“Working Class Woman” is a Complex and Funny Self-Portrait

When I put myself in the shoes of an artist who has some level of popularity, I always think the most awkward part of it would be realizing that some of your fans are idiots. Marie Davidson explores that idea on “Your Biggest Fan,” the lead track on her new album, Working Class Woman, and it’s probably the funniest song of the year. In a mocking voice, she impersonates the dumb questions she gets after shows and the sexist assumptions people make about her: “Why are you so strange? Do you play in a band? Do you really need to carry all that gear with you? Is this album about taking risks?”

Davidson’s dark industrial electronic sound, which she’s developed over the last few years, adds some dread and horror to the comedy. Eventually, the funniness of “Your Biggest Fan” gives way to a sense of anxiety and despair as the annoying voices turn into paranoid whispers. It’s an ideal tone-setter for this album, which feels like a complete dive into Davidson’s psyche as an artist. At the end, I possibly knew too much about her sense of humor, her anxieties, and how she feels about her life as a traveling musician.

This dancey electronic music isn’t something I listen to much, but Davidson puts a spin on it that is compelling. The second track, “Work It,” is a good example: taken at face value, it resembles a typical electronic song with a pulsing club beat that someone might use to motivate them while working out. Taking on the voice of a deranged fitness coach, she uses the familiar language of empowerment, talking about working to be a winner and working until you sweat. Read another way, it’s a satire of her musical genre, her workaholic nature, and the values our society has that makes someone define themselves by work.

The ambiguity in tone is very intentional and part of what makes the album captivating. The protagonist of Working Class Woman is complex and difficult, which stands out among one-dimensional portrayals of women in other media, which are often either misogynistic or purely fantasy wish fulfillment with little in between. Davidson isn’t necessarily brave or heroic for working hard and dealing with weird fans — it’s just a part of her life that is portrayed, like everything else on this album, with brutal honesty.

Afrirampo Return to Make Wonderful Noise on “Afriverse”

Creepily dedicated readers of the blog may remember Afrirampo from some posts I made a few years ago where I celebrated their crazy and enthusiastic brand of rock music, especially as it contrasted to the increasingly dour state of indie rock. In 2010, the duo of Pika and Oni broke up after the release of their masterpiece, We Are Uchu No Ko, but they left the door open for a reunion by leaving their English-speaking fans with this very normal message: “If our mother of monster say ‘PLAY!PLAY!together!!’, then we will play.”

Fortunately, that (whatever it was) seems to have happened, as Afrirampo reunited this year and in September released a new album, Afriverse, which I then spent days trying to find a download of in dark corners of the internet because it wasn’t remotely accessible to Americans. I’m happy to say that I have the album, my laptop hasn’t melted yet, and Afrirampo are still the same delightful band they always were, even after eight years of not playing together.

It’s a little pointless to try to analyze Afriverse, because I can’t understand the lyrics (and I suspect a lot are nonsense anyway) and there aren’t really songs on it. Instead, what you get with Afrirampo is a certain energy that no other band has. I feel the state of music and music appreciation has become even more dull since Afrirampo were last together. A lot of artists make very self-consciously serious music and it’s treated with a boring sort of solemn respect by writers, to the point that people forget that music is supposed to be a fun thing to enjoy and talk about.

Amid this landscape, Afrirampo’s music is once again a much-needed burst of color and joy. It’s rock music that has a really simple elemental appeal, where it sounds like two artists who love making music together that are having a blast. It doesn’t really need to be more than that for me. I just enjoy hearing Oni’s bursts of guitar noise, Pika’s thunderous, technically sound drumming, and all of the silly call-and-response vocals.

It’d be easy to write off this music as just two weird people making random noise. It would also be correct, mostly. What makes it listenable is that they have a sense of dynamics and are capable of some semblance of restraint in the form of quieter passages, which adds to the impact of their noisy freakouts. There are also a lot of sneaky melodies and pleasant sounds within all of the chaos they’re creating. More than maybe any other band, Afrirampo can go from zero to ten at any second, which makes listening to them kind of like being on a rollercoaster with a blindfold on.

At least some of my love for Afrirampo is contextual: I wouldn’t want every band to sound like this, but they are a great escape from “normal” rock music that is so concerned with structure and takes itself so seriously. Their joyous playing captures the true spirit of rock and roll in its spontaneity and freedom. No other band could really sound like Afrirampo, but many could learn from them.

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.