Cold Beat – “Chaos By Invitation”

October 19, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s fitting that the first song on Cold Beat’s newest album, Chaos By Invitation, sounds like no other song the band has made before. “In Motion” is a long, spacious synth ballad that has a feeling of infinity to it — listening to it makes me feel like I’m alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean, looking at an endless horizon. There is an ambiguity in the track that has become one of the hallmarks of Cold Beat’s sound. On one hand, it sounds peaceful and relaxing to be in the ocean, but it’s also frightening to be solitary in a vast expanse.

This is only the third album for the Hannah Lew project, but it has already grown and evolved in ways that few artists do in their entire careers. “In Motion” is a strategic choice as the opening track, because it officially signifies the shift hinted at on their previous album, Into the Air, which started out as familiar guitar-driven rock before ascending into synth-pop territory halfway through. Chaos By Invitation focuses heavily on those synths, and it becomes primarily a solo vehicle for Lew, who recorded it with less collaboration than their previous albums.

The more solo nature of the album and the restriction to mostly synths would seem to imply a more narrow and claustrophobic sound. “In Motion” proves that wrong right out of the gate, and the rest of the album continues to showcase Lew’s ability as a diverse and creative songwriter who is emboldened by working with different resources than she has in the past. “Thin Ice” and “Don’t Touch” are more classic Cold Beat tracks with a spikier sound and anxious lyrics, but then there is “62 Moons,” another dreamier track with evocative lyrics about a relationship that ends with a “fade to black.”

With fewer collaborators, Lew’s singing stands out more on this album than it has in the past. She sings in almost a classical or operatic way, but adapts her voice to the different styles on the album. She reaches a more high-pitched coo on “False Alarm,” which sounds vaguely like a Grimes/Simple Minds collaboration, but she sounds more like an android on a dense electronic track like “Black Licorice.” One of the last songs on the album, “Strawberry Moon,” is like a synthed up version of a classic c86 pop song, and Lew’s voice fits snugly into its upbeat dreamy vibe.

What I most appreciate about Cold Beat is what makes them one of the trickier bands to write about: nothing about their music is obvious. The style they play is difficult to describe in buzzy genre words (electronic-synth-goth-punk-pop?) and Lew’s lyrics, while not being completely cryptic, don’t really lend themselves to the type of easy interpretations that are the bread-and-butter of music blogging. The only obvious parts are how the band changes with every release and how much thought is put into every part of the album, from the construction of the songs to the sequencing. Lew’s project is a model for what rock music should be, and the success of Chaos by Invitation reflects her continued growth and evolution as a songwriter.

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EMA – “Exile in the Outer Ring”

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

The suburbs are a recurring theme in pop culture, and media about them usually centers around a familiar trope: the idea that, beneath the well-trimmed lawns and tranquility, there lies a darkness within the people, who are portrayed as unhappy or desperate even in their seemingly wonderful surroundings. My fear was that EMA’s new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, would cover similar thematic territory as lazy satires like American Beauty and center on that dissonance. Instead, she has made an album that is much more nuanced, much more real, and one that accurately cuts to the heart of a specific type of American existence.

That existence is people living in what she dubs “the outer ring,” an idea she explained in a recent interview with Jezebel:

 To me it’s kind of like the outskirts of a city and what would have once been thought of as the suburbs. The idea of the suburbs is kind of outdated, that kind of affluent, white, homogeneous area. But now in Portland and I think a lot of European and American cities, the inner city is really where the wealth is concentrated and everyone else is getting pushed out. So I’m seeing these spots that I’m calling the outer ring, which could either be a version of utopia or dystopia.

I thought the concept was rather nebulous when I just read her explaining it, but what makes Exile in the Outer Ring such an effective album is how it comes to life in the music. All you have to do is listen to one of the songs and it’s easy to see what the “outer ring” is and what it’s about. It’s conveyed not just through the lyrics, which are full of specific lyrical details like riding in the back of Camrys or people standing outside of casinos, but through the music itself. The grinding industrial sound and squealing guitars evoke images of worn-down buildings and grimy streets, and EMA’s voice captures a feeling of resentment and despair that could boil over at any moment (on some of the more aggressive tracks, like “33 Nihilistic and Female,” it does).

The other obvious pitfall of an album like this is that it could come off as EMA writing about Those People and the Way They Live, which was a problem I had last year with PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project album. She avoids this by inserting herself into the narratives, and using details from her personal life and upbringing in South Dakota that make these songs live and breathe instead of reading like attempts at journalism. I also like that the album isn’t just portraying “the outer ring” simplistically as some nightmarish hellscape. It skews darker overall, but there are also moments of prettiness and humanity amid the ugliness, which makes the album feel very true to life.

This album is also a nice progression for EMA, who blew me away with her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, which I loved because it was an album that was unafraid to get ugly and confront the darker side of human nature. This album is reminiscent of that one in its fearlessness, and it also incorporates parts of what she did on her second album, The Future’s Void, which felt more external and political. Exile in the Outer Ring is like a combination of those two: it’s a bracing blend of personal and political songwriting that is provocative and dark, but also full of life.

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Stereolab in the Age of Trump

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

When I drive, I listen to music from my car’s CD player, which can hold up to six discs at a time. I’m aware that I could easily buy a way to listen to music from a more modern device that could hold a million times more music, but I’m too lazy to get one and part of me likes the old-fashioned CD listening and burning my own discs, which rotate predictably with each trip I make.

With only six slots available, it’s a fierce competition to see which music makes the cut. One of the slots is permanently Loveless, which never gets old and is fun to blare out the windows, but the rest are pretty much up for grabs. Lately, one of my favorite discs has been a collection of my favorite Stereolab songs that I burned a few months ago. I figured Stereolab would make for good “driving music” because of their use of the repetitive motorik beat, which always has the effect of keeping me focused and helps reduce some of the driving anxiety that I still embarrassingly have.

For most of my years as a Stereolab fan, that has been my relationship with their music. Because of the driving beats and lyrics that are often in French, they were my go-to “background” band that I listened to when I needed to get work done and didn’t want to be too distracted by lyrics. Many of my college papers were written to a soundtrack of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements, and Mars Audiac Quintet, but I was usually too focused on the work I was doing to really analyze what the songs meant. I primarily just liked their sound and their style, with the motorik beat, Tim Gane’s noisy guitars and electronics, Laetitia Sadier’s understated singing and the ba-da-ba backing vocals from the late Mary Hansen.

When I’m driving, though, I pay close attention to lyrics, because there isn’t really anything else to distract my brain. And while listening to Stereolab in the car, I started to notice some of the band’s lyrics and they began to really resonate with me, particularly after the election of Trump. I knew the words to some of their songs before, but it took that massive political shitstorm for me to realize that they were much more than some abstract political jargon.

The song that initially sparked this was “Les Yper-Sound,” off Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which had been one of my favorite songs by the band because of its addictive bass groove and its simple lyrics:

You go in that team
I go on this team
Divide everything
A flag or a number
Make ’em opposites
So there’s a reason
Stigmatization
OK now we can fight
Divide everything
Just put it all flat
Justification
OK now you can fight

In the last few months, this has gone from being a song I just enjoyed for its sound to one that I feel describes what is happening on 2017 on a number of levels, despite its being written in 1996. On a macro scale, the song is about pointless nationalism and the way we’ve separated mankind into arbitrary states, countries, etc that are used as reasons to kill each other. But it makes me think a lot about one of my most mulled-over topics, which is the internet’s effect on communication, and how it has resulted in massive tribalism and divisions among people over stuff as stupid as a Ghostbusters movie. This song seems to predict the massive divisiveness that our culture faces now, as well as hinting at a person like Trump being the ultimate benefactor who divides and conquers.

“Ping Pong” is another song that is fun and groovy on the surface, but contains a powerful anti-war message about the costs it has on other cultures while it is used to prop up our economy. At the end, it sarcastically quotes Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy, things will get better naturally. Don’t worry, shut up, sit down, go with it and be happy.” It’s a definitive lyric from the band, because so much of their music is about questioning the status quo, which makes many of their songs feel like anthems for the skeptics and contrarians of the world.

And while a lot of their lyrics could be interpreted as being cynical, there are also songs like “The Noise of Carpet,” which blatantly criticizes “fashionable cynicism” as “the poison they want you to drink.” In tandem with songs like “Ping Pong,” a message emerges in Stereolab’s music: “this world will give you anything,” but it’s also important to be critical and questioning of what other people tell you. I fall back on cynicism a lot, and grumble about how things will never change, so “The Noise of Carpet” is a song that legitimately motivates me to do better. It’s also one of the songs that separates Stereolab from a lot of other politically-minded artists, who are more interested in preaching or pandering to their audience than in actually using their art to help make sense of the world. Even if don’t agree with their politics, the band will make you reconsider ideas that you might have taken for granted.

“Wow and Flutter,” my favorite song by the band, might be the one that feels the most different since the election. Its opening lyrics, “I didn’t question, I didn’t know” capture that level one mindset where you are just accepting what people tell you, especially with regards to the idea of American exceptionalism, which is spoonfed to all of us through various flag-waving rah-rah rituals. Stereolab blow all of that up with three words: “the dinosaur law.” Even the mightiest, who seem “eternal,” eventually will fall. And after the election of Trump, America looks much less mighty than it did before.

The temptation here is to think Stereolab’s music was predictive, much in the way that Radiohead is credited with “predicting” the alienation of the internet generation with OK Computer. The truth is that Stereolab was right the whole time and I just didn’t realize it until I was confronted with it first-hand in the last election, which blew up a lot of what I thought I knew about America and politics. That they resonate now speaks to how smart their lyrics are and, more depressingly, the way history tends to repeat itself as societal problems persist, which can make lyrics written in 1995 feel relevant even 22 years later.

The word, “challenging” is used a lot in music, usually to describe artists who are making aggressively weird sounds that most listeners can’t handle. Stereolab were a challenging band, but in a different way: through their lyrics, they challenged listeners to think harder about the world around them and to question ideas that are deeply ingrained in their culture. That independent spirit was also conveyed with their sound, which embraced peculiarity and was some of the most forward-thinking pop music of its time. It makes them such an enduring band to me, and one that is especially worth revisiting now.

 

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Daddy Issues – “Deep Dream”

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

One of my favorite micro-genres of music for the last few years has been this poppy form of women-fronted grunge, which is inspired by 90s bands like Veruca Salt. The basic sound of distorted guitars with lighter vocals obviously appeals to me, but I also like the subversiveness of these bands, who twist what was a predominately male style of music and reclaim it to tell stories from a different point of view.

There are a bunch of artists making music like this right now, from Colleen Green to Bully to Potty Mouth to Veruca Salt themselves, but Nashville’s Daddy Issues might be the best of the bunch. Everything about this band, from their name to their sludgy riffs to the frank, emotionally complex lyrics, is the epitome of what this style of music is about. If you have an affinity for it like I do (and maybe even if you don’t), Deep Dream will blow you away.

I am wary of putting a great rock band like this into the potentially condescending “women who ROCK” box, but so much of what makes this album unique is how it uses a woman’s perspective to delve into subject matter that most men couldn’t really write about with any sort of authority. “I’m Not” deals with the aftermath of a sexual assault, and sums up what makes this band so good: it has catchy hooks and great harmonies, but is also much more than just a nostalgic grunge tune. There is real meaning and feeling in these songs, and frontwoman Jenna Moynihan conveys it with her voice and lyrics.

While there are more serious songs like that, Daddy Issues also have a sense of humor, as their name suggests. “Dog Years” is in the tried-and-true “I hate my ex” tradition, but takes it to comical heights with some truly savage lyrics; “I hope you choke on your own spit in your own bed” and “you should go home to Chicago and take a long walk off the Navy Pier” stand out. Album opener “Mosquito Bite” covers similar thematic material with a memorable riff and a clever metaphor of an ex that seemed important being “just a mosquito bite.”

But the song that I really geeked out for on this album is a cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” that perfectly reimagines it in their own style, taking a song I had always associated with this very male nostalgia and twisting it into something that feels new. When the song isn’t being sung by one of the “boys” it has a completely different feeling, and it’s the clearest example of how this band revitalizes nostalgic sounds with a fresh perspective.

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Here is Some New Shoegaze For You

July 12, 2017 Leave a comment

This will be a rare post where I keep my rambling to a minimum and just present some music I like for your consideration. I’ve been trying to listen to as much shoegaze as I can on Bandcamp and think these are some of the best releases in the genre from 2017.

Overlake – Fall

This band chose a fitting album title, since their music is firmly in the autumnal style of shoegaze popularized by bands like Yo La Tengo. The trio has a fairly massive sound on some songs, but for the most part this is more subtle shoegaze with hazy guitar and perfect man/woman vocal harmonies.

The Cherry Wave – Shimaru

This group of Scots has a fairly different take on the genre than most that I’ve heard. They ditch the typical breathy vocals for a more post-hardcore style, which is combined with aggressive guitars and drums to make a sound that is like “normal” rock music, but retains the genre’s naturally dreamy, psychedelic qualities. It’s also really loud, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Tashaki Miyaki – The Dream

The Dream is a fairly standard take on the dream pop side of shoegaze that is clearly influenced by bands like Mazzy Star and Best Coast, who each added twinges of country to the style and are both also obsessed with California. Tashaki Miyaki make cinematic ballads about big city dreamers in L.A., but there is a darkness beneath their majestic sound that comes out in their lyrics, which often contain cutting social commentary.

Deafcult – Auras

Australia’s Deafcult has a bunch of guitarists and singers and uses all of them to make loud music that sounds good. Not the most in-depth description, but this is just classic shoegaze executed a high level, and it sounds the way I want it to.

Plant Cell – Flowergaze

Flowergaze is a compilation of tracks this Japanese and Chinese band has been trickling out for the last couple of years. Sort of like Deafcult, they’re a six-piece that goes for a big, expansive sound, with tracks that focus more on instrumentals and are inspired by the natural world.

Las Robertas – Waves of the New

There are a couple bands every year that I’m convinced are making music meant to cater to me personally. Costa Rica’s Las Robertas basically sound like what I wish every band would sound like, with noisy guitars, girl group harmonies, and catchy hooks. This style of sunny psychedelia is fairly common, but few bands have done it this well.

Music is Not a Meritocracy

July 11, 2017 Leave a comment

A lot of independent music discourse centers around the idea of “overlooked” or “under the radar” albums. The example that I notice every year is when Pitchfork releases their middle-of-the-year list of “overlooked” albums, which this year includes some of my favorites (Hand Habits, Sneaks, Kelly Lee Owens), including a couple that I wrote about specifically because I thought they weren’t likely to get attention elsewhere. This Pitchfork list always amuses me because it seems to miss the fact that, in the world of indie music, what makes a band overlooked is that they didn’t get a highly positive review or a flashy profile on Pitchfork.com.

The important thing to remember is that “overlooked” and “obscure” are media-created definitions. All music at one point just exists in the world in isolation, and it’s only media narratives and reactions that determine what music becomes “overlooked” vs. the music that becomes popular or critically acclaimed. It’s also obvious from the world of pop music that success and attention aren’t really correlated with being actually good at making music, but are instead usually determined by some sense of marketability, mass appeal, image, etc.

In independent music, critical acclaim is usually the big factor that determines if a band gets the opportunity to reach listeners and become one of those bands that makes everyone’s year-end list and is considered culturally relevant. But what goes into a band getting that acclaim instead of being one of the “overlooked” bands on the June list is almost entirely arbitrary. It’s decided by critics who write for websites that are more concerned with building a “brand” than honestly evaluating music as art, and who face myriad conflicts of interest.

The biggest issue is that sites like Pitchfork are hopelessly intertwined with the artists they’re supposed to objectively cover. An artist like St. Vincent is essentially part of their brand at this point; they feature her in news pieces and interviews all the time, driving traffic to their website, and she plays at their music festival. So even though her new song, “New York,” is dreadful, Pitchfork is going to pretend that it’s good because they make money off St. Vincent being an acclaimed artist who is synonymous with their hip young people brand.

In addition to this, just like in the world of pop, who gets covered in indie music is more about the image and marketability of an artist than their music. The difference between which band gets a coveted “Best New Music” tag and who gets something like a 7.4 is usually a matter of public relations maneuvering, an artist being friends with the writers, or it’s because the artist is particularly good at self-promotion and has a “personality” that can be sold to readers.

This all makes it sound like Pitchfork are these puppet masters who control everyone’s music taste, which maybe sounds dramatic. But it’s really not so far-fetched. I still remember when Pitchfork did a massive reader’s poll of the best albums from 1997-present, and the results were practically identical to what Pitchfork itself had declared the best albums from that time to be. They’ve created their own base of consumers who share their taste and values, and can probably convince them that almost any band is good with enough editorial work. It’s not that the artists they praise are flagrantly awful, but they are often not any better or worse than artists who get no attention at all. So people hear the artists they recommend and think “this is good,” and might not consider the other artists who could be in that spot instead.

I get asked sometimes why I care so much about the media stuff, and it’s because of that trickle-down effect. It’s undeniable that the music media has a lot of control over which bands reach listeners and which don’t, and in a world where word of mouth is everything, their recommendations set the tone for the discussion. And the more I find bands on Bandcamp or through random Spotify recommendations, the more I suspect that nothing really separates those bands from the highly-covered ones except for the opportunity to be heard and the perception that they’re not important, which is determined by corporations whose goal is to make a profit, not to help music.

Most people aren’t losers like me who have a bunch of free time to sift through Bandcamp and try to find all this uncovered music. They rely on the media to comb through the millions of releases and spotlight the stuff that is worth listening to. But right now, they’re not doing a very good job. Every site’s content is redundant and covering the same tiny swath of music (indie-but-not-too-indie music made in England and the U.S.). Just look at the year-end lists they put up and marvel at how similar they all are. With so much good music out there and given the inherent subjectivity of the medium, it’s hilarious to see everyone decide on the same 20 “best” albums. Rather than embracing the diversity in tastes and perspectives that the internet can theoretically provide, music has mostly become a monoculture where a small number of artists are celebrated and trumpeted as “important” while the rest are thrown into a pile labeled “obscure” and assumed to be oddities that don’t appeal to most listeners.

There are specific types of artists who I notice get very little coverage in today’s media landscape. The ones I like the most are artists like Emma Ruth Rundle, quieter personalities who make subtle music that isn’t politically charged and doesn’t lend itself to crafting the narrative that the media desperately craves to make their reviews seem interesting. There are bands who specialize in certain genres that the media largely ignores or actively treats with disdain, whether it’s shoegaze, goth, metal, etc. And maybe the most glaring example is all the quality artists from foreign countries who make music that is every bit as worthwhile as Americans, but go unnoticed by primarily American and British writers who are busy enough covering what’s happening on their own turf.

There is so much good music out there that it’s impossible to comprehensively cover it all, so some great artists are naturally going to get overlooked. What bothers me is that these overlooked artists are often assumed to be inferior in some way to the artists who arbitrarily get hyped by writers who are often narrow-minded and susceptible to groupthink. There is this underlying assumption in a lot of indie music conversation that this is a meritocracy, that the most talked-about bands earned their coverage because their music was undeniably good. It just isn’t true, and all you have to do is listen.

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Girlpool – “Powerplant”

June 1, 2017 Leave a comment

The first 50 seconds of Girlpool’s new album, Powerplant, sound exactly like I expect them to. Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s whispery voices interlock over soft guitar parts that are similar to their debut effort, Before the World Was Big, which wowed me back in 2015 with its minimalist style that found great power in simplicity. But then something surprising happens in the second part of “123:” a drummer comes in, there’s a loud, soaring chorus and Girlpool evolve in mid-song like a freshly leveled-up Pokemon. Similar to a level 36 Charizard, they’ve grown bigger, stronger, and even learned some new moves.

The decision to add percussion and expand the band’s sound runs an obvious risk: that, by embracing more conventional instrumentation and songcraft, Girlpool will lose what made Before the World Was Big so unique and become just another indie rock band. Tividad and Tucker are keenly aware of this, and much of Powerplant intentionally teeters on the edge of that cliff, only to be brought back to stability by surprising moments that subvert the indie rock form.

The third track, “Corner Store,” has one of those moments. It starts out as a jaunty indie pop song, erupts in a cacophony of noise out of nowhere, then abruptly switches back to the band’s usual sound as if nothing happened. It’s the most obvious example of one of the themes I got out of Before the World Was Big, which is Tucker and Tividad as these vulnerable young voices who are confronting the darkness of the real world in their music. This is emphasized even more on Powerplant, which contrasts their harmonies with noisy guitars and uses quiet/loud dynamics that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pixies or Nirvana album.

Powerplant ends on two if its strongest tracks: “It Gets More Blue” and “Static Somewhere” both use the quiet/loud concept to full effect with big sing-along choruses and are the culmination of the band’s evolution from Juno soundtrack minimalists into full-blown rock stars. What’s really remarkable is that they pull off this transformation while losing none of what made Before the World Was Big feel so special. The harmonies of the two singers make the band still feel intimate, even when surrounded by much more noise than before.

After one listen to Powerplant, the fear of Girlpool becoming “just another band” was out the window. If anything, embracing the traditional rock style has further illuminated their strengths. There is now an even more subversive element to the band’s music as they play off indie rock tropes, and the use of dynamics helps highlight the unique presence of Tividad and Tucker. Their vulnerability, chemistry and songwriting ability ensure that everything Girlpool does will be original.

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