2013 Favorites: Throwing Muses – “Purgatory/Paradise”

I think everyone interested in music should watch this portion of an interview with Kristin Hersh, which explains some of her thoughts on the music industry and Purgatory/Paradise, the first new Throwing Muses album in ten years. Among my favorite quotes: “Now Throwing Muses is in the studio again, making, I swear, the best record of our career because there’s nobody telling us that we’re supposed to suck” and “I don’t want to expand my audience; I want to refine it.” Purgatory/Paradise is definitely created with the latter idea in mind: the album also comes with a 64-page book that includes track-by-track commentary from Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo along with photos of the band, making it literally seem like a gift to the band’s longtime listeners (who helped fund the project using Hersh’s CASH Music organization).

Like many bands before them, Throwing Muses have released what you could call a comeback album, with all the fears and reservations that term entails. But in an age full of half-assed reunions and nostalgia-based cash-ins, what makes Purgatory/Paradise so great is that it always looks forward — with nobody telling them they’re supposed to suck, the band is free to make some of the most original and exciting music of their careers. There are echos of their previous work throughout (along with Hersh’s music as a solo artist), but a lot of it is entirely new territory.

Purgatory/Paradise is immediately distinctive from other Throwing Muses albums (and other albums in general) because of its structure. Its 67-minute run time is sprawled over 32 tracks, many of which are under two minutes long, including several that resemble individual songs or ideas split into two parts, which Hersh likened to someone hammering the record with a mallet. Melodies quickly come and go, then suddenly return later in the album like a ghost that is haunting you. In some cases, like “Sleepwalking 1” and “Sleepwalking 2,” the second part appears before the first part. Connections between these two-parters vary: some feel like extensions of the first song, while others feel like re-imaginings that are thematically linked. This really excited the music nerd in me, who likes stuff like album sequencing and construction — playing this album on shuffle doesn’t really work, because the pieces are meant to come and go at such specific times. It also made Purgatory/Paradise one of the albums I got lost in most this year, as I attempted to piece together its fractured puzzle with each listen.

My favorite two-parter is probably “Morning Birds,” which comes roaring out of the gate in the first part with classic early-90s Throwing Muses guitar pop before shifting into an atmospheric acoustic coda that is one of the album’s most beautiful moments. A few tracks later, the acoustic part picks up again in “Morning Birds 2.” Purgatory/Paradise really feels like a career-spanning effort by the band, and these songs show the full range of styles and emotions they’ve picked up over the years.

Amid all the shattered fragments, Purgatory/Paradise does make room for traditional pop songs. “Sunray Venus” shows a rougher side of the band with an intense vocal by Hersch, while “Opiates” displays their more subdued side. “Slippershell” is the band at their most dynamic, with quiet verses exploding into a noisy chorus. Hersch’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, which makes it hard to try to pin any specific interpretation on these songs — sometimes I like music that does that instead of trying to hit you over the head with a specific meaning.

I’ve always considered Throwing Muses to be one of the very few bands that is truly original, in part because Hersh’s voice (her literal singing voice and authorial voice) is so different from what I typically hear in music. So it’s not too surprising that Purgatory/Paradise is an album that looked and sounded like nothing else in 2013. The surprising part, for me anyway, was just how good it was — it has instantly become my favorite release by the band since 1991’s The Real Ramona, and it’s one of the few albums this year I felt really passionate about. I find it really inspirational when a band in Throwing Muses’ position chooses to continue pushing the boundaries of their art when they could easily feel content with what they’ve done in the past. While it is really geared towards people who already like the band, I hope people who haven’t heard them still give Purgatory/Paradise a shot — this is an album that deserves to be heard.

2013 Favorites: Courtney Barnett

This is normally the time when I’d write my obligatory list of my favorite albums of the year. I won’t be doing that this year, for a couple of reasons. The first is that lists have been permanently ruined for me by the demonic overlords who run Buzzfeed and every other lazy clickbaity site, to the point that just seeing numbers in order on my screen is enough to fill me with rage and contempt. As far as I’m concerned, lists are now tools of Satan, and you will no longer see them here. The second reason is that I found myself getting extremely disconnected from music this year, and even if I did want to make a list to please Satan, I’m not sure if I could even think of ten (much less 25 or 50 — how do people like so many things?) albums that made much of an impact on me.

I’m not entirely sure what caused this disconnect — I’ve always been relatively picky, but I can’t remember being so consistently unmoved by music like I was for most of this year. It’s possible that I’m just already a jaded old person and have given up and entered the feared “music will never be like it was” stage of my life. I continued to follow music discussion and writing, but mostly found myself being increasingly annoyed at which bands were getting covered and which ones weren’t. It legitimately felt like the worse a band was this year, the more hype they got and the more people talked about them and wrote about them, and it kind of made me feel like I was going insane. The whole world was trying to convince me to like all these bands that could not possibly be less interesting. (People trying to tell me who or what I should care about is one of my biggest pet peeves.)

I graduated from college this spring and spent the rest of the year procrastinating on entering the real world and being generally unproductive and useless. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it, and all of these feelings and fears ended up paralyzing me until suddenly I’d let the whole year go by without really doing anything, which (I’ve been told) is bad. I spent most days by myself in the suburbs being a slacker and internally debating how I was going to ever become a semi-functioning adult (still working on it — if anyone has tips on this, feel free to leave a comment or something). On one of these days, I opened up Twitter after probably waking up at some absurdly late hour and came across a link to a song called “Avant Gardener.”

I had never heard of Courtney Barnett before this, but was immediately enamored with this song. I loved the simple rock instrumentation, Barnett’s deadpan almost-speaking delivery, and especially the lyrics, which described that sort of suburban suffocation feeling I had with an eerie level of accuracy. In a year where I often felt like I wasn’t connecting with music, “Avant Gardener” was the one song that really spoke to me and reminded me of why I loved music in the first place. Beyond my personal connection to it, it’s also a tremendous piece of craft from Barnett, with tons of witty lines and a surprisingly compelling story considering it’s about someone freaking out while gardening.

Barnett is a 25 year-old from Melbourne, Australia, who defines her music as “slacker garage pop.” Her first two EPs, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Farris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, were compiled on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, which was one of my favorite releases of the year. Barnett’s self-described slackerdom is fitting, because what I really love about these songs is that they don’t sound like they’re trying too hard to win you over. Instead, Barnett is able to find great power in simplicity. The lyrics are incredibly smart and witty without sounding like someone who is desperately trying to appear intelligent. Her singing is not what one would call show-offy, but it’s the perfect fit for the droll lyrics and the music.

“Don’t Apply Compression Gently,” one of my other favorite songs on the album, is a good example of this. The music is fairly straight-forward, and the lyrics are so simple that they could be text messages (I even saw one article saying they actually were texts, but have no idea if this is true). Yet I found it to be a very poignant song, because everything fits together well and because of Barnett’s understated charm as a vocalist, particularly in the closing refrain: “I may not be 100% happy, but at least I’m not with you.” One of the other album highlights, “History Eraser,” is in a similar free-wheeling style to “Avant Gardener,” and shows Barnett’s ability to craft interesting narratives about seemingly mundane topics — in this case, a song beginning with “I got drunk and fell asleep atop the sheets” spins into an amusing day-in-the-life story.

There are approximately a zillion of these sorts of folk-rock albums released every year, many of which I find one-dimensional and boring. What made this one work so well for me was Barnett’s personality — her songs are so smart, funny, and true, and I guess she just seems like a cool person who I’d like to get to know better. Hopefully we’ll all get that chance as she releases more music in the future.

Savages – “Silence Yourself”

Savages

The world used to be silent. Now it has too many voices, and the noise is a constant distraction. They multiply, intensify; they will divert your attention to what’s convenient and forget to tell you about yourself. We live in an age of many stimulations. If you are focused, you are harder to reach.  If you are distracted, you are available. You are distracted; you are available. You want flattery. Always looking to where it’s at, you want to take part in everything and everything to be a part of you. Your head is spinning fast at the end of your spine until you have no face at all. And yet, if the world would shut up, even for awhile, perhaps we would start hearing the distant rhythm of an angry young tune, and recompose ourselves. Perhaps, having deconstructed everything, we should be thinking about putting everything back together. Silence yourself.

So goes the manifesto of Savages, a foursome of singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan, and drummer Fay Milton that wants to return the world to a simpler time. Everything the band does zeroes in on this back-to-basics, somewhat Luddite aesthetic: the album’s cover is a simple, black-and-white photo of the group and their songs are stark, noisy and rhythmic in a way that recalls many early post-punk bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or a less funky Bush Tetras. At shows, they urge audiences to turn off their cell phones and cameras so they can FEEL THE MUSIC.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Savages are a band that take themselves very seriously, and everything they do is calculated to provoke a response. They have positioned themselves as the elixir for all of rock music’s problems, the band that will restore music to its former glory before Twitter and Facebook and blogs like this one ruined it forever. Silence Yourself is the sound of a band that is very eager — one could say desperate — to “matter,” and it demands your attention.

A lot of this reads like criticism, and in some ways it is. Their style catches the eye and created a lot of hype, which obviously led to a backlash that isn’t entirely undeserved — it’s not difficult to picture people being annoyed by Savages and the persona they’ve built in the media for the last year. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with a band taking music seriously, and think there’s even something admirable about a group that seeks to drive a message into the brains of their listeners. It’s part of why I like Riot Grrrl and a lot of other punk music, and it’s part of why I largely enjoy Silence Yourself despite some of its flaws and the way it sometimes begs cynical guys like me to mock it.

Ranty manifestos aside, Silence Yourself is impressive because of how fully realized it is as a debut album. Whether you agree with what Savages have to say about the world or not, they’re a band that has a clear point-of-view, which they communicate effectively through music that is muscular and confident. The songs also have an urgency that is largely missing from rock music today: “Husbands,” which was released as a single last year and appears in a slightly revised form on the album, reaches the album’s highest intensity levels with its rolling bass and Beth’s increasingly frantic vocal. “She Will” begins with an immediate guitar riff, then explodes into a dissonant, primal chorus, with Beth repeatedly shrieking the title.

The band’s sound is deeply indebted to the 80s, but their lyrics about current hot topics like women’s issues and modern technology help make them more than just a backwards-looking nostalgia act. Silence Yourself does have a couple of lulls, notably when the band inevitably attempts slower “mood” pieces like “Marshal Dear” and the instrumental “Dead Nature” that I think get away from their strengths, which are being loud and strident. Fortunately, there’s enough of those moments to make Silence Yourself one of the stronger releases of the year, and one that is worth listening to for people that are a bit bored by rock’s status quo. You can buy it from their website, http://savagesband.com.

No Joy – “Wait to Pleasure”

The biggest challenge of writing about music is trying to describe why I like what I like. With some artists, it’s not too hard, because something about their music or personality lends itself to narrative, or they played a role in my life that makes for a decent story. Others are more difficult — the music might just sound the way I like music to sound, in which case there isn’t a whole lot to say other than “This is really good, in my opinion. Maybe you will like it too.” These bands may not make for the most interesting blog posts, but they are a large part of my music collection, and really define my taste more than the bigger name artists.

No Joy is one of those tricky bands. Built on the songwriting duo of Laura Lloyd and Jasamine White-Glutz, they play music that basically has everything I like: very loud shoegaze guitars that unleash sheets of noise, melodic songwriting and (of course) female vocals. Wait to Pleasure is their second full length, following 2010’s vastly underrated Ghost Blonde and last year’s Negaverse E.P, and it represents a huge leap forward for the band, who have now developed their own identity while continuing to refine their songwriting. It’s not an album that will have any sort of broader narrative attached to it, but fans of the band and this genre will almost certainly be very pleased.

No Joy separate themselves from the horde of bands mining similar influences by doing everything just a bit better: the guitars are louder, the melodies are catchier, and the production is cleaner. This is a band that understands what makes shoegaze great and why people listen to it. Songs like “Hare Tarot Lies” sum up their strengths well, combining noisy riffs and hooks, which with their indecipherable lyrics make the song accessible and mysterious at the same time. “Lunar Phobia” sounds different from any song on Ghost Blonde, with more emphasis on keyboards and a programmed drum beat that helps the band step out of the shadow of their influences a bit.

It can be easy to write off a band like No Joy as an imitator of earlier groups that have explored similar territory, but Wait for Pleasure is an album that actually doesn’t sound like much else — it has a pop sensibility that some other shoegaze groups lack, and the decibel levels separate it from lighter noise-pop bands like Best Coast. It’s basically non-stop jams, and I recommend it a lot to anyone with an interest in loud guitar rock. You can buy it from their label, Mexican Summer, here.

Torres – “Torres”

I feel like I spent most of last year complaining about how much I hated 2012 music, but I actually neglected to mention the most disappointing album of the year for me: Cat Power’s Sun. I’ve been a Cat Power fan for a long time, mostly based on her spare, haunting early albums like You Are Free and especially Moon Pix. That made it really disappointing to see her give into so many lame musical trends on Sun, which was loaded with autotune and other misguided attempts to be “current.” The word that I kept thinking of to describe the album was “fake,” and that was a word I never thought I would associate with Cat Power’s music.

I only bring this up because an album came out earlier this year that I’ve been thinking of in the exact opposite terms. 22 year-old Mackenzie Scott, who performs under the moniker Torres, released her self-titled debut somewhat quietly in January, and it’s exactly what I had been missing from music almost all of last year. It’s an extremely impressive debut because it takes notes from the old Cat Power, using minimalism and honesty to make an impact on the listener.

Basically, Torres feels real to me. It’s the sound of an artist putting all of her feelings out there without hiding behind any of the cheesy gimmicks that continue to drive me insane with so much current music. It helps that, for someone who is 22, Scott sings with a mature and world-weary voice, like someone who has been through a lot of experiences. Most of the album’s arrangements are extremely simplistic and recorded with minimal production in live takes, which adds to the power of her voice and words.

The major stand-out track on the album is “Honey,” which knocked me over sort of like EMA’s “California” did a couple years ago with its intensity and fearlessness. Torres starts the song by muttering over a simple guitar riff, and the song builds and builds until she’s wailing “honey, while you were ashing in your coffee, I was thinking ’bout telling you what you’ve done to me.” Then she recedes back into mumbling in the final seconds: “Maybe some other time then I’ll come back again.” It’s the kind of bold, highly personal song that I always find really powerful, and hearing it made me instantly optimistic about this year’s music.

The rest of the album is mostly in that vein, with some more subdued songs like “November Baby” and some more straight-forward rock like “When Winter’s Over.” Scott is from Nashville, so there is a bit of a country twang in a lot of the songs. They’re all a perfect showcase for her voice and lyrics, which are what really makes this such an accomplished first album. So far, this is probably my favorite release of 2013 in the non-MBV division, and I might like it more than anything that came out in 2012. You can listen to it on Spotify here.

“Ho Hey” and the Scourge of Mainstream Folk

I’m hard-pressed to think of a song in recent years that I’ve hated as much as “Ho Hey.” It has to be one of the most inexplicable hits ever. For one thing, just on the most basic level, the song is annoying to listen to: it has people saying “ho! hey!” in the background after every line, which makes me want to punch all of them, something I believe is a rational, human reaction to anyone saying “ho! hey!” But like any song I truly despise, what makes “Ho Hey” so detestable is a unique combination of being overplayed, loved by people who should know better, and the musical trends that the song represents.

What’s most frustrating about “Ho Hey” isn’t necessarily that it’s popular, but it’s the people that it’s popular with. A few years ago, The Current was a station that offered a reprieve from the overplayed music that we were forced to listen to when we went to shopping malls or grocery stores or parties. Now, its listeners just voted “Ho Hey” as the number one song of 2012. Interestingly, they didn’t have other pop songs on there like “Call Me Maybe” (which is an actual good song), indicating that the same people who love “Ho Hey” also think of themselves as educated listeners with discerning tastes. It’s easy to picture a Lumineers fan scoffing at those who listen to corporate pop artists while simultaneously listening to the most overplayed song in music today.

In this respect, The Lumineers (along with other folk bands like Mumford and Sons) have pulled off the biggest trick of all: they’ve become massively popular while somehow maintaining a certain amount of “indie cred.” Music critic David Greenwald dubbed this genre “festivalcore,” calling Mumford and Sons, despite their popularity, “the kind of band your friends might not know if you ask, the kind that feels like a secret.” The Lumineers seem similar: despite the fact that they’re literally everywhere on the radio, people who listen to them still perceive themselves as special, as if they’ve uncovered a diamond in the rough.

The success of “Ho Hey” is really just the chilling and horrific end-game of our unfortunate national love affair with mopey bland white guy folk. It takes popular trends in indie music (guys wearing silly antiquated clothing! soft guitars! non-threatening vocals!) and boils them all down to a nonsensical two-word catch phrase. One gets the impression that literally thousands of bands in the country could have written this song, but The Lumineers were the only ones willing to stoop to this level of pandering simplicity. Credit to them I guess: they seem like decent enough people, and I’m sure this has been a wonderful, unexpected surprise for them.

That doesn’t make the bewildering success of “Ho Hey” any less annoying. It just really bums me out to see this kind of deliberate mediocrity become huge while many more deserving indie bands remain underground. And this isn’t some indie snob thing: I can appreciate a well-written, mainstream-oriented pop song. But “Ho Hey” is none of those things. It’s a dashed-off, stupid song that is only popular because it shamelessly caters to our culture-wide fascination with sad, goofy white guys that play the banjo. (I keep saying dudes or guys because this genre is completely male-dominated, which makes it even worse than it already is.) Surely we can do better than this.

It’s almost like “Ho Hey” is popular in part because it’s so terrible. The Lumineers are “real” because they can’t write a hook and use gibberish instead of real words for lyrics, unlike those fancy pop stars who have legitimate talent and write songs in actual English. Sort of like how some people worship Adele because she doesn’t look like the other pop stars, maybe people worship The Lumineers because they don’t sound like the other big-name musicians (because they’re horrible)?

Whatever. I’m done trying to figure this one out. This one’s on you guys. I had nothing to do with it.