Every year I swear I'm going to make a Christmas playlist of indie/alt rock that isn't at least 50% Sufjan Stevens. I'm going to take the pressure off myself now and just go ahead and admit to the world that I won't make that happen this year.
Like most early 2000s alt/college rock fans, I bought and enjoyed Franz Ferdinand's first two records. And I suspect that most of those fans, like me, didn't buy or even really listen to any of their work from the past decade.
But they have a new record coming out soon called Always Ascending, and they recently shared the title track:
There's nothing revelatory here, but after starting with a slow, crooning intro, they lock into a groove that's reminiscent of the songs that I'm familiar with. But that't the thing: it's not as good as the work that it's referencing, so if I was in the mood to hear this kind of music, why wouldn't I just go back and listen to those old albums?
A friend of mine had an extra ticket at the City Winery to see a solo, Storytellers-type show with Marc Roberge, the lead singer of O.A.R. I am not an O.A.R. fan AT ALL, but I like hanging out with my friend, and I'd never been to the City Winery before, so I figured I'd just go and enjoy the experience, whatever it had to offer.
And the Winery experience itself was pretty good, like an upscale version of the Birchmere up in DC. Now that I know the layout of the room, I know exactly what seats to target if there's ever a show I want to see.
But Marc Roberge? Not my taste at all. Which of course makes sense, because it was all O.A.R. songs and I do not like their music one bit. Sure, he was an accomplished musician and connected well with the audience, and the people who were O.A.R. fans seemed to be really happy to be there (including my friend).
But I just drank my wine and tried to get through the evening, focusing on observing the shared communal experience from the rest of the room, who were all delighted to be there, both to see the artist and to share their O.A.R. stories with one another.
Sometime Sufjan Stevens is at his best when he's at his weirdest, and his most recent release is definitely in that category. It's an ode to Tonya Harding, the figure skater who hired a thug to injure her primary rival to improve her chances of making the Olympic team.
Anyway, here's "Tonya Harding":
It's not a bad song in and of itself, but Harding is a thoroughly despicable human being, and it's hard for me to get into this sympathetic ballad to her. Sufjan has written about real people before, but it's one thing to imagine what kind of life the son of a notorious child killer and pedophile might have had ("John Wayne Gacy, Jr."), because he was a victim of circumstance.
But it's something entirely else to heap adulation on someone who chose, despite her talent and all the hard work to achieve her dreams, to engage in criminal activity that had a dramatic effect on another person's life. I don't know. I just can't get into this one despite the music itself, which is solid Sufjan.
12.7.17 Tune-Yards have a new album coming out next month called I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, and they've shared a second song from it called "ABC 123":
The first track they shared defeinitely had a strong 80s influence (which I didn't mind), and while this has a little bit of the same sheen, it's much more in line with tracks from Merrill Garbus' first two records, especially her breakthrough WHOKILL.
I was generally disappointed with the last album, but I still love this artist so much, and I'm really hoping the rest of the new one will live up to the standard of the first two tracks. I was fooled last time——"Water Fountain" is one of my absolute favorite Tune-Yards tracks, but I didn't like very much else on the album——but I'm hoping that was a one-time aberration.
So. U2. Songs of Experience.
What to say?
This record isn't any different than any record they've cranked out since 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, a record that was supposed to be (and in some ways was) a triumphant return to their Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby form, but which actually served as the blueprint for all their albums this century, which are somehow echoes of their best work from the late 80s and early 90s without actually being very good themselves.
Like most of these records, Experience has a couple of good-to-great tracks, a couple of awful tracks, and a whole bunch of well-produced, well-constructed, well-played but boring as anything tracks. "You're the Best Thing About Me" is the standout for me, with "Red Flag Day" holding my attention because it's the closest they've come in a long, long time to attempting the sound and energy of their rougher early records, Boy, October, and War.
The rest of the tracks? They're just sort of there, being good little U2 songs and not getting in anybody's way.
12.11.17 Guided By Voices have a new album coming out soon, and even though you could write that sentence at any point in time in the past 20 years and have a pretty good chance of it being a true statement, that particular sentence refers to Space Gun, due out next March. The band also recently shared the title track:
In the same way that there's a pointlessness to posting about a new album coming because there's ALWAYS a new album coming, there's also a little bit of pointlessness to reviewing music from Robert Pollard: he's not only the most prolific man in the history of rock, he's also one of the most consistent. While every release has a few duds, the title track/the first song shared from a particular record aren't likely to fall into that category, and such is the case here.
This is solid, classic-rock-influenced GBV, the kind of song that you imagine Pollard comes up with four or five times a day while getting the mail or making coffee or whatever other mundane things he does in between recording scores of albums. Even if the constant deluge of new material is too much for you to keep up with, don't miss the chance to see these guys live——I've never seen a more well-oiled rock and roll machine.
Last Friday night I went to the Earl with the same guy that I went to City Winery with the week before, but this time we were going to see a band that I never thought I'd ever see live: the Dream Syndicate, who had their heyday in the 80s and who, until earlier this year, hadn't released an album since 1988——just shy of 30 years.
It was a surprisingly great show, and very intimate as well. I think it was sold out, but because we'd had bad weather earlier in the day (a little bit of snow that shut down the city) and a lot of places were closed for the evening (and Atlantans are terrified of streets with snow on them), very few people showed up.
The band was in a good mood though——mostly original members who were joined by touring guitarist Kirk Swan (one of the founding members of Dumptruck, a band name I hadn't heard in a long, long time)——and they were in great form, playing a nice mix of classic tracks and songs from the new record. It all sounded great.
For the encore, they asked the audience what they wanted to hear, stipulating that it had to be one that everyone in the band knew (probably referring to Swan, since he was a fill-in on that leg of the tour because their regular guitarist had family obligations to attend to). Someone called out "I Have Faith", which is easily the best track from 1988's Ghost Stories, and frontman Steve Wynn initially hesitated, because it was a track that Swan didn't know. But then he started to play and sing the first verse, and after it was clear he was going to make a go of it, the drummer and bassist started their parts.
Because Swan basically stood there for that song doing nothing, Wynn let him choose the final song, and he picked "Boston" from Out of the Grey (Swan formed Dumptruck in Boston), which was a great way to end——one of the best tracks from my favorite record. It's too bad that the weather kept people from coming out——it was one of the warmest, most intimate shows I've ever seen, and even if the club had been filled to capacity (the Earl is a pretty small club), I still think it would have had the same vibe.
In preparation for the Dream Syndicate show, I finally picked up their new album, How Did I Find Myself Here?, which I'd been meaning to do for a while. I'd heard several tracks online and liked them pretty well, so I'm not sure why I didn't buy it earlier, but I'm glad the show gave me the impetus to pull the trigger.
It's a solid record with some flashes of brilliance, but overall it seems like it's more about these guys being in the studio making music together again than it is about angling towards a record that audiences are going to love. Which is perfectly fine at this point in their career with a three decade layoff——there was little chance of them having a blockbuster commercial success no matter what they did, and if reconnecting in the studio is what it takes to get them back out on the road again occasionally, I'm all for it.
"Glide" is the standout track for me, with "Filter Me Through You" and "80 West" also in the pretty-good category. They all sound like what might have happened if the band had decided to dive back into a more guitar-oriented attack after Out of the Grey instead of pivoting towards a more radio-friendly sound, and they're very recognizable as Dream Syndicate tracks.
The title track is also brilliant in its own way, and I'm guessing that for many hardcore fans it's their favorite track on the record. It's an 11 minute plus track, and the first eight are a slow building guitar duel that culminates in the portion of track that, for me, is an actual song——you know, with lyrics and verses and a chorus. That part of the song I love——if the final three minutes were the track, this would be my favorite track on the album.
Look, I'm such a huge fan of the Smiths that there's never going to be a time when I don't give Morrissey's or Johnny Marr's non-Smiths projects a listen, but pretty much everything that Marr has done since the Smiths (including collaborations with Modest Mouse and the Cribs, bands who I like anyway) has been a disappointment.
But he recently shared an intriguing track called "The Priest" that uses a spoken word vocal from UK actress Maxine Peake:
I mean, it doesn't have very much of the Marr who I loved from the Smiths, but it's far more compelling than his somewhat generic jangle rock from his recent solo efforts. I don't know if tracks like this would compell me to buy his next solo album (due out sometime next year), but they certainly improve the odds compared to covering the same ground that he's been trodding on his other solo work.
12.15.17 MGMT have shared a second track from their upcoming Little Dark Age, this one called "When You Die":
This is a willfully weird track, but it's charming in a way many of their purposely non-catchy songs from the releases that followed their stunning debut aren't. This isn't made to be a hit, but it also doesn't seem as hostile to the concept of a pop song as a lot of their recent work. It's clearly reconfiguring out notion of what a pop song should be, but there are hooks that allow us to have those moments of connection with it.
They seem determined to walk back from being the stars that they wrote about in their hit single "Time to Pretend" (which almost immediately positioned them to be exactly those kind of stars), but the two songs we've heard so far from this record are the first I've heard from them in a while that seem to acknowledge that they do need an audience, and to recognized what that audience wants from them.
Also: the video is super trippy. I almost can't watch it sober, and although I have no doubt that it was conceived/made under the influence of a variety of interesting substances, I think it would be pretty much impossible to watch on any kind of high.
12.18.17 The Decemberists have apparently collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) on a new track called "Ben Franklin's Song":
Colin Meloy and company are clearly having a lot of fun here with Miranda's lyrics (sample: "Do you know who the fuck I am?/I am seventy-six-and-I'll-still-kick-your-ass fucking Franklin"), and for the first time in a while, they feel vital and invested in their work. Let's hope some of this spirit carries over to their next record; I'm still a huge fan of this band, but their recent releases have been somewhat lackluster.
Next year, Car Seat Headrest will release a completely re-recorded version of the album Twin Fantasy, which was originally recorded by Will Toledo in at home and released on Bandcamp. In advance of that release, Toledo has shared the three part, 13 minute epic "Beach Life-in-Death":
I'm a huge fan of Car Seat Headrest's two albums, Teens of Style and Teens of Denial, but for some reason I've never gone back and listened to the extensive work he created and shared on Bandcamp before getting signed to a label.
This sample clip doesn't give you much context for something that long, but it's not too hard to find the full-length version, and that's well worth listening to if, like me, you love this band but haven't explored much of their pre-label material.
"Beach Life-in-Death" easily rivals "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales", which might be my current favorite Car Seat Headrest track. Regular readers know that I'm generally not a huge fan of songs that go past the five minute mark, and the number of songs I love that are longer than 10 minutes I can probably count on one hand. But this seems destined to join that club.
Okay. As much as I liked the Shins' Heartworms, I don't know how I feel about their upcoming The Worm's Heart, where they do a track-by-track remake of the album, recording all the songs in a different style than on the proper album. They've shared two tracks from this project, "Name for You (Flipped)" and "Cherry Hearts (Flipped)":
According to the track list, all the songs have the same titles as the originals, only with "(Flipped)" appended, and the track order is also the reverse of the original record. So "Name for You" was the leadoff track for Heartworms, but the flipped version closes out The Worm's Heart. The original "Name for You" was about as good an example of a Shins take on an upbeat pop song as you could get, while this version is a sequencer-heavy reworking that sounds a lot more like MGMT than the Shins.
On the other end of the spectrum, the original "Cherry Hearts" was a synthesizer sugarbomb of a track that I have real affection for even though many longtime Shins fans found it too much of a departure musically. The flipped version takes a more classic indie guitar pop approach, and sounds like something that you could have gotten Peter Buck to guest on in the late 90s.
In both cases, I like the original versions better, and I don't know the flipped album will offers me enough new and interesting to justify a full-price album purchase. Unless they offer it at a discounted price of $5 (which seems pretty fair, given that almost no one will buy this who doesn't already have Heartworms), I'm probably going to wait for it to randomly show up in Amazon's monthly $5 digital album deals a few months from now.
12.21.17 Wavves have shared their cover of "Christmas Time Is Here" from the Charlie Brown Christmas special: