Emma Ruth Rundle Delivers Another Masterpiece With “On Dark Horses”

My favorite album from 2016 was Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death. My favorite album from 2018 will be Emma Ruth Rundle’s On Dark Horses. I say this with confidence because it’s that good. It’s so heavy and beautiful, with emotion and intensity oozing out of every note. Nobody else I’ve heard is making music that is this immersive with such a balance of intimacy and raw power.

Rundle stands alone at the intersection of about 30 different musical genres. Sometimes she sounds like dream pop, other times she’s metal, or alternative rock, or post-rock. She often gets called folk, which I kind of get, but it just makes me think that it’s futile to try to describe her in simple genre buzzwords. It’s music that resists easy labels because nobody else has ever made it before. There are a lot of reference points and influences, clearly, but I consider her a true original with no real comparisons. She sounds like everything else and nothing else at the same time.

Rundle’s arrival at this distinct sound was one of my favorite parts of Marked for Death: more than any artist I’m a fan of, she naturally evolved her style from record to record until reaching what felt like a pinnacle. At the time, I was tempted to call it her masterpiece, and the only thing that stopped me was the thought that she was possibly capable of topping it. With On Dark Horses, she has.

Like her last album, On Dark Horses is all about the slow burn. The songs are methodically paced, which creates space for Rundle to do what she does best: create a mesmerizing atmosphere with her guitar. Her songs tend to simmer and then boil over, the quiet verses giving way to loud choruses and powerful dramatic climaxes. This is basic alternative rock quiet-loud stuff, but the way Rundle executes it feels very different. It never feels like a formula; it’s just the natural path the songs go down as Rundle expresses herself. She balances the quiet and loud aspects of her sound perfectly, creating maximum catharsis in every song.

As a singer, Rundle has the versatility to match her guitar. She and her instrument are always intertwined, and she is capable of singing lovely quiet songs, like “Races,” and also belting out some massive rock choruses like the radio-ready hook on “Dead Set Eyes.” It’s crazy that a few years ago, she was doing instrumental music or burying her voice under layers of guitar. Now she is singing with confidence and seems to know how good she is. That never quite manifests itself in conventional rock frontperson swagger, because that isn’t her style, but it’s a feeling that I get listening to it. If the non-music story of Marked for Death was her finding her sound, the story of On Dark Horses is her expanding on it with complete self-assuredness.

That confidence also translates to her lyrics, which may be the biggest shift from her last album. The words on On Dark Horses are more direct and tangible while retaining the poetic ambiguity that they’ve always had. They also play off some of the expectations formed by Marked for Death, which possibly led some to pigeonhole her as another in a line of tormented doom-and-gloom songwriters. “Light Song” is a love song about her husband (who sings and plays on this album) while “Darkhorse” is an encouraging song to her sister, with the lyric “in the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high.” Of course, this album still isn’t peppy or upbeat by any stretch of the imagination, but there is more nuance in it than it might get credit for.

But really, I’m not all that concerned with breaking down the lyrics and trying to figure out the “meaning,” because I think the power of Rundle’s music is in its gray areas and the way it washes over the listener without compelling them to feel a specific way. It fits Rundle’s whole style, which exists outside of all of these artificial borders that get ascribed to artists, where they’re expected to fit into certain invisible categorizable boxes. Over her last couple albums, she has created her own genre, and right now it’s my favorite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Right, This is a Music Blog

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

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

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

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

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

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

Beach House – “7”

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

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

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

Wax Idols – Happy Ending

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

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

Lithics – Mating Surfaces

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

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

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

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

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

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

Vyva Melinkolya is a Reminder of Why Shoegaze is Great

I watched lot of figure skating and icedancing during the Olympics. In those competitions, contestants receive two different scores during the routine: there is the technical score, where the judges determine how well they executed certain elements of their routine, then there is a program component score that measures their artistry, interpretation and presentation. Honestly, it’s a pretty baffling scoring system for a sport and it is communicated very poorly to the viewing audience, but it got me thinking about how I evaluate music, especially shoegaze.

There is a very established shoegaze formula, and like those figure skating routines, there are certain elements I really want the performer to nail. It comes down to a certain balance of the reverb and noise of the guitar with the vocals and the melodies. Everyone who makes this music is aware of that framework and there’s a large supply of technically competent shoegaze out there. Where I’ve found artists struggle most is in that “program component” area: a lot of shoegaze will sound the way I want, but it’s hard to make it feel personal and meaningful, which is how the formula can be transcended.

I found this album on Bandcamp by Vyva Melinkolya, and it stands out because of how it nails the technical aspects of shoegaze while also having a personal touch — it’s a melding of the shoegaze formula with the type of intimate recordings that Bandcamp makes possible. On a technical level, the sound of this album is like a tribute to all the shoegazers of the past, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration from Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and others. But what I really love about it is how it has a real sense of individuality and purpose. While shoegaze can so easily be impersonal and focused purely on aesthetics, this album suggests that, beneath all the layers of reverb and noise, it can be a way for an artist to express their true self.

Alyc Diaz is the artist here, and this self-titled album really feels like it reflects her personality and experiences, even if a lot of it is kept under a veil of noise. To that end, she helps with any problems deciphering the lyrics by adding intimate little notes on each song on Bandcamp, which could have been handwritten in a different era. They give the impression of an artist who is passionate about this style of music and is trying to figure out who she is. The note on “Identity” says it’s “about a lot of things. Gender, trauma, seeing things that aren’t there, transitioning.” In the song, she sings “I look in the mirror, don’t even know me.”

The uncertainty in the lyrics is a natural match for the shoegaze style, which can allow a singer to remain hidden from view. Beneath the sheets of guitar, Diaz carves out a little world for herself, proving the universal power of shoegaze: it doesn’t care about your gender, the language you speak, or really anything else as long as you can get that chemistry right. In track after track, Diaz finds the right balance of loudness and quiet and ugliness and beauty.

Her talents are immediately present on the first track, “Love’s Easy Years (Nonbinary Heartbreak).” Its title, which references the Cocteau Twins’ “Love’s Easy Tears,” along with the heavy opening riff make it instantly clear that she knows the history of this music and how to recreate it. There is a feeling of longing in the song and its lyrics, when Diaz insists “love’s easy years will come to me if I truly believe.” Like the rest of this album, this song functions as an ode to what makes shoegaze great and as a powerful personal statement.