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.

Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.  

#3: Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

There are many theories as to why Beach House released Thank Your Lucky Stars just a couple months after putting out their first album of 2015, Depression Cherry. Personally, I’ve started to think they did it just to make me feel insane. I’m not one to necessarily share consensus opinions ever, but I felt pretty alone in loving this album and in perceiving a wide gap in quality between it and its predecessors.

Worst of all, I still don’t have a satisfying explanation for why I like Thank Your Lucky Stars so much more than the rest of Beach House’s work, which drives me nuts as a writer and just as someone who likes to think about why I like the things I like. So I’m left trying to explain the unexplainable, that subjective aspect of music that makes it click for me, but maybe doesn’t impact other people the same way. If nothing else, the decision to release two albums in a year made for an interesting litmus test on taste and what we all value in the music we listen to.

My not-at-all-widely-shared perspective is that Thank Your Lucky Stars taps into something that other Beach House music doesn’t. While the band’s previous music was known for being warm and inviting, this album has a dusty chill that makes the songs feel more ambiguous. Thank Your Lucky Stars ends up feeling different while still absolutely sounding like Beach House due to some kind of musical butterfly effect: the band twiddles a couple knobs, changes some small details, and suddenly the end product feels entirely different.

These are pretty much the accepted differences in Thank Your Lucky Stars, and from there it’s a matter of subjectivity and taste. I think this vibe suits the band much more and feels a lot fresher than the played-out “warm and sunny” sound. Victoria Legrand’s vocals feel less processed and more natural, the lyrics are more interesting (especially the doomier passages like “Elegy to the Void”), and the band’s usual collection of guitars and organs actually sound better because of the different context.

Those are my basic attempts at explaining why I love this album, but I’ve accepted that part of what makes Thank Your Lucky Stars great is that it is so inscrutable and just makes me feel how I do at a gut level. It’s the album I always wanted Beach House to make, even if I’m not entirely sure why.

Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

Once a band has released enough material, it’s easy to fall into taking a definitive unchanging stance on them. After four albums, this was my take on Beach House: they’re like a statue in a museum. Their music is beautiful and I appreciated the craft, but I couldn’t form a connection with it. After enough looking, I’d eventually get bored and walk away to the next piece.

When their fifth album, Depression Cherry, came out earlier this year, it only strengthened my stance. It was Beach House doing their Beach House thing with the slow jams that sparkle and sound lovely but are samey and not that memorable. I listened a couple times, filed my obligatory take on the band on social media, then mentally wrote the band off, figuring there wouldn’t be new material for another three or four years and that the material would be the same old stuff anyways.

To everyone’s surprise, the band came back less than two months later and released Thank Your Lucky Stars, another full length album. I met this with an eye-roll: this band already makes too much similar material and now they’re putting out two albums in one year? We get it, Beach House: you can make slow-paced dream pop songs. What are you trying to prove?

I gave Thank Your Lucky Stars what I figured would be a token listen to further solidify my ironclad Beach House opinion. Instead, the album totally won me over in a way I didn’t expect. It’s not like the band dramatically changed up their formula or anything, but something about Thank Your Lucky Stars felt totally different. While their previous albums seemed like they were behind glass, this time I could reach out and touch it.

I’m having a hard time figuring out why this is the case beyond “I like the songs more.” One reason is that the tone of Thank Your Lucky Stars is a slight departure from their other recent albums — while their previous music felt too passive to me, this album has a darker edge that becomes confrontational and forces the listener to look inside themselves. A bizarre, nonsensical feeling I had listening to the album was that it almost felt like doom metal instead of dream pop. It sounds more foreboding, the music is heavier and more immersive, and the lyrics confront doomy topics — there’s literally a song called “Elegy to the Void,” which has a mesmerizing heavy guitar section that reminds me of Deerhunter’s “Desire Lines.” It’s easily my favorite song the band has recorded.

Given my previous complaints that Beach House sounded pretty to the point of being bland, I really love the slight roughness of Thank Your Lucky Stars and think it brings out a more personal and intimate side of the band. And by making this gloomier album, a band I previously thought was one-note proved they can subtly reinvent themselves without getting away from what they’re good at. I don’t know if this will be the most popular Beach House album among their longtime fans, but it is the one most likely to turn skeptics into believers.