Field Mouse’s “Meaning” Sounds Sweet and Hits Hard

“When I get older, will I remember saying this?” Rachel Browne sings repeatedly at the end of “Plague No. 8,” one of the highlights from Field Mouse’s latest album,  Meaning. Confidence is so prized in artists — and people in general — that it’s refreshing to hear a song that deals frankly with uncertainty and doubt, especially about the process of creating the art itself. Almost anyone who has made anything, from a novel to an album to a random blog post, has asked the same question about if there’s any point to it, especially in the social media era where it feels like so much quality work reverberates in an echo chamber and then disappears.

The theme runs throughout Meaning, which contains a level of introspection that is rare and ultimately relatable and endearing. On “Birthday Song,” Browne’s existential crisis continues: “am I gonna make anything that outlives me?” she asks. This clearly comes from real life, and Browne had questioned whether she even wanted to make another album. She’s poured all of those frustrations and fear into her music, and it’s made Meaning into an album that hits surprisingly hard.

The surprising part is because Field Mouse, like the animal they’re named for, are a bit quiet and unassuming. Their songs are unabashedly pretty and catchy, with pleasant guitar parts from Andrew Futral and Browne’s sugary vocals, which are a pop hook in and of themselves. It’s a type of lighter, slightly noisy pop rock that feels more like something from the 90s, when bands like Velocity Girl, Tiger Trap, and Sarge were on the scene. I try not to turn everything into a meta-narrative about who’s “underrated,” but my experience is that music writers tend to undervalue bands like this for whatever reason, probably because it’s not considered cool to write catchy, sweet pop songs that show too much emotion and heart. (See also: Free Cake For Every Creature.)

Meaning plays off the presumptions people might have about their inoffensive sound, luring the listener in with its pop songwriting and then hitting them in the face with Browne’s lyrics. Part of it is how the album is sequenced: it kicks off with “Heart of Gold,” a breezier, more straight-ahead single, then gets gradually darker, with each song raising more questions and fears until it gets to “Plague No. 8” as the penultimate track with the opening lyrics “locusts swarm my body; think they sense a dream dying.” It’s the stand-out song on this album and one of the strongest of the year, a reflection on getting older and wondering if you’ll reach your potential that hits maybe too close to home for me.

Meaning never feels quite as dark as it is because of the sound and Browne’s voice, so it’s an album that ended up sneaking up on me. It’s a great example of how pop songwriting can enhance an album’s storytelling: these songs are all memorable and catchy and when they got stuck in my head, it made me start thinking more about Browne’s lyrics, which are timely and poignant. Despite all of her fears and anxieties, Field Mouse have made an album that deserves to be remembered.

There is No Point in Writing About This Ex Hex Album I Wrote About

An album like Ex Hex’s latest, It’s Real, requires very deep thought and consideration. To truly understand it, one must have a firm grasp on music theory and history, not to mention the ability to understand the sophisticated layers of meaning within every note the band plays. With all that said, I’ve put a lot of thought into this and feel that I’m up to the task of explaining this album’s unique appeal: it it has rock and roll songs that sound good, and I enjoy listening to them.

This is the second album for Mary Timony’s project, following 2014’s Rips, and there is something weirdly satisfying about how little the band has changed between albums. It’s Real scoffs at the notion of bands “making a statement” or “breaking through” and is content to simply entertain on its own terms without necessarily sparking an array of thinkpieces and discussion. While I’m certainly someone who enjoys albums that require some effort to get into, there is also a place for an album like this that only asks you to turn the volume up and your brain off.

There isn’t really a point in analyzing the songs, which are all in a similar vein of having catchy guitar riffs, melodies, and lyrics that focus on basic themes of having a good time with some slight psychedelic undertones, mostly from Timony’s patented head-in-the-clouds singing. Betsy Wright also takes lead on a couple of the strongest songs, the tough rocker “Rainbow Shiner” and the breezier “Radiate.” I truly intend to be complimentary when I say that this is not music that is really improved upon by intense lyrical breakdowns and deconstructions of its sound. Listening to it does not make you desire to read about it, which I suppose calls into question this entire exercise.

What is maybe worth analyzing is how It’s Real functions as an argument in favor of musicians with experience. Timony has been making indie rock for over 25 years now and this album has an effortless quality where it feels like she’s just writing great pop songs in her sleep. She has already done everything that today’s young indie rock bands are trying to do — she had her great angsty rock albums, her more sophisticated “break-out” albums, and her alienating artsy albums. Now with all that experience behind her, she doesn’t feel a need to impress anyone or prove herself, and I think that energy is part of what makes Ex Hex a refreshing band right now. It’s Real has strengthened her case as the indie rock GOAT, not that she cares about trying to convince anyone.

Pleasure Symbols Create Alluring Goth Pop on “Closer and Closer Apart”

One of the more tantalizing releases in the last few years was a brief four-song EP from an Australian band called Pleasure Symbols released in 2016. I knew nothing about the band except for what was on the record, which was this hazy, goth/shoegaze-influenced darkwave that was stylish and intriguing. Three years later, they’ve surfaced again with their first full-length, Closer and Closer Apart, after some lineup and sound changes. But despite the overhauls, that core of the band’s style is still there, and this will end up being one of the year’s best albums in this shoegaze and dream pop realm.

The sound on Closer and Closer Apart is more clear, with Jasmine Dunn’s vocals actually being decipherable instead of buried in the sound and mumbled like on that first EP. That change removes a bit of the alluring mystery they had initially, but it’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff in terms of appealing to a slightly wider audience and making more traditionally expressive music. They’ve also moved from the creepier darkwave style into a more familiar goth-dream-pop sound that is inspired by about half the bands that existed in the 1980s.

Despite the move into very well-worn territory, Pleasure Symbols maintain a clear sense of identity on this album by zeroing in on a very specific aesthetic and executing it on song after song with total confidence. The shimmering guitar, the rumbling bass and Dunn’s dreamy-yet-forceful lyrics are exactly what I like about this style of music, especially when it’s combined with this kind of strong pop songwriting. The best songs like “Image Reflected,” “Dissociation,” and “Heavy Breathing” combine major hooks with inward-looking lyrics that touch on the themes you’d expect from any self-respecting goth band: love, control, darkness, suffering, etc. None of the concepts here are new, but it’s been awhile since they’ve been done with this level of thought and craft.

Weyes Blood Tries to Find Meaning in Impending Disaster on “Titanic Rising”

Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, loves the movies. I know this because her latest album, Titanic Rising, has a song called “Movies” on it where she sings “I love the movies.” I also know this because the album’s sound has that high-definition, cinematic quality with opulent string arrangements and lyrics that portray her as a character looking for meaning in life in these heightened, unreal times. At the end of the song, she declares she wants to be her own movie, capturing how the weirdness of our current existence has caused people to experience it almost out-of-body, as the hero in the story of their life that is playing concurrently with everyone else’s.

In 2019, the movie we’re all starring in is a disaster movie like (wait for it) Titanic, except the script isn’t nearly as tight as James Cameron’s masterpiece. Also, the characters in this movie all know the ship is going to sink but can’t actually do anything about it. So instead of being a massively dramatic, entertaining spectacle, it’s often just boring (like the pre-iceberg parts), and Mering gets that, too. “Something to Believe” portrays the relatable desire to get out of her own head and experience an escape from the reality none of us have any control over: “Give me something I can see; something bigger and louder than the voices in me.”

Titanic Rising feels like an attempt at crafting that escape herself, and it’s in a similar space as some other albums I’ve loved in the past couple years like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid, Björk’s Utopia and Julia Holter’s Aviary, which all responded to the current climate of senseless ugliness with thoughtful, sometimes excessive beauty. The sound on this album is gorgeous throughout with psychedelic synths and strings along with smooth production. It’s bolstered even more by Mering’s voice, which has a rich throwback quality that is reminiscent of Judy Garland and Patsy Cline, with a bit of Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann tossed in. It’s easy on the ears, but the themes she is grappling with are complex and difficult.

Before I even listened to this album, I knew it was dealing with climate change and was worried it was going to be a bunch of on-the-nose songs about glaciers melting. Instead, outside of the occasional lyrical reference, it’s a subject that looms over the music, much like it does in our day-to-day lives where we go about our mundane business and then occasionally remember “oh yeah, we’re all gonna die.” Mering captures a lot of relatable anxieties and stresses in this album, showing she has that rare gift of making her own observations feel universal. And despite occasionally gloomy material, the sound of Titanic Rising on songs like the jaunty “Everything” and theatrical opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” conveys a sense of warmth and optimism, even with disaster hanging overhead. I guess the one upside of the planet being destroyed is that it’s inspiring albums that sound like this.

Spellling’s “Mazy Fly” is One of the Year’s Most Original Albums

Mazy Fly, the second album by Spellling, feels like a throwback to a sound that never actually existed. Its vintage, sometimes cheesy-sounding electronics bring to mind the 80s while Chrystia Cabral’s soulful voice is reminiscent of classic funk or disco singers. It’s an odd mix of traits that doesn’t feel like it should work, and it took me a couple listens to get used to the album’s sound and its weird internal logic. A few listens later, I’m somewhat awed that an album can be this listenable while having such a unique sound.

Cabral is a really good singer in a conventional sense — she can hit notes and emote in a way that is similar to a lot of much more popular artists who are on the radio. But rather than let that gift be used in generic pop songs, she has her own vision that is haunting, spacey and alien. The mix of the conventional and the uncanny makes everything on the album feel a little off in a way that distinguishes it from other music in this space. On the opener, “Red” she twists her voice into something more grotesque, reminding me of someone like Fever Ray. Other songs like “Haunted Water” have more of a darkwave influence, with creepy strings and a more macabre vibe. The album’s centerpiece, “Under the Sun,” is probably the best showcase of all of her traits, with its long cinematic intro, celestial lyrics, and retro-futuristic sound.

The mysterious, out of place sound of Mazy Fly fits with its themes, which are similarly hard to pin down. The album’s Bandcamp page has its own press release explanation of what’s going on, but I think it’s more effective as a vague, ambiguous journey, and the variety of sounds gives the listener a lot of freedom to put it together themselves. More than anything, the joy of this album is hearing such a talented artist maximize her abilities and go down her own path instead of taking the easier road traveled by so many others.

Tamaryn Takes Another Step Forward With “Dreaming the Dark”

In the last decade or so, Tamaryn has a collection of albums that stands up to anyone, with a clear progression in her sound and artistic persona, from the immersive shoegaze of her debut The Waves to the synth-pop vision of Cranekiss. While a lot of artists can roughly emulate the sound of classic goth/shoegaze bands like Cocteau Twins, Tamaryn understands what makes this genre actually appeal to listeners, and she consistently delivers memorable songs that have a heightened sense of drama and emotion. A lot of this is due to her singing voice, which has increasingly been the focus of her music and particularly takes center stage on her latest album, Dreaming the Dark.

The arrangements on this album are more sparse than her previous work, which moves it slightly out of the shoegaze realm and more into 80s-style synth pop. The downside of this approach is it loses some of the feeling of getting totally lost in the sound like I still do listening to The Waves, but it also feels like a confident move forward for Tamaryn, who more directly owns these songs rather than getting lost in the production. The full range of her voice is heard on stand-out tracks like “Angels of Sweat” and “Terrified,” as well as her improved lyrics, which serve a more important role in this less noisy style.

While Tamaryn’s music has always been expressive, Dreaming the Dark feels like the closest listeners have come to actually getting to know the artist behind the sounds. “You’re Adored” has a more personal touch, with lyrics written about her dog, while the minimalist “Fits of Rage” shows a more aggressive side of her that is a departure from dreamy pop. While it’s hard to pull obvious meanings out of the songs by just reading the lyrics, the songs are performed in a way where they are obviously meaningful.

It is hard not to get Kate Bush vibes listening to this, especially “Victim Complex” which reminds me of “Waking the Witch” from Hounds of Love. And like Bush, Tamaryn’s music is appealing because it has these fantastical, ethereal qualities, but is still rooted in reality. It’s how Dreaming the Dark works as both escapist pop and as a relatable portrayal of an artist’s feelings and struggles.

“The Seduction of Kansas” is the Ideal Punk Album for 2019

I’m starting to love it when punk bands mellow out. The first album by Priests, Nothing Feels Natural, was released right after Trump was inaugurated and was widely received as an intense call to action. While I liked it fine enough, I didn’t think the songs were overly memorable or original, and it wasn’t an album I found myself going back to since its release. Listening to their new album, The Seduction of Kansas, I feel like the band might have agreed with me: it’s a full-scale evolution that embraces a much wider set of influences and inspirations. Every song sounds different, but it all coheres into an album that retains the band’s fiery voice while being a much more adventurous listen.

The change in direction has led to a less excited response from critics, who seem to struggle with music that doesn’t make its intentions as obvious as possible. They and many others think punk music needs to be about yelling didactic opinions at the listener while playing at max volume. The Seduction of Kansas is the next level of punk, where the artists are confident enough in their words, convictions, and musical ability that they don’t need to make a big show of how aggressive and intense they are. It reminds me of a bit of wisdom I read from former professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts, when asked why he tended to speak quietly while other wrestlers were known for screaming into the mic: “If you’re yelling at me, I’m not listening. If you’re whispering, everyone’s listening, thinking it’s a secret.”

The quieter and more spacious sound of The Seduction of Kansas draws me in more than their previous material, and it makes their lyrics feel more impactful. Make no mistake: this is still a rock album, and it has moments that rival the intensity of their previous music. But now those heavier songs, like the opener “Jesus’ Son” and the raucous “Control Freak,” stand out more and feel more vital because they’re surrounded by these funky, surprisingly catchy pop songs. “68 Screen” has an addictive chorus and relatable lyrics about how the internet has warped our perceptions of each other. My favorite song on the album, “Carol,” is almost reminiscent of Stereolab with its driving rhythm, dreamy coda, and the politically conscious lyrics that retain some level of abstraction.

On a philosophical level, The Seduction of Kansas captures the way I’ve been feeling about the current political and cultural climate. Namely, that empty outrage is not a solution to anything. Now is the time to regroup, think, and actually consider the people around us and what we can do to make the world less terrible. It may not always sound like one, but this album is a call towards a different kind of action.