and annoying. Meanwhile, bassist Kim Deal was blessed with one of the finest voices in rock music, a sweet but sinister coo that played perfectly with their noisy instrumentation. She showcased it on “Gigantic” from 1988’s Surfer Rosa, but after that album was mostly relugated to sidekick or background roles while Black Francis took charge. Thankfully Deal escaped the wrath of Francis, leaving the band to form The Breeders, a band that is much better than the Pixies regardless of what anyone tries to tell you.

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley was founded by two child-actors-turned-musicians, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, but it quickly became apparent to anyone with half a brain that Lewis was the star of the band. Her honest lyrics, sugary voice, and good looks quickly made her an indie darling. Despite that, Sennett doggedly inflicted his eighth-rate Elliott Smith voice on their audience, singing multiple songs on otherwise good albums like Take-Offs and Landings and The Execution of All Things. While Lewis’ songs were usually memorable and full of personality, Sennett’s invariably fell flat and quickly found their way onto my “instant skip” list.

In this case, it’s not that the male overshadowed the female, but that he felt the need to draw a shadow at all. Sennett was a fine guitarist who I’m sure was partially responsible for some of their best songs, but he should have been content to stand in the background playing guitar while riding Jenny’s coattails to stardom. Unsurprisingly, since the band broke up Lewis has had success as a solo artist and partnering with Jonathan Rice in Jenny and Johnny while Sennett now fronts the presumably crappy indie band The Elected.

Galaxie 500

Galaxie 500 made some of the most atmospheric and influential music of the late 80s and early 90s, using their love of The Velvet Underground to craft a slow-paced sound now known as “slowcore.” The band was fronted by guitarist Dean Wareham, who sang almost all of their songs. His nervous, jittery vocals suited the band’s songs about alienation and isolation quite well, but they still could have used more vocal turns by bassist Naomi Yang. The only two songs she sang over the band’s three albums were two of their best: On Fire‘s “Another Day” and This is our Music’s jawdropping cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling.”

Yang’s vocals suited the band’s hazy sound, and the band would have benefited from having another voice to mix up their songs a bit more. For a band that has occasionally been criticized for being too repetitive with their sound, Yang was an obvious answer that got overlooked.

The Dead Weather

A lot of the hype for supergroup The Dead Weather came from it being another Jack White side project. However, the band worked a lot better as a vehicle for The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, whose hellcat vocals finally got a chance to shine in a full-band atmosphere compared to the minimalism of her other group. The group’s best songs like “Gasoline” and “Hang You from the Heavens” are the ones where Mosshart leads the way, followed by the ones where both she and White play off of each other. The band’s worst songs are when White obligatorily takes the lead by himself. Mosshart’s vocals are passionate, full of attitude, and sound fresh while the overexposed White’s often sound like self-parody from his days with The White Stripes and usually just consist of him yelling attempts at catch phrases.

Allo Darlin’ – “Europe”

Listen on Soundcloud

In the last few years, it seems like the line between “indie” pop and just regular pop has been blurred. Bands like Sleigh Bells that started off in the blogosphere and on indie sites like Pitchfork have popped up in car commercials and on Saturday Night Live, stages that used to be reserved for only the most mainstream rock/pop artists. This year, artists like Grimes have made great pop albums that are influenced as much by Mariah Carey as they are by obscure 80s bands.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time it seems like the initial spirit of indie pop — which used pop structures but also had more emotional, honest lyrics than mainstream pop — has sort of disappeared in lieu of an increasing obsession with pure hooks and adrenaline. I can like poppy music, but an argument I’ve had on Facebook and elsewhere is that the “pop” should never come at the expense of a true emotional connection with the music.

All this is why I’m madly in love with Allo Darlin’s new album Europe. The band, fronted by Australian Elizabeth Morris, is very much a throwback to earlier indie pop bands like Tiger Trap that expertly combined catchy pop melodies with genuine emotion. Europe is their second full-length, and it’s full of non-stop beautiful pop with jangly guitars, heartfelt singing, and honest, clever lyrics. While it sometimes sounds like other indie bands are auditioning for the next iPod commercial, the music of Allo Darlin’ feels refreshingly genuine. It’s not what anyone would call ambitious or daring, but part of its charm is its simplicity in an era of music that seems to be defined increasingly by gimmicks.

Musically, the band invites easy comparison to other sweet lyric-driven indie pop bands like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura. The band’s arrangements are usually pretty straight-forward, with the typical guitar/bass/drums along with some occasional ukelele and strings. However, what really distinguishes the band is Morris, who is an extremely likable singer.

Morris’ songs are able to transcend the pejorative “twee” label due to her great voice and knack for storytelling. The lyrics on Europe often seem like real-life narratives, especially on “Tallulah,” which is the one song on the album that features just Morris and her ukelele. The word “ukelele” usually induces groans from me and others, but her lyrics elevate “Tallulah” and make it one of the best songs on the album, one that perfectly captures its bittersweet feelings on relationships and music. “I’m wondering if I’ve already heard all the songs that will mean something,” Morris sighs. “And I’m wondering if I’ve already met all the people that will mean something.”

Europe is peppered with little lyrical details that make the narratives feel real. Music is referenced frequently — standout track “The Letter” mentions the Silver Jews, while the aforementioned “Tallulah” is a reference to the album by the Go-Betweens (or possibly twee band Tallulah Gosh — both can be seen as influences on Allo Darlin’s music). As the title suggests, there are also a lot of geographical references as Morris seems to go on a tour throughout the continent on the album. She also returns to her homeland on stellar lead single “Capricornia,” which matches the album’s feelings of place and love with jangly, upbeat guitars.

On final track “My Sweet Friend,” Morris sings “a record is not just a record; records can hold memories.” Europe is a record that seems to hold a lot of them, and poignant moments like that are what makes it my favorite pop album of the year so far.

The Noise Made By People Playlist #1

Welcome to the blog’s inaugural playlist. Using the magic of 8tracks, this seemed like a convenient way for me to write about and share the music I’ve been listening to lately. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new music (partly to be trendy and partly because I’m bored of a lot of the old music I have), but I also am always digging around in the past to find stuff that I haven’t heard before. The playlist reflects that, with an eclectic mix of songs old and new.

Listen to the playlist on 8tracks: http://8tracks.com/joshe2424/the-noise-made-by-people-playlist-1

1. Frankie Rose – “Interstellar” (2012)

Frankie Rose made a name for herself playing the type of lo-fi noisy pop that has been extremely popular the last few years as a member of Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and finally as a frontwoman with a backing band in Frankie Rose and the Outs. This year she released her first album under her solo name, Interstellar, where she ditches that aesthetic in favor of glossy, chillwave style synth pop. The new Frankie Rose is slicker, but on the title and lead track she shows she hasn’t completely changed, as the song’s first minute of plaintive synths explodes into a loud, sugary chorus.

2. Flown – “Almost Human” (2012)

Meanwhile, Frankie’s former backing band, The Outs, has changed their style in a much more extreme way, playing tunes inspired by classic heavy metal like Black Sabbath with some riot grrrl undertones. “Almost Human” (which you can download at their bandcamp page) is only the second song they’ve released, but already shows them settling into a comfortable groove with an immediate thunderous guitar riff and some excellent vocal harmonies. This band is playing a style I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time and I’m hoping to hear a lot more from them in the future.

3. The Fall – “The Classical” (1982)

The lead track from The Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour, “The Classical” is pretty much a perfect rock song. The first thing that jumps out is the incredible rhythm the song has thanks to a great bass line played by Steve Hanley and the band’s two-drum set-up on the song. Then comes frontman Mark E. Smith and his free-form, misanthropic lyrics that tear down pop culture and society in hilariously quotable fashion, giving the song that crucial rock element of anger that I always think fuels a band to greater heights. With 29 studio albums and a ton of singles, The Fall have one of the most immense discographies of any band, so given how much I love this song I have a feeling they’ll be keeping me busy for awhile.

4. Julia Holter – “Für Felix” (2012)

Julia Holter’s latest album Ekstasis is full of well-crafted songs that aren’t quite ambient but aren’t quite folk or pop either. “Für Felix”, written for her dog on his last days, starts with some strings but she gradually adds on the instrumentation as the song grows before settling into a lovely 90 second instrumental outro.

5. Nite Jewel – “In the Dark” (2012)

Ramona Gonzalez, aka Nite Jewel, generally lives up to her artist name, playing r&b influenced synth-pop that’s suitable for late night listening. Ballad “In the Dark” is one of the subtlest moments on the album, mostly showcasing Gonzalez’s vocals above simple synths and a memorable chorus. This isn’t the kind of flashy song that typically will show up on year-end best of lists, but it’s pretty much perfectly executed and has been stuck in my head for a few days now.

6. Ponytail – “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)” (2008)

I’ve recently gotten into Baltimore art-rockers Ponytail, who just broke up last year. Their 2008 album Ice Cream Spiritual is a great blast of exhilarating rock with an artsy twist that comes from lead singer Molly Siegel, whose abstract vocalizing will either fascinate you or drive you insane. “Celebrate the Body Electric” starts with a pulsating, simple guitar riff which eventually gives way to seven minutes of noisy, chaotic fun thanks to the unique combination of Dustin Wong’s inventive guitar playing and Siegel’s ADHD vocals. I’m guessing a lot of people will skip this one, but I find this band really exciting and fun.

7. Chairlift – “Met Before” (2012)

I mentioned in a previous post how catchy some of the song’s on Chairlift’s latest album Something are. While some of the songs on the album were bizarre and quirky, “Met Before” is more straight forward, but as a result is also the album’s most anthemic moment thanks to its sparking synths and a nice vocal turn from singer Carolyn Polachek.

8. Throwing Muses – “Red Shoes” (1991)

Throwing Muses are one of the most underrated bands of all time — an influential, ambitious group that is one of the few bands that can stake a claim to being truly original. I’ve been very into them lately, especially their 1991 album The Real Ramona that is the best combination of singer Kristin Hersch’s oddball songwriting and band member Tanya Donnelly’s pop craft that she would later showcase as the frontwoman for Belly. “Red Shoes” has Herch’s lyrics which are always hard to pin down, but is also accessible thanks to a bright guitar part and bass line along with some of Donnelly’s patented harmonies.

9. Mind Spiders – “Wait For Us” (2012)

Texas punks Mind Spiders play loud, no-frills garage rock with extra percussion thanks to a pair of drummers. “Wait for Us” is simple and straightforward, but that’s refreshing these days, and the the band piles on the noise and feedback in the second half of the song as it builds into a roaring climax.

10. Cate Le Bon – “The Man I Wanted” (2012)

“The Man I Wanted” is the closest Cate Le Bon comes to directly channeling Nico, one of her primary influences. The song has a slow tempo and its instrumentation isn’t as flashy as most moments on Le Bon’s most recent album Cyrk, but it has poignant lyrics and what I think is her best vocal performance on the album (I really enjoy the way she pronounces certain words with her accent).

11. John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey – “Civil War Correspondent” (1996)

I’m pretty much always listening to some PJ Harvey, due to the depth, variety, and consistent greatness of her catalogue. Lately I’ve finally gotten into Dance Hall With Louse Point, her underrated 1996 collaboration with John Parish. At the time the album was mostly dismissed, largely because PJ was coming off an incredible run of albums and people had little interest in what was perceived as an artsy side project for the singer. However, now I think it stands up with some of her best work. “Civil War Correspondent” starts with a noisy guitar riff but then fades into a more atmospheric song that is carried by PJ’s always incredible vocals.

12. Christian Mistress – “Black to Gold” (2012)

For those wanting a burst of rock, Christian Mistress bring it in full force with a sound indebted largely to classic metal bands like Iron Maiden. Frontwoman Christine Davis brings the right amount of pizzazz to the band and really carries them on “Black to Gold,” which has crushing metal riffs and drumming but is also accessible and borderline pop in its structure.

13. Team Dresch – “She’s Amazing” (1995)

“She’s Amazing” is the kind of song I’m talking about whenever I discuss how female bands can make songs with a certain amount of power that other bands can’t. Sung about a positive female media role model who “many people will try to destroy”, this song is extremely uplifting and feels important to the band and listener on a whole different level from most music.  It’s one of several great songs on Team Dresch’s lost punk classic Personal Best, which I’ve been listening to a lot the last month or so.

14. Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents” (2012)

Sharon Van Etten has sort of an ordinary charm to her that I think makes her music more authentic and real as a result. “Serpents” is the most straight-forward rock song on her latest album Tramp, and it comes from the always welcome tradition of trashing a former abusive boyfriend.

15. Grimes – “Be a Body” (2012)

Claire Boucher’s Visions is so far the best pop album of the year, and in a just universe where actual craft was rewarded instead of image and appealing to the masses it would certainly be tearing up the pop charts. “Be a Body” is one of her many inventive pop songs on the album, and it’s mostly due to Boucher and her malleable voice, which can go from sounding dark and mysterious to high and girly, usually in the span of the same song.

16. The Breeders – “Safari” (1992)

I had usually ignored EPs by bands for some reason, so I’m just now getting into The Breeders’ Safari EP. For fans of the band, it’s notable for being the only release by them that included both Tanya Donnelly (making her second appearance on this playlist) and Kelley Deal. That combination pays dividends, especially on the title track which is one of their most psychedelic, angular tracks, with noisy dissonant guitar, minimal lyrics, but still some pop in there thanks to Kim Deal’s sweet voice.

Thanks for listening/reading and I hope to make this a recurring thing in the future!

The Men: “Open Your Heart” (or: how derivative is too derivative?)

For fans of rock music, Brooklyn foursome The Men’s new album Open Your Heart has been one of the most anticipated albums of the year. The band plays the kind of no-frills straight up rock that I’ve been complaining about not hearing in seemingly every post on this blog, with lots of noise and little in the way of pretension or cutesiness. With the album riding a wave of strong reviews and hype, I listened to it hoping to finally be blown away and to hear the type of rock music that I’ve been craving for so long.

In a way, Open Your Heart does deliver that, as nobody can complain that the band’s sound isn’t noisy or energetic enough. Yet, I hate this album, in the way that I only can when something infringes on what I believe are the basic tenets of great rock music and gets rewarded for it anyways.

The problem with The Men is that everything they do is completely derivative. Open Your Heart is being praised for being a diverse album with songs of many different genres, but in reality it’s more like songs of many different bands — namely more innovative, talented bands that The Men shamelessly pilfer in creating this album. On the title track they rip off The Replacements and especially the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love.” On “Ex-Dreams” they rip off Sonic Youth. On “Turn it Around” they rip off The Buzzcocks again. On “Presence” they rip off Spacemen 3. Literally every song on this album is just a copy of a better song by a better band.

In this way, The Men remind me a lot of Yuck, another band that succeeded last year by borrowing a lot of sounds from the past. However, I like Yuck because they put their own original spin on the bands they’re influenced by. They may have been guilty of sounding like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, but they still had an identifiable aesthetic that was their own thanks to their youthful lyrics and enthusiasm. More importantly, Yuck were also able to write good, melodic songs, which allowed them to carve out their own identity as well.

The Men don’t do any of that, and that is what I find lacking most in Open Your Heart. It isn’t just that “Ex-Dreams” borrows from Sonic Youth, it’s that it sounds exactly like Sonic Youth, right down to replicating Thurston Moore’s semi-spoken vocal style, and brings nothing else to the table besides that. It goes beyond merely being influenced by Sonic Youth — it completely misappropriates their aesthetic.

In this sense, The Men’s unremarkable band name is oddly fitting. On Open Your Heart, they sound completely anonymous. They’re so focused on emulating other bands that they never form their own identity. The music is loud and often fast-paced in the way that we associate with rock music, but it’s completely devoid of another crucial rock ingredient, which is personality. It doesn’t sound like the work of four musicians who have a purpose in what they’re doing; it sounds like the work of ciphers who have filtered through a list of influences and are now transmitting them in a less interesting way.

I imagine this stuff doesn’t matter for most people. They’ll enjoy Open Your Heart because they like Sonic Youth or the Buzzcocks and want to hear more music that sounds like them. Personally, few things bother me more than the kind of music on Open Your Heart, the kind that presents itself as exciting and daring when in reality it’s just a shallow retread of better music that has already been made. It makes me feel even more angry when bands like this get critical acclaim and make money while truly original, interesting bands go unnoticed. Whether they intended it or not, The Men are basically profiting on the love people have for bands like Sonic Youth, The Buzzcocks, and The Replacements, and something about that makes me feel a bit dirty.

In 2012, it’s hard for any band to be completely original, but there is a way to have clear influences in your sound without completely copying someone else. On Open Your Heart, The Men are content to merely replicate bands they like instead of trying to sound like themselves, and the result is an unoriginal album that sounds more like the set of a cover band than one that writes their own music. I’d rather just listen to some songs by previous great rock bands on shuffle than hear this band’s mediocre take on them.

Deep Thoughts: Should Today’s Music Be Angrier?

We live in tumultuous times. The economy is in the crapper. Jobs are really hard to find. There’s also all the usual stuff, like politicians being politicians, anti-intellectualism running rampant, and other general persistent awfulness like the always reliable stupidity of people. If you’re in a band, you probably have even more to complain about: people are stealing your music via file sharing sites, there’s a massive amount of competition, and even if you break out of the local scene, chances are you’re much less successful than Nickelback and BrokenCYDE.

That’s why I find it odd that if you were to send someone from the future a bunch of indie music from the last year or two, and have them judge our time period based solely on that music, chances are they would think everything was super. They would hear a lot of nice synth sounds, some fluffy indie pop, and whatever Bon Iver is gargling about. They would detect very little of the unrest and uncertainty that I think is defining life among my age group in 2012.

In the past it seems like a good chunk of music could function as a historical record. When I think of the 60’s, I think of a lot of protest music along with all the hippie peace/love messages that appeared in more mainstream pop. I associate the late 70’s very strongly with the punk movement. When I think 90’s, I usually think of Nirvana, who were heralded as speaking for their generation in a unique way.

The thing I think all of these bands or movements have in common is that there was a purpose to the music. It needed to exist and wasn’t disposable. In each case, it was used to articulate something that wasn’t quite being articulated anywhere else, and I think that’s what caused each example to strike a nerve with the general population. The music is still remembered and listened to today because something about it resonated deeply with people beyond a surface level — it wasn’t just “music”, it was almost more like a way of life for the listeners.

When I look at indie music today, it’s hard to find any artist with a similar effect on its audience. Perhaps the band that has the most unified support is Arcade Fire, who have released three highly acclaimed albums now and are beginning to achieve some mainstream success to go with it.  But the problem with Arcade Fire for me is one that plagues most of the other highly acclaimed bands of the last decade or so: there’s no edge to their music, no real purpose behind anything they do other than just making stuff that sounds good. If I had never heard an Arcade Fire song, my life would basically be the exact same as it is now.

The emotion that I think Arcade Fire and so many of the other acclaimed recent bands (Animal Collective, Modest Mouse, you name it) are missing is anger. For me at least, anger is one of the most unifying human emotions there is. When I love the same thing as someone, that’s cool, but I feel a true connection to someone when we both really hate something, especially if it’s something that most other people like. And I think most music that has stood the test of time has had that pissed-off element to it: a lot of 60’s music, early punk and Nirvana were rooted in anger at the musical (and political) status quo. The reason that they’ve all stood the test of time is that they stood for something; they voiced a certain displeasure at the way things were and frustrated people agreed with them.

One of my all-time favorite songs is “Entertain” by Sleater-Kinney, off their 2005 album The Woods. The reason I love it so much (beyond the awesome drumming) is that it’s just so angry. Carrie Brownstein’s manic vocal delivery and lyrics sell the song, which completely rips apart the backwards-looking indie scenesters of the day:

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984
Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore
It’s better than before
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new with 1972
Where is the fuck you?
Where’s the black and blue

“Entertain” admittedly goes after rather low-hanging fruit, but I don’t care because it’s so dead-on in its criticism of many bands of that time and this time. It made me think “THANK YOU” that someone finally said what I had been wanting to see said for so long. And since then, “Entertain” has sort of become my musical M.O.

A lot of my favorite rock music has that element of anger in it somewhere: Sleater-Kinney, early PJ Harvey, Helium, Bikini Kill (or any other riot grrrl band), Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Big Black, The Fall, etc. It’s something that I think the greatest rock music has, and conspicuously none of these bands have been active in the last five years (except for PJ Harvey, who did make a fairly angry, indignant album with Let England Shake last year).

At some point, I’m confident that this kind of great rock music will come back, because these things tend to go in cycles. So far this year, there’s been a slight resurgence thanks to Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory, which I didn’t think was an amazing album but it at least attempted to shake up the scene a little bit. It gave me some hope that this phenomenon is being seen by people who can actually play music and want things to be different. Right now, I think indie rock needs a savior, a truly great rock band that can save me from artsy pop, toothless faux-rock, and beardy folk.

Tiger Trap

There’s few words in the English vernacular that I hate more than “twee.” If you’re not familiar, according to the top result on Urban Dictionary, twee means “something that is sweet, almost to the point of being sickeningly so.” In music, it’s been used to describe fey, cutesy pop bands that play non-threatening, inoffensive music for lame sweater-wearing indie kids to sip tea to. I have a hard time explaining my hatred for the word, but something about the way it sounds and the people it’s used to describe drives me nuts.

Of course, this is all leading into me liking one of the bands that is synonymous with twee pop — the short-lived all-female foursome Tiger Trap, who were on the K Records label that housed most of the top twee bands. Named for a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, the group played energetic, sugary sweet noise-pop songs that are unabashedly girly, almost always about liking boys and sung in an almost child-like way by frontwoman Rose Melberg.  They only were in existence for about a year, with most of their songs compiled on the 1993 release Tiger Trap.

Tiger Trap has made me think a lot over the past few months, because they’re quite different from music I typically like and am trumpeting on the blog. I rarely enjoy pure pop and I like music to have an element of danger or risk to it — yet I found myself loving Tiger Trap, who make music that is about as threatening as a kitten. They were somehow able to transcend all of my twee hate and pop music preconceptions.

Eventually, I came to a realization: A band can take a lot of risks and actually be quite bold without necessarily appearing that way on the surface. Tiger Trap was released in 1993, which I consider an incredibly strong year for rock music, particularly if it involved women trying to balance the male-dominated field: PJ Harvey released one of my favorite rock albums ever with Rid of Me, the Breeders released Last Splash, Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville. All the while, Riot Grrrl was beginning to enter the mainstream consciousness. Yet, in that same year, Tiger Trap released this collection of disarmingly innocent pop songs.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, despite how innocuous they seem on the surface, Tiger Trap were a pretty adventurous, gutsy band. They were, dare I say it, punk. There’s something very rebellious to me about them releasing such a non-rebellious collection of songs at perhaps the peak of feminist politics in rock music. In its own way, it’s a statement that they could make whatever music they want, regardless of what the current trend was.

All that helps give Tiger Trap a timeless, nostalgic feel that might be why it evokes more meaning to me than typical pop music. It doesn’t seem attached to specific eras of music and has aged superbly as a result. It makes me think of being a kid on the playground, of summer days playing outside, and a bunch of other things that I don’t really experience anymore and are rarely communicated in music. While listening to them, I can practically hear the ice cream truck come jingling by and remember my excitement as I ran out to buy a bomb pop without putting my shoes on.

The songs are also obviously a big part of Tiger Trap’s charm. It’s brief, with 12 songs clocking in at a scant 30 minutes, but I consider Tiger Trap to be a classic guitar pop album, one that can be seen as a direct influence on indie bands of today like Best Coast that traffic in similarly sunny, carefree territory. Almost every song has a memorable guitar riff and hook, which combined with the child-like lyrics and vocals make the band impossible to resist, even for a malcontent, soulless bastard like myself. Tiger Trap has the power to turn even the most jaded pop-music skeptic into a believer.

January Music Round-Up

January is typically a slow month for new music releases, but a few in the last month piqued my interest. I’d say it’s a pretty good start, mostly since I can’t remember any albums released last January and at least a couple from this month will probably be in my rotation throughout the year. I’ll go alphabetically, so as not to disorient any readers.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
The Welsh singer’s second album comes after a tour with St. Vincent, and it’s easy to see why the two hit the road together: Le Bon covers similar territory to Annie Clark, playing songs that sound somewhat coy but have a dark sense of humor and are prone to exploding into blasts of noisy guitar. Le Bon doesn’t quite have the ambitious arrangements that St. Vincent does, but her songs are more personal and allow her to develop a distinct and quirky persona throughout the album. Le Bon’s voice garners fairly obvious comparisons to Nico and it gives Cyrk more of a throwback feel that reminds me a lot of self-titled era Velvet Underground (if Nico had stayed with the band and provided all the vocals).  Despite the comparisons, I think Le Bon is a unique voice and talent, with a knack for clever lyrics and finding just the right place in a song to add some spice to the arrangement with guitar. Cyrk was the album I listened to the most in January and I anticipate listening to it throughout the rest of the year.

Track you should legally obtain: “Fold the Cloth”

Chairlift – Something

This New York duo, comprising singer Carolyn Polachek and instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly broke out slightly a few years ago when their song “Bruises” was featured on an iPod commercial. Being featured on an iPod commercial usually isn’t usually a good sign for me, but I’m surprisingly enjoying their sophomore effort Something. The band’s sound is defined by their love of cheesy 80’s synthesizer and electronic sounds, along with Polachek’s vocals which tend to hover and remain detached from her musical surroundings. The band is at their best when making goofy, off-beat pop songs like “Amanaemonesia,” which is apparently about a made-up disease and “Sidewalk Safari” which fronts its corny instrumentation with a humorously disturbing story of running down someone with a car. For the most part, Something accomplishes what it sets out to do: It’s an odd and catchy indie-pop album that has gotten multiple songs stuck in my head constantly.

Track you should legally obtain: “Amanaemonesia”

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings started as more of an indie pop outfit, but frontman Dylan Baldi decided to take things in a different direction for their second album Attack on Memory. In this case, the album title is literal, as the band sounds completely different thanks to a new aggressive approach inspired by bands like Wipers. The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose production I am a notable sucker for, and its sound is refreshingly straight-forward rock, with none of the annoying affectations that are so present in indie music today. Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings is held back by Baldi himself: His adolescent singing style is grating to me and his attempts at sounding “aggressive” come off more as a kid playing dress-up than an artist who is experiencing legitimate angst. My favorite parts of Attack on Memory are when he’s singing pop songs with a bit of rock edge (“Stay Useless”) or when he fades into the background a bit, like the 9-minute “Wasted Days” which features an extended instrumental section, becoming this album’s “Youth of America.” Despite my issues with some of the singing, I respect Attack on Memory for being something different, both for the band and current indie music as a whole.

Track you should legally obtain: “Wasted Days”

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The Swedish sister pair of Johanna and Clara Söderberg plays a familiar brand of rustic folk that is obviously indebted to bands like Fleet Foxes (they initially got attention through a Fleet Foxes cover posted on youtube). They have a phenomenal gift for vocal harmonies and for the most part it’s hard (even for me) not to like them a little bit, given their obvious skills and youth. Most of The Lion’s Roar follows the formula they do well, with folk songs with sweet harmonies that rise into climactic choruses. At times I think the songs can linger a bit too long, and, even though they’re not signed to the label, they sometimes fall into the trap of sounding like a generic over-serious Saddle Creek band, right down to the obligatory Conor Oberst cameo in the final track. I imagine for a lot of people that love this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve folk, The Lion’s Roar will be one of their favorites of the year, but for me it’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable collection of songs.

Track you should legally obtain: “Emmylou”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey sparked a billion think-pieces when she exploded last year with the viral hit “Video Games.” The way with which Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, transformed herself into a 50’s-type character irked a lot of people apparently, and it culminated in a Saturday Night Live performance that was the subject of a vast amount of media scrutiny. Personally, I don’t really have anything against her (a musician changing her identity to gain pop stardom? THE HORROR!) but I generally enjoyed following all the inevitable hype/backlash media cycles for the last few months. Now her debut album finally drops, and while it contains the still-excellent “Video Games”, nothing else approaches that level. The title track comes closest (mostly because it’s basically the same song), but the rest of Born to Die contains forgettable tracks in a similar vein or even worse, disastrous attempts at more up-tempo pop tracks like the trainwreck “Off to the Races,” which sounds almost like self-parody. For the most part, the biggest question Born to Die raises is how something this dull and uninteresting created so much passionate discussion from either side.

Track you should legally obtain: “Video Games” if for some reason you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned as I attempt to keep up to date with new music throughout the year.