Slowdive is Too Pretty

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

No band has benefited more from jumping on the trendy reunion train than Slowdive. The shoegaze group, which had been inactive since the mid-90s — when they were basically run out of town by their record label and the music press — has returned to a larger audience than ever while being recast as a festival headliner. And as one of the “original” shoegaze bands (along with the also-reunited My Bloody Valentine and Ride), they’re being credited with innovating a genre that continues to influence a massive amount of current music.

This portrayal of Slowdive is odd, because I never felt like they were a particularly innovative or important band. Their most famous album, Souvlaki, came out well after MBV defined the genre with Loveless, and the band hadn’t even formed when Isn’t Anything was released. Their main innovation to the genre was removing a lot of the rough edges and tension that make MBV such a unique band and instead making music that was smooth and pretty, but much less compelling. I partially blame them for this current strand of indie music like The xx that is very concerned with being “spacious” and “chill,” to the point that the people making it sound disinterested in their own music.

Slowdive’s self-titled reunion album cements their legacy as a slightly above-average shoegaze band. It sounds very pretty and meticulously arranged, but that is part of the problem. My favorite part of shoegaze is how it can sound chaotic and beautiful at the same time when really loud guitars collide with the breathy vocals and melodies. While the genre’s name implied a passiveness on behalf of the performers, bands like MBV have a confrontational element to their music — they’re testing the audience with massive sheets of noise to see if they can find the melodies buried underneath.

Part of why I’m not so enamored with this Slowdive album is that it lives down to the derisive nickname of the genre. It’s very passive music that ends up settling in the background rather than engaging the listener. I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s terrible — the members of this band are very experienced and know how to make music in this style, and I like “Star Roving” and a couple of other songs. I’m just struggling to really care about it or feel like I need to listen to a new Slowdive album in 2017. It’s too quiet and one-note, without the tensions and contrasts that I like to hear in this style of music.

I’ll admit that I might be biased against this album, because I’m so averse to this trend of manufactured nostalgia where everyone gets hyped for some middle-tier 90s band that already had a full career arc. I don’t get this excitement for Slowdive when they have three albums and some EPs that you can listen to at any time, then formed Mojave 3 and released more albums that barely anyone cares about. I wish some of this excitement was reserved for newer bands, or even bands that were around in the 90s and have continued making music instead of breaking up then reuniting.

As for this “shoegaze revival” created by the original bands reuniting, I think it’s a misnomer. Anyone who actually listens to and likes this genre knows that it’s been alive and well for years as tons of bands have added their own spin on the formula and continued pushing it forward. While MBV’s reunion album showed that they’re still the masters of this genre, Slowdive blends in with all the other revivalists and feels unremarkable.

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Sneaks – “It’s a Myth”

May 4, 2017 Leave a comment

This far into the history of pop music, there are few true originals. Instead, it’s really about finding the right influences and trying to make what has already been done feel new again. On her second album, It’s a Myth, Sneaks (AKA Eva Moolchan) accomplishes that as well as anyone I’ve heard this year. Her sound is indebted to minimalist post-punk groups like ESG and Young Marble Giants, but she has infused it with a modern hip-hop sensibility that makes it feel fresh.

Like her 80s inspirations, Moolchan keeps things simple on this album. She’s backed by just a drum machine, bass and occasional synthesizer and her delivery is a deadpan that is somewhere in the middle of singing and spoken word. At times, It’s a Myth feels inspired by slam poetry, but thankfully it dodges that art form’s common pitfall of being really corny due to her skill as a lyricist. While a lot of this spoken word poetry/punk music wants to hit you over the head with its themes, Moolchan is more interested in the sound and rhythm of the words and the interplay with the music. It’s an abstract approach that reminds me a bit of Sue Tompkins from Life Without Buildings.

It’s a Myth accomplishes something increasingly rare: it actually sounds cool. So many bands desperately try to sound cool (the uncoolest thing there is), but Moolchan just is. She has a casual confidence that makes the entire album feel smooth, and her charisma makes it consistently entertaining. It’s aided by her skill in editing her songs, which rarely cross the two-minute mark, with the whole album breezing by in just 18 minutes. It’s a Myth has the brevity and attitude of great punk music while also feeling effortless, unpretentious and fun.

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Annie Hardy – “Rules”

May 2, 2017 Leave a comment

One of my favorite semi-forgotten albums in my “collection” (Spotify library) is Giant Drag’s Hearts and Unicorns. Released in 2005, it’s a delightfully immature collection of grungy indie rock fronted by Annie Hardy, who gained a minor amount of notoriety for her “naughty” lyrics, politically incorrect song titles and propensity for talking smack at live shows. She was also a very good songwriter, and on Hearts and Unicorns showed a gift for songs that were melodic and dissonant, which were made even better by her offbeat charisma and humor.

Hardy seemed like she might be the next big thing in indie rock, but she largely disappeared after Hearts and Unicorns. She founded her own record label, made a lot of weird youtube videos, and didn’t release a proper follow-up until 2013’s Waking Up is Hard to Do. By then, Hardy was largely forgotten about, and the album was received with little fanfare. Now she’s back with her first solo release, Rules, and my hope is that this album doesn’t just get ignored or unheard, because it is a remarkable piece of work made under unfathomable circumstances.

In 2015, Hardy had a baby and was apparently ready to settle down and leave music behind. But 17 days later, he died of SIDS. Then, less than a year after that, her partner and father of the child died of a drug overdose.

Hardy’s predicament is so beyond comprehension that it’s amazing to me that Rules even exists. And what I like about this album is that it isn’t some really finely crafted, sophisticated attempt at poetically explaining her scenario. It’s raw, ragged, and real. Hardy has pursued a more mature sound than Hearts and Unicorns, but she is grappling with subject matter that she justifiably doesn’t fully understand yet. Every song feels like a struggle as she tries to figure out why this happened and what she does now.

“Jesus Loves Me” is the most emotional song on the album, as Hardy sincerely sings about her newfound spirituality and references bible verses while backed by piano and strings. “I know Jesus loves me, because my life is miserable and ugly,” she sings. But then, minutes into the song, she lashes out in a seeming non-sequitur: “These days everyone can blow me/Talking shit, acting like they know me/They can laugh, they can all make of me/But I know that Jesus is my homey.” It captures the feeling on this album that Hardy is trying to be grown-up and mature about this, but at the same time is angry and resentful that it happened to her. And so the old Annie Hardy, who was immature and fond of talking trash in the Giant Drag days, makes an appearance.

That song sums up the appeal of Rules and Hardy herself: she isn’t afraid to show her flaws, and they actually become her strength here, because an album made in this circumstance shouldn’t be perfect. Her non-traditional raspy singing voice adds to the anguish and power of her simple lyrics, like on “Want” when she sings “I want my baby back” — a line that takes on a whole new, terrible meaning in this context. The end of that song is my favorite moment of the album, a mournful guitar solo that expresses what Hardy has been through more than words possibly could.

It goes without saying that this is a really depressing album, but there is a bravery and resilience in Hardy’s performance that is inspiring, and makes Rules feel essential.

 

 

Hand Habits – “Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)”

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The loose genre of “bedroom” (or DIY, lo-fi, etc.) music is not normally associated with technical prowess. It’s defined by a certain lack of professionalism; artists who are lumped into it are known for ramshackle home recordings that attempt to convey an intimacy that is sometimes lost in a recording studio. On her debut solo album, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), Meg Duffy — aka Hand Habits — proves that the intimate, home recording style doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive from artistry and skill.

This is her first full length album, but Duffy is clearly not one of these artists who decided to throw together a record at home for the fun of it. Wildly Idle is remarkably self-assured; its songs all mosey along at a slow pace, as she gently unspools her melodies and beautiful psychedelic-tinged guitar parts. The structure of these songs shows her confidence: Duffy knows she’s good enough to keep the attention of the listener, and this album is never boring despite its languid style.

Much of that is due to her sheer ability as a guitarist. Duffy’s mellow guitar heroics are reminiscent of Deerhunter/Lotus Plaza’s Lockett Pundt and Galaxie 500’s Dean Wareham — guitarists who aren’t necessarily flashy, but create feeling with their instrument and have the confidence to show restraint when the song calls for it. Her judiciousness with the guitar makes it more effective when she does display her shredding ability, like in the middle of “All the While,” a highlight that also sums up this album’s looking-outside-the-window-on-a-rainy-day feeling.

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Criticism is More Important Than Ever

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Over in the world of food, a controversy recently brewed over a review The New York Times’ Pete Wells wrote about a California restaurant, LocoL, which from what I’ve gathered is an attempt to make a neighborhood fast food place with healthier options that will serve lower income neighborhoods. Wells gave it 0 stars, because he didn’t like the food. The restaurant’s founder, Roy Choi, responded with this:

Zero stars. I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete’s review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don’t know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever. So I’ll share with you what I wrote to a friend and our team. We got that PMA: “The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn’t mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. That’s the spirit of LocoL. It has nothing to do with my ego. It’s something bigger than all of us. Pete Wells is a component to its DNA. His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what’s a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys. We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it’s not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren’t criminals either. And all hoods aren’t filled with dangerous people either. But the pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to.. He didn’t need to go there but he did. That’s why he’s a part of LocoL. The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.. Crazy, right? But I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle.” #LocoL #Watts #Oakland

Choi’s response sort of set me off, because it is so emblematic of this irritating type of response to criticism that I see all the time, including in music. It’s when someone thinks that, because the thing they are doing is admirable, it’s exempt from criticism, and anyone who does criticize it is on this fictional “other side” and is an enemy. What Choi doesn’t get is that it’s unlikely Wells strolled into LocoL looking to tear apart this restaurant that clearly is trying to do great things for people. He wanted it to be good, because if LocoL’s food is good, that means it is more likely to make the positive impact is striving for (as the last line of Well’s review reads: “The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it”).

After receiving this criticism, Choi could have taken it and looked to improve his menu. But instead, he does what most people in his position do lately: he went on the defensive, portraying Wells like he was out to get him, and seemingly learning nothing from the review. In particular, I find his implied stance that the quality of his food is somehow irrelevant to his mission to be insulting to his customers.

I respect Wells’ review a lot, because I read so many writers that treat art with kid gloves and would just fawn over a restaurant like LocoL because of its concept instead of its execution. This is understandable: it’s hard to criticize something that is coming from a very honest place, and there’s a lot of external pressure to be positive and nice. But it does a disservice to art and the people who make it to act like everything is great. If anything, something like LocoL needs criticism the most, because it can do so much good if it is done well.

Lately I’ve been depressed over how nobody seems to understand the purpose of criticism anymore, especially younger people who have grown up with the internet and sites like Buzzfeed, which are popular because of their unrealistically positive tone. I can often be overcritical — to the point that it comes off as kneejerk negativity and cynicism — but I do wish everyone was a little more skeptical and a little more willing to dish out and accept criticism.

I remember first thinking this when I was taking creative writing classes in college. I’ll pat myself on the back slightly here: I think I’m a pretty good writer, or I wouldn’t write as much as I do. But I also know I’m not close to perfect, and I often ended up submitting pieces that I wasn’t proud of in these classes. In each session, there was typically a roundtable where we read our pieces aloud, then the rest of the class would critique your work, and invariably everyone would get all Minnesota Nice and only say positive things (I was also guilty of this, because I was too afraid to come off as “mean”). The professors were also rarely any help, as they understandably felt like they couldn’t rip into their students for a variety of reasons.

Eventually, it got to the point where I pretty much tuned out the roundtable, because I knew nobody was going to call out the mistakes I knew I made or give me concrete advice on how I could do better in the future. And I had this wish that someone would finally just be like “Josh, this piece sucks. Here is a list of all the things that are horribly wrong with it.”This would sting initially, but assuming the criticism was reasonable and substantive, I would be glad I received it.

So that is my experience with criticism on a micro level. On a macro level, I’ve recently started to see real consequences that happen when a society devalues criticism. One of my pet reasons for Why Trump Happened is that liberals became too complacent and were unwilling to criticize and improve parts of their platform and message that weren’t working. It became so easy to deride the extreme right wing crazies and feel proud of not being Those Guys that we didn’t stop to look within ourselves at the things we could be doing better. So this isn’t just about art — I think the world would literally be much better if criticism and its lessons were more widely understood.

And of course, now our president is a guy who can’t handle or tolerate criticism whatsoever. Trump’s constant lies and thin skin make him the perfect president for a populace that no longer emphasizes thinking critically and favors comfortable decorum over honesty. In the next four or eight years (oh my god), Trump is going to constantly test America’s ability to think critically and to not believe everything you hear. Let’s hope everyone improves at this very quickly.

Annie – “Out of Reach”

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Before there was Carly Rae Jepsen and Kristin Kontrol, there was Annie. The Norwegian singer gained some amount of fame over a decade ago with her 2004 album, Anniemal, which was a hit on music blogs back when music blogs were semi-relevant and people read them. I heard the album a few years later, when I was a stereotypical indie snob who looked down on any kind of pop music, and it helped convert me into someone who saw the craft and emotion that good pop can have.

Annie has fallen out of the limelight since, in part due to not being a very prolific artist (she’s released just one full length since Anniemal, 2009’s underrated Don’t Stop) and in part due to music websites turning into PR factories for established pop stars. Once Pitchfork and the others started celebrating celebrity-driven pop made by Beyonce, Drake and Rihanna and covering their every move, there wasn’t room for artists like Annie, who had found her niche as a pop artist for the people who enjoyed a good song but didn’t particularly care about the public lives of famous people.

That’s why I missed Annie’s Endless Vacation EP in 2015; it got some token reviews from websites, but virtually no discussion that could be heard over everyone clamoring for Taylor Swift and others. It turned out to be one of the releases in I listened to the most in 2016, and has a couple perfect Annie songs on it: the opening track, “Kiara Mia,” and “Out of Reach,” which I think is the best song she’s ever recorded.

At its best, Annie’s music combines the blissful feeling of pop with melancholic, wistful lyrics, like on “Heartbeat,” which was the song she was most known for back in 2004. “Out of Reach” is like the platonic ideal of this type of pop song, with a tropical sound, Annie’s light, dreamy vocals and lyrics that I find deeply relatable and poignant. On the surface, it tells the story of a potential lover that got away, but for me it taps into deeper feelings of how I live my life and parts of me I want to change.

I’m a very introverted, passive person, and it leads to me always feeling like I’m missing out on something in the moment because I’m too scared to go out of my comfort zone. Then, like Annie on this song, I spend time in the present dwelling on those mistakes in the past; the possible friends I could have made, the dumb things I said, the various forks in the road where I went down a path I wish I hadn’t. I assume this is a somewhat universal thing, but I am egregiously bad about it, and instead of confronting the issue head-on, I tend to stay to myself and listen to songs like “Out of Reach” while avoiding human contact.

I am not typically a New Year’s resolution type of person (I’m more one of those obnoxious “YEARS ARE JUST CONSTRUCTS THAT MEAN NOTHING” people), but in 2017 one of my hopes is I can be less of a recluse and take some of those chances that I’ve avoided in the past. And I don’t know if I would have been fully motivated to do that if not for “Out of Reach” and how perfectly it articulates that human experience.

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#1: Emma Ruth Rundle – “Marked for Death”

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Possibly the most satisfying feeling I get as a music fan is hearing an artist I like become an artist I love. After showing potential with all of her previous work, Emma Ruth Rundle finds her voice as a solo artist on Marked for Death, a stunning album that is brimming with intensity and musicality.

Rundle’s development as an artist has been fun to track for the last few years. I first heard her playing with her band Marriages, and on their debut, Kitsune, she showed a gift for creating gloomy, heavy guitar riffs. But her singing mostly took a backseat on that album to her guitar and was used as an instrument to blend in with the music — it was much more about the atmosphere and mood than the lyrics or Rundle herself. Her solo debut, Some Heavy Ocean, went in more of a folk direction while retaining her ambient style. It was one of my favorite albums from that year, but I sensed Rundle had more in her.

Last year, Marriages released Salome, which put Rundle in a different role from her previous music as a more traditional rock frontwoman. This was when I began to notice her singing and lyrics, which became much more integral to the music, and I noted in last year’s year-end extravaganza how Rundle’s passion and intensity as a singer made that album work.

On Marked for Death, all of her skills crystallize on one album, and the result is spellbinding. While it takes the form of a traditional singer-songwriter album, nothing else quite sounds like this. It all comes back to Rundle’s abilities as an ambient composer: while I feel a lot of folk focuses on lyrics at the expense of sound, the gloomy, haunting landscapes she creates with her guitar make Marked for Death an album that would work even if there were no lyrics or vocals.

Rundle is my favorite kind of guitarist: her instrument feels like an extension of herself, and it’s used on this album to build an atmosphere while creating a cohesive whole with her voice and lyrics. It lurks out of the spotlight and supports the vocals, until it springs out of nowhere like on “Protection,” where it shatters the quiet with a massive, scuzzy riff. Even on the acoustic finale, “Real Big Sky,” Rundle’s guitar has a heaviness to it that gives the song an apocalyptic, doomy feeling.

This album sounds so good (which I know is non-descriptive, but like… it just does) that the lyrics and vocals almost feel like a free bonus. But it’s in these areas where Rundle shows the most improvement from her previous music. Her voice works on a similar level as her guitar: she sings in quiet, hushed tones, but then will show the true power of her vocals when the music gets loud, like at the end of “Heaven.” Her lyrics are obsessed with death and the afterlife, with a lot of religious themes and symbolism, which fits her sound and leaves room for interpretation for the listener.

It’s hard to describe why this album works so well (if you can’t tell), but it started to make sense to me when I watched this performance of Rundle performing in the Oregon woods in a rusty old truck. It’s a perfect setting for her music because it underscores her naturalness as a performer. Marked for Death is so original and different, but it’s not an album where the artist is self-consciously trying to sound like nobody else has ever sounded. Rundle is just being herself, and this album firmly establishes her as one of the most unique and compelling artists in music today.