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.