Posts Tagged ‘2017’

EMA – “Exile in the Outer Ring”

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

The suburbs are a recurring theme in pop culture, and media about them usually centers around a familiar trope: the idea that, beneath the well-trimmed lawns and tranquility, there lies a darkness within the people, who are portrayed as unhappy or desperate even in their seemingly wonderful surroundings. My fear was that EMA’s new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, would cover similar thematic territory as lazy satires like American Beauty and center on that dissonance. Instead, she has made an album that is much more nuanced, much more real, and one that accurately cuts to the heart of a specific type of American existence.

That existence is people living in what she dubs “the outer ring,” an idea she explained in a recent interview with Jezebel:

 To me it’s kind of like the outskirts of a city and what would have once been thought of as the suburbs. The idea of the suburbs is kind of outdated, that kind of affluent, white, homogeneous area. But now in Portland and I think a lot of European and American cities, the inner city is really where the wealth is concentrated and everyone else is getting pushed out. So I’m seeing these spots that I’m calling the outer ring, which could either be a version of utopia or dystopia.

I thought the concept was rather nebulous when I just read her explaining it, but what makes Exile in the Outer Ring such an effective album is how it comes to life in the music. All you have to do is listen to one of the songs and it’s easy to see what the “outer ring” is and what it’s about. It’s conveyed not just through the lyrics, which are full of specific lyrical details like riding in the back of Camrys or people standing outside of casinos, but through the music itself. The grinding industrial sound and squealing guitars evoke images of worn-down buildings and grimy streets, and EMA’s voice captures a feeling of resentment and despair that could boil over at any moment (on some of the more aggressive tracks, like “33 Nihilistic and Female,” it does).

The other obvious pitfall of an album like this is that it could come off as EMA writing about Those People and the Way They Live, which was a problem I had last year with PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project album. She avoids this by inserting herself into the narratives, and using details from her personal life and upbringing in South Dakota that make these songs live and breathe instead of reading like attempts at journalism. I also like that the album isn’t just portraying “the outer ring” simplistically as some nightmarish hellscape. It skews darker overall, but there are also moments of prettiness and humanity amid the ugliness, which makes the album feel very true to life.

This album is also a nice progression for EMA, who blew me away with her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, which I loved because it was an album that was unafraid to get ugly and confront the darker side of human nature. This album is reminiscent of that one in its fearlessness, and it also incorporates parts of what she did on her second album, The Future’s Void, which felt more external and political. Exile in the Outer Ring is like a combination of those two: it’s a bracing blend of personal and political songwriting that is provocative and dark, but also full of life.

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Daddy Issues – “Deep Dream”

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

One of my favorite micro-genres of music for the last few years has been this poppy form of women-fronted grunge, which is inspired by 90s bands like Veruca Salt. The basic sound of distorted guitars with lighter vocals obviously appeals to me, but I also like the subversiveness of these bands, who twist what was a predominately male style of music and reclaim it to tell stories from a different point of view.

There are a bunch of artists making music like this right now, from Colleen Green to Bully to Potty Mouth to Veruca Salt themselves, but Nashville’s Daddy Issues might be the best of the bunch. Everything about this band, from their name to their sludgy riffs to the frank, emotionally complex lyrics, is the epitome of what this style of music is about. If you have an affinity for it like I do (and maybe even if you don’t), Deep Dream will blow you away.

I am wary of putting a great rock band like this into the potentially condescending “women who ROCK” box, but so much of what makes this album unique is how it uses a woman’s perspective to delve into subject matter that most men couldn’t really write about with any sort of authority. “I’m Not” deals with the aftermath of a sexual assault, and sums up what makes this band so good: it has catchy hooks and great harmonies, but is also much more than just a nostalgic grunge tune. There is real meaning and feeling in these songs, and frontwoman Jenna Moynihan conveys it with her voice and lyrics.

While there are more serious songs like that, Daddy Issues also have a sense of humor, as their name suggests. “Dog Years” is in the tried-and-true “I hate my ex” tradition, but takes it to comical heights with some truly savage lyrics; “I hope you choke on your own spit in your own bed” and “you should go home to Chicago and take a long walk off the Navy Pier” stand out. Album opener “Mosquito Bite” covers similar thematic material with a memorable riff and a clever metaphor of an ex that seemed important being “just a mosquito bite.”

But the song that I really geeked out for on this album is a cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” that perfectly reimagines it in their own style, taking a song I had always associated with this very male nostalgia and twisting it into something that feels new. When the song isn’t being sung by one of the “boys” it has a completely different feeling, and it’s the clearest example of how this band revitalizes nostalgic sounds with a fresh perspective.

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Girlpool – “Powerplant”

June 1, 2017 Leave a comment

The first 50 seconds of Girlpool’s new album, Powerplant, sound exactly like I expect them to. Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s whispery voices interlock over soft guitar parts that are similar to their debut effort, Before the World Was Big, which wowed me back in 2015 with its minimalist style that found great power in simplicity. But then something surprising happens in the second part of “123:” a drummer comes in, there’s a loud, soaring chorus and Girlpool evolve in mid-song like a freshly leveled-up Pokemon. Similar to a level 36 Charizard, they’ve grown bigger, stronger, and even learned some new moves.

The decision to add percussion and expand the band’s sound runs an obvious risk: that, by embracing more conventional instrumentation and songcraft, Girlpool will lose what made Before the World Was Big so unique and become just another indie rock band. Tividad and Tucker are keenly aware of this, and much of Powerplant intentionally teeters on the edge of that cliff, only to be brought back to stability by surprising moments that subvert the indie rock form.

The third track, “Corner Store,” has one of those moments. It starts out as a jaunty indie pop song, erupts in a cacophony of noise out of nowhere, then abruptly switches back to the band’s usual sound as if nothing happened. It’s the most obvious example of one of the themes I got out of Before the World Was Big, which is Tucker and Tividad as these vulnerable young voices who are confronting the darkness of the real world in their music. This is emphasized even more on Powerplant, which contrasts their harmonies with noisy guitars and uses quiet/loud dynamics that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pixies or Nirvana album.

Powerplant ends on two if its strongest tracks: “It Gets More Blue” and “Static Somewhere” both use the quiet/loud concept to full effect with big sing-along choruses and are the culmination of the band’s evolution from Juno soundtrack minimalists into full-blown rock stars. What’s really remarkable is that they pull off this transformation while losing none of what made Before the World Was Big feel so special. The harmonies of the two singers make the band still feel intimate, even when surrounded by much more noise than before.

After one listen to Powerplant, the fear of Girlpool becoming “just another band” was out the window. If anything, embracing the traditional rock style has further illuminated their strengths. There is now an even more subversive element to the band’s music as they play off indie rock tropes, and the use of dynamics helps highlight the unique presence of Tividad and Tucker. Their vulnerability, chemistry and songwriting ability ensure that everything Girlpool does will be original.

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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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